Skip to Content

An Anarchist Replies

We have received the following criticism from Iain McKay, the editor of the collection of articles by Proudhon that we reviewed last month. Our reply follows.
I was under the impression that a reviewer should actually read the book that they claim to be reviewing. Apparently ALB (Socialist Standard, July 2011) does not think so – how else to explain his demonstrably wrong comments on my Proudhon anthology Property is Theft!? 
You proclaim that Proudhon’s argument in What is Property? “wasn’t as radical as it might seem since what he was criticising was the private ownership of land”. True, it states the land is a “common thing, consequently unsusceptible of appropriation” but it also proclaims that “all accumulated capital” is “social property” and so “no one can be its exclusive proprietor” and that “all property becomes…collective and undivided” (Property is Theft!, 118, 105, 137). Positions he subsequently repeated: “under universal association, ownership of the land and of the instruments of labour is social ownership” (377). 
Your use of “currency crank” shows that you simply do not understand Proudhon’s ideas, likewise when Proudhon is proclaimed “a free marketeer, bitterly opposed to ‘communism’ in the same terms and language as other free marketeers”. Strangely, I’ve yet to find a “free marketeer” who would acknowledge your admission of Proudhon’s “insight that under the wages system the producers were exploited” or argue for “the abolition of property” (254) as well as a federation of workers associations to end capitalist exploitation (712) and for “disciplining the market” (743). Still, you proclaim in your best ex cathedra tones that market socialism “is the economic equivalent of a square circle” which is something they would agree with…
The “communism” Proudhon was attacking was that of the Utopian Socialists and Louis Blanc – highly regulated, centralised systems in which liberty was not the prime aim. I was under the impression Marxists shared Proudhon’s opposition to that kind of “communism”. Anarchists who, like myself, are libertarian communists need not “plough through his rambling writings” to discover that Proudhon “was a life-long and bitter opponent of ‘communism’” as I discuss this in my introduction and explain why subsequent anarchists rejected his position. I also discuss that “he was a gradualist” and why later anarchists rejected this. 
Similarly, you completely ignore Proudhon’s critique of statist democracy in favour of proclaiming he “was opposed to government, even a democratically-constituted one, making rules about the production and distribution of wealth”. As Property is Theft! shows, his actual position was that a democracy reduced to electing a few representatives in a centralised system would not be a genuine one. Instead, he advocated a decentralised federal self-managed system – precisely what the Paris Commune introduced and Marx praised in 1871. But the Paris Commune, like so much, does not warrant a mention by you.
Was Proudhon “on the wrong track”? Partly, as my introduction suggests. But did I suggest he was completely right? No: “While we should not slavishly copy Proudhon’s ideas, we can take what is useful and…develop them further in order to inspire social change in the 21st century” (51). Marx did precisely that in terms of economic analysis and the Paris Commune.
Needless to say, Marx’s followers seem keen to deny that. Hence your statement that I am “on to a loser here” as Proudhon cannot be “compared with Marx” particularly as “most anarchists accept Marx’s analysis of capitalism”. Yet as I proved much of what passes as “Marxist” economic analysis was first expounded by Proudhon. Still, I can understand why you fail to mention that awkward fact…
You may proclaim Proudhon “an anti-socialist” but that will only convince those who think communism equals socialism. For those interested in the evolution of socialist ideas in the 19th century, Proudhon cannot be ignored nor dismissed given his contributions to both anarchism and Marxism. That is why Marx spent so much time attacking him, often dishonestly, while appropriating his ideas. 
So I do find it appropriate that you uncritically mention Marx’s The Poverty of Philosophy given that your “review” follows it in distorting Proudhon’s ideas (as I show). It is sad to see Socialist Standard continuing that shameful legacy. Suffice to say, you can disagree with Proudhon’s ideas (as I do for some of them), but at least do so accurately. I had expected better.
Proudhon’s arguments against property are mainly against property in land but he does also mention, as you point out, “accumulated capital” as not being entitled to a property income as it’s the product of labour. But he no more objects to private “possession” of capital (i.e. the right to use it but without the right to a property income from it) than he does to the private possession and use of land. He later developed this into his key theory that interest as well as rent should be abolished. In fact his book could well have been entitled “Property Income is Theft”.
We imagine that his view that rent, interest and profit derive from the unpaid labour of the producers is one of those you claim Marx copied from him. But Marx never made any claim to have originated this view himself. In fact in The Poverty of Philosophy he says that Proudhon didn’t either but that it was first put forward by English writers in the 1820s and 1830s such as Thomas Hodgskin, William Thompson and John Bray.
We are surprised that you object to Proudhon being described as a “free marketeer” since he clearly stated that, once his interest-free credit scheme had been implemented, there should be no government interference in the workings of the economy. This is openly admitted by present-day “Mutualists” (as he called his scheme). See which proclaims that it stands for “free market anti-capitalism”.
As to his views on communism, we’ll let him speak for himself:
“Communism is inequality, but not as property is. Property is the exploitation of the weak by the strong. Communism is the exploitation of the strong by the … In communism, inequality springs from placing mediocrity on a level with excellence. This damaging equation is repellent to the conscience, and causes merit to complain … [C]ommunism violates…equality…by placing labour and laziness, skill and stupidity, even vice and virtue on an equality in point of comfort” (McKay’s book, p. 132).
“Communism shunned, that is the real meaning of the 1848 election. We no more want community of labour than we do community of women or community of children!” (p. 317).
“The proprietor, by interest on capital, demands more than equality; communism, by the formula, to each according to his needs, allows less than equality: always inequality; and that is why we are neither a communist nor a proprietor” (p. 491).
“From each according to his capacity, To each according to his needs. Equality demands this, according to Louis Blanc […] Who then shall determine the capacity? Who shall be the judge of the needs? You say that my capacity is 100: I maintain it is only 90. You add that my needs are 90: I affirm that they are 100. There is a difference between us of twenty upon needs and capacity. It is, in other words, the well-known debate between demand and supply” (p 557).
This is not just a criticism of the utopian communist schemes of his day but of the very principle of communism and “from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs”. – Editors