“Proudhon’s Mutualism and Anarchism” (1902)


Notwithstanding the fatal influence of the dialectical metaphysics of Hegel, Proudhon has been able to develop all the ideas which were already expressed in his first memoir on property. We have in mind not only his famous and at once striking and courageous aphorisms, such as:

 “Slavery is assassination,”

“Property is theft,”

“God is the evil,”

but also the claims which, though not his exclusively, were however formulated and developed for the first time by him in his works, and which may be reduced to the following three fundamental principles of the whole philosophy of Proudhon:

1. Economic, social liberty of the individual, which he expresses so well by saying: “Man protests against being organized and treated as a tool.” If we remember the events of these last forty years, be they manifestations, struggles for communal liberty or acts of individual revolt; or, finally, the emancipating tendency in philosophy (W. Wundt, H. Spencer, J. S. Mill, Guyau and others); in literature, poetry, drama, fiction Whitman, Ibsen, Mackay, Hauptmann, Tolstoi and Zola in late years), it will be recognised how correct Proudhon was in affirming this truth. [1]

In reality, humanity by its best representatives is always aspiring towards a social order where man will be free, not “organised “ by authoritative prescriptions given in the name of some stupid fictions known as God, or State, or Majority.

As quoted by Proudhon, J. J. Rousseau said: “It is against natural order that the smallest number should be governed by the largest.” [2]

2. The second principle defended by Proudhon in opposition to the more or less authoritative systems which were in vogue before the sanguinary days of June, 1648, is mutualism in production and exchange. According to Proudhon, his Workers Associations, free organisations of absolutely free men, had to replace the future organisation of authoritarian Communism as well as the slavery of the capitalist wage-system. It is just for his opposition to the authoritarian Communism of a Socialist State, for his assertion of the right of each member of these freely organised groups of workers to dispose freely of the products of his labor, that Proudhon was treated as bourgeois and individualist. Is it necessary to say that it was a misunderstanding?

At the time that he was engaged in his polemics, often unjust, against the Communists and revolutionary Socialists, he could have been reproached, it is true, that he preached simply individualist co-operation. But the serious political events of the period, the sanguinary struggle for the social reforms of that time are far from us at present, and we can judge better than the two opposing parties—both sincerely Socialist and certainly both ardent defenders of the people.

What did Proudhon understand by Mutualism? Neither more nor less than the collectivism adopted in 1868 by the great International Workingmen’s Association. [3]

“In face of the persons and families whose work forms the object of the association, the society (of free producers) has as rules:

“That each individual employed in the association, man, woman, child, head of an office, foreman, worker, apprentice, has an undivided right on the society.

“That he has the right to successively fill all its functions, all its grades, according to fitness of sex, talent seniority;

“That his education, his instruction and his apprenticeship must consequently be so arranged as to enable him to properly hear his share of repugnant and difficult duties, to follow a course of technical work and instruction, and be assured at the period of maturity of an encyclopedian fitness and a sufficient income;

“That the functions are elective and the rules submitted to be adopted by the members;

“That the salary is proportioned to the nature of the function, to the importance of the talent, to the extent of the responsibility;

“That each member participates in the benefits as well as in the charges of the society in proportion to his services;

“That everyone is free to leave the association at his own will, consequently to demand his account and liquidate his rights, and reciprocally the society is always at liberty to accept new members.

“These general ideas furnish the solution of two important problems of social economy: that of the collective force and that of division of labor.” [4]§

It is obvious that Proudhon is far enough from the individualists of our days. Not only does he recognise a pact, a social contract between free associates, but he recognises also collective education, elections for offices, work, even all difficult tasks, always collective. Concerning the accusations of parliamentarian Collectivists, I believe that the majority do not know by whom the Collectivist idea was formulated. Whilst the ambitious and the aspirants for power in a Collectivist State calumniate Proudhon in order to draw from him the attention and sympathy of the proletariat so that the latter should not see that the real Collectivism has been conceived outside of any bureaucratic and authoritarian regulations, Proudhon, borrowing the idea of Collectivity from the Saint Simonists, like Fourier took all measures to guarantee the complete liberty of each member. The aspirants for power do their utmost to prevent the masses from seeing that the system of phalansteres of Fournier, the Communism of Robert Owen or the Collectivism of Proudhon had to come into realisation as a true Socialist organisation by society itself by the suppression of the State and its officials, including future legislators and administrators of Collectivism.

In his ideas on social organisation as well as in others, Proudhon differs absolutely from the legendary individualist. Far from denying organisation altogether, he wished to substitute for the State an autonomous society, for political organisation economic organisation, for central administration “Workers’ Associations” federated on an Anarchist basis or, according to his own expression, on the principle of “self-government.” The sixth and seventh parts of his constructive work, General Idea, etc., bear the titles: “Organisation of economic forces” and “Dissolution of the government in an economic organisation.”

Before quoting Proudhon’s own opinions, I will remind the reader that the tendency to abolish the political and authoritarian State was a common feature of all Socialist schools. From Saint Simon, who first of all insisted strongly on industrial organisation, to V. Considerant and the Fourierist school, all agreed on the abolition of the political State in a Communist or phalansterian society. The most brilliant pupil of Saint Simon, Auguste Comte, in his Opuscules (1819-1825) explains briefly but very clearly the philosophical and general basis of human progress in history. These ideas, developed by him later on in his Cours de philosophie positive, inspired the great English historian-philosopher H. T. Buckle. They were reflected in the works of the Socialists of that period as well as in Proudhon’s, and later on in Marx who wanted even to appropriate them under the ridiculous term of materialist explanation of history. According to A. Comte, “social organisation depends always on the condition of civilisation, and the progress of civilisation itself is subject to a certain law.” The aim of human activity, individual or collective, says he, is “to act upon natural forces…… in order to modify them the advantage of humanity……. to develop collectively this natural tendency, to regulate and harmonise it in order that useful action be as great as possible…” In a barbarous society, “industry being in its childhood, society was compelled to make war the aim of its activity…… And all modifications obtained in civilisation hare been the results of the always growing progress of science and industry.”

In accordance with the philosophy of his time, Proudhon states that: “The laws of social economy are independent of the will of man and of legislation: it is our privilege to recognise them, our dignity to obey them (p. 255). Above the governmental machinery, under the shadow of political institutions, far from the attention of statesmen and priests, society slowly and silently produced its own organisation; it created a new order, the expression of its vitality and autonomy……

“ This organisation has as principles:

“ 1st. The indefinite perfectibility 0f the individual and of the race;

“ 6th. Universality of well-being,

“ Its forms of action are:

“(a) Division of labor (classification by industries);

“(b) Collectivity, organised workers replacing the army;

“(c) Commerce, a concrete form of contract which replaces law…”

In order to define contract, Proudhon quotes again from Rousseau: “ To find a form of association which defends and protects with all its strength the community, the individual and the welfare of each associated member, and by which each individual uniting himself with all, obeys only himself, and remains as free as before.” (p. 129)

For a man who had such general ideas it was but natural to deny State and Authority, not only in the past but present society. Progress and development of humanity being considered as the result of the mode of production and of exchange, and these latter as consequences of “the always growing progress of science and industry” (A. Comte), it became absolute logic to attack, not such or such forms of government, but really the principle of authority in general. That is what he has done whilst attacking even the most advanced Socialists, which is much to be regretted, evidently, as it did much wrong to Socialist parties as well as to Proudhon himself. But if one considers the ideas themselves and not the Socialist struggle, it must be recognised that he was then the most consistent of all, especially when saying:

“Dissolve, immerse and absorb the political or governmental system into the economic system by reducing, simplifying. decentralising and suppressing one after the other all the wheels of that great machine called government or State “ (p. 196).

The same principles of mutualism in individual transactions, of collectivism in production, of individual and social liberty, of free and spontaneous organisation in national life, Proudhon applied to international relations. From then dates his ardent propaganda of the federalist principle.

“Truth is everywhere; science is the unity of the human race. If thus science, but no religion or authority, is accepted in each country as rule for the society as highest arbitrator of interests, government being reduced to nothing, all legislators of the universe will agree. No more will there be nationality or fatherland in the political sense of the word, only birth-places. Man, of whatever race or colour he may be, will be really native of the universe; city rights are for him acquired everywhere” (p. 329).

Reading these admirable passages which under the influence of French delegates who were nearly all Proudhonists and mutualists, became the basis of the sublime statutes of the International, it is natural to ask oneself for what reason this thinker, to whom we are indebted for so many humanitarian ideas, was so much calumniated? The answer is simple. Proudhon is calumniated by the defenders of oppression and of privilege, by reactionists who want to keep the people in ignorance. Formerly reactionists acted in the name of God and Church. In our days they do their work in the name of the Communist State and of metaphysical dialectics. Especially the aspirants for power in a future slavish society where everyone will be incorporated in the “labor army, especially for agriculture,” the apostles of metaphysical ignorance felt and still feel animosity and rage against Proudhon; they it is who having set themselves the task, calumniate him as they calumniate all who, sharing his ideas, call themselves like Proudhon: Anarchists.

[1] Prof. W. Wundt, “Relation of Philosophy, etc.,” 1889. J. S. Mill “On Liberty.” M. Guyau, “La Morale sans sanction ni obligation.” Tolstoy and Ibsen, Haptmann and Mackay are well known for their glorification of the individual and of liberty in morality and politics.

[2] “L’idée générale de la Révolution 1851,” page 280.

[3] By a strange misunderstanding Collectivism is often attributed to Marx, who was and remained all his life purely Communist.

[4] “L’idée générale de la Révolution,” page 256-257.

“Proudhon’s Mutualism and Anarchism,” Freedom 16 no, 166 (February, 1902): 6-7; 16 no. 167 (March, 1902): 10.

About Shawn P. Wilbur 132 Articles

Independent scholar, translator and archivist.