vol.6, no.1, (March 2000)



Marx-Proudhon: Their Exchange of Letters in 1846; On an episode of world-historical importance


Lutz Roemheld



Two views about socialism: Why Karl Marx Shunned an Academic Debate with Pierre-Joseph Proudhon


Johannes Hilmer


Beyond Marx and Proudhon

Takis Fotopoulos








Marx-Proudhon: Their Exchange of Letters in 1846; On an episode of world-historical importance*

Lutz Roemheld


Abstract: In 1846, Marx and Engels, in the framework of a short exchange of letters, made an attempt to establish a co-operation with Proudhon. The object of this article is to show that an analysis of this correspondence reveals the first signs of a bifurcation of Socialism, giving birth, on the one hand, to a (Marxian) statist and authoritarian variant and, on the other, to a (Proudhonian) libertarian variant. The beginning of this development is characterised by the clear intention of Marx, Engels and their followers to create a type of Socialism with clearly identifiable programmatic contents and power-centered organisational structures. Proudhon, on the contrary, pleaded in favour of a continual public debate as an unavoidable prerequisite for the organisation of an enlightened egalitarian type of society. In connection with this outcome, the question is raised whether the collapse of European communist States might ultimately be traced back to this development.


Against the background of the political failure - in the widest sense - of the statist type of socialism, the fundamental question arises whether this failure may be traced back to the very beginning of the development of this socialist model—a question of world-historical importance.[1] To pose the question more precisely: were there any causes, at the time of the development of the Marxist conception of socialism that was introduced to domestic and international politics in the second half of the 19th century, which, overall, had effects that in retrospective can be interpreted as an undesirable development becoming less and less correctable in the course of time?[2]

Questions like this are based on the supposition that there is a more or less precisely describable historical and political original situation giving birth to the statist type of socialism which should be examined for elements that perhaps did not allow any other but the actual, ascertainable historical development of socialism, as conceived by Marx and Engels. Such an examination ought to comprise treatises on objectively given facts of such an original situation, as well as on characteristics that were tied to personalities, who were influenced by this situation but were also influencing these characteristics themselves.[3]

Chronologically seen, the first half of the 1840's can be called the period of the original situation mentioned above. In content, this period is characterised by efforts, which were mainly supported by Marx and Engels, to work out a concept of socialism that could be clearly identified and also put into political practice. Both of them regarded France as a country that was of major importance for the achievement of this aim - not least with regard to the possibility of being supported by the early socialist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, who then was well-known in and beyond France, his home country, because of his political thinking and his politically effective writing.

Several talks in Paris between Marx and Proudhon resulted in an exchange of letters in 1846 on the topic of an eventual cooperation concerning the above mentioned aim. As it is well known, the correspondence did not bring forth the result Marx and Engels had hoped for. As far as I know there does not yet exist any examination of the reasons for this failure in connection with the questions asked at the beginning. Therefore it is right to consider whether, apart from any differences of opinion concerning the day-to-day politics of that time, there existed any substantial disagreements between Proudhon and Marx about the objectives of such a collaboration, the ways to achieve those objectives and maybe even concerning their respective world views and politics. Although, therefore, the exchange of ideas between Marx and Proudhon merely had the character of a historical episode, still, this episode, with hindsight, was possibly more important than people have been assuming so far.

Therefore it could be interesting to focus the attention on the short exchange of letters between Marx and Proudhon in the spring of 1846. For, it brings to light Proudhon's efforts, in the course of his general reflections on the ideas advocated by the protagonists of a strategy oriented towards totalitarian and ideological supremacy, to achieve a kind of rationality free of ideologies, always, of course, in the framework of the crucial question that was being debated around the middle of the 19th century: which type of socialism would be most suitable for the economic and social emancipation of the proletariat, in theory as well as in political practice?

However, before examining this exchange of letters I have to make some remarks with regard to the understanding of the word "ideology", which I will use in the following part of this paper. I shall use this term as a category employed in the field of political science which simply implies that the actual interests of single persons, groups, organisations etc. are disguised under the pretext that a special way of acting seemingly results from an objective necessity, or that special interests reflect superior public interests or that ethic-normative motives are beyond all criticism.[4] This way of employing the term "ideology" seems to me to be appropriate concerning the political character of the episode that will be dealt with in the following part of this paper, an episode of crucial importance after all.    

But, before examining this episode in detail one should make some introductory remarks on the ideological-political situation of the time to highlight the background of this event:

In France, this situation was characterised by the existence of several versions of the basic model of  centralistic socialism (e. g. Saint-Simon, Etienne Cabet, Auguste Blanqui, Louis Blanc), as well as of a federalistic socialism that was intended to be mainly for small groups  (e. g. Charles Fourier and his numerous –at the time--and influential followers).[5] In the course of his analyses of the theories developed by representatives of these different movements, Proudhon, as early as the beginning of the 1840’s,  started developing his own conception of a libertarian-socialist kind of federalism.[6] This concept was ultimately founded on the basic idea, which subsequently became more apparent, that the necessary institutions had to be created in the economic, social but also in the governmental sector, to encourage human beings to develop, according to their abilities, into autonomous individuals, as well as into responsible and fully committed citizens.

Marx, during his stay in Paris from October 1843 to February 1845, was confronted with a variety of views regarding the general aim of a socialist society and the strategies to bring it about. In view of this situation, it is not surprising that he and Engels came to the conclusion that it was necessary to work towards a political-philosophical, as well as economic and social-theoretical conception of socialism or communism, that could be identified clearly. Marx and Engels wanted to materialise this project with the help of the European workers’ movement, which was organizing itself ever more effectively at that time, with the objective to develop and implement a strategy that was as uniform as possible.[7]

This, so to speak, two-track – theoretical/practical – reorientation was pursued by Marx and Engels because they felt that such an orientation was under considerable threat in France, or Paris, respectively. This was so because German emigrants, as well as organisations of French workers, were influenced by an "idealistic-"atheistic social humanism, which had originated in Feuerbach's work and was particularly promoted by Karl Grün. In the course of time, this influence developed into an increasingly unbridgeable opposition to the historical-materialistic and economic thinking that was already developing in Marx's mind (cf. his treatise "Zur Kritik der Nationalökonomie – ökonomisch-philosophische Manuskripte" [On the criticism of national economics – economic-philosophical manuscripts] written in Paris in 1844)[8].

On the basis of the published sources, It is not possible to determine unequivocally whether, or to what extent, Proudhon knew of this fundamental reorientation of Marx's and Engels' thinking, when he received the letter dated 5 May 1846 written by Marx, who lived in Brussels since his expulsion from France in 1845. Neither in his diary notes, nor in his letters written in the first half of the 1840's and especially during the short period of intensive discussions with Marx in Paris, between the end of September 1844 and 1 February 1845,[9] one can find references that could prove that Proudhon knew something about this development. At that time, Proudhon's analysis of the theories of Marx and of a group of Hegelian followers who called themselves "Young Hegelians" (Junghegelianer) seems to have concentrated mainly on doctrinal problems.[10] To find an answer to the question whether the political-strategic dimension of their common ideas, concerning the economic and social changes that had to be carried out in the interest of the European proletariat, played a role in the relationship between Proudhon and Marx – and if yes, how important was this role – it is necessary to examine the letter of Marx to Proudhon and Proudhon's reply dated 17 May 1846.

Following the project "Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher" [German-French Yearbooks], an attempt to create and encourage a discussion between German and French socialists on important doctrinal questions[11], Marx developed the notion, that was also accepted by Engels after they got to know each other in Paris in 1844, that the means to achieve the above mentioned strategic aim  was an international publication in which doctrinal questions would be discussed while at the same time information would be provided on political activities in general.[12] Marx's decision to turn to Proudhon perhaps was influenced by the impression gained especially in the years 1844 and 1845, that the man from the Franche Comté were a philosophically thinking "proletarian" who was interested in political action.[13]

This is why Marx informs Proudhon, in his letter from Brussels dating 5 May 1846,[14] that he, Engels and Philippe Gigot, the secretary of the "communistic correspondence committee" in Brussels, have organised "a continuous correspondence with the German communists and socialists" aiming at both the "discussion of scientific questions and the supervision of popular publications as well as socialist propaganda which can be carried out on in Germany by this means."[15] "The chief aim" of this correspondence, however, is "to put the German socialists in contact with the French and English socialists” as well as keeping the latter informed about the "socialist movement" in Germany; in Germany it shall "inform about the progress of socialism in France and England". "In this way it will be possible to air differences of opinion (se faire jour); an exchange of ideas will ensue and impartial criticism be secured." According to Marx, this is a step which the "social movement" should take in its literary expression in order to free itself of its national limitations. And when the time for action has come ("et au moment de l'action"), Marx writes, it is of "great benefit" for everyone "to be enlightened" on the "state of affairs" abroad as well as at home.

Marx stresses that the correspondence shall also include German socialists in Paris and London. He claims that contacts with England have already been established;[16] "as for France, we are all of the opinion that we cannot find a better correspondent there than you: as you know, the English and Germans have up to the present appreciated you more than your own fellow countrymen". "So, you see, it is only a question of initiating a regular correspondence and of assuring it the facilities for following the social movement in the various countries, a question of making it interesting, meaty and varied (d'arriver à un intérêt riche et varié)";[17] Marx goes on writing that a single person can not achieve this. The costs of this correspondence will be paid with money raised by collections in Germany, he says. He suggests that Proudhon write ("vous écrirez") to Philippe Gigot in Brussels; Gigot has the right to sign letters from Brussels (“He is also the one to sign the letters from Brussells”).

In a postscript Marx warns Proudhon of the "parasite" Karl Grün, an "individual" who, among other things, is "dangerous" since he compromises "well-known authors" (whose names Marx does not mention) in the eyes of the German public and also dares to call himself "in his book on the French socialists"[18] "(“Privatdocent”)   “Proudhon’s tutor”.[19]

In view of this article’s topic it is striking that the aim of a comprehensive communication across national borders is connected to the issue  of intellectual leadership. This connection may not look controversial at a first sight  but it does very much so when, after an explicit reference to this  connection has been made in the beginning, the last part of the letter uses formulations – he writes the correspondence would "only" serve as an international exchange of information and opinions which were "the main objective" of this correspondence -- which can be interpreted as the attempt to belittle the political-strategic dimension of the plans explained before. All the more odd appear the final statements on financial and organisational aspects of this project, as the political-strategic dimension mentioned above is brought once more to the mind of the reader – but this time not with regard to the goals that Marx was aiming at but concerning some active headquarters at a single location which shall control all informational processes.

The published sources do not allow to draw any conclusions concerning Proudhon's reactions after he received the letter from Marx until he writes a reply[20] in Lyon on 17 May 1846. The basic ideas that are expressed in this letter indicate that Proudhon thought Marx's letter, or rather the wish for cooperation, to be of such an importance that he decided to react to it with a well thought-out reply.[21]

After declaring that he is generally interested in taking part in the planned correspondence Proudhon feels obliged to comment on a number of passages in Marx's letter:

In the first place he points out that it is the "duty of every socialist" to maintain for some time yet an attitude of criticism and doubt; he says he professes with the public an almost total “anti-dogmatism in economics."[22] He goes on as follows: "By all means let us work together to discover the  laws of society, the ways in which these laws are realised and the process by which we are able to discover them; but, for God´s sake! (sic!), when we have demolished all a priori dogmas, do not let us think of indoctrinating the people in our turn"; Proudhon points out that he does not want to act like Luther, who replaced the catholic theology by a "protestant theology". Proudhon "wholeheartedly" consents to presenting all opinions, "let us have a good and honest polemic; let us set the world an example of wise and faresighted tolerance, but, simply because we are the avant-garde of a movement, let us not instigate a new intolerance, let us not set ourselves up as the apostles of a new religion, even if it be the religion of logic, or of  reason. Let us welcome and encourage all protests, let us get rid of all exclusiveness and all mysticism. Let us never consider any question exhausted, and when we have used our very last argument, let us begin again, if necessary, with eloquence and irony. On this condition I will join your association with pleasure, otherwise I will not!"[23]

In the following Proudhon assumes, referring to the phrase "when the time for action has come" ("au moment de l'action"), that Marx does not seem to think that a reform is possible "without a coup de main", i.e. without what used to be called a revolution but which is quite simply a jolt. Though, Proudhon continues, he himself has been of the same opinion in the past, he now thinks that, according to his latest studies, something like that was not necessary for the success of the reform. Consequently, "revolutionary" action cannot be presented as a means of "social reform", since this supposed means would simply be an appeal to force and arbitrariness, in short, a contradiction (i. e. to the reform – the author).[24] With reference to his latest, half-finished book – Philosophie de la Misère – Proudhon only vaguely suggests his idea of a liberal and egalitarian society that is based on the socialisation (not  nationalisation!) of property.

After he has pointed out a possible misapprehension and has declared himself willing to face the criticism he expects from Marx, Proudhon describes his impression that "the working class in France" takes a similar position as he does,[25] and goes on: "Our proletarians are so thirsty for knowledge that they would receive us very badly if all we could give them to drink  were blood. In short, it would, in my opinion be very bad policy to use the language of extermination.  Rigorous measures will come right enough; in this the people are in no need of exhortation."[26]

Most striking in this reply[27] is that Proudhon refers to the intention of an exchange of information, ideas or rather scholarly opinions expressed in Marx's letter and even extends it in content by stressing the necessity of sociological research to be done in connection with an unrestricted discussion of this theme. At the same time – probably referring to Marx's idea of the supervision of publications meant for the masses – he strongly warns against indoctrinating "the people". In contrast to Marx's idea of an already politically oriented activity of informing and disputing – a "discussion about which course ought to be chosen", as Hans Pelger describes it in the "comment" given in his edition of Marx's Elend der Philosophie [Misery of Philosophy][28] – Proudhon sets the focal point on enlightenment of the inner circle of the militants as well as of the public, that should be as numerous as possible, as the main target of the correspondence-plans, the basis of which should be a continual and unlimited process of discussion.

This difference in orientation is developed further in the passages of Proudhon's reply in which he – explicitly referring to Marx's words: "au moment de l'action" – turns against any notion of a revolutionary enforcement of social "reform", that in his opinion can only be understood as a call for violence and arbitrariness, which finally is a "contradiction" to the aim of a liberal and egalitarian society he, Proudhon, is striving for; unmistakably, though only by insinuation, he contrasts the "communauté", the communist[29] social order German socialists were heading for in his opinion, with the social order based on "liberté" and "égalité" he was imagining.[30]

In his reply Proudhon expresses doctrinal as well as politico-strategic differences in regard to the concepts of Marx and his followers. These incompatibilities seem to have admitted, according to Marx's and Engels' assessment, no possibility of a collaboration with Proudhon.[31]

Pierre Haubtmann[32] interprets Proudhon's pointed refusal to collaborate in compliance with Marx's wishes as understandable, if one takes into account that he in his talks with Marx probably detected Marx's "inclination to dominate" ("tempérament dominateur"). Moreover, Haubtmann mentions the possibility that Proudhon perhaps had learned something about "his [Marx's] intentions" ("ses intentions") from Karl Grün and Hermann Ewerbeck. Haubtmann does not specify these intentions, but the context of this formulation suggests that he had in mind the ideas expressed in Marx's letter, which also implies his politico-strategic intentions.[33] Finally Proudhon, according to Haubtmann, possibly wanted to work against the (mis)judgement on the part of Marx, that he, Proudhon, were a militant activist, which was possibly imparted to him after the publication of Die heilige Familie [The holy family] (1845), written jointly by Marx and Engels. This interpretation which focusses on individual, personal aspects of the relationship between Proudhon and Marx seems to me a necessary, but not a sufficient prerequisite for a correct assessment of the relationship between the two men during the time of their correspondence. Actually, Haubtmann's account does not take into consideration the general political dimension of this relationship to a sufficient degree, which especially has to be taken into account regarding the fact that Marx in his letter orients his statements concerning a "discussion about which course ought to be chosen" (Pelger) across the borders discernibly on activities that aim at the enforcement of a special – namely his own and Engels' communistic[34] – concept of socialism. In this context one should point out that during the time of the exchange of letters under consideration, in addition to a similar institution that already was being founded in London, a kind of nerve centre had been established in Brussels that was used for the organisation of the correspondence-project; this implies that, as Proudhon would have heard of from Marx's letter at the latest,  already the foundations for a centre of power[35] existed, that had been laid with the help of Marx, and contained a political potential for development that could hardly be underestimated by a man who already at that time was thinking in federalist categories[36].

As a summary, the relationship between Proudhon and Marx at the time of their short exchange of letters can be characterised as follows:

Marx was beginning – in conjunction with the development of his thinking in historical-materialistic or rather political-economic categories – to orient himself, in cooperation with Engels, beyond his theoretical work, increasingly towards the development and enforcement  of a special – communistic – concept of socialism[37], that corresponded to his development in thinking mentioned above, which included  the building up of a leading position for himself within the organised workers' movement of that time.[38] His letter to Proudhon displays these intentions only inadequately. Proudhon's reply on the other hand permits the justified supposition that he has seen through the (in this context ideologically camouflaging) character of Marx's letter. This is why Proudhon was even more plain in selecting his formulations, as one should be permitted to conclude, which he used in his letter to Marx  (possibly because of background information concerning political plans and intentions of the other side) with regard to the explanation of his own starting point for a fruitful collaboration: discursive rationality – not for the sake of itself, but as a (in a general sense of the word) political prerequisite for a comprehensive and continual process of the enlightenment of society.

In Marx's letter, a rough outline of the authoritarian-centralistic strategy of revolution is already visible; a strategy that a little later was to be clearly expressed in the Manifesto of the Communistic Party of 1848 with the aim of the realisation of a statist conception of socialism. In Proudhon's reply, on the other hand, emerges the possibility of a libertarian conception of socialism that actually was not destined to be introduced into political reality by a leading elite, but rather, to an ever increasing degree, by "our proletarians" ("nos prolétaires")[39] themselves. The "correspondence-episode" between Marx and Proudhon shows quite explicitly the basically unbridgeable differences between a hegemonic and power-centered strategy of revolution on the one hand and a participatory-emancipatory strategy of revolution on the other.[40] Thus the episode, at the end, marks more or less exactly the point of time in which the bifurcation of socialism into a dictatorial communism on the one hand and an egalitarian-libertarian conception of socialism on the other hand has become an irrevocable historical fact.

By pointing out these fundamental differences in thought and action between Proudhon and Marx maybe a first step has been taken in the search for an answer to the question asked at the beginning of this paper. No doubt,  more steps have to be taken on this way to develop the hypothesis, that is tied to this question, as regards the verifiable result that the ultimate failure of statist socialism originating in Marx's and Engels' ideas was already rooted in the very beginnings of its development. This way, it is perhaps  possible to gain insight into the question whether the realisation of the concept of socialism, (drafted by Marx and Engels and developed further by Lenin and Stalin), was not only  influenced by the special characters of Lenin and Stalin and the respective general historical-political circumstances under which both were supposed to act, but was also inevitably tied to a kind of mental similarity between these four men with regard to their thinking and actions oriented towards political power – a mental similarity characterised from the very beginning, not least, by a tendency to use more or less ideologically moulded behavioural patterns, as consciously employed instruments of power politics.     


*This article was translated from the original German manuscript by Bianca de Loryn.

[1] Werner Thümmler asks a similar question in: Der Zerfall des "realen" Sozialismus - das Werk von Marx und Engels? [The ruin of the "actual" socialism - a fault of Marx and Engels?] (Köln: GNN-Verlag, 1991) and answers in essence that the process of the breakdown of the "actual" socialism finally commenced with the statist and bureaucratic realisation of the (originally non-statist) thinking of Marx and Engels as effected by Stalin; but Thümmler in my opinion does not consider  the role which Leninism played in this context.

[2] Cf. Johannes Hilmer,  'Philosophie de la Misère' oder 'Misère de la Philosophie'? - die Marxsche Polemik im Kampf um die Führung der internationalen Arbeiterbewegung als Beginn der weltpolitischen Durchsetzung des etatistischen Sozialimus ['Philosophie de la Misère' or 'Misère de la Philosophie'? - Marx's polemics in the fight for the leadership of the international workers' movement as the beginning of the establishment of the statist socialism in world politics] (Frankfurt/Main: Lang, 1997) and the works cited by Hilmer.

[3] Concerning an analysis of the causes regarding this topic on the basis of the criticism on the opinions of Marx, especially concerning industrial productivism and a "holistic" understanding of society as well as his limited appreciation of the necessity of an "institutionalisation of liberty" cf. Jürgen Habermas, "Nachholende Revolution und linker Revisionsbedarf - Was heißt Sozialimus heute?" [Catching up on the revolution and the need for a leftist revision - what does socialism mean today?] in Die nachholende Revolution, Kleine politische Schriften [Catching up on the revolution, short political writings], vol. VII (Frankfurt/Main: Suhrkamp, 1990), pp. 179-204 (especially pp.188-191).

[4] Cf. Kurt Lenk, "Ideologie und Selbstkritik" [Ideology and self-criticism], in Dieter Nohlen (ed.), Wörterbuch Staat und Politik [Dictionary of government and politics], (Bonn: Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung, 1995), pp. 263-265;  Erwin Häckel: "Ideologie und Außenpolitik" [Ideology and foreign politics], in Wichard Woyke (ed.), Handwörterbuch Internationale Politik [Dictionary of international politics], rev. repr. of the 5th ed. (Opladen: Leske u. Budrich, 1994).

[5] Maxime Leroy, "Histoire des idées sociales en France" in vol. III: D'Auguste Comte à P.-J. Proudhon,  (n.p., Gallimard, 1954); Edouard Dolléans, Histoire du mouvement ouvrier, vol. I (1830-1871), 6th ed. (Paris: Armand Colin, 1967); cf. also "Proudhon et ses contemporains", in Actes du Colloque de la Société P.-J. Proudhon, Paris 20-21 novembre 1992 (Paris: Société P.-J. Proudhon, 1993), pp. 142-149.

[6]  Cf. Bernard Voyenne, "Histoire de l'idée fédéraliste", vol. II: Le fédéralisme de P. J. Proudhon, (Paris and Nice: Presses d'Europe, 1973), ch. I.

[7] Hans Pelger, "Theorie und Praxis der sozialen Revolution bei Marx und Engels (1842-1847)" [Theory and practice of the social revolution according to Marx and Engels] in Heinz Monz et al., Der unbekannte junge Marx – neue Studien zur Entwicklung des Marxschen Denkens 1835-1847 [The unknown young Marx – new studies on the development of Marx's thinking ] (Mainz: v. Hase und Koehler, 1973), pp. 263-270; Hans Pelger (ed.),  Das Elend der Philosophie – Antwort auf Proudhons "Philosophie des Elends", [The misery of philosophy – answers to Proudhon's Philosophy of  Misery ], 11th ed. (Berlin and Bonn: Dietz, 1979), pp. LXII-LXIII, see also pp. LXV-LXVI. On the development of Marx's political and philosophical ideas on the proletarian revolution cf. also Karl-Hugo Breuer, Der junge Marx – sein Weg zum Kommunismus [The young Marx – on the road  to communism] (Köln: thesis, Universität Köln, 1954), pp. 121-130.  That Proudhon was also aware of the confusing variety of socialist concepts being under discussion in the years 1845 and 1846 is described in Pierre Haubtmann, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon – sa vie et sa pensée 1809-1849 (Paris: Beauchesne 1982), pp. 522-523. Similar statements can be found in Edward Hyams´s book who cites Proudhon's letter to his friend Paul Ackermann dated 4 October 1844 (without reference!) in: Pierre-Joseph Proudhon – His Revolutionary Life, Mind and Works (London: Murray 1979), pp. 74-75; cf. also J.-A. Langlois (ed.), Correspondance de P.-J. Proudhon, vol. II (Genève: Slatkine Reprints, 1971), pp. 154-161.

[8] Hans Pelger, "Theorie und Praxis", pp. 271-273; Pierre Haubtmann, P. J. Proudhon - sa vie et sa pensée, pp. 618-620.

[9] Pierre Haubtmann, P. J. Proudhon - sa vie et sa pensée, p. 448.

[10] Pierre Haubtmann, P. J. Proudhon - sa vie et sa pensée, ch. 14, 16; cf. also Hans Pelger (ed.),  Das Elend der Philosophie, p. XVI: "in the beginning" Marx only wanted to "polemise with Proudhon in a philosophico-methodical way"; cf. also ibid.,  p. XVII: the treatise "Misery of Philosophy" is "in the first place a pamphlet that is meant for the French socialist environment"; Pierre Ansart, "La polémique des deux 'Misères' ", in Société P.-J. Proudhon, Proudhon et ses contemporains, pp. 21-32, p. 21.

[11] There was only one publication of such a yearbook which only contained contributions by German authors and appeared in France and Germany in February 1844; cf. Pierre Haubtmann, P. J. Proudhon - sa vie et sa pensée, p. 441.

[12] Hans Pelger, "Theorie und Praxis", p. 263; according to Pelger organisational plans were not made before 1846/47.

[13] Pierre Haubtmann, P. J. Proudhon - sa vie et sa pensée, pp. 477-478; Hans Pelger (ed.),  Das Elend der Philosophie, p. LXII; idem, "Theorie und Praxis", p. 268f.

[14]  The text of this letter has been published in the following books: Karl Marx – Friedrich Engels Gesamtausgabe (MEGA), vol. III ([East-]Berlin: Dietz, 1979), pp. 7-8; Pierre Haubtmann, P. J. Proudhon - sa vie et sa pensée, pp. 622-623;  Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Philosophie de la Misère' – Karl Marx 'Misère de la Philosophie (annotée par P.-J. Proudhon), vol. III (n.p., Le Groupe Fresnes-Antony de la Fédération anarchiste, n. d.), pp. 323-325.

[15] Emphasis added by the author.

[16] At the time of the writing of this letter the London correspondence committee was being founded; Hans Pelger (ed.),  Das Elend der Philosophie, pp. 265f.

[17] Emphasis added by the author.

[18] Die soziale Bewegung in Belgien und Frankreich [The social movement in Belgium and France] (Darmstadt: Leske, 1845).

[19] The postscript concerning Karl Grün displays a surprising tactical clumsiness in view of the well known friendship between Proudhon and Grün, especially because Marx misjudged its effect on Proudhon who was not interested in schemes. I will not talk further about this postscript since it is of rather secondary importance for the context dealt with here. About the personal, but by no means unpolitical, element of the conflict between Proudhon and Marx cf. Pierre Haubtmann, P. J. Proudhon - sa vie et sa pensée, pp. 624-626.

[20]  The text of the reply is published in J.-A. Langlois (ed.), Correspondance de P.-J. Proudhon, pp. 198-202; Pierre Haubtmann, P. J. Proudhon - sa vie et sa pensée, pp. 626-627, 629-630 (one line at the end of the third paragraph is missing); Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Philosophie de la Misère' – Karl Marx 'Misère de la Philosophie, (...), éd. par le groupe Fresnes-Antony, t. III, pp. 325-328.

[21] Although his state of health was impaired by an eye disease and general exhaustion; cf. his letter to the publisher Gilbert-Urbain Guillaumin dated 18 May 1846; Correspondance de P.-J. Proudhon, pp. 203-205.

[22] This is a remark that, according to Pierre Haubtmann, P. J. Proudhon - sa vie et sa pensée, p. 628, can only be explained by certain "éléments d'information" not specified by Haubtmann ; one can only suppose that they refer to Marx's verbal or written statements, respectively, that show that Marx then was developing his thinking in terms of historical-materialistic or political-economic categories, respectively.

[23] Emphasis added by the author.

[24] These formulations can only be interpreted correctly if one assumes that Proudhon was informed about plans on the part of Marx's followers concerning a revolutionary enforcement of socialist aims that was to be carried out, should the occasion arise; cf. also footnote 26.

[25] According to Maxime Leroy in vol. III: D'Auguste Comte à P.-J. Proudhon, p. 285, Proudhon was  "le plus proche de l'état d'esprit de(s?) gens, ouvriers et artisans" after the revolutions of 1830 and 1848, in which the decimated working class had lost any trust in boastful leaders.

[26] If Hans Pelger (ed.), Das Elend der Philosophie, p. LXIV – based on a somewhat shortened interpretation – imputes to Proudhon, that Proudhon himself imputes to Marx a "call for violence" and implicitly expresses incomprehension of this statement, one can assume that already then a latent readiness for violence existed, which possibly Proudhon also knew of; Engels for example in a gathering of the Bund  der Gerechten in Paris speaks of the "necessary 'forcible democratic revolution' " (ibid., p. LXVI).

[27] I will not talk further about the concluding passage of the reply that includes Marx's attacks against Grün, since this is of only secondary importance for the topic I'm dealing with here.

[28] p. LXIII.

[29] Rüdiger Thomas, Karl Marx – Theorie und Methode in: in Heinz Monz et al., Der unbekannte junge Marx, p. 294: Marx uses the term "communism" since 1844, though at that time not as a political slogan but rather as an anthropological category that replaces the term "real humanism".

[30] J.-A. Langlois (ed.), Correspondance de P.-J. Proudhon, p. 200.

[31] Hans Pelger (ed.),  Das Elend der Philosophie, p. LXIV.

[32] Pierre Haubtmann, P. J. Proudhon - sa vie et sa pensée, p. 628.

[33] Hans Pelger (ed.),  Das Elend der Philosophie, p. LXIV: Pelger is of the opinion that Proudhon had been "informed" by Karl Grün and Hermann Ewerbeck on "Marx's and Engels' activities in the communistic correspondence committee” as well as on the state of affairs in the Paris communities of the "Bund der Gerechten".

[34] Hans Pelger, "Theorie und Praxis", pp. 266-268.

[35] ... though still "without a fixed organisational structure", cf. Hans Pelger (ed.),  Das Elend der Philosophie, pp. LXVII-LXVIII.

[36] Bernard Voyenne, Le fédéralisme de P.-J. Proudhon, ch. I.

[37] Hans Pelger (ed.),  Das Elend der Philosophie, p. CIX: according to Pelger Marx has developed in Misère de la Philosophie a "perspective towards the classless society".

[38] About the individual steps concerning the growing political engagement cf. Hans Pelger (ed.),  Das Elend der Philosophie, pp. LXVIII, LXXVI, CIV, CV, CX-CXI; cf. also p. CV: In October 1847 Engels says to Louis Blanc that Marx is "chef de notre parti (i. e. de la fraction la plus avancée de la démocratie allemande)".

[39] J.-A. Langlois (ed.), Correspondance de P.-J. Proudhon, p. 200; cf. also Pierre Ansart, Sociologie de Proudhon (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1967), p. 194: "Dès 1838, Proudhon définit son intention de constituer une connaissance critique politiquement engagée et formant un instrument de défense et d'attaque pour les classes ouvrières..."  

[40] Pierre Ansart, Sociologie, pp. 206-215.



Two views about socialism: Why Karl Marx Shunned an Academic Debate with Pierre-Joseph Proudhon

Johannes Hilmer


Abstract: The object of this essay is to show that Marx, in his polemic "Misere de la Philosophie" against Proudhon's "Philosophie de la Misere", in effect, shunned an academic debate with Proudhon and resorted to a denunciation of him as a petit bourgeois, in order to establish his own position at the top of the international labour movement. However, with his furious attack on Proudhon, Marx succeeded in destroying the existing links between the different socialist trends. In the light of this catastrophic split between the driving forces of radical change, at the beginning of the capitalist industrialization, the article pleads for a tolerant culture of discussion, within which the debate on different methods and means towards an alternative society and the end of capitalism, is possible.



I. The significance of a debate more than 150 years old

Why can the knowledge of the debate between P.-J. Proudhon (1809-1865) and Karl Marx (1818-1883) be important today Perhaps because Proudhon ― in his book, Systeme des contradictions Economiques ou Philosophic de la Misere (1846) ― as well as Marx ― in his response Misere de la Philosophie (1847) ― dealt with a social alternative to capitalism.  Even if the possibility of a society liberated from state and capital seems to be far away presently, the continuation of the economic and political crisis in Russia, as well as further economic and political destabilisation in South-East Asia and Latin America, could still undermine the apparent stable capitalist centres in Europe and the United States of America and put the subject of an alternative to capitalism on the agenda of history again.

The debate between Proudhon and Marx in 1846/47 marked not only the beginning of the split within the international labour movement into an anarchic (or an anarcho-syndicalist) trend and one or more Marxist trends but also the beginning of Marx’s attempt to establish his theory as the absolute in the international labour movement.

In his Misere de la Philosophie Marx didn't deal with Proudhon's text Philosophie de la Misere, but denounced Proudhon as a petit bourgeois, who deviated from the right doctrine. For the first time Marx stigmatised an opponent adversary in a public debate as petit bourgeois. Seven months later, in the Communist Manifesto, Marx took up this term, which was used as an invective by the self-appointed followers of Marx ―Lenin, Stalin, Mao Tse Tung, Enver Hoxha ― to denounce opponents inside and outside the communist party.

In Marx's opinion, a petit bourgeois has his place between the class of capitalists and the working class.  Because of the development of industry, the petit bourgeois ―artisans, peasants― runs the risk of sinking into the working class and therefore tries to move back to the Middle Ages. If one takes into consideration that Marxism as a political movement[1] failed because of its authoritarian politics, the occupation with the dispute between Proudhon and Marx ―who both didn't take the opportunity of an academic and political debate― can contribute to the discovery that the origin of the decline of communism already existed at a very early stage of Marx’s political thinking and acting[2].


II. The historical environment in which Proudhon and Marx acted

II.1. The economic and political situation in France and Prussia before the revolution of 1848

Marx and Proudhon wrote their texts during the beginning of industrialization in France and Prussia. In both countries the agricultural sector was dominant and both countries were behind Great Britain in developing their heavy industries. In France and Prussia the construction of a railway network and of a banking system and stock exchange was still in its infancy. In both countries the state backed up the capitalist development by licencing joint-stock companies and limited partnerships. Furthermore, the French ministry for public works and the state-owned Prussian "Seehandlung" provided the expansion of the road networks. Compared with Prussia, France was ―because of the Great Revolution in 1789― ahead in her economic and political development. While in Prussia the aristocracy was the leading class before and after 1848, in France, a class of landowners, bankers and owners of coal mines and iron-mines controlled the state under King Louis Philippe (July 1830 ― February 1848). The bankers financed the increasing deficits of the national budget and, by manipulating the prices of government loans, were in a position to make huge speculative profits.[3]

The French and the Prussians, in the course of developing capitalism in their own countries, took also part in the capitalist cyclical crises. Thus, the cyclic crisis of 1847, which originated in England and was reinforced by the agricultural crisis of 1846, grasped France and Prussia. Bread prices went up and because of the decreasing sales of textiles the textile industry had to dismiss workers.

In France, the economic crisis of 1847, the campaign of the democratic opposition for the universal suffrage and the activity of workers and craftsmen resulted in the overthrowing of King Louis Philippe's regime in the February-Revolution of 1848. Apart from the democratic and republican opposition (industrial leaders, lawyers, journalists and writers) most craftsmen and workers offered resistance against the capitalist industrialization and found themselves confronted with hunger, illness and unemployment. The strike of the silk-weavers of Lyon for higher wages, in 1831, was put down by the French army. In February 1834 the silk-weavers of Lyon called for a general strike which spread out over several French towns forcing the government in Paris to declare a state of emergency.

In 1835, after an attempt on Louis Philippe's life, the notorious September-laws were passed aimimg at oppressing the revolutionary and democratic movement by censorship, police and tribunals.  Therefore the various radical organisations in which craftsmen and workers were organized had to go underground.  The "Societe des families", lead by Armand Barbes and Louis-Auguste Blanqui, acted, after its dissolution by the police in 1837, as "Societe des saisons".  These "Societes" as well as the "League of the Just" (1836), which had arisen from the "League of the Outlaws", pursued the insurrectionary methods of Gracchus Babeuf (1760-1797), described by Filippo Buonarroti,[4] friend and comrade of Babeuf.

Besides, the French craftsmen and workers organized associations and trade unions for mutual aid. The silkspinners in Lyon formed special associations, the "mutuellistes". They emphasized the independence of every artisan and created endowment funds for illness, accidents and strikes.

In Prussia, every democratic and liberal movement was nipped in the bud.  After the "Hambacher celebration" for freedom in 1832 ―organized by two journalists― the conferences of Vienna (1834) banned political clubs, opposing journals and public meetings. Seven professors from Gottingen, who had protested against the cancelation of the Hannover constitution, were dismissed.

The democratic opposition consisted of parts of the bourgeoisie, craftsmen, students, writers, journalists and workers.  In Rhineland, the opposition formed a group around the "Rheinische Zeitung", which was banned in 1834 because of its radical-democratic political outlook. Contributors to this journal were among others Bruno Bauer, Max Stirner, Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx, as editor in chief.

As in France, the workers and the craftsmen, who were threatened by proletarianization, constituted the most resolute part of the opposition in Prussia. They reacted with strikes and the creation of associations for mutual aid to unemployment, bad food and housing conditions, as well as falling wages.  In 1844, the Silesian weavers made their famous insurrection, which was followed by strikes and demonstrations all over Germany.

II.2. Conceptions of socialism in the first half of the 19th century

Proudhon and Marx were not the first persons who discussed about aims and ways to a socialist society.  In the first half of the 19th century there were a lot of views on socialism that comprised state-socialist and decentralized projects, violent and peaceful transitions to socialism. Characterizing these views as "early" or "Utopian" socialism, Marx defined his theory as "Scientific Socialism".  Misere de la Philosophie is Marx's first attempt to establish his version of socialism as the only true one!

But it was Proudhon who, as early as 1844 ―while Marx was considering the philosophy of Ludwig Feuerbach as a possible foundation of socialism― invented the term "Scientific Socialism", in order to emphasize his effort to develop socialism on a scientific basis.

But, let us see the main conceptions of socialism, before Marx and Proudhon.

Charles Fourier (1772-1837)

The merchant Charles Fourier knew by practise what he called "industrial anarchy". Especially the arbitrary determination of prices was the basis of Fourier's criticism of capitalism.

His suggestion of a society without exploitation involved people working in free associations who would combine agricultural labour with the work in the factory. Fourier proclaimed the work in the field being more important than working in a factory. The free associations should set an example and first of all encourage those standing aside. Fourier rejected revolutionary violence and dictatorship as means to establish an alternative society. A federation of free associated groups would replace the old centralist state.

Robert Owen (1771-1858)

Robert Owen, at the age of 19 director of a cotton-mill, considered the influences of the environment to be the decisive cause of misery and crime all over the world.  Besides concrete demands for improvements in the living conditions of the workers ―prohibition on child labour, shortening the working hours, better safety provisions for workers― Owen propagated self-help organisations of the working class. He suggested the foundation of consumer's co-operatives, as well as of producer cooperatives in which 500 - 3000 persons would live and work together in cooperative villages and organize both production and private affairs.  Private property would be abolished and even the education of the children would be done by the community.

After the failure of his plans, Owen founded in 1833 the "Society for National Regeneration" in England. This trade union organized the struggle for the eight-hours-day and the so-called equitable-labour-exchange-bazaars in several towns.  In these exchange-markets, the producer's co-operatives could exchange their products according to the working time that was necessary to produce the goods.  In 1834, these bazaars had to shut down following the suppression of the powerful "Grand National Consolidated Trades' Union" ―the basis of the equitable-labour exchange-bazaars― in the wake of an unsuccessful general strike organised by it.

Louis Blanc (1811-1882)

Louis Blanc, contributor to the journal "La Reforme", supported a kind of state-socialism.  His work The organisation of work (1840 ― in French: L'organisation du travail) influenced the ideas of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and Ferdinand Lassalle, who advocated productive associations founded by a democratic state.

Blanc's prescription against the main evil of capitalism ―the free competition― were the "ateliers sociaux" (social companies) which should be set up with the help of the state. The government would develop the statutes of these companies and all workers would get equal wages. They should participate in the running of the enterprises.  Equipped with the most modem machines the "ateliers sociaux" would be able to ruin the private enterprises. The workers would pay a sum to the capitalists in exchange for the taking over of their firms.

The precondition for this peaceful transition to socialism was the introduction of the universal suffrage which would allow a government elected by the workers to establish the "ateliers sociaux".

Louis-Auguste Blanqui (1805-1881)

Louis-Auguste Blanqui, who spent half of his life in prison, stood in the tradition of Frangois-Noel Babeuf which was revived by Babeuf’s comrade Filippo Buonarroti in his book Conspiration pour I'egalite dite de Babeuf.  Because of the oppressive domestic situation Blanqui and his groups ("Societe des families" 1835, 1836 and "Societe des saisons" 1837, see above II.1) were forced to go underground.

On May 12th, Blanqui and his "Societe des saisons", with the participation of  members of the "League of the Just", tried to make an insurrection with 500 persons in Paris, but, though the government entered a state of crisis, the rebellion failed.

Even after this failed insurrection Blanqui kept holding on his rough draft of rebellion carried out by a small elite.  This elite should fight, on behalf of the masses of workers, against capital, state and religion.  Blanqui pleaded ―a long time before Marx and Lenin― for a temporary "revolutionary dictatorship" after a victorious revolution.

Withelm Weitling (1808-1871)

Wilhelm Weitling, member of the "League of the Just", wrote a kind of program for this organisation entitled Mankind as it is and as it should be (1838).  Here the tailor Weitling designs his vision of an alternative society founded on the principles of Christian charity.  Weitling ―as other socialists in those days― stood up for common ownership of goods. After all private property had been abolished people would work and consume together within a system of equal distribution of labour and equal enjoyment of the produced goods.

Communism to Weitling meant not only a future society but also a question of correct attitude to fellow beings.  For him, communism was the consistent realization of Christian charity. Later, in his work Guarantees of Harmony and Freedom (1842) he partly abandoned his religious views and pleaded for a temporary dictatorship of the revolutionaries until the realization of communism. Weitling considered a revolution to be possible any time. Marx reproached him with simple indignation for his neglecting of a theoretical analysis of the existing society. After Marx and Engels joined the "League of the Just", in the beginning of 1847, Weitling's influence on the League began to fade.

II.3. The League of the Just and its transformation into the Communist League

German craftsmen, who emigrated to Paris for economic and political reasons, were the first members of the League of the Just. After the failed insurrection of May 1839, which was supported by the League, its members started a discussion about democracy inside the League, as well as about the aims of a new program.  Until the 1840s, most arguments for socialism were based on religious considerations. This was, for instance, the case of Wilhelm Weitling's book Mankind as it is and as it should be, which was a kind of program of the League.  However, the criticism of religion by Ludwig Feuerbach gave rise to a theoretical gap that Marx and Engels promised to fill with their communist theory.  Above all, the aspect of the international exploitation of the workers, emphasized by Marx, should have been compatible with the wishes of the members of the League of the Just who saw themselves as workers and not as craftsmen. The transformation of the League of the Just into the Communist League in June 1847[5] was pushed by the "Misere de la Philosophie" that acted as a kind of program of the Communist League.

The central board of the League of the Just prescribed the reading of the "Misere de la Philosophic" to their members and demanded the exclusion of all the members who didn't want to accept the views on socialism developed in the "Misere".

To sum up, in his Misere, Marx worked out and consolidated his theses on the revolutionary role of the working class developing into a "class for itself' by fighting for higher wages and better working conditions. By transforming these economic into political struggles against the bourgeoisie ―the nucleus of the famous class struggle― the working class will abolish all classes and states.

Marx, by excluding a whole Parisian community ―apart from two members― in October 1847[6] and by nominating himself as the chief-theorist of the working class, he succeeded in breaking up the existing links between various socialist trends. All attempts, for instance, of the London Communist Correspondence Committee to stand up for competing trends inside the Communist League failed.


III.  « Philosophie de la Misere" or "Misere de la Philosophie"?

It is therefore obvious that Misere de la Philosophie was only written by Marx to get at the top of the international labour movement and to fight against Proudhon.  A further confirmation of this is that Marx doesn't enter into the particulars of Proudhon's work Systeme des contradictions economiques ou Philosophie de la Misere, but explains only his own views.

Starting point in Proudhon’s work is the description and analysis of the industrialization of France.  He subordinates the facts to a series of so-called antinomies (insoluble contradictions), which are contradictory, connected with each other and yet self-destructing.  These antinomies are made of a few important economic categories ―division of labour and machines, competition and monopoly, among others― the dynamics of development of which will abolish every income which doesn't have its origin in work ―interest, profit, rent― and will hand over the means of production to the working class, bringing about a just exchange of the products of the single or associated producers.  In Proudhon's mind this process works like a natural law.

Marx, also, presumes a course of history which works like a natural law. The working class, as the revolutionary subject, has to aim at the classless society; seven months later, Marx will demand in the Communist Manifesto the conquest of political power by the working class.

In his Misere Marx’s analysis of the Political Economy of capitalism is still in its infancy.  First in 1849, in the British Museum, he will seriously work on the economic structures of capitalism.  In the Misere, Marx, on the basis of a summary of the previous history of capitalism, formulates a first hypothesis of research: The economic structure of capitalism produces an irreconcilable class-opposition between the working class and the bourgeoisie that the working class has to resolve by leading the class struggle against the bourgeoisie, until the classless society is established.  One can say that in the Misere Marx formulates his economic project of research.

Against that background, Marx provoked a furious polemic against Proudhon. The first reason for this was that Marx tried to cover up the influence Proudhon had exercised upon him, although in the Holy Family (1844) he was still praising Proudhon for his What is property?, as a theorist of the working class.  Thus, Proudhon, among other things, dealt with the problem of the surplus value. He pointed out that the unpaid appropriation of the "forces collectives" (collective power) of the employed workers is one of the sources of the surplus value. Furthermore, Proudhon's thorough criticism of the private property had allowed Marx to overcome the philosophy of Feuerbach in the Holy Family and the Theses on Feuerbach (1845/46) and to detect the economic structure of capitalism, as the real basis of society. In 1846/47 Proudhon as well as Marx, whose analysis of capitalism was still very superficial, supported the Labour theory of value of David Ricardo: The value of a product is determined by the working time that is necessary to produce this product.

A second reason for Marx' furious attack on Proudhon was that Marx wanted to get at the top of the international labour movement and therefore he tried to establish his political program as the absolute one.  As I pointed out elsewhere,[7] Marx used various means to destroy Proudhon as his political opponent.

Marx arbitrarily arranges quotations of Proudhon's Philosophie de la Misere or separates them from their context to underline his own views.  He even tempers with quotations.

Thus he can impute opinions to Proudhon which the French philosopher doesn't support but facilitates Marx to polemicize.

Marx likes to construct artificial contradictions in Proudhon's text in order to bring his opponent into discredit in the labour movement.

Marx tries everything to make fun of Proudhon and to ridicule him.

The different methods and scientific views of both opponents correspond with different political tactics and strategies Marx and Proudhon propose for reaching a classless society. Marx's historical-critical analysis is consistent with his propagating of the class struggle of the proletariat.  Proudhon's descriptive method corresponds with his suggestion of an "Association progressive", the preparation of which his book Philosophie de la Misere was to serve. The aim of this "Association progressive" is the union of the producers ― including parts of the bourgeoisie. By selling their products at cost price these "Associations" will abolish profits and cause the capitalist enterprises to give up.

While Proudhon, like Gustav Landauer, calls for an opting out of capitalism here and now, Marx considers a revolution as successful only if the development of technique and industry has led to the development of the working class as a "class for itself".



To come back to the question at the beginning. Why can the knowledge of the dispute between Proudhon and Marx be important today?Perhaps there are two answers:

1. The future of the left will depend on their willingness to set up a tolerant culture of discussion inside the left and within the society at large, that is, to avoid furious attacks like the polemic of Marx against Proudhon, and examine, instead, seriously the arguments of other groups, movements and individuals.

2. Only in such an atmosphere of debate, the approval of different methods and means, on the way to an alternative society, is possible.  The transformation into a post-capitalist society ―on its way since 1968― can't be achieved by the bourgeois means of a party or a central-committee but by a multi-dimensional strategy of transformation of the "movements of the enemies of the system” (Immanuel Wallerstein).


[1] To my mind, Marx' s analysis of the capitalist economy is excellent as even Michail Bakunin has pointed out as well.

[2] In his first writings - "Parisian manuscripts" (1844), "Holy Family" (1844), "Theses over Feuerbach" (1845) and the "German Ideology" (1845/46) - Marx gets over his initial humanist views, which dealt with the essence of human beings, the alienation and its termination.

[3] Today, making profits by dealing with government loans is on a very high level.  It is of course the people who have to pay the costs of this casino-capitalism since the austerity budgetary  policies necessitate cuts in the social sector in order to finance the interest  payments  on  government loans.

[4] Filippo Buonarroti, Conspiration pour l’egalite dite de Babeuf, (1828) .

[5] The Communist League was formed by the League of the Just and the Communist Correspondence Committees existing in Paris, London, Brussels and other towns.

[6] There were exclusions in Hamburg, Leipzig and in Switzerland too.  Above all the supporters of Weitling, Proudhon and his German translator, Karl Grun, were excluded.

[7] See Johannes Hilmer, Philosophie de la Misere oder Misere de la Philosophie?  (Peter Lang Verlag, Frankfurt, Berlin, Bern 1997)


Beyond Marx and Proudhon

Takis Fotopoulos


Abstract: A close examination of the Marx versus Proudhon debate shows the need to assimilate the bitter experiences of the socialist (statist and libertarian) movement in the last 150 years or so, in order to develop a new kind of problematique suitable for today’s reality of the internationalised market economy. A problematique, which will be the basis for a new project aiming to provide not just another utopia (justified by pseudo-scientific or "objective" laws of social evolution) but also a way out of the chronic multidimensional crisis to which the dynamic of the market economy and representative democracy has led us.  


It is well known that the contrast between Marx and Proudhon, which started with an exchange of letters between them and culminated in the "exchange" of the two Misères, marked the beginning of the split between statist and libertarian socialism—a split which reached its climax in the dispute between Marx and Bakunin within the First International. Today, almost a century and a half since this debate, the socialist project is in ruins after the collapse of both expressions of statist socialism (the version of socialism which dominated the socialist movement since then) i.e. the "actually existing socialism" of the East and social democracy of the West.  Furthermore, despite the fact that libertarian socialism is still untried, (after the most serious attempt to implement its principles during the Spanish civil war was stifled by the fascist hordes, which were acting under the tolerant eye of Western "democracies"), the collapse of the statist version of  socialism has not led to a revival of its libertarian version. Instead, the institutional framework defined by the  market economy and liberal "democracy" have become universal; consequently, the chronic multidimensional crisis (political, economic, ecological, social and cultural) which arose with the emergence of this institutional framework, about two hundred years ago, has also been universalised and exacerbated. This is obvious by the huge and presently exploding concentration of political and economic power at fewer and fewer hands.

To my mind, the present failure of libertarian socialism is not accidental. It has to do with the fact that few libertarians today (notably, Murray Bookchin) attempted to renew libertarian theory in general and none (with the exception of Democracy & Nature) attempted to make it compatible with the reality of today’s internationalised market economy. Instead, they have either been stuck to the old debates with statist socialists (continental Europe), or  have turned to various forms of Far Eastern irrationalism Taoism, Zen etc (Anglo-Saxon countries), betraying the struggles of their predecessors in the libertarian movement who have fought bitter struggles against Judeo-Christianism, i.e. the European version of irrationalism.

Today, a re-examination of the Marx-Proudhon debate, as expressed in particular in the two Misères’, may be particularly useful in the light of the collapse of the socialist movement. A close examination of this debate will show that a revival of libertarian theory has to transcend both statist and libertarian socialism, in a new synthesis of the two major historical traditions the socialist and the democratic one with the radical currents within the new social movements (the green, the feminist, the "autonomy" and other movements). I will attempt below to examine this debate in connection with their respective views on three major areas of difference or similarity:

1. methodology

2. market economy and competition

3. democracy


1. Beyond the Marxist and Proudhonian "sciences"

Both Marx and Proudhon had no doubts about the "scientific" character of their own theories. This was not of course unexpected if one takes into account that, at the time they developed their own liberatory projects, "scientism", i.e. the excessive belief in everything "scientific", was at its highest point. In such a climate, respectability about the seriousness of their views on an alternative society could only be gained by draping them in "scientific" colours. Of course, this does not mean that the two protagonists did not genuinely believe that they have discovered the laws governing the economy and society.

Thus, Marx, on the basis of changes in the "economic sphere" (i.e., the sphere that was mainly responsible for the transformation of society at a specific place and time Europe in the transition to capitalism), attempted to provide a universal interpretation of all human history and render the socialist transformation of society historically necessary. Marx had no doubts about the "scientific" character of his economic laws, which he viewed as "iron" laws yielding inevitable results, or about the "objective" character of his conception, which he paralleled to a natural history process:

It is a question of these laws themselves, of these tendencies working with iron necessity towards inevitable results (...) My standpoint, from which the evolution of the economic formation of society is viewed as a process of natural history (...)[1]

The "objective" character of Marxist theory was taken for granted by Marx and his followers as the following extract from Lenin’s work makes obvious:

[M]aterialism provided an absolutely objective criterion [my emphasis] by singling out the "relations of production" as the structure of society (...) creating the possibility of a strictly scientific approach to historical and social problems.[2]

Similarly, Proudhon, writing earlier than Marx, had no doubts at all about the "scientific" and "objective" character of his theories. In fact, the beginning sentence of the first chapter in his Philosophy of Misery is an affirmation of his belief in economic science:

I AFFIRM the REALITY of an economic science. This proposition, which few economists now dare to question (…) I affirm, on the other hand, the absolute certainty as well as the progressive nature of economic science, of all the sciences in my opinion the most comprehensive, the purest, the best supported by facts.[3]

Proudhon goes on to assert that he does not regard as a science the "political economy" of  Adam Smith, Ricardo, Malthus, and J. B. Say (i.e. what we would call today "orthodox" economics) which he sees as an ‘incoherent ensemble of theories’[4] and aptly characterises as "the organization of robbery and poverty".[5] He then proceeds to dismiss what counted at the time as socialist economics by declaring that both orthodox and socialist economics "are guilty of disloyalty to science and of mutual calumny, when on the one hand political economy, mistaking for science its scraps of theory, denies the possibility of further progress; and when socialism, abandoning tradition, aims at re-establishing society on undiscoverable bases".[6] So, after acknowledging that both orthodox and socialist economics appeal to "a common authority, whose support each claims, ― SCIENCE",[7] Proudhon declares the superiority of his own "science" as follows:

In such a situation what is the mandate of science? Certainly not to halt in an arbitrary, inconceivable, and impossible juste milieu; it is to generalize further, and discover a third principle, a fact, a superior law, which shall explain the fiction of capital and the myth of property, and reconcile them with the theory which makes labour the origin of all wealth. This is what socialism, if it wishes to proceed logically, must undertake (…) it is enough to say that there is a superior formula which reconciles the socialistic utopias and the mutilated theories of political economy, and that the problem is to discover it. [8]

In the same vein, Marx saw as his first task to dismiss Proudhon’s "science". In fact, the main focus of his critique against him is the non-scientific character of Proudhon’s theory. Thus, as he points out in a letter to J. B. Schweitzer:[9]

There, (Misery of Philosophy) I showed how little (Proudhon) has penetrated into the secret of scientific dialectics (…) and how he and the utopians are hunting for a so-called "science" by which a formula for the "solution of the social question" is to be excogitated a priori, instead of deriving their science  from  a critical knowledge of the historical movement, a movement which itself produces the material conditions of emancipation (...) Science for him reduces itself to the slender proportions of a scientific formula; he is the man in search of formulas.

All this, after he had accused Proudhon that he does not understand that the categories used by political economists "are as little eternal as the relations they express; they are historical and transitory products"[10] ―forgetting in the process that exactly the same could be said about his own categories which he attempted to apply in explaining the entire human history! Then, having dismissed Proudhon’s science, Marx went on to devote the entire fourth volume of Capital[11] to disprove orthodox economics. Not surprisingly, recently, structural-Marxists declared that Marxism is not only a science but a superior science, in fact, "the" science of all sciences, given its ability to synthesise the various special sciences: "Marxism therefore becomes the general theory of Theoretical Practice and the key to and judge of what counts as genuine knowledge."[12]  

It is therefore obvious that both Proudhon and Marx, following the modernist tradition, attempted to rely on objective theories and methods, (i.e., on procedures that are supposedly valid, irrespective of our expectations, wishes, attitudes and ideas) in order to justify the need for an alternative society. The implicit argument in favour of such an approach is that such theories and methods reflect in fact "objective processes" at work in society or the natural world. However, as I tried to show elsewhere,[13] the choice of a "scientific" or  "objectivist" method to justify the need for an alternative society is both  problematic and undesirable.                                                         

It is problematic because few believe today, after the decisive introduction in twentieth-century science of the uncertainty principle and chaos theory, that it is still possible to derive any "objectivy" "laws" or "tendencies" of social change. If cause and effect can be uncertain even in physics, the most exact of sciences, and the reference to necessary and universal laws is disputed even with respect to the natural world, it is obvious that postulating objective laws or tendencies which are applicable to society is, at least, absurd.

It is undesirable because, as the case of the statist socialism has shown, there is a definite link between the "scientification" of that project in the hands of Marxists-Leninists and the consequent bureaucratisation of socialist politics and the totalitarian transformation of social organisation. In other words, It was exactly the Marxist conversion of the socialist project into an "objective" science that contributed significantly to the establishment of new hierarchical structures, initially, in the socialist movement and, later, in society at large. The basis of the new hierarchical structures was the social division created between, on the one hand, the avant–garde, that was alone in an objective position to lead the movement (because of its knowledge of the scientific truth that Marxism embodied) and, on the other,  the "masses". Thus, it is a well-known historical fact that in both the pre-revolutionary Marxist movements, as well as in the post-revolutionary governments, the justification of the concentration of power in the hands of the party elite was based on the "fact" that they alone "knew" how to interpret history and take appropriate action in order to accelerate the historical process towards socialism. As Marcuse pointed out, "a straight road seems to lead from Lenin's `consciousness from without' and his notion of the centralised authoritarian party to Stalinism.[14] This is so, not only because, according to Lenin, workers are not able, on their own, to develop a scientific theory of socialism, a task which historically has been left to the intellectuals,[15] but also because the custodians of the scientific orthodoxy, “the party, or rather the party leadership, appears as the historical repository of the `true' interests of the proletariat and above the proletariat".[16]

Therefore, the fact that Proudhon in his correspondence with Marx seemed to reject the conversion of the socialist project into a new religion  ("let us not set ourselves up as the apostles of a new religion, even if it be the religion of logic, or of  reason")[17] is no indication that had Proudhonian anarchism dominated the movement, instead of Marxist socialism, the creation of new hierarchical structures would have been avoided. It is not the intentions of Marx or Proudhon et al, as such, that might lead to such a development but the "scientification" or "objectification" of the liberatory project, (from Marx to Proudhon and from Kropotkin to Bookchin) which inevitably leads to the creation of a new hierarchical division within the liberatory movement between the holders of the "scientific" or "objective" truth and the rest.

However, if  modernist objectivism seems problematical and undesirable, this does not mean that post-modernist subjectivism is less problematical and more desirable. Post-modernism may easily lead to general relativism and irrationalism, if not to complete abandonment of  radical politics. Thus, adopting the post-modern "generalised conformism",[18] in effect, implies the abandonment of any idea of a liberatory project under the (miserable) pretext of letting "polyphony" flourish and under the (right) banner that "politics, rightly understood, is firmly subjective".[19] In fact, the dilemma of having to choose between either a modernist "objectivist" approach or a post-modernist subjectivist approach, in justifying the project for an alternative society, is a false one. Today, it is possible to define a liberatory project for an inclusive democracy without recourse to controversial objective grounds, or to post-modern neo–conservatism. Thus, when we define the liberatory project in terms of the demand for social and individual autonomy, as I did elsewhere,[20] we do so because we responsibly choose autonomy, as well as its expression in democracy, and we explicitly rule out the possibility of establishing any "objective" laws, processes or tendencies which, inevitably, or "rationally", lead to the fulfilment of the autonomy project.

Furthermore, by defining freedom in terms of autonomy it is possible to see democracy  not just as a structure institutionalising the equal sharing of power, but, also, as a process of social self-institution, in the context of which politics constitutes an expression of both collective and individual autonomy. Thus, as an expression of collective autonomy, politics takes the form of calling into question the existing institutions and of changing them through deliberate collective action. Also, as an expression of individual autonomy, "the polis secures more than human survival. Politics makes possible man’s development as a creature capable of genuine autonomy, freedom and excellence."[21] This is important if we take particularly into account the fact that a common error in libertarian discussions on democracy is to characterise various types of past societies, or communities, as democracies, just because they involved democratic forms of decision taking (popular assemblies) or economic equality. Democracy, as a process of social self-institution, implies a society which is open ideologically, namely, which is not grounded on any closed system of beliefs, dogmas or ideas. "Democracy," as Castoriadis puts it, "is the project of breaking the closure at the collective level."[22] Therefore, in a democratic society, dogmas and closed systems of ideas cannot constitute parts of the dominant social paradigm, although, of course, individuals can have whatever beliefs they wish, as long as they are committed to uphold the democratic principle, namely the principle according to which society is autonomous, institutionalised as inclusive democracy.

So, the democratic principle  is not grounded on any divine, natural or social "laws" or tendencies, but on our own conscious and self-reflective choice between the two main historical traditions: the tradition of heteronomy which has been historically dominant, and the tradition of autonomy. The choice of autonomy implies that the institution of society is not based on any kind of irrationalism (faith in God, mystical beliefs, etc.), or on "objective truths" about social evolution grounded on natural, or social  "laws" (like the ones Proudhon and Marx thought they derived). The fundamental element of autonomy is the creation of our own truth, something that social individuals can only achieve through direct democracy, that is, the process through which they continually question any institution, tradition or "truth". In a democracy, there are simply no given truths. The practice of individual and collective autonomy presupposes autonomy in thought.

But, if it is neither feasible, nor desirable to ground the demand for democracy on "scientific" or "objective" "laws" or "tendencies" which direct social evolution towards the fulfilment of objective potentialities, then, this demand can only be founded on a liberatory project. Such a liberatory project today can only constitute a synthesis of the democratic, the socialist, the libertarian and radical green and feminist traditions. In other words, it can only be a project for an inclusive democracy, in the sense of political, economic, "social" and ecological democracy.

Still, the fact that the project for autonomy in general and for an inclusive democracy in particular is not objectively grounded does not mean that "anything goes" and that it is therefore impossible to derive any definable body of principles to assess social and political changes, or to develop a set of ethical values to assess human behaviour. Reason is still necessary in a process of deriving the principles and values which are consistent with the project of autonomy and, as such, are rational. Therefore, the principles and values derived within such a process do not just express personal tastes and desires; in fact, they are much more "objective" than the principles and values that are derived from disputable interpretations of natural and social evolution. The logical consistency of the former with the project of autonomy could be assessed in an indisputable way, unlike the contestable "objectivity" of the latter.

To conclude, "scientism", as well as irrationalism, do not have any role to play in the process that will move us towards an inclusive democracy. Democracy is incompatible with "objectivist" types of rationalism, similar to the ones we inherited from the Enlightenment. Furthermore, democracy is even less compatible with irrational systems claiming esoteric knowledge, whether from mystical experience, intuition, or revelation. Democracy is only compatible with  a democratic rationalism, namely, a rationalism  founded on democracy  as a structure and a process of social self-institution. Therefore, if our aim is to reach a synthesis of the autonomous-democratic, libertarian socialist and radical green and feminist traditions, I think that our starting point should be the fact that the social imaginary, or creative element, plays a crucial role  with respect to social change. This implies that the project for democracy may be grounded only on our own conscious choice between the heteronomous and the autonomous tradition. I think that this way of thinking  avoids the traps of both objectivism and relativism. Thus, it does not fall into  objectivism  because  the liberatory project is not "objectivized":  democracy is justified not by  an appeal to objective tendencies with respect to natural or social evolution, but by an appeal to reason in terms of logon didonai (rendering account and reason), which explicitly denies the idea of any directionality as regards social change. Furthermore, it avoids relativism because it explicitly denies the view that all traditions, as in this case the autonomy and heteronomy ones, have equal truth values. In other words, taking for granted that autonomy and democracy cannot be "proved" but only postulated, we value autonomy and democracy more than heteronomy because, although both traditions are true, still, it is autonomy and democracy which we identify with freedom and we assess freedom as the highest human objective.


2. Beyond Marxian and  Proudhonian economics

But, it is not only on methodology, and particularly the belief in "objective" or "scientific" truths regarding society, that Marx and Proudhon had a common attitude. The same applies as regards their respective economic theories, despite some obvious differences between them. Thus, the classical solution of expressing the value of goods and services in terms of man hours, which was developed by the orthodox (political) economists of the time, was adopted by both Proudhon and Marx. But, the labour theory of value apart from the fact that it creates all sorts of problems about equivalence of various types of work, the "conversion" of tools/equipment used into man hours, etcetera, it is also fundamentally incompatible with a libertarian society, as Kropotkin, among others, has shown.[23]

Furthermore, as I attempted to show elsewhere[24] it is incompatible with a system of allocation based on freedom of choice. The reason is that even if the labour theory of value can give a (partial)  indication of availability of resources, it certainly cannot be used as a means to express consumers’ preferences. The inability of East European central planning to express consumers’ preferences and the resulting shortages that characterised the system were not irrelevant to the fact that the system was based on a system of pricing influenced by the labour theory of value.[25] Therefore, the labour theory of value cannot serve as the basis for a system of allocation of resources that aims at both meeting needs and, at the same time, securing consumer sovereignty and freedom of choice.

This is why I proposed a model of economic democracy[26] which (unlike the Proudhonian model) presupposes a stateless, moneyless and marketless economy, and which precludes the institutionalisation of privileges for some sections of society and the private accumulation of wealth, without having to rely on a mythical post-scarcity state of abundance. This system consists of two basic elements, a "market" element that involves the creation of an artificial "market", which will secure a real freedom of choice without  incurring the adverse effects associated with real markets, and a planning element that involves the creation of a feedback process of democratic planning between workplace assemblies, community assemblies and the confederal assembly.[27] In such a system there is no need for an "objective" valuation of commodities or of labour power, which would necessitate a "scientific" theory like that of labour theory of value to achieve it. Instead, both the value of commodities and labour are determined through the individual and collective choices of citizens.

The fact however that Proudhon does not rule out the market system leads him to a celebration of competition, unlike Marx and most socialists and anarchists who had a clear idea of the negative significance of competition, both within the framework of a market economy and that of an alternative society. Thus as Proudhon stresses: 

the most deplorable error of socialism consists in having regarded it  (competition) as the subversion of society. Therefore there can be no question here of  destroying competition, as impossible as to destroy liberty; the problem is  to find its equilibrium, I would willingly say its police[28] (...) Competition, as an  economic position or phase, considered in its origin, is the necessary result of the intervention of machinery, of the  establishment of the workshop, and of the theory of reduction of general  costs; considered in its own significance and in its tendency, it is the mode by which collective activity manifests and exercises itself, the expression of social spontaneity, the emblem of democracy and equality, the most  energetic  instrument for the constitution of value, the support of  association[29] (...) Monopoly is the natural opposite of competition. This simple observation  suffices, as we have remarked, to overthrow the utopias based upon the idea of abolishing  competition, as if its contrary were  association and fraternity. Competition is the vital force which animates the collective being: to destroy it, if such a supposition were possible, would be to kill society.[30]

There are two ways in which one may interpret these Proudhonian statements on competition. One way is to see them within  the institutional framework of a market economy, as Marx did and aptly criticised Proudhon’s views on the matter. The second way is to see them within Proudhon’s federalist economy. In the former case, Proudhon’s statements on competition betray a poor understanding of its economic significance as the mechanism providing the dynamics of the market economy system. This is evident for instance by the following statement in which Proudhon makes clear that he sees the present antagonistic society as a "question of equilibrium" which has always been the problem, (i.e. even before the creation of the market economy), and not as the inevitable outcome of the dynamics of this system which emerged just two centuries ago, as Polanyi[31] has shown:

Socialism (...) accuses society of antagonism, and through the same antagonism it goes in pursuit of reform. It asks capital for the poor labourers, as if the misery of labourers did not come from the  competition of capitalists as well as from the factitious opposition of  labour and capital; as if the question were not today precisely what it  was before the creation of capital, that is, still and always a question  of equilibrium; as if, in short, let us repeat it incessantly, let us repeat  it to satiety, the question were henceforth of something other than a synthesis of all the principles brought to light by civilization, and as if, provided this synthesis, the idea which leads the world, were known, there would be any need of the intervention of capital and the State to  make them evident. [32]

Marx therefore had a much superior understanding of the economic significance of competition, although he himself fell victim of his "scientific" interpretation of history, as it is indicated by the fact that in his dialectical scheme he considered competition as "engendered by feudal monopoly" which represents the thesis, competition the antithesis and modern monopoly the synthesis.[33] In other words, Marx sees the establishment of the system of the market economy as a product of evolution. But, as I tried to show elsewhere,[34] there is no convincing evidence to support the Marxist view that some sort of evolutionary process could explain the move from pre-"market economy" forms of economic organisation to the present internationalised market economy "internationalised market economy". In fact, the market economy itself did not actually "evolve" out of a feudal era but literally exploded, particularly in England, during the eighteenth and especially nineteenth centuries.[35] Therefore, contrary to what liberals and Marxists assert, the marketization of the economy was not just an evolutionary process that inevitably followed the expansion of mercantilist trade.

However, if we accept the hypothesis that competition is the motor of the market economy this means that the present concentration of economic power and the internationalisation of the market economy are not just the result of "bad" government policies, or "market failures". As I tried to show elsewhere, the shift from proprietary (or entrepreneurial) capitalism to the present internationalised market economy, where a few giant corporations control the world economy, did not happen, as for instance Chomsky presents it, as the outcome of "a reaction to great market failures of the late nineteenth century."[36] It was competition, which led from simple entrepreneurial firms to the present giant corporations. The market failures are not a God-given calamity. Excepting the case of monopolies, almost all market failures in history have been directly or indirectly related to competition. It was competition, which created the need for expansion, so that the best (from the point of view of profits) technologies and methods of organising production (economies of scale etc) are used. It was the same competition, which had led to the present explosion of mergers and take-overs in the advanced capitalist countries, as well as the various "strategic alliances". In this problematique, it is not possible, within the existing institutional framework of parliamentary democracy and the market economy, to check the process of increasing concentration of economic power. 

Still, Proudhon’s celebration of competition is reproachable not only if we see it within the institutional framework of the market economy but, as I will try to show below,  even if we see it within his own federalist system. But, let us see first his conception of democracy compared to that of Marx.


3. Beyond the Marxian and Proudhonian conceptions of "democracy" 

Another area in which I think we have to transcend today both Marx and Proudhon is their views on democracy a topic which became crucial after the collapse of "actually existing socialism". It is not accidental that for Marxists, as well as for many libertarians including Proudhon, democracy, even if it is meant as direct democracy, is considered as a kind of "rule" which presupposes a division between state and society. It is therefore obvious that both the Marxist conception of democracy, as well as that adopted by several libertarians including Proudhon, is incompatible with the classical conception of it. 

Thus, as regards first the Marxist conception of democracy, appearances to the contrary notwithstanding, it is clearly a statist conception of democracy. In this conception, democracy is not differentiated from the state for the entire historical period which separates capitalism from communism, that is, for the entire period that is called the "realm of necessity", when scarcity leads to class antagonisms which make inevitable class dictatorships of one kind or another. In this view, socialism will simply replace the dictatorship of one class, the bourgeoisie, by that of another, the proletariat. Thus, for Marx

Between capitalist and communist society lies the period of the revolutionary transformation of the one into another. Corresponding to this is also a political transition period in which the state can be nothing but the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat.[37]

Also, according to Lenin, "Democracy is also a state and consequently democracy will also disappear when the state disappears. Revolution alone can ‘abolish’ the bourgeois state. The state in general, i.e. the most complete democracy can only 'wither away'."[38]
It is therefore obvious that in the Marxist worldview, a non-statist conception of democracy is inconceivable, both at the transitional stage leading to communism and at the higher phase of communist society: in the former, because the realm of necessity makes necessary a statist form of democracy where political and economic power is not shared among all citizens, but only among members of the proletariat; in the latter, because when we reach the realm of freedom, no form of democracy at all is necessary, since no significant decisions will have to be made! Thus, at the economic level, scarcity and the division of labour will by then have disappeared, and therefore there will be no need for any significant economic decisions to be taken about the allocation of resources. Also, at the political level, the administration of things will have replaced the administration of people, and therefore there will be no need for any significant political decisions to be taken either.
However, the Marxist abolition of scarcity depends on an objective definition of "needs", which is neither feasible, nor from the democratic point of view desirable. It is not feasible because, even if basic needs may be assumed finite and independent of time and place, the same cannot be said about their satisfiers (i.e., the form or the means by which these needs are satisfied), let alone non-basic needs. It is not desirable because, in a democratic society, an essential element of freedom is choice as regards the ways in which needs are formed and satisfied.
So, if needs and scarcity are defined objectively, the communist stage of post-scarcity is in fact a mythical state of affairs, and reference to it could simply be used (and has been used) to justify the indefinite maintenance of state power and power relations and structures. It is therefore obvious that, within the problematique of the democracy project, the link between post-scarcity and freedom should be broken. The abolition of scarcity and, consequently, of the division of labour is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for democracy. Therefore, the ascent of man from the kingdom of necessity to the kingdom of freedom should be de-linked from the economic process. Still, from Aristotle, through Locke, Marx and Proudhon to Arendt, the distinction between the "realm of necessity" (where nature belongs) and the "realm of freedom" always has been considered to be fundamental. However, although this distinction may be useful as a conceptual tool in classifying human activities, there is no reason why the two realms must be seen as mutually exclusive in social reality. Historically, there have been several occasions when various degrees of freedom survived under conditions that could be characterised as belonging to the "realm of necessity". Furthermore, once we cease treating the two realms as mutually exclusive, there is no justification for any attempt to dominate Nature an important element of Marxist growth ideology in order to enter the realm of freedom.
So, the Marxist conception of democracy has to be transcended because it is conditional on a set of material preconditions for freedom. And it can be shown that the entrance to the realm of freedom does not depend on any "objective" factors, like the arrival of the mythical state of affairs of material abundance. The level of development of productive forces that is required so that material abundance for the entire population on Earth can be achieved makes it at least doubtful that such a stage could ever be achieved without serious repercussions to the environment unless, of course, "material abundance" is defined democratically (and not "objectively") in a way which is consistent with ecological balance. By the same token, the entrance to the realm of freedom does not depend on a massive change of consciousness through the adoption of some form of spiritualistic dogma, as some deep ecologists and other spiritualistic movements propose. Therefore, neither capitalism and socialism, on the "objective" side, nor the adoption of some kind of spiritualistic dogma, on the "subjective" side, constitute historical preconditions to enter the realm of freedom.
As regards the Proudhonian conception of democracy, a series of statements by him make it obvious that he confuses the classical conception of it, which is defined in terms of equal distribution of power, with authoritarian or statist conceptions of it. Thus, he argues first that "with the most perfect democracy, we cannot be free since democracy is 'the sovereignty of the nation, or, rather, of the national majority'."[39] He then goes on to define democracy as "the government of all men by each man,"[40] in order to conclude with the aphorism "deprive democracy and liberty of the supreme sanction of authority and the state will immediately collapse".[41]
But, as it has been shown by significant thinkers in both the democratic tradition (Hanna Arendt,[42] Cornelius Castoriadis[43]) and the anarchist tradition (Murray Bookchin,[44] April Carter[45]), there is only one form of democracy at the political level, that is, the direct exercise of sovereignty by the people themselves, a form of societal institution which rejects any form of "ruling" and institutionalises the equal sharing of political power among all citizens. April Carter is particularly emphatic on this when she states that:
commitment to direct democracy, or anarchy in the socio-political sphere, I  incompatible with political authority[46] (...)The only authority that can exist in a direct democracy is the collective  "authority’"vested in the body politic (...)  it is doubtful if authority can be created by a group of equals who reach decisions by a process of mutual  persuasion.[47]
In the light of this problematique, it is therefore obvious that libertarian definitions of politics as "the rule of one, many, a few, or all over all"[48] and of democracy as "the rule of all over all" are incompatible with the classical conceptions of both politics and democracy. However, Proudhon, even when he seems to recognise that in authentic democracy there is no split between state and society, he adopts the usual criticism of democracy based on its supposed non-feasibility under today’s conditions:
The democratic ideal is that the masses who are governed should at the same time govern, and that society should be the same thing as the State and the people the same thing as the government (...) if the state were never larger than a city or a commune, I would allow each person to judge its form by himself and that would be the end of the matter (...) but we are dealing with vast regions in which towns, villages and hamlets run into the thousands. [49]
Still, the reason why Proudhon rejects democracy has not much to do with feasibility as such but rather with the fact that he sees the democratic system as authoritarian and not securing the degree of freedom which federalism, (i.e. his proposed system based on contracts), supposedly, guarantees. For Proudhon, democracy, as well as monarchy, communism and anarchy "are all unable to realise their ideals on their own, and thus they are reduced to complementing each other by means of mutual borrowings".[50] On the basis of this problematique, he asserts that "since government based on liberty and contract is daily gaining ground over government based on authority, we must focus our attention on the notion of contract".[51] Having rejected democracy as based on authority, he then defines a federation as "an agreement by which one or several groups of communes or states, bind themselves by mutual and equal agreements for one or several determinate aims, for which the responsibility falls specifically and exclusively on the members of the federation".[52]
To assess the Proudhonian federalist system, which in effect is proposed as an alternative to both Marxist communism and a genuine democracy, it is important to note first that it does presuppose a market economy and competition, even for the long term. This is obvious not only by his statements on competition we examined above but also from other statements in which he does not make clear whether he refers to a transitional period or the long term (see e.g. his proposals for "economic federations"  to ensure the protection of commerce and industry, the organisation of credit and insurance etc with the aim "to protect the citizens of the member states from being exploited by capitalists and bankers either at home or abroad"[53] etc.) In the Proudhonian federalist system, mutualist associations of property-owning and independent workers exchange the products of their labour and organise their relations through bilateral contacts based on equal exchange. In my view, Proudhon’s federalist system could be criticised both on the grounds of feasibility and desirability.
The feasibility criticism may be raised in connection to the issue of how coordination, between workers as producers on the one hand and workers/non-workers as consumers on the other, could be organised through bilateral contracts in the complex and technologically advanced societies of today. It is obvious that barring a return to the technology of the Middle Ages the sheer number of the contracts required will either lead to the creation of a vast army of bureaucrats to organise such a  coordination or, alternatively, workers will have to spend most of their time to organise such contracts. Furthermore, there is no indication of how macro-economic consistency between overall supply and demand, consumption and investment, could be secured within an economic system based on contracts unless the system is backed by a comprehensive planning mechanism. But, a planning mechanism not based on decisions taken democratically in assemblies, in which the demos  (i.e. the body of citizens) can collectively determine the overall macroeconomic goals, is bound to end up as a kind of bureaucratic central planning not very different from the one developed in the countries of actually existing socialism. All this, apart from the usual criticism raised against this proposal that the issue of enforcing the contracts could easily lead to a new kind of statism.[54]

The desirability criticism refers to the fact that competition among groups of workers may easily lead to new inequalities between more and less competitive/productive groups, as it always had happened in the past whenever various forms of "social" or "socialist" market have been attempted. The market by itself cannot achieve equality since differences in productivity are bound to lead to differences in competitiveness which, in turn, would create new huge inequalities at the macro-economic level, even if exchanges are equivalent at the micro level as Proudhon assumed. Unless, of course, a strong degree of statism is introduced to control the market, something, however, which is supposedly ruled out in the Proudhonian system that anticipates the long term phasing out of state. And, of course, the introduction of a minimum basic income, as suggested today by, among others, orthodox Green economists[55] is not likely to eliminate the inevitable huge inequalities. An effective scheme of minimum guaranteed income, even if it was feasible within a market economy, would, at most, secure the satisfaction of basic needs. But, in a market and money economy this cannot avoid the creation of huge inequalities in the distribution of wealth and, consequently, in the distribution of economic power. Furthermore, if the proposed exchange scheme is not linked to a system of collective ownership of the means of production then the Proudhonian federalist system is bound to end up as another version of the capitalist system.

Finally, as Murray Bookchin stresses, there is no historical evidence supporting the Proudhonian contractual ideal of association as far as the pre-hierarchical societies is concerned:

Preliterate societies never adhered to this contractual ideal of association; indeed, they resisted every attempt to impose it. To be sure, there were many treaties between tribes and alliances with strangers. But, contractual ties within tribes were essentially nonexistent. Not until hierarchy has scored its triumph in the early world and begun its journey into class society did equivalence, "equity" and contract begin to form the context for human social relationships. The quid pro quo of exchange and its ethical balance sheets were simply irrelevant to a community guided by the customs of usufruct, complementarity, and the irreducible minimum.[56]

It is therefore not surprising that libertarians like Bookchin conclude that Proudhon’s "strong emphasis on individual ownership, self-interest, contractual market relationships, and distribution based on ability rather than need and his implacable hostility to associationism and communism all were surprisingly indistinguishable from the conventional bourgeois wisdom of his day".[57]

It is for these reasons that, to my mind, the model of economic democracy proposed by the Inclusive Democracy project can, through the proposed combination of democratic planning with a system of vouchers, ensure freedom of choice and the meeting of the basic needs of all citizens within a framework of equal distribution of political and economic power.

To conclude, I think that what we need today, on the way to developing a new liberatory project, is not to go back to Marx or Proudhon but instead to assimilate the bitter experiences of the socialist (statist and libertarian) movement in the last century and a half and develop a new kind of problematique suitable for today’s reality of the internationalised market economy. A problematique which will be the basis for a new project aiming to transcend both the socialist and democratic traditions, in a new synthesis which will not just be another utopia (justified by pseudo-scientific or ‘objective’ laws of social evolution) but also a way out of the chronic multidimensional crisis to which the dynamic of the market economy and representative democracy has led us.  




[1] Karl Marx, Preface to the first German edition of Das Capital (Moscow: Progress Publishers/Lawrence & Wishart, 1965), pp. 8-10.

[2] Vladimir Lenin, “What the Friends of the People Are,” in Reader in Marxist Philosophy, H. Selsam and H. Martel, eds. (NY: International Publishers, 1963), pp. 196-97.

[3] P.J. Proudhon, System of Economical Contradictions: or, the Philosophy of Misery, translated from the French (1846) by Benj. R. Tucker,  published and sold by Benj. R. Tucker, Boston, Mass. 1888 (Cambridge: John Wilson and Son), vol. I,  p 43.

[4] The Philosophy of Misery,  p 44

[5] The Philosophy of Misery,   p. 47

[6] The Philosophy of Misery,    p. 56

[7] The Philosophy of Misery,  p.52

[8] The Philosophy of Misery, pp.  58-59 & 62

[9] Marx to J.B. Schweitzer (24/1/1865) in Carl Marx, The Poverty of Philosophy (1847) (London: Lawrence & Wishart) pp.171-72

[10] C. Marx, The Poverty of Philosophy, pp. 95-96

[11] Karl Marx, Theories of Surplus Value (vol IV of Capital, Part II) (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1969)

[12] G. McLennan, Marxism and the Methodologies of History, (London: Verso, 1981) p. 27.

[13] Takis Fotopoulos, Towards An Inclusive Democracy, The Crisis of the Growth Economy and the Need For A New Liberatory Project, (London: Cassell, 1997) ch 8 

[14] Herbert Marcuse, Soviet Marxism (London: Routledge, 1958), p. 145.

[15] Vladimir Lenin, What Is to Be Done? (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1967) cf. pp. 30-32.

[16] H. Marcuse, Soviet Marxism, p. 147.

[17] Letter of Proudhon to Marx, 17/5/1846 in Selected Writings of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, ed by Stewart Edwards (London: Macmillan, 1969) p. 151

[18] Cornelius Castoriadis, “The Retreat from Autonomy: Postmodernism as Generalised Conformism” in his World in Fragments (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997) pp.32-46.

[19] Paul Feyerabend, Farewell to Reason (London: Verso, 1987), p. 306.

[20] Takis Fotopoulos, Towards An Inclusive Democracy, ch 5

[21] Cynthia Farrar, referring to the thought of the sophist philosopher Protagoras. See her article, “Ancient Greek Political Theory as a Response to Democracy” in Democracy, John Dunn, ed., (Oxford:Oxford University Press, 1992) p. 24. 

[22] Cornelius Castoriadis, Philosophy, Politics, Autonomy, p. 21.

[23] Peter Kropotkin, The Conquest of Bread (NY: Penguin, 1972), Ch. 13.

[24] Takis Fotopoulos, Towards An Inclusive Democracy, ch 6

[25] See, Heinz Kohler, Welfare and Planning  (New York: Wiley & Sons, 1966), pp. 129-36. See also Morris Bornstein, “The Soviet Centrally Planned Economy” in Comparative Economic Systems, Morris Bornstein (Homewood Illinois: Richard Irwin, 1985).

[26] Takis Fotopoulos, Towards An Inclusive Democracy, ch 6

[27] Takis Fotopoulos, Towards An Inclusive Democracy, ch 6

[28] P.J. Proudhon, The Philosophy of Misery, pp.259-60

[29] P.J. Proudhon, The Philosophy of Misery, p. 270

[30] P.J. Proudhon, The Philosophy of Misery, p 272

[31] Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation, (Boston: Beacon, 1944), chs 5-6

[32] P.J. Proudhon, The Philosophy of Misery, p 317

[33] C. Marx, The Poverty of Philosophy, p. 131

[34] Takis Fotopoulos, Towards An Inclusive Democracy, ch.1

[35] Murray Bookchin, From Urbanization to Cities, (London: Cassell, 1995) p. 181.

[36] See Takis Fotopoulos ‘Mass Media, Culture and Democracy’ Democracy & Nature, vol. 5 no. 1, pp. 33-64

[37] Karl Marx, Critique of the Gotha Programme (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1937), p. 25.

[38] V. I. Lenin, The State and Revolution (Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1917), pp. 31-32.

[39] P-J Proudhon, What is Property? ed. by Donald  R. Kelley & Bonnie G. Smith, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994) p. 28

[40] P-J Proudhon, The Federal Principle, (1863) pp. 272-74 in SW p. 103

[41] P-J Proudhon, The Federal Principle, (1863) p. 288 in SW p. 104

[42] Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1958),  pp.32-33.

[43] See e.g. Cornelius Castoriadis, Philosophy, Politics, Autonomy, p. 157

[44] See, for instance, Murray Bookchin, From Urbanisation to Cities , p. 43

[45] April Carter, Authority and Democracy (London: Routledge, 1979).

[46] April Carter, Authority and Democracy, p. 69

[47] April Carter, Authority and Democracy, p. 38.

[48] William McKercher, “Liberalism as Democracy,” Democracy & Nature, vol 3 no 2, pp. 113-156

[49] Political Contradictions: Theory of the Constitutional Movement in the 19th century (1863-64)   pp.237-38, in Selected Writings of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (SW) ed. by Stewart Edwards (London: Macmillan, 1969)  p. 117

[50] P-J Proudhon, The Federal Principle, (1863) pp. 290-91, in SW p. 105

[51] P-J Proudhon, The Federal Principle, (1863) p. 317-19, in SW p. 105

[52] P-J Proudhon, The Federal Principle, (1863) p. 315, in SW p. 106

[53] P-J Proudhon, The Federal Principle, (1863) p. 357, in SW p. 111

[54] Peter Marshall, Demanding The Impossible-A History of Anarchism, (London: Harper, 1992) pp 252-262

[55] See, e.g. James Robertson, Beyond the Dependency Culture, (Twickenham: Adamantine Press, 1998) ch 16

[56] Murray Bookchin, The Ecology of Freedom, (Montreal: Black Rose, 1991) p. 320

[57] Murray Bookchin,  The Third Revolution, Popular Movements in the Revolutionary Era, Vol 2, (London: Cassell, 1998) p.41