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


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)