DEMOCRACY & NATURE: The International Journal of INCLUSIVE DEMOCRACY, Vol. 6, No. 1 (March 2000)

Beyond Marx and Proudhon



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 Misθres, 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 ‘Misθres’, 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 ireduction 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. 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.