William Morris and E. Belfort Bax

Socialism From The Root Up - Chapter 14 - The Transition from Utopists to Modern Socialism

Of the Socialist thinkers who serve as a kind of link between the Utopists and the school of the Socialism of historical evolution, or scientific Socialists, by far the most noteworthy figure is Proudhon who was born at Besançon in 1809. By birth he belonged to the working-class, his father being a brewer's cooper, and he himself as a youth followed the occupation of cowherding.

In 1838, however, he published an essay on general grammar, and in 1839 he gained a scholarship to be held for three years, a gift of one Madame Suard to his native town. The result of this advantage was his most important though far from his most voluminous work, published the same year, as the essay which the Madame Suard's scholars were bound to write: it bore the title of 'What is Property?' his answer being, Property is Robbery.

As may be imagined, this remarkable essay caused much stir and indignation, and Proudhon was censured by the Besançon Academy for this production, and narrowly escaped a prosecution. In 1841 he was tried at Besançon for a letter he wrote to Victor Considerant, the Fourierist, but was acquitted. In 1846 he wrote his 'Pholisophie de la Misère' (Philosophy of Poverty), which received an elaborate reply and refutation from Karl Marx.

In 1847 he went to Paris. In the Revolution of 1848 he showed himself a vigorous controversialist, and was elected Deputy for the Seine; he wrote numerous articles in several journals, mostly criticisms of the progress of the revolution: in the Chamber he proposed a tax of one-third to be levied on all interest and rent, which was, as a matter of course, rejected. He also put forward a scheme for a mutual credit bank, by which he hoped to simplify exchange and reduce interest to a vanishing point: but this scheme was also rejected.

After the failure of the revolution of '48, Proudhon was imprisoned for three years, during which time he married a young woman of the working-class.

In 1858 he developed his system of 'Mutualism' fully in his last work, entitled 'Justice in the Revolution and the Church'. In consequence of the publication of this book he had to retire to Brussels, but was amnestied in 1860, came back to France, and died at Passy in 1865.

Proudhon's opinions and works may be broadly divided into two periods: In his 'What is Property?' his position is that of a Communist pure and simple; but after this one clear development of a definite thesis we meet in his works, and we must add, in his political actions also, with so much paradox that it is next to impossible to formulate in brief any definite Proudhonian doctrine. At one time a Communist, at another the vehement opponent of Communism; at one time professing Anarchy, at another lending himself to schemes of the crudest State Socialism; at one time an enthusiastic Theist, at another apparently as strong an Atheist; in one passage of his works giving his eager adhesion to Auguste Comte's worship of women, in another a decided contemner of the female sex, -- it is with a sense of confusion that one rises from the perusal of his works.

His connection with the Revolution of '48 seems to have been the turning point in the history; in his address to the electors of the Seine, in which he put forward the scheme for a credit bank backed by a number of decrees of a State- Socialistic nature, and strongly smacking of Bismarck, he announces himself as the man who said Property is Robbery, says that he still maintains that opinion, and then goes on to defend the rights of property which he had so successfully annihilated in his first work.

But as to his political career, the element he had to work in was an impossible one for the success of a man holding definite Socialistic ideas. On the one hand were the Jacobins with their archæological restorations of the ideas and politics of 1789; on the other Socialism showing itself and taking hold of people's minds, but attempting to realize its doctrines by crude dislocated and consequently hopeless schemes of action. Into all these affairs Proudhon looked shrewdly and with insight, and his bitter criticisms of the confusion' of the period were shown by the event to have been well founded.

Proudhon defended the modern family and monogamy in its strictest sense, and does not seem to have troubled himself to study the history of those institutions even superficially: in short, he seems to have been singularly lacking in the (sic) historical sense, and had not formed any conception of the evolution of society. Those who read his works will find themselves forced to return to his first essay, 'What is Property?' if they are seeking in him for any consistent series of ideas. He was an eager and rough controversialist, and his style is brilliant and attractive in spite of its discursiveness.

We may now mention the names of two men of no great importance in themselves, but worth noting as forerunners of the sentimental Socialists and Christian Socialists of the present day. Hughes Felicité Robert de Lamennais (born 1782, died 1854), is the type of the Christian Socialist: he was intended for a priest from the first, and duly took orders. He began by efforts to reform the Catholic Church, so as to make it an effective instrument for happiness and social morality and reform. He expected to be helped and encouraged by the clergy in these efforts, and at first, before they perceived their real tendency, he received some acknowledgement from them. At last, in his paper L'Avenir (the future), he took so decidedly a democratic turn that he incurred the animosity of the whole Church, especially of the then Pope, Gregory XVI. The signal for his complete rupture with the Church, however was the publication (in 1834) of his 'Paroles d'un Croyant' (words of a believer), which the Pope characterized as 'small in size but immense in perversity'. After that he became thoroughly democratic or even Communistic, as Communism was then understood. A series of political works and pamphlets followed, all in the sense of his new departure. He started, in 1848, two papers, one after another, which were suppressed. He sat in the Republican Constituent Chamber till the coup d'etat; and while Deputy drew up for the Left a plan of Constitution which was rejected as too revolutionary. He was buried by his own direction without ecclesiastical rites.

Pierre le Roux (born 1798, died 1871) was originally a disciple of St Simon. In 1840 he published his most important work, 'De L'Humanité', whence the name of his school, the Humanitarians. He joined George Sand and Niardof in a literary review, and it was owing to this connexion that the humanitarian tendencies of some of her novels are to be traced. In 1843 he set on foot a co- operative printing association, and started a journal advocating co-operation, or as he termed it, 'the pacific solution of the problem of the proletariat'. He also sat in the Republican Chamber of 1848: was exiled in 1851 and lived in Jersey, not returning to France till 1869. He died in Paris under the Commune, who deputed two of its members to attend his funeral, in the words of the Official Journal, 'not in honour of the partizan of the mystical ideas of which we now feel the evil, but of the politician who courageously undertook the defence of the vanquished after the days of June'. This is an allusion to the unpractical and non-political tendency of his teaching, which undertook to reform society by the inculcation of morality blended with mysticism, the result of which was to be the gradual spread of voluntary co-operation.

We finish this series with the well-known name of Louis Blanc, a personage more important than the last-named, and more definitely Socialistic in principles than either he or Lamennais, though his political career finished in a way unworthy of those principles, even if we accept the excuse that he never grasped the great truth that only through the class struggle can the regeneration of society be accomplished. He was born in 1813, of a middle-class family which, on the maternal side, was Corsican, and an incident of the relations between him and his brother Charles is said to have suggested to Dumas his famous novelette and play of the 'Corsican Brothers'.

In 1840 he 'published his 'Organization of Labour', the ideas of which he attempted to realize in his famous 'National Workshops', by which he is best known. In this work he put forward the genuine Socialistic maxim of 'From each according to his capacity, to each according to his needs' as the basis of the production of a true society.

He took an active part in the Revolutionary Government of 1848, and got an edict passed abolishing the punishment of death for political offences. And we ought here to notice that the common impression that his National Workshops failed from inherent defects is wrong; they were suppressed as dangerous by the Government, and their suppression was largely instrumental in causing the June revolution. We must, however, also note that this scheme was not founded on purely Socialistic principles, dangerous as it was thought to be at the time. In consequence of the events of June Louis Blanc was compelled to flee from France to England, where he wrote his 'History of the French Revolution'.

He returned to France 1869, was elected to the legislative body, but played only a subordinate part in the stirring times that followed. It remains, indeed, an indelible stain on his character that he deserted the cause of the people in the days of March, leaving Paris to sit amongst the 'Liberals' in the reactionary Chamber at Versailles.

He died in 1883, having outlived his reputation and influence.

Commonweal, Volume 3, Number 56, 5 February 1887, PP. 42 - 43