Proudhon to Marx

Lyon, 17 May 1846:

Let us seek together, if you wish, the laws of society, the manner in which these laws are realized, the process by which we shall succeed in discovering them; but, for God’s sake, after having demolished all the a priori dogmatisms, do not let us in our turn dream of indoctrinating the people; do not let us fall into the contradiction of your compatriot Martin Luther, who, having overthrown Catholic theology, at once set about, with excommunication and anathema, the foundation of a Protestant theology. For the last three centuries Germany has been mainly occupied in undoing Luther’s shoddy work; do not let us leave humanity with a similar mess to clear up as a result of our efforts. I applaud with all my heart your thought of bringing all opinions to light; let us carry on a good and loyal polemic; let us give the world an example of learned and far-sighted tolerance, but let us not, merely because we are at the head of a movement, make ourselves the leaders of a new intolerance, let us not pose as the apostles of a new religion, even if it be the religion of logic, the religion of reason. Let us gather together and encourage all protests, let us brand all exclusiveness, all mysticism; let us never regard a question as exhausted, and when we have used our last argument, let us begin again, if need be, with eloquence and irony. On that condition, I will gladly enter your association. Otherwise — no!

Emphases mine. Edmund Wilson: “The result of this incident was that Marx was to set upon Proudhon’s new book with a ferocity entirely inconsonant with the opinion of the value of Proudhon’s earlier work which he had expressed and which he was to reiterate later” (To the Finland Station, p. 154).


Gary Dorrien:

Here is where Temple still matters as a theorist of guild socialism. In the early 1940s, both before and after he became Archbishop of Canterbury, Temple got very specific about how to democratize economic power. He was incredulous that modern democracies tolerated big private banks, lamented that Christian socialists turned away in the 1890s from the land issue, and proposed a new form of guild socialism. The banks, he argued, should be turned into utilities or socialized; otherwise the rich controlled the process of investment. God made the land for everyone, and society creates the unearned increment in the value of land; therefore the increment should go to society. Above all, though Temple took for granted that certain natural monopolies must be nationalized, the centerpiece of his proposal was an excess-profits tax payable in the form of shares to worker funds. These funds, over time, would gain democratic control over enterprises. Economic democracy, he argued, can be achieved gradually, peaceably, and on decentralized terms, without abolishing economic markets or making heroic demands on the political system.

Randall Kennedy:

The ultimatum complains that, in its view, past initiatives aimed at enlarging the number of faculty of color at Princeton have “failed” because in 2019–20 “among 814 faculty, there were 30 Black, 31 Latinx, and 0 Indigenous persons. That’s 7%.” According to the ultimatum, this “is not progress by any standard; it falls woefully short of U.S. demographics as estimated by the U.S. Census Bureau, which reports Black and Hispanic persons at 32% of the total population.”

The suggestion that these statistics show racial unfairness in hiring at Princeton is misleading. According to the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, African Americans in recent years earned only around 7 percent of all doctoral degrees. In engineering it was around 4 percent. In physics around 2 percent. Care must be taken to look for talent in places other than the familiar haunts of Ivy League searches. But even when such care is taken, the resultant catch is almost invariably quite small.

The reasons behind the small numbers are familiar and heart-breaking. They include a legacy of deprivation in education, housing, employment, and health care, not to mention increased vulnerability to crime and incarceration. The perpetuation of injuries from past discrimination as well as the imposition of new wrongs cut like scythes into the ranks of racial minorities, cruelly winnowing the number who are even in the running to teach at Princeton.

The racial demographics of its faculty does not reflect a situation in which the university is putting a thumb on the scale against racial-minority candidates. To the contrary, the university is rightly putting a thumb on the scale in favor of racial-minority candidates. That the numbers remain small reflects the terrible social problems that hinder so many racial minorities before they even have a fighting chance to enter into the elite competitions from which Princeton selects its instructors. The ultimatum denies or minimizes this pipeline problem.

Peter Brown:

Many of Ambrose’s contemporaries were quietly convinced that the ills of Roman society had a supernatural origin. Many of the sharpest critics of their age were not Christians; they were pagans. For them, bad times had begun with the “national apostasy” of Constantine. The rampant avarice denounced by pagan authors was thought to go hand in hand with the spoliation of the temples and the abandonment of the old religion.

Ambrose had to answer such views. He did so by subtly secularizing the contemporary discourse on decline. He turned what many thinking persons considered a religious crisis into a crisis of social relations. We moderns tend to applaud Ambrose for the perspicacity of his diagnosis of the weaknesses of Roman society. But pagans such as Symmachus would have regarded Ambrose’s criticisms of society as mere whistling in the dark. Symmachus knew why things had gone wrong. The moment that the first fruits of the fields of Italy that had fed the Vestal Virgins for 1,200 years were withdrawn (in 382), the link between the land and the gods was broken.

an alternative

A couple of years ago Corey Robin wrote,

Under capitalism, we’re forced to enter the market just to live. The libertarian sees the market as synonymous with freedom. But socialists hear “the market” and think of the anxious parent, desperate not to offend the insurance representative on the phone, lest he decree that the policy she paid for doesn’t cover her child’s appendectomy. Under capitalism, we’re forced to submit to the boss…. The socialist argument against capitalism isn’t that it makes us poor. It’s that it makes us unfree.

But consider this slight modification of Robin’s argument:

Under socialism, we’re forced to defer to the government just to live. The socialist sees government control of the means of production as synonymous with freedom. But capitalists hear “the government” and think of the anxious parent, desperate not to offend the bureaucrat on the phone, lest he decree that the national health service will not authorize her child’s appendectomy. Under socialism, we’re forced to submit to the government…. The capitalist argument against socialism isn’t that it makes us poor. It’s that it makes us unfree.

Is one of these passages more rational than the other? I don’t think so. The fears in both cases are, I believe, perfectly rational.

If you don’t want to be in the situation that Robin describes — which is to say, if you don’t want to be vulnerable to arbitrary power — then the alternative isn’t socialism. To replace capitalism with socialism is to meet the new boss, same as the old boss. There is no complete and perfect alternative to the power disparities Robin deplores, but the closest approximation to it is anarchism. And for that reason, if for no other, anarchism should be taken seriously as a vision of our common life.