Was Proudhon a Hypocrite?

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Was Proudhon a Hypocrite?

In a lecture recently delivered in London Pierre Kropotkine declared Proudhon to be "undoubtedly one of the greatest writers who have ever dealt with economical questions " and perhaps " the most suggestive among those writers who lead men to think for themselves." But "his scheme of Mutual Banking," continued the lecturer, "was an evident compromise between the middle-class and working-class interests. It even seems probable that he did not believe in it himself, and only hoped that it might stir the workers to act on their own behalf." Coming from Kropotkine, I cannot believe that the insult to Proudhon's memory contained in the words I have italicized was deliberate, but certainly he could have said nothing more unwarrantable, more false, or more cruel. Proudhon estimated his writings on banking and credit above all his other work, and his views of these matters are reiterated and emphatically dwelt upon in nearly every book that he wrote from 1848 until his death in 1865. The importance which he attributed to them is established in the most indubitable manner by the following words with which he introduces the articles establishing the "Bank of the People," and that Kropotkine should be ignorant of them and upon his ignorance should base so gross a misjudgment makes one question the justice of his reputation as a man of scientific habits:

I make oath before God and before men, on the Gospel and on the Constitution, that I have never had or professed any other principles of social reform than those sot forth in the present act of incorporation, and that I ask nothing more, nothing less, than the free and peaceful application of these principles and their logical, legal, and legitimate consequences.
I declare that, in my inmost thought, these principles, with the consequences which flow from them, are the whole of socialism, and that outside of it there is nothing but utopia and chimera.
I swear that in these principles, and in the entire doctrine for which they serve as a basis, there is to be found nothing, absolutely nothing, contrary to the family, to liberty, to public order.
The Bank of the People is only the financial formula, the translation into economic language, of the principle of modern democracy, the sovereignty of the People, and of the republican motto, Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.
I protest that, in criticising property, or rather the totality of institutions of which property is the pivot, I have never intended, either to attack individual rights recognized by prior laws, or to contest the legitimacy of acquired possessions, or to provoke an arbitrary redistribution of wealth, or to place any obstacle in the way of free and regular acquisition of property by sale and exchange, or even to prohibit or suppress, by sovereign decree, rent of land and interest of capital.
I think that all these manifestations of human activity should remain free and optional with all; I admit for them no other modifications, restrictions, and suppressions than those which result naturally and necessarily from the universalization of the principle of reciprocity and from the law of synthesis which I propose.
And what I say of property I say equally of every political and religious institution. My only object in passing the various portions of the social symbolism through the crucible of criticism has been to arrive, by a long and laborious analysis, at the discovery of superior principles, the algebraic formula of which is given in this act of incorporation.
This is my testament of life and death. I permit no one to suspect my sincerity save the man who could lie with his dying breath.
If I am mistaken, public reason will soon have done justice to my theories: it will remain for me only to disappear from the revolutionary arena, after having asked pardon of society and my brothers for the trouble that I had cast into their souls, and of which I, after all, must be the first victim.
But if, after having been thus contradicted by general reason and experience, I should later try, by other means, by new suggestions, to again agitate minds and inspire false hopes, I should call down upon myself thenceforth the contempt of honest people and the curse of the human race.

  • “Was Proudhon a Hypocrite?,” Liberty 5, no. 22 (June 9, 1888): 7.