The Thought of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Thibault Isabel
Entretien [en anglais] :
Françoise: Hello Thibault Isabel, last June you released a book about Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. Could you present and explain the reasons for this book?
Thibault Isabel: Since the collapse of communism, the modern world lives with the idea that there no longer exists a viable alternative to liberalism. “There is no alternative,” as Margaret Thatcher already said. But, we quite simply forget that alternatives have always existed, provided that they return to pre-Marxist socialism, which has nothing to do with Stalinist collectivism. Proudhon offers a contesting vision with a human face, incompatible with the Gulag and the dictatorship of the proletariat. It allows us to rethink the present in the light of the forgotten ideas of the past. That’s why he’s useful.
Françoise: Proudhon came from a modest background and, throughout his life, he had to work in order to survive: he became a worker, and then became an independent worker managing his own publishing house… How did that influence his thoughts?
Thibault Isabel: Proudhon was horrified by wage labor. He found humiliating having to work for a boss, not having the power to conduct his own professional activity. In his eyes, the cardinal virtue was responsibility, autonomy. Every man should become master of his own acts and destiny. That’s why the philosopher from Besançon nourished a boundless love for independent labor. His entire political and economic doctrine aimed at making labor freer, in order to liberate individuals from the domination of the powerful.
Françoise: Proudhon – the thinker of Balance – is a reference for intellectuals coming from very diverse perspectives. Could one say he crosses political currents, a non conformist? What were his influences? And his heirs?
Thibault Isabel: Proudhon was neither capitalist nor communist. But, all the political thought of the 20th century was structured around this opposition. Henceforth, Proudhonian thought seems unclassifiable today, because it cannot be reduced to a clear and well defined camp on the left-right axis as we tend to conceive it today. The majority of Proudhon’s heirs themselves escape this political cleavage, as the non-conformists of the 1930s show it very well, notably the young personalist intellectuals gathered at the time around Alexandre Marc. As for the authors that influenced Proudhon, we must in fact remember all the pioneers of socialism: Cabet, Owen, Leroux, Fourier, etc. We tend to forget that Proudhon existed in a vast nebula of very talented intellectuals.
Françoise: Long after his death, the Catholic writer Georges Bernanos said of modern civilization that it was “a universal conspiracy against any form of spiritual life”. What was Proudhon’s point of view on Modernity and the philosophy of Progress?
Thibault Isabel: Proudhon defended social progress, but he didn’t believe in the linear progress of civilization. He was even convinced that progressivism took on a Utopian and chimeric character. That’s why he called himself at the same time a partisan of progress and a partisan of conservation, because in reality we need both aspects in order to make a healthy society flourish.
Françoise: Proudhon made particularly virulent statements regarding ecclesiastical institutions but in parallel he was also very conservative in regards to morality. What was his relation to the religious question?
Thibault Isabel: Proudhon was inspired by religion. Raised firstly in Catholicism by his mother, he progressively freed himself from theist mysticism in order to orient himself towards a sort of pantheism, under the notable influence of traditional Freemasonry (not secular Freemasonry, of course). Proudhon felt very close to the old pagan religions, and was particularly interested in Taoism, even Amerindian religion, even if he had a very limited knowledge of it.
Françoise: De la justice dans la révolution et dans l’Église, then La pornocratie (published incomplete and posthumously), earned Proudhon a reputation as a misogynist…. Are his visions of women and his critique of the feminization of society essential to his economic and political thought?
Thibault Isabel: No, frankly I don’t think so. Proudhon’s statements on women, while rather lamentable from my point of view, had no effect on his deep philosophical thought. I will ever go as far as saying that he didn’t succeed in extending his philosophical principles to the question of sexes, which would have allowed him to prefigure the idea of “equality in difference,” dear to many contemporary differentialist feminists. Proudhon remained stuck to biological inferiority of women, which he only nuanced on rare occasions in his books.
Françoise: Proudhonian thoughts on property are nowadays overused… Could you clarify his famous phrase “Property is theft?”
Thibault Isabel: Proudhon was essentially a stubborn defender of small private property, which seemed to constitute a restraint on the development of big capital. When Proudhon affirms that “property is theft,” he only denounces the accumulation of capital, that is to say the fact that small independent property owners have increasingly been replaced by big capitalist property owners. Proudhon's first works remain a bit ambiguous on this distinction, but his later works will set the record straight in a very explicit manner.
Françoise: Proudhon is considered to be an anarchist or a socialist, but could one also consider him as a precursor of ‘de-growth.?’
Thibault Isabel: In the strict sense, no, as in the 19th century there was little sense in calling for more frugality in order to fight ecological devastation, the effects of which were not as visible as they are today. On the other hand, Proudhon was incontestably one of the great precursors of ‘de-growth’ through his general philosophy. He questioned the accumulation of wealth for its own sake and privileged qualitative aspects over quantitative aspects. We can also perceive a quasi-religious relationship to nature in his works.
Françoise: Could the Paris Commune, which occurred a few years after his death, be seen as an attempt (consciously or unconsciously) to put some of his ideas into practice?
Thibault Isabel: Of course, especially since the majority of the Communards were Proudhonians! We must not forget that, at this time, Proudhon was more famous than Marx … On the other hand, the defeat of the Commune put a sudden halt to the expansion of Proudhonian thought in France: many Proudhonians lost their lives in the course of these events.
Françoise: Proudhon was a socialist deputy and he affirmed that “One must have lived in this voting booth called the National Assembly to understand how those who are the most completely ignorant of the state of the country are nearly always those who represent it.” What was his general vision of democracy and politics?
Thibault Isabel: Proudhon didn’t like parliamentary democracy, which he regarded as technocratic and potentially dictatorial. He would have had no liking for “Jupiterian presidents,” for example. On the contrary, Proudhon defended local and decentralized democracies, where the people express themselves in a much more direct manner and participate in politics.
Françoise: Proudhon considered France as the “country of the happy medium and stability … despite its rebellious spirit, its taste for novelty, and its indiscipline” and that “a conservative and a revolutionary” slumbers in each Frenchman. What relationship did Proudhon, proud native of the Franche-Comté region, defender of federalism and the principle of subsidarity, entertain with the French nation? And the French state?
Thibault Isabel: Proudhon didn’t like France very much. He associated France with Jacobinism, centralization and contempt for local particularities. He was a regionalist. But his federalism implied the coexistence of different scales of power, where France could serve as a intermediate stratum between regions and Europe. Proudhon believed that French nationality was an abstraction and that it didn’t correspond to any physical fatherland. Only the regions found favor in his eyes, because they were closer to people. The soil is what immediately surrounds us and concretely shapes our way of seeing the world.
Françoise: What books by Proudhon should be read first?
Thibault Isabel: It’s rather difficult to say. Proudhon wrote a lot, and he had the annoying habit of diluting his thought with interminable digressions which haven’t aged well. His later works are the best in my opinion, and the most synthetic. I especially recommend The Federative Principle, which condenses his principal political thoughts regarding democracy.
Interview on the Thought of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon
Françoise – July 27th 2017