Tuesday, 24 January 2017

Proudhon His Life And Work - George Woodcock


Is there anything to be learned from Pierre-Joseph Proudhon these days? Is there anything he can teach us? Is he still worth reading? Well, let's read a book about him and see, shall we? Pierre-Joseph Proudhon His Life And Work by George Woodcock. That'll do. First published in 1956.

According to Woodcock, Proudhon was the first man to call himself an anarchist, this being in his first major work, What Is Property?, published in 1840. The term 'anarchist' had been used before but only as an insult and to demonise. Proudhon happily applied it to himself and adhered to it until his dying days.
What Is Property? is the book wherein Proudhon put forward the answer to his question that became the statement for which he would become forever known: Property is theft. But what exactly did he mean by it and has he been misinterpreted? For a better understanding of anything like this, it's always best to just go straight to the source, so to quote Proudhon from the opening passage of What Is Property?:
'If I were asked to answer the following question: "What is slavery?" and I should answer in one word, "Murder!", my meaning would be understood at once. No further argument would be required to show that the power to take from a man his thought, his will, his personality, is a power of life and death, and that to enslave a man is to kill him. Why, then, to this other question: "What is property?" may I not likewise answer, "Theft"?'

According to Woodcock, what Proudhon meant by 'property' was what Proudhon later called 'the sum of its abuses' and what he was denouncing was the property of those who use it to exploit the labour of others without any effort on their own part. Property as distinguished by interest, usury and rent, by the impositions of the non-producer upon the producer.
Regarding the right of a person to control their dwelling and the land and tools needed to work and live, Proudhon had no hostility, deeming it to be a necessary keystone of liberty. His main criticism of the Communists was that they wished to destroy that keystone. For Proudhon, it was clear that neither communism nor property were suited for a just society because communism was the rejection of independence and property was the rejection of equality.

And what exactly is the significance of all this in this day and age, you might ask? Well, it's hugely significant, I would say. Particularly if you're living in London and you're being priced out of the rental market let alone the buyer's market due to an extortionate economy.
Isn't gentrification great? We've seen what it's done to New York and we've seen what it's doing to all the major European cities such as Amsterdam and Paris. And now London where it seems that nowadays you have to be a Russian oligarch to be able to afford to live there. And you can be sure that what happens in London will soon follow in our smaller towns and cities such as Bristol and even Exmouth.
It's coming I tell thee! You're going to be evicted out to the edge of your town or city (if you're not there already?) where you'll scratch out a living on a minimum wage and be expected to be thankful for the privilege.

Proudhon's other big statement was that 'God is evil', meaning God as a sort of freedom-restricting altar to bow down to. No gods and no masters, and all that. His actual declaration is a semantic conundrum but at the end of the day - though using the word 'evil' was probably just a way of causing maximum impact - he wasn't wrong.

Another big idea of his was for the establishment of what he called the 'People's Bank', which though it failed at the time to be implemented in France, came about years later in the form of credit unions and Lets schemes. Credit unions are a good idea but from my experience of Lets schemes, if you offer something useful such as plumbing, plastering, or painting and decorating then you're in big demand and build up a lot of credit. All you get back from most other participants, however, are offers of dog walking, house-sitting, or even cactus plant-sitting... From each according to his ability, I guess?

Proudhon His Life And Work is a badass motherfucker of a book in its turgidity. No bodice ripper, this. Though it must be said that George Woodcock certainly did his homework, poring over Proudhon's diaries and letters it would seem. I applaud him. It's a labour of love and I couldn't have done it. I don't read French for a start.
So, is Proudhon still worth reading? Personally, I'm rather partial to a turgid badass motherfucker of a read every once in a while but what I'd say is that it would probably be better if those of a curious persuasion went to a book that summarised the best of Proudhon rather than Proudhon's own books or George Woodcock's take on him. A kind of 'Winnie The Pooh A-Z Guide To Proudhon'.

It should be said that whilst ploughing through Woodcock's book a few ideas of Proudhon's stood out from the page demanding attention: 'Individuals cannot live on their own - there is no such thing as an isolated being or fact', for one. 'The proletarians are our strength,' another. This being exactly what George Orwell was to repeat many years later with his 'If there is hope, it lies in the proles'.
It was put to Proudhon by some of his contemporaries that he was a 'representative of peasant radicalism', as if this was a criticism - as if it was a bad thing. And yes, Proudhon was from peasant stock and was self-educated but in my eyes this is a good thing. Something that as we all know, hasn't ever been enough of, particularly in this day and age where if you've not been to private school then your ideas and opinions are somehow not worthy or are 'uninformed'.

For all this, the most important declaration Proudhon ever made and the one that he should really be remembered for is 'Whoever puts his hand on me to govern me is an usurper and a tyrant; I declare him my enemy'. A maxim that is as relevant now as it was then. A maxim that if you carry with you through your life then you won't go wrong.
John Serpico
Anarchy on a stamp - for real

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