Proudhon on Insurrection and Resistance

In addition to being the bicentennial of Proudhon’s birth, 2009 was the 160th anniversary of the publication of Proudhon’s Confessions of a Revolutionary, one of his most anarchist works. In it he denounced the unholy trinity of capitalism, religion and the state, which was to become a common theme in subsequent anarchist writings:

Capital, which in the political field is analogous to government, in religion has Catholicism as its synonym. The economic idea of capitalism, the politics of government or of authority, and the theological idea of the Church are three identical ideas, linked in various ways. To attack one of them is equivalent to attacking all of them… What capital does to labour, and the State to liberty, the Church does to the spirit… The most effective means for oppressing the people would be simultaneously to enslave its body, its will and its reason. If socialism is to reveal its truly positive aspect, free from all mysticism, all it will have to do is denounce the idea of this trinity.

When Bakunin and James Guillaume put together a selection of Proudhon’s writings in 1873, entitled Anarchy According to Proudhon, they included extensive excerpts from the Confessions, as well as material from The General Idea of the Revolution in the 19th Century. Both books, written by Proudhon while imprisoned for denouncing Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte as the personification of reaction, set forth Proudhon’s anarchist analysis and response to the 1848 Revolution in France, not his subsequent and far inferior work, The Social Revolution Demonstrated by the December 2 Coup d’Etat, seized upon by Proudhon’s critics to show he was a “secret friend” of the right (for more on this, see my previous blog page entry, The General Idea of Proudhon’s Revolution). In the following excerpts from the Confessions, Proudhon argues that the majority always has a right of insurrection against the minorities which oppress them, but that when a democratic government is established based on universal suffrage and majority rule, minorities should limit themselves to what today would be called civil disobedience, the refusal to pay taxes, to serve in the military, and to obey the laws imposed upon them by the majority. Later anarchists, for the most part, argued that oppressed minorities always have a right to revolt, even where the government is elected by majority vote, while pacifist anarchists, inspired by Tolstoy’s doctrine of non-violent resistance (Anarchism, Volume One, Selection 47), preferred civil disobedience (what Proudhon refers to below as “legal resistance”).

The following excerpts, translated by Martin Walker, are taken from Chapter 18 of the Confessions and will be included in the forthcoming collection of Proudhon’s anarchist writings, Property is Theft! A Pierre Joseph Proudhon Anthology, to be published by AK Press in 2010 (the 170th anniversary of the publication of Proudhon’s What is Property?, in which he first proclaimed himself an anarchist).

Confessions of a Revolutionary, Chapter 18

As the question of legal resistance is of the highest seriousness, it being a part of republican law which is revived every day by the arbitrary nature of power and of the parliamentary majority, and because many people confuse it with the right to insurrection recognised by the Declaration of 1793, I am going to give a short account of its true principles before accounting for the political course followed by [Proudhon’s newspaper] the People in this situation.

What is the right to insurrection?

How is one to understand the concept of legal resistance?

In which cases may one or the other apply?

If it were possible that the government were truly concerned with order, if it respected liberty and sought less to impose arbitrary decisions, it would make haste to deal with these questions officially and not leave the job to a journalist. But the government hates all questions of legality above all things and hushes them up as much as it can. What occupies it most is to persecute authors, printers, newspaper sellers, peddlers, bill-posters: it reserves its instructions and circulars for them [Proudhon’s newspapers were suppressed by the authorities and he was imprisoned for 3 years in June 1849].

I will observe first of all that the rights of insurrection and resistance are peculiar to the period of subordination and antagonism: they fall into disuse when liberty is practiced. In a democracy organized on the basis of the popular initiative with multiple locations of responsibility and no superior authority the exercise of such rights would have no grounds for taking place at all. By the establishment of universal suffrage the Constitution of 1790 had already invalidated, while implicitly recognizing, the right to insurrection. Imperial despotism, the Charters of 1814 and 1830, the 200 franc poll tax suppressing the intervention of the masses in public affairs, all these re-established it. The February [1848] revolution had once more abolished it, at the same time as the death penalty: the monstrous doctrine of the omnipotence of parliamentary majorities which the government would like to impose restores it again.

It is not, after all, to tell the truth, a principle of democratic and social institutions which we are going to discuss now: it is a principle of absolute and constitutional monarchy, an idea born of privilege. Socialism repudiates the right to insurrection and legal resistance: it has only to make similar sanctions for its theory. But, forced to defend itself on the terrain where the Constitution challenges it, it borrows the right from absolutists and doctrinaire politicians, authors or instigators of that Constitution, and uses it against them in the manner of an argumentum ad hominem, to use the scholastic expression.

The right to insurrection is that by virtue of which a people can claim its liberty, either against the tyranny of a despot or against the privileges of an aristocracy, without a previous denunciation as warning, and by force of arms.

It may happen, and hitherto this has been the almost constant state of the majority of nations, that an immense, scattered people, disarmed and betrayed, finds itself at the mercy of a few thousand satellites under the orders of a despot. In this state, insurrection is fully justified and has no rules but prudence and opportunity. The insurrections of the 14th July [1789] and 10th August [1792] were of this nature. There was a chance that Malet’s conspiracy in 1812 could have provoked an insurrection which would have been equally legitimate. The insurrection of July 1830, in which the country sided with the parliamentary majority against a king who violated a pact, was irreproachable. That of 1848, in which the majority of the country rose against the parliamentary majority to claim the right to vote, was all the more rational for having as its object the abolition of the right to insurrection by re-establishing universal suffrage.

So when the Convention [of 1792], after having organized the primary assemblies and re-consecrated universal suffrage, wrote the right to insurrection into the constitution of the year II, it was creating retrospective legislation, to be exact; it took out a guarantee against a danger which no longer existed in principle. The Constituent Assembly of 1848 acted in the same way when, having declared direct and universal suffrage in Article 24, in Article 110 it adds that it entrusts the Constitution and the rights that it preserves to the guardianship and the patriotism of all the French. In principle, let me repeat, universal suffrage abolishes the right to insurrection: in practice, the antagonism of the separate powers and the absolutism of majorities can cause it to be reborn. How and in what cases is precisely what must yet be determined.

The right of insurrection has a particular characteristic, namely that it presupposes a people oppressed by a despot, a third estate by an aristocracy, the greater number by the lesser. That is the principle, apart from which the right of insurrection vanishes at the same time as the conflicts of opinions and interests. The social union effectively takes on a different character inasmuch as the practice of universal suffrage becomes more widespread and propagates itself, while the economic forces tend toward equilibrium; the empire of minorities is succeeded by that of majorities, which latter is itself succeeded by that of universality, that is absolute liberty, which excludes any idea of conflict.

There is, however, one case when the right of insurrection might be legitimately invoked by a minority against a majority: that would be in a transitional society when the majority wishes to abolish universal suffrage, or at least limit its application, in order to perpetuate its despotism. In that case, I maintain, the minority has the right to resist oppression, even by force…

We now come to legal resistance.

We have said that the right of insurrection cannot be allowed to pertain for a minority against a majority in a country where universal suffrage has begun to develop. However arbitrary the decisions of that majority may be and however flagrant the violation of the pact may appear, a majority can always deny that there is a violation as such, which reduces the difference to a simple question of perspective and consequently offers no pretext for revolt. Even if the minority invoked certain rights prior to or superior to the Constitution that it claims the majority has overlooked, it would be easy for the latter to invoke in its turn other prior or superior rights like the public safety by virtue of which it could legitimize its will. This would be so effective that it would always be necessary to arrive at a definitive solution by voting, to appeal to the law of number. So let us admit this proposition as proven: between the minority and the majority of the citizens as constitutionally manifested by universal suffrage an armed conflict is illegitimate.

A minority cannot be permitted to be at the mercy of a majority, however: justice, which is the negation of force, demands that the minority have its guarantees. For it may occur as a result of political passions and the opposition of interests that the minority reacts to an action of the ruling majority by claiming that the Constitution has been violated, which the majority denies; when the people are called upon as a final arbiter of this disagreement, being the supreme judge in these matters, the majority of the citizens joins the majority of representatives with uncompromising egoism in deliberately treading underfoot both truth and justice, though they are precisely the ones who should defend them according to the Constitution. The minority, overtly oppressed, is then no longer a party in political and parliamentary opposition but a proscribed party, a whole class of citizens thus being placed outside the law.  Such a situation is shameful, is suicide, is the destruction of all social bonds. Yet insurrection in the terms of the Constitution is forbidden: what can the minority do in this extreme case?

When the law is audaciously violated; when a fraction of the people is outlawed by society; when the passionate impetus of a party has come to the point of saying: We will never give in; when there are two nations in the nation, one of them weaker and oppressed, the other more numerous which oppresses: if the division is admitted on both sides, my opinion is that the minority has the right to consummate this division by declaring it. The social bond being broken, the minority is freed from any political agreement with the majority: this is expressed by the refusal to obey those in power, pay one’s taxes, do one’s military service, etc. A refusal motivated in this way has been called legal resistance by journalists because the government has gone beyond the bounds of law, and the citizens remind it of that fact by refusing to obey it.


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