From Fourier to Proudhon

Charles Fourier

Charles Fourier

This is the next installment from the Anarchist Current, my survey of the origins and development of anarchist ideas from ancient China to the present day, which appears as the Afterword to Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas.

Charles Fourier and the Liberation of Desire

A younger contemporary of William Godwin was to have a noticeable influence on the development of anarchist ideas, the French writer, Charles Fourier (1772-1837). Fourier had lived through the French Revolution. Imprisoned for a time, he almost became another victim of the Terror. He witnessed the hoarding and profiteering that occurred during the Revolution and sought to develop a libertarian alternative by which everyone would not only be guaranteed their means of subsistence but would be able to engage in productive work which they themselves found fulfilling. “Morality teaches us to love work,” Fourier wrote, “let it know, then, how to render work lovable” (Volume One, Selection 7).

Fourier recognized that in order to survive in the emerging capitalist economy, workers were compelled to take whatever work they could find, regardless of their personal talents, aptitudes and preferences. They had to work long hours under deplorable conditions, only to see their employers reap the fruits of their labours while they continued to live in poverty. The new economy was “nothing but… a league of the minority which possesses, against the majority which does not possess the necessaries of life.”

Fourier, however, did not advocate revolution. He hoped to attract financial benefactors to fund the creation of communes or “phalanxes” where each person would rotate through a variety of jobs each day, free to choose each task, doing what they found to be enjoyable, giving expression to their talents and passions. Each member of the phalanx would be guaranteed a minimum of material support and remunerated by dividends from the phalanx’s operations. While later anarchists agreed that work should be freely undertaken, enjoyable and fulfilling, rather than an onerous burden, they found Fourier’s more detailed plans regarding the organization of society to be too constrictive and his idea that wealthy benefactors would bankroll the abolition of their own privileged status naïve.

Fourier was an early advocate of sexual liberation. Foreshadowing the work of Wilhelm Reich (Volume One, Selection 119; Volume Two, Selection 75), Fourier argued that people should be free to satisfy their sexual needs and desires, and that the repression of such desires is not only harmful to the individual but one of the foundations of a repressive society (Guérin, Volume Two, Selection 76).

A Phalanstery

A Phalanstery

Proudhon: The Self-Proclaimed Anarchist

In 1840, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809-1865) declared himself an anarchist in his groundbreaking book, What is Property? An Inquiry into the Principle of Right and of Government. Karl Marx (1818-1883), later Proudhon’s scornful opponent, at the time praised Proudhon’s book as “the first resolute, pitiless and at the same time scientific” critique of private property (Marx, 1845: 132). To the question posed by the title of the book, Proudhon responded that “property is theft” (Volume One, Selection 8). According to Proudhon, the workers should be entitled to the full value of their labour, not the mere pittance the capitalists doled out to them while keeping the lion’s share for themselves. By arguing that, in this sense, “property is theft,” Proudhon was not giving expression to bourgeois notions of justice, as Marx later claimed (Marx, 1867: 178-179, fn. 2), but was expressing a view of justice held by many workers, that people should enjoy the fruits of their own labours.

That the capitalists were parasites exploiting the workers by depriving them of what was rightfully theirs was to become a common theme in 19th century socialist and anarchist propaganda. In the 1883 Pittsburgh Proclamation of the International Working People’s Association (the so-called “Black International”), the then anarchist collectivist Johann Most (1846-1906) put it this way: “the propertied (capitalists) buy the working force body and soul of the propertyless, for the mere cost of existence (wages) and take for themselves, i.e. steal, the amount of new values (products) which exceeds the price” (Volume One, Selection 55).

Besides declaring property theft, Proudhon boldly proclaimed himself an anarchist, denouncing “the government of man by man” as “oppression.” It is government, through its laws and coercive mechanisms, that protects the property of the capitalists, condemning the workers to lives of servitude and misery. The only just form of society is one in which workers are free to associate, to combine their labour, and to exchange what they produce for products and services of equivalent value, instead of receiving wages “scarcely sufficient to support them from one day to another.” In a society based on equivalent exchange there would no longer be any need for government because those things which make government necessary, such as “pauperism, luxury, oppression, vice, crime and hunger,” would “disappear from our midst” (Volume One, Selection 8). Proudhon described this form of socialism as “mutualism.”

Proudhon was not the first to have drawn the connection between economic exploitation and political servitude. Bao Jingyan, Winstanley, Maréchal, Godwin and Fourier all made similar arguments. But Proudhon was the first to describe himself as an anarchist. Others were soon to follow.

Robert Graham


Additional References

Marx, Karl. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Volume 1 (1867). Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1976; and The Holy Family (1845). In Selected Writings. Ed. D. McLellan. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977.



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