Kropotkin on Proudhon’s Justice

Recently I have been reading criticisms of Kropotkin’s claims that Proudhon advocated the use of labour notes, accompanied by the suggestion that he had only a superficial understanding of Proudhon’s ideas. While he may have been wrong (as were many others) to attribute the advocacy of labour notes to Proudhon, he was not ignorant of Proudhon’s work. In his last book, Ethics: Origin and Development, where he analyzed ethical conceptions from a naturalist, evolutionary point of view, he devoted the following section to Proudhon’s theory of justice, showing the connections between Proudhon’s conception of justice and Kropotkin’s own ideas regarding mutual aid and morality. Several selections by Proudhon and Kropotkin can be found in Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, including excerpts from Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid and “Anarchist Morality.”

Proudhon on Justice

Among the socialists, Proudhon (1809–1865) approached nearer than any other the interpretation of justice as the basis of morality. Proudhon’s importance in the history of the development of ethics passes unnoticed, like the importance of Darwin in the same field. However, the historian of Ethics, Jodl, did not hesitate to place this peasant-compositor, — a self-taught man who underwent great hardships to educate himself, and who was also a thinker, and an original one, — side by side with the profound and learned philosophers who had been elaborating the theory of morality.

Of course, in advancing justice as the fundamental principle of morality, Proudhon was influenced on one side by Hume, Adam Smith, Montesquieu, Voltaire and the Encyclopædists, and by the Great French Revolution, and on the other side by German philosophy, as well as by Auguste Comte and the entire socialistic movement of the ‘forties. A few years later this movement took the form of the International Brotherhood of Workers, which put forward as one of its mottoes the masonic formula: “There are no rights without obligations; there are no obligations without rights.”

But Proudhon’s merit lies in his indicating clearly the fundamental principle following from the heritage of the Great Revolution — the conception of equity, and consequently of justice, and in showing that this conception has been always at the basis of social life, and consequently of all ethics, in spite of the fact that philosophers passed it by as if it were non-existent, or were simply unwilling to ascribe to it a predominating importance.

Already in his early work, “What is property?” Proudhon identified justice with equality (more correctly — equity), referring to the ancient definition of justice: “Justum aequale est, injustum inaequale” (The equitable is just, the inequitable — unjust). Later he repeatedly returned to this question in his works, “Contradictions économiques” and “Philosophie du Progrès”; but the complete elaboration of the great importance of this conception of justice he gave in his three-volume work, “De la Justice dans la Révolution et dans l’Église,” which appeared in 1858.[200]

It is true that this work does not contain a strictly systematic exposition of Proudhon’s ethical views, but such views are expressed with sufficient clearness in various passages of the work. An attempt to determine to what an extent these passages are Proudhon’s own ideas, and how far they are adaptations from earlier thinkers, would be difficult and at the same time useless. I shall, therefore, simply outline their main contentions.

Proudhon regards moral teaching as a part of the general science of law; the problem of the investigator lies in determining the bases of this teaching: its essence, its origin, and its sanction, i.e., that which imparts to law and to morality an obligatory character, and that which has educational value. Moreover, Proudhon, like Comte and the encyclopædists, categorically refuses to build his philosophy of law and of morality on a religious or a metaphysical basis. It is necessary, he says, to study the life of societies and to learn from it what it is that serves society as a guiding principle.[201]

Up to this time all ethical systems were constructed more or less under the influence of religion, and not a single teaching dared to advance the equity of men and the equality of economic rights as the basis of ethics. Proudhon attempted to do this as far as was possible in the days of Napoleonic censorship, always on guard against socialism and atheism. Proudhon wished to create, as he expressed it, a philosophy of the people, based on knowledge. He regards his book, “On justice in the Revolution and in the Church,” as an attempt made in that direction. And the object of this philosophy, as of all knowledge, is foresight, so that the path of social life may be indicated before it is actually laid out.

Proudhon considers the sense of personal dignity as the true essence of justice and the fundamental principle of all morality. If this sense is developed in an individual it becomes with reference to all men — regardless of whether they are friends or enemies — a sense of human dignity. The right is an ability, inherent in all, to demand from all others that they respect human dignity in their own person; and duty is the demand that everyone should recognize this dignity in others. We cannot love everybody, but we must respect each man’s personal dignity. We cannot demand the love of others, but we unquestionably have a right to demand respect for our personality. It is impossible to build a new society on mutual love, but it can and should be built on the demand of mutual respect.

“To feel and to assert human dignity first in all that pertains to us, and then in the personality of our fellow-men, without falling into egoism, as well as not paying attention either to deity or to society — this is right. To be ready under all circumstances to rise energetically in defence of this dignity — this is justice.”

It would seem that at this point Proudhon should have declared quite definitely that a free society can be built only on equity. But he did not so declare, perhaps because of the Napoleonic censorship; in reading his “Justice” this conclusion (equity) seems almost inevitable, and in a few passages it is more than implied.

The question of the origin of the sense of justice was answered by Proudhon in the same manner as by Comte and by modern science, that it represents the product of the development of human societies.

In order to explain the origin of the moral element Proudhon endeavoured to find for morality, i.e., for justice,[202] an organic base in the psychic structure of man.[203] Justice, he says, does not come from above nor is it a product of the calculation of one’s interests, for no social order can be built on such a basis. This faculty, moreover, is something different from the natural kindness in man, the feeling of sympathy, or the instinct of sociality upon which the Positivists endeavour to base ethics. A man is possessed of a special feeling, one that is higher than the feeling of sociality, — namely, the sense of righteousness, the consciousness of the equal right of all men to a mutual regard for personality.[204]

“Thus,” Jodl remarks, “after his most vigorous protests against transcendentalism, Proudhon turns, after all, to the old heritage of intuitional ethics-conscience.” (“Geschichte der Ethik,” ch. 11, p, 267.) This remark, however, is not quite correct. Proudhon merely meant to say that the conception of justice cannot be a simple inborn tendency, because if it were it would be difficult to account for the preponderance it acquires in the struggle with other tendencies continually urging man to be unjust to others. The tendency to protect the interests of others at the expense of our own cannot be solely an inborn feeling, although its rudiments were always present in man, but these rudiments must be developed. And this feeling could develop in society only through experience, and such was actually the case.

In considering the contradictions furnished by the history of human societies, between the conception of ‘justice native to man and social injustice (supported by the ruling powers and even by the churches), Proudhon came to the conclusion that although the conception of justice is inborn in man, thousands of years had to elapse before the idea of justice entered as a fundamental conception into legislation, — at the time of the French Revolution in the “Declaration of the Rights of Man.”

Like Comte, Proudhon very well realized the progress that was taking place in the development of mankind and he was convinced that further progressive development would occur. Of course, he had in mind not merely the development of culture (i.e., of the material conditions of life), but mainly of civilization, enlightenment, i.e., the development of the intellectual and the spiritual organization of society, the improvement in institutions and in mutual relations among men.[205] In this progress he ascribed a great importance to idealization, to the ideals that in certain periods acquire the ascendancy over the petty daily cares, when the discrepancy between the law, understood as the highest expression of justice, and actual life as it is developed under the power of legislation, acquires the proportions of a glaring, unbearable contradiction.

In a later part of this work we shall have occasion to return to the significance of justice in the elaboration of the moral conceptions. For the present I will simply remark that no one prepared the ground for the correct understanding of this fundamental conception of all morality so well as Proudhon.[206]

The highest moral aim of man is the attaining of justice. The entire history of mankind, says Proudhon, is the history of human endeavour to attain justice in this life. All the great revolutions are nothing but the attempt to realize justice by force; and since during the revolution the means, i.e., violence, temporarily prevailed over the old form of oppression, the actual result was always a substitution of one tyranny for another. Nevertheless, the impelling motive of every revolutionary movement was always justice, and every revolution, no matter into what it later degenerated, always introduced into social life a certain degree of justice. All these partial realizations of justice will finally lead to the complete triumph of justice on earth.

Why is it that in spite of all the revolutions that have taken place, not a single nation has yet arrived at the complete attainment of justice? The principal cause of this lies in the fact that the idea of justice has not as yet penetrated into the minds of the majority of men. Originating in the mind of a separate individual, the idea of justice must become a social idea inspiring the revolution. The starting point of the idea of justice is the sense of personal dignity. In associating with others we find that this feeling becomes generalized and becomes the feeling of human dignity. A rational creature recognizes this feeling in another — friend or enemy alike — as in himself. In this, justice differs from love and from other sensations of sympathy; this is why justice is the antithesis of egoism, and why the influence which justice exerts upon us prevails over other feelings. For the same reason, in the case of a primitive man whose sense of personal dignity manifests itself in a crude way, and whose self-aimed tendencies prevail over the social, justice finds its expression in the form of supernatural prescription, and it rests upon religion. But little by little, under the influence of religion, the sense of justice (Proudhon writes simply “justice,” without defining whether he considers it a conception or a feeling ) deteriorates. Contrary to its essence this feeling becomes aristocratic, and in Christianity (and in some earlier religions) it reaches the point of humiliating mankind. Under the pretext of respect for God, respect for man is banished, and once this respect is destroyed justice succumbs, and with it society deteriorates.

Then a Revolution takes place which opens a new era for mankind. It enables justice, only vaguely apprehended before, to appear in all the purity and completeness of its fundamental idea. “Justice is absolute and unchangeable; it knows no ‘more or less’.”[207] It is remarkable, adds Proudhon, that from the time of the fall of the Bastille, in 1789, there was not a single government in France which dared openly to deny justice and to declare itself frankly counter-revolutionary. However, all governments violated justice, even the government at the time of the Terror, even Robespierre, — especially Robespierre.[208]

Proudhon pointed out, however, that we should guard against tramping upon the interests of the individual for the sake of the interests of society. True justice consists in a harmonious combination of social interest with those of the individual. Justice, thus interpreted, contains nothing mysterious or mystical. Neither is it a desire for personal gain, since I consider it my duty to demand respect for my fellow-men, as well as for myself. Justice demands respect for personal dignity even in any enemy (hence the international military code).

Since man is a being capable of progressing, justice opens the path to progress for all alike. Therefore, wrote Proudhon, justice found expression in the earliest religions, in the Mosaic law, for example, which bade us love God with all our heart, with all our soul, with all our might, and to love our neighbour as we love ourselves (in the book of “Tobit,” where we are told not to do unto others what we do not want done unto us).[209] Similar ideas were expressed by the Pythagoreans, by Epicurus, and Aristotle, and the same demand was made by non-religious philosophers like Gassendi, Hobbes, Bentham, Helvétius, etc.[210]

In short, we find that equity is everywhere considered the basis of morality, or, as Proudhon wrote: as regards the mutual personal relations — “without equality — there is no justice.”[211]

Unfortunately, all the worshippers of the ruling power, even the State — socialists, fail to notice this fundamental principle of all morality and continue to support the necessity of the inequality and non-equity inherent in the State. Nevertheless, equity became in principle the basis of all the declarations of the Great French Revolution (just as it was accepted earlier in the Declaration of Rights in the North American Republic). Already the Declaration of 1789 proclaimed that “nature made all men free and equal.” The same principle was reiterated in the Declaration of July 24, 1793.

The Revolution proclaimed individual equality, equality of political and civic rights, and also equality before the law and the courts. More than that, it created a new social economy by recognizing instead of private rights, the principle of the equivalent value of mutual service.[212]

The essence of justice is respect for our fellow-men, Proudhon constantly insisted. We know the nature of justice, he wrote; its definition can be given in the following formula:

“Respect thy neighbour as thyself, even if thou canst not love him, and do not permit that he or thyself be treated with disrespect.” “Without equality — there is no justice.” (I. 204, 206).[213]

Unfortunately, this principle has not as yet been attained either in legislation or in the courts, and certainly not in the Church.

Economics suggested one way out — the subdivision of labour in order to increase production, which increase is, of course, necessary; but it has also shown, at least through the testimony of some economists, such as Rossi, for example, that this division of labor leads to apathy among the workers and to the creation of a slave class. We thus see that the only possible way out of this situation is to be found in mutuality of service, instead of the subordination of one kind of service to another (I. 269), — and therefore in the equality of rights and possessions. This is just what was asserted by the declaration of the Convention of February 15, and July 24 of 1793, in which Freedom and the Equality of all before the law were proclaimed, and this declaration was reiterated in 1795, 1799, 1814, 1830, and 1848, (I. 270.) Justice, as Proudhon sees it, is not merely a restraining social force. He sees in it a creative force, like reason and work.[214] Then, having remarked, as Bacon had already done, that thought is born of action, and dedicating for this reason a series of excellent pages to the necessity of manual labour and of the study of trades in schools as a means of broadening our scientific education, — Proudhon proceeds to consider justice in its various applications: with respect to individuals, in the distribution of wealth, in the State, in education, and in mentality.

Proudhon had to acknowledge that the development of justice in human societies requires time: a high development of ideals and of the feeling of solidarity with all, is required, and this can be attained only through long individual and social evolution. We will return to this subject in another volume. I will only add here that all this part of Proudhon’s book, and his conclusion in which he determines wherein lies the sanction of the conception of justice, contain very many ideas stimulating to human thought. This quality of mental stimulation is characteristic of all Proudhon’s writings, and it was pointed out by Herzen and by many others.

However, in all his excellent words about justice, Proudhon did not indicate clearly enough the distinction between the two meanings given in the French language to the word “Justice.” One meaning is equality, an equation in the mathematical sense, — while the other meaning is the administering of justice, i.e., the act of judging, the decision of the court, and even the taking of the law into one’s own hands. Of course, when justice is mentioned in ethics it is interpreted only in the first sense, but Proudhon at times used the word Justice in its second sense, which circumstance leads to a certain indefiniteness. This is probably the reason why he did not try to trace the origin of this concept in man, — a problem with which, as we will see later, Littré dealt at some length.

At any rate, from the time of the appearance of Proudhon’s work, “Justice in the Revolution and in the Church,” it became impossible to build an ethical system without recognizing as its basis equity, the equality of all citizens in their rights. It is apparently for this reason that the attempt was made to subject this work of Proudhon’s to a unanimous silence, so that only Jodl was unafraid of compromising himself and assigned to the French revolutionist a prominent place in his history of ethics. It is true that the three volumes which Proudhon devoted to justice contain a great deal of irrelevant matter, a vast amount of polemics against the Church (the title, “Justice in the Revolution and in the Church,” justifies this, however, all the more because the subject under discussion is not justice in the Church, but in Christianity and in the religious moral teachings in general); they also contain two essays on woman, with which most modern writers will, of course, not agree; and finally they contain many digressions, which, though they serve a purpose, help to befog the main issue. But notwithstanding all this, we have at last in Proudhon’s work an investigation in which justice (which had been already alluded to by many thinkers who occupied themselves with the problem of morality) was assigned a proper place; in this work, at last, it is stated that justice is the recognition of equity and of the striving of men for equality, and that this is the basis of all our moral conceptions.

Ethics had for a long time been moving toward this admission. But all along it had been so bound up with religion, and in recent times with Christianity, that this recognition was not fully expressed by any of Proudhon’s predecessors.

Finally, I must point out that in Proudhon’s work, “Justice in the Revolution and in the Church,” there is already a hint of the threefold nature of morality. He had shown in the first volume though in a very cursory way, in a few lines, — the primary source of morality — sociality, which is observed even among the animals. And he dwelt later, toward the end of his work, on the third constituent element of all scientific, as well as of religious morality: the ideal. But he did not show where the dividing line comes between justice (which says: “give what is due,” and is thus reduced to a mathematical equation), and that which man gives to another or to all “above what is due,” without weighing what he gives or what he receives — which, to my mind, constitutes a necessary, constituent part of morality. But he already finds it necessary to complete justice by adding the ideal , i.e., the striving for idealistic actions, due to which, according to Proudhon, our very conceptions of justice are continually broadened and become more refined. And indeed, after all that mankind lived through from the time of the American and the two French Revolutions, our conceptions of justice are clearly not the same as they were at the end of the eighteenth century, when serfdom and slavery called forth no protest even from liberal moralists. We have now to consider a series of works on ethics by thinkers who take the evolutionist viewpoint and who accept Darwin’s theory of the development of all organic life, as well as of the social life of man. Here ought to be included a succession of works by modern thinkers, because almost all who wrote on ethics in the second half of the nineteenth century show evidence of the influence of the evolutionist theory of gradual development — which rapidly conquered the mind, after it was so carefully elaborated by Darwin in its application to organic nature.

Peter Kropotkin

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