Proudhon’s Criticism of Government and Marx’s Criticism of Proudhon

“To be GOVERNED is to be watched, inspected, spied upon, directed, law-driven, numbered, regulated, enrolled, indoctrinated, preached at, controlled, checked, estimated, valued, censured, commanded, by creatures who have neither the right nor the wisdom nor the virtue to do so. To be GOVERNED is to be at every operation, at every transaction noted, registered, counted, taxed, stamped, measured, numbered, assessed, licensed, authorized, admonished, prevented, forbidden, reformed, corrected, punished. It is, under pretext of public utility, and in the name of the general interest, to be placed under contribution, drilled, fleeced, exploited, monopolized, extorted from, squeezed, hoaxed, robbed; then at the slightest resistance, the first word of complaint, to be repressed, fined, vilified, harrassed, hunted down, abused, clubbed, disarmed, bound, choked, imprisoned, judged, condemned, shot, deported, sacrificed, sold, betrayed, and to crown all, mocked, ridiculed, derided, outraged, dishonored. That is government; that is its justice; that is its morality.”

Pierre-Joseph Proudhon,
General Idea of the Revolution in the Nineteenth Century (1851)

Actually government at its best is quite effective. Look at the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the belated but significant passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the Cradle to the Grave social security system in Scandinavia and other EU countries–recognising it is not utopia and that it is no guarantee against unemployment and economic stagnation.

Karl Marx was influenced and quite aware of Proudhon’s writings and in particular The Philosophy of Poverty. In typical Marxian fashion, he wrote a polemical attack with the ironic title of The Poverty of Philosophy(1847). Marx was not very accepting of fellow intellectuals and social critics who discussed inevitable change, the right of revolution, the evil of poverty, unless they subscribed to a strict dialectical materialism–inevitable change with the motive force of economic determinism. To Marx human history was driven by immutable change within the substructure with its forces and relations of production. As technology changed, it spawned new social relations, new classes that would rise and fall as the new technology swept away the old fetters of production. Social classes of the old order would be transformed due to the technological changes attendant with different rulers and subalterns. Eventually communism with much of the structure, or lack thereof, of Proudhon’s anarchism would rise triumphant and dialectical materialism would complete its historic journey. He saw as counterrevolutionary even strongly proletarain writing that did not sense or adopt the economic determinism which so gripped and gave power to Marx’s vision of social and revolutionary tumult.

This is one of Marx’s greatest achievements. The analysis of economics as a socially pivotal concept. While he may have ignored unduly other factors of change, other factors of consciousness, other factors that drive human behaviour, clearly the application of economic forces that influence war, lobbyists, form class stratification, create power arrangements is a major intellectual triumph of the 19th century.

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