P.J. Proudhon – The Principle of Authority

Another contribution to the revolutionary month, even thought not directly related to revolution and revolutionary activity, this excerpt from Proudhon’s “Generell idea of the Revolution in the 19. Century”, provides some insight concerning what direction a revolution would have to take in order to escape the endless repeating cycle of misery that has lead us from one catastrophe to the next ever since recorded history began. This tendency from democracy to oligarchy, and from oligarchy to despotism, fallowed by civil war which is the outcry of the dispossessed and disfranchised people against their oppression, leading again to a form of democracy where the whole vicious cycle starts over again, again and again, and that without end or rest as long as this cycle of misery has not been overcome by resolving the causes for it’s existence, or at least, like in the case of the human nature and it’s known flaws, ways to work around-, or with them, have been found.

In politics and economics, just like in physics, forces, even when counter-productive to the anticipated goal in their very nature, can be made conform by re-directing them into the desired direction. To stop a river is impossible, for the water needs to go somewhere, with the human nature and it’s inclination it’s similar, it’s a natural force, systems trying to suppress this force will neither work good nor for long, history has demonstrated that over and over again, the key lies in re-directing this force, similar to the force of a river, in a way that removes it’s destructive properties, and if possible, transform it into a force beneficial for the social organism, beneficial for society.

What we call “authority” describes an attempt to stop a force by another force, not by re-directing it, but my setting an opposing force against it and causing an antinomy between both. The problem is, that, just like in the cases with a river and the force resulting from the moving masses of water, the forces that needs to be contained by authority will constantly increase to the point when the forces to contain them will either have to be increased in a similar manner or they break through. That’s the principle behind the fact than forms of government build on the principle of authority, as far as not conform to the believed interests and the nature of the people ruled, necessarily either get overthrown at some point or become more restricting and totalitarian.

Only exception to this rule, like already noted, are forms of authority build on a mutual agreement between rulers and ruled, cases in which either a mutual benefit exists for both; the party that commands and the party that obeys, or in which it at least appears like this is the case.



The Principle of Authority

Excerpt from Proudhon’s “Generell idea of the Revolution in the 19. Century”.
by Pierre-Joseph Proudhon 1809-1865, French Philosopher, Economist

I beg that the reader will pardon me, if in the course of this study an expression should escape me which might betray any feeling of self-esteem. I have the double-regret, in this great question of authority, of being, on the one hand, as yet alone in asserting the Revolution categorically; on the other, in having perverse ideas attributed to me, which I, more than anybody, abhor. It is not my fault if, in supporting so lofty a thesis, I seem to plead my own personal cause. at least I shall do so, even if I may not defend myself with some vivacity, that the intelligence of the reader may lose nothing. Moreover our mind is so constructed that it sees the light never better than when it springs from the clash of opposing ideas. Man, says, Hobbes, is a fighting animal. It was God himself who, when placing us in this world, gave us this precept: Increase, multiply, labor and fight.

Some twelve years ago, well I may recall it, while busying myself with researches into the foundations of society, having in view not at all political eventualities, impossible then to have forseen, but solely for the greater glory of philosophy, I was the first to cast into the world a denial which has since obtained great renown, the denial of Government and of Property. Others before myself, to seem original, humorous, or seeking a paradox, had denied those two principles; not one had made this denial the subject of a serious, earnest criticism. One of our most good-natured journalists, M. Pelletan, undertaking my defence one day, motu proprio, made this singular statement to his readers, that, in attacking sometimes property, sometimes power, sometimes something else, I was firing a gun into the air, to attract toward myself the attention of empty-heads. M. Pelletan was too good indeed, and I cannot be too much obliged to him for his kindness: he must have taken me for a literary person.

It is time that the public should know that, in philosophy, in politics, in theology, in history, negation is the preliminary requirement to affirmation. All progress begins by abolishing something; every reform rests upon denunciation of some abuse; each new idea is based upon the proved insufficiency of the old idea. Thus Christianity, in denying the plurality of the gods, in becoming atheistic, from the pagan point of view, asserted the unity of God, and from this unity deduced its whole theology. Thus Luther, in denying the authority of the Church, asserted the authority of reason, and laid the first stone of modern philosophy. Thus our fathers, the revolutionaries of ’89, in denying the sufficiency of feudal rule, asserted, without understanding it, the necessity of some different system, which it is the mission of our age to explain. Thus, finally, I myself, having demonstrated afresh, under the eyes of my readers, the illegitimacy and powerlessness of government as a principle of order, will cause to arise from this negation a productive, affirmative idea, which must lead to a new form of civilization.

The better to explain my position in this examination, I will make another comparison.

It is with ideas as with machines. No one knows the inventor of the first tools, the hoe, the rake, the axe, the wagon, the plough. These are found among all the nations of the globe from the earliest antiquity. But this spontaneity is not found with perfected instruments, the locomotive, the daguerreotype, the art of ballooning, the electric telegraph. The finger of God, if I may venture to say so, is no longer there: the names of the inventors, the dates of their first experiments, are known: the aid of science, together with prolonged practical skill, has been required.

Thus are born and thus develop the ideas which serve to guide the human race. The earliest are furnished by spontaneous, immediate intuition, in which priority cannot be claimed by anybody. But the day comes when these gifts of common sense no longer suffice for collective life: it is then that reason, which alone can show this insufficiency, can alone supply that which is lacking. All nations have produced and organized by themselves, without the aid of teachers, the ideas of authority, of property, of government, of justice, of worship. Now that these ideas are growing weaker, that a methodical analysis, an official inquiry, if I may say so, has established their insufficiency, at the bar of reason and of society, the question is for us to discover, through science, what substitute we can find for ideas which, according to the verdict of science, are condemned as false and injurious.

Whoever then openly, in the face of the people, by a sort of extra-judicial act, has been the first to propound a view directed against government and established property, is bound to explain further his ideas for a new social organization. I will attempt the solution, as I attempted before the criticism of it: I mean that after having given to my contemporaries consciousness of their own deficiencies, I will try to explain to them the secret of their own aspirations. God forbid that I should set myself up as prophet, or that I should pretend to have ever invented an idea! I see, I observe, I write. I may say, with the Psalmist: I have believed because I have spoken

Why is it that with the simplest question some ambiguity must mingle?

Priority in philosophical conceptions is not less an object of emulation than priority in industrial inventions, with lofty minds which know their value and seek the glory of their discovery, although they can be neither sold nor patented. In the domain of pure thought, as well as in that of mechanical improvement applied to the arts, there are rivalries, imitations, I had almost said counterfeits, were it not that I fear, by the use of so strong a term, to asperse an honorable ambition, which attests the superiority of the present generation. The idea of Anarchy had this fortune. The denial of government having been renewed since the revolution of February with new ardor and some success, certain men of note in the democratic and socialistic party, whom the idea of Anarchy filled with disquietude, thought that they might appropriate the arguments directed against government, nad upon these arguments, which were essentially negative, might restore the very principle which was at stake, under a new name, and with a few modifications. Without intending it, without suspecting it, these honorable citizens took the position of counter-revolutionaries, since a counterfeit, for after all this word expresses my idea better than any other, a counterfeit, in political and social affairs, is really counter-revolution. I shall prove it immediately. That is what these restorations of authority really are, that have been undertaken recently in competition with anarchy, and that have occupied public attention under the names of Direct Legislation, Direct Government, of which the authors or editors are, in the first place, Messrs. Rittinghausen and Considerant, and afterwards, M. Ledru Rollin.

According to Messrs. Considerant and Rittinghausen, the first idea of direct government came from Germany; as for M. Ledru-Rollin, he olny claims it, and with reservations, for our first revolution; this idea being found at length in the Constitution of ’93, and in the Social Contract.

It must be understood, that if I intervene in my turn in the discussion, it is not to claim a priority which I reject with all my power in the terms in which the question has been put. Direct Government and Direct Legislation seem to me the two biggest blunders in the annals of politics and of philosophy. How is it that M. Rittinghausen, who understands German philosophy to the bottom; how is it that M. Considerant, who ten or fifteen years ago wrote a pamphlet, under the title, Breaking-up of Politics in France; how is it that M. Ledru-Rollin, who, when he subscribed to the Constitution of ’93, made such generous and futile efforts to make direct government practicable, and to reduce it within the bounds of common sense; how is it, I ask, that these gentlemen have not understood that the very arguments which they use against indirect government, have no force that does not apply equally against direct government; that their criticism is admissible only when made absolute; and that, in stopping half-way, they have fallen into the most pitiful inconsequence? Above all, how is it that they have not seen that their pretended direct government is nothing but the reduction to absurdity of the governmental idea; to the extent that, if through the progress of ideas and the complexity of interests, society is forced to abjure every kind of government, it will be just because direct government, the only form of government that seems to be rational, liberal, equal, is nevertheless impossible?

Meanwhile comes along M. de Girardin, aspiring, no doubt, to have a share in the invention, or at least, in the completion, who proposed this formula: Abolition of Authority through the Simplification of Government. What was M. de Girardin doing with this foolish business? Such a mind, so resourceful, can never be restrained! You are too quick, M. de Girardin, to accomplish anything. Authority is to Government what the thought is to the word, the idea to the fact, the soul to the body. Authority is government in principle, as government is authority in practice. To abolish either, if it is a real abolition, is to abolish both. By the same token, to preserve one or the other, if the preservation is effective, is to keep both.

Moreover, M. de Girardin’s simplification has long been known to the public. It is a combination of personages borrowed from what merchants call their Journal. There are three clerks: the first named Debts, the second named Assets, the third named Balance. Nothing is lacking but the Chief, who orders them about and directs them. Among the thousands of ideas which M. de Girardin’s brain throws off every day, without any of them taking root, no doubt he will not fail to find one to fulfill this indispensable function of his government.

Justice must be done to the public. What the public has seen most clearly is that among all these fine governmental inventions, Direct Government, Simplified Government, Direct Legislation, Constitution of ’93, the Government, whatever it may be, is very sick, and tending more and more toward Anarchy. My readers may give this word any meaning they choose. Let Messrs. Considerant and Rittenhausen pursue their researches; let M. Ledru-Rollin dig deeper into the Constitution of ’93; let M. de Girardin have more confidence in his inspirations, and we shall arrive forthwith at pure negation. That accomplished, it will only remain, by opposing the negation to itself, as the Germans say, to discover the affirmation. Onward, innovators! less haste and more boldness! Follow the light which has appeared to you from afar; you are at the boundary between the old world and the new.


~ by metadave on March 4, 2008.

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