The extent to which Proudhon’s contributions to radical thought are overlooked even among radicals was impressed upon me by a recent article in DISSENT (Spring, 1954) in which Lewis Coser and Irving Howe discussed the differences between Marx and his utopian socialist contemporaries in a way which suggested that they considered Marx and Engels to be alone in their anti-utopianism. As if laying extended claims for Marxian originality, they talked of “the importance of Marx’s idea that socialism is to be brought about, in the first instance, by the activities of a major segment of the population, the workers”; they added that “Marx found the sources of revolt within the self-expanding and self-destroying rhythms of the economy itself,” and that he “gave new power to the revolt against history, by locating it, ‘scientifically,’ within history.” In fact, not only was Proudhon as persistent and pertinent a critic of utopian tendencies as either of the German socialists but he also anticipated the very insights for which Coser and Howe appear to regard Marx-Engels as originally responsible. What is perhaps more important for our own day is that he developed them in a way that enabled him to foresee and to warn against some of the more disastrous tendencies (e.g. towards centralism and bureaucratization) that have become frozen into many areas of socialist practice.
Proudhon was an aficionado of irony and paradox, and it was therefore appropriate that his introduction to socialism should have come through the utopians he later rejected. As a young printer in Besancon, he supervised the production of Fourier’s Le Nouveau Monde Industrial et Societaire and was fascinated by its author’s strange combination of insight and eccentricity. At the same time he was strongly critical of the more fantastic aspects of Fourier’s work, and a little later, in 1832, when the Fourierists invited him to edit a paper, he showed an independence that anticipated his later developmnt as a critical, unutopian social thinker. “You asked me yesterday,” he wrote to them, “whether I would write in a public sheet opinions which I profess and which we hold in common, and you added: ‘Undoubtedly not’ … Why should we not invite the population to make themselves capable of managing their own affairs and of preparing the way for a confederation of peoples? Let them see, through instruction, science, moral health and patriotism, how to dispense with all ministerial hierarchy, while in the meantime profiting from the little good it will do them.”