Françoise: Hello Thibault Isabel, last June you released a book about Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. Could you present and explain the reasons for this book?
Thibault Isabel: Since the collapse of communism, the modern world lives with the idea that there no longer exists a viable alternative to liberalism. “There is no alternative,” as Margaret Thatcher already said. But, we quite simply forget that alternatives have always existed, provided that they return to pre-Marxist socialism, which has nothing to do with Stalinist collectivism. Proudhon offers a contesting vision with a human face, incompatible with the Gulag and the dictatorship of the proletariat. It allows us to rethink the present in the light of the forgotten ideas of the past. That’s why he’s useful.
Françoise: Proudhon came from a modest background and, throughout his life, he had to work in order to survive: he became a worker, and then became an independent worker managing his own publishing house… How did that influence his thoughts?
Thibault Isabel: Proudhon was horrified by wage labor. He found having to work for a boss, not having the power to conduct his own professional activity, humiliating. In his eyes, the cardinal virtue was responsibility, autonomy. Every man should become master of his own acts and destiny. That’s why the philosopher from Besançon nourished a boundless love for independent labor. His entire political and economic doctrine aimed to make labor freer, in order to liberate individuals from the domination of the powerful.
Françoise: Proudhon – the thinker of balance – is a reference for intellectuals coming from very diverse perspectives. Could one say he crosses political currents, a non conformist? What were his influences? And his heirs?
Thibault Isabel: Proudhon was neither capitalist nor communist. But, all the political thought of the 20th century was structured around this opposition. Henceforth, Proudhonian thought seems unclassifiable today, because it isn’t reducible to a clear and well defined camp on the left-right axis as we conceive it. The majority of Proudhon’s heirs themselves escape this divide, the non-conformists of the 1930s show very well, notably the young personalist intellectuals gathered around Alexandre Marc at the time. As for the authors that influenced Proudhon, we must in fact cite all the pioneers of socialism: Cabet, Owen, Leroux, Fourier, etc. We have the tendency to forget that he existed in a vast nebula of very talented intellectuals.
Françoise: Long after his death, the Catholic writer Georges Bernanos could say of modern civilization that it was before “a universal conspiracy against any form of spiritual life”. What was Proudhon’s point of view on Modernity and the philosophy of Progress?
Thibault Isabel: Proudhon defended social progress, but he didn’t believe in the linear progress of civilization. He was even convinced that progressivism took on a Utopian and chimeric character. That’s why he simultaneously called himself a partisan of progress and conservation, because in reality we need both in order to make a healthy society flourish.
Françoise: Proudhon made particularly virulent statements regarding ecclesiastical institutions but in parallel he was also very conservative in regards to morality. What was his relation to the religious question?
Thibault Isabel: Proudhon was inspired by religion. Raised firstly in Catholicism by his mother, he progressively freed himself from theist mysticism in order to orient himself towards a sort of pantheism, under the notable influence of traditional Freemasonry (not secular Freemasonry of course). Proudhon felt very close to the old pagan religions, and was particularly interested in Taoism, even Amerindian religion, even if he had a very limited knowledge of it.
Françoise: De la justice dans la révolution et dans l’ Église, then La pornocratie (published incomplete and posthumously), earned Proudhon a reputation as a misogynist…. Are his visions of the Woman and his critique of the feminization of society essential to his economic and political thought?
Thibault Isabel: No, frankly I don’t think so. The Proudhon’s statements on women, while rather lamentable from my point of view, had no effect on his deep philosophical thought. I will ever go as far as saying that he didn’t succeed in extending his philosophical principles to the question of the sexes, which would have allowed him to prefigure the idea of “equality in difference,” dear to many contemporary differentialist feminists. Proudhon remained stuck to biological inferiority of women, which he only nuanced on rare occasions in his books.
Françoise: Proudhonian thoughts on property are particularly cliched today … Could you clarify his famous phrase “Property is theft?”
Thibault Isabel: Essentially Proudhon was a stubborn defender of small private property, which seemed to constitute a restraint on the development of big capital. When Proudhon affirms that “property is theft,” he only denounces the accumulation of capital, that is to say the fact that small independent property owners have increasingly been replaced by big capitalist property owners. The first works of Proudhon remain a bit ambiguous about this distinction, but the later works will set the record straight in a very explicit manner.
Françoise: One calls Proudhon an anarchist or socialist, but could one also consider him as a precursor of ‘de-growth.?’
Thibault Isabel: In the strict sense, no, as in the 19th century there was little sense in calling for more frugality in order to fight ecological devastation, the effects of which were not as visible as they are today. On the other hand, Proudhon was incontestably one of the great precursors of ‘de-growth’ through his general philosophy. He questioned the accumulation of wealth for its own sake and privileged the qualitative over the quantitative. One also finds a quasi-religious relation to nature with him.
Françoise: Could the Paris Commune, which occurred a few years after his death, be seen as an attempt (consciously or unconsciously) to put some of his ideas into practice?
Thibault Isabel: Of course, especially since the majority of the Communards were Proudhonians! Don’t forget that, at this time, Proudhon was more famous than Marx … On the other hand, the defeat of the Commune put a sudden halt to the expansion of Proudhonian thought in France: many Proudhonians lost their lives in the course of events in this period.
Françoise: Proudhon was a socialist deputy and he affirmed that “One must have lived in this voting booth called the National Assembly in order to understand how the men who are the most completely ignorant of the state of the country are nearly always those who represent it.” What was his general vision of democracy and politics?
Thibault Isabel: Proudhon didn’t like parliamentary democracy, which he judged to be technocratic and potentially dictatorial. He would have had no liking for “Jupiterian presidents,” for example. Instead Proudhon defended local and decentralized democracies, where the people express themselves in a much more direct manner and participate in politics.
Françoise: Proudhon considered France as the “country of the happy medium and stability … despite its rebellious spirit, its taste for novelty, and its indiscipline” and that “a conservative and a revolutionary” slumbers in each Frenchman. What relationship did Proudhon, proud native of the Franche-Comté region, defender of federalism and the principle of subsidarity, entertain with the French nation? And the French state?
Thibault Isabel: Proudhon didn’t like France very much, which he associated with Jacobinism, centralization, and contempt for local particularities. Rather he was a regionalist. But his federalism implied the coexistence of different scales of power, where France could serve as a intermediate stratum between the region and Europe. Proudhon believed that French nationality was an abstraction and that it didn’t correspond to any physical fatherland. Only the regions found favor in his eyes, because they were closer to man. The soil is what immediately surrounds us and concretely shapes our way of seeing the world.
Françoise: What books by Proudhon should be read first?
Thibault Isabel: It’s rather difficult to say. Proudhon wrote a lot, and he had the annoying habit of diluting his thought with interminable digressions which haven’t aged well. His later works are the best in my opinion, and the most synthetic. I especially recommend The Federative Principle, which condenses his principal political thoughts regarding democracy.