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Born of peasant stock, the political philosopher Pierre-Joseph Proudhon dreamed of creating a utopian workers' state. But when the revolution came, it brought a bloodbath, not an earthly paradise.
'In 1848', claimed Courbet long afterwards, 'there were only two men ready: me and Proudhon.' In that year the people of Paris had risen against the government of Louis Philippe, only to replace him with Louis-Napoleon, the adventurer nephew of Bonaparte himself. Implicit in Courbet's boast was a view of himself as a shrewd and committed revolutionary, whose social ideas were ahead of his time. But he in fact was no more than a spectator in those turbulent February days. It was Proudhon alone. Courbet's friend and compatriot from the Jura hills who could really claim to have anticipated the events and sought to shape them.
A founding father of the international anarchist movement, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon had been born in 1809 in the provincial city of Besancon, just a few miles from Courbet's birthplace at Ornans. Proudhon's parents were both of peasant stock. His father was a cooper-brewer, his mother a cook, and he himself was apprenticed to a printer. This trade provided him with his education, for it was as a corrector of texts that he acquired knowledge of grammar, ancient languages and theology. His gift for learning so impressed the Academy of Besancon that in 1838 he was awarded a scholarship, which allowed him to move to Paris and undertake a regular course of study. But the fruits of this learning did not please Proudhon's sponsors. In 1840, the year Courbet himself arrived in Paris, the unruly young printer produced What is Property?, a sensational tract whose well-known answer 'property is theft' made him famous overnight.
The ideas put forward in this and subsequent books reflected Proudhon's peasant-craftsman background and appealed most to those radical Frenchmen who had also moved from the countryside to the growing industrial cities. Proudhon's philosophy, which is often called 'mutualism', sought an economic solution to the injustices of commercial exploitation. Dismissing the revolutionary overhaul of the state urged by other radical thinkers, Proudhon wished to dispense with the state altogether. Instead he called for 'anarchy', a harmonious society where an all-powerful, law-enforcing government would be unnecessary.
Proudhon's perfect society was an idealized version of Besancon and its environs, a network of small communities of producers who would exchange their surplus goods for the things they could not produce themselves, aided by a system of free monetary credit. By cutting out the middleman, this 'mutualist' barter would eliminate the abuses of property. Proudhon was it advocating self-help rather than state intervention: for him, big was bad, and he had no time for revolutionary theories based on parliamentary struggles or the strength of the masses.
In the early 1840s Proudhon divided his time between a job with a water-transport firm in Lyon and literary activities in Paris. In the capital, Proudhon was often found in the Brasserie Andler, where Courbet was also a regular and soon became a disciple.
In 1847 Proudhon settled down in Paris more permanently in order to devote himself to his newspaper, Le Representant du Peuple. And despite his well-aired misgivings about the value of parliamentary struggles he allowed himself to be elected to the new National Assembly when the monarchy of Louis Philippe was overthrown in February 1848. Predictably, he took his seat on the far left of this Assembly and soon identified himself with those militant workers who were agitating for a radical reconstruction of society. But when Louis-Napoleon seized power, Proudhon paid for his activities with three years in prison.
Soon after his release, Proudhon went to live in Belgium, but in 1862 he returned to Paris. He was now in his fifties, and an acknowledged leader of the French radicals, but his authority was slight. Many of his most fervent supporters had rejected his insistence on abstention from parliamentary politics, and several Proudhonists stood for election in 1863. The master himself fulminated against such political developments, but in his last years he also found time for lengthy commentaries upon art. In 1865 he sent regrets to Courbet from his deathbed for not having completed Du Principes de l' Art (On the Principles of Art), which he had started as a defence of Courbet's paintings; Proudhon's literary executors undertook the task of preparing it for posthumous publication. And Proudhon was overjoyed to see his followers prominent in the 'First International' the Inter-national Workingmen's Association.
The Association had begun as a combination of stolid British trade unionists, fiercely anti-intellectual Frenchmen, and an assortment of revolutionary veterans. It was dominated by Karl Marx, a formidable German Jew of bourgeois background, whom Proudhon had met briefly in 1844. They had even corresponded for a time. But their political differences had soon overwhelmed initial comradely etiquette, especially after Marx responded to Proudhon's The Philosophy of Poverty with a scathing critique entitled The Poverty of Philosophy.
After Proudhon's death in 1865, the mantle of leading anarchist fell on Mikhail Bakunin, a Russian disciple and roaming revolutionary, whose power-base was among the impoverished peasant watchmakers of the Swiss Jura classic Proudhon territory. Bakunin was committed to instant revolution: the underprivileged should rise as one and annihilate capitalism in a single destructive swoop. Bakunin infuriated Marx, who believed that socialism was only possible as a development from a fully industrialized capitalist society, and whose patient strategy was based on industrial workers in the big cities rather than peasant-craftsmen in small towns and villages. So when Marx found himself unable to control the First International because of the cloak-and-dagger machinations of Bakunin, he decided to write it off. In 1872, Marx transferred its headquarters to New York, allowing it to collapse by 1874.
Meanwhile, fate dealt a crushing blow to France's revolutionaries with the defeat of the Paris Commune in 1871. Courbet himself was a wholehearted Communard, just as Proudhon would have been, and dedicated his energies to this historic attempt to create an independent, workers' Paris. But the Commune drowned in blood. After atrocities on both sides, the official French government wrested the capital from the revolutionaries street by street.
In the traditions of socialism, however, the bravery of the Communards won them the status of heroes, and Courbet earned a reputation as a true revolutionary artist. Even Marx, usually so scathing about the anarchist dream of a rapid transformation of society, acknowledged that 'Working-man's Paris, with its Commune, will be celebrated for ever as the glorious harbinger of a new society.' In truth, the accolade belonged less to Courbet than to Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, the self-taught peasant who founded no party but whose ideas inspired a lasting dream of freedom.
Writer – Marshall Cavendish