160 Years of Libertarian

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by afaq
May 17, 2017
Anarchist Writers

Many men, I know, speak of liberty without understanding it; they know neither the science of it, nor even the sentiment. They see in the demolition of reigning Authority nothing but a substitution of names or persons; they don’t imagine that a society could function without masters or servants, without chiefs and soldiers; in this they are like those reactionaries who say: ‘There are always rich and poor, and there always will be. What would become of the poor without the rich? They would die of hunger!’ - Joseph Déjacque (Down with the Bosses!, 5)

In 2008, we marked the 150th anniversary of the use of the “libertarian” by anarchists (“150 Years of Libertarian,” Freedom 69, 23-4). It recounted how, between 1858 and 1861, French exile and communist-anarchist Joseph Déjacque published the journal La Libertaire, Journal du Mouvement Social in New York. (Max Nettlau, A Short History of Anarchism, 75-6) It also sketched anarchist use of the term from that date onwards.

However, the previous year – 1857 – saw the first actual use of the word in the modern sense – libertaire – in an Open Letter he wrote to Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, the first person to self-proclaim as an anarchist in 1840’s seminal What is Property?. It is of note beyond the coining of libertarian. First, Déjacque’s challenging of Proudhon’s sexism and his argument that support for patriarchy is in contradiction to Proudhon’s own stated principles. Second, the extension of Proudhon’s critique of property beyond his market socialism to communist conclusions, predating the rise of anarchist-communism in the First International by over twenty years.

Unfortunately, in the United States “libertarian” has become associated with the far right, by supporters of “free-market” capitalism. That defenders of the hierarchy associated with private property seek to associate the word with their authoritarian system is both unfortunate and unbelievable to any genuine libertarian. Worse, thanks to the power of money and the relative small size of the anarchist movement in America, this appropriation of the term has become, to a large extent, the default meaning there. Somewhat ironically, this results in some right-wing “libertarians” complaining that we genuine libertarians have “stolen” their name in order to associate our socialist ideas with it!

Here we expand on our previous account and discuss why the right-wing appropriation of the word is wrong not only because of its history but also according to their own ideology. In doing so we show why the left should reclaim libertarian and why the right should refuse to use it. We also indicate that latter is optimistic at best despite it being consistent with their own ideology.

Joseph Déjacque: “Be frankly, fully anarchist”

Joseph Déjacque (1821-1864) wrote in response to Proudhon’s attack on the French feminist Jenny d’Héricourt (1809-1875) and entitled his 1857 critique De l’être-humain mâle et femelle (On the Male and Female Human Being). He is one of those figures who deserves better than just a passing mention or relegated to a footnote in the histories of anarchism for he was a precursor of anarchist-communism whose fiery rhetoric and fierce logic remains largely unknown in the English-language movement.

Déjacque rightly denounced Proudhon for his repulsive sexism and showed how Proudhon’s position was at odds with his own principles. He invited him to become “frankly and completely an anarchist” by giving up all forms of authority and property – and so demonstrated that he was a much more astute reader of Proudhon than many others, then and since. The word libertarian was used to describe this consistent anarchism which rejected all private and public hierarchies along with property in the products of labour as well as the means of production.

To fully appreciate Déjacque’s critique we must sketch Proudhon’s ideas.

Proudhon is best known for 1840’s What is Property? and this book laid the foundations for his subsequent works as well as all forms of modern anarchism. As is well known, this work concluded that “property is theft.” This is for two reasons. First, the common heritage of humanity – the land, the means of production – is appropriated by the few. Second, this results in a situation where the worker “has sold and surrendered his liberty” to the property-owner who acquires “the products of his employees’ labour” and “unjustly” profits from their collective toil. If the “worker is proprietor of the value which he creates” then this does not occur under capitalism and to achieve it “all accumulated capital being social property, no one can be its exclusive proprietor.” So all workers “are proprietors of their products” while “not one is proprietor of the means of production”. If the “right to product is exclusive” then “the right to means is common” for “[i]f the right of life is equal, the right of labour is equal, and so is the right of occupancy”. (Property is Theft!, 117-8, 112, 95)

Less well known is the second conclusion, that “property is despotism.” Property “violates equality by the rights of exclusion and increase, and freedom by despotism” and proprietor was “synonymous” with “sovereign” for he “imposes his will as law, and suffers neither contradiction nor control” for “each proprietor is sovereign lord within the sphere of his property”. Anarchy, in contrast, was “the absence of a master, of a sovereign”. As he put it in 1846: “property, which should make us free, makes us prisoners. What am I saying? It degrades us, by making us servants and tyrants to one another.” (133, 132, 135, 248)

Thus property is rejected for two interlinked reasons – it produces oppressive and exploitative relationships between people. The “abolition of man’s exploitation of his fellow-man and abolition of man’s government of his fellow-man” were “one and the same proposition” for “what, in politics, goes under the name of Authority is analogous to and synonymous with what is termed, in political economy, Property”. These “two notions overlap one with the other and are identical”. The “principle of AUTHORITY [was] articulated through property and through the State” and so “an attack upon one is an attack upon the other.” Association had to replace both otherwise people “would remain related as subordinates and superiors, and there would ensue two industrial castes of masters and wage-workers, which is repugnant to a free and democratic society.” (503-6, 583)

Déjacque took aim at the great contradiction in Proudhon’s ideas, namely his vigorous defence of patriarchy. Here was an association – the family – in which there would remain “subordinates and superiors,” masters and servants. In contrast to his penetrating critique of property and State, this specific subordinate relationship was based on, and defended by, the crudest sexism.

As can be seen from his Open Letter, Déjacque is very familiar with Proudhon’s work – and what would annoy him. His starts with an obvious reference to the masthead of Proudhon paper from the 1848 revolution, Le Representant du Peuple (“What is the Producer? Nothing. What should he be? Everything!”) before proclaiming Proudhon a moderate (“juste-milieu”) anarchist, “a liberal” rather than a “real anarchist” or “LIBERTARIAN” knowing that juste milieu (“middle way” or “happy medium”) was used to describe centrist political philosophies that try to find a balance between extremes. It was associated with the French July Monarchy (1830–1848) which ostensibly tried to strike a balance between autocracy and democracy: “We will attempt to remain in a juste milieu, in an equal distance from the excesses of popular power and the abuses of royal power” (in the words of King Louis-Philippe).

So just as the tensions between monarchical principles and republican ideals was unsustainable and the regime was overthrown in the 1848 Revolution, so Déjacque hoped that the obvious contradictions between Proudhon’s anarchy for the community and the workplace but patriarchy for the home would likewise be rejected in favour of a consistent anarchy. The notion that the family should be excluded from free and equal association was untenable, an affront to both logic and liberty. Hence libertarian – to place liberty within any association we may freely decide to join at the forefront.

His other innovation was to extend Proudhon’s critique of property from the instruments of labour to the products of labour. While recognising that Proudhon’s market socialism – worker co-operatives selling their products to other workers – may be required immediately after a revolution, he argued twenty years before Kropotkin and Reclus that this was not the best we could aim for. Deeds do not reflect needs and freedom was best defended by free access to both the means of life and the products created using them. As he put it in “Exchange” which appeared in Le Libertaire during 1858:

“In principle, should the labourers have the produce of their labour?

“I do not hesitate to say: No! although I know that a multitude of workers will cry out. Look, proletarians, cry out, shout as much as you like, but then listen to me:

“No, it is not the product of their labours to which the workers have a right. It is the satisfaction of their needs, whatever the nature of those needs.

“To have the possession of the product of our labour is not to have possession of that which is proper to us, it is to have property in a product made by our hands, and which could be proper to others and not to us. And isn’t all property theft?” (15)

As would be expected with a short letter, his critique needs to be developed. His sketch of communist-anarchism is too dependent on harmonic coincidences in terms of equating production and consumption even if it does highlight an important issue – needs and deeds do not equate. Proudhon recognised that freedom required that the ownership of the means of life (workplace, land, sea) had to be common to avoid hierarchical relationships, Déjacque went further to argue that for a full life the products also had to be.

Before discussing the subsequent use of libertaire, we must note that for all his justified onslaught against Proudhon’s sexism, his defence of d’Héricourt was not completely free of it. Most obviously, it is marked by an ever-so-gallant desire to protect someone who could and did put Proudhon in his place by herself – d’Héricourt was a leading socialist of the Cabet faction, feminist activist, writer, a physician-midwife, a participant (like Déjacque and Proudhon) of the Revolution of 1848 who wrote replies to the sexist essays of Proudhon, amongst others.

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