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In progress.

Sunday, 29 July 2012

To Besançon, to meet Proudhon.

I have a train booked for Besançon, on the French side of the border from the Jura mountains. It is where Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, who I have not spent much time with before, was born and began his political thought. My intention is to walk to the Swiss border, and from there to get somehow to the international anarchist conference in St.Imier. I am not yet sure this is feasible, but there is a good back-up in the train network back round and in through Basel. If I succeed in my little journey (time constraints mean there & back must all be done and past in 4 days), I shall blog it with the title being something like '_ miles, _ hours', the gaps being filled with however far and however long I travel. Watch this space!

For company, I will take a biography and written works of Proudhon. The extracts quoted below are all taken from the biographical sketch included in Iain McKay's Proudhon Reader, published by the anarchist publishing collective, AK Press.

Me and Proudhon have never been close. From my point of view, he's (a) a dusty old hero of the righteous cause, inaccessible, long-winded, long-past, and (b) just another of those comically-bearded dead chaps with a funny way of posing for photos.

Now he, being dead, and important, obviously doesn't care what I think of him, but the (a) and (b) above are part of the problem or the blockage or the weird alien-ness that I am trying to address with the anarchist pilgrimage. They are my problem, not his. It is hard to see the dead white bearded thinker before his time was past, his works recorded, his posterity sorted out and summarised and positioned against his opponents, the problems of his age, and the moving on of history. Same for Kropotin and Bakunin. And I am not really doing proper novel research that will compare against the grand tomes and traces that are left behind. 

I won't talk about his thoughts and ideas here, except as in regard to the sally I am going to make in August, to try and meet up with him. So, from Iain McKay's summary, let me list Proudhon's relationship with Besançon. As usual, this is more for my (Mike's) usage than yours (you the unknown stranger). It will help me not forget. Help keep me to my route. And as an aside to the Kropotkin-Bakunin pilgrimage, it will also help me to think through my relationship to these guys. Who are also dead. And also had famous beards.

"Pierre-Joseph Proudhon was born on 15th of January 1809 in the town of Besançon in Franche-Comté, a province in the east of France bordering the Jura region of Switzerland. Almost unique for his time, he was a major socialist thinker who was working class and he declared that his aim was to work “for the complete liberation of [his] brothers and comrades.” He lived in a period of massive social and economic change. The industrialisation of France was beginning (its full flowering came in the 1860s), he grew up surrounded by those who had taken part in the Revolution of 1789, experienced the July Revolution of 1830 and saw the birth of the French labour and socialist movements in the 1830s. All these influenced his ideas."

OK, so 'context', including the geographical as well as the historical context, as an influence and a part of his ideas. Before industrialisation - can we even imagine that context? I have so little relationship now to the items, the food and the furniture of my home, it is all taken care of by a globalised industrial non-human reality. Can I even imagine the worldview of those who saw this change coming, who responded to its threats and its possibilities, took its jobs, named it, and like Proudhon, tried to work out how to ethically and organisationally to respond and overcome it?

"After a brief period at the college in Besançon he was forced to leave school before completing his baccalaureate in order to support his family. In 1828 he became a working compositor; later he rose to be a corrector for the press. The following year he met utopian socialist Charles Fourier when supervising the printing of his Le Nouveau Monde Industriel et Sociétaire. Having several discussions with Fourier, he later recounted that for “six whole weeks” he was “the captive of this bizarre genius.” While rejecting Fourier’s utopian visions of perfect and regulated communities in favour of a “scientific socialism,” he had a lasting influence"

Fourier is a fascinating and irrelevant thinker. I still mean to get his categorisations of all the classes of 'cuckold' (for sale in the Baltic, weirdly), but I'd read it for entertainment, not education. 

For me - is the college still there? Where did he work? Which old buildings still stand? What are the public spaces of Besançon? The species of trees and the quality of the light? (getting a bit poncey there, I know, but you get what I mean!) And such a short biographical sketch is unclear - how often did he return to Besançon, what were his links there, his inspirations or sources of nourishment and concern?

"The turning point in Proudhon’s life came when, in 1838, he was awarded a scholarship to study in Paris by the Besançon Academy."

And that Parisian side of Proudhon's life (& his time in Lyons) I am not going to address right now. Suffice to say, he spoke out and made up a response to events - to war, industrialisation, the 1848 revolutions, the smug and cruel bourgeois veneer of democracy and the shame of a populist dictatorship (Louis Napoleon) taking over government - that stands him in great credit and taught the (not yet existing) anarchist movement how it could lay down a line of response and of thought which still, in its inner workings, is of relevance today.

His links to Besancon continued:

With his first famous work 'What is Property? An Inquiry into the Principle of Right and of Government' considered for prosecution but turned down for the same reasons as below, Proudhon's  "Third Memoir (Warning to Proprietors) was published in 1842 and answered criticisms by a follower of Fourier. This work was seized by the Besançon public prosecutor and Proudhon was charged with
     “1, Attacking Property; 
      2, Troubling the public peace by exciting mistrust or hatred of the citizens against one or more persons; 
      3, Exciting hatred and mistrust of the King’s Government; 
      4, Outrage to the Catholic religion.”
Proclaiming his work too hard to follow and not wishing to imprison someone due to misunderstanding their ideas, the jury refused to convict Proudhon."

What a great list of things to be charged with - what an honour, to be charged with such things. And what a get-off: it's too long-winded and complex to be a threat!

"In April 1848 he stood as a candidate in the elections for the Constituent Assembly with his name appearing on the ballots in Paris, Lyon, Besançon, and Lille. He proclaimed in his election manifesto that he regarded “Property is theft!” as “the greatest truth of the century” and that “the negation of property is necessary for the abolition of misery, for the emancipation of the proletariat.” Unsuccessful, he was not deterred and ran in the complementary elections held on June 4th and was duly elected."

To check: elected where? Presumably in the working-class districts of Paris, where he had most support. And lest we fear that Proudhon, being elected, became a part of the ruling elite, he put out his papers (repressed) and spoke out, face to face against hecklers, in the Assembly itself, arguing for 'social liquidation' and identifying himself with the workers in opposition to and against the other members of the Assembly, which of course then censured him.

Later came his prosecution for sedition, three years' imprisonment, further journalism and writings that built on the lessons learnt (against electoralism, for example, and for free federation as a model of organisation), the 'bank of the people', dictatorship, and exile in Belgium. At his funeral, thousands of Parisian workers followed his casket to the Montparnasse cemetery.

And to finish with one occasion from Proudhon's life to remember: the kind of show of respect, kinship and honour that Marx, for example, would never get from the workers:

"When the 1848 Revolution broke out, he helped build barricades and set the type for the first republican proclamation. A group of workers, fresh from the barricades and still armed with muskets, visited Proudhon and asked that he resume his plan to publish a newspaper. He agreed and Le Répresentant du Peuple (The Representative of the People) was born, its masthead proclaiming “What is the producer? Nothing! What should he be? Everything!” This was the first of four newspapers Proudhon edited during the revolution, all with “People” in their name and all suppressed by the state."

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