Letter to Pavel Vasilyevich Annenkov, 28.12.1846

Proletarians of all countries, unite!
There is one goal, the conquest of power!

LETTER TO PAVEL VASILYEVICH ANNENKOV

Karl Marx
28.12.1846

Collected Works, Vol. 38
Lawrence & Wishart
Reproduced by
The Red Flag

LETTER TO PAVEL VASILYEVICH ANNENKOV

Marx wrote this letter in reply to the request of his Russian acquaintance Pavel Vasilyevich Annenkov for his opinion on Proudhon‘s „System of Economic Contradictions, or The Philosophy of Poverty“. On the 1st of November, 1846 Annenkov wrote to Marx, concerning Proudhon‘s book: „I admit that the actual plan of the work seems to be a jeu d‘esprit, designed to give a glimpse of German philosophy, rather than something grown naturally out of the subject and requirements of its logical development.“ Marx‘s profound and precise criticism of Proudhon‘s views, and his exposition of dialectical and materialist views to counterbalance them, produced a strong impression even on Annenkov, who was far from materialism and communism. He wrote to Marx on the 6th of January, 1847: „Your opinion of Proudhon‘s book produced a truly invigorating effect on me by its preciseness, its clarity, and above all its tendency to keep within the bounds of reality.“ When in 1880 Annenkov published his reminiscences „Remarkable Decade 1838-48“, in the Vestnik Yevropy, he included in them long extracts from Marx‘s letter. In 1883, the year when Marx died, these extracts, translated into German, were published in The New Age and the New York People‘s Gazette. The original has not been found. The first English translation of this letter was published in Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Correspondence, 1846-95, Martin Lawrence Ltd., London. 1934.

My dear Mr. Annenkov,

You would long since have had a reply to your letter of the 1st of November had not my bookseller delayed sending me Mr. Proudhon‘s book, „The Philosophy of Poverty, until last week. I skimmed through it in two days so as to be able to give you my opinion straight away. Having read the book very cursorily, I cannot go into details but can only let you have the general impression it made on me. Should you so desire, I could go into it in greater detail in another letter.

To be frank, I must admit that I find the book on the whole poor, if not very poor. You yourself make fun in your letter of the „little bit of German philosophy“ paraded by Mr. Proudhon in this amorphous and overweening work, but you assume that the economic argument has remained untainted by the philosophic poison. Therefore I am by no means inclined to ascribe the faults of the economic argument to Mr. Proudhon‘s philosophy. Mr. Proudhon does not provide a false critique of political economy because his philosophy is absurd — he produces an absurd philosophy because he has not understood present social conditions in their engrènement,1 to use a word which Mr. Proudhon borrows from Fourier, like so much else.

Why does Mr. Proudhon speak of God, of universal reason, of humanity‘s impersonal reason which is never mistaken, which has at all times been equal to itself and of which one only has to be correctly aware in order to arrive at truth? Why does he indulge in feeble Hegelianism in order to set himself up as an esprit fort?2

He himself provides the key to this enigma. Mr. Proudhon sees in history a definite series of social developments; he finds progress realised in history; finally, he finds that humans, taken as individuals, did not know what they were about, were mistaken as to their own course, that is, that their social development appears at first sight to be something distinct, separate and independent of their individual development. He is unable to explain these facts, and the hypothesis of universal reason made manifest is ready to hand. Nothing is easier than to invent mystical causes, that is, phrases in which common sense is lacking.

But in admitting his total incomprehension of the historical development of humanity — and he admits as much in making use of high-flown expressions such as universal reason, God, and so on — does not Mr. Proudhon admit, implicitly and of necessity, his inability to understand economic development?

What is society, irrespective of its form? The product of the interaction of humans upon humans. Are humans free to choose this or that form of society? By no means. If you assume a given state of development of human productive faculties, you will have a corresponding form of commerce and consumption. If you assume given stages of development in production, commerce or consumption, you will have a corresponding form of social constitution, a corresponding organisation, whether of the family, of the estates or of the classes — in a word, a corresponding civil society. If you assume this or that civil society, you will have this or that political system, which is but the official expression of civil society. This is something Mr. Proudhon will never understand, for he imagines he‘s doing something great when he appeals from the State to civil society, that is, to official society from the official epitome of society.

Needless to say, humanity is not free to choose its productive forces — upon which its whole history is based — for every productive force is an acquired force, the product of previous activity. Thus the productive forces are the result of humanity‘s practical energy, but that energy is in turn circumscribed by the conditions in which humanity is placed by the productive forces already acquired, by the form of society which exists before it, which it does not create, which is the product of the preceding generation. The simple fact that every succeeding generation finds productive forces acquired by the preceding generation and which serve it as the raw material of further production, engenders a relatedness in the history of humanity, engenders a history of humanity, which is all the more a history of humanity as humanity‘s productive forces, and hence its social relations, have expanded. From this it can only be concluded that the social history of humanity is never anything else than the history of its individual development, whether it is conscious of this or not. Its material relations form the basis of all its relations. These material relations are but the necessary forms in which his material and individual activity is realised.

Mr. Proudhon confuses ideas and things. Humanity never renounces what it has gained, but this does not mean that it never renounces the form of society in which it has acquired certain productive forces. On the contrary. If it is not to be deprived of the results obtained or to forfeit the fruits of civilisation, humanity is compelled to change all its traditional social forms as soon as the mode of commerce ceases to correspond to the productive forces acquired. Here I use the word commerce in its widest sense — as we would say Verkehr in German. For instance, privilege, the institution of guilds and corporations, the regulatory system of the Middle Ages, were the only social relations that corresponded to the acquired productive forces and to the pre-existing social conditions from which those institutions had emerged. Protected by the corporative and regulatory system, capital had accumulated, maritime trade had expanded, colonies had been founded — and humanity would have lost the very fruits of all this had it wished to preserve the forms under whose protection those fruits had ripened. And, indeed, two thunderclaps occurred, the revolutions of 1640 and of 1688. In England, all the earlier economic forms, the social relations corresponding to them, and the political system which was the official expression of the old civil society, were destroyed. Thus, the economic forms in which humanity produces, consumes and exchanges aretransitory and historical. With the acquisition of new productive faculties humanity changes its mode of production and with the mode of production it changes all the economic relations which were but the necessary relations of that particular mode of production.

It is this that Mr. Proudhon has failed to understand, let alone demonstrate. Unable to follow the real course of history, Mr. Proudhon provides a phantasmagoria which he has the presumption to present as a dialectical phantasmagoria. He no longer feels any need to speak of the 17th, 18th or 19th centuries, for his history takes place in the nebulous realm of the imagination and soars high above time and place. In a word, it is Hegelian trash, it is not history, it is not profane history — history of humanity, but sacred history — history of ideas. As seen by him, humanity is but the instrument used by the idea of eternal reason in order to unfold itself. The evolutions of which Mr. Proudhon speaks are presumed to be evolutions such as take place in the mystical bosom of the absolute idea. If the veil of this mystical language be rent, it will be found that what Mr. Proudhon gives us is the order in which economic categories are arranged within his mind. It would require no great effort on my part to prove to you that this arrangement is the arrangement of a very disorderly mind.

Mr. Proudhon opens his book with a dissertation on value which is his hobby-horse. For the time being I shall not embark upon an examination of that dissertation.

The series of eternal reason‘s economic evolutions begins with the division of labour. For Mr. Proudhon, the division of labour is something exceedingly simple. But was not the caste system a specific division of labour? And was not the corporative system another division of labour? And is not the division of labour in the manufacturing system, which began in England in the middle of the 17th century and ended towards the end of the 18th century, likewise entirely distinct from the division of labour in big industry, in modern industry?

Mr. Proudhon is so far from the truth that he neglects to do what even profane economists do. In discussing the division of labour, he feels no need to refer to the world market. Well! Must not the division of labour in the 14th and 15th centuries, when there were as yet no colonies, when America was still non-existent for Europe, and when Eastern Asia existed only through the mediation of Constantinople, have been utterly different from the division of labour in the 17th century, when colonies were already developed?

And that is not all. Is the whole internal organisation of nations, are their international relations, anything but the expression of a given division of labour? And must they not change as the division of labour changes?

Mr. Proudhon has so little understood the question of the division of labour that he does not even mention the separation of town and country which occurred in Germany, for instance, between the 9th and 12th centuries. Thus, to Mr. Proudhon, that separation must be an eternal law because he is unaware either of its origin or of its development. Throughout his book he speaks as though this creation of a given mode of production were to last till the end of time. All that Mr. Proudhon says about the division of labour is but a resume, and a very superficial and very incomplete resume at that, of what Adam Smith and a thousand others said before him.

The second evolution is machinery. With Mr. Proudhon, the relation between the division of labour and machinery is a wholly mystical one. Each one of the modes of the division of labour had its specific instruments of production. For instance, between the mid-17th and mid-18th century humanity did not make everything by hand. It had tools and very intricate ones, such as looms, ships, levers, and so on, and so forth.

Thus nothing could be more absurd than to see machinery as deriving from the division of labour in general.

In passing I should also point out that, not having understood the historical origin of machinery, Mr. Proudhon has still less understood its development. Up till 1825 — when the first general crisis occurred — it might be said that the requirements of consumption as a whole were growing more rapidly than production, and that the development of machinery was the necessary consequence of the needs of the market. Since 1825, the invention and use of machinery resulted solely from the war between masters and workers. But this is true only of England. As for the European nations, they were compelled to use machinery by the competition they were encountering from the English, in their home markets as much as in the world market. Finally, where North America was concerned, the introduction of machinery was brought about both by competition with other nations and by scarcity of labour, that is, by the disproportion between the population and the industrial requirements of North America. From this you will be able to see what wisdom Mr. Proudhon evinces when he conjures up the spectre of competition as the third evolution, as the antithesis of machinery!

Finally, and generally speaking, it is truly absurd to make machinery an economic category alongside the division of labour, competition, credit, and so on.

Machinery is no more an economic category than the ox who draws the plough. The present use of machinery is one of the relations of our present economic system, but the way in which machinery is exploited is quite distinct from the machinery itself. Powder is still powder, whether you use it to wound a person or to dress their wounds.

Mr. Proudhon surpasses himself in causing to grow inside his own brain competition, monopoly, taxes or police, balance of trade, credit and property in the order I have given here. Nearly all the credit institutions had been developed in England by the beginning of the 18th century, before the invention of machinery. State credit was simply another method of increasing taxes and meeting the new requirements created by the rise to power of the bourgeois class. Finally, property constitutes the last category in Mr. Proudhon‘s system. In the really existing world, on the other hand, the division of labour and all Mr. Proudhon‘s other categories are social relations which together go to make up what is now known as property; outside these relations bourgeois property is nothing but a metaphysical or juridical illusion. The property of another epoch, feudal property, developed in a wholly different set of social relations. In establishing property as an independent relation, Mr. Proudhon is guilty of more than a methodological error: he clearly proves his failure to grasp the bond linking all forms of bourgeois production, or to understand the historical and transitory nature of the forms of production in any one epoch. Failing to see our historical institutions as historical products and to understand either their origin or their development, Mr. Proudhon can only subject them to a dogmatic critique.

Hence Mr. Proudhon is compelled to resort to a fiction in order to explain development. He imagines that the division of labour, credit, machinery, and so on, were all invented in the service of his idée fixe,3 the idea of equality. His explanation is sublimely naive. These things were invented for the sake of, equality, but unfortunately they have turned against equality. That is the whole of his argument. In other words, he makes a gratuitous assumption and, because actual development contradicts his fiction at every turn, he concludes that there is a contradiction. He conceals the fact that there is a contradiction only between his idée fixes, and the real movement.

Thus Mr. Proudhon chiefly because he doesn‘t know history, fails to see that, in developing his productive faculties, that is, in living, humanity develops certain inter-relations, and that the nature of these relations necessarily changes with the modification and the growth of the said productive faculties. He fails to see that economic categories are but abstractions of those real relations, that they are truths only in so far as those relations continue to exist. Thus he falls into the error of bourgeois economists who regard those economic categories as eternal laws and not as historical laws which are laws only for a given historical development, a specific development of the productive forces. Thus, instead of regarding politico-economic categories as abstractions of actual social relations that are transitory and historical, Mr. Proudhon, by a mystical inversion, sees in the real relations only the embodiment of those abstractions. Those abstractions are themselves formulas which have been slumbering in the bosom of God the Father since the beginning of the world.

But here our good Mr. Proudhon falls prey to severe intellectual convulsions. If all these economic categories are emanations of God‘s heart, if they are the hidden and eternal life of humanity, how is it, first, that there is any development and, secondly, that Mr. Proudhon is not a conservative? He explains these evident contradictions in terms of a whole system of antagonisms.

In order to explain this system of antagonisms, let us take an example.

Monopoly is good because it is an economic category, hence an emanation of God. Competition is good because it, too, is an economic category. But what is not good is the reality of monopoly and the reality of competition. And what is even worse is that monopoly and competition mutually devour each other. What is to be done about it? Because these two eternal thoughts of God contradict each other, it seems clear to him that, in God‘s bosom, there is likewise a synthesis of these two thoughts in which the evils of monopoly are balanced by competition and vice versa. The result of the struggle between the two ideas will be that only the good aspects will be thrown into relief. This secret idea need only be wrested from God and put into practice and all will be for the best; the synthetic formula concealed in the night of humanity‘s impersonal reason must be revealed. Mr. Proudhon does not hesitate for a moment to act as revealer.

But take a brief glance at real life. In present-day economic life you will find, not only competition and monopoly, but also their synthesis, which is not a formula but a movement. Monopoly produces competition, competition produces monopoly. That equation, however, far from alleviating the difficulties of the present situation, as bourgeois economists suppose, gives rise to a situation even more difficult and involved. Thus, by changing the basis upon which the present economic relations rest, by abolishing the present mode of production, you abolish not only competition, monopoly and their antagonism, but also their unity, their synthesis, the movement whereby a true balance is maintained between competition and monopoly.

Let me now give you an example of Mr. Proudhon‘s dialectics.

Freedom and slavery constitute an antagonism. There is no need for me to speak either of the good or of the bad aspects of freedom. As for slavery, there is no need for me to speak of its bad aspects. The only thing requiring explanation is the good side of slavery. I do not mean indirect slavery, the slavery of proletariat; I mean direct slavery, the slavery of the Blacks in Suriname, in Brazil, in the southern regions of North America.

Direct slavery is as much the pivot upon which our present-day industrialism turns as are machinery, credit, and so on. Without slavery there would be no cotton, without cotton there would be no modern industry. It is slavery which has given value to the colonies, it is the colonies which have created world trade, and world trade is the necessary condition for large-scale machine industry. Consequently, prior to the slave trade, the colonies sent very few products to the Old World, and did not noticeably change the face of the world. Slavery is therefore an economic category of paramount importance. Without slavery, North America, the most progressive nation, would be transformed into a patriarchalist country. Only wipe North America off the map and you will get anarchy, the complete decay of trade and modern civilisation. But to do away with slavery would be to wipe America off the map. Being an economic category, slavery has existed in all nations since the beginning of the world. All that modern nations have achieved is to disguise slavery at home and import it openly into the New World. After these reflections on slavery, what will the good Mr. Proudhon do? He will seek the synthesis of liberty and slavery, the true golden mean, in other words the balance between slavery and liberty.

Mr. Proudhon understands perfectly well that men manufacture worsted, linens and silks; and whatever credit is due for understanding such a trifle! What Mr. Proudhon does not understand is that, according to their faculties, humans also produce the social relations in which they produce worsted and linens. Still less does Mr. Proudhon understand that those who produce social relations in conformity with their material productivity also produce the ideas, categories, that is, the ideal abstract expressions of those same social relations. Indeed, the categories are no more eternal than the relations they express. They are historical and transitory products. To Mr. Proudhon, on the contrary, the prime cause consists in abstractions and categories. According to him it is these and not men which make history. The abstraction, the category regarded as such, that is, as distinct from humanity and its material activity, is, of course, immortal, immutable, impassive. It is nothing but an entity of pure reason, which is only another way of saying that an abstraction, regarded as such, is abstract. An admirable tautology!

Hence, to Mr. Proudhon, economic relations, seen in the form of categories, are eternal formulas without origin or progress.

To put it another way: Mr. Proudhon does not directly assert that to him bourgeois life is an eternal truth; he says so indirectly, by deifying the categories which express bourgeois relations in the form of thought. He regards the products of bourgeois society as spontaneous entities, endowed with a life of their own, eternal, the moment these present themselves to him in the shape of categories, of thought. Thus he fails to rise above the bourgeois horizon. Because he operates with bourgeois thoughts and assumes them to be eternally true, he looks for the synthesis of those thoughts, their balance, and fails to see that their present manner of maintaining a balance is the only possible one.

In fact he does what all good bourgeois do. They all maintain that competition, monopoly, and so on, are, in principle — that is, regarded as abstract thoughts — the only basis for existence, but leave a great deal to be desired in practice. What they all want is competition without the pernicious consequences of competition. They all want the impossible, that is, the conditions of bourgeois existence without the necessary consequences of those conditions. They all fail to understand that the bourgeois form of production is an historical and transitory form, just as was the feudal form. This mistake is due to the fact that, to them, bourgeois human is the only possible basis for any society, and that they cannot envisage a state of society in which humanity will have ceased to be bourgeois.

Hence Mr. Proudhon is necessarily doctrinaire. The historical movement by which the present world is convulsed resolves itself, so far as he is concerned, into the problem of discovering the right balance, the synthesis of two bourgeois thoughts. Thus, by subtlety, the clever fellow discovers God‘s secret thought, the unity of two isolated thoughts which are isolated thoughts only because Mr. Proudhon has isolated them from practical life, from present-day production, which is the combination of the realities they express. In place of the great historical movement which is born of the conflict between the productive forces already acquired by man, and his social relations which no longer correspond to those productive forces, in the place of the terrible wars now imminent between the various classes of a nation and between the various nations, in place of practical and violent action on the part of the masses, which is alone capable of resolving those conflicts, in place of that movement — vast, prolonged and complex — Mr. Proudhon puts the cacky-dauphin4 movement of his own mind. Thus it is the savants, the men able to filch from God his inmost thoughts, who make history. All the lesser fry have to do is put their revelations into practice.

Now you will understand why Mr. Proudhon is the avowed enemy of all political movements. For him, the solution of present-day problems does not consist in public action but in the dialectical rotations of his brain. Because to him the categories are the motive force, it is not necessary to change practical life in order to change the categories; on the contrary, it is necessary to change the categories, whereupon actual society will change as a result.

In his desire to reconcile contradictions Mr. Proudhon does not ask himself whether the very basis of those contradictions ought not to be subverted. He is exactly like the political doctrinaire who wants a king and a chamber of deputies and a chamber of peers as integral parts of social life, as eternal categories. Only he seeks a new formula with which to balance those powers (whose balance consists precisely in the actual movement in which one of those powers is now the conqueror now the slave of the other). In the eighteenth century, for instance, a whole lot of mediocre minds busied themselves with finding the true formula with which to maintain a balance between the social estates, the nobility, the king, the parliaments5 and so on, and the next day there was neither king, nor parliament, nor nobility. The proper balance between the aforesaid antagonisms consisted in the convulsion of all the social relations which served as a basis for those feudal entities and for the antagonism between those feudal entities.

Because Mr. Proudhon posits on the one hand eternal ideas, the categories of pure reason, and, on the other, humanity and its practical life which according to him, is the practical application of these categories, you will find in him from the very outset a dualism between life and ideas, between soul and body — a dualism which recurs in many forms. So you now see that the said antagonism is nothing other than Mr. Proudhon‘s inability to understand either the origin or the profane history of the categories he has deified.

My letter is already too long for me to mention the absurd case Mr. Proudhon is conducting against communism. For the present you will concede that a person who has failed to understand the present state of society must be even less able to understand either the movement which tends to overturn it or the literary expression of that revolutionary movement.

The only point upon which I am in complete agreement with Mr. Proudhon is the disgust he feels for socialist sentimentalising. I anticipated him in provoking considerable hostility by the ridicule I directed at ovine, sentimental, utopian socialism. But is not Mr. Proudhon subject to strange delusions when he opposes his small-bourgeois sentimentality, by which I mean his homilies about home, conjugal love and suchlike banalities, to socialist sentimentality which — as for instance in Fourier‘s case — is infinitely more profound than the presumptuous platitudes of our worthy Proudhon? He himself is so well aware of the emptiness of his reasoning, of his complete inability to discuss such things, that he indulges in tantrums, exclamations and irae hominis probi,6 that he fumes, cures, denounces, cries pestilence and infamy, thumps his chest and glorifies himself before God and humanity as being innocent of socialist infamies! It is not as a critic that he derides socialist sentimentalities, or what he takes to be sentimentalities. It is as a saint, a pope, that he excommunicates the poor sinners and sings the praises of the small bourgeoisie and of the miserable patriarchalist amourous illusions of the domestic hearth. Nor is this in any way fortuitous. Mr. Proudhon is, from top to toe, a philosopher, an economist of the small bourgeoisie. In an advanced society and because of his situation, a small bourgeois becomes a socialist on the one hand, and economist on the other, that is, he is dazzled by the magnificence of the upper middle classes and feels compassion for the sufferings of the people.

He is at one and the same time bourgeois and person of the people. In his heart of hearts he prides himself on his impartiality, on having found the correct balance, allegedly distinct from the happy medium. A small bourgeois of this kind deifies contradiction, for contradiction is the very basis of his being. He is nothing but social contradiction in action. He must justify by means of theory what he is in practice, and Mr. Proudhon has the merit of being the scientific exponent of the French small bourgeoisie, which is a real merit since the small bourgeoisie will be an integral part of all the impending social revolutions.

With this letter I should have liked to send you my book on political economy, but up till now I have been unable to have printed either this work or the critique of German philosophers and socialists7 which I mentioned to you in Brussels. You would never believe what difficulties a publication of this kind runs into in Germany, on the one hand from the police, on the other from the booksellers, who are themselves the interested representatives of all those tendencies I attack. And as for our own Party, not only is it poor, but there is a large faction in the Communist Party of Germany which bears me a grudge because I am opposed to its utopias and its declaiming.

Ever yours,

CHARLES MARX

P.S. Perhaps you may wonder why I should be writing in bad French rather than in good German. It is because I am dealing with a French writer.

You would greatly oblige me by not keeping me waiting too long for a reply, as I am anxious to know whether you understand me wrapped up as I am in my barbarous French.


1Intermeshing.

2Strong intellect.

3Fixed idea.

4Here Marx uses the word „cacadauphin“ by which during the French revolution opponents of the absolutist regime derisively described the mustard-coloured cloth, recalling the colour of the Dauphin‘s napkins, made fashionable by Queen Marie Antoinette.

5Parliaments — juridical institutions which arose in France in the Middle Ages. They enjoyed the right to remonstrate government decrees. In the 17th and 18th centuries their members were officials of high birth called noblesse de robe (the nobility of the mantle). The parliaments, which finally became the bulwark of feudal opposition to absolutism and impeded the implementation of even moderate reforms, were abolished in 1790, during the French revolution.

6The anger of an upright human.

7See Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels: „The German Ideology“, 1845.