War And Peace by Proudhon [Book Review]

We are deep in the bowels of militarism. Aged 95, General Frank Kitson is drawing his pension for bloody services rendered to Empire – the terror inflicted in Kenya, Malaysia and Ireland. The SAS, we learned recently, ran death squads in Afghanistan, as part of the USA’s ‘security mission’. Meanwhile, so-called progressives fawn over the Duke of Sussex in uniform (Jack Monroe), or gloat over the numbers of Russian soldiers killed in NATO’s proxy war in Ukraine (Nicola Sturgeon). Nuclear weapons strong enough to kill millions are driven in black truck convoys on our motorways and fed into the submarines in Faslane, always ready to fire. Britain’s global military export licences since 2008 have reached the value of £54bn – the profits are uncounted. Compare that with the £5.8bn in the global peace building budget of the United Nations. Militarism, that word which names it all, so absent from the centenary commemorations of WWI, was coined by P-J Proudhon in his book War and Peace of 1861.

Many a stimulating yet unhappy hour can be spent with this book, pondering the wars in Yemen, Syria or Ukraine and the prospects for world peace. Proudhon’s insights are still relevant, even after the 20th Century sprouted tyrannical state powers and weapons which he could only have dreamt of. He tries to understand why war persists, and how it is so important to our societies and institutions. He is unafraid to draw unpleasant conclusions. He wants to pose the problems in a free way, free even from his biases, therefore without a ‘socialist flavour’ (p48). 

Proudhon believes that war is foundational to human societies: ‘[it] is plain that war has deep roots, scarcely discernible, in the religious, juridical, aesthetic and moral sentiments of peoples.’ (p107) We cannot reduce war and society’s institutions that spring from it to barbarism, also we cannot easily limit war by relying on external and so-called superior powers such as law and reason. Living in society is already conflict and that is why war cannot be reformed or abolished at the stroke of a pen: ‘the social state is always a state of war’ (p75). The tension between capital and labour, lender and borrower, the clash of opinions, it is all antagonism and conflict. Peace at all cost, bad peace, unjust peace is for Proudhon despicable – war can be one way to improve society: 

But for my heartfelt belief in the Revolution, I would refrain, as I would from blasphemy, from uttering a word against war: I would regard the devotees of perpetual peace as the most despicable of hypocrites, the scourge of civilization and a blight upon societies.’ (p85)

Running against ideas which were prevalent at the time, for Proudhon there are no providential powers (‘reason’, ‘good’ or ‘progress’) which shape the arc of human history. Instead, societies and their institutions and the future are shaped by a materialist ‘immanence’ and one of those immanent forces is war. War has its own laws, dating back thousands of years, which are linked to our human instinct to see force as something which both enshrines a right and has the ability to make right (p130):

[War is not] the insult from one triggering the self-defence of the other; it is a principle, an institution, a belief, and we are one step away from saying a doctrine […] Speaking through the mouths of nations, war affirms its reason, its righteousness, its jurisdiction and its function; it is this that we have to penetrate.’ (p118)

Against most philosophical and enlightened opinions and legal norms of his time, Proudhon asserts the primacy of the right of force which finds its shape and habits in war. The right of war is that which founds states, upholds the rights of peoples, underpins all laws and international treaties and ‘…if there is no right of war in the strict sense of the term, then the whole of history becomes inexplicable and nonsensical.’ (p132) War, as a judgement delivered by force, is not simply ‘might makes right’, because justice is a force immanent to our nature (p156). Running through religion, philosophy and science, justice is this ‘potentiality in our soul’ which ‘has us craving public order above all else’ (p157) and which Proudhon sees as a stronger bond than familial ones or selfish interests.

The term Proudhon uses to describe the central cause of war is pauperism, and he uses it in a complex, provocative way, like his use of the word militarism. His understanding of pauperism is sophisticated and illustrated with examples from many centuries and countries. Attacking the 19th Century vision of unstoppable progress (which persists nowadays as ‘full luxury communism’), Proudhon rails against the nexus of: inequality, consumerism and the proliferation of ever-new needs, immiseration, proletarisation, bloated government institutions and expenditures, parasitism etc. Pauperism leads to ‘the rupture of the economic equilibrium’, a domestic state of affairs which then leads to wars between states. These wars perpetuate the social domination of the rich. We can beat pauperism with a new set of values, a new temperance, an embrace of modesty and asceticism. While offering practical methods to eradicate inequality and class disparities, it is notable that Proudhon speaks of the necessity of spiritual change, alongside a transformation of mindsets and habits. This has obvious parallels with contemporary responses to the challenge of ecological collapse.

In one of the book’s most hopeful passages, Proudhon imagines England defeating and occupying France (p431). The occupying force then takes measures to destroy France’s arsenal and their weapons’ capabilities, forgives all debts, handing the land over to the peasants in freehold parcels. The occupiers pass the main industries into workers’ ownership and reinstate the 12 nations which were absorbed into the French Empire (Normandy, Flanders etc.). All centralised power is dissolved and federated to the 12 nations who now control their own education, judiciary and finances. Lastly, all centralised metropolitan power in Paris is destroyed and dissolved, all its institutions and monuments, above all ‘Paris as an idea’. Nationalism would wither and a great state would disappear, but the benefits would be many: the causes of war would be removed, it would be a more just society with different ideas of its purpose ready to flourish. Thus the recipe against militarism is sketched out as a reduction in the extremes of inequality and a sharing of the collective product by the producers. In addition, crucially, the oppressive force of the monolithic state and its organs of bureaucracy and subjection would be replaced by consensual federalism.

Many of Proudhon’s insights have stood the test of time. Anyone meditating on the reasons for the unravelling of various institutional and legalistic efforts towards world peace would find this book helpful. When Russia invades Ukraine, or the USA invades Iraq, or India and China do military exercises on Russian territory, they are all asserting the right of war and the right of force. Prophetic and precise questions he poses (p191) about the ‘rights of peoples’ (self-determination, state claims, supranational bodies etc.) really came into their own in the middle of the 20th Century. In saying that the force of states comes before any international laws or bodies, Proudhon lays the groundwork for the idea of ‘anarchy’ in International Relations theory. This is the idea that the world lacks any supreme authority or power that can resolve conflict or impose order or law. States face each other, often on the battlefield.

When it comes to considering future, as yet uninvented, ‘infernal machines’, Proudhon – again, prophetically – describes the implications of technological supremacy:

Once weapons have reached the point where numbers and discipline, as well as courage, no longer mean anything in warfare, it is farewell to majority rule, farewell to universal suffrage, farewell to the empire, farewell to the republic, farewell to government of any form. It will be power to the most villainous.’ (p282)

Because he uses principles from the ancient world (mainly Rome) updated to the 19th Century, giving the devil his full due, this book can help towards a free-thinking analysis of our present moment. The many historical examples he provides are often provocative, irreverent and detailed. Sadly, Proudhon’s sexism and racism are in the commonplace mould of his time. Nevertheless, in this book he laid the groundwork for the extensive anti-militarist thought of socialists and anarchists like Karl Liebknecht and Bart de Ligt who take force and war very seriously in thinking about how to achieve peace. This book, and Proudhon himself, left such a mark on Leo Tolstoy that he decided to change the name of his serialised novel The Year 1805 to War and Peace. What a fan-boy.
This new translation is meticulously presented, with detailed commentary contextualising many of the historical figures and events. Prichard’s introduction is helpful in presenting this serious set of provocations and meditations on war and peace.

Coco Shrapnel

War And Peace – On the Principle and Constitution of the Rights of Peoples by Pierre-Joseph Proudhon
AK Press ISBN-13: 9781849354684
528pp https://www.akpress.org/war-and-peace.html