John Francis Bray

Lionel Walden Tutt'Art@ (44)

Back in early part of the summer I finally got around to looking into one of the so-called Ricardian socialists whom I was unfamiliar with – John Francis Bray. As it turns out, Bray’s status as a Ricardian socialist is disputed: unlike Thomas Hodgskin, John Gray, and others who suggested that a socialist society would naturally result from the proper application of laissez-faire principles (the sort of argument you later find in the writings of Benjamin Tucker and Kevin Carson, or at least in his early phase), Bray seemed less interested in the cultivation of the free market as the cure to society’s ails, and more so in a very idiosyncratic solution that drew from, but broke with, the organizing principles of early capitalism. Bray’s socialism was a kind of joint-stock socialism, something I find deeply humorous (and intriguing!) given the high premium placed upon this kind of corporate form in the writings of Mencius Moldbug and Nick Land.

Bray’s ideas were incubated during his time associated with Chartism, a working class reformist movement that emerged in Great Britain during the 1830s. He had been connected with the Chartist faction in Leeds that was centered around Feargus O’Connor and his newspaper, The Northern Star, which essentially served as the organ for O’Connor’s “Land Plan”. The Chartist movement had initially been catalyzed by the Reform Act of 1832 and the subsequent Poor Laws of 1834; the latter legislation had intended to eliminate various relief programs for the impoverished, while the former reinforced the requirement of land ownership for voting rights. O’Connor’s Land Plan aimed to remedy this state of affairs through peasant land ownership: 4 acres of land to working people and to the unemployed. The effect, O’Connor reasoned, would be three-fold: 1) it would bring those who had been barred from voting into the legislative mix, 2) it would lessen the dependency of the worker on the capitalist, and 3) it would shrink the numbers of what Marx would later describe as the ‘industrial reserve army of the unemployed’, which would in turn increase the bargaining power of those employed.

In order to finance and organize the venture, the National Land Company was established. Initially proposed as a “friendly society” – an economically-oriented mutual aid association – the company was formally launched as a joint stock corporation. Unsurprisingly, O’Connor’s plan was to ultimately be, for quite a few reasons, a dismal failure (check out this wikipedia list of flaws in the scheme for a good overview).

It’s hard to determine if the National Land Company and its joint-stock organization was indebted in any way to Bray. He had developed his ideas in essays in the Northern Star and in speeches given to Leeds’ Chartists – but the actual content of his vision was sweeping and comprehensive, in contrast to O’Connor’s piecemeal reformism. As the quote in the tweet above shows, Bray anticipated that the joint-stock model would operate beyond the division of the political and economic, with all production coming together through the joint-stock corporations and series of “alliances” between them that would be managed by trade boards. This transformation would be vast, as he described in his book Labour’s Wrongs and Labour’s Remedies:

Without, for the present, entering into a consideration of the possibility of effecting this change, let it for a moment be supposed that the whole five millions of the adult producers in the United Kingdom are formed into a number of joint-stock companies, containing from 100 to 1000 men each, according to locality and circumstance – that each of these companies is comprised of men of one trade, or confines its particular attention to the production or distribution of particular commodities – that these companies have in use, by hire and purchase, the land and fixed capital of the country – that they are set in motion and kept in motion by a circulating bank-note capital equivalent to £100 for each associated member of the community, which, taking into account the women and children connected together with the five million of producers, will comprise altogether, about twenty millions of individuals, and a capital of thousands pounds sterling. Supposing the productive classes of the United Kingdom to be thus associated together, for the production and distribution of wealth – that they trade together with a floating capital of £2,000,000,000 – that all their affairs are conducted through the instrumentality of general and local boards of trade, comprised of the most able and business-like men that can be found – that the members of the companies, after the manner of the present system, are paid weekly wages for their labour – what there is now accomplished in respect to production and distribution, either by joint-stock companies or individual capitalists, which could not likewise be accomplished by the productive classes thus associated?

These ideas were also partially influenced by the theories of the British Ricardian socialist John Gray, who was both an associate of the Chartist movement and of the various co-operative movements inspired by the efforts of Robert Owen. The circuit of influence here is important, because it is in this relationship that Marx glimpsed what he perceived to be the infrastructure of Proudhon’s thought, which he subjected to critique in The Poverty of Philosophy. “How deeply this utopia”, wrote Engels in his preface to the German edition of the work, “has struck roots in the way of thinking of the modern petty bourgeois – real or ideal – is proved by the fact that it was systematically developed by John Gray back in 1831”. Marx, meanwhile, declared in the second chapter of the critique to “have discovered in him [Bray] the key to the past, present and future works of M. Proudhon”.

Indeed, it’s easy to see in the efforts of people like Bray and Gray both the kind of crank reformism criticized by Marx and Engels in the Communist Manifesto, and – particularly in Bray’s joint-stock socialist model – something close to Proudhon’s ‘agro-industrial federation’ that, for him, would constitute the proper organization of industry after it had been transferred out of the hands of propertied and moneyed classes and into those of freely associating workers. Yet despite this, Bray’s influence appears to have lingered, not only within the American labor movement with which he later became actively involved in after immigrating to the continent, but with certain Marxists as well. Case in point was Marx’s son-in-law Paul Lafargue, who had the following to say in a 1897 essay titled “Socialism in France from 1876 to 1896”:

…they [bourgeois reformers during the Congress of 1876] proposed to avoid the rocks of socialism by advocating such methods of ameliorating the lot of the workers as co-operative production, mutual credit, and people’s banks. They trotted out again all those small shopkeeper’s utopias which Proudhon advocated before 1848. The institutions that the Congress of 1876 wished to establish were the equitable labor exchanges, which had started at Bray’s instigation in the year 1840, in London, Sheffield, Leeds, and other towns, and which, after absorbing vast capital, had gone bankrupt under scandalous circumstance. But Bray, in his remarkable work, “Labor’s Wrongs and Labor’s Remedy” (Leeds, 1839), had at least refrained from calling these exchanges a solution to the social problem. They might be that to Proudhon; to Bray they were only a means of smoothing over the transition from the capitalist to the communist regime.

The ‘equitable labor exchanges’ alluded to here were, as Rosa Luxemburg summed up succinctly, “so-called ‘bazaars’… [where] goods were bought and sold to be exchanged without the intervention of money, strictly in accordance with the labor-time they contained” (and thus were akin to Josiah Warren’s Cincinnati, Ohio-based “Time Store”, which ran successfully between 1827 and 1830). One might wonder, too, whether or not the joint-stock concept falls under this criteria as well – as mentioned above, it receives its full elucidation in “Labor’s Worings and Labor’s Remedy”, right alongside the debuting of the equitable labor exchange system. LaFargue is silent on the question, but something of an answer might very well be found in Marx’s own comments, found in the Critique of the Gotha Program, on proletarian self-activity and the transition to communism might look like. Three key points:

1. The ability of the proletariat to develop co-operative societies:

That the workers desire to establish the conditions for co-operative production on a social scale, and first of all on a national scale, in their own country, only means that they are working to revolutionize the present conditions of production, and it has nothing in common with the foundation of co-operative societies with state aid. But as far as the present co-operative societies are concerned, they are of value only insofar as they are the independent creations of the workers and not proteges either of the governments or of the bourgeois.

2. The persistence of the bourgeois system of rights:

…equal right here is still in principle — bourgeois right, although principle and practice are no longer at loggerheads, while the exchange of equivalents in commodity exchange exists only on the average and not in the individual case. In spite of this advance, this equal right is still constantly stigmatized by a bourgeois limitation. The right of the producers is proportional to the labor they supply; the equality consists in the fact that measurement is made with an equal standard, labor.

3. The persistence of key elements of the capitalist mode of production that will regulate labor-time and the activities carried out in that time:

What we have to deal with here is a communist society, not as it has developed on its own foundations, but, on the contrary, just as it emerges from capitalist society; which is thus in every respect, economically, morally, and intellectually, still stamped with the birthmarks of the old society from whose womb it emerges. Accordingly, the individual producer receives back from society — after the deductions have been made — exactly what he gives to it. What he has given to it is his individual quantum of labor.