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Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (pronounced [ˈpruːd ɒn] in BrE, [pʁu dɔ̃] in French) (15 January, 180919 January, 1865) was a French economist and socialist philosopher who was the first individual to call himself an "anarchist" and is considered among the first anarchist thinkers. He was a workingman, a printer, who taught himself to read Latin so as to print books in that language well. Proudhon is most famous for his assertion of "Property is theft!", in his missive What is Property? Or, an Inquiry into the Principle of Right of Government with the original title: Qu'est-ce que la propriété? Recherche sur le principe du droit et du gouvernement, which was his first major work, published in 1840.

The publication of "What is Property?" attracted the attention of the French authorities, and also of Karl Marx who started up a correspondence with Proudhon. The two men influenced each other; they met in Paris when Marx was exiled there. Their friendship ended completely when Marx wrote a response to Proudhon's The Philosophy of Poverty entitled The Poverty of Philosophy. Their dispute was one of the origins to the split between the anarchists and the Marxists in the International Working Men's Association. There was also a split between the anarchists of Mikhail Bakunin and Proudhon. Proudhon believed that collective ownership was undesirable and that social revolution could be achieved in a peaceful manner.

In his book The Confessions of a Revolutionary, Proudhon wrote among other things, the well known phrase, anarchy is order. He attempted to create a national bank that gave out interest-free loans, similar in some respects to today's credit unions (though the latter charge interest, it is generally lower than that of for-profit banks).


Early Years

Proudhon was born at born in Besançon, his father being a brewers cooper. As a boy, he herded cows and followed other simple pursuits of a like nature. But he was not entirely self-educated; at sixteen Proudhon entered the college of his native place, though his family was so poor that he could not procure the necessary books, and had to borrow them from his mates in order to copy the lessons. At nineteen he became a working compositor; afterwards he rose to be a corrector for the press, reading proofs of ecclesiastical works, and thereby acquiring a very competent knowledge of theology. In this way also he came to learn Hebrew, and to compare it with Greek, Latin and French; and it was the first proof of his intellectual audacity that on the strength of this he wrote an Essai de grammaire génerale. As Proudhon knew nothing whatever of the true principles of philology, his treatise was of no value. In 1838 he obtained the pension Suard, a bursary of 1500 francs a year for three years, for the encouragement of young men of promise, which was in the gift of the Academy of Besancon.

Interest in politics

In 1839 he wrote a treatise L'Utilité de la célébration du dimanche, which contained the germs of his revolutionary ideas. About this time he went to Paris, where he lived a poor, ascetic and studious life - making acquaintance, however, with the socialistic ideas which were then fomenting in the capital. In 1840 he published his first work Qu'est-ce que la propriété. His famous answer to this question, La propriété, c'est le vol (property is theft), naturally did not please the academy of Besancon, and there was some talk of withdrawing his pension; but he held it for the regular period. For his third memoir on property, which took the shape of a letter to the Fourierist, M. Considrant, he was tried at Besancon but was acquitted. In 1846 he published his greatest work, the Système des contradictions économiques ou Philosophie de la misère. For some time Proudhon carried on a small printing establishment at Besanon, but without success; afterwards he became connected as a kind of manager with a commercial firm at Lyons. In 1847 he left this employment, and finally settled in Paris, where he was now becoming celebrated as a leader of innovation. In this year he also became a Freemason.

Proudhon and the 1848 Revolution

Proudhon was surprised by the revolt in Paris in February 1848. He participated in the February uprising and the composition of what he termed "the first republican proclamation" of the new republic. But he had misgivings about the new government because it was pursuing political reform at the expense of the socio-economic reform, which Proudhon considered basic.

Proudhon published his own perspective for reform, Solution du problème social, in which he laid out a program of mutual financial cooperation among workers. He believed this would transfer control of economic relations from capitalists and financiers to workers. The central part of his plan was the establishment of a bank to provide credit at a very low rate of interest and the issuing "exchange notes" that would circulate in lieu of money based on gold.

During the Second Republic Proudhon made his biggest impact on the public through his journalism. He was involved with four different newspapers: La Représentant du Peuple (February 1848 - August 1848); Le Peuple (September 1848 - June 1849); La Voix du Peuple (September 1849 - May 1850); Le Peuple de 1850 (June 1850 - October 1850). His polemical writing style, combined with his self-perception of himself as a political outsider, produced a cynical, combative journalism appealed to many French workers, although it alienated others. he repeatedly criticised the policies of the government and promoted reformation of credit and exchange. To this end, he attempted to establish a popular bank (Bank du Peuple) early in 1849, but despite over 13,000 people signing up (mostly workers, receipts were limited falling short of 18,000FF and the whole enterprise was essentially stillborn.

Proudhon stood for the constituent assembly in April 1848, but failed to get elected, although his name appeared on the ballots in Paris, Lyons, Besançon, and Lilles. However he was later successful, in the complementary elections held on June 4, and served as a deputy during the debates over the National Workshops. Proudhon was never in favour of such workshops, correctly perceiving them as basically charitable institutions which did not resolvethe problems of the economic system. He did however oppose their elimination unless some other alternative could be given to the workers who relied on them for subsistence.

He was shocked by the violence of the June Days. Visiting the barricades personally he later reflected that his presence at the Bastille at this time was "one of the most honorable acts of my life." But in general during the tumultuous events of 1848, Proudhon opposed insurrection preaching peaceful conciliation, a stance that was in accord with his lifelong stance against violence. He disapproved of the revolts and demonstrations of February, May, and June, 1848, though sympathetic to the social and psychological injustices that the insurrectionaries had been forced to endure. He argued that the forces of reaction were responsible for the tragic events.

Political philosophy

In his earliest works, Proudhon analyzed the nature and problems of the capitalist economy. While deeply critical of capitalism, he also objected to contemporary socialists who idolized association. In series of commentaries, from What is Property? (1840) through the posthumously-published Théorie de la propriété (Theory of Property, 1863-64), he declared that "property is theft", "property is impossible", "property is despotism" and "property is freedom". The apparent contradiction is resolved when it is realized that, in "property is theft", he was using the word to mean the type of property which created exploitative conditions. Specifically, he was referring to the means of production which labourers did not own themselves, and the system of wage labour.

On the other hand, in asserting that property is essential for liberty, he was referring not only to the product of an individual's labor, but to the peasant or artisans home and tools of his trade. For Proudhon, the only legitimate source of property is labor. What one produces is his property and anything beyond that is not. He can be considered a libertarian socialist, since he advocated worker self-management and argued against capitalist ownership of the means of production. However, he rejected the ownership of the products of labor by society, arguing that while "property in product [...] does not carry with it property in production [...] The right to product is exclusive [...] the right to means is common" and applied this to the land ("the land is [...] a common thing") and workplaces ("all accumulated capital being social property, no one can be its exclusive proprietor"). Proudhon had many arguments against entitlement to land and capital, including reasons based on morality, economics, politics, and individual liberty. One such argument was that it enabled profit, which in turn led to social instability and war by creating cycles of debt that eventually overcame the capacity of labor to pay them off. Another was that it produced "despotism" and turned workers into wage workers subject to the authority of a boss.

In What Is Property?, Proudhon wrote:

Property, acting by exclusion and encroachment, while population was increasing, has been the life-principle and definitive cause of all revolutions. Religious wars, and wars of conquest, when they have stopped short of the extermination of races, have been only accidental disturbances, soon repaired by the mathematical progression of the life of nations. The downfall and death of societies are due to the power of accumulation possessed by property.

Proudhon opposed both individual and collective property, however, he later abandoned his advocacy of "possession" over "property": In Theory of Property he mantains: "Now in 1840, I catagorically rejected the notion of property...for both the group and the individual," but then states his new theory of property: "property is the greatest revolutionary force which exists, with an unequaled capacity for setting itself against authority..." and the "principal function of private property within the political system will be to act as a counterweight to the power of the State, and by so doing to insure the liberty of the individual." (Theory of Property in Selected Writings of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon p. 136) However, he still argued against ownership of land and argued that "property" should be more equally distributed and limited in size to that actually used by individuals, families and workers associations. (Theory of Property in Selected Writings of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon p. 129, p. 133, p. 135) He supported the right of inheritance, and defended "as one of the foundations of the family and society." (Steward Edwards, Introduction to Selected Writings of P.J. Proudhon) However, he refused to extend this beyond personal possessions arguing that "[u]nder the law of association, transmission of wealth does not apply to the instruments of labour." (in Daniel Guerin (ed.), No Gods, No Masters, vol. 1, p. 62).

As a consequence of his opposition to profit, wage labour, worker exploitation, ownership of land and capital, as well as to state property, Proudhon rejected both capitalism and communism. He adopted the term mutualism for his brand of anarchism, which involved control of the means of production by the workers. In his vision, self-employed artisans, peasants, and cooperatives would trade their products on the market. For Proudhon, factories and other large workplaces would be run by 'labor associations' operating on directly democratic principles. The state would be abolished; instead, society would be organized by a federation of "free communes" (a commune is a local municipality in French). In 1863 Proudhon said, "All my economic ideas as developed over twenty-five years can be summed up in the words: agricultural-industrial federation. All my political ideas boil down to a similar formula: political federation or decentralization."

Proudhon opposed the charging of interest and rent, but did not seek to abolish them by law: "I protest that when I criticized... the complex of institutions of which property is the foundation stone, I never meant to... forbid or supress, by sovereign decree, ground rent and interest on capital. I believe that all these forms of human activity should remain free and optional for all." (Solution of the Social Problem, 1848-49) He considered that once workers had organised credit and labour and replaced property by possession, such forms of exploitation would disappear along with the state.

Proundhon was a revolutionary, but his revolution did not mean violent upheaval or civil war, but rather the transformation of society. This transformation was essentially moral in nature and demanded the highest ethics from those who sought change. It was monetary reform, combined with organising a credit bank and workers associations, that Proudhon proposed to use as a lever to bring about the organization of society along new lines. He did not suggest how the monetary institutions would cope with the problem of inflation and with the need for the efficient allocation of scarce resources.

He made few public criticisms of Marx or Marxism, because in his lifetime Marx was a relatively minor thinker; it was only after Proudhon's death that Marxism became a large movement. He did however refer to Marx as one of the "evil choleric, envious, bitter men" in an unpublished article in which he endorses the extermination of all Jews. He did also criticize authoritarian socialists of his time period. This included the state socialist Louis Blanc, of which Proudhon said, "Let me say to M. Blanc: you desire neither Catholicism nor monarchy nor nobility, but you must have a God, a religion, a dictatorship, a censorship, a hierarchy, distinctions, and ranks. For my part, I deny your God, your authority, your sovereignty, your judicial State, and all your representative mystifications." It was Proudhon's book What is Property? that convinced the young Karl Marx that private property should be abolished. In one of his first works, The Holy Family, Marx said, "Not only does Proudhon write in the interest of the proletarians, he is himself a proletarian, an ouvrier. His work is a scientific manifesto of the French proletariat." Marx, however, disagreed with Proudhon's anarchism and later published vicious criticisms of Proudhon. Marx wrote The Poverty of Philosophy as a refutation of Proudhon's The Philosophy of Poverty. In his socialism, Proudhon was followed by Mikhail Bakunin. After Bakunin's death, his libertarian socialism diverged into anarchist communism and collectivist anarchism, with notable proponents such as Peter Kropotkin and Joseph Déjacque.


Proudhon's essay on What Is Government? is quite well known:

"To be GOVERNED is to be watched, inspected, spied upon, directed, law-driven, numbered, regulated, enrolled, indoctrinated, preached at, controlled, checked, estimated, valued, censured, commanded, by creatures who have neither the right nor the wisdom nor the virtue to do so. To be GOVERNED is to be at every operation, at every transaction noted, registered, counted, taxed, stamped, measured, numbered, assessed, licensed, authorized, admonished, prevented, forbidden, reformed, corrected, punished. It is, under pretext of public utility, and in the name of the general interest, to be place[d] under contribution, drilled, fleeced, exploited, monopolized, extorted from, squeezed, hoaxed, robbed; then, at the slightest resistance, the first word of complaint, to be repressed, fined, vilified, harassed, hunted down, abused, clubbed, disarmed, bound, choked, imprisoned, judged, condemned, shot, deported, sacrificed, sold, betrayed; and to crown all, mocked, ridiculed, derided, outraged, dishonored. That is government; that is its justice; that is its morality." (P.-J. Proudhon, General Idea of the Revolution in the Nineteenth Century, translated by John Beverly Robinson (London: Freedom Press, 1923), pp. 293-294.)

Another famous quote was his "dialogue with a Philistine" in What is Property?:

"Why, how can you ask such a question? You are a republican."
"A republican! Yes; but that word specifies nothing. Res publica; that is, the public thing. Now, whoever is interested in public affairs -- no matter under what form of government -- may call himself a republican. Even kings are republicans."
"Well! You are a democrat?"
"What! "you would have a monarchy?"
" A Constitutionalist?"
"God forbid."
"Then you are an aristocrat?"
"Not at all!"
"You want a mixed form of government?"
"Even less."
"Then what are you?"
"I am an anarchist."
"Oh! I understand you; you speak satirically. This is a hit at the government."
"By no means. I have just given you my serious and well-considered profession of faith. Although a firm friend of order, I am (in the full force of the term) an anarchist. Listen to me."


  • Qu'est ce que la propriété? (What is Property?, 1840)
  • Warning to Proprietors (1842)
  • Système des contradictions économiques ou Philosophie de la misère (The System of Economic Contradictions or the Philosophy of Misery, 1846)
  • General Idea of the Revolution in the 19th Century (1851)
  • Le manuel du spéculateur à la bourse (The Manual of the Stock Exchange Speculator, 1853)
  • De la justice dans la révolution et dans l'Eglise (Of justice in the Revolution and the Church, 1858)
  • La Guerre et la Paix (War and Peace, 1861)
  • Du principe Fédératif (Principle of Federation, 1863)
  • De la capacité politique des classes ouvrières (Of the Political Capacity of the Working Class, 1865)
  • Théorie de la propriété (Theory of Property, 1866)
  • Théorie du mouvement constitutionnel (Theory of the constitutionalist movement, 1870)
  • Du principe de l'art (The principle of art, 1875)
  • Correspondances (Correspondances , 1875)

Writers influenced

See also


  1. This article incorporates text from the public domain 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica
  2. The 7th paragraph and the last paragraph in his Political Philosophy is quoted and rephrased from this url

External links

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