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Proudhon, Pierre Joseph

Proudhon, Pierre Joseph


Pierre Joseph Proudhon (1809–1865), French socialist, was born in the city of Besangon. He belongs, with Fourier, Considérant, and Cabet, to that group of social reformers of the first half of the nineteenth century who came from Burgundy and Franche-Comté.

Proudhon’s father was a local brewer, and his family fits into a social category that was then widespread—artisans who owned a few patches of land and rose to the level of shopkeeping when their fortunes improved. But Proudhon’s father was too honest to succeed; he sold his beer for no more than the malt, the hops, and his subsistence cost him, and after a very little time he went bankrupt. Crushed by burdensome mortgages, the family was destitute. Proudhon, a brilliant student, would come home from the lycée to find his parents having bread and water for supper. He was able to continue his studies only by becoming a printer’s foreman and proofreader, and he absorbed all the material he handled. The knowledge he acquired in this fashion was extremely broad, but ill-organized. He was 29 before he passed the baccalaureate examination and received a scholarship from the Suard fund, awarded by the Académie de Besangon to poor, hard-working young men. Thanks to this scholarship, Proudhon was able to keep on with his studies and to begin to publish.

This was a difficult period for him. After an unsuccessful attempt at being an independent printer, he worked for a small shipping firm in Lyons. The company sent him to Paris, where he met liberals, communists, and socialists, as well as German exiles who introduced him to the philosophy of Kant and Hegel.

He played only a peripheral role in the revolution of 1848. After being defeated in the elections to the National Assembly, he was elected in the June supplementary elections, when he ran with Thiers, Victor Hugo, and Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte. He protested in the Assembly when the “national workshops” and “right to work” programs were discontinued. Primarily, he expounded his ideas in the press and published he représentant du peuple, a newspaper whose name was changed first to he peuple and later to La voix du peuple.

In March 1849 he was sentenced to three years in prison for having published articles slandering the chief of state. While in prison, he married a Parisian working girl. His imprisonment was more like an enforced residence, for it did not prevent him from publishing. After further trials and convictions, he went into exile in Belgium. He became ill in 1856 and endured several years of poverty. When in 1862 his hostility to nationalist separatism provoked sharp criticism in Belgium, he was pardoned by the emperor and returned to France. He died in 1865, killed by the mental strain and hardship of his restless life.

Differences from other socialists. Some of Proudhon’s ideas departed sharply from those common among the socialists of his time. First of all, he did not accept the general socialist advocacy of free love and common-law marriage. Instead, Proudhon had an extremely conventional conception of the family; he extolled family happiness and advocated the strictest possible discipline within the family. He entirely rejected feminism and believed that women should confine themselves to performing household duties and raising children.

Second, Proudhon differed from other socialists in that his thought had a classical cast. He was influenced by the Bible, the ancient classics, and the great writings of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. He was a typical French craftsman rather than a workingman, belonging to the petty bourgeoisie. Marx was being nasty when he called Proudhon petit bourgeois, but he was near the mark: this epithet indeed characterizes both Proudhon’s position in society and his moral temperament.

Like other socialists, Proudhon was an atheist, but he was a Christian atheist. He was a member of the Sincérité, Parfaite Union et Constante Amitié lodge of the Masonic order in Besançon; his open profession of atheism concluded with this famous denunciation: “God is folly and cowardice; God is hypocrisy and falsehood; God is tyranny and misery; God is evil” (Oeuvres complètes, vol. 2, p. 384 in the Rivière edition). However, what seemed to Proudhon’s contemporaries to be a total and permanent breach with Christianity now appears to have been an attempt at dialogue. As Lubac put it, Proudhon did not permit the Christian to turn away from his worldly tasks but rather compelled him to meditate constantly, as did Proudhon himself, on eternal problems (1945).

As Cassou put it (1939), Proudhon embodied all the restlessness and strength of the French artisan, with his impassioned and captious thirst for justice. Proudhon’s writings are well described by the epigraph he himself gave them: Destruam et aedificabo. The destruction is anarchism; the new edifice, mutualism and federalism.

Finally, Proudhon was the best writer among the socialists. He had a natural eloquence, powerful and caustic. Saint-Beuve was not wrong in regarding Proudhon as one of the great figures of nineteenth-century literature.

Proudhon’s anarchism. Proudhon condemned all governments and denounced the very existence of the state. Insofar as it is a system of order through power, the state derives its authority from the family. Appropriate as such authority is to the family, it becomes in the state an “artificial system, varying with different centuries and climates, yet alleged to be natural and necessary to humanity” (Oeuvres complètes, vol. 1, p. 297 in the Riviere edition). This system is in fact intrinsically evil and incorrigible. It is vain to struggle against its abuses; such a struggle merely aggravates them. Proudhon had an especially lively antipathy toward democratic reformers because he felt that their faith in suffrage only serves to camouflage reality, to conceal the impossibility of making the state consonant with the people’s wishes.

Proudhon clearly perceived the void created by his condemnations. As reported in La voix du peuple on December 29, 1849, when he was asked, “What will you set up in place of the State?” he answered, “Nothing. Society is perpetual motion.... It contains its own spring, always wound, as well as its own balance wheel” (ibid., vol. 1, pp. 416–417). This “motion” derives from the economy, which takes precedence over politics. As Proudhon described it in De la capacité politique des classes ouvrières, first published in 1865, a few months after his death, the relationship between the economy and politics is analogous to the physiological relationship between the functions of organic life and those of spiritual life. It is by virtue of the first, of the organic functions, that is, of economic life, that a society exists.

However, Proudhon, unlike the liberals, did not expect that once men were free of the state, they would spontaneously create a new economic order by entering into mutual agreements. Mutualism had to be organized.

Mutualism and federalism. Proudhon proposed a mutualist organization of the economy which would substitute an egalitarian liberalism, founded on free credit (granted by the “people’s bank”) and natural exchange of services, for the economic irresponsibility of unorganized individualism. Again in De la capacité politique, he asserted that society must be considered not as a hierarchy of functions but as a system in which free forces are in an equilibrium based on the enjoyment of equal rights in exchange for the discharge of equal obligations and the enjoyment of equal advantages in exchange for the performance of equal services. Only mutualist institutions freely created in accordance with reason and experience will create order in the chaotic tangle of existing economic relationships.

Fundamental economic rights, public rights, immediately follow from this conception, according to Proudhon. Since he rejected government as a source of guarantees, the problem is how to substitute mutual guarantees for those based on authority. Federalism, that is, mutualism transferred into the realm of politics, is the solution.

Far from living in isolation, individuals will form middle-sized and sovereign groups based on territorial considerations, as well as larger economic units called agricultural-industrial communities based on the free exchange of services.

Proudhon defined the federal contract with particular care in his Du principe fédératif of 1863. Federation (from the Latin word foedus, or pact, contract, treaty, convention, alliance, etc.) is a covenant by which several groups of communities or states bind themselves reciprocally and equally for one or several purposes.

Unlike the social contract, the federal contract involves only limited renunciation of individual liberty. In forming the pact, the contracting parties retain more personal and real rights than they surrender. Proudhon’s political regime rules out any surrender or transfer of rights, which in his opinion is the consequence of the classical form of representative government. He asserted that it is impossible to delegate that which is most essential to human beings: the right to have one’s say, to negotiate directly, individually, for oneself.

To the extent that the Proudhonian concept tolerates any deputies, they would be like the proxies of private law. Proudhon condemned the notion in revolutionary public law that a deputy represents the abstract “nation” and nothing else. Each deputy is, first of all, the man of the district or profession that chose him as its representative—one of its citizens and its special trustee authorized to defend its particular interest. In order for suffrage to be direct, it is not enough that the voter directly give his vote to the man elected; it is also necessary that the deputy represent, no less directly, opinions, rights, interests, and business. For a state, a society, is not solely a matter of will; it also consists of more material concerns.

The final result of anarchist federalism is the dissolution of the state into multiple autonomous groups having their own administration. Under these circumstances, the principle of authority tends to disappear. The state (res publica) is placed on the immutable foundation of law, of corporate and individual local liberties. The government actually no longer exists. The community will be set up as an autonomous administration, for it is “in its essence, like man, like the family, like each individual and each intelligent collectivity, moral and free, a sovereign being” (Oeuvres complètes, vol. 4, p. 265 in Rivière edition). It will issue decrees, pronounce decisions, and will even make its own laws. There is no middle course. The community must be sovereign or subordinate, all or nothing.

Proudhon’s influence. The evolution of states in the nineteenth century, moving toward centralization domestically and toward nationalist sovereignty in foreign affairs, hardly corresponded to Proudhon’s expectations. Nor did political socialism develop along Proudhonian lines; not only were his long-term views on federal and anarchic organization ignored, but so were his short-term instructions for boycotting elections.

On the other hand, over the long run, Proudhon has proved to be a prophet. He foresaw “a thousandyear purgatory” for mankind if federalism were rejected. He also foresaw the importance of labor unions, proclaiming that “workshops will replace the government.” The substitution has not been complete, but the twentieth century has seen the development of great collective forces that have influenced every aspect of public life.

The continuing interest in Proudhon’s work vindicates his view, expressed in De la capacité politique, that ideas succeed only if people cling to them and turn them into institutions and customs which legislators can then turn into laws.

Marcel PrÉlot

[For the historical context of Proudhon’s work, seeAnarchism; Socialism; and the biographies ofMarxandSorel.]


(1840) 1966 What Is Property? An Enquiry Into the Principle of Right and of Government. With a biographical essay by J. A. Langlois. New York: Fertig. → First published as Qu’est-ce que la propriété?

Correspondance de P.-J. Proudhon, précédée d’une notice sur . . . Proudhon par J. A. Langlois. 14 vols. Paris: Lacroix, 1875. → Correspondence covers the years 1837–1865.

Lettres inédites à Gustave Chaudey et à divers Comtois. Paris: Droz, 1911.

Lettres au citoyen Rolland: 5 octobre 1858–29 juillet 1862. With an introduction and notes by Jacques Bompard. Paris: Grasset, 1946.

Carnets. Texte inédit et intégral établi sur les manuscrits autographes avec annotations et appareil critique de Pierre Haubtmann. 2 vols. Paris: Rivière, 1960–1961. → Volume 1: 1843–1846. Volume 2: 1847–1848.

Oeuvres complètes. 26 vols. Paris: Lacroix, 1867–1870.

Oeuvres complètes. Nouv. éd. publiée avec des notes et des documents inédits sous la direction de MM. C. Bouglé et H. Moysset. Vols. 1–17. Paris: Rivière, 19231952. → To be published in 20 volumes. Translations of the extracts in the text were provided by the editors.


BouglÉ, CÉlestin C. A. 1911 La sociologie de Proudhon. Paris: Colin.

Cassou, Jean 1939 Quarante-huit. Paris: Gallimard.

Cuvillier, Armand 1937 Proudhon. Paris: Éditions Sociales Internationales.

DollÉans, Édouard 1948 Proudhon. Paris: Gallimard.

Lubac, Henri de (1945) 1948 The Un-Marxian Socialist: A Study of Proudhon. London: Sheed & Ward. → First published as Proudhon et le christianisme.

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Pierre Joseph Proudhon

Pierre Joseph Proudhon

The political philosopher and journalist Pierre Joseph Proudhon (1809-1864) was the greatest of the French anarchists. His insistence that a new society should be created by moral methods led to his disavowal of revolutionary violence.

Pierre Joseph Proudhon was born of a poor family in Besançon. His poverty, which persisted throughout most of his life, in no small measure explains his hatred of the existing economic order. At 19 he was apprenticed to a printer and a few years later supervised the printing of Charles Fourier's classic Le Nouveau monde industriel et sociétaire, which made a great impression on him. Lacking formal education, he taught himself Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, and, despite his loss of faith in religion, theology.

In 1838 Proudhon won a pension enabling him to devote himself to scholarship in Paris, and he began his prolific writing career. Qu'est-ce que la propriété? (What Is Property?), completed in 1840, won him notoriety because of his claim that owning property was theft. In fact, he was referring only to unjustly acquired property, rejecting communism because of its denial of human independence. He envisaged an anarchist society of largely agrarian small producers, bound together by free contracts.

A new element, however, was added to Proudhon's thought by his move to Lyons. He remained there for several years, learning about industry and becoming involved with the Mutualists, an illegal workers' association. In this kind of workers' association, properly organized for cooperative production and exchange of goods, he began to see, still somewhat vaguely, the force for radical societal change. He insisted in De la création de l'ordre dans l'humanité (1843) that economic forces were the chief motivating factors of society.

In the years before the Revolution of 1848 Proudhon made the acquaintance of the leading European leftists, including Karl Marx, but refused the latter's invitation to participate in founding an international organization because he sensed Marx's intellectual authoritarianism. He also completed one of his most interesting works, Système des contradictions économiques (1846), in which he claimed that contradiction and conflict were the basic characteristics of society and economics. These contradictions could never be overcome, but the different forces could be balanced, as socialism, in fact, was attempting to do, so that struggle would become constructive rather than destructive. The book placed him among the leading thinkers of French socialism, important enough to merit Marx's book The Poverty of Philosophy, which was directed against Proudhon's ideas.

During the Revolution of 1848, Proudhon accepted the editorship of the daily Le Représentant du Peuple, which became one of the most popular and controversial newspapers among workers in Paris because it criticized all parties, including the new republican government. The newspaper was suppressed, but Proudhon founded a new one which became even more popular. Finally, after a series of bitter attacks against the newly elected president, Louis Napoleon, he was sent to prison, where he spent the better part of the next 3 years.

There Proudhon continued editing his newspaper and producing books. His thoughts entered a more positive stage, and he began to give a more concrete and instructive exposition of his political ideas. In L'Idée générale de la révolution au XIX siècle (1851) he wrote that revolution could be brought about by workers' associations which denied the rule of governments and of capitalists and which would eventually take over industry. The new society would be regulated by contracts, and mutual undertakings would be facilitated by easy credit, available on the basis of productivity. This would effectively disperse concentrated economic power and preserve economic opportunities for the petty bourgeoisie. In La Philosophie du progrès (1853) he rejected all order and formula in favor of progress and continual movement.

In 1857 Proudhon completed De la justice dans la révolution et dans l'église, in which he attacked the Catholic Church for hindering man's freedom and for perpetuating a corrupt moral order. Prosecuted for "outraging public and religious morals, " he was again condemned to prison. He fled to Belgium, where he wrote La Guerre et la paix (1861), in which he characterized war as a consequence of capitalism. He felt that by renewing economic equilibrium there would no longer be a necessity for war and that conflict and aggression would be transformed into constructive forces. He resolved the problem of the conflict between state and individual through his concept of federalism. The basic elements of his federalism were local units of administration, small enough to be under the direct control of the people. Larger confederal groupings would act primarily as organs of coordination among local units. Ultimately, Proudhon believed that Europe would be transformed into a federation of federations.

In the last years of his life, Proudhon continued to fight the Bonapartist regime in France. He also risked unpopularity by opposing Polish and Italian nationalism because of their concern for a national central state. Nevertheless, he wielded immense influence among French workers, urging them to separate themselves from other classes and from political parties claiming to represent them. His ideas were assimilated into the French workers' movement, and the French section of the First International followed Proudhon's program in almost every detail.

Further Reading

Many of Proudhon's works are available in English translation. By far the best introduction to Proudhon is George Woodcock's excellent study, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon: A Biography (1956). S. Y. Lu, The Political Theories of P. J. Proudhon (1922), and Henri de Lubac, The Un-Marxian Socialist (1948), are somewhat dated treatments of specific aspects of Proudhon's thought. See also Denis William Brogan, Proudhon (1934). The essays on Proudhon in Roger Soltau, French Political Thought in the 19th Century (1931), and in G. D. H. Cole, A History of Socialist Thought (5 vols. in 7, 1953-1960), provide adequate introductions.

Additional Sources

Ehrenberg, John, Proudhon and his age, Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press, 1996.

Hyams, Edward, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon: his revolutionary life, mind and works, London: J. Murray, 1979.

Lubac, Henri de, The un-Marxian socialist: a study of Proudhon, New York: Octagon Books, 1978.

Rota Ghibaudi, Silvia, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Milano, Italy: F. Angeli, 1986. □

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Proudhon, Pierre Joseph

Pierre Joseph Proudhon (pyĕr zhôzĕf´ prōōdhôN´), 1809–65, French social theorist. Of a poor family, Proudhon won an education through scholarships. Much of his later life was spent in poverty. He achieved prominence through his pamphlet What Is Property? (1840, tr. 1876), in which he condemned the abuses of private property and embraced anarchism. He also edited radical journals. After the Revolution of 1848, he was elected a member of the constituent assembly; at that time he tried unsuccessfully to establish a national bank for reorganization of credit in the interest of the workers. As a replacement for the existing social and political order, Proudhon developed a theory of "mutualism," by which small, loosely federated groups would bargain with each other over economic and political matters within the framework of a consensus on fundamental principles. He hoped that man's ethical progress would eventually make government unnecessary and rejected the use of force to impose any system. Proudhon left a great mass of literature, which influenced the French syndicalist movement. Among his most important books are System of Economic Contradictions; or The Philosophy of Poverty (1846; tr. of Vol. I, 1888) and De la justice dans la révolution et dans l'église [of justice in the revolution and in the church] (3 vol., 1858).

See his selected writings, ed. by S. Edwards (1970); biography by G. Woodcock (1956, repr. 1987); A. Ritter, The Political Thought of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1969); C. M. Hall, The Sociology of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1971); R. L. Hoffman, Revolutionary Justice: The Social and Political Theory of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1972); H. De Lubac, The Un-Marxian Socialist (1948, repr. 1978); S. Condit, Proudhonist Materialism and Revolutionary Doctrine (1979); E. Hyams, Pierre-Joseph Proudon: His Revolutionary Life, Mind and Works (1979); K. S. Vincent, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and the Rise of French Republican Socialism (1984).

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Proudhon, Pierre Joseph

Proudhon, Pierre Joseph (1809–65) French political theorist. His anarchist theories of liberty, equality, and justice conflicted with the communism of Karl Marx. In What is Property? (1840), Proudhon famously argued that “property is theft”. His greatest work was System of Economic Contradiction (1846). See also anarchism

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