Proudhon, Pierre-Joseph

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PROUDHON, PIERRE-JOSEPH (1809–1865), French journalist and socialist.

Pierre-Joseph Proudhon became famous in 1840 when his book Q'est-ce que la propriété? (What is property?) attacked property and embraced anarchism. From this date until his death in 1865, Proudhon was a highly visible participant in debates about religion, morals, economics, and politics. Never effective in the public sphere, Proudhon is best known for his writings, which are voluminous. As one observer noted, when Proudhon found himself with pen in hand, he seemed to have a fit of eloquence.

Proudhon was born in Battant, a modest quartier in the city of Besançon, bordering the River Doubs. He was proud of his humble origins, reminding people throughout his life that he was (as he put it in 1855) "raised in the customs, the mores, and the thought of the proletariat." Proudhon attended the Collège Royale de Besançon on a scholarship while an adolescent, and as a young man received an award that allowed him to spend several years (1838–1841) studying in Paris and attending the lectures of prominent intellectuals such as Jules Michelet and the economist Jérôme-Adolphe Blanqui. He always insisted, however, that his real education took place in the workshop, where both manual and mental skills were learned. As a young man he worked as a printer, and for several years (1836–1843) operated with some friends a printing house that lost money and left him heavily in debt. He also spent a number of years (1843–1847) working for a shipping firm in Lyon, which exposed him to various aspects of business and manufacturing.

Proudhon's notoriety resulted from his published writings, which trenchantly analyzed socioeconomic inequities and stridently criticized the selfish egoism of the wealthy classes. His engaging satires of governments and the wealthy came from a characteristic leftist moralism, what Jean Maitron has called a "native sensibility to injustice." Proudhon believed in an immanent morality that combined a secularized version of Christian morality and a modified version of republican virtue. When Proudhon adopted the label "anarchist" in 1840, he insisted that society be governed by a social morality that would lead men to recognize the dignity of their fellow citizens and to put aside their personal interests for the larger social good.

To the provocative question posed by the title of his 1840 book, "What is property?" Proudhon famously responded: "It is theft!" His position was, in fact, not as radical as this readily recalled

epigram might suggest. What Proudhon attacked was property that provided an income without requiring any labor; the kind of property that gave the unproductive "idle class" income in the form of interest and rent. Proudhon carefully distinguished this "property" from "possessions," by which he meant the land, dwelling, and tools necessary for day-to-day existence. For this latter type of ownership, Proudhon had the highest respect.

Proudhon's attack on property was part of his more wide-ranging proposal to create "progressive associations" for the educational and economic benefit of workers, and for the more general transformation of society. He believed that these associations would promote fraternal ties among workers by combining work and education in the workshop. He also believed that these associations would lead to a peaceful socioeconomic transformation: they would push aside the idle property owners who inappropriately skimmed off profits; they would introduce a "fair" evaluation of goods (not based on the "arbitrary" system of supply and demand); and they would stimulate workers to be more productive because they would be working for themselves. Unlike other associative socialists of his generation, however, Proudhon insisted that these associations must avoid community, by which he meant government ownership of property and centralized control of economic and social decision-making. In 1846, Proudhon referred to this formula for socioeconomic justice as "mutualism." And since this time, "mutualist anarchism" has been a shorthand label for the antistatist position that calls for education and socioeconomic reform within the context of workers' associations and that recommends the avoidance of revolution and other forms of violent confrontation.

Proudhon's commitment to mutualist anarchism was tested during the French Second Republic. Proudhon participated in the Paris uprising of February 1848, composed what he termed the "first republican proclamation" of the new Republic, and was elected to the Constituent Assembly in June 1848. He quickly became disenchanted with the political reforms advocated by the new government, however, arguing that socioeconomic reform was more important and should be given priority. He proposed, more concretely, the establishment of a new bank to provide credit at very low interest and to issue "exchange notes" that would circulate in lieu of money based on gold. In early 1849, he established a Bank of the People to put this reform into action, but it quickly failed. He was more successful in his journalism. The masthead of one of his papers, Le Représentant du Peuple, stated his goal succinctly: "What is the producer in actual society? Nothing. What should he be? Everything."

Proudhon was shocked by the violence of the June Days (1848). He blamed the forces of reaction for the uprising, but he did not approve of the violent nature of the insurrection. His journalism was unrelentingly critical of both the Jacobin Left and the government. In March 1849, he was prosecuted for his newspaper attacks on the new president of the Republic, Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, and sentenced to three years in prison. He published four books while in prison, and continued to write extensively during the 1850s and early 1860s. The books of these years built upon his vision of mutualist anarchism, but expanded to include support for regional organizations and federalism in what was, in effect, a geographical extension of his ideals.

Proudhon's elegant satires of the idle rich and his mordant criticisms of the expanding, intruding, and controlling state were widely influential before World War I. Opponents of Karl Marx in the First International; Italian, Spanish, and Swiss anarchists of the late nineteenth century struggling to gain benefits for workers; and federalists, regionalists, and syndicalists in France and beyond; all responded favorably to Proudhon's indignant attacks of coercive, bureaucratic, authoritarian institutions and his nonviolent proposals for socioeconomic reform.

See alsoAnarchism; First International; France; Socialism.


Ansart, Pierre. Naissance de l'anarchisme: Esquisse d'une explication sociologique du proudhonisme. Paris, 1970.

Haubtmann, Pierre. Pierre-Joseph Proudhon: Genèse d'un antithéiste. Paris, 1969.

——. Pierre-Joseph Proudhon: Sa vie et sa pensée, 1809–1849. Paris, 1982.

Hoffman, Robert. Revolutionary Justice: The Social and Political Theory of P.-J. Proudhon. Urbana, Ill., 1972.

Ritter, Alan. The Political Thought of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. Princeton, N.J., 1969.

Vincent, K. Steven. Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and the Rise of French Republican Socialism. New York, 1984.

Voyenne, Bernard. Le fédéralisme de P. J. Proudhon. Paris, 1973.

K. Steven Vincent