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 on Pierre Joseph Proudhon

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 Biography 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.