P. J. Proudhon

P. J. Proudhon books and biography


Pierre-Joseph Proudhon

Pierre Joseph Proudhon.
Pierre Joseph Proudhon.

Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (pronounced [ˈpruːd ɒn] in British English, [pʁu dɔ̃] in French) (15 January 1809 – 19 January 1865) was a French mutualist political 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 and 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 disagreement between the followers 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 credit unions, which had been in place in England long before his birth.



Early years

Proudhon and his children, by Gustave Courbet, 1865
Proudhon and his children, by Gustave Courbet, 1865

Proudhon was born in Besançon, his father being a brewer's 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 his town's college, though his family was so poor that he could not procure the necessary books, and had to borrow them from his fellow students in order to copy the lessons. At nineteen he became a working compositor; afterwards he rose to be a corrector for the press, proofreading 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 Besançon.

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 Besançon, 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. Considérant, he was tried at Besançon 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 Besançon, but without success; afterwards he became connected as a kind of manager with a commercial firm in Lyon. 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 instead of money based on gold.

During the Second French Republic Proudhon made his biggest impact on the public through his journalism. He was involved with four different newspapers: Le 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 perception of himself as a political outsider, produced a cynical, combative journalism that 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 (Banque 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, Lyon, Besançon, and Lille. 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 enthusiastic about such workshops, perceiving them to be essentially charitable institutions that did not resolve the problems of the economic system. Still, he was against their elimination unless an alternative could be found for the workers who relied on the workshops 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.

Proudhon died on January 19, 1865, and he is buried in Paris, at the cemetery of Montparnasse (2nd division, near the Lenoir alley, in the tomb of the Proudhon family).

Political philosophy

Proudhon is the first known theorist to refer to himself as an "anarchist." He defined anarchy as "the absence of a master, of a sovereign" in What is Property and urged a "Society without Authority" in The General idea of the Revolution. He extended this analysis beyond just political institutions, arguing in What is Property? that "proprietor" was "synonymous" with "sovereign." For Proudhon:

"Capital"... in the political field is analogous to "government"... The economic idea of capitalism, the politics of government or of authority, and the theological idea of the Church are three identical ideas, linked in various ways. To attack one of them is equivalent to attacking all of them . . . What capital does to labour, and the State to liberty, the Church does to the spirit. This trinity of absolutism is as baneful in practice as it is in philosophy. The most effective means for oppressing the people would be simultaneously to enslave its body, its will and its reason.[1]

One exception to this position was his sexism, causing Joseph Déjacque (as well as subsequent anarchists) to attack Proudhon's support for patriarchy as being inconsistent with his anarchist ideas.

In his earliest works, Proudhon analyzed the nature and problems of the capitalist economy. While deeply critical of capitalism, he also objected to those 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 first declared that "property is theft", "property is impossible", "property is despotism" and "property is freedom". When he said property is theft, he was referring to the landowner or capitalist who he believed stole the profits from laborers. For Proudhon, the capitalist's employee was "subordinated, exploited: his permanent condition is one of obedience."[2]

In asserting that property is freedom, 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 and the income he received by selling his goods. For Proudhon, the only legitimate source of property is labor. What one produces is his property and anything beyond that is not. He advocated worker self-management and was against capitalist ownership of the means of production. He strenuously rejected the ownership of the products of labor by society, arguing in What is Property? 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"). But he didn't approve of "society" owning means of production or land, but rather that the user own it (under supervision from society, with the "organising of regulating societies" in order to "regulate the market." [Selected Writings, p. 70]). Proudhon called himself a socialist, but he opposed state ownership of capital goods in favour of ownership by workers themselves in associations. This makes him one of the first theorists of libertarian socialism.

This use-ownership he called "possession," and this economic system mutualism. 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.

Towards the end of his life, he modified some of his earlier views. In "The Principle of Federation" (1863) he modified his earlier anti-state position, arguing for the "the balancing of authority by liberty" and put forward a decentralised "theory of federal government." He also defined anarchy differently as "the government of each by himself," which meant "that political functions have been reduced to industrial functions, and that social order arises from nothing but transactions and exchanges." This work also saw him call his economic system an "agro-industrial federation," arguing that it would provide "specific federal arrangements is to protect the citizens of the federated states from capitalist and financial feudalism, both within them and from the outside" and so stop the re-introduction of "wage labour." This was because "political right requires to be buttressed by economic right."

In the posthumously published Theory of Property, he argued that "property is the only power that can act as a counterweight to the State." Hence, "Proudhon could retain the idea of property as theft, and at the same time offer a new definition of it as liberty. There is the constant possibility of abuse, exploitation, which spells theft. At the same time property is a spontaneous creation of society and a bullwark against the ever-encroaching power of the State."[3]

He continued to oppose both capitalist and state property. In Theory of Property he maintains: "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." However, he continued to oppose concentrations of wealth and property, arguing for small-scale property ownership associated with peasants and artisans. He still opposed private property in land: "What I cannot accept, regarding land, is that the work put in gives a right to ownership of what has been worked on." In addition, he still believed that 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. 136, p. 129, p. 133, p. 135, p. 129) 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 suppress, 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.

Proudhon 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, 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.


David Leopold, editor of a recent academic edition of Stirner's "The Ego and Its Own", stated "Proudhon played an anti-democratic and counter-revolutionary role in the 1848 French Revolution, accepted slavery in the American South, supported violent strike-breaking, made detailed plans to suppress dissent among his supporters and was a vicious anti-semite."

Stewart Edwards, the editor of the Selected Writings Of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, remarks: "Proudhon's diaries (Garnets, ed. P. Haubtmann, Marcel Rivière, Paris 1960 to date) reveal that he had almost paranoid feelings of hatred against the Jews, common in Europe at the time. In 1847 he considered article against the Jewish race, which he said he 'hated.' The proposed article would have 'Called for the expulsion of the Jews from France... The Jew is the enemy of the human race. This race must be sent back to Asia, or exterminated. H. Heine, A. Weil, and others are simply secret spies. Rothschild, Crémieux, Marx, Fould, evil choleric, envious, bitter men etc., etc., who hate us' (Garnets, vol. 2, p. 337: No VI, 178)".

Zeev Sternhell states in his famous work, The Birth Of Fascist Ideology, that "the Action Française...from its inception regarded the author of La philosophie de la misère as one of its masters. He was given a place of honour in the weekly section of the journal of the movement entitled, precisely, 'Our Masters.' Proudhon owed this place in L'Action française to what the Maurrassians saw as his antirepublicanism, his anti-Semitism, his loathing of Rousseau, his disdain for the French Revolution, democracy, and parliamentarianism: and his championship of the nation, the family, tradition, and the monarchy."

J. Salwyn Schapiro wrote in 1945:

Proudhon had the tendency, inevitable in the Anti-semite, to see in the Jews the prime source of the nation's misfortunes, and to associate them with persons and groups that he hated...Anti-semitism, always and everywhere, the acid test of racialism, with its division of mankind into creative and sterile races, led Proudhon to regard the Negro as the lowest in the racial hierarchy. During the American Civil War he favored the South, which, he insisted, was not entirily wrong in maintaining slavery. The Negroes, according to Proudhon, were an inferior race, an example of the existence of inequality among the races of mankind... His book La Guerre et la paix, which appeared in 1861, was a hymn to war, intoned in a more passionate key than anything produced by the fascists of our time...Almost every page of La Guerre et la paix contains a glorification of war as an ideal and as an institution...His hysterical praise of war, like his ardent championship of the dictatorship of Louis Napoleon, like his unwavering support of the middle class, was an integral part of his social philosophy... In the powerful polemist of the mid-nineteenth century it is now possible to discern a harbinger of the great world evil of fascism. An irritating enigma to his own generation, his teachings misunderstood as anarchy by his disciples, Proudhon's place in intellectual history is destined to have a new and greater importance. It will come with the re-evaluation of the nineteenth century, as the prelude to the world revolution that is now called the second World War.[4]

According to the International Communist League (Fourth Internationalist) in a pamphlet Marxism versus Anarchism[1], Proudhon was a male chauvanist, a supporter of slavery, against strike and trade unions and an anti-semite.


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)
  • Idée générale de la révolution au XIXe siècle (General Idea of the Revolution in the Nineteenth 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 (Correspondences, 1875)

Writers influenced

  • Peter Kropotkin
  • Benjamin Tucker
  • Leo Tolstoy

See also

  • Anarchism
  • Co-operative
  • Federalism
  • Individualist anarchism
  • Mutualism (economic theory)
  • Property
  • Self management
  • Socialist economics


  1. ^ quoted by Max Nettlau, A Short History of Anarchism, pp. 43-44
  2. ^ ^ Copleston, Frederick. Social Philosophy in France, A History of Philosophy, Volume IX, Image/Doubleday, 1994, p. 67
  3. ^ Schapiro, J. Salwyn (1945). "Pierre Joseph Proudhon, Harbinger of Fascism". American Historical Review 50 (4): 714-737.

Works online

  • at the Fair Use Repository:
    • General Idea of the Revolution in the Nineteenth Century (1851)
  • at the Mondo Politico on-line Library:
    • What is Property? An Inquiry into the Principle of Right and of Government
  • at the Electronic Text Center at the University of Virginia Library:
    • What is Property? An Inquiry into the Principle of Right and of Government
    • System of Economical Contradictions: or, the Philosophy of Misery
  • Works by Pierre-Joseph Proudhon at Project Gutenberg
    • What is Property? An Inquiry into the Principle of Right and of Government
    • System of Economical Contradictions: or, the Philosophy of Misery

This article might use material from a Wikipedia article, which is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share-Alike License 3.0.

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