Pierre-Joseph Proudhon is generally considered to be one of the founding fathers of anarchism. In fact, he was the first person to describe themselves as an anarchist, arguing for a society of free and equal citizens, in which power and property are decentralized, and people are free from the power of the nation-state. But who was Pierre-Joseph Proudhon? In this article, we will cover the biography of Proudhon and provide an outline of his main ideas, paying particular attention to his book What is Property?
The son of a cooper and tavern keeper, Proudhon’s early life was marked by poverty. Although his family’s poverty forced him to leave education and work as a cattle herd, his intellectual brilliance did not go unnoticed, winning him a scholarship to the prestigious college in Besançon. Proudhon’s time at the college ignited a lifelong passion for learning, although he was forced to leave early to help support his family by training as a printer. While training as an apprentice printer, the autodidact Proudhon taught himself Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, all of which helped him succeed in his new profession. Working as a printer also gave the young Proudhon access to local intellectuals, most notably the utopian socialist Charles Fourier, with whom he became lifelong friends.
After spending his youth as a printer, aged 29, Proudhon was awarded a scholarship to study in Paris, which enabled him to pursue his burgeoning interest in writing. It was in Paris where Proudhon wrote the book he is most famous for: What is Property? Written in a polemical style, the publication of his first book propelled Proudhon to fame in revolutionary circles, enabling him to abandon his previous career as a proofreader and type-setter to focus exclusively on journalism, writing, and editing radical periodicals.
During his time in Paris, Proudhon was an active publisher, editing anti-monarchist newspapers, including La Représentant du Peuple (February 1848 – August 1848); Le Peuple (September 1848 – June 1849); La Voix du Peuple (September 1849 – May 1850); and Le Peuple de 1850 (June 1850 – October 1850).
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Proudhon’s activism, however, wasn’t confined to the printing press. He was also an active revolutionary, participating in the 1848 revolution. It was for this that Proudhon was imprisoned in 1849. Imprisonment, however, couldn’t dampen Proudhon’s voice. During his time in prison, Proudhon’s writing continued unabated, publishing Confessions of a Revolutionary and The General Idea of the Revolution in the Nineteenth Century from jail.
Although not the most gregarious man, Proudhon was an active participant in Paris’ revolutionary circles. It was in Paris that Proudhon made the acquaintance of numerous other socialists, including Mikhail Bakunin and Karl Marx. With them, he was instrumental in organizing the beginnings of the international workers’ movement. Over time, however, Proudhon’s relationship with Marx soured, as he took issue with Marx’s growing influence over the socialist movement, objecting in particular to his authoritarianism and centrism. Marx, in turn, took issue with Proudhon’s stance by writing about it in The Poverty of Philosophy (1847), in which Marx argues that Proudhon’s economics is fundamentally incoherent. The rift between Proudhon and Marx eventually led to the collapse of the First International (i.e., The International Working Men’s Association) and the historic antipathy between anarchists and communists, which continues to this day.
Proudhon is best known for being the first person to call himself an anarchist, even if he wasn’t the first person to espouse anarchist views. Proudhon’s view of the ideal anarchist society, which he expands upon in The Principle of Federation, consists of a world without nation-states or borders, with political authority decentralized by a system of independent federated communities, with contracts amongst the parties replacing state-backed laws. It is a government of no one, a self-regulating system in which no individual has power over others. Workers, either individually or collectively, would take control over their own affairs, coming together to coordinate when necessary.
One person claiming authority over others, Proudhon argues, is an inherently oppressive form of despotism. No one has the right to rule and be obeyed, or to impose penalties for disobedience. Relations between individuals need to be made consensual and be based on principles of mutual aid. For Proudhon,
“To be governed is to be kept in sight, inspected, spied upon, directed, law-driven, numbered, enrolled, indoctrinated, preached at, controlled, estimated, valued, censured, commanded. To be governed is to be at ever operation, at every transaction, noted, registered, enrolled, taxed, stamped, measured, numbered, assessed, licensed, authorised, admonished, forbidden, reformed, corrected, punished. It is, under the pretext of public utility, and in the name of the general interest, to be placed under contribution, trained, ransomed, exploited, monopolised, extorted, squeezed, mystified, robbed: then, at the slightest resistance, the first word of complaint, to be repressed, fined, despised, harassed, tracked, abused, clubbed, disarmed, choked, imprisoned, judged, condemned, shot, deported, sacrificed, sold, betrayed”.
(Proudhon, What Is Property? quoted in Kinna 2009, p. 74).
Instead of accepting this authority, Proudhon argues, we should try and bring the business of the administration of our collective life under the direct control of the people. Individuals should primarily look after their own interests, banding together as equals to secure their communal interests, and federate with other groups to ensure mutually beneficial coordination with other groups further afield.
Property is Theft, Property is Freedom
The underlying cause of this oppression, Proudhon argues, is the existence of state-backed property rights. Property, in his view, is both theft and freedom. It is theft when one person owns the property that others need to survive. Property is theft when the person who owns it can own it without occupying it and can derive rent, income, and profit simply because they hold legal title. It is this form of property that allows a minority of property owners to control a majority of citizens, who are forever in debt simply because they don’t hold “title.” In this sense, property enabled a form of enslavement of the propertyless by the propertied minority. It is this enslavement that Proudhon’s anarchism seeks to challenge.
This, however, is not to say that all property should be held collectively. Unlike Marx, Proudhon doesn’t want property to be held as a monopoly by anyone, including the state. That, too, would enable the minority (i.e, political elites) to exercise undue control over the lives of the majority. If the proletariat is to achieve full emancipation, it must do so without the power of the state. Proudhon writes in What is Property?:
“Communism is inequality, but not as property is. Property is the exploitation of the weak by the strong. Communism is the exploitation of the strong by the weak”.
What is needed is a property regime that enables freedom for all. The best way of guaranteeing freedom for all, Proudhon argues, is for each person or small group to own their own means of production. Property is legitimate when it is co-extensive with possession. Proudhon objects not to property per se, but to large accumulations.
In his ideal society, property is individually held by small groups of workers, independent craftspeople, and farmers. As each would own their own property, none would be compelled to serve others, thus ensuring equality of the parties in negotiations. Freedom, in Proudhon’s view, requires broad equality of resources.
Proudhon and the Hope of Anarchism without Revolution
One of the most distinctive features of Proudhon’s thought is that, unlike Bakunin and Marx, he believed that transformations of society could occur without a (violent) revolution. Although he participated actively in the 1848 revolution, he was shocked by the rising levels of violence in the latter days of the revolution.
This reaffirmed his lifelong criticism of violent insurrectionist movements, reinforcing his broadly pacifist stance towards social change. His approach to reform was primarily focused on monetary reform, and the creation of parallel institutions, such as credit banks, which would provide interest-free loans to workers. This faith in non-violent action led him to attempt to create a People’s Bank, although this was ultimately an unsuccessful endeavour.
Honderich, Ted. (1995) The Oxford Companion to Philosophy. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
Kinna, Ruth. (2019) The Government of No One: The Theory and Practice of Anarchism. Pelican Books, London.
Kinna, Ruth. (2009) Anarchism: A Beginner’s Guide. Oneworld, Oxford.
Horowitz, Irving. (1964) The Anarchists. Dell Publishing Company, New York.