in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Paul Edwards, New York: Macmillan, 1967, VI, 507-8. 1967.


George Woodcock

PROUDHON, PIERRE-JOSEPH (1809-1865), has been called the father of anarchism, a title that is accurate insofar as organized anarchist movements throughout the world can be traced to his teachings and to the actions of his disciples. Proudhon was also the first writer deliberately to accept the title of anarchist, which he did in 1840. Before his time the term had been used to denote one who seeks to promote social disorder; Proudhon argued that it could be used with more justice to describe one who seeks social order without authoritarian government. "As man seeks justice in equality, so society seeks order in anarchy," he said. "Anarchy -- the absence of a master, of a sovereign -- such is the form of government to which we are every day approximating." Such doctrines were not entirely original; the English writer William Godwin had expounded them fifty years earlier without describing them as "anarchist," but Proudhon appears to have been uninfluenced by Godwin and to have reached his conclusions independently.

Proudhon prided himself on being a man of the people. He was born in Besancon, capital of Franche-Comte, of Jura peasant stock. His childhood was hard, and after a brief period at the college in Besancon, he received his education largely through his work as a printer; he taught himself Greek and Hebrew and developed a prose style that eventually won the admiration of Baudelaire, Flaubert, and Victor Hugo. The turning point in Proudhon's career came when he was awarded a scholarship by the Besancon Academy in 1838. This took him to Paris and gave him the leisure to formulate his ideas and to write his first important book, Qu'est-ce que la propriete? (What is Property?, Paris, 1840). This book, hailed by Marx as "the first decisive, vigorous and scientific examination" of the institution of property, gained notoriety because in one passage Proudhon defined property as "theft." The author's love of telling phrases distorted the nature of his argument, for Qu'est que la propriete? was in fact an investigation of abuses that had entered into the institution of property rather than a condemnation of property itself. The arguments which Proudhon put forward in this early book, on the nature of property and the faults of government, are those which he elaborated and gave a deeper philosophical backing in his later works.

Proudhon attacked the existence of private property that allows the exploitation of the labor of others, such as the owning of land by those who do not work it; he had only approval for the "possession" that allows a worker to dispose of what his hands make. "The right to products is exclusive -- jus in re; the right to means is common -- jus ad rem." This is so because the means of production, the heritage of techniques and inventions, have been built up by human cooperation, and no man has a right to use them exclusively for his own benefit. However, for the sake of independence, Proudhon granted the need for each man to control the land or tools he can use. In this early book he still thought in terms of a peasant-and-handcraft society.

Proudhon attacked unreformed property because it negates equality, but he rejected the communist theories of his time (principally those of the French Utopian socialists) because they denied independence. Here Proudhon came to the political aspect of his argument -- both unreformed property and communism are dependent on forms of authority to maintain themselves. But how far is authority justified? Proudhon contended that it arises from the tendency of social animals and primitive man to seek leaders. As reason develops, criticism, protest, and rebellion arise. Emergent political science finds the laws by which society functions in the nature of things, not in the whims of rulers. At this point anarchy, administration without government, becomes possible. Proudhon, at this stage under the influence of Hegelian ideas imperfectly absorbed from French reviews, created a triad. The thesis is property, which destroys equality; the antithesis is communism, which denies independence; the synthesis is anarchy or liberty, which is embodied in a society of producers bound together by a network of free contracts. In the widening recognition of mutual interests, government becomes unnecessary.

During the 1840s Proudhon served for several years as office manager for a water transport firm in Lyons, work that allowed him to travel frequently to Paris. In these two settings his theory of mutualism -- the form of anarchism particularly associated with him -- developed. Political radicalism flourished in mid-nineteenth-century Lyons, and Proudhon encountered there the disciples of Etienne Cabet, Charles Fourier, Pierre Leroux, and other socialist prophets. He developed the idea of a world-wide working-class organization on an economic basis rather than a political one. This led him to place faith in various forms of mutual credit systems which might eventually make governmental administration unnecessary; he envisaged such associations as becoming world-wide. In Paris, Proudhon associated with some of the leading European revolutionary theorists, including Marx, Bakunin, and Herzen. However, his personal and theoretical incompatibility with Marx soon became evident; the historical conflict between libertarian and authoritarian views of socialism began with the split between Marx and Proudhon, which dates from Marx's attack in La Misere de la philosophie (Paris, 1847) on Proudhon's Systeme des contradictions economiques (2 vols., Paris, 1846). Bakunin and Herzen, on the other hand, eventually became Proudhon's most important disciples.

During the 1840s Proudhon, an eclectic thinker, took what he found valid from the writings of Hegel, Feuerbach, Kant, and other German philosophers, as well as from Comte and the French Utopians. He evolved a philosophy which left out the third term of the Hegelian triad, and accepted contradiction as an enduring force tending toward a dynamic equilibrium -- the desirable condition of existence. He denied all absolutes, all Utopian aspirations to permanent solutions, and, in his Philosophie du progres (Paris, 1853) saw progress as "the affirmation of universal movement and in consequence the negation of all immutable forms and formulae, of all doctrines of eternity, permanence, or impeccability, and of every subject, or object, spiritual or transcendental, that does not change." He was, deliberately and avowedly, an antisystematic philosopher.

Proudhon assumed the standpoint of a critical independent, and as such he became the most outspoken journalist of the period, giving qualified support to the French revolution of 1848. His Le Representant du peuple (1848) was the first anarchist newspaper published with any regularity; harried by suppressions and fines, it survived under various names for more than two years. Proudhon was elected in June 1848 to the Constituent Assembly, where he maintained an intransigent minority position. He also planned a people's bank, based on his mutualist ideas, which never materialized because he was imprisoned for attacks in his paper on Louis Napoleon, then president of the Republic.

Proudhon's three years of imprisonment were light: He was allowed occasional days out on parole, on one of which he married Euphrasie Piegard, and he wrote two of his most important books, Les Confessions d'un revolutionnaire (Paris, 1850), an analysis of the events of 1848 which states the aim of anarchist revolutionism as "no more government of man by man, by means of the accumulation of capital," and Idee generate de la revolution au XIXe siecle (General Idea of the Revolution in the Nineteenth Century, Paris, 1851). The latter book comes nearer than anything else Proudhon wrote to presenting his view of the ideal libertarian society, based on contract instead of laws, with authority decentralized in communes and industrial associations, with frontiers abolished and flexible federation replacing the centralized national state.

During the early years of the Second Empire, Proudhon was subjected to constant police persecution, and in 1858 he was again sentenced to three years' imprisonment for an offense against the press laws. He fled to Belgium, where, although pardoned in 1860, he lived until 1862. During his final years in Paris, he gained a considerable mutualist following among French workingmen, and before he died early in 1865, he learned that his followers had taken a leading part in the meetings that led to the founding of the International Workingmen's Association.

During his final years Proudhon wrote a number of books that elaborated important aspects of his doctrines. Du Principe federatif (Paris, 1863) summarized his criticism of nationalism and developed his ideas of communal organization leading gradually to world federation. De la Justice dans la revolution et dans Veglise (3 vols., Paris, 1858) opposed his own theory of an immanent justice to transcendentalist ideas of justice. De la Capacite politique des classes ouvrieres (published posthumously in Paris, 1865) developed Proudhon's view of the power of the working class to achieve its own liberation by economic means.

Later anarchism and syndicalism were largely influenced by Proudhon's doctrines, as was the populist movement in Russia. As the Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin said, "Proudhon was the master of us all."

Works by Proudhon

Oeuvres completes de P. J. Proudhon, 26 vols. Paris, 1867-1870.

Oeuvres completes de P. J. Proudhon, C. C. A. Bougie and Henri Moysset, eds., 11 vols. Paris, 1920-1939. Never completed.

Correspondance, 14 vols. Paris, 1874-1875.

What Is Property?, translated by Benjamin Tucker. Princeton, 1876.

System of Economic Contradictions, translated by Benjamin Tucker. Boston, 1888.

General Idea of the Revolution in the Nineteenth Century, translated by John Beverley Robinson. London, 1923.

Works on Proudhon

Brogan, D. W., Proudhon. London, 1936.

Dolleans, Edouard, Proudhon. Paris, 1948.

Lubae, Henri de, Proudhon et le christianisme. Paris, 1945. Translated by R. E. Scantlebury as The Un-Marxian Socialist: A Study of Proudhon. London, 1948.

Prion, Gaetan, Proudhon et syndicalisme revolutionnaire. Paris, 1910.

Sainte-Beuve, Charles A., P.-J. Proudhon. Paris, 1872.

Woodcock, George, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. London, 1956.