James Joll, The Anarchists, Second Edition, 1979.


Chapter III
Reason and revolution: Proudhon

Mon malheur est que mes passions se confondent avec mes idees; la lumiere qui eclaire les autres hommes, me brule.


'What is property? Property is theft.' The phrase appeared in a pamphlet by Pierre-Joseph Proudhon in 1840. Although Proudhon was not the first to use it, it was to become one of the most effective revolutionary slogans of the nineteenth century and the pamphlet established the reputation of its author, who was thirty-one years old when it appeared. His background and early life are important for an understanding both of his doctrines and of their appeal to the French working class. Proudhon came from the neighbourhood of Besancon in the Franche-Comte, and, although he was to live and work in Lyons and Paris, his moral and political outlook remained that of a puritanical young man from the provinces, shocked and horrified by the luxury, extravagance, decadence and corruption of the metropolis, centre de luxe et des lumieres, as he called it.' Proudhon's family were peasants by origin, but they were already becoming part of the lower middle class in the city. For once, Marx was right in describing Proudhon as a petit-bourgeois. His father was an artisan (he had worked as a cooper) who ended up as a brewer and innkeeper in Besancon. He was never very successful, and the family were often very poor indeed. The younger Proudhon liked to attribute this to his father's scrupulous refusal to accept the corrupt standards of contemporary commerce. 'He sold his beer almost at cost price; wanting nothing except a bare living, the [46] poor man lost everything.'2 At the same time, Proudhon's mother represented an ideal of the peasant virtues of frugality and independence which were to inspire much of his own view of an ideal society. He was passionately proud of his origins: 'My ancestors on both sides were all free labourers. . . famous for their boldness in resisting the claims of the nobility. . . . As for nobility of race, I am noble.'3 As a child he worked as a cowherd, and all his life remembered the beauty of the countryside in his native province, the landscapes which his friend and compatriot Gustave Courbet was to evoke so vividly Proudhon's view of the world remained rural and his ideal society one of sturdy, independent, self-supporting peasants. Throughout his writing, as in that of many later anarchists, runs a nostalgia for the vanished -- and often imaginary -- virtues of a simple agricultural society as it existed before it was corrupted by machines and by the false values of manufacturers and financiers.

Proudhon was entirely self-educated, and his writings are full of the odd and unexpected pieces of unsystematic knowledge of the autodidact. He was apprenticed as a printer (always a trade which was to produce serious, thoughtful anarchists); he taught himself Hebrew, Latin and Greek; he read a vast amount about religion and philosophy; he formulated amateur etymological theories. Finally, in 1838, he won a scholarship to Paris awarded by the Academy of Besancon, and it was to that body, somewhat ironically, that What is Property? was dedicated, although Proudhon's Warning to Proprietors, published two years later, was to be seized by the Public Prosecutor of Besancon. The success of What is Property? and the notoriety which Proudhon's controversies with the Besancon authorities brought him made him a famous man. For the rest of his life he was to be an unremitting propagandist and pamphleteer and a relentless critic of the whole of existing society. From now on he was to devote himself, as he put it in a famous phrase in What is Property?, to studying the 'means of improving the physical, intellectual and moral condition of the poorest and most numerous class (la classe la plus nombreuse et la plus pauvre)'.

However, although What is Property? and the other writings on the same theme which followed, to say nothing of Proudhon's prosecution and acquittal in Besancon, brought him considerable [47] fame in radical circles both in France and abroad -- by 1842 Karl Marx knew his work -- they did not bring him any money. During the next few years, therefore, he was earning his living by working for a river transport firm in Lyons, where he further considered, at first hand, the problems of the production and exchange of goods, and where he had his first experience of militant working-class groups. However, although he did not finally come to live in Paris till 1847, he paid several visits to the capital, and it was in these years that he first met the other great revolutionaries of his generation, especially Marx and Bakunin. Indeed, his writings on property had already established him as a radical thinker about economics, and his views were widely discussed, particularly after he had formulated them in an extensive philosophical work, the Systeme des contradictions economiques ou Philosophie de la misere. It is very characteristic of Proudhon -- rambling, discursive, all-embracing, ranging from discussions about the existence of God to detailed criticisms of methods of birth control. It is full of echoes of his eager reading of the classics and of history and philosophy as well as his puritanical moral views about marriage and the family. Above all, it reflects the exciting new philosophy of Hegel which Proudhon's Paris acquaintances Marx, Bakunin and Karl Grun were constantly discussing, and shows the ideas against which Proudhon was reacting. These were the ideas of Fourier, Saint-Simon and the other French 'Utopians' who had recently made words like 'socialism' and 'communism' popular. Proudhon rejected any reorganization of society that merely tried to rearrange its existing components. There was no point in simply shifting power from one group to another or in taking the ownership of capital from the existing proprietors only to replace them by a new set of monopolistic exploiters of the poor. 'Whoever appeals to power and to capital for the organization of labour is lying, because organization of labour must be the overthrow of capital and power.4 Thus Proudhon was equally opposed to the vast industrial enterprises to which the Saint-Simonians looked for the abolition of poverty, and to the mass production and consumption of Fourier's phalansteries; but he also rejected the plans put forward by Etienne Cabet or Louis Blanc for Utopian communities in which all was common property, but where labour was to be subjected to a rigorous central [48] direction. Nor was he any more favourable to the current doctrines of the liberals. Although he had learnt his economics from the same sources as they -- Adam Smith, Ricardo, Say -- he rejected their conclusion that the abolition of tariffs and the introduction of international free trade would solve all economic problems. Indeed, some of the most eloquent pages of the Systeme des contradictions economiques are in favour of protection and against free trade, on the grounds that the latter would merely allow the poor to be exploited on an international scale by the same monopolists who oppressed them at present.

Instead of societies based on the accumulation and circulation of capital and on the exercise of central governmental power, it was labour, the actual work performed by a man, that should be the basis of all social organization. 'Work', he wrote, 'is the first attribute, the essential characteristic of man.'5 Once a man's work was brought into direct relation with his needs, then the problem of exploitation would vanish and everyone would simply work to support himself and his family without producing gains for the proprietor or employer who himself did nothing. Property -- and Proudhon always seems to mean either land or capital by the word -- is theft because the proprietor is appropriating to himself what ought to be freely available to all. In place of property, Proudhon maintains, 'there can only be possession and use, on the permanent condition that a man works, leaving to him for the time being the ownership of the things he produces.'6

To restore the direct relationship between what a man produces and what he consumes, the first condition for Proudhon is the abolition of the whole existing structure of credit and exchange. Once financiers, banks and, indeed, money have gone, then the economic relations between men will return to a healthy natural simplicity. Proudhon was, in fact, in 1849 to make a brief unsuccessful attempt to initiate this reform, by himself founding a People's Bank which was to have no capital and to make no profit, but in which the customers could accumulate credit for the goods they had themselves actually produced and thus exchange product for product without the need of money. 'We must destroy the royal rule of gold', he wrote after the collapse of his practical efforts to do this, 'by making each product of labour into current coin. . . .'7 It was an idea which, for all its lack of success and for [49] all its impracticability, Proudhon was never to abandon and it was an essential part of the view of social organization which he was to leave behind.

Before writing the Systetne des contradictions economiques and the other essays on property which preceded it, Proudhon had read the philosophy of Kant and Fichte, but it was his contacts with the German emigres in Paris which taught him the way of thinking and the jargon of German philosophy, and which introduced him to the Hegelian school. Thus his writings of the 1840s are full of discussion about Subject and Object, the basis of morality and the dialectic. It was, indeed, Proudhon's rather clumsy attempts to organize the Systetne des contradictions economiques on a Hegelian pattern that particularly aroused Marx's scorn, and there is something in Marx's criticism that 'Herr Proudhon has taken only the way of speaking from the Hegelian dialectic'. (Herr Proudhon hat von der Hegelschen Dialektik nur die Redeweise.) Marx himself claimed to have introduced Proudhon to Hegelianism and wrote: 'I injected him with Hegelianism to his great disadvantage, since, as he did not know German, he could not study the subject deeply.'8 Marx delivered an all-out attack on Proudhon's economic theories within a year of the publication of the Systeme des contradictions, in a book which was called, by a parody of Proudhon's sub-title, the Poverty of Philosophy. In fact, however, as so often with Marx, the doctrinal differences masked a profound difference of personal approach. When Proudhon first met Marx in the winter of 1844-5, Proudhon was already a comparatively famous man whose writings and ideas were widely discussed, whereas Marx was still an unknown and struggling German radical journalist. Marx was quick to see how useful Proudhon could be to him and suggested that he should act as the Paris representative of an organization to link socialists of various countries together by correspondence -- a first sign of the International which Marx was to dominate twenty years later. Proudhon was not enthusiastic; perhaps, for all his admiration for Marx and his excitement at the discovery of the new German philosophy, he realized how difficult Marx would be to work with; and certainly there were already divergencies which Proudhon's reply to Marx clearly reveals. 'Let us seek together, if you wish, the laws of society,' [50] Proudhon wrote, 'the way in which they are realized, the process according to which we succeed in discovering them; but, for God's sake, after demolishing all a priori dogmatisms, do not let us dream of indoctrinating the people in our turn; do not let us fall into the contradiction of your compatriot Luther, who, after overthrowing the Catholic theology, at once began, armed with excommunications and anathemas, to found Protestant theology.,!* It was the first time that the divergence of attitude between the French and German working-class movements, which was to be a feature of later socialist history, had been expressed, while the breach between Marx and Proudhon set the pattern of the future breach between Marx and Bakunin, which was to leave the international working-class movement permanently divided. Marx followed up this attempt to win Proudhon's cooperation with the all-out attack contained in the Poverty of Philosophy. He was a better philosopher and a better economist than Proudhon, and much of his criticism of Proudhon's theories was justified. Yet there is also something in the remark with which Proudhon received Marx's attack: 'The true meaning of Marx's work is that he regrets that I have thought like him everywhere and that I was the first to say it.'10

Indeed, the importance of Proudhon's early works lies not so much in their theoretical arguments, fascinating as these often are, nor, on the other hand, just in the phrases like 'property is theft' or 'the most numerous and the poorest class', which were to become the commonplaces of revolutionary rhetoric. It lies in his whole conception of the nature of man and society. For Proudhon, as we have seen, work was the characteristic of man's nature; not to work was not to be a true man leading a full life. Consequently, labour was both a social necessity and a moral virtue. It provided the basic element in economic and social life and at the same time the basic ethical standard. And, although Proudhon was himself an intellectual and admitted in his thinking the value of intellectual work, it is the manual work of the peasant or craftsman which he has in mind. If, for Marx, the proletariat was to be the class destined by the immutable laws of history to triumph, for Proudhon the proletariat was to be the class whose toil and sufferings were to make possible a new moral as well as a new social order. The sense of the dignity of labour, and the [51] necessity of preserving it from the degradation imposed by machines and the exploitation imposed by the capitalist system, runs through all Proudhon's work, and this idea of the worker's duty to himself and his mission to the world is the basis of all subsequent anarchist thought.

However, Proudhon's doctrine that the working man must be the basis of all society did not blind him to the weaknesses and vices of the workers whom he knew. He saw the working class with all their faults. For him, as for his friend and disciple, the painter Gustave Courbet, they were individuals, and not simply the anonymous symbol of the dignity of labour, as they are, for instance, in the paintings of another contemporary, Jean Francois Millet. 'Man', according to Proudhon, 'is a tyrant or a slave by his own will before he is made tyrant or slave by fortune; the heart of the proletarian is like that of the rich, a cesspool of babbling sensuality, a home of filth and hypocrisy.'11 The greatest obstacle which equality has to overcome is not the aristocratic pride of the rich,' he wrote, 'but rather the undisciplined egoism of the poor.' It was not sufficent to change the institutions of society to change man's nature. Any real reform must also be a moral reform in each individual. 'Man is by nature a sinner, that is to say not essentially a wrongdoer [malfaisant) but rather wrongly made (malfait), and his destiny is perpetually to recreate his ideal in himself.'12 Here again is a point of difference both from the Utopians, such as Saint-Simon and Fourier, for whom it was sufficient if man's environment were changed for his nature to change also, and also from Marx, for whom morality was totally conditioned by material circumstances. Proudhon's emphasis on the necessity of a voluntary effort by each individual was something which was taken up by subsequent anarchist ideas and practice, as well as by a whole school of French socialist thought.

Proudhon's sense of man's divided nature and of his original sin brings him far nearer to belief in God than most anarchists have been. For him God and man confront each other, and their struggle is the struggle of man with the better part of his own self: 'But God and man, in spite of the necessity which chains them together, are irreducible; what the moralists by a pious slander have called the war of man with himself, and which is ultimately only the war of man against God, the war of reflection against [52] instinct, the war of reason, planning, choosing, temporizing, against impetuous or fatal passion, provides the irrefutable proof.'13 If Proudhon's ideas about the organization of society are based on a belief in the possibility of rational economic and social laws, his conception of human nature is founded on a realization of the power of the irrational and the constant effort needed to make men behave reasonably. The new order of the future is no easy, immediately attainable Utopia; when Proudhon wrote in his notebook, 'Liberty, Equality, Fraternity! I say rather Liberty, Equality, Severity',14 he meant what he said.

The sense of the violence inherent in men, and of the importance of the irrational in their actions made later thinkers of the right, as well as the philosophers of anarchist violence, look to Proudhon as their master. It also produces some curious effects in Proudhon's own work and personality, so that the two conflicting aspects of human nature which he observed are reflected in his own character and writings. The violence of his own character did not impel him, however, to take a direct part in revolutions. Although he could exclaim during the Paris revolution of 1848 that he was 'listening to the sublime horror of the cannonade', he was not, as Bakunin was, irresistibly drawn to every centre of violent revolt. On the whole, indeed, he thought that the transformation of society might come about by peaceful means and he feared that revolution would bring with it its own dangers of a new tyranny. 'We must not suppose the revolutionary action is the means of social reform,' he wrote to Marx just before their breach, 'because this so-called means would simply be an appeal to force, to arbitrariness, in short a contradiction.'15

The violence in Proudhon's character is more personal and expressed itself in alarming outbursts against, for example, Jews and homosexuals or, for that matter, against the English nation; and although in his more reasonable moments he goes so far as even to question the right of society to punish at all, at other times he is calling for the death penalty and even for the use of torture.16

Towards the end of his life Proudhon tried to devise methods for utilizing and turning men's violent instincts to rational ends. It was these instincts which caused wars, and any system of law, domestic or international, was only effective in so far as it could canalize the natural human emotions of hatred and desire for [53] revenge. War was inevitable in existing society because of its psychological origins: yet the attempts to keep it within bounds by means of conventions for its conduct were breaking down, and thus, since it could not be controlled, war must be abolished. 'The end of militarism is the mission of the nineteenth century on penalty of indefinite decadence.'17 War would only end after the social revolution, which would provide an adequate method of diverting the instincts of hatred and revenge into support for a system of law which would be mutually respected.

Throughout his life and writing Proudhon's extreme puritan-i ism, especially in sexual questions, comes from a sense of the violent, blind and destructive nature of men's instincts. One of the virtues of hard work, indeed, was that it would diminish sexual desire and provide a natural means of controlling the growth of population. Proudhon was consistently anti-feminist; the woman's place was in the home and there was no alternative for her but to be either a housewife or a courtesan. He had been deeply attached to his own mother, and her peasant virtues of frugality and abnegation remained for him the ideal qualities in a woman. He chose his own wife entirely on such grounds: after going up to a strange girl in the street because she seemed to him to have a suitable working-class appearance, he wrote to her, 'After the considerations of age, fortune, face, morals, come those of education. On this point you will permit me to say, Mademoiselle, that I have always felt an antipathy for the high-toned lady, the female artist or writer. . . . But the working woman, simple, gracious, naive, devoted to work and to her duties, such, in short, as I believe I have seen exemplified in you, gains my homage and my admiration.'1" (In the event, it turned out to be as good a way of choosing a wife as any other.)

It was the family that was necessarily the basis of Proudhon's society, and here again he differs from the communal schemes of the Utopian socialists. 'Point de famille, point de cite, point de republique',19 he wrote, and in the peasant-like simplicity of his own family life (admirably caught in a famous portrait by Courbet) he found for himself, as he preached to others, a release from some of the tensions of his own nature. It was his own instinctive passionate feelings that made him so effective a revolutionary thinker, and for all his miscellaneous learning and his attempts at [54] systematic philosophy, it is this, as he himself realized, that gave him his strength, even if it also produced inconsistencies in his thought and outbreaks of violence and prejudice. He himself summed up this side of his life in a remark in his private notebooks: 'Where do I get my passion for justice which torments me and irritates me and makes me angry? 1 cannot account for it. It is my God, my religion, my all: and if I try to justify it by philosophical reason, I cannot.'20


In his books and pamphlets of the 1840s, Proudhon had been concerned to work out his philosophical and economic beliefs, and had not said very much about the political organization of society after the achievement of the changes he advocated in the ownership of the means of production and in the system of exchange. From the start, however, it is clear that he rejected the idea of the state. 'What is government?' he asked in 1840; and produced the Saint-Simonian answer: 'Government is the public economy, the supreme administration of the labour and the assets of all the nation.'21 Again, further on in What is Property? he already shows in what direction his political thought is moving: 'Free association, liberty, limited to maintaining equality in the means of production and equivalence in exchange, is the only possible form of society, the only just and the only true one. Politics is the science of freedom; the government of man by man, under whatever name it is disguised, is oppression: the high perfection of society consists in the union of order and anarchy.'22 However, it was Proudhon's experiences in the revolution of 1848 that turned his attention to questions of political as well as economic organization, and led him to elaborate the double programme which he summed up when he said: 'Our idea of anarchism is launched: non-government is developing as non-property did before.'23 It is this negation of government and negation of property which makes Proudhon the first true and effective anarchist thinker.

Although by 1848 Proudhon was well known as a revolutionary pamphleteer, he had not, in fact, had much contact with [55] practical political organizations. In Lyon, it is true, he had been in touch with one of the semi-secret radical organizations, the Mutualists, whose name was later to be revived by his own followers, and he had seen something of the revolutionary potentialities of the industrial proletariat. All his instincts, however, were against political action, and he was as sceptical about the aims, methods and motives of the middle-class liberal democrats as he was about those of the followers of Saint-Simon and Fourier. However, the revolution of 1848 forced him into activity of which he really disapproved. He was excited by the situation, and was to be seen in the street helping to uproot a tree from which to make a barricade -- the only practical revolutionary act he ever committed. He published a leaflet calling for the dethronement of Louis-Philippe, and finally even allowed himself to be elected to the National Assembly. All the time, however, he felt that the aims of the revolution were the wrong ones. Instead of a social revolution and a reformation of the whole system of property, the leaders of the Second Republic were only interested in political and constitutional changes. Even the attempts at economic action, such as the national workshops which Louis Blanc had been advocating, and which, in a modified form, the government introduced in a vain attempt to deal with growing unemployment and distress, were based, according to Proudhon, on the wrong principles, because they merely substituted coercion by the state for coercion by the private employer. Consequently, Proudhon's career in the National Assembly was largely negative. 'I voted against the Constitution,' he said, 'not because it contains things of which I disapprove and does not contain things of which I approve. I voted against the Constitution because it is a Constitution.'24 He was disappointed in his attempts to use the Assembly as a means of economic reform: when he tried to introduce a bill to reorganize the system of taxation in such a way as virtually to confiscate a large part of all private fortunes in order to set up credit banks and subsidies for peasants and workers, he was greeted with incredulous laughter in a rapidly emptying chamber. Nor, as we have seen, was his attempt in 1849 to set up a privately organized People's Bank any more successful.

The experience of 1848 left him disillusioned and his immediate reaction was one of deep gloom. 'Yes, we are defeated and [56] humiliated; yes, thanks to our indiscipline, to our incapacity for revolution, we are all dispersed, imprisoned, disarmed, dumb. . . .'25 From 1849 onwards he was to turn away from politics and political reforms for good and to develop into a true anarchist.

In January 1849, Proudhon published a violent attack on Louis Napoleon, the recently elected President of the Republic, and was tried for sedition. He succeeded in living in hiding for a few months, but was arrested in June and imprisoned for three years, although much of the time under conditions which enabled him to work as a journalist as well as to see his family and friends. For the remainder of his life -- he died in 1865 -- he was earning a precarious living as a pamphleteer and journalist, and winning a reputation as a totally fearless and independent thinker who was not to be silenced by spells of imprisonment or exile. His relation to Louis Napoleon was an ambivalent one. At the time of the coup d'etat of 1851, Proudhon even welcomed Louis Napoleon's dictatorship. His reasons were mixed, indeed confused. On the one hand -- like the eighteenth-century philosophes looking for a benevolent despot - he had not entirely abandoned the hope that Louis Napoleon might take up some of his schemes for tax reform and free credit. At the same time Napoleon was, in Proudhon's eyes, at least a safeguard against the monarchist restoration which seemed the only alternative now that the attempt at a bourgeois democracy had failed. On the other hand, there seems to have been an element of Schadenfreude in Proudhon's acceptance of the coup d'etat. Like the German communists in 1932 who were prepared to accept Hitler's rise to power rather than collaborate with their social democratic rivals, Proudhon seemed to regard dictatorship as a means of defeating his enemies and as a preliminary to revolution, a stage in the collapse of established society that might pave the way for true social and economic reform.

Proudhon's welcome to Louis Napoleon's dictatorship and his attacks on liberal democracy and universal suffrage were to have a strange effect on his reputation. In the twentieth century he has been hailed as a forerunner by members of the extreme right: he has been called an ancestor of Maurras and the Action Frangaise and even, under the Vichy regime, hailed as a representative of true 'French' socialism in contrast to the Marxist Russian variety. [57] It is certainly true that Proudhon is hard to fit into the tradition of 'progressive' liberal political thought. His sense of the irrational and violent nature of man, his puritanism, his contempt for elections and parliaments and all the phrasemaking of democratic government, are enough to explain the sympathy sometimes felt for him by fascist thinkers. Yet it would be a mistake to regard this as the true trend of his thought, or to label him as a prophet of twentieth-century dictatorships on account of his reactions to Louis Napoleon's seizure of power.

The Social Revolution Demonstrated by the Coup d'Etat of the Second of December -- the work which did much to injure Proudhon's reputation with liberal democrats, both then and later -- does, in fact, show how he got himself into a rather ambiguous position. What the events of the years 1848-51 had shown was the complete bankruptcy of conventional political and economic thought. None of the regimes since 1789 in France had been able to ensure the observance of the 'principles of '89', which Proudhon defined as freedom of property, freedom of labour and the natural, free and equal division of labour by aptitude and not by caste. The history of the previous sixty-four years had shown, he says, that despotic government is impossible. The way is therefore clear for a new organization of society which will be based not on a permanent central government but on the continuous but shifting interplay of interests:

If there is a government, it can only result from a delegation, convention, federation, in a word from the free and spontaneous consent of all the individuals which make up the People, each one of them insisting on and canvassing for the guarantee of his own interests. Thus the government, if there is one, instead of being Authority as hitherto, will represent the relationship between all the interests created by free property, free labour, free trade, free credit and will itself only have a representative value, just as paper money only has value through what it represents.26
If society can be organized on the basis of the direct interplay of interests, and if such organization is based on the 'relation between liberties and interests', then, Proudhon goes on to say, the difference between economics and politics vanishes: [58]
For there to be a relationship between interests, the interests themselves must be present, answering for themselves, making their own demands and commitments, acting.... In the last analysis everyone is the government, so there is no government. Thus the system of government follows from its definition: to say representative government means to say relationship between interests; to say relationship between interests means absence of government.27

Proudhon did not long retain any illusions that Napoleon III might usher in a new society where government would give way to a free interplay of decentralized economic and social groups. Instead, the monopolies he had attacked, the police and bureaucrats he had denounced, the economic and social ideas he had deplored, all seemed more firmly entrenched in French society than ever. However, the ideas which the failure of the 1848 revolution and of the Second Republic had forced him to develop remained the foundation of his subsequent writings. The only hope of achieving the economic reforms for which he had hoped would lie in the complete reorganization of society so that economic interests, properly and equitably organized, would cooperate for their mutual advantage without the intervention of any central authority. 'What we put in place of the government is industrial organization,' Proudhon wrote in 1851, 'what we put in place of laws are contracts. . . what we put in place of political powers are economic forces.'28

In his voluminous writings in the seventeen years between 1848 and his death, Proudhon, when he was not just commenting on contemporary politics, was elaborating these themes. In fact, although he was to be forced into exile in Belgium between 1858 and 1862, in order to avoid a further period of imprisonment for his writings, he became less revolutionary. He was concerned to point out the contradictions of existing society and to preach the inevitability of change, but not to lay down what society would be like in detail after the revolution. This saves him from the fascinating, if often ludicrous, precise planning of a Godwin or a Fourier, but it also means -- and it is something from which all anarchist thought suffers -- that he never really explains how the obvious difficulties of his system are to be overcome. In his most extensive [59] work, Justice in the Revolution and the Church,29 Proudhon falls back on man's own nature as the only guarantee that his anarchism would ever work. Justice, the fundamental principle of society, is neither revealed by God nor inherent in nature: it is a 'faculty of the soul' which requires careful nurturing. 'Justice,' Proudhon writes, 'as we can see from the example of children and savages, is the last and slowest to grow of all the faculties of the soul; it needs an energetic education in struggle and adversity.'30 Once men have developed the sense of justice, then their relations will be governed by the 'respect, spontaneously felt and mutually guaranteed, of human dignity, in whatever person and in whatever circumstances it is threatened, and whatever risks we are exposed to in its defence'.31 And later he writes: 'What guarantees the observance of justice? The same thing that guarantees that the merchant will respect the coin - faith in reciprocity, that is to say justice itself. Justice is for intelligent and free beings the supreme cause of their decisions.'32 Proudhon, in fact, falls back on his early reading of Kant's moral philosophy, and his society rests on the categorical imperative and on the maxim, 'Do as you would be done by'.

Proudhon envisaged a society in which men's products would be directly exchanged for the other goods they needed, and in which such institutions as might be required for this purpose would be provided by negotiations between the groups concerned. Sometimes he writes as though there will be some minimal permanent central government consisting of delegations from the communes which form the state. Elsewhere he suggests that a central government is only needed for such purposes as the initial reorganization of the economy and reconstitution of society. In any case, however, the key to the new organization is federalism, and it was this idea that Proudhon was most concerned to develop in the last years of his life and which was to have an important political influence after his death. Society must be based on small units: 'If the family was the basic element of feudal society, the workshop is the basic element of the new society.'33 These small units will be loosely associated in the commune, which will be all that is needed to provide most of the administrative functions required. The communes will need to join a federation for certain purposes, but the delegation of power to any central authority [60] must be very strictly limited and controlled: for example, the control of the militia necessary for defence against foreign invasion must be left with the local authorities except in actual time of war, and there need be no central budget or administration. Proudhon never faces the problem that in practice confronts all federal systems, namely how to keep some sort of equality of living standards between communes with differing resources. This is in part because, like all anarchists, he envisaged men as living an extremely austere life with few needs. He never forgot his own origins, and tended to equate all men with the peasants of the Franche-Comte or with the self-respecting, self-improving printers among whom his apprenticeship had been served. However much he may have realized that 'the workshop is the basis of the new society', it was a workshop in rural surroundings, and the artisans were smallholders at heart. After the revolution, he wrote, 'Humanity will do as in Genesis, it will concern itself with the tilling and caring for the soil which will provide it with a life of delights -- as recommended by the philosopher Martin in Candide, man will cultivate his garden. Agriculture, once the lot of the slave, will be one of the first of the fine arts, [This is a direct echo of the love of flower gardens which is so notable a feature of Fourier's phalansteries.] and human life will be passed in innocence, freed of all the seduction of the ideal.'34 The groups out of which the new society is to be formed must be rational and natural ones.

Every time that men with their wives and children assemble in one place, live and till the soil side by side, develop in their midst different industries, create neighbourly relations among themselves and, whether they like it or not, impose on themselves a state of solidarity, they form what I call a natural group, which soon sets itself up as a political organism, affirming its identity in its unity, its independence, its life, its own movement (auto-kinesis) and its autonomy.35

Proudhon's enthusiasm for federalism and for the small group led him into some strange positions. He found himself defending the Jesuits for their stand in favour of cantonal independence in the Swiss Civil War of 1846, and in the American Civil War he was a firm supporter of the South, pointing out that the sacrifice [61] of the Southern states' rights in return for the Union's antislavery policy simply meant that the Negroes would become proletarians instead of slaves, which was not, in Proudhon's eyes, much of a change for the better. He incurred the anger of all liberals by his violent attacks on Mazzini and Garibaldi for wanting to impose an artificial national unity on the varied and heterogeneous population of Italy. He was in favour of multinational states and -- although he at times shows a touch of French chauvinism in the Jacobin tradition -- he had no sympathy with demands for 'natural frontiers' and national self-determination. Almost alone among the radical writers of his day, he was opposed to Polish claims for independence, on the grounds that the independent Polish state would be entirely in the hands of a reactionary aristocracy. (It was one of the few topics on which he held the same views as Richard Cobden, in strong contrast to Bakunin, who actually hired a ship to carry an abortive expedition to assist the Polish rising in 1863.)

Proudhon was not a philosopher who erected a consistent rational structure like that of William Godwin. He is rather a writer whose influence was due to a few striking slogans -- 'Property is theft', 'God is evil' -- and to a few reiterated fundamental ideas about the nature of man and the future organization of society. At the same time, the passion of his own temperament, his stubborn refusal to conform or compromise, his wide range of odd knowledge, all made him a first-rate popular journalist and pamphleteer. The 'trois gros volumes' of Justice sold some 6,000 copies on publication, and even if Proudhon's own claim of 10,000 readers of the articles written during his exile in Belgium is exaggerated, his influence by the time he died was widespread, not only among the French working-class movements which were developing in the 1860s, but also abroad, especially in Spain and Italy.

While it is perhaps Proudhon's understanding of the irrational side of man's nature and his awareness of the violence of which human beings are capable that have led to a revival of interest in his work in the twentieth century, his message to his contemporaries was a simpler one. The abolition of the financier and the rentier, the securing to the worker of the full value of the goods he produced, the development of small, mutually supporting groups [62] in place of the dehumanized factories, the constant reminder of the virtues of the peasant's life, all these had an obvious and positive appeal. And Proudhon's negative message was even more telling and contains the essence of anarchism, or at least one side of it.

To be governed is to be watched over, inspected, spied on, directed, legislated at, regulated, docketed, indoctrinated, preached at, controlled, assessed, weighed, censored, ordered about, by men who have neither the right nor the knowledge nor the virtue. To be governed means to be, at each operation, at each transaction, at each movement, noted, registered, controlled, taxed, stamped, measured, valued, assessed, patented, licensed, authorized, endorsed, admonished, hampered, reformed, rebuked, arrested. It is to be, on the pretext of the general interest, taxed, drilled, held to ransom, exploited, monopolized, extorted, squeezed, hoaxed, robbed; then at the least resistance, at the first word of complaint, to be repressed, fined, abused, annoyed, followed, bullied, beaten, disarmed, garotted, imprisoned, machine-gunned, judged, condemned, deported, flayed, sold, betrayed and finally mocked, ridiculed, insulted, dishonoured. That's government, that's its justice, that's its morality!36
In both his positive and negative doctrines Proudhon is the first and most important anarchist philosopher; and later anarchist writers have not added very much to what he said. What remained was to see how far these ideas could be put into practice.


In September 1864 the International Working Men's Association was founded in London. Although Karl Marx had not taken the initiative in organizing the meeting, he was, from the start of the First International, determined that it should be under his direction and control. However, the French delegates at the opening meeting were, in fact, disciples of Proudhon. At the end of his life, therefore, Proudhon found himself, for the first time since 1848, faced with the problem of what his attitude should be to the [63] practical politics of the working-class movements which had been growing up in France over the past few years. In 1863 a group of Parisian workers had announced that they would put forward candidates for the elections for the Corps Legislatif. Their leader was Henri Tolain, a bronze-worker, and just the sort of worker of whom Proudhon most approved - sober, thrifty, dignified, with a passion for reading and learning. In 1862 Tolain had successfully organized a delegation of French workers to the Great Exhibition in London, and he had used the opportunity to state his principle that one must say to the workers: 'You are free, organize yourselves, do your own business for yourselves.'37 In spite of failing to win any seats in the Paris constituencies for which he and his friends had stood, Tolain persisted in his attempts at political action, and in 1864 he drafted a manifesto, known as the Manifeste des soixante, in which he pointed out the necessity for the workers to have their own political organization so as not to be any longer dependent on the bourgeoisie for their representation.

Proudhon disagreed profoundly. For the past few years he had been preaching abstention from all elections as a demonstration of disapproval of the sham constitutionalism of the Second Empire. It was only by a mass expression of disapproval, he thought, and by a refusal to make the system work that the hypocrisy of the imperial regime could be exposed. Proudhon's campaign against voting was not very successful, and it was clear that many of those who, like Tolain, were his most devoted disciples, were not going to be content with the purely negative policy of complete abstention. It was in response to the Manifesto of the Sixty that Proudhon, a year before his death, felt obliged to define and revise his position. On the Political Capacity of the Working Classes, which was still in proof when Proudhon died, repeats most of his previous teaching. However, he now realized that working-class organization might really achieve something by political means: 'A social fact of incalculable importance is occurring in the heart of society; it is [and here he takes up one of the Saint-Simonian phrases he had used nearly thirty years before] the arrival in political life of the most numerous and poorest class. H In effect, Proudhon was prepared to accept this new political development; but he was insistent that any political action must be based on the principle of mutuality. It was only, he [64] repeated, through the action of small groups cooperating practically in day-to-day economic and social life and living on terms of mutual respect that any progress could come about. Otherwise -and it was of the dangers of political action rather than its advantages that Proudhon remained aware - the kind of politics which many socialists were advocating could only end in disaster. 'The political system', he wrote, 'can be defined as follows: A compact democracy founded in appearance on the dictatorship of the masses, but in which the masses only have so much power as is needed to secure universal servitude.'3"

Proudhon's doctrines had a particular appeal for the intelligent working-class man in the Second Empire, if only because of the contradictions and anomalies in the social and economic life of France in the mid-nineteenth century. It was a period of expansion and change, of the building of railways, the construction of vast new factories, the growth of the banks and the foundation of the first great department stores, of the creation of the replanned and glittering Paris of Baron Haussmann (which Proudhon himself so much disliked). At a time when the real wages of the workers were stationary this only increased the distance and antagonism between classes, especially in Paris. Yet, while some workers were being uprooted and absorbed into the all-embracing world of the industrial town, others were still working at home or in small workshops and often tilled a small plot of land, so that they were still half-peasants in outlook.40 The new working-class leaders, such as Tolain, who wanted to put Proudhon's teaching into practice, were the men who were aware of these contrasts and changes. 'The working-class leader', a French social historian has written of this period, 'is neither an artisan nor a proletarian: he is in general a man who has passed his childhood in the country and has not forgotten it; he is above all a man who is familiar with the small workshop but who follows attentively the development of the large factory. . . he is a well-informed man who tries to anticipate and form a picture of the future. . . . Half peasant, half worker, who mixes realism and Utopia in a subtle blend.'41 It might be a description of Proudhon himself or of his disciples such as Tolain (though he came from the old Paris artisan class and not from the country), or Eugene Variin, the young bookbinder who became one of the leaders of [65] the French section of the International and of the Commune of 1871.

In the 1860s Proudhon's disciples practised his principles of self-improvement and mutual assistance. Varlin, for example, founded a large cooperative kitchen in Paris to supply meals for working men. At the same time they talked increasingly of the necessity of revolution. The younger generation, of whom Varlin was the most prominent, were often impatient of the limited aims of Tolain and the older men. At the same time, from their committee room in the rue des Grandvilliers - the same street, as their historians like to recall, where Jacques-Roux preached social revolution in 1793 -- they provided a stream of Proudhonian ideas which were to bring the French section of the International into conflict with Marx.

However, Proudhon's influence on the French working-class movement was a long-term rather than an immediate one. In the 1860s men like Tolain and Varlin did not have many followers, and it was only with the Commune of 1871 that Proudhonian ideas became indissolubly part of revolutionary practice in France. Proudhon lived just long enough to know and approve of the founding of the International; but in fact his disciples soon found their beliefs at odds with the centralized discipline which Marx was trying to impose. Not all of them remained anarchists, but the ideas of cooperation and decentralization which they derived from Proudhon became an important element in French socialist thought, and the differences between Marx and Proudhon were reflected later in the differences between the French and German socialist movements at the beginning of the twentieth century.

It was nevertheless in the 1860s that the anarchist movement began to be a practical political force. Proudhon's own acquaintance with Marx and Bakunin linked him to the main traditions of contemporary European socialist and radical thought. For all his own political inaction, he inspired a large section of the French working-class movement down to our own day. Finally, the formation of the International, even though its immediate practical importance was not as great as either its members or its historians have believed, provided a stage on which took place the clash of temperament and doctrine between Marx and his supporters on [66] the one hand and Bakunin and the followers of Proudhon on the other. This clash was to split the European working-class movement irreparably and to offer two alternative ways of achieving the revolution and two alternative visions of what the world would be like once the revolution had succeeded.


1 Proudhon, La revolution sociale demontree par le coup d'etat du deux Decembre (Oeuvres completes, Paris 1938), p. 126.

2 Proudhon, Memoires sur ma vie (written 1841), p. 5, printed in Carnets de P.-J. Proudhon, vol. I (Paris 1960). For Proudhon's life see G. Woodcock, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (London 1956); Edouard Dolleans, Proudhon (Paris 1948); Daniel Halevy, La jeunesse de Proudhon (Paris 1948). For an excellent discussion of certain aspects of Proudhon's thought, see H. de Lubac, Proudhon et le Christianisme (Paris 1945), Eng. tr. The Unmarxian Socialist (London 1948).

3 Proudhon, Carnets, vol. I, p. 3.

4 Proudhon, Systeme des contradictions economiques ou Philosophic de la misere (2 vols, Paris 1923), vol. II, p. 310.

5 ibid., vol. II, p. 361.

6 Proudhon, Qu'est-ce que la Propriete? (Paris 1840), p. 87.

7 Dolleans, op. cit., p. 173.

8 Quoted P. Haubtmann, Marx et Proudhon (Paris 1947), p. 27.

9 ibid., pp. 63-4. See also G. Woodcock, op. cit., pp. 92-3.

10 Quoted Dolleans, op. cit., p. 99.

11 Proudhon, Systeme, vol. I, p. 356.

12 ibid., vol. I, p. 372.

13 ibid., vol. II, p. 252.

14 Proudhon, Carnets, vol. I, p. 169.

15 Proudhon to Marx, 17 May 1846, in Proudhon, Programme Revolutionnaire (Oeuvres Completes, Paris 1938), p. 292.

16 See, e.g., Proudhon, Carnets, vol. II, pp. 26, 173.

17 Proudhon to Rolland, 3 June 1861, quoted Dolleans, op. cit., pp. 384-5.

18 Quoted Woodcock, op. cit., pp. 106-7.

19 Proudhon, 15 June 1858, quoted Dolleans, op. cit., p. 318.

20 Proudhon, Carnets, vol. I, p. 226.

21 Proudhon, Qu'est-ce que la Propriete?, pp. 169-70.

22 ibid., pp. 242-3.

23 To Alfred Darimon, 14 February 1850, quoted Dolleans, op. cit., p. 207.

24 Quoted E. H. Carr, Michael Bakunin (London 1937), p. 130.

25 Proudhon, Les confessions d'un revolutionnaire pour servir a I'histoire de la Revolution de Fevrier (1849) (Paris 1929), p. 65.

26 Proudhon, La revolution sociale demontree par le coup d'etat du Deux Decembre (Paris 1938), p. 288.

27 ibid., p. 290.

28 Proudhon, L'idee generale de la Revolution au 19e siecle (Paris 1924), p. 302.

29 Proudhon, De la justice dans la revolution et dans I'eglise (Paris 1858), 3 vols.

30 ibid., vol. I, p. 151.

31 ibid., vol. I, p. 423.

32 ibid., vol. I, p. 486.

33 To Pierre Leroux, 13 December 1849, quoted Dolleans, op. cit., p. 221.

34 Proudhon, De la justice, vol. I, p. 575.

35 Proudhon, Contradictions politiques (Paris 1952), p. 235.

36 Proudhon, L'idee generale, p. 344.

37 A. Sergent and C. Harmel, Histoire de Vanarchie (Paris 1949), p. 301.

3 8 Proudhon, De la capacite politique des classes ouvrieres (Paris 1865).

39 ibid., p. 80.

40 See G. Duveau, La vie ouvriere en France sous le Second Empire (Paris 1946).

41 ibid., p. 230.