Legends of Anarchism

Pierre-Joseph Proudhon

January 15, 1809 - January 19, 1865

​Pierre-Joseph Proudhon was a French politician and the founder of mutualist philosophy. He was the first person to declare himself an anarchist and is widely regarded as one of the ideology's most influential theorists. Proudhon is even considered by many to be the "father of anarchism". He became a member of the French Parliament after the revolution of 1848, whereafter he referred to himself as a federalist.

Proudhon, who was born in Besançon, was a printer who taught himself Latin in order to better print books in the language. His best-known assertion is that Property is Theft!, contained in his first major work, What is Property? Or, an Inquiry into the Principle of Right and Government (Qu'est-ce que la propriété? Recherche sur le principe du droit et du gouvernement), published in 1840. The book's publication attracted the attention of the French authorities. It also attracted the scrutiny of Karl Marx, who started a correspondence with its author. The two influenced each other: they met in Paris while Marx was exiled there. Their friendship finally ended when Marx responded to Proudhon's The System of Economic Contradictions, or The Philosophy of Poverty with the provocatively titled The Poverty of Philosophy. The dispute became one of the sources of the split between the anarchist and Marxist wings of the International Working Men's Association. Some, such as Edmund Wilson, have contended that Marx's attack on Proudhon had its origin in the latter's defense of Karl Grün, whom Marx bitterly disliked, but who had been preparing translations of Proudhon's work.

Proudhon favored workers' associations or co-operatives, as well as individual worker/peasant possession, over private ownership or the nationalization of land and workplaces. He considered social revolution to be achievable in a peaceful manner. In The Confessions of a Revolutionary Proudhon asserted that, Anarchy is Order Without Power, the phrase which much later inspired, in the view of some, the anarchist circled-A symbol, today "one of the most common graffiti on the urban landscape." He unsuccessfully tried to create a national bank, to be funded by what became an abortive attempt at an income tax on capitalists and shareholders. Similar in some respects to a credit union, it would have given interest-free loans.

Early life and education

Proudhon was born in Besançon, France on 15 January 1809 at 23 Rue du Petit Battant in the suburb of Battant. His father, Claude-François Proudhon who worked as a brewer and a cooper, was originally from the village of Chasnans, near the border with Switzerland. His mother, Catherine Simonin was from Cordiron. Claude-François and Catherine had five boys together, two of whom died at a very young age. Proudhon's brothers Jean-Etienne and Claude were born in 1811 and 1816, respectively, and both maintained a very close relationship with Proudhon.

As a boy, he mostly worked in the family tavern, helped with basic agricultural work, and spent time playing outdoors in the countryside. Proudhon received no formal education as a child, but was taught to read by his mother, who had him spelling words by age three. However, until he was 10, the only books that he was exposed to were 'the Gospels and the Four Aymon Brothers', and some local almanacs. In 1820, Proudhon's mother began trying to get him admitted into the city college in Besançon. The family was far too poor to afford the tuition, but with the help of one of Claude-François' former employers, she managed to gain a bursary which deducted 120 francs a year from the cost. Proudhon was unable to afford books (or even shoes) to attend school, which caused him great difficulties, and often made him the object of scorn by his wealthier classmates. In spite of this, Proudhon showed a strong will to learn, and spent much time in the school library with a pile of books, exploring a variety of subjects in his free time outside of class.

Entrance into the printing trade

In 1827 Proudhon began an apprenticeship at a printing press in the house of Bellevaux, in Battant; on Easter of the following year, he transferred to a press in Besançon owned by the family of one of his schoolmates, Antoine Gauthier. Besançon was an important center of religious thought at the time, and most of the works published at Gauthier were ecclesiastical works. Proudhon, during the course of his work, spent hours every day reading this Christian literature and began to question many of his long held religious beliefs which eventually led him to reject Christianity altogether.

Over the years, Proudhon rose to be a corrector for the press, proofreading their publications. By 1829, he began to become more interested in social issues than religious theory. Of particular importance during this period was his encounter with Charles Fourier, who in 1829 came to Gauthier as a customer seeking to publish his work Le Nouveau Monde Industriel et Sociétaire. Proudhon supervised the printing of the book, which gave him ample opportunity to talk with Fourier about a variety of social and philosophical issues. These discussions left a strong impression on Proudhon, and influenced him throughout his life. It was also during this time that Proudhon formed one of his closest friendships, with Gustave Fallot, a scholar from Montebéliard who came from a family of wealthy French industrialists. Impressed by Proudhon's corrections of one of his Latin manuscripts, Fallot sought out his friendship, and the two were soon regularly spending their evenings together discussing French literature by Montaigne, Rabelais, Rousseau, Voltaire, Diderot, and many other authors to whom Proudhon had not been exposed during his years of theological readings.

Decision to pursue philosophy and writing

In September 1830, Proudhon became certified as a journeyman compositor. The period following this was marked by unemployment and poverty, with Proudhon travelling around France (and also, briefly, to Neuchâtel, Switzerland) where he unsuccessfully sought stable employment in printing and as a schoolteacher. During this period, Fallot offered financial assistance to Proudhon if he came to Paris to study philosophy. Proudhon accepted his offer, despite concerns about how it might disrupt his career in the printing trade. He walked from Besançon to Paris, arriving in March at the Rue Mazarin, in the Latin Quarter, where Fallot was living at the time. Proudhon began mingling amongst the circle of metropolitan scholars surrounding Fallot, but felt out of place and uncomfortable amidst people who were both wealthier, and more accustomed to scholarly debate. Ultimately, Proudhon found that he preferred to spend the majority of his time studying alone, and was not fond of urban life, longing to return home to Besançon. The cholera outbreak in Paris granted him his wish, as Fallot was struck with the illness, making him unable to financially support Proudhon any longer. After Proudhon left, he never saw Fallot (who died in 1836) again. However, this friendship was one of the most important events in Proudhon's life, as it is what motivated him to leave the printing trade and pursue his studies of philosophy instead.

In 1838, after an unsuccessful printing business venture, Proudhon decided to dedicate himself fully to scholarly pursuits. He applied for the Suard Pension, a bursary that would enable him to study at the Academy of Besançon. Proudhon was selected out of several candidates, primarily due to the fact that his income was much lower than the others, and the judges were extremely impressed by his writing, and the level of education he had given himself while working as an artisan. Proudhon arrived in Paris towards the end of autumn in 1838.

Early writings

In 1839 the Academy of Besançon held an essay competition on the subject of 'the utility of the celebration of Sunday in regard to hygiene, morality, and the relationship of the family and the city'. Proudhon's entry, titled De la Célébration du dimanche, essentially used the essay subject as a pretext for discussing a variety of political and philosophical ideas, and in it one can find the seeds of his later revolutionary ideas. Many of his ideas on authority, morality, and property disturbed the essay judges at the Academy, and Proudhon was only awarded the bronze medal (something in which Proudhon took pride, because he felt that this was an indicator that his writing made elite academics uncomfortable).

His third memoir on property was a letter to the Fourierist, M. Considérant; he was tried for it at Besançon but was acquitted. In 1846, he published the Système des contradictions économiques ou Philosophie de la misère (or "The System of Economic Contradictions, or The Philosophy of Poverty"). For some time, Proudhon ran a small printing establishment at Besançon, but without success; afterwards he became connected as a kind of manager with a commercial firm in Lyon, France. In 1847, he left this job and finally settled in Paris, where he was now becoming celebrated as a leader of innovation. In this year he also became a Freemason.

Revolution of 1848

Proudhon was surprised by the Revolutions of 1848 in France. 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 provisional government, headed by Dupont de l'Eure (1767–1855), who, since the French Revolution in 1789, had been a longstanding politician, although often in the opposition. Beside Dupont de l'Eure, the provisional government was dominated by liberals such as Lamartine (Foreign Affairs), Ledru-Rollin (Interior), Crémieux (Justice), Burdeau (War), etc., because it was pursuing political reform at the expense of the socio-economic reform, which Proudhon considered basic. As during the 1830 July Revolution, the Republican-Socialist Party had set up a counter-government in the Hotel de Ville, including Louis Blanc, Armand Marrast, Ferdinand Flocon, and Alexandre Martin.

Proudhon published his own perspective for reform which was completed in 1849, Solution du problème social ("Solution of the Social Problem"), 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 of exchange notes that would circulate instead of money based on gold.

During the Second French Republic (1848–1852), Proudhon had his biggest public effect through journalism. He got involved with four 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 but alienated others. He repeatedly criticized the government's policies and promoted reformation of credit and exchange. He tried 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 ran for the constituent assembly in April 1848, but was not elected, although his name appeared on the ballots in Paris, Lyon, Besançon, and Lille, France. He was successful, in the complementary elections of June 4, and served as a deputy during the debates over the National Workshops, created by the 25 February 1848 decree passed by Republican Louis Blanc. The workshops were to give work to the unemployed. Proudhon was never enthusiastic about such workshops, perceiving them to be essentially charitable institutions that did not resolve the problems of the economic system. He was against their elimination unless an alternative could be found for the workers who relied on the workshops for subsistence.

In 1848 the closing of the National Workshops provoked the June Days Uprising and the violence shocked Proudhon. 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 by 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 insurrectionists had been forced to endure.

In Spain Ramón de la Sagra established anarchist journal El Porvenir in La Coruña in 1845 which was inspired by Proudhon´s ideas. The Catalan politician Francesc Pi i Margall became the principal translator of Proudhon's works into Spanish and later briefly became president of Spain in 1873 while being the leader of the Democratic Republican Federal Party. According to George Woodcock" These translations were to have a profound and lasting effect on the development of Spanish anarchism after 1870, but before that time Proudhonian ideas, as interpreted by Pi, already provided much of the inspiration for the federalist movement which sprang up in the early 1860's." According to the Encyclopedia Britannica "During the Spanish revolution of 1873, Pi y Margall attempted to establish a decentralized, or “cantonalist,” political system on Proudhonian lines."

Later life

Proudhon was arrested for insulting the president Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte and was imprisoned from 1849 to 1852. After his release he remained in exile from 1858 to 1862 in Belgium. Upon the liberalization of the empire in 1863 he returned to France.


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

​Source:  Wikipedia