Pierre-Joseph Proudhon



According to Mikhail Bakunin, Proudhon was the first person to refer to himself as an anarchist.  In What is Property?, published in 1840, he defined anarchy as "the absence of a master, of a sovereign" and wrote, "As man seeks justice in equality, so society seeks order in anarchy." He declared in 1849 in "Confessions of a Revolutionary" that "Whoever lays his hand on me to govern me is a usurper and tyrant, and I declare him my enemy."

Legends of Anarchism

​In The General idea of the Revolution 1851 Proudhon urged a "society without authority." In a subchapter called "What is Government?" he wrote:

"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."


"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 labor, 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.

Proudhon in his earliest works analyzed the nature and problems of the capitalist economy. While deeply critical of capitalism, he also objected to those contemporary socialists who advocated centralized, hierarchical forms of association or state control of the economy. In a sequence of commentaries, from What is Property? (1840), posthumously published in the Théorie de la propriété (Theory of Property, 1863–64), he declared in turn 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".

In asserting that property is freedom, he was referring not only to the product of an individual's labor, but to the peasant or artisan's 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 one's property and anything beyond that is not. He advocated worker self-management and was opposed to the private ownership of the means of production. As he put it in 1848:

"Under the law of association, transmission of wealth does not apply to the instruments of labor, so cannot become a cause of inequality... We are socialists... under universal association, ownership of the land and of the instruments of labor is social ownership... We want the mines, canals, railways handed over to democratically organized workers' associations... We want these associations to be models for agriculture, industry and trade, the pioneering core of that vast federation of companies and societies, joined together in the common bond of the democratic and social Republic."

Proudhon called himself a socialist, but he opposed state ownership of capital goods in favor of ownership by workers themselves in associations. This makes him one of the first theorists of libertarian socialism. Proudhon was one of the main influences on the theory of workers' self-management (autogestion), in the late 19th and 20th century.

Proudhon strenuously rejected the ownership of the products of labor by society or the state, arguing in What is Property? that while "property in product ... does not carry with it property in the means of 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".) He argued that while society owned the means of production or land, users would control and run them (under supervision from society), with the "organizing of regulating societies" in order to "regulate the market".

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, Proudhon modified some of his earlier views. In The Principle of Federation (1863) he modified his earlier anti-state position, arguing for "the balancing of authority by liberty" and put forward a decentralized "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 bulwark against the ever-encroaching power of the State."

He continued to oppose both capitalist and state property. In Theory of Property he maintains: "Now in 1840, I categorically 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. He supported the right of inheritance, and defended "as one of the foundations of the family and society." 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 labor."

As a consequence of his opposition to profit, wage labor, 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 think that all these manifestations of human activity should remain free and voluntary for all: I ask for them no modifications, restrictions or suppressions, other than those which result naturally and of necessity from the universalization of the principle of reciprocity which I propose."


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 organizing 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 made no 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 period. This included the state socialist Louis Blanc, of whom 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 their letters Proudhon expressed disagreement with Marx's views on revolution: "I believe we have no need of it in order to succeed; and that consequently we should not put forward revolutionary action as a means of social reform, because that pretended means would simply be an appeal to force, to arbitrariness, in brief, a contradiction"

Nationalism, militarism, and war

Proudhon opposed militarism, dictatorship, and war, arguing that the "end of militarism is the mission of the nineteenth century, under pain of indefinite decadence" and that the "workers alone are capable of putting an end to war by creating economic equilibrium. This presupposes a radical revolution in ideas and morals." As Robert L. Hoffman notes that War and Peace "ends by condemning war without reservation" and its "conclusion [is] that war is obsolete." Marxist philosopher John Ehrenberg summarized Proudhon's position:

"If injustice was the cause of war, it followed that conflict could not be eliminated until society was reorganised along egalitarian lines. Proudhon had wanted to prove that the reign of political economy would be the reign of peace, finding it difficult to believe that people really thought he was defending militarism. " – Proudhon and His Age, p. 145

Proudhon argued that under mutualism "[t]here will no longer be nationality, no longer fatherland, in the political sense of the words: they will mean only places of birth. Man, of whatever race or color he may be, is an inhabitant of the universe; citizenship is everywhere an acquired right.

Proudhon also rejected dictatorship, stating in the 1860s that "what I will always be . . . a republican, a democrat even, and a socialist into the bargain." Henri de Lubac argued that, in terms of Proudhon's critique of democracy, "we must not allow all this to hoodwink us. His invectives against democracy were not those of a counter-revolutionary. They were aimed at what he himself called 'the false democracy'...They attacked an apparently liberal 'pseudo-democracy' which 'was not economic and social' ... 'a Jacobinical democracy'" Proudhon "did not want to destroy, but complete, the work of 1789" and while "he had a grudge against the 'old democracy', the democracy of Robespierre and Marat" he repeatedly contrasted it "with a 'young democracy', which was a 'social democracy.'

According to historian of anarchism George Woodcock, some positions Proudhon took "sorted oddly with his avowed anarchism". Woodcock cited for example Proudhon's proposition that each citizen perform one or two years militia service. The proposal appeared in the Programme Revolutionaire, an electoral manifesto issued by Proudhon after he was asked to run for a position in the provisional government. The text reads: "7° 'L'armée. – Abolition immédiate de la conscription et des remplacements; obligation pour tout citoyen de faire, pendant un ou deux ans, le service militaire ; application de l'armée aux services administratifs et travaux d'utilité publique." ("Military service by all citizens is proposed as an alternative to conscription and the practice of "replacement", by which those who could avoided such service.") However, in the same document, Proudhon described the "form of government" he was proposing as "a centralization analogous with that of the State, but in which no one obeys, no one is dependent, and everyone is free and sovereign."


In addition to being considered a founding father of anarchism some have tried to link him to the extreme right. He was first used as a reference in the Cercle Proudhon, a right-wing association formed in 1911 by Georges Valois and Edouard Berth. Both had been brought together by the syndicalist Georges Sorel. But they would tend toward a synthesis of socialism and nationalism, mixing Proudhon's mutualism with Charles Maurras' integralist nationalism. In 1925, Georges Valois founded the Faisceau, the first fascist league, which took its name from Mussolini's fasci. Historian of fascism, in particular of French fascists, Zeev Sternhell, has noted this use of Proudhon by the far right. In The Birth Of Fascist Ideology, he states that

the Action Française...from its inception regarded the author of La philosophie de la misèreas one of its masters. He was given a place of honor 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, andparliamentarianism: and his championship of the nation, the family, tradition, and the monarchy.

K. Steven Vincent, however, states that "to argue that Proudhon was a proto-fascist suggests that one has never looked seriously at Proudhon's writings."

J. Salwyn Schapiro argued in 1945 that Proudhon was a racist, "a glorifier of war for its own sake" and his "advocacy of personal dictatorship and his laudation of militarism can hardly be equaled in the reactionary writings of his or of our day."

Other scholars have rejected Schapiro's claims. Robert Graham states that while Proudhon was personally racist, "anti-semitism formed no part of Proudhon's revolutionary programme."

Albert Meltzer has said that though Proudhon used the term "anarchist", he was not one, and that he never engaged in "anarchist activity or struggle" but rather in "parliamentary activity".

Proudhon also engaged in a series of published letters, between 1849 and 1850, with Frédéric Bastiat discussing the legitimacy of interest. As Robert Leroux argued, Bastiat had the conviction that Proudhon's doctrine "was the complete antithesis of any serious approach".

Anti-semitism and sexism

Stewart Edwards, the editor of the Selected Writings Of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, remarks: "Proudhon's diaries (Carnets, 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 publishing an 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" (Carnets, vol. 2, p. 337: No VI, 178). 

His diary entry dated 26 December 1847 states: Jews. Write an article against this race that poisons everything by sticking its nose into everything without ever mixing with any other people. Demand its expulsion from France with the exception of those individuals married to French women. Abolish synagogues and not admit them to any employment. Finally, pursue the abolition of this religion. It's not without cause that the Christians called them deicide. The Jew is the enemy of humankind. They must be sent back to Asia or be exterminated. By steel or by fire or by expulsion the Jew must disappear.

In an introduction to Proudhon's works Iain McKay, author of 'An Anarchist FAQ' (AK Press, 2007), cautions readers: "This is not to say that Proudhon was without flaws, for he had many."

He was not consistently libertarian in his ideas, tactics and language. His personal bigotries are disgusting and few modern anarchists would tolerate them – Namely, racism and sexism. He made some bad decisions and occasionally ranted in his private notebooks (where the worst of his anti-Semitism was expressed). While he did place his defence of the patriarchal family at the core of his ideas, they are in direct contradiction to his own libertarian and egalitarian ideas. In terms of racism, he sometimes reflected the less-than-enlightened assumptions and prejudices of the nineteenth century. While this does appear in his public work, such outbursts are both rare and asides (usually an extremely infrequent passing anti-Semitic remark or caricature). In short, "racism was never the basis of Proudhon's political thinking" (Gemie, 200-1) and "anti-Semitism formed no part of Proudhon's revolutionary programme." (Robert Graham, "Introduction", General Idea of the Revolution, xxxvi) To quote Proudhon: "There will no longer be nationality, no longer fatherland, in the political sense of the words: they will mean only places of birth. Man, of whatever race or colour he may be, is an inhabitant of the universe; citizenship is everywhere an acquired right." (General Idea of the Revolution, 283)

Nevertheless, while racism was not overtly part of his political philosophy, Proudhon did express sexist beliefs. He held patriarchal views on women’s nature and their proper role in the family and society at large. In his Carnets (Notebooks), unpublished until the 1960s, Proudhon maintained that a woman’s choice was to be “courtesan or housekeeper...” To a woman, a man is “a father, a chief, a master: above all, a master.” His justification for patriarchy is men’s greater physical strength. And he recommended that men use this greater strength to keep women in their place. “A woman does not at all hate being used with violence, indeed even being violated.” In her study of Gustave Courbet, who painted the portrait of Proudhon and his children (1865) – art historian Linda Nochlin points out that alongside his early articulations of anarchism Proudhon also wrote and published "the most consistentanti-feminist tract of its time, or perhaps, any other," La Pornocratie ou les femmes dans les temps modernes, which "raises all the main issues about woman's position is society and her sexuality with a paranoid intensity unmatched in any other text." (Nochlin, Courbet. Thames & Hudson, 2007. p. 220, note 34)

Proudhon's defenses of patriarchy did not go unchallenged in his lifetime; Joseph Déjacque attacked Proudhon's anti-feminism as a contradiction of anarchist principles. Déjacque directed Proudhon "either to 'speak out against man's exploitation of woman' or 'do not describe yourself as an anarchist.'" (Jesse Cohn "Anarchism and gender" in: The International Encyclopedia of Revolution and Protest. Immanuel Ness (Ed.), 2009)

Source:  Wikipedia