Pierre-Joseph Proudhon

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Pierre-Joseph Proudhon
Portrait of Pierre Joseph Proudhon 1865.jpg
Portrait by Gustave Courbet, 1865
Born(1809-01-15)15 January 1809
Besançon, France
Died19 January 1865(1865-01-19) (aged 56)
Passy, Paris, France
Era 19th-century philosophy
Region Western philosophy
Main interests
Notable ideas

Pierre-Joseph Proudhon ( /ˈprdɒn/ ; [4] French:  [pjɛʁʒozɛf pʁudɔ̃] ; 15 January 1809 – 19 January 1865) was a French politician and the founder of mutualist philosophy. He was the first person to declare himself an anarchist, [5] [6] using that term 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". [7] He became a member of the French Parliament after the Revolution of 1848, whereafter he referred to himself as a federalist. [8]


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 and 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". [9] 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. [10]


Early life and education

The house in Besancon in which Proudhon was born Maison natale - Proudhon.jpg
The house in Besançon in which Proudhon was born

Proudhon was born in Besançon, France, on 15 January 1809 at 23 Rue du Petit Battant in the suburb of Battant. [11] His father Claude-François Proudhon, who worked as a brewer and a cooper, [12] was originally from the village of Chasnans, near the border with Switzerland. His mother Catherine Simonin was from Cordiron. [11] 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. [12]

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 he was taught to read by his mother, who had him spelling words by age three. However, the only books that Proudhon was exposed to until he was 10 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. [13]

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. [14] Besançon was an important center of religious thought at the time and most of the works published at Gauthier were ecclesiastical works. During the course of his work, Proudhon 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. [15]

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. [16] 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 Michel de Montaigne, François Rabelais, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Voltaire, Denis Diderot and many other authors to whom Proudhon had not been exposed during his years of theological readings. [17]

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 (also briefly to Neuchâtel, Switzerland) where he unsuccessfully sought stable employment in printing and as a schoolteacher. [18] 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. [19] 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 he 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. [20] 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. [21] 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. [22]

After an unsuccessful printing business venture in 1838, 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. [23]

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). [24] In 1840, he published his first work Qu'est-ce que la propriété (or What Is Property ).

His third memoir on property was a letter to the Fourierist writer Considérant, published in 1842 under the title Warning to Proprietors. [25] Proudhon was tried for it at Besançon, but he was acquitted when the jury found that they could not condemn him for a philosophy that they themselves could not understand. [26] In 1846, he published the Système des contradictions économiques ou Philosophie de la misère (The System of Economic Contradictions, or The Philosophy of Poverty), which prompted a book-length critique from Karl Marx entitled The Poverty of Philosophy , commencing a rift between Marxists and anarchists that lasts to this day. [26] [27]

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. [28]

Revolution of 1848

Proudhon and his children by Gustave Courbet, 1865 Proudhon-children.jpg
Proudhon and his children by Gustave Courbet, 1865

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 Jacques-Charles 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 Alphonse de Lamartine (Foreign Affairs), Alexandre Auguste Ledru-Rollin (Interior), Adolphe Crémieux (Justice) and Auguste Burdeau (War) 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, namely Le Représentant du Peuple (February 1848–August 1848), Le Peuple (September 1848–June 1849), La Voix du Peuple (September 1849–May 1850) and Le Peuple de 1850 (June 1850–October 1850). 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 criticised 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.[ clarification needed ]

Proudhon ran for the Constituent Assembly in April 1848, but he was not elected although his name appeared on the ballots in Paris, Lyon, Besançon and Lille. He was successful, in the complementary elections of 4 June 1848 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. However, 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 he opposed insurrection by preaching peaceful conciliation, a stance that was in accord with his lifelong stance against violence. Proudhon disapproved of the revolts and demonstrations of February, May and June 1848, though he was sympathetic to the social and psychological injustices that the insurrectionists had been forced to endure.

In Spain, Ramón de la Sagra established the anarchist journal El Porvenir in La Coruña in 1845 which was inspired by Proudhon's ideas. [29] Catalan politician Francesc Pi i Margall became the principal translator of Proudhon's works into Spanish [30] and later briefly became President of Spain in 1873 while being the leader of the Federal Democratic Republican Party. According to George Woodcock, "[t]hese 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". [31] According to the Encyclopædia Britannica , "[d]uring the Spanish revolution of 1873, Pi i Margall attempted to establish a decentralized, or "cantonalist," political system on Proudhonian lines". [29]

Later life

Proudhon was arrested for insulting 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. [32]



Proudhon was a social individualist anarchist. [33] According to Mikhail Bakunin, Proudhon was the first person to refer to himself as an "anarchist". [34] [35] 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". [36] He declared in 1849 in "Confessions of a Revolutionary" that "[w]hoever lays his hand on me to govern me is a usurper and tyrant, and I declare him my enemy". [37]

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. [38]


"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 labour, 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. [39]

In his earliest works, Proudhon 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, 1863–1864), 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". [40]

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 labour, so cannot become a cause of inequality. ... We are socialists ... under universal association, ownership of the land and of the instruments of labour is social ownership. ... We want the mines, canals, railways handed over to democratically organised 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. [41]

Proudhon called himself a socialist, but he opposed state ownership of capital goods in favour 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. [42]  ... The right to product is exclusive ... the right to means is common" and applied this to the land ("the land is ... a common thing") [43] and workplaces ("all accumulated capital being social property, no one can be its exclusive proprietor"). [44] He argued that while society owned the means of production or land, users would control and run them (under supervision from society) with the "organising of regulating societies" in order to "regulate the market". [45]

Proudhon's grave in Paris Proudhon-Grab.JPG
Proudhon's grave in Paris

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 decentralised "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 ... 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". [46]

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 that "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 "property" should be more equally distributed and limited in size to that actually used by individuals, families and workers associations. [47] He supported the right of inheritance and defended "as one of the foundations of the family and society". [48] 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 labour". [49]

As a consequence of his opposition to profit, wage labour, 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 and 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". [50]

Proudhon opposed the charging of interest and rent, but he 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". [51]


Proudhon was a revolutionary. However, 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 organising a credit bank and workers associations, that Proudhon proposed to use as a lever to bring about the organization of society along new lines[ citation needed ].

Karl Marx

He made no public criticisms of Karl Marx or Marxism because in Proudhon's lifetime Marx was relatively unknown. It was only after Proudhon's death that Marxism became a large movement. However, he did 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 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". However, Marx 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". [52]

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" [53] 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". [54] As Robert L. Hoffman notes, War and Peace "ends by condemning war without reservation" and its "conclusion [is] that war is obsolete". [55] Marxist philosopher John Ehrenberg summarized Proudhon's position as such:

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. [56]

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 colour he may be, is an inhabitant of the universe; citizenship is everywhere an acquired right". [57]

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". [58] 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'". [59]

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. [60] 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"). In the same document, Proudhon also 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". [61]


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:

[T]he Action Française  ... from its inception regarded the author of La philosophie de la misère as one of its masters. [62] He was given a place of honour 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, and parliamentarianism: and his championship of the nation, the family, tradition, and the monarchy.

However, K. Steven Vincent states that "to argue that Proudhon was a proto-fascist suggests that one has never looked seriously at Proudhon's writings". [63]

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 equalled in the reactionary writings of his or of our day". [64]

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". [65]

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". [66]

Proudhon also engaged in an exchange of published letters between 1849 and 1850 with Frédéric Bastiat discussing the legitimacy of interest. [67] As Robert Leroux argued, Bastiat had the conviction that Proudhon's anti-interest doctrine "was the complete antithesis of any serious approach". [68] Proudhon famously lost his temper and declared to Bastiat: "Your intelligence is asleep, or rather it has never been awake. You are a man for whom logic does not exist. You do not hear anything, you do not understand anything. You are without philosophy, without science, without humanity. Your ability to reason, like your ability to pay attention and make comparisons is zero. Scientifically, Mr. Bastiat, you are a dead man". [69]

Antisemitism 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. 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". It would have stated: "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 who hate us". (Carnets, vol. 2, p. 337: No VI, 178)". [70] Proudhon differentiated his antisemitism from that of the Middle Ages, presenting it as quasi-scientific: "What the peoples of the Middle Ages hated by instinct, I hate upon reflection and irrevocably". [71]

In an introduction to Proudhon's works, Iain McKay, author of An Anarchist FAQ (AK Press, 2007), cautions readers by saying that "[t]his is not to say that Proudhon was without flaws, for he had many" [72] [73] and adding the following:

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) [74]

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 recommended that men use this greater strength to keep women in their place, saying: "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 consistent anti-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 in society and her sexuality with a paranoid intensity unmatched in any other text". [75]

Proudhon's defenses of patriarchy did not go unchallenged in his lifetime and 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'". [76]


On Proudhon

Works online

See also


  1. The dual power was first used by Vladimir Lenin, but it was conceptually first outlined by Proudhon. Murray Bookchin (1996). The Third Revolution: Popular Movements in the Revolutionary Era. Volume 2. A&C Black. p. 115: "Proudhon made the bright suggestion, in his periodical Le Représentant du peuple (April 28, 1848), that the mass democracy of the clubs could become a popular forum where the social agenda of the revolution could be prepared for use by the Constituent Assembly—a proposal that would essentially have defused the potency of the clubs as a potentially rebellious dual power".

Related Research Articles

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Further reading