Proudhon: A Biographical Sketch

Proudhon: A Biographical Sketch

Pierre-Joseph Proudhon was born on 15th of January 1809 in the town of Besançon in Franche-Comté, a province in the east of France bordering the Jura region of Switzerland. Almost unique for his time, he was a major socialist thinker who was working class and he declared that his aim was to work “for the complete liberation of [his] brothers and comrades.”[1] He lived in a period of massive social and economic change. The industrialisation of France was beginning (its full flowering came in the 1860s), he grew up surrounded by those who had taken part in the Revolution of 1789, experienced the July Revolution of 1830 and saw the birth of the French labour and socialist movements in the 1830s. All these influenced his ideas.

After a brief period at the college in Besancon he was forced to leave school before completing his baccalaureate in order to support his family. In 1828 he became a working compositor; later he rose to be a corrector for the press. The following year he met utopian socialist Charles Fourier when supervising the printing of his Le Nouveau Monde Industriel et Sociétaire. Having several discussions with Fourier, he later recounted that for “six whole weeks” he was “the captive of this bizarre genius.”[2] While rejecting Fourier’s utopian visions of perfect and regulated communities in favour of a “scientific socialism,”[3] he had a lasting influence as can be seen in many of Proudhon’s works.

The turning point in Proudhon’s life came when, in 1838, he was awarded a scholarship to study in Paris by the Besançon Academy. The following year saw him write the treatise On The Utility of Sunday Observance from the Viewpoints of Public Hygiene, Morality and Civic and Family Relations. However, 1840 saw him produce the work that ensured his lasting fame: What is Property? An Inquiry into the Principle of Right and of Government. This work was to encapsulate the core themes of his life’s work – liberty, social justice, the iniquities of capitalist property rights, the epochal importance of socialism and his theory of anarchism. It caused a sensation and Proudhon was soon recognised as a leading light of the French, indeed international, socialist movement. It also resulted in the public prosecutor sending a recommendation to the Minister of Justice that a case be launched against him. Fortunately for Proudhon, leading economist Jérome-Adolphe Blanqui was approached by the Minister over the book’s seditious nature. Blanqui had been assigned the book to review and while disagreeing with it, declared it was a philosophical work which would appeal only to “high intelligences and cultivated minds.”[4] This verdict was accepted and Proudhon was spared prosecution.

What is Property? was quickly followed by two more works. In 1841 he wrote his Second Memoir on property (Letter to M. Blanqui) were he developed his ideas in a reply to comments made by Blanqui. His Third Memoir (Warning to Proprietors) was published in 1842 and answered criticisms by a follower of Fourier. This work was seized by the Besançon public prosecutor and Proudhon was charged with “1, Attacking Property; 2, Troubling the public peace by exciting mistrust or hatred of the citizens against one or more persons; 3, Exciting hatred and mistrust of the King’s Government; 4, Outrage to the Catholic religion.”[5] Proclaiming his work too hard to follow and not wishing to imprison someone due to misunderstanding their ideas, the jury refused to convict Proudhon.

His next major work was published in the following year. On the Creation of Order in Humanity adapted Fourier’s “serial method” and was an attempt to develop a comprehensive social science premised on Fourier’s anti-rationalist social theory and Auguste Comte’s philosophy of history. He later admitted that this work was not successful, but it discussed a set of themes he was to return to again and again. Proudhon also moved to Lyons, serving for several years as an office manager for a water transport firm. This allowed him to travel and he frequently stayed in Paris, where Marx, Bakunin, and Herzen visited him to discuss ideas. In Lyons, he became part of the flourishing radical scene and met with its revolutionary silk-weavers who called themselves Mutualists and argued for a form of associational socialism based on producer co-operatives and credit unions. They had a significant influence on Proudhon, reflected by “his preoccupation at this period with the idea of an association of workers.”[6] These influences and thoughts were publicly expressed in 1846 with the publication of the two volume System of Economic Contradictions, or The Philosophy of Misery in which he proclaimed his own ideas mutualism.

In October 1847 Proudhon settled in Paris again, hoping to start a newspaper. When the 1848 Revolution broke out, he helped build barricades and set the type for the first republican proclamation. A group of workers, fresh from the barricades and still armed with muskets, visited Proudhon and asked that he resume his plan to publish a newspaper. He agreed and Le Répresentant du Peuple (The Representative of the People) was born, its masthead proclaiming “What is the producer? Nothing! What should he be? Everything!”[7] This was the first of four newspapers Proudhon edited during the revolution, all with “People” in their name and all suppressed by the state.[8]

Fearing, rightly, that the Republicans had “made a revolution without an idea”[9] Proudhon used his articles to comment on events, criticise the policies of the government and stress the need to go beyond mere political reform as this could never solve problems whose roots were primarily economic. Socio-economic change was essential.[10] His first major works after the revolution included an analysis of its causes and meaning and a critique of (statist) democracy, subsequently published as Solution of the Social Problem. These were quickly followed by the Organisation of Credit and Circulation in which he argued that a Bank of Exchange was required to both solve the economic problems facing France and secure the end of capitalism.

However, it was the various incarnations of his newspapers that Proudhon made his greatest impact on the public and by the end of 1848 he was being read by 40,000 mostly working-class readers.[11] These articles present a libertarian, albeit reformist,[12] analysis of the revolution and how to solve its problems. This clarified his own ideas, as it forced him to present positive ideas to change society for the better, as well as enriching anarchist theory for later libertarians to build upon.

In April 1848 he stood as a candidate in the elections for the Constituent Assembly with his name appearing on the ballots in Paris, Lyon, Besançon, and Lille. He proclaimed in his election manifesto that he regarded “Property is theft!” as “the greatest truth of the century” and that “the negation of property is necessary for the abolition of misery, for the emancipation of the proletariat.”[13] Unsuccessful, he was not deterred and ran in the complementary elections held on June 4th and was duly elected.[14] He later recalled:

When I think of everything that I have said, written and published over these past ten years regarding the State’s role in society, bringing the authorities to heel and government’s disqualification from revolution, I am tempted to believe that my election in June 1848 was the result of some incomprehension on the part of the people… I may have appeared momentarily to the society which I take for my judge and the authorities with whom I want no truck, as a formidable agitator.[15]

Following the June Days, Proudhon’s paper was temporarily suppressed when he demanded immediate economic relief for the working class and appealed directly to the National Guard for support. Viewed by conservatives as a leading member of the left, his proposals for reform were condemned on the floor of the assembly by Adolphe Thiers. Proudhon responded on July 31st with a three-and-a-half-hour speech that stressed “social liquidation” was needed and that the end of property was the real meaning of the revolution. He was defiant in the face of hecklers: “When I say WE, I identify myself with the proletariat; when I say YOU, I identify you with the bourgeois class.”[16] Only one representative, a socialist worker from Lyons, supported Proudhon and a motion of censure was passed (with socialists like Louis Blanc and Pierre Leroux voting for it). Even Marx had to (grudgingly) admit that “his attitude in the National Assembly merits nothing but praise.”[17]

When La Représentant du Peuple was allowed to reappear in August and “What is the capitalist? Everything! What should he be? Nothing!” was added to its masthead.[18] The repression did not dull its social criticism, with Proudhon on fine ironic form with the searing The Malthusians attacking bourgeois hypocrisy and laissez-faire capitalism. It was soon, however, completely suppressed, but Proudhon himself could not be prosecuted because he enjoyed parliamentary immunity.

In October 1848, Proudhon gave a Toast to the Revolution at a banquet in Paris. He spoke on the successive manifestation of justice in human life (what he termed a “permanent revolution”) before concluding that revolutionary power lay not with the government, but in the people. Only the people, acting themselves, could achieve social transformation. That month also saw the launch of Le Peuple (The People) in which Proudhon argued that the creation of a strong executive elected directly by the people was monarchical and reactionary. Initially, he advocated abstaining in the Presidential election but then supported the candidacy of socialist François-Vincent Raspail. Proudhon’s election manifesto was serialised in Le Peuple and is a succinct summation of his socio-economic ideas. Very successful, the newspaper turned from a weekly to a daily at the end of November.[19]

A few days later, Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte won the Presidential election in a surprise landslide. Proudhon had strenuously opposed Louis-Napoléon before the election and redoubled his criticism afterwards. He accurately predicted on the 22nd of December 1848 that Louis-Napoléon would produce a “monarchical restoration” and “organise the crusade of the exploiters against the exploited.”[20] As well as continued journalism, Proudhon tried to create a bank of exchange, now called the Bank of the People. Organised in early 1849 with the participation of workers previously associated with the Luxembourg Commission, it soon had over ten thousand adherents (mostly workers) but its assets were meagre and so was essentially stillborn.

Faced with Proudhon’s attacks and attempts at socialist reform, the conservative government responded by getting the assembly to lift Proudhon’s immunity from prosecution. Charged with sedition, he was sentenced in March 1849 to three years in prison and fined 3,000 Francs. Proudhon liquidated his Bank of the People, ostensibly to prevent it from falling into the hands of the authorities, and went into hiding (although he still wrote articles for Le Peuple). On June 5th he was finally caught and imprisoned in Sainte-Pélagie.

During his three years in prison he founded and wrote for two newspapers (with the assistance of Alexander Herzen), wrote four books, married Euphrasie Piégard and fathered a child.[21] Two of the books written in prison became classic works of libertarian thought while his polemics with leading representatives of the statist left and laissez-faire right showed the weaknesses of both. Clearly, he spent his time as a political prisoner well.

The first book to appear was Confessions of a Revolutionary (1849), Proudhon’s personal account of the 1848 revolution and its lessons. It argued that social revolution could not be achieved by means of the state, a structure incapable of being revolutionised or utilised for social transformation. He stressed how his own experiences as a politician confirmed his previous arguments on the impossibility of implementing social reform from above by means of the state. Only a revolution “from below” could achieve change. Then, during the winter of 1849, Proudhon participated in two polemics in La Voix du Peuple (The Voice of the People). The first was an exchange of letters with laissez-faire economist Frédéric Bastiat on the justice of usury. It was subsequently published as a pamphlet entitled Interest and Principal (1850). The second was with Blanc and Leroux over the nature of socialism, revolution and the state, clarifying the differences between the two schools of socialism – libertarian and state.

The next book written in prison was General Idea of the Revolution in the Nineteenth Century (1851). This summarised Proudhon’s ideas on social, economic and political transformation and was his solution to the problems and contradictions of capitalism he had raised in the 1840s, “the scientific and positive conclusion which System of [Economic] Contradictions was only the preamble.”[22] Broken into seven studies, with a striking epilogue, it sketched his ideas both on the nature of a free socio-economic order, how to create it and the need for anarchy – self-managed social and economic associations bound by free agreements.

Just as Proudhon had warned, Louis-Napoléon seized power in a coup d’état on 2nd December 1851 to remain head of state. As Proudhon was already a prisoner, he avoided the repression inflicted upon the left by the new regime. He was outraged by the brutality of the army, but the lack of popular resistance to the coup and its subsequent approval by an overwhelming majority in a referendum profoundly disillusioned Proudhon.

The third book was published shortly after Proudhon’s release from prison in July 1852. Pointing to the regime’s popular support, The Social Revolution Demonstrated by the Coup d'État of Second of December 1851 tried to make the best of a bad situation. Calling the coup “the act of a highway robber,” he stressed that he was “opposed to dictatorship and any type of coup d'État” and was “repelled by dictatorship,” considering it “a theocratic and barbarous institution, in every case a menace to liberty.” Having “defended universal suffrage,” he did “not ask that it be repressed” but rather “that it be organised, and that it lives.” Although recognising Louis-Napoléon’s support in the bourgeoisie, Proudhon urged him to use the mandate of the referendum to implement economic and political reforms. The choice was either “anarchy or Caesarism… there is no middle course… you are caught between the Emperor and the Social Republic!”[23] Perhaps unsurprisingly, Louis-Napoléon chose not to abolish his own power and, after another referendum, proclaimed himself Emperor on 2nd December 1852.

The fourth book, Philosophy of Progress (1853), was more theoretical in nature and comprised of the two lengthy letters sent from prison in 1851. While having little to do with the Revolutions of 1848 or even politics in general, it proved too much for the Imperial Censors. While not banned, the police declared that allowing publication did not guarantee that Proudhon would not be prosecuted. Finally published in Belgium, the police did ban its import into France.

French publishers consistently refused to handle his new works. His next major book, initially published anonymously, was the Stock Exchange Speculator’s Manual (1853). Its title hid a subversive message – the abolition of wage-labour, the end of the capitalist company and the advocacy of producer and consumer associations. Originally written as a source of much needed income for his family, it took until the enlarged 3rd edition of 1856 before Proudhon put his name on it.

Then came the publication of his magus opus, the massive Justice in the Revolution and in the Church, (1858). This work is divided into twelve studies, on a host of subjects, each relating to the social origin of justice in that area. Arguing against religious claims of revelatory justice and philosophical ideas about rationalism, Proudhon argued that justice in areas of philosophy, work, the state, education, and so on, can be determined by the correspondence of social utility, conscience and historical “immanence.” His conclusions range from the radical (“The land to those who cultivate it”; “Capital to those who use it”; “The product to the producer”[24]) to the conservative (patriarchy, marriage and women). The book sold exceptionally well considering it was nearly 2000 pages, but hopes for a second edition were foiled when the police seized the remaining copies and Proudhon was charged by the authorities two days after publication for attacking religion, law, morality and (ironically) the family.

To avoid jail, Proudhon and his family left in July 1858 for indefinite exile in Belgium. There, his focus turned almost exclusively to foreign affairs and in 1861 War and Peace[25] was published. A much misrepresented book, this work continued themes developed in Justice and sought to discover how war as a historical process shaped norms of social justice as well as to understand the nature and causes of war in order to end it. In the first volume Proudhon extolled the virtues of war in pre-industrial society before denouncing it as barbaric and antiquated in an age where indiscriminate killing was becoming the norm as war was increasingly industrialised. Proudhon argued that war could now be ended because “the Revolution made the public conscience the only interpreter of right, the only judge of the material world and the only sovereign, which constitutes true democracy and marked the end of priesthood and militarism.” Moreover, war was rooted in inequality and “whatever the officially declared reasons” it existed only “for exploitation and property” and “until the constitution of economic right, between nations as well as between individuals, war does not have any other function on earth.” Given this, radical economic reform was required and “[o]nly the toiling masses are able to put an end to war, by creating economic equilibrium, which presupposes a radical revolution in ideas and morals.” It concluded: “HUMANITY DOES NOT WANT ANY MORE WAR.”[26]

Proudhon returned to Paris in September 1862, taking advantage of a general amnesty. This marked a renewed involvement in French politics and in 1863 he began a campaign urging the casting of blank ballots as a protest against the Second Empire. That year also saw the publication of The Federative Principle in which he discussed the necessity of a federal social structure as the best alternative to centralised states as well as the required economic reforms needed to maintain a just social order. An “agricultural-industrial federation” would complement and support the federation of communes and stop the degeneration of both the economic and political systems into inequality and tyranny.

In 1864, Henri Tolain published what was to become known as the Manifesto of the Sixty. It demanded social reforms and urged standing working class candidates in elections to achieve them. A group of workers wrote to Proudhon, asking his thoughts on this development and in a lengthy Letter to Workers he replied that while overjoyed by these public stirrings of the workers’ movement, he was critical of their electoral stand. With his health deteriorating,[27] he composed his last work The Political Capacity of the Working Class to address the issues raised. His political testament, it summarised his views after 25 years of fighting for socialism. He presented a mutualist analysis of economics, federalism, association, and a host of other issues and urged workers and peasants to reject all participation in bourgeois politics in favour of creating their own self-managed organisations. By so doing, they would become conscious of themselves as a class and their ability to replace the bourgeois regime with a mutualist one based on his three great loves – freedom, equality and justice.

Proudhon died in his wife’s arms on January 19th 1865 and is buried in Montparnasse cemetery, Paris.[28] Thousands followed the casket and thronged the cemetery, saying a final goodbye to one of the greatest socialist thinkers the world has ever seen.

End Notes

[1] quoted in Hayward, 172           

[2] quoted in Woodcock, Proudhon, 13

[3] What is Property?, 264. Critiques of utopianism played a large role in System of Economic Contradictions.

[4] quoted in Woodcock, 55

[5] Woodcock, 66

[6] Woodcock, 74

[7] Woodcock, 123

[8] La Représentant du Peuple (February to August 1848); Le Peuple (September 1848 to June 1849); La Voix du Peuple (September 1849 to May 1850); Le Peuple de 1850 (June to October 1850).

[9] quoted in Woodcock, 119

[10] “Never modest concerning his abilities, Proudhon wrote in his notebooks that the Revolution was doomed without his help.” (Vincent, p. 169)

[11] Ehrenberg, 103

[12] As Proudhon himself recognised in 1850, he was a “man of polemics, not of the barricades.” (quoted in Vincent, 169)

[13] Oeuvres Complètes,  17: 45

[14] “Most of the votes for Proudhon were cast in working-class districts of Paris – a fact which stands in contrast to the claims of some Marxists, who have said he was representative only of the petite bourgeoisie.” (Hoffman, 136)

[15] No Gods, No Masters, 68

[16] quoted in Vincent, 186

[17] The Poverty of Philosophy, 200

[18] Woodcock, 136

[19] Ehrenberg, 122

[20] quoted in Vincent, 189

[21] He rejected a Church wedding: “When the Pope becomes a social democrat I will allow him to bless my marriage.” (quoted in Hayward, 207) The first of three daughters: Catherine, Marcelle and Stephanie. Sadly, Marcelle died of cholera in the summer of 1854 aged two.

[22] Correspondance, 3: 377

[23] December 2, 1851: Contemporary Writings on the coup d'état of Louis Napoleon (Garden City, N.J.; Doubleday, 1972), John B. Halsted (ed.), 253, 276, 283, 261, 307

[24] Oeuvres Complètes, 22: 264. These are possible because labour is “reconciled by its free nature with capital and property, from which wage-labour banished it, [and so] cannot cause a distinction of classes.” This “makes society, as well as [economic] science, safe from any contradiction.”

[25] Pacifist thinker Leo Tolstoy was so impressed by this work he borrowed its title for his own masterpiece.

[26] Oeuvres Complètes 14: 327, 272, 300, 330

[27] In fact, he dictated its last chapters as he lay in bed dying

[28] Second division, near the Lenoir alley, in the tomb of the Proudhon family.


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