Portrait by Gustave Courbet, 1865
|Full name||Pierre-Joseph Proudhon|
|Born||15 January 1809
|Died||19 January 1865 (aged 56)
|School||Socialism, anarchism, mutualism|
|Main interests||Liberty, property, authority, poverty, social justice|
|Notable ideas||Property is theft, Anarchy is order, economic federation, anarchist gradualism.|
Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (15 January 1809 in Besanon – 19 January 1865 in Passy) was a French politician, mutualist philosopher and socialist. He was a member of the French Parliament, and he was the first person to call himself an "anarchist". He is considered among the most influential theorists and organisers of anarchism. After the events of 1848 he began to call himself a federalist.
Proudhon 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 proprit? 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 Grn, 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 ownership, over the nationalization of land and workplaces. He considered that social revolution could be achieved in a peaceful manner. In The Confessions of a Revolutionary Proudhon asserted that, Anarchy is Order, 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 stockholders. Similar in some respects to a credit union, it would have given interest-free loans.
Proudhon was born in Besanon, France; his father was a brewer's cooper. As a boy, he herded cows and followed other similar, simple pursuits. But he was not entirely self-educated; at age 16, he entered his town's college, though his family was so poor that he could not buy the necessary books. He had to borrow them from his fellow students in order to copy the lessons. At age 19, he became a working compositor; later he rose to be a corrector for the press, proofreading ecclesiastical works, and thereby acquiring a very competent knowledge of theology. In this way also he came to learn Hebrew, and to compare it with Greek, Latin and French; and it was the first proof of his intellectual audacity that on the strength of this he wrote an Essai de grammaire gnerale. As Proudhon knew nothing of the true principles of philology, his treatise was of no value. In 1838, he obtained the pension Suard, a bursary of 1500 francs a year for three years, for the encouragement of young men of promise, which was in the gift of the Academy of Besanon.
In 1839, he wrote a treatise L'Utilit de la clbration du dimanche, which contained the seeds of his revolutionary ideas. About this time he went to Paris, France where he lived a poor, ascetic and studious life, but became acquainted with the socialist ideas which were then fomenting in the capital. In 1840 he published his first work Qu'est-ce que la proprit (or "What Is Property"). His famous answer to this question, "La proprit, c'est le vol" ("property is theft"), naturally did not please the Academy of Besanon, and there was some talk of withdrawing his pension; but he held it for the regular period.
His third memoir on property was a letter to the Fourierist, M. Considrant; he was tried for it at Besanon but was acquitted. In 1846, he published the Systme des contradictions conomiques ou Philosophie de la misre (or "The System of Economic Contradictions, or The Philosophy of Poverty"). For some time, Proudhon ran a small printing establishment at Besanon, 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
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), Crmieux (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 workman Albert.
Proudhon published his own perspective for reform which was completed in 1849, Solution du problme 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 exchange notes that would circulate instead of money based on gold.
During the Second French Republic (1848–1852), Proudhon made his biggest public impact through journalism. He got involved with four newspapers: Le Reprsentant 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 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.
Proudhon ran for the constituent assembly in April 1848, but was not elected, although his name appeared on the ballots in Paris, Lyon, Besanon, 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 February 25, 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.
Proudhon died on January 19, 1865, and is buried in Paris, at the cemetery of Montparnasse (2nd division, near the Lenoir alley, in the tomb of the Proudhon family).
Whoever lays his hand on me to govern me is a usurper and tyrant, and I declare him my enemy.
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Proudhon was the first 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 in The General idea of the Revolution (1851) he urged a "society without authority." He extended this analysis beyond political institutions, arguing in What is Property? that "proprietor" was "synonymous" with "sovereign". For Proudhon:
|–||"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.||–|
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 idolized association. In a sequence of commentaries, from What is Property? (1840) through the posthumously published Thorie de la proprit (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 in favor of private ownership of the means of production. He strenuously rejected the ownership of the products of labor by society, 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".) But he didn't approve of "society" owning means of production or land, but rather that the "user" own it (under supervision from society), with the "organising of regulating societies" in order to "regulate the market". 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 influence for the theorization, at the end of the 19th century and in the 20th century, of workers' self-management (autogestion).
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 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 labour."
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; 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 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. He did not suggest how the monetary institutions would cope with the problem of inflation and with the need for the efficient allocation of scarce resources.
He made few 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 time period. This included the state socialist Louis Blanc, of which 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 his socialism, Proudhon was followed by Mikhail Bakunin.
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Although ultimately overshadowed by Karl Marx, who dismissed him as a bourgeois socialist for his pro-market views, Proudhon had an immediate and lasting influence on the anarchist movement, and, more recently, in the aftermaths of May 1968 and after the end of the Cold War. His essay on What Is Government? is quite well known:
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.
–P.-J. Proudhon, "What Is Government?", General Idea of the Revolution in the Nineteenth Century, translated by John Beverly Robinson (London: Freedom Press, 1923), pp. 293-294.
In addition to being considered a philosophical anarchist, he has also been considered by some to be a forerunner of fascism. He was first used as a reference, surprisingly, in the Cercle Proudhon, a right-wing association formed in 1911 by George 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, George 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 Franaise...from its inception regarded the author of La philosophie de la misre as one of its masters. 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 franaise 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."
But Proudhon's legacy has not been limited to the instrumentation of his thought by the revolutionary right (la droite rvolutionnaire). He also influenced the non-conformists of the 1930s, as well as classical anarchism. In the 1960s, he became the main influence of autogestion (workers' self-management) in France, inspiring the CFDT trade-union, created in 1964, and the Unified Socialist Party (PSU), founded in 1960 and led until 1967 by douard Depreux. In particular, autogestion influenced the LIP self-management experience in Besanon.
Proudhon's thought has seen some revival since the end of the Cold War and the fall of "real socialism" in the Eastern Bloc. It can be loosely related to modern attempts at direct democracy. The Groupe Proudhon, related to the Fdration Anarchiste (Anarchist Federation), published a review from 1981 to 1983 and again since 1994. (The first period corresponds with the 1981 election of Socialist candidate Franois Mitterrand and the economic liberal turn of 1983 taken by the Socialist government.) It is staunchly anti-fascist and related to the Section Carrment Anti Le Pen which opposes Jean-Marie Le Pen). English-speaking anarchists have also attempted to keep the Proudhonian tradition alive and to engage in dialogue with Proudhon's ideas: Kevin Carson's mutualism is self-consciously Proudhonian, and Shawn P. Wilbur has continued both to facilitate the translation into English of Proudhon's texts and to reflect on their significance for the contemporary anarchist project.
Stewart Edwards, the editor of the Selected Writings Of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, remarks: "Proudhon's diaries (Carnets, ed. P. Haubtmann, Marcel Rivire, 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, Crmieux, Marx, Fould, evil choleric, envious, bitter men etc., etc., who hate us." (Carnets, vol. 2, p. 337: No VI, 178)
J. Salwyn Schapiro wrote in 1945:
Proudhon had the tendency, inevitable in the Anti-semite, to see in the Jews the prime source of the nation's misfortunes, and to associate them with persons and groups that he hated...Anti-semitism, always and everywhere, the acid test of racialism, with its division of mankind into creative and sterile races, led Proudhon to regard the Negro as the lowest in the racial hierarchy. During the American Civil War he favored the South, which, he insisted, was not entirely wrong in maintaining slavery. The Negroes, according to Proudhon, were an inferior race, an example of the existence of inequality among the races of mankind...
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'arme.– Abolition immdiate de la conscription et des remplacements; obligation pour tout citoyen de faire, pendant un ou deux ans, le service militaire ; application de l'arme aux services administratifs et travaux d'utilit 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."
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