Pierre-Joseph Proudhon was a French politician, socialist, libertarian, and journalist, who founded the mutualist philosophy. His doctrines laid the foundation for the later anarchist theories. He proclaimed himself as an anarchist and was the first person to do so. Many regard him as the "father of anarchism.” Following the Revolution of 1848, he served as a member of the ‘French Parliament.’ He then started calling himself a federalist. Some of his notable ideas were “order without power,” “economic federalism,” “anarchist gradualism,” “dual power,” “mutualism,” and the belief that “property is theft.” Of these, the assertion that “property is theft” was included in his first major work, ‘What Is Property?’ It not only gained him the attention of French authorities but also that of Karl Marx, who eventually became a close friend of his. The two, however, parted ways later. This contributed to the rift between the anarchist and Marxist wings of the ‘International Working Men's Association.’ Proudhon supported co-operatives and workers’ councils instead of nationalization or private ownership of land and workplaces. He also believed that social revolution could be attained peacefully.
Childhood & Early Life
Pierre-Joseph Proudhon was born on January 15, 1809, in Besançon, France, to Claude-François Proudhon and Catherine Simonin. He was one of the five sons of his parents. His father worked as a cooper and brewer. Of Proudhon’s four brothers, two died young.
Proudhon had no formal education during childhood and was taught to read by his mother. While growing up, Proudhon worked in his family tavern and assisted his family with agricultural work, besides playing in the countryside.
His family was too poor to afford his college studies. However, his mother made an effort to admit him to the city college in Besançon in 1820. She managed to obtain a bursary, taking help from a former employer of Proudhon’s father. The bursary reduced the cost of his education by 120 francs per year. The financial condition of the family made it difficult for Proudhon to afford school books or shoes, and he was often made fun of by his classmates. This, however, did not affect Proudhon’s determination to learn. In his free time in school, Proudhon would explore a variety of subjects, reading several books in his school library.
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Proudhon started to work at a printing press as an apprentice in the house of Bellevaux in Battant in 1827. During Easter in 1828, he joined a press owned by his schoolmate Antoine Gauthier’s family in Besançon. Much of the works published there were ecclesiastical in nature. Proudhon read this Christian literature daily, which led him to question many of the religious dogmas he believed in earlier. This had a huge impact on him, and he eventually rejected Christianity.
With time, he started proofreading publications of the press. By 1829, he became interested in social issues, instead of religious theory. That year, he happened to meet Charles Fourier, the founder of utopian socialism. The latter had come to Gauthier to publish his work ‘Le Nouveau Monde Industriel et Sociétaire.’ Proudhon got a chance to converse with Fourier on different philosophical and social matters, while supervising the book’s printing. This encounter left a deep impact on Proudhon.
During his stint at Gauthier’s press, Proudhon was also introduced to Gustave Fallot. The two became friends and started meeting regularly in the evenings, discussing French literature of authors such as Denis Diderot, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Michel de Montaigne, among several others whose works were not exposed to Proudhon till then.
Philosophical Pursuits & Early Writings
Proudhon was certified as a journeyman compositor in September 1830. Unable to find stable work, either in the printing industry or as a school teacher, Proudhon finally accepted an offer of financial assistance from Fallot, on the condition that he would go to Paris to study philosophy.
Proudhon lived in Paris for a while and interacted with metropolitan scholars known to Fallot, before returning to Besançon, following a cholera outbreak in Paris. Fallot suffered from the illness and died in 1836. Nevertheless, Proudhon’s stint with Fallot encouraged him to pursue philosophical studies.
In 1838, his printing business venture failed. Following this, he resolved to devote his entire time to scholarly endeavors. He received the ‘Suard Pension,’ which sanctioned his study at the ‘Academy of Besançon.’ In late autumn that year, he arrived in Paris.
Proudhon wrote ‘De la Célébration du dimanche’ during the essay competition held by the ‘Academy of Besançon’ in 1839. He used the essay subject (the usefulness of celebration of Sunday, with respect to morality, hygiene, and the relation of the family and the city) in discussing different philosophical and political concepts. Several of his ideas on morality, authority, and property disturbed the judges of the competition, resulting in Proudhon fetching only a bronze medal. He, however, felt proud as he took the result as an indication that his writings disturbed the elite academics.
His first major work, ‘What Is Property?,’ was published in 1840. He coined the slogan “property is theft!,” censured the injustices of inequality, and defined anarchy as "the absence of a master, of a sovereign" in the book. Later in his life, Proudhon changed some of the views he held earlier, palpable from his argument of "the balancing of authority by liberty" and the development of a decentralized "theory of federal government" in his 1863 book ‘The Principle of Federation’.
‘What Is Property?’ drew the attention of the French authorities as well as the scrutiny of Karl Marx. Marx initiated a correspondence with Proudhon. The two met in Paris when Marx was in exile there. They also influenced each other’s works.
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The circled-A monogram consisting of the letter “A,” surrounded by the letter “O,” in capitals, is considered the best-known symbol of anarchy. While the “A” in the symbol was derived from first letter of “anarchy,” the letter “O” came from “order,” both of which were taken from the phrase "society seeks order in anarchy," written by Proudhon in ‘What Is Property?’
His 1842 book ‘Warning to Proprietors,’ a memoir on property, led him to face arrest and trial in Besançon, for its radical political views. The jury, however, acquitted him later. He joined the secret society of Lyon’s working men, the ‘Mutualists,’ in 1843. The discussions of the group included finding ways of attaining a more egalitarian society. Around the same time, Proudhon came up with the mutualism theory that advocated for working together in small groups and the availability of loans through a “People's Bank.”
His friendship with Marx came to an end when the latter published ‘The Poverty of Philosophy’ in 1847 as an answer to the philosophical and economic arguments given by Proudhon in his book ‘The System of Economic Contradictions, or ‘The Philosophy of Poverty’ (1846). The conflict caused the Marxist and the anarchist sections of the ‘International Working Men's Association’ to split, initiating a rift between the followers of the two philosophies, which continues to this day.
Proudhon left for Paris again in 1847. He settled there and earned repute as a leader of innovation. He became a ‘Freemason’ the same year.
The February Revolution, Later Writings & Other Endeavors
Proudhon participated in the Revolution of 1848 in France, which resulted in the abdication of Louis Philippe I, the abolition of the monarchy, and the creation of the French Second Republic. Proudhon’s outlook on the reforms was elucidated in his 1849 book ‘Solution du problème social,’ in which he chalked out a program that included mutual financial cooperation of workers. According to him, by following this program, the control of economic relations could be transferred from capitalists and financiers to workers. He wanted to set up a bank that would provide loans at an extremely low rate of interest.
He wrote for four newspapers during the Second French Republic and made a decent impact, particularly on scores of French workers. The four papers were ‘Le Représentant du Peuple’ (from February 1848 to August 1848), ‘Le Peuple’ (from September 1848 to June 1849), ‘La Voix du Peuple’ (from September 1849 to May 1850), and ‘Le Peuple de 1850’ (from June to October 1850).
Meanwhile, in April 1848, he unsuccessfully ran for the ‘Constituent Assembly.’ He was, however, successful during the complementary elections held on June 4, 1848. This saw him serving as a deputy during the debates on the ‘National Workshops’ that were developed by a decree passed by ‘Republican’ Louis Blanc on February 25 that year.
He was taken aback by the violence of the 1848 June Days uprising staged by French workers in response to plans of closing the ‘National Workshops.’ He opposed the insurrection and believed that social revolution could be attained through peaceful means.
He censured the policies of the government and advocated for credit and exchange reformation. He also advocated for co-operatives and workers’ councils instead of nationalization or private ownership of land and workplaces. He adopted the term “mutualism” to describe his brand of anarchism. It encompassed the idea of control of the means of production by the workers. In 1849, he unsuccessfully attempted to set up a popular bank (‘Banque du peuple’).
He was arrested for insulting President Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte and was imprisoned from 1849 to 1852. Following his release, he lived in exile in Belgium, from 1858 to 1862. He returned to France only after the liberalization of the empire in 1863.
Meanwhile, in his 1851 book ‘The General Idea of the Revolution in the Nineteenth Century,’ Proudhon portrayed a vision of an ideal society without authority. The book, presently regarded as a classic of anarchist philosophy, included concepts that later became the basis of libertarian and anarchist theories. Two other notable books of Proudhon were ‘Confessions of a Revolutionary’ (1849) and ‘Justice in the Revolution and in the Church’ (1858).
Death & Legacy
He died on January 19, 1865, in Passy, Paris, and was interred at the cemetery of Montparnasse in Paris.
His views influenced several prominent writers in Russia, such as Leo Tolstoy, Peter Kropotkin, Peter Lavrov, and Alexander Herzen. During the late 19th and 20th centuries, Proudhon’s works and ideologies remained one of the main influences on the “workers' self-management” (autogestion) theory.