Proudhon, Pierre-Joseph (1809-1865)

Proudhon was from humble origins but had become a well-known French social theorist during the 1840s. A printer by trade, he was an exponent of socialism, with a political preference for anarchism. His most famous book was his second one, Qu'est-ce que la propriété? (1840) (his brief answer it is theft). Before 1848 he also published De la célébration du Dimanche (1839), De la création de l'ordre dans l'humanité (1843) and Système des contradictions économiques, ou philosophie de la misère, (in 2 volumes, 1846). He criticized the French July Monarchy, but he was nonetheless surprised by the outbreak of hostilities in Paris in February 1848. In his correspondence, he recounted his participation in the February uprising and the composition of what he termed "the first republican proclamation" of the new republic. The same correspondence indicates, however, that Proudhon had misgivings about the new government because it was pursuing political reform at the expense of socioeconomic reform, which Proudhon considered basic.


Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, the son of a brewer, was born in Besancon, France, in 1809. He attended the local school but was primarily self-educated at the town's public library. Proudhon was apprenticed as a printer and became interested in politics after he was involved in the printing of The New Industrial and Cooperative World by Charles Fourier. Proudhon now turned to writing and in 1840 published What is Property? Proudhon contrasted the right of property with the rights of liberty, equality, and security, saying: "The liberty and security of the rich do not suffer from the liberty and security of the poor; far from that, they mutually strengthen and sustain each other. The rich man’s right of property, on the contrary, has to be continually defended against the poor man’s desire for property."

In 1842 Proudhon was arrested for his radical political views but was acquitted in court. The following year he joined the Lyons Mutualists, a secret society of working men. The group discussed ways of achieving a more egalitarian society and during this period Proudhon developed the theory of Mutualism where small groups worked together and credit was made available through a People's Bank.

Proudhon published his most important work, System of Economic Contradictions, in 1846. Karl Marx responded to Proudhon's book by writing The Poverty of Philosophy (1847). This was the beginning of the long-term struggle of ideas between the two men. Proudhon was opposed to Marx's authoritarianism and his main influence was on the libertarian socialist movement.

After the 1848 French Revolution in France, Proudhon was elected to the National Assembly. This experience resulted in the publication of Confessions of a Revolutionary (1849) and the General Idea of the Revolution in the 19th Century (1851). In these books Proudhon criticized representative democracy and argued that in reality political authority is exercised by only a small number of people.

In 1854 Proudhon contracted cholera. He survived but he never fully recovered his health. He continued to write and published two more important books, Justice in the Revolution and in the Church (1858) and the Principle of Federation (1863). In the book he argued that nationalism inevitably leads to war. To reduce the power of nationalism Proudhon called for a Federal Europe. Proudhon believed that Federalism was "the supreme guarantee of all liberty and of all law, and must, without soldiers or priests, replace both feudal and Christian society." Proudhon went on to predict that "the twentieth century will open the era of federations, or humanity will begin again a purgatory of a thousand years."

The International Working Men's Association was established in 1864. In the organization Proudhon's followers clashed with those of Karl Marx and Mikhail Bakunin. Proudhon, unlike the other two men, believed socialism was possible without the need for a violent revolution. Proudhon's views were to have a profound effect on several writers in Russia including Alexander Herzen,Peter Lavrov, Peter Kropotkin and Leo Tolstoy. Pierre-Joseph Proudhon died in 1865.

Correspondence between Marx and Proudhon, 1846.

Marx's letter to Proudhon, asking him to join the Communist League.

Brussels, May 5, 1846

Dear Proudhon:

Since I left Paris I have often thought of writing to you, but circumstances beyond my control have prevented me from doing it. Please believe me that overbusyness and vexations connected with moving to another house are the only reasons for my silence.

And now in media res. Together with two of my friends, Frederick Engels and Philippe Gigot (both of them in Brussels), I have organized a continuing Correspondence [Committee] with German communists and socialists not only for a discussion of scientific questions but also for a review of popular writings and socialist propaganda, as a means of using them in Germany. The main aim of our Correspondence, however, will be to bring German socialists in contact with French and English socialists, to inform foreigners about socialist movements in Germany and Germans in Germany about the progress of socialism in France and England. In this way, differences of opinion can come to light, and one can attain an exchange of ideas and impartial criticism. This is a step the socialist movement has to take in its literary expression in order to get rid of nationalistic limitations. And at the moment of action it is certainly extremely useful for everyone to be informed about affairs abroad as much as about those in his own country.

In addition to the communists in Germany, our Correspondence will also include German socialists in Paris and London. Our contacts with the English are already established; as to France, we all believe that we could find there no better correspondent than yourself. You know that the English and the Germans have hitherto honored you more than your own countrymen.

Thus you see that what is involved here is the creation of a regular Correspondence and to secure for it the means of following the socialist movement in various countries, to attain rich and manifold results which no individual could achieve by his own work alone.

Should you accept our proposition, the postage of the letters you will receive, as well as those which you forward to us, will be paid here, since the money collections in Germany are designed to cover the cost of the Correspondence.

The local address you would use is: M. Philippe Gigot, 8 rue Bodenbrock. This is also the address for letters sent from Brussels.

I need not add that this whole Correspondence must be kept in strictest secret on your part, since we have to be careful not to compromise our friends in Germany.

Please reply soon, and accept the assurance of my sincere friendship.

Your devoted


Proudhon To Marx

Lyon, 17 May 1846

My dear Monsieur Marx,

I gladly agree to become one of the recipients of your correspondence, whose aims and organization seem to me most useful. Yet I cannot promise to write often or at great length: my varied occupations, combined with a natural idleness, do not favor such epistolary efforts. I must also take the liberty of making certain qualifications which are suggested by various passages of your letter.

First, although my ideas in the matter of organization and realization are at this moment more or less settled, at least as regards principles, I believe it is my duty, as it is the duty of all socialists, to maintain for some time yet the critical or dubitive form; in short, I make profession in public of an almost absolute economic anti-dogmatism.

Let us seek together, if you wish, the laws of society, the manner in which these laws are realized, the process by which we shall succeed in discovering them; but, for God’s sake, after having demolished all the a priori dogmatisms, do not let us in our turn dream of indoctrinating the people; do not let us fall into the contradiction of your compatriot Martin Luther, who, having overthrown Catholic theology, at once set about, with excommunication and anathema, the foundation of a Protestant theology. For the last three centuries Germany has been mainly occupied in undoing Luther’s shoddy work; do not let us leave humanity with a similar mess to clear up as a result of our efforts. I applaud with all my heart your thought of bringing all opinions to light; let us carry on a good and loyal polemic; let us give the world an example of learned and far-sighted tolerance, but let us not, merely because we are at the head of a movement, make ourselves the leaders of a new intolerance, let us not pose as the apostles of a new religion, even if it be the religion of logic, the religion of reason. Let us gather together and encourage all protests, let us brand all exclusiveness, all mysticism; let us never regard a question as exhausted, and when we have used our last argument, let us begin again, if need be, with eloquence and irony. On that condition, I will gladly enter your association. Otherwise — no!

I have also some observations to make on this phrase of your letter: at the moment of action. Perhaps you still retain the opinion that no reform is at present possible without a coup de main, without what was formerly called a revolution and is really nothing but a shock. That opinion, which I understand, which I excuse, and would willingly discuss, having myself shared it for a long time, my most recent studies have made me abandon completely. 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. I myself put the problem in this way: to bring about the return to society, by an economic combination, of the wealth which was withdrawn from society by another economic combination. In other words, through Political Economy to turn the theory of Property against Property in such a way as to engender what you German socialists call community and what I will limit myself for the moment to calling liberty or equality. But I believe that I know the means of solving this problem with only a short delay; I would therefore prefer to burn Property by a slow fire, rather than give it new strength by making a St Bartholomew’s night of the proprietors ...

Your very devoted

Pierre-Joseph Proudhon

Miscellaneous Quotes

  • “Property is theft!” ------ “I am an Anarchist” ------ “Liberty is inviolable. I can neither sell nor alienate my liberty” - “Property is despotism”
  • “Since property is the grand cause of privilege and despotism, the form of the republican oath should be changed. Instead of, ‘I swear hatred to royalty,’ henceforth the new member of a secret society should say, ‘I swear hatred to property.’”
  • “I preach emancipation to the proletaires; association to the laborers”
  • “Political economy — that is, proprietary despotism — can never be in the wrong: it must be the proletariat”
  • “Contrary to all expectation! It takes an economist not to expect these things”
  • “the problem of association consists in organising . . . the producers, and by this organisation subjecting capital and subordinating power. Such is the war that you have to sustain: a war of labour against capital; a war of liberty against authority; a war of the producer against the non-producer; a war of equality against privilege”
  • “But remember that the red flag is the sign of a revolution that will be the last. The red flag! It is the federal standard of humanity.”
  • “What they always want is inequality of wealth, delegation of sovereignty and government by influential people . . . democracy says that the people reign and do not govern, which is to deny the Revolution.”
  • “it is the liberty that is the mother, not the daughter, of order.”
  • “Such, then, is the first principle of the new economy, a principle full of hope and of consolation for the labourer without capital, but a principle full of terror for the parasite and for the tools of parasitism, who see reduced to naught their celebrated formula:Capital, labour, talent!”
  • “the proletariat must emancipate itself without the help of the government”
  • “In order to organise the future, a general rule confirmed by experience, the reformers always start out with their gaze fixed upon the past. Hence the contradiction forever discovered in their actions: hence also the immeasurable danger of revolutions.”
  • “Killing men is the lousiest way of combating principles”
  • “That a new society be founded in the heart of the old society”
  • “the government can do nothing for you. But you can do everything for yourselves”
  • “philanthropy is a corollary of poverty”
  • “Either Property will overrule the Republic, or the Republic will overrule Property”
  • “When I used those pronouns you and we, it was self-evident that at that point I was identifying myself with the proletariat and identifying you with the bourgeois class”
  • “Who will tell me that the right to labour and to live is not the whole of the Revolution?”
  • “the revolutionary power . . . is in you. The people alone, acting upon themselves without intermediary, can achieve the economic Revolution . . . The people alone can save civilisation and advance humanity!”
  • “The State is the EXTERNAL constitution of the social power . . . the people does not govern itself; now one individual, now several, by a title either elective or hereditary, are charged with governing it, with managing it affairs”
  • “We deny government and the State, because we affirm that which the founders of States have never believed in, the personality and autonomy of the masses.”
  • “No authority, no government, not even popular, that is the Revolution”
  • “Laws! We know what they are, and what they are worth! Spider webs for the rich and powerful, steel chains for the weak and poor, fishing nets in the hands of the Government.”
  • “There will no longer be nationality, no longer fatherland, in the political sense of the words: they will mean only places of birth. Whatever a man’s race or colour, he is really a native of the universe; he has citizen’s rights everywhere.”
  • “To be governed is to be kept in sight, inspected, spied upon, directed, law-driven, numbered, enrolled, indoctrinated, preached at, controlled, estimated, valued, censured, commanded, by creatures who have neither the right, nor the wisdom, nor the virtue to do so . . .”
  • “industrial democracy must follow industrial feudalism”
  • “Workers’ associations are the home of a new principle and model of production that must replace current corporations”
  • “There is mutuality, in fact, when in an industry, all the workers, instead of working for an owner who pays them and keeps their product, work for each other and thereby contribute to a common product from which they share the profit”
  • “The people have never done anything but pray and pay: we believe that the time has come to make them PHILOSOPHISE”
  • “The revolution, in democratising us, has launched us on the paths of industrial democracy”
  • “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 woven into the common cloth of the democratic social Republic.”
  • “Besides universal suffrage and as a consequence of universal suffrage, we want implementation of the binding mandate. Politicians balk at it! Which means that in their eyes, the people, in electing representatives, do not appoint mandatories but rather abjure their sovereignty! That is assuredly not socialism: it is not even democracy.”
  • “Whoever lays his hand on me to govern me is a usurper and a tyrant: I declare him my enemy.”
  • “From above . . . signifies power; from below signifies the people. On the one hand we have the actions of government; on the other, the initiative of the masses.”
  • “The problem before the working classes then is not to conquer but to overcome at the same time power and monopoly, which means creating, out of the people’s guts and labour’s profundity, a greater authority, a more powerful fact, that surrounds and subjugates capital and the state.”
  • “Capital, whose mirror-image in the political sphere is Government, has a synonym in the religious context, to wit, Catholicism. The economic notion of capital, the political notion of government or authority, the theological notion of the Church, these three notions are identical and completely interchangeable: an attack upon one is an attack upon the others”
  • “by its very nature government is counter-revolutionary: it either resists, oppresses, or corrupts or wrecks. Government knows nothing else, can do nothing else and will never seek anything else.”
  • “I belong to the Party of Labour against the Party of Capital”
  • “I do not wish to be either governor nor governed!”
  • “the capitalist principle and the monarchist or governmental principle are one and the same principle; that the abolition of the exploitation of man by man and the abolition of the government of man by man are one and the same formula”
  • “The federative system is applicable to all nations and eras, since humanity is progressive in all generations and all races, and the politics of federation, which is par excellence the politics of progress”
  • “political right must have the buttress of economic right”
  • “what does science say? . . . Nothing: it keeps harping on its eternal law of supply and demand; a lying law, in the terms in which it is posed, an immoral law, appropriate only for ensuring the victory of the strong over the weak, of those who have over those who have not.”
  • “I declare here and now that the labouring masses are actually, positively and effectively sovereign: how could they not be when the economic organism – labour, capital, property and assets – belongs to them entirely”
  • “In a mutualist confederation, the citizen gives up none of his freedom, as Rousseau requires him to do for the governance of his republic!”
  • “It is no longer the government that is made for the people, it is the people that is made for the government”
  • “Whoever lays his hand on me to govern me is a usurper and a tyrant: I declare him my enemy.”
  • “The conclusion is that government can never be revolutionary quite simply because it is government. Society alone, the masses armed with their intelligence, can create revolution; society alone is able to deploy all its spontaneity, to analyse and explain the mystery of its destiny and its origin, to change its faith and its philosophy, because it alone is capable of fighting against its originator and to bear its fruit. Governments are God’s scourge, established to discipline the world: do you really expect them to destroy themselves, to create freedom, to make revolution?”
  • “But experience testifies and philosophy demonstrates, contrary to that prejudice, that any revolution, to be effective, must be spontaneous and emanate, not from the heads of the authorities but from the bowels of the people: that government is reactionary rather than revolutionary: that it could not have any expertise in revolutions, given that society, to which that secret is alone revealed, does not show itself through legislative decree but rather through the spontaneity of its manifestations: that, ultimately, the only connection between government and labour is that labour, in organising itself, has the abrogation of government as its mission.”