Pierre-Joseph Proudhon Biography


(History of the World: The 19th Century)

0111206068-Proudhon.jpg Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (Library of Congress) Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Article abstract: Proudhon’s greatest activity was as a journalist and pamphleteer. Hailed by his followers as the uncompromising champion of human liberty, Proudhon voiced the discontentment of the revolutionary period of nineteenth century France.

Early Life

Pierre-Joseph Proudhon was born on January 15, 1809, in the rural town of Besançon. Although the political and social climates were important influences on Proudhon’s life, the experiences he had as a child growing up in a working-class family shaped his philosophical views in even more important ways. Proudhon’s father, who was a brewer and, later, a cooper, went bankrupt because, unlike most brewers, he sold his measure of drink for a just price. Penniless after the loss of his business, Proudhon’s father was forced to move his family to a small farm near Burgille. Between the ages of eight and twelve, Proudhon worked as a cowherd, an experience which forged in him a lifelong identity with the peasant class.

Proudhon’s formal education began in 1820, when his mother arranged with the parish priest for him to attend the local college, which was the nineteenth century equivalent of high school. The stigma of poverty suddenly became very real to him when he contrasted his clothes with those of his wealthier comrades. Smarting from the insults of the other children, Proudhon protected himself from further pain by adopting a surly, sullen personality. During his fourth year at school, Proudhon read François Fénelon’s Démonstration de l’existence de Dieu (1713; A Demonstration of the Existence of God, 1713), which introduced him to the tenets of atheism. Proudhon then ceased to practice religion at the age of sixteen and began his lifelong war against the Church.

Proudhon’s life changed drastically on the eve of his graduation. Sensing that something was wrong when neither of his parents was present, Proudhon rushed home to find that his father, who had become a landless laborer, had lost everything in a last desperate lawsuit. Years later, Proudhon used his father’s inability to own farmland as the basis for his belief that society excluded the poor from the ownership of property.

At the age of eighteen, Proudhon was forced to abandon his formal education and take up a trade. He was apprenticed to the Besançon firm of the Gauthier brothers, which specialized in general theological publications. Proudhon became proud of his trade as a proofreader because it made him independent. At home among the printers, who were men of his own class, he found that he had traded the isolation of the middle-class school for the comradely atmosphere of the workshop.

The printshop also enabled Proudhon to continue his studies, in an informal way, for it was there that he developed his first intellectual passions. His budding interest in language was cultivated by a young editor named Fallot, who was the first great personal influence on Proudhon’s life. It was there too that Proudhon was introduced to the works of the utopian thinker Charles Fourier. Fourier’s position that a more efficient economy can revolutionize society from within is reflected in the anarchical doctrines of Proudhon’s greatest works.

Another lesson Proudhon learned at the printshop was that mastering a trade does not guarantee a living, as it would in a just society. His apprenticeship came to an end as a result of the Revolution of 1830, which overthrew the restored Bourbons. Although Proudhon hated to be out of work, he was infected with the spirit of revolution, which stayed with him throughout his life.

His friend Fallot persuaded Proudhon to move to Paris and apply for the Suard scholarship. During their visit to Paris, Fallot provided Proudhon with moral and financial support, because he was convinced that Proudhon had a great future ahead of him as a philosopher and a writer. When Fallot was stricken with cholera, however, Proudhon declined to accept his friend’s generosity any longer and began seeking employment in the printing houses of Paris, but to no avail. Discouraged, Proudhon left Fallot to convalesce by himself in Paris.

Life’s Work

A turning point for Proudhon came with the publication of his book Qu’est-ce que la propriété? (1840; What Is Property?, 1876). The book was actually a showcase for his answer to this question—“Property is theft”—and it gained for Proudhon an immediate audience among those working-class citizens who had become disillusioned with Louis-Philippe, a king who clearly favored the privileged classes. Ironically, though, Proudhon was a defender of public property; he objected to the practice of drawing unearned income from rental property. This book represented a dramatic departure from the popular utopian theories embraced by most socialists of the day in that it employed economic, political, and social science as a means of viewing social problems.

Among the people who were attracted to Proudhon’s theories was Karl Marx. In 1842, Marx praised What Is Property? and met Proudhon in Paris. Since Proudhon had studied economic science in more depth than Marx had, Marx probably learned more from their meeting than did Proudhon. Two years later, though, Marx became disenchanted with Proudhon after the publication in 1846 of Proudhon’s first major work, Système des contradictions économiques: Ou, Philosophie de la misère (1846; System of Economic Contradictions, 1888).

Proudhon hoped that the Revolution of 1848 would bring his theories to fruition by deposing Louis-Philippe. He became the editor of a radical journal, Le Représentant du peuple (the representative of the people), in which he recorded one of the best eyewitness accounts of the Revolution. That same year, he was elected to the office of radical deputy. Surprisingly, Proudhon did not ally himself with the socialist Left. During his brief term in office, he voted against the resolution...

(The entire section is 2484 words.)