Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2484
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.
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.
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 proclaiming the “right to work” and against the adoption of the constitution establishing the democratic Second Republic. His chief activity during his term in office was the founding of a “People’s Bank,” which would be a center of various workingmen’s associations and would overcome the scarcity of money and credit by universalizing the rate of exchange.
The feasibility of such a bank will never be known, because it was closed after only two months of operation when Proudhon’s career as a deputy came to an abrupt end. In 1849, Proudhon was arrested for writing violent articles attacking Napoleon III and was sentenced to three years in the Saint-Pelagie prison. Proudhon fled to Belgium but was promptly arrested when he returned to Paris under an assumed name to liquidate his bank, which had foundered in his absence.
Proudhon’s imprisonment was actually a fortunate experience. It afforded him ample time to study and write; he also founded a newspaper, Le Voix du peuple (the voice of the people). In Les Confessions d’un révolutionnaire (1849; the confessions of a revolutionary), written while he was in prison, Proudhon traced the history of the revolutionary movement in France from 1789 to 1849. In Idée générale de la révolution au XIXe siècle (1851; The General Idea of the Revolution in the Nineteenth Century, 1923), he appealed to the bourgeois to make their peace with the workers. La Révolution sociale démontrée par le coup d’état du 2 décembre (1852; the revolution demonstrated by the coup d’état), which was published a month after the release of Proudhon from prison, hailed the overthrow of the Second Republic as a giant step toward progress. Proudhon also proposed that anarchy was the true end of the social evolution of the nineteenth century. Because Proudhon suggested that Napoleon III should avoid making the same mistakes as Napoleon I, the book was banned by the minister of police. Still, the book created a sensation in France.
The most important event that occurred while Proudhon was in prison was his marriage to Euphrasie Piegard, an uneducated seamstress, whose management skills and resilience made her a suitable mate for a revolutionary. By marrying outside the Church, he indicated his contempt for the clergy. Marriage was good for Proudhon, and his happiness convinced him that marriage was an essential part of a just society.
The three years following Proudhon’s release from prison were marked by uncertainty and fear. By the end of 1852, Napoleon III’s reign was in crisis, and any writer who opposed him or the Crimean War was immediately ostracized. Proudhon’s attempts to start a journal through which he could persuade the regime of Napoleon III to move to the Left against the Church was thwarted by the Jesuits. With his journalistic career at an end, Proudhon began a series of literary projects.
The year 1855 saw a significant shift in Proudhon’s philosophical outlook. He arrived at the conclusion that what was needed was not a political system under which everyone benefited but a transformation of man’s consciousness. Proudhon’s new concern with ethics resulted in his De la justice dans la révolution et dans l’église (about the justice of the revolution and the church) in 1858. This three-volume work, which ranks as one of the greatest socialist studies of the nineteenth century, attacks the defenders of the status quo, including the Catholic church.
Although the book enjoyed great success, the anger that Proudhon had exhibited in this manifesto of defiance outraged the government and the Church. Once again, Proudhon was given a fine and a prison sentence. Proudhon submitted a petition to the senate, but to no avail; he was sentenced to three years’ imprisonment and ordered to pay a fine of four thousand francs; his publisher received a fine as well. Proudhon again fled to Belgium, where he settled as a mathematics professor under the assumed name of Durfort.
Though Proudhon’s publisher refused to accept any more of his political works, Proudhon continued to write. The last of Proudhon’s great treatises, La Guerre et la paix (war and peace), appeared in 1861. This two-volume work explored Proudhon’s view that only through war could man obtain justice and settle conflicts between nations. Proudhon also held that women must serve the state only as housewives and mothers in order to ensure a strong, virile nation. In response, Proudhon was branded a reactionary, a renegade, and a warmonger by both citizens and journalists.
Proudhon was forced to flee Belgium when his opposition to the nationalist movement, which he had expressed in various newspaper articles, created a furor. A large segment of readers objected to a statement in one of these articles that seemed to favor the annexation of Belgium by France.
After returning to France, Proudhon threw himself into his work, producing four books in only two years. This final burst of creativity was his last attempt to persuade the workers to abstain from political activity, while the imperial administration continued to distort the workings of universal suffrage. La Fédération de l’unité en Italie (1863; the federal principle and the unity of Italy) contains what is considered by many to be the best explanation of the federal principle that has ever been written. De la capacité politique des classes ouvrières (1863; of the political capacity of the working classes), inspired by the workers’ refusal to support the candidates of the Second Empire in the legislative election of 1863, reflects Proudhon’s new confidence in the proletariat. He now believed that the workers could be a viable force for achieving mutualism.
Although Proudhon’s mental faculties remained sharp, his health deteriorated rapidly in the last two years of his life. He died of an undetermined illness on January 19, 1865.
Pierre-Joseph Proudhon was a radical thinker who was incapable of identifying completely with any single political ideology. Early in his career, Proudhon was a revolutionary who denounced the established political and economic institutions. As he grew older, he began to absorb some of those bourgeois values that he had scorned in his youth, such as the importance of the family and the inheritance of property. Thus, he is best described as a man of contradictions, a radical, a realist, and a moralist. In fact, he was viewed as a dissenter by other dissenters of the day: liberals, democrats, and republicans, as well as his fellow socialists.
Proudhon’s influence on French politics extended well into the twentieth century. In the Paris Commune of 1871, Proudhon’s political views carried more weight than did those of Marx. By the end of the nineteenth century, however, Proudhon’s teachings seem to have been overshadowed by the Marxists. Through anarchism, Proudhon’s influence was transferred to revolutionary syndicalism, which dominated French trade unionism into the twentieth century. The syndicalists favored a violent approach to the class struggle and employed the general strike as a weapon. Just before World War II, though, French trade unionism turned away from Proudhon as it began to cater to various political factions.
Brogan, D. W. Proudhon. London: H. Hamilton, 1934. A short but complete biography which includes summaries and critiques of Proudhon’s work. The first half of the book does an excellent job of outlining those influences which shaped him as a writer and a thinker.
Dillard, Dudley. “Keynes and Proudhon.” Journal of Economic History, May, 1942: 63-76. A fine introduction to Proudhon’s economic and political philosophy. In his comparison between Proudhon and J. M. Keynes, who seems to have formulated his theories after Proudhon’s, Dillard highlights the most important points in Proudhon’s work, thereby clarifying some of Proudhon’s more difficult concepts for the average reader.
Hall, Constance Margaret. The Sociology of Pierre Joseph Proudhon, 1809-1865. New York: Philosophical Library, 1971. A penetrating analysis of Proudhon’s political philosophy and the effects it had on nineteenth century France. The brief biographical sketch in the beginning of the volume is an excellent introduction to Proudhon’s life and times.
Ritter, Alan. The Political Thought of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1969. An in-depth study of Proudhon’s political views which explains the historical events that spawned his ideas and describes how Proudhon’s theories have been interpreted in various times. Also demonstrates how Proudhon attempted to integrate revolutionary, realistic, and moral concepts into a cohesive political theory.
Schapiro, J. Salwyn. “Pierre Joseph Proudhon, Harbinger of Fascism.” American Historial Review, July, 1945: 714-737. Theorizes that Proudhon was an intellectual forerunner of Fascism. Concentrates primarily on those radical elements of Proudhon’s works which seem to have influenced National Socialism. Also contains a brief but useful sketch of Proudhon’s life.
Woodcock, George. Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. New York: Macmillan, 1956. A standard biography of Proudhon’s life, combining voluminous details of his personal life with a discussion and critique of his writings and philosophical views. Provides invaluable insights into the turbulent historical period of which Proudhon was a product and shows the role that he played as a catalyst in these events. Emphasizes Proudhon’s willingness to suffer as a result of his devotion to his principles.