The Well-Read Anarchist #002 – An Introduction to Pierre-Joseph Proudhon

by | Feb 20, 2014 | The Well-Read Anarchist | 0 comments

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In this inaugural edition of The Well-Read Anarchist podcast, we explore the life and work of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. From his humble origins to his bold proclamation of anarchism to his brief political career, his imprisonment and exile, and his posthumous banishment to the fringes of the canon, we take a look at the thoughts and ideas of the first self-proclaimed anarchist. Joining us to do this are Shawn Wilbur, an independent scholar and Proudhon translator, and Dr. Alex Prichard, a lecturer in international relations at Exeter University and author of Justice, Order and Anarchy: The International Political Theory of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon.


Welcome. This is James Corbett of, and you’re listening to The Well-Read Anarchist. This is Episode 2 of this podcast series, “An Introduction to Pierre-Joseph Proudhon.”

Every field of inquiry has its origin story, and anarchism is no different. And as long as that field of inquiry remains vibrant, debate–often of the most acrimonious variety–will rage over that origin story. Here again, anarchism is no different.

There is no single correct answer as to precisely when, where or how the anarchist school of thought was born. As with so many other political philosophies, its earliest forms predate the name itself. Some identify early 19th century thinker William Godwin as one of the key progenitors of what came to be known as anarchism. Others cast their gaze further back. Anarchist themes or ideas have been discerned in the writings of Taoist philosopher Laozi writing in the 6th century BC, and in the teachings of the Cynics and the Stoics in ancient Greece. Some even argue that Jesus and his disciples represented the first truly anarchic society. But if we turn our attention to the much narrower problem of who was the first self-proclaimed anarchist, on that point there is thankfully no debate. The honour falls to Pierre-Joseph Proudhon.

The proclamation is unequivocal, and comes early on in Proudhon’s career. In his first major work, What is Property?, Proudhon lays out his still scandalous argument that “Property is theft,” and proudly proclaims himself an anarchist in an exchange with a fictitious interlocutor.

“You are a republican.” “A republican! Yes; but that word specifies nothing. Res public; that is, the public thing. Now, whoever is interested in public affairs–no matter under what form of government–may call himself a republican. Even kings are republicans.” —

“Well! you are a democrat?” — “No.” — “What! you would have a monarchy.” — “No.” — “A constitutionalist?” — “God forbid!” — “You are then an aristocrat?” — “Not at all.” — “You want a mixed government?” — “Still less.” — “What are you, then?” — “I am an anarchist.”

It is a bold proclamation. But what does it mean? Even for Proudhon himself, the answer to that question was fluid, subject to revision as his thinking developed and matured over the course of his life.

Author of Justice, Order and Anarchy: The International Political Theory of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Dr. Alex Prichard:

So he [Proudhon] has it in ‘What Is Property?’–towards the back-end of the book when he’s trying to explain what the whole thing means–what this critique of property and the state actually entails in terms of his politics. What he tries to do is embed this really quite bombastic claim that he’s an anarchist in much more accepted political ideologies. He essentially embeds himself in the Republican tradition of France at the time. At it’s heart it’s anti-monarchist, however many of the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth century Republicans were also constitutional monarchists so it’s really a bit confusing about how he embeds it. But actually what he’s arguing is that he’s for freedom, which is what the Republicans were, too, and against domination, which is essentially what the Monarchy stood for.

What he did was he took this idea of freedom from domination and tied that up with a critique of capitalism and of the state, which put him at odds with the established Republicans and with the Liberal bourgeoisie who were obviously the emerging class at the time. And because he had a vociferous critique of the established order, aligning himself with anarchy suggested a whole range of emotive interpretations of politics that I think were absolutely central to establishing his name as a social theorist.

So what I’m trying to say is that his anarchism was embedded in this Republican critique of domination but it was also a Republican critique of capitalism and of the state. And because there was no tradition of ‘anarchism,’ if you like, really because anarchy was the idea associated with lawlessness or the absence of a state, anarchy being central to ideas about the state of nature that were central to the works of Hobbes, Kant, Rousseau and all of the social theorists that everyone would have been familiar with at the time. Aligning himself with this idea of anarchy was as bombastic as much anything and he spent literally the next 25 years explaining what he meant by that term.

Perhaps it is telling that Proudhon introduces his conception of anarchy not as an idea, but as a form of self-definition. In that vein, just as anarchists might seek the origin story of anarchism to better understand the philosophy itself, perhaps we can better understand Proudhon’s anarchism by better understanding Proudhon’s own origins. Who, then, was Pierre-Joseph Proudhon?

As Proudhon’s friend, J.A. Langlois wrote in his own introduction to the thinker, “P. J. Proudhon: His Life and His Works:”

Pierre Joseph Proudhon was born on the 15th of January, 1809, in a suburb of Besancon, called Mouillere. His father and mother were employed in the great brewery belonging to M. Renaud. His father, though a cousin of the jurist Proudhon, the celebrated professor in the faculty of Dijon, was a journeyman brewer. His mother, a genuine peasant, was a common servant. She was an orderly person of great good sense; and, as they who knew her say, a superior woman of HEROIC character,—to use the expression of the venerable M. Weiss, the librarian at Besancon. She it was especially that Proudhon resembled: she and his grandfather Tournesi, the soldier peasant of whom his mother told him, and whose courageous deeds he has described in his work on “Justice.” Proudhon, who always felt a great veneration for his mother Catharine, gave her name to the elder of his daughters. In 1814, when Besancon was blockaded, Mouillere, which stood in front of the walls of the town, was destroyed in the defence of the place; and Proudhon’s father established a cooper’s shop in a suburb of Battant, called Vignerons. Very honest, but simple-minded and short-sighted, this cooper, the father of five children, of whom Pierre Joseph was the eldest, passed his life in poverty. At eight years of age, Proudhon either made himself useful in the house, or tended the cattle out of doors. No one should fail to read that beautiful and precious page of his work on “Justice,” in which he describes the rural sports which he enjoyed when a neatherd. At the age of twelve, he was a cellar-boy in an inn. This, however, did not prevent him from studying.

His mother was greatly aided by M. Renaud, the former owner of the brewery, who had at that time retired from business, and was engaged in the education of his children.

Proudhon entered school as a day-scholar in the sixth class. He was necessarily irregular in his attendance; domestic cares and restraints sometimes kept him from his classes. He succeeded nevertheless in his studies; he showed great perseverance. His family were so poor that they could not afford to furnish him with books; he was obliged to borrow them from his comrades, and copy the text of his lessons. He has himself told us that he was obliged to leave his wooden shoes outside the door, that he might not disturb the classes with his noise; and that, having no hat, he went to school bareheaded. One day, towards the close of his studies, on returning from the distribution of the prizes, loaded with crowns, he found nothing to eat in the house.

As a budding and gifted young thinker in early 19th Century France, Proudhon found himself navigating through the intellectual milieu of his era, a milieu which–as independent scholar and Proudhon specialist Shawn Wilbur explains–was full of its share of utopian and downright strange thinkers and ideas.

He was writing and entering the printers’ trade at a time in the late 1830s where, after the French revolution and after Napoleon’s empire, France had settled back into a constitutional monarchy and what would become what we know as radical socialism was bubbling up in various areas as the defense of the working classes by social science. So there are what Engels referred to as the ‘utopian socialist’: Charles Fourier, who dreamed these beautiful and strange visions of a future in which our senses will all become enormously amplified and the seas would turn to lemonade and we would fight out World Wars with worldwide contests for who could make the best little meat pies, alongside Saint-Simon who really thought that the engineers would eventually rule the world (which didn’t prevent him from also developing a secular religion that sent his followers off on a quest around the world for a female messiah).

It’s a period where there are a lot of remarkable and remarkably mixed ideas loose in the world and they do have that utopian character in that they are well outside the envelope of what we think of as politics now. And often it came down to what now I think we would take to be a kind of pseudo-scientific belief that if you just found the right model, you could fix everything.

Something that strongly differentiated Proudhon from the other thinkers of his age, however, were the very pragmatic realities of his upbringing. At the periphery of French life in rural Besancon, detached from the rarefied world of cosmopolitan Paris, and born into a family not unused to crushing poverty, Proudhon’s life and work came to be shaped by and rooted in his experience of what it means to be born into a world ruled by and for the wealthy and powerful for their own gain.

Dr. Alex Prichard:

He came from a peasant background I suppose. His mother was a cook and a cleaner and his father was a rather unsuccessful businessman who ran a pub. His extended family was quite varied actually; one of his mothers’ or fathers’ distant cousin was a professor of law at the University of Dijon, as far as I can remember. His uncle on the other side of the family was one of the sans-culottes and took pride in rebelling against the French state. So all the way through Proudhon’s background and his upbringing he had these two-sides; the academic and the scholarly and also this rebelliousness was there. I suppose watching his father struggle as a cooper, the Napoleonic wars were quite significant in terms of his personal development but the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars were far more problematic. So the siege of Besancon in 1815, right at the end of the Napoleonic wars, was then followed by a 2-year famine. So when Proudhon was about 6 or 7 years old, the area was completely destitute and he remembers walking around eating unripened corn and really struggling.

So you can see war and peace were central to his development, likewise famine and the injustice of essentially the plight of the poor and the working-class and the peasantry even in Eastern France at that time. So this made a huge impact on him. So when he went to school and started his baccalaureate at the age of 14-15 he was by far one of the poorest students in his class, was often mocked for turning up without any shoes and never actually finished his baccalaureate because he had to go and work to support the Proudhon family. He was probably the only working-class revolutionary of that period; working-class is probably a generous way of putting it. He came from a pretty destitute background so I think those personal experiences really shaped the way he approached texts, the way read his periods’ time, the way he read the political situation in France at that time and I think that was hugely significant.

So when you see him writing about the institution of private property–which is what essentially is his first major book What is Property?–the fact that he’s declaiming against the institution of private property ought not to be a surprise at all. The institution of private property was fantastic if you have property. If you have none, then it instantly becomes a question of social justice. So his peasant background really shaped the way he read that debate around private property, essentially arguing that it was impossible by natural law standards and the only way we could have an institution of private property was for the state to enforce it. So this is where his anarchism starts. It’s a duel-critique of capitalism, structured around the institution of private property, and the state as that body which sustains this system of iniquity.

It was with this strange amalgamation of academic aspirations and working class sensibility that Proudhon sought to craft his own solutions to the social problems of his day. In that quest, Proudhon, like many others of his time, was influenced by Hegel, not directly–no translation of the German thinker existed in French at the time–but through his French proselytizers. As Langlois explains:

We have said that, in 1848, Proudhon recognized three masters. Having no knowledge of the German language, he could not have read the works of Hegel, which at that time had not been translated into French. It was Charles Grun, a German, who had come to France to study the various philosophical and socialistic systems, who gave him the substance of the Hegelian ideas. During the winter of 1844-45, Charles Grun had some long conversations with Proudhon, which determined, very decisively, not the ideas, which belonged exclusively to the Bisontin thinker, but the form of the important work on which he labored after 1843, and which was published in 1846 by Guillaumin.

Hegel’s great idea, which Proudhon appropriated, and which he demonstrates with wonderful ability in the “System of Economical Contradictions,” is as follows: Antinomy, that is, the existence of two laws or tendencies which are opposed to each other, is possible, not only with two different things, but with one and the same thing. Considered in their thesis, that is, in the law or tendency which created them, all the economical categories are rational,—competition, monopoly, the balance of trade, and property, as well as the division of labor, machinery, taxation, and credit. But, like communism and population, all these categories are antinomical; all are opposed, not only to each other, but to themselves. All is opposition, and disorder is born of this system of opposition. Hence, the sub-title of the work,—”Philosophy of Misery.” No category can be suppressed; the opposition, antinomy, or contre-tendance, which exists in each of them, cannot be suppressed.

Where, then, lies the solution of the social problem? Influenced by the Hegelian ideas, Proudhon began to look for it in a superior synthesis, which should reconcile the thesis and antithesis. Afterwards, while at work upon his book on “Justice,” he saw that the antinomical terms do not cancel each other, any more than the opposite poles of an electric pile destroy each other; that they are the procreative cause of motion, life, and progress; that the problem is to discover, not their fusion, which would be death, but their equilibrium,—an equilibrium for ever unstable, varying with the development of society.

Eschewing the orthodoxy of his time, Proudhon found the synthesis of these internal contradictions not in a proposed governmental or economic model, but in the idea of anarchism as order without power. Shawn Wilbur:

What he said about anarchism, the political anarchism and the positive anarchism that he was promoting, was that it was self-government. That it was rule by reason alone, that it was the opposite of governmentalism. And he defined governmentalism as ‘external constitution.’ All that really means is that if there if are two people attempting to govern themselves the tools that are available to them if they are anarchists are what they bring within themselves without any sort of external standard, any a priori governmental system. There’s just this encounter between two people who are considered equal before one another because we don’t have a government, and we don’t have any of the things that make government which would establish any political difference between them.

Indeed, for Proudhon, anarchy is to be defined in opposition to the principle of governmentalism, which seeks to impose order through power. As he writes in his 1851 work, The General Idea of the Revolution in the Nineteenth Century:

To be governed is to be watched over, inspected, spied on, directed, legislated at, regulated, docketed, indoctrinated, preached at, controlled, assessed, weighed, censored, ordered about, by men who have neither the right, nor the knowledge, nor the virtue. … To be governed is to be at every operation, at every transaction, noted, registered, enrolled, taxed, stamped, measured, numbered, assessed, licensed, authorized, admonished, forbidden, reformed, corrected, punished. It is, under the pretext of public utility, and in the name of the general interest, to be placed under contribution, trained, ransomed, exploited, monopolized, extorted, squeezed, mystified, robbed; then, at the slightest resistance, the first word of complaint, to be repressed, fined, despised, harassed, tracked, abused, clubbed, disarmed, choked, imprisoned, judged, condemned, shot, deported, sacrificed, sold, betrayed; and, to crown all, mocked, ridiculed, outraged, dishonoured. That is government; that is its justice; that is its morality.

Opposed to this, he proposed what he called the principle of federation, a decentralization of power that occurs when all parties are treated as sovereign entities, not subject to the authority of another. He expands on this idea in his 1863 work, The Principle of Federation, where he writes:

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.

He finds the real world analogue for this idea in the anarchical order of the international relations of states, in which sovereign entities contract to safeguard their security, insure their prosperity, and settle their disputes without forsaking their sovereignty. Dr. Alex Prichard:

I think that what Proudhon was trying to do with his theory of anarchism is to find that institutional means to allow the most openness that is possible given the fact that we don’t know where we are going. How can we best organize to give everyone the best opportunity to realize their own ends without having those ambitions and those desires interfere with the ends of others? Typically those who had developed these sorts of projects in the past had said ‘well it’s the liberal-bourgeoisie that are one’s that are heralding the future and so we need a liberal-bourgeoisie state’ and so on and so forth. So for Proudhon what we need to be doing is we need to be thinking about anarchy, we need to be institutionalizing anarchy. So if you cast your mind back to what I said earlier about international relations and we think about how states exist in a condition of anarchy. Essentially what Proudhon was doing at the back-end of his career was extrapolating from that analogy. So if states can organize their relationships in anarchy–and the one conundrum that we have in international relations is if states can organize their relations in anarchy or in an orderly fashion–how does that persist? Proudhon argued that a whole range of different things sustain anarchy in international relations. But he said, the fact of the orderly relations that sustain international relations, the fact that they exist, is at a least a prima facie idea, suggestion, claim or example that we might follow at the domestic level. So why can’t all groups in society organize their relations in anarchy? Why can’t all individuals do the same?

Perhaps surprisingly for a man espousing such a philosophy, Proudhon himself participated for a brief time in the political experiment of France in the wake of the Revolution of 1848. He was elected to the National Constituent Assembly in June of that year, overseeing the National Workshops that provided work for the unemployed. He was not personally in favor of the National Workshops, believing that they failed to address the underlying conditions that created the economic hardships of the workers in the first place. His own political aspiration was the formation of a bank which would provide low interest credit and issue exchange notes, which he believed would remove economic control from financiers and capitalists and put it in the hands of the workers.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Proudhon’s tenure as a politician was as short-lived as it was unsuccessful. By 1849, he had been imprisoned for insulting Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, and upon his release he was exiled to Belgium, where he remained much of the rest of his life.

Shawn Wilbur:

Ultimately, Proudhon was one of the people who first laid down that ‘anarchists shouldn’t engage in electoral politics’ rule. But part of the reason he did that was he did what he thought was the best thing to do; he got involved in what was a revolutionary experiment. When you look at France in 1848 and you see the things that were proposed to that government, it’s obviously not business-as-usual. All sorts of wild, wonderful, crazy and horrifying things were on the table and that sort of thing couldn’t really last for very long. Proudhon’s falling afoul of Louis Napoleon and his imprisonment was one of the clear signs that it wasn’t going to last for any length of time, but really Proudhon was fighting a rear-guard action by the time he accepted the candidacy.

He was a pretty bad politician. He really wanted to focus on ideas; he really wanted to take immediate action for what Saint-Simon had called ‘the poorest and most numerous class.’ He said the things that one ought to say to power that don’t keep you in politics for very long.

Perhaps more detrimental to his reputation as a radical thinker than his imprisonment and exile, however, has been the way that his work has been marginalized, ignored, and downplayed by anarchists for much of the past century and a half. Partly this was due to the vagaries of history; the time period of Proudhon’s productive career slightly pre-dated the era of industrial manufacture and the rise of the workers movement which came to dominate radical thought in the later 19th century, so Proudhon’s writings seemed to lack relevance for the anarchist philosophers as their struggle developed.

But some of Proudhon’s marginalization has been due to his own writings. Much has been made of his racist and sexist beliefs, and what has been interpreted as apologia for war. That early 20th century proto-fascists and national socialists specifically regarded Proudhon as one of their philosophical progenitors did not help matters.

Some of these concerns are justified, others have been exaggerated or taken out of context or outright fabricated over the decades of neglect that his works have endured. Many have developed their critique of Proudhon less from a reading of his own words and more in the reading of others’ words about him.

Proudhon scholars today tend to admit that he made serious errors in thinking on certain issues, while denying the greater charges of war glorification or proto-fascism.

Shawn Wilbur:

Proudhon was wrong in some very, very serious ways on a very small number of possibly predictable questions. There’s no point in attempting to apologize for these things, they just have assumed perhaps a greater importance than they might. Let me run through the usual criticisms and how I understand them.

I think the most obvious misunderstanding is the ‘Proudhon as glorifier of war and potential proto-fascist.’ There were in fact people at the beginnings of fascism who latched onto bits and pieces of Proudhon and incorporated it into some pretty awful ideologies, as they did with Nietzsche, as they did with Stirner and quite a few others. So I think the ‘Proudhon as proto-fascist’ thing is pretty thin.

Proudhon as anti-Semite? There are two or three really, really horrible things in his private notebooks. That’s a much tougher question to work out because it’s hard to weigh the fifty volumes where there isn’t a peep of that kind of stuff with the shear horribleness of the two paragraphs that we do have. I think people just have to figure out for themselves how to weight that stuff.

The place that I think there isn’t must question is that Proudhon was a conservative when it came to family structures. He was an anti-feminist. He, in the process of rationalizing his anti-feminism, wrote some pretty rotten books. But in all that stuff he’s really torn himself. If you read his Catechism of Marriage, where he’s trying to show how heteronormative family relations between married couples are in fact the basis of justice in society. There’s some good stuff there. He’s got a social basis of society when he’s talking about justice; he thinks that women and men are equal. Some of it would be really forward thinking if the way that he understood the specific differences, the gender differences, wasn’t so damn backward.

I don’t think ultimately the really bad stuff even makes a dent in what’s really good about Proudhon’s writing and I think once we get past the point of feeling that he was in some ways a pretty rotten dude, I think that the mistakes he made might even be good at preventing us from making some.

In some ways, perhaps Proudhon foresaw his own relegation to the peripheries of anarchist history, worthy perhaps of a mention as the progenitor of the term but unworthy even now, 150 years later, of having the majority of his writings translated into English. As he wrote in his letter to the Academy of Besancon that became the preface to the first edition of “What is Property?,”

The nineteenth century is, in my eyes, a genesic era, in which new principles are elaborated, but in which nothing that is written shall endure.

Or perhaps not. Perhaps the anarchist canon, like all canons, is subject to revision, and that the fortunes of Proudhon’s intellectual legacy, like the fortunes of the legacy of all great figures, experiences ebbs and flows as new generations re-examine the writings of the past masters. Is Proudhon’s work overdue for a reassessment?

Dr. Alex Prichard:

Well I hope so, the point of my book really is to try and encourage people to read Proudhon again. I really do think that it’s high time that anarchists understood their history a little better. I think that most anarchists will tell you that their–well I shouldn’t generalise too much–but I would say that a large portion of the anarchist community is generally quite uninterested in its historical past and I think this is really problematic for two reasons. First of all, it essentially results in a condition of presentism. Eric Hobsbawm has this wonderful line where he says that ‘most young people at the century’s end are growing up in a sort of permanent present, lacking any organic relation to the public past of the times they lived in’ and I think the anarchists are as guilty of that as anyone else, frankly. I think part of that is because of a return to radical French philosophy that is unhistorical in quite important ways and this results in a type of presentism. Which means that contemporary anarchists can’t link their struggles back into the historical genesis of those struggles themselves and so we’re constantly reinventing the wheel and I think that this is deeply problematic.

So part of my aim, and I’ve published and written about this in a number of different places, part of what I’m trying to do is resurrect that historical tradition. To bring that big sweep back, to give that historical context back. And there’s a whole range of debates around this, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that I right about this. But I would say that the debate that’s emerging around this question of resuscitation of “past masters” is really important to the anarchist tradition. We don’t have a Marx, we don’t have a Marxism, we don’t have a single text to which it’s quite acceptable to return too, to find out what the standard position is on X, Y or Z. We have a whole range of positions, which I think is much healthier and I think we reject that at our cost. I think that going back to the works Proudhon, Bakunin and Kropotkin is an enlightening exercise in and of itself, but I also think it sheds light on what is most unique about the times we live in. It helps us see our own times much more clearly because we can tell the difference between the past and the present and without being able to tell that difference, not only can we not see the links between those times so what generated our times, but we can’t think about radical alternatives, because those alternatives are always given to us in the present then it’s never suggested that anything of any original import was concocted in the past.

So this is really what I’m trying to do now and my future work will really be about trying to do precisely this. To link contemporary theory and political philosophy into the ideas that Proudhon was developing back then. To sort of bring it back up to date if you like but I still think that the historical exegesis, that recovery is absolutely vital as a first step and without that we really can’t do the second part any justice.

The debate over the canon, like the debate over the origins, of anarchism, is not likely to end anytime soon. And perhaps it never should. The debate, after all, proves that it is still a living field of inquiry, that people are still working, still thinking, still going back and recovering the past to see how it expands our understanding of the present moment. Sometimes the study of these great thinkers is important because they can teach us how to think about our own problems. Sometimes this study is important because it can help us to avoid the errors of the past. Whatever the case, the debate rages on.

But whatever his place in the anarchist canon of today or tomorrow, one thing is for certain. Proudhon was, is, and ever shall be, the first self-proclaimed anarchist.

This is James Corbett. Thank you for joining me for this edition of The Well-Read Anarchist. A transcript and links to the sources used in this podcast can be found at Please subscribe to the RSS feed for this podcast on to automatically receive future editions of the series in your podcatcher, and please join us next week as we begin our study of the writings of Proudhon with a reading of “What is Property?”


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