Pierre Joseph Proudhon
Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (January 15th, 1809 – January 19th, 1865) was a French politician, printer and social philosopher. While Proudon was the first man to call himself an “anarchist” he held that “Anarchy is Order”. Proudhon was born in Besançon, France; his father was a brewer’s cooper. As a boy, he herded cows and followed other similar, simple pursuits. At age 16, he entered his town’s college and age 19 he became a working compositor; later he rose to be a corrector for the press, proofreading ecclesiastical works, and thereby acquiring a very competent knowledge of theology. In 1838, he obtained the pension Suard, a bursary of 1500 francs a year for three years, for the encouragement of young men of promise, which was in the gift of the Academy of Besançon. In 1839, he wrote a treatise L’Utilité de la célébration du dimanche, which contained the seeds of his revolutionary ideas. About this time he went to Paris, France where he lived a poor, ascetic and studious life, but became acquainted with the socialist ideas which were then fomenting in the capital. In 1840 he published his first work Qu’est-ce que la propriété (or “What Is Property”) famous for the quote, “Property is theft; property is liberty: these two propositions stand side by side in my System of Economic Contradictions and both are true”. Since Proudhon made the statement, the passage has been misrepresented likely deliberately distorted by Marxist groups who quote only the first three words. Indeed when Proudhon said “property is theft”, he was referring to the landowner or capitalist who he believed “stole” the profits from labourers. For Proudhon, the capitalist’s employee was “subordinated, exploited: his permanent condition is one of obedience”. In asserting that property is freedom, he was referring not only to the product of an individual’s labour, but to the peasant or artisan’s home and tools of his trade and the income he received by selling his goods. For Proudhon, the only legitimate source of property is labour.
During the Revolutions of 1848 in France Proudhon participated in the February uprising yet he had misgivings about the new provisional government and published his own perspective for reforms. Completed in 1849, Solution du problème social (“Solution of the Social Problem”) laid out a program of mutual financial cooperation among workers. Proudhon believed this would transfer control of economic relations from capitalists and financiers to workers. During the Second French Republic (1848–1852), Proudhon made his biggest public impact through journalism. His polemical writing style, combined with his perception of himself as a political outsider, produced a cynical, combative journalism that appealed to many French workers but alienated others. He repeatedly criticised the government’s policies and promoted reformation of credit and exchange. He tried to establish a popular bank (Banque du peuple) early in 1849, but despite over 13,000 people signing up (mostly workers), receipts were limited falling short of 18,000FF and the whole enterprise was essentially stillborn. In 1863 Proudhon said: “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.” Proudhon was a revolutionary, but his revolution did not mean violent upheaval or civil war, but rather the transformation of society. This transformation was essentially moral in nature and demanded the highest ethics from those who sought change. Proudhon died on January 19th, 1865, and is buried in Paris, at the cemetery of Montparnasse (2nd division, near the Lenoir alley, in the tomb of the Proudhon family). Anarcho-communist Albert Meltzer has said that though Proudhon used the term “anarchist“, he was not one, and that he never engaged in “anarchist activity or struggle” but rather in “parliamentary activity”.