1902 Encyclopedia > Pierre-Joseph Proudhon

Pierre-Joseph Proudhon
French politician, mutualist philosopher and socialist
(1809-65)





PIERRE JOSEPH PROUDHON (1809-1865), a well-known revolutionary writer, was born in 1809 at Besançon, France, the native place also of the socialist Fourier. His origin was of the humblest, his father being a brewer's cooper ; and the boy herded cows and followed other simple pursuits of a like nature. But he was not entirely self-educated ; at sixteen he entered the college of his native place, though his family was so poor that he could not procure the necessary books, and had to borrow them from his mates in order to copy the lessons. There is a story of the young Proudhon returning home laden with prizes, but to find that there was no dinner for him. At nineteen he became a working compositor ; afterwards he rose to be a corrector for the press, reading proofs of ecclesiastical works, and thereby acquiring a very compet-ent knowledge of theology. In this way also he came to learn Hebrew, and to compare it with Greek, Latin, and French ; and it was the first proof of his intellectual audacity that on the strength of this he wrote an " Essai de grammaire générale." As Proudhon knew nothing whatever of the true principles of philology, his treatise was of no value. In 1838 he obtained the pension Suarcl, 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 " On the Utility of Keeping the Sunday," which contained the germs of his revolutionary ideas. About this time he went to Paris, where he lived a poor, ascetic, and studious life,—making acquaintance, however, with the socialistic ideas which were then fomenting in the capital. In 1840 he published his first work Qu'est-ce que la Propriété? His famous answer to this question, "La propriété, c'est le vol," naturally did not please the academy of Besançon, and there was some talk of with-drawing his pension ; but he held it for the regular period.

For his third memoir on property, which took the shape of a letter to the Fourierist, M. Considérant, he was tried at Besançon but was acquitted. In 1846 he published his greatest work, the Système des Contradictions économi-ques ou Philosophie de la Misère. For some time Proud-hon carried on a small printing establishment at Besançon, but without success ; afterwards he became connected as a kind of manager with a commercial firm at Lyons. In 1847 he left this employment, and finally settled in Paris, where he was now becoming celebrated as a leader of innovation. He regretted the sudden outbreak of the revolution of February (1848), because it found the social reformers unprepared. But he threw himself with ardour into the conflict of opinion, and soon gained a national notoriety. He was the moving spirit of the Représentant du Peuple and other journals, in which the most advanced theories were advocated in the strongest language ; and as member of assembly for the Seine department he brought forward his celebrated proposal of exacting an impost of one-third on interest and rent, which of course was rejected. His attempt to found a bank which should operate by granting gratuitous credit was also a complete failure ; of the five million francs which he required only seventeen thousand were offered. The violence of his utterances led to an imprisonment at Paris for three years, during which he married a young working woman. As Proudhon aimed at economic rather than political innova-tion, he had no special quarrel with the second empire, and he lived in comparative quiet under it till the publica-tion of his work, De la Justice dans la Révolution et dans l'Église (1858), in which he attacked the church and other existing institutions with unusual fury. This time he fled to Brussels to escape imprisonment. On his return to France his health broke down, though he continued to write. He died at Passy in 1865.

Personally Proudhon was one of the most remarkable figures of modern France. His life was marked by the severest simplicity and even Puritanism ; he was affectionate in his domestic relations, a most loyal friend, and strictly upright in conduct. He was strongly opposed to the prevailing French socialism of his time because of its utopianism and immorality ; and, though he uttered all manner of wild paradox and vehement invective against the dominant ideas and institutions, he was remarkably free from feel-ings of personal hate. In all that he said and did he was the son of the people, who had not been broken to the usual social and academic discipline ; hence his roughness, his one-sidedness, and his exaggerations ; but he is always vigorous, and often brilliant and original.





It would of course be impossible to reduce the ideas of such an irregular thinker to systematic form. In later years Proudhon him-self confessed that "the great part of his publications formed only a work of dissection and ventilation, so to speak, by means of which he slowly makes his way towards a superior conception of political and economic laws. " Yet the groundwork of his teaching is clear and firm ; no one could insist with greater emphasis on the demonstrative character of economic principles as understood by himself. He strongly believed in the absolute truth of a few moral ideas, with which it was the aim of his teaching to mould and suffuse political economy. Of these fundamental ideas, justice, liberty, and equality were the chief. What he desiderated, for instance, in an ideal society was the most perfect equality of remuneration. It was his principle that service pays service, that a day's labour balances a day's labour—in other words, that the duration of labour is the just measure of value. He did not shrink from any of the consequences of this theory, for he would give the same remuneration to the worst mason as to a Phidias ; but he looks forward also to a period in human development when the present inequality in the talent and capacity of men would be reduced to an inappreciable minimum. From the great principle of service as the equivalent of service is derived his axiom that property is the right of aubaine. The aubain was a stranger not naturalized ; and the right of aubaine was the right in virtue of which the sovereign claimed the goods of such a stranger who had died in his territory. Property is a right of the same nature, with a like power of appro-priation in the form of rent, interest, &c. It reaps without labour, consumes without producing, and enjoys without exertion. Proudhon's aim, therefore, was to realize a science of society resting on principles of justice, liberty, and equality thus understood; "a science absolute, rigorous, based on the nature of man and of his faculties, and on their mutual relations ; a science which we have not to invent, but to discover." But he saw clearly that such ideas with their necessary accompaniments could only be realized through a long and laborious process of social transformation. As we have said, he strongly detested the prurient immorality of the schools of Saint-Simon and Fourier. He attacked them not less bitterly for thinking that society could be changed off-hand by a ready-made and complete scheme of reform. It was " the most accursed lie," he said, "that could be offered to mankind." In social change he distinguishes between the transition and the per-fection or achievement. With regard to the transition he advocated the progressive abolition of the right of aubaine, by reducing interest, rent, &c. For the goal he professed only to give the general principles ; he had no ready-made scheme, no Utopia. The positive organization of the new society in its details was a labour that would require fifty Montesquieus. The organization he desired was one on collective principles, a free association which would take account of the division of labour, and which would maintain the personality both of the man and the citizen. With his strong and fervid feeling for human dignity and liberty, Proudhon could not have tolerated any theory of social change that did not give full scope for the free development of man. Connected with this was his famous paradox of anarchy, as the goal of the free development of society, by which he meant that through the ethical progress of men government should become unnecessary. "Government of man by man in every form, " he says, "is oppression. The highest perfection of society is found in the union of order and anarchy. "

Proudhon's theory of property as the right of aubaiiie is substantially the same as the theory of capital held by Marx and most ef the later socialists. Property and capital are defined and treated as the power of exploiting the labour of other men, of claiming the results of labour without giving an equivalent. Proudhon's famous paradox, " La propriété, c'est le vol, " is merely a trenchant expression of this general principle. As slavery is assassination inasmuch as it destroys all that is valuable and desirable in human personality, so property is theft inasmuch as it appropriates the value produced by the labour of others in the form of rent, interest, or profit without rendering an equivalent. For property Proudhon would substitute individual possession, the right of occupation being equal for all men (see SOCIALISM).

The principal works of Proudhon have already been mentioned. A complete edition, including his posthumous writings, was published at Paris, 1875. See P. J. Proudhon, sa vie et sa correspondance, by Sainte-Beuve (Paris, 1875), an admirable work, unhappily not completed; also Revue des Deux Mondes, Jan. 1866 and Feb. 1873. (T. K.)






The above article was written by: Thomas Kirkup.



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