The Encyclopedia of Libertarianism

Proudhon, Pierre-Joseph (1809-1865)

Pierre-Joseph Proudhon was a French writer and an anarchist. Proudhon is widely considered to be the first author to describe himself as an anarchist, although many before him had considered both the possibility and desirability of structuring a society without the state. Proudhon’s most important contribution to modern libertarianism is arguably his influence on Benjamin R. Tucker, the founder of the individualist anarchist journal Liberty. Tucker noted that Liberty was “brought into existence almost as a direct consequence of the teachings of Proudhon” and “lives principally to emphasize and spread them.” Tucker translated and published a number of Proudhon’s writings, including What Is Property? arguably his best-known book, although Tucker considered Proudhon’s greatest work to be The General Idea of the Revolution in the Nineteenth Century, which was translated into English by John Beverley Robinson in 1923. It contains one of the most radical and stirring critiques of the state ever penned. Proudhon wrote:

To be governed is to be kept in sight, inspected, spied upon, directed, law-driven, numbered, enrolled, indoctrinated, preached at, controlled, estimated, valued, censured, commanded, by creatures who have neither the right, nor the wisdom, nor the virtue to do so. To be governed is to be, at every operation, every transaction, noted, registered, enrolled, taxed, stamped, measured, numbered, assessed, licensed, authorized, admonished, forbidden, reformed, corrected, punished. It is, under pretext of public utility, and in the name of the general interest, to be placed under contribution, trained, ransacked, 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, dishonored. That is government; that is its justice; that is its morality.

Proudhon was not a systematic thinker. Indeed, his economics, like those of most anarchists of the 19th and early 20th centuries, were confused. He believed in the labor theory of value and argued against the payment of interest on money. (On the latter issue, he debated the great classical liberal economist Frédéric Bastiat, a debate that was translated by Tucker and published in the Irish World of New York.) He favored the creation of a “People’s Bank,” which would provide credit at cost, an idea later popularized both by Tucker and by the American anarchist William B. Greene. In his History of Economic Analysis, Joseph Schumpeter wrote that Proudhon’s arguments were “absurd,” but “instead of inferring from this that there is something wrong with his methods, [he] infers that there must be something wrong with the object of his research so that his mistakes are, with the utmost confidence, promulgated as results.”

Proudhon considered himself a socialist, although Marx and his followers chastised him as “petty bourgeois” for his limited defense of private property, his opposition to strikes and armed revolution, and his general ambivalence toward class conflict. Indeed, although libertarians today will find many of Proudhon’s specific arguments foreign, they will recognize in his writings a deep and instinctual love of liberty that is certainly not present in the works of contemporary state socialists such as Marx, nor even other continental anarchists such as Mikhail Bakunin and Peter Kropotkin. Proudhon was an individualist—a libertarian—first and a socialist second.


Further Readings

Avrich, Paul. Anarchist Portraits. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1988.

Edwards, Stewart, ed., and Elizabeth Fraser, trans. Selected Writings of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1969.

Ritter, Alan. The Political Thought of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1969.

Woodcock, George. Pierre-Joseph Proudhon: A Biography. London: Routledge, 1956.

Originally published .