Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809-1865) | tutor2u Politics
Study notes

Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809-1865)

  • Levels: A Level
  • Exam boards: AQA, Edexcel

Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, a largely self-educated French printer, was the first political thinker and activist to embrace the term ‘anarchist’ and is often seen as the ‘father of anarchism’.

He defined anarchism as the ‘absence of a master, of a sovereign’ and developed the idea of mutualism which forms an important link between individualist and collectivist anarchism. A prolific writer, Proudhon’s works include ‘What is Property?’ (1840), ‘System of Economic Contradictions, or The Philosophy of Poverty’ (1846), ‘General Idea of the Revolution in the Nineteenth Century’ (1851) and ‘Justice in the Revolution and the Church’ (1858).

He was also opposed to collectivism on the grounds that it subordinated individual freedom and independence. For this reason, he objected to communism and the trade unions

He famously contended that ‘Property is theft’ but his objection to private property was qualified. Proudhon was opposed to private property as a form of capitalist accumulation since it enables property owners to exploit others through profit, rent and interest. Thus, for him, possession of private property was illegitimate when it gives one person power over another.

In this sense, Proudhon was an anti-capitalist. However, he also considered it a natural right for a person to own a home and possess enough land or tools to be able to work. An individual requires a minimum amount of property to maintain their independence, liberty and livelihood. Proudhon’s mutualism (see below) was therefore also a rejection of collectivism (particularly communism) which, in his view, stripped a person of the very things that are essential for individual freedom. He attacked private property as its existence is incompatible with individual liberty and it is inherently anti -social, generating hierarchies of power. Such inequalities produce and maintain structures of domination to protect the power of the wealthy from the poor and dispossessed. Proudhon also regarded private property as the principal cause of state oppression because state laws exist to defend property rights.

To avoid the dangers associated with private property and collectivism, Proudhon proposed mutualism, a system that represents a mid-point on the individualist-collectivist anarchist spectrum. Mutualism attempts to combine the best features of private property and collective ownership, and avoid their defects. Under mutualism, self-governing producers, individually or in associations, exchange goods and services through contracts freely entered into on a mutually-beneficial and non-profit-making basis (the value of products being based on the amount of labour time involved). Producers are also able to borrow from a non-profit-making National or People’s Bank to obtain credit and establish businesses, thereby encouraging a mutualist transformation of the economy. Opposed to large-scale property ownership, mutualism permits small-scale private property, based on use or possession, to ensure that individuals have livelihoods and independence. Moreover, such a system operates without the need for state or trade union involvement.

Proudhon did not envisage mutualism as a form of complete equality since the hard-working are rewarded more than the lazy. His views on human nature complemented this mutualist stance. People, Proudhon argued, are firstly selfish individuals but, unlike Stirner, he maintained that humans are also ‘an integral part of collective existence.’ In short, although individuals act in self-interested ways they are also shaped by society and therefore are social beings too. Humankind’s potential for rationality, progressive development and moral growth, according to Proudhon, will ensure that people rebel against political and religious authority to achieve liberation.

He rejected the state because the latter

(1) sustains the inequalities of capitalism through its laws, police and army, and

(2) interferes with the liberty and self-development of the individual. State laws, for example, are coercive and restrict a person’s choice and freedom of action by placing external authority above an individual’s authority. Hence, for Proudhon:

To be governed is to be watched over, inspected, spied on, directed, legislated, regimented, closed in, indoctrinated, preached at, controlled, assessed, evaluated, censored, commanded; all by creatures that have neither the right, nor wisdom, nor virtue.

Although Proudhon was vehemently opposed to the state, he argued that it can be abolished through propaganda and passive resistance rather than violence. In his view, ongoing mutualist economic reorganisation will gradually and peacefully make the political structure of the state redundant. Workers will ignore traditional forms of state and government authority and develop mutualist associations. Deprived of the support of the productive sections of society, the state will eventually collapse, leaving only the workers’ voluntary organisations. States and governments would therefore disappear and people would relate to each other through mutual economic contracts.

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