Pierre-Joseph Proudhon

Does society need laws to function, or are humans naturally prone to behaving ethically within a self-established moral framework? French philosopher and libertarian anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon believed the latter was possible. This article will learn more about Proudhon's beliefs, his books, and his vision of a mutualist society.     

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Table of contents

    Pierre-Joseph Proudhon's Biography

    Born in 1809, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon is famously referred to as the ‘father of anarchism’, as he was the first thinker to refer to himself as an anarchist. Born in France in a region called Besançon, poverty marked Proudhon's childhood, inspiring his later political beliefs.

    As a child, Proudhon was intelligent, but because of his family's financial struggles, Proudhon received very little formal education. Despite this, Proudhon was taught literacy skills by his mother, who would later secure a bursary so he could attend the city college in 1820. The stark disparities between the wealth of Proudhon's classmates and his lack of wealth became blatantly apparent to Proudhon. Nevertheless, Proudhon persevered in the classroom, spending most of his free days studying in the library.

    While working as an apprentice printer to help his family navigate its financial issues, Proudhon taught himself Latin, Hebrew, and Greek. Proudhon became interested in politics after meeting Charles Fourier, a utopian socialist. Meeting Fourier inspired Proudhon to begin writing. His work eventually earned him a scholarship to study in France, where he would write his infamous book What Is Property? in 1840.

    Utopia is a perfect or qualitatively better society characterised by sustained harmony, self-fulfillment, and liberty.

    Pierre Joseph Proudhon, illustration of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, StudySmarterIllustration of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Wikimedia Commons.

    Pierre-Joseph Proudhon's Beliefs

    During the course of his studies, Proudhon developed several philosophies and ideas. Proudhon believed the only law that individuals should have to follow is the law they choose themselves; Proudhon calls it the moral law, which acts as the ultimate source of guidance for individuals. Proudhon believed all humans had been endowed with moral law.

    The presence of this moral law amongst humans served to influence their actions to a greater degree than any legally stratified laws the states could create. The moral law for Proudhon was the belief that, as humans, we are naturally inclined to act in a way that is ethical and just. Proudhon argues that humans can rationally calculate the consequences of their actions if they are to act unjustly. Therefore the thought and possibility of these consequences prevent them from acting unethically. Therefore if humans abide by the moral law, they are not slaves to their immediate passion. Instead, they follow what is rational, logical, and reasonable.

    Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and Communism

    Proudhon was not a communist, as he believed communism ensured individuals were subordinate to the collective, and he rejected the idea of state-owned property. As an anarchist, Proudhon believed that the state should not manage the property and that the state should be overthrown. He believed communism to be authoritarian and that it forced the individual to submit.

    Proudhon was also against capitalism and specific forms of private ownership. In his book What is Property?, Proudhon argued that 'property is the exploitation of the weak by the strong' and 'communism is the exploitation of the strong by the weak'. Yet, despite these claims, Proudhon maintained that communism held some seeds of truth within its ideology.

    Proudhon also opposed a society based on representative or unanimous voting, arguing that this did not allow individuals to make decisions based on their moral law. However, when tasked with answering how society should be organised in a world where everyone is free to follow their moral law, Proudhon proposed mutualism. This idea emerged due to the synthesis between private property ownership and communism.

    Pierre Joseph Proudhon, Anti-Capitalism, StudySmarterProudhon was anti-capitalist, Source: Eden, Janine, and Jim, CC-BY-2.0, Wikimedia Commons.

    Mutualism refers to a system of exchange. In this system individuals and/or groups can trade or bargain with each other without exploitation and without the aim of making an unjust profit.

    Pierre-Joseph Proudhon's Anarchism

    Proudhon was not just the first person to declare himself an anarchist, but he founded his own ideological branch of anarchism and libertarian socialism called mutualism. Mutualism is a distinct branch of anarchism and libertarian socialism that Proudhon created. It is a system of exchange in which individuals and/or groups can trade or bargain with each other without exploitation and without the aim of making an unjust profit. Within the anarchist ideology, Proudhon is neither an individualist nor a collectivist anarchist, as Proudhon’s embrace of mutualism acts as a synthesis between both individual and collectivist ideals. Let's look at what a society organised under the ideals of mutualism would look like according to Proudhon.


    As an anarchist, Proudhon rejected the state and believed it could be abolished through non-violent action. Proudhon argued that establishing a mutualist reorganisation of the economy would eventually cause the state’s economic structure to become redundant. Proudhon envisioned that over time workers would ignore all traditional forms of state power and authority in favour of the development of mutualist organisations, which would then result in the state's redundancy and subsequent collapse.

    Proudhon proposed mutualism as a way in which society should be structured.

    Mutualism is Proudhon’s brand of anarchism but also falls under the umbrella of libertarian socialism.

    Libertarian socialism is an anti-authoritarian, libertarian, anti-statist political philosophy that rejects the state socialist conception of socialism where the state has centralised economy control.

    For Proudhon, the tension between liberty and order was always at the core of his politics. He believed both private property ownership and collectivism had their faults and therefore sought to find a solution to these issues. For Proudhon, this solution was mutualism.

    • The foundations of mutualism rely on the golden rule to treat others how you would want to be treated. Proudhon argued that under mutualism, instead of laws, individuals would make contracts with one another, upholding them via reciprocity and mutual respect between individuals.
    • In a mutualist society, there would be a rejection of the state, which is a concept central to the anarchist ideology. Instead, society would be organised into a series of communes whereby workers who trade their products on the market would own the means of production. Workers would also have the ability to freely enter into contracts based on how mutually beneficial they were.
    • According to Proudhon's mutualism vision, society would be organised based on associations, needs, and abilities. In other words, individuals would only take up roles that they could perform. These roles would only be established after consensus that they were necessary additions to society.
    • Proudhon’s idea of mutualism vehemently rejected the idea of passive income from property ownership. Unlike collectivists and communists, Proudhon was not completely against private property ownership; rather, he believed it was acceptable only if actively used. Proudhon was against passive income raised by landlords on property they did not inhabit themselves or even income raised from tax and interest. For Proudhon, it was important to work for one's income.

    Pierre-Joseph Proudhon's Books

    Proudhon has written numerous works throughout his life including The System of Economical Contradictions (1847) and The General Idea of The Revolution in The Nineteenth Century (1851). Despite the existence of other works by Proudhon, none have been studied, referenced, or admired to the degree of his first text titled What is Property? Proudhon is famously revered for his declaration 'property is theft' which he wrote as a response to the question and title of his book.

    In What is Property, Proudhon attacks the concept of private property and positions private property as a negative entity that allows one to extract rent, interests, and profits. For Proudhon, private property, by its very nature, is exploitative, divisive, and lies at the core of capitalism. In his work, Proudhon makes a clear differentiation between private property and possessions. In Proudhon's view, one has the right to possessions as well as to keep the fruits of one's labours because he believes it can serve as protection for the individual against the collective.

    Pierre-Joseph Proudhon's Quotes

    It is through separation that you will win: no representatives, and no candidates!—Pierre-Joseph Proudhon

    As man seeks justice in equality, so society seeks order in anarchy.—Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, What is Property?

    An empty stomach knows no morality.—Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, What is Property?

    Laws! We know what they are, and what they are worth! Spider webs for the rich and powerful, steel chains for the weak and poor, fishing nets in the hands of the government.Pierre-Joseph Proudhon

    Property and society are completely irreconcilable with one another. It is as impossible to associate two proprietors as to join two magnets by their opposite poles. Either society must perish, or it must destroy property.—Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, What is Property?

    Property is theft.—Pierre-Joseph Proudhon

    Pierre Joseph Proudhon - Key takeaways

    • Proudhon was the first person to refer to themselves as an anarchist.

    • Mutualism is a synthesis between communism and private property.

    • Proudhon believed humans are naturally inclined to act ethically and justly.

    • Proudhon sought a society based on moral law, as legally imposed laws were illegitimate in the eyes of Proudhon.

    • Proudhon envisioned that workers would, in time, have no regard for the political structure of the state, which would cause it to become redundant. Workers would ignore all traditional forms of state power and authority in favour of the development of mutualist organisations.

    • Proudhon’s brand of anarchism also falls under the umbrella of libertarian socialism.

    • Libertarian socialism is an anti-authoritarian, libertarian and anti-statist political philosophy that rejects the state socialist conception of socialism where the state has centralised economic control.

    • Proudhon was not utterly opposed to private property ownership like other anarchist thinkers; it was acceptable as long as the owner was using the property.

    • Proudhon argued that a mutualist restructuring of society would eventually lead to the collapse of the state.

    Frequently Asked Questions about Pierre-Joseph Proudhon

    Who was Pierre-Joseph Proudhon?

    Pierre-Joseph Proudhon is the ‘father of anarchism’ and was the first thinker to refer to himself as an anarchist.

    What are the works of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon?

    Proudhon has written numerous works such as: 'What is Property?' , 'The System of Economical Contradictions' and 'The General Idea of The Revolution in The Nineteenth Century'.

    What are some examples of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon's contributions?

    Mutualism is the best example of Proudhon's contribution, particularly in the field of anarchism. 

    Who is the founder of anarchism?

    It is hard to say who the founder of anarchism is, but Proudhon was the first to declare himself an anarchist. 

    Who declared himself as an anarchist?

    Pierre-Joseph Proudhon

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    What branch of anarchism and libertarian socialism is Proudhon responsible for establishing?

    As a young boy what profession did Proudhon apprentice in?

    What were Proudhon's views on possessions?


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