Joseph Proudhon: The Founder of Modern Anarchism

Pierre Joseph Proudhon
Pierre Joseph Proudhon

Joseph Proudhon (1809-1865), the founder of modern anarchism, opens his most celebrated essayWhat is Property?” by posing a challenging question: what is slavery? And answers it himself by say that ‘slavery is murder’ and maintains that no extended argument is required even though he elaborates on it later. This short post attempts to examine and analyze how and in what ways Proudhon’s career as a political activist and writer (as presented in Woodcock’s Anarchism: A History of Libertarian Ideas and Movements) are reflected in his famous essay ‘What is Property?’  It looks at few central elements of anarchism as political thought as eloquently presented in the essay and attempts to find their reflections in Proudhon’s life: importance of reason or anti-dogmatism, the notion of revolution, the evils of accumulated property and the problems of nationalism.

Woodcock states that with age and intellectual growth Proudhon slowly sheds off his belief in Catholicism and converts to atheism, because he realizes the ineptitude of the religious of their defense of Christianity (Woodcock, The Anarchistspp. 95). Proudhon’s anti-dogmatism and passion for reason are reflected in his essay when he proclaims that, “I live, like you, in a century in which reason submits only to fact and evidence (Horowitz, pp. 88)”. He even argues that the work of our generation is to build a ‘temple of science’, and this science includes Man and Nature. Proudhon posits the notion of divinity as something primitive and universal, and ironically, he states that ‘the further science advances, the more God seems to grow and broaden’ (Horowitz, pp. 96). Proudhon’s atheism is presented at length in his Economic Contradictions, where he examines the idea of Providence and concludes that ‘God is anti-civilized, anti-liberal and anti-human’ (Woodcock, pp. 105). He maintains the notion of divinity as something natural to being human, a rather harmless error, but he detests that fact that the religious or the institution endeavors to make it a rule of conduct (Horowitz, pp. 96). Another point of his critique of religion or the institution seems to be the privileges attached to clergy in possessing huge properties.

The notion of revolution in Proudhon’s thought is presented in the essay as he argues that the French Revolution of 1789 was incomplete and discounts it as only ‘progress’. Proudhon argues that, “When our ideas on any subject, material, intellectual, or social, undergo a thorough change in consequence of new observations, I call that movement of the mind ‘revolution’” (Horowitz, pp. 103). This notion of revolution becomes highly plausible with his scientific examples of the Copernican revolution or the system of Ptolemy as a step in astronomical progress. Proudhon’s standard of revolution is not only very demanding in terms of its totality, but also it seems very rare to find examples of such revolution in the socio-political world. Proudhon maintains that a true revolution was necessary in the nineteenth century because the ‘French Revolution of 1789 only half accomplished its task’. He argued that there was only a change in the ‘governmental metaphysics’ while it needed to build a new edifice of industrial institutions (i.e. associations) at the death of feudalism (Woodcock, pp. 113). By the change in the governmental metaphysics, he means the form of authority, which was changed from a Monarchy to a Republic. So, in that sense, in the French Revolution of 1789, there was only progress, not revolution.

As indicated, Proudhon’s theory of the evil of accumulated property stems from his fundamental notion that ‘property is theft’, not literally, but to convey that message that property is ‘sum of its abuses’ (Woodcock, pp. 97). He is not denouncing property itself or the possession of it, rather he is against the exploitation of people that comes with it. In Marxist terms, he is against the mode of production that strips man of the true value of his labor and converts him into a robotic subject of exploitation and slavery, while the owners of the capital enjoy in the luxury of idleness. One of his frustrations with the French Revolution of 1789 is that even though the monarchy fell, the nobles and clergy continued to exploit the plebian, whose possessions are subject to ‘mortmain’ and could neither bequeath nor inherit property (Horowitz, pp. 106). And also in some ways related here, Woodcock argues that even though Proudhon laid out all the basic elements of later libertarian and decentralist doctrines, some of them are in underdeveloped forms. For instance, Proudhon seems to discuss and focus on property in society of peasants and small craftsmen and pays little attention to industries (Woodcock, pp. 99). This could be due to his growth as simple peasant or his knowledge of the peasantry world that would later change or progress as he moves to cities and comes in contact with textile workers in Lyons.

Another important of element of anarchist thought is its rejection of nationalism as a narrow, reactionary and destructive ideology. Despite his love for French people and the land, he passionately detested nationalism. Proudhon’s close examination of nationalism revealed to him the reactionary aspect of nationalism and that realization led him to estrange himself from his Russian friend Alexander Herzen, whose nationalist activities abhorred him. He witnessed the hostility of Belgian patriots and wrote about them. His assumption is that nationalism is not a forward-moving ideology; it is anti-progress (Woodcock, pp. 118). In his dream of a federal anarchistic society, the organization of administration begin locally and as near as direct control of the people as possible, and where the nation would be replaced by a geographical federation of regions. But, even then, regionalism may persist in such regions. Wouldn’t that still be a problem for Proudhon because the reactionary aspect of nationalism may be present in regionalism?


Woodcock, George, Anarchism: A History of Libertarian Ideas and Movements, University of Toronto Press, Toronto, 2009.

Horowitz, Irving Louis, The Anarchists, Dell Publishing Co. New Jersey, 1964.


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