After reading this article you will learn about the bio, life and political ideas of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon.
Life of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon:
Pierre-Joseph Proudhon was born in 1809 and died in 1865. His forefathers were peasants and financially they were not well-to-do. They belonged to the lower middle class group and on that consideration Marx once called Proudhon petit- bourgeois. His father at the beginning of life was an artisan and later on became a brewer.
In this trade he was never successful and poverty was the constant companion of the family. Moreover, Proudhon’s father was really a scrupulous brewer and this was the main cause of poverty.
Proudhon’s mother possessed all the virtues of a peasant family. She was also an independent spirited lady. The virtues of his mother’s character considerably influenced Proudhon.
He wrote, “My ancestors on both sides were all free labourers famous for their boldness in resisting the claims of nobility. As for nobility of race, I am noble.” In his boyhood years Proudhon worked as a cowherd.
Proudhon was entirely a self-educated man. It is very difficult to discover coherence and consistency in his writings. A critic has said “his writings are full of the odd and unexpected pieces of unsystematic knowledge of the autodictat.” Proudhon also worked as a printer. He learnt Hebrew, Latin and Greek and studied extensively religion and philosophy. Throughout his life he was a relentless critic of existing social and political systems.
Political Ideas of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon:
1. Human Nature:
Pierre-Joseph Proudhon’s conception of human nature is an important aspect of his philosophy. He deals with this issue succinctly, but it is clear what he wants to say. For Proudhon, work was the characteristic of man’s nature.
If a man did not work, he could not be a full man. Now what is the exact nature of man? Pierre-Joseph Proudhon said, “Man is a tyrant or a slave by his own will, before he is made a tyrant or a slave by fortune, the heart of the proletarian is like that of the rich, a cesspool of babbling sensuality, a home of faith and hypocrisy,” Men are not fully disciplined and are guided by egoism. These are the obstacles to the attainment of equality.
It is wrong to assume that the institutions will have to be changed in order to bring about a corresponding change of human nature. Man’s nature is to be changed at first. Man is to be reformed morally. Why? Proudhon’s answer is this; Man is by nature a sinner that is to say not essentially a wrongdoer, rather wrongly made.
On the above point Proudhon differs from Utopian socialists and Marx. The former held that if physical environment were changed, man’s nature would also change. Marx thought that nature of man, particularly his moral conception, was totally conditioned by material circumstances. Proudhon rejected the influence of external forces upon the formation of human nature.
He was confident that men could do it only by their individual efforts. That is, individuals must be conscious of their own weakness. Only through positive and constructive efforts men could establish themselves as moral beings. This view of Proudhon about human nature was subsequently taken up by all anarchists.
Violence and irrationality are the inherent features of human character. These traits of human character, according to Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, were the chief causes of war. If man could not convert his irrationality into rationality the possibility of war could not be removed. Proudhon, that is why, emphasized upon the psychological origin of war. Efforts were made to avert war, but they were in vain because of the militant attitude of man. James Joll in his book .
The Anarchists remarks, “War would only end after the social revolution, which would provide an adequate method of diverting the instincts of hatred and revenge into support for a system of law which would be mutually respected.”
It is interesting to note that Proudhon’s view of war is even relevant today. UNO emphasizes upon the psychological factors as the chief causes of war and on that ground it aims at changing people’s heart.
Proudhon’s emphasis on human nature and its relation to politics is not anything new. A good part of social contract theory particularly the Hobbesian version is connected with the psychological aspects of men.
Machiavelli also built up a fabric of politics on the basis of human nature. What is new in the case of Proudhon is that he thought of a social revolution for the change of human nature and that change will build up the foundation of a new society.
2. Conception of Society and State:
According to Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, family was the basic unit of every society. Assembly of several families gave the formation of association. Several associations were formed to give the state a shape.
In every stage man was the central figure. For him man was the manifestation of certain virtues and vices and also a working unit. It has been observed by James Joll that importance of Proudhon’s work lies not so much in their theoretical arguments, but in his whole conception of the nature of man and society.
In his judgment every man must work. This working man is the basis of society. Only work can free a man from bondage.
If we go through Proudhon’s analysis about society as well as the role and importance of man we shall find that he consciously made man the central figure of society and its functions.
Through a social revolution the nature of man first of all will change and after that man will work hard with all sincerity for an overall change of society. Hence man is the chief catalyst of social change. He did not allow religion or any other factors to intervene in the process of social change and specifically building up a new society.
Proudhon’s was not a homogeneous society. It was not also a unitary one. Society must be based on small units.
Once he said, “If the family was the basic element of feudal society, the workshop it the basic unit of the new society.”
Pierre-Joseph Proudhon conceived that these small units would develop among themselves a good relationship. These units of society, he further pointed out, would be associated in communes.
The communes would finally form a bigger federation. A portion of the commune’s power would be delegated to the central authority. That is, powers must be considerably limited.
His critics are of opinion that Proudhon was to some extent a reasonable-minded person and for that reason he did not accept the social contract the origin of state. But he utilized the contract for different purpose.
“The idea of contract excludes that of government…Between contracting parties there is necessarily a real personal interest for each; a man bargains with the aim of securing his liberty and his revenue at the same time. Between governing and governed no matter how the system of representation or delegation of the governmental function is arranged, there is necessarily an alienation of part of the liberty and means of citizen.”
Pierre-Joseph Proudhon was always in favour of multinational states and on that consideration he vehemently opposed the unity move of Mazzini and’ Garibaldi. He also rejected the demand for national state on the basis of right to self-determination.
Federalisation of society was the only way to safeguard liberty. Proudhon did not suppress his anger against the reactionary aristocrats. He opposed the independence of Poland on the ground that after independence the country would fall in the hands of reactionary aristocrats. To sum up, any type of society other than federal type was disliked by Proudhon.
For Pierre-Joseph Proudhon the government was the symbol of all sorts of restrictions. To be governed is to be watched over, inspected and spied on, directed and legislated at, regulated, docketed, indoctrinated, preached at, controlled, assessed, weighed, censored, ordered about, by men who have neither the right, nor the knowledge, nor the virtue.
To be governed means to be, at each operation, at each transaction, at each movement, noted, registered, controlled, taxed, stamped, measured, valued, assessed, patented, licensed, authorized, rebuked and arrested.
In the name of the general interest common people are taxed and exploited, extorted and robbed. If people complain against these measures they are repressed, harassed, beaten and bullied, imprisoned and fined.
These are the very common methods to punish the innocent citizens. On every footstep men are mocked, ridiculed, insulted and dishonoured. Their voice is very feeble, they are not always organized.
Naturally they cannot protest the repressive measures of the government. Despite all these the government claims that it is maintaining utmost justice and protecting morality from the public assault. This is nothing but mockery.
Let us quote few lines from Proudhon:
“To be governed is to be watched, inspected, spied upon, directed, law driven, numbered, regulated, enrolled, indoctrinated, preached at, controlled, checked, 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, at every transaction noted, registered, counted, taxed, stamped, measured, numbered, assessed, licensed, authorized, admonished, prevented, forbidden, reformed, corrected, punished. It is under pretext of public utility and in the name of general interest, to be placed under contribution, drilled, fleeced, exploited, monopolized, and extorted from. That is government that is its justice that is its morality”.
What would be the exact type or nature of government? What would be its sphere of action? Proudhon says that if there is a government, it can only result from a delegation, convention, federation, in a word, from the free and spontaneous consent of all the individuals which make up the people, each one of them insisting on and canvassing for the guarantee of his own interests.
Thus the government, if there is one, instead of being Authority as hitherto, will represent the relationship between all the interests created by free property, free labour, free trade, free credit and will itself only have a representative value, just as paper money only has value through what it represents.
The affairs of the government will be conducted not by laws but by contract. In Proudhonian concept of state or government there is no place of man-made laws. Laws mean restrictions and curtailment of spontaneity.
In place of laws we will put contracts. Whether laws are voted by majority or by all that is immaterial. Each citizen, each industrial unit and each town will make its own laws. In place of standing armies there shall be industrial associations.
In place of political centralisation there shall be economic centralisation. To Pierre-Joseph Proudhon law means extortion, control, restrictions and all these ultimately lead to the loss of freedom of the people.
Some interpreters of his political ideas have said that he was not against law or government. Both may exist but there shall be no restrictions on the spontaneous activities of individuals. But this is not possible.
Pierre-Joseph Proudhon’s The General Idea of Revolution was published after the great political upheaval of 1851 and the book is considered as an important work.
Woodcock maintains that the General Idea of Revolution is a study of revolutionary process and Proudhon presents it as a necessary phenomenon. Pierre-Joseph Proudhon himself was allergic to revolution but he believed that the revolution in certain circumstances might be unavoidable.
A revolution is a force against which no power divine or human can prevail and whose nature is to grow by the very resistance it encounters. Any resistance to revolution makes its action and advance irresistible.
The revolution advances with sombre and predestined tread, over the flowers strewn by friends, through the blood of its defenders, over the bodies of its enemies.
This is Proudhon’s view of revolution and it is an anarchist view. People will spontaneously participate in the revolutionary process. Party organisation or leadership cannot guide revolution.
The revolution will set up a society free from the influences of government or authority. It will make people all-powerful. The Marxian and Proudhonian revolution are different in many ways.
5. Concept of Property and Other Economic Ideas:
In 1840 Proudhon published a book under the title “What is Property?” And through this he came to be known as a serious thinker. In this book Proudhon mounted attack upon the ownership and accumulation of property.
The very institution of property was disapproved by him. The ownership of property, he said, could only be supported on the ground of equality. That is, everyone in the society would be allowed to own equal amount of property.
Although this was a Utopian thought he propagated in with all his zeal and earnestness.
In what is Property there is the following paragraph:
If I were asked to answer the question what is slavery? And I should answer in one word “Murder”; my meaning should be understood at once. No further argument would be needed to show that the power to take from a man his thought, his will, his personality, is a power of life and death and that to enslave a man is to kill him why, then, to this other question ; What is property? May I not likewise answer “Theft”? That is, property is nothing but theft.
There is some justification in treating property simply as “theft”. He believed that for the maintenance of life man needs very small amount. But whenever a man is found to amass large amount of property it is assumed that he has acquired that property not by honest means. People earn property to satisfy his urge to get more and more property and this feeling leads him to be involved in unfair means. In this sense property is a kind of theft.
In his what is Property? Proudhon has said that every man must work to earn something without which he cannot fulfill the mission of his life. The right to work is his absolute right. So he has every right to what he produces. But the man has no right over the means of production.
The right to products is exclusive and the right to means of production is common. When a man comes to control the means of production an inequality automatically crops up. The raw materials are provided by nature and no man can own them exclusively for his personal pleasure.
Exclusive right over property in the means of production creates inequality and invites injustice. Both injustice and inequality are impediments to the proper development of individuality. Communism condemns the private property in the means of production. But Proudhon treats communism as annihilator of human freedom and spontaneity.
So both communism and system of private property over the means of production are to be exiled from the surface of society. Anarchy is the only way. It eliminates the deficiencies of both communism and private property.
Only in anarchical system equality, justice, independence and individual merits can flourish. In Proudhon’s judgment only anarchy is an ideal system.
Woodcock says “Property is a Theft was to become one of the great political catchwords of the nineteenth century and to hang like a symbolic on the popular image of Proudhon.”
Property to him was a sum of abuses and that is why he denounced it. One man exploits another and in this way property is accumulated. So exploitation is always associated with property.
Speaking about property and communism Proudhon said, “Property is the exploitation of the weak by the strong, communism is the exploitation of the strong by the weak… In communism inequality springs from placing mediocrity on the level with excellence. Communism is oppression and slavery.”
Explaining the nature of society and government and their relation to economic affairs Proudhon said, “Government is the public economy, the supreme administration of the labour and the assets of all the nations.”
Elsewhere he said:
“Free association, liberty, limited to maintaining equality in the means of production and equivalence in exchange, is the only possible form of society, the only just, and the only true one. Politics is the science of freedom, the government is the oppression. The high perfection of society consists in the union of order and anarchy.”
From the analysis of Proudhon’s economic ideas we come to know that he did not support the establishment of large-scale industries. His main argument was that such big industries generally exploit the workers. The owners of industries generally employ sophisticated machines and people do not get jobs.
So the large-scale industries are not at all helpful for the interests of people, especially the workers. Hence for the benefit of the general public there shall be set up small scale industries and the old exchange system should be revived.
He argued for the revival of the old exchange system to uproot exploitation and corruption. Men’s products would by directly exchanged for the other goods they needed.
Proudhon’s What is Property? is regarded as the founder of libertarian doctrine and the principle of economic decentralisation. Proudhon has concentrated his attention on the analysis of peasants, workers and small craftsmen. He neglects the importance of big industrial units.
To restore the direct relationship between what a man produces and what he consumes, the first condition prescribed by Proudhon is the abolition of the whole existing structure of credit and exchange.
If banking system and financial institutions are destroyed the economic relations between men will return to a healthy natural simplicity. That is, the whole economic system will be managed by the people themselves.
We know Charles Fourier as a great Utopian thinker and Proudhon as the ‘Father of Anarchism. But modern researchers have said that Proudhon was also a great Utopian’. His ideas contain many seeds of utopianism.
He wanted to lay the foundation of society which would be free from exploitation and which would be based on the principles of libertarianism. His chief concern was the emancipation of people and this he fervently believed could be achieved through revolution.
We have already mentioned that Proudhon’s revolution is basically different from Marxian revolution. Pierre-Joseph Proudhon rules out the interference of party and role of the leader. People will spontaneously conduct the revolution and in Proudhon’s view this is ideal revolution. But in our judgment it is sheer Utopian thought. Nowhere has Proudhon’s conception of revolution succeeded.
Proudhon’s insistence upon the revival of primitive exchange system has thrown him again into the Utopian domain. We know that Proudhon’s contemporary France or England was in the grip of deep economic crisis. But his recommendation of the abolition of banking and credit system was not the master solution to the deep- rooted crisis.
These Utopian suggestions could not even touch the problems at all. Proudhon had comprehensive knowledge about social, economic and political conditions of society that existed around him. But it is unfortunate that though he was aware of the situation he dismally failed to suggest any practical remedy. Rather he roamed in an imaginary world and this is his utopianism.
Other by-products of Proudhon’s fertile brain were the establishment of Exchange Bank and the abolition of interest system. He treated taking of interest as another way of exploiting people and hence it should be abolished forthwith.
There should be the provision of lending money to the people but not against taking of interest. Monetary transaction would be done by the Exchange Bank.
The administrative authority would have no control over this Bank. It is true that the system of interest is a way of exploiting the poor persons because these persons borrow money to meet their day-to-day needs but they fail to repay the loan. The interests multiply and this leads them to extreme impoverishment. But if the system of interest is abolished how is it possible for industrialists to invest? Industrialisation and development will stop due to the shortage of capital because nobody will lend money without interest.
In his Theory of Property published posthumously in 1866 he went so far as to propose the retention of private property in its existing form with its power to use and destroy mitigated only’ by equilibrating guarantees.
The balance of contradiction is achieved and the power of exploitation is abolished when property is parcelled out and agriculture and industry are carried on by numerous small producers. Similarly, by expressing his anger and dislike against machinery, Proudhon proposed a retrograde step.
It is a retrograde step because without machinery industrialization is impossible and without industrialization no sort of development is possible. We come to know from his views that he wanted progress but was against the use of machinery. This is out-and-out contradictory or Utopian.
The political organization of this ideal society should also reflect the equilibrium of forces or, as Pierre-Joseph Proudhon calls it, the social mutualism. The state must disappear. Society would be based on the principle of voluntarism.
Administrative restrictions would be given a permanent farewell. Proudhon’s idea about the capability of independent social and political organization is really Utopian.
Not to speak of its relevance in modern times, even in Proudhon’s time it had no relevance at all. We can safely say that he was completely devoured by Utopian thought and conjectures.
“Proudhon’s socialism,” observes Eric Roll “becomes an unrealistic dream of the golden age, to be achieved by the abolition of interest. It may be said that Proudhon lived in an environment in which the power of exploitation seemed symbolized in finance. But Proudhon’s failure to analyse the principles of capitalist production and to understand the quality of capital and the function of money make his practical proposal as ineffective as his ideal retrograde”.
Pierre-Joseph Proudhon had great sympathy for the poor. His zeal for establishing justice is really praiseworthy. But the methods he suggested are not up to the mark. Like Robert Owen, Charles Fourier and Saint-Simon he was a Utopian.
His political and economic ideals are replete with Utopian dreams. Did he know that his unrealistic suggestions would never be transformed into reality?
We do not know. He gleefully roamed in the world of imagination. A man with the slightest amount of realism cannot suggest abolition of interest, machinery, banking and all sorts of financial institutions.
Without organization a revolution is not possible. People will spontaneously be involved in a revolution, but they must be guided by an organization. Of course many of the great philosophers and thinkers were Utopians.