Pierre-Joseph Proudhon

Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809-1865) was the first person to call himself an anarchist. The son of a small brewer and tavern keeper, Proudhon grew up in southwest France near Fourier's home in Besançon. He was always proud of his working class background and suspicious of the role of intellectuals in social movements. A printer and proofreader by trade, he taught himself to read Greek, Latin, and Hebrew. In 1838 he won a scholarship from the Besançon Academy that allowed him to study in Paris, where he built a reputation as a radical journalist.

Property Is Theft!

Proudhon is best known for the phrase “property is theft,” which appeared in his pamphlet What Is Property? (1840). He also declared, in the same essay, that “property is freedom.” According to Proudhon, property is freedom when it allows a peasant or artisan to control his livelihood through the possession of the land he cultivates or his workshop and the tools of his trade. Property becomes theft when a landowner or capitalist gains control over the homes, land, or livelihood of others by exploiting the labor of others.


Based on the Greek anarkhia, meaning contrary to authority or without a ruler, the word “anarchy” had negative connotations long before Proudhon claimed it for his political philosophy. Proudhon's first followers were reluctant to adopt the name and called themselves Mutualists.

Mutualism and Federalism

Proudhon argued that organization without government was not only possible, but preferable. His social and political ideology rested on two basic beliefs:

  1. Labor should be the basis for social organization

  2. All systems of government are oppressive

In his view, a perfect society would be made up of independent, self-supporting peasants and artisans. Associations of workers would run the factories and utilities for their mutual benefit. If people worked only for themselves and their families, there would be no exploitation because nothing would be produced for employers. In place of the centralized state, he proposed a loosely knit “federalism” between local communities and industrial societies, which would be bound together by contracts and mutual interests. A system of arbitration would replace courts of law.


Marx attacked Proudhon's statement that “property is theft,” saying that by referring to a violation of property rights, Proudhon presupposed that real rights in property existed. In return, Proudhon criticized communism because it destroyed freedom by taking away the individual's control over his livelihood.

The first step to restoring healthy economic relationships between people was to abolish the existing system of credit and exchange. Money and credit would be based on the value of labor rather than the gold standard. By tying money directly to labor, there would be no surplus value and no employer to reduce labor's share of the value it creates. With laborers able to buy the goods they create, there would be no lack of money for capital re-investment, thus no danger of unemployment and social instability.

Direct Action

In his last, posthumously published book, The Political Capability of the Working Classes (1865), Proudhon rejects not only representative democracy but also centralized state socialism and communism. He argues that workers are responsible for their own liberation, which can be obtained not through legislative reforms but through organized economic actions. Proudhon's call for direct action by the proletariat became a fundamental tenet of anarchism.

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