Adventures in Anarchy: Vol. 1: Proudhon

Who was the first anarchist? Nitpickers and academics will happily bicker over this question for hours at a time, but few would dispute the claim that Pierre-Joseph Proudhon was the first person to call themselves an anarchist. While working as an apprentice in a printing press, the mostly self-educated Proudhson encountered many ideas from the European enlightenment, which suggested that all people had the ability to use scientific reasoning, and that this ability to reason could and should be used to challenge conventional wisdom and advance human freedom (though for most Enlightenment writers, this admittedly only meant freedom for white middle class men). After several failed ventures in the printmaking business, Proudhon took the advice (and money) of his friend Gustave Fallot, and went to university to study philosophy. From this point on, he wrote prolifically and unrelentingly: he continued to publish books as he fought off various sedition charges, as he built barricades during the 1848 revolution in France (while he published newspapers with readerships in the tens of thousands), while he was imprisoned by Napoleon III (where he continued to write for two newspapers), as he fled France for Belgium to avoid further persecution, as he organized massive anti-voting campaigns, and even as he died: his final moments were spent dictating one last book.

The centerpiece of his philosophy is probably found in the answer to the title of the book that first launched him to fame, What is Property? (1840). He argues that property is despotic (tyrannical) and, more famously, that property is theft. This is more than a slogan to him, it’s a fundamental thesis in his vision of capitalism. The Enlightenment philosophers that Proudhon had grown up reading generally considered property a ‘natural right’, meaning that humans deserved access to property simply because they have the capacity for scientific reasoning. Proudhon pointed out that whether or not property (especially arable land for agriculture, and factories for industrial production) was a ‘right’, the institution of property itself was precisely what denied access to land or industrial production capacity to the vast majority of people (It’s worth noting here that there is an important distinction between personal possessions [i.e. your toothbrush] and property [i.e. a toothbrush factory]). Instead, owners force workers or peasants to grow food or labor in factories to survive, giving them wages or food worth far less than what they had actually created, and keeping the rest (called “surplus value”) to themselves – Thus, property is theft. The ability to hold the basic necessities of life hostage allows property owners to control nearly all aspects of the social and political existence of those without property – thus, property is despotism. But because of the human capacity to use science, “a system of knowledge in harmony with the reality of things, and inferred from observation”, those without property are able to recognize the farce of their condition, and champion the cause of scientific socialism for their release from their current state in society. All of these ideas will probably sound familiar to those familiar with Karl Marx, an early admirer and correspondent of Proudhon who decades later made scientific socialism and surplus value the basis of his theory of political economy. But not only did Marx go ahead and claim these ideas as his own, he went ahead and wrote an entire book primarily devoted to mischaractarizing Proudhon’s work, often brazenly misquoting the Frenchman to appear as though he were making the case for capitalism that he spent his entire life writing against. And it seems to have worked: few people read Proudhon nowadays, and Marxists have been feeling smug about their leader’s supposed ‘discovery’ of the pillars of capitalism for over a century and a half (although Marx’s theories were certainly built on more the Proudhon alone).

But if this is the case, why do we call Proudhon an anarchist, rather than simply a communist? Could Proudhon not only be the first person to identify themselves as an anarchist, but also the first person to mis-identify themselves as an anarchist? One could be forgiven for thinking so. (For that matter, most contemporary anarchists will probably also find it strange that the famous critic of parliamentarianism ran for and was elected to a term in the French National Assembly, or that the man who claimed to fight for “the absence of a master, of a sovereign” expressed virulent and even violent prejudice against women and Jewish people). But while Proudhon at times held equivocal views on the state, the failures of the French Revolution of 1848 convinced him that governments – even revolutionary governments that allegedly represented workers – were incapable of committing suicide (as Marx never fully understood). He insisted, as many continue to insist, that governments exist chiefly to violently enforce the capitalist class system, and that liberty is thus achieved not by “reducing big government” (as modern right-wing libertarians believe), but through the immediate abolition of government itself.

In it’s place, Proudhon advanced the cause of a pre-existing concept called ‘mutualism,’ which he had encountered during a visit to a silk-weaving cooperative in Lyon made up of workers who co-owned their operation, living as laborers but not serving bosses. Mutualists argue that if everyone has the means to their own production, without capitalist property-owners and tax collectors who claim any surplus value, goods could be exchanged to mutual benefit rather than through exploitation. Proudhon’s mutualist vision also involved (and here’s where most anarchists will turn up their noses) a Bank of the People, which would use an extremely small interest rate to cover basic administrative expenses (whereas typical interest rates basically amount to rent paid to banks on the money you use), and in return would assist in providing the cheap credit necessary to end capitalism. His attempts to make such a bank, however, were cut short when he was imprisoned for insulting Emperor Napoleon III, and the while the world has seen more than a few credit schemes orchestrated by nations to topple rival economies, and even the abandonment of the gold standards (which has led to widespread inflation), we haven’t seen a genuinely widespread execution of Proudhon’s specific plan to take down the financial system with the intention of ending capitalism forever, so it’s hard to measure how well it would work. Today, institutions like the FBI police financial crime not simply to stop fraud and traditional white-collar crime, but also to help shield the vulnerable financial organs of capitalism from would-be saboteurs like Proudhon.

For a forerunner to anarchist theorists who better understood the role of social revolution, rather than reform and financial tricks, Proudhon has an astounding level of understanding of the way that capitalism robs the working class, and he’s definitely worth a read, if you can stomach his sexist views on the importance of traditional family structures. Here are some suggestions for further reading, both big and small:

For light readers: Marx and Anarchism (1925), by Rudolf Rocker (free online)

For intermediate readers: What is Property?, by Proudhon (free online)

For advanced readers: Property Is Theft! A Pierre-Joseph Proudhon Anthology, ed. Iain McKay (AK Press, 2011). 823 pages,.