J.-A. Langlois, “P.-J. Proudhon: His Life and His Works” (1875)

The Tucker translation of What Is Property? is prefaced by a translation of J. A. Langlois’ “P. J. Proudhon: His Life and Work,” the biographical introduction to Proudhon’s collected Correspondence. Tucker includes a disclaimer regarding Langlois’ account:

In the French edition of Proudhon’s works, the above sketch of his life is prefixed to the first volume of his correspondence, but the translator prefers to insert it here as the best method of introducing the author to the American public. He would, however, caution readers against accepting the biographer’s interpretation of the author’s views as in any sense authoritative; advising them, rather, to await the publication of the remainder of Proudhon’s writings, that they may form an opinion for themselves. — Translator

Unfortunately, the majority of those writings are still to be translated, so the careful use of commentary is necessary for most of us. Most of what Langlois wrote rings true to me, and the chronology provided is extremely useful. I recommend the account for all students of Proudhon’s work, if only as a place to begin.

P.-J. Proudhon: His Life and His Works

The correspondence of P. J. Proudhon, the first volumes of which we publish to-day, has been collected since his death by the faithful and intelligent labors of his daughter, aided by a few friends. It was incomplete when submitted to Sainte Beuve, but the portion with which the illustrious academician became acquainted was sufficient to allow him to estimate it as a whole with that soundness of judgment which characterized him as a literary critic.

In an important work, which his habitual readers certainly have not forgotten, although death did not allow him to finish it, Sainte Beuve thus judges the correspondence of the great publicist: —

“The letters of Proudhon, even outside the circle of his particular friends, will always be of value; we can always learn something from them, and here is the proper place to determine the general character of his correspondence.

“It has always been large, especially since he became so celebrated; and, to tell the truth, I am persuaded that, in the future, the correspondence of Proudhon will be his principal, vital work, and that most of his books will be only accessory to and corroborative of this. At any rate, his books can be well understood only by the aid of his letters and the continual explanations which he makes to those who consult him in their doubt, and request him to define more clearly his position.

“There are, among celebrated people, many methods of correspondence. There are those to whom letter-writing is a bore, and who, assailed with questions and compliments, reply in the greatest haste, solely that the job may be over with, and who return politeness for politeness, mingling it with more or less wit. This kind of correspondence, though coming from celebrated people, is insignificant and unworthy of collection and classification.

“After those who write letters in performance of a disagreeable duty, and almost side by side with them in point of insignificance, I should put those who write in a manner wholly external, wholly superficial, devoted only to flattery, lavishing praise like gold, without counting it; and those also who weigh every word, who reply formally and pompously, with a view to fine phrases and effects. They exchange words only, and choose them solely for their brilliancy and show. You think it is you, individually, to whom they speak; but they are addressing themselves in your person to the four corners of Europe. Such letters are empty, and teach as nothing but theatrical execution and the favorite pose of their writers.

“I will not class among the latter the more prudent and sagacious authors who, when writing to individuals, keep one eye on posterity. We know that many who pursue this method have written long, finished, charming, flattering, and tolerably natural letters. Beranger furnishes us with the best example of this class.

“Proudhon, however, is a man of entirely different nature and habits. In writing, he thinks of nothing but his idea and the person whom he addresses: ad rem et ad hominem. A man of conviction and doctrine, to write does not weary him; to be questioned does not annoy him. When approached, he cares only to know that your motive is not one of futile curiosity, but the love of truth; he assumes you to be serious, he replies, he examines your objections, sometimes verbally, sometimes in writing; for, as he remarks, ‘if there be some points which correspondence can never settle, but which can be made clear by conversation in two minutes, at other times just the opposite is the case: an objection clearly stated in writing, a doubt well expressed, which elicits a direct and positive reply, helps things along more than ten hours of oral intercourse!’ In writing to you he does not hesitate to treat the subject anew; he unfolds to you the foundation and superstructure of his thought: rarely does he confess himself defeated — it is not his way; he holds to his position, but admits the breaks, the variations, in short, the evolution of his mind. The history of his mind is in his letters; there it must be sought.

“Proudhon, whoever addresses him, is always ready; he quits the page of the book on which he is at work to answer you with the same pen, and that without losing patience, without getting confused, without sparing or complaining of his ink; he is a public man, devoted to the propagation of his idea by all methods, and the best method, with him, is always the present one, the latest one. His very handwriting, bold, uniform, legible, even in the most tiresome passages, betrays no haste, no hurry to finish. Each line is accurate: nothing is left to chance; the punctuation, very correct and a little emphatic and decided, indicates with precision and delicate distinction all the links in the chain of his argument. He is devoted entirely to you, to his business and yours, while writing to you, and never to anything else. All the letters of his which I have seen are serious: not one is commonplace.

“But at the same time he is not at all artistic or affected; he does not construct his letters, he does not revise them, he spends no time in reading them over; we have a first draught, excellent and clear, a jet from the fountain-head, but that is all. The new arguments, which he discovers in support of his ideas and which opposition suggests to him, are an agreeable surprise, and shed a light which we should vainly search for even in his works. His correspondence differs essentially from his books, in that it gives you no uneasiness; it places you in the very heart of the man, explains him to you, and leaves you with an impression of moral esteem and almost of intellectual security. We feel his sincerity. I know of no one to whom he can be more fitly compared in this respect than George Sand, whose correspondence is large, and at the same time full of sincerity. His rôle and his nature correspond. If he is writing to a young man who unbosoms himself to him in sceptical anxiety, to a young woman who asks him to decide delicate questions of conduct for her, his letter takes the form of a short moral essay, of a father-confessor’s advice. Has he perchance attended the theatre (a rare thing for him) to witness one of Ponsart’s comedies, or a drama of Charles Edmond’s, he feels bound to give an account of his impressions to the friend to whom he is indebted for this pleasure, and his letter becomes a literary and philosophical criticism, full of sense, and like no other. His familiarity is suited to his correspondent; he affects no rudeness. The terms of civility or affection which he employs towards his correspondents are sober, measured, appropriate to each, and honest in their simplicity and cordiality. When he speaks of morals and the family, he seems at times like the patriarchs of the Bible. His command of language is complete, and he never fails to avail himself of it. Now and then a coarse word, a few personalities, too bitter and quite unjust or injurious, will have to be suppressed in printing; time, however, as it passes away, permits many things and renders them inoffensive. Am I right in saying that Proudhon’s correspondence, always substantial, will one day be the most accessible and attractive portion of his works?”

Almost the whole of Proudhon’s real biography is included in his correspondence. Up to 1837, the date of the first letter which we have been able to collect, his life, narrated by Sainte Beuve, from whom we make numerous extracts, may be summed up in a few pages.

Pierre Joseph Proudhon was born on the 15th of January, 1809, in a suburb of Besançon, called Mouillère. His father and mother were employed in the great brewery belonging to M. Renaud. His father, though a cousin of the jurist Proudhon, the celebrated professor in the faculty of Dijon, was a journeyman brewer. His mother, a genuine peasant, was a common servant. She was an orderly person of great good sense; and, as they who knew her say, a superior woman of heroic character, — to use the expression of the venerable M. Weiss, the librarian at Besançon. She it was especially that Proudhon resembled: she and his grandfather Tournési, the soldier peasant of whom his mother told him, and whose courageous deeds he has described in his work on “Justice.” Proudhon, who always felt a great veneration for his mother Catharine, gave her name to the elder of his daughters. In 1814, when Besançon was blockaded, Mouillère, which stood in front of the walls of the town, was destroyed in the defence of the place; and Proudhon’s father established a cooper’s shop in a suburb of Battant, called Vignerons. Very honest, but simple-minded and short-sighted, this cooper, the father of five children, of whom Pierre Joseph was the eldest, passed his life in poverty. At eight years of age, Proudhon either made himself useful in the house, or tended the cattle out of doors. No one should fail to read that beautiful and precious page of his work on “Justice,” in which he describes the rural sports which he enjoyed when a neatherd. At the age of twelve, he was a cellar-boy in an inn. This, however, did not prevent him from studying. His mother was greatly aided by M. Renaud, the former owner of the brewery, who had at that time retired from business, and was engaged in the education of his children.

Proudhon entered school as a day-scholar in the sixth class. He was necessarily irregular in his attendance; domestic cares and restraints sometimes kept him from his classes. He succeeded nevertheless in his studies; he showed great perseverance. His family were so poor that they could not afford to furnish him with books; he was obliged to borrow them from his comrades, and copy the text of his lessons. He has himself told us that he was obliged to leave his wooden shoes outside the door, that he might not disturb the classes with his noise; and that, having no hat, he went to school bareheaded. One day, towards the close of his studies, on returning from the distribution of the prizes, loaded with crowns, he found nothing to eat in the house.

“In his eagerness for labor and his thirst for knowledge, Proudhon,” says Sainte Beuve, “was not content with the instruction of his teachers. From his twelfth to his fourteenth year, he was a constant frequenter of the town library. One curiosity led to another, and he called for book after book, sometimes eight or ten at one sitting. The learned librarian, the friend and almost the brother of Charles Nodier, M. Weiss, approached him one day, and said, smiling, ‘But, my little friend, what do you wish to do with all these books?’ The child raised his head, eyed his questioner, and replied: ‘What’s that to you?’ And the good M. Weiss remembers it to this day.”

Forced to earn his living, Proudhon could not continue his studies. He entered a printing-office in Besançon as a proof-reader. Becoming, soon after, a compositor, he made a tour of France in this capacity. At Toulon, where he found himself without money and without work, he had a scene with the mayor, which he describes in his work on “Justice.”

Sainte Beuve says that, after his tour of France, his service book being filled with good certificates, Proudhon was promoted to the position of foreman. But he does not tell us, for the reason that he had no knowledge of a letter written by Fallot, of which we never heard until six months since, that the printer at that time contemplated quitting his trade in order to become a teacher.

Towards 1829, Fallot, who was a little older than Proudhon, and who, after having obtained the Suard pension in 1832, died in his twenty-ninth year, while filling the position of assistant librarian at the Institute, was charged, Protestant though he was, with the revisal of a “Life of the Saints,” which was published at Besançon. The book was in Latin, and Fallot added some notes which also were in Latin.

“But,” says Sainte Beuve, “it happened that some errors escaped his attention, which Proudhon, then proof-reader in the printing office, did not fail to point out to him. Surprised at finding so good a Latin scholar in a workshop, he desired to make his acquaintance; and soon there sprung up between them a most earnest and intimate friendship: a friendship of the intellect and of the heart.”

Addressed to a printer between twenty-two and twenty-three years of age, and predicting in formal terms his future fame, Fallot’s letter seems to us so interesting that we do not hesitate to reproduce it entire.

“Paris, December 5, 1831.

“My dear Proudhon, — you have a right to be surprised at, and even dissatisfied with, my long delay in replying to your kind letter; I will tell you the cause of it. It became necessary to forward an account of your ideas to M. J. de Gray; to hear his objections, to reply to them, and to await his definitive response, which reached me but a short time ago; for M. J. is a sort of financial king, who takes no pains to be punctual in dealing with poor devils like ourselves. I, too, am careless in matters of business; I sometimes push my negligence even to disorder, and the metaphysical musings which continually occupy my mind, added to the amusements of Paris, render me the most incapable man in the world for conducting a negotiation with despatch.

“I have M. Jobard’s decision; here it is: In his judgment, you are too learned and clever for his children; he fears that you could not accommodate your mind and character to the childish notions common to their age and station. In short. he is what the world calls a good father; that is, he wants to spoil his children, and, in order to do this easily, he thinks fit to retain his present instructor, who is not very learned, but who takes part in their games and joyous sports with wonderful facility, who points out the letters of the alphabet to the little girl, who takes the little boys to mass, and who, no less obliging than the worthy Abbé P. of our acquaintance, would readily dance for Madame’s amusement. Such a profession would not suit you, you who have a free, proud, and manly soul: you are refused; let us dismiss the matter from our minds. Perhaps another time my solicitude will be less unfortunate. I can only ask your pardon for having thought of thus disposing of you almost without consulting you. I find my excuse in the motives which guided me; I had in view your well-being and advancement in the ways of this world.

“I see in your letter, my comrade, through its brilliant witticisms and beneath the frank and artless gayety with which you have sprinkled it, a tinge of sadness and despondency which pains me. You are unhappy, my friend: your present situation does not suit you; you cannot remain in it, it was not made for you, it is beneath you; you ought, by all means, to leave it, before its injurious influence begins to affect your faculties, and before you become settled, as they say, in the ways of your profession, were it possible that such a thing could ever happen, which I flatly deny. You are unhappy; you have not yet entered upon the path which Nature has marked out for you. But, faint-hearted soul, is that a cause for despondency? Ought you to feel discouraged? Struggle, morbleu, struggle persistently, and you will triumph. J. J. Rousseau groped about for forty years before his genius was revealed to him. You are not J. J Rousseau; but listen: I know not whether I should have divined the author of “Emile” when he was twenty years of age, supposing that I had been his contemporary, and had enjoyed the honor of his acquaintance. But I have known you, I have loved you, I have divined your future, if I may venture to say so; for the first time in my life, I am going to risk a prophecy. Keep this letter, read it again fifteen or twenty years hence, perhaps twenty-five, and if at that time the prediction which I am about to make has not been fulfilled, burn it as a piece of folly out of charity and respect for my memory. This is my prediction: you will be, Proudhon, in spite of yourself, inevitably, by the fact of your destiny, a writer, an author; you will be a philosopher; you will be one of the lights of the century, and your name will occupy a place in the annals of the nineteenth century, like those of Gassendi, Descartes, Malebranche, and Bacon in the seventeenth, and those of Diderot, Montesquieu, Helvetius. Locke, Hume, and Holbach in the eighteenth. Such will be your lot! Do now what you will, set type in a printing-office, bring up children, bury yourself in deep seclusion, seek obscure and lonely villages, it is all one to me; you cannot escape your destiny; you cannot divest yourself of your noblest feature, that active, strong, and inquiring mind, with which you are endowed; your place in the world has been appointed, and it cannot remain empty. Go where you please, I expect you in Paris, talking philosophy and the doctrines of Plato; you will have to come, whether you want to or not. I, who say this to you, must feel very sure of it in order to be willing to put it upon paper, since, without reward for my prophetic skill, — to which, I assure you, I make not the slightest claim, — I run the risk of passing for a hare-brained fellow, in case I prove to be mistaken: he plays a bold game who risks his good sense upon his cards, in return for the very trifling and insignificant merit of having divined a young man’s future.

“When I say that I expect you in Paris, I use only a proverbial phrase which you must not allow to mislead you as to my projects and plans. To reside in Paris is disagreeable to me, very much so; and when this fine-art fever which possesses me has left me, I shall abandon the place without regret to seek a more peaceful residence in a provincial town, provided always the town shall afford me the means of living, bread, a bed, books, rest, and solitude. How I miss, my good Proudhon, that dark, obscure, smoky chamber in which I dwelt in Besançon, and where we spent so many pleasant hours in the discussion of philosophy! Do you remember it? But that is now far away. Will that happy time ever return? Shall we one day meet again? Here my life is restless, uncertain, precarious, and, what is worse, indolent, illiterate, and vagrant. I do no work, I live in idleness, I ramble about; I do not read, I no longer study; my books are forsaken; now and then I glance over a few metaphysical works, and after a days walk through dirty, filthy, crowded streets. I lie down with empty head and tired body, to repeat the performance on the following day. What is the object of these walks, you will ask. I make visits, my friend; I hold interviews with stupid people. Then a fit of curiosity seizes me, the least inquisitive of beings: there are museums, libraries, assemblies, churches, palaces, gardens, and theatres to visit. I am fond of pictures, fond of music, fond of sculpture; all these are beautiful and good, but they cannot appease hunger, nor take the place of my pleasant readings of Bailly, Hume, and Tennemann, which I used to enjoy by my fireside when I was able to read.

“But enough of complaints. Do not allow this letter to affect you too much, and do not think that I give way to dejection or despondency; no, I am a fatalist, and I believe in my star. I do not know yet what my calling is, nor for what branch of polite literature I am best fitted; I do not even know whether I am, or ever shall be, fitted for any: but what matters it? I suffer, I labor, I dream, I enjoy, I think; and, in a word, when my last hour strikes, I shall have lived.

“Proudhon, I love you, I esteem you; and, believe me, these are not mere phrases. What interest could I have in flattering and praising a poor printer? Are you rich, that you may pay for courtiers? Have you a sumptuous table, a dashing wife, and gold to scatter, in order to attract them to your suite? Have you the glory, honors, credit, which would render your acquaintance pleasing to their vanity and pride? No; you are poor, obscure, abandoned; but, poor, obscure, and abandoned, you have a friend, and a friend who knows all the obligations which that word imposes upon honorable people, when they venture to assume it. That friend is myself: put me to the test.


It appears from this letter that if, at this period, Proudhon had already exhibited to the eyes of a clairvoyant friend his genius for research and investigation, it was in the direction of philosophical, rather than of economical and social, questions.

Having become foreman in the house of Gauthier & Co., who carried on a large printing establishment at Besançon, he corrected the proofs of ecclesiastical writers, the Fathers of the Church. As they were printing a Bible, a Vulgate, he was led to compare the Latin with the original Hebrew.

“In this way,” says Sainte Beuve, “he learned Hebrew by himself, and, as everything was connected in his mind, he was led to the study of comparative philology. As the house of Gauthier published many works on Church history and theology, he came also to acquire, through this desire of his to investigate everything, an extensive knowledge of theology, which afterwards caused misinformed persons to think that he had been in an ecclesiastical seminary.”

Towards 1836, Proudhon left the house of Gauthier, and, in company with an associate, established a small printing-office in Besançon. His contribution to the partnership consisted, not so much in capital, as in his knowledge of the trade. His partner committing suicide in 1838, Proudhon was obliged to wind up the business, an operation which he did not accomplish as quickly and as easily as he hoped. He was then urged by his friends to enter the ranks of the competitors for the Suard pension. This pension consisted of an income of fifteen hundred francs bequeathed to the Academy of Besançon by Madame Suard, the widow of the academician, to be given once in three years to the young man residing in the department of Doubs, a bachelor of letters or of science, and not possessing a fortune, whom the Academy of Besançon should deem best fitted for a literary or scientific career, or for the study of law or of medicine. The first to win the Suard pension was Gustave Fallot. Mauvais, who was a distinguished astronomer in the Academy of Sciences, was the second. Proudhon aspired to be the third. To qualify himself, he had to be received as a bachelor of letters, and was obliged to write a letter to the Academy of Besançon. In a phrase of this letter, the terms of which he had to modify, though he absolutely refused to change its spirit, Proudhon expressed his firm resolve to labor for the amelioration of the condition of his brothers, the working-men.

The only thing which he had then published was an “Essay on General Grammar,” which appeared without the author’s signature. While reprinting, at Besançon, the “Primitive Elements of Languages, Discovered by the Comparison of Hebrew roots with those of the Latin and French,” by the Abbé Bergier, Proudhon had enlarged the edition of his “Essay on General Grammar.”

The date of the edition, 1837, proves that he did not at that time think of competing for the Suard pension. In this work, which continued and completed that of the Abbé Bergier, Proudhon adopted the same point of view, that of Moses and of Biblical tradition. Two years later, in February, 1839, being already in possession of the Suard pension, he addressed to the Institute, as a competitor for the Volney prize, a memoir entitled: “Studies in Grammatical Classification and the Derivation of some French words.” It was his first work, revised and presented in another form. Four memoirs only were sent to the Institute, none of which gained the prize. Two honorable mentions were granted, one of them to memoir No. 4; that is, to P. J. Proudhon, printer at Besançon. The judges were MM. Améddé Jaubert, Reinaud, and Burnouf.

“The committee,” said the report presented at the annual meeting of the five academies on Thursday, May 2, 1839, “has paid especial attention to manuscripts No. 1 and No. 4. Still, it does not feel able to grant the prize to either of these works, because they do not appear to be sufficiently elaborated. The committee, which finds in No. 4 some ingenious analyses, particularly in regard to the mechanism of the Hebrew language, regrets that the author has resorted to hazardous conjectures, and has sometimes forgotten the special recommendation of the committee to pursue the experimental and comparative method.”

Proudhon remembered this. He attended the lectures of Eugène Burnouf, and, as soon as he became acquainted with the labors and discoveries of Bopp and his successors, he definitively abandoned an hypothesis which had been condemned by the Academy of Inscriptions and Belles-lettres. He then sold, for the value of the paper, the remaining copies of the “Essay” published by him in 1837. In 1850, they were still lying in a grocer’s back-shop. A neighboring publisher then placed the edition on the market, with the attractive name of Proudhon upon it. A lawsuit ensued, in which the author was beaten. His enemies, and at that time there were many of them, would have been glad to have proved him a renegade and a recanter. Proudhon, in his work on “Justice,” gives some interesting details of this lawsuit.

In possession of the Suard pension, Proudhon took part in the contest proposed by the Academy of Besançon on the question of the utility of the celebration of Sunday. His memoir obtained honorable mention, together with a medal which was awarded him, in open session, on the 24th of August, 1839. The reporter of the committee, the Abbé Doney, since made Bishop of Montauban, called attention to the unquestionable superiority of his talent.

“But,” says Sainte Beuve, “he reproached him with having adopted dangerous theories, and with having touched upon questions of practical politics and social organization, where upright intentions and zeal for the public welfare cannot justify rash solutions.”

Was it policy, we mean prudence, which induced Proudhon to screen his ideas of equality behind the Mosaic law? Sainte Beuve, like many others, seems to think so. But we remember perfectly well that, having asked Proudhon, in August, 1848, if he did not consider himself indebted in some respects to his fellow-countryman, Charles Fourier, we received from him the following reply: “I have certainly read Fourier, and have spoken of him more than once in my works; but, upon the whole, I do not think that I owe anything to him. My real masters, those who have caused fertile ideas to spring up in my mind, are three in number: first, the Bible; next, Adam Smith; and last, Hegel.

Freely confessed in the “Celebration of Sunday,” the influence of the Bible on Proudhon is no less manifest in his first memoir on property. Proudhon undoubtedly brought to this work many ideas of his own; but is not the very foundation of ancient Jewish law to be found in its condemnation of usurious interest and its denial of the right of personal appropriation of land?

The first memoir on property appeared in 1840, under the title, “What is Property? or an Inquiry into the Principle of Right and of Government.” Proudhon dedicated it, in a letter which served as the preface, to the Academy of Besançon. The latter, finding itself brought to trial by its pensioner, took the affair to heart, and evoked it, says Sainte Beuve, with all possible haste. The pension narrowly escaped being immediately withdrawn from the bold defender of the principle of equality of conditions. M. Vivien, then Minister of Justice, who was earnestly solicited to prosecute the author, wished first to obtain the opinion of the economist, Blanqui, a member of the Academy of Moral and Political Sciences. Proudhon having presented to this academy a copy of his book, M. Blanqui was appointed to review it. This review, though it opposed Proudhon’s views, shielded him. Treated as a savant by M. Blanqui, the author was not prosecuted. He was always grateful to MM. Blanqui and Vivien for their handsome conduct in the matter.

M. Blanqui’s review, which was partially reproduced by “Le Moniteur,” on the 7th of September, 1840, naturally led Proudhon to address to him, in the form of a letter, his second memoir on property, which appeared in April, 1841. Proudhon had endeavored, in his first memoir, to demonstrate that the pursuit of equality of conditions is the true principle of right and of government. In the “Letter to M. Blanqui,” he passes in review the numerous and varied methods by which this principle gradually becomes realized in all societies, especially in modern society.

In 1842, a third memoir appeared, entitled, “A Notice to Proprietors, or a Letter to M. Victor Considérant, Editor of ‘La Phalange,’ in Reply to a Defence of Property.” Here the influence of Adam Smith manifested itself, and was frankly admitted. Did not Adam Smith find, in the principle of equality, the first of all the laws which govern wages? There are other laws, undoubtedly; but Proudhon considers them all as springing from the principle of property, as he defined it in his first memoir. Thus, in humanity, there are two principles, — one which leads us to equality, another which separates us from it. By the former, we treat each other as associates; by the latter, as strangers, not to say enemies. This distinction, which is constantly met with throughout the three memoirs, contained already, in germ, the idea which gave birth to the “System of Economical Contradictions,” which appeared in 1846, the idea of antinomy or contre-loi.

The “Notice to Proprietors” was seized by the magistrates of Besançon; and Proudhon was summoned to appear before the assizes of Doubs within a week. He read his written defence to the jurors in person, and was acquitted. The jury, like M. Blanqui, viewed him only as a philosopher, an inquirer, a savant.

In 1843, Proudhon published the “Creation of Order in Humanity,” a large volume, which does not deal exclusively with questions of social economy. Religion, philosophy, method, certainty, logic, and dialectics are treated at considerable length.

Released from his printing-office on the 1st of March of the same year, Proudhon had to look for a chance to earn his living. Messrs. Gauthier Bros., carriers by water between Mulhouse and Lyons, the eldest of whom was Proudhon’s companion in childhood, conceived the happy thought of employing him, of utilizing his ability in their business, and in settling the numerous points of difficulty which daily arose. Besides the large number of accounts which his new duties required him to make out, and which retarded the publication of the “System of Economical Contradictions,” until October, 1846, we ought to mention a work, which, before it appeared in pamphlet form, was published in the “Revue des Economistes,” — “Competition between Railroads and Navigable Ways.”

“Le Miserere, or the Repentance of a King,” which he published in March, 1845, in the “Revue Indépendante,” during that Lenten season when Lacordaire was preaching in Lyons, proves that, though devoting himself with ardor to the study of economical problems, Proudhon had not lost his interest in questions of religious history. Among his writings on these questions, which he was unfortunately obliged to leave unfinished, we may mention a nearly completed history of the early Christian heresies, and of the struggle of Christianity against Cæsarism.

We have said that, in 1848, Proudhon recognized three masters. Having no knowledge of the German language, he could not have read the works of Hegel, which at that time had not been translated into French. It was Charles Grün, a German, who had come to France to study the various philosophical and socialistic systems, who gave him the substance of the Hegelian ideas. During the winter of 1844–45, Charles Grün had some long conversations with Proudhon, which determined, very decisively, not the ideas, which belonged exclusively to the bisontin thinker, but the form of the important work on which he labored after 1843, and which was published in 1846 by Guillaumin.

Hegel’s great idea, which Proudhon appropriated, and which he demonstrates with wonderful ability in the “System of Economical Contradictions,” is as follows: Antinomy, that is, the existence of two laws or tendencies which are opposed to each other, is possible, not only with two different things, but with one and the same thing. Considered in their thesis, that is, in the law or tendency which created them, all the economical categories are rational, — competition, monopoly, the balance of trade, and property, as well as the division of labor, machinery, taxation, and credit. But, like communism and population, all these categories are antinomical; all are opposed, not only to each other, but to themselves. All is opposition, and disorder is born of this system of opposition. Hence, the sub-title of the work, — “Philosophy of Misery.” No category can be suppressed; the opposition, antinomy, or contre-tendance, which exists in each of them, cannot be suppressed.

Where, then, lies the solution of the social problem? Influenced by the Hegelian ideas, Proudhon began to look for it in a superior synthesis, which should reconcile the thesis and antithesis. Afterwards, while at work upon his book on “Justice,” he saw that the antinomical terms do not cancel each other, any more than the opposite poles of an electric pile destroy each other; that they are the procreative cause of motion, life, and progress; that the problem is to discover, not their fusion, which would be death, but their equilibrium, — an equilibrium for ever unstable, varying with the development of society.

On the cover of the “System of Economical Contradictions,” Proudhon announced, as soon to appear, his “Solution of the Social Problem.” This work, upon which he was engaged when the Revolution of 1848 broke out, had to be cut up into pamphlets and newspaper articles. The two pamphlets, which he published in March, 1848, before he became editor of “Le Représentant du Peuple,” bear the same title, — “Solution of the Social Problem.” The first, which is mainly a criticism of the early acts of the provisional government, is notable from the fact that in it Proudhon, in advance of all others, energetically opposed the establishment of national workshops. The second, “Organization of Credit and Circulation,” sums up in a few pages his idea of economical progress: a gradual reduction of interest, profit, rent, taxes, and wages. All progress hitherto has been made in this manner; in this manner it must continue to be made. Those workingmen who favor a nominal increase of wages are, unconsciously. following a back-track, opposed to all their interests.

After having published in “Le Représentant du Peuple,” the statutes of the Bank of Exchange, — a bank which was to make no profits, since it was to have no stockholders, and which, consequently, was to discount commercial paper with out interest, charging only a commission sufficient to defray its running expenses, — Proudhon endeavored, in a number of articles, to explain its mechanism and necessity. These articles have been collected in one volume, under the double title, “Résumé of the Social Question; Bank of Exchange.” His other articles, those which up to December, 1848, were inspired by the progress of events, have been collected in another volume, — “Revolutionary Ideas.”

Almost unknown in March, 1848, and struck off in April from the list of candidates for the Constituent Assembly by the delegation of workingmen which sat at the Luxembourg, Proudhon had but a very small number of votes at the general elections of April. At the complementary elections, which were held in the early days of June, he was elected in Paris by seventy-seven thousand votes.

After the fatal days of June, he published an article on le terme, which caused the first suspension of “Le Représentant du Peuple.” It was at that time that he introduced a bill into the Assembly, which, being referred to the Committee on the Finances, drew forth, first, the report of M. Thiers, and then the speech which Proudhon delivered, on the 31st of July, in reply to this report. “Le Représentant du Peuple,” reappearing a few days later, he wrote, à propos of the law requiring journals to give bonds, his famous article on “The Malthusians” (August 10, 1848). Ten days afterwards, “Le Représentant du Peuple,” again suspended, definitively ceased to appear. “Le Peuple,” of which he was the editor-in-chief, and the first number of which was issued in the early part of September, appeared weekly at first, for want of sufficient bonds; it afterwards appeared daily, with a double number once a week. Before “Le Peuple” had obtained its first bond, Proudhon published a remarkable pamphlet on the “Right to Labor,” — a right which he denied in the form in which it was then affirmed. It was during the same period that he proposed, at the Poissonniere banquet, his Toast to the Revolution.

Proudhon, who had been asked to preside at the banquet, refused, and proposed in his stead, first, Ledru-Rollin, and then, in view of the reluctance of the organizers of the banquet, the illustrious president of the party of the Mountain, Lamennais. It was evidently his intention to induce the representatives of the Extreme Left to proclaim at last with him the Democratic and Social Republic. Lamennais being accepted by the organizers, the Mountain promised to be present at the banquet. The night before, all seemed right, when General Cavaignac replaced Minister Sénart by Minister Dufaure-Vivien. The Mountain, questioning the government, proposed a vote of confidence in the old minister, and, tacitly, of want of confidence in the new. Proudhon ab-stained from voting on this proposition. The Mountain declared that it would not attend the banquet, if Proudhon was to be present. Five Montagnards, Mathieu of Drôme at their head, went to the temporary office of “Le Peuple” to notify him of this. “Citizen Proudhon,” said they to the organizers in his presence, “in abstaining from voting to-day on the proposition of the Mountain, has betrayed the Republican cause.” Proudhon, vehemently questioned, began his defence by recalling, on the one hand, the treatment which he had received from the dismissed minister; and, on the other, the impartial conduct displayed towards him in 1840 by M. Vivien, the new minister. He then attacked the Mountain by telling its delegates that it sought only a pretext, and that really, in spite of its professions of Socialism in private conversation, whether with him or with the organizers of the banquet, it had not the courage to publicly declare itself Socialist.

On the following day, in his Toast to the Revolution, a toast which was filled with allusions to the exciting scene of the night before, Proudhon commenced his struggle against the Mountain. His duel with Félix Pyat was one of the episodes of this struggle, which became less bitter on Proudhon’s side after the Mountain finally decided to publicly proclaim the Democratic and Social Republic. The campaign for the election of a President of the Republic had just begun. Proudhon made a very sharp attack on the candidacy of Louis Bonaparte in a pamphlet which is regarded as one of his literary chefs-d’oeuvre: the “Pamphlet on the Presidency.” An opponent of this institution, against which he had voted in the Constituent Assembly, he at first decided to take no part in the campaign. But soon seeing that he was thus increasing the chances of Louis Bonaparte, and that if, as was not at all probable, the latter should not obtain an absolute majority of the votes, the Assembly would not fail to elect General Cavaignac, he espoused, for the sake of form, the candidacy of Raspail, who was supported by his friends in the Socialist Committee. Charles Delescluze, the editor-in-chief of “La Révolution Démocratique et Sociale,” who could not forgive him for having preferred Raspail to Ledru-Rollin, the candidate of the Mountain, attacked him on the day after the election with a violence which overstepped all bounds. At first, Proudhon had the wisdom to refrain from answering him. At length, driven to an extremity, he became aggressive himself, and Delescluze sent him his seconds. This time, Proudhon positively refused to fight; he would not have fought with Félix Pyat, had not his courage been called in question.

On the 25th of January, 1849, Proudhon, rising from a sick bed, saw that the existence of the Constituent Assembly was endangered by the coalition of the monarchical parties with Louis Bonaparte, who was already planning his coup d’Etat. He did not hesitate to openly attack the man who had just received five millions of votes. He wanted to break the idol; he succeeded only in getting prosecuted and condemned himself. The prosecution demanded against him was authorized by a majority of the Constituent Assembly, in spite of the speech which he delivered on that occasion. Declared guilty by the jury, he was sentenced, in March, 1849, to three years’ imprisonment and the payment of a fine of ten thousand francs.

Proudhon had not abandoned for a single moment his project of a Bank of Exchange, which was to operate without capital with a sufficient number of merchants and manufacturers for adherents. This bank, which he then called the Bank of the People, and around which he wished to gather the numerous working-people’s associations which had been formed since the 24th of February, 1848, had already obtained a certain number of subscribers and adherents, the latter to the number of thirty-seven thousand. It was about to commence operations, when Proudhon’s sentence forced him to choose between imprisonment and exile. He did not hesitate to abandon his project and return the money to the subscribers. He explained the motives which led him to this decision in an article in “Le Peuple.”

Having fled to Belgium, he remained there but a few days, going thence to Paris, under an assumed name, to conceal himself in a house in the Rue de Chabrol. From his hiding-place he sent articles almost every day, signed and unsigned, to “Le Peuple.” In the evening, dressed in a blouse, he went to some secluded spot to take the air. Soon, emboldened by habit, he risked an evening promenade upon the Boulevards, and afterwards carried his imprudence so far as to take a stroll by daylight in the neighborhood of the Gare du Nord. It was not long before he was recognized by the police, who arrested him on the 6th of June, 1849, in the Rue du Faubourg-Poissonniere.

Taken to the office of the prefect of police, then to Sainte — Pélagie, he was in the Conciergerie on the day of the 13th of June, 1849, which ended with the violent suppression of “Le Peuple.” He then began to write the “Confessions of a Revolutionist,” published towards the end of the year. He had been again transferred to Sainte-Pélagie, when he married, in December, 1849, Mlle. Euphrasie Piégard, a young working girl whose hand he had requested in 1847. Madame Proudhon bore him four daughters, of whom but two, Catherine and Stéphanie, survived their father. Stéphanie died in 1873.

In October, 1849, “Le Peuple” was replaced by a new journal, “La Voix du Peuple,” which Proudhon edited from his prison cell. In it were published his discussions with Pierre Leroux and Bastiat. The political articles which he sent to “La Voix du Peuple” so displeased the government finally, that it transferred him to Doullens, where he was secretly confined for some time. Afterwards taken back to Paris, to appear before the assizes of the Seine in reference to an article in “La Voix du Peuple,” he was defended by M. Cremieux and acquitted. From the Conciergerie he went again to Sainte-Pélagie, where he ended his three years in prison on the 6th of June, 1852.

“La Voix du Peuple,” suppressed before the promulgation of the law of the 31st of May, had been replaced by a weekly sheet, “Le Peuple” of 1850. Established by the aid of the principal members of the Mountain, this journal soon met with the fate of its predecessors.

In 1851, several months before the coup d’Etat, Proudhon published the “General Idea of the Revolution of the Nineteenth Century,” in which, after having shown the logical series of unitary governments, — from monarchy, which is the first term, to the direct government of the people, which is the last, — he opposes the ideal of an-archy or self-government to the communistic or governmental ideal.

At this period, the Socialist party, discouraged by the elections of 1849, which resulted in a greater conservative triumph than those of 1848, and justly angry with the national representative body which had just passed the law of the

31st of May, 1850, demanded direct legislation and direct government. Proudhon, who did not want, at any price, the plebiscitary system which he had good reason to regard as destructive of liberty, did not hesitate to point out, to those of his friends who expected every thing from direct legislation, one of the antinomies of universal suffrage. In so far as it is an institution intended to achieve, for the benefit of the greatest number, the social reforms to which landed suffrage is opposed, universal suffrage is powerless; especially if it pretends to legislate or govern directly. For, until the social reforms are accomplished, the greatest number is of necessity the least enlightened, and consequently the least capable of understanding and effecting reforms. In regard to the antinomy, pointed out by him, of liberty and government, — whether the latter be monarchic, aristocratic, or democratic in form, — Proudhon, whose chief desire was to preserve liberty, naturally sought the solution in the free contract. But though the free contract may be a practical solution of purely economical questions, it cannot be made use of in politics. Proudhon recognized this ten years later, when his beautiful study on “War and Peace” led him to find in the federative principle the exact equilibrium of liberty and government.

“The Social Revolution Demonstrated by the Coup d’ Etat” appeared in 1852, a few months after his release from prison. At that time, terror prevailed to such an extent that no one was willing to publish his book without express permission from the government. He succeeded in obtaining this permission by writing to Louis Bonaparte a letter which he published at the same time with the work. The latter being offered for sale, Proudhon was warned that he would not be allowed to publish any more books of the same character. At that time he entertained the idea of writing a universal history entitled “Chronos.” This project was never fulfilled.

Already the father of two children, and about to be presented with a third, Proudhon was obliged to devise some immediate means of gaining a living; he resumed his labors, and published, at first anonymously, the “Manual of a Speculator in the Stock-Exchange.” Later, in 1857, after having completed the work, he did not hesitate to sign it, acknowledging in the preface his indebtedness to his collaborator, G. Duchêne.

Meantime, he vainly sought permission to establish a journal, or review. This permission was steadily refused him. The imperial government always suspected him after the publication of the “Social Revolution Demonstrated by the Coup d’Etat.”

Towards the end of 1853, Proudhon issued in Belgium a pamphlet entitled “The Philosophy of Progress.” Entirely inoffensive as it was, this pamphlet, which he endeavored to send into France, was seized on the frontier. Proudhon’s complaints were of no avail.

The empire gave grants after grants to large companies. A financial society, having asked for the grant of a railroad in the east of France, employed Proudhon to write several memoirs in support of this demand. The grant was given to another company. The author was offered an indemnity as compensation, to be paid (as was customary in such cases) by the company which received the grant. It is needless to say that Proudhon would accept nothing. Then, wishing to explain to the public, as well as to the government, the end which he had in view, he published the work entitled “Reforms to be Effected in the Management of Railroads.”

Towards the end of 1854, Proudhon had already begun his book on “Justice,” when he had a violent attack of cholera, from which he recovered with great difficulty. Ever afterwards his health was delicate.

At last, on the 22d of April, 1858, he published, in three large volumes, the important work upon which he had labored since 1854. This work had two titles: the first, “Justice in the Revolution and in the Church;” the second, “New Principles of Practical Philosophy, addressed to His Highness Monseigneur Mathieu, Cardinal-Archbishop of Besançon.” On the 27th of April, when there had scarcely been time to read the work, an order was issued by the magistrate for its seizure; on the 28th the seizure was effected. To this first act of the magistracy, the author of the incriminated book replied on the 11th of May in a strongly-motived petition, demanding a revision of the concordat of 1802; or, in other words, a new adjustment of the relations between Church and State. At bottom, this petition was but the logical consequence of the work itself. An edition of a thousand copies being published on the 17th of May, the “Petition to the Senate” was regarded by the public prosecutor as an aggravation of the offence or offences discovered in the body of the work to which it was an appendix, and was seized in its turn on the 23d. On the first of June, the author appealed to the Senate in a second “Petition,” which was deposited with the first in the office of the Secretary of the Assembly, the guardian and guarantee, according to the constitution of 1852, of the principles of ’89. On the 2d of June, the two processes being united, Proudhon appeared at the bar with his publisher, the printer of the book, and the printer of the petition, to receive the sentence of the police magistrate, which condemned him to three years’ imprisonment, a fine of four thousand francs, and the suppression of his work. It is needless to say that the publisher and printers were also condemned by the sixth chamber.

Proudhon lodged an appeal; he wrote a memoir which the law of 1819, in the absence of which he would have been liable to a new prosecution, gave him the power to publish previous to the hearing. Having decided to make use of the means which the law permitted, he urged in vain the printers who were prosecuted with him to lend him their aid. He then demanded of Attorney-General Chaix d’Est Ange a statement to the effect that the twenty-third article of the law of the 17th of May, 1819, allows a written defence, and that a printer runs no risk in printing it. The attorney-general flatly refused. Proudhon then started for Belgium, where he printed his defence, which could not, of course, cross the French frontier. This memoir is entitled to rank with the best of Beaumarchais’s; it is entitled: “Justice prosecuted by the Church; An Appeal from the Sentence passed upon P. J. Proudhon by the Police Magistrate of the Seine, on the 2d of June, 1858.” A very close discussion of the grounds of the judgment of the sixth chamber, it was at the same time an excellent résumé of his great work.

Once in Belgium, Proudhon did not fail to remain there. In 1859, after the general amnesty which followed the Italian war, he at first thought himself included in it. But the imperial government, consulted by his friends, notified him that, in its opinion, and in spite of the contrary advice of M. Faustin Hélie, his condemnation was not of a political character. Proudhon, thus classed by the government with the authors of immoral works, thought it beneath his dignity to protest, and waited patiently for the advent of 1863 to allow him to return to France.

In Belgium, where he was not slow in forming new friendships, he published in 1859–60, in separate parts, a new edition of his great work on “Justice.” Each number contained, in addition to the original text carefully reviewed and corrected, numerous explanatory notes and some “Tidings of the Revolution.” In these tidings, which form a sort of review of the progress of ideas in Europe, Proudhon sorrowfully asserts that, after having for a long time marched at the head of the progressive nations, France has become, without appearing to suspect it, the most retrogressive of nations; and he considers her more than once as seriously threatened with moral death.

The Italian war led him to write a new work, which he published in 1861, entitled “War and Peace.” This work, in which, running counter to a multitude of ideas accepted until then without examination, he pronounced for the first time against the restoration of an aristocratic and priestly Poland, and against the establishment of a unitary government in Italy, created for him a multitude of enemies. Most of his friends, disconcerted by his categorical affirmation of a right of force, notified him that they decidedly disapproved of his new publication. “You see,” triumphantly cried those whom he had always combated, “this man is only a sophist.”

Led by his previous studies to test every thing by the question of right, Proudhon asks, in his “War and Peace,” whether there is a real right of which war is the vindication, and victory the demonstration. This right, which he roughly calls the right of the strongest or the right of force, and which is, after all, only the right of the most worthy to the preference in certain definite cases, exists, says Proudhon, independently of war. It cannot be legitimately vindicated except where necessity clearly demands the subordination of one will to another, and within the limits in which it exists; that is, without ever involving the enslavement of one by the other. Among nations, the right of the majority, which is only a corollary of the right of force, is as unacceptable as universal monarchy. Hence, until equilibrium is established and recognized between States or national forces, there must be war. War, says Proudhon, is not always necessary to determine which side is the strongest; and he has no trouble in proving this by examples drawn from the family, the workshop, and elsewhere. Passing then to the study of war, he proves that it by no means corresponds in practice to that which it ought to be according to his theory of the right of force. The systematic horrors of war naturally lead him to seek a cause for it other than the vindication of this right; and then only does the economist take it upon himself to denounce this cause to those who, like himself, want peace. The necessity of finding abroad a compensation for the misery resulting in every nation from the absence of economical equilibrium, is, according to Proudhon, the ever real, though ever concealed, cause of war. The pages devoted to this demonstration and to his theory of poverty, which he clearly distinguishes from misery and pauperism, shed entirely new light upon the philosophy of history. As for the author’s conclusion, it is a very simple one. Since the treaty of Westphalia, and especially since the treaties of 1815, equilibrium has been the international law of Europe. It remains now, not to destroy it, but, while maintaining it, to labor peacefully, in every nation protected by it, for the equilibrium of economical forces. The last line of the book, evidently written to check imperial ambition, is: “Humanity wants no more war.”

In 1861, after Garibaldi’s expedition and the battle of Castelfidardo, Proudhon immediately saw that the establishment of Italian unity would be a severe blow to European equilibrium. It was chiefly in order to maintain this equilibrium that he pronounced so energetically in favor of Italian federation, even though it should be at first only a federation of monarchs. In vain was it objected that, in being established by France, Italian unity would break European equilibrium in our favor. Proudhon, appealing to history, showed that every State which breaks the equilibrium in its own favor only causes the other States to combine against it, and thereby diminishes its influence and power. He added that, nations being essentially selfish, Italy would not fail, when opportunity offered, to place her interest above her gratitude.

To maintain European equilibrium by diminishing great States and multiplying small ones; to unite the latter in organized federations, not for attack, but for defence; and with these federations, which, if they were not republican already, would quickly become so, to hold in check the great military monarchies, — such, in the beginning of 1861, was the political programme of Proudhon.

The object of the federations, he said, will be to guarantee, as far as possible, the beneficent reign of peace; and they will have the further effect of securing in every nation the triumph of liberty over despotism. Where the largest unitary State is, there liberty is in the greatest danger; further, if this State be democratic, despotism without the counterpoise of majorities is to be feared. With the federation, it is not so. The universal suffrage of the federal State is checked by the universal suffrage of the federated States; and the latter is offset in its turn by property, the stronghold of liberty, which it tends, not to destroy, but to balance with the institutions of mutualism.

All these ideas, and many others which were only hinted at in his work on “War and Peace,” were developed by Proudhon in his subsequent publications, one of which has for its motto, “Reforms always, Utopias never.” The thinker had evidently finished his evolution.

The Council of State of the canton of Vaud having offered prizes for essays on the question of taxation, previously discussed at a congress held at Lausanne, Proudhon entered the ranks and carried off the first prize. His memoir was published in 1861 under the title of “The Theory of Taxation.”

About the same time, he wrote at Brussels, in “L’Office de Publicité,” some remarkable articles on the question of literary property, which was discussed at a congress held in Belgium, These articles must not be confounded with “Literary Majorats,” a more complete work on the same subject, which was published in 1863, soon after his return to France.

Arbitrarily excepted from the amnesty in 1859, Proudhon was pardoned two years later by a special act. He did not wish to take advantage of this favor, and seemed resolved to remain in Belgium until the 2d of June, 1863, the time when he was to acquire the privilege of prescription, when an absurd and ridiculous riot, excited in Brussels by an article published by him on federation and unity in Italy, induced him to hasten his return to France. Stones were thrown against the house in which he lived, in the Faubourg d’Ixelles. After having placed his wife and daughters in safety among his friends at Brussels, he arrived in Paris in September, 1862, and published there, “Federation and Italian Unity,” a pamphlet which naturally commences with the article which served as a pretext for the rioters in Brussels.

Among the works begun by Proudhon while in Belgium, which death did not allow him to finish, we ought to mention a “History of Poland,” which will be published later; and, “The Theory of Property,” which appeared in 1865, before “The Gospels Annotated,” and after the volume entitled “The Principle of Art and its Social Destiny.”

The publications of Proudhon, in 1863, were: 1. “Literary Majorats: An Examination of a Bill having for its object the Creation of a Perpetual Monopoly for the Benefit of Authors, Inventors, and Artists;” 2. “The Federative Principle and the Necessity of Re-establishing the Revolutionary party;” 3. “The Sworn Democrats and the Refractories;” 4. “Whether the Treaties of 1815 have ceased to exist? Acts of the Future Congress.”

The disease which was destined to kill him grew worse and worse; but Proudhon labored constantly! … A series of articles, published in 1864 in “Le Messager de Paris,” have been collected in a pamphlet under the title of “New Observations on Italian Unity.” He hoped to publish during the same year his work on “The Political Capacity of the Working Classes,” but was unable to write the last chapter… He grew weaker continually. His doctor prescribed rest. In the month of August he went to Franche-Comté, where he spent a month. Having returned to Paris, he resumed his labor with difficulty… From the month of December onwards, the heart disease made rapid progress; the oppression became insupportable, his legs were swollen, and he could not sleep…

On the 19th of January, 1865, he died, towards two o’clock in the morning, in the arms of his wife, his sister-in-law, and the friend who writes these lines…

The publication of his correspondence, to which his daughter Catherine is faithfully devoted, will tend, no doubt, to increase his reputation as a thinker, as a writer, and as an honest man.


About Shawn P. Wilbur 2703 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.