P. J. Proudhon (London Weekly Tribune)

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Pierre-Joseph Proudhon

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From the London Weekly Tribune.


Proudhon was born in 1809, of parents in humble circumstances, at Besançon, the birthplace, by the way of Fourier; and where Proudhon began life as a compositor in a printing-office. This printing-office he afterwards occupied on his own account; but some years since, he quited Besançon for an engagement in a mercantile house at Lyons. In his youth he was much attached to metaphysical, philological, and theological studies; but he subsequently became familiar with questions of banking, inland navigation, and general traffic. In 1839, while still residing at Besançon, he produced his first work, an essay "On the Celebration of the Sabbath," the Academy of Besançon having offered a prize for the best memoir on that subject; but as Proudhon's memoir contained opinions on social points to which the Academy could not subscribe, it did not gain their approbation, and the author published it himself. For the same learned Society he produced, in the following year, a second essay, entitled "What is Property." in which the anti-social doctrines that had appeared in his first essay, were developed with such audacity, that when it was printed the Society publicly disclaimed all connection with it. The book, however, became widely known; and, being read in some circles of Paris, it apprized people there of an eccentric paradoxical being living at Besançon: whilst the attention of the Minister of "Justice being called to it, the author narrowly escaped prosecution as an enemy of public order. The impression made by the treatise was renewed from time to time, by subsequent works from the same pen, including a "Second Memoir on Property ;" a pamphlet entitled "A Warning to Proprietors ;" a volume "On the creation of Order in Humanity," published in 1843, and a large work published in 1846, named "Economic Contradictions on the Philosophy of Misery ;" besides tracts on "Credit and Currency," and on the "Competition between Canals and Railways." It was only a month or two before the revolution of 1848 that Proudhon, then about 39 years of age, went to reside at Paris, presenting himself to persons who had already known him through his books, as a man of spare and somewhat peculiar figure, with severe hirsute visage, and wearing spectacles. "

To give an idea of Proudhon to those who have not seen any of his writings is impossible," says the writer of a very able paper in the North British Review, No. 20. "To say that he is a Socialist, or even that he is the most daring and profound of Socialists, is to call up a notion very insufficient of an intellect that one would call enormous, plying a remorseless logic, bringing into literature a plainness of speech quite unusual, and paying deference to hardly any man or sect that he names, one regards him at first as a great scornful misanthropist, dealing blows out of sheer hate. Even then, one admits his gifts as a writer—the terrible energy of his style, the almost blasting eloquence that bursts up amid his algebraic reasonings, the resistless force with which ho makes the French language go down to depths that it rarely seems to reach. At length, through some characteristic passage one sees him better, and recognises in him a man whose mood is that of fierce and universal intolerance. Not as a smooth-tongued flatterer does he come before the people, with the French balderdash in his mouth of glorie, honneur, &c. but as a taskmaster with a whip of scorpions. That crime is punishable and retribution just; that work is obligatory; that marriage is holy, and all unchastity an offence against nature; that a lie is the murder of the intelligence; that law is not the expression of will, either individual or general, but the dictamen of conscience applied by reason; that he who provokes to debauch by word or witness is infamous; and that he who denies God is frantic—such are the sayings that Proudhon seems to rest in and recur to, careless whether or not, to use one of his own expressions, his readers may find the medicine too harsh, the brewage too bitter. Though he marches, therefore, in the same general direction as the Socialists, it is in a character quite his own, and with a disposition ever and anon to knock one of them down. Caussidiere, for example, loving him as he says extremely, yet cannot but lament very much that waywardness which leads him, in his fits of despondency, to 'turn round on his own supporters, and to treat men as if they were nine pins.' On many points Proudhon is at one with the Economists.

  • “P. J. Proudhon,” The Spirit of the Age 2, no. 2 (January 12, 1850): 22-23.