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December 1997

At last, an essay about an anarchist – I enjoyed writing this one!



What does Proudhon mean by ‘mutualism’ and how does it relate to his ideas about government?

The idea of mutualism as expressed in the numerous writings of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon represents his economic vision of society. Not only does he envisage the concept of mutualism as the economic base of future society, but also as an effective method of realising it. It thus becomes both the transient and the achievement; the means and the ends. Proudhon’s ends were clearly announced with the provocative statement "I am an anarchist!" (1). Although this pronouncement gave him a certain notoriety, as the first self-proclaimed anarchist, it did not immediately clarify his objectives. Previously, the term ‘anarchist’ was derogatory, used to undermine a political opponent. Proudhon turned anarchy into an ideology (2). In order to understand mutualism, an understanding of what Proudhon saw as anarchism would be a desirable prerequisite.

Proudhon’s anarchism came from his intense distrust of authority. He saw any form of authority as definitively corruptive and liable to be abused. Any use of authority would, by its very nature, be immoral and so best avoided altogether. Government, as the most authoritative agent, was therefore the most immoral of human arrangements. For Proudhon there was no question of who should rule, for even the most moral with the greatest of intentions would eventually succumb to the corruptive pressures of government. Any political manifesto, including a socialist one, would be twisted and distorted and so the question of how to rule was also irrelevant. Proudhon made his passion and anti-government feelings, together with his contempt for parliamentary socialists, vividly apparent towards the end of his General Idea of the Revolution (1851)

"To be GOVERNED is to be kept in sight, inspected, spied upon, law-driven, numbered, enrolled, indoctrinated, preached at, controlled, estimated, valued, censured, commanded, by creatures who have neither the right, nor the wisdom, nor the value to do so…To be GOVERNED is to be at every operation, at every transaction, noted, registered, enrolled, taxed, stamped, measured, numbered, assessed, licensed, authorised, admonished, forbidden, reformed, corrected, punished. It is, under the pretext of public utility, and in the name of the general interest, to be placed under contribution, trained, ransomed, exploited, monopolised, extorted, squeezed, mystified, robbed; then, at the slightest resistance, the first word of complaint, to be repressed, fined, despised, harassed, tracked, abused, clubbed, disarmed, choked, imprisoned, judged, condemned, shot, deported, sacrificed, sold, betrayed; and, to crown all, mocked, ridiculed, outraged, dishonoured. That is government; that is its justice; that is its morality. And to think that there are…Socialists who support this ignominy, in the name of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity…Hypocrisy!"(3)

Proudhon’s uncompromising attack on the nature of government came in the aftermath of the 1848 French Revolution. He saw the revolutionary cries of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity as honourable causes, but perverted by government. Like many revolutionary theorists who provide a clear and appealing critique of society, the constructive side of their hypothesis is less than clear.

As the above passage shows, Proudhon’s criticism of government was less directed towards the form, than to the nature of rule. Liberty was fundamental to Proudhon and the nature of rule would always infringe upon individual liberty, no matter what form it took. Only autonomous self-rule could be justified; "My conscience is mine, my justice is mine, and my freedom is a sovereign freedom."(4) As politics necessarily involves institutional authority, Proudhon initially avoided political reform in his construction of anarchism, turning his attention towards the economic sphere of society.

Proudhon considered the present economic system an anathema, encouraging in equality and destroying fraternity, through the perpetuation of an eternal battle between the rich and the poor. This division spread itself from the economic sphere and encompassed every aspect of human society. Rousseau believed this division and inequality of conditions to be an unnatural inequality and Proudhon continued on this theme. If this inequality was not natural, then it could not be moral, and freedom for Proudhon required an underlying morality in order to be true.

Proudhon considered the concept of private property to be the primary cause of immorality within the economic order. His views were outlined in What Is Property? (1840) where he answered his own question with typical bravado and with what "was to become one of the great phrases of the nineteenth century,"(5) "Property Is Theft!"(6) This statement, however, also obscures the true relevance of the argument. On closer inspection, it would appear that Proudhon was not against all forms of property. His main complaint was towards property that increased the wealth of the proprietor without any effort on his part. Proudhon had a strong work ethic underlying his theory and so his attack on property was predominantly upon unearned income from such things as rent or interest from loans. He considered legitimate property, or ‘possession’, as that produced through the owner’s labour or that needed for his work. A worker’s tools, land and home were considered to be his possessions and therefore legitimate. Indeed, in his later writings, Proudhon considered these possessions to be a necessity in protecting the individual’s liberty from interference and attack from the state. What Is Property? gained Proudhon the respect of the radical left, including the praise of Karl Marx; "Proudhon submits the basis of political economy, property, to a critical examination, and it is truly the first decisive, vigorous and scientific examination that has been made of it."(7)

Economic relations were paramount in Proudhon’s critique of property. Although property in exclusion did not appear to pose much of a problem to Proudhon, it was the way in which it could form exploitative domineering and subordinate relationships between men that he objected to. This immorality could be seen as the root of their enslavement. The division between those who lived off of the proceeds of property and those who were forced to sell their labour directly, destroyed any possible equality within society. Similarly, the surplus value added to the products of labour, which again reflected an unearned income for it was not evaluated on the labour used in production, but upon the false notion of ‘market’, and only paid to the employer.

Proudhon sought a solution to the perpetual inequality that he believed had formed through the relationship between property and labour. The economic system certainly needed reform, though he rejected communism as a possible solution. Communism, or state socialism, as expressed in the works of Owen, Cabet, Leroux and Blanc, was gaining support throughout the nineteenth century. Proudhon was aware of their arguments but clearly worried about the adverse effects that such a system could, and in his opinion would, produce. Economic equality may well have been achieved by their proposed systems, but at the cost of liberty, making them for Proudhon, simply unacceptable. Under communism, a large centralised authority is needed for "the radical, generally egalitarian restructuring of society."(8) This need, or "government idea,"(9) puts the communities needs above the individuals. The individual cannot feel free to act however he wishes and is unable to follow his own self-direction. His main activity, his employment, is regulated by the state under the pretext of acting in the interests of the community. "Men cease to be treated as thinking, willing agents and become objects or instruments of the community, liable to be used or abused as it thinks."(10)

Proudhon believed that the property, by nature, encouraged the work-ethic and promoted individual self-direction. Unfortunately it also acted immorally, producing divisions within society that lay festering, thus creating envy, greed and destructive inequalities. Communism, in contrast, would restore morality through the imposition of egalitarian measures throughout society. However, this very imposition would destroy the freedom and self-direction essential for retaining individual humanity. Proudhon attempted to forge a balance, in which the different forms of positive morality inherent in each system were preserved, whilst their negative characteristics were simultaneously discarded. Quite surprisingly, he used the terminology of the Hegelian dialectic, claiming the solution to be the synthesis of communism and property.(11)

Mutualism was Proudhon’s solution or synthesis. Gradually built up through a selection of his works, it was composed of a number of different elements, united through the aim of individual moral liberty. Although Proudhon insisted that the worker should maintain his own independence, he did not support the form of extreme individualism advocated by Stirner. A society made up of isolated individuals was "like a piece of matter whose molecules had lost their coherence, it would crumble into dust at the slightest shock."(12) Man was a distinct individual who did not stand alone, but out of necessity formed relationships within the community. Under mutualism, these relationships would be equal, with each transaction being mutually beneficial to all those involved. In a transaction involving two people, it is quite easy to see how a business relationship could be beneficial. Each one exchanging a product of their labour for a product of the same value without any need for outside interference. The exchange is based on trust, in that each party would consider the two products of equal value. Indeed, if one party disagreed with the value placed upon a product, in effect, distrusting the others valuation, he could simply terminate the exchange. The mutuality of trust, or in Proudhon’s terminology, reciprocy of respect, was essential, but naturally achievable. However, although this was the basic idea behind mutualism, Proudhon understood that this simplistic relationship was an exception in economic relations.

The rise of capitalism, with its technological advances, had radically changed the economic landscape. The past serf and feudal relationship had either altered, or was in the process of being altered, with the rise of the bourgeoisie and the establishment of the proletariat as the main labouring class. Economic relations and the methods of production were now far more complex than had ever been previously. Yet despite, indeed because of, these added complications, Proudhon felt that incorporating the principles of mutualism would be ultimately beneficial. In production that could be achieved through independent labour, such as small-scale agricultural labour, exchange would follow the basic mutualist principles outlined above. Even slightly larger forms of production that required small groups of workers could follow these basic principles by sharing both the labour and the benefits of their work. However, the growth of technology had also created large-scale methods of production that needed great numbers of workers in order to improve efficiency. Proudhon preferred small-scale methods of production, in which the adaptation of mutualism was easier to achieve and where the worker could clearly see the product of his labour. However, he was fully aware of the necessity of technology and its need for large-scale production, or collective force.(13) He maintained that mutualism, with some adjustment, would still prove beneficial in this larger arena.

Proudhon only began adjusting his ideas to large-scale methods of production after, what was to prove an inspirational, meeting with the workers of Lyons. He was particularly impressed by the group known as the ‘mutualists’ to whom he owed the name of his theory. The mutualists were an association of workers, specifically manual workers, whose leading members had taken part in the French risings of 1831 and 1834. They were equally attracted to Proudhon sharing his ideas on the importance of economic, rather than political, change. They later became an important element within the International, promoting Proudhonian theory, much to the frustration of Marx. Proudhon recognised in the mutualists the difference between "an association for its own sake"(14) and the working association. In the former, its members had a binding relationship built upon a shared interest. However, this form of union carries obligations and demands that infringed upon each member’s individual liberty without purpose. In contrast, the members of working associations "seeking, by the union of their labour and capital, certain advantages which they could not obtain otherwise, arrange to have as little obligation and as much independence as possible."(15) An association is not necessary for Proudhon, unless forced through economic considerations, and by economic he means labour. Any other interest can just as effectively be shared without the need of an opposing association.

The mutualist practical achievements supplemented Proudhon’s theory and enhanced its appeal. It provided firm demonstrability of one of its central concepts, but he went further introducing the idea of contract. The concept of contract is historically linked to Liberalism and doesn’t appear to warrant entry into anarchism as an ideology. Proudhon could see that under capitalism, contracts were unjust being either exploitative or, when considered fair, produced dependency. He also considered the use of hypothetical political contracts, by theorists such as Rousseau, unjust taking away more liberty from the individual than they produced. Nevertheless, mutualist contracts would, by contrast, be freely and voluntarily entered into. This was his method of creating order in society without the need of a domineering authority.

Proudhon never made clear exactly how these contracts would work in practise, but placed great faith in the self-dignity inherent in the contractees. Critics have claimed the need for an outside adjudicator to decide disputes, which would clearly undermine the anarchist intent behind the idea. In Proudhon’s defence, one can assume that if a man continually broke contracts freely entered into, he would lose his self-dignity and reputation within society. In this untrustworthy position no-one would willingly enter a contract with him. The need for external adjudication is obsolete. However, it is replaced by the unsavoury thought of dominance through majority opinion. A concept J.S. Mill argued strongly, and convincingly, against for it’s very attack upon individual liberty.

Another controversial element of Proudhon’s mutualism, to which he was to continually return, was the organisation of credit. It was left to the workers to mutually organise credit amongst themselves, ensuring an end to shortages and its accompanied suffering. This would, in effect, take the initiative away from professional financiers and the state whose usury organisations were the current norm. He proposed that coupons could be handed to each worker to be used in the exchange for the products of other workers. These coupons were to be valued on the basis of the production attributed to the recipient worker, probably upon the time he spent working. This confronted the problem that large mutual associations faced when trying to divide up their accumulative produce fairly, rather than equally, amongst their members. It also allowed the strenuous worker to be justly awarded for his effort. Proudhon can quite justly be criticised, for the use of coupons undoubtedly parallels the practise of money. Exactly how he would avoid reintroducing the vices that inevitably accompany the concept of money was never satisfactorily explained.

An aid to the emergence of mutualism, which Proudhon struggled vainly to achieve, was the establishment of a Peoples Bank. He presumed it would compete successfully with ordinary banking establishments by providing large amounts of capital cheaply to "any responsible character who desired it".(16) Its aim was again to take the initiative away from the capitalist elements already operating in society by re-establishing them within a mutualist framework. The bank would act as a means of contact between borrowers and lenders, and by restricting rates of interest to a bare minimum, would potentially provide a financial equality. Minimum interest rates would act morally by eradicating usurpation. His attempts and full intentions have been well documented by Woodcock(17), and the saga of the Peoples Bank, though controversial and of interest, is not strictly relevant here.

The overall ambition of Proudhon was revolution, although not of the type one would initially expect, nor the type urged by many of his revolutionary peers and contemporaries. Having participated in the French revolution of 1848, he had no desire for repeating violent insurrection. His method was to be a slow, gradual revolution based fundamentally upon mutualism, which was, in turn, based upon the morality of labour. Despite Proudhon’s countless contradictions and change of mind that make it difficult to summarise his theory(18), those themes that are consistent are generally the most informative. The morality of labour is one such theme.

Proudhon’s insistence upon the morality of labour was disturbingly puritanical. Labour was always seen as a good in whatever circumstance. Even under the harshest tyrannical authority it would be of moral significance. Society would therefore not be organised around politics, as it is at present, but purely around work; in which mutualism would become the sole method of organisation. Disheartened by the outcome of the French revolution, in which he felt the efforts of radical reform had been wasted upon the political sphere, by reorganising the form and not the method of government. He warned revolutionaries of the dangers of political action or contact with the government. To fight government in the realm of politics, was fighting the enemy on its own terms and thus placed the revolutionary at a disadvantage. By organising the economic sphere along the ideas of mutualism, outlined above, creating an alternative order, the reliance and need for government would, he believed, simply dissolve. "It is industrial organisation that we will put in place of government"(19).

The idea of revolution without the use of violence is an attractive proposition. However, even if wide-scale mutualism was to prove successful in practice, it does not necessarily follow that government would automatically dissolve. Governments have ways and means of clinging to power, as Proudhon was all too aware. Even so Proudhon presented a powerful argument. His critique of government has yet to be bettered by any other anarchist, libertarian or anti-authoritarian, and his view of the dangerous inadequacies inherent within state socialism have proved frightenly accurate. Whilst his ideas of mutualism have never achieved the revolution and resulting anarchist order he desired, the basic precepts have proved highly influential emerging again and again in different forms.(20) They were clearly apparent in the thought of Kropotkin and in the practise of Guild Socialists. Even today, watered-down forms of mutualism can be seen operating within modern economic institutions. This is a remarkable achievement for a man who once proudly claimed to "belong to no party and reject all schools, and therefore have no following to which I could give instructions and orders of the day."(21)



  1. This classic statement first appeared in his What Is Property? and is quoted in just about every book in the following biography.
  2. Proudhon would never agree that his views formed an ideology or system of ideas. But Anarchy is now undoubtedly seen as an ideology. See George Woodcock – Anarchism (Penguin Books, 1963) p.98
  3. Pierre-Joseph Proudhon – General Idea Of The Revolution In The Nineteenth Century (Pluto Press, 1989) p.294
  4. Woodcock – Ibid. p.98
  5. Woodcock – Pierre-Joseph Proudhon A Biography (Black Rose Books, 1987) p.45
  6. Another classic statement to be found in almost every book in the bibliography.
  7. Karl Marx – The Holy Bible quoted in Woodcock – Pierre-Joseph Proudhon A Biography p.44 This is one of the few times Marx praised Proudhon as they were to become bitter rivals, initiating the great antagonistic relationship between nearly all future anarchists and Marxists.
  8. George Crowder – Classic Anarchism (Clarendon Press, 1991) p.98
  9. Proudhon – Ibid. p.106
  10. Crowder – Ibid. p.99
  11. Proudhon’s use of Hegelian terminology has been the subject of much debate and controversy. His limited knowledge of Hegelian dialect was seized upon and made a subject of ridicule by Marx in The Poverty Of Philosophy (1847). However, Woodcock argues that Marx’s criticism of a misunderstanding of Hegel, though accurate, was largely irrelevant. Proudhon never claimed to be a serious Hegelian, but liked the play of contradictions. See Woodcock – Ibid. pp.95-103
  12. Quoted in Crowder – Ibid. p.103
  13. Proudhon – Ibid. p.83
  14. Proudhon – Ibid. p.87
  15. Proudhon – Ibid. p.87
  16. Preston King – Fear Of Power (Frank Cass & Co., 1967) p.60
  17. See Woodcock – Ibid. pp.122, 142-4, 146-8, 173, 187, 272.
  18. Proudhon is referred to as The Man Of Paradox by Woodcock – Anarchy pp. 98-133
  19. Proudhon – Ibid. p.245
  20. For a detailed account of Proudhon’s thought and influence see Peter Marshall – Demanding The Impossible: A History Of Anarchism (Fontana Press, 1993) pp.234-262
  21. Proudhon – Ibid. p.172




George Crowder


(Clarendon Press, 1991)

Barbara Goodwin


(John Wiley & Sons, 1992)

Preston King


(Frank Cass & Co., 1967)

Peter Marshall


(Fontana Press, 1993)

David Miller


(J.M. Dent & Sons, 1984)

Pierre-Joseph Proudhon


(Pluto Press, 1989)

Paul Thomas


(Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1980)

George Woodcock


(Black Rose Books, 1987)

George Woodcock


(Pelican Books, 1962)

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