Notes on Proudhon and Marx



Works Until 1846

  • Qu’est ce que la propriété? (What Is Property?, 1840)
  • Avertissement aux Propriétaires (Warning to Proprietors, 1842)
  • The Creation of Order in Humanity (1843)
  • Système des contradictions économiques ou Philosophie de la misère (The System of Economic Contradictions, or The Philosophy of Poverty, 1846)




What is Property?

In What is Property?, Proudhon’s method is a straightforward logical critique of the philosophical justifications for property if one assumes Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity to be the guiding principles of liberal society. He demonstrates that if these guiding principles are accepted, property can not be justified following from them.

System of Economic Contradictions

In System of Economic Contradictions, Proudhon’s method is to critique the political economists and utopian socialists of his time by showing that their goals are incompatible with their own conceptualizations of society’s political and economic dynamics. He does this by developing a model of the political economy of his time. This model is built from a series of basic units that he describes as antinomies. As he expounds on each unit, he demonstrates their necessity in the system, their contradictory effects, and their relationships with one another.


The above two works alone are inadequate for learning what Proudhon’s conclusions were. These works hint at some of his conclusions, but they are both critical works. It is in several other works that Karl Marx never examined that Proudhon offers solutions to the problems he outlines in these critical works. For example, in The General Idea of the Revolution in the 19th Century


Proudhon: Bourgeois?

Proudhon’s Dialectics and Hegel

Proudhon and Justice

Proudhon and Strikes

We have spoken here about Proudhon’s frequent reservations about strikes or, as he said, ‘coalitions’. I would note that if he was against strikes, against ‘coalitions’, it was only because he thought the times were not ripe enough. And I will cite a text to you to support my comments, a passage in the second volume of Justice in the Revolution and in the Church where Proudhon declares: ‘If the bosses agree, if the companies merge, the public authorities can do even less about it because power promotes and encourages the centralisation of capitalist interests. But if the workers, who feel the right bequeathed to them by the Revolution, protest and strike, their only means of having their claims recognised, they are punished, transported without mercy, deported to Cayenne and Lambessa’ (p. 77). You can see that already, in 1858, Proudhon’s attitude towards strikes is not at all that for which he is usually criticised.

Proudhon and Revolution

What we have in English from Proudhon’s The Political Capacity of the Working Classes.

Apparently he says something about the proletariat separating itself from all bourgois institutions …

Proudhon and Large-Scale Production

Given an analysis of property that showed that it produced exploitation (“theft”) and oppression (“despotism”), the question of how to end it arises. There are two options: Either abolish collective labour and return to smallscale production or find a new form of economic organisation which ensures that collective labour is neither exploited nor oppressed.

The notion that Proudhon advocated the first solution, a return to precapitalist forms of economy, is sadly all too common. Beginning with Marx, this notion has been vigorously propagated by Marxists with Engels in 1891 proclaiming Proudhon “the socialist of the small peasant or master craftsman.”[44] The reality is different:

On this issue, it is necessary to emphasise that, contrary to the general image given in the secondary literature, Proudhon was not hostile to large industry. Clearly, he objected to many aspects of what these large enterprises had introduced into society… But he was not opposed in principle to large-scale production. What he desired was to humanise such production, to socialise it so that the worker would not be the mere appendage to a machine. Such a humanisation of large industries would result, according to Proudhon, from the introduction of strong workers’ associations. These associations would enable the workers to determine jointly by election how the enterprise was to be directed and operated on a day-today basis.[45]

To quote Proudhon: “Large industry and high culture come to us by big monopoly and big property: it is necessary in the future to make them rise from the association.”[46] He did not ignore the economic conditions around him, including industrialisation, and noted in 1851, of a population of 36 million, 24 million were peasants and 6 million were artisans. The remaining 6 million included wage-workers for whom “workmen’s associations” would be essential as “a protest against the wage system,” the “denial of the rule of capitalists” and for “the management of large instruments of labour.”[47] Rather than seeking to turn back the clock, Proudhon was simply reflecting and incorporating the aspirations of all workers in his society—an extremely sensible position to take.[48]

This support for workers’ self-management of production was raised in 1840 at the same time Proudhon proclaimed himself an anarchist. As “every industry needs… leaders, instructors, superintendents” they “must be chosen from the labourers by the labourers themselves, and must fulfil the conditions of eligibility” for “all accumulated capital being social property, no one can be its exclusive proprietor.”[49]

In subsequent works Proudhon expanded upon this core libertarian position of “the complete emancipation of the workers… the abolition of the wage worker”[50] by self-management (“In democratising us,” he argued, “revolution has launched us on the path of industrial democracy”[51] ). Co-operatives [52] ended the exploitation and oppression of wage-labour as “every individual employed in the association” has “an undivided share in the property of the company,” “all positions are elective, and the by-laws subject to the approval of the members” and “the collective force, which is a product of the community, ceases to be a source of profit to a small number of managers and speculators: It becomes the property of all the workers.”[53]

“Mutuality, reciprocity exists,” Proudhon stressed, “when all the workers in an industry, instead of working for an entrepreneur who pays them and keeps their products, work for one another and thus collaborate in the making of a common product whose profits they share amongst themselves. Extend the principle of reciprocity as uniting the work of every group, to the Workers’ Societies as units, and you have created a form of civilisation which from all points of view—political, economic and aesthetic—is radically different from all earlier civilisations.” In short: “All associated and all free.”[54]

Thus “the means of production should be publicly owned, production itself should be organised by workers companies.”[55] As Daniel Guérin summarised:

Proudhon and Bakunin were ‘collectivists,’ which is to say they declared themselves without equivocation in favour of the common exploitation, not by the State but by associated workers of the large-scale means of production and of the public services. Proudhon has been quite wrongly presented as an exclusive enthusiast of private property.[56]

It is important to stress that Proudhon’s ideas on association as part of the solution of the social question were not invented by him. Rather, he generalised and developed what working class people were already doing.[57] As Proudhon put it in 1848, “the proof” of his mutualist ideas lay in the “current practice, revolutionary practice” of “those labour associations… which have spontaneously… been formed in Paris and Lyon.”[58] These hopes were well justified as the “evidence is strong that both worker participation in management and profit sharing tend to enhance productivity and that worker-run enterprises often are more productive than their capitalist counterparts.”[59]

Finally, a few words on why this fundamental position of Proudhon is not better known, indeed (at best) ignored or (at worse) denied by some commentators on his ideas. This is because state socialists like Louis Blanc advocated forms of association which Proudhon rejected as just as oppressive and exploitative as capitalism: what Proudhon termed “the principle of Association.” Blanc came “under attack by Proudhon for eliminating all competition, and for fostering state centralisation of initiative and direction at the expense of local and corporative powers and intermediate associations. But the term association could also refer to the mutualist associations that Proudhon favoured, that is, those initiated and controlled from below.”[60] If Blanc advocated Association, Proudhon supported associations. This is an important distinction lost on some.

Reflect a moment. Association is not an economic force; it is only a bond of conscience, obligatory before that inward tribunal, and of no effect, or rather of an injurious effect, in relation to labor and wealth. And it is not by the aid of a more or less skilful argument that I prove it: it is the result of industrial practice since the origin of associations. Posterity will not understand how, in a century of innovation, writers, reputed to be the first to understanding social matters, should have made so much noise about a principle which is entirely subjective, and which has been explored to its foundations by all the generations of the globe. In a population of 36 millions, there are 24 millions occupied with agriculture. These you can never associate. What use would it be? To work the soil requires no social mapping-out; and the soul of the peasant is averse to association. The peasant, remember, applauded the repression of June, 1848, because he saw in it an act of liberty against communism.

Out of the 12 millions remaining, at least 6 millions, composed of mechanics, artisans, employers, functionaries, for whom association is without object, without profit, without attraction, would prefer to remain free.

There are then 6 million souls, composing in part the wage-working class, whom their present condition might interest in workmen’s associations, without closer examination, and upon the strength of promises, I venture to say in advance to these six million persons, fathers, mothers, children, old men, that they will hasten to free themselves from their voluntary yoke, if the Revolution should fail to furnish them with more serious, more real reasons for associating themselves than those which they fancy they perceive, of which I have demonstrated the emptiness.

Association has indeed its use in the economy of nations. The workmen’s associations are indeed called upon to play an important part in the near future; and are full of hope both as a protest against the wage system, and as an affirmation of reciprocity. This part will consist chiefly in the management of large instruments of labor, and in the carrying out of certain large undertakings, which require at once minute division of functions, together with great united efficiency; and which would be so many schools for the laboring class if association, or better, participation, were introduced. Such undertakings, among others, are railroads.






Marx and Proudhon really just have two different projects at this point in their lives. Proudhon is concerned with organizing society around the laws of political economy, discovered through a quasi-phenomenological method. Marx is concerned with the laws of history, discovered through an examination of the transformation of one form of society into another form of society. Consequently, their methods differ. One could say that Proudhon’s method is immanent and Marx’s method is transcendent. Proudhon takes the world as it is currently given and proceeds to describe its essential features. Marx tries to get outside of the world as it is currently given and proceeds to describe the essential manner that the world transforms.


Marx and Engles Books

Karl Marx and Frederick Engles, September and November 1844: The Holy Family

Karl Marx, 1844: Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844

Karl Marx and Frederick Engles, Fall 1845 to mid-1846: The German Ideology

Karl Marx and Frederick Engles, 1848: Manifesto of the Communist Party: Chapter III. Socialist and Communist Literature

Marx and Engels in Neue Rheinische Zeitung August 1848: Proudhon’s Speech Against Theirs

December January-October, 1850: The Class Struggles in France, 1848-1850

  • These facts, the continual increase in the circulation, the concentration of the whole of French credit in the hands of the Bank, and the accumulation of all French gold and silver in the Bank’s vaults led M. Proudhon to the conclusion that the Bank must now shed its old snakeskin and metamorphose itself into a Proudhonist people’s bank.3 He did not even need to know the history of the English bank restriction from 1797 to 18194; he only needed to direct his glance across the Channel to see that this fact, for him unprecedented in the history of bourgeois society, was nothing more than a very normal bourgeois event, which only now occurred in France for the first time. One sees that the allegedly revolutionary theoreticians who, after the Provisional Government, talked big in Paris were just as ignorant of the nature and the results of the measures taken as the gentlemen of the Provisional Government themselves.
  • 3 Proudhon expressed this point of view in his polemics against the bourgeois economist Frederic Bastiat, published in La Voix du Peuple from November 1849 to February 1850 and reproduced in a separate edition which appeared in Paris in 1850 under the title Gratuite du credit. Discussion entre M. Fr. Bastiat et M. Proudhon.

Karl Marx, 1861-3: Theories of Surplus Value

Karl Marx, 1867: Capital Volume 1

Karl Marx, July 6, 1868: My Plagiarism of F. Bastiat

Karl Marx, 1869: The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte

Karl Marx, July 1870 – May 1871: The Civil War in France

Frederick Engels, 1872: The Housing Question

Karl Marx, 1873: Political Indifferentism

Karl Marx, 1863-1883: Capital Volume 3


Karl Marx and Pierre-Joseph Proudhon had some correspondence, most famously Marx’s critical letter of 1846. Their letters, exchanged primarily in the 1840s, reflect a period of intellectual engagement and discussion, despite their differing perspectives.

  1. Early Correspondence: Initially, their correspondence was more collegial, marked by a mutual respect and an interest in each other’s ideas. This period was when Marx was still developing his critique of political economy, and Proudhon had already established his reputation with his work on property.
  2. Exchange of Ideas: Their letters included discussions on various topics, including critiques of contemporary economic theories, discussions on the nature of the state, and the role of property in society.
  3. Marx’s Letter of 1846: The most famous letter, as mentioned earlier, is Marx’s critical letter to Proudhon from May 5, 1846. This letter is often cited because it marks a clear ideological split between the two.
  4. Proudhon’s Responses: Proudhon’s responses to Marx’s critiques were also significant. He defended his ideas against Marx’s criticisms, maintaining his stance on issues such as the nature of property and his vision of a mutualist society.
  5. Impact on Their Relationship: The tone and content of their correspondence, particularly as Marx’s critiques grew sharper, contributed to the cooling of their relationship. Their ideological paths were diverging, with Marx moving towards communism and Proudhon towards anarchism.
  6. Historical Significance: Their correspondence is historically significant as it highlights the intellectual debates within the socialist movement during this period. It also shows the process of ideological formation and differentiation among socialist thinkers in the mid-19th century.

The Marx-Proudhon correspondence is an important resource for understanding the early development and divergences within socialist thought, offering insights into the foundational debates that shaped modern political ideologies.


The exact details about the meeting between Karl Marx and Pierre-Joseph Proudhon in Paris in 1844, including the precise location and how it was initiated, are not extensively documented in historical records. However, we can piece together a general context based on their activities and the intellectual climate of Paris at the time:

  1. Paris as an Intellectual Center: In the 1840s, Paris was a center for radical thought and political debate. Many intellectuals, including Marx and Proudhon, were drawn to the city due to its vibrant political and intellectual environment.
  2. Marx’s Arrival in Paris: Karl Marx arrived in Paris in 1843 after his radical writings led to his expulsion from Germany. In Paris, he was eager to engage with other socialist thinkers and activists.
  3. Proudhon’s Presence in Paris: Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, already established in Paris, had gained attention with his work “What is Property?” which critiqued existing social and economic structures.
  4. Likely Meeting Places: While the exact location of their meeting isn’t clearly documented, it’s plausible that they met at a salon or a gathering frequented by intellectuals and political activists. Such venues were common in Paris and served as hubs for discussion and debate.
  5. Initiation of the Meeting: The initiation of their meeting could have been through mutual acquaintances within the socialist circles in Paris, or Marx might have sought out Proudhon directly due to his interest in Proudhon’s work.
  6. Initial Interactions: Initially, Marx and Proudhon might have found common ground in their critiques of existing social and economic systems. However, their fundamental ideological differences quickly became apparent.
  7. Marx’s Letter to Proudhon: In 1846, Marx wrote a letter to Proudhon, which suggests that their relationship had developed to a point where they were directly corresponding. This letter indicates a degree of intellectual engagement between them.

This meeting was significant as it brought together two influential thinkers who would go on to shape socialist and anarchist thought. However, their differing views on the state, property, and methods of social change would lead to a philosophical rift, highlighting the diversity within the socialist movement of the time.

Letters to Each Other

Brussels, 5 May 1846: Marx To Pierre-Joseph Proudhon In Paris

Lyon, 17 May 1846: Proudhon To Marx

Letters where Marx or Engles mentions Proudhon

September, 1843: Letter from Marx to Arnold Ruge

December 11, 1851: Friedrich Engels to Karl Marx in London

January 24, 1865: Letter to J B Schweizer, “On Proudhon”

March 25, 1868: Letter from Marx to Engels In Manchester

January 30, 1868: Karl Marx to Ludwig Kugelmann

October 12, 1868: Karl Marx to Ludwig Kugelmann

October 13, 1868: Letter from Marx to Schweitzer In Berlin

November 26, 1869: Letter from Marx to Engels In Manchester

July 20, 1870: Marx to Engels In Manchester

November 23, 1871: Marx to Friedrich Bolte In New York

June 20, 1873: Engels to August Bebel In Hubertsburg

March 18-28, 1875: Engels to August Bebel In Zwickau

October 15, 1875: Engels to Bebel

June 20, 1881: Marx to Friedrich Adolph Sorge In Hoboken

March 6, 1884: Friedrich Engels to Vera Ivanovna Zasulich In Geneva

Secondary Literature

Georges Gurvitch’s Proudhon and Marx

Proudhon and Marx from Iain McKay’s Property is Theft!:

Has some more context on the below:

at the start of the Franco-Prussian war Marx wrote that the French needed “a good hiding” and that a German victory would “shift the centre of gravity of West European labour movements from France to Germany” which would “mean the predominance of our theory over Proudhon’s.

July 20, 1870 letter to Engels: Marx to Engels In Manchester

Proudhon’s treatise Qu’est-ce que la propriété? is the criticism of political economy from the standpoint of political economy… Proudhon’s treatise will therefore be scientifically superseded by a criticism of political economy, including Proudhon’s conception of political economy. This work became possible only owing to the work of Proudhon himself.

The above is from 1945, The Holy Family: Chapter 4 – the full chapter should be read for context since it deals heavily with Proudhon.