Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, the son of a brewer, was born in Besancon, France, in 1809. He attended the local school but was primarily self-educated at the town's public library.
Proudhon was apprenticed as a printer and became interested in politics after he was involved in the printing of The New Industrial and Cooperative World by Charles Fourier. Proudhon now turned to writing and in 1840 published What is Property? In the book Proudhon attacks the injustices of inequality and coined the phrase, "property is theft". In the book Proudhon attacks the injustices of inequality and coined the phrase, "property is theft". Proudhon contrasted the right of property with the rights of liberty, equality, and security, saying: "The liberty and security of the rich do not suffer from the liberty and security of the poor; far from that, they mutually strengthen and sustain each other. The rich man’s right of property, on the contrary, has to be continually defended against the poor man’s desire for property."
In 1842 Proudhon was arrested for his radical political views but was acquitted in court. The following year he joined the Lyons Mutualists, a secret society of working men. The group discussed ways of achieving a more egalitarian society and during this period Proudhon developed the theory of Mutualism where small groups worked together and credit was made available through a People's Bank.
Proudhon published his most important work, System of Economic Contradictions, was published in 1846. Karl Marx responded to Proudhon's book by writing The Poverty of Philosophy (1847). This was the beginning of the long-term struggle of ideas between the two men. Proudhon was opposed to Marx's authoritarianism and his main influence was on the libertarian socialist movement.
After the 1848 French Revolution in France, Proudhon was elected to the National Assembly. This experience resulted in the publication of Confessions of a Revolutionary (1849) and the General Idea of the Revolution in the 19th Century (1851). In these books Proudhon criticized representative democracy and argued that in reality political authority is exercised by only a small number of people.
In 1854 Proudhon contracted cholera. He survived but he never fully recovered his health. He continued to write and published two more important books, Justice in the Revolution and in the Church (1858) and the Principle of Federation (1863). In the book he argued that nationalism inevitably leads to war. To reduce the power of nationalism Proudhon called for a Federal Europe. Proudhon believed that Federalism was "the supreme guarantee of all liberty and of all law, and must, without soldiers or priests, replace both feudal and Christian society." Proudhon went on to predict that "the twentieth century will open the era of federations, or humanity will begin again a purgatory of a thousand years."
The International Working Men's Association was established in 1864. In the organization Proudhon's followers clashed with those of Karl Marx and Mikhail Bakunin. Proudhon, unlike the other two men, believed socialism was possible without the need for a violent revolution.
Pierre-Joseph Proudhon died in 1865.