Anarchist Studies review of Property is Theft!

"All those who wish to see the ideas of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon … achieve wider appreciation and recognition will welcome this new anthology … This is the most comprehensive English-language collection ever published…The primary function of this impressive collection is to make Proudhon’s writings accessible…and to dismantle the superficial misconceptions that have surrounded Proudhon’s theories. It does this marvellously…" (K. Steven Vincent)

Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Property is Theft! A Pierre-Joseph Proudhon Anthology, edited by Iain McKay

Edinburgh, Oakland, Baltimore: AK Press, 2011, 823pp. ISBN 978-1849350242

All those who wish to see the ideas of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809-1865) achieve wider appreciation and recognition will welcome this new anthology. During the nineteenth century, Proudhon’s was the most important theoretical voice on the French non-authoritarian Left, but for most of the twentieth century his theories were poorly understood and frequently misrepresented, even caricatured. This misunderstanding resulted largely from the spiteful distortion and critique he suffered at the hands of Karl Marx, whose theoretical influence, especially following the Bolshevik Revolution, superseded others on the Left, at least until the uprisings of 1968. The unravelling of Soviet power in Eastern Europe in the late-1980s and the subsequent implosion of the Soviet Union in 1991 accelerated the declining popularity of Marxism and its derivatives. As a result, other Leftist views have come to receive more attention. One of the most important of these is, as it ought to be, that of Proudhon.

Iain McKay, the editor of this collection, has done a wonderful job, bringing together many of Proudhon’s writings. Some selections are excerpts of older translations: What is Property? and System of Economic Contradictions, translated by Benjamin Tucker in the nineteenth century; and General Idea of the Revolution in the Nineteenth Century, translated by John Beverly Robinson in 1923. Happily, these are joined by many additional pieces that have never appeared in English translation. The selections date from 1840 to 1865; that is, from all periods of Proudhon’s life except his earliest writings. This is the most comprehensive English-language collection ever published. Moreover, McKay has written an incisive introduction that provides an excellent biographical sketch and a useful analysis of Proudhon’s theory and its continuing relevance.

Proudhon became famous in 1840 with the publication of What is Property? In this book, Proudhon provocatively proclaimed himself ‘an anarchist’ (p.133) and asserted that ‘property is theft.’ He also proposed a reorganization of society that would push aside those who produced nothing of value and inappropriately benefited from interest and rents. He called for the elimination of the ‘arbitrary’ system of supply and demand that, he claimed, unfairly disadvantaged workers, and he proposed the creation of ‘progressive associations’ of workers that would serve as the foci of educational and economic reform. These associations, he believed, would facilitate the elimination of ‘les oisifs’ – the members of the parasitic idle class – who had traditionally exercised economic power, and they would also provide an alternative to government control of economic and social forces that Proudhon argued would be equally unjust and debilitating. In short, he wished to see economic and social decision-making transferred from capitalists, financiers and politicians to workers. In 1846, Proudhon referred to this same formula for socio-economic justice as ‘mutualism’ (see pp.254-55); in 1848, he called it ‘positive anarchy’ (p.280).

Especially welcome in this anthology are the translations of newspaper articles and book selections from the period of the French Second Republic (1848-52). Proudhon was especially active during this period, even serving as a Deputy in the National Assembly following the by-elections of June 1848. For the next year, he was at the centre of Parisian events. Even after he was arrested in June 1849 for his criticisms of President Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, he continued his flood of words, writing numerous newspaper articles and four books. Proudhon’s interventions during this tumultuous period are especially revealing of his temperament and his ideological orientation. He was impatient with the politicians of the new Republic and their seemingly ceaseless rhetoric, insisting that they ignored the need for economic reform ‘from below’, which he argued was central. He was equally critical of traditional political economists who, he claimed, were only protecting the interests of the propertied classes. His irritation is strangely evocative of the outrage articulated recently by demonstrators condemning the collusion of political and financial elites during our own recent financial crises. On April 14, 1848, for example, he assessed the situation following the February 1848 revolution in France in an article in Le Représentant du Peuple in the following manner: ‘[T]he people has a perfect grasp on these two things: on the one hand, that politics is nothing; on the other, that political economy [...], is merely the economics of the propertied, the application of which to society inevitably and organically engenders misery’ (p.300). Proudhon lamented that the reformers ‘always start out with their gaze fixed upon the past’ (p.308), and that the elections and political manœuverings produced discord rather than providing the framework for needed social and economic reform.

Proudhon was shocked by the violence of the June Days, which he accurately characterized as a ‘civil war’. Though he personally rejected armed insurrection and preached peaceful conciliation, he sympathetically portrayed the insurrectionaries who had been forced to endure so many social and psychological injustices, and argued that ineffective politicians and the forces of reaction were responsible for this tragic ‘explosion of desperation’ (p.336). As he put it in one of his most famous articles, ‘The Malthusians’ (published August 10, 1848), for bourgeois politicians like Adolph Thiers, it was ‘better that four million should die than that privilege should be compromised ... They are courageous, they are stoical, these statesmen of the school of Malthus, when it is a matter of sacrificing workers by the millions’ (p.355).

The primary function of this impressive collection is to make Proudhon’s writings accessible to those who do not read French, and to dismantle the superficial misconceptions that have surrounded Proudhon’s theories. It does this marvellously. Because it clarifies Proudhon’s relationships with contemporaries and charts his reactions to the important events of his era, historians and political theorists will find much of interest. Because Proudhon’s critical analyses seem startlingly appropriate for the disturbing manœuverings of our contemporary financial and political elites, this anthology should also attract attention beyond the boundaries of the academy.

K. Steven Vincent

North Carolina State University

Volume 20 Number 1