ASR Review of Property is Theft!

“The collection offers rare and often difficult to obtain excerpts from the voluminous works of Proudhon… in a single (if hefty) volume. These sources are essential in the study the intellectual history of the revolutions in France between 1830 and 1871… Both the casual reader, as well as the scholar, should find Property is Theft! a comprehensive and invaluable source” (Anarcho-Syndicalist Review, no. 57)

Iain McKay presents the works of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, in this anthology of books, essays, speeches and correspondence, along with a 50-page thematic introduction, a biographical sketch, a glossary, chronology and index. The collection offers rare and often difficult to obtain excerpts from the voluminous works of Proudhon, many previously untranslated, in a single (if hefty) volume. These sources are essential in the study the intellectual history of the revolutions in France between 1830 and 1871. Here, the struggle between peasants, workers and the middle-class junta were the subject of the philosophy, sociology and journalism of Proudhon as he questioned the entitlements in the use of capital, the role of the marketplace, and in claims to land and property, that resulted from revolutionary struggle.

In his detailed thematic introduction, McKay guides us through material essential to understanding how Proudhon came to be known not only as a founder of anarchist thought, but also the influential revolutionary journalist who walked the streets of Paris and visited the barricades. In this comprehensive anthology, the transition in thinking of the philosopher, economist and social critic is portrayed in the actual books, articles and letters of the philosopher, economist, social theorist and auteur. Reading through this collection, a transition can be seen from Proudhon’s initial challenges to propriety, as he denounced all forms of government authority, to works that advocate egalitarian banking schemes. Proudhon’souvre evolved into an outline of how mutualism could be implemented on a large scale through economic communities organized into networks of federations.

This definitive collection of the works of Proudhon is needed to document and analyze his writing about some critical issues in anarchist philosophy and economic history. Equally important is how these works fulfill the need to go to source in challenging criticisms made by Karl Marx. The presentation of these texts is helpful not only for the convenience of finding some of these rare works in one volume, but also as they offer a means for directed study of what Proudhon meant. Having before us some of these rare pieces, does, however, challenge those just learning about Proudhon to apply the appropriate context in each historical period.

Though editor McKay has explained, in the introduction, why Proudhon’s works should be respected as the origin of anarchist ideals, description and annotation alongside each of these works would have helped make clear the situations in which each was written, such that one might see the influences on a given article. A detailed chronology of works is presented in the introduction as part of a biographical sketch, but a lot is expected of the reader to either use the chronology in the appendix, or flip to the introduction to have some background to read and study each entry.

In scholarly collections, a descriptive outline often appears in the introduction outlining the significance of each correspondence, excerpt and section from the writings as they appear. Perhaps, in this anthology, it would be useful to those unfamiliar with Proudhon, as essential questions are not answered as to why each of the entries are important to understanding each theme presented in the introduction, and how, in the history included in the anthology, they relate to one another. Much more convenient to the reader is brief explanatory notes before each entry that function to invite the reader to appreciate the significance of each work, and the time period in which each was written. In addition, the very interesting footnote references found in the introductory remarks would be much better placed within reach of that part of the collection one chooses to study.

Editor McKay has also included an analysis of some of the arguments Proudhon had with the Marxists. Central to Proudhon’s philosophy and sociology is looking beyond Hegelian analysis to observable forces that effected societal groupings in how they struggled with change. Proudhon repeatedly rejected the use of the dogma associated with political force of will to further outcomes of struggle that would enable the party-state to have authority to define economic and social relationships according to the socialist ideal. His emphasis was on building contractual, and structurally bound relationships in small community groups through democratic process.

If these works are to teach and inspire readers, would it not be how the ideas of Proudhon provided a formulation for how social contracts, community and relationships among groups can model egalitarianism, mutuality and cooperation among workers in ownership of property, management of the workplace and use of credit and exchange?

The influence of Proudhon’s experiences in Lyon, where he observed the social strata and the characteristics of merchants, master weavers, and workers, is only briefly discussed in the introduction. Readers could gain some useful insight knowing how the relationships between workers and with weavers was communal, an expression of mutuality. Or, how credit was used to do business, as merchants placed orders for silk from weavers who owned looms, then hired and housed them to complete it. How these groups came into conflict is also instructive. In this era of worker organizing, knowledge of the milieu of radicalized communal societies formed in struggle, during the strikes in the 1830s in Lyon, and the discussion that ensued among socialist intellectuals, would provide some interesting background into the origins of the Proudhon’s philosophy and how the debates with the state socialists evolved.

It is not enough to say that Proudhon’s writings laid the foundation of anarchist ideas without knowing that they challenged the state socialism of his day, the theocracy of the Church, along with the liberal belief in liberties that promised individual entitlements protected by political institutions. He rejected the status quo held in place by political institutions and coercion, and modelled his idea of revolutionary challenge to those ideals found in the confrontations he saw workers making through the kind of organizations they formed. 

Finally, although I agree that the works of Proudhon should be read for their own merit, there should have been more extensive discussion of the personality and prejudices of the man, reflected in his infrequent, but explicit, racist and sexist diatribes. The biographical notes included in this anthology do not offer sufficient forewarning of Proudhon’s ‘family values,’ anti-feminism and racism. Proudhon views proposed a limited role for women in work and community, and in one instance rants against Jewish people, who are attributed characteristics one might compare to Shylock in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice. Such views can be found in many contemporary writings, of course, but they are especially troubling coming from someone who played such a key role in shaping the anarchist critique.

In addition to the introduction and biographical notes, this anthology includes material from Proudhon’s What Is Property? System of Economic Contradictions, Solution of the Social Problem, General Idea of the Revolution in the Nineteenth Century, Confessions of a Revolutionary, Stock Exchange Speculator’s Manual, Justice in the Revolution and in the Church, The Federative Principle, The Political Capacity of the Working Classes, and writings on credit, the Paris Commune, the International Workers’ Association and other contemporary political issues, as well as selections from his correspondence with Blanqui, Gauthier, Leroux, Marx and others. Both the casual reader, as well as the scholar, should find Property is Theft! a comprehensive and invaluable source for studying the remarkable and colourful works of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon.

Anarcho-Syndicalist Review no. 57

Reviewed by Mark R. Wolff

Iain McKay, editor, Property is Theft! A Pierre-Joseph Proudhon Anthology. AK Press, 2011, 823 pp, $26.95, paper.