"Property is liberty"

First, an article on Proudhon refuting J. Salwyn Schapiro’s claims that Proudhon was a harbinger of fascism:

Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Harbinger of Anarchism

It shows, as would be expected if you know anything about Proudhon’s ideas, that Schapiro’s claims are based on bad-faith cherry-picking, mistranslations and inventions. Given that Schapiro’s nonsense is pedalled by many Marxists – thanks to Hal Draper – it is useful to debunk, even if this was distinctly time consuming given the many distortions and inventions he inflicted on his readers.

It can be considered as a more comprehensive addition to Pierre-Joseph Proudhon: an uncomfortable thinker by Nicola Chiaromonte and it appeared in Black Flag Anarchist Review Vol. 1 No. 2 (Summer 2021).

Second, two new chapters from Property is Theft! have been posted:

To the Editor-in-Chief of Le Représentant du Peuple

July Fifteenth

Third, an addition to the on-line Supplementary Material, namely a translation of the famous resolution on collective property by the International Workers’ Association in September 1868:

Resolution on Collective Ownership

This is of note for how permeated it is with Proudhon’s ideas it is, something which does not appear in the English-language versions of the same resolution issued at the time. While the Brussels Congress is often referred to the end of mutualist influence in the International Workers’ Association, in reality the debate reflected Proudhon’s ideas and primarily waged by his followers. All agreed that workers’ associations should run socially owned property, they disagreed on extending this to the land primarily in fear of alienating the peasantry. This resolution marked the victory of the revolutionary mutualists (or collectivists) over their more conservative comrades but this should not mean we forget or ignore that the focus of the disagreement was on ownership of land – both sides agreed that industry should be collectively owned and run by workers’ associations. The collectivists simply wished to extend this to the land while the others feared a peasant backlash as occurred during the 1848 revolution.

For more discussion, see the introduction to Property is Theft! – suffice to say, the “conventional wisdom” on the debates within the First International is somewhat at odds with their reality (thanks to Marxist accounts which, unsurprisingly, wish to expand the influence of Marx and are less than bothered to understand the ideas of Proudhon and their influence)

Forth, a few comments on those who quote Proudhon’s comment that “property is liberty” to suggest that he – and by extension – anarchists are not socialists or somehow have stolen the term from its rightful owners (the “anarcho”-capitalists who arose over 100 years after Proudhon proclaimed “I am an Anarchist”). So we find Leninists producing a webpage entitled Proudhon, "the father of anarchism", in his own words presumably to ensure their members won’t read him. Suffice to say, such use of quotes is of limited use – for example, Proudhon’s War and Peace really cannot be understood based on a sub-set of quotes from a slightly larger set of quotes.

Proudhon does seem to get subject to this kind of thing more than the typical writer. The methodology (if it can be called that) rests on quoting a few passages (usually from more obscure works) and ignoring much, much more – in other words, cherry-picking combined with more than a dash of bad-faith. Marx did it, Schapiro did it, Marxists do it still and they are joined by “anarcho”-capitalists (an earlier attempt is discussed here). This passage of Proudhon’s is sometimes quoted:

In my System of Economic Contradictions I reiterated and confirmed my first definition of property and then added another, quite contrary, one based on considerations of quite a different kind. But this neither destroyed nor was destroyed by my first argument. Property is theft; property is liberty: these two propositions stand side by side in my System of Economic Contradictions and each is shown to be true. (Selected Writings of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, 140)

This does get to heart of the issue, namely the contradictory nature of property. A relevant passage from volume II of System of Economic Contradictions springs to mind:

Finally a critic came, who, using a new line of argument, said:

Property, in fact and in right, is essentially contradictory, and it is for this very reason that it is something. In fact,

Property is the right of occupancy; and at the same time the right of exclusion.

Property is labour’s reward; and the negation of labour.

Property is the spontaneous product of society; and the dissolution of society.

Property is an institution of justice; and property IS THEFT.

From all this it follows that one day property transformed will be a positive idea, complete, social and true; a property that will abolish the previous property and will become for all equally effective and beneficent. And what proves this is once again the fact that property is a contradiction.

So, yes, property can express different tendencies and in some circumstances property can produce despotism and in others liberty, in the same society it can secure liberty for some and produce tyranny for others. This line of argument is not limited to Proudhon. Like his critique of property, this recognition of the contradictory nature of “property” – that it is both liberty and despotism, just reward and theft, occupancy and exclusion – exists in anarchist thinkers. Malatesta, as an example, argued:

Our opponents… are in the habit of justifying the right to private property by stating that property is the condition and guarantee of liberty.

And we agree with them. Do we not say repeatedly that poverty is slavery?

But then why do we oppose them?

The reason is clear: in reality the property that they defend is capitalist property, namely property that allows its owners to live from the work of others and which therefore depends on the existence of a class of the disinherited and dispossessed, forced to sell their labour to the property owners for a wage below its real value… This means that workers are subjected to a kind of slavery, which, though it may vary in degree of harshness, always means social inferiority, material penury and moral degradation, and is the primary cause of all the ills that beset today’s social order. (The Anarchist Revolution, 113)

I’m not aware of anyone suggesting that this well-known anarchist-communist was somehow in fact an advocate of capitalism – yet both Marxists and “anarcho”-capitalism suggest that is the case for Proudhon.

It is useful to summarise why “property is theft”. First, the means of life are stolen by the owners from its rightful owners, namely everyone. Second, as a result of this the many are forced to sell their labour and liberty to those who own the means of life, and this allows the latter to exploit the former as wages do not equal product (as the labour and its product is owned by the boss or landlord). It may be objected that this position is confused as theft implies property (something Marx suggested, so it is strange to see “anarcho”-capitalists utilise it) however this is not the case:

An objection to this view is that one can steal only what rightly belongs to another, while Marx argued that the very notion of such possession is a bourgeois category. In a letter on Proudhon he says that the view that property is theft is confused, “since ‘theft’ as a forcible violation of property presupposes the existence of property”. This in my opinion is not a decisive objection. By extension, “theft” may denote wrongly taking from someone what belongs to him by natural law, independently of whether it also belongs to him by bourgeois law. (Jon Elster, Making Sense of Marx [Cambridge University Press, 1985], 224)

This is, indeed, the case with Proudhon who argued in What is Property? that “the worker retains, even after he has received his wages, a natural right of property in the thing which he has produced” (Proudhon’s emphasis). Moreover:

property in product, if we grant so much, does not carry with it property in the means of production; that seems to me to need no further demonstration. There is no difference between the soldier who possesses his arms, the mason who possesses the materials committed to his care, the fisherman who possesses the water, the hunter who possesses the fields and forests, and the cultivator who possesses the lands: all, if you say so, are proprietors of their products — not one is proprietor of the means of production. The right to product is exclusive — jus in re; the right to means is common — jus ad rem.

This applied to “capital” as “all accumulated capital being social property, no one can be its exclusive proprietor” and “[a]ll human labour being the result of collective force, all property becomes, by the same reason, collective and undivided.”

Moreover, “property” can and has referred to different bundles of rights and what is considered as acceptable in one regime or system may not be in another. Thus “property is theft” can be thrown at capitalism because it makes things property which should not be (land, industry, housing, etc.) and denies what should be considered property (the product of the workers’ labour being hers). “Property is liberty”, less so for obvious reasons – namely, why property is theft.

Also the notion that “property is theft” can be explained not by looking at Proudhon’s actual arguments but by looking at European conditions in which the aristocracy had literally stolen the land is, of course, simply wrong. Proudhon looked at land and capital, noting that “[h]ere [the economist] Wolowski pretends to think that the opponents of property refer only to property in land, while they merely take it as a term of comparison”. It is also worth stressing that land ownership in the Americas was hardly free from such activity – unless the suggestion is made that the native Americans voluntarily gave up their land rather than being, in reality, systematically slaughtered or displaced by the invaders (who hardly distributed the ill-gotten gains equally).

However, let us assume that this phrase “property is liberty” somehow negates everything else Proudhon wrote (and it is worth stressing that Proudhon never suggested it did). Let us assume “property is liberty” is what we should remember, what does that imply? That someone without property has no liberty. This is a well-known anarchist position as can be seen from Malatesta. He was hardly alone. Bakunin, for example, drew the same conclusion:

“Property is slavery!”... Yes, poverty IS slavery—it is the need to sell one’s labour, and with one’s labour one’s person to the capitalist who gives you the means barely to survive. One’s mind must indeed be affected by Bourgeois Gentlemen’s lies to dare speak of the political freedom of the working masses. Fine freedom is this, that subjects them to the whims of capital and that shackles them through hunger to the capitalist’s will!... so long as capital and labour are mutually isolated, labour will be the slave of capital and workers the subjects of Bourgeois Gentlemen...

The right to freedom, without the means of achieving it is only a ghost. And do we not love freedom too much to be satisfied with its ghost? We want its reality... a man compelled by hunger to sell his labour, and with his labour his own self, at the lowest possible price to the capitalist who condescends to exploit him, a man whose own brutishness and ignorance put him at the mercy of his learned exploiters will inevitably and forever be a slave. (The Basic Bakunin, 46)

Kropotkin made the same point:

In fact, we know full well today that it is futile to speak of liberty as long as economic slavery exists.

“Speak not of liberty — poverty is slavery!” is not a vain formula; it has penetrated into the ideas of the great working-class masses; it filters through all the present literature; it even carries those along who live on the poverty of others, and takes from them the arrogance with which they formerly asserted their rights to exploitation.

Millions of Socialists of both hemispheres already agree that the present form of capitalistic appropriation cannot last much longer. Capitalists themselves feel that it must go and dare not defend it with their former assurance. Their only argument is reduced to saying to us: “You have invented nothing better!” But as to denying the fatal consequences of the present forms of property, as to justifying their right to property, they cannot do it. They will practice this right as long as freedom of action is left to them, but without trying to base it on an idea. This is easily understood. (Anarchism: Its Philosophy and Ideal)

Kropotkin adds:

when we analyse the evils of the present economic system, we see—and the worker knows it full well—that their essence lies in the forced necessity of the worker to sell his labour power. Not having the wherewithal to live for the next fortnight, and being prevented by the State from using his labour power without selling it to someone, the worker sells himself to the one who undertakes to give him work; he renounces the benefits his labour might bring him in; he abandons the lion’s share of what he produces to his employer; he even abdicates his liberty; he renounces his right to make his opinion heard on the utility of what he is about to produce and on the way of producing it.

(I should note that this pamphlet is included – as “Anarchy: Its Philosophy, Its Ideal” – in the new edition of Modern Science and Anarchy as part of its “Supplementary Material”)

So, yes, indeed property is liberty – those with property are far freer than those without. Which is one of the reasons why anarchists from Proudhon onwards have sought to transform property and abolish capitalism! Rather than somehow being the exposure of Proudhon those who quote it seem to believe it to be, it is in fact a commonplace aspect of the anarchist critique of capitalism as well as contributing to the many reasons why “anarcho”-capitalism is not anarchist.

However, back to Proudhon. In System of Economic Contradictions he indicates how capitalism produces slavery. In his discussion on machinery he argues as follows (this chapter, incidentally, has the classic and correct comment: “Contrary to all expectation! It takes an economist not to expect these things.”):

Machines…. promised us liberty; I am going to prove that they have brought us slavery… The period through which we are now passing — that of machinery — is distinguished by a special characteristic: WAGE-LABOUR… The machine, or the workshop, after having degraded the worker by giving him a master, completes his degeneracy by reducing him from the rank of artisan to that of unskilled labourer.

If not misery, then degradation: such is the last alternative which machinery offers to the worker. For it is with a machine as with a piece of artillery: the captain excepted, those whom it occupies are servants, slaves…

With machinery and the workshop, divine right — that is, the principle of authority — makes its entrance into political economy. Capital, Mastership, Privilege, Monopoly, Loaning, Credit, Property, etc., — such are, in economic language, the various names of I know not what, but which is otherwise called Power, Authority, Sovereignty, Written Law, Revelation, Religion, God in short, cause and principle of all our miseries and all our crimes, and who, the more we try to define him, the more eludes us.

Is it, then, impossible that, in the present condition of society, the workshop with its hierarchical organisation, and machinery, instead of serving exclusively the interests of the least numerous, the least industrious, and the wealthiest class, should be employed for the benefit of all? (Chapter IV)

He answers the question by stating that under capitalism, machines “make the chains of serfdom heavier… and deepen the abyss which separates the class that commands and enjoys from the class that obeys and suffers.” However, this is not a product of machines as such but rather the society they are used in. Thus machines can become a benefit to workers if they control their work as he suggested when he lambasted the economists of his time:

The remedy for competition, in your opinion, is to make competition universal. But, in order that competition may be universal, it is necessary to procure for all the means of competing; it is necessary to destroy or modify the predominance of capital over labour, to change the relations between employer and worker, to solve, in a word, the antinomy of division and that of machinery; it is necessary to ORGANISE LABOUR: can you give this solution?

The ”organisation of labour” is a recurring theme in this work:

Either competition, — that is, monopoly and what follows; or exploitation by the State, — that is, dearness of labour and continuous impoverishment; or else, in short, a solution based upon equality, — in other words, the organisation of labour, which involves the negation of political economy and the end of property.

While during the 1848 Proudhon stressed “the organisation of credit” he viewed this as the means of achieving “the organisation of labour” (labour organising itself) and this – to jump to War and Peace – would produce “the organisation of peace”. The “organisation of labour” would be based on a new form of association:

In order that association may be real, he who participates in it must do so, not as a gambler, but as an active factor; he must have a deliberative voice in the council; his name must be expressed or implied in the title of the society; everything regarding him, in short, should be regulated in accordance with equality. But these conditions are precisely those of the organisation of labour, which is not taken into consideration by the code

In other words, a self-managed workplace run by associations of equals rather than a capitalist one in which the owners control their employees:

To fall from the proletariat into property! From slavery into tyranny…  And though it is inevitable, the condition of the slave is no more tenable. In order to advance, to free yourself from wage-labour, it is necessary to become a capitalist, to become a tyrant!

Property, then, is liberty for it allows its owner to escape the necessity of selling their labour and liberty to others. So while for the property-owner property is liberty, for the worker it produces tyranny. The way to end this is to ensure workplaces are run by those who work in them. This, incidentally, explains his opposition to the ideas of other socialists – such as Blanc, Fourier, etc. – because they turned the means of production over to the State or “the Community” which would then decree their use. In other words, the users of property would remain order-takers even if the body giving the orders changed (from capitalists to bureaucrats). Thus the pressing need for a system based on use rights (possession) which allowed people the freedom to manage their own activity within and outwith work. Needless to say, “collectivist” anarchists likewise criticised the tyrannical possibilities of State socialism while advocating a federalist, self-managed socialist economy. And Proudhon and the later anarchists were proven right.

Least we forget, Proudhon noted in 1846 that while “Political economy teaches us the primary elements of this organisation [of labour]; but socialism is right in asserting that, in its present form, the organisation is inadequate and transitory” and, moreover, that “both are guilty of disloyalty to science… when on the one hand political economy, mistaking for science its scraps of theory, denies the possibility of further progress; and when socialism, abandoning tradition, aims at re-establishing society on undiscoverable bases.” Indeed, “the radical vice of political economy, consists, in general terms, in affirming as a definitive state a transitory condition,— namely, the division of society into patricians and proletarians; and, particularly, in saying that in an organised, and consequently interdependent [solidaire], society, there may be some who possess, labour, and consume, while others have neither possession, nor labour, nor bread.”

The notion that Proudhon – based on a few quotes – was somehow an advocate of capitalism is just ridiculous. Yes, he was in favour of an economy with markets but one lacking wage-labour – in other words, a market socialist. Needless to say, he called himself a socialist many times and utilised the same language (“the organisation of labour”, “the social and democratic republic”, etc.). He was well aware that property is liberty for the few and tyranny for the many. As he put it a few years after System of Economic Contradictions in General Idea of the Revolution:

either the worker, necessarily a piece-worker, will be simply the employee of the proprietor-capitalist-entrepreneur; or he will participate in the chances of loss or gain of the establishment, he will have a voice in the council, in a word, he will become an associate.

In the first case the worker is subordinated, exploited: his permanent condition is one of obedience and poverty. In the second case he resumes his dignity as a man and citizen, he may aspire to comfort, he forms a part of the producing organisation, of which he was before but the slave; as, in the town, he forms a part of the sovereign power, of which he was before but the subject.

Thus we need not hesitate, for we have no choice. In cases in which production requires great division of labour, and a considerable collective force, it is necessary to form an ASSOCIATION among the workers in this industry; because without that, they would remain related as subordinates and superiors, and there would ensue two industrial castes of masters and wage-workers, which is repugnant to a free and democratic society.


It is in such cases, perfectly defined, that association, due to the immorality, tyranny and theft suffered, seems to me absolutely necessary and right. The industry to be carried on, the work to be accomplished, are the common and undivided property of all those who take part therein: the granting of franchises for mines and railroads to companies of stockholders, who plunder the bodies and souls of the wage-workers, is a betrayal of power, a violation of the rights of the public, an outrage upon human dignity and personality.

Compare to Bakunin:

so long as property and capital remain on one side and labour remains on the other, the former constituting the bourgeois class and the latter the proletariat, the workers will be the slaves and the members of the bourgeoisie will be the masters… We intend that both capital and land—in a word all the raw materials of labour—should cease being transferable through the right of inheritance, becoming forever the collective property of all productive associations. (126-7)

Clearly that Proudhon suggested “property is liberty” does not contradict his other arguments against property (“is theft”, “is despotism”, etc.) nor does it nullify his critique and opposition to capitalism nor is it somehow at odds with the views of other (“collectivist”) anarchists on the matter. It is precisely to secure liberty for all that we wish to abolish (capitalist) property – for the reasons Proudhon makes plain in his writings. More could be written on this subject, but this article can be looked at for more details:

“Proudhon, Property and Possession,” Anarcho-Syndicalist Review 66 (Winter 2016)

Now, the final irony: if the “anarcho”-capitalists really thought that “property is liberty” then they would seek to reform the institution and its distribution (Proudhon linked “property is liberty” with the “approximation of the equality of fortunes” and “industrial associations, small worker republics”). After all, without property, no liberty – by their own assertions. But, of course, no such thought crosses their minds – or if it does, it is quickly dismissed as an attack on property. Given a choice between property and liberty, property always wins for these types. Rather than a grand defence of capitalism and proof (somehow) that “anarcho”-capitalism is the only true form of anarchism some think it is, the notion that “property is liberty” is actually an indictment of that system and shows how alien “anarcho”-capitalism is to the anarchist tradition.

In short, if Proudhon had been a “classical” liberal then not only would his collected works be far shorter and far narrower in what he addressed, his influence would likewise have been much less. Needless to say, the “classical” liberals of the time considered him a socialist and for good reason. It was because he was a socialist, because he recognised the contradictory and transitory nature of property, that he influenced workers and radicals across the globe and why we remember him today.