Proudhon on Property

The latest extracts from “Property is Theft!” are now available. As well as the remaining parts of the introduction, extracts of two texts from the start and end of Proudhon’s political life are included. These are 1841’s Letter to M. Blanqui (the Second Memoir on Property) and the final chapter of the posthumously published Theory of Property (‘Théorie de la propriété’). While much is made of the latter by Proudhon’s enemies (due to its supposed embrace of property), there are much in common between the two texts.

The final material from the introduction is in two parts. The first includes “Further Reading” (on Proudhon and includes links to the full versions of “What is Property?”, etc.), “Acknowledgements” (a big “thank you” to everyone who helped with translations and advice), “A note on the texts” and “A note on the translations.” The second is more substantial, an appendix which is a discussion on Proudhon’s changing terminology. This is extremely relevant given Proudhon’s alleged embrace of property in Theory of Property. As discussed in this appendix, such claims wilfully ignore what he actually argued. To quote George Woodcock (as the appendix does):

“Much has been made of this essay in an attempt to show that it represents a retreat from Proudhon’s original radicalism. Fundamentally, it does not . . . What Proudhon does is to change his definition of property . . . he is thinking, not of the usurial property he condemned in his earlier works, but of the property that guarantees the independence of the peasant and artisan . . . Because of his changes in definition, Proudhon appears more conservative, but the alterations are not radical, since he continues to uphold the basic right of the producer to control his land or his workshop.”

The suggestion that Proudhon became a support of “property” flows from comments like these:

“There is only one thing new for us in our thesis: it is that that same property, the contradictory and abusive principle of which has raised our disapproval, we today accept entirely.”

However, immediately before this he argued:

Thus, on this great question, our critique remains at base the same, and our conclusions are always the same: we want equality, more and more fully approximated, of conditions and fortunes, as we want, more and more, the equalisation of responsibilities. We reject, along with governmentalism, communism in all its forms; we want the definition of official functions and individual functions; of public services and of free services.”

Which is a significant qualification, particularly as much of his comments are similar to those raised in (say) 1841’s Second Memoir.

In “Theory of Property” he argues for the“approximation of the equality of property” and suggests that “the equality of property is not at all an initial fact; it is in the ends of the institution, not in its origins.” Moreover, he still argues for workers associations as one of the “guarantees of property against itself” is “Industrial and agricultural association” and points to “the industrial associations, small worker republics” (I should note that by “small” Proudhon was not meaning small-scale industry but rather suggesting they would be self-governing associations within a bigger self-governing society and economy).

Two decades previously he was proclaiming “I preach emancipation to the proletaires; association to the labourers; equality to the wealthy.” The themes of equality and association are consistent:

“Now, it would be a violation of justice to dispossess some and endow others, and then stop there. We must gradually lower the rate of interest, organise industry, associate labourers and their functions, and take a census of the large fortunes, not for the purpose of granting privileges, but that we may effect their redemption by settling a life-annuity upon their proprietors. We must apply on a large scale the principle of collective production, give the State eminent domain over all capital! make each producer responsible, abolish the custom-house, and transform every profession and trade into a public function. Thereby large fortunes will vanish without confiscation or violence; individual possession will establish itself, without communism, under the inspection of the republic; and equality of conditions will no longer depend simply on the will of citizens.”

Obviously his position on using the State as a means of transition changed somewhat after 1841. By 1846, he had taken the position that the state could not be reformed and looked to working class self-organisation to transform society (and pressurise the state from outside as required). However, in terms of his analysis of property and his goals there are substantial overlap between his uncompleted arguments of the 1860s and his position in 1841. Back then he was well aware that property reduced to just what you personally used was not property in the sense of “theft” or “despotism”:

“Property, at its first term, is almost null. Reduced to personal exploitation, it is property only potentially. At its second term, it exists in its perfection; then it is truly property . . . When property is concentrated, society, abusing itself, polluted, so to speak, grows corrupt, wears itself out.”

In 1841 it was a case of “the third term, the synthesis . . . I have shown that this third term is association, which is the annihilation of property.” In the 1860s, he was willing to call this synthesis property (as Woodcock suggested). Why? As noted in the appendix, from 1850 onwards Proudhon started to use the term “property” to describe possession and seems to be driven by a desire to reduce peasant hostility to social reform (a conclusion produced by the events of the 1848 revolution undoubtedly).

Such a change in terminology (if not that much of content) could, and does, lead to confusions – particularly when those seeking to dismiss Proudhon ignore the details of his 1860s work in favour of selective quoting of a few sentences. Sadly, this fate has befallen many of Proudhon’s work (starting with Marx’s hatchet job on “System of Economic Contradictions” and some of the commentary on “War and Peace”).

Ironically, Proudhon had pointed out in 1841 the confusion which would result in such a use of the term “property” (against the Christian Socialist Leroux, whom he would debate with in 1849):

“Thus, according to M.Leroux, there is property and property, — the one good, the other bad. Now, as it is proper to call different things by different names, if we keep the name ‘property’ for the former, we must call the latter robbery, rapine, brigandage. If, on the contrary, we reserve the name ‘property’ for the latter, we must designate the former by the term possession, or some other equivalent; otherwise we should be troubled with an unpleasant synonymy.”


Suffice to say, attempts to proclaim Proudhon as rejecting his previous analysis are somewhat at odds with what he actually argued in the 1860s. It is doubtful that supporters of “absolute” or Lockean property would concur with Proudhon’s clearly stated desire to equalise property and wealth (nor with workers associations to replace wage-labour and the ago-industrial federation within mutualism).

The question obviously now arises as to where “Theory of Property” stands in relation to Proudhon’s ideas and legacy. As I note at the start of the extracts from it in the anthology:

“Proudhon’s ‘Théorie de la propriété’ was posthumously published from an unfinished manuscript in the year of his death by his friends. It was started in 1860/1 but, significantly, Proudhon never completed it, preferring to write and publish other works (such as ‘The Federative Principle’). Given that he completed ‘On the Political Capacity of the Working Classes’ on his death-bed, the question remains as how important this work is in terms of the overall evolution of his ideas. This is why this extract is in an appendix.

“What becomes clear from this work is that there is no significant change in Proudhon’s perspective on property and possession. The usual themes of his work are there, such as the land as common property, workers associations and the absolutist nature of property. His apparent new found support for ‘property’ is not for capitalist private property. Rather, it is for small-scale property, property which combines ownership and use. As such, rather than a conversion away from his previous ideas this work represented more a slight shift in his position. The vision expounded is the familiar Proudhonian one of an artisan, peasant and workers co-operative based economy.”

Suffice to say, I would argue that “The Political Capacity of the Working Classes” is Proudhon’s legacy rather than the incomplete “Theory of Property.” This is indicated, I think, by the fact that in Chapter XIII (“On Association, within Mutuality”) of “Political Capacity” he states “I had very much wanted here to give the mutualist and federative theory of Property, the critique of which I published twenty-five years ago” and in a footnote adds: “See What is Property; Letter to M. Blanqui; Warning to proprietors, Paris, 1840, 41 and 42, and Economic Contradictions, volume II [presumably Chapter XI].” Clearly in his final moments he was not distancing himself from his seminal critique of property.

This is not to say that “Theory of Property” should be ignored, far from it. Rather it is to point out that he never finished it, preferring to work on other texts, and, as such, cannot be considered to be his final word on property. Talking of which, here is Proudhon’s final words of that text (the full version of the chapter can be found here). I think them very sweet (I know, not very revolutionary sounding, but that is the feeling they provoke in my grizzled libertarian-communist heart):

“When I see all these fences around Paris, which block the view of the country and the enjoyment of the soil by the poor pedestrian, I feel a violent irritation. I ask myself whether the property which surrounds in this way each house is not instead expropriation, expulsion from the land. Private Property! I sometimes meet that phrase written in large letters at the entrance of an open passage, like a sentinel forbidding me to pass. I swear that my dignity as a man bristles with disgust. Oh! In this I remain of the religion of Christ, which recommends detachment, preaches modesty, simplicity of spirit and poverty of heart. Away with the old patrician, merciless and greedy; away with the insolent baron, the avaricious bourgeois, and the hardened peasant, durus arator. That world is odious to me. I cannot love it nor look at it. If I ever find myself a proprietor, may God and men, the poor especially, forgive me for it!”

I should also note that that chapter on association from “Political Capacity” is full of interesting material, discussing how mutualist associations differ from capitalist and communist ones – he considers the later two as having much in common (“that nothing in them indicates a single thought of reform, any superior view of civilisation, nor the least concern for the progress and destiny of humanity”).

Of the major works that have not been translated, I would say that “Confessions of a Revolutionary” and “The Political Capacity of the Working Classes” are the two most crying out for publication in English. Both contain important material and are important to understanding the evolution of anarchism and Proudhon’s ideas.

Confessions is his account and analysis of the 1848 revolution and the chapters translated for the anthology suggest a rich source of information about Proudhon’s practical ideas and a primary document for that revolution. Material on which is few and far between, particularly from an anarchist perspective (and even from a Marxist one) which is strange given that both Proudhon and Marx lived through it (perhaps Marx’s commentaries on the events in France means that Marxists don’t have to bother with it?). Bakunin mentioned 1848 a few times and the whole event seems to have been important in the development of Marxism and Anarchism. The only libertarian account I can think of is volume two of Murray Bookchin's The Third Revolution. It covers the ground well (and includes the Paris Commune) but that book was written when he was breaking from anarchism and it shows it (his account of Proudhon's ideas is just terrible, for example). There is still a good libertarian account of the 1848 revolution waiting to be written. Suffice to say, a complete translation of Confessions would enrich our understanding of Proudhon’s ideas (particularly in regards to transition towards mutualism as that was what he was trying to influence the revolution towards) as well as being a libertarian account of a key revolution of the 19th century. It is a disgrace, in many ways, that we (the anarchist movement) have never done so. We could combine both, I suppose, by producing a good introduction to the book which analyses both the revolution and Proudhon's ideas and activities during it. However, that would be a substantial project.

As regards “Political Capacity”, this really is Proudhon legacy – he worked on it to his dying day and he was addressing himself to both the needs of the day and to a blossoming working class movement. It is clearly an attempt to present his ideas in a clear way in order to influence a movement which looked to him for many of its ideas (as can be seen from the activities of the Mutualists in the First International). The anthology has five chapters and a letter, a fraction of the complete work. What is there is of great interest and clarifies many of Proudhon’s ideas. It really should be made available.

A few comments on the history of the Second Memoir. This was written as a letter to liberal economist Jérôme-Adolphe Blanqui (not to be confused with his younger brother, the revolutionary communist Auguste Blanqui – any family gatherings when Blanqui was out of jail must have interesting to say the least). Blanqui had defended Proudhon when “What is Property?” provoked a hostile response. As Proudhon’s friend J. A. Langlois recounts in his “P. J. Proudhon: His Life and His Works”:

“The first memoir on property appeared in 1840, under the title, ‘What is Property? or an Inquiry into the Principle of Right and of Government.’ Proudhon dedicated it, in a letter which served as the preface, to the Academy of Besançon. The latter, finding itself brought to trial by its pensioner, took the affair to heart, and evoked it, says Sainte Beuve, with all possible haste. The pension narrowly escaped being immediately withdrawn from the bold defender of the principle of equality of conditions. M. Vivien, then Minister of Justice, who was earnestly solicited to prosecute the author, wished first to obtain the opinion of the economist, Blanqui, a member of the Academy of Moral and Political Sciences. Proudhon having presented to this academy a copy of his book, M. Blanqui was appointed to review it. This review, though it opposed Proudhon's views, shielded him. Treated as a savant by M. Blanqui, the author was not prosecuted. He was always grateful to MM. Blanqui and Vivien for their handsome conduct in the matter.

“M. Blanqui's review, which was partially reproduced by ‘Le Moniteur,’ on the 7th of September, 1840, naturally led Proudhon to address to him, in the form of a letter, his second memoir on property, which appeared in April, 1841. Proudhon had endeavored, in his first memoir, to demonstrate that the pursuit of equality of conditions is the true principle of right and of government. In the ‘Letter to M. Blanqui,’ he passes in review the numerous and varied methods by which this principle gradually becomes realised in all societies, especially in modern society.”

I should also note that there is a Third Memoir on property which has not been translated. It appeared in 1842 and was entitled “A Notice to Proprietors, or a Letter to M. Victor Considérant, Editor of ‘La Phalange,’ in Reply to a Defence of Property.” It contained this call for working class self-emancipation:

“Workers, labourers, men of the people, whoever you may be, the initiative of reform is yours. It is you who will accomplish that synthesis of social composition which will be the masterpiece of creation, and you alone can accomplish it.”

The book was seized by the magistrates of Besançon using the excuse it contained a (somewhat vague) threat to property owners. Proudhon was summoned to appear before the court and read his written defence to the jurors who viewed him as a philosopher and was acquitted. He was not so lucky when he was tried for insulting President Louis-Napoléon during the 1848 revolution and spent three years in prison (ironically, Proudhon attacked the President for dictatorial ambitions and was subsequently proven right by the coup of December 1851). It is a sign of his influence during the revolution that the Conservative majority changed the law to strip Proudhon of his immunity as a elected representative of the people. In effect, he was a political prisoner and his prosecution was a blow aimed at the left. This famous exchange in the National Assembly in July 1848 (after the crushing of the workers' revolt on June 23) shows why the right were so keen to silence him:

Citizen Proudhon: Reservations go hand in glove with property. The meaning is ..

Several members: We got your meaning!

Citizen Proudhon: The meaning is that, in the event of a refusal, we would ourselves proceed with the make-over without you. (Angry rumblings)

Numerous voices: Who, you? And who might you be? (Excitement)

Citizen Ernest de Girardin: Are you talking about the guillotine? (Murmurs. – Several challenges are made to the speaker from several quarters).

Citizen Speaker: I call upon all present to be silent. The speaker has the floor so that he may explain his thinking.

Citizen Proudhon: When I used those pronouns you and we, it was self-evident that at that point I was identifying myself with the proletariat and identifying you with the bourgeois class (Further eruptions)

Citizen Saint-Priest: But that is social warfare!

A Member: 23 June holds the floor!

In prison, though, he wrote two of his most important works (“Confessions of a Revolutionary” and “General Idea of the Revolution in the Nineteenth Century”). In addition, he wrote the letters which became The Philosophy of Progress (pdf). The letters were written in 1851 and due to their length were published as a book in 1853. This was promptly banned by the censors of the Second Empire. This been translated by Shawn Wilbur and was due to be included in the anthology. However, as new material was translated for the book it became clear that we would not have space to include it in full. I tried cutting it down but it soon became clear that doing so really did not do it justice and so, unfortunately, out it came.

There are some interesting parts of it relating to his works of the 1840s. He refers to his critique of property as “this socialist polemic” and suggests that capitalism aims for “Malthusian economics for the salariat (wage-workers). He talks of capital, a term of avarice, and in opposition to capital, a term of envy, the salariat. The salariat is the revolutionary level, invented by capital. These two passwords have entered into the language of the people.” He summarised his critique of property:

“Is it conquest, first occupation, which creates property? — I observe that force does not make law, and that at the first occasion I would know, without further ado, to take my revenge.

“Is it the institution of the State? — I respond that what the state has made, the State can unmake; and as I have the greatest interest in the thing, I am going to try to make myself master of the State.

“Is it labour? — I ask what must be the wages of labour? if each has laboured? if those who have laboured have received what ought to come back to them, cuique suum, neither more nor less?...”

He argued that capitalism and progress conflict:

“I have said that the right of the capitalist, proprietor or master, — who stops the economic movement and hinders the circulation of products, who makes a civil war of competition, the machine an instrument of death, the division of labour a system of exhaustion for the worker, taxation a means of popular extenuation and possession of the soil a ferocious and unsociable domain, — was nothing other than the right of force, royal or divine right, such as the barbarians conceived and as it results from the definitions of politics and of the casuists, the highest expression of the absolute, the most complete negation of the ideas of equality, order and progress.”

Needless to say, he links himself to the wider left and places himself in the democratic tradition, although a decentralised one which extends to economics as well as politics:

“It is certain that the democracy, which is nothing else, after all, than the party of movement and liberty, cannot be erased from history for the aberrations and naivety of 1848 . . . Up to now, democracy has followed the forms of monarchic government, monarchic politics, and monarchic economics. This is why democracy has always been only a fiction, incapable of constituting itself. It is time that it learns to think for itself; that it posits the principle which is proper to it, and by affirming itself in a positive manner, that it carries to completion the system of social ideas.”

In short, a new democracy which rejects centralised forms – a theme he returns to in subsequent works (particularly in “Political Capacity”) but which was raised in his polemic with Louis Blanc in 1849. Suffice to say, while “The Philosophy of Progress” may not be his best book, it is work reading.

Lastly, three things.

First, the cover of “Property is Theft!” has been done (for the AK Press catalogue). I like it.

Second, in terms of “Further Reading” I should point out that Shawn Wilbur has translated around 13 pages of Proudhon’s 1863 “War and Peace” (a much misrepresented work). And, yes, Tolstoy did name his novel after Proudhon work. This translation was done for issue 1 his new magazine, “The Mutualist”. It is worth a read, even if you are (like me) a communist-anarchist. This issue includes translations of two pieces by Joseph Déjacque who was not only the first person to take Proudhon's mutualism to communist-anarchist conclusions but also was was the first to employ the term libertarian as an alternative to anarchist. I'm hoping future issues will have translations from the debates in the First International in it Documents from Mutualist History section (particularly material by César De Paepe and Eugene Varlin who were instrumental in developing mutualism towards the revolutionary collectivism usually associated with Bakunin). We will see. I should also, given the theme of this update, point readers to Shawn's discussion on "What Is Property?" vs "Theory of Property"?, which was part of a wider Proudhon seminar he organised a while back. His conclusion on the differences between the 1840s and 1860s? Similar to my own (and Woodcock, Vincent, etc.), namely "It seems to me that very little . . . actually changes" and "I want to suggest that it is not" a "major change from the position". Suffice to say, the movement owes Shawn a great big thank you for all the hard work he has done in getting such material to new generations of anarchists.

Third, there is a blog by a communist-anarchist called “Property is theft”. Nothing to do with the new Proudhon anthology or this site, but it looks interesting and I thought I would mention it (particularly as it references An Anarchist FAQ!).