Amant ou mari?

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Proudhon (in)famously wrote, in What is Property?:

On distingue dans la propriété : 1° la propriété pure et simple, le droit dominal, seigneurial sur la chose, ou, comme l’on dit, la nue propriété ; 2° la possession. « La possession, dit Duranton, est une chose de fait, et non de droit. » Toullier : « La propriété est un droit, une faculté légale; la possession est un fait. » Le locataire, le fermier, le commandité, l’usufruitier, sont possesseurs ; le maître qui loue, qui prète à usage; l’héritier qui n’attend pour jouir que le décès d’un usufruitier, sont propriétaires. Si j’ose me servir de cette comparaison, un amant est possesseur, un mari est propriétaire. 

That is (in Tucker’s translation):

There are different kinds of property: 1. Property pure and simple, the dominant and seigniorial power over a thing ; or, as they term it, naked property. 2. Possession. “Possession,” says Duranton, ” is a matter of fact, not of right.” Toullier: “Property is a right, a legal power ; possession is a fact.” The tenant, the farmer, the commandité, the usufructuary, are possessors; the owner who lets and lends for use, the heir who is to come into possession on the death of a usufructuary, are proprietors. If I may venture the comparison : a lover is a possessor, a husband is a proprietor.

It’s a strange passage, in a number of ways. Marriage and the family were, of course, constant — and controversial — touchstones for Proudhon. Arguably, he had stronger opinions about love, sex and the institution of the family than he did about most of the social institutions he discussed — and for this very reason found it hard to treat the forms he preferred as “approximations” subject to improvement.

I was drawn back to take a closer look at the passage by an odd set of circumstances. I’ve been meaning for some time to take a closer look at the passages where Proudhon distinguishes the two “different kinds of property: 1. Property pure and simple, the dominant [dominal] and seigniorial power over a thing ; or, as they term it, naked property. 2. Possession.” There is little difficulty in knowing what he meant by “naked property,” but a clear definition of “possession” is elusive. In The Theory of Property, Proudhon admitted that he “had not defined” that principle. In the Second Memoir, he said, “it is not my purpose here to pass upon the theory of the right of possession. I discuss no dogmas.” In late works (both Theory of Property and Political Capacity…), he used “possession” and “fief” more or less synonymously, and said, “Possession, indivisible, untransferable, inalienable, pertains to the sovereign, prince, government, or collectivity, of which the tenant is more or less the dependent, feudataire or vassal.” Ultimately, all of these statements are at least potentially consistent. We know that he kept his terms fairly consistent. He reversed himself on the utility of calling future, mutualized versions of existing property relations “property.” But it isn’t clear that this was ultimately all that important since he shifted his analysis of simple property from an examination of its origins and present action to an examination of its aims — at roughly the same time that his historical researches led him to be less enthusiastic for simple possession as a model.

Anyway, as I started to work through the Tucker translation of What is Property? I began to check the original French for some passages — and found that Tucker had chosen to use “possession” to translate the French possession, but also, in some instances, jouissance. Parts of Proudhon’s argument seem to make better sense if what is at stake is “enjoyment” — or if the racier connotations of possession and enjoyment are at least acknowledged. But that acknowledgment also opens a pretty substantial can of worms involving the kinds of sexualized language that Proudhon sometimes used to describe proprietorship and its “abuses.”

I’ll be posting the chapter on property from the System of Economic Contradictions in the near future, which includes, among other things, a sly dig at the “solitary enjoyments” of the proprietors. And I’m afraid I’ll be coming back to this passage, as well, because there’s something rather puzzling about the analogy it contains — a puzzle which may contain a clue to why Proudhon chose to solve the problem of property in the way that he did in his late works.

“A lover is a possessor, a husband is a proprietor.” Anarchists fairly consistently assume, in part because he told us so, that his sympathies — even after his pragmatic embrace of allodial property — were with the possessors against the proprietors. But in a choice between lovers and husbands…?


About Shawn P. Wilbur 2703 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.


  1. Saying that there are two kinds of property, and one of those two kinds is property, is certainly sowing the seeds of potential terminological confusion.

  2. Agreed, Roderick, although it’s the sort of terminological intervention we’re forced to make all the time. Perhaps it would have been nicer if Proudhon had said “Domain, it is robbery!” But I think the more serious problems have probably be caused by Proudhon saying, essentially, “There are two basic kinds of property and one of them is not property…”

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