Bevington and Seymour, “Proudhon and Communism” (1894)

I’ve long admired the “other” Liberty, the anarchist-communist paper published in England by James Tochatti in the 1890s. (You can admire some of the later issues here.) But I hadn’t had an opportunity to sit down with more than just scattered issues until last week, when I spent several hours going through the microfilm of the run. There are a number of articles that I’ll be reproducing here, or in the Labyrinth archive, but the material that is probably of most immediate interest to the readership of this blog is an exchange between anarchist-communist Louisa Sarah Bevington and individualist-anarchist Henry Seymour, on the question of property. The exchange, which is probably not worth glorifying with the name “debate,” ran from August 1894 through about November 1895, at which point Bevington bowed out — and then died almost immediately. Seymour contributed a related piece to the December 1895 issue, without comment from the communist faction. The exchange was a fairly classic example of different anarchist schools talking past one another, but in this case the talking was at least very articulate, if often misdirected or even just petty, and the contributors revealed a lot about themselves, however little they may have understood their opponents. I’ll be posting the whole debate here on the blog, probably with quite a bit of commentary, as I work up a sort of “critical edition” for Corvus Editions.

The opening shot was the publication of a short translation from Proudhon’s The Theory of Property, the final section (also available in my translation), where he admits that, if it was simply a question of his personal preferences, his mature work on property might have taken a different turn. That passage is, of course, one of my touchstones for the work I have done in expanding on Proudhon’s property theory, since “a different turn” is precisely what I think is needed. But, that said, it is hard to quite get on board with the argument made in Liberty:

Proudhon and Communism

The so-called Proudhonians like to tell us that in preaching Individualism and private appropriation they follow his teachings. This is what Proudhon wrote in his last work on Property, the “Theory of Property,” published in 1866, after his death. After having developed in that work the ideas that, with the present development of the State, private property is the only means of defending man’s liberty against the State,—he wrote the following characteristic conclusion to his work (pp. 244-246). To private property he personally preferred Slavonic or Communal possession of land.

I have unfolded the considerations which render the idea of private property intelligible, rational, justifiable, without which it would be usurpatory and hateful. And yet, even on those terms, it contains something of that selfishness which is always antipathetic to me. My levelling reason, always against being governed, and an enemy to the rage and abuses of power, is prepared to allow proprietorship to be kept up as a shield and position of safety for the weak: but my heart will never be with it. As far as I am concerned, I feel no necessity for this concession either for the purpose of gaining my own bread, or to fulfil my civic duties, or for my own happiness. I have no need to meet it with others that I may aid their weakness and respect their rights. I have sufficient energy of conscience and intellectual force to suitably maintain all my relations with my neighbours, without it, and if the majority of my fellow citizens resembled me—what need would there be of that institution? Where would be the danger for the little man the pupil, or the workman? Where would be the need of pride, ambition, and greed which cannot satisfy itself except by the immensity of appropriation?

A small house, held on hire, the use of a garden would be amply sufficient for me: my occupation not being to cultivate the soil, the vine, or a meadow, I do not require a park or a large inheritance, and even if I were a husbandman and vine-dresser, Slavonic form of possession would satisfy me, viz., the share falling to each head of a family in each commune. I cannot tolerate the insolence of the man who with his foot on land which he merely holds by a free concession, forbids us to pass over it, and prevents our gathering a flower in his field or to walk over a foot path.

When I see all these fences in the suburbs of Paris which take away a view of the country and the enjoyment of the soil from the poor pedestrian, my blood fairly boils. I ask myself whether such proprietorship which thus ties up each person within his own house is not rather expropriation and expulsion form the land. Private Property! I sometimes met with these words written in large letters at the entrance to an open road and which resembles a sentinel forbidding you to advance any farther. I confess, my manly dignity fairly bristles up in disgust. Oh! I remain with regard to this on the standpoint of the Christian religion, which recommends abnegation, preaches modesty, simplicity of mind, and poverty of heart. Away with the ancient patrician, unmerciful and covetous; away with the insolent baron, the greedy bourgeois, and the harsh peasant, durus arator. These people are odious to me! I can neither like them nor look at them. If I should ever find myself a proprietor I should be one of the that kind whom God and men, especially the poor forgive!

[Source: Liberty (Chiswick), August 1894, p. 62.]

Obviously, the key to the argument is this business of “the present development of the State,” which is presumably what forces the embrace of property on Proudhon. For the moment, I’ll leave readers to consider whether that is an adequate reading of “The New Theory.”

It didn’t take long for the communism-friendly interpretation of Proudhon’s “Theory of Property” to draw criticism from Henry Seymour. Or, rather, the charge that Proudhonians “so-called Proudhonians” (nice touch, that) don’t follow Proudhon “in preaching Individualism and private appropriation” drew some minor counter-criticisms.

“Proudhon and Communism”

In the August issue of Liberty you print an excerpt from Proudhon’s posthumous work “The Theory of Property,” prefaced by a statment that “the so-called Proudhonians like to tell us that in preaching Individualism and private appropriation they follow his teachings. … To private property he personally preferred Slavonic or Communal possession of land.” I do not see anything to warrant the charge of inconsistency on the part of the disciples of Proudhon. In the first place, they rigorously renounce Individualism, no less than Communism, considered exclusively. But they have always preached Communism in relation to land and natural products, for the reason that such are in nowise due to the efforts of individuals; on the other hand they have simply emphasized the right of personal appropriation of labor-products, for the reason that they are due to personal effort. Now, the denial of the right to personal appropriation of labor-products, carries with it the denial of Communism in this particular, for, if the man who conceives and carries out the production of a commodity has no right to consume or appropriate what he has produced, how can some other men (the community so-called) have a right to consume or appropriate it who have not produced it?—Yours truly, Henry Seymour.

[Source: Liberty (Chiswick), September 1894.]

It’s an interesting response, if not entirely on point all the time. The bit about rejecting “individualism” and “communism” considered separately would certainly have been true of some of Proudhon’s disciples at the time, though clearly not true of some of them, but the claim that Proudhonians “have always preached Communism in relation to land and natural products” strikes me as fairly bizarre. But, in what followed, that strange claim was glossed over almost completely, as Bevington took off on something of a tangent of her own.

Next: Louisa Sarah Bevington, “The Last Gasp of Propertyism

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