Proudhon on Property: Response

Iain McKay has posted another update on What is Property?, the forthcoming Proudhon anthology.You’ll find links to excerpts from the Second Memoir on Property and from my translation of the concluding chapter of The Theory of Property, along with commentary by Iain. The commentary is valuable, whether or not you agree with the approach and conclusions. There is a lot to tackle, if we want to make sense of Proudhon’s lifetime of work, and the more serious attempts, from different perspectives, the better, from my point of view. Iain’s comments, and his nice plug for The Mutualist, suggest he shares some of that perspective, so I feel comfortable that my comments will be taken in the spirit intended, as part of a debate between old comrades.

There’s a lot in, or connected to, the new update. The Appendix: On Terminology contains a number of helpful cautions about use of terms. Proudhon’s work is, in general, a kind of minefield for anyone prone to quick judgments about what this or that term must mean. Proudhon poses a number of difficulties: 1) There are key terms, such as “possession,” which he — by his own testimony — did not adequately define in his early works; 2) there are terms, such as “law” (loi) and “right” (droit) which he seems to have pretty consistently defined much more generally than most political writers would now; 3) there is an important change in strategy with regard to the use of terms like “property,” “government,” and “religion; and 4) there are some changes in his conclusions about the character of some of the social institutions represented by terms, which is sometimes treated as a change in definition.

The strategic watershed (3) comes between the Second Memoir (1841) and The Philosophy of Progress (1853). In the first, as Iain notes, Proudhon criticizes Pierre Leroux’s strategy:

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.

In the latter, however, he writes:

Many times it has been said to me: Tell it like it is. You are a man of order: do you, or do you not want government? You seek justice and liberty, and you reject the communitarian theories: are you for or against property? You have defended, in every circumstance, morals and the family: do you have no religion?

Well, I maintain completely all my negations of religion, government and property; I say that not only are these negations in themselves irrefutable, but that already the facts justify them; what we have seen burgeon and develop, for several years, under the ancient name of religion, is no longer the same thing that we have been accustomed to understand under that name; that which agitates in the form of empire or caesarism, will sooner or later no longer be empire nor caesarism, nor government; and finally, that which modifies and reorganizes itself under the rubric of property, is the opposite of property.

I add, nonetheless, that I will retain, with the common folk, these three words: religion, government, property, for reasons of which I am not the master, which partake of the general theory of Progress, and for that reason seem to me decisive: first, it is not my place to create new words for new things and I am forced to speak the language of everyone; second, there is no progress without tradition, and the new order having for its immediate antecedents religion, government and property, it is convenient, for the very guarantee of that evolution, to preserve for the new institutions their patronymic names, in the phases of civilization, because there are never well-defined lines, and to want to accomplish the revolution by a jump, that would be beyond our means. 

 It’s likely that Proudhon was never quite in control of his own terminology with regard to property, just as he never really elaborated his own theory of a “new order” of property. In 1840, “possession” was one of two forms of “property” (broadly defined), with the other beings simply “property.” He had “property” (neutral) and “property” (bad) — and “possession” (not bad, “in the right,” but not clearly a solution to the problems he wanted to solve). He was already tangled up in a different version of the confusion he decried in 1841. It’s likely that his encounter with Fourierist serial analysis in the early 1840s gave him a little different framework for thinking about terminological developments. His dialectical experiments undoubtedly gave him another. But it’s also pretty obvious that he made pretty hard work of his writings on property, in comparison with some of his other work. When he was talking about the development of “justice,” he hardly blinked as he demonstrated that “force and fraud” were its earliest forms. He saw “degrees” of everything — series of “approximations.” But, with regard to property, he had a hard time developing his basic critical apparatus much beyond its state in 1840.

With regard to claims that Proudhon changed the definitions of “possession” and “property” in his later works, I don’t see the evidence in the works. He always maintained that “simple property” was despotic, even when he decided — through an analysis of its “aims” — that it was a useful counterweight to itself and to the sort of “state” institutions that would emerge, even in an anarchist society. The allodial property that he discussed in The Theory of Property was arguably even more absolute than many existing forms of private property — at least for the duration of occupancy and use. When he “embraced” it, it was precisely because of its absolutist character. He took his sweet time defining “possession” explicitly, but he seems to have been fairly consistent about what he meant. His historical research, however, led him to think differently about it. It looks to me like he changed his mind, rather than changing his terms — but we have to be clear about what that change entailed. As Iain emphasizes, the “solution” in The Theory of Property involves a departure from Proudhon’s own personal wishes. The text ends with a rant against fences and the line: “If I ever find myself a proprietor, may God and men, the poor especially, forgive me for it!” The obvious difference between Proudhon’s aspirations and his final approximation is the primary reason for the project of a “gift economy of property.” But, from my perspective, there is no question of attempting to work within the ill-defined terms of 1840. Instead, it seems necessary to reapproach the subjects — property and the family chief among them — which obviously inspired Proudhon’s most passionate responses, with the tools he developed when a little less wound up.

Iain’s post raises a number of other interpretive issues, which I’ll return to in another post.

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

1 Comment

  1. Thanks for the comments. Nice to see people actually reading what I’ve been posting! I something wonder if people are interested in this as much as I am…

    In terms of Proudhon changing his definition of property, perhaps it is more a case of him wishing to limit “naked” property to that being used. This can be seen, I think, from his comments on distributing “property” equally (approximately, of course) within society.

    With the ending of concentrations of property — and, as a result, ending wage-labour, interest, rent, etc. — then we have a situation where property (in the 1860s sense) approximates possession (in the 1840s sense). I would suggest this is what Woodcock, Vincent, etc. see (and myself, obviously).

    Clearly, though, we are limited in the fact that “Theory” was never completed. As such, given the arguments in “Political Capacity” and the other works he did complete while working on it, it is hard to say 100% if Proudhon would have rewritten some of it before publication.

    And I would suggest issues like these show the importance of getting more of his works translated. As more becomes available, the more complex and rich Proudhon’s ideas are seen to be. As an aside, it would be interesting to discuss Proudhon’s ideas on justice with evolutionary theories of ethics based on reciprocal altruism.

    As I was saying to a comrade last week, what has really impressed me most is how so many of the ideas we associate with, say, Bakunin or Marx were first suggested by Proudhon. I can only hope all this effort will see an evaluation in Proudhon in the English speaking world. Guerin (in “No Gods, No Masters”) suggested such a evaluation was happening in France in the 1960s, maybe we can catch up a wee bit now?

    An Anarchist FAQ

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