Proudhon, The Theory of Property — Chapter III (part 1 of 2)

[Here is a particular rough working translation of a particularly interesting section of The Theory of Property. Because it never underwent the careful final editing that Proudhon gave his published works, the text poses a few extra problems for the translator. I think the handful of places where a little more work will be needed to clarify things will be fairly obvious to most readers.]
Different ways of possessing the land: in community, under the feudal system, sovereignty or property. — Examination of the first two modes: rebuttal.
The earth can be possessed in three different ways: in community, under the feudal system, and as property. These modes, by combining, give place to a great variety of applications: we will limit ourselves to recounting their general characters.
I. — Community is not unjust in itself. Its principle is that of the family itself, the principle of fraternity. It is the spirit of the patriarchy, of the tribe, of the clan, of all these elementary groups born from the soil that they cultivate, and of which the vastest States are only developments. The primitive Christian church made community almost a dogma, obeying the ideas of Plato, of Pythagoras, renewed from Lycurgus and Minos, and then in favor. Soon, however, the lay world escaped it: the communist regime no longer exists today except in the convents and among the Moravians. Formerly, in France, community was rather commonly used in certain provinces, as a mode of agricultural exploitation: the Civil Code civil has sanctioned it under the name of universal societies of goods and gains, and has outlined its rules. It is on the principle of that society that Cabet attempted, in Texas, to realize his Icarian utopia. It is presently very rare: I do not know if we could cite even a single example.
The undivided possession and exploitation of the soil, is rational, just, fruitful, necessary even, as long as the exploitante society does not exceed the limits of a close kinship, — mother, father, grandmother, grandfather, children, step-sons and step-daughters, domestics, uncles and aunts; — it is as solid as the family itself. At the same time that it constitutes a community for all the members of the family, it can be, and nearly always is, with regard to strangers, either a property, or a fief. This double character, joined to the exploitation by the family, is what give the institution the greatest morality and the greatest strength. An effect of opposites, that the social genius is pleased to unite, while the individualist reason most often only knows how to put them in discord! But as soon as the families multiply within the primitive community, disagreement is introduced, the zeal for community, par suite le travail relaxes; the universal society of goods and gains changes into a society of goods alone, and tends to approach from day to day a society for commerce, from a society of mutual insurance or benevolence, to simple participation; the community fades away.
This phenomenon of inevitable degradation, which has been observed in all eras and in all the countries where community was instituted, puts us on the path of disadvantages, abuses and vices peculiar to this system.
Man, by virtue of his personality, tends to independence: is it a bad inclination on his part that he must fight, a perversion of liberty, an exorbitance of selfishness, which puts the social order in danger, and which the legislator much repress at any cost? Many have thought so, and one could not doubt that such was at base the true Christian doctrine. The spirit of subordination, obedience and humility can be called a theological virtue, as much as charity and faith. In this system, which, in one form or another, is still that which still gathers the greatest number of votes, Authority is imposed as law. Its ideal, in the political order, is absolute power; in the economic order, community. Before the power, the individual is zero; in the community, he can possess nothing of his own: everything belongs to everyone, nothing belongs to anyone. The subject belongs to the State, to the community, before being of the family, before belonging to himself. Such is the principle, or rather such is the dogma.
Now, note this: man being supposed resistant to obedience, as he is indeed, it results from this that the power, that the community which absorbs him does not subsist by itself; it needs, in order to make itself accepted, reasons or motives which act on the will of the subject and which determine it. In the child, for example, it will be the love of the parents, the trust, tractability and lack of competence of youth, and family sentiment; later, in the adult, this will be the motive of religion, the hope of rewards or the fear of punishments.
But filial deference weakens with age. The day when the young man thinks to form former in his turn a new family, that deference disappears. Among all peoples, marriage is synonymous with emancipation; the parents themselves invite their children to it. In he citizen, lay or faithful, religion also weakens, or at least it thinks to itself. Every religion have its leaven of Protestantism, by virtue of his the most pious man rises sooner or later and says, in the most honest tone and with the most complete good faith: I have the spirit of God in me; the worshiper in spirit and in truth has no need of priest, or temple, or sacraments… As for considerations drawn from force or from wages, they always imply that the authority that they employ is an authority without principle, and that the community does not exist.
Thus, let one think what they want of human rebellion; let one make it a vice of nature or a suggestion of the devil, it always remains that against that serious affection of our humanity there is no remedy; that authority and community cannot give proof of their rights; that they occur only for particular circumstances, and with a reinforcement of conditions which, on ceasing, render authority illegitimate and community null and void.
In short, the only legitimate authority is that which is freely submitted to, as there is no useful and just community except that to which the individual gives its consent. This asserted, we have only one thing left to do: it is to seek the causes for which the individual can withdraw its consent from the community.
Man is endowed with intelligence; he has, in addition, a conscience, which makes him discern good from evil; finally, he possesses free will. These three faculties of the human spirit, intelligence, conscience, and liberty, are not vices, distortions caused in our soul by the spirit of evil: on the contrary, it is because of them that, according to religion, we resemble God; and it is to them that community or public authority appeal, when it gives us its decrees, distributes its justice and its punishments. The responsibility that the law imposes on us is the corollary of our free will.
If it is thus, the community cannot do otherwise than to leave to the individual that it makes responsible a liberty of action equal to its responsibility; the contrary would involve tyranny and contradiction. The community even has an interest in that liberty which dispenses with a costly surveillance, and is not a mediocre means of raising the moral standards of individual, who becomes at once more valiant and more worthy. Thus here is communism undermined, obliged to abdicate itself, in the presence of individual initiative, even in the smallest matter. But individuality becomes more demanding as the individual is endowed with more reason and moral sense: where would the concessions stop? That is the stumbling block for authority and communism. Well! I respond that liberty is undefined, that it must go as far as the intelligence, the dignity and the strength of action which is in it entail. Ensuring that pubic authority and common interest should appear only where liberty ends, where the action, genius, and virtue of the citizen becomes insufficient.
The same reasoning applies to the family, to the distribution of services, to the separation of industries and the allocation des products. Every family, every new household is a little community, in the midst of the large community, which disappears more and more to give place to the law of the mine and thine; every distinction of industry, every division of labor, every idea of value and wage is a breach of the common domain. Depart from that, try to combat that tendency, to suppress that evolution: you will fall into promiscuity, fraud, disorganization, envy and robbery.
The same reasoning applies with regard to the relations between the citizen and the State. It is precisely because the individual is free, intelligent, industrious, attached to a special profession, because he has a domicile, a wife, des children, he demands not only to be freed from the communist verges, but he considers the entire community from a particular side; he discovers in the [reigning] power defects, gaps, and parasitic branches which do not appear to others; he has an opinion, finally, of which, for good or ill, the government must take account.
Open the door to this torrent of opinions: now you are emporté in the system of States to separate powers. On the contrary, try to curb the universal and you return to tyranny; take the middle ground and make of politics some balance or happy medium, now you are in the most immoral and cowardly of Machiavellianisms, doctrinaire hypocrisy. Here then, as before, with regard to liberty and the family, you have no choice; in it necessary, and it is inevitable, to crush liberty in the barracks, to make opinion die under the threat of bayonets, or to retreat before liberty, reserving public authority only for the things that the suffrage of the citizen cannot resolve or deign to hear.
From the preceding, it follows that the earth cannot be possessed or exploited, and, by analogy, no industry [can] be practiced in common, and that, like the sons of Noah after the flood, we are condemned to division. By what title would we possess now? That is what we will examine below.
The idea of applying the universal society of goods and gains to the exploitation of the land, and to introduce it into large populations, is not primitive; it is not a natural suggestion, since we see, from the beginning, in the embryonic valley, the family multiplies its tents of fires, in proportion to the formation of couples; the State develops in hamlets, villages and cantons, each having its separate administration, and constitutes itself bit by bit according to the principle of individual liberty, the suffrage of the citizens, the independence of groups and the distinction of cultures. Community, as an institution or form given by nature, is at its highest point of concentration in the family; beyond that, it breaks its frame and soon no longer exists except as the relations of proximity, similarities of language, worship, customs or laws, at the most as mutual insurance; which, involving the idea of a covenant, is the very negation of communism. It is only subsequently, when aristocratic insolence and the harshness of their servitude has provoked a reaction from the people, that community presents itself as a disciplinary means and state system: it is enough to cite the examples of Lycurgus, Pythagoras, Plato and the first Christians. But experience has soon done justice to the hypothesis: everywhere and always liberty has risen up against communism, which has never been able to establish itself except on a small scale, and as an exception among the masses. The largest community that has ever existed, that of Sparta, was founded on slavery and war; as long as the Christians only formed a sect lost in the immensity of the empire, their communities, sustained by the zeal for the new dogma, appeared flourishing; still they had no object but prayer, charity and meals/the repast. Those who wanted to mix love with it soon fell under their own infamy. The day when Christianity declared itself the universal religion, it abandoned its communism, which the agitations of the Middle Ages could not revive. The Moravians are sociétairesrather than communists. (See, for the critique of Community, The System of Economic Contradictions, V. II, chap. 12.)
[to be concluded in part 2]
[Working translation by Shawn P. Wilbur]
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