Proudhon’s “New Theory” (1 of 3)

[Note: For some general thoughts on The Theory of Property, see “property must justify itself or disappear”]

Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, The Theory of Property, Chapter VI: “The New Theory” (1865)

New theory: that the motives, and thus the legitimacy of property, must be sought, not in its principle or origin, but in its aims. Presentation of these motives.

Philosophy has had, for three centuries, many institutions and many beliefs: will it be the same for property? If my opinion is of any weight here, I dare to respond that it will not. Jurisprudence has not grasped thus far the causes or the reasons for property, because property, as it has come to reveal itself to us in its principle and in its history, is a fact of collective spontaneity of which nothing would have been able a priori to detect the spirit and the reason; because, on the other hand, it is still in the process of formation, and in this regard experience is incomplete; because, until the last few years, philosophical doubt has struck it only timidly, and because it is necessary, beforehand, to destroy its religion; because in this moment it appears to us rather as a revolutionary force than as an inspiration of universal conscience, and that if it has reversed many despotisms, overcame many aristocracies, one cannot finally say that it has founded anything at all.

The moment has come when property must justify itself or disappear: if I have obtained, these last ten years, some success for the critique that I have made of it, I hope that the reader will not show themselves less favorable today to this exegesis.

I will first observe that if we want to be successful in our research, it is completely necessary that we abandon the road where our predecessors became lost. In order to make sense of property, they returned to the origins; they scrutinized and analyzed the principle; they invoked the needs of personality and the rights of labor, and appealed to the sovereignty of the legislator. That was to place oneself on the terrain of possession. We have seen in Chapter IV, in the summary critique that we have made of all the controversies, into what paralogisms the authors were thrown. Only skepticism could be the fruit of their efforts; and skepticism is today the only serious opinion which exists on the subject of property. It is necessary to change methods. It is neither in its principle and its origins, nor in its materials that we must seek the reason of property; in all those regards, property, I repeat, has nothing more to offer us than possession; it is in its AIMS.

But how to discover the purpose of an institution of which one has declared it useless to examine the principle, the origin and the material? Is it not, to lightheartedly pose an insoluble problem? Property, indeed, is absolute, unconditional, jus utendi et abutendi, or it is nothing. Now, who says absolute, says indefinable, says a thing which one can recognize neither by its limits nor its conditions, neither by its material, nor by the date of its appearance. To seek the aims of property in what we can know of it beginnings, of the animating principle on which it rests, of the circumstances under which it manifests itself, that would be always to go in circles, and to disappear into contradiction. We cannot even bring to testimony the services that it is supposed to render, since those services are none other than those of possession itself; because we only know them imperfectly; because nothing proves besides that we cannot obtain for ourselves the same guarantees, and still better ones, by other means.

Here again, and for the second time, I say that it is necessary to change methods and to start ourselves on an unknown road. The only thing that we can know clearly about property, and by which we can distinguish it from possession, is that it is absolute abusive; Very well! It is in its absolutism, in its abuses that we must seek the aim.

Do not let these odious names of abuse and absolutism, dear reader, frighten you unnecessarily. It is not a question of legitimating what your incorruptible conscience condemns, nor or misleading your own reason in the transcendental regions. This is an affair of pure logic, and since the Collective Reason, the sovereign of us all, is not at all frightened of proprietary absolutism, why should it scandalize you any more? Should we be ashamed, perhaps, of ourselves? Certain minds, from an excess of puritanism, or perhaps a feebleness of comprehension, have posed individualism as the antithesis of revolutionary thought: it was simply to drive the citizen and man from the republic. Let us be less timid. Nature has made man individual, which means rebellious; society in its turn, doubtless in order not to remain at rest, has instituted property; in order to achieve the triad, since, according to Pierre Leroux, every truth is manifested in three terms, man, rebellious and egoistic subject, has dedicated himself to all the fantasies of his free will. It is with these three great enemies, Revolt, Egoism and Good Pleasure that we must live; it is on their shoulders, as on the back of three caryatids, that we will raise the temple of Justice.

All the abuses of which property can make itself guilty, and they are as numerous as profound, can be reduced to three categories, according to the point of view from which one considers property: political abuses, economic abuses, moral abuses. We will examine one after another these different categories of abuse, and, concluding à mesure, we will deduce the AIMS of property, in other words its function and social destiny.

[translation by Shawn P. Wilbur]

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Independent scholar, translator and archivist.