Reading “What is Property? — The Third Social Form

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Back in 2014, in the midst of some very general questioning of how we tell anarchist history, I retranslated some of the final sections of Proudhon’s What is Property? and started a close reading of the material. It was two years before I got a chance to fully complete the translation and it’s only really now, in the context of a group reading of the work on Reddit, that I’m getting a chance to return to the close reading. The largest distraction, of course, has been that more general questioning, which has borne fruit quite steadily and consistently over the years and has brought me back to a place where a more formal treatment of this material seems in order. In preparation for that task, I’ve united the material from three past posts here.

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Another look at Proudhon (and an invitation to experiment)

Originally published Aug 6, 2014.

It is a well-known fact of anarchist history (a term that we’ll be giving some special attention in the coming months) that even the founding figures of the anarchist tradition did not often identify themselves as anarchists until sometime fairly late in the 19th century. Over the weekend, I had a chance to spend some time examining just when, and under what circumstances, that self-identification became more common. There seems to have been a fairly serious shift in the 1870s and 1880s, with a fairly rapid convergence of anti-authoritarians of various tendencies on the “anarchist” label in the years between 1875 and 1885, with the watershed somewhere around 1881. Here are some of my notes:

In 1878, the “Bulletin de la Fédération Jurassienne” was still explicitly treating “anarchiste” as a word borrowed from its enemies, but by 1881, Kropotkin was telling the story of how the anarchist-communists came to reappropriate the term as if it was a fait accompli. Benjamin Tucker’s publications follow a similar arc: in 1877-8, the “Radical Review” is not explicitly anarchist, but in 1881 “Liberty” embraces the term.

I haven’t been able to track down how early Johann Most embraced the term, but it seems to have been within the same timeframe.

Outside anarchist circles, it seems that the popular press in the US was still using “anarchist” to talk about southern senators about as often as real political radicals well into the 1870s. My sense from a long night of browsing digitized papers in various databases is that the process by which internal and external definitions converged involved the coverage of a series of political attentats and trials: Max Hödel in 1878, the Narodnaya Volya assassination attempts and the Most trial in 1880-1881, and Haymarket in 1886.

Doing the research for the “Anarchisms” anthology, I noticed that Elisée Reclus’ “Anarchy: By an Anarchist” (1884) marks the beginning of a pretty steady flood of similar statements.

The fact that 1881 also marked the founding of the “Black International” is probably not a coincidence.

Having even a rough date—and it remains to be seen just how rough the date is—makes it easier to come to terms with the consequences of what we’ve always sort of known, that prior to a certain point in our history “anarchist” and “anarchism” were words that we tended to mistrust, for a variety of reasons, many of them having to do with what has become a traditional mistrust of our origins. And let’s face it: a lot of that boils down to a mistrust of Proudhon and his thought. Collectivists may at times have claimed they were the “true mutualists,” but they didn’t want to be mistaken for “Proudhonists,” a label that remains one of the more durable insults among radicals. When communists wanted to emphasize their distance from the collectivists, they in a sense affirmed—and sometimes continue to affirm—that “true mutualism” claim, in negative form. In the process, accounts developed of “the development of anarchism” that, in a number of important senses, were themselves the invention and legitimation of something new, borrowing the name from Proudhon while relegating his thought to a sort of pre-history. As what Kropotkin called “modern anarchism” emerged, so did a rather ahistorical hegemonic master narrative that transformed decades of struggle into an evolution, with anarchist communism at its summit, which had the effect of painting contemporary rivals as belonging to an inferior stage of development (now another time-honored sectarian strategy.) The analysis of that post-watershed period of canon development demands a full exploration of its own, in the context of which a lot of familiar material, from Kropotkin’s Britannica essay to Tucker’s translations and the work of Nettlau, may need to be reexamined. But that is not the only reexamination we might consider undertaking in this context.

If we accept the notion of a watershed, on one side of which we find numerous anti-authoritarian factions and labels, among which “anarchist” occupies a special place, in order of appearance, but not necessarily a privileged one, in terms of individuals’ preferences and loyalties, and on the other side of which we find a convergence of labels, together with a continuing struggle over systems and ideologies, then we are left to determine if there is something in the original use of “anarchist” that provides some common element in the later period, or whether some more complex transformation has taken place.

I doubt that anyone will be surprised that I suspect that the latter is the case.

Some readers may, however, be surprised at the extent to which I am willing to entertain—and even welcome—the speculation, so often used against Proudhon and those strongly influenced by him, that Proudhon was in fact not an “anarchist” in the sense most common on our side of the late 19th century watershed. Never fear, I have no intention of giving any ground on the importance of Proudhon’s thought to 21st century anarchism, and it seems clear that at least some of the narratives by which mutualist thought has been relegated to the real of proto-anarchisms and infantile disorders are pretty badly formed. The problem, from my perspective, is that the sort of struggle we have engaged in to combat those badly formed narratives does not lead us out of our present uncertainties, or outright confusions, with any of the speed that we probably require. So there may be no better strategy than to confront the relationship between Proudhon and (modern) anarchism head-on, by asking ourselves:

  1. What would be the effect on our understanding of Proudhon of lifting him out of the context of “anarchist history”?
  2. What would be the effect on our understanding of “anarchist history” to lift Proudhon out of it?

To start to answer the first question, I want to propose a simple experiment. I’ve retranslated a portion of What is Property? from scratch, attempting to produce as literal a translation of the French as possible, without engaging in any of the on-the-fly editorial clarifications that are so common, but that we know can also become extremely problematic (as in the case of the translations of “anarchie” in The General Idea of the Revolution.) This is the first half of the section on “the third form of society,” the conclusion of the work, where Proudhon seems to be describing his goals. I invite readers to read carefully through the section, setting aside—to as great an extent as possible—everything they know or think they know about Proudhon and concentrating on the concepts that he was using, the relationships that he was building between them, and any emphases that seem to be present. Then, based on this section alone, readers might want to ask themselves how best to characterize the social philosophy expressed. We all, of course, know the keywords that have been traditionally associated with the philosophy, but the question is whether the association seems correct, or most correct, given the specific language and development present in the passage.

I will naturally present my own reading of the material, but I think it will prove a really useful exercise for most readers to go through the process for themselves before I go on.

Partially published Aug 6, 2014; revised and completed .


§ 3. Determination of the third social form. Conclusion

Therefore, no government, no public economy, no administration is possible with property for a basis.

Community seeks equality and law. Property, born of the autonomy of reason and the feeling of individual worth, wants, above all things, independence and proportionality.

But community, taking uniformity for law, and leveling for equality, becomes tyrannical and unjust. Property, through its despotism and its invasions, soon shows itself oppressive and unsociable.

What property and community seek is good; what both produce is bad. And why? Because both are exclusive, and are unaware, each from its own side, of two elements of society. Community rejects independence and proportionality; property does not satisfy equality and law.

Now, if we imagine a society based on these four principles—equality, law, independence, and proportionality—we find:

1) That equality, consisting solely of the equality of conditions, that is to say of means, not in the equality of well-being, which with equal means must be the work of the laborer, does not in any way violate justice and equity;

2) That law, resulting from the science of facts, and consequently relying on necessity itself, never offends independence;

3) That the respective independence of individuals, or the autonomy of private reason, deriving from the difference of talents and capacities, can exist without danger within the limits of law;

4) That proportionality, only being allowed within the sphere of intelligence and sentiment, not in that of physical things, can be observed without violating justice or social equality.

This third form of society, the synthesis of community and property, we will call LIBERTY. [1] Thus, in order to determine liberty, we do not join community and property indiscriminately, which would be an absurd eclecticism. We seek, by an analytic method, what each contains that is true, in conformity with the wishes of nature and the laws of sociability, and we eliminate the foreign elements that they contain; and the result gives an expression suitable to the natural form of human society, in short, to liberty.

Liberty is equality, because liberty only exists in the social state, and apart from equality there is not society.

Liberty is anarchy, because it does not accept the government of the will, but only the authority of law, that is to say of necessity.

Liberty is infinite variety, because it respects all wills, within the limits of law.

Liberty is proportionality, because it leaves complete latitude to the ambition for merit [2] and the rivalry for glory.

Now we can say, after the example of Mr. Cousin: “Our principle is true; it is good and social; let us not fear to deduce all its consequences.”

Sociability in man, becoming justice through reflection, and equity through the intermeshing [engrènement] of capacities, having liberty for its formula, is the true foundation of morals, the principle and rule of all our actions. It is this universal cause [mobile] that philosophy seeks, that religion fortifies, selfishness supplants and that pure reason never replaced. Duty and right arise in us from need, which, according to whether we consider it in relation to external beings, is right, or, in relation to ourselves, duty.

We need to eat and to sleep. We have a right to procure the things necessary for sleep and nutrition; it is a duty to use them when nature demands it.

We need to work to live. It is a right and a duty.

We have a need to love our wives and children. It is a duty to be their protector and to support them; it is a right to be loved by them in preference to all others. Conjugal fidelity is in accordance with justice; adultery is a crime of treason against society [lèse-société].

We need to exchange our products for other products. It is a right that the exchange be made for equivalents, and since we consume before producing, it would be a duty, if the thing depended on us, that our last product follow our last consumption. Suicide is a fraudulent bankruptcy.

We need to accomplish our tasks according to the insights of our reason. It is a right to maintain our free will; it is a duty to respect that of others.

We need to be appreciated by our fellows. It is a duty to be worthy of their praise; it is a right to be judged according to our works.

Liberty is not contrary to the rights of succession and testament: it is content to ensure that equality is not violated. Choose, it says to us, between two inheritances, but never accumulate. All the legislation concerning the transmissions, the substitutions, the adoptions, and, if I dare use this word, the coadjutoreries, is to be remade.

Liberty promotes emulation and does not destroy it: in [conditions of] social equality, emulation consists of acting under equal conditions; its reward is all in itself, and no one suffers from the victory.

Liberty applauds devotion and respects its votes [suffrages], but it can do without it. Justice is sufficient for social equilibrium; devotion is a supererogation. Happy, however, is the one who can say: I devote myself. [3]

Liberty is essentially organizing: in order to insure equality between men, and equilibrium between nations, it is necessary that agriculture and industry, the centers of instruction, commerce and warehousing, are distributed according to the geographical and climacteric [4] conditions of each country, the varieties of the products, the character and natural talents of the inhabitants, etc., in proportions so accurate, so skillful, so well matched, that nowhere is there ever present an excess nor a lack of population, consumption or product. That is the beginning of the science of public and private right, the true political economy. It is up to the legists, freed from now on from the false principle of property, to describe the new laws, and bring peace to the world. They do not lack science and genius; the point of application [point d’appui] has been given to them. [5].

I have accomplished the work that I proposed to myself. Property is vanquished; it will never rise again. Everywhere that this discourse is read and reported, there a seed of death will be deposited for property: there, sooner or later, privilege and servitude will disappear; the despotism of the will will be succeeded by the reign of reason. Indeed, what sophisms, what obstinate prejudices could hold before the simplicity of these propositions.

I. Individual possession is the condition of social life; [6] five thousand years of property demonstrate it: property is the suicide of society. Possession is within [the realm of] right; property is against right. Eliminate property by preserving possession; and, by that single modification of principle, you will change everything in the laws, the government, the economy and the institutions: you will sweep evil from the earth.

II. The right to occupy being equal for all, possession varies like the number of possessors; property cannot form.

III. The effect of labor also being the same for all, property is lost through foreign exploitation and rent.

IV. All human labor necessarily resulting from a collective force, all property becomes, for this reason, collective and undivided: in more precise terms, labor destroys property.

V. Every capacity for labor being, like every instrument of labor, an accumulated capital, a collective property, inequality of salary and fortune, under the pretext of inequality of capacity, is injustice and theft.

V. The necessary conditions of commerce are the liberty of the contracting parties and the equivalence of the products exchanged: now, the value being expressed by the quantity of time and expense cost by each product and the liberty being inviolable, the labors necessarily remain equal in wages, as they are in rights and duties.

VII. Products only exchange for products. Now, the condition of every exchange being the equivalence of the products, profit is impossible and unjust. Observe this most elementary principle of economics, and pauperism, luxury, oppression, vice, crime, along with hunger, would disappear from our midst.

VIII. Men are associated by the physical and mathematical law of production, before being associated by their full agreement: so the equality of conditions is [a matter] of justice, that is to say of social right, of strict right; esteem, friendship, recognition and admiration all fall solely within the realm of equitable or proportional right.

IX. Free association, liberty, which limits itself to maintaining equality in the means of production, and equivalence in exchanges, is the only form of society that is possible, the only one that is just and true.

X. Politics is the science of liberty: the government of man by man, no matter the name with which it is disguised, is oppression; the highest perfection of society is found in the union of order and anarchy.

The end of antique civilizations has come; under a new sun, the face of the earth will be renewed. Let a generation pass away, let the old prevaricators die in the desert: the sacred earth will not cover their bones. Young man, whom the corruption of the unworthy century  and the zeal for justice devours, if your homeland is dear to you, and if the interest of humanity touches you, dare to embrace the cause of liberty. Strip off your old selfishness, plunge yourself into the popular flood of emerging equality; there, your rebaptized soul will obtain an unknown lifeblood and vigor; your enervated genius will again find an unshakeable energy; your heart, perhaps already withered, will grow young again. Everything will change its appearance to your purified vision: new sentiments will give birth in you to new ideas; religion, morals, poetry, art, language will appear to you in a finer and more beautiful form; and, certain from now on of your faith, enthusiastic with reflection, you will salute the dawn of universal regeneration.

And you, sad victims of an odious law, you whom a mocking world loots and insults, you, whose labor was always without fruit and whose rest was without hope, be consoled, your tears have been counted. The fathers have sown in affliction, but the sons will reap in joy.

Oh, God of liberty! God of equality! God who put the sentiment of justice in my heart before my reason understood it, hear my ardent prayer. It is you who have dictated all that I have just written. You have formed my thought, have directed my studies, you have weaned my mind from curiosity and my heart from attachment, in order that I might publish your truth before the master and the slave. I have spoken with the strength and talent that you have given me; it is for you to finish your work. You know whether I seek my own interest or your glory, God of liberty! Ah! Perish my memory, but let humanity be free; let me see in my obscurity the people finally educated; let noble teachers enlighten them; let selfless hearts guide them. Abbreviate, if it is possible, the time of our trials; smother pride and avarice in equality; confound this idolatry of glory that holds us in abjection; teach these poor children that in the bosom of liberty there are no longer heroes or great men. Inspire in the powerful, in the rich, in him whose name my lips will never utter before you, the horror of their rapine; let them be first to ask to be accepted in restoration, let the promptness of their remorse itself absolve them. Then, great and small, learned and ignorant, rich and poor, will unite in an ineffable fraternity; and, all together, singing a new hymn, will rebuild your altar, God of liberty and Equality!


[1] Libertas, liberare, libratio, libra, liberty, to deliver, libration, balance (ledger), are all expressions that appear to have a common etymology. Liberty is the balance of rights and duties: to make a man free is to balance him with others, to put him at their level.

[2] The word mérite means “merit” or “worth,” but also, in some cases, “advantage.”—Translator.

[3] In a monthly publication, the first issue of which just appeared under the name of l’Égalitaire, devotion has been posited as the principle of equality: that is to confuse every notion. By itself, devotion supposes the highest degree of inequality; to seek equality in devotion is to admit that equality is against nature. Equality must be established on the basis of justice, on the strict right, on principles invoked by the proprietor himself: otherwise, it would never exist. Devotion is superior to justice; it cannot be imposed as a law, because its nature is to be without reward. Certainly, it would be desirable that everyone recognize the necessity of devotion, and the thought of l’Égalitaire is a very good example; unfortunately, it can lead to nothing. What, indeed are we to say to a man who says: “I do not wish to devote myself”? Must we constrain him? When devotion is forced, it is called oppression, servitude, exploitation of man by man. It is in this way that the proletarians are devoted to property

[4] Proudhon wrote climatériques, but probably meant climatologiques, climatological, rather than crucial.—Translator.

[5] Of all the modern socialists, the disciples of Fourier have long appeared to me the most advanced and nearly the only ones worth of the name. If they had understood their task, to speak to the people, to awaken sympathies, to be silent about the things they did not understand; if they had put forward less arrogant pretensions and shown more respect for public reason, perhaps, thanks to them, the reform would have commenced. But how have such determined reformers constantly knelt before power and opulence, before that which is most opposed to reform? How, in a reasoning century, have they not understood that the world wants to be converted by demonstrative reason, not by myths and allegories? How, though implacable adversaries of civilization, have they still borrowed its most deadly products: property, inequality of fortune and rank, gluttony, concubinage, prostitution, and who knows what else? Ritual, magic and deviltry? Why these interminable declamations against moral science, metaphysics and psychology, when the abuse of these sciences, of which they understand nothing, makes up their entire system? Why this mania for deifying a man whose principal merit was to rave about a mass of things of which he knew only the names, in the strangest language ever? Whoever accepts the infallibility of a man becomes, as a result, incapable of instructing others; whoever sacrifices their own reason will soon forbid free inquiry. The phalansterians would find not fault with it, if they were the masters. Let them finally deign to reason, let them proceed methodically, let them give demonstrations, not revelations, and we would listen to them willingly; than let them organize industry, agriculture, commerce; let them make labor attractive, make the most humble functions honorable, and we will applaud their accomplishments. Above all, let them rid themselves of that illuminism that gives them the air of imposters or dupes, much more than believers or apostles.

[6] Individual possession is not at all an obstacle to large-scale farming and joint cultivation. If I have not spoken of the disadvantages of parceling out, it is because it thought it useless to repeat, after so many others, what must be an established truth for everyone. But I am surprised that the economists, who have so emphasized the miseries of small-scale farming, have not seen that its principle is entirely in property, above all that they have not sensed that their project of mobilizing the soil is a beginning of the abolition of property.


[Revised translation by Shawn P. Wilbur, ]

Reading “The Third Social Form” — I

We have a lot of issues on our plate, but for now let’s stick to the reading of the passage from What is Property?

The first thing that strikes me, looking again at this section, is just how rich this early text is with indications and anticipations of Proudhon’s later work. Then I’m struck by how opaque some of those bits can be, given the state of his development in 1840. I would have to work back through the rest of the text to see just how much of this set of conclusions are actually set up in the previous arguments, but my sense is that one of the reasons that this material has not seen a lot of more serious analysis is that there is quite a bit in it that is novel, so that we have comparatively little in What is Property? itself to help us interpret it. That leaves us attempting to make sense of it on the basis of the received wisdom about Proudhon’s project or simply attempting to rely on isolated pieces of what seems to be a fairly complex analysis.

The other obviously striking aspect is the relatively modest role played by “anarchy” in this exposition of Liberty as “the third form of society.” Proudhon has established a historical narrative, within which two dominant forms of social organization, Community and Property, have fought for dominance. He then proposes a third form, Liberty, which he describes as a “synthesis” of the two previous forms. Then, in a move that I will admit I have never noticed before, he describes the method by which this “synthesis” will take place, and it is actually analytic: Each of the prior forms tends toward two fundamental classes of relations, while ignoring two others. We will analyze the two prior forms, identifying the elements that tend toward the various sorts of relations, and then we will combine the elements—and not the prior social forms—into something freed from the simplist blind-spots of those prior forms. When we examine those four principles (“equality, law, independence, and proportionality“), we find that they are compatible, as long as each is confined to its appropriate sphere. In the analytic process, we will “eliminate the foreign elements” contained in the prior forms—a process we might associated with the later “elimination of the absolute,” by which relations and institutions are stripped of their fundamentally archic elements—and what remains will be various aspects of Liberty, “the natural form of human society.”

Having defined Liberty as combining these four aspects, Proudhon turns things around to show how Liberty implies a set of four roughly equivalent terms: equality, anarchy, infinite variety, and proportionality. Infinite variety corresponds roughly to independence (although with an interesting, positive spin), and anarchy is introduced in this way:

Liberty is anarchy, because it does not accept the government of the will, but only the authority of law, that is to say of necessity.

That is fairly close to the earlier definition of anarchy as rule by reason alone (although it seems to set individual reason and will at odds in ways that might be worth pursuing), and emphasizes that anarchism should be anti-governmentalist, not simply as a dogma, but because it is the application of social science to the problem of governance. It also fits well with the passage from The Theory of Property, where Proudhon declares that “Humanity proceeds by approximations,” and then lists some of them:

  1. The approximation of the equality of faculties through education, the division of labor, and the development of aptitudes;
  2. The approximation of the equality of fortunes through industrial and commercial freedom.
  3. The approximation of the equality of taxes;
  4. The approximation of the equality of property;
  5. The approximation of an-archy;
  6. The approximation of non-religion, or non-mysticism;
  7. Indefinite progress in the science, law, liberty, honor, justice.

We probably won’t go too far wrong to take the seventh point as a sort of summary of the rest, but, in any event, we find that approximating anarchy (the “perpetual desideratum” of The Federative Principle) appears as one among several sorts of progress.

So what can we conclude about Proudhon, his project, and its relation to anarchism as we know it? It is clear that when Proudhon said “I am an anarchist” he meant it, but it seems equally clear that what he meant was not exactly what most of us mean when we say the same thing. To be an anarchist, for Proudhon, appears in 1840 to have just been one aspect of being committed to the progress of liberty. That opens room for speculation about the relationship between Proudhon’s anarchism and the “modern anarchism” of Kropotkin, but also between Proudhon’s anarchism and the anarchism of Déjacque. When Déjacque tells Proudhon to be “an entire anarchist and not a quarter anarchist, an eighth anarchist, or one-sixteenth anarchist,” for reasons that have to do with economics and the role of women, at least part of what has happened is an expansion of the scope of anarchism in Déjacque’s hands. That expanded anarchism is more familiar to most of us, and many of us have had occasion to strongly oppose definitions of anarchism that would limit it to a particular sphere of progress-towards-liberty. But when we’re trying to compare Proudhon’s project to our own, as opposed to simply comparing what we call “anarchism,” we find Proudhon once again on our side, I think. We just don’t quite know what to call the larger project that includes anarchism among its various elements. Proudhon isn’t the equivalent of our mere anti-statists, attempting to limit what we would think of as anarchism to opposition to government, or to particular government forms. As clumsy as a few of his gropings towards liberty might have been, his project was intended to be as all-inclusively anti-authoritarian as our own, but “anarchist” was not the way he identified himself in relation to that larger project.

That leaves at least two questions to pursue:

  • Is there a natural alternative identification for Proudhon’s project, corresponding to the way we use “anarchist”?
  • What were the consequences for Proudhon of not identifying as an anarchist in the same way that we do?


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