The Larger Antinomy

Contr’un Revisted: [commentary coming soon]


“When Jesus Christ, explaining to the people the different articles of the Decalogue, taught them that polygamy had been permitted to the ancients because of the rudeness of their intelligence, but that it had not been thus in the beginning; that a bad desire is equal to a fornication consummated; that insult and affront are as reprehensible as murder and blows; that he is a parricide who says to his poor father: “This morning I have prayed to God for you; that will benefit you;” he said nothing of the 8th commandment, which concerned theft, judging the hardness of heart of his audience still too great for the truth that he had to speak. After eighteen centuries, are we worthy to hear it?”—P.-J. Proudhon, The Celebration of Sunday
While I’m picking up dropped threads and revisiting basic arguments in the property discussion, it’s important to incorporate the elements that came out of my work on Proudhon’s The Celebration of Sunday. That early work introduced a number of potential twists into the story of Proudhon and “property.” Three stand out:
  1. Anticipating a number of other instances where he would describe “property” as perhaps the greatest question that faced humanity, Proudhon described Jesus skipping over a discussion of theft, the notion that would come to define property for Proudhon, because it was, in essence, a topic whose time had not yet come. While this is not a “twist,” so much as it is evidence of a consistent emphasis on the difficulties and importance of the question, that is extremely useful, given all the attempts to portray “property is theft” as the one really important element of Proudhon’s property theory. The consistent insistence on the difficulties involved has to weigh heavily against any attempt to take Proudhon’s bon mot as all that really matters in his analysis.(For those unfamiliar with the other statements of this sort, here’s another example:

    “The problem of property is, after that of human destiny, the greatest that reason can propose, and the last that it will be able to resolve. Indeed, the theological problem, the enigma of religion, has been explicated; the philosophical problem, which treats the value and legitimacy of knowledge, is resolved: there remains the social problem, which simply joins these two, and the solution of which, as everyone believes, comes essentially from property.”—P.-J. Proudhon, The System of Economic Contradictions.)

  2. In a discussion of the value of the solitude and reflection imposed by the celebration of Sunday for society, Proudhon made it clear that he believed that the development and health of society was dependent on the periodic intervention of a kind of anti-social isolation. Moses imposed a sort of weekly hermitage on the Israelites in order to make them human, to allow them to grow, develop and seek truth.

    If Moses had had the power, he would never have had the thought to transform his farmers into effective hermits; he only wanted to make them men, to accustom them, by reflection, to seek the just and the true in everything. Thus he strove to create around them a solitude which would not destroy the great affluence, and which preserved all the prestige of a true isolation: the solitude of the Sabbath and the feasts.

    One of the objections to much of Proudhon’s property theory comes from a resistance to the notion that the road to an anarchist society could pass through an institution, like simple property, which Proudhon characterized as not simply unsocial, but in some sense despotic, even anthropophagous. But there is a thread that runs through Proudhon’s work, from The Celebration of Sunday to The Theory of Property, which suggests that a belief in just that sort of route to liberty was one of his fairly constant beliefs. The comments from 1839 are followed  by these remarks:

    “The consequences of Adam’s transgression are inherited by the race; the first is ignorance.” Truly, the race, like the individual, is born ignorant; but, in regard to a multitude of questions, even in the moral and political spheres, this ignorance of the race has been dispelled: who says that it will not depart altogether? Mankind makes continual progress toward truth, and light ever triumphs over darkness. Our disease is not, then, absolutely incurable, and the theory of the theologians is worse than inadequate; it is ridiculous, since it is reducible to this tautology: “Man errs, because he errs.” While the true statement is this: “Man errs, because he learns.” Now, if man arrives at a knowledge of all that he needs to know, it is reasonable to believe that, ceasing to err, he will cease to suffer.

    The notion that human beings might eventually cease to err became gradually less tenable for Proudhon, as he elaborated his philosophy of progress—and it was, arguably, not all that consistent with some of what he wrote in What is Property? in the first place—so we might be inclined to see it as entirely consistent with Proudhon’s mature thought that erring is always part of the road to learning, and learning is an endless journey. And when—in between proposing the “universalizing of robbery” in 1842 and suggesting that the unforeseen outcome of a free market might be something like communism—he claimed, in The System of Economic Contradictions, that:

    “By abuse, the legislator has meant that the proprietor has the right to be mistaken in the use of his goods, without ever being subject to investigation for that poor use, without being responsible to anyone for his error.

    it’s as if we should have been expecting it right along, and the case is made for a certain sort of property, for as long as human beings continue to err.

  3. The third reference to property is the the discussion of the true meaning of that injunction against “theft” in the Decalogue:

    Equality of conditions is in conformity to reason and an irrefutable right. It is in the spirit of Christianity, and it is the aim of society; the legislation of Moses demonstrates that it can be attained. That sublime dogma, so frightening in our time, has its roots in the most intimate depths of the conscience, where it is mixed up with the very notion of justice and right. Thou shalt not steal, says the Decalogue, which is to say, with the vigor of the original term, lo thignob, you will divert nothing, you will put nothing aside for yourself. The expression is generic like the idea itself: it forbids not only theft committed with violence and by ruse, fraud and brigandage, but also every sort of gain acquired from others without their full agreement. It implies, in short, that every violation of equality of division, every premium arbitrarily demanded, and tyrannically collected, either in exchange, or from the labor of others, is a violation of communicative justice, it is a misappropriation.

    Read according to what I have been calling the “energetic” interpretation of the terms, this threatens not just a twist, but an overturning of much of what we have thought we knew about Proudhon and property. If theft is actually prior to property, there are a variety of consequences. Certain facile objections to the phrase “property is theft” lose a great deal of their force, and perhaps we see another instance of the sort of logic I discussed in #2 above. But the possibility which has been most exciting to me is that, in teasing out the specific “varieties of theft and property,” we may begin to glimpse an element of Proudhon’s theory which has previously been hard to isolate: a general contradiction or antinomy which informs Proudhon’s entire project.


I think we can safely posit two very general categories of responses to Proudhon: those which assume that his work, and particularly his work on property, was more complete than consistent, and those which insist that it was more consistent than complete. According to the first approach, the phrase “property is theft,” certain proposals in The General Idea of the Revolution, and the general trajectory of The Political Capacity of the Working Classes (or some roughly similar collection) constitute Proudhon’s major work—laying the foundation for social anarchism—and the critical task is to clear away all the distracting deviations and contradictions that might lead down other roads. The second approach focuses on the central role of “contradictions” in Proudhon’s work, and tends to pay close attention to the recurrence of certain challenging elements of his thought across his entire career, accumulating loose ends and suggestive repetitions, while constantly digging through the works for more data. Both approaches have their associated risks, but I don’t think anyone is under any illusions about which one I consider more useful, particularly at this stage of our rediscovery of Proudhon.

In some ways, of course, I think that the first approach is at a severe disadvantage. There are simply too many indications in Proudhon’s work that he considered himself engaged in a constant work-in-progress, and, at least in the English-speaking world, most of us are still exploring, trying to determine the extent of his projects—and it’s a dangerous business to start trimming limbs when you don’t really quite know what sort of tree you’re looking at.

If you’re not simply starting out with the assumption that the important things in Proudhon’s work were the ones that were useful to Bakunin and Kropotkin, some general characteristics of that work become obvious fairly quickly—mostly because they pose such constant and difficult problems for the reader. Proudhon was engaged in a range of types of analysis, with pretty much all of them dependent on some sort of dialectical play between antagonistic, contradictory, or antinomic elements. In the discussions of property, we encounter a couple of different versions of the quasi-historical/developmental narrative, in which Proudhon posits “community” and “property” (1840)—or “property” and “communism” (1846), or “fief” and “allodium” (1861/5)—as “stages” in the development of resource-management norms. We find him opposing “possession” and “property” as principles, respectively, of “fact” and “right,” while, in the midst of the same work, also describing them as, respectively, consistent with and against “right.” We find him opposing individual and collective forms of property (broadly speaking), while treating any form of organized collectivity worthy of the name as also an individual, describing individuals as always already “groups” or “series,” and ultimately making it clear that the property that is “theft” for the human individual would also be theft for the most inclusive collectivity. Property takes its place amidst the play of centralizing and decentralizing institutions. It is “theft,” “impossible,” and “liberty.” And, of course, it is one of the elements of that “synthesis of community and property” that Proudhon believed would produce liberty. There is, for the most part, a complex and gradually developing consistency in all this, but there’s nothing easy about following all the threads, particularly as they tend to lead in various directions from any given point in Proudhon’s study.

The difficulties of mapping Proudhon’s overall project have necessitated a lot of real or apparent repetition in my own writings on the subject, and a lot of isolated articulations of selected elements, with, I hope, some general progress in showing how the various parts of the analysis fit together. But a lot of the headway that I have made has been achieved by bringing Proudhon’s work into dialogue with the works of a variety of other figures—Max Stirner, John Locke, Pierre Leroux, and all those other figures I summoned down to the river’s edge in the thought-experiment in mock-dramatic form that I hope will be useful as a starting place for gathering various the various partial analyses together. The result was arguably a useful increase in localized clarity, where particular aspects of the various analyses were concerned, but probably also a fairly daunting increase in the complexity of the project as a whole. I certainly haven’t been immune to a certain drowning feeling, as the quest for clarity has multiplied questions just as fast as answers.

The light at the end of the long tunnel, for me, has been a strong sense that, behind the daunting and fascinating complexities of Proudhon’s various analyses, there were some basic principles or at least a basic dynamic which, if once identified, might substantially simplify the rest of the work, allowing us to more easily connect the various sorts of analysis in Proudhon’s writings with one another, and with the work of those other theorists that have entered into the game. (Or it is the proverbial oncoming train.)

For some time, I have been focused on that formula for liberty, “the synthesis of community and property,” and the developmental account—in the “third form of society” section of What is Property?—where Proudhon introduced it. Following Proudhon, I’ve been able to say a lot about “property,” and comparatively little about “community,” and have been trying to clarify the various sorts of “property” enough to determine just what this elusive other pole of the dialectic of liberty really is. There are influences in Proudhon that make it easy to believe that, in the most abstract sense, the more general antinomy lurking behind oppositions like centralizing/decentralizing, property/community, law/fact, etc., might be related to the “circulus” of Pierre Leroux or the focus on the free flow of the passions in Charles Fourier. But the question of influence is complicated in Proudhon’s work. In the memoirs on property, alongside his partisan attacks on Leroux and the followers of Fourier, we find these two rather surprising endorsements.

The disciples of Fourier have long seemed to me the most advanced of all modern socialists, and almost the only ones worthy of the name. If they had understood the nature of their task, spoken to the people, awakened their sympathies, and kept silence when they did not understand; if they had made less extravagant pretensions, and had shown more respect for public intelligence, — perhaps the reform would now, thanks to them, be in progress.—What is Property?

I must here declare freely — in order that I may not be suspected of secret connivance, which is foreign to my nature — that M. Leroux has my full sympathy. Not that I am a believer in his quasi-Pythagorean philosophy (upon this subject I should have more than one observation to submit to him, provided a veteran covered with stripes would not despise the remarks of a conscript); not that I feel bound to this author by any special consideration for his opposition to property. In my opinion, M. Leroux could, and even ought to, state his position more explicitly and logically. But I like, I admire, in M. Leroux, the antagonist of our philosophical demigods, the demolisher of usurped reputations, the pitiless critic of every thing that is respected because of its antiquity. Such is the reason for my high esteem of M. Leroux; such would be the principle of the only literary association which, in this century of coteries, I should care to form. We need men who, like M. Leroux, call in question social principles, — not to diffuse doubt concerning them, but to make them doubly sure; men who excite the mind by bold negations, and make the conscience tremble by doctrines of annihilation.—Letter to M. Blanqui on Property

And Proudhon undoubtedly did, despite some denials, incorporate a good deal of the basic thought of Fourier and Leroux into his own work. The Creation of Order in Humanity is a fascinating reworking of material from The Theory of the Four Movements, but there’s no question where the reworked elements originated, as there is not much question where the emphasis on serial analysis, the opposition to simplism, etc., come from. The borrowings from Pierre Leroux are more likely to escape many readers, but mostly because Leroux’s work is now almost unknown. We know that Proudhon sincerely rejected the more “utopian” elements of both thinkers, but the question is whether he absorbed any of their shared fascination with natural circulation and passional flows.

The difficulty is that, in most of his writing on property, Proudhon critiqued laws and speculated about historical development. When he was talking about property—and its opposite pole—he avoided the sort of abstract, general discussion that would help us connect to the sort of theory we find in Fourier and Leroux. But if we look at his writings on liberty, on progress, and on the Revolution, we begin to see some fairly persistent patterns, in which the transient and the stable are opposed. And then we run across the discussion of property and theft in The Celebration of Sunday, and perhaps we have our connection to the examination of property.

What I intend to do is to make rather a big deal about that definition of theft that Proudhon proposed in the Celebration: “to divert, to put or turn aside.” And perhaps I will make a bit too big a deal of it, from a strictly proudhonological perspective. One way or another, I can’t really make the defense here. I’m drawing on lots of material which is unavailable to most of my readers, and to some extent simply drawing on my developing intuitions about the “big picture” in Proudhon’s thought. What I can do, however, is to remind skeptics that, for Proudhon, “the problem of property [was], after that of human destiny, the greatest that reason can propose, and the last that it will be able to resolve.” So if we find, as it seems we do, that it was precisely in the realm of property that Proudhon’s ideas seem to have been tardiest to come together, if it was in that investigation that he left threads dangling for the entire length of his career, perhaps we should not be surprised—at which point I don’t think we can be faulted for applying the fairly consistent products of his other investigations to that thorny question.


What if the larger antinomy in Proudhon’s work, the dynamic that linked his various more focused analyses, was essentially a dialectical play between “turning or putting aside” and “not turning and putting aside,” with the first identified with “property” and the other with an alternative, or series of alternatives, which remains elusive, but which, as “community,” Proudhon early on associated with the “spontaneous movement” of “sociability”? And what if we drag that antinomy out onto the largest sort of stage, treating its opposed terms as abstract tendencies to, on the one hand, circulation and dissemination, and, on the other, concentration and persistence? This opposition of the fluid and the firm immediately calls to mind any number of familiar cultural binaries, many of them quite clearly gendered—and we would be kidding ourselves if we thought we were going to avoid some demanding work on the question of gender and property before we’re done with Proudhon. It might also call to mind the two “gifts” on which I have proposed as a basis for a mutualist notion of self-ownership, in the context of the “gift economy of property.” For those who have tangled with Proudhon’s treatment of individualities and collectivities as two faces of serial organization, other bells might ring. Does the notion of the Revolution as both conservative and progressive perhaps answer to much the same guiding dynamic? And the idea that mutualism is necessarily an “anarchism of approximations”?

This is ultimately the intuition on the basis of which I have developed the neo-Proudhonian analysis of property that I’ve been advancing, in the course of which I have tended to deploy the most uncompromisingly asocial interpretation of Stirner’s egoism—understood as a philosophy for the unique as “the only one”—alongside and against the sense of a Pierre Leroux or Joseph Dejacque that we are all in this together, inseparably connected in a universal circulus. I’ve been content to resort to that qualifier, neo-, while I’ve explored Proudhon’s thought more thoroughly, but perhaps I have really been rather orthodox in my own inventions.

About Shawn P. Wilbur 2056 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.