The Theory of Property, Chapter VIII

Of the chapters from Proudhon’s The Theory of Property which have not yet appeared in translation, the first is the Introduction compiled by Proudhon’s friends, which surveyed his previous works; the third, fourth and fifth chapters amount to a summing up of Proudhon’s scattered thoughts on the varieties of property, legal opinions on the subject, and the history of property. All of these contain interesting material, including the data on which the New Theory was constructed. But arguably the most interesting of the remaining chapters are the seventh, which explains in some detail the “equilibration” of property, and the eighth, “The Author’s Critique Vindicated,” in which Proudhon reflected on the development of his thought and responded to criticisms. I’m happy to be able to provide a working translation of Chapter VIII. It is perhaps especially worth noting Proudhon’s list of positive projects, which ought to provide a little context for the debates about what constitutes a comprehensive account of Proudhon’s thought.

Chapter VIII
The Author’s Critique Vindicated.

As a complement to this theory, I don’t believe I could do better than to recall here my previous studies, the summary of which forms the introduction of this book, and to recount my own history. The critique that I once made of property has had enough impact, it has earned me enough disappointments and insults that one will allow me to claim its profits today; for it is by that critique, and by it alone, that we can arrive at the understanding of property, and, thus, at its definitive constitution.
In 1840, more than twenty-two years ago, I made my debut in economic science by the publication of a brochure of 250 pages, entitled: What is Property? I do not need to recall what scandal was cause by my response, a scandal which did not cease growing for twelve years, even after the coup d’état. Today let imaginations be calmed, especially as I myself publish a theory of the property which, I dare say, can defy all attacks,—one could say with interest,—especially if one better understands my explanations.
It had been hardly three months since I had commenced my studies of political economy when I realized two things: first, that there existed an intimate connection, though I did not know of what sort, between the constitution of the State and property; second, that the whole economic and social edifice rested on that connection, and yet its institution was given neither in political economy nor in natural right. Non datur dominium, in oeconomiâ, I said to myself, paraphrasing the aphorism of ancient physics concerning the void; property is not an economic element; it is not essential to the science, and nothing justifies it. Where does it come from? What is its nature? What does it want? That was the subject of what I called my first Memoir. I predicted that from then on material would be abundant, and that the subject was far from exhausted.
Now there is no longer any reason to tremble for property. Since we have made an emperor to defend it, and since I myself have take its part, there is not, I flatter myself, a reader suspected of even a bit of good sense, having the least glimmer of logic, who will not recognize how right I am. Is the principle of  property the right of the first occupant? That is absurd. Does it come from conquest? That would be immoral. Perhaps we must attribute it to labor? Labor gives rights only to its fruits, at most an indemnity for the improvement of the soil, perhaps even a preference of possession—of possession, let’s be clear, never, never to sovereignty over the land itself, to what the Roman law called the eminent domain of property. Otherwise it would be necessary to say that every tenant is, ipso facto, a proprietor, and that he who leases his land relinquishes it. All that is reeled off in our days about the struggles and merits of the cultivator is sentimental verbiage: it neither a matter of philosophy, nor of right. The work published by Mr. Thiers, in 1848, for the defense of Property, is a pure bucolic. Is it the legislature that created property? But for what motives? By virtue of what authority? We know nothing of it. If it is the legislature which, by an act of its own good pleasure, has instituted property, the same legislature can repeal it and dislocate inheritances, as Mr. Laboulaye said, then from that point property is only a legal fiction, a caprice, and a caprice that much more odious, because it excludes the majority of the people. Must we say, with some who pretend to metaphysics, that property is the expression of individuality, of the personality, of the self? But possession largely suffices for that expression, and, once again, if it is enough to say this field is mine, in order to have property, all are proprietors by the same title; there is civil war ignited, with servitude as the conclusion. Now, when you have passed in review first-occupation, conquest, labor, the authority of the legislature and the metaphysics of the self, you have exhausted all the hypotheses of the jurists on the origin and principle of property. You can close the libraries; there is nothing more. What then! Must we believe, with Mr. Laboulaye, that property is an article of faith, of which the discussion should be banned, because to do otherwise would be to put society in danger? But justice is a friend of the light; only crime seeks the darkness. Cur non palam si decenter? Is property, then, robbery? …
That dialectic,—let us admit it, since we can do it without peril,—was as invincible as it was inexorable; and the testimony I delivered to the legislature itself was not meant to diminish it. What are we to say, for example, of that Roman definition: Dominium est jus utendi et abutendi re sua, quatenùs juris ratio patitur! Or of that French definition, still more shameful: “Property is the right to enjoy and to dispose of thing in the most absolute manner, provided that one does not make a usage prohibited by the laws and regulations.” Isn’t it worse to say yes and no about the same thing, to give and to hold back, to posit a principle and to deny it immediately by the exception? So be it, I said: property will be all that you want, within the limits of public right and the regulations. Now, let us see the public right; let us see the regulations!…
Absolute property! But, as a disciple of Kant and Comte, I rejected the absolute as much as the supernatural; I recognized only intelligible, positive laws, as astronomy, physics, zoology, right, political economy itself offer us so many examples.—Republican by principles, partisan of constitutional guaranties in the mean time, I fought with all my might against the absolutism that the French people had sacrificed in the person of Louis XVI and that they wanted me to worship in property.
Property, abusive! Doubtless, it could not be otherwise, since as soon as abuse ceases to be its prerogative, it is no more. Now, it is exactly for that reason that I reject property. If you said that marriage is a ma’s right to use and abuse, not only his wife, which would already be an infamy, but his daughter, his mother, his female servants, etc., would you pretend that marriage is a respectable institution? Absolutism raised as an idol, abuse taken for an ideal; property, declared everywhere an in everything eccentric, unconditional, without limits, without restraint, without rules, without laws, prior and superior to right, even to society: it was exorbitant, inadmissible, and unfortunately one could say that all that was not invented. The facts—the facts abound in history and in modern times, and cry vengeance against property.
Penetrating deeper still into the psychology of the proprietor, following the most profound moralists and even of the Gospel, what would I discover? That property, that is praised to us as the remuneration of labor, the sign of human dignity, the pivot of society and monument of legislative wisdom, was nothing else, at base, than the sovereign act of our egoism, the solemn manifestation of our concupiscence, the dream of a perverse, avaricious, anti-social nature, which wants everything for itself, appropriates that which it has not produced, demands that one return to it more than it lends, makes itself the center of the world, scorning God and men provided it enjoys! Oh! Christianity, which one will doubtless not put in the dock, has judged property well; it has excluded it from the kingdom of heaven: Those alone, it says, among the proprietors will be saved, who practice the detachment of the heart, and are guardians and dispensers of their fortune rather than its consumers. Beati pauperes spiritu, quoniam ipsorium est regnum cœlorum.
Let the reader here allow me to interrupt myself. Was that critique justified, or not? Do I have anything to regret and recant? And will, by chance, the theory of property that I publish at this time be considered a retraction? … We will see that it is nothing of the sort.
The critique made, it was necessary to conclude. At the same time that I pronounced, by virtue of my analysis, the condemnation of property, as it has been produced, in the Roman and French law, in political economy, and in history, I rejected, in no less energetic terms, the opposite hypothesis, community. That exclusion of communism is recorded in my first Memoir of 1840, chapter V, and reproduced with more depth and force in the System of Economic Contradictions, 1846, chapter XII.
What has my thought been since then? It is that property being an absolute, a notion which implies two contraries—yes, as I said with Kant and Hegel, an antinomy—must be synthesized in a higher formula which, giving satisfaction equally to the collective interest and to individual initiative, must, I said, bring together all the advantages of property and those of association without any of their drawbacks. I gave to that higher formula, anticipated and maintained by me, from 1840, in virtue of the Hegelian dialectic, but still not explained or defined, the provisional name of possession, an equivocal term, which recalled a form of institution that I could not want and that I have abandoned.
Things remained this way for several years. Against all the attacks that I had to bear up against from right and left, I maintained my critique in all its terms, announcing a new conception of property, with the same certainty with which I had denied the old one, although I could not say of what that conception consisted. My hope, with regard to its merits, should be unmistakable, as one sees today; but the truth that I sought could be grasped only after a rectification of method.
Thus I pursued, without letting myself be rattled by the noise that was made around me, my studies on the most difficult questions of political economy, credit, population, taxation, etc., when, around 1854, I noticed that the dialectic of Hegel, that I had followed in my System of Economic Contradictions as trustworthy, was faulty in one point and served to confuse my ideas rather than clarifying them. Thus I have recognized that if the antinomy is a law of nature and intelligence, a phenomenon of the understanding, like all the notions that it affects, it does not resolve itself; it remains eternally what it is, the first cause of all movement, principle of all life and evolution, by the contradiction of its terms; it can only be balanced, either by the equilibration of opposites, or by its opposition to other antinomies.
I ask pardon for this detail, without which one could perhaps not explain how, having begun the critique of property in 1840, I only produced its theory in 1862. Without speaking of the powerful distractions that 1848 and 1852 have hurled through lives, each will understand that, in studies so arduous, where the philosopher works, not on bodies, but on ideas, the least inexactitude of method, leading to false results, lead to incalculable delays. We no longer think of intuition today, and our impulsive reason long since said its last word. The experiment must be made for everyone: good sense all alone, assisted by a stronger dose of erudition and of all the arts of speech, no longer suffices for the solution of the serious problems that assail us.
In order to follow truth in the more and more elevated regions where it calls us, the thinker, like the physician and the astronomer, requires the supplement of an instrumentation which the vulgar do not doubt.
The theory of LIBERTY (Justice in the Revolution and in the Church, 8th study) had also taught me that the absolute, with regard to which I had declared all direct research banned, absurd even (Ibid., 7th study), nonetheless intervenes as an actor in human affairs, as well as in logic and metaphysics. Finally, I had on many occasions remarked that the maxims of General Reason, which end by imposing themselves on Individual Reason, are often the opposite of those given us by the latter: so that it could very well happen that society was governed by entirely different rules than those indicated by what we are in the habit of calling common sense. From that moment property, which had first appeared to me only in a sort of half-light, was completely clarified; I understood that it should be transported, as I had critiqued it, with that absolutist, abusive, anarchic, rapacious, libidinous nature, which it all times has been the scandal of the moralists, into the social system, where a transfiguration awaited it.
These explanations were indispensable in order to make well understood how the theoretical negation of property was the essential preliminary for its confirmation and practical development. Property, if one grasps it at its origin, is a principle vicious in itself and anti-social, but destined to become, by its very generalization and with the assistance of other institutions, the pivot and the mainspring of the whole social system. The first part of that proposition has been demonstrated by the critique of 1840-48; it is up to the reader to judge now if the second is proven in a satisfactory manner.
Is it true that the State, after having been constituted on the principle of the separation of powers, requires a counter-weight which prevents it from swinging and from becoming hostile to liberty; that counter-weight cannot be found either in the exploitation-in-common of the soil, nor in possession or conditional, limited, dependant and feudal property, since that would be to place the counter-weight in the same power that it is a question of counter-balancing, which is absurd; while we find it in absolute property, which is to say independent, equal in authority and sovereignty to the State? Is it true, as a consequence, that by the essentially political function conferred upon it, property, precisely because its absolutism must oppose itself to the absolutism of the State, and present itself in the social system as liberal, federative, decentralizing, republican, egalitarian, progressive, and in the service of justice? Is it true that these attributes, none of which are found in the principle of property, comes to it as it goes along from its generalization, to the degree that a greater number of citizens acquire property; and that to bring about that generalization, to insure its leveling, it is enough to organize around property, and in its service, a certain number of institutions and services, neglected thus far, abandoned to monopole and anarchy? That is what the reader is invited to pronounce upon, after careful consideration and serious reflection.

The political and social goal of property recognized, I will call the attention of the reader one last time to the sort of incompatibility which exists here between the principle and the aims, and makes property a truly extraordinary creation. Is it true, I ask, that this property, now without reproach, is yet the same as to its nature, its origins, its psychological definition, and its passional virtuality, as that of which the exact and impartial critique has so greatly surprised opinion; that nothing has been modified, added, subtracted, or sweetened in the first potion; that if property is humanized, if from a villain it becomes a saint, it is not because we have changed its essence, that we have on the contrary respected it religiously; it is simply that we have enlarged its sphere and generalized its development? Is it true that in this selfish, satanic and stubborn nature that we have found the most energetic means of resisting despotism without bringing down the State, and also of equalizing fortunes without organizing plunder and muzzling liberty? Is it true, I ask, for I cannot insist too much on that truth to which the school logic has not accustomed us, that to change the effects of an institution which, in its beginnings, was the height of iniquity, to transform the angel of darkness into the angel of light, we have only needed to oppose it to itself, and to [governmental] power at the same time, to surround it with guarantees and increase its means tenfold, as if we had wanted to constantly exalt, in property, absolutism and abuse?

Thus, it is on the condition of remaining what nature has made it, on the condition of preserving its entire personality, its untamed self, its spirit of revolution and of debauchery, that property can become an instrument of guarantee, of liberty, of justice and of order. It is not its inclinations that must be changed, it is its works; it is no longer by combating, in the manner of the ancient moralists, the principle of concupiscence, that it is necessary from now on to think of purifying the human conscience; like the tree whose fruit, bitter and green in the beginning, turns golden in the sun and becomes sweeter than honey; it is by lavishing on property light, fresh breezes and the dew that we will draw from its seeds of sin some fruits of virtue. Thus, our previous critique remains: the theory of liberal, egalitarian, and moralistic property will fall if we pretend to distinguish it from the property that is absolutist, monopolistic and abusive; and we have obtained that transformation that I had sought under the name of synthesis, without any alteration of principle, by a simple balance.
I have been accused of being only, in that critique the importance of which each can appreciated today, a plagiarist of Brissot. It will soon be said, I expect, that for the theory of which I have just given the sketch, I am also only the plagiarist of some stillborn author, lost in the dust of the libraries for two or three hundred years. So much the better if one finds predecessors; I would only have more confidence in myself and more bold. Until then, I knew the work of Brissot only by the extracts from it published, in 1850, by a Mr. Sudre, in a work crowned by the French Academy. That was the time when one called the young men of letters to the rescue against socialism, where one lavished encouragements to those who burned the most incense before la property. It appears from the extracts published by Mr. Sudre that Brissot had said before me, but only in the form of hyperbole and in the heat of declamation, property, it is theft! If it is the priority of expression that is claimed for the young publicist who later became the head of the Gironde, I cede it willingly. But Brissot has not understood the sense of his own worlds, and his critique is erroneous on all points. First, in saying that property is a theft, he did not intend to attack the principle of concupiscence condemned by the Gospel and from which arise these two economic equivalents, theft and property: yet it was only on that condition that Brissot’s invective could have a philosophical value and be considered as a definition. Far from that, what Brissot blamed and condemned in property and what he called theft, is precisely what gave it energy, without which property is no longer anything, and gives way to tyranny, absolutism and abuse. What he asked, is that we return to natural property, as he calls it, to that conditional, restricted, lifelong, and subordinate possession, the formation of which we have described at the end of primitive community, and that we have then had to reject as a lower form of civilization, proper only to consolidate, under some appearances of equity, despotism and servitude. Brissot, in a word, after having seen very well the excesses of every sort which have at all times dishonored property, has not understood that property as, by nature and destination, absolutist, invasive and abusive, jus utendi et abutendi, that it should be maintained so, if one wanted to make it a political element, a social function; he wanted, on the contrary, to render it reasonable, moderate, to make a Pythagorean of it: what made it only just fall back in the state of subversion to which it was a question of putting an end.
Others have claimed that in 1840 and 1846, as in 1848, I had aimed for celebrity through scandal. This time they will say, already they right it, that I seek to restore to myself the attention of the public, which abandons me, by a new contradiction, still more impudent than the first. What would you like me to say to these one-eyed intelligences—Fourier would have called them simplist— fanatical for unity in logic and metaphysics as much as in politics, incapable of seizing that very simple proposition that the moral world, like the physical world, rests on a plurality of irreducible and antagonistic elements, and that it is from the contradiction of these elements that the life and movement of the universe result? They, on the contrary, explain nature, society and history like a syllogism. They derive everything from the one, like the ancient mythologists; and when we spread before them that multitude of inconsistent, undefined and uncontrollable [elements] that wreak havoc on their unitary cosmogonies, they accuse you of polytheism and maintain that it is you who are in contradiction. These men, in whom the loquacity equals the ineptitude, have acquired a certain respect in the world of onlookers, delighted to hear it said, by these fine babblers, that there is nothing true apart from what they have learned from their nannies, and that the supreme wisdom consists what their fathers thought. The reign of these charlatans will only end with the bankruptcy of the last prejudice: that is why, while scorning them, we should arm ourselves with patience.
I have outlined the sentiments which have dictated my conduct for twenty-five years. I have not been animated, whatever has been said, by a thought fundamentally hostile to the institution of property, of which I sought the key, or for the class of beneficiaries. I have demanded a better justification for the established right, in the aim of consolidation,—as also, as a matter of course, where appropriate,—of reform.
And thus I say today that, in this last regard, I am not deceived in my hopes. The theory of property, that I finally produced, not only satisfies a logical need of which few people have been aware; it opens tremendous prospects; it casts a bright glare on the basis of the social system; it reveals to us one of the most profound laws of our nature, namely that the selfish faculty, which ancient and Christian morals, and the instinct of all the first societies had rejected, was precisely designed by nature to be the first representative, the agent of Right.
Perhaps I would have done better to keep silent than to shake up the public with a frightening controversy, which could have its dangers.
To this I reply that my intention was to appeal to scholars and lawyers;— that I posed the question in a time of perfect calm, 1840, in the midst of social peace, eight years before the Revolution of February, when Mr. Thiers was minister, Mr. Vivien and Mr. Dufaure, with him;—that in 1848 I held myself at a distance; that the cries of the conservative press alone obliged me to break the silence, and that it is only to defend myself that if have I have gone from being an isolated writer, to a journalist and publicist.
I do not believe that philosopher or scholar has ever pursued a truth so long, and surmounted so many obstacles: that called for more from me that the love of truth and justice: it required obstinacy against the opinion of my contemporaries. I count for nothing all my trials. Never had such anguish been experienced; never had a more dangerous skepticism emerged from a critique. If property is shown to be illegitimate, and we could not destroy or change it, what then is human morality? What is society? Seek the right, despairing of the cause, in the abuse, where it was never noticed!
As a result of the perseverance and sincerity that I have brought to my studies, I have the right to complain to the public and ask why injustice has constantly be done to me. Why? Is it because I preach right, all the right, nothing but right, and that 97 men in 100 want more or less than the right.
Of 100 individuals, there are 25 villains, convicted or not, notorious or concealed, 50 rogues, 15 shady characters, 7 passably good, who never do wrong, on their own, to anyone, but would not sacrifice a cent for truth, and 3 men of truth, virtue and integrity.
Some cry out that I am a demolisher. That name will stay with me to the end; it is the flat refusal that is opposed to all my labors: a demolition man, powerless to produce!… Yet I have already given some passable demonstrations of very positive things, such as:
1. A theory of the Collective Force: metaphysics of the Group (it will be especially demonstrated, along with the theory of Nationalities, in a book which will be published shortly);
2. A dialectical theory: Formation of genera and species by the serial method; expansion of the syllogism, which is good only when the premises are allowed;
3. A theory of Right and of Moral Law (doctrine of immanence);
4. A theory of the Liberty
5. A theory of the Fall, that is of the Origin of moral evil: Idealism;
6. A theory of the Right of Force: Right of war and right of peoples;
7. A theory of Contract: federation, public or constitutional Law;
8. A theory of Nationalities, deduced from the collective force: indigénat, autonomy;
9. A theory of the Division of Powers, correlative of collective force;
10. A theory of the Property;
11. A theory of Credit: Mutuality, correlative of federation;
12. A theory of the literary property,
13. A theory of taxation;
14. A theory of the balance of commerce;
15. A theory of population;
16. A theory of the family and of marriage;
Without considering a mass of incidental truths.
I first revealed the phenomenon of the antinomy in political economy. I have freed Justice from Religion, the moral element from the religious element.
As a philosopher, if I reject all metaphysical, absolutist hypotheses, which mean nothing, I have posited as fixed point, law of nature, mind and conscience, this universal fact: Justice, equality, equation, balance, accord, harmony.
I am a demolisher. But on the strength of what principle is it that I demolish? For there must be one here; on the basis of what idea, what fact or theory? For there must be one.—By virtue of Right and Justice. All of my critique of Property, all my theory of Love and Marriage, like that of War and Peace,  rests on the notion of justice; my Economic Contradictions are a work of balance. I am a demolisher; but I show today the political and social system in a new light. Against the irreparable abuses of sovereignty, I demand then, and more than ever, the dismemberment of sovereignty;—against the fantasy of individual power, I demand the alliance proprietary selfishness with liberty;—against the excess of taxation and the extravagances of the tax officials, I demand a tax reform, established on the rent itself for pivot:—against the civil list, I demand, with the division of the landed estates, participation in the land-rent;—against the feudal opposition to change which takes hold of us, against the majorats, the corporations who pour in on us, I demand allodial property. That is, I think, every bit as many affirmations as negations. What of it? I am a demolisher, incapable of reconstructing! …
Another opinion that I dread, because it offers almost no opportunity for replies, is that of some people of good faith, who, intending to speak of these controversies, say: God! Is so much wit required to know that each must be master of that which belongs to him? That is what you say to us now that we are no longer robbers: we knew it before you; we have never doubted our right. What attraction is served by learning to doubt, since in the end the right is indubitable?
Well! Good friends, have you never heard of revolutions? Or rather are you like the hare, who always returns home by the same path, despite nearly being taken twenty times? Ask Mr. Laboulaye, a wise jurist, worthy of your confidence, who does not have too much wit: he will tell you that all revolutions are made for or against property, and that in one case as in the other, there is a great displacement of inheritances!… Do you think you feel safer today than in 1848, more reassured than the clergy and nobility were in 1789?—The government watches, you say.—Oh! You know well that revolutions do not await the permission of governments. Moreover, which it is not the agrarians who attack property, it is the government that restricts it. And it is always property that pays, unless it lacks the talent to make itself pay. Now, the theory that I propose to you aims to show you how, if you wish, nor revolution will happen again. It is simply a question, for the non-proprietors, of facilitating their means of acquiring property, and for the proprietors, of better fulfilling their duties to the government. Take care!

[Working translation by Shawn P. Wilbur]
About Shawn P. Wilbur 2703 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.