“Theory of Property” controversies

In the interest of covering as many of the bases as possible, relating to The Theory of Property, and Proudhon’s posthumous works in general, I’ve spent some time this week exploring the debates within Proudhon’s circle specifically concerning The Theory of Property. A key exchange appeared in La Presse, in November 1865, initially pitting J. A. Langlois and Georges Duchêne against Alfred Darimon, over the question of the style and extent of the editing in the posthumous works. Abraam Rolland and Gustave Chaudey expressed themselves in disagreement with Langlois and Duchêne on the most appropriate form for the posthumous works to take, suggesting that the manuscript alone could have interest, and criticism could come later. Langlois and Duchêne observed that the questions of authorship were at least as obscure in the works prepared by their opponents as in The Theory of Property. The debate between the factions of literary executors, empowered by nothing more than the note described in the “Notice” of The Principle of Art, and the assent of Proudhon’s family, were complicated by the presence of Darimon, an old collaborator and friend of Proudhon, with whom the more anarchistic of Proudhon’s circle already had deep political differences. There is a lot more personal heat than critical light in much of it, but it is a wonderful window in on just how much of a circle, and really multiple circles, there was around Proudhon, a glimpse at critical contexts.

There is a lot of fighting over who are the “true friends of Proudhon,” a sectarian exercise of pretty dubious value, but one to which it will probably be useful to return sometime soon, when a bit more of the relevant debate is translated.

What there doesn’t seem to be in the debate is any substantive charge of falsification. What Proudhon’s rival friends seem to have been riled up about was whether or not the words of the master, and not, as far as I can tell, his intent, had been tampered with in a way unfaithful to his memory or to the charge laid on his literary executors. If there is really a problem with The Theory of Property as a posthumous, unpublished, and presumably unfinished work, the problem ought logically to be:

  1. That Proudhon did not desire to finish the work, because it did not represent his thought at the time of his death;
  2. That the work was not sufficiently coherent to present Proudhon’s argument;
  3. That the work presented some view other than Proudhon’s, through any of a number of innocent causes; or
  4. That the work represented a falsification of Proudhon’s work by the compilers.

Perhaps there are other reasons to object to treating The Theory of Property, or others of the Proudhon’s work, as representing Proudhon’s thought, but this seems to cover the major cases. And, in fact:

  1. The Theory of Property was featured high on Proudhon’s list of works to be completed, suggesting that his failure to publish the work, presumably almost finished late in 1861, can probably be laid down to the causes reported by Proudhon himself (the demands of “living by the pen,” and his enormous range of commitments) and the literary executors (Proudhon’s desire to complete the introductory survey, in order to show his own consistency), and some considerations imposed by those causes, which might well have made completing a work like The Political Capacity of the Working Classes more pressing than clarifying a body of work which he had already given 25 years worth of attention.
  2. The Theory of Property is not a simple book, but Proudhon didn’t write many of those. It does, however seem to be a coherent one.
  3. It also seems to be consistent with the works that preceded it. The opposition to The Theory of Property seems to come from some concern that Proudhon changed his mind about the essential nature of property, or that his definitions changed in some way that suggests to the unwary an essential change of mind. Unfortunately for these critics, there doesn’t seem to be much evidence that Proudhon substantially changed his mind or his opinions, with regard to the nature of property. He certainly denied the charge, and the delay of the publication of The Theory of Property seems to have been linked to his strong desire to make his consistency clear to all. He did change his mind about the consequences of property’s absolutist character, and to revise his sense of “possession” as a tool for liberty. This is apparently the thing that was crystallized for him in 1861, reading Grandclément’s manuscript, in which alleu and fief were presented as the essential, antinomic aspects of property. But there are elements of the New Theory in virtually every work touching on property, from What is Property?, with its community-property synthesis, on. 
  4. If The Theory of Property shows the infection, conscious or intentional, of Proudhon’s theory with those of his literary executors, I have yet to see the evidence. Both Langlois and Duchêne went on to write major treatises on the same general terrain as Proudhon’s. But their concerns seem to have been rather different. Duchêne had worked very closely with Proudhon on the Manual of the Stock-Market Speculator, and there is some evidence that the notes for the proposed second manual influenced his own work, but there is nothing I can find in The Theory of Property that particularly suggests Duchêne’s hand. Langlois seems to have already been at work on his two-volume Man and the Revolution, in which he dared to correct and complete elements of Proudhon’s theory, but, again, I don’t see evidence of any particular influence by Langlois on the content of The Theory of Property. 

There are some interesting points in the debate among Proudhon’s friends, about the differences between faithfulness and idolatry, when it comes to the thought of another. The change in Proudhon’s thought about the consequences of “property” and “possession” means that those of us who consider ourselves friends of Proudhon’s thought are forced to pick and choose which elements of it we will inherit, and which we will not accept. In the current debate on the status of The Theory of Property, Iain McKay and I agree in rejecting the New Theory, in the sense that neither of us will embrace it as our own theory, and in this we can both claim the personal sympathy of Proudhon, who posed the New Theory, but “did not need it.” But the question of what we accept and reject is a separate question from whether or not the various posthumous works were genuine expressions of the thought of Proudhon. I continue to think that to deny The Theory of Property a place in the proudhonian canon requires a demonstration that it fails in some one of the regards I have suggested above, and I have yet to see anything that looks like that demonstration.

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