Contr’un Revisited: [commentary coming soon]
I was asked to clarify Proudhon’s position on property, by someone reading the AK Press anthology, Property is Theft! I had been under the impression that, although Iain McKay’s introductory material consistently claims that Proudhon did not “change his mind” about property, the concluding chapter of The Theory of Property was included—and there is nothing ambiguous about that material. Unfortunately, besides placing the material from The Theory of Property in an Appendix, and suggesting that Proudhon had considered it of less importance than The Political Capacity of the Working Classes, which he was working on up to his death, and perhaps of a suspect nature because of its posthumous publication, that material was rather severely edited, cutting out much of the very heart of Proudhon’s presentation of his “New Theory.”
I’ve tried to walk relatively gently around the question of the treatment of property in Property is Theft!, figuring most readers could make up their own minds about that key issue. Unfortunately, without the key passages, there isn’t a whole lot of incentive to do so, particularly with so many editorial indications that the work is not important. I guess it’s time to deal with the question in a rather more head-on fashion.
All of the posthumous works required some assembly and ordering. The Political Capacity was indeed among the most complete of the bunch, but Gustave Chaudey provided the conclusion, based on instructions from Proudhon. The Theory of Property did not get Proudhon’s customary final editing, but the bulk of the work—including all of the description of the “New Theory” and the conclusion—were completed in 1862. The four executors responsible for preparing The Theory of Property included the following notice, describing the state of the manuscript and the nature of their preparations:
NOTICE THE READER
In the preface placed at the beginning of the book on Art [Du principe de l’art et de sa destination social], we have undertaken to tell the public the manuscripts of each of Proudhon’s posthumous works has been found.
The one that we publish today contained two well-designed notes:
- “To inform the reader to distinguish well form of possessing (possession), that everyone, learned and ignorant, even some jurists, confuse with property, giving the name of the one to the other.”
- “PROPERTY. To give an exact and forceful analysis of all my critiques:
“1st Memoir (1840)
“2nd Memoir (1841)
“3rd Memoir (1842)
“Creation of Order (1843);
“Economic Contradictions (1846);
“The People, etc. (1848-1852);
“Of Justice (1858);
“Of Taxation (1860);
“Of Intellectual Property (1862).”
Proudhon did not want to publish his Theory of Property, although it was ready in 1862, as he announced in his Majorats Littéraires, before the program sketched in the two preceding notes, and especially in the second, was fulfilled. The author having not had time to do this work himself, we have thought, in the interest of his memory, that it fell to us to supply it. It was for him principally a question of showing that his ideas on property developed according to a rational series in which the last term always had its point of departure in the preceding term, and that his present conclusion is not at all contradictory with his premises.
This summary forms the first sixty-two pages of the Introduction. We have used the form I, as if Proudhon himself had written: 1) because the idea of that analysis belongs to him; 2) because the work sketched in advance does not constitute on our part an individual, original production; 3) because it is composed in large part of textual citations from the author; 4) because we have inserted some of his unpublished notes; 5) finally, because, in the last pages of the chapter, Proudhon takes over, as if he had made the summary himself.
The reading thus informed, we do not hesitate to cite, in support of the author’s idea, a judicial act which has occurred since his death, and which has inspired Mr. Eugène Paignon to one of his best articles (see the Introduction, page 10).
In the rest of the work we have only done, as in the book on Art, some arrangement and ordering; choosing, between several expressions of the same idea, the most lucid, and most complete; transporting to the chapters that they concern the scatter supplementary and explanatory notes scatter, whose place was naturally indicated by their content.
Let us add finally that the chapter divisions had not been made, but that the titles were all found in summary form on the first page of the manuscript.
J.A. Langlois. F. G. Bergmann. G. Duchêne. F. Delhasse.
This is ultimately not the description of a marginal work, of uncertain provenance. It places it in the midst of a body of work from the earliest years of the 1860s that reflects Proudhon at the height of his intellectual powers: War and Peace, The Theory of Taxation, Literary Majorats, and The Principle of Federation were all published between 1861 and 1863. Those works are, with the exception of The Principle of Federation, largely untranslated and unknown to readers in English. They are also, without exception, difficult amalgamations of theoretical and occasional writing. The combination of complex, antinomic theory and unfamiliar contexts means that they are very resistant to coherent interpretation, but their unfamiliarity has allowed would-be interpreters to cherry-pick provocative quotes and peddle them as Proudhon’s conclusions with pretty good success. The treatment of War and Peace has been pretty exemplary in that respect—and it’s one of many refreshing aspects of McKay’s treatment of Proudhon that he has taken the position that Proudhon’s conclusion—”Humanity wants no more war”—ought to be taken as seriously as the potentially troubling things he says on his way there. But we should be honest about the fact that, apart from a very, very small number of scholars—and I don’t think either of us number in that minority—everyone in the English-speaking world is pretty much flying by the seat of their pants when it comes to the full two-volumes-worth of Proudhon’s theory in War and Peace, and that the same is probably true for most of the other works published after the mid-1850s. The best-informed of us generally still have a lot of hard reading to do.
Of course, flying by the seat of one’s pants is not flying blind, and the fact that none of us have a complete picture of Proudhon’s thought is no reason not to push forward, and put forward general interpretations of that thought’s importance. But those interpretations—those interpretive approximations, to use a bit of Proudhon’s own critical apparatus—have to incorporate the facts of the texts as we find them, not as we would like them to be. There is obviously a stage at which we must accept or reject elements of Proudhon’s thought—and, ultimately, the “New Theory” of property does not seem to have many supporters at all—but that stage comes after we establish what that thought really was. The “gift economy of property” is precisely neo-Proudhonian, because it begins with a rejection of the “New Theory” as the most desirable solution to the problems posed by Proudhon’s work on property. But it is neo-Proudhonian, because its inspirations are all the result of wrestling with the difficulties of Proudhon’s “contradictions” and antinomies.
Texts are, of course, notoriously open to a range of interpretations, and difficult texts even more so. But one of the most basic principles of interpretation is that the interpreter has to know what sort of text, what sort of expression, they are dealing with, in order to even make a beginning at understanding it. Texts can be haunted by subtle and tenuous influences, like those that may or may not have been inherited by the later texts from The Celebration of Sunday. That sort of question is difficult to deal with, and the pay-offs are equally uncertain, as I suspect my treatment so far may well have demonstrated, but the stakes are nonetheless potentially very high, when it comes to understanding, in general terms, the thought of an author. But many of the interpretive hurdles are much more clearly identified for us, particularly in the works of someone like Proudhon, who was prone to talk about his method.
So the question I was confronted with, in a social networking forum, was:
Did proudhon support private property in land? there’s “principal function of private property within the political system will be to act as a counterweight to the power of the State, and by so doing to insure the liberty of the individual.” then there’s “What I cannot accept, regarding land, is that the work put in gives a right to ownership of what has been worked on.”
It appears there might indeed be a contradiction. And to the questioner, who is not a student of Proudhon, a contradiction is fairly likely to look like a problem. But is that a reasonable assumption for a more seasoned reader? The solution presented to us in What is Property?, and in a number of McKay’s other writings on Proudhon, is actually that there is no logical contradiction, but instead that Proudhon has subtly shifted the meaning of the word “property.” The section “On Terminology” presents this explanation:
After 1850, Proudhon started to increasingly use the term “property” to describe the possession he desired. This climaxed in the posthumously published Theory of Property in which he apparently proclaimed his whole-hearted support for “property.”
The only real problem that I can find with it is that it doesn’t appear to be true. The familiar 1840 definition of “property” (“simple property”) as “the right of use and abuse” is used consistently throughout The Theory of Property, except in the section on the various uses of the term, where, naturally, the definitions are a bit more diverse. It appears twice in the portions of the conclusion of that work that were included in the Appendix. A footnote includes Proudhon’s original argument for not calling “possession” by the name of “property,” without noting his later argument for the use of the name more broadly, but the fact of the matter seems to be that he remained faithful to his 1840 definition the vast majority of the time, and particularly so in the disputed Theory of Property, where “property” is very specifically related, in several different analyses, to allodium, a particularly strong and unencumbered form of individual domain. If anything, the 1862/5 definition of “simple property” emphasizes even more strongly the absolutist, and potentially objectionable, character of that property. In an earlier section of The Theory of Property, Proudhon wrote: “Property, psychological by its nature, by constitution a matter of Law, and, I will soon add, social by destination, is ABSOLUTE: it cannot not be so.” And, ultimately, this was the foundation on which the “New Theory,” by which simple, absolute property could become a tool for liberty, would be built. Proudhon had worked himself clear of a potential problem posed by his introduction to the second edition of What is Property? There, he had claimed, or admitted, that by “property” he meant the “sum of its abuses,” which potentially took a lot of the wind out of his in/famous phrase, although his analysis made pretty short shrift of the existing forms of simple property anyway. But, arguably, he was being rather more consistent when, at the height of his career, he began to claim that property [“simple property,” and perhaps all individual property, to one extent or another] was abusive in sum.
Critically, there is also no shift in the meaning of “property” in the passage cited in the question:
What I cannot accept, regarding land, is that the work put in gives a right to ownership of what has been worked on. [Elizabeth Fraser translation]
More importantly, however, what is in the passage is just a familiar argument from 1840, regarding mechanisms of appropriation. Here’s a little context:
Where no one lacks land, where all can find it freely at their convenience, I accept the exclusive right of the first occupant; but I accept it only on a provisional basis. As soon as the conditions are changed, I admit no more than equal division. Otherwise, I would say that there is abuse. I grant that one who has cleared the land has a right to compensation for their work. But what I do not accept, in that which regards the soil, is that the form given [to the land] involves the appropriation of the thing itself [the capital]. And, it is important to point out, the proprietors don’t accept that any more than I do. Do they recognize in their tenants a right of property over the land that they have cleared or improved?… [my working translation]
What ought to be clear from the passage is that it is a clarification of potential rules of use and usufructory claims, together with a restatement of the familiar argument against the establishment of simple property in land by means of labor, a model of appropriation that Proudhon consistently opposed. What is not there is any response to the model of appropriation that Proudhon actually proposed in The Theory of Property, which had its justifications elsewhere.
Anyone interested in following the twists and turns of Proudhon’s “New Theory” can read my translations, which are a little rough around the edges but sufficiently clear, I think, to present the case. Two other chapters are linked from this blog’s side-bar. But there’s really no point in doing so if you are not prepared to read the text that you will find, the text that Proudhon wrote—one in which the scandals, dialectical relationships, contradictions, antinomies and refusals of simplism, which had been Proudhon’s explicit trademark from 1840 on, are very much in play. It’s pointless to start to respond to the suggestion of contradictions in a one-sided fashion, when you’re dealing with a writer who had built his career around them. In his 1849 Confessions of a Revolutionary, well within the period where his radicalism is generally least contested, he put in even blunter terms the property-related contradiction he had advanced in 1846’s System of Economic Contradictions:
“Property is theft; property is liberty: these two propositions are equally demonstrated and subsist beside one another…”
It seems to me that this sort of statement is much more difficult to incorporate into the “consistent anti-propertarian, with terminological drift” narrative than the claims in 1862/5 that “property is theft,” but it might still be very useful, with the right limits and under the right conditions—in the context of the right balance of free forces. It seems to me that the real question for those who resist the interpretation of The Theory of Property that says that, in it, Proudhon was both consistent with his analysis of 1840 and proposed a decidedly positive role for the very same “simple property” he consistently criticized throughout his career, is how to retain any of sense of Proudhon as an important thinker, after, say, about 1842, when he first started talking about solving the problem of property (as “theft”) by universalizing it.
Unfortunately, one way to preserve the sense is to present a very one-sided selection from the texts. Ultimately, that’s pretty hard to do with The Theory of Property, where “possession,” explicitly of the sort “that I referred in my first Memoir,” makes the individual the “dependent, bondsman, or vassal” of either a ruler or “the collective.” It’s not bad, said Proudhon, all things considered,
But is that the last word of civilization, and of right as well? I do not think so; one can conceive something more; the sovereignty of man is not entirely satisfied; liberty and mobility are not great enough.
And the alternative is simple, allodial property. There just doesn’t seem to be any ambiguity here, nor any definitional slippage. Readers of Property is Theft! should read the whole of the concluding chapter, with the heart of the argument for the “New Theory” intact. I’m not going to insist anyone accept the theory of 1862/5. After all, I’ve been very publicly a little underwhelmed by it for some time. But if one wants to say that they are engaging with Proudhon’s thought, there is no alternative to facing it head on.
But also, if readers of this blog hope to make sense of “the gift economy of property,” or “two-gun mutualism,” then they need to encounter the Proudhon whose definitions did not slip much. I have set up my project in the space opened by Proudhon’s broader definitions of “property,” which, from 1840 through to the end, included at least the possibility of options that would be neither “simple possession,” with its threat of vassalage to the collective, or “simple property,” by which liberty could be wrested only by pitting the potential for abuse against the potential for abuse. Proudhon’s original project of a “synthesis of community and property” is just another more or less empty phrase, if we cannot come to grips with the tensions that were present even in 1840—or, as I have been suggesting, even before.
I have to admit that the particular edit my translation was given leaves a fairly bad taste in my mouth. The only silver lining really is that the excised portions amount to something very close to a summary of the summary. If you’re curious about what is really at stake in the debate over The Theory of Property, perhaps you don’t need to look any farther than the omitted portions of the conclusion:
The constitution of a republic,—permit me at least to use that word in its high juridical sense,—is the sine qua non condition of safety. General Lafayette said one day, in presenting Louis-Philippe, “This is the best of republics;” and the constitutional royalty was defined: “A monarchy surrounded by republican institutions.” The word republic is not then seditious by itself: it responds to the views of science as much as it satisfies desires.
The immediate consequences of allodial property are: 1) administration of the commune by the proprietors, farmers and workers, gathered in council; communal independence and the arrangement of its properties; 2) administration of the province by the provincials: thus decentralization and the germ of federation. The royal function, defined by the constitutional system, is replaced here by the citizen proprietors, having an open eye on public affairs: nothing is in need of mediation.
Feudal property will never engender a republic; and similarly a republic which would allow allodium to sink into fief, which would return to slavic communism from property, will not remain; it will become an autocracy.
Likewise, true property will not engender a monarchy; a monarchy will not engender true property. If the opposite was achieved, if an agglomeration of proprietors elected a head, by that same they would abdicate their share of sovereignty, and sooner or later the proprietary principle would be altered by their hands; or if a monarchy created proprietors, it would implicitly abdicate, it would demolish itself, unless it transformed itself voluntarily into a constitutional royalty, more nominal than effective, representing the proprietors. We have seen this in France, when, under Louis-Philippe, liberals and republicans made war on parochialism, l’esprit de clocher. The cause of royalty was served.
In this way, all of my previous criticisms, all the egalitarian conclusions that I have deduced from them, receive a brilliant confirmation.
The principle of property is ultra-legal, extra-legal, absolutist, and egoist by nature, to the point of iniquity: it must be this way.
It has for counter-weight the reason of the State, which is absolutist, ultra-legal, illiberal, and governmental, to the point of oppression: it must be this way.
This is how, in the projections of universal reason, the principle of egoism, usurper by nature, without integrity, becomes an instrument of justice and of order, to the point that property and right are inseparable ideas and nearly synonyms. Property is egoism idealized, consecrated, invested with a political and juridical function.
It must be this way: because right is never better observed than when it finds a defender in selfishness and in the coalition of egoisms. Liberty will never be defended against power, if it does not have at its disposal a means of defense, if it does not have its impregnable fortress.
The reader must take care not to see in this antagonism, these oppositions, these equilibrations, a simple witticism, a jeu d’esprit. I know that a simplistic theory, like communism or the absolutism of the State, is easier to comprehend than the study of the antinomies. But the fault is not in me, a simple observer and seeker of series. I hear certain reformers say: Let us suppose all of the complications of authority, liberty, possession, competition, monopoly, tax, balance of trade, public services; let us create a uniform plan of society, and all will be simplified and resolved. They reason like the doctor who said: With its diverse elements,—bone, muscles, tendons, nerves, viscera, arterial and venous blood, gastic and pancreatic fluids, chyle, lachrymal and synovial humors, gas, liquids and solids,—the body is ungovernable. Let us reduce it to a single, solid, resilient matter, bone for example; hygiene and therapy will become child’s play.—So be it, only society cannot ossify any more than the human body. Our social system is complicated, much more than one would have thought. If, today, we have acquired all the data, it needs to be coordinated, synthesized according to its own laws. There, a thought exposes itself, an intimate collective life that develops apart from the laws of geometry and mechanics; that is reluctant to assimilate to the rapid, uniform, infallible movement of a crystallization; of which the ordinary, syllogistic, fatalist, unitary logic is incapable of taking account, but which is explained marvelously with the aid of a larger philosophy, admitting in a system the plurality of principles, the struggle of elements, the opposition of contraries and the synthesis of all the indefinables and absolutes.
Now, as we know that there are degrees in intelligence as well as in force; degrees in memory, reflection, idealization, the faculty of invention; degrees in love and in thought; degrees of sensibility; degrees of self or of consciousness; as it is impossible to say where that which we call the soul begins and where it ends, why refuse to admit to us that the social principles,—so well linked, so well thought out, and in which are found so much reason, foresight, feeling, passion, and justice,—are the sign of a true life, of a higher thought, of a reason constituted differently from our own.
Why, if it is thus, won’t we see in these facts the achievement of the direct creation of society by itself, resulting from the simple connection of the elements and of the play of forces which constitute society?
We have surprised a logic apart, maxims which are not those of our individual reason, although that reason comes, by the study of society, to discover them and to make them its own. There is then a difference between individual reason and collective reason.
We have been able to observe again, thanks to property and its accompaniments, another phenomenon, another law, the one of free forces, going and returning, indefinite approximations, latitude of action and of reaction, elasticity of nature, harmony extended, which is the distinctive character of life, of liberty, and of imagination. Property and government are to spontaneous creations of a law of immanence which denies itself to the idea of an foreign initiation, in which case each human group would need a special initiator.
This understood, we will remark that the general laws of history are the same as those of social organization. To make the history of property among a people is to tell how it has gone through the crises of its political formation, how it has produced its powers and its organs, equalized its forces, regulated its interests, endowed its citizens; how it has lived, and how it has died. Property is the most fundamental principle by the aid of which one may explain the revolutions of history. It has not yet existed in the conditions where theory places it; no nation has ever been up to that institution, but it positively governs history, although absent, and it hastens the nations to recognize it, punishing the traitor.
The Roman law had recognized it only in an incomplete manner, unilaterally. It had well defined the sovereignty of the citizen on the land due to him; it had not recognized the role and defined the right of the State. Roman property is property independent of the social contract, absolute, without solidarity or reciprocity, prior to and also superior to the public right, egoist, vicious, sinful, and thus justly condemned by the Church. The Republic and the Empire have crumbled, the one atop the other, since the patriciate had only wanted property for itself alone; because the victorious plebe has not known how to acquire it, to put it to work, and to consolidate it; and because slavery, the colonat spoiled everything. For the rest, it is by allodial property that all the aristocracies and all despotism have been defeated, from the end of the western empire up to today. Allodial property, abandoned by the nobility to the communes and to roture, stifled the lordly power, and, in 1789, gobbled up the fiefs;—it is the same principle which, after having brought about the usurpation of the Polish nobility, simple usufructaries in the beginning, turned against it and cause it to lose the nationality; which, in 1846, has brought about the massacres of Gallacia.
It is against the allodial principle that England stiffened itself, preferring, following the example of the Roman patricians, to throw the world to its workers [“jeter la monde en pâture, as one would throw food to hungry animals] than to allow the division and mobilization of the soil, and to equalize property.
The principle of synthetic, allodial or equal property, would have progressively conducted the France of ‘89 to an egalitarain Republic, without or without dynasty: the dynastic principle having to be subordinated in France as it is in England, but following another system. There was a moment of hope, in 1830. Sadly, the spirits predisposed to English ideas did not grasp the profound difference which must distinguish the French Constitution, based on allodium, and the English constitution, based on fief. It was Sieyès, one of the most profound of our politicians, who spread the error.
An electoral census was then established, of large and small colleges: these supposed large and small property holdings; imperceptibly, while [possession of] the soil eroded dramatically among the lower class, it was gathered anew, and large property reformed itself with the aid of industrial capital; feudalism,—financial, manufacturing, transport, mining, Judaic,—followed; so that today France no longer knows itself; some say that the constitutional government, imported from England, was not made for it; a small number, who affirm the Republic and desire only a Chamber, do not themselves know the reason for their desire, or the constitutive principles of the government of the Revolution.
Property has undergone numerous eclipses in history, under the Romans, among the barbarians, in modern times and in our own day. We find the causes of those lapses in ignorance, incompetence, and especially in the indignity of the proprietors. In Rome, the avarice of the nobles, their blind resistance to the legitimate complaints of the people, the decline of the plebians, preferring to culture the brigandage of armies, military pillage, and the caesarean grants, made a clean slate, along with property, of law, liberties, and nationality. Feudal oppression, in the Middle Ages, expelled all the small proprietors from allodium to fief. Property, eclipsed for more than a thousand years, reappeared with the French Revolution. Its ascendant period stopped at the end of the reign of Louis Philippe; since then, it is in decline: indignity.
The mass of the proprietors are disgraceful, especially in the countryside. The Revolution, in selling the goods of the Church and of émigrés, has created a new class of proprietors; it has believed them to be interested in liberty. Not at all: what has interested this class is that the émigrés and the Bourbons do not return, and that is all. To that end, the beneficiaries have imagined nothing better than to given themselves a master, Napoleon. And when, exercising clemency, he authorized the émigrés to return, they made it a crime: they would never have thought them far enough away.
Property, created by the Revolution, no longer thinks of itself as a political institution, counter-balancing the State, as a guarantee of liberty and good administration; it considers itself, by force of habit, as privilege, enjoyment, as a new aristocracy, allied to the poor by the division of employments, consequently of taxes, and it is interested in that way in the exploitation of the masses. It has only to think of its prey. The chaos is profound and it is not clear which particular system to accuse. The legislature of ‘89 lacked foresight; the new proprietors, purchasers of national goods, have lacked character and public spirit, in saying to Napoleon I: Reign and govern, provided that we enjoy. Under the Restoration, there was an instinct of reform; the bourgeoisie passed into the opposition, which is its place; it made an antithesis to the State; but this was accidental: some saw in the Bourbons the princes of the ancien regime; some made war for the maintenance of sales; and when the Revolution of July had changed the dynasty, property devoted itself to power. Their deal was soon concluded: the bourgeoisie, through its deputies, consented to the tax, nine-tenths of which returned to them by employment. It had created corruption in a system, and dishonored property by agiotage; it wanted to join the benefits of the bank to those of rent; it had preferred the stipends of the state, the gains of traffic and of the stock market to production and to commerce; it is the serf of the big companies.
A key point that must not be forgotten is that the citizen, by the federative pact which confers property to him, brings together two contradictory duties: he must follow, on one side, the law of his interests, and, on the other, he must make sure that, as a member of the social body, his property is not detrimental to public affairs. In short, he is constituted police agent and watcher over himself. That double quality is essential to the constitution of liberty; without it all edifices crumble; it is necessary to return to the principle of police and authority. Where is public morality in that chapter?
We have had a regulation of the baker’s shop. Now, it would have been useless if the social body had been organized in such a manner that the making of bread, the sale of wheat, was made truthful and upright, which has not taken place and will not take place so long as our morals are not renewed. Anyway, regulation has never had any power against the pact of famine, as real today as before ‘89. We have regulated the butcher’s shop, which sells cadavers for fresh meat, and dogs for beef; regulation of the markets: weights and measures, quality and quantity. Vegetables, fruits, poultry, fish, game, butter, dairy,—all is defective, all is over-priced. There is not a remedy in suppression, so long as public consciousness is not renewed, so long as, by that regeneration, the citizen producer does not become his own strict supervisor. Can he do that, yes or no? Can property become holy? Is the condemnation, which the Gospel has placed on it, indelible? In the first case, we can be free; in the second, we have resigned ourselves; we are fatally and always under the double law of the Empire and the Church, and all of our displays of liberalism are pure hypocrisy and increase of misery.
All things considered, it is a question of knowing if the French nation is capable today of supplying true proprietors. What is certain is that property is to be regenerated among us. The element of that regeneration is, along with the moral regeneration of which we have just spoken, equilibration.
[Working translation by Shawn P. Wilbur]