“What Is Property?” vs “Theory of Property”?

From the Proudhon-seminar list:

I took a trip into Portland today, to check in at the radical bookstore where I’m volunteering and to look over some untranslated material in a fresh setting. It always seems to clear my head even just to get out on the light-rail and work a bit. And I can be sure of having a cat-free lap, which is not the case in my office at home. As I mentioned, I’ve been working on the “Summary of my earlier works on property,” from Proudhon’s posthumously-published “The Theory of Property.” In that chapter, Proudhon makes some criticisms of his own of “What Is Property?” which we’ll eventually have to look at, and gives a lengthy (51 page) account of the development of his thought. As I mentioned to Erik, the majority of the later works are not translated, so it’s very hard to deal very directly with that development in this sort of setting.

But the development of Proudhon’s theory always haunts any discussion of it in circles as ideologically diverse as the audience for this seminar. It would be nice if we could clarify the nature of the development and lay that particular ghost for a bit.

And maybe we can. Rafael has already remarked on Proudhon’s “Hegelian formula,” which leads him to think of liberty as the “synthesis of communism and property.” On pages 258-9, Proudhon writes:

“Communism–the first expression of the social nature–is the first term of social development,–the THESIS; property, the reverse of communism, is the second term,–the ANTITHESIS. When we have discovered the third term, the SYNTHESIS, we shall have the required solution. Now, this synthesis necessarily results from the correction of the thesis by the antithesis. Therefore it is necessary, by a final examination of their characteristics, to eliminate those features which are hostile to sociability. The union of the two remainders will give us the true form of human association.”

He then goes on to say that:

“The objects of communism and property are good–their results are bad. And why? Because both are exclusive, and each disregards two elements of society. Communism rejects independence and proportionality; property does not satisfy equality and law.”

The “hostile feature” of both opposing principles is their partiality. If all four elements are embraced, then we have liberty. “Synthesis,” in this case, is an entire remaking of the two antinomic principles. The result is anarchistic because it doesn’t require or leave room for “governmentalism,” which Proudhon has associated with “communism” (more or less.)

Now, the transformation of Proudhon’s thought involved a series of insights and developments. For our purposes, though, the important one is probably the one we see in the “Toast to the Revolution,” where Proudhon suggests that individual and collective concerns can’t simply be alloyed, that they are not simply opposed, and that a thoroughgoing individualization of interests and pursuits is the road to a legitimate form of non-state centralization.

Leap forward to the formula of “The Theory of Property,” where Proudhon embraces simple property, despite its absolutist, egoistic, despotic tendencies (with limitations of term based on occupancy and use). Is this a major change from the position of 1840?

I want to suggest that it is not. We have essentially the same terms, a centralizing tendency and an individual absolutism. The only thing that has really changed is Proudhon’s understanding of the “systems of contradictions.” In “Justice in the Revolution and in the Church,” he came to a realization about “dialectics:”

“L’ANTINOMIE NE SE RÉSOUT PAS : là est le vice fondamental de toute la philosophie hégélienne. Les deux termes dont elle se compose se BALANCENT, soit entre eux, soit avec d’autres termes antinomiques”

That is, “The antinomy does not resolve itself.” It is not resolved. “The two terms of which it is composed are balanced, either by one another, or by other antinomic terms.”

If Proudhon had approached the question in this way in 1840, wouldn’t the logical formula for the “third form of society” be the balance or equilibrium, the counterpoise of property and communism? In 1840 we already have the acknowledgment that “the objects of communism and property are good.” Isn’t this essentially the acknowledgment that either might be justified according to its “aims”?

It seems to me that very little, other than Proudhon’s opinion about whether or not “the antinomy resolves itself,” actually changes. And that leaves us with roughly three responses: 1) to prefer the approach of 1840; 2) to prefer the approach of the 1860s; or 3) to feel that the terms are essentially ill-conceived.

Maybe that lays the ghost a bit.

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


  1. Hey, do you happen to have an english digital copy of Proudhon’s “Theory of Property”? Thanks.

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