How does property become anarchist?

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Posts in the EXTRICATIONS series:

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If we want a clear indication of the gulf between the possible (resultant) anarchism suggested by Proudhon’s mature work and the historical anarchism that emerged in the late 19th century, we probably don’t have to look beyond the almost universal suspicion that Proudhon’s final works themselves mark a retreat from the anarchist project — and the fact that the resultant anarchy that seems to occupy a central place in that work simply does not seem to register among our theoretical options. (Mutualism, at least as we’ve inherited the notion, is a fairly unimpressive stand-in.) And if we want to confront that suspicion head-on, there is probably no better text to work with than Theory of Property.

Proudhon’s Theory of Property has been subject to a really impressive range of criticisms: that it was an unfinished work; that it was an unimportant and abandoned work; that it was corrupted by its editors after Proudhon’s death; etc. But none of these criticisms seem to be true. We can say that it was not quite Proudhon’s last word on the subject of property and that a few important indications in the manuscripts were not included in the published work. We can certainly acknowledge that, having been published without the companion volumes, Géographie politiques et nationalités and Histoire de Pologne, it appears a bit more mysterious than it might if its contexts were fully elaborated. But a comparison of the manuscripts and published version of the text reveals that the latter is a pretty remarkable construction, making use of a tremendous amount of the source material, with only the occasional instance of editorial meddling. Our suspicions generally seem to depend on very little beyond the belief that, having once argued that “property is theft,” Proudhon could not, without backsliding, declare that:

[P]roperty is the greatest revolutionary force that exists and that can be opposed to power. Now, the force itself cannot be said to be beneficent or maleficent, abusive or non-abusive: it is indifferent to the uses to which it is employed; as often as it shows itself to be destructive, it can become conservative; if sometimes it has burst out in subversive effects, instead of giving useful results, the fault is in those who manage it and who are as blind as it is. (Theory of Property)

But our understanding of this development as an instance of retreat depends, I think, on a very selective understanding of Proudhon’s project. To clarify this point, I want to address a couple of questions about the part of Proudhon’s work on property that is generally applauded by anarchists:

  1. What were the important elements and conclusions of the 1840 critique?
  2. What were Proudhon’s steps forward after declaring that “property is theft”?

In answering these questions, I want to focus particularly on the treatment of liberty at the end of What is Property? And then I want to demonstrate how the texts focused on liberty—rather than, for example, those specifically focused on anarchy or even on property—contain elements that may cast a rather different light on Theory of Property.


By the time Proudhon had finished his relentless 1840 critique of the various existing justifications for property, one could easily be forgiven for thinking that was that and, as he put it at the time, “property is conquered, never again to arise.” Proudhon’s language is a bit imprecise and some of his arguments unfold in steps that demand close attention, so it is certainly possible to get bogged down in the details, but the most obvious lesson of What is Property? is unquestionably that something fundamental to our understanding of economic life has to change. In his notes for the review of his previous works in Theory of Property he made a point of underlining property’s “incompatibility with all the known systems.” His mind never changed on that point, even if he came to reject possession as a viable alternative.

Of course, Proudhon could not have made his arguments against property without the theory of collective force and the analysis of exploitation that he derived from it. And while the broader consequences of that theory are not perhaps immediately obvious, we are again faced with the possibility that something fundamental in our analysis of social life has to change, at least if we are to take up the challenge of accounting for the collective force unaccounted for in existing theories of property and remuneration. Eventually, Proudhon would affirm that his critique of governmentalism rested on essentially the same theory of exploitation as his critique of capitalism, raising the still largely unexplored possibility that, beyond the union of “property is theft” and “I am an anarchist,” there is an anarchistic critique of real conditions applicable to most forms of oppression. And he certainly left us little doubt of the importance of the theory to his project when he defined his “social system” as necessarily consisting of nothing beyond a social “equation” and “a power of collectivity.”

Of course, we’re not done with What is Property? until we deal with the long fifth chapter of the work, the “Psychological Exposition of the Idea of Justice and Injustice, and a Determination of the Principle of Government and of Right,” which contains the germs of much of Proudhon’s social science, including the philosophy of progress, and ends with the “Determination of the third form of Society.” That form of society is “the synthesis of communism and property, [which] we will call liberty,” and, informed by justice and equity, it is characterized by equality, anarchy, infinite variety and proportionality.

These are not, I suspect, precisely the elements that Proudhon’s reputation prepares readers to appreciate. And I suspect that while many readers are a simply bit overwhelmed by the end of What is Property? many are also a bit disappointed. It is natural, given that reputation, to hope for much more than we find there regarding anarchy and some clear model of non-property (even if just some clarification of possession.) What we get instead is in many respects a magnificent introduction to what Proudhon’s project will become, but that’s not a realization we can have until we actually engage seriously with some significant portion of that project.


Moving forward into the subsequent works, perhaps it should dawn on us fairly quickly that the hoped-for clarifications may be a long time coming. He would never really elaborate a positive theory of possession and the closest thing he ever provided was arguably the discussion in Theory of Property (and the related texts) where he abandoned possession in favor of his “New Theory” of property. The elaboration of anarchy as a political alternative would appear scattered across a number of works, but would never assume the prominence we might expect in the works of the “father of anarchism.” Unfortunately, some of the clearest and most important discussions of anarchy would appear in La Révolution sociale démontrée par le coup d’État du 2 décembre, a work that was long influential despite some attempts to paint it as a concession to the authority of Louis Napoléon, but has since succumbed to the whispers and to anarchism’s own retreat from Proudhon.

Meanwhile, of course, the work on property went on, with two more memoirs and a number of other texts appearing in the 1840s. At the same time, Proudhon continued to develop his theory of collective force and to elaborate the sociological theories sketched out in 1840. The language of justice gradually took center stage from the language of liberty, but this wasn’t so great a shift, when we compare Proudhon’s definitions of justice with his 1840 note on the meaning of liberty:

The antinomy is the principle of attraction and equilibrium in nature; so the antinomy is the principle of progress and equilibrium in humanity, and the object of the economic science; it is JUSTICE. (The System of Economic Contradictions, 1846)

So society is divided in its deep strata. The laborer cries out, with the Revolution: Justice, balance, emancipation! The old world responds: Fatality, necessity, predestination, hierarchy! (Justice in the Revolution and in the Church, 1860)

Equilibrium is Justice itself. (Justice…)

Libertas, librare, libratio, libra, — liberty, to liberate, libration, balance (pound), — words that have a common derivation. Liberty is the balance of rights and duties. To make a man free is to balance him with others, — that is, to put him or their level. (What is Property?, 1840)

What we see in these definitions and descriptions is a number of vocabularies converging around a particular structure of balanced individuals and forces. And, while Proudhon had not yet clearly distinguished the antinomy (which “does not resolve itself”) from the effects of synthesis, an awful lot of the elements necessary for resultant anarchy seem to have been present from the beginning and featured right along.

So if we pick up where Proudhon left off in 1840 — with the discussion of liberty, the emphasis on collective force, etc. — and follow that thread forward, we can be certain of not straying too far from Proudhon’s other keywords and key concepts. That would, however, still take us on a much longer journey than we should try to cover in the remainder of this post, so I just want to pose two more questions on our way to an answer to the one posed in the title:

  1. Is there something in Proudhon’s treatment of liberty that allows us to think of the return of property in his later works as something other than a retreat from the position of 1840?
  2. Is there any way of thinking about property, in the context of a resultant anarchy, that marks a real break with the property theories that Proudhon had so resolutely critiqued?


The new theory of property that Proudhon elaborated in the period between about 1861 and his death in 1865 turns on this realization:

There is only one new thing in our thesis: it is that that same property, the contradictory and abusive principle of which has raised our disapproval, we today accept entirely, along with its equally contradictory qualification: Dominium est just utendi et abutendi re suâ, quatenus juris ratio patur. We have understood finally that the opposition of two absolutes — one of which, alone, would be unpardonably reprehensible, and both of which, together, would be rejected, if they worked separately — is the very cornerstone of social economy and public right: but it falls to us to govern it and to make it act according to the laws of logic.

So property is still theft, but it may also be useful, provided it is “governed” and “made to act according to the laws of logic.” And it will be balanced against other institutions, including some form of State:

From the principle that property, irreverent with regard to the prince, rebellious against authority, anarchic in the end, is the only force which can serve as a counter-balance to the State, follows this corollary: property, absolutism piled on an absolutism, is still for the state an element of division. The power of the State is a power of concentration; give it freedom to grow and all individuality will soon disappear, absorbed into the collectivity; society will fall into communism; property, on the other hand, is a power of decentralization; because it is itself absolute, it is anti-despotic, anti-unitary; it is because of this that it is the principle of all federation; and it is for this reason that property, autocratic in essence carried into political society, becomes straightway republican.

We are not far from the “synthesis of community and property” of 1840, but we do seem to be quite a ways from “I am an anarchist” and “property is theft.” If there is simply no way to dispense with property and the State, well, so be it, but the result definitely feels like anarchist thought of the sadder but wiser school. Fortunately, I don’t think we have to compromise to that extent.

First of all, the State being described is not the governmentalist State Proudhon critiqued in the 1840s, but the vestigial citizen-state he introduced in works like Theory of Taxation. (For an overview of Proudhon’s state-theory, see my essay “Pierre-Joseph Proudhon: Self-Government and the Citizen-State.”) Whatever government remains is to be very limited in its scope and structure. Both the published version of Theory of Property and the remaining manuscript pages make it clear, for example, that the government must be one of federation:

There is only one point of view from which property can be accepted: it is the one that, recognizing that man possesses Justice within himself, making him sovereign and upholder of justice, consequently awards him property, and knows no possible political order but federation. (Ms. 2847 — Theory of Property)

Thus I will strengthen all my earlier criticisms with considerations of history and politics, and show in the end that if property is a truth, this can only be on one condition: that the principles of Immanent Justice, Individual Sovereignty and Federation are accepted. (Theory of Property)

But as far back as 1852, in the section on “Anarchy or Caesarism” at the conclusion of The Social Revolution, Proudhon had proposed that “government” lose all its power of representation, all its separation from the real relations that make up society:

Let us suppose that, in the order of political understanding, it happens, as in every other order of knowledge, that abstract ideas gradually take the place of concrete ideas, the government, instead of being considered as the representation or personification of the social relations, which is only a materialist and idolatrous conception, should be conceived as being that relation itself, something less poetic perhaps, less favorable to the imagination, but more in conformity with the habits of logic: the government, no longer distinguishing itself from the interests and liberties to the extent that both are put in relation, ceases to exist.

Still, all of this may seem a bit like letting us down gently, without any positive account of why property itself cannot be recognized as a vital part of a resultant anarchy. Merely neutralizing forces, keeping threats at bay, seems like a pale reflection of the beautiful idea. But let us take advice from Emma Goldman — “Let us not overlook vital things, because of the bulk of trifles confronting us,” — and reconstruct the context of Theory of Property, as a next step in recovering what might be more vital in the vision contained there.

The few references to federation in the work are of critical importance, but they are also perhaps fewer than they might be, had Proudhon’s work be published according to the author’s larger plan. The same considerations apply to the relative lack of references to collective force. We are reminded of the significance of the latter when, at the top of a list of Proudhon’s positive theoretical accomplishments, we find “a theory of the Collective Force: metaphysics of the Group,” with the note that this theory “will be especially demonstrated, along with the theory of Nationalities, in a book that will be published shortly.” But that book was the still unpublished Géographie politiques et nationalités, of which Theory of Property was originally conceived as the seventh chapter.

It is hard to express what a different book Theory of Property is when restored to its original place at the end of Géographie politiques et nationalités, with its extensive discussions of the birth and death of nations and the workings of collective force on the largest of human scales. But what the working outlines in the Pologne manuscripts suggest is that, just as those works began the sequence, The Principle of Federation may have originally been intended to continue it, clarifying some portions of the argument in Theory of Property and exploring the application of the collected principles from both earlier works. Indeed, we should probably consider virtually everything Proudhon produced from 1858 or 1859 until his death as fundamentally connected. But, again, we find ourselves faced with enormous labors and not much more than suggestive circumstances to bring to bear on our present questions.

So it is back to the liberty-thread, to which Proudhon gave particular attention in the Eighth Study in Justice in the Revolution and in the Church. And here, liberty is no longer the name for a kind of social order based in balance, but is a quantity of collective force generated by the interaction of elements and interests. It is explicitly a resultant. The argument is long and complex, but perhaps this section gives enough of a taste for us to at least begin to answer our third question.

4. Liberty, or free will, is a conception of the mind, formed in opposition to necessity, to the absolute Absolute, and to the notion of a preestablished harmony or best of worlds, with the aim of making sense of facts not explained by the principle of necessity … and to render possible the science of nature and of humanity.

5. Now, like all the conceptions of the mind, like necessity itself, this new principle is countered by antinomy, which means that alone it is no longer sufficient for the explanation of man and nature: it is necessary, according the law of the mind, which is the very law of creation, that this principle be balanced against its opposite, necessity, with which it forms the first antinomy, the polarity of the universe.

Thus necessity and liberty, antithetically united, are given a priori, by metaphysics and experience, as the essential condition of all existence, all movement, of every end, starting from every body of knowledge and every morality.

6. What then is liberty or free will? The power of collectivity of the individual. By it, man, who is at once matter, life and mind, frees himself from all fatality, whether physical, emotional or intellectual, subordinates things to himself, raises himself, through the sublime and the beautiful, outside the limits of reality and of thought, makes an instrument of the laws of reason as well as those of nature, sets as the aim of his activity the transformation of the world according to his ideal, and devotes himself to his own glory as an end.

7. According to that definition of liberty, one can say, reasoning by analogy, that in every organized or simply collective being, the resultant force is the liberty of the being; in such a way the more that being–crystal, plant or animal–approaches the human type, the greater the liberty in it will be, the greater the scope of its free will. Among men themselves free will shows itself more energetic as the elements which give rise to it are themselves more developed in power: philosophy, science, industry, economy, law. This is why history, reducible to a system by its fatal side, shows itself progressive, idealistic, and superior to theory, on the side of free will, the philosophy of art and of history having in common that the reason of things which serves as their criterion is nevertheless powerless to explain all of their content.

It is in particular the seventh section that is of interest to us, with its claim that “in every organized or simply collective being, the resultant force is the liberty of the being” and its discussion of how this sort of liberty increases along with the power of its elements. In hindsight, there are elements that perhaps should have been at least partially clear in works from a decade earlier, in Proudhon’s provocative description of reciprocity:

We need, however, no great effort of reflection in order to understand that justice, union, accord, harmony, and even fraternity, necessarily suppose two terms and that unless we are to fall in to the absurd system of absolute identity, which is to say absolute nothingness, contradiction is the fundamental law, not only of society, but of the universe!

Such is also the first law that I proclaim, in agreement with religion and philosophy: it is Contradiction. Universal Antagonism.

But, just as life supposes contradiction, contradiction in its turn calls for justice: from this the second law of creation and humanity, the mutual penetration of antagonistic elements, RECIPROCITY.

But what seems new in the 1858 account is the fact that liberty seems to increase, not as we neutralize antagonism, but as we increase it in balanced form. And, here, I think, is the place to begin our redemption of property. One of the key communist criticisms of property even of possession and of recourse to any of the institutions of “the market” is that these norms and institutions tend to create artificial separation between individuals who are clearly at least as inextricably interdependent and interconnected as they are separable. They want to be free of systems of valuation and the estimations of individual contribution, which clearly have their limitations and downsides, while from a different perspective the committed individualists want to be free of some or all of the social collectivities that seem more or less ubiquitous in modern society, and from which individual extrication is no small task. What we might call the mutualist position provided that label retains its connections to Proudhon, the theory of collective force and the federative principle — is that there is no choosing which of the “organized or simply collective beings” we recognize. When we begin to balance interests and “rights,” there are “as many special rights as humans can raise different claims, owing to the diversity of their faculties and of their exercise,” and, to borrow some language from the Fourierists, these claims will at least potentially range in scale from the infinitesimal to the universal.

If we accept this account of liberty and its relation to collective force, then it is not at all clear that we can pursue a seriously libertarian project and simply concern ourselves with the neutralization of conflicting interests and powers. While balance is key to the kind of (resultant) anarchist relations we are exploring, so too is intensity, with the result that it would perhaps seem to be in our interest to draw more lines and stir things up, provided we can cope with the forces we put in play, even beyond the sorts of divisions we associate with propertarian thought. I think the caution here is that, if we were really to take on the project of balancing interests and claims at the full range of possible scales, we would have our hands more than full. I think, too, that there is probably a principle of respecting only “real” interests, however we eventually come to understand that distinction, much as the egoists attempt to rid their intellectual labors of false and fixed ideas (“spooks.”) But, for the moment at least, let me simply leave those questions open, simply noting that here we surely do have a positive account of anarchic liberty in which some kind of individual property might indeed play a key role.


Assuming that everything we’ve suggested so far holds up under further examination, have we answered the question of how property becomes anarchist? Perhaps, but I can’t help but echo some of Proudhon’s final thoughts from Theory of Property. In the lovely concluding section, he admitted his own reservations regarding his new theory:

I have developed the considerations that make property intelligible, rational, legitimate, and without which it remains usurping and odious.

And yet, even in these conditions, it presents something selfish that remains unpleasant to me. My reason — being egalitarian, anti-governmental, and the enemy of ferocity and the abuse of force — can accept the dependence on property as a shield, a place of safety for the weak: my heart will never be in it.

I’m a little more enthusiastic about the theory with the theory of collective force restored to a central place in it, but one of the genuine disappointments of Theory of Property is that it is not just intensity and the sort of universal antagonism that Proudhon would indeed have considered inevitable, but precisely “ferocity and the abuse of force” that seems embodied in the property he has found himself reluctantly embracing. And I think we can do better than that.

There are two obvious sorts of movement that we will have to learn to master if we are to make this resultant anarchy really result in an increase in liberty. There will be a movement of conscious implication, by which we learn how to identify and advocate for our interests as members of various social collectivities. Part of this movement might even be recognizable as a sort of communization, but with the obvious difference that this movement would not be exclusive of various kinds of individualization and would itself operate on a variety of scales. It seems likely that the demands of the transition from our present institutions to those of a resultant anarchy would initially place some emphasis on this side of things. There is probably a necessary stage of shouldering the responsibilities of our already existing interdependence that will need to be mastered before we can turn to the mutual extrication that is the other movement to be mastered.

But, if we accept the Proudhonian analysis, that extrication and individualization will be equally necessary, and it will be the source of much of the intensification of productive conflict that we might expect, if properly balanced, to increase the quantity of liberty in our relations. There are, however, multiple means of pursuing this mutual extrication and it is here that I too would like to set aside “something selfish” in the conventional approach to property through appropriation — through taking — and consider the possibility of giving — giving space to experiment and err, relinquishing our claims to what we can of the other, etc. — of explicitly establishing individual property through a system of gifts.

This would involve yet another return to what I have in the past called a gift economy of property, but a fuller reexamination of that notion should probably wait for another post.


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