Bevington and Seymour, “The Prejudice against Property” (1895)


Debate on Proudhon and property:


The Prejudice against Property.

To the Editor of Liberty.

The main objections to the property idea which stand out clearly in L. S. Bevington’s contribution in the last issue, are two. One is that “there exists no individual producer”; the other, that the ownership of the product of one’s labour is essentially “an instrument of rulership and power over the opportunities of others.”

(1) It is patent to everyone that the “individual producer” of a commodity merely puts the finishing touch, so to speak, to a mass of labor performed by other hands. But my “individual producer” is not merely the last man occupied in the process of production—he is each of the contributors from the beginning to the end. Materials are bought by the commodity-finisher, so indeed are his tools; even his ideas and ability have cost him time and energy to acquire. In estimating the price of “his” product, he never calculates more than the personal energy he has expended upon it, plus the cost of the materials and wear and tear of tools, which is the price of other men’s labor incorporated into the product, for which he has paid in advance. There fore L. S. B.’s objection doesn’t militate against the equity of appropriation in the slightest.

(2) The presumption that the mere control, by the individual, of his product, is tantamount to enslaving the rest of mankind, is really ridiculous. As long as each has the opportunity to control his product (which Anarchy minus Communism is sufficient to guarantee) there will be an equality of status, and, consequently, slavery will be out of the question. To pretend that opportunities of production are limited in respect to all men’s needs (simply because there is an artificial disproportion between supply and demand to-day which is incidentally due to a vicious monetary system) is to re-stat the monstrous proposition of Malthus.

The greatest objection of all to Communism is its impossibility. Primitive man only tolerated it through sheer necessity. His movement towards liberty has been in proportion as he has outgrown the communistic instinct, which he inherited from his mute progenitors. Civilized man could not go back if he would. He must advance. If individual liberty has been found wanting by the worker, it is because it has been denied to him, not because of it.—Yours truly,

Henry Seymour.

Henry Seymour, “The Prejudice against Property,” Liberty (London) (October, 1894).

“The Prejudice Against Property.”

(Mr. Seymour’s Ground Re-surveyed.)

On your October number Mr. Seymour criticised some of my objections to the property idea—an idea which Anarchists regard as inherently incompatible with individual freedom, and consequently with social prosperity, but which Individualists regard as modifiable in such ways as to make it reverse the part it has hitherto invariably played in human affairs, and disclose itself as a means of emancipation and of true progress.

We Anarchists have controversial reason to grumble at our Individualist antagonists. We cannot get our questions answered. I asked Mr. Seymour what he meant by “owning;” what he meant by “appropriation;” what he meant by a “right.” He did not reply. They never do. I have tried for years to discuss the basis of the property idea with different Individualists, but they always stop short of essentials and slide off on side issues. Let me put the preliminary questions once more: (1) What essentially is it that is stickled for as property, if not the prohibitive custody of something not wanted by the individual for his own use or enjoyment, but which other people are needing for their use and enjoyment? (2) Why does anyone care about retaining this prohibitive custody if not as a means of bending and shaping to his own ends the activities and opportunities of those with whom he deals, from that point at which their need and his ownership of the propertised utility meet, and compel them to deal with him?

Pending proof to the contrary, I continue to see in this relation of man to man an economic absurdity, and a moral atrocity—the root-cause, in short, of all human fault, and feud, and failure. I am aware of limiting the equal liberty of my fellows wherever I limit their free access to anything whatever which awaits human use, and of which their need is greater or occurs sooner than my own. In a society freed of devices for penalizing propertylessness (or the non-possession of superfluity) I would not burden myself with the precautionary custody of a superfluous pin.

It is fair to ask Individualists how, in the absence of any Government to enforce property owning, and submission of all citizens to the property idea, they propose to deal with their Anarchists—those irreconcilables who are determined to repudiate respect for any property as “theirs,” and are equally aware of the fitness of making use of whatever is necessary for life, locomotion, and exercise of faculty? What is to be done with the men (and there are more of them from day to day and from hour to hour) who don’t want to own property, or to control others, but who do want freedom to live, to work, and to hand on, as they choose? Are these serviceable and inexpensive persons to suffocate to the end of the chapter, in their surely false position as mendicants at the gates of the over-supplied bargain-monger? Yet why discuss improbably contingencies? The deeper currents of human character and human tendency are to-day setting full towards unalloyed freedom; and the economics of to-morrow will know no rules but the unwritten ones of compunction, courtesy, and common-sense.

But now for Mr. Seymour. Waiving inquiries as to first principles, he (1) explains what he means by the individual producer. (2) Supposes me to pretend that opportunities of production are limited apart from the incidental consequences of a vicious monetary system, and of “re-stating the monstrous proposition of Malthus;” and (3) declares that Communism is now impossible; primitive man “only tolerated it” because he had to; the communistic instinct is being “outgrown,” and liberty approached in proportion to the outgrowing. “Civilized man could not go back if he would.”

(1) Mr. Seymour’s “individual producer” is, then, not necessarily the commodity-finisher after all. He is only “each contributor to a product from beginning to end;” plainly, then, only an infinitesimal unit in a crowd of collaborators. It is pleasing thus to see the Individual Producer, that new pretender to future world management, throw up his hand directly he is challenged to show his title. The efforts of his forefathers, and his fellows, have helped him into the position of being able to buy what he needs in order to be a producer. He has bought some material, fetched by others, bought some tools, made by others, has turned out a product which he may or may not want, when produced, for his own individual use and enjoyment. If he wants it, Mr. Seymour would agree with us that he has the first comer’s economic right to its use. If he does not want precisely it, but something else, we should say that, other things equal, his freedom is best secured by simply letting the product go, unmeasured and unweighed, wherever it is needed; so as to be rid, head and hands, of what he does not want, while receiving freely from some other quarter that which others likewise have to spare, and which he does want. Mr. Seymour on the contrary thinks that the individual’s freedom (for he declares it is not mastership he desires) would be better secured by constituting himself the arbiter of that product’s further custody for purposes of merchandise. Each individual is to be denied free access to unemployed tools; he is not be a free worker in a freely fluid, self-adjusting society; his fellows are to charge him for leave and means to support and occupy himself; and he likewise is to charge his own price on society, before he will let the product of his industry flow freely where it is of natural service. But mark, “come weal, come woe, Nature will have her way” athwart all our didacticisms and perversities; and the commercial producer’s own price for the product will always be, virtually, the whole amount of everything he is himself in need of, minus only what he cannot induce society to give him. I mean he will always aim at getting as much as possible of the things or liberties to himself, in exchange for that which is immediately valueless to himself; in a word, everything for nothing. That is what putting one’s own price on everything always, at bottom, means. It is only a perverted action of the natural law of self-preservation. It would be all right to claim all one wants every time, were it not for the artificial limitation of supplies by supposed possessions, which causes the natural tendency to work inharmoniously and disastrously. Well, is the sordid bargain driving, the squalid self-centered caution, the sour old property-tussle to have no end? To Anarchists it is pain and grief—it is bondage—to be compelled to charge anyone anything. To Anarchists, individual buying and selling, weighing and counting, accumulating and safe-guarding, appear methods as barbarous and absurd as they are grievous and wasteful, in a world where there is enough, and might so easily be abundance, of everything for all.

Meanwhile, note that the question as to how buying the material or tool, or working on the product, makes them “mine” to withhold, remains unanswered. “Purchase makes it his”—his to waste (if his innate sociality does not check him) while another perishes for need of it. “His?” How? Why? The dogma that a right of prohibitive custody, whether of objects or privileges, is acquired by something done or sacrificed by the individual, is re-stated. That is all.

(2) Then, what is that about Malthus? Where and how is it pretended that opportunities of production are limited in respect of all men’s needs? The very opposite is what we Anarchists are always pointing out. Remove the artificial and legal disabilities which are inseparable from any property system whatever, and natural opportunity abounds. And the monstrous proposition of Malthus remains monstrous to all time.

(3) Lastly, Communism is impossible. “Primitive man only tolerated [this impossibility] through sheer necessity.” It was due to a communistic “instinct,” and man was driven by necessity to tolerate the gratification of his instinct (!). * “Civilized man,” having partly “outgrown” the instinct, has acquired some liberty instead. “He could not go back if he would. He must advance. If individual liberty has been found wanting by the worker it is because it have been denied to him.”

Read “property,” for “liberty,” in the last few sentences, and I agree. I perceive, however, that just in proportion as property has been the award of the minority who have violated and ignored the communistic instinct, liberty has gone on diminishing for the rest of mankind. Under even primitive communism—no starvation! and where food is, life is, and with it all the progressive possibilities inherent in that which lives. It seems to me that Mr. Seymour reads human history and human nature very superficially. For my part I am struck at every turn with the indomitable vitality of the blessed communistic instinct. It is born anew with every little child, and it is the last thing to go when Shylock, in the eager process of gaining the world, says goodbye to his own soul. Civilization (curse it!) never has and never will become hereditary or instinctive. It has consisted mainly in an attempt to run life for all in grooves marked out by the will of the least scrupulous. We look forward to a society in which the individual of finest social sentience, and of quickest compunction, shall have the best and not the worst chances of success along the lines of his own individuality. Under any property-regarding system whatever, social scruple must go, cap-in-hand, begging for tolerance and a crust. We have for long centuries wheeled away from communism and freedom, and yet we have, howbeit lamely, progressed. Oh, yes, I admit it. We have had other absorbing jobs on hand; we have made great way, despite property checks, in geology, astronomy, electrics, neurology, and so on. We shall want it all yet. It is no ill store. Man does not go back on the whole, though he proceeds rather by indirection than straight-forwardly. In the spiral ascent of his nature, he is, at his best, already coming round again to a point where the painfully checked instinct of solidarity is once more claiming recognition and liberation, but on a higher plane. To ascend spirally is not to go back. Civilization or propertism is not a final development. Already it is cracking and crumbling at all points, and the world-wide sociality that has been ripening within its confining institutions is fast preparing to force an outlet and try its wings.

Instinct does not speak in terms either of business, or of policy. All that appertains to these unhappy devices has to be sadly and slowly learnt afresh from the beginning by each growing youth and maiden, and in most cases a deal of teaching and terrorism is required to drive the lesson home. If, meanwhile, one wants to know where instinct lurks, and what it is that individuals, in intervals of non-coercion, tend to be, watch the every-day mode of action and speech when your ordinary citizen (the man or woman of moral and intellectual mediocrity) is off guard—when legalities and conventions leave him at liberty to be natural, and when he is in no civilized anxiety as to the safety of his privileged or his property, for to-day or to-morrow. See him then very gladly “unbend;”—yes, that is it. Instinct lurks in that word. It lurks in the simple modes of speech—“Yes, and welcome;” or “Pray don’t mention it;” in all the little gratuitous graces and courtesies and neighborlinesses which prevent absolute social suffocation even under that sordid burden of “legal tender” with which our poor groaning and travailing lines have invested themselves. Social free access, as tacitly claimed and as granted before asking, by full-blown individuality, will truly, when established, differ widely from the primitive communism in which conscious individuality played no part. What was blind and haphazard will be conscious and discriminate. What was merely tribal and communal will be human and social’ and whereas Nature was formerly a mere propeller, she will be at once the accepted instructress and the most effectual co-operator.

I am fully aware that all this that I have written contains nothing of “practical politics,” or of business-like opportunism. Both of those branches of mental industry are likely to be sufficiently subserved by the “social” Democrat on one hand, and by the commercial Individualist on the other. I do not think we shall have freedom suddenly, or soon; but the goal has to be kept in sight, and the dust wiped out of our civilized eyes as we jog along. I think the individual producer, keeping his necessary force of hired “Pinkertons” to prevent non-commercial access to his superfluous product, could not but rapidly develop into one of the most coarsely selfish and graceless tyrants before whom the stifling socian has ever had to bow the knee. And I don’t think his nostrums will ever admit of the wiping of tears from all honest faces, as some pretend. “In a society such a we are striving after, there will be no direct exchange of product for product—because the real worth of products cannot by any measure be determined,—but the different producers and groups of producers will bestow their finished articles in magazines, and every individual or group will take what he needs.” But in order to call this new society into life the gangrened old one must be done away. That is our first job. Health does not grow out of disease. Freedom cannot be developed out of the apparatus of bondage. Evolution requires the forcible breakage and abandonment of the effete bean-pod—eggshell-chrysalis. This is revolution every time.

Down with Property.

L. S. Bevington.

* That communism was, is, and ever shall be a deep-seated human instinct I heartily allow; but I had always imagined that sheer necessity pressing from without was no wise needed to induce an instinct to seek its appropriate satisfaction: it being sufficient to remove extraneous impediment to ensure its certain activity. It is of the nature of an instinct to be its own propeller and it own rewarder; and to grow ever stronger with exercise. In absence of forcible deposition, its mandates, ever life-regarding, are spontaneously obeyed; and in the case of the communistic instinct, nothing but force has compelled it into prolonged but temporary abeyance.

Louise Sarah Bevington, “‘The Prejudice against Property,’” Liberty (London) 2 no. 14 (February, 1895): 111-112.

“The Prejudice against Property.”

(Rejoinder to L. S. Bevington.)

In the issue for February, L. S. B. displays as much sophistry as I ever saw jammed into two columns and a half of printed matter. It would be impossible to criticize all the side-issues she raises, having due consideration for your available space. I will therefore attend, merely, to the major considerations. To pass over the reckless confusion of Individualism with Anarchism, of Anarchism with Communism, and of property with monopoly (which causes one to reflect as to the real use of language), L. S. B. continues “to see in this relation of man to man [the recognition of the right of each producer to the product; in a word, the right of each man to control of his personal energy—liberty] an economic absurdity, and a moral atrocity.” These be strange words. An economic absurdity, forsooth! Why, the right of the producer to his product is the fundamental condition of an economic order, and anything short of it is neither more nor less than economic chaos. As to its being a “moral” atrocity, I should be better able to express an opinion upon that if I knew what kind of a morality L. S. B. patronized, and consequently how far any contravention thereof might be legitimately described as an “atrocity.” The presumption underlying such use of words is to me very atrocious. I would advise my fair opponent to stick to poetry, where the utmost licence of language is permissible, and to leave economics severely alone. For, when she says that “the real worth of products cannot by any measure be determined,” and urges such deplorable ignorances of the law of value as a justification for a general scramble, we are able to determine the real worth of her philosophical speculations on the nature of property.

“I asked Mr. Seymour what he meant by ‘owning;’ what he meant by ‘appropriation;’ what he meant by a ‘right.’ He did not reply.

What I mean by “own” is to “appropriate” to one exclusive custody. What I mean by “right” in this economic connection is the individual limitation (in the reciprocal relation between all men) to such appropriation, such limitation, being set by an equality of opportunity between all men. I admit this is conventional; but so is Anarchism. Take from Anarchism the idea of contract, and egoism alone remains.

I claim the right (in virtue of the Anarchist idea, which is none other than the idea of equality of opportunity) to the exclusion and uninterrupted possession and disposition of the product which I produce. Who robs me of any portion thereof without my consent, be he Capitalist or Communist, is not only not an Anarchist, but is a tyrant, as well as a thief; he is my enemy.

“What essentially is it that is stickled for as property, if not the prohibitive custody of something not wanted by the individual for his own use or enjoyment?” Surely, this is not to be taken seriously! As if anybody would stickle for the prohibitive custody of anything he didn’t want!

“Why does anyone care about retaining this prohibitive custody if not as a means of bending and shaping to his own ends the activities and opportunities of those with whom he deals, from that point at which their need and his ownership of the propertised utility meet, and compel them to deal with him?”

This, again, is an exaggerated coloring of “prohibitive custody.” If my neighbor happens to be, as is often the case, a lazy, thriftless, good-for-nothing fellow, and I, on the contrary, am industrious, sober, and consume my substance with economy so as to provide for the necessities of old age, or of sickness, or what not; it is a mockery of justice to tell me that my neighbor is entitled to what I have produced, and to that which he has contributed no labor whatever. Not only this, but it is an outrage on common sense to say that my prohibitive custody of the fruits of my own exertions is simply a device to enslave my neighbor, that is, to rob him of the fruits of his labor. He has nothing to be robbed of, in the first place; and in the second place, the mere protection of one’s own concrete labor force is not to be confounded with stealing other people’s. What is my neighbor’s need (which L. S. B. stickles for so much) to do with the question? No ethico-economic system could be founded on human needs, for they are as variable as they are indefinite. A fine thing, indeed! And the Communists are sticklers for property, after all. “This thing is mine, because I need it.”

O absurdity, is there any length to which thou wilt not go?

A man might need six times more than he could possibly produce, if he honestly tried to. If everyone did the same (and of course they would, when their need could be satisfied for the asking), the “Commune” would collapse there and then, winding up in moral bankruptcy. I am gratuitously supposing its establishment possible. For, I repeat, our highly complex social environment precludes its possibility. Humanity is marching towards the goal of the liberty of the individual, and with that the idea of property* is inseparable. The ever-growing expansion of individual liberty—its enlargement towards democratization—is a continual conflict with the inherited communistic instinct. I am accused of having read “human history and human nature superficially” in giving currency to this opinion. L. S. B. says, “For my part I am struck at every turn with the indomitable vitality of the blessed communistic instinct. It is born with every little child.” Italics mine. And if L. S. B. would only go back still farther, and fix her gaze upon the panorama of every little child’s prenatal developments, she would perceive, as she went back to the different stages, similar evidences of still lower characteristics in the evolution of the race. Personally, I am quite content, however, to stay where we are, and confess that the communistic instinct is born with every little child. But let us not overlook the fact that the “little child” represents the infancy of the race, and what we have to deal with to-day are grown men and women who have developed a faculty of reasoning to some extent. This is what is fatal to the socialization of the communistic instinct.

Henry Seymour.

* I find that all Communists fail to discriminate between property per se and monopoly of property. The evils of the latter are carelessly charged to the former, and their whole reasoning is vitiated by this fundamental fallacy.

Henry Seymour, “‘The Prejudice against Property,’” Liberty (London) 2 no. 16 (April, 1895): 126.

Next: The Whereabouts of Property Ethics


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