L. S. Bevington, “The Last Gasp of Propertyism”


Debate on Proudhon and property:

Contr’un Revisited: [commentary coming soon]

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It’s not much fun to be in a debate where the participants consistently talk past one another, but it can be fairly instructive to observe them. The debate in Tochatti’s Liberty is potentially instructive, while it certainly is not anything like a model for real meetings of minds. To recap: the communists of Liberty published the final section of Proudhon’s Theory of Property, together with a provocative argument that Proudhon’s stated personal preference for “Slavonic or Communal possession of land” somehow put “so-called Proudhonians” at odds with the master when they engage in “preaching Individualism and private appropriation.” The claim was essentially that Proudhon only presented his “new theory” as a response to current difficulties, as a tactical reform and not as an anarchist model. I think there is a great deal in The Theory of Property, and in Proudhon’s other mature work, that suggests there will always be some need to balance individual resource-claims against the claims of others, and the claims of various collectivities—and thus a need for some system of individual property—and there are certainly some damning historical statements about the relation between simple possession and freedom. No doubt, Proudhon has sincere in his statement. Those final paragraphs of The Theory of Property are particularly fine, and obviously heart-felt. But it is worth asking what else, beside any approximation of “private property,” Proudhon felt himself willing to do without, personally, which he could not simply exclude from his social theory. In any event, Henry Seymour’s response was a pretty mild sort of protest, with its attempts to clarify the Proudhonist position on the disposition of products, a sort of “two-gun” clarification of the mutualist position on individualism and communism, and the odd claim that Proudhon’s followers “have always preached Communism in relation to land and natural products.” This last claim seems simply incorrect to me. If it had been the case, the controversies with the collectivists over land tenure would certainly have been hard to account for. It seems like a rather large, and not well-justified concession to the communists, but, curiously, Louisa Sarah Bevington seems to have seen it primarily as another instance of propertarian illogic—or at least another occasion to rail against property. Her response is worth reading carefully:



What do the Individualists mean when they talk of the right of personal appropriation of their own labor-product? What is an “own” labor-product? What is “appropriation”? What is a “right”?

In his letter to Liberty on “Proudhon and Communism,” Mr. Seymour takes for granted that these three words stand for universally discernable things, and stand in an indisputable relation to one another; and from a little three-legged platform so based, he puts a poser: “If the man who conceives and carries out the production of a commodity has no right to consume (sic) or appropriate what he has produced, how can some other men (the community so-called) have a right to consume or appropriate it who have not produced it?” In this conundrum several open questions are begged outright. My answer to it would be as follows: Supposing you could find a man who had, all by himself, “conceived or carried out the production of a commodity,” and suppose you could find something other and more than his need or fitness to be the consumer or user of that commodity binding him to it when it is produced; and suppose you could further find this extra bond to be something other or more than a legal, conventional, and removable concession on the part of other people, then I will accept the term “right” as designating this bond. But the first step towards bringing my mind up to a level from which I might see and so have a chance of disposing of the aforesaid poser as it stands, is to find your individual conceiver or carrier-out of production. (And by the way, which of these two wonderful persons, when found, is to have precedence as a more-than-consumer of the of the finished product?)

I am not quibbling. It is at this very point—the supposed “right” to the supposed “owning” of supposed “individually produced” wealth, that the not-so-very-ancient property superstition is to draw its last gasp. The air is noisy and heavy with the gasping already. I wish for all our sakes it were over, so that economic sanity might bless us all at last, and make our planet our home instead of our purgatory.

That conventional “article” of a transient economic creed which binds surplus goods (consequently opportunities) to the will or whim of individual “owners” is after all as irrelevant as it is dogmatic. It has, like most man-imposed dogmas, a sorry and shady history; and it has no logical basis in actual relations between men and things.

To me it seems that there exists, to begin with, no individual producer. No one does, or can do more than put a finishing touch to something which the labors of countless others had brought into position for his hand, having provided him also with tools to work with, to say nothing of having fed, educated, and protected him up to the stage of ability required for his job. The job when finished, is a many men’s job every time. Say it is a specially original and prophetic book; it is then a more men’s job than if it is a wild fruit gathered in a jungle. The wild fruit, too, which one hand gathers, can be consumed by the owner of the hand. But the book that has taken the mental work of generations and the manual work of a great crowd to bring it into existence, will serve a great crowd and many generations, and will the more widely and easily fulfil its end and function of instruction the less its production and distribution get hitched on the thorn of the property hedge.

Thinker, inventor, able mechanician or husbandman, it is not for you to say who has not had part in the making of your finished product. “How can some other men (the community so-called) have a right to consume or appropriate it who have not produced it?” “Right to consume” means actual need and natural ability to consume, or it means nothing. “Right to appropriate” means law-protected ability to withhold at will; or it means nothing. The first—the title to consumption, may exist on the part of the finisher of the product, when it is good economy all round for him to put it to use as first comer; or it may not exist, when it is poor economy not to let anyone have it who does need it for immediate consumption. In the case of appropriation the right is spurious, and exists nowhere. There are only three real terms—Men; goods; use. Men make goods. Goods belong where they are useful as goods; not as wares; not as merchandise; not as speculations; not as instruments, for profit making or for bribing. These uses are all wasteful of wealth and of time.

Proudhonians, says Mr. Seymour, “preach Communism in relation to land and natural products, for the reason that such are in no wise due to the efforts of individual; and emphasize the right of personal appropriation of labor-products, for the reason that they are due to personal effort.” “Reason”? Why, reason? It seems to me that it is a dogma rather than reason which speaks here. Surely the true reason for general and free access to natural products is general need. There is a positive reason for my drinking at yonder spring. I drink because I am thirsty, not because I did not make the water. I do not think a new principle comes in with regard to human products. I have made a walking stick. I keep it instead of giving it to my brother, because he has one already, and I have none; not because I cut the stick, and he did not. If I have another stick, and he has none, and wants one, my work is better rewarded in his fit use of it than in my unfit custody of it. Nor need he pay me “damage” for it.

No. Let us all say what we mean. There is no fitness in the property-idea; it is not good logic; it is not good economy; it is, in our day, awfully difficult, and disturbing, and dangerous, and morally disastrous to keep it enforced, and in working-order. To take away its grab-title, and its pedigree-title, and its business-title, and to give it a brand new labor-title won’t alter the nature of its tenure, as an instrument of rulership and power over the opportunities of others; but, say some, keep it intact as an idea, we must; or else the drone and the dunce, our moral and intellectual weaklings and inferiors, will live upon us, and eat us clever and industrious ones out of house and home! How on earth am I to punish my inert or imbecile fellow creatures, if I let them have what I don’t want for my own use, without fining them? Well, to begin with, I think ninety-nine per cent of the drones are only drones because we have poisoned the honey to such an extent that is has, for a large number, becomes not worth the trouble of gathering. I do not despair of the average drone, even when sure that he is a drone, by preference, and not merely a badly-circumstanced, ill-placed bee. And the dunce? Poor, stupid, or semi-stupid blunderer and cumberer! Nature has fined the dunce already. Human law has often cancelled the fine. Look at Royal Families. But shall we withhold from the powerless dunce of the future his mere bread and cheese only because, for lack of wits or briskness, he cannot help us to produce them? I fear nothing from the inferior. When access is free, and powers all freely engaged in co-operative production or in healthy emulation, neither the dunce nor the drone will rule over us, as at present, take tribute of us as at present, or deprive our children of like opportunities with their own, as at present; and surely that is all that matters.

I hate almost murderously the parasitic drone and the dunce in office; but I declare that I could make them both most kindly and pitifully welcome to my superfluous food and clothing, (even though I personally had been the busy and clever part-producer of either form of wealth), so soon as it should become a clear fact to me that both drone and dunce were my powerless pensioners, and not my masters.

Next: “The Prejudice Against Property.”


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