“Labor destroys Property” (Notes on “What is Property?”)

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This is another bit extracted from a social media exchange elsewhere, dealing with the progression of Proudhon’s argument against both property in materials and property in product in “What is Property?” Even if it is a bit out-of-context, it should help emphasize how important getting through all of Chapter III is to understanding Proudhon’s point. And once you’ve done that, you can start your collection of weird conclusions drawn by people who didn’t get all the way through.

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I don’t think it’s unreasonable, particularly when dealing with a book that signals from the outset (“property is theft!”) that it will be untangling the contradictions of existing property conventions, to expect critics to be on guard for both complexity and instances of provocative style. Proudhon’s bon mot has perhaps been strangely normalized in radical circles, and perhaps Tucker’s translation misses some of the less obvious jokes, but Proudhon does seem to give us fair warning that there will be some twists and turns. We also get a pretty clear itinerary just from the table of contents. After some preliminaries, Proudhon will address the two primary justifications for property—occupation and labor, both of which he will find lacking—before moving on to the “mathematical” proofs that “Property is impossible.” And then he will end with a first glimpse of a positive program, in his discussion of “liberty,” the result of a “synthesis of community and property.”

Knowing where the argument is going helps, since, even if he ends up using “synthesis” in a way that makes us the philosopher in us cringe a little and “liberty” in a way that he won’t quite return to, we know that ultimately he is trying to propose a break with what might have seemed the most logical alternatives to many of his readers.

Chapter II, which deals with occupation, is admittedly terse at times we might want more extensive explanation. But, in citing Duranton and Toullier that property is a right and possession a fact, he seems to be presenting his own understanding as well. His talk about the “double definition of property — domain and possession,” and the two forms of right that correspond to the two elements, don’t seem to contradict that in any way. And whatever ambiguity might be left there seems relatively unimportant in the face of his much clearer statements. That discussion of definitions is immediately followed by this statement:

In writing this memoir against property, I bring against universal society an action petitoire: I prove that those who do not possess to-day are proprietors by the same title as those who do possess; but, instead of inferring therefrom that property should be shared by all, I demand, in the name of general security, its entire abolition.

At the outset, then, it appears that the program is not to redeem property by asserting some new, secure basis for it, but instead to show that the current proprietors have as little ground to stand on as they grant to their tenants.

In “§ 2. — Occupation, as the Title to Property,” we get some idea of the relationship between mere possession and property in the discussion of Cicero and the theater:

The theatre, says Cicero, is common to all; nevertheless, the place that each one occupies is called his own; that is, it is a place possessed, not a place appropriated. This comparison annihilates property; moreover, it implies equality. Can I, in a theatre, occupy at the same time one place in the pit, another in the boxes, and a third in the gallery? Not unless I have three bodies, like Geryon, or can exist in different places at the same time, as is related of the magician Apollonius.

Everyone in the theater must necessarily occupy a space and nobody can occupy more than one. The theater is common to all, but each individual’s places is called “their own.” There is no appropriation, and thus no property, with merely a conventional recognition that the common must really be shared by each and all.

Proudhon works through the various defenses of occupation as a source of property, with occasionally amusing results, and then concludes with the simple claim that occupation really gives no means of determining what property might be due to each individual, beyond some gesture at “an equal share” (or maybe the old Lockean “enough and as good.”)

Not only does occupation lead to equality, it prevents property. For, since every man, from the fact of his existence, has the right of occupation, and, in order to live, must have material for cultivation on which he may labor; and since, on the other hand, the number of occupants varies continually with the births and deaths, — it follows that the quantity of material which each laborer may claim varies with the number of occupants; consequently, that occupation is always subordinate to population. Finally, that, inasmuch as possession, in right, can never remain fixed, it is impossible, in fact, that it can ever become property.

It’s a fairly weak punchline for all the analysis he does, but he’ll eventually explain that nobody lives solely on their own labor anyway, so that some of the concerns brought up by critics like Déjacque (who was rightly concerned that an abstract equal share was no means of providing individuals with what was really “proper” to them specifically) can be anticipated.

Then when we get to Chapter II, it makes sense to look ahead at the concluding section: “§ 8. — That, from the Stand-point of Justice, Labor destroys Property.” And we should note that at the end of the previous chapter he gives us one of those rhetorical moves where he pretends some defender of property is shouting out their principle:

But I hear the exclamations of the partisans of another system: “Labor, labor! that is the basis of property!”

Reader, do not be deceived. This new basis of property is worse than the first, and I shall soon have to ask your pardon for having demonstrated things clearer, and refuted pretensions more unjust, than any which we have yet considered.

What he does to open up that third chapter is more of the same. He presents the proprietor as a criminal at trial, trying anything to proclaim their innocence. And it is in this context that we have another proposal for a property-basis.

“The problem is solved,” exclaims M. Hennequin. “Property, the daughter of labor, can be enjoyed at present and in the future only under the protection of the laws. It has its origin in natural law; it derives its power from civil law; and from the union of these two ideas, labor and protection, positive legislation results.” …

Of course, M. Hennequin is not M. Proudhon, and the latter immediately sets out to examine the claim, after the rather snarky echo that you have cited.

Proudhon pretty quickly deals with “univeral consent” and prescription as possible means of justifying appropriation of the land. He then argues that “labor has no inherent power to appropriate natural wealth”—and at the end of that section (§ 4) he makes the conditional statements about the possibility of property in products.

Now, in the beginning of “§ 5. — That Labor leads to Equality of Property,” he reverses for a moment to tackle one more “what if” question about property in materials. And all the way through the end of §8—through the elaboration of his theory of exploitation, which is perhaps, from the point of view of his whole body of work, the most important section in the book—he is attempting to show that even if we granted broad powers of appropriation, they would end up making capitalist accumulation impossible. Social labor leads to equality, but is also always an expression of interdependence.

And then in the final section he finally makes the real attack on labor as any sort of producer of property:

The laborer is not even proprietor of the price of his labor, and cannot absolutely control its disposition. Let us not be blinded by a spurious justice. That which is given the laborer in exchange for his product is not given him as a reward for past labor, but to provide for and secure future labor. We consume before we produce. The laborer may say at the end of the day, “I have paid yesterday’s expenses; to-morrow I shall pay those of today.” At every moment of his life, the member of society is in debt; he dies with the debt unpaid: — how is it possible for him to accumulate?


The laborer, in his relation to society, is a debtor who of necessity dies insolvent. The proprietor is an unfaithful guardian who denies the receipt of the deposit committed to his care, and wishes to be paid for his guardianship down to the last day.

[This additional note, which appeared earlier in the same debate, may be useful as context.]

There are essentially three analyses of property in Proudhon’s work. The terms of the arguments change slightly, as one might expect over 25 years, but he left an outline and partially completed chapter addressing the development of his thought for inclusion in the posthumous Theory of Property, which helps clarify things.

What is Property? demolishes the various attempts to ground property one by one, mostly on the theory of collective force, which is the heart of Proudhon’s critique of both capitalist exploitation and governmental domination. For Proudhon, those “undiminished proceeds of labor” have a social character that would make a notion like “personal property” almost as hard to sustain as capitalist private property. “Possession,” which Proudhon later acknowledged he had “not defined,” is mostly usefully understood as a matter of fact, rather than of right. He isn’t worried about toothbrushes and just sort of shrugs off any discussion of a just labor-based possession in one of the other memoirs on property. When Marx made his dismissive remarks about “Hard-won, self-acquired, self-earned property!” in 1848, he was basically just echoing Proudhon.

The next, pragmatic phase of Proudhon’s analysis would take years to develop, so there are more details and minor shifts to contend with, but the distinction that emerged between “property-liberty” and “property-theft” (both of which he said he wished to see “liquidated” in Theory of Property) ended up being primarily a distinction between the aims of the institution (in the mind of the masses) and its actual character. Property-liberty didn’t not appear in the works of this period (most of Proudhon’s life) in any form except that of property-theft balanced against itself and other institutions. All of the critiques of 1840 remained in force—except that he set aside the vague placeholder concept of possession as well. He made it clear in Theory of Property that there were no grounds upon which even “Humanity itself” could be proprietor of the Earth. And, contrary to anti-Proudhonian myth, he never concerned himself much with purely artisanal production or the question of any possible “property” arising from it.

[All the relevant texts—including a number of unpublished manuscript writings and the original manuscripts for Théorie de la Propriété—are available online in French. You can find links to a rough-draft translation of Theory of Property and pieces of the ongoing revision (held up by a delay in the publication of some French texts), plus plenty of commentary on Proudhon’s property theory in the Proudhon Library archive.]

The third phase of Proudhon’s property theory only appears as a glimpse or two in unpublished manuscripts, but, since it builds on other aspects of his mature work, that is at least enough to characterize its goals and general approach. At the end of his life, Proudhon suggested the possibility of a “mutualist property” arising out of mutual agreement, involving a balanced complex of mutual recognitions and responsibilities, but still without any presumed foundation in labor, occupancy or really anything but that mutual agreement. That’s still a long way from Lasalle—and, of course, it is not the sort of “Proudhonian” thought anyone but those who have gone deep into the archival sources could cite anyway.


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