Proudhon on Land Value Taxation

[This was written for the C4SS mutual exchange on occupancy-and-use land tenure and refers to the recently posted “General Summary” from The Theory of Taxation.]


Those who have read all the contributions to this conversation so far might well marvel at how many different Proudhons had been invoked in its course. I think all of us are still in the blind man and the elephant stage with Proudhon, to some extent at least. His writings pose remarkable difficulties, beginning with the difficulty of even knowing what genre of writing we are dealing with at a given moment. Historical accounts mix with theoretical analyses and practical approximations, and even the most extensive of his writings tend to have an occasional, journalistic quality as well. To cite an extreme case, if we are to take his account at face value, then the six volumes of Justice in the Revolution and in the Church are a response to a biographical slight. Add to these stylistic complexities the complexities of his analysis, the often hidden debts to other, sometimes even more difficult or obscure figures, the volume of his output, Proudhon’s key position in almost two centuries of political debate (in which he has been represented by adversaries at least as often as admirers), the lack of translations and the unpublished state of some key writings. It is no wonder that there is not much in the way of consensus. But some approaches to Proudhon’s work are arguably more useful than others, and it seems worthwhile to at least suggest some of the issues that separate the various perspectives, since Proudhon’s name has been repeatedly invoked.

There are ultimately two general strategies used when navigating the complexities and possible contradictions within Proudhon’s work: we either assume that the works are more complete than consistent or that they are more consistent than complete. In the first case, I mean that we treat the works as if we can safely pull passages from them, or pull individual works from the ensemble, and be fairly certain that we know what those selections mean. When our isolated readings seem to be contradicted, the tendency is to assume that it is Proudhon who was contradictory, perhaps with a wave of the hand at the importance of contradiction or antinomy in his work. We find plenty of extreme cases of this strategy in the anarchist literature, where Proudhon often serves primarily as a source of bons mots. And some of the confusions can simply be attributed to bad scholarship, but others are the natural fruit of real difficulties in the body of Proudhon’s work. The second strategy involves a working assumption that Proudhon, who was indeed very concerned with various sorts of contradiction, might at least deserve the benefit of the doubt when things don’t immediately add up for us as readers. There are facts about Proudhon’s development as a thinker and writer that may not endear him to us as an accessible or “systematic thinker,” but which we probably have to take into account. We know, for example, that he considered his work divided between critical and constructive periods, and that he made major about-faces, first with regard to the language of “property” and “possession,” and then with regard to the concepts themselves. We know that he understood some of his published works as parts of larger works, some of which remained unfinished or remain unpublished. We know that he sometimes wrote as if he had explained his keywords, when that was very much not the case. We know that the “classic” English translation are pretty good, except in one case, that of The General Idea of the Revolution in the Nineteenth Century, where the fear of contradiction obscures important clues to Proudhon’s understanding of anarchy. All of those facts, verifiable, I think, through existing translations and commentary, urge a certain degree of caution when we are attempting to make bold claims about Proudhon’s general project. That said, let me be bold enough to say that my own reading of a large number of Proudhon’s works suggests to me that that, while we should not blind ourselves to the few real contradictions in those works, the second strategy is almost always the more productive one, and we should be prepared, if we invoke Proudhon, to ground our interpretations in at least a basic understanding of his overall project and its development.

Given the complexities, any claim about what position was “nearest Proudhon’s original intentions” comes with a good deal of risk involved. Despite the conscientious assembly of supporting passages, Will Schnack’s argument that “community capture of economic rent was a part of Proudhon’s plan all along” winds up being only partially correct, for some of the same reasons that Kevin Carson’s use of Proudhon is a little less than satisfying.

If we want to talk about Proudhon’s views on property and taxation, we arguably have to at least touch on his work in the 1860s. Proudhon published his Théorie de l’Impôt (Theory of Taxation) in 1861, the same year that he finished the bulk of his posthumously published Théorie de la Propriété (Theory of Property.) Both were written in the context of his last major, unpublished work, Pologne, (from which the books in that period on property, literary property and the federative principle were all offshoots.) This is the heart of Proudhon’s “constructive” period, and the books are full of interesting material—and sometimes surprising reversals, as he worked out some of the problems in earlier works.

The Theory of Taxation covers a lot of ground, as is common in Proudhon’s works, before settling down to a survey of the various forms of taxation. The last section of that survey, “Tax on Land Rent,” opens with a confirmation that Proudhon had indeed been interested in that form of taxation:

You will perhaps ask if the writer who so forcefully critiques both established customs and proposed reforms has never attempted to resolve the problem and dreamt up in his turn some little tax reform. As it is only fair, after having confessed the others, that I make my own confession, I will comply with good grace. I do not think that, in what I had published or imagined in the days before I encounter the appeal of the council of state of Lausanne, I had approached the truth much more than my predecessors, but I believe I had not descended so deep into error. Since in the matter of taxation every pretention to justice is inevitably utopian, this is what was once my utopia. I say mine, and I am incorrect. The first idea of taxation on land rent belonged to the Physiocrats; I have only presented it in the energy of its principle and the rigor of its consequences, with a considered knowledge of the subject, which was never in the mind of Quesnay, nor in the head of the Friend of Man, the Marquis de Mirabeau. [All translations are mine.]

He goes on to say that, of the various options, a tax on land rent is the best, but that no taxation scheme can solve the problems associated with property.

This amounts to saying that society has lacked the occasion to establish taxation on its true basis, and that in order to achieve that it would be necessary to prepare the terrain by a whole range of economic reforms, outside of which a tax on the rent would be, in the author’s own opinion, an upheaval.

Proudhon’s final proposal on taxation ultimately depended on a balance of different forms—which should surprise no one who has read much of the later Proudhon, where everything seems to depend on a balancing of independently objectionable practices and institutions. This is, for example, the sense in which property can finally become “liberty,” not because it has lost all of the character that originally made it “theft,” but because it can be balanced against itself and other institutions. In the balance of taxations, land rent was to become the “pivot,” but the result arguably looks very little like the Georgist or geoist proposals. Among the propositions in the conclusion we find:

That, under the influence of these two causes [movement of values and the rule that presides over the formation of prices], the incessant movement of values and the inequality of fortunes, the problem of the balancing of taxation is insoluble, and that all that we can obtain in this regard is reduced to an approximation;

That in order to return to Justice in taxation, the true method, the single and unique means is thus to work toward the equalization of fortunes themselves, something that does not depend on the initiative of the State, but solely on the intelligence and will of the citizens who consent to the tax;

That every attempt made in another direction in order to arrive at the equalization of taxation, either by a progressive tax, or by a tax on capital, or by a tax on rent or income, leads to absurdity and brings about enormous perturbations for public economy;

That a single tax, invariably resulting in the concentration in one single instance of all the fiscal iniquities divided in a multitude of taxes, would be the most crushing of taxes and the worst of systems;

That the true march to follow being, in the final account, to submit to the law, or, to put it more correctly, to the egalitarian tendency, the whole difficulty consists in turning taxation in that direction and organizing it in that spirit;

In the end, Proudhon’s proposal on taxation is that people learn to understand the tendencies of the various sorts of taxes and then apply them experimentally in their own specific contexts. The same would probably be a logical way of reading his last works on property as well. There is a sort of pluralism proposed here, but it is driven more by the need for balance—the heart of what Proudhon meant when he spoke of equality, justice, society and anarchy—than by specific principles of property or taxation.

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