1839: Proudhon on property and theft


Over the last few years, I’ve spent a lot of time demonstrating how the very suggestive general observations in Proudhon’s What is Property? only really emerge as a property theory when we bring them together with developments in his later writings—and how, even then, we are arguably left to pick up his positive project, imagining a property that would not be theft, ourselves. As it turns out, there are also some clarifications to be made by looking back at Proudhon’s earlier work, from 1839, The Celebration of Sunday.

The Celebration of Sunday is a peculiar mix of things. It’s mostly a celebration of the genius and foresight of Moses, whose legislation is presented as a canny mix of realpolitik and insights so deep that he could only present them in the form of a seed which might germinate and flower under other conditions. For those who know Proudhon as the guy with some harsh things to say about the Jews, his high praise for Israelites may come as a bit of a surprise—and/or his criticisms of the Talmudic tradition may come as a kind of confirmation. I think a bit of both reactions is probably appropriate, and that adding some content to our sense of Proudhon’s position can only help. In relation to Proudhon’s economic and social theory, we can also see a lot of his early attempts to come to terms with issues like equality, the role of the family, the nature of just authority and government, etc.—and in one passage on the Decalogue’s injunction against theft, we get a very interesting first look at Proudhon attempting to relate theft and property. Here is the passage in French:

L’égalité des conditions est conforme à la raison et irréfragable en droit, elle est dans l’esprit du christianisme, elle est le but de la société ; la législation de Moïse prouve que ce but peut être atteint. Ce dogme sublime, si effrayant de nos jours, a sa racine dans les profondeurs les’ plus intimes de la conscience, où il se confond avec la notion même du juste et du droit. Tu ne voleras pas, dit le Décalogue, c’est-à-dire, selon l’énergie du terme original lo thignob, tu ne détourneras rien, tu ne mettras rien de côté pour toi (1). L’expression est générique comme l’idée même : elle proscrit non-seulement le vol commis avec violence et par la ruse, l’escroquerie et le brigandage, mais encore toute espèce de gain obtenu sur les autres sans leur plein acquiescement. Elle implique, en un mot, que toute infraction à l’égalité de partage, toute prime arbitrairement demandée, et tyranniquement perçue, soit dans l’échange, soit sur le travail d’autrui, est une violation de la justice communicative, est une concussion.

And the accompanying footnote reads: “Le verbe ganab signifie littéralement mettre de côté, cacher, retenir, détourner.” (The verb ganab literally means to put aside, to hide, to hold, to divert.” Some of these terms also have more specific applications to commerce. Détourner can mean to swindle, but Proudhon seems to be arguing for a rather literal translation of the terms, one which respects the original “energy” of an injunction which he associates with a basic “equality of conditions and goods.” So we might be inclined to translate the passage in this way:

Equality of conditions is in conformity to reason and an irrefutable right. It is in the spirit of Christianity, and it is the aim of society; the legislation of Moses demonstrates that it can be attained. That sublime dogma, so frightening in our time, has its roots in the most intimate depths of the conscience, where it is mixed up with the very notion of justice and right. Thou shalt not steal, says the Decalogue, which is to say, with the vigor of the original term, lo thignob, you will divert nothing, you will put nothing aside for yourself. The expression is generic like the idea itself: it forbids not only theft committed with violence and by ruse, fraud and brigandage, but also every sort of gain acquired from others without their full agreement. It implies, in short, that every violation of equality of division, every premium arbitrarily demanded, and tyrannically collected, either in exchange, or from the labor of others, is a violation of communicative justice, it is a misappropriation

There is a fair amount here that requires some clarification, some of which is undoubtedly somewhat different than the positions that Proudhon would adopt later. Approaching the passage on the treacherous ground of probably authorial intent, I’m honestly torn between two readings. The first is comparatively cautious. We have, after all, a catalog of the varieties of robbery in What is Property?

We rob,—1. By murder on the highway; 2. Alone, or in a band; 3. By breaking into buildings, or scaling walls; 4. By abstraction; 5. By fraudulent bankruptcy; 6. By forgery of the handwriting of public officials or private individuals; 7. By manufacture of counterfeit money. … 8. By cheating; 9. By swindling; 10. By abuse of trust; 11. By games and lotteries. … 12. By usury. … 13. By farm-rent, house-rent, and leases of all kinds. … 14. By commerce, when the profit of the merchant exceeds his legitimate salary. … 15. By making profit on our product, by accepting sinecures, and by exacting exorbitant wages.

And what these fifteen varieties of theft have in common is that they all seem to involve something which could be considered abuse—even, if we are careful about our terms, the abuse of property. If we choose to translate détourner as swindle, and proceed as if those other synonyms for theft also refer specifically to unjust forms of holding, turning or putting aside, then we seem to be in general agreement with the work of 1840, and if there are some awkward elements in that work—perhaps particularly the definition, in the introduction to the second edition, of “property” as “the abuse of property,”—we are at least no worse off than we were before.

The more “energetic” approach is to treat the prohibitions against holding, turning or putting aside much more literally. Instead of assuming that the target of the commandment is abuse, and thus that Proudhon’s reading of 1839 is in agreement with his catalog of the forms of robbery in 1840, we can see that holding, turning or putting aside are the very means by which any sort of property, beyond the most transient sort of use or consumption, might be established—and property is theft, in a much more literal and consistent sense than any we find in What is Property?

“Community” and “Property”

There is a lot more that could, and ultimately should, be said about the relationship between Proudhon’s The Celebration of Sunday and his later works, but a detailed treatment will have to wait until I can complete and post the ongoing translation. There are lots of interesting issues raised in that early work that seem to resonate with those that came later—and in some cases much later. And the temptation to wander off on one of half a dozen fascinating tangents is something I’ve been fighting off with only partial success. For the moment, however, there are probably enough questions raised by the “energetic” interpretation of the commandment against theft, which raises the possibility that theft is a precondition for property, rather than the other way around, and puts Proudhon’s infamous phrase in a rather different light.

I want to tackle a number of the immediate consequences of this alternate reading is some fairly short posts.

In the fifth chapter of What is Property? Proudhon proposed a “dialectical” reading of the development of “sociability,” according to which society developed from “community” (communauté, unfortunately rendered as “communism” in Tucker’s translation) to “property” and then, by a sort of “synthesis” of the two previous forms, to “liberty.” We know that Proudhon gradually shifted his method from the application of a more-or-less Hegelian, and fairly mechanical dialectic, through an attempt to adapt Fourier’s serial method, to a preoccupation with antinomies, which, ultimately, did not resolve themselves. We also know that his concerns remained relatively constant, but we have certainly complicated the project of determining just how consistent by our translation of communauté as “communism,” and, at least potentially, by not taking “property” in its most “energetic” sense.

When we look at Proudhon’s account of “dialectical” development, with the terms understood as we have generally understood them, the first two terms are obviously opposed approaches, but it isn’t at all clear that “community” (or “communism”) and “property” have a thesis-antithesis relationship. As critical as the battle between rival schools of property theory has been, it’s almost certainly a mistake to proceed as if there is really a dialectic at work. It has, in fact, been commonplace for even anarchists to agree with Marx that Proudhon was a bit of a bungler in his attempt to apply Hegel’s approach. But we have to at least consider whether or not it is perhaps Proudhon’s critics who have been a little clumsy. If “property is theft,” “theft” is a matter of “holding, turning or putting aside,” and “community” is, in its primitive form, not much more than the absence of property—a form of society in which there is not “holding, turning or putting aside”—then the thesis-antithesis relationship looks a lot more convincing.

About Shawn P. Wilbur 2124 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.

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