Proudhon’s What Is Property? poses a variety of interpretive problems, not the least of which is that its careful series of examinations of the various justifications for simple, individual property are frequently overshadowed by the slogan, “Property is robbery!” That phrase remained important to Proudhon, even after he came to his own terms with property. “I do not come to retract,” he said in May, 1848, “heaven forbid! I persist in regarding this provocative definition as the greatest truth of the century.” However, in the same “Toast to the Revolution,” he clarified the nature of the statement: “When I say, Property is theft! I do not propose a principle; I do nothing but express one conclusion.” And he goes on to claim as his position: “Liberty then, nothing more, nothing less. Laissez faire, laissez passer, in the broadest and most literal sense; consequently property, as it rises legitimately from this freedom, is my principle.”
Not only does the Proudhon of 1848 not claim “property is robbery” as a principle, he claims “property, as it rises legitimately from [liberty]” as principle. Of course, 1848 is on the far side of a kind of philosophical watershed. In the 1843 Creation of Order in Humanity and the 1846 System of Economic Contradictions, Proudhon pursued theoretical and philosophical issues much more seriously than he had in 1840’s What Is Property? Having dealt to his own satisfaction with a range of existing explanations of property, he was left to explain its persistence. Having begun to study history more seriously as well, he was also left to explain why property, which still seemed to him unjust, even despotic, at its core, seemed to be productive of individual liberty, at least when compared to possession. He wouldn’t pull all these threads together until the 1860s, when he would propose his own justification for simple property, based on its ability to counterbalance the centralizing, state-like forces present in even an anarchist society. And it would take some time for him to explicitly develop and then discard Fourierist serialism, and various forms of dialectic, before proposing harmony and justice as the dynamic equalibrium of free forces, of “free absolutes” in society. But he was always, it seems, this close to that theory: even the 1839 Celebration of Sunday appeals to essentially this same model.
The point here is that What Is Property? should not be subordinated either to its best-known phrase, and its traditional interpretation, or to some isolated interpretation of the later works as “conservative turns” or simple celebrations of property. It is more than a sloganeering work, and it is a necessary step in the development of those later works. Propertarian and anti-propertarian anarchists alike would benefit from taking the time to treat its arguments, and the arguments it opposes, seriously, if only so they know what it is that the in/famous catchphrase meant to Proudhon. Mutualists, of course, have little excuse for not wrestling with Proudhon.
Still to come this evening: A plan of attack