Proudhon’s “last word”

I’ve engaged in what I hope is a helpful reversal here—the reversal of a reversal, actually. In Chapter One of What Is Property? Proudhon wrote, “I think best to place the last thought of my book first,” and declared himself within his rights. I, on the other hand, have gone to some trouble to push that “last thought” back a bit. My reasons are simple: the phrase “property is robbery” is the one thing we all “know” about the work, and it is something of a distraction, particularly as there are some difficulties in knowing what it means in the original context. It’s for your own good, everybody. Trust me. Whatever use you want to put Proudhon’s property to, it’s the arguments that make it a useful or useless tool (or set of tools).

Anyway, to complete our last-shall-be-first introduction, we need to look at the rest of the section on “The Determination of the third form of Society,” which deals primarily with the nature of “liberty,” and contains the suggestion that that liberty will be composed of “the synthesis of communism and property.” We’ll come back to all of this at the end of the seminar, but let’s get an overview: Proudhon starts his book with a startling, potentially paradoxical statement, which he claims everyone, if they only thought about it, already believes. He then spends some time talking about method, and “the idea of a revolution.” The Revolution has an idea, or a series of ideas appropriate to the particular stage of development. If, on the one hand, “the idea that we form of justice and right were ill-defined, if it were imperfect or even false, it is clear that all our legislative applications would be wrong, our institutions vicious, our politics erroneous: consequently there would be disorder and social chaos.” [p. 27] On the other, such imperfect ideas tend to crumble naturally, and Proudhon senses a new idea, “an idea which permeates all minds, which to-morrow will be proclaimed by another if I fail to announce it to-day.”

So what, if you’ll pardon me, is the Big Idea? It looks like “property” is a good contender for the role of Old, Imperfect Idea. “Robbery” is the last word on “property,” but, interestingly enough, it isn’t Proudhon’s last word, no matter what he says at the beginning.

The passages where Proudhon most directly addresses the claim that “property is robbery” are on pages 262-271. In them, he lays out fifteen ways in which “we rob,” all of them part of an exposition of how property “violates equity by the rights of exclusion and increase.” (Read them now or later, according to your taste.) He has, of course, already done a number on the concept of property, disqualifying its various justifications, showing that occupation and labor work against it, that it works against itself, etc. That’s the theoretical heart of the book, and occupies most of it. It is not, of course, the part that most of us have read, or read carefully. It is not the part that is most frequently quoted.

Bear with me. After dealing with “robbery,” Proudhon still has some analysis of property to do: “The second effect of property is despotism.” This leads him to ask about the nature of “legitimate authority,” which leads him to one of anarchism’s “greatest hits.”

What is to be the form of government in the future? I hear some of my younger readers reply: “Why, how can you ask such a question?

You are a republican.” “A republican! Yes; but that word specifies nothing. Res publica; that is, the public thing. Now, whoever is interested in public affairs–no matter under what form of government–may call himself a republican. Even kings are republicans.”–

“Well! you are a democrat?”–“No.”–“What! you would have a monarchy.”–“No.”–“A constitutionalist?”–“God forbid!”–“You are then an aristocrat?”–“Not at all.”–“You want a mixed government?”–“Still less.”–“What are you, then?”–“I am an anarchist.”

“Oh! I understand you; you speak satirically. This is a hit at the government.”–“By no means. I have just given you my serious and well-considered profession of faith. Although a firm friend of order, I am (in the full force of the term) an anarchist. Listen to me.”

Proudhon espouses anarchism as “government” here, the right kind, as opposed to the “government of caprice, the reign of libidinous pleasure,” which he says property engenders. Thus, it is natural for him to show that property and government (of a “legitimate” sort) are opposed. It comes across as one of those odd anticipations of his later thought which dot his early works. Eventually, self-government among “free absolutes” will ally itself with precisely the despotic property “vanquished” in What Is Property? But that’s another tale. . . probably.

We’re past the “last word,” and on to “anarchy,” in a kind of final footnote on property. But anarchy doesn’t seem to be the “idea of the Revolution” either. And where have we ended up? Well, about where you thought I was going to start several paragraphs back (probably because I thought I was going to start there), at the beginning of the section on “The Determination of the third form of Society.—Conclusion.” And, there, as it turns out, the real last words are “liberty and equality!”

Determination of the third form of Society. Conclusion

Then, no government, no public economy, no administration, is possible, which is based upon property.

Communism seeks EQUALITY and LAW. Property, born of the sovereignty of the reason, and the sense of personal merit, wishes above all things INDEPENDENCE and PROPORTIONALITY.

But communism, mistaking uniformity for law, and levelism for equality, becomes tyrannical and unjust. Property, by its despotism and encroachments, soon proves itself oppressive and anti-social.

The objects of communism and property are good–their results are bad. And why? Because both are exclusive, and each disregards two elements of society. Communism rejects independence and proportionality; property does not satisfy equality and law.

Now, if we imagine a society based upon these four principles,– equality, law, independence, and proportionality,–we find:–

1. That EQUALITY, consisting only in EQUALITY OF CONDITIONS, that is, OF MEANS, and not in EQUALITY OF COMFORT,– which it is the business of the laborers to achieve for themselves, when provided with equal means,–in no way violates justice and equite.

2. That LAW, resulting from the knowledge of facts, and consequently based upon necessity itself, never clashes with independence.

3. That individual INDEPENDENCE, or the autonomy of the private reason, originating in the difference in talents and capacities, can exist without danger within the limits of the law.

4. That PROPORTIONALITY, being admitted only in the sphere of intelligence and sentiment, and not as regards material objects, may be observed without violating justice or social equality.

This third form of society, the synthesis of communism and property, we will call LIBERTY. [1]

In determining the nature of liberty, we do not unite communism and property indiscriminately; such a process would be absurd eclecticism. We search by analysis for those elements in each which are true, and in harmony with the laws of Nature and society, disregarding the rest altogether; and the result gives us an adequate expression of the natural form of human society,– in one word, liberty.

Liberty is equality, because liberty exists only in society; and in the absence of equality there is no society.

Liberty is anarchy, because it does not admit the government of the will, but only the authority of the law; that is, of necessity.

Liberty is infinite variety, because it respects all wills within the limits of the law.

Liberty is proportionality, because it allows the utmost latitude to the ambition for merit, and the emulation of glory.

We can now say, in the words of M. Cousin: “Our principle is true; it is good, it is social; let us not fear to push it to its ultimate.”

Man’s social nature becoming JUSTICE through reflection, EQUITE through the classification of capacities, and having LIBERTY for its formula, is the true basis of morality,–the principle and regulator of all our actions. This is the universal motor, which philosophy is searching for, which religion strengthens, which egotism supplants, and whose place pure reason never can fill. DUTY and RIGHT are born of NEED, which, when considered in connection with others, is a RIGHT, and when considered in connection with ourselves, a DUTY.

We need to eat and sleep. It is our right to procure those things which are necessary to rest and nourishment. It is our duty to use them when Nature requires it.

We need to labor in order to live. To do so is both our right and our duty.

We need to love our wives and children. It is our duty to protect and support them. It is our right to be loved in preference to all others. Conjugal fidelity is justice. Adultery is high treason against society.

We need to exchange our products for other products. It is our right that this exchange should be one of equivalents; and since we consume before we produce, it would be our duty, if we could control the matter, to see to it that our last product shall follow our last consumption. Suicide is fraudulent bankruptcy.

We need to live our lives according to the dictates of our reason. It is our right to maintain our freedom. It is our duty to respect that of others.

We need to be appreciated by our fellows. It is our duty to deserve their praise. It is our right to be judged by our works.

Liberty is not opposed to the rights of succession and bequest. It contents itself with preventing violations of equality. “Choose,” it tells us, “between two legacies, but do not take them both.” All our legislation concerning transmissions, entailments, adoptions, and, if I may venture to use such a word, COADJUTORERIES, requires remodelling.

Liberty favors emulation, instead of destroying it. In social equality, emulation consists in accomplishing under like conditions; it is its own reward. No one suffers by the victory.

Liberty applauds self-sacrifice, and honors it with its votes, but it can dispense with it. Justice alone suffices to maintain the social equilibrium. Self-sacrifice is an act of supererogation. Happy, however, the man who can say, “I sacrifice myself.” [2]

Liberty is essentially an organizing force. To insure equality between men and peace among nations, agriculture and industry, and the centres of education, business, and storage, must be distributed according to the climate and the geographical position of the country, the nature of the products, the character and natural talents of the inhabitants, &c., in proportions so just, so wise, so harmonious, that in no place shall there ever be either an excess or a lack of population, consumption, and products. There commences the science of public and private right, the true political economy. It is for the writers on jurisprudence, henceforth unembarrassed by the false principle of property, to describe the new laws, and bring peace upon earth. Knowledge and genius they do not lack; the foundation is now laid for them. [3]

[1] libertas, librare, libratio, libra,–liberty, to liberate, libration, balance (pound),–words which have a common derivation. Liberty is the balance of rights and duties. To make a man free is to balance him with others,–that is, to put him or their level.

[2] In a monthly publication, the first number of which has just appeared under the name of “L’Egalitaire,” self-sacrifice is laid down as a principle of equality. This is a confusion of ideas. Self-sacrifice, taken alone, is the last degree of inequality. To seek equality in self-sacrifice is to confess that equality is against nature. Equality must be based upon justice, upon strict right, upon the principles invoked by the proprietor himself; otherwise it will never exist. Self-sacrifice is superior to justice; but it cannot be imposed as law, because it is of such a nature as to admit of no reward. It is, indeed, desirable that everybody shall recognize the necessity of self-sacrifice, and the idea of “L’Egalitaire” is an excellent example. Unfortunately, it can have no effect. What would you reply, indeed, to a man who should say to you, “I do not want to sacrifice myself”? Is he to be compelled to do so? When self- sacrifice is forced, it becomes oppression, slavery, the exploitation of man by man. Thus have the proletaires sacrificed themselves to property.

[3] The disciples of Fourier have long seemed to me the most advanced of all modern socialists, and almost the only ones worthy of the name. If they had understood the nature of their task, spoken to the people, awakened their sympathies, and kept silence when they did not understand; if they had made less extravagant pretensions, and had shown more respect for public intelligence,–perhaps the reform would now, thanks to them, be in progress. But why are these earnest reformers continually bowing to power and wealth,–that is, to all that is anti- reformatory? How, in a thinking age, can they fail to see that the world must be converted by DEMONSTRATION, not by myths and allegories? Why do they, the deadly enemies of civilization, borrow from it, nevertheless, its most pernicious fruits,– property, inequality of fortune and rank, gluttony, concubinage, prostitution, what do I know? theurgy, magic, and sorcery? Why these endless denunciations of morality, metaphysics, and psychology, when the abuse of these sciences, which they do not understand, constitutes their whole system? Why this mania for deifying a man whose principal merit consisted in talking nonsense about things whose names, even, he did not know, in the strongest language ever put upon paper? Whoever admits the infallibility of a man becomes thereby incapable of instructing others. Whoever denies his own reason will soon proscribe free thought. The phalansterians would not fail to do it if they had the power. Let them condescend to reason, let them proceed systematically, let them give us demonstrations instead of revelations, and we will listen willingly. Then let them organize manufactures, agriculture, and commerce; let them make labor attractive, and the most humble functions honorable, and our praise shall be theirs. Above all, let them throw off that Illuminism which gives them the appearance of impostors or dupes, rather than believers and apostles.

I’ll pick up from there in the next post.

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