In 1873, William Batchelder Greene was asked by Ezra Heywood to explain Pierre-Joseph Proudhon’s ideas on property. Greene sent along translations of the first three, and last three pages of What is Property? and a short, fascinating account of Proudhon and his ideas, based on Greene’s acquaintance with Proudhon during his years in Paris, roughly 1853-1861. It is clear from the account that Greene was most familiar with Proudhon’s earlier works. Some of Greene’s explanation is not consistent with the works from the 1860s, and some of it is consistent, as when Greene likens property to Satan, but in ways that Greene seems unaware of. This account first appeared in The Word. Look for some interesting stuff about financial crises towards the end.
PROUDHON’S IDEAS OF IT. EXPLANATORY LETTER.
JAMAICA PLAIN, MASS.: Oct. 31, 1873.
Dear Mr. Heywood: Your message of yesterday, requesting me to explain, and in Proudhon’s own words if possible what Proudhon meant by his famous aphorism,—“PROPERTY IS ROBBERY,”—has this moment reached me, and I reply at once. I will try to give you, (page 1) a translation of the first three and the last three pages of Proudhon’s book. You will perceive that Proudhon and our friend Josiah Warren smite on substantially the same anvil.
I will first state, however, by way of preface, and for the satisfaction of the reader, that Proudhon was a stout-built, powerful man, about five feet ten inches high (perhaps less) with fair complexion, light hair, clear light eyes, giving, in his ordinary mood, no indication of the energy he had in him. He was nonetheless, of a very excitable temperament; and I knew him once in the height of discussion, and by way of emphasis, when he was at dinner to so smite the table with his fist as to make all the tumblers and wine-glasses, jump. A lady who sat next to him, said afterwards that it was like sitting alongside a volcano. He also showed his excitability, when, in 1840, he knocked down Jules Favre in the ante-chamber of the Legislative assembly. Usually, however, he was mild-mannered. I have noticed, when he was sitting in company with others, that little children, strangers to him, would go to him in preference to other ones present, and climb into his lap. Outside of his writings, there was nothing of what we Americans call “cussedness” about him. He was easily excited, easily appeased, very amiable, and perfectly reliable. He was perhaps the best husband and father I ever knew. After he began to show signs of having injured his constitution by overwork, his wife (an excellent, motherly woman, who was very proud of him, but who never read a single line of his writings in her life) had the tears come into her eyes whenever she spoke of his health.
He was absolutely incorruptible, and abhorred the practice of receiving presents. His friends, who were innumerable, and many of them in high position, waited for nothing but his consent to make him independently rich; but that consent he never gave. He could not, however, reasonably restrain his children from receiving birthday and Christmas presents; and he was obliged in consequence, to set apart a large room in which his children’s toys were piled in heaps, one on the top of another.
The main faults that I noticed in him, were these: he was too fond of vain glorious distinction and notoriety, and his amiability of character led him too often, notwithstanding the violence of his writings, to listen favorably to proposals of compromise for the sake of peace and friendship. So far was he from being perversely obstinate, that his friends had to watch him, to prevent him from making unwise concessions. I am informed that he derived exquisite pleasure in his Sunday walks, from the fact that the small tradesmen of his quarter, as they went home from church, pointed him out to their children as Antichrist! He made profession in his books (out of disgust, as I think with the prevailing hypocrisy that surrounded him) of irreconcilable hostility to the Supreme Being. He was, however, in my opinion, an extraordinarily religious man, but after a mysterious fashion of his own; and he probably spent as much time in meditations upon God and eternity, as upon the emancipation of the laboring people.
He always wrote standing, at a high desk, and composed his sentences while he was walking to and fro in his Study. He told me he never knew, when he began writing, how his work would turn our, and that the plans of his books and articles constructed themselves, without much interference on his part.
He talked Latin, and was a competent Master of Greek and Hebrew; but had little knowledge of the modern languages. He was a writer of the first rank in all matters of law. As a dialectician, he was, perhaps, in his own day and generation, without a peer. He wrote treatises on philology and metaphysics that were very remarkable; some of his treatises on law were published under other person’s name, and gave reputation and political promotion to the persons who had credit of them. L. Herminier said—I quote from memory—“some people, fire pistols out of their windows, finding that to be an infallible method for making passers by look up. To attract public attention, Proudhon did the same thing, but with the difference, however, that his book, ‘Property is robbery,’ was no pistol, but a cannon.”
Proudhon’s ten propositions, though plain enough to you, and to Josiah Warren, will inevitably appear, to the uninitiated reader, obscure—not to say, muddy. They are in fact, muddy. Why? Proudhon gives the answer when he says, that, “before HIS REASON was competent to comprehend it God had put the sentiment of justice into HIS HEART.” Proudhon wrote those ten propositions without having any practical methods of application present to his mind. It was not until several years after he wrote the book on ‘property,’ that he suspected the feasibility of transforming property into possession by the simple reform of the circulating medium—by a transfiguration of MONEY.
Proudhon’s distinction between property and possession seems to be this: a tenant under stipulated conditions is possessor; the landlord is owner. Proudhon would have the whole community, society—not the state, however, but society existing as the prior condition of the state—to be the sole landlord, owner, proprietor; and he would have all possessors to possess as tenants, not of the State, but of society. He says, therefore, “Suppress property, but without suppressing possession, and everything in laws, government, institutions, will be changed.” And again, “The highest perfection of society is the synthesis of order with anarchy.” Now anarchy is the government of each by each, self-government, to the exclusion of government ab extra; and, when he was writing these propositions, Proudhon had no receipt or formula for the organization of society.
To make the State, and not society, the sole proprietor, as some of our reformers see fit to propose, would be to reconstruct feudalism, not organise anarchy. Proudhon—always and everywhere—rejects state-ownership, whether for lands, railroads, or any other kind of property. He fights state-ownership, regarding it as the chief head devil who is always to be denied and resisted. State-ownership (according to him) begets peculation on the part of public functionaries; the habit of public plunder begets organized rascality; and organic scoundrelism hardens into feudalism. Mark the solution.
With Mutual Banks loaning money at one half of one per cent. per annum on good security (and you know the secret for creating such banks,) no man would consent to ten per cent. rent for a house, since he could borrow money at the bank, and build a house for himself, pledging the house to the bank for security, and paying to the bank a perpetual rent of one half of one per cent. on the cost of his house. [It is true that the bank would not lend to the extent of the full value of the house, and that the house would have to be kept in continual repair, so as to lose nothing of its value; but these are matters of mere detail, which you know all about, and they need not be dwelt upon here.] A house so held would be property, owned by society and held in individual possession by the tenant, through the instrumentality, not of the State, but of the bank; and the tenant living in this house, under his contract with the bank, and paying his one half of one per cent. annual interest (call it rent if you please) to the bank, would be the effectual possessor of the house. In this way, all individual property in the house would become socialized, and thus “suppressed,” so far forth as individual, and so long as the possessor should not find it for his interest to absolutely redeem his house from pledge; and the right to possess the house, and to have the enjoyment of it, would remain individualized, and therefore real and actual. The rent for the use of natural wealth, in any of its forms, is determined by the rate of interest on money: bring the rate of interest down to zero, and you bring the rate of rents down to Zero. For with the rate of interest at Zero, men will no longer hire natural wealth in any of the forms it may assume, but will borrow money, and buy and fabricate. It was not until 1848 or 1848, that Proudhon completed his theory of the currency; and his book on property was written before the year 1840. Hence the muddiness of his affirmations of the year 1839.
You ask me to write something in refutation of the Kellogism contained in the financial articles of the “Old and New” for November. Why? To what end? Was it not predetermined, from before the foundation of the world, that the old prevaricators should die in the desert? The savage principle of absolute property, which is the old serpent, and Satan, is now—through the instrumentality of successive secretaries of the Federal treasury, the president of the United States, congress, the stock-speculators, the bankers, and their like—presenting the edifying spectacle of self-strangulation. Let the whole thing smash. Let the world be turned upside down; it is high time for the exhibition of the other side. If either you or I should attempt to prevent an accomplishment of the decrees of destiny, the protesting ghost of Proudhon would rap up against us, through all the tables of South Boston and Charleston. All the direful prognostications of Proudhon are now being verified by current history. Why add perfume to the violet? The current unintelligent tampering with the currency, and with the moral order of business, is accomplishing, with effectual thoroughness, the exact work of demolition which Proudhon scientifically laid out. When the first green-back was issued, the irrevocable die was cast, and the hour for the final liquidation was sounded on the clock of fate. Revolutions never go backwards. Proudhon expressly said that his prophecies would find their first accomplishment in the United States of America; and it seems he was right.—Yours truly, W[illiam] B. G[reene].