What Is Property? Chapter One notes

I don’t think there is anything in the first chapter that is terribly difficult, but there’s a lot that is interesting.

p. 12: Proudhon claims that property is “an effect without a cause:” none of the justifications given for it hold up. He imagines the objection being aimed at his contradiction of widely-held received wisdom on the subject, and at his *uniting of contraries*.

p.13: “The work of our race is to build the temple of science,” “truth reveals itself to all,” and “you will find here a series of experiments upon justice and right.” Proudhon’s social science is fairly consistently envisioned as a way of life, rather than a job for specialists. His emphasis on experiment and observation is also consistent throughout his work. “I build no system,” he says on the next page, and in later works he elaborates how the collective reason, another instance of collective force, grows out of individual experience/experiment (Fr. experience). (I’m in the midst of skimming the volumes of “Justice in the Revolution and in the Church,” and it’s tremendous stuff. Very exciting.)

p. 15: Proudhon downplays his originality, his is “an idea that permeates all minds,” which “all men believe.” One is reminded of the situationists: “Our ideas are in everyone’s heads.” Bellegarrigue made similar claims about the general understanding of some rather startling, revolutionary ideas; they are, as in Proudhon, ideas about the balance of forces, interests and tendencies.

p. 17: Proudhon rather nicely describes the problem of fixed ideas.

p. 18-19: Proudhon would return, in “The Theory of Property,” to the discussion of confused use of terminology. I’m not quite sure he gets out of “What is Property?” without a confusion or two of his own, but he certainly took some care to clarify what he meant by “property.”

p. 24-25: “Man is at war with himself,” but the problem is not original sin, it is ignorance. “Man errs because he learns.” The clash of ideas, or of the antinomic aspects of ideas, whether within an individual’s mind or within society, are what leads to progress in ideas. Error and failure enoble men, at least as long as they are able to move on.

p. 25: “The object of our investigations is the law, the determination of the social principle.” Proudhon speaks quite a bit about “law” in this work, and sometimes it is a bit hard to tell exactly what he means. Elsewhere, he claimed that Montesquieu’s “The Spirit of the Laws” had marked a revolutionary change in the very meaning of “law.”

“Laws, in their most general signification, are the necessary relations arising from the nature of things. In this sense all beings have their laws: the Deity His laws, the material world its laws, the intelligences superior to man their laws, the beasts their laws, man his laws.”

The immanent principles that govern the relations between the elements of groups, or of individuals understood as ordered groups, is another of the consistent concerns of the later works. We should probably consider this in reading “What is Property?”

p. 26-27: The ideas of justice and law inform the institutions of the period. But those ideas are formed by people, and they can be “ill-defined.” We have to be concerned about this defect at all times. In “Justice,” Proudhon declares it something of an article of faith, and prerequisite of progress, that it is never “the best of all possible worlds.”

p. 33: “with the most perfect democracy, we cannot be free.” I’m not sure that the US was ever “the most perfect democracy,” but the exploration of the transformation of sovereignty in the “democratic revolution” is interesting. The question is one which has been recently picked up by Giorgio Agamben, in “Homo Sacer” and “State of Exception,” which are both pretty challenging reading, but of potential interest to anarchists.

p. 37: These seem to be the key passages in Ch. 1:

“These, then, are the three fundamental principles of modern society, established one after another by the movements of 1789 and 1830: 1. SOVEREIGNTY OF THE HUMAN WILL; in short, DESPOTISM. 2. INEQUALITY OF WEALTH AND RANK. 3. PROPERTY — above JUSTICE, always invoked as the guardian angel of sovereigns, nobles, and proprietors; JUSTICE, the general, primitive, categorical law of all society.

“We must ascertain whether the ideas of DESPOTISM, CIVIL INEQUALITY and PROPERTY, are in harmony with the primitive notion of JUSTICE, and necessarily follow from it,—assuming various forms according to the condition, position, and relation of persons; or whether they are not rather the illegitimate result of a confusion of different things, a fatal association of ideas. And since justice deals especially with the questions of government, the condition of persons, and the possession of things, we must ascertain under what conditions, judging by universal opinion and the progress of the human mind, government is just, the condition of citizens is just, and the possession of things is just; then, striking out every thing which fails to meet these conditions, the result will at once tell us what legitimate government is, what the legitimate condition of citizens is, and what the legitimate possession of things is; and finally, as the last result of the analysis, what JUSTICE is.”

Justice is obviously not just a “primitive notion” that has been confused. There are questions to be answered. Proudhon already has some of his progressive theory, where each era must recreate its own key ideas, according to present needs and conditions. I would be tempted to say that “justice” is the idea of most of Proudhon’s revolutions, though it appears in the midst of different clusters of related ideas.

38: “Is the authority of man over man just?” “Everybody answers, ‘No; the authority of man is only the authority of the law; which ought to be justice and truth.'” Apparently, “everybody” is a bit of an anarchist. Again, we see Proudhon’s faith that something like “common sense” is essentially capable of revolutionary thought.

41: The final passages on equality are fairly remarkable. They’re filled with a kind of radical faith, which we see in many of the writings of the 1840s. Pierre Leroux and Anselme Bellegarrigue both express this, while describing the real mess that everyone is in. There is a “darkest before the dawn” character to this pre-1848 radicalism that is interesting:

“A defender of equality, I shall speak without bitterness and without anger; with the independence becoming a philosopher, with the courage and firmness of a free man. May I, in this momentous struggle, carry into all hearts the light with which I am filled; and show, by the success of my argument, that equality failed to conquer by the sword only that it might conquer by the pen!”

I hope these notes are useful.


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