André Léo, “Communism and Property” (1868)

Victoire Léodile Béra (1824–1900), aka André Léo, was a French novelist, socialist and feminist. She was married to Gregoire Champseix, a member of Pierre Leroux’s circle, and Benoit Malon, the “integral socialist,” but was herself every bit as formidable as either man. She participated in the Paris Commune, and delivered a rather fiery speech on “The Social War” in its aftermath, which raised hackles at the League of Peace and Freedom. And she was a delightfully clear, direct writer and speaker. It’s been a lot of fun to work on some translations of her work.


The question that so deeply divides the minds of our epoch is posed anew, reviving the anxieties and hatreds that it has always excited. Will property remain the privilege of the few? Or will it become the right of all? Affirmation and negation collide with violence on this point. Here, fierce interests stir; there, a rather bitter faith. Is it liberty which must prevail, or equality? The antagonism appears between two principles which, as things now stand, divide the democracy and create discord in its assemblies, although on the same grounds they make up its motto, and though their agreement alone could give the world justice.

In the eyes of the partisans of liberty, equality threatens tyranny. In the eyes of the egalitarians, liberty without equality is nothing but a lie. The first dread communism, and the others oppose exploitation. The enemies of democracy triumph from these struggles and are easily able to stir up public opinion, still too accustomed to existing dogmas not to contemplate with intolerance the painful birth of new ones.

Despite anathemas old and new, however, the question is always there. Opposed, contemned, crushed, socialism persists. There is then, perhaps, something to it. What does it demand?—Justice.—Does justice exist?—No. To affirm the contrary would be to deny the evidence, and nobody would dare do it; the facts speak for themselves. Even the most satisfied admit that there is much to be done. For in the end, misery and poverty reign over the greatest number, and the night of ignorance covers three quarters of what is called the “civilized world.”

As things are now constituted, could that change? Based on the annual sum of our progress, that would be a long—and doubtful—process. Can we find prompter and truer means?—Why not? Moreover, the riddle, whatever one does, is posed and threatens to devour whoever cannot resolve it. It is the multitude that rules, the ignorant and miserable multitude. Still dazzled, uncertain, it would like sooner or later,—tomorrow perhaps,—to apply a remedy to its wrongs, and that remedy, taken at random, could be fatal. Thanks to universal suffrage, solidarity can no longer be denied; the solution of the problem is important to everyone. Thus, it is useful to seek it, and the prudent, instead of condemning that search, should encourage it.

But how to seek fruitfully, if it is not with a complete sincerity, and without fear of the unknown which must appear?

To make qualifications in advance, to forbid certain subjects is not serious. The human mind is assured of its belief only by considering them anew, and to not dare to sound them shows little confidence in them.— It is even peculiar that this lack of respect is the act of all the devout.

However, everyone recognizes that a great uneasiness exists, which could become a great disorder. The political question finds itself resolved in right, summarily, by universal suffrage; but through the social fact it leads only to an immense misunderstanding, which must endure as long as the same effects of ignorance and misery. There is a vicious circle to break. Each possesses his part of sovereignty; that it the equal right, recognized by all. But equality remains fictive as long as each does not possess the same part of the advantages in compensation for the same duties.

We have, it is true, a system which consists of making social goods the reward of the strongest, or of the most skilled, all being admitted to the contest. Many take that for justice itself. At base, it is nothing other than the lottery applied to the social order, fate distributing capacities like lottery numbers. It is still a sort of greased pole [mât de cocagne]. But this vaunted system, however clever it may be, is not a social system worthy of that name. It changes the situation of individuals, but it does not change that of the masses; it smooths over the obstacles that the lowly born would otherwise encounter, but it preserves, for the whole, the same relations of inequality. It matters little, indeed, from the general point of view, that some fortunate few are no longer in some unfortunate condition; what is important is that education, leisure and well-being, the moral and intellectual wealth of humanity, are always entrusted to the few, while the masses are deprived of it. Political right is an error, or a lie, if it does not involve social right.

Does liberty carry in itself, as the economists claim, the solution of the problem? It does not express it, in any case, and it leaves us all the uncertainty of its decisions. For liberty, that divinity so dear to the oppressed, that burning aspiration of the slaves, is not in itself an active principle. It is not a law susceptible to developments. It is not a science. Liberty corresponds, in the moral order, to health in the physical order; it is the absence of evil. It permits all, but it gives nothing. With it, the creative forces have all their power; but this is the normal state. If constriction alters them, liberty will add nothing. In all the previous states of humanity we have made of liberty an intoxicating being, a goddess; and if she cannot produce, what she should render to us is certainly immense in comparison with that which exists. But her benefits exist only by comparison to the evils of slavery. Liberty is the law of our individual expansion; it is not the social law; it is not an organizing principle.

The social law is justice.—And, under another name, justice is equality.

We can debate the applications of equality, but we cannot maintain that it is not the foundation of the notion of justice. The tribunals have had not other and they apply it with an elementary rigor, submitting to the same process and penalties the educated man and the ignorant one, the weak and the strong. All our judgments, to the extent that they are general, have no other basis than human equality. Every comparison is based on it. In these times, finally, no affirmation is more general and more emphasized. We differ only on the means of making equality a fact; but there, it is true, we differ greatly. By ignoring the old system of castes, which has had its day, we find the most restricted application of equality in the system, just examined, of the social “greased pole;” the most extensive application is communism.

Communism, by which I mean the common possession of social goods, which leads naturally to the abolition of inheritance, appalls, not only those who are by nature frightened of every change, not only those who, satisfied with their lot, do not want to be deprived of it; but also those more serious opponents who, recognizing in the individual the basis of the new right, consider as immoral anything that wounds or diminishes the responsibility, power and dignity of the individual being.

This sentiment, which is that of the greatest number, is always affirmed with energy—by rejecting the action of the very ones who serve as its pretext.

Under communism, in fact, the product of my labor, the fruit of the daily expenditure of my forces, of my individual faculties, the effort of my arms, of my intelligence, of my will, my work finally, the thing created, produced by myself, it would not belong to me!… I would have directed all my acts, all my thoughts towards an end chosen by me, an end which has become the ambition, the joy, the glory or the utility of my life, and I would have no right over my creation!… I would not dispose of anything! In order to have rights for all, I would possess nothing!—You don’t think about it. While wishing to consecrate, according to your claim, the right of all, you violate individual rights. Your equality is not justice.

And not only is that unjust, but it is insane. For, by thus depriving the human being of the fruit of his labor, you remove the lure, the goad, and the reward of every activity. By killing his ambition, you kill his energy. You want to build a more prosperous society, and you diminish the individual! What a marvelous calculation!

To think, to desire something, without the proper means to accomplish it, is a constriction, a suffering, a lacuna in the being. If, in order to give a form to my thought, to transform materials, I need the permission of the social body, a permission which, naturally, can be refused me, it is no longer up to me to be myself, to fulfill my destiny. My ardor, my efforts, are useless; it is the rule which disposes, and my poverty in the heart of social wealth is not less than that of the actual proletarian; for the most bitter sense of the word “poverty” is dependence. It is by this that poverty brings low those that it strikes. This is how half of the soul is taken from the slave. Man has need of power, not over his fellows, but over the world. To create from nothing is nonsense. In order to create, it is necessary to possess, to have for your own, owing an account only to yourself for your attempts, for your mistakes, to be responsible and free.

Thus, the right of property is a true and necessary right. It is the most marked form of individuality in a being, considered alone. Most certainly, with regard to other, the right, by combining, is modified; but it cannot be annihilated.

Now, if this sacred right of possession of my works is acknowledged, if, possessing myself, the product of my strengths and will equally belong to me, this right is whole, complete, and every restriction violates it. That which is mine, then, being truly mine, I can dispose of as I please. I can give it today, tomorrow, later, bequeath it in the end. The right is not prescribed, in true justice. Thus, the right of property implies the right of inheritance.

Now let us see the consequences of this right, as it is exercised in current society. It is those that particularly strike the partisans of the abolition of inheritance. These consequences are the accumulation of the products of labor in the thin, white hands of those who have only been troubled to be born; it is the spectacle, displayed everywhere on our earth, of numerous families reduced to stagnate on a meager plot, or even possessing nothing, contrasted with the idle, possessor of vast spaces, and selling to the laborer the right to live, bidding cheap. It is the reward handed over to those who deserve nothing; it is inequality perpetuated. It is, by a strange filiation, the right to idleness derived from the right of labor become hierarchic, and by seniority becoming suzerain, which is to say oppressor, of new labor. It is right as the enemy of right, justice against justice!

Isn’t this an anomaly whose crux one should seek?

Obviously, there is some error. If the right of property is a primordial, sacred right, it belongs to every man, and must be accessible to all. Setting aside the old refrains about the power of order, economy, labor, etc., it is necessary to recognize that everyone cannot possess a great number of hectares, rent from the state, houses, servants. If everyone were if everyone cannot belong to the leisure class, wealth, as it is presently constituted, is a privilege, and thus an immorality. It is untoward to say, for it makes many people angry and indignant. But how to proceed? This is not a personal opinion; it is a rigorous deduction from the new right. The political law recognized it, proclaims it, all men have an equal right. Now the principle of the rent is contrary to the principle of equality.

The point to grasp, in this debate, is where the individual right of property departs from the general right.

Wouldn’t it be when it awards to the laborer, in addition to the product of his efforts, in addition to the improvements added by him to the cultivated land, that land itself?

The land is the property of humanity. It belongs as much to the generations to come as to the present generations.

As a result, to give to some man, of some era, perpetual right to the land, that is to possess the future humanity.

And isn’t it an absurdity to attribute to a being which passes – and so quickly – an eternal possession?

One cannot deny that the land is the common property of humanity. Is it just, consequently, to alienate it in the hands of certain families?

It is here that the communists are right.

However, it is necessary to repeat, one cannot cheat a man of the price of his labor, a father of the right to transmit to his children that which is his, a friend of the same right with regard to his friends.

But why confuse these two different things: the materials on which the laborer works, and the product of the labor?

A custom exists in our countrysides: when a farmer comes into possession of plot of land, one estimates the value of farm implements, livestock and provisions that stock the farm; when he leaves it, they are estimated again and, according to whether the value has increased or diminished, the farmer finds himself creditor or debtor.

That is the very partial application, excluding the rents, of the true law of property.

The man is the farmer of the land.

His right of property consists of the fruits of his labor, in addition to the surplus value that he gives, or can give, by that same labor, to the capital that he uses. That product of his labor and capacity must be counted, either to him, or to his children, when he abandons the operation,—voluntarily, or by death. No inheritance is transmissible but that! But that is entirely just.

The same law applies to every parcel of occupied land. As for movable objects, created by industry, amassed by savings, they are naturally individual property, and consequently transmissible. Houses, as houses, equally so; but on the condition of a fee for the concession, always temporary, of the terrain on which they are built.

And capital? we are asked. Property in land is far from making up all social wealth. There is money, rent, notes, bonds… One can be very rich and not possess a square inch of land.

That is difficult: railways, factories, and canals, all rest on the common soil; and as for agiotage and interest, don’t you understand what a rude blow would be dealt to them by such a caning in the social economy? To suppress in landed property that which is sinful and exclusive, is to scratch from the amount of the rent many digits; that is to relegate capital to the modest rank that it should occupy; more surely to the degree that the opportunities given to active and living labor diminish the influence of labor acquired. Caught between that immense reform and association, which will combat it in agriculture as in industry, capital could only yield; perish, no; for as long as it exists, that is as long as it represents a labor, it will represent a right.

But this right, subject, as the economists would have it, to the laws of supply and demand, will pass from its current royal condition to a more modest state, always by the force of things, but in accordance with a different order of things.

It seems to me that just things, which are the simplest, are recognized by that sign of following naturally from right and from needing, in order to exist and maintain themselves, no decree nor arbitrary convention. Current property is so abusive, that in the public interest our laws violate it at every instant, thus going itself, by necessity, against the principle of the established order—sometimes by prescription, monstrous negation of the recognized right, sometimes by the progressive increase of the tax on inheritances and the restrictions put on the right to bequeath, to receive, etc. Also, on the other hand, a social order of things cannot be decreed. Humanity, from time to time, renews its laws by the progress of customs and ideas, by a purer intelligence of justice; but, in the order of things as among animated beings, it is necessary that a birth and development correspondent to a decrepitude. Terrorism is as wrong in social matters as in politics. There is a right, feeble though it may be, in every existence, and it is neither just nor more fortunate to abolish capital than to decapitate kings. In fact, despite the violent theories, which are responsible for half the violence of the opposing interests, the progress of ideas and customs accuses; we no longer behead the crowned heads, we evict them; the time is not far off, let us hope, when the city, leaving the palace, will be open to them. From that day there will be no more restoration.

Thus, capital should continue to hire itself out, for all the legitimate reasons that are invoked in this regard. Only the expansion of an opposing force, more useful and more powerful, will reduce it to its true place. If the great instrument of labor, land, where everything starts and everything comes back, was cut off, as in justice it must be, from the domain of capital, capital would have, in fact, hardly any other role that than of the spade, to which it has so often, and too modestly, been compared. It would still be useful, but would no longer be indispensable. In the absence of the old spade, a new spade would have soon replaced it, an easy advance for the smithy worker to the farm worker—for it would be from now on to the laborer, certain of finding his place everywhere, exempt from all farm rent, except taxes, possessor of the entirety of his harvest and sole creator of wealth, that credit would belong naturally, as to the surest and truest force in the world. In such circumstances, what can an old spade do, threatened with rust. Rent itself out with good grace for a minimal charge; that is what it would do.

Do you see in this only the ruin of the capitalists? Why not see there above all ease and peace yielded to humanity by justice? In an order of things where labor, free and fruitful, would be assured to all, and tempered, without any doubt, by social prosperity, by sufficient leisure, what is there to regret? The excesses of idleness? Those of poverty?—We must, willy-nilly, to commit to the goal or lead the revolution. Its triple formula is not vain. It is another revelation; it must be accomplished.

In this system, what would the state do? Nothing more than it does today. It watches over the execution of the social pact, collects and distributes taxes. Each, charged by himself, responds with his acts and labors for himself. How will the lands be divided? I don’t know; but that doesn’t appear too difficult to work out. By bids, perhaps, on the amount of the tax? What I will dare to affirm is that the parasitical functions fed by luxury, the subterfuge, the old laws and the old property, would go quietly, followed by the rentiers, and idleness, that gnaws at the public wealth, would disappear from the earth. There would no longer be any capitalists than the old; and they would still labor according to their strength. Labor having become a synonym for nobility and independence, who wouldn’t want to work?

Utopia! Says one; but the agreement of human liberty and justice, happily, is no utopia. Our present state of clarity suffices to show that such concepts are not simply dreams. We recognize in principle the rights of labor; we are undecided only on the means of fulfilling them.

Now, a means, founded on right, which reconciles individualism and communism, equality and liberty, the complete right of each and the right of all, how would that be impracticable, if not in the eyes of the proprietors?

André Léo

A friend has informed the author that her conclusions are precisely those of Proudhon in his Memoirs on property. Should this essay be withdrawn because it does not offer an entirely new solution? If that is true, what does it matter? Truths need to be written more than once, and different minds usually present the same idea in diverse forms. In sum, this reduces to a question of priority, entirely personal, something indifferent to the idea and the reader alike.

A. L.
Working translation by Shawn P. Wilbur.
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