More on Proudhon’s “Theory of Property”

I needed a change of pace for a couple of days, and went back to work on the still-daunting task of taking Proudhon’s The Theory of Property from the current draft translation to something well-contextualized and publishable. There’s a lot of work to do, including revisiting Proudhon’s earlier works on property, finishing work on the Appendix, translating more contextual material and consulting Proudhon’s manuscripts. Fortunately, more of the relevant manuscript material has become available, and I’ve been able to take some time away from other tasks to finish translating the “Disagreement Regarding the Posthumous Publication of Unpublished Works by P.-J. Proudhon.” The “Disagreement” is interesting in a variety of ways, not the least of which is that it doesn’t seem to challenge The Theory of Property in any of the now-conventional ways, down-playing its significance to Proudhon, but really seems to show that the main controversy among Proudhon’s friends and followers was over how best to present his thought—and how to honor his own relationships with those various friends, divided as they were politically. I also got a chance to spend a little more time with Proudhon’s two letters to Grandclément, who sent Proudhon a manuscript on property just at the moment when he was wrapping up the work that would become The Theory of Property, and confirmed for Proudhon the importance of the distinction between allodium and fief. What is interesting about the second letter is that in it Proudhon pretty well inverts our received sense of the relative importance of some of his later works. Here is that letter:

Passy, February 28, 1863.

To Mr. Grandclément

Sir, I just read all at one sitting your last, excellent letter of the 25 of this month, and since I have a free moment, I am hurrying to respond to you right away. If I postpone even by two days, the difficulties accumulating, I could no longer do it.

This is the state of my book on Poland, that is to say my new work on Property. I do not have to tell you that property is a veritable ocean to me—an ocean to drink—that its history alone would demand the sacrifice of a lifetime, and that I do not feel sufficiently Benedictine to bury myself thus under one single question. I am in a hurry to know, to comprehend a certain quantity of certain ideas, and, when the erudition does not advance as quickly as I would like, I hardly trouble myself for appealing to a divinatory faculty. — That is what happened to me, for example, with The Federative Principle, of which I just abruptly sketched the theory, or, if you will permit me this ambitious word, the philosophy, in 100 or 200 pages, leaving to others the chore of elaborating the whole system in minute details. That federalism, which boiled for thirty years in my veins, has finally exploded at the combined attacks of the Belgian and French press; the public judges now. What I would permit myself to say to you about it, to you, my master in matters of property, is that I regard that sketch as a fragment detached from the theory of Property itself, a theory that would have already seen the day, if for six months I had not been halted by the tribulations caused me by the Franco-Belgian and Italian Jacobinism, and by the necessity of responding to it. But nothing is lost; I regard even that improvised publication, like the Majorats littéraires, of which I will publish a second and better edition, as a fortunate prelude to my work on Property.

This work will form 100 to 120 pages, for what concerns the general philosophy of the institution only. The whole work will have two volumes, from 360 to 400 pages; the first volume will revolve entirely around the organic principles of States; the second will be the demonstration or confirmation of the first through the history of Poland. The general spirit of this work will naturally be federalist; I told you above that my last publication was a kind of fragment, or extract from this work. From all this, as from what you have in your hands, you can easily form an idea of what my book will be.

I have tried to understand property, (it is allod that I designate exclusively by this word), Germanic and Slavic possession, and finally fief; — I have tried to enlighten myself with the aid of a few historical facts, borrowed especially from the institutions of Rome, from the Middle Ages, and from the history of Poland; I have tried to shed on the whole the light provided by my weak studies in political economy, morals and religion, and I believe I have known the essence and the function of property well enough to dare to present the 120 pages which I am announcing to you as a solution to the problem. I don’t think I’ve done anything more extraordinary than that. I experienced from this work the same surprise that I had felt formerly, in 1840, from my first criticism, when I had recognized the antinomic character of property, and proved that its principle was precisely that condemned by Jesus Christ and the Church, the principle of selfishness and concupiscence, or more brutally, the principle of theft. The question was thus to show how the most liberal of our institutions, hence the most social, could have its root in sin itself, and this is what I believe I have done in the most fortunate way and by a deduction that annihilates definitively and at the same time the Christian theory of evil, Platonic and ecclesiastical communism, Germanic, Polish, medieval and bankocratic feudalism, monarchy, Caesarism, Malthusianism, latifundia, etc.

You will sense, sir, how high I had to start to squeeze all these things in and present such a vast deduction in 100 or 120 pages. I have repeatedly experienced this truth, that the means of abridgment is very often to collect and condense as many facts and ideas as possible; this is, I frankly hope, what will happen to me with property. If I have succeeded, I dare say that the most dangerous pass of the present time will have been crossed, and that we will finally understand what the French Revolution is. — In all this, you will have been of precious help to me, and whatever you think of the singular extension that I have given to my thesis, of all that I thought I saw in it and that I brought out, of all that I attach to it, I think nonetheless that the little warning you gave me, at the very moment when I was stirring up these questions with the most ardor, as evidenced by my Theory of Taxation, was decisive for me; the spark I was chasing, agitated by you, suddenly became a sun; I understood everything. Give me another three or four months of respite and perhaps you will say in your turn, after having read my work: I understand everything!

— Here is what I think of Belgium and of the charivari that it has given me: there certainly exists in this country a French party; but this party is not yet aware of itself, and it had nothing to do with me. On the other hand, all was not pure stupidity in the demonstrations with which I was regaled; there was a secret impulse coming from the government itself. To what cause should I attribute it? In my opinion, the government of Mr. Frère, unitary in its tendencies, all the more unitary the more liberalism it displays; as such, a friend of Victor-Emmanuel and Garibaldi, ally of Palmerston and Prussia, as the construction of the citadel of Antwerp proves, this government, I say, took a dim view of my federalist demonstrations, a reminder to the old Flemish and Belgian spirit.Then, the anniversaries of September approaching, they wanted to regale King Leopold with an ovation, which could not be done better than by the cry of: Down with the annexationists! In this last respect, the success of the little intrigue was complete: Never has Belgium celebrated its king so much. As for unitary tendencies, they were brought into greater prominence than before, and educated people understood that if anyone in Belgium served the annexation, it was above all the liberals, it was the policy of Messrs. Rogier and Frère. Things stand there. If the system of agglomeration has not come to an end, I would not be at all surprised if Belgium became, for a time, French again; — everything is ready for that. It can only remain free by deploying federalist ideas, which the Belgians understand as little as the Parisian onlookers themselves. The central power holds everything, only it does not let it be seen; Belgium believes itself to be free with its burgomasters who, in the largest towns, are hardly more than sub-prefects; but never, with such self-adoration among a people, did you see such sterility. Elite men have no illusions about this: but they are an elite, and our age only values the masses.

— It is quite difficult at the moment to judge the Polish movement. The close study that I have made of their history and of recent events leads me to an opinion a little different from yours, but which I still give only as a conjecture.

The necessities of general civilization, more than any other cause, imposed on the autocrat the emancipation of the peasants. This emancipation makes him, at this moment, the most popular sovereign on the globe, and consequently annihilates, as you say very well, the power of the nobility. But far from the tsar having made this annihilation of the nobles the goal of the emancipation of the peasants, one can say that it was reluctantly that Alexander II dispossessed his nobility; that the mania, I would even say the great fault of the tsars since 1772, has been to spare and support the nobility, both Polish and Russian, and that even today it is in the emperor, in his government that the Muscovite nobility place their last resource. I know this from a good source through two years of frequenting Russian nobles in Brussels.

Who then is rebelling against the Tsar today? — The peasants of Poland? No: they are waiting for a ukase which will give them the land, as the peasants of Russia received it; as those of Galicia took it in 1846. — The Polish nobles? — Undoubtedly this nobility still aspires to independence: but it is very divided; it distrusts the peasants; it insists on not giving up its domains; it separates itself radically from the population of the towns, animated by a Jacobinic spirit mixed with a great deal of socialism. It is therefore the inhabitants of the towns above all, bourgeois, workers, Jews, plus a few students, a few peasants and a few nobles, who at this hour form the party of the insurrection. On the side of Austria nothing stirs: that is understandable. Since 1846 the nobility has been massacred and dispossessed by the Galician peasants, now as good subjects of Austria as the peasants of Venetia. And what makes Russian soldiers so furious in the crackdown? It is because they are emancipated peasants, who see in the Polish insurrection only a noble reaction. The Duchy of Posen, which belongs to Prussia, is not very quiet either; but no one would move there, if the Poles did not see the division between the Prussian crown and democracy.

In summary, the crux of all these movements is in property, which is not clearly constituted in any of these countries. In Poland, the land never reaches the peasant, who despite the finest legal guarantees always remains miserable and disinherited; — in Russia, the land has just passed to the peasants, but only as possession, for about a third or half of the soil; as for the nobility, it is ruined, without being able to accuse the emperor, or the peasants, or anyone, and without it daring to move. Something that will not be understood in France until my book has appeared, the real focus of reaction and servitude is still in Poland, among the born adversaries of the Tsar. This is what has for a century been the unpardonable condemnation of that nationality.

— What I quoted from Turgot is not taken from Turgot, whose complete works I possess; but according to an American author who does not indicate his sources. As this author does not protest against the words he reports, and as he limits himself to saying that most of Turgot’s observations have been followed by corrections, I do not believe that one has the right to hold these words of Turgot against me.

— I shall always receive your communications with great pleasure, Monsieur Grandclément, although, according to what I told you above, I do not believe I should throw myself into erudition. My mission, since I gone so far as to give myself one, is to identify, grosso modo, the principles of the new society, and to present a first sketch of them to busy generations. Work to be redone, of course, which will be repeated a hundred times, if, as I trust, I follow the path of right and truth. For if law and truth are in essence immutable, the same is not true of the relations that translate them, which, constantly changing, constantly demand a new exegesis from us.

You are not very indulgent towards that good fellow, X***, who had the misfortune to do very little studies, if indeed he ever studied, and whose brain was not strong enough to stand in by itself in the absence of the masters. I have also known very well, and for a very long time, that he is attached to so-called conservative and governmental ideas: this is in his temperament and in his morals. All in all, I knew him more than thirty years ago, as a good colleague; I believe him at heart to be a good citizen and a good man, and forgive him all his weaknesses. I do not doubt that his eulogies are made more to compromise me than to do me honor; — but, what do you want? Since I began to think for myself and to write, as much as I have shown myself to be intractable on everything that concerns principles, so much do I like to compensate myself, on occasion, by my ease with men.

All of that is, you understand, between us.

I give you my hand,

P.-J. Proudhon.


About Shawn P. Wilbur 2661 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.