Proudhon on Socialism (“Theory of Property” manuscripts)

Socialisme.—Tout mot et sujet a plusieurs acceptations.

Si Théorie de la société, ou Science sociale ;—je l’affirmes.

Si parti qui affirme une science sociale, la nécessité de réformer la société conformément à la science : j’en fais partie.
C’état ce que nous affirmions en 48.

Si par socialisme, en entend le droit social, par opposition au droit individuel, j’admets ce système, comme partie intégrante du système entier de l’Humanité ; mais si l’on entend lui donner la prépondérance sur la liberté, je le nie, c’est communisme.

Ainsi l’a compris Pierre Leroux ; ainsi il l’a tour à tour attaqué et défendu.

Socialism.—Every word and subject has several recognized meanings.

If [understood as a] Theory of Society, or Social Science;—I claim it.

If [understood as a] party that affirms a social science, [and] the necessity of reforming society in accordance with that science: I am part of it.

This was what we affirmed in ’48.

If by socialism you mean social right, as opposed to individual right, I accept this system as an integral part of the whole system of Humanity; but if you intend to give it predominance over liberty, I deny it. That is communism.

This is how Pierre Leroux understood it; in this way he has, in turn, attacked and defended it.”


Working translation and notes by Shawn P. Wilbur.

☞ There are a couple of echoes here, first to the place in “The Philosophy of Progress” where Proudhon reversed his earlier decision to call new forms of old institutions by new names (in explicit distinction to the practice of Pierre Leroux) and retain their “patronymic names” (reaffirming, in the process, a version of serial analysis), and then to Leroux’s own note, in the republication of “Individualism and Socialism,” about the evolution of the term “socialism.”

☞ Proudhon: “Many times it has been said to me: Tell it like it is. You are a man of order: do you, or do you not want government? You seek justice and liberty, and you reject the communitarian theories: are you for or against property? You have defended, in every circumstance, morals and the family: do you have no religion?

Well, I uphold completely all my negations of religion, government and property; I say that not only are these negations in themselves irrefutable, but that already the facts justify them; what we have seen burgeon and develop, for several years, under the ancient name of religion, is no longer the same thing that we have been accustomed to understand under that name; that which agitates in the form of empire or cæsarism, will sooner or later no longer be empire nor cæsarism, nor government; and finally, that which modifies and reorganizes itself under the rubric of property, is the opposite of property.

I add, nonetheless, that I will retain, with the common folk, these three words: religion, government, property, for reasons of which I am not the master, which partake of the general theory of Progress, and for that reason seem to me decisive: first, it is not my place to create new words for new things and I am forced to speak the common language; second, there is no progress without tradition, and the new order having for its immediate antecedents religion, government and property, it is convenient, in order to guarantee that very evolution, to preserve for the new institutions their patronymic names, in the phases of civilization, because there are never well-defined lines, and to attempt to accomplish the revolution at a leap would be beyond our means.

I believe it useless, with a judge as well-informed as you, sir, to prolong this exposition. I affirm Progress, and, as the incarnation of Progress, the reality of the Collective Man, and, finally, as a consequence of that reality, an economic science: that is my socialism. Nothing more, and nothing less.”

☞ Leroux: “It is clear that, in all of this writing, it is necessary to understand by socialism, socialism as we define it in this work itself, which is as the exaggeration of the idea of association, or of society. For a number of years, we have been accustomed to call socialists all the thinkers who occupy themselves with social reforms, all those who critique and reprove individualism, all those who speak, in different terms, of social providence, and of the solidarity which unites together not only the members of a State, but the entire Human Species; and, by this title, ourselves, who have always battled absolute socialism, we are today designated as socialist. We are undoubtedly socialist, but in this sense: we are socialist, if you mean by socialism the Doctrine which will sacrifice none of the terms of the formula: Liberty, Fraternity, Equality, Unity, but which reconciles them all. (1847.) — I can only repeat here, with regard to the use of the word Socialism in all of this extract, what I said previously (pages 121 and 160 of this Volume). When I invented the term Socialism in order to oppose it to the term Individualism, I did not expect that, ten years later, that term would be used to express, in a general fashion, religious Democracy. What I attacked under that name, were the false systems advanced by the alleged disciples of Saint-Simon and by the alleged disciples of Rousseau led astray following Robespierre and Babœuf, without speaking of those who amalgamated at once Saint-Simon and Robespierre with de Maistre and Bonald. I refer the reader to the Histoire du Socialisme (which they will find in one of the following volumes of this edition), contenting myself to protest against those who have taken occasion from this to find me in contradiction with myself. (1850.)”

☞ Proudhon, Second Memoir (1841): “Thus, according to M. Leroux, there is property and property, — the one good, the other bad. Now, as it is proper to call different things by different names, if we keep the name “property” for the former, we must call the latter robbery, rapine, brigandage. If, on the contrary, we reserve the name “property ” for the latter, we must designate the former by the term possession, or some other equivalent; otherwise we should be troubled with an unpleasant synonymy.”

☞ And we might say that Proudhon, in rejecting this “unpleasant synonymy,” was fighting against tendencies in his own thought that would eventually become dominant. For example, in “The Political Capacity of the Working Classes,” this is arguably the passage that provides one of the keys to all of his mature work:

“…transported into the political sphere, what we have previously called mutualism or guarantism takes the name of federalism. In a simple synonymy the revolution, political and economic, is given to us whole…”

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Independent scholar, translator and archivist.