The Theory of Property (2017 revision)









In the preface placed at the beginning of the book on Art, we have undertaken to tell the public the state of the manuscripts of each of Proudhon’s posthumous works.

The manuscript that we publish today contained two notes conceived in this way:

“Advise the reader to distinguish clearly between the form of possessing (possession), which everyone, learned and ignorant, and even some jurists, confuse with property, giving the name of the one to the other.”

I. “PROPERTY. Give an exact and firm analysis of all my critiques:

  • “1st Memoir (1840)
  • “2nd Memoir (1841)
  • “3rd Memoir (1842)
  • Creation of Order (1843);
  • Economic Contradictions (1846);
  • The People, etc. (1848-1852);
  • Of Justice (1858);
  • Of Taxation (1860);
  • Of Intellectual Property (1862).”

Proudhon did not want to publish his Theory of Property—although, as he announced in his Majorats Littéraires, it was ready in 1862—before the program sketched in the two preceding notes, and especially in the second, was accomplished. The author not having had time to do this work himself, we believed that, in the interest of his memory, it was our responsibility to supply it. It was for him principally a question of showing that his ideas on property developed according to a rational series, in which the last term always had its point of departure in the preceding term, and that his present conclusion is not at all contradictory with his premises.

This summary forms the first sixty-two pages of the Introduction. We have used the form I, as if Proudhon himself had written: 1) because the idea of that analysis belongs to him; 2) because the work sketched in advance does not constitute an individual, original production on our part; 3) because it is composed in large part of textual citations from the author; 4) because we have inserted some of his unpublished notes; 5) finally, because, in the [iii] last pages of the chapter, Proudhon takes over, as if he had made the summary himself.

Having thus informed the reader, we do not hesitate to cite, in support of the author’s idea, a judicial act that has occurred since his death, and which has inspired Mr. Eugène Paignon to one of his best articles (see the Introduction, page 7).

In the rest of the work we have only done, as in the book on Art, some arrangement and ordering; choosing, among several expressions of the same idea, the most lucid and most complete; transporting the scattered supplementary and explanatory notes, whose place was naturally indicated by their content, to the chapters that they concern.

Let us add finally that the chapter divisions had not been made, but that the titles were all found in summary form on the first page of the manuscript.

J. A. Langlois.
F. G. Bergmann.
G. Duchêne.
F. Delhasse.

Chapter I


My critique is indestructible in itself, outside of a single hypothesis that I will make known later. It follows:

That property is inadmissible from the point of view of communal, Slavic, Germanic, or Arabic right; and that in fact is has been condemned by it. [64]

That it is equally inadmissible in the Christian or ecclesiastic theory, which condemns it;

That it is once again [inadmissible] in the feudal system, which subordinates all the possessions and opposes fief to it;

That it has been condemned by the Latin authors as contrary to Roman liberty and nationality, latifundia perdidere Italiam;

That, finally, it is inadmissible in the system of political centralization; that from this point of view as well it has only been tolerated by Robespierre, and that it is still rejected today, with reason, by the Jacobins.

There is only one point of view from which property can be accepted: it is the one that, recognizing that man possesses justice within himself, making him sovereign and upholder of justice, consequently awards him property, and knows no possible political order but federation.

Thus I will fortify all my earlier criticisms with considerations of history and politics, and show in the end that if property is a truth, this can only be on one condition: that the principles of Immanent Justice, Individual Sovereignty and Federation are accepted.

Sancta sanctis.

Everything becomes just for the just man; everything can be justified between the just. — Thus the sexual act [l’œuvre de chair] is permitted in marriage, and sanctified; but woe to the man who behaves with his wife as with a courtesan.

Beati pacifici, quoniam ipsi possidebunt terram. [65]

That maxim (sancta sanctis) contains the whole secret of the solution. The act appropriation in itself, considered objectively, is without right. It can be legitimated by nothing. It is not like wages, which is justified by labor, like possession, which is justified by necessity and the equality of shares; property remains absolutist and arbitrary, invasive and selfish. — It is only legitimated by the justice of the subject itself. But how do we make me just? That is the aim of education, of civilization, of manners, of the arts, etc.; it is also the goal of the political and economic institutions of which property is the principal.

In order for property to be legitimized, it is necessary that man legitimize himself; that he desires to be just; that he intends Justice as the goal, in everything and everywhere. He must say to himself, for example: Property in itself not being just, how would I make it just?

First, by recognizing in all the same right of appropriation, of usurpation; second, by regulating the usurpation, like the corsair dividing the loot among his companions; so that it tends spontaneously to level itself.

If I do not do that, property follows its nature: it is exaggerated for one, annihilated for the other; it is unmannered, immoral.

A few words on politics to end this preamble.

We work to avoid the economic question. [66]

It is from this point of view that I judge contemporary politics.

We imagine meeting the needs of the situation with free exchange, with pension funds, with company towns, agiotage, and pisciculture, with the jockey-club! — We are deceived…

We excite the hatred of the populations against the old dynasties; we hopes by this sacrifice to save the aristocracies. The Romanovs, the Habsburgs, the Hohenzollerns, the Bourbons, etc., that is what we offer up as fodder for the hydra.

But we work to save the old gentries, to reestablish the aristocracies.

Now, it is just the opposite that I demand.

The unity of Italy, the reconstitution of Poland and Hungary, annexations, war: backward-looking fantasies, henceforth devoid of sense.

The Pope reduced to spiritual power; a Catholic restoration; a second edition of the Concordat: a backward-looking fantasy.

We must destroy the Polish nobility and the Hungarian nobility, like the Russian nobility. We must make possessors of the peasant, the worker, the proletarian, in France, Italy, Belgium, Germany, Austria, and everywhere.

We must put an end to the distinction of bourgeoisie and proles, of capitalist and employee, worker and master.

The individual right, which leads to equal exchange, which has decreed universal suffrage, perhaps a bit too soon, guides us there. [67]

Chapter II


About Shawn P. Wilbur 2312 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.