I’ll start this essay with my final conclusions: Although written in 1840, Qu’est-ce que la propriété ? contains ideas which are very relevant today, and should be compulsory reading for anyone who’s at all interested in politics or economics. As far as I’m concerned (and judging only by this one book), Proudhon deserves to be as much a household name as people like Rousseau, Voltaire and Marx, and it’s very unfortunate that his ideas weren’t more influential.
It was certainly the most interesting and thought-provoking book I’d read in at least a couple of years. I took extensive notes while reading it, in fact I’m pretty certain I’ve never before taken so many notes on a book – and that wasn’t only because I was reading it on the computer, which made note-taking particularly easy. By the time I’d finished I’d collected enough material for a pretty extensive essay on Proudhon’s ideas…
Proudhon writes very well indeed, and generally makes his points pretty clearly, but he does have a tendency to write long sentences, which, combined with a somewhat archaic use of language, made for a far from easy read. The book also made lots of references to legal and economic principles of which I knew nothing (and which had me rushing to Wikipedia for an explanation), so it was fairly hard work altogether – but well worth the effort.
The page numbers given for quotes in the first memoire are those of professor Jean-Marie Tremblay’s digitalised version, and in the second they’re from the complete works as digitised by Google. See below for a note on the versions read.
The picture of Proudhon as a person which emerges from this book is one I can very much relate to. He seems to be 100% honest, a seeker after truth who is willing to follow his ideas through to their logical conclusions, regardless of how violently they might lead him to clash with the accepted wisdom (not only of his own time but of the whole of human history), or how unpopular they might make him. I can understand very well the doubts he felt upon seeing the radical nature of these conclusions, and the feeling that his own strange ideas couldn’t possible be correct when for centuries so many wise and learned men had said exactly the opposite:
What Proudhon basically decided to do was to apply the same rigid scientific method to the study of society and economics as had been so successful in understanding mathematics and the natural world:
He therefore demands a scientific rigorousness of method, and ridicules the approximative improvisation with which laws are actually made, and constitutions drawn up:
But, is he always so rigorous himself? Well, he certainly does his best, and for what he managed to achieve, even with this one book, I wouldn’t hesitate to call him a genius. For me he is a true philosopher, i.e. someone with a much greater than average ability to stand back from his own time, his own society and all the cultural prejudices which have been pumped into him, take a detached, long-term, unprejudiced and dispassionate view of the human race and its history, see things clearly and draw the logical conclusions.
The extent to which any given philosopher can actually achieve this, however, depends very much on his ability to avoid the trap of hidden underlying assumptions, those habits of mind which, although he may be entirely unaware of them, effect the outcome of his thought. Proudhon very much recognised this problem:
In spite of all his good intentions, Proudhon doesn’t manage to completely avoid this trap himself, in fact his whole theory is based on at least two important underlying assumptions which he feels no need to justify. The first of these is that human beings are of equal value and have an equal right to life and happiness (an assumption not entirely unconnected, as we shall see later, with his Christian beliefs) and, following on from this, that “Le droit d’occuper est égal pour tous.” The second is that the value of a product is “ni l’opinion de l’acheteur ni celle du vendeur, mais la somme de temps et de dépenses qu’il a coûté” – a very reasonable way of deciding what something is worth, but not the only possible one, and in total opposition to the law of supply and demand by which capitalism actually functions. No matter how reasonable the substance of these assumptions might be, they remain underlying assumptions and are therefore dangerous in any rational discussion.
His underlying assumptions are so obvious and self-evident to him that at one point he even seems to lose patience with certain philosophers who’ve been careful enough to specifically state such basic principles, principles which Proudhon finds too obvious to be worth mentioning:
Isn’t he just saying that he’s a utilitarian, and that utilitarianism is the only philosophy possible for any reasonable person? If so, then it’s a view he shared with Bertrand Russell, and I wouldn’t disagree with it either, but on the other hand neither would I have dismissed Aristotle’s statement so lightly. Lots of people who aren’t utilitarians (e.g. religious people and fascists) wouldn’t necessarily agree with it, and anyway, I believe that it’s important to state the basic assumptions on which an opinion or principle is based, no matter how obvious they might seem; not to do so is just messy, and leaves the door open to doubt and confusion.
Another problem with Proudhon (yet again connected with his Christianity), and my main criticism of the ideas expressed in this book, is that he falls prey to some very basic, extremely widespread and very dangerous human tendencies:
– the tendency to make that which is relative absolute (for instance, he talks about absolute categories of property and possession, whereas there’s actually a gradual scale from no possession at all to absolute right of property over something),
– the tendency to make that which is subjective objective,
and worst of all:
– the tendency to make that which is man-made natural (c.q. made by God).
Again and again we find him looking for absolute and objective principles which are part of the natural, God-given world, just waiting to be discovered, whereas the concepts of property and possession, and all the rules governing them, are actually man-made. In fact his ‘scientific’ method of working, described right at the start of the book, depends entirely on the idea that the basic principles of justice and morality have some sort of objective and eternal existence in nature, and that all we need to do, in order to arrive at an ideal system of law and politics, is therefore to discover these principles and apply them in practice. This is perhaps most clearly expressed here:
For Proudhon the fact that none of the experts can agree on how society should be organised can only be explained by their ignorance, the fact that they haven’t yet discovered the truth:
It doesn’t occur to him that cette loi gravée au coeur de l’homme may not actually exist…
He finds the objective basis for morality and justice for which he is searching in the ‘social instinct’. Actions which comply with the ‘social instinct’ are ‘just’, and those which don’t are ‘unjust’:
But why, exactly, is it that “l’homme égoïste, voleur, assassin, traître à la société […] pèche contre la nature”? Isn’t he just following other instincts which are just as natural as “l’instinct de société”?
In the section Des causes de nos erreurs : origine de la propriété he tries to answer the very interesting question “La propriété n’étant pas notre condition naturelle, comment s’est-elle établie ?”. He adds the question “Comment l’homme, né pour la société, n’est-il pas encore associé ?”, adding later “[…] l’intelligence de l’homme [est] calculée […] pour la destinée sociale”. He’s right in saying that property isn’t our natural condition, but finds it necessary to claim that ‘society’ is.
Surely it’s simpler and more logical to see property and inequality as the result of competition, i.e. an extension of ‘the law of the strongest’ – which, in fact, is what Proudhon seems to do elsewhere in the book.
As part of Proudhon’s continual search for objectivity, he finds that every legal right should be based on a ‘natural right’. He describes ‘prescription’, the principle by which a right can be acquired or an obligation avoided simply by the passing of time, i.e. the legal recognition of a situation which has existed in practice for a certain number of years, as “une fiction de la loi”, with the implication that the law normally is, or last least should be, based on something more solid, something which isn’t simply a human invention. He fails to realise that the natural state of man is lawless, and that all laws are human inventions!
Both his underlying assumptions about human dignity and equality, and his desire to base law and government on objective, absolute and natural, i.e. God-given principles, are very much connected with his Christian beliefs, even if a certain influence by Kant will be obvious to anyone familiar with that philosopher’s ideas. This book leaves no room for doubt that Proudhon was in fact a Christian and that the references to ‘la Providence’ and ‘les intentions du Créateur’ scattered throughout the book are more than just figures of speech. Not only does he believe in God, but he considers belief in “l’Être suprême” to be an essential, unquestionable and self-evident part of human nature:
He also gives Christianity the entire credit for the ending of slavery and feudalism:
Although I’m sure that Christianity deserves at least some of the credit for all this emancipation, and while I’m certainly not qualified to say exactly how much, this claim still strikes me as slightly exaggerated to say the least. I’m also sure that there are plenty of examples to be found of how religion in general, and Christianity in particular, have been responsible for keeping large sections of humanity ignorant and oppressed: the exact opposite of emancipation.
While regarding the belief in a supreme being and an afterlife as so obviously and unquestionably correct as to require no justification, he is, however, frequently critical of religion:
And elsewhere he says:
I was quite relieved to read that Proudhon’s Christianity doesn’t prevent him from realising the importance of the complete separation of church and state. Religion may be an essential part of human nature, but it should be kept far away from the practical business of deciding how society should function – far enough away for it not to be able to do any harm:
Proudhon seems to share my rational view of original sin as being nothing more than ignorance (the exact opposite of the traditional view which connects it with the knowledge of good and evil ), and he takes a refreshingly optimistic view of progress, one which has become unfashionable since ‘Auschwitz’:
Ce discours n’est pas propre aux seuls théologiens ; on le retrouve en termes équivalents dans les écrits des philosophes matérialistes, partisans d’une indéfinie perfectibilité. Destutt de Tracy enseigne formellement que le paupérisme, les crimes, la guerre, sont la condition inévitable de notre état social, un mal nécessaire, contre lequel ce serait folie de se révolter. Ainsi, nécessité du mal ou perversité originelle, c’est au fond la même philosophie.
« Le premier homme a péché. » Si les sectateurs de la Bible interprétaient fidèlement, ils diraient : L’homme premièrement pèche, c’est-à-dire, se trompe ; car pécher, faillir, se tromper, c’est même chose.
« Les suites du péché d’Adam sont héréditaires dans sa race ; c’est, en premier lieu, l’ignorance. » En effet, l’ignorance est originelle dans l’espèce comme dans l’individu ; mais, sur une foule de questions, même de l’ordre moral et politique, cette ignorance de l’espèce a été guérie : qui nous dit qu’elle ne cessera pas tout à fait ? Il y a progrès continuel du genre humain vers la vérité, et triomphe incessant de la lumière sur les ténèbres. Notre mal n’est donc pas absolument incurable, et l’explication des théologiens est plus qu’insuffisante ; elle est ridicule, puisqu’elle se réduit à cette tautologie : « L’homme se trompe, parce qu’il se trompe. » Tandis qu’il faut dire : « L’homme se trompe parce qu’il apprend. » Or, si l’homme parvient à savoir tout ce qu’il a besoin de connaître, il y a lieu de croire que, ne se trompant plus, il cessera de souffrir. (p.23,8)
Proudhon spends a large part of the book considering and then demolishing the ideas of a wide variety of philosophers who argue for property, going to great lengths to defeat each one on his own terms. It would be too much work to discuss in detail how he deals in turn with Cicéron, Thomas Reid, Destutt de Tracy, Joseph Dutens, Victor Cousin, Robert-Joseph Pothier, Friedrich Ancillon, Charles Bonaventure Marie Toullier, Jean-Baptiste Say and Charles Comte, interesting though that might be. He gives more consideration to some than to others, but insofar as he has any respect at all for their ideas he analyses them in a very intelligent manner, generally managing to prove that, followed to their logical conclusions (and given the hidden underlying assumptions mentioned above), they imply equality, i.e. that everyone has an equal right to the enjoyment of the earth and its products.
While he deals seriously and respectfully with those who deserve it, he has no patience at all with sloppy thinking and unscientific reasoning, and he has no hesitation in being honest and even sarcastic to the point of making someone look ridiculous. A case in point is Joseph Dutens, whom he rapidly but thoroughly demolishes in the following few words:
In his second memoire he demolishes Messieurs Troplong et Considerant using a lot more words but in an equally decisive and amusing manner. Proudhon didn’t suffer fools gladly, and he was quite capable of using his pen as a lethal weapon. I certainly wouldn’t have wanted to find myself at the wrong end of it!
One very important point about this book, which I think is frequently overlooked, is that Proudhon makes a clear distinction between ‘property’ and ‘possession’, whereby ‘possession’ simply means having the right – and even the exclusive right – to make use of certain goods, while ‘property’ implies using those goods to make a profit from the work of others. “La propriété est le droit d’aubaine”, i.e. property is defined by its capability of making interest or a profit. This very much narrows the definition of what property is, and therefore of what he describes as theft and would wish to see abolished:
In other words he’s not against ownership as such, i.e. the right to personal possession of the things one needs or is productively using. Before reading this book I’d assumed, as I’m sure most people do, that Proudhon was against ownership, and that he regarded anyone who owned a house, a car, a farm or a business as being guilty of theft. In other words I’d taken his famous statement ‘property is theft’ a bit too literally, whereas the only thing he’s really against is the making of profit from the simple fact that one owns something, which is in fact the essence of capitalism. I decided many years ago that the basic problem with capitalism is that owning something is regarded as useful work which should be paid for, and this is really all that Proudhon is saying. In his day the divide between the haves and have-nots was pretty sharp: the rich measured and expressed their relative wealth in terms of how much interest per year they made (something I noticed very strongly in Stendhal’s Le Rouge et le Noir, which is scattered with references to people being worth so many livres, francs, louis or écus ‘de rente’), while the poor didn’t have interest and therefore had to work for a living. These days things are a bit more complicated, and there are plenty of people who are relatively rich, and possess far more than their share of the earth’s wealth, without actually living off the interest of their property. I wonder what Proudhon would say, for instance, about someone who possesses several luxurious houses and can choose where to live, while others live in slums and have to struggle to pay the rent on them so as to avoid having nowhere to live at all. I’m pretty certain that possessing so many houses for one’s own convenience wouldn’t fit the definition of property he uses in this book, but would he perhaps still regard it as theft?
Here and there in the book, for instance in his final summing-up, Proudhon adds to this: not only is it wrong to make money just by owning something (i.e. by what he calls ‘property’), but it’s immoral to make a profit, which he defines as making an unfair exchange: exchanging goods for more than they’re really worth. Commerce, in his view, is only fair when the things exchanged are of equal value, both sides give as much as they receive and no one makes a profit. This principle is only meaningful if there’s some objective and absolute way of deciding what something is worth, and for Proudhon there is: “la somme de temps et de dépenses qu’il a coûté”. Capitalism, however, with its law of supply and demand, defines value in a much more relative and subjective way, as being what ‘the market’ says it’s worth, i.e. what someone is willing to pay for it, and according to this principle (except in cases where actual criminal pressure is involved: blackmail, extortion, etc.), all commerce is fair by definition.
In part 2 of the section La propriété est impossible, parce qu’elle est impuissante contre la propriété, Proudhon examines the competition between property-owners (capitalists) and recognises that their relationship, just like that between them and the non-property-owning workers, is ultimately based on force, “le droit du plus fort”. Having shown how a bigger and richer merchant or manufacturer can force a smaller and poorer one out of business, he goes on to say:
He recognises the fact that economic competition is nothing more or less than “le droit du plus fort”, and that the question of who happens to be the strongest in a given situation has absolutely nothing to do with what might be just or fair:
Qui ment, de l’accusé ou du témoin, disaient nos barbares ancêtres ? – Qu’on les fasse battre, répondait le juge encore plus barbare ; le plus fort aura raison.
Qui de nous deux vendra des épices au voisin ? – Qu’on les mette en boutique, s’écrie l’économiste : le plus fin ou le plus fripon sera le plus honnête homme et le meilleur marchand.
C’est tout l’esprit du Code Napoléon. (p.140,2)
All this fits in very well with my views on competition. Proudhon frequently seems to recognise that ‘property’ is actually just an extension of ‘the law of the strongest’ – but not always. Maybe we, today, have an unfair advantage in that we now know about ‘the survival of the fittest’ as a basic principle of nature, so it’s not difficult to understand how property came about and why it continues.
As the book progresses, Proudhon moves away from metaphysical and theoretical discussions of property and towards the more practical questions of how society should be organised and what is the best form of government. Reading this book in the 21st. century, it’s often tempting to regard Proudhon as having been more of a communist than an anarchist. In the section Que le travail conduit à l’égalité des propriétés, for instance, he offers what could be regarded as a communist or socialist manifesto, the reading of which leaves one in no doubt as to why the authorities found this book dangerous! He starts from simple examples of how capitalism works, and demonstrates exactly what’s wrong with it, i.e. that it basically consists of the exploitation of the less clever by the more clever and of the less fortunate by the more fortunate, in other words the rule of the strongest carried on at a different and less directly physical level: something which has no connection whatsoever with any notions of justice or fairness. For anyone who doesn’t find such a situation acceptable, the only possible objection to his ideas would be a pragmatic one: that capitalism does actually work, that the exploited workers in his examples wouldn’t be any better off if the capitalist had never exploited them, and (especially following the ‘communist experiment’) that other systems work even less well – in other words that a bad, unfair system which works to some extent is better than nothing at all. However, that doesn’t change the fact that it’s a bad, unfair system, and therefore that it might be a good idea to try to develop a better one…
On the other hand, part 1 of the section Caractères de la communauté et de la propriété sounds much more like anticommunist propaganda. Here he talks about what he describes as the only two forms of society which have so far been thought up (“hors de la propriété ou de la communauté, personne n’a conçu de société possible”) and seems to be equally against both. He’s already said very clearly what he thinks of ‘la propriété’, and now it’s the turn of ‘la communauté’:
Les membres d’une communauté, il est vrai, n’ont rien en propre ; mais la communauté est propriétaire, et propriétaire non seulement des biens, mais des personnes et des volontés. C’est d’après ce principe de propriété souveraine que dans toute communauté le travail, qui ne doit être pour l’homme qu’une condition imposée par la nature, devient un commandement humain, par là même odieux ; que l’obéissance passive, inconciliable avec une volonté réfléchissante, est rigoureusement prescrite ; que la fidélité à des règlements toujours défectueux, quelque sages qu’on les suppose, ne souffre aucune réclamation ; que la vie, le talent, toutes les facultés de l’homme sont propriétés de l’État, qui a droit d’en faire, pour l’intérêt général, tel usage qu’il lui plaît ; que les sociétés particulières doivent être sévèrement défendues, malgré toutes les sympathies et antipathies de talents et de caractères, parce que les tolérer serait introduire de petites communautés dans la grande, et par conséquent des propriétés ; que le fort doit faire la tâche du faible, bien que ce devoir soit de bienfaisance, non d’obligation, de conseil, non de précepte ; le diligent, celle du paresseux, bien que ce soit injuste ; l’habile, celle de l’idiot, bien que ce soit absurde : que l’homme enfin dépouillant son moi, sa spontanéité, son génie, ses affections, doit s’anéantir humblement devant la majesté et l’inflexibilité de la commune.
La communauté est inégalité, mais dans le sens inverse de la propriété. La propriété est l’exploitation du faible par le fort ; la communauté est l’exploitation du fort par le faible. (p.162,4)
In my not very good American translation, ‘la communauté’ is consistently translated as ‘communism’, which may or may not be the best translation of the expression in a book written in 1840, but everything Proudhon says here about ‘la communauté’ could, unfortunately, be very well applied to the ‘real existierender Sozialismus’ which would develop in the following century…
Following his rejection of capitalism (‘la propriété’), and communism (‘la communauté’), Proudhon goes on to show that democracy is nothing but yet another form of despotism, this time that of the majority. In the second memoire he clearly states his opposition to ‘suffrage universel’ and his admiration for Pierre Leroux:
What would he have said of ‘the dictatorship of the proletariat’?! He gives a wonderful description, still very relevant today, of how democratic society is actually ruled by “la tyrannie des parleurs”:
Un législateur, un poète, furent jadis des hommes profonds et divins : aujourd’hui ce sont des parleurs. Un parleur est un timbre sonore, à qui le moindre choc fait rendre un interminable son ; chez le parleur, le flux du discours est toujours en raison directe de la pauvreté de la pensée. Les parleurs gouvernent le monde ; ils nous étourdissent, ils nous assomment, ils nous pillent, ils nous sucent le sang et ils se moquent de nous ; quant aux savants, ils se taisent : s’ils veulent dire un mot, on leur coupe la parole. Qu’ils écrivent. (p.171, note 2)
Having spent most of the book criticising the existing state of society and some of the possible alternatives, he finally goes on to say what sort of society he would prefer. It’s here that he first describes himself an ‘anarchist’ and goes on to explain why. As man has become ever more enlightened, he has become ever less obedient to authority. Kings who once ruled according to their pleasure, now have to follow a system of laws. We’ve now reached the stage where society can be run according to scientific principles, which have nothing to do with what a king, a government or even the majority of the people might want:
Proudhon paints a wonderful picture of his ideal, scientifically governed world:
His ‘anarchy’ is a very structured and disciplined one!
At the start of this book Proudhon asserts that “property is theft”, and promises to prove it. So, how well does he succeed? Taken at face value, especially in English, “property is theft” sounds like an illogical statement by definition, “property” being that which is legally owned by someone, or the person’s right to that ownership, and “theft” being the taking of that which legally belongs to someone else. Although the word “propriété” in French is often used in a concrete sense to refer to those goods legally owned by someone, just as the word “property” is in English, in this book it pretty well always means the exercise of property rights, i.e. the action of legally owning something, and can be better translated as “ownership”. That leads us to the statement “legal ownership is theft”, which is obviously self-contradictory. What constitutes legal ownership, and consequently what constitutes theft, is a function of the laws and conventions of society and will vary from one place and time to another, but in any given society one cannot be guilty of stealing that which one legally owns. Even if we narrow down the definition of “property” to what Proudhon actually means by the word, i.e. charging other people money to make use of resources which one isn’t using oneself, i.e. making a profit from the simple fact that one ‘owns’ something, the problem remains that it’s only society, with its laws and conventions, which decides what someone legally owns and what they’re allowed to do with it, and it’s the same society which defines theft as that which contravenes these rules. In other words the definition of ‘theft’ depends on the definition of ‘property’, and these vary from one society to another, but the terms are always mutually exclusive. Proudhon’s much-quoted statement only makes sense if it means that behaviour which is quite correct and morally sound by one set of rules (the laws made by society) is incorrect and morally reprehensible according to another set of rules (those absolute rules existing in nature and independent of man, which he would probably call ‘natural law’ and ‘justice’, and describe as having been made by God). This brings us back to Proudhon’s main problem, which is that his ideas depend completely on hidden underlying assumptions about the existence of an absolute and objective morality above, beyond and superior to anything which man is capable of inventing. According to this supposedly objective, non-man-made morality all men are of equal value and have an equal right to life and happiness.
So what does Proudhon actually prove? He proves that if human beings are of equal value and have an equal right to life and happiness, then making money out of the mere fact that one legally owns something (the very basis of capitalism) is not morally justifiable, and he proves it very well too. He demonstrates that “[…] société, justice, égalité, sont trois termes équivalents, trois expressions qui se traduisent, et dont la conversion mutuelle est toujours légitime.” (p.146,7). As if that wasn’t enough of an achievement (or revolutionary enough for the average person!), he also goes much further and demonstrates quite effectively that (in contrast to what Saint-Simon and Fourier said) there’s no reason why people should be paid differently according to how hard they work or how skilled they are. In the section Que l’inégalité des facultés est la condition nécessaire de l’égalité des fortunes he explains very well why a doctor, an artist or a scientist shouldn’t earn more than any other worker, as what they produce is no more useful or necessary to society than the food and shelter provided by less well educated people, and he shows how ridiculous it is that, due to competition and the law of supply and demand, ‘great talents’ (famous singers, actors, etc.) can demand gigantic sums out of all proportion to what they produce or what they need. And all this is at least as relevant now as it was in 1840!
In other words he demonstrates that the existing capitalist system is unjust or unfair. I couldn’t agree more, but the problem with his demonstration is that he believes justice and fairness to be objective qualities which can be discovered by scientific investigation, whereas they’re actually human inventions, basically matters of opinion in a world governed by the law of the strongest, where the opinions of the strong count for more than those of the weak. This is perhaps part of the reason why attempts to reorganise and improve society, such as religion and communism, have always failed: they tend to be based on false assumptions about objective and absolute values, and the subjective, relative reality always ends up reasserting itself. The fact that capitalism, being just a civilised extension of the law of the strongest, is much closer to this subjective, relative reality, explains why it has always returned, either by the complete collapse of the alternative system (as in the case of Russian communism), or by a more gradual process (as in the case of Christianity and Chinese communism).
Proudhon goes to great lengths to prove that ‘property’ is wrong: legally, morally, economically, and somehow even arithmetically. In my view it’s much easier and more useful to just accept that the rules of property in a given place and time are what they are (as they’re just a man-made convention anyway, a somewhat more civilised extension of “le droit du plus fort”, “the survival of the fittest”), and try to look dispassionately and objectively at the equation of what each person produces and consumes, i.e. how much useful work each person does for others compared to what they do for him. When human relations are looked at in this way it becomes immediately obvious that someone who makes their money simply by being rich is in about the same position as a bank robber, an embezzler or a counterfeiter: they all do a lot less work for others than others do for them. Even if the bank robber, embezzler and counterfeiter actually invest quite a bit of ingenuity, bravery and simple hard work in their activities, this still isn’t useful work for others. According to this viewpoint, if these people are regarded as thieves then there’s no reason not to feel the same way about someone who just lives off the interest on their investments.
To cut a long story short, I very much agree with the spirit of what Proudhon is saying, but instead of saying “property is theft”, I would rather say: “property isn’t a good idea”. And where he talks about the task of the government being “à découvrir ce qui est vrai et juste, pour en faire la loi” (p.30,9), I would want to replace ‘découvrir’ by ‘décider’.
Finally, a few points which I find somewhat removed from the main substance of the book, points which aren’t really relevant to the main discussion on the nature of capitalism but which still shed much light on the personality of the author…
In the section Du sens moral dans l’homme et dans les animaux he considers the questions “quelle est la ligne précise qui sépare l’intelligence de l’homme de celle des animaux” and “Le sens moral, dans l’homme et dans la brute, diffère-t-il par la nature ou seulement par le degré ?”.
He comes to the conclusion that humans and animals are actually very similar, and that the only difference between them is that humans are more intelligent: we share the same emotions, both the good ones (the ‘social instinct’, which makes people help each other), and also the bad ones (aggression, jealousy, etc.), but human beings have a much greater ability to consciously reflect on these emotions, and to reason. A very advanced view for 1840!
He seems to have a very dubious attitude to women:
It could be said that such attitudes were normal in his day, but Charles Fourier, who was born several decades before Proudhon, was actually much more advanced.
He obviously believes in monogamy:
Interestingly enough, Proudhon seems to subscribe to a “théorie des sociétés particulières, formées, pour ainsi dire, concentriquement par chacun de nous au sein de la grande société”, and which not only justifies but even demands a preference for those closest to us in society over those further away:
As far I can see Proudhon doesn’t offer any justification for this theory, but simply presents it as a way of justifying the existing situation in society. He does make it plain that it would be wrong for a judge to decide in favour of a friend of his rather than doing what justice demands, and says that “La faculté de préférence n’a lieu que pour les choses qui nous sont propres et personnelles, comme l’amour, l’estime, la confiance, l’intimité, et que nous ne pouvons accorder à tous à la fois.” On the other hand, according to the examples he gives, this ‘préférence’ can decide whose life will be saved in a fire or a shipwreck. Couldn’t it then decide who’s given a job or a house, or who gets food when there isn’t enough to go round? Isn’t it actually a justification for chauvinism, racism and nationalism? Isn’t he just talking about the natural human tendency for individuals to organise themselves into competing groups and identify with their own group, whether that be a family, a race, a country or a football team?
Proudhon shows a surprising detestation of classical Aristotelian logic:
I hadn’t realised that classical Aristotelian logic was already regarded as being so outmoded in 1841 (well, it was by Proudhon at least).
Proudhon was nothing if not an optimist, and was convinced that equality, i.e. the end of property, was on its way. In the second memoire he shows that the general tendency of history has been towards ever greater equality, and that property has regularly been reduced or destroyed in the general interest. Just as Marx believed in the inevitable advent of communism, so Proudhon extrapolated from human history so far and predicted the rapid arrival of equality:
He ends the first memoire with a very poetic announcement of “La fin de l’antique civilisation” and a rousing appeal to young people: “Jeune homme, […] osez embrasser la cause de la liberté. Dépouillez votre vieil égoïsme, plongez-vous dans le flot populaire de l’égalité naissante”, followed by a prayer to the “Dieu de liberté et d’égalité”.
The two (very much related) questions I ask myself after reading this book are: why isn’t Proudhon better known, and why weren’t his ideas more influential. OK, everyone knows the quote “property is theft”, but how many could tell you who said it, let alone what exactly they meant by it? How can the carefully argued conclusion of a scientific treatise on society and economics have ended up as an anything-but-subtle slogan, the sort of thing you might expect to see painted on a wall or proclaimed on a banner at a demonstration, along with “power to the people!” and “eat the rich!” – the sort of slogan which even most of the people who shout it probably wouldn’t want to take too literally or even too seriously. And how often is this book read these days? Very rarely, I should imagine, and I find that a great pity. Although written in 1840, it contains ideas which are very relevant today, and I’d say it deserves to be very widely read. It should certainly be compulsory reading for anyone who’s at all interested in politics or economics. And doesn’t Proudhon deserve to be as much a household name as people like Rousseau, Voltaire and Marx? As far as I’m concerned (and judging only by this one book), he certainly does, and it’s very unfortunate that his ideas weren’t more influential. I won’t try to speculate here about the reasons why Proudhon’s ideas never ‘took off’ in the way Marx’s did, but I very much suspect that if it had been the other way around, the world might have been spared a lot of suffering and might be in a much better state today. It’s interesting to note that his criticisms of ‘la communauté’ in this book predict many of the problems which would cause the end of ‘the communist experiment’ 150 years later. Not that any attempt to implement Proudhon’s ideas wouldn’t have met with similar problems to those faced by communism or any other new socio-economic initiative which threatens vested interests. There would have been gigantic opposition from those who stood to lose out (a point sufficiently proven by the reactions this book provoked), and those who were protesting would have been the very people who had the power to fight back, so that any country, community, industry or section of the economy which tried to abolish the power of property would have been quickly crushed. Communism’s answer to that problem was a violent one: revolution followed by dictatorship, and even that answer wasn’t sufficient in the long run.
Basically, the problem is that whereas Proudhon started from certain assumptions (assumptions with which most people would agree!), logically analysed the way society works and came to certain conclusions, most people do things the other way around: they start by looking at his conclusions, decide they don’t like them (usually without even bothering to read the book) and jump to the conclusion that his assumptions, his analysis or his logic must therefore be wrong; the idea that there might be something fundamentally wrong with our present society is rejected a priori. Even those who do take the trouble to read the book, give its ideas honest consideration and accept its logical argumentation, tend to find a way to avoid its conclusions – especially if they have property to defend, as did most of Proudhon’s educated 19th. century readers. Their attitudes can perhaps best be summed up by that of Samuel Butler, who for all his radical ideas was in many ways quite a conservative, and who wrote in Erewhon: “For property is robbery, but then, we are all robbers or would-be robbers together, and have found it essential to organise our thieving, as we have found it necessary to organise our lust and our revenge. Property, marriage, the law; as the bed to the river, so rule and convention to the instinct; and woe to him who tampers with the banks while the flood is flowing.” And in spite of all the ways in which society has changed since 1840, that quote still describes very well how most people would react to this book today if they took the trouble to read it.
In other words, yes, Proudhon has proved beyond any reasonable doubt, for anyone who’s willing to accept his initial assumptions and has the patience to follow his logic and the honesty to accept his conclusions, that the current economic system is illogical, unfair and responsible for most of the misery in the world. Unfortunately changing it would mean the end of society as we know it and prove rather inconvenient to those who are doing very well out of it at the moment, so it’s not likely to happen any time soon…
Note on the versions read:
I ended up reading the original French text in several different versions, sometimes reading two and comparing them, and sometimes just jumping from one to the other. I started with a pdf file of the first memoire which had been realised by a Québécois professor of sociology by the name of Jean-Marie Tremblay, but soon discovered that he hadn’t made a very good job of it. Certain sentences just didn’t make sense, but when I found another version on Wikisource I realised that this was because a lot of the punctuation was missing; a hyphen, a semicolon or a comma can make a big difference to the meaning of a sentence! For various reasons I found the first version easier to read, but when I wanted to quote some text in my notes I would find it in the Wikisource version and copy it from there. Unfortunately this version also turned out to contain quite a few errors, so I had to be more careful with my quoting. When the two versions didn’t agree and it wasn’t immediately obvious which was correct I consulted a third version, this time the complete works of Proudhon, digitised by Google and consisting of facsimile images of the printed book; there wasn’t a digital version of the text ‘behind’ the images, so I couldn’t actually copy anything from this version, but at least I could see what Proudhon had actually written. It’s a wonderful thing that so many books are now available in digital versions online, but I often wish the people who do all this excellent work were a bit more careful! As if all these different versions weren’t enough, at some point I was having difficulty understanding what Proudhon was trying to say, so I looked for an English translation. The only one I could find was the Project Gutenberg EBook ‘What is Property?’, translated by some anonymous American. I had great doubts about its quality (there were translation mistakes here and there which were obvious even to me!), but it generally seemed OK, and I occasionally found it useful to read someone else’s interpretation of the original text. When I arrived at the end of the first memoire I realised that neither professor Tremblay nor Wikisource seemed to have gotten any further, and there was nothing for it but to continue with the complete works (in facsimile) and the English translation. I ended up reading most of the second memoire in English, occasionally looking things up in the French text when I had doubts about the translation. The page numbers given for quotes in the first memoire are those of professor Tremblay’s pdf file, and in the second they’re from the complete works as digitised by Google.
|title||Qu’est-ce que la propriété ?|
|publisher / version read||Version numérique de Jean-Marie Tremblay
Œuvres complètes (1867), Google
What is Property? (1st. & 2nd. memoires), Project Gutenberg
|read||13/12/2013 – 27/01/2014|
|download / read online||Version numérique de Jean-Marie Tremblay|
|Œuvres complètes (1867), Google|
|What is Property? (1st. & 2nd. memoires), Project Gutenberg|