Joseph Proudhon Private Property

Pierre Joseph Proudhon What Is Property

Criticism Of Private Property and Socialism

The work that first brought Proudhon to the notice of the public was a book published in 1840 entitled Qu'est-ce que la Propriete? Proudhon was then thirty-one years of age. Born at Besancon, he was the son of a brewer, and was forced to earn his living at an early age. He first became a proof-corrector, and then set up as a printer on his own account. Despite hard work he became a diligent reader, his only guide being his insatiable thirst for knowledge. The sight of social injustice had sent the iron into his soul. Economic questions were faced with all the ardour of youth, with all the enthusiasm of a man of the people speaking on behalf of his brothers, and with all the confi­dence of one who believes in the convincing force of logic and common sense. All this is very evident in his brilliantly imaginative work. Mingled with it is a good deal of that provoking swagger which was noted by Sainte-Beuve as one of his characteristics, and which appears in all his writings.

Throughout this treatise from first page to last there periodically flashes one telling phrase which sums up his whole argument, " Property is theft."

The question then arises as to whether Proudhon regards all property as theft. Does he condemn appropriation, or is it the mere fact of possession that he is inveighing against? This is how the public at large have viewed it, and it would be useless to deny that Proudhon owes a great deal to this interpretation, and the consequent consterna­tion of the bourgeoisie. But his meaning is quite different. Private property in the sense of the free disposal of the fruits of labour and saving is in his opinion of the very essence of liberty. At bottom this is nothing more than man's control over himself. But why attack property, then? Property is attacked because it gives to the proprietor a right to an income for which he has not worked. It is not property as such, but the right of escheat, that forms the butt of Proudhon's attack; and following the lead of Owen and other English socialists, as well as the Saint-Simonians, he directs his charges against that right of escheat which, according to circumstances and the character of the revenue, is variously known as rent, discount, money interest, agricultural privilege, sinecure, etc.

Like every socialist, Proudhon considered that labour alone was productive. Land and capital without labour were useless. Hence the demand of the proprietor for a share of the produce as a return for the service which his capital has yielded is radically false. It is based upon the supposition that capital by itself is productive, whereas the capitalist in taking payment for it literally receives something for nothing.

All this is simply theft. His own definition of property is, "The right to enjoy the fruits of industry, or of the labour of others, or to dispose of those fruits to others by will."

The theme is not new, and the line of thought will be resumed— by Rodbertus among others. The originality of the work consists not so much in the idea as in the brilliance of the exposition, the vehemence of the style, and the verve of the polemics hurled against the old arguments which based property only upon labour, upon natural right, or upon occupation. A German writer2 has said that, published in Germany or in England, the book would have passed unnoticed, because in both those countries the defence of property had been much more 'scientific' than in France.

The whole force of the work lies, not in itself, but in the weakness of the opposing arguments, and this fact is quite sufficient to give it a certain permanent value. Moreover, Proudhon has himself shown in a later work, The'orie de la propriete, that property does in fact perform a 'social function' which nothing could replace, and which is the "spontaneous product of the collective being."3 The first treatise sent an echo through the whole world, and its author may be said to have done for French socialism what Lassalle did for German. The ideas set forth are not new, but they are expressed in phrases of wonderful penetration.

There is also a wealth of ingenious remarks which, if not, perhaps, true, deserve retention because of their originality. How such spolia­tion on the part of capitalists and proprietors can continue without a revolt of the working men is a question which has been asked by every writer on theoretical socialism, without its full import ever being realized. Is there not something very improbable in this? The prob­lem is a curious one, indeed, and requires much ingenuity for its solu­tion. Marx disposed of it by his theory of surplus value. Rodbertus in a simpler fashion showed the opposition between economic distribu­tion as realized in exchange and the social distribution which lurks behind it. Proudhon has his own solution. There is, says he, between master and men continual miscalculation. The master pays each workman in proportion to the value of his own individual labour, but reserves for himself the product which results from the collective force of all—a product which is altogether superior to that yielded by the sum of their individual efforts. This excessive product represents profits.

It is said that the capitalist pays his workmen by the day. But to be more exact we ought to say that he pays a per diem wage multi­plied by the number of workmen employed each day—which is not the same thing. For that immense force which results from union and from the harmonious combination of simultaneous efforts he has paid nothing. Two hundred grenadiers can deck the base of the Louqsor statue in a few hours, a task which would be quite im­possible for one man though he worked two hundred days. Accord­ing to the capitalist reckoning the wages paid in both cases would be the same. And so the worker is led to believe that he is paid for his work, whereas in reality he is only partly paid for it. Even after receiving his wage he still retains a right of property in the things which he has produced.

His explanation, though very subtle, is none the less erroneous, because it is precisely the function of the entrepreneur—and therefore the justifi­cation for his remuneration—to collect and organize the forces of labour so as to achieve a result that could not be achieved separately. The appearance of the pamphlet made Proudhon famous, not merely in the eyes of the public, who knew little of him beyond his famous formula, but also in the opinion of the economists. Blanqui and Gamier, among others, interested themselves in his work. "It is impossible to have a higher opinion of anyone than I have of you," writes the former. Blanqui by his favourable report to the Academy of Moral Sciences was instrumental in thwarting the legal proceedings which the Minister of the Interior was anxious to take against Proudhon. And it was upon Garnier's advice that the publisher Guillaumin, although a strong adherent of orthodox economics, con­sented to issue a new work by Proudhon in 1846. The book was entitled Les Contradictions economiques, and Guillaumin was not a little startled by it.

The sympathy of the economists is easily explained. They realized from the first that Proudhon was a vigorous opponent of their views, but it was not long before they discovered that he was an equally resolute critic of socialism. Let us briefly examine his attitude with regard to the latter.

No one has ever referred to socialists in harsher terms. "The Saint-Simonians have vanished like a masquerade." "Fourier's system is the greatest mystification of our time." To the communists he writes as follows: "Hence, communists! Your presence is a stench in my nos­trils and the sight of you disgusts me." Elsewhere he says: "Socialism is a mere nothing. It never has been and never will be anything." The violence of his attitude towards his predecessors springs from a fear of being confused with them. The procedure is intended to put the reader on his guard against all equivocation, and to afford him valuable preparation for appreciating Proudhon's solutions by show­ing how utterly impossible the other solutions are.

His attack upon the socialists roughly amounts to a charge of failure to realize that the destruction of the present regime would involve taking a course in the opposite direction. The difficult problem which he set out to solve was not merely the suppression of existing economic forces, but also their equilibration He never contemplated "the extinction of such economic forces as division of labour, collective effort, competition, credit, property, or even economic liberty." His chief concern was to preserve them, but at the same time to suppress the conflict that exists between them. The socialists aim merely at destruction. For competition they would substitute an associative organization of labour; instead of private property they would set up community of goods or collectivism; instead of the free play of per­sonal interest they would, according to Fourier, substitute love, or love and devotion, as the Saint-Simonians put it, or the fraternity of Cabet. But none of these satisfies Proudhon.

He dismisses association and organization as being detrimental to the liberty of the worker. Labour's power is just the result of "collec­tive force and division of labour." Liberty is the economic force par excellence. "Economic perfection lies in the absolute independence of the workers, just as political perfection consists in the absolute inde­pendence of the citizens." "Liberty," he remarks in an address delivered to the electors of the department of the Seine in 1848, "is the sum total of my system—liberty of conscience, freedom of the Press, freedom of labour, of commerce, and of teaching, the free disposal of the products of labour and industry—liberty, infinite, absolute, every­where and for ever." He adds that his is "the system of '89," and that he is preaching the doctrines of Quesnay, of Turgot, and of Say. Indeed, it would not be difficult to imagine ourselves reading the Classical rhapsodies concerning the advantages of Free Trade over again.

Communism as a juridical system is rejected no less energetically. There is no suggestion of suppressing private property, which is the necessary stimulant of labour, the basis of family life, and indispensable to all true progress. His chief concern is to make it harmless and to place it at the disposal of every one. "Communism is merely an inverted form of private property. Communism gives rise to inequali­ties, but of a different character from those of property. Property is the exploitation of the weak by the strong, communism of the strong by the weak." It is still robbery. "Communism," he exclaims, "is the religion of misery." "Between the institution of private property and communism there is a world of difference."

Racial devotion or fraternity as possible motives for action are not recognized. They imply the sacrifice and the subordination of one man to another. All men have equal rights, and the freer exercise of those rights is a matter of justice, not of fraternity. Proudhon thinks the axiom so very evident that he takes no trouble to explain it, but merely gives us a definition of justice. In his first Memoire it is defined as "a kind of respect spontaneously felt and reciprocally guaranteed to human dignity in any person and under all circumstances, even though the discharge of that feeling exposes us to some risk."

His justice is tantamount to equality. If we apply the definition to the economic links which bind men together, we find that the principle of mutual respect is transformed into the principle of reciprocal service. Men must be made to realize this need for reciprocal service. It is the only way in which equality can be respected. "Do unto others as you would that others do unto you"—this principle of justice is the ethical counterpart of the economic precept of mutual service. Reciprocal service must be the new principle which must guide us in rearranging the economic links of society.

And so a criticism of socialism helps Proudhon to define the positive basis of his own system. The terms of the social problem as it presents itself to him can now be clearly followed. On the one hand there is the suppression of the unearned income derived from property—a revenue which is in direct opposition to the principle of reciprocal service. On the other hand, property itself must be preserved, liberty of work and right of exchange must be secured. In other words, the fundamental attribute of property must be removed without damaging the institution of property itself or endangering the principle of liberty.

It is the old problem of how to square the circle. The extinction of unearned incomes must involve the communal ownership of the instru­ments of production, although Proudhon did not seem to think so. Hitherto the reform of property had been attempted by attacking the production and distribution of wealth. No attention was ever paid to exchange. But Proudhon thought that in the act of exchange inequality creeps in and a new method of exchange is needed. Towards the end of the Contradictions
economiques he gives us an obscure hint of the kind of reform to be aimed at. After declaring that nothing now remains to be done except " to sum up all contradictions in one general equa­tion," he proceeds to ask what particular form that equation is to take. We have already, he remarks, been permitted a glimpse of it. "It must be a law of exchange based upon a theory of mutual help. This theory of mutualism—that is, of natural exchange—is from the collec­tive point of view a synthesis of two ideas—that of property and that of communism."3 No further definition is attempted. In a letter written after the publication of the Contradictions he still refers to him­self as a simple seeker, and states that he has a new book in preparation, in which these propositions are to be further developed.

About the same time he had laid out his plans for active propaganda in the Press. But the Revolution of 1848 threw him into the melee of party politics and hastened the publication of his theories.

In order to give a better idea of the place occupied by Proudhon's ideas, and to show how they were connected with the socialist experi­ments of the time, we must say a few words about the Revolution itself.