Freedom Review of Property is Theft!

Printer-friendly versionPrinter-friendly version

“[Property is Theft!] really is a welcome addition to the literature. Comprehensive, with a well-researched and substantial introduction… including not only the most important of Proudhon’s political writings, but many of his manifestos and letters… Proudhon outlined… the basic tenets of anarchism… Iain McKay and A.K. Press are therefore to be warmly congratulated on this very satisfying and much needed anthology” (Brian Morris, Freedom)

The Proudhon Legacy

Property Is Theft!: A Pierre-Joseph Proudhon Anthology

Iain McKay (editor)

Edinburgh, A.K. Press, 2011

Much publicised and a long time coming, Iain McKay’s anthology of the political writings of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon really is a welcome addition to the literature. Comprehensive, with a well-researched and substantial introduction by McKay, nothing of its kind has been produced since Stewart Edward’s rather slender anthology of Proudhon’s writings appeared some forty years ago.

Although the subject of some important academic studies, Proudhon has always been something of a marginal figure, even though he was a key participant in the development of socialism in the early 19th century. This is reflected by the fact that very little of Proudhon’s published writings - estimated to comprise over twenty thousand pages - have been translated into English, apart from, for example, What is Property? (1840), General Idea of the Revolution in the Nineteenth Century (1851), and The Principle of Federation (1863). Proudhon thus contrasts markedly with Marx, Bakunin and Kropotkin, whose writings have long been available through various translations and anthologies.

Given that Proudhon was, to say the least, a rather unsystematic political theorist - idiosyncratic, always exuberant, undisciplined and contradictory - his writings have long been regarded as a “perplexing welter of disorder”. Indeed his friend Bakunin described Proudhon as a “perpetual contradiction”.

It is therefore hardly surprising that Proudhon has been interpreted, or claimed, as a precursor for a variety of political traditions. Revived by Charles Maurras and the Cercle Proudhon in the early years of the 20th century, Proudhon has been embraced as an ardent French nationalist and arch-reactionary, given his anti-Semitic outbursts and his defence of the patriarchal family. He has even been interpreted as a “harbinger” of fascism.

Marxists, of course, have always dismissed Proudhon’s politics as reactionary and petit bourgeois, and Marx himself always poured scorn on Proudhon’s intellectual strivings and reflections. One Marxist, the well-known historian George Lichtheim, suggested that Proudhon was not only a confused petit-bourgeois, but represented a fusion of “backwoods barbarism” and the “mental chaos typical of the autodidact”. For Proudhon came from the working class peasantry and was largely self-taught.

But even within contemporary anarchism Proudhon tends to be a rather neglected figure, and there is a general feeling that it was not until the end of the 19th century that anarchism became fully established as a coherent political tradition and radical movement. The key figures in this regard are Bakunin, Kropotkin, Goldman, Landauer and Malatesta. Proudhon is thus viewed as a kind of proto-anarchist or a “forebear” of anarchism. Murray Bookchin, for example, questioned whether Proudhon could be described as a socialist, given that he advanced an economy structured around small-scale peasant landowners. As Proudhon also opposed strikes and the class struggle, Bookchin implied that Proudhon was better understood as a mutualist rather than as an anarchist.

Yet it is important to recall, as McKay reminds us, that many of the later generation of anarchists paid warm tributes to Proudhon, acknowledging explicitly his important influence on their thinking. Bakunin, for example, considered Proudhon to be a “revolutionary by instinct”, someone who had a passion for liberty that contrasted markedly with the authoritarian tendencies of state socialists like Marx and Engels. Proudhon, Bakunin declared, was the “master of us all”. Kropotkin, too, as I emphasised in my study of the Russian anarchist, considered Proudhon to be both great and inspiring, and as having laid the foundations of modern anarchism. Equally, both Emma Goldman and Rudolf Rocker acknowledged the importance of the “great Proudhon”, and McKay quotes Rocker’s appraisal of Proudhon as “one of the most intellectually gifted and certainly the most many-sided writer whom modern socialism can boast”.

What is therefore important and significant about Iain McKay’s anthology is that it is a sustained attempt to re-situate Proudhon firmly within the anarchist tradition, thus re-affirming the French socialist as the “father” of anarchism (libertarian socialism) - as an anarchist par-excellence, as Benjamin Tucker described Proudhon.

Given the absolute wealth of published material that Proudhon produced during his lifetime, the anthology can only be a selection of Proudhon’s intellectual oeuvre. There is little in the text about Proudhon’s rather complicated and idealist metaphysics, or on his social theory and ethics - justice being a key principle for Proudhon - or on the socialist’s attitude to religion. The anthology is focussed essentially on Proudhon’s politics, specifically as this relates to anarchism. But nevertheless, within these parameters, McKay offers a really comprehensive collection, including not only the most important of Proudhon’s political writings, but many of his manifestos and letters to his contemporaries.

In his excellent introduction Iain McKay gives a succinct and informative overview of Proudhon’s main political ideas. These include the following: the critique of property as a form of appropriation that essentially constitutes “theft”; an emphasis that exploitation - the extraction of surplus value - is inherent in wage-labour; forms of associations that stressed the workers’ self-management of production; the advocacy of a People’s Bank and provision of credit; a critique of the state which emphasises the symbiotic relationship between capitalism and state power; a repudiation of the state socialism particularly associated with Louis Blanc; an emphasis on reform as a political strategy and a disinclination to become involved in class struggle via strikes and insurrections; and, finally, the advocacy of a mutual society which implied a decentralised federation of self-managed associations.

Such in outline are the main features of Proudhon’s libertarian politics, which McKay identifies as a form of market socialism.

McKay also briefly outlines Proudhon’s legacy, emphasising that it was the followers of Proudhon who were centrally involved in both the International Workingmen’s Association and the Paris Commune, rather than the Marxist socialists. In concluding the introduction, McKay also emphasises the profound influence that Proudhon’s legacy had on the historical development of anarchism, with regard to both individualist anarchism and the revolutionary socialism associated with Bakunin and Kropotkin. He noted that the latter anarchists rejected Proudhon’s support for the patriarchal family, and the reformism and anti-communism that was intrinsic in Proudhon’s mutualism. But he equally emphasises that revolutionary anarchism was essentially a development of Proudhon’s pioneering ideas.

The anthology also includes a short biographical sketch of Proudhon’s life and work, an insightful discussion of the relationship between Marx and Proudhon, notes on further reading, and a useful glossary of terms, people and events. Altogether a very satisfactory anthology, although it is of interest that McKay makes no mention of contemporary devotees of mutualism or reformist anarchism, even though they too tend to marginalise or even completely ignore Proudhon.

Two final points are worth noting, both highlighted by McKay.

The first is that Proudhon has invariably, and sometimes quite wilfully, been misinterpreted not only by Marx and Engels, but by scores of their disciples, who even suggest that Proudhon was an advocate of free-market capitalism. McKay insightfully, and in a balanced way, indicates that Marx simply appropriated many of Proudhon’s ideas, and then declared them to be his own. It was a typical case of filching someone’s clothes and then berating them for being naked. McKay’s anthology provides us with an opportunity of deciding for ourselves what Proudhon’s politics really entailed - certainly not fascism, nor the support of any form of nationalism, nor the advocacy of capitalism, whether petty or free-market.

The second is that Proudhon outlined, in spite of the disjointed and erratic nature of his writings, the basic tenets of anarchism as a political philosophy. These, as McKay writes, entail

“Proudhon’s critique of property, state and capitalism, his analysis of exploitation being rooted in wage labour, his advocacy of a decentralised and federal system of communes and workers’ associations, his support for workers’ self-management of production, his call for working-class autonomy and self-activity as a means of transforming society from below” (47).

McKay, of course, does not suggest that we should slavishly copy Proudhon’s ideas but rather use these ideas as a conceptual resource and to develop them in order to inspire social and political change in the 21st century.

Iain McKay and A.K. Press are therefore to be warmly congratulated on this very satisfying and much needed anthology of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon’s political writings.

Brian Morris

Freedom, Vol. 73, January 2012


Post new comment

By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.



Like what you are reading?  Get a notification whenever we post a new article to

Anarchist Writers via Facebook or Twitter

where you can also like and comment on our articles