Letter to M. Blanqui on Property

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Letter to M.Blanqui on Property

What is Property? Second Memoir

Translator: Benjamin R. Tucker

Paris, April 1, 1841

Monsieur,

[...]

In order to live as a proprietor, or to consume without producing, it is necessary, then, to live upon the labour of another; in other words, it is necessary to kill the worker. It is upon this principle that proprietors of those varieties of capital which are of primary necessity increase their farm-rents as fast as industry develops, much more careful of their privileges in that respect, than those economists who, in order to strengthen property, advocate a reduction of interest. But the crime is unavailing: labour and production increase; soon the proprietor will be forced to labour, and then property is lost.

The proprietor is a man who, having absolute control of an instrument of production, claims the right to enjoy the product of the instrument without using it himself. To this end he lends it; and we have just seen that from this loan the worker derives a power of exchange, which sooner or later will destroy the right of increase [droit d’aubaine]. In the first place, the proprietor is obliged to allow the worker a portion of the product, for without it the worker could not live. Soon the latter, through the development of his industry, finds a means of regaining the greater portion of that which he gives to the proprietor; so that at last, the objects of enjoyment increasing continually, while the income of the idler remains the same, the proprietor, having exhausted his resources, begins to think of going to work himself. Then the victory of the producer is certain. Labour commences to tip the balance towards its own side, and commerce leads to equilibrium.

Man’s instinct cannot err; as, in liberty, exchange of functions leads inevitably to equality among men, so commerce — or exchange of products, which is identical with exchange of functions — is a new cause of equality. As long as the proprietor does not labour, however small his income, he enjoys a privilege; the worker’s welfare may be equal to his, but equality of conditions does not exist. But as soon as the proprietor becomes a producer — since he can exchange his special product only with his tenant or his commandité[1] — sooner or later this tenant, this exploited man, if violence is not done him, will make a profit out of the proprietor, and will oblige him to restore — in the exchange of their respective products — the interest on his capital. So that, balancing one injustice by another, the contracting parties will be equal. Labour and exchange, when liberty prevails, lead, then, to equality of fortunes; mutuality of services neutralises privilege. That is why despots in all ages and countries have assumed control of commerce; they wished to prevent the labour of their subjects from becoming an obstacle to the rapacity of tyrants.

Up to this point, all takes place in the natural order; there is no premeditation, no artifice. The whole proceeding is governed by the laws of necessity alone. Proprietors and workers act only in obedience to their wants. Thus, the exercise of the right of increase [droit d’aubaine], the art of robbing the producer, depends — during this first period of civilisation — upon physical violence, murder, and war.

[...]

[…] In ’89 and ’93, the possessions of the nobility and the clergy were confiscated, the clever proletarians were enriched; and to-day the latter, having become aristocrats, are making us pay dearly for our fathers’ robbery. What, therefore, is to be done now? It is not for us to violate right, but to restore it. Now, it would be a violation of justice to dispossess some and endow others, and then stop there. We must gradually lower the rate of interest, organise industry, associate workers and their functions, and take a census of the large fortunes, not for the purpose of granting privileges, but that we may effect their redemption by settling a life-annuity upon their proprietors. We must apply on a large scale the principle of collective production, give the State eminent domain over all capital! make each producer responsible, abolish the custom-house, and transform every profession and trade into a public function. Thereby large fortunes will vanish without confiscation or violence; individual possession will establish itself, without communism, under the inspection of the republic; and equality of conditions will no longer depend simply on the will of citizens.

[...]

How many small proprietors and manufacturers have not been ruined by large ones through chicanery, law-suits, and competition? Strategy, violence, and usury, — such are the proprietor’s methods of plundering the worker.

Thus we see property, at all ages and in all its forms, oscillating by virtue of its principle between two opposite terms — extreme division and extreme accumulation.

Property, at its first term, is almost null. Reduced to personal exploitation, it is property only potentially. At its second term, it exists in its perfection; then it is truly property.

When property is widely distributed, society thrives, progresses, grows, and rises quickly to the zenith of its power. Thus, the Jews, after leaving Babylon with Esdras and Nehemiah, soon became richer and more powerful than they had been under their kings. Sparta was in a strong and prosperous condition during the two or three centuries which followed the death of Lycurgus. The best days of Athens were those of the Persian war; Rome, whose inhabitants were divided from the beginning into two classes, the exploiters and the exploited, knew no such thing as peace.

When property is concentrated, society, abusing itself, polluted, so to speak, grows corrupt, wears itself out — how shall I express this horrible idea? — plunges into long-continued and fatal luxury.

[...]

The most exact idea of property is given us by the Roman law, faithfully followed in this particular by the ancient legists. It is the absolute, exclusive, autocratic domain of a man over a thing, a domain which begins by usucaption, is maintained by possession, and finally, by the aid of prescription, finds its sanction in the civil law; a domain which so identifies the man with the thing, that the proprietor can say, “He who uses my field, virtually compels me to labour for him; therefore he owes me compensation.”

I pass in silence the secondary modes by which property can be acquired — tradition, sale, exchange, inheritance, etc. — which have nothing in common with the origin of property.

Accordingly, Pothier said the domain of property, and not simply property. And the most learned writers on jurisprudence — in imitation of the Roman praetor who recognised a right of property and a right of possession — have carefully distinguished between the domain and the right of usufruct, use, and habitation, which, reduced to its natural limits, is the very expression of justice; and which is, in my opinion, to supplant domanial property, and finally form the basis of all jurisprudence.

But, sir, admire the clumsiness of systems, or rather the fatality of logic! While the Roman law and all the savants inspired by it teach that property in its origin is the right of first occupancy sanctioned by law, the modern legists, dissatisfied with this brutal definition, claim that property is based upon labour. Immediately they infer that he who no longer labours, but makes another labour in his stead, loses his right to the earnings of the latter. It is by virtue of this principle that the serfs of the middle ages claimed a legal right to property, and consequently to the enjoyment of political rights; that the clergy were despoiled in ’89 of their immense estates, and were granted a pension in exchange; that at the restoration the liberal deputies opposed the indemnity of one billion francs. “The nation,” said they, “has acquired by twenty-five years of labour and possession the property which the emigrants forfeited by abandonment and long idleness: why should the nobles be treated with more favour than the priests?”[2]

All usurpations, not born of war, have been caused and supported by labour. All modern history proves this, from the end of the Roman empire down to the present day. And as if to give a sort of legal sanction to these usurpations, the doctrine of labour, subversive of property, is professed at great length in the Roman law under the name of prescription.

The man who cultivates, it has been said, makes the land his own; consequently, no more property. This was clearly seen by the old jurists, who have not failed to denounce this novelty; while on the other hand the young school hoots at the absurdity of the first-occupant theory. Others have presented themselves, pretending to reconcile the two opinions by uniting them. They have failed, like all the juste-milieux of the world, and are laughed at for their eclecticism. At present, the alarm is in the camp of the old doctrine; from all sides pour in defences of property, studies regarding property, theories of property, each one of which, giving the lie to the rest, inflicts a fresh wound upon property.

Consider, indeed, the inextricable embarrassments, the contradictions, the absurdities, the incredible nonsense, in which the bold defenders of property so lightly involve themselves. I choose the eclectics, because, those killed, the others cannot survive.

M. Troplong, jurist, passes for a philosopher in the eyes of the editors of Le Droit. I tell the gentlemen of Le Droit that, in the judgement of philosophers, M. Troplong is only a lawyer; and I prove my assertion.

M. Troplong is a defender of progress. “The words of the code,” says he, “are fruitful sap with which the classic works of the eighteenth century overflow. To wish to suppress them. .. is to violate the law of progress, and to forget that a science which moves is a science which grows.”[3]

Now, the only mutable and progressive portion of law, as we have already seen, is that which concerns property. If, then, you ask what reforms are to be introduced into the right of property? M. Troplong makes no reply; what progress is to be hoped for? no reply; what is to be the destiny of property in case of universal association? no reply; what is the absolute and what the contingent, what the true and what the false, in property? no reply. M. Troplong favours quiescence and in statu quo in regard to property. What could be more unphilosophical in a progressive philosopher?

Nevertheless, M. Troplong has thought about these things. “There are,” he says, “many weak points and antiquated ideas in the doctrines of modern authors concerning property: witness the works of MM. Toullier and Duranton.” The doctrine of M. Troplong promises, then, strong points, advanced and progressive ideas. Let us see; let us examine:

“Man, placed in the presence of matter, is conscious of a power over it, which has been given to him to satisfy the needs of his being. King of inanimate or unintelligent nature, he feels that he has a right to modify it, govern it, and fit it for his use. There it is, the subject of property, which is legitimate only when exercised over things, never when over persons.”

M. Troplong is so little of a philosopher, that he does not even know the import of the philosophical terms which he makes a show of using. He says of matter that it is the subject of property; he should have said the object. M. Troplong uses the language of the anatomists, who apply the term subject to the human matter used in their experiments.

This error of our author is repeated farther on: “Liberty, which overcomes matter, the subject of property, etc.” The subject of property is man; its object is matter. But even this is but a slight mortification; directly we shall have some crucifixions.

Thus, according to the passage just quoted, it is in the conscience and personality of man that the principle of property must be sought. Is there anything new in this doctrine? Apparently it never has occurred to those who, since the days of Cicero and Aristotle, and earlier, have maintained that things belong to the first occupant, that occupation may be exercised by beings devoid of conscience and personality. The human personality, though it may be the principle or the subject of property, as matter is the object, is not the condition. Now, it is this condition which we most need to know. So far, M. Troplong tells us no more than his masters, and the figures with which he adorns his style add nothing to the old idea.

Property, then, implies three terms: The subject, the object, and the condition. There is no difficulty in regard to the first two terms. As to the third, the condition of property down to this day, for the Greek as for the Barbarian, has been that of first occupancy. What now would you have it, progressive doctor?

“When man lays hands for the first time upon an object without a master, he performs an act which, among individuals, is of the greatest importance. The thing thus seized and occupied participates, so to speak, in the personality of him who holds it. It becomes sacred, like himself. It is impossible to take it without doing violence to his liberty, or to remove it without rashly invading his person. Diogenes did but express this truth of intuition, when he said: ‘Stand out of my light!’”

Very good! but would the prince of cynics, the very personal and very haughty Diogenes, have had the right to charge another cynic, as rent for this same place in the sunshine, a bone for twenty-four hours of possession? It is that which constitutes the proprietor; it is that which you fail to justify. In reasoning from the human personality and individuality to the right of property, you unconsciously construct a syllogism in which the conclusion includes more than the premises, contrary to the rules laid down by Aristotle. The individuality of the human person proves individual possession, originally called proprietas, in opposition to collective possession, communio.

It gives birth to the distinction between thine and mine, true signs of equality, not, by any means, of subordination. “From equivocation to equivocation,” says M. Michelet,[4] “property would crawl to the end of the world; man could not limit it, were not he himself its limit. Where they clash, there will be its frontier.” In short, individuality of being destroys the hypothesis of communism, but it does not for that reason give birth to domain, that domain by virtue of which the holder of a thing exercises over the person who takes his place a right of prestation and suzerainty, that has always been identified with property itself.

Further, that he whose legitimately acquired possession injures nobody cannot be nonsuited without flagrant injustice, is a truth, not of intuition, as M. Troplong says, but of inward sensation[5], which has nothing to do with property.

M. Troplong admits, then, occupancy as a condition of property. In that, he is in accord with the Roman law, in accord with MM. Toullier and Duranton; but in his opinion this condition is not the only one, and it is in this particular that his doctrine goes beyond theirs.

“But, however exclusive the right arising from sole occupancy, does it not become still more so, when man has moulded matter by his labour; when he has deposited in it a portion of himself, re-creating it by his industry, and setting upon it the seal of his intelligence and activity? Of all conquests, that is the most legitimate, for it is the price of labour.

“He who should deprive a man of the thing thus remodelled, thus humanised, would invade the man himself, and would inflict the deepest wounds upon his liberty.”

I pass over the very beautiful explanations in which M. Troplong, discussing labour and industry, displays the whole wealth of his eloquence. M. Troplong is not only a philosopher, he is an orator, an artist. He abounds with appeals to the conscience and the passions. I might make sad work of his rhetoric, should I undertake to dissect it; but I confine myself for the present to his philosophy.

If M. Troplong had only known how to think and reflect, before abandoning the original fact of occupancy and plunging into the theory of labour, he would have asked himself: “What is it to occupy?” And he would have discovered that occupancy is only a generic term by which all modes of possession are expressed, seizure, station, immanence, habitation, cultivation, use, consumption, &c.; that labour, consequently, is but one of a thousand forms of occupancy. He would have understood, finally, that the right of possession which is born of labour is governed by the same general laws as that which results from the simple seizure of things. What kind of a legist is he who declaims when he ought to reason, who continually mistakes his metaphors for legal axioms, and who does not so much as know how to obtain a universal by induction, and form a category?

If labour is identical with occupancy, the only benefit which it secures to the worker is the right of individual possession of the object of his labour; if it differs from occupancy, it gives birth to a right equal only to itself, that is, a right which begins, continues, and ends, with the labour of the occupant. It is for this reason, in the words of the law, that one cannot acquire a just title to a thing by labour alone. He must also hold it for a year and a day, in order to be regarded as its possessor; and possess it twenty or thirty years, in order to become its proprietor.

These preliminaries established, M. Troplong’s whole structure falls of its own weight, and the inferences, which he attempts to draw, vanish.

“Property once acquired by occupation and labour, it naturally preserves itself, not only by the same means, but also by the refusal of the holder to abdicate; for from the very fact that it has risen to the height of a right, it is its nature to perpetuate itself and to last for an indefinite period... Rights, considered from an ideal point of view, are imperishable and eternal; and time, which affects only the contingent, can no more disturb them than it can injure God himself.” It is astonishing that our author, in speaking of the ideal, time, and eternity, did not work into his sentence the divine wings of Plato — so fashionable to-day in philosophical works.

With the exception of falsehood, I hate nonsense more than anything else in the world. property once acquired! Good, if it is acquired; but, as it is not acquired, it cannot be preserved. Rights are eternal! Yes, in the sight of God, like the archetypal ideas of the Platonists. But, on the earth, rights exist only in the presence of a subject, an object, and a condition. Take away one of these three things, and rights no longer exist. Thus, individual possession ceases at the death of the subject, upon the destruction of the object, or in case of exchange or abandonment.

[...]

I had resolved to submit to a systematic criticism the semi-official defence of the right of property recently put forth by M. Wolowski, your colleague at the Conservatory. With this view, I had commenced to collect the documents necessary for each of his lectures, but, soon perceiving that the ideas of the professor were incoherent, that his arguments contradicted each other, that one affirmation was sure to be overthrown by another, and that in M. Wolowski’s lucubrations the good was always mingled with the bad, and being by nature a little suspicious, it suddenly occurred to me that M. Wolowski was an advocate of equality in disguise, thrown in spite of himself into the position in which the patriarch Jacob pictures one of his sons — inter duas clitellas, between two stools, as the proverb says. In more parliamentary language, I saw clearly that M. Wolowski was placed between his profound convictions on the one hand and his official duties on the other, and that, in order to maintain his position, he had to assume a certain slant. Then I experienced great pain at seeing the reserve, the circumlocution, the figures, and the irony to which a professor of legislation, whose duty it is to teach dogmas with clearness and precision, was forced to resort; and I fell to cursing the society in which an honest man is not allowed to say frankly what he thinks. Never, sir, have you conceived of such torture: I seemed to be witnessing the martyrdom of a mind. I am going to give you an idea of these astonishing meetings, or rather of these scenes of sorrow.

Monday, November 20th, 1840. The professor declares, in brief, 1. That the right of property is not founded upon occupation, but upon the impress of man; 2. That every man has a natural and inalienable right to the use of matter.

Now, if matter can be appropriated, and if, notwithstanding, all men retain an inalienable right to the use of this matter, what is property? — and if matter can be appropriated only by labour, how long is this appropriation to continue? — questions that will confuse and confound all jurists whatsoever.

Then M. Wolowski cites his authorities. Great God! what witnesses he brings forward! First, M. Troplong, the great metaphysician, whom we have discussed; then, M. Louis Blanc, editor of the Revue du Progres, who came near being tried by jury for publishing his Organisation of Labour, and who escaped from the clutches of the public prosecutor only by a juggler’s trick;[6] Corinne, — I mean Madame de Staël, — who, in an ode, making a poetical comparison of the land with the waves, of the furrow of a plough with the wake of a vessel, says “that property exists only where man has left his trace,” which makes property dependent upon the solidity of the elements; Rousseau, the apostle of liberty and equality, but who, according to M. Wolowski, attacked property only as a joke, and in order to point a paradox; Robespierre, who prohibited a division of the land, because he regarded such a measure as a rejuvenescence of property, and who, while awaiting the definitive organisation of the republic, placed all property in the care of the people, that is, transferred the right of eminent domain from the individual to society; Babeuf, who wanted property for the nation, and communism for the citizens; M. Considérant, who favours a division of landed property into shares, that is, who wishes to render property nominal and fictitious: the whole being intermingled with jokes and witticisms (intended undoubtedly to lead people away from the hornets’ nests) at the expense of the adversaries of the right of property!

November 26th. M. Wolowski supposes this objection: Land, like water, air, and light, is necessary to life, therefore it cannot be appropriated; and he replies: The importance of landed property diminishes as the power of industry increases.

Good! this importance diminishes, but it does not disappear; and this, of itself, shows landed property to be illegitimate. Here M. Wolowski pretends to think that the opponents of property refer only to property in land, while they merely take it as a term of comparison; and, in showing with wonderful clearness the absurdity of the position in which he places them, he finds a way of drawing the attention of his hearers to another subject without being false to the truth which it is his office to contradict.

“Property,” says M. Wolowski, “is that which distinguishes man from the animals.” That may be; but are we to regard this as a compliment or a satire?

“Mahomet,” says M. Wolowski, “decreed property.” And so did Genghis Khan, and Tamerlane, and all the ravagers of nations. What sort of legislators were they?

“Property has been in existence ever since the origin of the human race.” Yes, and so has slavery, and despotism also; and likewise polygamy and idolatry. But what does this antiquity show?

The members of the Council of the State — M. Portalis at their head — did not raise, in their discussion of the Code, the question of the legitimacy of property. “Their silence,” says M. Wolowski, “is a precedent in favour of this right.” I may regard this reply as personally addressed to me, since the observation belongs to me. I reply, “As long as an opinion is universally admitted, the universality of belief serves of itself as argument and proof. When this same opinion is attacked, the former faith proves nothing; we must resort to reason. Ignorance, however old and pardonable it may be, never outweighs reason.”

Property has its abuses, M. Wolowski confesses. “But,” he says, “these abuses gradually disappear. To-day their cause is known. They all arise from a false theory of property. In principle, property is inviolable, but it can and must be checked and disciplined.” Such are the conclusions of the professor.

When one thus remains in the clouds, he need not fear to equivocate. Nevertheless, I would like him to define these abuses of property, to show their cause, to explain this true theory from which no abuse is to spring; in short, to tell me how, without destroying property, it can be governed for the greatest good of all. “Our civil code,” says M. Wolowski, in speaking of this subject, “leaves much to be desired.” I think it leaves everything undone.

Finally, M. Wolowski opposes, on the one hand, the concentration of capital, and the absorption which results therefrom; and, on the other, he objects to the extreme division of the land. Now I think that I have demonstrated in my First Memoir, that large accumulation and minute division are the first two terms of an economic trinity — a thesis and an antithesis. But, while M. Wolowski says nothing of the third term, the synthesis, and thus leaves the inference in suspense, I have shown that this third term is association, which is the annihilation of property.

[...]

The ordinary resources of the law no longer sufficing, philosophy, political economy, and the framers of systems have been consulted. All the oracles appealed to have been discouraging.

The philosophers are no clearer to-day than at the time of the eclectic efflorescence; nevertheless, through their mystical apothems, we can distinguish the words progress, unity, association, solidarity, fraternity, which are certainly not reassuring to proprietors. One of these philosophers, M. Pierre Leroux, has written two large books, in which he claims to show by all religious, legislative, and philosophical systems that, since men are responsible to each other, equality of conditions is the final law of society. It is true that this philosopher admits a kind of property; but as he leaves us to imagine what property would become in presence of equality, we may boldly class him with the opponents of the right of increase [droit d’aubaine].

[...]

In his work on Humanity,[7] M. Leroux commences by positing the necessity of property: “You wish to abolish property; but do you not see that thereby you would annihilate man and even the name of man?... You wish to abolish property; but could you live without a body? I will not tell you that it is necessary to support this body;... I will tell you that this body is itself a species of property.”

In order clearly to understand the doctrine of M. Leroux, it must be borne in mind that there are three necessary and primitive forms of society — communism, property, and that which today we properly call association. M. Leroux rejects in the first place communism, and combats it with all his might. Man is a personal and free being, and therefore needs a sphere of independence and individual activity. M. Leroux emphasises this in adding: “You wish neither family, nor country, nor property; therefore no more fathers, no more sons, no more brothers. Here you are, related to no being in time, and therefore without a name; here you are, alone in the midst of a billion of men who to-day inhabit the earth. How do you expect me to distinguish you in space in the midst of this multitude?”

If man is indistinguishable, he is nothing. Now, he can be distinguished, individualised, only through a devotion of certain things to his use — such as his body, his faculties, and the tools which he uses. “Hence,” says M. Leroux, “the necessity of appropriation”; in short, property.

But property on what condition? Here M. Leroux, after having condemned communism, denounces in its turn the right of domain. His whole doctrine can be summed up in this single proposition — Man may be made by property a slave or a despot by turns.

That posited, if we ask M. Leroux to tell us under what system of property man will be neither a slave nor a despot, but free, just, and a citizen, M. Leroux replies in the third volume of his work on Humanity:

“There are three ways of destroying man’s communion with his fellows and with the universe:... 1. By separating man in time; 2. by separating him in space; 3. by dividing the land, or, in general terms, the instruments of production; by attaching men to things, by subordinating man to property, by making man a proprietor.”

This language, it must be confessed, savours a little too strongly of the metaphysical heights which the author frequents, and of the school of M. Cousin. Nevertheless, it can be seen, clearly enough it seems to me, that M. Leroux opposes the exclusive appropriation of the instruments of production; only he calls this non-appropriation of the instruments of production a new method of establishing property, while I, in accordance with all precedent, call it a destruction of property. In fact, without the appropriation of instruments, property is nothing.

“Hitherto, we have confined ourselves to pointing out and combating the despotic features of property, by considering property alone. We have failed to see that the despotism of property is a correlative of the division of the human race;... that property, instead of being organised in such a way as to facilitate the unlimited communion of man with his fellows and with the universe, has been, on the contrary, turned against this communion.”

Let us translate this into commercial phraseology. In order to destroy despotism and the inequality of conditions, men must cease from competition and must associate their interests. Let master and worker, now enemies and rivals, become associates.

Now, ask any manufacturer, merchant, or capitalist, whether he would consider himself a proprietor if he were to share his revenue and profits with this mass of wage-workers whom it is proposed to make his associates.

[...]

“All the evils which afflict the human race arise from caste. The family is a blessing; the family caste (the nobility) is an evil. Country is a blessing; the country caste (supreme, domineering, conquering) is an evil; property (individual possession) is a blessing; the property caste (the domain of property of Pothier, Toullier, Troplong, etc.) is an evil.”

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 theft, 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.

What a blessing it would be if philosophers, daring for once to say all that they think, would speak the language of ordinary mortals! Nations and rulers would derive much greater profit from their lectures, and, applying the same names to the same ideas, would come, perhaps, to understand each other. I boldly declare that, in regard to property, I hold no other opinion than that of M. Leroux; but, if I should adopt the style of the philosopher, and repeat after him, “Property is a blessing, but the property caste — the statu quo of property — is an evil,” I should be extolled as a genius by all the bachelors who write for the reviews.[8] If, on the contrary, I prefer the classic language of Rome and the civil code, and say accordingly, “Possession is a blessing, but property is theft,” immediately the aforesaid bachelors raise a hue and cry against the monster, and the judge threatens me. Oh, the power of language!

[...]

The economists, questioned in their turn, propose to associate capital and labour. You know, sir, what that means. If we follow out the doctrine, we soon find that it ends in an absorption of property, not by the community [communauté], but by a general and indissoluble commandite, so that the condition of the proprietor would differ from that of the worker only in receiving larger wages. This system, with some peculiar additions and embellishments, is the idea of the phalanstery. But it is clear that, if inequality of conditions is one of the attributes of property, it is not the whole of property. That which makes property a delightful thing, as some philosopher (I know not who) has said, is the power to dispose at will, not only of one’s own goods, but of their specific nature; to use them at pleasure; to confine and enclose them; to excommunicate mankind, as M. Pierre Leroux says; in short, to make such use of them as passion, interest, or even caprice, may suggest. What is the possession of money, a share in an agricultural or industrial enterprise, or a government-bond coupon, in comparison with the infinite charm of being master of one’s house and grounds, under one’s vine and fig-tree? “Beati possidentes!” says an author quoted by M. Troplong. Seriously, can that be applied to a man of income, who has no other possession under the sun than the market, and in his pocket his money? As well maintain that a trough is a coward. A nice method of reform! They never cease to condemn the thirst for gold, and the growing individualism of the century; and yet, most inconceivable of contradictions, they prepare to turn all kinds of property into one — property in coin.

I must say something further of a theory of property lately put forth with some ado: I mean the theory of M. Considérant.

The Fourierists are not men who examine a doctrine in order to ascertain whether it conflicts with their system. On the contrary, it is their custom to exult and sing songs of triumph whenever an adversary passes without perceiving or noticing them.

These gentlemen want direct refutations, in order that, if they are beaten, they may have, at least, the selfish consolation of having been spoken of. Well, let their wish be gratified.

M. Considérant makes the most lofty pretensions to logic. His method of procedure is always that of major, minor, and conclusion. He would willingly write upon his hat, “Argumentator in barbara.” But M. Considérant is too intelligent and quick-witted to be a good logician, as is proved by the fact that he appears to have taken the syllogism for logic.

The syllogism, as everybody knows who is interested in philosophical curiosities, is the first and perpetual sophism of the human mind, — the favourite tool of falsehood, the stumbling-block of science, the advocate of crime. The syllogism has produced all the evils which the fabulist so eloquently condemned, and has done nothing good or useful: it is as devoid of truth as of justice. We might apply to it these words of Scripture: “Celui qui met en lui sa confiance, perira.” Consequently, the best philosophers long since condemned it; so that now none but the enemies of reason wish to make the syllogism its weapon.

M. Considérant, then, has built his theory of property upon a syllogism. Would he be disposed to stake the system of Fourier upon his arguments, as I am ready to risk the whole doctrine of equality upon my refutation of that system? Such a duel would be quite in keeping with the warlike and chivalric tastes of M. Considérant, and the public would profit by it; for, one of the two adversaries falling, no more would be said about him, and there would be one grumbler less in the world.

The theory of M. Considérant has this remarkable feature, that, in attempting to satisfy at the same time the claims of both workers and proprietors, it infringes alike upon the rights of the former and the privileges of the latter. In the first place, the author lays it down as a principle: “1. That the use of the land belongs to each member of the race; that it is a natural and imprescriptible right, similar in all respects to the right to the air and the sunshine. 2. That the right to labour is equally fundamental, natural, and imprescriptible.” I have shown that the recognition of this double right would be the death of property. I denounce M. Considérant to the proprietors!

But M. Considérant maintains that the right to labour creates the right of property, and this is the way he reasons:

Major Premise: “Every man legitimately possesses the thing which his labour, his skill — or, in more general terms, his action — has created.”

To which M. Considérant adds, by way of comment: “Indeed, the land not having been created by man, it follows from the fundamental principle of property, that the land, being given to the race in common, can in no wise be the exclusive and legitimate property of such and such individuals, who were not the creators of this value.”

If I am not mistaken, there is no one to whom this proposition, at first sight and in its entirety, does not seem utterly irrefutable. Reader, distrust the syllogism.

First, I observe that the words legitimately possesses signify to the author’s mind is legitimate proprietor; otherwise the argument, being intended to prove the legitimacy of property, would have no meaning. I might here raise the question of the difference between property and possession, and call upon M. Considérant, before going further, to define the one and the other; but I pass on.

This first proposition is doubly false. 1. In that it asserts the act of creation to be the only basis of property. 2. In that it regards this act as sufficient in all cases to authorise the right of property.

And, in the first place, if man may be proprietor of the game which he does not create, but which he kills; of the fruits which he does not create, but which he gathers; of the vegetables which he does not create, but which he plants; of the animals which he does not create, but which he rears, — it is conceivable that men may in like manner become proprietors of the land which they do not create, but which they clear and fertilise. The act of creation, then, is not necessary to the acquisition of the right of property. I say further, that this act alone is not always sufficient, and I prove it by the second premise of M. Considérant:

Minor Premise: “Suppose that on an isolated island, on the soil of a nation, or over the whole face of the earth (the extent of the scene of action does not affect our judgement of the facts), a generation of human beings devotes itself for the first time to industry, agriculture, manufactures, &c. This generation, by its labour, intelligence, and activity, creates products, develops values which did not exist on the uncultivated land. Is it not perfectly clear that the property of this industrious generation will stand on a basis of right, if the value or wealth produced by the activity of all be distributed among the producers, according to each one’s assistance in the creation of the general wealth? That is unquestionable.”

That is quite questionable. For this value or wealth, produced by the activity of all, is by the very fact of its creation collective wealth, the use of which, like that of the land, may be divided, but which as property remains undivided. And why this undivided ownership? Because the society which creates is itself indivisible — a permanent unit, incapable of reduction to fractions. And it is this unity of society which makes the land common property, and which, as M. Considérant says, renders its use imprescriptible in the case of every individual. Suppose, indeed, that at a given time the soil should be equally divided; the very next moment this division, if it allowed the right of property, would become illegitimate. Should there be the slightest irregularity in the method of transfer, men, members of society, imprescriptible possessors of the land, might be deprived at one blow of property, possession, and the means of production. In short, property in capital is indivisible, and consequently inalienable, not necessarily when the capital is uncreated, but when it is common or collective.

I confirm this theory against M. Considérant, by the third term of his syllogism:

Conclusion: “The results of the labour performed by this generation are divisible into two classes, between which it is important clearly to distinguish. The first class includes the products of the soil which belong to this first generation in its usufructuary capacity, augmented, improved and refined by its labour and industry. These products consist either of objects of consumption or instruments of labour. It is clear that these products are the legitimate property of those who have created them by their activity... Second class. — Not only has this generation created the products just mentioned (objects of consumption and instruments of labour), but it has also added to the original value of the soil by cultivation, by the erection of buildings, by all the labour producing permanent results, which it has performed. This additional value evidently constitutes a product — a value created by the activity of the first generation; and if, by any means whatever, the ownership of this value be distributed among the members of society equitably, — that is, in proportion to the labour which each has performed, — each will legitimately possess the portion which he receives. He may then dispose of this legitimate and private property as he sees fit — exchange it, give it away, or transfer it; and no other individual, or collection of other individuals — that is, society — can lay any claim to these values.”

Thus, by the distribution of collective capital, to the use of which each associate, either in his own right or in right of his authors, has an imprescriptible and undivided title, there will be in the phalanstery, as in the France of 1841, the poor and the rich; some men who, to live in luxury, have only, as Figaro says, to take the trouble to be born, and others for whom the fortune of life is but an opportunity for long-continued poverty; idlers with large incomes, and workers whose fortune is always in the future; some privileged by birth and caste, and others pariahs whose sole civil and political rights are the right to labour, and the right to land. For we must not be deceived; in the phalanstery every thing will be as it is to-day, an object of property — machines, inventions, thought, books, the products of art, of agriculture, and of industry; animals, houses, fences, vineyards, pastures, forests, fields — everything, in short, except the uncultivated land. Now, would you like to know what uncultivated land is worth, according to the advocates of property? “A square league hardly suffices for the support of a savage,” says M. Charles Comte. Estimating the wretched subsistence of this savage at three hundred francs per year, we find that the square league necessary to his life is, relatively to him, faithfully represented by a rent of fifteen francs. In France there are twenty-eight thousand square leagues, the total rent of which, by this estimate, would be four hundred and twenty thousand francs, which, when divided among nearly thirty-four millions of people, would give each an income of a centime and a quarter. That is the new right which the great genius of Fourier has invented in behalf of the French people, and with which his first disciple hopes to reform the world. I denounce M. Considérant to the proletariat!

If the theory of M. Considérant would at least really guarantee this property which he cherishes so jealously, I might pardon him the flaws in his syllogism, certainly the best one he ever made in his life. But, no: that which M. Considérant takes for property is only a privilege of extra pay. In Fourier’s system, neither the created capital nor the increased value of the soil are divided and appropriated in any effective manner: the instruments of labour, whether created or not, remain in the hands of the phalanx; the pretended proprietor can touch only the income. He is permitted neither to realise his share of the stock, nor to possess it exclusively, nor to administer it, whatever it be. The cashier throws him his dividend; and then, proprietor, eat the whole if you can!

The system of Fourier would not suit the proprietors, since it takes away the most delightful feature of property, — the free disposition of one’s goods. It would please the communists no better, since it involves unequal conditions. It is repugnant to the friends of free association and equality, in consequence of its tendency to wipe out human character and individuality by suppressing possession, family, and country — the threefold expression of the human personality.

[...]

These considerations alone oblige me to reply to the strange and superficial conclusions of the Journal du Peuple (issue of October 11th, 1840), on the question of property. I leave, therefore, the journalist to address myself only to his readers. I hope that the self-love of the writer will not be offended, if, in the presence of the masses, I ignore an individual.

You say, proletarians of the Peuple, “For the very reason that men and things exist, there always will be men who will possess things; nothing, therefore, can destroy property.”

In speaking thus, you unconsciously argue exactly after the manner of M. Cousin, who always reasons from possession to property. This coincidence, however, does not surprise me. M. Cousin is a philosopher of much mind, and you, proletarians, have still more. Certainly it is honourable, even for a philosopher, to be your companion in error.

Originally, the word property was synonymous with proper or individual possession. It designated each individual’s special right to the use of a thing. But when this right of use, inert (if I may say so) as it was with regard to the other usufructuaries, became active and paramount — that is, when the usufructuary converted his right to personally use the thing into the right to use it by his neighbour’s labour — then property changed its nature, and its idea became complex. The legists knew this very well, but instead of opposing, as they ought, this accumulation of profits, they accepted and sanctioned the whole. And as the right of farm-rent necessarily implies the right of use — in other words, as the right to cultivate land by the labour of a slave supposes one’s power to cultivate it himself, according to the principle that the greater includes the less — the name property was reserved to designate this double right, and that of possession was adopted to designate the right of use.

Whence property came to be called the perfect right, the right of domain, eminent right, the heroic or quiritary right — in Latin, jus perfectum, jus optimum, jus quiritarium, jus dominii — while possession became assimilated to farm-rent.[9]

Now, that individual possession exists of right, or, better, from natural necessity, all philosophers admit, and can easily e demonstrated; but when, in imitation of M. Cousin, we assume it to be the basis of the domain of property, we fall into the sophism called sophisma amphiboliae vel ambiguitatis, which consists in changing the meaning by a verbal equivocation.

People often think themselves very profound, because, by the aid of expressions of extreme generality, they appear to rise to the height of absolute ideas, and thus deceive inexperienced minds; and, what is worse, this is commonly called examining abstractions. But the abstraction formed by the comparison of identical facts is one thing, while that which is deduced from different acceptations of the same term is quite another. The first gives the universal idea, the axiom, the law; the second indicates the order of generation of ideas. All our errors arise from the constant confusion of these two kinds of abstractions. In this particular, languages and philosophies are alike deficient. The less common an idiom is, and the more obscure its terms, the more prolific is it as a source of error: a philosopher is sophistical in proportion to his ignorance of any method of neutralising this imperfection in language. If the art of correcting the errors of speech by scientific methods is ever discovered, then philosophy will have found its criterion of certainty.

Now, then, the difference between property and possession being well established, and it being settled that the former, for the reasons which I have just given, must necessarily disappear, is it best, for the slight advantage of restoring an etymology, to retain the word property? My opinion is that it would be very unwise to do so, and I will tell why. I quote from the Journal du Peuple:

“To the legislative power belongs the right to regulate property, to prescribe the conditions of acquiring, possessing, and transmitting it... It cannot be denied that inheritance, assessment, commerce, industry, labour, and wages require the most important modifications.”

You wish, proletarians, to regulate property; that is, you wish to destroy it and reduce it to the right of possession. For to regulate property without the consent of the proprietors is to deny the right of domain; to associate employees with proprietors is to destroy the eminent right; to suppress or even reduce farm-rent, house-rent, revenue, and increase generally, is to annihilate perfect property. Why, then, while labouring with such laudable enthusiasm for the establishment of equality, should you retain an expression whose equivocal meaning will always be an obstacle in the way of your success?

There you have the first reason — a wholly philosophical one — for rejecting not only the thing, but the name, property. Here now is the political, the highest reason.

Every social revolution — M. Cousin will tell you — is effected only by the realisation of an idea, either political, moral, or religious. When Alexander conquered Asia, his idea was to avenge Greek liberty against the insults of Oriental despotism; when Marius and Caesar overthrew the Roman patricians, their idea was to give bread to the people; when Christianity revolutionised the world, its idea was to emancipate mankind, and to substitute the worship of one God for the deities of Epicurus and Homer; when France rose in ’89, her idea was liberty and equality before the law. There has been no true revolution, says M. Cousin, without its idea; so that where an idea does not exist, or even fails of a formal expression, revolution is impossible. There are mobs, conspirators, rioters, regicides. There are no revolutionists. Society, devoid of ideas, twists and tosses about, and dies in the midst of its fruitless labour.

Nevertheless, you all feel that a revolution is to come, and that you alone can accomplish it. What, then, is the idea which governs you, proletarians of the nineteenth century? — for really I cannot call you revolutionists. What do you think? — what do you believe? — what do you want? Be guarded in your reply. I have read faithfully your favourite journals, your most esteemed authors. I find everywhere only vain and puerile entites; nowhere do I discover an idea.

[...]

Forever promises! Forever oaths! Why should the people trust in tribunes, when kings perjure themselves? Alas! truth and honesty are no longer, as in the days of King John, in the mouth of princes. A whole senate has been convicted of felony, and, the interest of the governors always being, for some mysterious reason, opposed to the interest of the governed, parliaments follow each other while the nation dies of hunger. No, no! No more protectors, no more emperors, no more consuls. Better manage our affairs ourselves than through agents. Better associate our industries than beg from monopolies; and, since the republic cannot dispense with virtues, we should labour for our reform.

This, therefore, is my line of conduct. I preach emancipation to the proletarians; association to the workers; equality to the wealthy. I push forward the revolution by all means in my power — the tongue, the pen, the press, by action, and example. My life is a continual apostleship.

[…]

End Notes

[1] Member of a limited partnership company, with shares and who is fully responsible for its debts. (Editor)

[2] A professor of comparative legislation, M. Lerminier, has gone still farther. He has dared to say that the nation took from the clergy all their possessions, not because of idleness, but because of unworthiness. “You have civilised the world,” cries this apostle of equality, speaking to the priests; “and for that reason your possessions were given you. In your hands they were at once an instrument and a reward. But you do not now deserve them, for you long since ceased to civilise any thing whatever....”

This position is quite in harmony with my principles, and I heartily applaud the indignation of M. Lerminier; but I do not know that a proprietor was ever deprived of his property because unworthy; and as reasonable, social, and even useful as the thing may seem, it is quite contrary to the uses and customs of property.

[3] Treatise on Prescription

[4] Origin of French Law

[5] To honour one’s parents, to be grateful to one’s benefactors, to neither kill nor steal, — truths of inward sensation. To obey God rather than men, to render to each that which is his; the whole is greater than a part, a straight line is the shortest road from one point to another, — truths of intuition. All are a priori but the first are felt by the conscience, and imply only a simple act of the soul; the second are perceived by the reason, and imply comparison and relation. In short, the former are sentiments, the latter are ideas.

[6] In a very short article, which was read by M. Wolowski, M. Louis Blanc declares, in substance, that he is not a communist (which I easily believe); that one must be a fool to attack property (but he does not say why); and that it is very necessary to guard against confounding property with its abuses. When Voltaire overthrew Christianity, he repeatedly avowed that he had no spite against religion, but only against its abuses.

[7] Pierre Leroux, De l’humanité, de son principe, et de son avenir, où se trouve exposée la vrais définition de la religion et où l’on explique le sens, la suite et l’enchaînement du mosaisme et du christianisme (Paris: Perrotin, 1840). (Editor)

[8] M. Leroux has been highly praised in a review for having defended property. I do not know whether the industrious encyclopedist is pleased with the praise, but I know very well that in his place I should mourn for reason and for truth.

Le National, on the other hand, has laughed at M. Leroux and his ideas on property, charging him with tautology and childishness. Le National does not wish to understand. Is it necessary to remind this journal that it has no right to deride a dogmatic philosopher, because it is without a doctrine itself? From its foundation, Le National has been a nursery of intriguers and renegades. From time to time it takes care to warn its readers. Instead of lamenting over all its defections, the democratic sheet would do better to lay the blame on itself, and confess the shallowness of its theories. When will this organ of popular interests and the electoral reform cease to hire sceptics and spread doubt? I will wager, without going further, that M. Leon Durocher, the critic of M. Leroux, is an anonymous or pseudonymous editor of some bourgeois, or even aristocratic, journal.

[9] In Roman law, quiritary or “free” ownership entailed absolute rights over the thing owned, as opposed to limited or bonitary ownership. (Editor)

  


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