Property is Theft! is now published

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At long last, Property is Theft! is now at the printers. You can buy it at AK Press ( USA and UK). A little over 2 months late, but still not too bad considering how much material it contains (it comes in at 840 pages). The advance praise for the anthology is included below -- comments coming from the likes of Robert Graham, Lucien van der Walt, David Berry and Mark Leier. There is also a new cover:

Why the new cover? Well, as my partner put it, it is more interesting than some dead bloke with a beard... It is intriguing and will hopefully get more people looking at it.

The introduction, glossary and texts currently on-line have been replaced with the text from the published version. The major changes in the texts is that there are new end notes, changes to existing translations are no longer indicated and there are more (usually minor) changes to update/improve the translations. The footnotes are numbered according to the print version -- which restart with new texts.

Now that the book is published, I can concentrate on releasing the remaining texts with commentary (plus, of course, getting volume 2 of An Anarchist FAQ done, writing for Freedom, Black Flag, Anarcho-Syndicalist Review, and so on, blogging, etc.). Next up, the long promised “Proudhon and Market Socialism” (although I'm not sure when!).

The book has changed considerably when I thought of it over two years ago. I was walking to work when it dawned on me that the next year (2010) was the 170th anniversary of What is Property? and so anarchism as a named socio-economic theory (I explore this and Proudhon's ideas in my article “I am an Anarchist”: 170 years of anarchism). I had discovered the importance of Proudhon when I was working on An Anarchist FAQ and having to discuss basic libertarian ideas from basics and his work was essential, particularly when explaining both the libertarian analysis of and opposition to property (section B.3) and how exploitation happened under capitalism (section C.2). I read What is Property? and was very impressed and then moved on to General Idea of the Revolution (a classic) and System of Economic Contradictions (volume 1). The latter was an eye-opener as I was, thanks to Marx and Marxists, expecting the worse. Suffice to say, what I read was not what the "percieved wisdom" suggested I would find. True, it is not his best work (although it had grown on me over the last decade and a bit!) but it is nowhere near what Marx suggested it was like (I now know how misleading Marx's work actually is).

Since then, I read what I could of Proudhon. The extracts in No Gods, No Masters were important -- discovering, for example, that he advocated mandates and recall in 1848, for example (I had previously thought Bakunin had been the first to advocate that -- significantly, before the Paris Commune). Shawn Wilbur made available two key works translated by Benjamin Tucker -- The Malthusians and THE STATE: Its Nature, Object, and Destiny.. The latter is an extract from a polemic against state socialism (Resistance to the Revolution: Louis Blanc and Pierre Leroux, La Voix du Peuple) and is, I would argue, an important summary of the anarchist analysis of the state. It is a shame that these works were not available in book form. In addition, Shawn translated other works (including the book The Philosophy of Progress) as well and these enriched our understanding of Proudhon. I also got extracts from Proudhon's exchange with Bastiat on the Anarchy Archives). All this, and more, fed into my initial proposal to AK Press. Here it is:

Extracts from “What is Property?”
Extracts from “System of Economical Contradictions”
Toast to the Revolution
THE STATE: Its Nature, Object, and Destiny
The Malthusians
1848 Election Manifesto (from No Gods, No Masters)
Letters on Interest and Credit
Extracts from “The General Idea of the Revolution”
Extracts from “The Principal of Federation”
Letter on absentionism (from No Gods, No Masters)

This is the list from the completed book:

What is Property?
Letter to M.Blanqui on Property
Letter to Antoine Gauthier
Letter to Karl Marx
System of Economic Contradictions: Volume I
System of Economic Contradictions: Volume II
Solution of the Social Problem
Organisation of Credit and Circulation and the Solution of the Social Problem
Letter to Louis Blanc
Letter to Professor Chevalier
The Situation
The Reaction
The Mystification of Universal Suffrage
To Patriots
Opening Session of the National Assembly
Outline of the Social Question
Foreign Affairs
To the Editor-in-Chief of Le Représentant du Peuple
The 15th July
Address to the Constituent National Assembly
The Malthusians
Toast to the Revolution
The Constitution and the Presidency
Election Manifesto of Le Peuple
Bank of the People
Confessions of a Revolutionary
Resistance to the Revolution
Letter to Pierre Leroux
In Connection with Louis Blanc
Interest and Principal
General Idea of the Revolution in the Nineteenth Century
Letter to Villiaumé
Stock Exchange Speculator’s Manual
Justice In The Revolution And In The Church
Letter to Milliet
The Federative Principle
Letter to M.X
The Political Capacity of the Working Classes
Appendix: The Theory of Property
Appendix: The Paris Commune

As you can see, the book has changed a lot since those early days! I added The Philosophy of Progress but due to the extra material I got translated it, along with the Letter on Absentionism, got dropped -- and the extracts of those texts already in English got smaller. I have to give a big thanks to the people who volunteered to help with translating my “wish-list”. Without them, this book would be nowhere near as comprehensive -- and so important! And I've suggested to them the possibility of working on a new web based project translating the rest of Confessions of a Revolutionary. If you are interested, then email me (cllv13[at]

In terms of name, I originally suggested that the book “could be called The Proudhon Reader or Proudhon on Anarchism (which may be better).” Neither of these were that good, then it struck me: Property is Theft! Why not? It was a striking expression in 1840 and it still is. And, of course, it is pretty much what most people associate with Proudhon. The texts are also prefaced with this quote:

“Workers, labourers, men of the people, whoever you may be, the initiative of reform is yours. It is you who will accomplish that synthesis of social composition which will be the masterpiece of creation, and you alone can accomplish it.”

Pierre-Joseph Proudhon -- What Is Property? Third Memoir

That is a lovely quote and sums up anarchism quite well -- working class self-liberation from the shackles of state and property.

Now, after two years, I can look forward to getting the book in my hands. It has been time consuming but worth it. I think the book will transform the understanding of Proudhon's ideas in the English speaking world. The new texts and the introduction should help expose the many, many distortions of his ideas that we have been subjected to for so long. It should also help our understanding of the development of anarchism in the 19th century, showing (at the very least) how indebted Bakunin was to Proudhon (as Daniel Guerin explained in one of his articles) and the links between mutualism (reformist anarchism, if you like) and the revolutionary anarchism which developed in the First International. Yes, there are differences (and some unfortunate Proudhon bashing due to the need to refute those around Tolain) but in terms of their analysis of capitalism (exploitation rooted in production due to wage-labour), the state as an unreformable hierarchical institution of class rule and their vision of a socio-economic federation based on workers' self-management of production and communal self-government the links are obvious.

Suffice to say, if someone asks why Proudhon is important the obvious answer is to ask why the Paris Commune is important. You cannot dismiss Proudhon and praise the Commune -- the later reflected the ideas of the former. Similarly, there is good reason why the likes of Bakunin, Kropotkin, Rocker and Guerin all praised Proudhon and considered him the founder of anarchism. Yes, he is not perfect but he contributed immensely to the commonwealth of ideas which is anarchism. You can get a taste of this from the three reviews I did of his works for Freedom: What is Property?, System of Economic Contradictions and General Idea of the Revolution. Property is Theft! will show that is the case and why, for all his flaws, he is worth reading today.

The Biographical sketch doubles as an explanation of why the texts have been included in Property is Theft! (as well as sketching the ideas of those books, like War and Peace, which do not have any extracts). Obviously, those works which were freshly translated were given space and those already available in English were edited down to make space for new material -- particularly as these are all available on-line.

Of particular note, I think, is the journalism from the 1848 revolution (not to mention the chapters from Confessions of a Revoltionary) as well as the polemics with Louis Blanc and Pierre Leroux in the winter of 1849. The former shows Proudhon applying libertarian ideas in a period of social change while the latter clarifies the issues between the two schools of socialism, libertarian and state (as becomes clear from reading his work, Proudhon repeatedly called himself and his ideas socialist). Both these themes were taken up by the likes of Bakunin. The latter, with its analysis of the state as a structure external to society, is reflected in Bakunin's debate with Marx and related analysis of the state. The former, in terms of its call for “a provisional committee be set up so “[t]hat, under the aegis of these committees, a body representative of the proletariat be formed . . . in opposition to the bourgeoisie’s representation” and so “a new society be founded in the heart of the old society” (To Patriots, Le Représentant du Peuple, 4th May 1848), is obviously reflected in Bakunin's ideas of workers councils and in terms of his syndicalism. It is nice to have the full election manifesto from late 1848, both because it is an excellent summation of Proudhon's ideas at the time but also because the extracts in No Gods, No Masters did miss out an important bit on socialising capital and land!

Two other areas are worth mentioning. First is Proudhon's clear understanding of the state as an instrument of class rule. This reflects his analysis that the economic and political are related -- an unequal society requires a state to defend it -- “In a society based on the principle of inequality of conditions, government, whatever it is, feudal, theocratic, bourgeois, imperial, is reduced, in last analysis, to a system of insurance for the class which exploits and owns against that which is exploited and owns nothing.” (Stock Exchange Speculator’s Manual, Oeuvres Complètes 21: 121). So the anarchist critique of the state is not somehow unrelated to the critique of property (and vice versa). Proudhon was clear that the state existed to defend property -- he made this clear in 1846 and in 1851. This is reflected in his continual stress that socialism needed to abolish both the exploitation of man by man and the government of man by man. The two were intimately interwoven:

Capital, whose mirror-image in the political sphere is Government, has a synonym in the religious context, to wit, Catholicism. The economic notion of capital, the political notion of government or authority, the theological notion of the Church, these three notions are identical and completely interchangeable: an attack upon one is an attack upon the others, as all the philosophers today know fine well. What capital does to labour and the State to freedom, the Church in turn does to understanding. This trinity of absolutism is deadly, in its practice as well as in its philosophy. In order to oppress the people effectively, they must be clapped in irons in their bodies, their will and their reason.” (CHAPTER XVII, Confessions of a Revolutionary)

Second, there is the material on Marx. One of the interesting things about working on Property is Theft! is discovering how many ideas associated with later thinkers was first suggested by Proudhon. This is the case with Bakunin (as you may expect as Bakunin was heavily indebted to his friend and did say so), but also Marx. The newly translated chapter on property from volume 2 of System of Economic Contradictions, specifically on property and the “surplus of labour” appropriated by the employer, is important and sheds light on the origins of the theory of surplus value. The analysis of the state being an agent of capital can be found in Proudhon long before Marx and Engels proclaimed it (and, significantly, unlike Marx and Engels he did not think it could be captured and used for social transformation). These, and similar issues, are addressed in the main body of the introduction while the appendix on Marx and the footnotes to volume 1 of System of Economic Contradictions should expose the liberties Marx took with Proudhon's work (there is some quite disgraceful intellectual dishonesty by Marx going on there!).

Proudhon was the first to argue for a “scientific socialism” in What is Property?, followed by his critique of utopian socialism in System of Economic Contradictions. “Socialism,” he argued, “in deserting criticism to devote itself to declamation and utopia . . . has betrayed its mission and misunderstood the character of the century.” Thus the “error of socialism has consisted hitherto in perpetuating religious reverie by launching forward into a fantastic future instead of seizing the reality which is crushing it.” Proudhon argued that social change must be routed in understand the current system and its tendencies: “Instead of offering a priori arguments as solutions of the formidable problems of the organisation of labour and the distribution of wealth, I shall interrogate political economy as the depository of the secret thoughts of humanity” The current organisation of labour was “is inadequate and transitory; and the whole mission of science is continually to ascertain, in view of the results obtained and the phenomena in course of development, what innovations can be immediately effected.” In short:

“it is necessary to destroy or modify the predominance of capital over labour, to change the relations between employer and workman, to solve, in a word, the antinomy of division and that of machinery; it is necessary to ORGANISE LABOUR”

And so the need of “a solution based upon equality, – in other words, the organisation of labour, which involves the negation of political economy and the end of property.” Not that you would know any of that from reading The Poverty of Philosophy, though. Then there is this plea (The Reaction, Le Représentant du Peuple, 29th April 1848) for radicals to be forward looking:

“It is by ’93 and all of its discord that we are being ruled; and as for 1848, that is still the seven-times-sealed book. What we have here is a phenomenon of social psychology that is deserving of further exploration. That phenomenon has come to pass in every revolutionary age and it is this that has raised every peril and determined catastrophes.

“The democrats of ’93, conjuring up a republic with their highschool memories, after devouring one another, set the revolution back by half a century . . . The democrats of 1848, building the republic on their parliamentary memories, have also set the revolution back by half a century. I am not pointing the finger at their patriotism, their good intentions, their disinterestedness. The sum total of their fault is that they only imitators; they thought themselves statesmen because they were following the old models!

“So what is this queer preoccupation which, in time of revolution, bedazzles the most steadfast minds, and, when their burning aspirations carry them forward into the future, has them constantly harking back the past? How does it come about that the People, just when it is making the break with established institutions, takes another plunge and gets further immersed in tradition? Society does not repeat itself: but one would have thought it was walking backwards, like the rope-maker playing out his rope. Could it not turn its gaze in the direction in which it is going?


“In order to organise the future, a general rule confirmed by experience, the reformers always start out with their gaze fixed upon the past. Hence the contradiction forever discovered in their actions: hence also the immeasurable danger of revolutions.”

A certain German writer said something similar a few years later. I originally had a short comment on this in the Marx appendix but removed it when I did the final revision as it was not clear what was being meant. Suffice to say, Murray Bookchin was right in Listen, Marxist!: “When the hell are we finally going to create a movement that looks to the future instead of the past? When will we begin to learn from what is being born instead of what is dying? Marx, to his lasting credit, tried to do that in his own day; he tried to evoke a futuristic spirit in the revolutionary movement of the 1840's and 1850's.” Bookchin was wrong to suggest (or imply) that this was Marx's contribution -- he was simply repeating Proudhon!

I could go on, but the book has so much interesting material that it is impossible to summarise. I hope that it will enrich our understanding of Proudhon ideas, how he shaped (defined, even) what anarchism is (“the denial of Government and of Property”, as Proudhon put it in 1851 -- libertarian socialism, in other words) and how he influenced those who came after him. Whether it does or not will be in the hands of the reader. Suffice to say, it will be harder to distort his ideas or invoke easy (and usually wrong) sterotypes now. And, perhaps needless to say given the comments from Proudhon quoted above, this is not an attempt to suggest he was completely right or that his ideas should be slavishly followed. Quite the reverse -- Proudhon was wrong on numerous subjects (his sexism, most obviously) and the world has changed somewhat since 1865! The aim of the book is to better understand his ideas and influence so that we can value his many genuine contributions to anarchism (and, fair to say, Marxism) in order to build on them. We are not Bakuninists, Kropotkinites, Tuckerites, or Proudhonists -- we are anarchists and we can recognise the strengths and weaknesses of our comrades and their enriching of the commonwealth of ideas which is anarchism.

One last thing. I've created a pdf for the introduction. Would it be helpful to have pdfs of the larger texts? For example, What is Property?, System of Economic Contradictions and other multi-chapter works? It may make the extracts easier to read but, to be honest, I'll only do it if there is some indication they are wanted.

And, as promised, here are the comments on the book from various notable people. These are included in the first few pages of the book, while the back page should include Michael Bakunin proclaiming “Proudhon is the master of us all” and Peter Kropotkin stating he laid “the foundations of Anarchism.”

Advance praise for Property is Theft!

“Iain McKay has done a superb job collecting Proudhon's most important, provocative and influential writings in one volume, many of which have not previously appeared in English. This collection will become an indispensable source book for anyone interested in Proudhon’s ideas and the origins of the socialist and anarchist movements in 19th century Europe.” (Robert Graham, editor of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas)

“Even Proudhon’s harshest critics, including Marx, agreed that his passion for liberty and equality was inspiring, and it’s time to re-evaluate his substantive work. This reader is the ideal place to begin. Iain McKay’s introduction offers a sure-footed guide through the misconceptions surrounding Proudhon’s thought, and the rich collection spans his years as an activist and theorist. Unlike much of the polemical argument around Proudhon, this volume will open up debate, rather than shut it down; it will let readers make up their own minds about the ‘father of anarchism.’” (Mark Leier, author of Bakunin: The Creative Passion, Simon Fraser University)

“Publisher, political prisoner, political economist, and (briefly) parliamentarian, Proudhon was a pillar of nineteenth century socialism. His insights into economic and political issues led the young Karl Marx to call him ‘the most consistent and wisest of socialist writers.’ His libertarian vision of an egalitarian society based on self-management and federalism deeply influenced Mikhail Bakunin, founder of anarchism, who called him ‘the master of us all.’ Today, Proudhon's strategy for change – the creation of an alternative economy, created from below, through co-operatives – influences movements across the world. Yet his enduring influence and importance has been shrouded by caricature and his works remain difficult to obtain. This remarkable collection thus makes a vital contribution to the task of left and labour renewal in the post-Soviet world. Iain McKay has provided, at last, the definitive English-language collection of the master's masterworks, framed by a powerful introduction and insightful notes.” (Lucien van der Walt, co-author of Black Flame: the revolutionary class politics of anarchism and syndicalism, University of the Witwatersrand)

“In the English-speaking world, Proudhon is one of the best known but least well understood anarchists, largely because the bulk of his work is not available in translation.  Iain McKay's comprehensive anthology, which draws on Proudhon's correspondence as well as his published work, fills a real gap and should encourage new readers to engage with his work and appreciate both the positive contribution he has made to anarchist thinking and the enormity of his influence on the anarchist movement.” (Ruth Kinna, author of Anarchism: A Beginner’s Guide and editor of Anarchist Studies, Loughborough University)

“Pierre-Joseph Proudhon was a hugely influential figure in French working-class history and in the history of the French Left, as well as being widely acknowledged as the ‘father of anarchy’, as Kropotkin once put it. Yet the precise nature of his political thought, his relation to anarchism as it came to be understood after his death, and the value of his contribution have been the focus of much (often acrimonious) debate. He has over the years been accused of being eclectic, inconsistent, self-contradictory and reactionary – not to mention the reductionist Marxist criticism of being a petit bourgeois. A number of scholars in recent years (notably, in the English-speaking world, K. Steven Vincent and Alex Prichard) have argued – as does Iain McKay in his introduction to this volume - that much of what has been said about Proudhon has been based on ignorance and received ideas, as well as questionable methodological approaches, and they have proposed a re-evaluation of his ideas. However, one of the problems hitherto for those wishing to return to the sources to see for themselves what Proudhon actually wrote has been the lack of English translations of most of his works. This anthology of Proudhon’s writings, the most comprehensive yet published, is therefore extremely welcome and an important addition to the growing literature on Proudhon, and will hopefully make possible a more rigorous and fruitful engagement with this important figure.” (David Berry, author of The History of the French Anarchist Movement 1917-1945, Loughborough University)

“From Iain McKay, principal author of the standard anarchist educational resource An Anarchist FAQ, comes Property is Theft! A Pierre-Joseph Proudhon Anthology. Besides replacing Stewart Edwards’ Selected Writings as the definitive Proudhon reader after several decades, it is clearly superior to Edwards’ collection. First, instead of Edwards’ unsatisfactory approach of compiling snippets of text under subject headings in a sort of Bartlett’s quotations format, McKay’s anthology provides complete digests of Proudhon’s texts with important passages in unbroken form. Second, this collection includes a wide variety of new texts, many of them translated especially for the present effort. This new anthology may well serve as the definitive reference source for as long as Selected Writings did. This should be cause for excitement and eager anticipation among Proudhon enthusiasts everywhere.” (Kevin Carson, author of Studies in Mutualist Political Economy)


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