Revised introduction for “Property is Theft!”

The final stages of getting “Property is Theft!” ready for publication are being reached. The proof-editing is near completion, with the introduction done. Since I got the original version sent off earlier this year, I’ve been finding and fixing typos. I’ve also revised the introduction a bit, mostly the appendix on Proudhon and Marx. I’ll sketch why I made these changes here, particularly as they throw light on both Proudhon’s ideas and how much Marx distorted them.

First off, I should quickly mention deadlines. I’m waiting for the proof-editing to be completed and changes recommended. Then I’ll make the necessary changes for publication and, hopefully, it will be in AK Press’s hands for sending for publication. Whether this will all be done for the stated publication date of December this year is still moot. I’m doing my best to get any suggested changes (assuming I agree with them) done and sent back to AK Press as quickly as possible. I admit to being worried that it will be out this year, but we will see.

Second, why the revision to the introduction? Well, I finished the introduction about 10 months ago and had not looked at it for a while. I had re-read (volume 1 of) Proudhon’s “System of Economic Contradictions”, and discovered a few passages which I thought should be in the extracts presented. Also, in Chapter VIII (on God – which is not in “Property is Theft!”) I discovered an extremely important comment, one which places his support for workers’ associations into new light: “By virtue of the principle of collective force, labourers are the equals and associates of their leaders.” In addition, in Chapter VII (“Fifth Period – Police, Or Taxation”) Proudhon argued that “all labour must leave a surplus, all wages be equal to product” (I should note that by “wages” Proudhon often meant “income by labour” rather than the amount workers were being paid by an employer). Thus, in volume 1, Proudhon had argued that due to the collective nature of production workers should not only be associates, they should receive the full-product of their labour. Along with this, Shawn Wilbur translated the last section of Chapter XI (“Eighth Epoch — Property”) from volume 2 which included this gem:

“I have proven, in dealing with value, that every labour must leave a surplus; so that in supposing the consumption of the labourer to be always the same, his labour should create, on top of his subsistence, a capital always greater. Under the regime of property, the surplus of labour, essentially collective, passes entirely, like the revenue, to the proprietor: now, between that disguised appropriation and the fraudulent usurpation of a communal good, where is the difference?

“The consequence of that usurpation is that the labourer, whose share of the collective product is constantly confiscated by the entrepreneur, is always on his uppers, while the capitalist is always in profit; [. . .] and that political economy, that upholds and advocates that regime, is the theory of theft, as property, the respect of which maintains a similar state of things, is the religion of force [. . .]”

Thus “System of Economic Contradictions”, while primarily a work of criticism, presents snips which explains Proudhon support for workers’ associations to replace wage-labour and they are rooted in an opposition to the oppression and exploitation which happens at the point of production within capitalism. This is unsurprisingly, as Proudhon’s explicitly stated that the critique of capitalism would inform his vision of a just society:

“If, then, I demonstrate that political economy, with all its contradictory hypotheses and equivocal conclusions, is nothing but an organisation of privilege and misery, I shall have proved thereby that it contains by implication the promise of an organisation of labour and equality, since, as has been said, every systematic contradiction is the announcement of a composition; further, I shall have fixed the bases of this composition. Then, indeed, to unfold the system of economical contradictions is to lay the foundations of universal association; to show how the products of collective labour come out of society is to explain how it will be possible to make them return to it; to exhibit the genesis of the problems of production and distribution is to prepare the way for their solution. All these propositions are identical and equally evident.” (Chapter III)

The two quotes from volume 1 and section IV of Chapter XI were not in extracts selected for “Property is Theft!” and while including section IV was relatively simply (and has been done), those quotes were not. However, as they were particularly relevant to exposing Marx’s distortions of Proudhon’s ideas in “The Poverty of Philosophy” I considered it wise to include them and revised the appendix appropriately. This is the key section:

This analysis of exploitation occurring in production feeds into Proudhon’s few tantalising glimpses of his vision of a free society. Thus we discover that as “all labour must leave a surplus, all wages [must] be equal to product.” To achieve this, the workplace must be democratic for “[b]y virtue of the principle of collective force, labourers are the equals and associates of their leaders” and to ensure “that association may be real, he who participates in it must do so” as “an active factor” with “a deliberative voice in the council” with everything “regulated in accordance with equality.” These “conditions are precisely those of the organisation of labour.” This requires free access and so all workers “straightway enjoy the rights and prerogatives of associates and even managers” when they join a workplace. This would ensure “equality of fortunes, voluntary and free association, universal solidarity, material comfort and luxury, and public order without prisons, courts, police, or hangmen.”

Re-reading Proudhon, it just drives home how dishonest Marx’s work is. For example, Marx asserts that Proudhon’s “whole system rests on the labour commodity, on labour which is trafficked, bought and sold, exchanged for products.” Really? Then how does that explain Proudhon’s comments that workers had “parted with their liberty” and “have sold their arms” to a boss who appropriated their product and “collective force”? (Chapter VI: section II) Or this comment from volume 2:

“Thus, property, which should make us free, makes us prisoners. What am I saying? It degrades us, by making us servants and tyrants to one another.

“Do you know what it is to be a wage-worker? To work under a master, watchful of his prejudices even more than of his orders; whose dignity consists above all in demanding, sic volo, sic jubeo [Thus I wish. Thus I command], and never explaining; often you have a low opinion of him, and you mock him! Not to have any thought of your own, to study without ceasing the thought of others, to know no stimulus except your daily bread, and the fear of losing your job!

“The wage-worker is a man to whom the proprietor who hires his services gives this speech: What you have to do does not concern you at all: you do not control it, you do not answer for it. Every observation is forbidden to you; there is no profit for you to hope for except from your wage, no risk to run, no blame to fear.” (Chapter XI: section III)

Perhaps unsurprisingly Marx could not bring himself to quote passages like these…

I also quote from Proudhon when he explicitly states, contra-Marx, that the current system of production (based on wage-labour) was “transitory” and due to be replaced by one based on associated labour. So much for Marx’s proclamation that Proudhon viewed the relations of production as “eternal.” I also quote from Marx’s more mature works when he admits that when workers possess their own means of production then this was “a form of production that does not correspond to the capitalist mode of production” even if “he produces his product as a commodity.” (Capital, vol. 3, p. 1015)

I also revised the first part of the “Proudhon and Marx” appendix, getting rid of the three sub-sections (“On Economics”, “On Usury” and “On Politics”) and merging the text. This was due to some repetition and to make its flow better. I removed some unnecessary quotes from Marx, rearranged a few things and generally made it more concise, better organised and less repetitive (the material which was in “On Usury” replicated some of what was in “On Economics”, for example). However, the basic arguments (and evidence) are the same. It conclusively proves that Proudhon consistently advocated the end of wage-labour and Marx ignored this and painted Proudhon as advocating industrial over finance capital. In addition, I show that, in Capital, Marx admits repeatedly that when “the workers are themselves in possession of their respective means of production and exchange their commodities with one another” then these commodities “would not be products of capital.” (vol. 3, vol. p. 276).

With that in mind, I also decided it wise to quote this extract from Proudhon’s 1848 election manifesto in the section “On Mutualist Society”:

“Under the law of association, transmission of wealth does not apply to the instruments of labour, so cannot become a cause of inequality... We are socialists... under universal association, ownership of the land and of the instruments of labour is social ownership... We want the mines, canals, railways handed over to democratically organised workers’ associations... We want these associations to be models for agriculture, industry and trade, the pioneering core of that vast federation of companies and societies, joined together in the common bond of the democratic and social Republic.” (Oeuvres Complètes, vol. 17, pp. 188-9)

I had quoted parts of this contained in Guérin’s (essential) “No Gods, No Masters” but he excluded the bit “under universal association, ownership of the land and of the instruments of labour is social ownership” which is pretty important to our understanding of Proudhon’s and his views on socialisation – particularly as it reflects comments made in “What is Property?” and elsewhere.

As well as revising the introduction, I have also included some extra selections from “System of Economic Contradictions.” As noted above, extracts from section IV of Chapter XI have been added as it adds to our understanding of Proudhon’s theory of exploitation (interestingly, there is no such theory in Marx’s “The Poverty of Philosophy” and he, unsurprisingly, fails to mention Proudhon’s). Chapter I has some material on “the organisation of labour” in which Proudhon stated “in its present form” it “is inadequate and transitory.” Proudhon refers to this in his 1849 letter to Pierre Leroux in which he angrily denies he supports individual ownership of the means of life. In addition, some extracts are included in which Proudhon argues that all property income comes from the surplus-labour exploited from labour and so both “interest on capital” and “fiction” of the “productivity of capital” is “but the materialisation of the aphorism,  All labour should leave a surplus.”

Marx (in a letter to Engels of 24 August 1867) stated that one of the “best points in my book” was the treatment of surplus-value regardless of its particular forms as profit, interest, ground rent, etc.” In this, as in some much, Proudhon predated him. Indeed, in Chapter IV of “What is Property?” Proudhon argued:

“Observations. – Increase receives different names according to the thing by which it is yielded: if by land, farm-rent; if by houses and furniture, rent; if by life-investments, revenue; if by money, interest; if by exchange, advantage gain, profit (three things which must not be confounded with the wages or legitimate price of labour).”

This was, as just noted, reiterated six years later in “System of Economic Contradictions.”  Marx considered the other “best” point of his work “(this is fundamental to all understanding of the facts)” was “the two-fold character of labour according to whether it is expressed in use-value or exchange-value.” Yet, again, this echoed the analysis of Proudhon. We sketch this in the introduction (“On Exploitation”), but I’ve added a relevant extract from Chapter II:

“Labour is said to have value, not as merchandise itself, but in view of the values supposed to be contained in it potentially. The value of labour is a figurative expression, an anticipation of effect from cause.

“It is a fiction by the same title as the productivity of capital. Labour produces, capital has value: and when, by a sort of ellipsis, we say the value of labour, we make an enjambment which is not at all contrary to the rules of language, but which theorists ought to guard against mistaking for a reality. Labour, like liberty, love, ambition, genius, is a thing vague and indeterminate in its nature, but qualitatively defined by its object, -- that is, it becomes a reality through its product.”

As one scholar notes, Proudhon “anticipated an idea that Marx was to develop as one of the key elements in the concept of labour power, viz. that as a commodity, labour produces nothing and it exists independently of and prior to the exercise of its potential to produce value as active labour.” (Allen Oakley, “Marx’s Critique of Political Economy: intellectual sources and evolution, 1844 to 1860” Vol. 1, p. 118). Thus we have the two-fold character of labour, with Proudhon recognising that property income derives from labour being bought by an employer and used to produce more goods than received in wages. Marx’s “best points”, in other words, were hardly original.

This extract is of added interest because of what Marx does to it “The Poverty of Philosophy”. Marx quotes this and then adds, without indicating the different source, the following sentences from Chapter V: “But what need of insisting? From the moment that the communist changes the name of things, vera rerum vocabala, he tacitly admits his powerlessness, and puts himself out of the question.”  Ironically, he also changes (again without indicating) “communist” to “economist” and mockingly inserts “(read M. Proudhon)” in the modified text. The intellectual dishonesty is staggering.

The last additions are from Chapter VI and are related to his discussion of on capitalism had “perverted even the idea of association.” He sketches his vision of free association where associations “should allow access to all who might present themselves” and those who join a workplace “straightway enjoy the rights and prerogatives of associates and even managers.” Given this, the notion advanced by Marx that Proudhon advocated bourgeois relations of production is easily seen to be nonsense. If the means of life are common property (“What is Property?”: “all accumulated capital being social property, no one can be its exclusive proprietor”) then wage-labour cannot exist. As Marx subsequently admitted:

“In order that it should be impossible for commodities and money to become capital and therefore be lent as capital in posse [in potential but not in actuality], they must not confront wage-labour. If they are... not to confront it as commodities and money... labour itself is not to become a commodity... this is only possible where the workers are the owners of their means of production...” (Theories of Surplus Value, part 3, pp. 525)

This, as discussed in the appendix, did not stop him stating that Proudhon “want[ed] to preserve wage-labour and thus the basis of capital” even though he was commenting on an exchange in which Proudhon explicitly stated that in “mutualist society” the “two functions” of worker and capitalist “become equal and inseparable in the person of every worker” and so he “alone profits by his products” (and the “surplus” he creates). This was in contrast to under capitalism, where “a labourer, without property, without capital, without work, is hired by [the capitalist], who gives him employment and takes his product” and his wages fail to equal the price of the commodities he creates. (Oeuvres Complètes, vol. 19: p. 305, p. 295)

Of course, the key problem with System is simply how it is organised. This is related to his mode of presentation, with aspects of the system discussed in specific chapters which are somewhat self-contained (when, in practice, they are all interrelated). Key concepts are thus scattered across chapters, some in discussions (like on God or the State) where you do not expect to find them (nor, at times, have the patience to read!). This allowed Marx much leeward in distorting Proudhon’s ideas although he still had to stoop to selective quoting and, at times, tampering with quotes. Which raises the question, if Proudhon’s ideas were so bad then why did Marx have to distort them so?

What is significant is that a close reading of System is that scattered across its chapters is a theory of exploitation which predates Marx’s in Capital by 2 decades. First, Proudhon stresses that labour did not have a value but what it created did and so produces value only as active labour engaged in the production process.  Second, as a consequent, when workers are hired there is no guarantee that the value of the goods produced equals their wage. As the proprietor secures a profit by controlling both product and labour, wages cannot equal product. Third, this “hierarchical organisation” between employer and wage-worker allowed exploitation to occur.

As noted, I’ve stressed in the discussion of “The Poverty of Philosophy” how Proudhon (contra-Marx) argued that capitalism was just one in a series of different economies and just as it replaced feudalism so it would be transcended by an economy based on associated labour rather than wage-labour. He explicitly denounced “the radical vice of political economy” of “affirming as a definitive state a transitory condition – namely, the division of society into patricians and proletaires.” He noted that the “period through which we are now passing” is “distinguished by a special characteristic: WAGE-LABOUR.” Thus:

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

According to Marx, Proudhon “borrows from the economists the necessity of eternal relations” and that he ignored that “social relations of production” are “historical and transitory and so are “not . . . eternal”! Yet, as is clear from Proudhon’s work, this is precisely his point and he reiterates the need to end bourgeois relations at the point of production. Of course, this does not address the issue of market forces and competitive pressures having co-operatives in a post-capitalist economy but that is a different subject (and one which Marx, in 1847 unlike 1867, confuses with wage-labour).

But enough of this. As may be obvious, I find Marx’s account of Proudhon’s ideas somewhat annoying. Particularly as Marxists have repeated it ever since and it has become, to a large degree, the accepted wisdom regarding him. I think I’ve presented enough evidence to show that this perspective is based on a distorted account of Proudhon’s ideas.

I should note that the proof-editor suggested I remove the appendix on Marx due to the length of the book and introduction. However, I rejected this suggestion for two reasons. First, if its not explicitly addressed then, firstly, people will not necessarily pickup on how Marx distorts Proudhon (particularly as some key aspects of his ideas are not in the extracts). Secondly, if any Marxist reviews the book they will undoubtedly point out that this is not covered and recommend Marx’s diatribe (sadly, even with the appendix I half-expect that to happen anyway).

As I mentioned, it is the appendix on Marx which has been revised most. The main part of the introduction is not substantially changed, rather tweaked here and there and, hopefully, improved. I have also converted it to a pdf file and made this available on-line. I hope this will make it easier for people to find out about Proudhon’s ideas and why they should buy the anthology when it comes out. I would suggest that even if you have read the introduction, you will probably gain from reading the revised version – particularly, but not exclusively, the appendix on Marx.

Next up will be, as promised, a discussion of “Proudhon and market socialism.” I will be concentrating on David McNally’s discussion of Proudhon in his “Against the Market” but I will be mentioning a few other Marxists who denounce market socialism as non-socialist while, at the same time, proclaiming the use of markets under socialism as part of a lengthy transition period. Find out which Marxist intellectual proclaims his “inflexible” opposition to markets while also arguing that markets would remain for some time after socialism was introduced… which is like someone proclaiming their “inflexible” opposition to eating meat while getting stuck into a raw steak….


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