by PIERRE-JOSEPH PROUDHON
‘Property is Theft’, a phrase which has passed into common parlance, was the rallying call of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon’s political treatise What Is Property?Proudhon (1809-1865) was both admired and excoriated. A political theorist of the first order, he was vilified in his native France by the Communists and the Monarchists alike, though admired by Karl Marx as well as many in the nation’s academia and judiciary who valued the clarity of his thought and analytical method.
He criticised both Right and Left (the very definition of French political thinking), describing them as two sides of the same coin. Their solutions to society’s ills, he said, were like Thesis and Antithesis, based on a common error and both inadequate to the task of healing society. He offered, instead, a third way, which he called his Synthesis. Regarded as the founder of modern Anarchism, his aim was not to engender chaos, as the word anarchy often connotes, but to suggest a workable, political, and economic foundation for society which would promote order and equity for all under the most unfettered conditions of individual liberty.
Proudhon grew up in poverty, and was home schooled as a child, but received a bursary in his youth sufficient to allow him to attend the City College in his home town (though not sufficient, it seems, to buy him shoes). There, he discovered the library which introduced him to a world, classical and contemporary, previously denied him. Lacking wealth or contacts, he worked variously as a printer, a compositor and proof-reader by day and an essayist by night, learning Latin along the way to assist in his work. In 1830, a friend, a scholar, invited Proudhon to join him in Paris to pursue his philosophical writings full time. When a cholera outbreak forced his return home, Proudhon spent the next few years juggling his two careers. In 1839, he applied for a pension (bursary) at the Academy of Besançon which obliged him to write works on its behalf.
What Is Property?, published in France in 1840, was his first. It was so controversial that little else followed. However, it established his reputation, and he was eventually able to pursue his philosophical work full time. What Is Property? (First Memoir) attempts to uncover the roots of poverty and associated social ills and examines different attitudes to poverty and wealth from the Greeks to the present day. Proudhon quickly identifies a common thread, property, which he distinguishes from possession, and argues that only a fundamental, though gradual, abandonment of property (as an asset) and all that flows from it, can rescue society from its current conflicts. The memoir seeks to illuminate the underlying causes of war, poverty, slavery, and oppression and points the way to a solution. In effect, it is a practical manual for the survival of mankind. The Second Memoir (1841), included on this recording, is Proudhon’s response to the criticisms of the First Memoir, initially uncomprehending and then self-assured by turns. What Is Property? is Proudhon’s masterwork. It divides opinion, but no one who hears it can come away with their view of their own world unchanged.
Translation: Benjamin R. Tucker.
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