Property Is Theft! A Pierre-Joseph Proudhon Anthology

Article excerpt

Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Property is Theft! A Pierre-Joseph Proudhon Anthology, edited by lain McKay

Edinburgh, Oakland, Baltimore: AK Press, 2011, 823pp. ISBN 978-1849350242

All those who wish to see the ideas of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809-1865) achieve wider appreciation and recognition wdl welcome this new anthology. During the nineteenth century, Proudhon's was the most important theoretical voice on the French non-authoritarian Left, but for most of the twentieth century his theories were poorly understood and frequendy misrepresented, even caricatured. This misunderstanding resulted largely from the spiteful distortion and critique he suffered at the hands of Karl Marx, whose theoretical influence, especially following the Bolshevdc Revolution, superseded others on the Left, at least untd the uprisings of 1968. The unravelling of Soviet power in Eastern Europe in the late- 1980s and the subsequent implosion of the Soviet Union in 1991 accelerated the declining popularity of Marxism and its derivatives. As a result, other Leftist views have come to receive more attention. One of the most important of these is, as it ought to be, that of Proudhon.

Iain McKay, the editor of this collection, has done a wonderful job, bringing together many of Proudhon's writings. Some selections are excerpts of older translations: What is Property? and System of Economic Contradictions, translated by Benjamin Tucker in the nineteenth century; and General Idea of the Revolution in the Nineteenth Century, translated by John Beverly Robinson in 1923. Happdy, these are joined by many additional pieces that have never appeared in English translation. The selections date from 1840 to 1865; that is, from all periods of Proudhon's life except his earliest writings. This is the most comprehensive English-language collection ever published. Moreover, McKay has written an incisive introduction that provides an excellent biographical sketch and a useful analysis of Proudhon's theory and its continuing relevance.

Proudhon became famous in 1840 with the publication of What is Property? In this book, Proudhon provocatively proclaimed himself 'an anarchist' (p. 133) and asserted that 'property is theft.' He also proposed a reorganization of society that would push aside those who produced nothing of value and inappropriately benefited from interest and rents. He called for the elimination of the 'arbitrary' system of supply and demand that, he claimed, unfairly disadvantaged workers, and he proposed the creation of 'progressive associations' of workers that would serve as the foci of educational and economic reform. These associations, he believed, would facilitate the elimination of 'les oisifs' - the members of the parasitic idle class - who had traditionally exercised economic power, and they would also provide an alternative to government control of economic and social forces that Proudhon argued would be equally unjust and debilitating. In short, he wished to see economic and social decision-making transferred from capitalists, financiers and politicians to workers. In 1846, Proudhon referred to this same formula for socio-economic justice as 'mutualism' (see pp.254-55); in 1848, he called it 'positive anarchy' (p.280).

Especially welcome in this anthology are the translations of newspaper articles and book selections from the period of the French Second Republic (1848-52). …