Summary of Chapter I – What is property? – Proudhon, 1840

Objective of the book What is property?

From the beginning of What is Property, published in 1840, Proudhon starts from the thesis that he intends to demonstrate: property is theft.

“I undertake to discuss the very principle of our government and our institutions, property; I am within my rights

Announcing already two great parts of his work, Proudhon writes: “I claim that neither work, nor occupation, nor the law, can create property”

Proudhon is aware of the “murmurs” that he raises, of the reactions that he arouses, when he announces: “the property, it is the flight!”

The study of beliefs and representations


Proudhon wrote What is property? in 1840

Pierre-Joseph Proudhon in this first chapter analyzes how the representations that men had could affect their knowledge. He takes the example of Augustine of Hippo, whose ignorance of the laws of gravitation made him think that the earth was flat or that the stars were as if they were hanging.

He also criticizes the theories of thinkers like Aristotle, and even more Kant, especially concerning categories.

For Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, “the most false judgments, when they have for base isolated facts or only appearances, always embrace a number of inductions, beyond which we fall in the absurdity”.

It is in fact the same process that is at work in the passage to the moral world. However, as far as morality is concerned, we add a form of obstinacy. When we come to a more general knowledge, there is a secret conflict between its old knowledge and the new knowledge. Since we do not want to question the time when this knowledge only allowed us to be happy, we attack the deities, the forces of nature.

“Instead of looking for the cause of evil in his reason and in his heart, man attacks his masters, his rivals, his neighbors, human beings

All men believe in God, it is a primitive idea for humanity. But what is God? First, God was represented as a man, this is the anthropomorphism. But God was also treated by man as a heritage. “With the freedom of worship and the separation of the spiritual from the temporal, the influence of religious ideas on the course of society is purely negative, no law, no political and civil institution is related to religion Therefore, the cause of unequal conditions, the cause of universal suffering, cannot be religion, but the cause comes before.

The study of the will of conscience and justice

We must therefore ask ourselves what was there before religion. Now, before religion, there was man himself: “that is, will conscience, free will and law, opposed in perpetual antagonism.”

Pierre-Joseph Proudhon tries to find out why man is originally mistaken, according to the Bible: for him, it must be said: “man is mistaken because he learns.”

What is justice? Human wisdom teaches: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you; do not do unto others as you would not have them do unto you But for Proudhon, it is necessary to specify. According to him, justice well before the law: “justice is not the work of the law; on the contrary, the law is never but a declaration and an application of justice”

Proudhon insists on the fact that legislation has evolved over the centuries. He tells how 1800 years ago, in Rome, “humanity was dying in blood and lust”. Then he speaks of Jesus without ever mentioning his name, writing: a man appeared, claiming to be the word of God: it is not known to this day what it was, nor where he came from, nor who could have suggested his ideas to him.” Jesus would have produced the following thesis: “the master and the slave are equal, that usury and all that resembles it is theft”

But for Proudhon, this new religion only produces a certain mythology, and generates discord. Proudhon regrets that one concentrated on details of doctrine, and that the interpretation that one made of it moved the Gospel away from its true meaning.

The emancipation of the people against the monarchy in France

In 1789, in France, three forms of oppression are fought:

– royal absolutism

– the tyranny of the lords and the parliaments

– priestly intolerance

Proudhon tells afterwards how the Third Estate went from nothing, in the words of Sieyès, to everything. But the new order of things, born of hatred and anger, could only be unthinking.

Proudhon makes a distinction between revolution and progress: revolution takes place when ideas change totally, completely, whereas there is progress when there is only an extension of ideas, a modification of ideas that already existed.

“The people, so long victim of the monarchic egoism, cringing to deliver forever by declaring that he alone was sovereign. But what was monarchy? The sovereignty of a man. What is democracy? The sovereignty of the people, or, better said, of the national majority. But it is always the sovereignty of man put in the place of the suddenness of the law, the sovereignty of the will put in the place of the sovereignty of reason, in a word, the passions in the place of the right.”

The elaboration of three concepts by men

Proudhon returns on the time of the Convention, then of the Directory, then of the consul, and of the empire. Three concepts are studied:

1. Sovereignty in the will of man

Sovereignty was considered as the power to make laws. The law was considered as the expression of the will of the sovereign. Thus one arrives at the conclusion that there is no difference between the monarchy and the republic, since in a monarchy “the law is the expression of the will of the king” and that in the republic the law is “the expression of the will of the people”: what amounts for Proudhon to the same thing, if it is not the number of the wills

2. Inequality of fortunes and ranks

Proudhon returns to the concept of equality: he shows that what is understood by equality is political and civil equality. However, the constitutions of 1790 and 2793 did not succeed in defining equality before the law.

3. Property

Proudhon then examines the concept of property, which the people enshrined, but which the people did not understand. “the people wanted the condition of owner to be the same for all; that each one could enjoy and dispose freely of his goods, his income, the fruit of his labor and his industry.”

How to make these three concepts correspond to justice

it is then necessary to know how these concepts can correspond to the definition of justice.

1. The question is: “Is the authority of man over man just?” Everyone answers no to this question.

2. the question is: “Is political and civil inequality just?” Some answer: yes, others: no. To those who think that political and civil inequality is just, Proudhon reminds them that when the people put an end to the privileges of birth and caste, it seemed good to them because they benefited from it. To those who think that political and civil inequality is not just, Proudhon asks them, “if you want to play political equality, abolish property, otherwise what are you complaining about?”

3. “Is property fair?” Everyone answers that property is just.

For Proudhon, all the reasonings that one imagined to defend the property, always uses the principle of equality, out of equality it is the negation of the property. In this sense, the right of occupation prevents the property, while the right of work destroys the property.

It is then a question of showing why the alleged equality used by property does not exist. Property can manifest itself as an accident, but property is mathematically impossible, in logic, as an institution is in principle.