Pierre Proudhon: What Is Property? (1840)

In France, twenty millions of laborers, engaged in all the branches of science, art, and industry, produce every thing which is useful to man. Their annual wages amount, it is estimated. to twenty thousand millions; but, in consequence of the right of property, and the multifarious forms of increase, premiums, tithes, interests, fines, profits, farm-rents, house-rents, revenues, emoluments of every nature and description, their products are estimated by the proprietors and employers at twenty-five thousand millions. What does that signify? That the laborers, who are obliged to repurchase these products in order to live, must either pay five for that which they produced for four, or fast one day in five. . …

Property sells products to the laborer for more than it pays him for them; therefore it is impossible….

Property is impossible; equality does not exist. We hate the former, and yet wish to possess it; the latter rules all our thoughts, yet we know not how to reach it…..

Between woman and man there may exist love, passion, ties of custom, and the like; but there is no real society. Man and woman are not companions. The difference of the sexes places a barrier between them, like that placed between animals by a difference of race. Consequently, far from advocating what is now called the emancipation of woman, I should incline, rather, if there were no other alternative, to exclude her from society……

Communism is inequality, but not as property is. Property is the exploitation of the weak by the strong. Communism is the exploitation of the strong by the weak…… Man is very willing to obey the law of duty, serve his country, and oblige his friends; but he wishes to labor when he pleases, where he pleases, and as much as he pleases. He wishes to dispose of his own time, to be governed only by necessity, to choose his friendships, his recreation, and his discipline; to act from judgment, not by command; to sacrifice himself through selfishness, not through servile obligation……

All questions of legislation and politics are matters of science, not of opinion. The legislative power belongs only to the reason, methodically recognized and demonstrated. To attribute to any power whatever the right of veto or of sanction, is the last degree of tyranny……

Communism seeks equality and law. Property, born of the sovereignty of the reason, and the sense of personal merit, wishes above all things independence and proportionality.

But communism, mistaking uniformity for law, and levelism for equality, becomes tyrannical and unjust. Property, by its despotism and encroachments, soon proves itself oppressive and anti-social.

The objects of communism and property are good -- their results are bad. And why? Because both are exclusive, and each disregards two elements of society. Communism rejects independence and proportionality; property does not satisfy equality and law.

Now, if we imagine a society based upon these four principles, -- equality, law, independence, and proportionality, -- we find:

         1. That equality, consisting only in equality of conditions, that is, of means, and not in equality of comfort, -- which it is the business of the laborers to achieve for themselves, when provided with equal means, -- in no way violates justice and équité.

         2. That law, resulting from the knowledge of facts, and consequently based upon necessity itself, never clashes with independence.

         3. That individual independence, or the autonomy of the private reason, originating in the difference in talents and capacities, can exist without danger within the limits of the law.

         4. That proportionality, being admitted only in the sphere of intelligence and sentiment, and not as regards material objects, may be observed without violating justice or social equality.

         This third form of society, the synthesis of communism and property, we will call liberty. (libertas,librare, libratio, libra, -- liberty, to liberate, libration, balance. . .words which have a common derivation. Liberty is the balance of rights and duties. To make a man free is to balance him with others, -- that is, to put him or their level.)

         In determining the nature of liberty, we do not unite communism and property indiscriminately; such a process would be absurd eclecticism.

We search by analysis for those elements in each which are true, and in harmony with the laws of Nature and society, disregarding the rest altogether; and the result gives us an adequate expression of the natural form of human society, -- in one word, liberty.

         Liberty is equality, because liberty exists only in society; and in the absence of equality there is no society.

         Liberty is anarchy, because it does not admit the government of the will, but only the authority of the law; that is, of necessity.

Question: In what way is Proudhon's argument a response to both liberalism and communism?