SECOND MEMOIR: A Letter to M. Blanqui – Part 1

PARIS, April 1, 1841.

Monsieur, – Before resuming my “Inquiries into Government and Property,” it is fitting, for the satisfaction of some worthy people, and also in the interest of order, that I should make to you a plain, straightforward explanation. In a much-governed State, no one would be allowed to attack the external form of the society, and the groundwork of its institutions, until he had established his right to do so, – first, by his morality; second, by his capacity; and, third, by the purity of his intentions. Any one who, wishing to publish a treatise upon the constitution of the country, could not satisfy this threefold condition, would be obliged to procure the endorsement of a responsible patron possessing the requisite qualifications.

But we Frenchmen have the liberty of the press. This grand right – the sword of thought, which elevates the virtuous citizen to the rank of legislator, and makes the malicious citizen an agent of discord – frees us from all preliminary responsibility to the law; but it does not release us from our internal obligation to render a public account of our sentiments and thoughts. I have used, in all its fulness, and concerning an important question, the right which the charter grants us. I come to-day, sir, to submit my conscience to your judgment, and my feeble insight to your discriminating reason. You have criticised in a kindly spirit – I had almost said with partiality for the writer – a work which teaches a doctrine that you thought it your duty to condemn. “The Academy of Moral and Political Sciences,” said you in your report, “can accept the conclusions of the author only as far as it likes.” I venture to hope, sir, that, after you have read this letter, if your prudence still restrains you, your fairness will induce you to do me justice. Men, equal in the dignity of their persons and equal before the law, should be equal in their conditions, – such is the thesis which I maintained and developed in a memoir bearing the title, “What is Property? or, An Inquiry into the Principle of Right and of Government.”

The idea of social equality, even in individual fortunes, has in all ages besieged, like a vague presentiment, the human imagination. Poets have sung of it in their hymns; philosophers have dreamed of it in their Utopias; priests teach it, but only for the spiritual world. The people, governed by it, never have had faith in it; and the civil power is never more disturbed than by the fables of the age of gold and the reign of Astrea. A year ago, however, this idea received a scientific demonstration, which has not yet been satisfactorily answered, and, permit me to add, never will be. This demonstration, owing to its slightly impassioned style, its method of reasoning, – which was so at variance with that employed by the generally recognized authorities, – and the importance and novelty of its conclusions, was of a nature to cause some alarm; and might have been dangerous, had it not been – as you, sir, so well said – a sealed letter, so far as the general public was concerned, addressed only to men of intelligence. I was glad to see that through its metaphysical dress you recognized the wise foresight of the author; and I thank you for it. May God grant that my intentions, which are wholly peaceful, may never be charged upon me as treasonable! Like a stone thrown into a mass of serpents, the First Memoir on Property excited intense animosity, and aroused the passions of many. But, while some wished the author and his work to be publicly denounced, others found in them simply the solution of the fundamental problems of society; a few even basing evil speculations upon the new light which they had obtained. It was not to be expected that a system of inductions abstractly gathered together, and still more abstractly expressed, would be understood with equal accuracy in its ensemble and in each of its parts.

To find the law of equality, no longer in charity and self-sacrifice (which are not binding in their nature), but in justice; to base equality of functions upon equality of persons; to determine the absolute principle of exchange; to neutralize the inequality of individual faculties by collective force; to establish an equation between property and robbery; to change the law of succession without destroying the principle; to maintain the human personality in a system of absolute association, and to save liberty from the chains of communism; to synthetize the monarchical and democratic forms of government; to reverse the division of powers; to give the executive power to the nation, and to make legislation a positive, fixed, and absolute science, – what a series of paradoxes! what a string of delusions! if I may not say, what a chain of truths! But it is not my purpose here to pass upon the theory of the right of possession. I discuss no dogmas. My only object is to justify my views, and to show that, in writing as I did, I not only exercised a right, but performed a duty. Yes, I have attacked property, and shall attack it again; but, sir, before demanding that I shall make the amende honorable for having obeyed my conscience and spoken the exact truth, condescend, I beg of you, to cast a glance at the events which are happening around us; look at our deputies, our magistrates, our philosophers, our ministers, our professors, and our publicists; examine their methods of dealing with the matter of property; count up with me the restrictions placed upon it every day in the name of the public welfare; measure the breaches already made; estimate those which society thinks of making hereafter; add the ideas concerning property held by all theories in common; interrogate history, and then tell me what will be left, half a century hence, of this old right of property; and, thus perceiving that I have so many accomplices, you will immediately declare me innocent.

What is the law of expropriation on the ground of public utility, which everybody favors, and which is even thought too lenient?(1) A flagrant violation of the right of property. Society indemnifies, it is said, the dispossessed proprietor; but does it return to him the traditional associations, the poetic charm, and the family pride which accompany property? Naboth, and the miller of Sans-Souci, would have protested against French law, as they protested against the caprice of their kings.

“It is the field of our fathers,” they would have cried, “and we will not sell it!” Among the ancients, the refusal of the individual limited the powers of the State. The Roman law bowed to the will of the citizen, and an emperor – Commodus, if I remember rightly – abandoned the project of enlarging the forum out of respect for the rights of the occupants who refused to abdicate. Property is a real right, jus in re, – a right inherent in the thing, and whose principle lies in the external manifestation of man’s will. Man leaves his imprint, stamps his character, upon the objects of his handiwork. This plastic force of man, as the modern jurists say, is the seal which, set upon matter, makes it holy. Whoever lays hands upon it, against the proprietor’s will, does violence to the latter’s personality. And yet, when an administrative committee saw fit to declare that public utility required it, property had to give way to the general will. Soon, in the name of public utility, methods of cultivation and conditions of enjoyment will be prescribed; inspectors of agriculture and manufactures will be appointed; property will be taken away from unskilful hands, and entrusted to laborers who are more deserving of it; and a general superintendence of production will be established. It is not two years since I saw a proprietor destroy a forest more than five hundred acres in extent. If public utility had interfered, that forest – the only one for miles around – would still be standing. But, it is said, expropriation on the ground of public utility is only an exception which confirms the principle, and bears testimony in favor of the right. Very well; but from this exception we will pass to another, from that to a third, and so on from exceptions to exceptions, until we have reduced the rule to a pure abstraction.

How many supporters do you think, sir, can be claimed for the project of the conversion of the public funds? I venture to say that everybody favors it, except the fund-holders.

Now, this so-called conversion is an extensive expropriation, and in this case with no indemnity whatever. The public funds are so much real estate, the income from which the proprietor counts upon with perfect safety, and which owes its value to the tacit promise of the government to pay interest upon it at the established rate, until the fund-holder applies for redemption. For, if the income is liable to diminution, it is less profitable than house-rent or farm-rent, whose rates may rise or fall according to the fluctuations in the market; and in that case, what inducement has the capitalist to invest his money in the State? When, then, you force the fund-holder to submit to a diminution of interest, you make him bankrupt to the extent of the diminution; and since, in consequence of the conversion, an equally profitable investment becomes impossible, you depreciate his property. That such a measure may be justly executed, it must be generalized; that is, the law which provides for it must decree also that interest on sums lent on deposit or on mortgage throughout the realm, as well as house and farm-rents, shall be reduced to three per cent. This simultaneous reduction of all kinds of income would be not a whit more difficult to accomplish than the proposed conversion; and, further, it would offer the advantage of forestalling at one blow all objections to it, at the same time that it would insure a just assessment of the land-tax. See! If at the moment of conversion a piece of real estate yields an income of one thousand francs, after the new law takes effect it will yield only six hundred francs. Now, allowing the tax to be an aliquot part – one-fourth for example – of the income derived from each piece of property, it is clear on the one hand that the proprietor would not, in order to lighten his share of the tax, underestimate the value of his property; since, house and farm-rents being fixed by the value of the capital, and the latter being measured by the tax, to depreciate his real estate would be to reduce his revenue. On the other hand, it is equally evident that the same proprietors could not overestimate the value of their property, in order to increase their incomes beyond the limits of the law, since the tenants and farmers, with their old leases in their hands, would enter a protest.

Such, sir, must be the result sooner or later of the conversion which has been so long demanded; otherwise, the financial operation of which we are speaking would be a crying injustice, unless intended as a stepping-stone. This last motive seems the most plausible one; for in spite of the clamors of interested parties, and the flagrant violation of certain rights, the public conscience is bound to fulfil its desire, and is no more affected when charged with attacking property, than when listening to the complaints of the bondholders. In this case, instinctive justice belies legal justice.

Who has not heard of the inextricable confusion into which the Chamber of Deputies was thrown last year, while discussing the question of colonial and native sugars? Did they leave these two industries to themselves? The native manufacturer was ruined by the colonist. To maintain the beet-root, the cane had to be taxed. To protect the property of the one, it became necessary to violate the property of the other. The most remarkable feature of this business was precisely that to which the least attention was paid; namely, that, in one way or another, property had to be violated. Did they impose on each industry a proportional tax, so as to preserve a balance in the market? They created a maximum price for each variety of sugar; and, as this maximum price was not the same, they attacked property in two ways, – on the one hand, interfering with the liberty of trade; on the other, disregarding the equality of proprietors. Did they suppress the beet-root by granting an indemnity to the manufacturer? They sacrificed the property of the tax-payer. Finally, did they prefer to cultivate the two varieties of sugar at the nation’s expense, just as different varieties of tobacco are cultivated? They abolished, so far as the sugar industry was concerned, the right of property. This last course, being the most social, would have been certainly the best; but, if property is the necessary basis of civilization, how is this deep-seated antagonism to be explained?(2) Not satisfied with the power of dispossessing a citizen on the ground of public utility, they want also to dispossess him on the ground of private utility. For a long time, a revision of the law concerning mortgages was clamored for; a process was demanded, in behalf of all kinds of credit and in the interest of even the debtors themselves, which would render the expropriation of real estate as prompt, as easy, and as effective as that which follows a commercial protest. The Chamber of Deputies, in the early part of this year, 1841, discussed this project, and the law was passed almost unanimously. There is nothing more just, nothing more reasonable, nothing more philosophical apparently, than the motives which gave rise to this reformI. Formerly, the small proprietor whose obligation had arrived at maturity, and who found himself unable to meet it, had to employ all that he had left, after being released from his debt, in defraying the legal costs. Henceforth, the promptness of expropriation will save him from total ruin. 2. The difficulties in the way of payment arrested credit, and prevented the employment of capital in agricultural enterprises. This cause of distrust no longer existing, capitalists will find new markets, agriculture will rapidly develop, and farmers will be the first to enjoy the benefit of the new law. 3. Finally, it was iniquitous and absurd, that, on account of a protested note, a poor manufacturer should see in twenty-four hours his business arrested, his labor suspended, his merchandise seized, his machinery sold at auction, and finally himself led off to prison, while two years were sometimes necessary to expropriate the most miserable piece of real estate. These arguments, and others besides, you clearly stated, sir, in your first lectures of this academic year. But, when stating these excellent arguments, did you ask yourself, sir, whither would tend such a transformation of our system of mortgages? … To monetize, if I may say so, landed property; to accumulate it within portfolios; to separate the laborer from the soil, man from Nature; to make him a wanderer over the face of the earth; to eradicate from his heart every trace of family feeling, national pride, and love of country; to isolate him more and more; to render him indifferent to all around him; to concentrate his love upon one object, – money; and, finally, by the dishonest practices of usury, to monopolize the land to the profit of a financial aristocracy, – a worthy auxiliary of that industrial feudality whose pernicious influence we begin to feel so bitterly. Thus, little by little, the subordination of the laborer to the idler, the restoration of abolished castes, and the distinction between patrician and plebeian, would be effected; thus, thanks to the new privileges granted to the property of the capitalists, that of the small and intermediate proprietors would gradually disappear, and with it the whole class of free and honest laborers. This certainly is not my plan for the abolition of property. Far from mobilizing the soil, I would, if possible, immobilize even the functions of pure intelligence, so that society might be the fulfilment of the intentions of Nature, who gave us our first possession, the land. For, if the instrument or capital of production is the mark of the laborer, it is also his pedestal, his support, his country, and, as the Psalmist says, the place of his activity and his rest.(3) Let us examine more closely still the inevitable and approaching result of the last law concerning judicial sales and mortgages. Under the system of competition which is killing us, and whose necessary expression is a plundering and tyrannical government, the farmer will need always capital in order to repair his losses, and will be forced to contract loans. Always depending upon the future for the payment of his debts, he will be deceived in his hope, and surprised by maturity. For what is there more prompt, more unexpected, more abbreviatory of space and time, than the maturity of an obligation? I address this question to all whom this pitiless Nemesis pursues, and even troubles in their dreams. Now, under the new law, the expropriation of a debtor will be effected a hundred times more rapidly; then, also, spoliation will be a hundred times surer, and the free laborer will pass a hundred times sooner from his present condition to that of a serf attached to the soil. Formerly, the length of time required to effect the seizure curbed the usurer’s avidity, gave the borrower an opportunity to recover himself, and gave rise to a transaction between him and his creditor which might result finally in a complete release. Now, the debtor’s sentence is irrevocable: he has but a few days of grace.

And what advantages are promised by this law as an offset to this sword of Damocles, suspended by a single hair over the head of the unfortunate husbandman? The expenses of seizure will be much less, it is said; but will the interest on the borrowed capital be less exorbitant? For, after all, it is interest which impoverishes the peasant and leads to his expropriation.

That the law may be in harmony with its principle, that it may be truly inspired by that spirit of justice for which it is commended, it must – while facilitating expropriation – lower the legal price of money. Otherwise, the reform concerning mortgages is but a trap set for small proprietors, – a legislative trick. Lower interest on money! But, as we have just seen, that is to limit property. Here, sir, you shall make your own defence. More than once, in your learned lectures, I have heard you deplore the precipitancy of the Chambers, who, without previous study and without profound knowledge of the subject, voted almost unanimously to maintain the statutes and privileges of the Bank. Now these privileges, these statutes, this vote of the Chambers, mean simply this, – that the market price of specie, at five or six per cent., is not too high, and that the conditions of exchange, discount, and circulation, which generally double this interest, are none too severe. So the government thinks. M. Blanqui – a professor of political economy, paid by the State – maintains the contrary, and pretends to demonstrate, by decisive arguments, the necessity of a reform. Who, then, best understands the interests of property, – the State, or M. Blanqui?

If specie could be borrowed at half the present rate, the revenues from all sorts of property would soon be reduced one-half also. For example: when it costs less to build a house than to hire one, when it is cheaper to clear a field than to procure one already cleared, competition inevitably leads to a reduction of house and farm-rents, since the surest way to depreciate active capital is to increase its amount. But it is a law of political economy that an increase of production augments the mass of available capital, consequently tends to raise wages, and finally to annihilate interest. Then, proprietors are interested in maintaining the statutes and privileges of the Bank; then, a reform in this matter would compromise the right of increase; then, the peers and deputies are better informed than Professor Blanqui. But these same deputies, – so jealous of their privileges whenever the equalizing effects of a reform are within their intellectual horizon, – what did they do a few days before they passed the law concerning judicial sales? They formed a conspiracy against property! Their law to regulate the labor of children in factories will, without doubt, prevent the manufacturer from compelling a child to labor more than so many hours a day; but it will not force him to increase the pay of the child, nor that of its father. To-day, in the interest of health, we diminish the subsistence of the poor; to-morrow it will be necessary to protect them by fixing their minimum wages. But to fix their minimum wages is to compel the proprietor, is to force the master to accept his workman as an associate, which interferes with freedom and makes mutual insurance obligatory. Once entered upon this path, we never shall stop. Little by little the government will become manufacturer, commission-merchant, and retail dealer. It will be the sole proprietor. Why, at all epochs, have the ministers of State been so reluctant to meddle with the question of wages? Why have they always refused to interfere between the master and the workman? Because they knew the touchy and jealous nature of property, and, regarding it as the principle of all civilization, felt that to meddle with it would be to unsettle the very foundations of society. Sad condition of the proprietary régime, – one of inability to exercise charity without violating justice!(4) And, sir, this fatal consequence which necessity forces upon the State is no mere imagination. Even now the legislative power is asked, no longer simply to regulate the government of factories, but to create factories itself. Listen to the millions of voices shouting on all hands for the organisation of labor, the creation of national workshops! The whole laboring class is agitated: it has its journals, organs, and representatives. To guarantee labor to the workingman, to balance production with sale, to harmonize industrial proprietors, it advocates to-day – as a sovereign remedy – one sole head, one national wardenship, one huge manufacturing company. For, sir, all this is included in the idea of national workshops. On this subject I wish to quote, as proof, the views of an illustrious economist, a brilliant mind, a progressive intellect, an enthusiastic soul, a true patriot, and yet an official defender of the right of property.(5)

The honorable professor of the Conservatory proposes then, –

1. To check the continual emigration of laborers from the country into the cities. But, to keep the peasant in his village, his residence there must be made endurable: to be just to all, the proletaire of the country must be treated as well as the proletaire of the city. Reform is needed, then, on farms as well as in factories; and, when the government enters the workshop, the government must seize the plough! What becomes, during this progressive invasion, of independent cultivation, exclusive domain, property?

2. To fix for each profession a moderate salary, varying with time and place and based upon certain data. The object of this measure would be to secure to laborers their subsistence, and to proprietors their profits, while obliging the latter to sacrifice from motives of prudence, if for no other reason, a portion of their income. Now, I say, that this portion, in the long run, would swell until at last there would be an equality of enjoyment between the proletaire and the proprietor. For, as we have had occasion to remark several times already, the interest of the capitalist – in other words the increase of the idler – tends, on account of the power of labor, the multiplication of products and exchanges, to continually diminish, and, by constant reduction, to disappear. So that, in the society proposed by M. Blanqui, equality would not be realized at first, but would exist potentially; since property, though outwardly seeming to be industrial feudality, being no longer a principle of exclusion and encroachment, but only a privilege of division, would not be slow, thanks to the intellectual and political emancipation of the proletariat, in passing into absolute equality, – as absolute at least as any thing can be on this earth.

I omit, for the sake of brevity, the numerous considerations which the professor adduces in support of what he calls, too modestly in my opinion, his Utopia. They would serve only to prove beyond all question that, of all the charlatans of radicalism who fatigue the public ear, no one approaches, for depth and clearness of thought, the audacious M. Blanqui. 3.

National workshops should be in operation only during periods of stagnation in ordinary industries; at such times they should be opened as vast outlets to the flood of the laboring population.

But, sir, the stoppage of private industry is the result of over-production, and insufficient markets. If, then, production continues in the national workshops, how will the crisis be terminated? Undoubtedly, by the general depreciation of merchandise, and, in the last analysis, by the conversion of private workshops into national workshops. On the other hand, the government will need capital with which to pay its workmen; now, how will this capital be obtained? By taxation. And upon what will the tax be levied? Upon property. Then you will have proprietary industry sustaining against itself, and at its own expense, another industry with which it cannot compete. What, think you, will become, in this fatal circle, of the possibility of profit, – in a word, of property?

Thank Heaven! equality of conditions is taught in the public schools; let us fear revolutions no longer. The most implacable enemy of property could not, if he wished to destroy it, go to work in a wiser and more effective way. Courage, then, ministers, deputies, economists! make haste to seize this glorious initiative; let the watchwords of equality, uttered from the heights of science and power, be repeated in the midst of the people; let them thrill the breasts of the proletaires, and carry dismay into the ranks of the last representatives of privilege.

The tendency of society in favor of compelling proprietors to support national workshops and public manufactories is so strong that for several years, under the name of electoral reform, it has been exclusively the question of the day. What is, after all, this electoral reform which the people grasp at, as if it were a bait, and which so many ambitious persons either call for or denounce? It is the acknowledgment of the right of the masses to a voice in the assessment of taxes, and the making of the laws; which laws, aiming always at the protection of material interests, affect, in a greater or less degree, all questions of taxation or wages. Now the people, instructed long since by their journals, their dramas,(6) and their songs,(7) know today that taxation, to be equitably divided, must be graduated, and must be borne mainly by the rich, – that it must be levied upon luxuries, &c. And be sure that the people, once in the majority in the Chamber, will not fail to apply these lessons. Already we have a minister of public works. National workshops will follow; and soon, as a consequence, the excess of the proprietor’s revenue over the workingman’s wages will be swallowed up in the coffers of the laborers of the State. Do you not see that in this way property is gradually reduced, as nobility was formerly, to a nominal title, to a distinction purely honorary in its nature? Either the electoral reform will fail to accomplish that which is hoped from it, and will disappoint its innumerable partisans, or else it will inevitably result in a transformation of the absolute right under which we live into a right of possession; that is, that while, at present, property makes the elector, after this reform is accomplished, the citizen, the producer will be the possessor.(8) Consequently, the radicals are right in saying that the electoral reform is in their eyes only a means; but, when they are silent as to the end, they show either profound ignorance, or useless dissimulation. There should be no secrets or reservations from peoples and powers. He disgraces himself and fails in respect for his fellows, who, in publishing his opinions, employs evasion and cunning. Before the people act, they need to know the whole truth. Unhappy he who shall dare to trifle with them! For the people are credulous, but they are strong. Let us tell them, then, that this reform which is proposed is only a means, – a means often tried, and hitherto without effect, – but that the logical object of the electoral reform is equality of fortunes; and that this equality itself is only a new means having in view the superior and definitive object of the salvation of society, the restoration of morals and religion, and the revival of poetry and art.

It would be an abuse of the reader’s patience to insist further upon the tendency of our time towards equality. There are, moreover, so many people who denounce the present age, that nothing is gained by exposing to their view the popular, scientific, and representative tendencies of the nation. Prompt to recognize the accuracy of the inferences drawn from observation, they confine themselves to a general censure of the facts, and an absolute denial of their legitimacy. “What wonder,” they say, “that this atmosphere of equality intoxicates us, considering all that has been said and done during the past ten years! … Do you not see that society is dissolving, that a spirit of infatuation is carrying us away? All these hopes of regeneration are but forebodings of death; your songs of triumph are like the prayers of the departing, your trumpet peals announce the baptism of a dying man. Civilization is falling in ruin: Imus, imus, præcipites!” Such people deny God. I might content myself with the reply that the spirit of 1830 was the result of the maintenance of the violated charter; that this charter arose from the Revolution of ’89; that ’89 implies the States-General’s right of remonstrance, and the enfranchisement of the communes; that the communes suppose feudalism, which in its turn supposes invasion, Roman law, Christianity, &c.

But it is necessary to look further. We must penetrate to the very heart of ancient institutions, plunge into the social depths, and uncover this indestructible leaven of equality which the God of justice breathed into our souls, and which manifests itself in all our works.

Labor is man’s contemporary; it is a duty, since it is a condition of existence: “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread.” It is more than a duty, it is a mission: “God put the man into the garden to dress it.” I add that labor is the cause and means of equality.

Cast away upon a desert island two men: one large, strong, and active; the other weak, timid, and domestic. The latter will die of hunger; while the other, a skilful hunter, an expert fisherman, and an indefatigable husbandman, will overstock himself with provisions. What greater inequality, in this state of Nature so dear to the heart of Jean Jacques, could be imagined! But let these two men meet and associate themselves: the second immediately attends to the cooking, takes charge of the household affairs, and sees to the provisions, beds, and clothes; provided the stronger does not abuse his superiority by enslaving and ill-treating his companion, their social condition will be perfectly equal. Thus, through exchange of services, the inequalities of Nature neutralize each other, talents associate, and forces balance. Violence and inertia are found only among the poor and the aristocratic. And in that lies the philosophy of political economy, the mystery of human brotherhood. Hic est sapientia. Let us pass from the hypothetical state of pure Nature into civilization. The proprietor of the soil, who produces, I will suppose with the economists, by lending his instrument, receives at the foundation of a society so many bushels of grain for each acre of arable land. As long as labor is weak, and the variety of its products small, the proprietor is powerful in comparison with the laborers; he has ten times, one hundred times, the portion of an honest man.

But let labor, by multiplying its inventions, multiply its enjoyments and wants, and the proprietor, if he wishes to enjoy the new products, will be obliged to reduce his income every day; and since the first products tend rather to depreciate than to rise in value, – in consequence of the continual addition of the new ones, which may be regarded as supplements of the first ones, – it follows that the idle proprietor grows poor as fast as public prosperity increases. “Incomes” (I like to quote you, sir, because it is impossible to give too good an authority for these elementary principles of economy, and because I cannot express them better myself), “incomes,” you have said, “tend to disappear as capital increases. He who possesses to-day an income of twenty thousand pounds is not nearly as rich as he who possessed the same amount fifty years ago. The time is coming when all property will be a burden to the idle, and will necessarily pass into the hands of the able and industrious.(9) …” In order to live as a proprietor, or to consume without producing, it is necessary, then, to live upon the labor of another; in other words, it is necessary to kill the laborer. It is upon this principle that proprietors of those varieties of capital which are of primary necessity increase their farm-rents as fast as industry develops, much more careful of their privileges in that respect, than those economists who, in order to strengthen property, advocate a reduction of interest. But the crime is unavailing: labor and production increase; soon the proprietor will be forced to labor, and then property is lost.

The proprietor is a man who, having absolute control of an instrument of production, claims the right to enjoy the product of the instrument without using it himself. To this end he lends it; and we have just seen that from this loan the laborer derives a power of exchange, which sooner or later will destroy the right of increase. In the first place, the proprietor is obliged to allow the laborer a portion of the product, for without it the laborer could not live. Soon the latter, through the development of his industry, finds a means of regaining the greater portion of that which he gives to the proprietor; so that at last, the objects of enjoyment increasing continually, while the income of the idler remains the same, the proprietor, having exhausted his resources, begins to think of going to work himself. Then the victory of the producer is certain. Labor commences to tip the balance towards its own side, and commerce leads to equilibrium. Man’s instinct cannot err; as, in liberty, exchange of functions leads inevitably to equality among men, so commerce – or exchange of products, which is identical with exchange of functions – is a new cause of equality. As long as the proprietor does not labor, however small his income, he enjoys a privilege; the laborer’s welfare may be equal to his, but equality of conditions does not exist. But as soon as the proprietor becomes a producer, – since he can exchange his special product only with his tenant or his commandité, – sooner or later this tenant, this exploited man, if violence is not done him, will make a profit out of the proprietor, and will oblige him to restore – in the exchange of their respective products – the interest on his capital. So that, balancing one injustice by another, the contracting parties will be equal. Labor and exchange, when liberty prevails, lead, then, to equality of fortunes; mutuality of services neutralizes privilege. That is why despots in all ages and countries have assumed control of commerce; they wished to prevent the labor of their subjects from becoming an obstacle to the rapacity of tyrants.

Up to this point, all takes place in the natural order; there is no premeditation, no artifice. The whole proceeding is governed by the laws of necessity alone. Proprietors and laborers act only in obedience to their wants. Thus, the exercise of the right of increase, the art of robbing the producer, depends – during this first period of civilization – upon physical violence, murder, and war. But at this point a gigantic and complicated conspiracy is hatched against the capitalists. The weapon of the exploiters is met by the exploited with the instrument of commerce, – a marvellous invention, denounced at its origin by the moralists who favored property, but inspired without doubt by the genius of labor, by the Minerva of the proletaires. The principal cause of the evil lay in the accumulation and immobility of capital of all sorts, – an immobility which prevented labor, enslaved and subalternized by haughty idleness, from ever acquiring it. The necessity was felt of dividing and mobilizing wealth, of rendering it portable, of making it pass from the hands of the possessor into those of the worker. Labor invented money. Afterwards, this invention was revived and developed by the bill of exchange and the Bank. For all these things are substantially the same, and proceed from the same mind. The first man who conceived the idea of representing a value by a shell, a precious stone, or a certain weight of metal, was the real inventor of the Bank. What is a piece of money, in fact? It is a bill of exchange written upon solid and durable material, and carrying with it its own redemption. By this means, oppressed equality was enabled to laugh at the efforts of the proprietors, and the balance of justice was adjusted for the first time in the tradesman’s shop. The trap was cunningly set, and accomplished its purpose so thoroughly that in idle hands money became only dissolving wealth, a false symbol, a shadow of riches. An excellent economist and profound philosopher was that miser who took as his motto, “When a guinea is exchanged, it evaporates.” So it may be said, “When real estate is converted into money, it is lost.” This explains the constant fact of history, that the nobles – the unproductive proprietors of the soil – have every where been dispossessed by industrial and commercial plebeians. Such was especially the case in the formation of the Italian republics, born, during the middle ages, of the impoverishment of the seigniors. I will not pursue the interesting considerations which this matter suggests; I could only repeat the testimony of historians, and present economical demonstrations in an altered form. The greatest enemy of the landed and industrial aristocracy to-day, the incessant promoter of equality of fortunes, is the banker. Through him immense plains are divided, mountains change their positions, forests are grown upon the public squares, one hemisphere produces for another, and every corner of the globe has its usufructuaries. By means of the Bank new wealth is continually created, the use of which (soon becoming indispensable to selfishness) wrests the dormant capital from the hands of the jealous proprietor. The banker is at once the most potent creator of wealth, and the main distributor of the products of art and Nature. And yet, by the strangest antinomy, this same banker is the most relentless collector of profits, increase, and usury ever inspired by the demon of property. The importance of the services which he renders leads us to endure, though not without complaint, the taxes which he imposes. Nevertheless, since nothing can avoid its providential mission, since nothing which exists can escape the end for which it exists the banker (the modern Croesus) must some day become the restorer of equality. And following in your footsteps, sir, I have already given the reason; namely, that profit decreases as capital multiplies, since an increase of capital – calling for more laborers, without whom it remains unproductive – always causes an increase of wages. Whence it follows that the Bank, to-day the suction-pump of wealth, is destined to become the steward of the human race.

(1) In the Chamber of Deputies, during the session of the fifth of January, 1841, M. Dufaure moved to renew the expropriation bill, on the ground of public utility.
(2) “What is Property?” Chap. IV., Ninth Proposition.
(3) Tu cognovisti sessionem meam et resurrectionem meam. Psalm 139.
(4) The emperor Nicholas has just compelled all the manufacturers in his empire to maintain, at their own expense, within their establishments, small hospitals for the reception of sick workmen, – the number of beds in each being proportional to the number of laborers in the factory. “You profit by man’s labor,” the Czar could have said to his proprietors; “you shall be responsible for man’s life.” M. Blanqui has said that such a measure could not succeed in France. It would be an attack upon property, – a thing hardly conceivable even in Russia, Scythia, or among the Cossacks; but among us, the oldest sons of civilization! … I fear very much that this quality of age may prove in the end a mark of decrepitude.
(5) Course of M. Blanqui. Lecture of Nov. 27,1840.
(6) Sème le champ, prolétaire; C’est l l’oisif qui récoltera.
(7) In “Mazaniello,” the Neapolitan fisherman demands, amid the applause of the galleries, that a tax be levied upon luxuries.
(8) “In some countries, the enjoyment of certain political rights depends upon the amount of property. But, in these same countries, property is expressive, rather than attributive, of the qualifications necessary to the exercise of these rights. It is rather a conjectural proof than the cause of these qualifications.” – Rossi: Treatise on Penal Law. This assertion of M. Rossi is not borne out by history. Property is the cause of the electoral right, not as a presumption of capacity, – an idea which never prevailed until lately, and which is extremely absurd, – but as a guarantee of devotion to the established order. The electoral body is a league of those interested in the maintenance of property, against those not interested. There are thousands of documents, even official documents, to prove this, if necessary. For the rest, the present system is only a continuation of the municipal system, which, in the middle ages, sprang up in connection with feudalism, – an oppressive, mischief-making system, full of petty passions and base intrigues.
(9) Lecture of December 22.

Source: Proudhon Pierre Joseph (1890), What is Property?, Humboldt Publishing Company

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