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Property is theft! (French: La propriété, c'est le vol!) is a slogan coined by French anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon in his 1840 book What is Property? Or, an Inquiry into the Principle of Right and of Government.

If I were asked to answer the following question: What is slavery? and I should answer in one word, It is murder!, my meaning would be understood at once. No extended argument would be required . . . Why, then, to this other question: What is property? may I not likewise answer, It is robbery!, without the certainty of being misunderstood; the second proposition being no other than a transformation of the first?

—Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, What is Property?[I]

By "property," Proudhon referred to the Roman law concept of the sovereign right of property – the right of the proprietor to do with his property as he pleases, "to use and abuse," so long as in the end he submits to state-sanctioned title, and he contrasted the supposed right of property with the rights (which he considered valid) of liberty, equality, and security.

In the Confessions d'un revolutionnaire Proudhon further explained his use of this phrase:[1]

In my first memorandum, in a frontal assault upon the established order, I said things like, Property is theft! The intention was to lodge a protest, to highlight, so to speak, the inanity of our institutions. At the time, that was my sole concern. Also, in the memorandum in which I demonstrated that startling proposition using simple arithmetic, I took care to speak out against any communist conclusion. In the System of Economic Contradictions, having recalled and confirmed my initial formula, I added another quite contrary one rooted in considerations of quite another order – a formula that could neither destroy the first proposition nor be demolished by it: Property is freedom. [...] In respect of property, as of all economic factors, harm and abuse cannot be dissevered from the good, any more than debit can from asset in double-entry book-keeping. The one necessarily spawns the other. To seek to do away with the abuses of property, is to destroy the thing itself; just as the striking of a debit from an account is tantamount to striking it from the credit record.

Criticism

Karl Marx, although initially favourable to Proudhon's work, later criticised, among other things, the expression "property is theft" as self-refuting and unnecessarily confusing, writing that "since 'theft' as a forcible violation of property presupposes the existence of property" and condemning Proudhon for entangling himself in "all sorts of fantasies, obscure even to himself, about true bourgeois property."[2]

Similar phrases

Jacques Pierre Brissot had previously written, in his Philosophical Researches on the Right of Property (Recherches philosophiques sur le droit de propriété et le vol), "Exclusive property is a robbery in nature."[3] Marx would later write in a 1865 letter to a contemporary that Proudhon had taken the slogan from Warville,[2] although this is contested by subsequent scholarship.[4]

Similar phrases also appear in the works of Saint Ambrose, who taught that superfluum quod tenes tu furaris (the superfluous property which you hold you have stolen) and Basil of Caesarea (Ascetics, 34,1-2)

Proudhon's slogan is referenced in Douglas Adams's novel The Restaurant at the End of the Universe - when Arthur Dent asks who actually owns the spaceship Heart of Gold, Zaphod Beeblebrox, who stole the ship, responds, "look, property is theft, right? Therefore theft is property. Therefore this ship is mine, OK?"

The phrase is referenced in the popular joke: "Why do anarchists drink herbal tea? Because proper tea is theft"

Footnotes

I. ^  This translation by Benjamin Tucker renders "c'est le vol" as "it is robbery," although the slogan is typically rendered in English as "property is theft."

References

  1. ^ Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. No Gods, No Masters: An Anthology of Anarchism. Edited by Daniel Guerin, translated by Paul Sharkey. 2005. AK Press. ISBN 1904859259 p. 55-56
  2. ^ a b Karl Marx, "Letter to J. B. Schweizer", from Marx Engels Selected Works, Volume 2, first published in Der Social-Demokrat, Nos. 16, 17 and 18, February 1, 3 and 5, 1865
  3. ^ William Shepard Walsh, Handy-book of Literary Curiosities, p. 923
  4. ^ Robert L. Hoffman, Revolutionary Justice: The Social and Political Theory of P.J. Proudhon, (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1972), pp. 46-48.







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