Friday, October 29, 2010

What is property? — Some thoughts about how to proceed

I've had a couple of useful discussions of property over the last few weeks—over coffee and ale with Apio Ludicrus and online with Derek Wittorff—where the question of the points of contact between Proudhon and Stirner have come up again. There is work being translated that will eventually help to clarify similarities and differences, but there's also a bit of analytic preparing of the terrain that needs to be done, and could easily be done right now. What I want to try to do right now is to differentiate some of the things that "property" means in these two bodies of work, and suggest some of the relationships between them. Proudhon initially organized his distinctions around the opposition between fact ("possession") and right ("naked property"), and Stirner's distinction between "property" (as ownness) and (state supported) "private property" follows similar lines. That convergence gives us a general trajectory. Let's work from "fact" to "right."

We have to begin with the difficult, conceptually slippery stuff. Start with the "unique one" (Stirner) or "absolute" individuality (Proudhon). We have a class of entities defined by the fact that they (as "unique ones") express only themselves, their own law. Every such individuality may—indeed must—be crossed by other expressions of other principles (manifested in other individualities), which could then be accounted for as unique in their own stead and at their own scale. Proudhon was convinced that every absolute individuality was always already a group, organized by a law, and that the existence of the individuality as such depended on that group and that principle of organization. (Likewise, the collective interactions that produce individualities depend on the unique and absolute characteristics of their individual component elements.) I'm not convinced that there is anything in Stirner which necessarily contradicts that assumption. In any event, Proudhon and Stirner seem to share an interest in identifying a class of individualities defined by the ways that they escape any more general classification. "Property" at this level of analysis describes a dynamic ownness, self-enjoyment, more-or-less in the realm of "fact" (whatever fits wrestling with the facticity of this subject may throw us into.) There is obviously another sort of factual analysis that can be done—and has to be done at some point in our analysis of "property"—showing the radical contingency of every unique, and the natural interrelations of all of them. (Joseph Dejacques' "The Circulus in Universality" is part of that analysis.) The phenomenological experience of the radically separate nature of each unique human individual needs to be tempered by our knowledge that the subject's "raw" experience of subjectivity is far from the whole story. But there's no point in getting drawn too far in that direction at this point, when we're just trying to figure out what kind of thing it is which could be an owner—or a possessor.

So we start with a unique individuality whose "property" is just what that individuality is, what involves it, what falls within the circle of its self-enjoyment. That individuality need not be an individual human being—though obviously some formulations of the question are of more immediate interest to us—and the objects of its enjoyment need not be enjoyed exclusively. This sort of property ultimately has very little to say about things-as-things. But that's what is missing in so much property theory: a principle of property that doesn't have to change shape drastically when we move from talking about the owner to the owned; an account of the unique one and the sphere within which its own uniqueness is manifest, as opposed to an inventory of objects which particularly pertain to it (or over which it has some right to rule), within which we may haphazardly place its physical form and its various "properties." There are obviously practical reasons for getting around to talking about "the owner and his stuff," but that's probably not the place to start.

I want to renew my pitch for thinking long and hard about "property," before we even dream about laying out "property rights," confronting the sort of dynamic self-enjoyment that defines individualities before we start any more loose talk about "self-ownership." Whatever you think of Stirner's style, or the various forms of "egoism," the concept of "the unique" has some real advantages as a starting place for any property theory that doesn't simply want to read some particular set of rights and conventions back onto the relations that theoretically form its foundations—and it has the added strength, from an anarchistic point of view, of being a concept specifically designed to resist capture and organization by existing archies of various sorts. At his best, Stirner thinks anarchistically—and when he falls short in this regard, his individualism is still mighty suggestive. Proudhon was a more accomplished sociologist, but his work on property always hovered around questions of law. Pierre Leroux and Joseph Dejacque made much clearer the sort of dialectical play that exists between the "unique one" and the "circulus in universality" as "contr'un," but the assumption behind the "two-gun mutualist" project is that we need to develop the various tendencies and bring them into even higher relief if we are to really come to terms with the ensemble. In many ways, Proudhon's lengthy engagement with "property" seems like the most promising body of work to focus on, assuming we can remedy some of his errors, omissions and inconsistencies. Obviously, I think that we can do just that.

Proudhon's The Theory of Property began with his own attempt to clarify that lengthy project, in a section on "the various acceptations of the word property." "Acceptation" is a good word in this context, since there's a good deal of uncertainty whether the difficulties relate more to the specific meanings given to the concept, or to the concept's ability to circulate in a variety of contexts without quite meaning anything very specific at all. If we were to attempt a broader clarification, what sorts of "acceptations" would be have to account for? At least these, it seems to me:
  1. "Property" is its broadest sense, as a "social problem," involving both the issue of the "mine and thine" and that of the "you and me;"
  2. "Property" as "ownness," relating to "the circle of self-enjoyment," that defines the unique individual, and which refers both the the material resources involved in specific instances of self-enjoyment (the facts of "possession") and the principle of organization by which they are thus involved;
  3. "Property" or "properties," referring to those material resources;
  4. "Properties," referring to the component characteristics of the individual (which both Stirner and Proudhon may encourage us to treat as "uniques" in their own right and at their own scale, and which some theories of property have treated as "property," in the sense of #3, in order to argue that everyone is a "proprietor" or "capitalist");
  5. "Property rights," as social and/or legal attempts to formalize standards for answering some one or more of the question posed by the other senses of "property;"
  6. "Propriety," in the general sense that each should have and respect its own in a well-managed society;
and a bunch of subordinate distinctions (real property, chattel property, products, allod, usufruct, etc., etc., etc.), referring to specific property norms and forms proposed in the course of our long engagement with the general problem of "property." 

Having untangled all of that, a coherent property theory needs to be able to carry the same terms across the terrain of appropriation, maintenance, abandonment or expropriation, exchange, exclusive and shared domain, the possibilities of "intellectual property," the relation between theories of property and their abuses, the relation between property and gift, etc.

It's a pretty tall order. But it seems to me that we've actually made the basic problem (how to get along together with some decent helping of freedom and justice) harder by insisting that the problem of property was simple, or no problem at all.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

"property must justify itself or disappear"

Once more into the breach. Proudhon's The Theory of Property is one of those books I have been wrestling with for several years now. It's a complicated, frustrating work, being both an attempt to summarize, clarify and rectify errors in Proudhon's many previous writings on property and an 11th-hour departure into new territory, inspired by the major works of history and sociology which occupied much of his later career. As a posthumous work, it lacks the careful revision and finishing that Proudhon habitually gave his published writings. That, and the apparently radical departures in theory that it contains, have allowed critics, from the time of its publication to the present, to treat it as a potentially apocryphal text, a product of the editors', rather than the nominal author's, intentions. I think I've made a pretty good start at showing the basic continuity between the earliest and latest of Proudhon's property writings, and given some decent indications of how the theoretical epiphanies of the 1850s led to the shift in approach. But it's past time to present Proudhon's own account.

I've wrestled with The Theory of Property, and, in the process I've had to gradually come to terms with the rest of Proudhon's property-canon—no small task. To understand the ensemble of the work, the late work has to be the guide, but it is a potentially unreliable guide, so it has to be checked against the sources. Ultimately, we're talking about a lot of reading, a lot of translation, and a lot of wait-and-see on some details, as the context develops. And since the questions of property and justice are hardly academic, it's necessary to maintain a critical engagement, to identify the places where Proudhon's various approximations of property-theory might have developed in other, potentially more useful directions. And it is in this context that The Theory of Property demands serious and resistant reading.

I don't think Proudhon himself would have seen the issue facing us much differently. In laying out his "New Theory," he made it clear that his original theory was not off the table, and that there was some urgency in making what was ultimately a hard choice about how to proceed with regard to "property."
The moment has come when property must justify itself or disappear: if I have obtained, these last ten years, some success for the critique that I have made of it, I hope that the reader will not show themselves less favorable today to this exegesis.

I will first observe that if we want to be successful in our research, it is completely necessary that we abandon the road where our predecessors became lost. In order to make sense of property, they returned to the origins; they scrutinized and analyzed the principle; they invoked the needs of personality and the rights of labor, and appealed to the sovereignty of the legislator. That was to place oneself on the terrain of possession. We have seen in Chapter IV, in the summary critique that we have made of all the controversies, into what paralogisms the authors were thrown. Only skepticism could be the fruit of their efforts; and skepticism is today the only serious opinion which exists on the subject of property. It is necessary to change methods. It is neither in its
principle and its origins, nor in its materials that we must seek the reason of property; in all those regards, property, I repeat, has nothing more to offer us than possession; it is in its AIMS.

But how to discover the purpose of an institution of which one has declared it useless to examine the principle, the origin and the material? Is it not, to lightheartedly pose an insoluble problem? Property, indeed, is absolute, unconditional,
jus utendi et abutendi, or it is nothing. Now, who says absolute, says indefinable, says a thing which one can recognize neither by its limits nor its conditions, neither by its material, nor by the date of its appearance. To seek the aims of property in what we can know of it beginnings, of the animating principle on which it rests, of the circumstances under which it manifests itself, that would be always to go in circles, and to disappear into contradiction. We cannot even bring to testimony the services that it is supposed to render, since those services are none other than those of possession itself; because we only know them imperfectly; because nothing proves besides that we cannot obtain for ourselves the same guarantees, and still better ones, by other means.

Here again, and for the second time, I say that it is necessary to change methods and to start ourselves on an unknown road. The only thing that we can know clearly about property, and by which we can distinguish it from possession, is that it is absolute abusive; Very well! It is in its absolutism, in its
abuses that we must seek the aim. 
This is pretty strong stuff, and, to me at least, fairly contemporary.  Proudhon complains that property theory has been confused, that without a clear sense of what they were dealing, where it came from or what it's aims might be, the critics and defenders of property ended up lost in the fog. Lots of the pieces of the critiques and the defenses were, in fact, pretty much on target, but since the big picture seemed contradictory, there was plenty of incentive not to grasp the whole thing. Proudhon himself quite obviously resisted his own final program. One of the most remarkable things about The Theory of Property is the extent to which it reads like the Proudhon of 1840 having one last argument with the Proudhon of the 1850s and after. After all, Proudhon testified that he, personally, had no need of property.
I have developed the considerations which make property intelligible, rational, legitimate, and without which it remains usurping and odious.
And yet, even in these conditions, it presents something egoist which is always unpleasant to me. My reason being egalitarian, anti-governmental, and the enemy of ferocity and the abuse of force, can accept, the dependence on property as a shield, a place of safety for the weak: my heart will never be in it. For myself, I do not need that concession, either to earn my bread, or to fulfill my civic duties, or for my happiness. I do not need to encounter it in others to aid them in their weakness and respect their rights. I feel enough of the energy of conscience, enough intellectual force, to sustain with dignity all of my relations; and if the majority of my fellow citizens resembled me, what would we have to do with that institution? Where would be the risk of tyranny, or the risk of ruin from competition and free exchange? Where would be the peril to the small, the orphan and the worker? Where would be the need for pride, ambition, and avarice, which can satisfy itself only by immense appropriation? 
The reference to "something egoist" here should be handled with care, since the translation is a bit of a provocation on my part. Clearly, what Proudhon objects to is selfishness, not the "selfiness" of Tak Kak, or the egoism of Stirner's "unique one." What Proudhon is proposing is, in fact, the use of "private property," in the sense Stirner used the term, as a hedge against those whose commitment to "property" does not extend to properly managing their relations. Having observed that "absolutism" is the key to property (because it is the key to identity, understood as a matter of unique individuals developing according to their own "law"), and having decided very early on (1842 or earlier) that the solution to the problem of individual absolutism was a balancing of forces and a leveling of the playing field (universalization of property, destruction of privilege), -- and, finally, having discovered in his historical researches that the absence of private property was no guarantee against the "usurping and odious" -- the main question left for Proudhon was whether all those unique individuals would simply be left to fight it out (in the sort of "tough love," property-primitivist scenario) on a leveled-down battlefield, or whether it was possible to level-up through the universalization of a strong form of individual property.

The "New Theory" can be seen, without much of a stretch, as an attempt to kickstart the Union of Egoists (explicitly understood as the union of unique ones through their individual pursuit of their unique and individual relations), using "private property" (in Stirner's sense) to protect the development of "property" (ditto). As later Proudhonians suggested, the transition was through a sort of de facto "union of capitalists," who couldn't constitute a dominant class because they lacked a class to dominate, being all dependent on one another. (See Tucker's "Should Labor be Paid or Not?") Proudhon never explicitly clarified the relation between "ownness" and private property, either as Locke did nor as Stirner did, but he spent a lot of time developing the theory of how "absolutes," and particularly human "free absolutes," developed, starting, back in 1840, with his observation that "Man errs, because he learns." Knowledge is the perfection of error, as peace is the perfection of war, and as perfection is the endpoint of series of approximations. The individual develops according to a unique, internal law of organization -- is, in fact, defined as an individual on the basis of that law -- and its present state always points to some future development, with the implied line marking its prospective "right" (droit, as in a straight line). Because the self is development, present possession can't encompass what it is in its fullness. That which is possessed may fall on the line of the self's development, and falls within the circle of "self-enjoyment" (Stirner's "property"), but that can't be the end of the story for a self that exists to progress, whose absolutism is dynamic, and for which the capture by any other absolutism would be a kind of interruption or death. For the early Proudhon, the concern is that private property, as a "right of use and abuse," was just the sort of tool which could be used to subordinate one individual's development to the absolutism of another. He was ready to tackle the general acceptance of property because he knew that we erred on the way to learning, and some big mistakes were going to be expected along the way. (That's one reason he so frequently stated that he wasn't picking fights against people, but against principles.) As he matured, he quickly came to see that the erring and the learning were all pretty well mixed up together, and his understanding of the "abuse" allowed by property shifted. He came to associate this licit "abuse" with error, rather than domination, and having already identified error as a necessary part of individual development, his advocacy of universal simple property is ultimately nothing more than a proposal to protect for each individual a space in which to learn and grow.

Call it the union of egoists, with sturdy fenders and protective gear, because anarchism is the sort of vehicle that we're bound to run off the road our share of times.

I've been calling it "the gift-economy of property" [scroll down for the argument], because I think Proudhon overstated the gap between principles and aims, and Stirner perhaps underestimated the degree to which his union might need to rely on convention, and that most thinking people in anarchist circles deny neither the significance of the unique individual or of the collectivities in which s/he is entangled in all sorts of ways -- so that there doesn't seem to be anything to do but to tackle both the restricted economies of "property" and the general economy that defies and defines them, to grasp "gift" and "property" where they give rise to one another. My sense is that this sort of thing, getting up to your elbows in concepts that twist and turn into each other at regular intervals, is a sport with limited appeal -- and certainly one that cuts against the grain of an increasingly fundamentalist intellectual culture. But I also don't see any easy way around it, if anarchism is to be something other than that smug feeling we carry around, that "at least I'm not a statist," while actual freedom -- societies that can respond to unique individuals with something other than a muzzle and a jackboot, systems of "property" (in the broadest sense) that can respect the free development of those individuals by respecting their access to resources -- remains elusive.

Proudhon gave the struggle with "property" a good chunk of his adult life, 25 years or so. I've got to that feeling that "property must justify itself or disappear" in much shorter order. Having invested so much already in presenting Proudhon's theory, I'm committed to getting the rest of the requisite translation done, and spelling out, as best I can, the ways in which that crowd we left arguing on the riverbank awhile back provide us with all the clues to make the problems associated with "property" at least a lot more manageable. But I really do feel like -- having satisfied myself that the "property" of Stirner's unique and the "property" of Proudhon's final proposal are compatible, and not incompatible with the initial spirit of Lockean appropriation or Proudhon's famous critiques -- there isn't much to do but "own up," and learn to take property a whole lot more seriously than we have, or else let the question drop, and find other languages to guide us as we try to live as unique and free absolutes.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Proudhon's "New Theory" (2 of 3)

 Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, The Theory of Property, Chapter VI: "The New Theory" (1865)

§ 1. —''Necessity, after having organized the State, of creating a counter-weight to the State in the liberty of each citizen. Federalist and republican character of property. Observations on the electoral census and confiscation.''

Considered in its political tendencies and its connections with the State, property tends to make of government and instrument of exploitation, nothing more, nothing less.

In that which concerns the system of power—whether monarchic, democratic, aristocratic, constitutional or despotic—property is by nature perfectly indifferent: what is wants is for the State to be its creature, for government to move by it and for it, at its pleasure and for its benefit. Surplus, division of powers, proportionality of taxes, education of the masses, respect for Justice, etc.—these matter little to property. More than anything, that the government be its creature and its slave, otherwise it will perish. No power prevails before it; no dynasty is sacred, no constitution inviolable. From two things one: it is necessary that property reign and govern as it pleases, otherwise it declares itself anarchical, regicide.

Romulus, original author of the division of land, founder of the quiritary domain, was brought down by the patricians: that was his fault. Why, if he wanted to subordinate the aristocracy to his power, did he give to them a superior force, by conferring on each noble a title equal to his own, that of proprietor?

Servius Tullius affects popularity, seeks support in the multitude. Tarquin the Superb, his successor, continued that policy and threatened the heads of the aristocracy.

But the Tarquins are driven off, royalty is vanquished by property. From that moment, up until the law of Licinius Stolon, in 376, the government at Rome was nothing other than a means of the exploitation of more into the hands of the patriciat. The plebs were reduced to servitude, the constitution of the State summed itself up entirely in the patrician prerogative; that is, in the most perfect arbitrariness. The decision acquired, in 450, to dispatch to Athens commissioners to study the Greek laws proves it. It would have been better to distribute, from time to time, some land to the plebs, carved from the ager publicus; military service and public charges ruined the plebian, forced him to sell, and the land always returned to the great. However, by the egoistic and anarchic nature of property, internal jealousies, divisions arise in the aristocracy; at the same time, the plebs are increasing in number, and the Licinian law admitting it to the division of conquered land, property turns against itself: that is what made the triumph of the plebian party. Never, without that possession, which was such only in name, would it have prevailed on the patrician party, and never would the plebs have obtained land without the propertarian anarchy.

It is the conversion of benefits into allodium which reverses the Carolingian power; on the contrary, it is the conversion of allodium into fief which little by little leads to feudal servitude.

The noble, from pride, in contempt of common birth, attaches himself to his fief, disdains allodial property. The law of primogeniture comes to add more to the immobilism of the fief. The bourgeois follow the Roman right; allodium unites with the king against the fief, which succumbs everywhere. In England, things occur otherwise, but always according to the same law. The barons, that threaten the royal power, seized the opportunity offered them by the poverty of King Jean, called ''Sans-Terre'', to extract from him the Magna Carta, foundation of all English liberties; then, uniting themselves with the communes, fief with allodium, they definitively dominate the crown. The constitution of England and all its history is explained by that. Today industrial property, joined to a portion of the soil possessed by the bourgeoisie, balances the aristocratic power: thus the present predominance of the house of commons over the upper house. Where one finds the greatest sum of wealth united to the greatest liberty of action, there is the greatest force. But feudal property, rendered inferior, is not for that annihilated; far from that, its conservation has become a political element of English society. That is why England is at once monarchic, aristocratic and bourgeois: it will only be democracy like a France the day which the good of the nobles have been made by law alienable and divisible, and primogeniture abolished, as takes place for allodial properties.

We know how the French Revolution took place. Sales and mobilization of a third of the territory, as allodial property, abolition of all the old feudal rights, the abolition of primogeniture; conversion of fiefs, not sold, into allodial properties: that is what made France a democracy.

In 1799, the new property manifested itself by a coup d'État and abolished the Republic. Fourteen years later, dissatisfied with the Emperor, who had contained it, it abandoned Napoleon and decided the fall of the imperial system. — It is property that, in 1830, made Charles X fall; it is property again which, in 1848, brought down Louis-Philippe. The high bourgeoisie or great proprietors were divided; the middle class or small proprietors were stirred up; a handful of Republicans, followed by some men of the people, decided the thing. Louis-Philippe brushed aside, it was logical that power would thus pass to the republicans. But logic did not make force: property, surprised for a moment, soon reappeared, and for the second time rid itself of the republic. The plebs having nothing, democracy rested on nothing. The coup d'État of December 2 succeeded, like that of the 18 Brumaire, by the support of property. Louis-Napoléon had only to anticipate the wishes of the bourgeoisie, so much more certain of success as the plebs saw in him a protector against bourgeois exploitation.

Thus it is proven that property, by itself, holds to no form of government; that no dynastic or juridical link shackle it; that all of its politics is reduced to a word, exploitation, if not anarchy; that it is for power the most redoubtable enemy and the most perfidious ally; in a word that, in its relations to the State, it is directed by only one principle, a single sentiment, one sole idea, personal interest, egoism. It is in this that consists, from the point of view, the abuse of property. Whoever will research what it has done in all the States where its existence was more or less recognized, in Carthage, Athens, Venice, Florence, etc., will always find there the same. On the contrary, whoever will study the political effects of possession or fief, will be led constantly to the opposite results. It is property which makes liberty, since the anarchy and finally the dissolution of the Athenian democracy; it is communism which sustained the tyranny and stasis of the noble Spartan, engulfed in the ocean of wars, who perished with weapons in hand.

And this is also why every government, every utopia and every Church mistrust property. Without speaking of Lycurgus and Plato, who chased it, along with poetry, from their republics, we see the Caesars, leaders of the plebs, who have conquered only to obtain property, scarcely in possession of the dictatorship, attack the quiritary right in every way. That quiritary right was the apanage [the concession of a fief], so to speak, of the Roman people. Augustus extended it to all Italy, Caracalla to all the provinces. One combats property with property: it is for politics to balance. Then one attacks property by taxation; Augustus established the tax on successions, 5 p. 400; then another tax on adjudications, 1 p. 100; later one established indirect taxes. Christianity, in its turn, attacked property with its dogma; the great feudal lords with military service: things come to a point that under the emperors, the citizens renounce their property and their municipal functions; and under the Barbarians, from the sixth to the tenth century, the small allodial proprietors regarded it a pleasure to attach themselves to a suzerain. As much as, in a word, property, by its own nature, shows itself redoubtable to power, that much power attempts to avert the danger by protecting itself against property. One contains it by the fear of the plebs, by permanent armies, by divisions, rivalries and competition; by restrictive laws of all sorts, by corruption. Property is thus reduced little by little to being only a privilege of the idle: at this point, property is tamed; the proprietor, from warrior or baron, is made pêquin; he trembles, he is nothing anymore.

All these considerations recalled, we can conclude: property is the greatest revolutionary force which exists and which can be opposed to power. Now, the force itself cannot be said to be beneficent or maleficent, abusive or non-abusive: it is indifferent to the use in which it is employed; as much as it shows itself destructive, so much can it become conservator; if sometimes it sparkled in subversive effects, instead of giving out useful results, the fault is in those who manage it, and who are as blind as it.

The state, constituted in the most rational and liberal manner, animated by the most just intentions, is none the less an enormous power, capable of crushing everything, all by itself, if it is not given a counter-balance. What can that counter-balance be? The state draws all of its power from the support of the citizens. The state is the gathering together of the general interest, supported by the general will and served, if necessary, by the combination of all the individual forces. Where will we find a power capable of counter-balancing that formidable power of the state? It is nothing other than property. Take the sum of the proprietors' force: you have a power equal to that of the state.—Why, you ask me, isn't that counter-balance also found in possession, or in fief?—Because possession, or fief, is itself a dependence of the state; it is encompassed by the state, and consequently, instead of opposing it, it gives it aid; it weighs in on the same side of the scale: which, instead of producing an equilibrium, only aggravates the power of government. In such a system, the state is on one side, all the subjects or citizens with it; there is nothing on the other side. It is governmental absolutism in its highest expression and in all its immobility. Thus Louis XIV understood it, who not only was in perfectly good faith, but logical and just from his point of view, when he claimed that everything in France, persons and things, answers to him. Louis XIV denied absolute property; he acknowledged sovereignty only in the State represented by the king. In order that one force could hold another force in respect, it is necessary that they be independent from one another, that they are two and not one. In order for the citizen to be something in the State, it is not enough then that he be free in his person; his personality must be supported, like that of the State, on a portion of material that he possesses in all sovereignty, as the State has sovereignty over the public domain. That condition is fulfilled by property.

To serve as counter-weight to the public power, to balance the State, and by that means to insure individual liberty: such is then, the public system, the principal function of property. Suppress that function or, what amounts to the same thing, to remove from property the absolutist character that we have recognized in it and that distinguishes it; impose conditions on it, declare it not transferable and indivisible: at that instant it loses its force, it no longer carries any weight; it becomes again a simple benefit, a flimsy thing; it is a movement of the government, without action against it.

Thus the absolute right of the State finds itself in struggle with the absolute right of the proprietor. It is necessary to follow closely the course of that combat.

Generally, where the State has started from conquest, as in France after the invasion of the Barbarians, it is the absolutism of the State which posits itself first: divine right sort from the patriarchate. The social pact comes down from heaven; it is God who has instituted the priesthood and royalty; it is to his vicars that everything must lead. The dependence of man, the hierarchy of society, the exclusive attribution to the prince of eminent domain, is a result of that conception. Fro that a first form of appropriation celebrated under the name of ''feudal property'' or ''fief'', for the constitution that the Church gave it in the Middle Ages.

The fundamental characteristics of that form of property are:

1. Dependence (all land belongs to the king, or to the emperor);

2. Primogeniture;

3. Immobilization or inalienability;

4. Thus, the tendency to inequality.

It is from that conception that we born subsequently, from the point of view of exploitation of the land and of taxation: emphyteusis, lease for farming and grazing, duty, tithe, mainmorte and all the seigneurial charges, and ''serfdom''.

That form of property carries with it a special form of political organization, the hierarchy of classes and ranks, in a word the whole system of feudal rights.

But soon the proprietary absolutism reacts against imperial absolutism, the domain of the citizen against the domain of the State; then a new form of property is constituted, which is allodial property

The characteristics of that property are, contrary to the preceding:

1. Independence;

2. Equal division between the children after the death of the father;

3. Mobilization and division, or alienability;

4. Finally, a clear tendency towards equality.

Allodial property engenders, as a consequence of its principle, credit by mortgage; it makes a veritable moveable property of the land; it tends to make the sharecropper participate in the profits of the farm, in the rent, by rendering real property less and less productive for the non-working proprietor; it changes the nature of taxation, by making the fiscal system turn on the land-rent, instead of leaving it on capital and consumption.

Allodium implies a special form of government, the representative and democratic regime.

Property in England has never ceased to be organized feudally. The famous law on cereals, of Robert Peel, large exception to the principle protection, by bringing down the price of grains, has attacked small culture, and allodial property. That is why the political system of England, on which on does not cease to repeat that the charters of 1814 and 1830 were traced, is entirely different from ours; that is why the representative government of France must not be confused with that of England: the English government is an aristocracy; the French government, — Louis-Philippe has said it with a great hauteur de raison, and his misfortune was to have forgotten it, — was, had to be, from 1814 to 1848, a monarchy surrounded by republican institutions.

Historically, allodial property has outstripped feudal property in the countries conquered by the Germans; the invading soldiers having divided the conquered territory as spoils, without making application of the national customs on property. But that society was not mature; also, at the end of several centuries the allods were converted into fiefs: as if liberty and equality had never existed in the camps of the French kings. It would take a period of historical evolution to restore the present form of property, allodium.

We could classify the nations, States and governments according to the form of property which is in force there; that would be a simple way to explain their history and predict their future. Indeed, the history of nations, As I will demonstrate it with regard to Poland, is very often only that of property.

It is not necessary however to believe that the State, in passing from the feudal to the allodial system, had lost all of its prerogatives and its superior domain. At the same time that property gained independence, mobility, equality of division, the ability to loan by means of mortgage, etc., the State, by virtue of its prerogative, had established servitudes, made regulations de ''commodo'' et ''incommoda'', decreed a law of expropriation for the cause of public utility; one asks it today to set a limit on division: it is thus that the absolutism of the State opposes itself to proprietary absolutism, and that they act on each other, constantly engendering, by their mutual action and reaction, new sureties for society, new guarantees to the proprietor, and make Liberty, Labor and Justice triumph definitively.

It is well understood that, for the sincerity of that system, it is absolutely necessary that the government had cast off every despotic aspect; that it be representative, parliamentary, republican in forms, based on a serious responsibility, not of the prince, but of his ministers. It is necessary, in a word, that the nation be governed by itself, so that the reaction of the prerogative of the State against the prerogative of the proprietor stems, not from the free will of a man, of a despot, which would make a bascule of the system, but the reason of the State expressed by national representation. Without that, property is placed in the hands of the autocrat; it is in peril of feudalism.

Such is, since 89, the constitution of property. It is easy to see that as much as allodium is superior to fief, so much it would be impossible ''a priori'' to discover it: it is one of the things which surpasses philosophical reason, and that the genius of Humanity alone can produce.

Who does not see, indeed that the feudal constitution has come from a perfectly reasoned respect of Right, from an idea of justice which refused itself to that proprietary absolutism, judging it irrational, usurping, immoral, full of menaces and egoism, injurious to God and men? It is the calculated respect of Right that has created that enchained, non-transferable, indivisible, dependant property, guarantee of subordination and of hierarchy, as of protection and surveillance. And it was found, by experience, that tyranny was there precisely where one had believed to find right; anarchy, where hierarchy manifested itself; servitude and misery, where one had flattered oneself to create protection and charity.

It is permitted to believe that in the times of the Roman republic and of the omnipotence of the patricians, the definition of property was simply unilateral: ''Dominium est jus utendi et abutendi;'' and that only later, under the emperors, the jurists would add the restriction: ''quatenùs juris ratio patitur.'' But the evil was done; the emperors could do nothing about it. Roman property remained untamed; and it was in the hatred of this proprietary absolutism, without counter-weight, in hatred of the senatorial tyranny and of the latifundia, that, at the heart of the Christian societies, was conceived the system of feudal property, renewed from the ancient patriarchate, by the papacy united with empire and sustained by the prestige of religion.

Modern property, constituted, as it appears, against all thought of rights and all good sense, on a double absolutism, must be considered as a triumph of Liberty. It is Liberty which has made it, not, as it seems at first glance, against law or right, but by an intelligence superior to those. What is Justice, indeed, but the equilibrium between forces? Justice is not a simple relation, an abstract conception, a fiction of the understanding, or an act of faith of the conscience: it is a real thing, all the more obligatory because it rests on realities, on free forces.

From the principle that property, irreverent with regard to the prince, rebellious against authority, anarchic in the end, is the only force which can serve as a counter-balance to the state, follows this corollary: property, absolutism piled on an absolutism, is still for the state an element of division. The power of the state is a power of concentration; give it freedom to grow and all individuality will soon disappear, absorbed into the collectivity; society will fall into communism; property, on the other hand, is a power of decentralization; because it is itself absolute, it is anti-despotic, anti-unitary; it is because of this that it is the principle of all federation; and it is for this reason that property, autocratic in essence carried into political society, becomes straightway republican.

It is entirely the opposite with possession or fief, which has a fatal tendency to unity, to concentration, to universal subjection. Of all the despotisms, the must crushing was that of the czars, to the point that it became impossible, and that for half a century one has seen the emperors of Russia labor of themselves to lighten the weight. Now, the first cause of that despotism was in Slavic possession, against which the reforms of Alexandre II just struck a first blow.

One of the most odious abuses of property, which from its origins has raised against it the complaint of the masses, is monopolization. The great properties have ruined Italy, ''latifundia perdidere Italiam''. It is the cry of the historians who have recounted the last days of the empire. It can be a very good thing that a vast domain well worked, well enclosed, and giving regularly to the proprietor a good revenue. Society has its part in that wealth: so that one can say up to certain point the public is in agreement with the large property. But it is encore more sad to see companies of farmers without patrimony, wandering on the roads, chased from the land that seems to belong to them, and forced by the latifundia into the proletariat of the large cities, where they stagnate, without rights as without holdings. Now, it is that which would not occur in a system of conditional and restricted property, which forbade the division and the alienation of the soil. For it is by division and sale that monopolization is made possible: take from property its absolutist prerogative, and the earth will be possessed by all, precisely because it will belong as domain to no one.

This comes down to saying that the citizens all have the same rights and the same dignity in the State; that if nature has created them unequal with regard to faculties of realization, the tendency of civilization and of the laws is to restrict in practice the effects of that inequality, by giving the same guarantees to all and, as much as possible, the same education; but that property hinders this happy tendency, by its constant mutations and monopolizations. Consequently, one accuses property of being hostile to equality, and places it in this regard below possession.

The abuse denounced here exists: Heaven forbid that I should fail to take it into account, because it is in the abuse of property that I seek its organic function and providential destination. But, singular thing, the reproach that one addresses here to property of being an obstacle to the equality of conditions and of fortunes, is merited much more by fief and possession, which seem to be instituted by a thought and for an end that are diametrically opposite. It is a fact of universal history, that the land has never been divided more unequally than there where the system of simple possession simple has been predominant, and where fief has supplanted allodium: and conversely, that the States where one finds the most liberty and equality are those ruled by property. It is enough to recall here the existence of the large fiefs, the feudal rights, and the servitude or feudal serfdom. Perhaps, one will reply, the principle of possession was violated, and it is not just, in theory, to charge a principle with the malversations of its applicators. But it is exactly that which is the illusion, as I will demonstrate.

We have recognized that the faculties of realization between individuals and races were unequal; that at least the development was not the same for all: some showing more, others less precocity; that is was necessary to attribute to this cause the inequality conditions, fortunes and ranks; but that the laws of the political organism were contrary to this inequality; that there was, consequently, a general effort of humanity towards leveling, and that it was in order to reestablish the social level that the principle of equality before the law had been posited by unanimous consent.

We have remarked that this principle, of an incalculable significance, must have the effect, in a society of justice and order, of reducing the inequality of conditions and fortunes, always tainted by arbitrariness, to that of services and products; in other words, to make the fortune of each citizen the exact expression, not of his capacity or his virtue, things which are not measured, but of his works, compared to the works of his fellow citizens. One can see, by the comparison of the rates of wages in the various industrial categories, even taking account of all the anomalies of trade, how much that mercantile manner of proceeding is favorable to equality; how much, in the sphere of labor, the inequality of goods is far from reaching the proportions that politics allows it to take, and which manifests itself especially in territorial possession.

In a society where land is nearly the only capital, and the harvest of the cultivator the sole product, the sovereign, before taking account of the natural inequalities and having no means of assess it, the distribution of the soil will occur, not according to the rate of services, but rather according to dignity and rank. Just as in our time one gives a hundred thousand francs of rent to the general who commanded at the taking of Sebastopol, and a medal of brass to the soldier who mounted the attack, so, in a society constituted on the regime of possession, the king gives to his barons, counts, dukes, princes, a thousand, ten thousand or a hundred thousand hectares of land, and only four to the man-at-arms. The costs of exploitation, risks of culture, the deductions to make in exchange, the disadvantages of isolation, soon come to add themselves to that defective mode of division in order to augment the inequality. The small possessor, forced to beg assistance of the large, becomes his tenant farmer; the small tenures, grouping together, form a sort of rustic commune, the principal landlord of which becomes seigneur; with the result that finally, there where at first everyone was free, there no longer remains anything by nobles and serfs.

Now make that communal property and all its nobiliary domains could be divided and sold like quarters of beef, make them enter into exchange and be paid for in products, as if they were themselves only products: soon you will see the inequality decrease, and property, by the very property that it is given to monopolize, will become a leveling institution. Here, the tendency is the opposite of what it is there: while possession, beginning from liberty and primitive equality, sinks more and more into inequality and servitude, property, established on anarchic absolutism, anti-unitary and yet monopolistic, accumulating the most contrary vices, advances to equality and serves Justice.

Thus property is not posited a priori as a right of man and citizen, as has been believed previously and as the declarations of 89, 93 and 95 seem to say: all the arguments that one could make to establish a priori the right of property are petitio principii, and imply contradiction. Property reveals itself, in its abuses, as a FUNCTION; and it is because it is a function to which every citizen is called, as he is called to possess and to produce, that it becomes a right: the right resulting here from the destiny, not the destiny from the right. (See my ''Théorie de l'Impôt'', chap. II, page 64, "Relations of Liberty and the State.")

The functional and, we can say, liberatory character of property, reveals itself at each step in our political and civil legislation.

Thus, article 57 of the Charter of 1814 holds that confiscation is abolished. Naturally, every proprietor is delighted by such a declaration; but he would not be mistaken in understanding its sense. Many people see in that abolition only a restriction on the greed of the taxman, a mark of the kindliness of the legislator towards families, that one punished for the offence of their heads, a softening of the penalty, a deference toward the proprietors. Egoism is so much of the essence of the proprietor, that it is as rare to see him understand his rights as to fulfill his duties. Under the previous regime, where all possession of land was considered an expression of the State, confiscation was a right of the prince, who claimed it, in certain cases, to punish crimes of high treason. The feudatory felon was despoiled of his tenure; he had broken the social pact; this was justice.

But the citizen proprietor is no longer in the same case. Politically, he is the equal of the prince; he does not hold his property from him, but from himself: accused of ordinary crime or political crime, he is only liable, apart from personal pains, afflictive or derogatory, for a fine or compensation, which fine or compensation must be proportional to the material damage occasioned by the crime or offence. Except for these repetitions, property remains to the condemned and passes to his heirs. It is sacred, even as the product of labor. In short, the proprietor is, in the new political system, a confederate, just the opposite of the fieffeux or vassal: that quality excludes confiscation, which no longer makes any sense.

M. Laboulaye, in his ''Histoire du droit de propriété'', makes this remark:

“The French civil code is the first which has confused (art. 1138 and 1583) obligation and property. To say that property is acquired from the right of the buyer with regard to the seller, as soon as one is agreed on the thing and the price, is a subtlety; if you respect the right of the third, the force of things resists the force of law. Your buyer, who does not have the capital and who cannot have it, is only a creditor with an eye to damages. If on the contrary you do not respect the right of the third possessor, it is a taut snare to good faith.”

One can regret, with M. Laboulaye, in the interest of the mortgage system, that the French Code does not show itself more severe on the form and solemnities of the sale. But when he reproaches it for having confused obligation and property, I admit that I would not be of his opinion. In the true spirit of the institution, the proprietor in land possesses the soil by the same title, with the same plenitude of right, and by virtue of the same of the same absolutism as the producer possesses his product. The quiritary domain does not go that far, but leads there. As, in fact, property and the authority of the father of the family were instituted especially in view of the family, it was natural that the roman law surrounded the sale with a increase of precautions, and distinguished, more than the French Code, the obligation of property; but the roman tradition is not ours: French property is an antithesis of feudal possession, et, up to a certain point, to the ancient quiritary domain itself; industry, by developing a new species of property, has given still more extent to the concept. Thus it is natural, it is logical that the Code, treating obligations, has extended the rules to property as to all the rest. Property is a function; the promises that it gives the citizen in its regard are of the same nature and must have the same effect as those that gives a regard de its labor, its workers, its backers, its customers, etc.

But where the action of property manifests itself with the most energy is in the electoral system. Not only has the State lost its right of confiscation with regard to the proprietor; it has to submit to ask of that proprietor the periodic renewal of his own investiture: it is that which has taken place by the elections to Parliament. In that regard, one struggled against the principle that made of property the sign of political capital; one has declaimed against a regime which excluded from the elections men such as Rousseau, Lammenais and Beranger, and allowed the Proudhommes, Jourdains, Dandins and Geronts of every sort. The Revolution of February has replaced censitary privilege with universal suffrage; still the democratic puritanism has not shown itself satisfied: some wanted the vote to be given to women and children; others will protest against the exclusion of the bankrupt, of freed convicts and detainees; one very nearly demanded the addition of horses and mules.

The theory of property, as we would produce it at this moment, dispels all these clouds. According to that theory, property is not given as a sign or guarantee of political capacity: political capacity is a faculty of intelligence and conscience independent of the quality of being a proprietor; on this point one can say that everyone is in agreement. But we add that if the opposition to despotism is an act of conscience, which does not need, in order to be produced, the citizen to pay two hundred or five hundred francs of contributions, and enjoy some three thousand francs or more of revenue, that same opposition, considered as a manifestation of collectivity, has puissance with regard to power, and becomes efficacious only if it is the expression of a mass of proprietors. This is a matter of mechanics, and has nothing in common with the capacity and civic-mindedness of the citizens. One comparison will make me understood. Every individual male, of twenty years of age and able-bodied, is fit for military service. But it is still necessary, before sending him to the enemy, to exercise, discipline, and arm him; without that, he will serve absolutely nothing. An army of conscripts without arms would be as without effect in war as a cartload of matriculation registers. It is the same for the voter. His vote has real value, I do not say moral value, against the power, only if it represents a real force: that force is that of property. Thus, in order to return to universal suffrage, to the system of have-not electors, one of two things must occur: either they vote with the proprietors, and thus are useless; or else they separate themselves from the proprietors, and in that case the Power remains master of the situation, or they rely on the electoral multitude, either that it lines up on the side of property, or that, instead, placing itself between the two, it establishes itself as mediator and imposes its arbitration. To confer political rights on the people was not itself a bad idea; it would have been necessary only to begin by giving them property.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Proudhon's "New Theory" (1 of 3)

[Note: For some general thoughts on The Theory of Property, see "property must justify itself or disappear"]

Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, The Theory of Property, Chapter VI: "The New Theory" (1865)

New theory: that the motives, and thus the legitimacy of property, must be sought, not in its principle or origin, but in its aims. Presentation of these motives.

Philosophy has had, for three centuries, many institutions and many beliefs: will it be the same for property? If my opinion is of any weight here, I dare to respond that it will not. Jurisprudence has not grasped thus far the causes or the reasons for property, because property, as it has come to reveal itself to us in its principle and in its history, is a fact of collective spontaneity of which nothing would have been able a priori to detect the spirit and the reason; because, on the other hand, it is still in the process of formation, and in this regard experience is incomplete; because, until the last few years, philosophical doubt has struck it only timidly, and because it is necessary, beforehand, to destroy its religion; because in this moment it appears to us rather as a revolutionary force than as an inspiration of universal conscience, and that if it has reversed many despotisms, overcame many aristocracies, one cannot finally say that it has founded anything at all.

The moment has come when property must justify itself or disappear: if I have obtained, these last ten years, some success for the critique that I have made of it, I hope that the reader will not show themselves less favorable today to this exegesis.

I will first observe that if we want to be successful in our research, it is completely necessary that we abandon the road where our predecessors became lost. In order to make sense of property, they returned to the origins; they scrutinized and analyzed the principle; they invoked the needs of personality and the rights of labor, and appealed to the sovereignty of the legislator. That was to place oneself on the terrain of possession. We have seen in Chapter IV, in the summary critique that we have made of all the controversies, into what paralogisms the authors were thrown. Only skepticism could be the fruit of their efforts; and skepticism is today the only serious opinion which exists on the subject of property. It is necessary to change methods. It is neither in its principle and its origins, nor in its materials that we must seek the reason of property; in all those regards, property, I repeat, has nothing more to offer us than possession; it is in its AIMS.

But how to discover the purpose of an institution of which one has declared it useless to examine the principle, the origin and the material? Is it not, to lightheartedly pose an insoluble problem? Property, indeed, is absolute, unconditional, jus utendi et abutendi, or it is nothing. Now, who says absolute, says indefinable, says a thing which one can recognize neither by its limits nor its conditions, neither by its material, nor by the date of its appearance. To seek the aims of property in what we can know of it beginnings, of the animating principle on which it rests, of the circumstances under which it manifests itself, that would be always to go in circles, and to disappear into contradiction. We cannot even bring to testimony the services that it is supposed to render, since those services are none other than those of possession itself; because we only know them imperfectly; because nothing proves besides that we cannot obtain for ourselves the same guarantees, and still better ones, by other means.

Here again, and for the second time, I say that it is necessary to change methods and to start ourselves on an unknown road. The only thing that we can know clearly about property, and by which we can distinguish it from possession, is that it is absolute abusive; Very well! It is in its absolutism, in its abuses that we must seek the aim.

Do not let these odious names of abuse and absolutism, dear reader, frighten you unnecessarily. It is not a question of legitimating what your incorruptible conscience condemns, nor or misleading your own reason in the transcendental regions. This is an affair of pure logic, and since the Collective Reason, the sovereign of us all, is not at all frightened of proprietary absolutism, why should it scandalize you any more? Should we be ashamed, perhaps, of ourselves? Certain minds, from an excess of puritanism, or perhaps a feebleness of comprehension, have posed individualism as the antithesis of revolutionary thought: it was simply to drive the citizen and man from the republic. Let us be less timid. Nature has made man individual, which means rebellious; society in its turn, doubtless in order not to remain at rest, has instituted property; in order to achieve the triad, since, according to Pierre Leroux, every truth is manifested in three terms, man, rebellious and egoistic subject, has dedicated himself to all the fantasies of his free will. It is with these three great enemies, Revolt, Egoism and Good Pleasure that we must live; it is on their shoulders, as on the back of three caryatids, that we will raise the temple of Justice.

All the abuses of which property can make itself guilty, and they are as numerous as profound, can be reduced to three categories, according to the point of view from which one considers property: political abuses, economic abuses, moral abuses. We will examine one after another these different categories of abuse, and, concluding à mesure, we will deduce the AIMS of property, in other words its function and social destiny.

[translation by Shawn P. Wilbur]

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Two entries from the Anarchist Encyclopedia

Between 1925 and 1934, a group of anarchist and sympathetic socialist writers, organized by Sebastien Faure, produced four volumes of L'Encyclopédie Anarchiste, a survey of topics relating to anarchism. Multiple tendencies were represented, and often important topics had multiple entries. It's a pretty remarkable collection of short essays on a sometimes surprising range of topics. I dipped rather randomly into the encyclopedia for the first time over the last couple of days, and found plenty of entries that demand translation. Here, however, are two that simply struck my eye, for one reason or another:

BABEL (Tower of)

The Tower of Babel was an immense tower that, according to the Bible, the sons of Noah wanted to raise in order to reach the heavens. God then annihilated this mad enterprise by the confusion of tongues. The word Babel or Tower of Babel has entered the language to designate either a gigantic construction, a confused mass of objects, a rash idea or enterprise, or a place where many languages are spoken, etc... ― There have been attempts to identify the Tower of Babel with different ruins, like that of Babil, north of Babylon, or that of Borsippa, to the south of Hillah, but nothing has come to confirm these conjectures. ― As it has come down to us, the legend of the Tower of Babel can be a lesson to us. It shows us that it is necessary, above all else, that the peoples regard one another fraternally. And it is less their different languages that are an obstacle to that, than the shifty diplomacies of their leaders. The peoples must learn to commune in a common ideal, that they strive to understand each other, and that they banish or punish all those who would ignite national discords. This is why an international language would be useful, and serve to suppress many misunderstandings between the peoples. (See Esperanto, Ida, International language.)

NIHILISM n. m. (from Latin nihil, nothing)

A deeply rooted and widely spread misunderstanding is closely linked to this word born, 75 years ago, in the Russian literature and passed without being translated (thanks to its Latin origin), into other languages.

In France, in Germany, in England and elsewhere, one usually understands by “nihilism” a current of ideas – or even a system – revolutionary and social politics, invented in Russia, having there (or having had) numerous organized partisans. We routinely speak of a “nihilist party” and of “the nihilists,” its members. All this is false. It is time to correct that error, at least for the readers of the Anarchist Encyclopedia.

The term nihilism has been introduced into the Russian literature – and thus into the language – by the famous novelist Ivan Turgenev (1818-1883), towards the middle of the last century. In one of his novels, notably, Turgenev described in this way a current of ideas that had arisen among Russian intellectuals in the late 1850s. The word was a success and rapidly entered into circulation.

This current of ideas had above all a philosophical and moral character. Its field of influence always remained very small, having never extended beyond the intellectual stratum. Its style was always personal and peaceful, but that did not prevent it, however, from being very lively, imbued with a great breath of individual revolt and guided by a dream of happiness for all mankind. The movement it had provoked, contented itself with the literary domain and especially that of morals. But in these two areas, the movement did not shrink before the last logical conclusions, that it not only formulated, but sought to apply individually, as a rule of conduct.

Within these limits, the movement opened the way to a very progressive and independent moral and intellectual evolution: an evolution that, for example, brought the entire Russian intellectual youth to extremely advanced general concepts and resulted in, among others things, the emancipation of cultured women, of which the Russia of the late nineteenth century could rightly be proud. It is necessary to add that this current of ideas, while being strictly moral and individual, was nevertheless in itself, thanks to its largely human and emancipatory spirit, the seed of future social ideas: conceptions that succeeded it and later resulted in a vast political and social action, with which, precisely, this school of thought is confused today outside of Russia. Indirectly, "nihilism" prepared the terrain for the movements and political organizations of a markedly social and revolutionary sort, that appeared later under the influence of ideas prevalent in Europe and of external and internal events. The misunderstanding is, precisely, in that we confuse, under the name of "nihilism", the revolutionary movement later led and represented by organized groups or parties having an agenda and a purpose, with a single stream of ideas which preceded and to which alone the word "nihilism" should be attributed.


*      *

As a philosophical and moral conception, nihilism had for bases: on the one hand, materialism, and, on the other hand, individualism, both pushed to the extremes.

Force and Matter, the famous work of Büchner (German materialist philosopher, 1824-1899) appeared in that era, was translated into Russian, lithographed clandestinely and distributed, despite the risks, with a very great success, in thousands of copies. That book became the veritable gospel of the young Russian intellectuals from then on. The works of Moleschott, Ch. Darwin and several other foreign naturalists and materialists, exercised and equally great influence. Materialism was accepted as an incontestable, absolute truth.

As materialists, the "nihilists" waged a relentless war against religion and against everything that was beyond pure, positive reason; against everything found to be outside material and immediately useful reality; against everything that belonged to the spiritual, sentimental, idealist domain. They despised beauty, the aesthetic, sentimental love, the art of dressing, of pleasing, etc ... In this vein, they went so far as to completely disown art as an expression of idealism. Their great ideologist, the brilliant publicist Pisarev (who died accidentally in his youth), launched, in one of his articles, his famous example, saying that a simple shoemaker was infinitely more to be esteemed and admired than Raphael, because the first produced material and useful objects, while the works of the second served no purpose. The same Pisarev tried desperately, in his writings, to dethrone, from the materialist and utilitarian point of view, the great poet Pushkin. “Nature is not a temple, but a laboratory, and man is there to work,” said the nihilist Bazarov in the novel of Turgenev. (In speaking of a "fierce war" waged by the nihilists, we must understand by this a literary and verbal "war," and nothing more. For, as I already said, “nihilism” limited its activity to the propaganda of its ideas in a few reviews and some intellectual circles. This propaganda was already difficult enough, for it had to reckon with the tsarist censorship and police that cracked down on "foreign heresies" and every independent thought).

But the true basis of “nihilism” was a sort of characteristic individualism. Risen, first, as a normal reaction against all that, especially in Russia, crush free and individual thought, its bearer, this individualism ended by renouncing, in the name of an absolute individual liberty, all the constraints, all the shackles, obligations and traditions imposed on individuals by the family, society, customs, mores, beliefs, etc… Complete emancipation of the individual, man or woman, from all that could attack its independence or the liberty of its thought: such was the fundamental idea of “nihilism.” It defended the sacred right of the individual to complete liberty, and the inviolable privacy of existence

The reader will easily understand why this current of ideas has been called “nihilism.” We mean by this that the partisans of that ideology admit nothing (nihil) of that which was natural and sacred for others (family, society, religion, art, traditions, etc ... ) To the question that one posed to such a man: -- what do you accept, what do you approve of all that is around you and claims to have the right or even the obligation to exert over you some influence? – The man responded: nothing – “nihil.” He was thus a “nihilist.”


*       *

Despite its essentially individual, philosophical and moral character (let us not forget that it defended individual liberty, equally, in an abstract, philosophical and moral fashion, and not against concrete political or social despotism), nihilism, as I have said, prepared the terrain for the struggle against the real and immediate obstacle, the struggle for political and social emancipation.

But it did not itself undertake that struggle. It did not even pose the question: what is to be done to genuinely liberate the individual? It remained, to the end, in the domain of purely ideological discussions and purely moral accomplishments. That other question,—which is to say, the problem of real action, of a practical struggle for emancipation,—was posed by the following generation, in the years 1870-80. It was then that the first revolutionary and socialist parties were formed in Russia. The real action commenced. But it no longer had anything in common with the old “nihilism” of the past. And the word itself remained, in the Russian language, as a purely historical terms, the trace of a movement of ideas in the years 1860-70.

The fact that those in foreign countries have the habit of understanding by “nihilism” the entire Russian revolutionary movement prior to bolshevism, and speak of a “nihilist party,” is only a historical error due to the ignorance of the true history of the revolutionary movements in Russia.


Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Corvus Editions interview at Making Change

Corvus Editions is among the projects featured on the Making Change blog, which covers Etsy artists "who create with a political/environmental/social agenda," and I'm sending some of my bottle-cap pins down to the Making Change store in Santa Monica, California. It's an interesting adjustment, trying to make my projects intelligible in a world of brief "artist's statements" craft categories, but it's clear that in order for Corvus to survive, it's going to be as important to reach people who are concerned with the survival of "real books," as it is to promote the project in political circles. Much of my recent work has been in the boundary-land between politics and speculative fiction, publishing utopian narratives and early science fiction stories. And while actual sales remain a little discouraging, responses to the recent hardcover releases have been enthusiastic enough to encourage me to think of books, rather than pamphlets and chapbooks, as the logical center of the catalog. The forthcoming editions of Henry Olerich's A Cityless and Countryless World will probably be the model for future releases, with the "Junkbird Editions"—manufactured almost entirely with repurposed scrap materials —as the standard, and cheap editions ("wraps," bound book-blocks in paper covers) and enhanced bindings (using fancier recycled/repurposed materials and heavy boards) as options.