Book Reviews: “Property is Theft!”, “Marxism and World Politics”

Anarchist free-marketeer

Property is Theft! A Pierre-Joseph Proudhon Anthology. Ed. Iain McKay. AK Press. 2011

Proudhon came to fame in 1840 through a pamphlet What is Property? in which he declared that “property is theft”. Actually, this wasn’t as radical it might seem since what he was criticising was the private ownership of land. This was something which, later, supporters of capitalism such as JS Mill and Henry George also criticised and proposed to remedy by, respectively, land nationalisation and a single tax on rent. Proudhon didn’t even go that far; he advocated access for everyone to an equal amount of land.

Anarchists see him as their founding father as in this pamphlet he declared himself to be an “anarchist”, but by this he meant that he was opposed to government, even a democratically-constituted one, making rules about the production and distribution of wealth. He was (and remained till he died in 1865) a free marketeer, bitterly opposed to “communism” in the same terms and language as other free marketeers.

He has been called an “anarcho-capitalist” but this would be going too far as he was opposed to capitalism. “Anarchist free marketeer” would be fairer. His opposition to capitalism, however, was in the name of self-employed artisans who capitalism was reducing to working for wages for an employer. His proposed solution was that these should unite in “associations” (basically, cooperatives) which should exchange their products at their labour-time values. To this end he proposed a Bank of Exchange which would issue labour-money against products as well as providing interest-free loans to workers’ cooperatives it judged viable.

Iain McKay in his 50-page introduction puts a positive spin on this by stating that “Proudhon was an early advocate of what is now termed market socialism – an economy of competing co-operatives and self-employed workers”, adding “some incorrectly argue that market socialism is not socialist”. Some do indeed, but correctly. “Market socialism” is the economic equivalent of a square circle. But it gets worse. Proudhon envisaged his system coming into being gradually as the workers’ cooperatives, aided by free credit from his Bank of Exchange, conquered more and more sectors of the economy. He was opposed to strikes. In other words, he was a gradualist as well as a currency crank.

After being initially impressed by him (who he met and discussed with in Paris in 1844) Marx eventually realised that Proudhon, for all his insight that under the wages system the producers were exploited, was on the wrong track. When in 1846 Proudhon published his Système des contradictions économiques ou Philosophie de la misère.  Marx wrote (in French) a reply La Misère de la philosophie, translated into English under the title The Poverty of Philosophy, the first public exposition of his views on economic matters.

Large extracts from Proudhon’s book are included in this anthology, with McKay’s sometimes tendentious footnotes. But McKay is on to a loser here. There is no way that Proudhon can be presented as a serious exponent either of the way capitalism works or even of the history of economic thought, certainly not when compared with Marx. Today, in fact, most anarchists accept Marx’s analysis of capitalism if not his politics.

Some anarchists might find this 800-page anthology useful. Those of them who are communists will discover, as they plough through his rambling writings, that Proudhon was a life-long and bitter opponent of “communism” and of the principle “from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs”. If they still want to regard him as one of their founding fathers that’s their prerogative. For us he’s an anti-socialist.

International politics

Marxism and World Politics. Contesting Global Capitalism. Ed by Alexander Anievas. Routledge, 2011

One of the roles of academics is to clarify the concepts used in everyday talk. The trouble is that today they are obliged to come up with something new, so now we have “MIRT” – Marxist International Relations Theory – , though most of those involved seem to be Trotskyist or Trotskyoid.

The basic subject is interesting. Why, when there is only one global economic system, is the world divided into separate states? Is this something capitalism created or did it simply inherit it? Is it intrinsically necessary to capitalism? Could capitalism exist with a single world state? If not, why not?

These are discussed by the different authors in this collection of articles. The clearest and most informative, in terms of setting out the issues simply, is that by Neil Davidson. Most of the others employ an obscure terminology which no-one outside academia, indeed outside the small circle of those discussing MIRT, uses. As one of them revealingly, but apparently unself-consciously, noted:

“A fellow traveller amongst Marxist circles – though not a Marxist himself – once asked us what was all the fuss about U&CD and ‘the international’. In exasperation with the whole debate, he threw up his hands declaring: ‘This uneven and combined shit is the dog’s whistle that only Marxists can hear’!”

True, very true, as long as you substitute “Trotskyist” for “Marxist”.


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