Property is theft!

Property is theft! (French: La propriété, c'est le vol![1]) 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 to show that the power to remove a man's mind, will, and personality, is the power of life and death, and that it makes a man a slave. It is murder. 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 a concept regarding land property that originated in Roman law: 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. Proudhon was clear that his opposition to property did not extend to exclusive possession of labor-made wealth.

In the Confessions d'un revolutionnaire Proudhon further explained his use of this phrase:[2]

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.

Similar phrases

Jacques Pierre Brissot had previously written, in his Philosophical Inquiries 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 an 1865 letter to a contemporary that Proudhon had taken the slogan from Warville,[4] although this is contested by subsequent scholarship.[5]

The phrase also appears in 1797 in the Marquis de Sade's text L'Histoire de Juliette: "Tracing the right of property back to its source, one infallibly arrives at usurpation. However, theft is only punished because it violates the right of property; but this right is itself nothing in origin but theft".[6]

Similar phrases also appear in the works of Saint Ambrose, who taught that superfluum quod tenes tu furaris[7] (the superfluous property which you hold you have stolen) and Basil of Caesarea (Ascetics, 34, 1–2).

Jean-Jacques Rousseau made the same general point when he wrote: "The first man who, having enclosed a piece of ground, bethought himself of saying 'This is mine', and found people simple enough to believe him, was the real founder of civil society. From how many crimes, wars, and murders, from how many horrors and misfortunes might not any one have saved mankind, by pulling up the stakes, or filling up the ditch, and crying to his fellows: Beware of listening to this impostor; you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody."[8]

Irish Marxist James Connolly referred to the socialist movement as the "Great Anti-Theft Movement of the Twentieth Century"[9]


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 "'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".[4]

Max Stirner was highly critical of Proudhon, and in his work, The Ego and Its Own, made the same criticism of Proudhon's expression before Marx, asking, "Is the concept 'theft' at all possible unless one allows validity to the concept 'property'? How can one steal if property is not already extant? ... Accordingly property is not theft, but a theft becomes possible only through property."[10]


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".


  1. ^ (in French) Proudhon, Pierre-Joseph (1840). Qu'est-ce que la propriété ? ou Recherche sur le principe du Droit et du Gouvernement (1st ed.). Paris: Brocard. p. 2. See also p. 1.
  2. ^ Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. No Gods, No Masters: An Anthology of Anarchism. Edited by Daniel Guerin, translated by Paul Sharkey. 2005. AK Press. ISBN 1-904859-25-9 p. 55-56
  3. ^ William Shepard Walsh, Handy-book of Literary Curiosities, p. 923
  4. ^ 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
  5. ^ Hoffman, Robert L. (1972). Revolutionary Justice: The Social and Political Theory of P. J. Proudhon. Urbana: University of Illinois Press. pp. 46–48. ISBN 0-252-00240-7.
  6. ^ Marquis de Sade, Juliette, 1797
  7. ^ The Library Magazine. John B. Alden. 1886. p. 204.
  8. ^ Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Discourse on Inequality, 1754
  9. ^ Socialism Made Easy
  10. ^ Stirner, Max. The Ego and Its Own. Edited by David Leopold. p. 223
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Economic secession

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Individual reclamation

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Pierre-Joseph Proudhon

Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (; French: [pjɛʁʒozɛf pʁudɔ̃]; 15 January 1809 – 19 January 1865) was a French politician and the founder of mutualist philosophy. He was the first person to declare himself an anarchist, using that term and is widely regarded as one of the ideology's most influential theorists. Proudhon is even considered by many to be the "father of anarchism". He became a member of the French Parliament after the Revolution of 1848, whereafter he referred to himself as a federalist.Proudhon, who was born in Besançon, was a printer who taught himself Latin in order to better print books in the language. His best-known assertion is that "property is theft!", contained in his first major work, What is Property? Or, an Inquiry into the Principle of Right and Government (Qu'est-ce que la propriété? Recherche sur le principe du droit et du gouvernement), published in 1840. The book's publication attracted the attention of the French authorities. It also attracted the scrutiny of Karl Marx, who started a correspondence with its author. The two influenced each other and they met in Paris while Marx was exiled there. Their friendship finally ended when Marx responded to Proudhon's The System of Economic Contradictions, or The Philosophy of Poverty with the provocatively titled The Poverty of Philosophy. The dispute became one of the sources of the split between the anarchist and Marxist wings of the International Working Men's Association. Some such as Edmund Wilson have contended that Marx's attack on Proudhon had its origin in the latter's defense of Karl Grün, whom Marx bitterly disliked, but who had been preparing translations of Proudhon's work.

Proudhon favored workers' associations or co-operatives as well as individual worker/peasant possession over private ownership or the nationalization of land and workplaces. He considered social revolution to be achievable in a peaceful manner. In The Confessions of a Revolutionary, Proudhon asserted that "Anarchy is Order Without Power", the phrase which much later inspired in the view of some the anarchist circled-A symbol, today "one of the most common graffiti on the urban landscape". He unsuccessfully tried to create a national bank, to be funded by what became an abortive attempt at an income tax on capitalists and shareholders. Similar in some respects to a credit union, it would have given interest-free loans.

Self-refuting idea

Self-refuting ideas or self-defeating ideas are ideas or statements whose falsehood is a logical consequence of the act or situation of holding them to be true. Many ideas are called self-refuting by their detractors, and such accusations are therefore almost always controversial, with defenders stating that the idea is being misunderstood or that the argument is invalid. For these reasons, none of the ideas below are unambiguously or incontrovertibly self-refuting. These ideas are often used as axioms, which are definitions taken to be true (tautological assumptions), and cannot be used to test themselves, for doing so would lead to only two consequences: consistency (circular reasoning) or exception (self-contradiction). It is important to know that the conclusion of an argument that is self-refuting is not necessarily false, since it could be supported by another, more valid, argument.

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