P.-J. Proudhon, “The Third Form of Society” (1840)

[From Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, What is Property?]

3. Determination of the third social form. Conclusion

Therefore, no government, no public economy, no administration is possible with property for a basis.

Community seeks equality and law. Property, born of the autonomy of reason and the feeling of individual worth, wants, above all things, independence and proportionality.

But community, taking uniformity for law, and leveling for equality, becomes tyrannical and unjust. Property, through its despotism and its invasions, soon shows itself oppressive and unsociable.

What property and community seek is good; what both produce is bad. And why? Because both are exclusive, and are unaware, each from its own side, of two elements of society. Community rejects independence and proportionality; property does not satisfy equality and law.

Now, if we imagine a society based on these four principles—quality, law, independence, and proportionality—we find:

1) That equality, consisting solely of the equality of conditions, that is to say of means, not in the equality of well-being, which with equal means must be the work of the laborer, does not in any way violate justice and equity;

2) That law, resulting from the science of facts, and consequently relying on necessity itself, never offends independence;

3) That the respective independence of individuals, or the autonomy of private reason, deriving from the difference of talents and capacities, can exist without danger within the limits of law;

4) That proportionality, only being allowed within the sphere of intelligence and sentiment, not in that of physical things, can be observed without violating justice or social equality.

This third form of society, the synthesis of community and property, we will call liberty. [1] Thus, in order to determine liberty, we do not join community and property indiscriminately, which would be an absurd eclecticism. We seek, by an analytic method, what each contains that is true, in conformity with the wishes of nature and the laws of sociability, and we eliminate the foreign elements that they contain; and the result gives an expression suitable to the natural form of human society, in short, to liberty.

Liberty is equality, because liberty only exists in the social state, and apart from equality there is not society.

Liberty is anarchy, because it does not accept the government of the will, but only the authority of law, that is to say of necessity.

Liberty is infinite variety, because it respects all wills, within the limits of law.

Liberty is proportionality, because it leaves complete latitude to the ambition for merit [2] and the rivalry for glory.

Now we can say, after the example of Mr. Cousin: “Our principle is true; it is good and social; let us not fear to deduce all its consequences.”

Sociability in man, becoming justice through reflection, and equity through the intermeshing [engrènement] of capacities, having liberty for its formula, is the true foundation of morals, the principle and rule of all our actions. It is this universal cause [mobile] that philosophy seeks, that religion fortifies, selfishness supplants and that pure reason never replaced. Duty and right arise in us from need, which, according to whether we consider it in relation to external beings, is right, or, in relation to ourselves, duty.

We need to eat and to sleep. We have a right to procure the things necessary for sleep and nutrition; it is a duty to use them when nature demands it.

We need to work to live. It is a right and a duty.

We have a need to love our wives and children. It is a duty to be their protector and to support them; it is a right to be loved by them in preference to all others. Conjugal fidelity is in accordance with justice; adultery is a crime of treason against society [lèse-société].

We need to exchange our products for other products. It is a right that the exchange be made for equivalents, and since we consume before producing, it would be a duty, if the thing depended on us, that our last product follow our last consumption. Suicide is a fraudulent bankruptcy.

We need to accomplish our tasks according to the insights of our reason. It is a right to maintain our free will; it is a duty to respect that of others.

We need to be appreciated by our fellows. It is a duty to be worthy of their praise; it is a right to be judged according to our works.

Liberty is not contrary to the rights of succession and testament: it is content to ensure that equality is not violated. Choose, it says to us, between two inheritances, but never accumulate. All the legislation concerning the transmissions, the substitutions, the adoptions, and, if I dare use this word, the coadjutoreries, is to be remade.

Liberty promotes emulation and does not destroy it: in [conditions of] social equality, emulation consists of acting under equal conditions; its reward is all in itself, and no one suffers from the victory.

Liberty applauds devotion and respects its votes [suffrages], but it can do without it. Justice is sufficient for social equilibrium; devotion is a supererogation. Happy, however, is the one who can say: I devote myself. [3]

Liberty is essentially organizing: in order to insure equality between men, and equilibrium between nations, it is necessary that agriculture and industry, the centers of instruction, commerce and warehousing, are distributed according to the geographical and climacteric [4] conditions of each country, the varieties of the products, the character and natural talents of the inhabitants, etc., in proportions so accurate, so skillful, so well matched, that nowhere is there ever present an excess nor a lack of population, consumption or product. That is the beginning of the science of public and private right, the true political economy. It is up to the legists, freed from now on from the false principle of property, to describe the new laws, and bring peace to the world. They do not lack science and genius; the point of application [point d’appui] has been given to them. [5].

I have accomplished the work that I proposed to myself. Property is vanquished; it will never rise again. Everywhere that this discourse is read and reported, there a seed of death will be deposited for property: there, sooner or later, privilege and servitude will disappear; the despotism of the will will be succeeded by the reign of reason. Indeed, what sophisms, what obstinate prejudices could hold before the simplicity of these propositions.

I. Individual possession is the condition of social life; [6] five thousand years of property demonstrate it: property is the suicide of society. Possession is within [the realm of] right; property is against right. Eliminate property by preserving possession; and, by that single modification of principle, you will change everything in the laws, the government, the economy and the institutions: you will sweep evil from the earth.

II. The right to occupy being equal for all, possession varies like the number of possessors; property cannot form.

III. The effect of labor also being the same for all, property is lost through foreign exploitation and rent.

IV. All human labor necessarily resulting from a collective force, all property becomes, for this reason, collective and undivided: in more precise terms, labor destroys property.

V. Every capacity for labor being, like every instrument of labor, an accumulated capital, a collective property, inequality of salary and fortune, under the pretext of inequality of capacity, is injustice and theft.

V. The necessary conditions of commerce are the liberty of the contracting parties and the equivalence of the products exchanged: now, the value being expressed by the quantity of time and expense cost by each product and the liberty being inviolable, the labors necessarily remain equal in wages, as they are in rights and duties.

VII. Products only exchange for products. Now, the condition of every exchange being the equivalence of the products, profit is impossible and unjust. Observe this most elementary principle of economics, and pauperism, luxury, oppression, vice, crime, along with hunger, would disappear from our midst.

VIII. Men are associated by the physical and mathematical law of production, before being associated by their full agreement: so the equality of conditions is [a matter] of justice, that is to say of social right, of strict right; esteem, friendship, recognition and admiration all fall solely within the realm of equitable or proportional right.

IX. Free association, liberty, which limits itself to maintaining equality in the means of production, and equivalence in exchanges, is the only form of society that is possible, the only one that is just and true.

X. Politics is the science of liberty: the government of man by man, no matter the name with which it is disguised, is oppression; the highest perfection of society is found in the union of order and anarchy.

The end of antique civilizations has come; under a new sun, the face of the earth will be renewed. Let a generation pass away, let the old prevaricators die in the desert: the sacred earth will not cover their bones. Young man, whom the corruption of the unworthy century  and the zeal for justice devours, if your homeland is dear to you, and if the interest of humanity touches you, dare to embrace the cause of liberty. Strip off your old selfishness, plunge yourself into the popular flood of emerging equality; there, your rebaptized soul will obtain an unknown lifeblood and vigor; your enervated genius will again find an unshakeable energy; your heart, perhaps already withered, will grow young again. Everything will change its appearance to your purified vision: new sentiments will give birth in you to new ideas; religion, morals, poetry, art, language will appear to you in a finer and more beautiful form; and, certain from now on of your faith, enthusiastic with reflection, you will salute the dawn of universal regeneration.

And you, sad victims of an odious law, you whom a mocking world loots and insults, you, whose labor was always without fruit and whose rest was without hope, be consoled, your tears have been counted. The fathers have sown in affliction, but the sons will reap in joy.

Oh, God of liberty! God of equality! God who put the sentiment of justice in my heart before my reason understood it, hear my ardent prayer. It is you who have dictated all that I have just written. You have formed my thought, have directed my studies, you have weaned my mind from curiosity and my heart from attachment, in order that I might publish your truth before the master and the slave. I have spoken with the strength and talent that you have given me; it is for you to finish your work. You know whether I seek my own interest or your glory, God of liberty! Ah! Perish my memory, but let humanity be free; let me see in my obscurity the people finally educated; let noble teachers enlighten them; let selfless hearts guide them. Abbreviate, if it is possible, the time of our trials; smother pride and avarice in equality; confound this idolatry of glory that holds us in abjection; teach these poor children that in the bosom of liberty there are no longer heroes or great men. Inspire in the powerful, in the rich, in him whose name my lips will never utter before you, the horror of their rapine; let them be first to ask to be accepted in restoration, let the promptness of their remorse itself absolve them. Then, great and small, learned and ignorant, rich and poor, will unite in an ineffable fraternity; and, all together, singing a new hymn, will rebuild your altar, God of liberty and Equality!


[1] Libertas, liberare, libratio, libra, liberty, to deliver, libration, balance (ledger), are all expressions that appear to have a common etymology. Liberty is the balance of rights and duties: to make a man free is to balance him with others, to put him at their level.

[2] The word mérite means “merit” or “worth,” but also, in some cases, “advantage.”—Translator.

[3] In a monthly publication, the first issue of which just appeared under the name of l’Égalitaire, devotion has been posited as the principle of equality: that is to confuse every notion. By itself, devotion supposes the highest degree of inequality; to seek equality in devotion is to admit that equality is against nature. Equality must be established on the basis of justice, on the strict right, on principles invoked by the proprietor himself: otherwise, it would never exist. Devotion is superior to justice; it cannot be imposed as a law, because its nature is to be without reward. Certainly, it would be desirable that everyone recognize the necessity of devotion, and the thought of l’Égalitaire is a very good example; unfortunately, it can lead to nothing. What, indeed are we to say to a man who says: “I do not wish to devote myself”? Must we constrain him? When devotion is forced, it is called oppression, servitude, exploitation of man by man. It is in this way that the proletarians are devoted to property

[4] Proudhon wrote climatériques, but probably meant climatologiques, climatological, rather than crucial.—Translator.

[5] Of all the modern socialists, the disciples of Fourier have long appeared to me the most advanced and nearly the only ones worth of the name. If they had understood their task, to speak to the people, to awaken sympathies, to be silent about the things they did not understand; if they had put forward less arrogant pretensions and shown more respect for public reason, perhaps, thanks to them, the reform would have commenced. But how have such determined reformers constantly knelt before power and opulence, before that which is most opposed to reform? How, in a reasoning century, have they not understood that the world wants to be converted by demonstrative reason, not by myths and allegories? How, though implacable adversaries of civilization, have they still borrowed its most deadly products: property, inequality of fortune and rank, gluttony, concubinage, prostitution, and who knows what else? Ritual, magic and deviltry? Why these interminable declamations against moral science, metaphysics and psychology, when the abuse of these sciences, of which they understand nothing, makes up their entire system? Why this mania for deifying a man whose principal merit was to rave about a mass of things of which he knew only the names, in the strangest language ever? Whoever accepts the infallibility of a man becomes, as a result, incapable of instructing others; whoever sacrifices their own reason will soon forbid free inquiry. The phalansterians would find not fault with it, if they were the masters. Let them finally deign to reason, let them proceed methodically, let them give demonstrations, not revelations, and we would listen to them willingly; than let them organize industry, agriculture, commerce; let them make labor attractive, make the most humble functions honorable, and we will applaud their accomplishments. Above all, let them rid themselves of that illuminism that gives them the air of imposters or dupes, much more than believers or apostles.

[6] Individual possession is not at all an obstacle to large-scale farming and joint cultivation. If I have not spoken of the disadvantages of parceling out, it is because it thought it useless to repeat, after so many others, what must be an established truth for everyone. But I am surprised that the economists, who have so emphasized the miseries of small-scale farming, have not seen that its principle is entirely in property, above all that they have not sensed that their project of mobilizing the soil is a beginning of the abolition of property.

[Revised translation by Shawn P. Wilbur]