Property is liberty.
To have provisions, garments, and a house of one’s own is to have the liberty, power, and certainty of eating, dressing, and lodging.
To have raw material of one’s own, a tool of one’s own to transform the raw material into consumable product, and, if the raw material be stock and the tool a machine, workshop, or factory, to hold as property one’s share of this stock, of these implements, of this factory, workshop, or machine, is to have the liberty, power, and certainty of laboring, of disposing of the fruit of one’s labor, of consuming or buying one’s product.
Property,—that is a firm, solid, palpable, concrete basis for abstract rights.
Do you possess the workable material and the tool? You are in complete possession of the right to labor, and, what is more, of the right of labor,—of the right to produce and the right to enjoy your product in its entirety.
Do you possess only your arms, your knowledge, your intelligence? You have but one right,—that of choosing between dying of hunger and taking a master; between utter want and sacrificing your dignity, extending your hand for a little bread after having done a great deal of work; between not being clothed and wearing the livery of another.
Not to have a share in property,—that has been slavery, that has been servitude, that is the proletariat.
For, if property for all means comfort for all, on the other hand monopoly of all available property by a certain number, even a majority, means misery and oppression for the excluded; if the accession of each to property means liberty of labor and security of product, on the other hand proprietary monopoly means the power of the monopolist to be the master of another, to make another labor, and to dispose of the fruit of another’s labor.
The historic evolution is as follows:
Humanity, on becoming conscious, saw that the means of existence is property, and the struggle for existence then became blended with the struggle for property.
Appropriation, which in the future will have no other source than the effort of the industrial laborer, was originally an act of conquest, the monopoly realized by that savage labor, war. A race of prey founded itself upon another race, a barbarous people upon an industrious people. Hurrah! the German warriors cut up the Roman Empire into lots and shared it between them; the French of the North became lords over all the lands and fruits of the South; the Norman pillagers distributed England among themselves; and the English allotted themselves each a bit of Ireland.
There began the modern history of property. Violence, robbery by open force, massacre, having presided over this original distribution, oppression followed for the conquered, the pillaged, the sons of the massacred.
What is worth taking is worth keeping. The highway robbers having become landlords—and after them their descendants—conceived the idea of fortifying themselves in their conquered positions, of surrounding their estates with barriers, ditches, walls, and, what is better, laws.
The peoples of our day still suffer from the yoke imposed by the conquerors of those days. Lords have succeeded each other, aristocrats have replaced each other, jostling each other, taking by strategy what had been acquired by violence, robbing the old robbers by usury, speculation, and corruption, but always protected by the bulwark of laws erected to deny labor access to property.
The entire Code is the book of guarantees imposed to prevent property, the means of production, the instrument of liberty, dignity, equality, from passing out of the hands of the primitive monopolist into those of the contemporary producer; the Code is the isolation of servants confronted with the coalition of masters; it is the prohibition of real contract between employer and employee; it is the constraint of the latter to accept from the former exactly the minimum of wages indispensable to subsistence; and in any case where all these guarantees may have been vain, where a few laborers, by a fortunate stroke, may have succeeded in accumulating a little capital, the Code is a trap set to catch these little savings, the canalization ingeniously organized so that all that has temporarily left the hands of the monopolist may return to them by an adroit system of drainage,—so that the water, as the saying is in the villages, may always go to the river.
Nevertheless violence, which is trouble in historic evolution, can institute no lasting work. In vain does the cyclone raise prodigiously the sea, lift all the water high and leaving nothing below; the tempest passes,—for every tempest is ephemeral,—and, after a series of eddies, the movement of the waves ends, as every movement in mass ends, in stable equilibrium, a level.
After wars, after violences, after conquests of centuries of tempests, in spite of barriers and fortresses, in spite of laws, every continuous movement in the social mass tends toward stable equilibrium.
All the means of production on one side; no property, no means of production, on the other,—that is the opposite of equilibrium: but every mass tends to separate; monopolies are condemned to dissemination, every mountain will fill a valley, and the mountains of wealth accumulated under one and the same domination will fill the empty pockets of the people, powerless as they will be to resist the toil of these termites of millions and millions of laborers arrived at a consciousness of their own value and their own strength, and who will bend themselves untiringly to the conquest in their turn of their place in the sunshine, of their corner of their own, of their tools, of their means of labor, of their property, of their liberty.
And when this effort shall be accomplished, social equilibrium will be established, and with it that universal comfort which seems, even in our day, to be but a generous dream.