As far as I know Proudhon introduced the concept that property is theft while possession is ok. But what is the difference between those two?

  • While I have no background on this topic, could it be that property is real property (land) while possession is transportable and man-made? Basically, land was here before humans, therefore it must have been "stolen" (from nature) to become a possession. Smaller things such as tools and clothes (and in today's world, electronics) can be created from essentially renewable resources.
    – Michael
    May 14, 2016 at 21:06
  • @Michael It is possible but as far as I understood it any object could be either possesion or property.
    – kzevo1800
    May 14, 2016 at 23:44

4 Answers 4


First of all this distinction between "possession" and "property" isn't just an anarchist thing. For example the German legal system also distinguishes between "possession" which is "the immediate control over an object" and "property" which is the "legal ownership of an object".

So for example if you're in school or at work sitting on a chair, than for the time that you sit on that chair you are in "possession" of that chair, you are able to move it around, to sit on it and to do all the chair things you want to do with it and for the time of usage it might even be "your chair", because you're sitting on it.

All while you're able to freely use that chair for chair related issues, you are likely NOT the owner of that chair. It is not your property, you're just granted possession by the owner. So ownership is the exclusive privilege to grant, deny or exercise possession of a thing. Which entails the ability to sell and destroy the object and to make up conditions in case someone else is grated or takes possession of the thing.

Now in case of a chair that isn't particularly interesting. But if you think beyond items that are plentiful and of immediate personal usage, you might come across concepts like land, natural resources and other things that are shared by many people, as well as factories and industries that are the result of the collective effort of lots of people.

And here the distinction between possession and ownership becomes majorly relevant. Like if the entirety of a country is my property than I would be within my rights to restrict access to it and to make laws for the people roaming it. So I would essentially be your king as long as you remain on my property. Same if it's my factory that you're working in, then you might be in possession of the factory (you would use it) and you would do all the work, but it would legally be mine and I could restrict your usage of it, what you produce for how long, how much you produce and how much I give off that to you, so I'd effectively be your boss.

So in that concept the step from a monarchy to a republic was to argue that it's not the king owning the land but the community of citizens and so the legal authority falls to the sovereign of "the people" rather than the king. So that a constitutional monarchy would not be the land being property but just possession of the king with the ownership residing with the collective of citizens, who could dictate the rules of the possession via a constitution. Now usually the idea of a republic is mixed with that of a democracy and a more direct way of taking possession of ones property either in a representative or direct way.

But as it should be obvious by now, this is or at least can be seen as one legitimation of power over other people. And would obviously infringe upon the anarchist idea that no one should hold power over other people unless it's mutual and only as long as it is. Also one could argue that the private appropriation of property to the exclusion of everyone else, is taking that property from the larger community of human being (and animals if you want to count them).

On the other hand you could also argue that some form of personal possession probably makes things easier. Like some possessions are so intimate that sharing them isn't really what anyone would want and idk having a safe space for yourself might be beneficial to the individual without be detrimental to everyone else. Similarly it can be beneficial to have the painter have possession of their painting brush and use it as they please within the limited rules of idk not selling or breaking them (on purpose), over telling them every stroke of the brush.

But the possession implies that it's also only "their brush" as long as they use it, they can't tell others how to use them either or restrict them from usage beyond selling, breaking or other ways that make them unusable.

So TL;DR it's possession is about the ability to use and property is about the exclusion or restriction of others to use something.


To add to @haxor789's answer, which is already quite good imho:

Property is a complex concept of the law that is divided into different types of rights of a person on a thing. 2000 years ago Roman laws already split property rights into 3 parts:

  • usus: the right to use a thing.
  • abusus: the right to modify, destroy or sell something.
  • fructus: the right of property on what is produced with a thing.

For example, when you rent a flat, in exchange for the monthly fee you get the usus: you can live in the flat, put your furniture, invite your friends, etc. As long as you pay the rent and the lease is running, the landlord can't push you out.

But you don't get the abusus: you can't destroy a wall to make the living larger or add a veranda. You have to give the flat back as you found it, and repairs are on the landlord.

Fructus would be, for a shop, the fact that you can have a retail activity in a place you rented and the benefit is for you, or for a factory and its machines the ownership of what is produced in the factory, even if you are not doing the production labor yourself.

Capitalism, and previous forms of exploitation, are based on the separation of usus from abusus and fructus: the boss owns the factory, they do not use it, it is to say, they do not work on the production floor. It is the task of the laborers, but everything that is produced in the boss' workshop is their property nonetheless. In the same way, the lord owns the field, they do not work it but all the crops that come from it are theirs.

This is opposable to the idea of a laborer owning his own tools and workshop, and also everything they themselves produce in this shop (or all the crops they produce on their own land).

What Proudhon calls "property",and theft, is the former mode of property where usus and fructus are dissociated. Like Lafargue and other anarchists/socialists of his time, he considered salaried work as an elaborate form of slavery where producers are not the owners of what they produce.

What he calls "possession" is when usus and fructus come together, and are necessary to enforce for any work to be done. Consider an artisan: the tools of their trade are their livelihood, and the product of their work the resource they can exchange for the various goods and services they need. If anyone can enter the shop and take away their hammers, saws, etc, or the furniture they just spent days putting together, it's basically impossible to live peacefully. They would have to constantly be at home with a loaded gun ready, and all the energy put in self defense would be a waste.

This is why Proudhon abhored "property" but recognized "possession" to be a fundamental right necessary for a happy society.


Having a possession: physically maintaining a hold on something.
Having a property: socially/legally maintaining an entitlement on something.

From "What Is Property?" on wikipedia:

He [Proudhon] argued that the result of an individual's labor which is currently occupied or used is a legitimate form of property [which he called "possession"]. Thus, he opposed unused land being regarded as property, believing that land can only be rightfully possessed by use or occupation (which he called "possession").


Well one example is to look at the Plains Indians before the arrival of Europeans to the Americas.

Although they had the notion of personal possessions they did not have the notion of property in the Western way of thinking as wide ranging system of legal rights, particularly over land. To their way of thinking, the plains did not constitute property at all, to be owned by some person or other.

There is a similar idea in the West under the notion of the Commons or public property. But notice in the latter, we still use the term property.

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