A word on private and personal property

My take on a controversial distinction.

Last Friday, when I appeared on The Majority Report to talk with Sam Seder about socialism, our conversation eventually turned to property. And in an effort to draw a clear distinction between capitalist and socialist perspectives, I framed it in a way that some listeners, evidently, are not familiar with. I think there’s a reason they aren’t familiar with it, which I’ll talk about shortly, but first let me lay out my position.

In a capitalist legal regime we cannot exercise collective control over the means of production. This is not, however, because of special property laws that only apply to capital. Rather, it is because of a set of laws that apply to all property that’s held privately. The same private property regime that prevents me from seizing your factory also prevents me from stealing your toothbrush, all justified by the same kind of jurisprudential and intellectual/philosophical justifications. When libertarians talk about the Non-Aggression Principle, for example, this ideological basis for private property rights applies to everything.

How do we overcome this broad obstacle to collective control of any private property, which impedes us from our narrower aim of collective control of capital? Marx touches on this point all over the place, but his most famous discussion appears in Chapter II of The Communist Manifesto, where he calls for the abolition of private property. This argument is usually read one of two ways.

-

The first reading insists that Marx is really just using “private property” in an unusual way, one that exclusively refers to capital. Thus when he calls for its abolition, he is not talking about property rights that apply to your toothbrush or other kinds of “personal property”; those remain untouched.

I find this reading unconvincing for several reasons.

First, it fails as a matter of reading comprehension. Marx does indeed begin by noting that “the abolition of bourgeois property” — property belonging to the ruling class, as opposed to “property generally” — is the “distinguishing feature of Communism”. Not, that is, its exclusive feature, but rather its most important one. “But,” he adds, all of this property that the ruling class has acquired “is the final most complete expression of the system of” capitalism. Marx makes this a “but” point because what follows is in contrast to his opening observation that the “distinguishing feature of Communism is not the abolition of property generally”. And indeed it is: since you have to destroy capitalism to abolish bourgeois property, he concludes, the “the theory of Communists may be summed up in a single sentence: Abolition of private property.”

This passage is quite simple and straightforward if we read “private property” in its ordinary sense. Marx is explaining that while abolishing it isn’t the most important thing about communism, it’s what you have to do to accomplish the real goal, which is abolishing the property rights of the rich.

That’s why Marx immediately addresses the obvious questions that you would expect to come up when one proposes abolishing private property in general, and not just bourgeois property in particular. When he writes that

Communists have been reproached with the desire of abolishing the right of personally acquiring property as the fruit of man’s own labour…

he is plainly referring to a right that would apply to all property, not just bourgeois property or capital. If the first reading of Marx were correct, you would expect him to say no, we aren’t abolishing that. But instead, he argues that this is a non-problem: “There is no need to abolish that” since for most most people capitalism “has to a great extent already destroyed it, and is still destroying it daily.” He repeats this point again:

You are horrified at our intending to do away with private property. But in your existing society, private property is already done away with for nine-tenths of the population…

Again, if Marx meant to carve out some distinction between capital property rights and personal property rights, insisting that abolishing the latter isn’t on the table, this is where you would expect him to do it. But he doesn’t; instead, he makes arguments about how industrialization and emisseration are taking away what nine-tenths of the population own anyway, so there is no point in hand-wringing about the end of private property. This is what he meant when he famously concluded that workers have “nothing to lose but their chains.”

To get around this simple, literal reading, you have to suppose that Marx is using “private property” quite idiosyncratically here, and redundantly with “capital” (a word which he also uses). And you also have to ignore the trajectory of his answers to questions about what kind of property will be abolished, which is not to exclude certain classes of private property, but to insist that workers need not be concerned since they don’t have meaningful ownership of private property anyway.

The second reason I find this reading unpersuasive is that it does not address the basic problem that private property rights pose to collective governance. As capitalists are fond of pointing out, private property rights are not really “rights” once you start making exceptions; if Marxists want to carve out a special category of property called “capital” that is no longer under the protection of these rights, then all we really have left is a regime where you can always collectivize property if your rationale is good enough. Private property rights have the power and popularity that they have precisely because they are so absolute and non-negotiable; people think these rights will even protect what little they have. Marx’s argument is that workers have no stake in defending these rights because these rights are not actually defending them.

-

This is why I have always found the second reading more convincing. As I have argued, when Marx calls for the abolition of private property, he means it in the ordinary sense. It’s the legal-ideological rationale for the bourgeoisie to maintain control of the means of production, and you can’t make an exception to a right without destroying the right altogether; that’s why collective control of capital “cannot be effected except by means of despotic inroads on the rights of property”.

That said, Marx insists that when private property is abolished, “personal property” (EG, your toothbrush) “is not thereby transformed into social property” (EG, a toothbrush that anyone and everyone actively controls). But is this because abolishing private property has no effect on personal property? No, Marx insists: when private property is abolished, personal property “loses its class character.”

Elaborating, Marx insists that when we abolish private property, we do not abolish the “appropriation of the products of labour” by the laborer. When the bourgeoisie loses its ownership claim to these products through private property rights, the workers can simply take what they have created; this is what is meant by saying that personal property loses its class character.

Ultimately, Marx envisions a world in which personal property does not need the protection of private property rights, at least not as we know them today; when the bourgeoisie no longer monopolizes property and imposes austerity on workers, the scarcity that makes private property rights necessary under capitalism will no longer be a problem.

-

Read Marx beyond the Manifesto and the philosophical basis for his opposition to private property become even clearer. In Capital Vol. III, for example, Marx argues that one day private property held by “particular individuals” will appear absurd, since

Even an entire society, a nation, or all simultaneously existing societies taken together, are not the owners of the earth. They are simply its possessors, its beneficiaries, and have to bequeath it in an improved state to succeeding generations…

This is the standard commonwealth argument: that no one person should be able to claim ownership rights to any given property, since the earth belongs to everyone. Logically, this argument applies to all property, not just capital or bourgeois property.

Today, I think that many socialists are afraid to press this claim to the commonwealth — even though it is simple, morally compelling, and has deep (albeit underappreciated) roots in US culture. And I think that the way many socialists talk about private property — those who endorse the first reading of Marx — is best understood as a defensive concession to anxieties sown by capitalist ideology. The correct argument is that in a rational, collectively governed socialist society, no one would have a stake in taking away your toothbrush; but instead of embracing that argument, and challenging capitalism at its very core, many would prefer to say “we’ll keep private property rights for some things.”

For reasons given, I think that concession is directly at odds with Marx. And worse, I don’t think that the concept of rights that you get to keep sometimes makes any sense. I think most people will grasp intuitively that it doesn’t make any sense, and that capitalists will have no problem at all picking apart that kind of hedge. The only way forward, I think, it to challenge the ideology of private property head on. Marx certainly did: “The Communist revolution is the most radical rupture with traditional property relations,” he writes. Thus, “no wonder that its development involved the most radical rupture with traditional ideas.”