Private Property in Communism

Karl Marx (Image Source: Wikipedia)

Socialism is often accused of wanting to do away with all private property. That, together with the ‘central planning’ is probably the most contentious point of socialism.
But is it true that socialism, or rather communism wants to do away with all private property?
The short answer is no. But to really understand why, we have to start by looking at what is meant by private property.

The Manifesto of the Communist Party says about property (emphasis mine):

The distinguishing feature of Communism [from other forms of socialism] is not the abolition of property generally, but the abolition of bourgeois property. But modern bourgeois private property is the final and most complete expression of the system of producing and appropriating products, that is based on class antagonisms, on the exploitation of the many by the few.

[…]

We Communists have been reproached with the desire of abolishing the right of personally acquiring property as the fruit of a man’s own labour, which property is alleged to be the groundwork of all personal freedom, activity and independence.

Hard-won, self-acquired, self-earned property! Do you mean the property of petty artisan and of the small peasant, a form of property that preceded the bourgeois form? There is no need to abolish that; the development of industry has to a great extent already destroyed it, and is still destroying it daily.

Or do you mean the modern bourgeois private property?

But does wage-labour create any property for the labourer? Not a bit. It creates capital, i.e., that kind of property which exploits wage-labour, and which cannot increase except upon condition of begetting a new supply of wage-labour for fresh exploitation. Property, in its present form, is based on the antagonism of capital and wage labour. Let us examine both sides of this antagonism.

To be a capitalist, is to have not only a purely personal, but a social status in production. Capital is a collective product, and only by the united action of many members, nay, in the last resort, only by the united action of all members of society, can it be set in motion.

Capital is therefore not only personal; it is a social power.

When, therefore, capital is converted into common property, into the property of all members of society, personal property is not thereby transformed into social property. It is only the social character of the property that is changed. It loses its class character.

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; its existence for the few is solely due to its non-existence in the hands of those nine-tenths. You reproach us, therefore, with intending to do away with a form of property, the necessary condition for whose existence is the non-existence of any property for the immense majority of society.

In one word, you reproach us with intending to do away with your property. Precisely so; that is just what we intend.

From the moment when labour can no longer be converted into capital, money, or rent, into a social power capable of being monopolised, i.e., from the moment when individual property can no longer be transformed into bourgeois property, into capital, from that moment, you say, individuality vanishes.

You must, therefore, confess that by “individual” you mean no other person than the bourgeois, than the middle-class owner of property. This person must, indeed, be swept out-of-the-way, and made impossible.

Communism deprives no man of the power to appropriate the products of society; all that it does is to deprive him of the power to subjugate the labour of others by means of such appropriations.

Does this now mean that in Communism no one owns anything, as is often said? No, it doesn’t mean that at all, as the last sentence makes very clear.
All Communism is concerned about, it to prevent an individual or group of individuals (usually called the ‘bourgeois’ at the time, nowadays you would best call them the ‘corporatist’) from deriving power over others from their property.

This means you can still own a car or a house. This sort of property is not touched at all. However, you can no longer own the factory or the bank that produces or finances the production of these products. This sort of property is meant. According to Communism this sort of property, which it calls bourgeois property, needs to be in ‘public hands’.

Here is how Communism thinks it can achieve that goal:

The proletariat will use its political supremacy to wrest, by degree, all capital from the bourgeoisie, to centralise all instruments of production in the hands of the State, i.e., of the proletariat organised as the ruling class; and to increase the total productive forces as rapidly as possible.

Of course, in the beginning, this cannot be effected except by means of despotic inroads on the rights of property, and on the conditions of bourgeois production; by means of measures, therefore, which appear economically insufficient and untenable, but which, in the course of the movement, outstrip themselves, necessitate further inroads upon the old social order, and are unavoidable as a means of entirely revolutionising the mode of production.

These measures will, of course, be different in different countries.

Nevertheless, in most advanced countries, the following will be pretty generally applicable.

1. Abolition of property in land and application of all rents of land to public purposes.
2. A heavy progressive or graduated income tax.
3. Abolition of all rights of inheritance.
4. Confiscation of the property of all emigrants and rebels.
5. Centralisation of credit in the hands of the state, by means of a national bank with State capital and an exclusive monopoly.
6. Centralisation of the means of communication and transport in the hands of the State.
7. Extension of factories and instruments of production owned by the State; the bringing into cultivation of waste-lands, and the improvement of the soil generally in accordance with a common plan.
8. Equal liability of all to work. Establishment of industrial armies, especially for agriculture.
9. Combination of agriculture with manufacturing industries; gradual abolition of all the distinction between town and country by a more equable distribution of the populace over the country.
10. Free education for all children in public schools. Abolition of children’s factory labour in its present form. Combination of education with industrial production, &c, &c.

You can see, that while one could agree with the previous part, most people disconnect here with this list. I do as well, because certain points, I am completely at odds with.

However, to understand the list, one must first clarify what is meant by ‘the State’.
Most people belong to the proletarian (worker) class and not to the bourgeois (corporatist) class. This means that proletarians make up the vase majority of ‘the people’. For the people to own the means of production, they must first own the State.
This can certainly not be achieved by one party claiming to represent the proletarian class and imposing its will on everyone else. However, this was exactly what happened in history when so-called Communist parties did just that, calling themselves avant-guard.
This has nothing to do with Communism. All this does (or did) is replacing one small group of bourgeois elite with another small group of pseudo-communist elite. However, the latter is still a fundamentally bourgeois arrangement according to Communism’s own definitions. In the end, nothing changed but the names they were giving to it.

That is why I am of the opinion and keep saying that the Chinese Communist Party is and was not a Communist party at all. It is just another manifestation of the bourgeois class or the corporatists. The same was true for the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

If the people are to own the State, you must start with a democracy, with votes, elections, referendums and initiatives. Once you have organized your democratic State, you will have to look at the economic organisation. It is true, that some political reform is needed, as for example campaign finance reform, but those reforms depend to a certain extent on the economic organisation, so I won’t discuss it here.

To do that, here is my starter list. It may not be complete and need change over time:

1. Abolition of property in land and natural resources in, above, on or under this land; – you can still own the house on the land, but not the oil beneath it.
2. A heavy progressive or graduated income tax; – to slow wealth accumulation in a few hands;
3. Abolition of rights of inheritance above a certain maximum total amount; – to stop wealth accumulation in a few hands;
4. Creation of a new money system without interest; – interest requires growth, but focus on growth is deadly for the ecosystem and the survival of mankind;
5. Creation of a basic income guarantee for all over 18; – to cater for basic needs like food, housing, clothing, communication, transportation etc and to take competition out of basic things needed for survival;
6. Centralisation of credit in the hands of the state, by means of a national bank with State capital and an exclusive monopoly;
7. Revision of laws concerning corporate personhood, etc; ownership of and by legal constructs and their position in the legal system must be redefined;
8. Free education for all children in public schools. Abolition of children’s labour.
9. –
10. –

These points need some explanation and some additional work. Which I will do later on.

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One thought on “Private Property in Communism

  1. Nice post. I share many of your views and much of your reading here. I would say that Marx and Engels underscore your point too when they say:

    “We have seen above that the first step in the revolution by the working class is to raise the proletariat to the position of ruling class to win the battle of democracy.”

    So I think this quotation reinforces your point, since Marx and Engels insited the first step was to establish democracy. My view is that they did not mean democracy as we use and abuse the term today, but a genuine democracy where representatives were genuinely representing the interests of their constiutents and easily recalled if they fail to do so. Ancient democracies have even relied on a lottery where everyone was expected to serve as a representative: to take their turn as a representative.

    Also, while I think it is important that Marx and Engels underscore that the list would change from one time and place to another, I think the list is still pretty solid even today. It is important to understand the intricacies of each plank. For example I do not read the demand for:

    “Extension of factories and instruments of production owned by the State; the bringing into cultivation of waste-lands, and the improvement of the soil generally in accordance with a common plan.”

    as a call for the state to own all the means of production. Rather Marx and Engels are talking about ‘extending’ the factories and instruments of production already owned by the State. Basically they are calling for the State to become actively involved with production and to pursue producive enterprise where appropriate. In the United States, where I am from, I feel that government need only operate the natural monopoly industries which corresponds to item 6 on Marx and Engels list (adding energy distribution which was only in its infancy in 1848). There may be a few other industries appropriate for state operation, but most could be handled by worker cooperative corporations (like Mondragon or Anarcho-Syndicalism).

    The only other issue where either I do not agree or do not understand the motiviation is the item 9:

    “gradual abolition of all the distinction between town and country by a more equable distribution of the populace over the country.”

    I agree that some gradual abolition of the distinction between town and country is desirable, I would say more in the sense of vertical urban farming and other urban farming techniques and would not want to see an equitable distribution of the populace over the country.

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