Property

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Property or property relations are fundamental social relations in which relations between people become expressed as relations between people and things.

The ownership of property constitutes a social relation in as far as that ownership affects the lives of other people. So, for example, a labourer in capitalism is the owner of their own capacity to work, but when they sell it on a day to day basis, it becomes the property of a capitalist who obtains the right to use it, and the right to profit from it. Ownership over the means of production is the most important social relation of this kind, since it gives the owning class control over the labour process. Since this process is essential to human subsistence, it also gives them power over labourers.

Communist society removes the existence of bourgeois property; it does not remove the form of property which we have over ourselves, our own choices and thoughts, our own expressions and ideas. In communist society, while all people wholly own themselves individually, they also own in common the means of production. Communist society does away with distinctively capitalist property relations; while in the human sense it strengthens property relations.

Personal and private property[edit]

Karl Marx is clear in the Communist Manifesto that the aim of communism is the abolition of bourgeois property, not any form of property at all.

The distinguishing feature of Communism 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.

In this sense, the theory of the Communists may be summed up in the single sentence: Abolition of private property.

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. [Marx, Communist Manifesto, Chapter 2]

Later socialists have invented the popular distinction between personal and private property.

As Marx describes in the passage cited above, private property involves the appropriation of a worker's labour by someone else, and because of this creates class antagonisms. This property is only useful to the owner because they're able to exclude others from it. A factory, for instance, is valuable because workers will need the owner's permission to work in it. If the owner didn't have this right to exclude, workers would be able to organise productive activity on their own terms, and have no reason to award the owner any part of the product. The factory would thus be completely worthless to him. Because of his rights, however, the owner can coerce the workers to enter into wage labour and make a nice profit via exploitation.

You cannot say the same about personal property, which is held for its use-value to you personally. To someone who doesn't intend to use their house for speculation on the market, it doesn't matter one bit whether others are interested in accessing it. Their aim is to enjoy the shelter it provides. They might still have some right to exclude others from it to ensure their own privacy, but they do not use this right to force others into special relations with them, they only want to be left alone.

Criticisms of the distinction[edit]

Hegelian Philosophy[edit]

For Hegel, the right to property was the fundamental premise for being truly a person: “The rationale of property is to be found not in the satisfaction of needs but in the supersession of the pure subjectivity of personality. In his property a person exists for the first time as reason”, and he defines the moments of Property as Possession (“The will has its embodiment in something positive”), Use (“the will to possess something must express itself”) and Alienation (i.e. selling or giving the thing).[1]

Hegel also made a particular point of excluding the possibility of the “kinds of things” being property, only individual things. He also regarded making collective property of anything which was capable of being the property of an individual as a grave mistake.

References[edit]

Marxists Internet Archive Encyclopedia
This page was originally adapted from an MIA Encyclopedia entry written by Brian Baggins and/or Andy Blunden.

It is subject to CC BY-SA 2.0.