Marx's stance on private property is far from the horror we're told it is, writes John Westmoreland
We recently held a Counterfire discussion group in Doncaster on Marx’s most widely read work The Communist Manifesto. The selected text we discussed was the section of the Manifesto entitled Proletarians and Communists. Most of our discussion, and indeed the most fruitful part of it, was taken up with Marx’s declaration that Communists should seek ‘the abolition of bourgeois property’.
The first reaction to this radical idea was that it would find little resonance with the British working class, a large number of whom have bought their own homes and seek to get a better life through the acquisition of more property – cars, comfortable domestic furnishings etc. Furthermore, should Jeremy Corbyn in any way confess sympathy to Marx on this issue, he would be confined to the margins of political life. Perhaps it would be better to note what Marx has to say and move on?
However Marx anticipated this reaction. He pointed out that he was referring to ‘bourgeois property’, and property relations not the hard won property of the worker. For Marx the bourgeois defence of their property was at one and the same time a defence of their power, and was riddled with hypocrisy because,
All property relations in the past have continually been subject to historical change consequent upon the change in historical conditions. The French Revolution, for example, abolished feudal property in favour of bourgeois property.
It is worth thinking about ‘bourgeois property relations’ in more detail. Bourgeois property relations come about, as Marx says above, through dispossessing others, and then inventing a legal code to justify this robbery.
In the 18th century the imposition of bourgeois property relations on the labouring poor came about by the seizure of common lands. For example, in Scotland the highland clearances removed crofters from the land and turned the highlands into sheep ranges. This was done through force. In England common land was parcelled up and given to big farmers. Legal documents were provided to defend this robbery.
The same practice of dispossession backed up with invented legal documentation affected peoples throughout the British Empire. In North America the native inhabitants thought that private property was an absurd inversion of reality. The inhabitants were secondary and the land was primary. So as European settlers knocked in some wooden stakes to make a claim on native lands, the US government gave them deeds that made the robbery legal. This is going on today in Palestine, and in the Amazon.
Marx goes further than the robbery inherent in bourgeois property relations though. The ultimate prize that the bourgeoisie gain from transforming pre-existing property relations is the creation of capital. The working class was born from being pushed from the land. They became wage-labourers which,
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 clearly foresaw where this dynamic in capitalism was likely to take humanity. The recent report by Oxfam which shows that just 8 men own half the world’s wealth was anticipated by Marx when he wrote,
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.
To say that war, oppression and environmental destruction are inherent in the history of capitalism is, I hope, self-evident. However, the level of crisis facing the younger generation makes Marx’s call to abolish bourgeois property compelling. For young people everywhere Marx writes,
In bourgeois society the past dominates the present; in Communist society, the present dominates the past.
The students taking part in the climate strikes around the planet rightly insist that we need to act immediately. But how can we do that if we have to respect the property rights of the fossil fuel industry? The abolition of bourgeois property means empowering our hopes and intellects, and linking production to human need.
Marx gives a detailed list about how the abolition of bourgeois property could transform human existence for the better.
Without private property relations we would be able to share the production and consumption of goods equally. A system of social entitlement would replace the vagaries of the market thereby ending poverty and social and political inequality. We would abolish all inherited wealth and prevent the growth of a dominant caste.
National boundaries would become meaningless when we have gained stewardship over the planet. Intellectual production in terms of scientific research would be available to all instead of being hoarded by corporations and states to further their own nefarious ambitions.
In place of the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms, we shall have an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.
John is a history teacher and UCU rep. He is an active member of the People's Assembly and writes regularly for Counterfire.