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What do I mean by “Private Property”?

September 3, 2011 9 comments

Neverfox asked me:

“What do you mean, exactly, when you say “private property”?”

 Let me begin by avoiding the obvious (but wrong) answer to this question. While many strands of communism define property as a relation between the individual and things,  historical materialism, defines property as a relation between individuals. What do I mean by this?

Usually, when Marxists are asked this are asked this, they respond by identifying objects that meet the criteria of political-economy as property. Then they subtract from this, specific objects that would not fit the definition of private property for their purpose as “the objects to be seized”. They will say, for instance, an automobile is personal, not private, property under their definition, but an automobile factory is private property. When pressed on this — e.g., “but what about taxis?” — they will again divide the objects between things for personal use and things for use as capital.

Somehow, after all of this they arrive at an approximation: “things which are collectively required versus things that are not.” They then propose that things collectively required are “private property” while things that are not collectively required are not.

The problem with this view is that among the “things collectively required” by us, is us — we need each other. And, we need us, not just in the religious or ideal sense of that term, but in the very physical sense. As a species we would die out without mating; and our civilization would die out without our common pool of labor power.

Now, think about that: What is the easiest solution to this problem: make everything into  the common property of society. The collectively required means become the property of the whole community — now extend this idea to sex and labor. You immediately run into the problem: women become the collective property of men. And, individual labor becomes the collective property of the commune.

This implies that this entire approach to the idea of private property is a dead end, that it contains a fallacy in itself.

So, Marx, in his work, Private Property and Communism, tried a completely different approach to the question, which did not lead to this absurd outcome. As opposed to the Utopians, he proposes communism as not the seizure of property, but its transcendence. In other words — to the best of my understanding — to overcoming the insatiable impulse to have stuff.

What he calls “primitive communism” seeks only to grasp private property and make it the common property of society, and, even if successful, only succeeds in sharing poverty out. Society is turned into a poverty stricken workhouse — he rejects this communism. In this primitive communism “want is merely made general, and with destitution the struggle for necessities and all the old filthy business would necessarily be reproduced” — this is from the German Ideology. Moreover, he argued, this primitive communism could not survive long in the competitive environment of the world market:

Without this, (1) communism could only exist as a local event; (2) the forces of intercourse themselves could not have developed as universal, hence intolerable powers: they would have remained home-bred conditions surrounded by superstition; and (3) each extension of intercourse would abolish local communism.

Yesterday, I came across a post that follows a similar line of argument:

In fact, as Berman points out, Marx envisioned two very different kinds of communism. One, which he wanted and approved of, was a “genuine resolution of the conflict between man and nature, and between man and man”; the other, which he dreaded, “has not only failed to go beyond private property, it hasn’t yet attained to it”. What this means is that, for Marx, genuine communism was only possible on the basis of the legacy of a mature and fully developed capitalism. The communism we have seen in the 20th century, and which most people rightly dread and condemn, is more a kind of state-capitalism, brutally managing poverty and imposing industrial development. The years since Marx’s death have seen very many examples of the second kind of communism; but none yet, unfortunately, of the first.

Compare this passage and Marx’s above passage to the fate of the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China.

Primitive communism understands itself only in relation to private ownership and the inequality of capitalist society. This was the basis of his differences with the anarchists. He argued that if Capital had not completed its historical mission of developing the productive forces sufficiently to abolish want. The commune would still suffer from poverty and would have to complete it on its own. This would require some definite means of apportioning the requirement for labor among the members. This means of dividing up the necessary labor would constitute the remnants of the bourgeois state. Whether people wanted it or not, their consumption would be tied to their labor until the need for labor disappeared. Compulsion would continue to exist in the form that access to the means of consumption would necessarily be measured by the labor contribution of each member.

The anarchists rejected this, but he wasn’t persuaded — this, unfortunately, led in part to the first big split in the workers’ movement. But, even after the split this very same difference reemerges in almost complete form within the Marxist trend itself.

The true resolution, Marx argued, is the abolition of want, of poverty, and of necessary labor. It is, in essence, the abolition of the need to have things since, under these conditions the need to physically possess anything dies out — any material thing one might want is readily present in abundance. With this material abundance, he argues, the impulsive need to possess nature and other individuals must die out as well.

So, in a broader sense of the term, as he defines it, private property is the inverse expression of general scarcity. It is not a “thing to be seized”, but a relationship with nature and other individuals to be abolished.

Finally, Marx insisted:

Communism is the necessary form and the dynamic principle of the immediate future, but communism as such is not the goal of human development, the form of human society.

I hope that helps answer this. The essay on private property and communism is quite better argued than I just did.