One thing I’ve noticed among non-Marxists is the tendency to fall into a certain trap regarding Marx’s teachings. This is a trap I’ve also fallen into, meaning that, for a long while, my perception of what communism would actually look like was flawed; I believed that under a communist system, the abolition of private property would mean the abolition of individual ownership altogether.
The concept of private property is one easily mistaken, but actually refers to ownership of something that can generate capital, such as a workforce. This means that nobody would be permitted to own a source of profit, rendering both profit and exploitation obsolete concepts.
Personal property, on the other hand, refers to items for individual use, such as a house, a phone or a musical instrument. None of these, according to Karl Marx would be abolished by the revolutionary movement, as they do not contribute to exploitation, capitalism, or the accumulation of profit.
Are you a little more sympathetic yet?
Yes indeed. The phrase, in the Bible, which I most like is ” in my Father”s House are many mansions…” Houses are part of the fabric and story of your life……
Great post AR. It’s very easy to fall into lazy stereotypes when précising Marx, but once again you come up trumps. (Let’s all hope Trump doesn’t come up trumps.)
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That’s really interesting and informative as usual, thanks AR, and has prompted me to discuss the concept of ownership and life under a communist regime generally with my mum, who lived in communist East Germany between 1945 and 1959 (aged 5 – 19). My understanding of her story is as follows. Her family had already moved west once before, from Silesia, in 1945 to escape the advancing Russians. They left behind farms on both her parents’ sides (so, private property).
Thereafter she grew up contentedly in a village near Magdeburg (I’ll come back to that) and after high school studied at the university there, staying in the city during the week. Her father had been trained as a master dyer (of fabrics) and was a capitalist sort of chap who had accumulated enough profit, and no doubt exploited enough workers, to own two cars. I suppose he objected to the lack of freedom to be a capitalist: certainly, he wanted to move west again. He used his cars to smuggle people out of the East, taking them to Potsdam, where they were able to travel west by train. The word on the street was that a physical wall was going to go up (which it did in 1961 I think) to reinforce the borders which the communist government already had in place to prevent people from leaving. At some point my grandfather sent word to my mother to take the train directly from Magdeburg to Berlin, where she met up with the rest of the family. Once again, they had put what they could in a suitcase and left the rest behind. They moved to Gelsenkirchen Buer that time – about as far west as you can go in Germany, no doubt to ensure it would be the last time they fled the Russians! As enterprising as ever, they set up a dry cleaning business there and didn’t move again.
So, my mother’s family went to great lengths to escape the communist regime (as did many others – the Checkpoint Charlie museum in Berlin exhibits a plethora of inventive methods of escape and of course many people were killed trying) – yet, when I asked Mum how it was to live under the communists, she said she was very happy, and she greatly enjoyed working on communist run farms during school holidays where there was a great sense of camaraderie.
Not all of Mum’s family escaped, and my grandmother regularly sent parcels with treats and luxuries they couldn’t obtain there – chocolate for example, and toys for the children. One relative was a doctor, whose child was diabetic: she could only obtain thick needles for administering insulin there, which hurt and thickened the child’s skin, so my grandmother used to send her fine ones.
Generally it is said that happiness levels in communist societies are high, and Mum’s experience reflects this. However, I believe it made the relatives who were left behind miserable to know that there were luxuries available to others which they couldn’t have. That could easily, of course, be an argument FOR communism, because it is the inequality of wealth which creates the misery.
You never came back, as you said you would, to discuss the village near Magdeburg. Did your mother have anything to add to her memories of that time?
So, in a sense, private property is anathema to general happiness (exploitation ensues). Personal property is essential for general existence?
The problem with this argument is that function is not ontological, and the difference between a consumer good and a capital good depend on how someone choose to use it. Using your own exemples: a building can house a family or a factory, a musical instrument can be played for fun or as a job, and a phonecall can be personal or business-related. Can those things be privately owned if they are used to produce? And if not, should the owner be forbidden from using them productively, or should the goods be confiscated if he tries?
Tax the income at near to 100%, no?
Assuming a government could actually enforce such a measure (and that’s not easy, not even with dictatorial powers), people would likely just stop using fiat money, switching instead to either barter or some kind of unofficial currency.
Meant to say, Waterstones in York have copies of the book in stock.
Great job on the blog Max, and thanks for broaching an interesting topic.
Regarding the technicalities of private property, I believe Marx would have considered housing to be a capital good (for the reasons mentioned by Leo) and should therefore be a socialised resource. Such land reform, for example, was decreed by Lenin following the 1917 revolution – as surmised form this wikipedia grab:
“The Decree on Land, issued by Lenin at 1917, and the “Fundamental Law of Land Socialization” of 1918, decreed that private ownership of land is totally abolished – land may not be sold, purchased, leased, mortgaged, or otherwise alienated. All land, whether state, crown, monastery, church, factory, entailed, private, public, peasant, etc., shall be confiscated without compensation and become the property of the whole people, and pass into the use of all those who cultivate it. These decrees were superseded by the 1922 Land Code. After the universal agricultural collectivization, land codes of the Soviet republics lost their significance”.
In practice, the reallocation of housing as a social good would ensure that everyone is entitled to a home of their own, however, so everyone would still have a place of their own to call home.
Are you sure about this concept of private property? I made my second fortune using only an internet connected lap-top. It was the source of my profits.
Will you communists take my lap-tip away?
Even clearer one could use the word personal POSSESIONS vs capitalist property.
If we are a little bit more tolerant towards a market socialism type system, we could say that it is fine to own objects that you use and make a profit from; what is not allowed is to own objects that OTHERS are using, and make a profit from them. You can own your own car and use it as a taxi, but you cannot own the taxi someone else drives and demand a share of his incomes.
Now, I read the sad news in the Guardian. I hope your metaphysical beliefs were wrong after all and that somehow you can still se this from somewhere.
Really useful and insightful post- Thanks for helping dispel the misconception Max,