As a Marxist, I often get asked a ton of basic questions about … well Marxism. Last week, I tried to answer one such question in the simplest terms possible. This week, I decided to tackle another common question on Marxism: do we want to take away your private property?
The short answer is “hell yeah we do”, but not in the way you think.
The best way to explain myself is to start at the point where most people get confused: the term “private property”. To start, let’s look at how Marx and Frederick Engels used the term themselves in The Communist Manifesto. For anyone wondering, Engels was Marx’s best buddy. At the very least, he could be considered the co-founder of Marxism. At the most, he’s pretty much the guy that turned Marx’s labyrinthine ramblings into an intelligible theory. Anyway, in Chapter II of the manifesto, this dynamic duo wrote:
“The theory of the Communists may be summed up in the single sentence: Abolition of private property.”
Seems pretty straight forward, right? Well, as always with Marx, things are a little more nuanced than they initially seem. Whenever we read Marx (and his mate Engels), we must understand he was writing for a 19th Century audience. He used a lot of terminology that was popular among political economists of his day, but are used less commonly (or totally differently) today. On top of this, Marx and Engels made up their own lexicon of terminology specific to their budding political theory. Reading Marx without understanding this would be a bit like reading Game of Thrones without understanding unique terms like “wildfire” and “khaleesi”.
So yeah, when reading Marx, we have to contend with a bunch of super outdated terminology, plus a bunch of words he pretty much just pulled out of his arse. To make matters worse, Marx wasn’t the most considerate of writers, and had a bad habit of simply not bothering to carefully explain his unique terminology. So, it’s no surprise Marx can be bloody hard to read.
For a perfect example of Marx’s ridiculous terminology, we needn’t look any further than “private property”. To the casual reader, the meaning of the term may seem self evident, but it really isn’t.
What private property isn’t …
Before I explain what Marx meant by private property, I think it’s worth stating what it isn’t. In Marxist terms, private property isn’t the stuff you as an ordinary person probably own. He isn’t talking about your socks, your shirt, your television or even necessarily your home. In the world of Marx, all of those things are “personal property”, not private property.
This might sound like some hair splitting semantics, but the difference between these two terms is actually super important for anyone trying to understand what Marx was on about. We can complain about this stupid terminology all we like, but the fact is we need to understand it if we want to actually get something out of reading Marx.
So, what is private property then?
So what was he on about when he referred to “private property”? Well, when Marx referred to private property, he was speaking specifically about the privately owned means of production. So, I hear you immediately asking, “wtf is privately owned means of production??”
For Marx, the means of production are the basic productive assets of any economy. For example, under feudalism, the main productive asset of any country was probably its farmland. For an industrialised capitalist economy of Marx’s era, the main means of production were big factories. This is still more or less true today, though some Marxists like to add things like the office block into the mix. Either way, the general point is that when Marx wrote about private property, he was referring to things like factories, and other assets critical to the production of important goods in an economy.
To really boil things down, private property is stuff that makes other stuff, while personal property is just stuff. For example, to Marx, a car factory is private property, because it can make stuff (you know, like cars). However, a single car can’t breed and make more cars. Therefore, it’s just personal property.
Abolishing private – but not personal – property
Delving a little deeper, Marx had a lot to say about private property. Marxism holds that an economy of private companies (aka, capitalism), is riddled with contradictions that make it kinda unstable, and not so great at distributing resources rationally. His solution was pretty simple: put industry in the hands of the workers, and you’ll get a much more stable, efficient economy. To understand the argument for this idea, I’d suggest reading this.
This is why he called for the “abolition of private property”. This call had nothing to do with Marx being the sharing-is-caring type. Not did he just wanting to try wearing his neighbour’s socks. Rather, the concept of abolishing private property was about making manufacturing more efficient, not for giving your commie room mate an excuse to drink all your beer.
So, what did Marx actually have to say about your personal property? Did Marx think cars, socks, beer and everything else should likewise be collectively owned? Put bluntly, the answer is that Marx didn’t really seem to give a shit. He (and Engels, remember!!) created a whole new school of economics, not a post modern lifestyle brand. He was interested in big picture stuff, like factories and international trade. The contents of your sock drawer were pretty inconsequential to him.
Given this, it’s safe to say there is no Marxist basis for the abolition of personal property. So when the revolution comes, you can keep your socks.