On Property and Ownership Relations

A Return to the Social Theory of Karl Marx

by Wiesław Gumuła (Author)
©2018 Monographs 200 Pages


This book comprises a systematic analysis of Karl Marx’s reasoning on ownership. Marx as the author of an original theory of ownership is yet to be discovered. The creator of a theory which was to interpret social reality is quite a different thinker from the creator of a doctrine which was to alter the world. In designing communist society, Marx ignored the threats which social property bears, despite having skillfully identified them in investigations of diverse pre-capitalistic forms of common ownership. The author seeks to break through one-sided interpretations which discern in Marx a decisive critique of private property and an apologia of common ownership. It becomes apparent that Marx treated both the processes of socialization and privatization of ownership with equal consideration.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Introduction
  • Chapter I: What is Ownership?
  • On the Nature of General Concepts
  • Property in a Legal and Socioeconomic Sense
  • Production and Ownership
  • Ownership – A Social Relationship Shaped through Production
  • Owners of Conditions of Labor and Owners of Labor Power
  • Distribution and Ownership
  • Ownership – A Social Relationship Shaped through Participation in the Distribution of Product
  • Owners of the Conditions of Labor as Appropriators of Product
  • Exchange and Ownership
  • Ownership – A Relationship Shaped through Exchange
  • Owners of the Means of Exchange
  • Consumption and Ownership – Owners of the Means of Subsistence
  • Conclusions: General Concepts of Ownership
  • Chapter II: A History of Privatization: Pre-Capitalistic Forms of Ownership
  • Historical Systems of Ownership
  • Property Relations in the Primordial Community
  • General Characteristics
  • Common Ownership
  • Movable Property
  • Property Relations in the Asiatic Society
  • General Characteristics
  • Communal Ownership of the Asiatic Formation
  • Ownership Relations in the Asiatic Society
  • Other Forms of Ownership in the Asiatic Society
  • Property Relations in the Ancient Society
  • General Characteristics
  • The Dualism of Property Relations in the Ancient Society
  • Individual Private Property of the Ancient Type
  • State Ownership of Land
  • Property Relations in the German Commune
  • General Characteristics
  • Individual Private Property and Communal Ownership of Land
  • Property Relations in the Slavery Formation of Society
  • The Dual Nature of Enslavement
  • Large Landownership Based upon the Work of Slaves
  • Other Forms of Ownership
  • Property Relations in Feudal Societies
  • General Characteristics
  • Feudal Land Ownership
  • Guild Ownership of the Craftsman’s Workshop
  • Chapter III: Capitalistic Forms of Private Ownership and Other
  • Introductory Remarks
  • Ownership Relations during the Transition between Feudalism and Capitalism in Western Europe
  • Individual Private Ownership
  • A Case Study
  • Preliminary Accumulation as a Process in the Transformation of Property Relations
  • Social Relations within the System of Capitalistic Private Property
  • Capitalist Relations of Ownership in the Sphere of Production
  • Capitalist Relations of Ownership in the Sphere of Distribution
  • Capitalist Relations of Ownership in the Sphere of Exchange
  • Capitalist Relations of Ownership in the Sphere of Consumption
  • The Theory of Exploitation
  • General Characteristics of Exploitation
  • The Feudal Relationship of Exploitation – A Case of Explicit and Visible Exploitation
  • The Capitalist Relationship of Exploitation – A Case of Implicit and Invisible Exploitation
  • The Parties in Relationships of Exploitation and the Means of Exploitation
  • Chapter IV: Social Property – Shades of Privatization and Socialization of Property
  • Sketching Out the Problem
  • Property and Social Development
  • Privatization and Socialization of Property in the Sphere of Production
  • The Dualism of Private and Collective Elements in Historical Forms of Common Property
  • The Lower Phase of Communist Socialization of Property as Confirmation of Private Property
  • Concentration of the Conditions of Labor versus Association of Producers
  • The Higher Phase of Communist Socialization of Property
  • Privatization and Socialization of Property in the Sphere of Product Distribution
  • The Dualism of Private and Collective Elements in Historical Forms of Common Property
  • Communist Socialization of Property as the Process of Dis-Alienation
  • Privatization and Socialization of Property and the Issue of Exchange
  • The Sociological Aspect of Exchange
  • Communist Socialization of Property as a Process for the Elimination of Commodity Exchange
  • Privatization and Socialization of Property in the Sphere of Consumption
  • In Summary
  • Chapter V: Property and Social Structure
  • Introduction
  • Class Relations as Property Relations
  • Class Relations and Class Differences in Material Conditions of Existence
  • Class Structure as a System of Social Groups
  • The Composition of the Class for Itself
  • The Category of Interest and Class-Forming Processes
  • Class Communities and Property Relations
  • Chapter VI: Conclusions
  • Bibliography
  • Series Index

← 8 | 9 →


The volume at hand comprises a systematic analysis of the reasoning of Karl Marx on the subject of ownership. In truth, ownership is one of the central categories found in his theories and doctrines, and, more pertinently here, it continues to arouse great interest and emotions among politicians and scholars alike. Scores of authors past and present make reference to Marx when writing about property, regardless of whether they accept or reject his views. Nonetheless, their selection of sources and interpretations thereof are often so biased that one could conclude that Marx – as the author of an original and novel theory of ownership – is yet to be discovered.

Such a state of affairs in discussions regarding Marx’s concept of ownership stems from implications of an either social or theoretical nature. Among the former are mostly polemics of ideological and political consequence. Among the latter, theoretical resolutions have become ensnared in practical contexts and concrete effects which have hampered impartial academic analysis. After all, for the whole of the 20th century, the works of Marx were reshaped and twisted into a primitive political doctrine. Thus, a significant segment of his views has been moved into the shadows and suppressed. Even critics of Marxism were uninterested in stepping beyond a simplistic interpretation of the words of Karl Marx.

Among the dilemmas in this investigation, it is worth noting the great difficulties that result from an unequivocal reception of Marxist thought. Property and ownership comprise a running theme throughout the entirety of his substantial writings – from the earliest to the last – yet not one position incorporates a systematic discourse on this specific topic. Admittedly, only a certain fragment of his output is of a scholarly nature: dominating many texts is the ideological or programmatic aspect in connection with his political convictions or his involvement in the Communist movement. Furthermore, subtle, complex, or ambiguous analyses intertwine with clear and simple declarations. Crucial here is that Marx the creator of a theory which was to describe and elucidate social reality is a different animal from Marx the creator of a doctrine which was to alter the world.

Naturally, Marx himself would disagree with this last statement. After all, he assumed from the outset a unity of critical theory and practice. Still, between Marx’s theory and the practice thereof, there is a dark realm of inattention and inconsistency; proof of which is, truth be told, the concept of the communist society. When designing a better world, Marx ignored the threats which social property ownership bears, despite having skillfully identified them in investigations of diverse pre-capitalistic forms of common ownership. ← 9 | 10 →

In this presentation of Marx’s views on ownership, I will make full use of voluminous sources, recurrently citing Marx – as well as Engels and others – or referring the reader to original texts. After all these decades, far too frequently we find references to secondary materials in contemporary explorations of Marx, to oft-repeated interpretations, and to the same quotations. It is my deduction that these references usually include citations copied from secondary analyses and not from the primary texts penned by Karl Marx himself. Evidence to this effect can be the limited assortment, which now comprises a sort of banal canon of WikiQuotes. I, therefore, strive to delve into materials less cited; none too difficult, considering how neglected this topic and approach is. Reception of Marx’s opinions on the subject of ownership is superficial and interpretations are fraught with many an error. Only a thorough and comprehensive presentation of the available body of material permits accurate analysis and safeguards against imputations of statements never uttered.

Analysis of Marx’s conception here will be from that intellectual perspective, which emphasizes the elasticity and openness found in his own research approach. This is a reaction to scholastic and dogmatic readings of his works; a tendency initiated by Engels as he consolidated Marx’s legacy and, subsequently, continued by Lenin and other Marxists of various ilk.

In first order, I will concentrate on analysis of the multiplicity of meanings assigned to the terms “private ownership” and “common ownership,” or “social ownership.” After all, private and common ownership have assumed many historical forms, which fundamentally differ from one another. Principally, I will try to break through the primitive interpretations, which discern in Marx a decisive critique of private property and an apologia for ownership in common. In fact, his approach to these matters was much more complicated. On several occasions, Marx spoke both encouragingly about specific forms of private ownership and disparagingly about specific forms of common ownership.

Secondly, I will treat with equal consideration both the processes of privatization and socialization of ownership as analyzed by Marx. Thusly, I aim to break through a sort of monoculture when it comes to interpretations of the works of Marx; a propensity to discuss and deliberate upon socialization to a rather limited degree.

Thirdly, I aim to shed light on Marx’s conclusions and opinions regarding the diverse ways, in which a person may become an owner within different forms of private or common ownership. It is not true that individuals come in two categories; they are not simply owners and non-owners, as commentators on Marx would often have it; again, regardless of whether they advocate or oppose Marxism. ← 10 | 11 →

Fourthly, I focus strongly on that aspect of Marx’s theory of ownership which pertains to interpersonal relations. For Marx, each form of ownership is a system of complicated relations between concrete individuals, and not some abstract institutional construct in which some are owners while others are not. Here, too, I break through a certain interpretative stereotype according to which Marx is simply the creator of an abstract theory, beyond which one may expect no individual actions or interpersonal relations. In fact, Marx’s approach is closer to the sociology of social relations, which is evidenced by his theory of ownership.

The main objective of the inquiry and analysis conducted herein is ownership perceived as a socioeconomic category. Of course, one cannot ignore issues belonging more to the philosophical or legal categories. Although, these do not constitute – from my perspective – a distinctly separate matter, but rather complement deliberations of a more socioeconomic vein.

So much has been written on the subject of ownership that, no matter the guidelines, any bibliography will be less than complete. Already the classic thinkers of antiquity spoke of property and ownership; it was, and continues to be, the subject of reflection in Christian philosophy. The Renaissance, Reformation, and Enlightenment also witnessed a bounty of treatises on this topic; suffice it to mention Saint Thomas Aquinas, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, David Hume, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Georg W.F. Hegel. At the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries, several new disciplines evolved out of the social sciences – including economics – and many of them also saw ownership as a topic of its interest (see Adam Smith, for instance).

This was also the moment, in which the most significant works appeared by representatives of utopian socialism; for instance, Robert Owen and Pierre- Joseph Proudhon. It was also in the 19th century, when Karl Marx penned the socioeconomic theory of ownership. Subsequently, at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, sociological theories of ownership appeared in the works of Ferdinand Tönnies, Georg Simmel, and Max Weber.

In the 20th century, ownership was the subject of research conducted as part of the most significant theoretical schools and trends; it was also an important playing field for their conflicts and resolutions. A few of these schools of thought deserve special mention here. One of these is the liberal-ethical school, which discerns the core problem in answering the question as to how it is possible to justly distribute private property and civil rights. The standard bearers for this group included Robert Nozick, though inspiration came from Thomas Hobbes and John Locke. A second school, which I will here call the liberal-pragmatic, posed the question as to which configurations of ownership rights and privileges ← 11 | 12 → would enable an efficient economy and utility maximization. This current of theoretical reflection on ownership was developed by, among others, representatives of the Property Rights School and the new institutionalized economics (e.g., Armen Alchian, Steven Cheung, Ronald Coase, and Harold Demsetz). The predecessors of this group may be found in classic economics or the psychological school in economics. Certain representatives have been inspired by the works of Max Weber and Karl Marx as well.

In Central and Eastern Europe, it was orthodox Marxism – concentrating on an apologetics for sundry forms of common and state ownership – which spread in the 20th century. This school of thought in various ways reproduced the concept of ownership found in works by Lenin or signed by Stalin. Against this regional backdrop, the Polish applicative-analytical trend was unique and assumed the traits of a theoretical school. Representatives of this line of thinking gathered around Stanisław Kozyr-Kowalski and his writings; they also attempted to use Karl Marx and other theorists dealing with ownership – such as Max Weber – to develop new research instruments. Such instruments were to facilitate critical diagnosis and elucidation of property relations in state socialism societies as well as in postmodern market economy societies.

Noticeable in the scholarly reflections of the first two decades of the 21st century are ever more studies inspired by the works of Karl Marx. This especially pertains to the creation of theoretical tools, which are to serve in the interpretation of processes currently underway in global finances and of the influence of finances on real economics. It is my feeling, however, that this renaissance of interest in Marx’s output is a rerun in the history of oversimplifications and a deconstruction of his views and convictions. Interpreting Marx anew, sociologists and economists alike are replicating the same generalizations and falling into the same traps as their predecessors in the previous century. This is yet another reason why I decided to return to the issue of property and ownership, reexamine Marx in the original, and publish this volume.

Allowing oneself to be inspired by the writings of Marx is, from a theoretical point of view, a promising scholarly venture. Similarly, there is profound sense in delving into the views on ownership held by St. Thomas Aquinas, Max Weber, and Georg Simmel, representatives of the Property Rights School, and many another thinker. The ideas of our predecessors should serve to stimulate and incite. As Robert Merton said, a scholar is a dwarf standing on the shoulders of giants from whom he learns. In the case of Karl Marx, such a declaration is all the more warranted: even if he wrote in the 19th century, his thinking continues to be up-to-date. The processes that Marx identified and elucidated in his day manifest ← 12 | 13 → loud and clear in the 21st century and, so, it is worth verifying the applicability of his research perspective.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2018 (October)
Common ownership Private ownership Socialization of property Privatization of property Expropriation Property rights
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2018. 200 pp.

Biographical notes

Wiesław Gumuła (Author)

Wiesław Gumuła divides his interest between academic life and financial institutions. He is Professor of Sociology at the Jagiellonian University of Cracow (Poland), where he specializes in the sociology of finance. He is the creator of the theory of social peculiarities. For many years, Gumuła has been working for the banking sector.


Title: On Property and Ownership Relations
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