On Property and Ownership Relations

A Return to the Social Theory of Karl Marx

by Wiesław Gumuła (Author)
Monographs 200 Pages

Table Of Content

  • 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

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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.

As for thinkers and politicians who would seek to find something in his program for changing the world, I admonish one and all to refer to his analyses of common and social ownership known from history. A thorough reading of Marx’s views on the subject of the socialization of property also serves as a word of caution, albeit indirectly and implicitly, even if Karl Marx himself directly and explicitly recommends such a socialization. The volume at hand focuses not only on the opportunities but, foremost, on the dangers which Marx identified as borne by specific forms of common ownership. Already in his times, changes in property and ownership relations signaled both great hopes and expectations as well as great disquiet and unease. ← 13 | 14 →

← 14 | 15 →

Chapter I:  What is Ownership?

On the Nature of General Concepts

In the 19th century, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon posed the question – “What is property?” – which was met by an audacious reply from Karl Marx: “The question is so badly formulated that it cannot be answered correctly.”1 Against this backdrop, the title of this chapter is perhaps incongruous and inapt particularly if this volume is to comprise a deliberation on Marxist theory of property and ownership.

Such a point of departure for these deliberations is justified, however, by the approach employed by the very author of the above-cited rebuke. Marx sketches out his methodology further into his just quoted Letter to J. B. Schweizer as well as in his Letter to Pavel Vasilyevich Annenkov, in The Poverty of Philosophy, and in Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy.2 Quite interestingly, in all these works, Karl Marx presents his approach to general concepts against the backdrop of these considerations of Proudhon. Therein, Marx affirms that deliberations on such generally phrased problems are most often burdened by a priori formulas which have little in common with reality; and Proudhon’s error was to be of this type. Instead of recognizing economic categories as a theoretical expression of historic social relations, Proudhon saw them as perpetual concepts independent of such concrete relationships; such an interpretation could only hinder a cognitive access to reality. Furthermore, Proudhon regarded the legal definition of capitalist private property as a general concept which might be applied to all historic forms of economic property relations:

Ancient ‘property relations’ were superseded by feudal property relations and these by ‘bourgeois’ property relations. Thus, history itself had expressed its criticism upon past property relations. What Proudhon was actually dealing with was modern bourgeois property as it exists today. The question of what this is could have only been answered ← 15 | 16 → by a critical analysis of ‘political economy’, embracing the totality of these property relations, considering not their legal aspect as relations of volition but their real form, that is, as relations of production.3

In contrast, Marx’s methodology is anchored in a belief that the genesis of general terms must be sought in reality itself. The definition of a general concept does not conclude the research process, but is rather a theoretical stage leading to answers about the concrete historical form of the phenomenon under study. It is therefore a mistake to attribute the content of a general concept, as Proudhon does, to real relations. In fact, quite the opposite is true: it is general concepts which are the theoretical expression of real phenomena. From the perspective of Marx,

[Proudhon] fails to see that economic categories are but abstractions of those real relations, that they are truths only in so far as those relations continue to exist. Thus, he falls into the error of bourgeois economists who regard those economic categories as eternal laws and not as historical laws which are laws only for a given historical development, a specific development of the productive forces. Thus, instead of regarding politico-economic categories as abstractions of actual social relations that are transitory and historical, Mr. Proudhon, by a mystical inversion, sees in the real relations only the embodiment of those abstractions.4

On the basis of production, Marx provides a utilitarian validation for the use of general concepts:

All periods of production, however, have certain features in common: they have certain common categories. Production in general is an abstraction, but a sensible abstraction in so far as it actually emphasises and defines the common aspects and thus avoids repetition. Yet this general concept, or the common aspect which has been brought to light by comparison, is itself a multifarious compound comprising divergent categories. Some elements are found in all epochs, others are common to a few epochs. The most modern period and the most ancient period will have (certain) categories in common.5

The function of general concepts is met by terms which: (a) permit delineation of the sphere of the identity of phenomena, regardless of the degree of variation between the forms which they can take; (b) facilitate demarcation of the sphere of reality, in which phenomena may be identified without fear of referring to things different than intended; i.e., demarcation of the boundaries within which a phenomenon occurs; and (c) afford a keystone for the study of differences and historical transformations, to which these phenomena succumb. The definition ← 16 | 17 → of a general concept cannot posit a specific historical shape for the phenomenon under investigation; again, it can only provide the basis for such research.

Does Marx employ a general concept of ownership? In truth, no such general definition of this concept can be found in his works, which could meet the abovementioned specifications. To be more precise, no straightforwardly articulated definition is to be found. It is, nevertheless, possible to distinguish descriptions of a lesser degree of generalization – adequate for some historical forms of ownership – or descriptions so very general that other social facts fit in the spectrum. Yet such overall concepts in his thinking are more discretely assumed, embedded in that layer of his theory which Piotr Sztompka calls the “theoretical-methodological orientation.”6

It is worth delving into this further. According to Sztompka, each theory contains at least two layers of meaning: the superficial which comprises everything that is written expressis verbis, and the deep-seated which consists of everything that a conception implicitly assumes. It is the latter layer which bears the basic ontological and epistemological principles, key to the realm of the phenomenon that a theory describes and elucidates. The set of these principles constitutes the theoretical-methodological orientation, and anyone who proclaims a conception undertakes – consciously or subconsciously – such an orientation. To cite Sztompka, “I claim that the true uniqueness of each cognitive conception manifests itself only when we extricate the theoretical-methodological orientation at its base. This claim I use with reference to the analysis of Marxism.”7

Indeed, Marx’s general definition of property can be found in the ontological assumptions and presuppositions of his theory of ownership. A search for the underlying premises of statements and declarations requires, as Sztompka suggests, reverse extrapolation that refers to the tenet illustrated in the conventional saying: “Since you say B, then you had to have said A.” And if reverse extrapolation is applied simultaneously to many different assertions and statements which constitute middle range theories, then that intersection of broad-spectrum statements – revealed through reverse extrapolations – constitutes the common premise for all middle range assertions and, hence, their generalized formulation. The same refers to the path for reconstruction of the general concept of ownership.

The core section of this chapter constitutes the search for Marx’s general concept of property as a socioeconomic category. Yet, in fact, these deliberations will ← 17 | 18 → be preceded by a sketch of legal understandings of ownership, necessary for the exposition of the unique socioeconomic content of this concept.

Property in a Legal and Socioeconomic Sense

Karl Marx used the concept of ownership in at least three senses: legal, socioeconomic, and philosophical. In doing so, Marx regularly accented the need to go beyond the legal understanding and reference economic analyses because capitalist law obscures economic relations instead of displaying their true content.

Marx states directly that, when capitalist relations of production have developed to such an extent that the legal institutions of feudalism have begun to stymie further development of capitalism, then Roman private law – which spotlights full and exclusive property rights – begins to be applied. This was a perfect instrument for the elimination of institutions of divided ownership which gave different persons different rights to the same things. Landlords used the formula of Roman private law to expropriate peasants from their property rights to the parcels of land they cultivated. Thus, Marx distinguishes various capitalist legal definitions for property as stemming from Roman law and taking on several traits thereof.

Above all, these definitions take on the abstract and generalized nature of the Roman law. The Roman formula for property rights endows the owner, according to Justinian code, with full reign over an object [plena in res protestas]. The proprietor accumulates, among other things, the following rights and privileges with regards to things: the right to possess, to use and abuse, to enjoy benefits, and to have command over things (ius possidendi, ius utendi et abutendi, ius utendi fruendi, and ius disponendi). Additionally, legislation in the capitalist countries of Marx’s times aimed to bestow upon owners full and exclusive rights over objects, thus destroying feudal legal institutions:

As soon as industry and trade developed private property further, first in Italy and later in other countries, the highly developed Roman civil law was immediately adopted again and raised, to authority. When later the bourgeoisie had acquired so much power that the princes took up its interests in order to overthrow the feudal nobility by means of the bourgeoisie, there began in all countries – in France in the sixteenth century – the real development of law, which in all countries except England proceeded on the basis of the Roman Codex. In England, too, Roman legal principles had to be introduced to further the development of civil law (especially in the case of movable property).8 ← 18 | 19 →

Recognition of property relations as relations of free will is, according to Marx, the most obvious sign of a legal approach. This thesis runs so often throughout his works that it becomes something of a truism. On several occasions, Marx renders a more precise definition of property as will over people and things. Firstly, these relationships are realized via things which function as mediating elements in the transmission of the proprietor’s free will onto other people. Secondly, a specific type of interest accompanies this volition, one which manifests itself in normatively regulated possibilities for the acquisition of goods through their various usages: “The mere legal property of land does not create any ground-rent for the owner. But it does, indeed, give him the power to withdraw his land from exploitation until economic conditions permit him to utilise it in such a manner as to yield him a surplus, be it used for actual agricultural or other production purposes, such as buildings, etc.”9 Thirdly, the will of the owner cannot be solely the result of some internal game, playing out his motives; the opportunity to control things is assigned by law and/or by customary or moral norms; e.g., for a while, in colonial America legal title was a rarity. Fourthly, realization of the owner’s will depends upon the nature of economic relations. In order to sensibly apply the legal category of ownership, one needs to take into consideration the extralegal conditions of the economic relations. Marx solves this problem, for instance, when discussing the Hegelian concept of ownership: “This much at least is evident: the individual cannot maintain himself as a landowner by his mere ‘will’ against the will of another individual, who likewise wants to become a real individual by virtue of the same strip of land. It definitely requires something other than goodwill.”10

A legal meaning for ownership can also be extracted from this analysis of the economic relationships of exchange:

It is plain that commodities cannot go to market and make exchanges of their own account. We must, therefore, have recourse to their guardians, who are also their owners. Commodities are things, and therefore without power of resistance against man. If they are wanting in docility he can use force; in other words, he can take possession of them. In order that these objects may enter into relation with each other as commodities, their guardians must place themselves in relation to one another, as persons whose will resides in those objects, and must behave in such a way that each does not appropriate the commodity of the other, and part with his own, except by means of an act done by mutual consent. They must therefore, mutually recognise in each other the rights of private ← 19 | 20 → proprietors. This juridical relation, which thus expresses itself in a contract, whether such contract be part of a developed legal system or not, is a relation between two wills, and is but the reflex of the real economic relation between the two. It is this economic relation that determines the subject-matter comprised in each such juridical act.11

This quote patently documents the fact that Marx utilized, among others, legal terminology referencing ownership. More significantly, these were not legal analyses of legal status, but legal analyses of the economic relationship of ownership. Marx did this relatively rarely because he placed the economic theoretical perspective above the legal one. After all, Marx was decisively critical of the hegemonic legal approach; an opinion he expressed, for instance, in his critique of Proudhon’s and Hegel’s views. Nevertheless, it would be inaccurate to interpret Marx’s views and state that he entirely overlooks the advantages of legal analyses of ownership. It is worth underlining the stance of Marx because many Marxists, including Jarosław Ładosz, a well-known Polish materialist, stated that ownership is essentially a category that is exclusively economic.12

Taking the above into consideration, it is also true that Karl Marx criticizes, on many occasions, an approach relying solely on the legal sense of ownership. Marx argues that if one were to accept as true that free will is constitutive for ownership, then it could turn out that an owner would cease being one when confronted with the free will of another individual. Yet ownership is a rather permanent element in the social order.

In his day, German legal philosophy asserted that the law shapes and affixes economic order; it also influences and limits individual will. But, in Marx’s eyes, such an argumentation does not signify a difference in the nature of volition. In this case, too, the content of free will remains the same because legal codes also are constituted by the will of the people – collectively. Nonetheless, ownership relations cannot be created in contradiction to economic processes solely by way of legislation, or individual will. We find this in Marx’s writings, when he condemns Hermann Kriege who proposed that private ownership of parcels of land ← 20 | 21 → be made universal by the passage of comprehensive legislation.13 Marx notes that this would result, paradoxically, in a re-concentration of landholdings. This is, in fact, what occurred in 19th-century France. This suggests that underpinning the power of both the owner as well as the legislature is the system of economic relations. Thus, the owner cannot bring his own will to fruition against the actual mode of production. If, however, the owner attempts to do so, then, most often, his rights and privileges are reduced to the immaterial letter of the law because his decision leads to the loss of the very thing which was his property. As Marx puts it, the proprietor possesses nothing more than his uti et abuti.

Such must be the conclusion as one is an owner not due to legalized opportunities to impose one’s will, but due to participation in specified social and economic relations. Free will can be a means, by which these relations are realized, but not their cause. Marx and Engels elaborate:

In civil law the existing property relationships are declared to be the result of the general will. The jus utendi et abutendi itself asserts on the one hand the fact that private property has become entirely independent of the community, and on the other the illusion that private property itself is based solely on the private will, the arbitrary disposal of the thing. In practice, the abuti has very definite economic limitations for the owner of private property, if he does not wish to see his property and hence his jus abutendi pass into other hands, since actually the thing, considered merely with reference to his will, is not a thing at all, but only becomes a thing, true property in intercourse, and independently of the law (a relationship, which the philosophers call an idea). This juridical illusion, which reduces law to the mere will, necessarily leads, in the further development of property relationships, to the position that a man may have a legal title to a thing without really having the thing. If, for instance, the income from a piece of land is lost owing to competition, then the proprietor has certainly his legal title to it along with the jus utendi et abutendi. But he can do nothing with it: he owns nothing as a landed proprietor if in addition he has not enough capital to cultivate his ground. This illusion of the jurists also explains the fact that for them, as for every code, it is altogether fortuitous that individuals enter into relationships among themselves (e.g. contracts); it explains why they consider that these relationships [can] be entered into or not at will, and that their content rests purely on the individual [free] will of the contracting parties.14

To describe property relations, Marx departs from considering them as legal relations of will (“volition”) and approaches them as economic relations of production. Descriptions of property as an economic relationship surface very frequently in the works of Karl Marx. He speaks, too, of the “economic title to ← 21 | 22 → property” as something different from the legal title. Sometimes he refers to ownership as a cornerstone of the social system. What all these descriptors share in common is that the property relations are established by people who are active and who are executing a broad spectrum of economic and non-economic activities. Looking at this in yet another way, whoever participates in relations of production, distribution, exchange, and consumption – and whoever undertakes political, cultural, religious, and friendship relations – concurrently and diversely, becomes party to ownership relations. At this point, the objects of ownership fulfill diverse economic and non-economic functions: they can, for instance, function as the property of the means of production, exchange, coercion, or play.

Property as an economic relationship is reflected in many legal institutions. Property law is but one of many normative regulators of activities associated with the economic appropriation of things. Suffice it to recall inheritance law or privileges as a consequence of a hiring, leasing, or credit contract. Marx expresses his position through an analysis of a diverse spectrum of legal acts. A person taking advantage of the above-referenced rights can have similar economic status as a proprietor although the legal status of their positions might differ. For instance, an economic owner of the means of production can be not only the legal owner of a business, but also a relative without title to these goods; or a lessee, stockholder, tenant, creditor, feudal serf, or somebody else. Marx lists numerous legal privileges permitting the appropriation of surplus product and, as a result, allowing achievement of the position of a proprietor of the means of production.

Production and Ownership

Ownership – A Social Relationship Shaped through Production

In Grundrisse, Marx speaks of two aspects of appropriation: (a) as a presupposition of labor and (b) as mediated by labor. This highlights the dual nature of the relationship between labor and ownership.

The first type of appropriation may be illustrated by looking at tribal societies in which natural working conditions dominate: the ownership of land and of nature’s yield. The community treats the territory it seized as the object of its ownership. This comprises the prerequisite for unrestricted undertakings by members of the community within that territory; at the same time, it excludes such undertakings by persons not belonging to that community.

Looking at any society, it has its own social structure and, therefore, its unique system of ownership relations. The possibilities for action are, thus, already delineated by the status quo system of ownership relations. This pertains to the ← 22 | 23 → above-described community which, in order to begin living on some terrain, must be its owner. This also pertains to the owner of an individual farm who performs work on that farm only if he is its owner. And this pertains, too, to the wage laborer who makes use of a workshop by permission of its owner. In this sense, ownership precedes any kind of activity.

Even the appropriation of the fruits of nature requires at least some effort, such as harvesting. Without this, the owner will reap no benefits from ownership. The process of production – the process of any and all kinds of activities – is what makes someone the owner in a socioeconomic sense. The economic realization of the ownership relation, thus, transpires in action. Ownership is therefore more than just a psychological or legal fact. Marx writes of this when investigating tribal communities:

Property, in so far as it is only the conscious relation – and posited in regard to the individual by the community, and proclaimed and guaranteed as law – to the conditions of production as his own, so that the producer’s being appears also in the objective conditions belonging to him – is only realized by production itself. The real appropriation takes place not in the mental but in the real, active relation to these conditions – in their real positing as the conditions of his subjective activity.15

Marx emphasized this aspect of ownership very vividly through his description of the fate of a certain English capitalist who moved to the United States with the whole of his enterprise. This industrialist took with him all his machinery, money, and even three hundred wage laborers. Yet, upon arrival to the New World, his workers did not undertake jobs with him, but moved deep into continent in order to work for themselves on their own farms. All was lost, leading Marx to ironically comment: “Unhappy Mr. Peel who provided for everything except the export of English modes of production to Swan River!”16

It is likewise with each object of ownership. Only activity directed towards that object – meaning a situation in which that object becomes the factor of labor – permits its classification as an object of economic ownership. Objects of ownership in the socioeconomic sense are those material and non-material things which are applied in work and towards which human activity is directed, expressed in a wide variety of economic and non-economic actions. However, a thing or any other good which lays useless ceases to be an object of ownership; ← 23 | 24 → correspondingly, its legal and rightful owner loses his position as an owner, socioeconomically speaking. This owner can, however, be the possessor in a legal, psychological, moral, or any number of other understandings. For example, a buried, hidden treasure becomes the secret of a single individual. It is therefore a fact without any social value, and, as such, stops being a socioeconomic object of ownership; it can neither mediate in any relationship between people nor can it evoke any socially significant reaction.

Owners of Conditions of Labor and Owners of Labor Power

The considerations presented thus far permit a general, socioeconomic description of the owners of the means of production; something extricated from the foreshadowing of Marx’s theory of ownership, sometimes manifestly articulated. The owner of the means of production is someone who employs himself or other people in the service of those means. This description can be extended to other spheres of activity. The owner of the conditions of labor is someone who employs himself and/or others within the scope of these conditions. Worth underlining here is that the term “conditions of labor,” appears as often in Marx’s writings as the terms “means of production,” “conditions of production,” and “means of labor.” Marx treats them as synonyms.

Hence, only an owner of the means of production can employ himself or others. No non-owner can undertake work without the owner’s permission, and no non-owner is capable of exchanging conditions of labor for a factor of production. Of course, this does not entail a normatively regulated possibility, but rather a structural situation which exists regardless of normative declarations.

Socioeconomically understood, objects of ownership are such things, which function as factors in all kinds of productive or nonproductive labor. Since the crucial factors of labor are not only the material elements of the working conditions, but also the talents and skills of human beings, then the labor power also becomes an object of ownership as long as the carrier of these skills is working. Marx explains that, “By labour-power or capacity for labour is to be understood the aggregate of those mental and physical capabilities existing in a human being, which he exercises whenever he produces a use-value of any description.”17 Noteworthy, the owner of labor power as a factor of production is always an owner of labor conditions. Such is the case with the individual owner of a small business who is self-employed in his own workplace. And such is the case with the capitalist who employs a worker by purchasing the latter’s work capacity: ← 24 | 25 → “The capitalist buys labour-power in order to use it; and labour-power in use is labour itself.”18

But the keystone in being an owner of conditions of labor differs between a tribal community and capitalism. In any case, regardless of the distinctions between specific historical forms of ownership, at the root of Marxist descriptions of these forms hides a general formula for being an owner which dictates that the owner is an employer. It is worth analyzing a few of Marx’s statements in connection with various, completely contrasting forms of ownership.

When investigating ownership relations in primitive, tribal communities, Karl Marx asserts that property entails belonging to a community:

Property therefore means belonging to a clan (community) (having subjective-objective existence in it); and, by means of the relation of this community to the land and soil, [relating] to the earth as the individual’s inorganic body; his relation to land and soil, to the external primary condition of production – since the earth is raw material, instrument and fruit all in one – as to a presupposition belonging to his individuality, as modes of his presence. We reduce this property to the relation to the conditions of production.19

Thus, a person is an owner to the extent that he is a member of a community: “His property, i.e. the relation to the natural presuppositions of his production as belonging to him, as his, is mediated by his being himself the natural member of a community.”20 This thought is repeated and developed in numerous variations.21 But what does it exactly mean to be an owner in this concrete situation?

No one from outside a community can undertake production; no one from outside can transform the land, its yield, or any capabilities to be economically effective. This is so even if the given territory flourished in the means of labor and natural products ready to eat, and even if an individual was an exceptional hunter, farmer, or shepherd. Such an opportunity can only be mediated by membership in the community. The ownership relation can only be established through the community: being a member of a community means to work, and through that work – to be an owner. Hence, a description of this relationship has been rendered as a general formula. Ownership described as belonging to a community means, more generally, ownership described as the chance to be self-employed on the lands controlled by the community, and, in consequence, the possibility to transform the land and one’s own labors into factors of labor. ← 25 | 26 →

When dealing with 19th century petty bourgeoisie ownership, Marx writes as follows:

The lower strata of the middle class – the small tradespeople, shopkeepers, and retired tradesmen generally, the handicraftsmen and peasants – all these sink gradually into the proletariat, partly because their diminutive capital does not suffice for the scale on which Modern Industry is carried on, and is swamped in the competition with the large capitalists, partly because their specialised skill is rendered worthless by new methods of production. Thus the proletariat is recruited from all classes of the population.22

The above-cited suffices for a portrayal of the position of the owner; both its positive and negative qualities:

1) If his tools, machinery, land, etc. function as a factor of production, then he is the owner of the means of production;

2) If he applies his skills inside his own workshop, he is the owner of his own labor power as a factor of labor;

3) If his means of production is not employed in production, then he stops being the owner in the socioeconomic meaning of this word; and

4) If he does not utilize his skills in his own workshop, then he is no longer an economic owner of his labor power as the factor of production.

A similar depiction of the owner emerges from Marx’s note on the small peasant proprietorship of land parcels. Here, the owner appears as an employer and individual responsible for the transformation of the conditions of labor into factors:

When an independent labourer – let us take a small farmer, since all three forms of revenue may here be applied – works for himself and sells his own product, he is first considered as his own employer (capitalist), who makes use of himself as a labourer, and second as his own landlord, who makes use of himself as his own tenant. To himself as wage-worker he pays wages, to himself as capitalist he gives the profit, and to himself as landlord he pays rent.23

It is precisely in the third volume of Capital, where Marx recurrently describes the nominal landowner as someone who permits others to farm on land in his possession; e.g., rural capitalists. Hence, even such minimal social activity on the part of the landowner – i.e., permitting a lessee to change the land into a factor of labor – makes him the owner in the economic sense. Land thus becomes ← 26 | 27 → the object of economically understood ownership since the activity of various persons is managed and directed thereon.

The presented general formula for a proprietor also characterizes, however conversely, the wage laborer who cannot employ himself. This appears in a speech by Marx:

Our efforts must be directed to the end that no instruments of production should be private property. The private property in these things was a fiction, since the proprietors could not use them themselves; they only gave them dominion over them, by which they compelled other people to work for them. In a semi-barbarous state, this might have been necessary, but it was no longer so. All the means of labor must be socialized, so that every man has a right and the means to exercise his labor power.24

On the one hand, among the owners of the conditions of labor and labor power are members of the tribal community, the craftsmen, the independent peasants who cultivate their own land, the capitalist-industrialists, the shopkeepers, etc. Each of them employs himself or other people within the framework of their conditions of labor; each of them transforms the conditions of labor and labor power into factors of work. Yet, some are owners of their own labor power, while others are owners of someone else’s labor power. This last distinction is not a play on words. Marx frequently differentiates the owner of his own labor power from the owner of somebody else’s labor power in order to describe diverse social relations. The owner of human capabilities is an owner of the conditions of labor: in his hands, these abilities are converted into labor power functioning as a factor of production. Nonetheless, the adjectives “own” or “somebody else’s” indicate who is the actual bearer of the labor power. Underscored here is that labor power is seen in these deliberations as a factor of labor, and not as a commodity.

On the other hand, those who are not owners of labor power – neither theirs nor that of others – include the Roman slave, the Roman plebeian, or the 19th-century free wage laborer. With regards to the first of these, along with his talents, skills, and body, he has been sold to a patrician; the second does not work at all and, hence, does not transform his capacities into a factor of labor; and the third has sold his labors to a capitalist, albeit for a set period of time. It is true that the worker is an owner of labor power as a commodity; he owns the exchange value of his labor power. He is, however, never an economic owner of the use value of ← 27 | 28 → his labor power. The use value of a laborer’s capacities belongs to a capitalist who consumes this in the process of production.25 It can happen that ownership of labor power is in the hands of the bearer of capacities plus another person. An example of this can be the peasant serf and the feudal lord: both are owners of the labor power of the peasant to the extent that the peasant is obliged to work on both the lord’s land as well as on his own field. Such enumeration of the many types renders an image of the diversity and multitude of ways by which a human being can or cannot be an owner of the conditions of labor and of labor power.

The owner of the means of production is linked to the laborer by a relationship of power. Less important here is whether this is a slave, a serf, or a wage laborer; all of them are subordinated by the power of the owner of the conditions of labor. This is one of the general laws accentuated by Marx multiple times. The power of the owner over the worker stems from the fact that the owner of the conditions of labor is simultaneously the owner of the use value of the labor power of the producer. Thus, it is no surprise that the owner decides about the way in which the talents and skills of the worker will be utilized: “the man who possesses no other property than his labor power must, in all conditions of society and culture, be the slave of other men who have made themselves the owners of the material conditions of labor. He can only work with their permission, hence live only with their permission.”26

Distribution and Ownership

Ownership – A Social Relationship Shaped through Participation in the Distribution of Product

Distribution – in the more common meaning of the word – seems to denote the division and distribution of product. Yet, in order for that to happen, distribution is firstly a condition of labor. For the purposes of this analysis, it is useful to take a closer look at the distribution of the conditions of labor as a prerequisite for production. The initial distribution does not make owners of human beings in the socioeconomic sense. Such a title of ownership would certainly be without economic meaning, although it could bear psychological meaning; here, this could also refer to a legal title or customary norm. ← 28 | 29 →

The first economic and social confirmation of the distribution of labor conditions among proprietors transpires in the activity of people who lay claim to such moral, political, psychological, or legal titles. Even minimal activity suffices, such as blocking or permitting other persons from taking advantage of these conditions. As mentioned earlier, it is at this (production) stage that the economic owners of the conditions of labor and owners of labor power itself emerge. But it would be a mistake to claim that this type of activity completely corroborates the position of the owner of the conditions of labor: appropriation of product is a prerequisite necessary for the realization of his position as such an owner.

In the socioeconomic sense, the owner of the conditions of labor – the owner of the means of production – is he who obtains products created via the use of those conditions and not always he to whom those conditions legally belong. Marx explains:

For instance, land gives the living proprietor the power to transfer to himself, under the name of rent, without any equivalent, the produce of other people’s labor. Capital gives him the power to do the same under the name of profit and interest. The property in public funds gives him the power to live without labor upon other people’s labor, etc.27

Marx definitively solves this problem, among other things, by characterizing the position of the French peasant in the first half of the 19th century. During this period, that peasant was the legal owner of the parcel which he tended. These French peasants defended and independently cultivated their land, but were expropriated – by taxes, usury, unprofitable prices for agricultural goods, etc. – of so significant a portion of their products that their economic position became worse than that of the land lessee or the hired worker. Ultimately, this led to the loss of even their right of ownership:

This process was accelerated in France by the ever growing burden of taxes, by court costs called forth in part directly by the formalities with which French legislation encumbers the ownership of land, in part by the innumerable conflicts over parcels everywhere bounding and crossing each other, and in part by the litigiousness of the peasants, whose enjoyment of property is limited to the fanatical assertion of their title to their fancied property, their property rights.28 ← 29 | 30 →

Does this mean that the peasant above was not the owner in the economic sense? No, he was the owner. After all, he employed himself to work on his land and appeared before other peasants as the owner. These are all forms by which the position of ownership is realized. But the peasant only partially asserted his position because a significant portion of the fruits of his labors was assigned to others. Thus, the latter became the economic owners of his land without being the legal owners. It was precisely about this group that Marx and Engels write in their Circular against Kriege: “And is it not then immaterial whether ‘the land’ or the produce of the land ‘falls into the hands of rapacious speculators’?”29

In the social sciences, there is a tendency to contrast distribution relations with ownership relations. A representative of this school of thought is, for instance, Czesław Strzeszewski who asserts, in his extensive book on ownership, that economic reforms can be conducted either by regulating the means of distribution or of ownership. He adds, “The regulation of ownership is a revolutionary method, whereas the regulation of the distribution of the social profit is an evolutionary method.”30 This seems to mean that the ranges of these two types of relationships are inextricable, and, therefore, intervention in distribution relations will not alter anything in ownership relations. Marx often underscores that an individual’s participation in the distribution of the social product testifies and proves his position as an owner of the conditions of labor. This act of division and distribution is one which shapes the relations of ownership.

The Marxist conception of ownership clearly declares that distribution is a key area of social life, in which the position of the owner of the conditions of work is affirmed. Moreover, this is not only key, but conclusive. Arrival at such a conclusion is substantiated by Marx’s statements regarding those forms of ownership, within which people limit their activity only to the appropriation of the product: they are neither passively nor actively engaged in production; they employ neither themselves nor others; and, yet, they are described by Marx as the owners of the conditions of labor. Owners in this sense are owners of money, commodity, merchant, usury, and financial capital. This type of owner can also be a feudal lord who does not maintain any direct contact with his real estate and whose economic activity is reduced to ground rent collection. Naturally, in order for there to be something to appropriate, there must be production and, hence, owners who act in the field of that production; this does not, however, contradict ← 30 | 31 → the thesis about the existence of owners of the conditions of labor who are utterly alienated from the process of production.

Owners of the Conditions of Labor as Appropriators of Product

Two completely opposite situations are possible. People participate in distribution of the social product either as owners or as non-owners of the conditions of labor. Consequently, each and every person is in various ways the economic owner of product, depending upon the given form of ownership. Even a beggar or a slave is, in this sense, the owner. Of course, the product is then consumed personally, not productively, and disappears in the course of that consumption; meaning that the consumer is no longer an owner. Of course, such economic status as the owner should not be mistaken for the legal situation, which may be defined by other concepts such as property rights. Yet, the very act of appropriating even so minimal a part of the product renders each an individual economic owner. Whoever is incapable of participating, at least periodically and recurrently, in the distribution of the product, natural or manmade, perishes. It is possible to not be the owner of the conditions of labor, but to be an owner of product is a universal, economic condition of all living creatures. There must thus be crucial differences in the way the owner and the non-owner of the conditions of labor participate in the distribution relations.

A member of the ancient type of community is the proprietor of the conditions of labor. His economic status as the proprietor of the conditions of labor is mediated through his membership in this community. So, he is allowed to make use of that community’s consumption funds – regardless of whether he works or not – and, by appropriation of products that come from common land and soil, he once again validates his position as economic proprietor of common property. For example, the Roman patrician leases state land (ager publicus) and, thus, from the legal point of view, he is a tenant. Yet from the economic point of view he is an economic proprietor of the means of labor; he is the person who appropriates the product that is produced by the use of land belonging to him. Therefore, he also authenticates his position as the economic proprietor of the means of production with respect to distribution of the resulting human labor. The free owner of a craftsman’s workshop, the peasant serf, and the individual proprietor of a small parcel of land all fit into this category.

As Marx notes,

The free ownership of the self-managing peasant is evidently the most normal form of landed property for small-scale operation, i.e., for a mode of production, in which possession of the land is a prerequisite for the labourer’s ownership of the product of his ← 31 | 32 → own labour, and in which the cultivator, be he free owner or vassal, always must produce his own means of subsistence independently, as an isolated labourer with his family. Ownership of the land is as necessary for full development of this mode of production as ownership of tools is for free development of handicraft production. Here is the basis for the development of personal independence.31

The feudal lord who shares product with the peasant by appropriation of feudal rent is this type of a proprietor of the means of production. This also refers to the epoch of capitalism, in which the legal landowner permits the large-scale, agricultural capitalist farmer to utilize tenant land through employment of agricultural laborers. The legal landowner appropriates – in exchange – a lease or ground rent in some form, thus confirming his position as the economic proprietor of land. Furthermore, the agricultural capitalist magnate who leases land from the legal landowner corroborates his position as the economic proprietor of the same land because he appropriates a part of the surplus product of his agricultural laborers.

In the case of the owner of capital, the property of the conditions of labor and the property of someone else’s labor power constitute the presupposition for the appropriation of product obtained by utilizing these two factors of production. As Marx notes in the third volume of Capital,

By the purchase of labour-power, the capitalist incorporates labour, as a living ferment, with the lifeless constituents of the product. From his point of view, the labour-process is nothing more than the consumption of the commodity purchased, i.e., of labour-power; but this consumption cannot be effected except by supplying the labour-power with the means of production. The labour-process is a process between things that the capitalist has purchased, things that have become his property. The product of this process belongs, therefore, to him, just as much as does the wine which is the product of a process of fermentation completed in his cellar.32

In fact, the capitalist is such a proprietor regardless of the field of capital circulation in which he functions. Profit in various forms – interest, dividends, industrial profit, trade profit, etc. – confirms the capitalist’s position as the owner of the conditions of labor. Access to the conditions of labor is direct in the case of the agricultural or industrial capitalist. Owners of trade capital and owners of financial capital – stockholders, creditors, traders, financial investors, etc. – do not maintain direct contact with the conditions of labor. Thanks to a unique social and financial mediator, they become proprietors of the material conditions of labor: it is money which fulfills this go-between function when assuming the ← 32 | 33 → form of monetary capital. In the process of the circulation of capital, money capital is transformed into industrial capital by purchasing labor power and the means of production. These are then exchanged for factors of labor and, subsequently, into a product which, when sold as a commodity, returns to the owner of capital as profit in the form of currency capital.

Each of the abovementioned players ceases to be the owner of the conditions of labor, if he does not appropriate at least such a portion of the product as would suffice to assure his survival and also his reproduction of the conditions of labor. If the nominal landowner wishes to preserve his position as the owner, then he should receive a high enough ground rent to guarantee that he will not be forced to sell the land in order to assure his household of the means of existence. The capitalist should appropriate such an amount of product whose capitalization will allow him at least a simple reproduction of capital; that is, the reproduction of money functioning as capital. The peasant is an owner of a farm only as long as he appropriates the product, which permits him to cultivate the land again and physically survive until the next harvest.

Hence, being an owner of the conditions of labor requires more than just the employment of oneself and/or others, and running an economic activity. The owner needs to obtain the product produced via those conditions of labor, too. In the form of new potential conditions of labor and the means of subsistence, the product should be available before embarking on a new economic cycle and its temporal duration, meaning the time before the new product is created. The one, who appropriates less, cannot realize his position as the owner of the conditions of labor. As Karl Marx pens to Vera Zasulich,

In order to expropriate the agricultural producers, it is not necessary to drive them from the land, as happened in England and elsewhere; nor to abolish communal property by some ukase. If you go and take from the peasants more than a certain proportion of the product of their agricultural labour, then not even your gendarmes and your army will enable you to tie them to their fields. In the last years of the Roman Empire some provincial decurions, not peasants but actual landowners, fled their homes, abandoned their land, and even sold themselves into bondage – all in order to be rid of a property that had become nothing more than an official pretext for exerting quite merciless pressure over them.33

In their Manifesto, Marx and Engels write:

The average price of wage-labour is the minimum wage, i.e., that quantum of the means of subsistence which is absolutely requisite to keep the labourer in bare existence as a ← 33 | 34 → labourer. What, therefore, the wage-labourer appropriates by means of his labour, merely suffices to prolong and reproduce a bare existence. We by no means intend to abolish this personal appropriation of the products of labour, an appropriation that is made for the maintenance and reproduction of human life, and that leaves no surplus wherewith to command the labour of others. All that we want to do away with is the miserable character of this appropriation, under which the labourer lives merely to increase capital, and is allowed to live only in so far as the interest of the ruling class requires it.34

The worker is, thus, not the owner of the conditions of labor because the way he participates in the distribution of the product does not afford him the chance to accumulate potential means of production and means of subsistence that would suffice for the next period of production.

Moreover, the wage laborer does not appropriate the product, which is created by his own labor power; he appropriates the product created earlier, which is already in the hands of the capitalist in the form of so-called variable capital. In the case of the wage laborer, the ownership of the exchange value of his labor power mediates the possibility for expropriation of someone else’s product. The worker sells his commodity – his labor power – and acquires products that take the form of wages.

It is similar with other non-owners of the conditions of labor. They obtain the means of subsistence by entering into many diverse kinds of relationships with proprietors of the conditions of labor, and, at the same time, with previous expropriators of products. The transfer of the product can take place on the basis of, for instance, a relationship of ruler-subject, superior-subordinate, slavery, kinship, inheritance, charity, donation, or even theft.35

Therefore, two traits distinguish the owner of the conditions of labor from the non-owner, when it comes to the way in which they usurp the product. Firstly, only the owner acquires enough product to be able to transform it into a means of employment – of himself and others – until such time as new product will be ready. In contrast, the product appropriated by the non-owner acts only as a means of subsistence. Secondly, only the owner of the conditions of labor appropriates the product created within the context of these conditions. In contrast, the non-owner gains such product only from someone who has previously appropriated it. Thus, the owner and the non-owner of the conditions of labor are linked by a relationship of power. This is the power of the appropriator of the product over the person who cannot appropriate that product in any other way than to become beholden to the owner of the conditions of labor. ← 34 | 35 →

Exchange and Ownership

Ownership – A Relationship Shaped through Exchange

Even the work of a single individual may be considered – as Marx does – as a process of exchange between that person and nature: the human being transfers his skills and capabilities for the sake of nature and, in exchange, gains certain goods from nature. This pertains as well to simple collective behavior and interpersonal relations inside the tribal community. The individual grants some of his labor power on behalf of the community and, as part of the barter, receives the means of subsistence. The communist society designed by Marx operates similarly:

Here, obviously, the same principle prevails as that which regulates the exchange of commodities, as far as this is exchange of equal values. Content and form are changed, because under the altered circumstances no one can give anything except his labor, and because, on the other hand, nothing can pass to the ownership of individuals, except individual means of consumption. But as far as the distribution of the latter among the individual producers is concerned, the same principle prevails as in the exchange of commodity equivalents: a given amount of labor in one form is exchanged for an equal amount of labor in another form.36

Hence, exchange can take the form of an exchange of goods in happenstance proportions with respect to volume and number. And finally, exchange can assume the form of an exchange of commodities in fixed proportions (barter). Subsequently, this becomes an exchange of commodity equivalents with the use of currency as a mediator for transactions within the framework of the goods and money market. Marx explains in volume 1 of Capital:

In order that this alienation may be reciprocal, it is only necessary for men, by a tacit understanding, to treat each other as private owners of those alienable objects, and by implication as independent individuals. But such a state of reciprocal independence has no existence in a primitive society based on property in common, whether such a society takes the form of a patriarchal family, an ancient Indian community, or a Peruvian Inca State. The exchange of commodities, therefore, first begins on the boundaries of such communities, at their points of contact with other similar communities, or with members of the latter. So soon, however, as products once become commodities in the external relations of a community, they also, by reaction, become so in its internal intercourse. The proportions in which they are exchangeable are at first quite a matter of chance. What makes them exchangeable is the mutual desire of their owners to alienate them. Meantime the need for foreign objects of utility gradually establishes itself. The constant repetition of exchange makes it a normal social act. In the course of time, therefore, ← 35 | 36 → some portion at least of the products of labour must be produced with a special view to exchange. From that moment the distinction becomes firmly established between the utility of an object for the purposes of consumption, and its utility for the purposes of exchange. Its use-value becomes distinguished from its exchange-value.37

In tribal communities, all products of labor and gifts of nature are consumed collectively, sometimes consumed by individuals directly, or distributed among members of a community for individual consumption. Products have a use value for their possessors and are thus non-exchangeable; no one is interested in getting rid of them. The situation changes in those historic modes of production that are founded upon private property. Wherever private owners hold specialized positions in the social division of labor or produce in excess, a product loses use value for its creator. Instead, it becomes something desired by someone else; moreover, another product that is in the hands of the latter is simultaneously desired by the former.

Hence these products must be exchanged; only then do they become usable for their owners. Exchange then becomes more fixed and permanent, and is executed in strict numerical proportions. Additionally, the relationship in which one product is exchanged for another becomes more fixed and permanent in the form of trade value. Therefore, a split emerges between the usefulness of the object for consumption and its usefulness for exchange. To capture this dual nature of products, Marx uses the concepts of use value and exchange value. The means of exchange appear: commodities and money as a general social equivalent for goods. And so, too, private owners of the means of exchange appear. Marx elaborates that

The appearance of products as commodities pre-supposes such a development of the social division of labour, that the separation of use-value from exchange-value, a separation which first begins with barter, must already have been completed. But such a degree of development is common to many forms of society, which in other respects present the most varying historical features. On the other hand, if we consider money, its existence implies a definite stage in the exchange of commodities. The particular functions of money which it performs, either as the mere equivalent of commodities, or as means of circulation, or means of payment, as hoard or as universal money, point, according to the extent and relative preponderance of the one function or the other, to very different stages in the process of social production.38

Marx writes that distribution demarcates the relationship, in which products are assigned to individuals; in turn, exchange demarcates the products, which individuals would want to receive in the distribution. During an exchange, an ← 36 | 37 → individual acquires the products that bear use value for him. If a product is capable of functioning as use value, then the usefulness of individual labor is socially confirmed. Otherwise such work is of no use; it exits the social division of labor, and the owner of the pertinent conditions of labor loses his status. To him, a product which he cannot divest is useless.39

The private owners of various commodities – that is, owners of the means of exchange – are those who engage in goods trading.40 Naturally, each of them is the owner only inasmuch as he has something to sell and inasmuch as he actually unloads goods of no use to him and, simultaneously, procures the resources he needs. If the private owner does not sell his goods, then he does not authenticate his position as the owner of the means of exchange. In fact, it may happen that he is no longer the owner in other senses. Participation in the exchange contributes to the transformation of the owners of the means of exchange into owners of the factors of work as well as owners of the means of subsistence.

In certain forms of ownership – especially those in which commodities are produced for the market – realization of the position of the owner of the means of exchange is the prerequisite for the realization of the position of owner in other spheres. For example, a capitalist who does not sell his product ceases to be the owner of capital because he will not possess the resources to purchase the means of production and labor power. A laborer who does not sell his labors will not gain the resources needed for survival. The craftsman who does not sell his crafts will cease being the owner of his workshop.

Hence, being the owner of the means of exchange facilitates being the owner in other realms. Commodities mediate the entry into diverse ownership relations. The range of that mediation depends upon the boundaries in which the exchange value operates; that is, the range of the functioning of certain products in the form of commodities. For instance, since the Asian community did not sell its land, then the owners of the means of exchange could not acquire it and could not become landowners. The same may be said of the master craftsman’s workshop in the guild mode of production. Yet, that same land and that same workshop could, under the conditions of a commodity-currency market, also become a means of exchange. And since the product, which is the object of exchange, is most often loaded with surplus value – emphasized on many an occasion by Marx – then, via the means of exchange, it can appropriate the effects of the labor power of someone else and participate in the relationship ← 37 | 38 → of exploitation. No direct connections – to either the conditions of labor or the laborer – are thus necessary for assuming the position of the owner of the conditions of labor and of the labor power of others. Such a relation is mediated through ownership of the means of exchange.

Marx stresses many times that the ownership of exchange value not only facilitates the possibility of acquiring desired products and services but also creates the possibility for expropriating the fruits of the surplus labor of other people. The owner of exchange value – commodities or money – can acquire more than he sold. This is very visible in the case of the owner of currency. Money is a special kind of economic instrument that performs not only functions of measure, the mere equivalency of commodities, and means of payment. In the capitalist formation, money also performs the function of a means of expropriation of surplus value and the function of exploitation of partners in an exchange. Owners of money use it as a means for the circulation of capital. Acquiring the conditions of labor and labor power, such an owner facilitates production and creation of surplus value because he pays only for a part of the labor power. By selling products, he transforms the surplus value born in the products into profit in the form of a greater amount of money than he introduced into the process of circulation in the beginning of his activity as the owner of money.

Owners of the Means of Exchange

Marx’s concept of ownership clearly assumes that the owner of the means of exchange is that very person who can sell something. The law will tend to underline the acquisition of things as crucial in the ownership title. Economically speaking, however, this aspect is less important: a thing can be stolen, occupied by force, or extorted. In each of these cases, the usurper can effectively play the role of the owner. Most important here is that aspect of exchange which lies in the selling.

Marx states that even the wage laborer is an owner of the means of exchange. He is the owner of a specific commodity: his labor power. As Marx notes, “The labourer is the owner of his labour-power until he has done bargaining for its sale with the capitalist; and he can sell no more than what he has i.e., his individual, isolated labour-power.”41 Elsewhere, Marx adds, “Consequently, labour-power is a commodity which its possessor, the wage worker, sells to the capitalist. Why does he sell it? It is in order to live.”42 ← 38 | 39 →

It would be worth underscoring here the difference between labor as a factor of labor and as a commodity. The worker is the owner of his labor power as a commodity and thus sells it. The amount at which he sells it is the exchange value of his labor power. The person acquiring this labor power is its owner as a factor of labor, and, therefore, makes use of someone else’s capabilities in production. What the capitalist purchases is the use value of someone else’s labor power.

The position of the wage laborer is determined by the commodity he vends (his labor power), and not by the commodity acquired (the means of existence). Moreover, that same worker is not the owner of the fruits of his labors which means that – in accordance with the abovementioned – he cannot sell that product. If the worker was the owner of the conditions of labor, then he would appropriate the product and sell it rather than his own capabilities.

The term “owner” as the person qualified to sell Marx also applies – albeit negatively – when speaking about the position of the Roman slave. Marx’s assessment is that the Roman law accurately describes the slave as a person who cannot acquire anything by way of exchange. “In Roman law, the servus is therefore correctly defined as one who may not enter into exchange for the purpose of acquiring anything for himself.”43 He has nothing to sell, and therefore cannot be the owner of any commodity. In Wage Labour and Capital, Marx recounts:

Labour-power was not always a commodity (merchandise). Labour was not always wage-labour, i.e., free labour. The slave did not sell his labour-power to the slave-owner, any more than the ox sells his labour to the farmer. The slave, together with his labour-power, was sold to his owner once for all. He is a commodity that can pass from the hand of one owner to that of another. He himself is a commodity, but his labour-power is not his commodity.44

This description of the owner as someone who sells a commodity is expedient when investigating ownership relations typical of societies with a commodity or commodity-currency economy. Yet, it has limited use in the case of societies with a narrow exchange market. For instance, the feudal lord can sell land only to another feudal lord. The exchange market is also limited under the circumstances of a natural economy, in which individual homesteads produce things for direct consumption. Such is also the case with tribal communities. In all of these cases, the product does not assume the form of a commodity, or only rarely appears as a commodity. ← 39 | 40 →

We can then say that the formula that the owner is a potential seller assumes a more general definition of the owner of things befitting not only market societies, but also other historic forms of society and modes of production. Wherever there is the issue of taking products, there is also the issue of giving. From this point of view, the owner is the one who distributes, gives, and vends goods; in other words, the owner is someone who provides other people with the use value of a good. Such person is the owner of slaves and the feudal lord; each provides other people with access to a portion of his goods. The first of these feeds his slaves, the latter allows his retinue to consume the surplus product of the feudal village. An owner in this sense is also a member of the community – be it tribal or Communist – because as its member, he participates in the apportionment of the product in common. He will not protest to keep others from consuming product which also comprises a use value for him. All the abovementioned owners realize their title of ownership, providing some of their own goods to others. In exchange, these owners gain certain real or symbolic compensation.45

As a result, access to use value provided to others may assume various forms. This may rely on the sale of goods, entail a simple exchange of use values, and even assume the form of a gift. After all, even commodities exchange often has an unequal form. Some of the goods progress in one direction without the same amount returning in the opposite direction. Gifting constitutes precisely such a rudimentary exchange, albeit lacking even the pretense of equivalency. A gift heralds an obligation; it heralds a commodity by which one could get to the fruits of someone else’s labors. As Jacek Kurczewski described this,

Such is the resourceful man who successfully hunted much or who, along with his family, toiled in his garden. He held a feast from which he benefited perhaps less than his jealous fellow merrymakers who fare worse. Now they lie engorged under a tree. Let them lie there in peace before a permanent relationship of social dependency is shaped: we may discern its spark even among the pre-state societies.46

Thanks to the gifts of the donor, the resourceful man’s status as the owner and superior is affirmed. ← 40 | 41 →

Consumption and Ownership – Owners of the Means of Subsistence

In the process of reproduction, some relationships are converted into others. Ownership relations, which people create in production or distribution and exchange, are subject to conversion into ownership relations befitting the sphere of consumption. Consumption depends upon the nature of the mode of production, as well as the mode of distribution and exchange, and, simultaneously, initiates the process of production. Consequently, the way in which someone is the owner of the means of subsistence impacts the way in which he is the owner of the conditions of labor, labor power, and the means of exchange.

According to Marx, the economic owner of the means of subsistence is each and every living human being. He is the beggar, slave, capitalist, and any other person; regardless of the resources upon which he draws to survive. The very act of consumption attests to the holding of this position, although the economic appropriation of the means of subsistence can, in each case, essentially differ. It can, for example, be immediate consumption of a given item and thus lead to its obliteration; it can also be a recurrent act such as the wearing of garments or the inhabitance of a domicile. The consumption can involve regular acquisition or sporadic obtainment. Naturally, for a short while, a person can go without being the owner of the means of subsistence, but the very fact of existence means that, in one way or another, every individual alive is the owner in this manner.

We should consider here three theoretically possible situations. In the first, the owner of the means of consumption is not the owner in any other sense. In the second, he is the owner of a specific good, meaning labor power as commodity, but is not the owner of the conditions of labor. In the third case, he is the owner of the conditions of labor and labor power itself, his own or someone else’s, which, in his hands, function as factors of labor. In fact, Karl Marx analyzed all three of these.

Marx labels the first of the situations above as the “third possible form;” distinct from the “historic states” number I and II.47 Comparing this form to earlier, prehistoric forms of ownership, Marx explains:

The third possible form, in which the worker relates as owner only to the necessaries of life, finding them on hand as the natural condition of the working subject, without relating to the land and soil, or to the instrument, or even (therefore) to labour itself as his own, is at bottom the formula of slavery and bondage, which is likewise negated, posited as a historically dissolved condition, in the relation of the worker to the conditions of production as capital.48 ← 41 | 42 →

As this type of owners Marx saw, among others, slaves, manor servants, Roman plebeians sustained by alms, his contemporary lumpenproletariat, and beggars. Each of them is the owner of the means of survival, though not the owner in any other respect. In the case of these persons, a significant difference unveils: the legal and the socioeconomic title of ownership. Each of them takes advantage of shelter and food offered by the whim and will of someone else and, mainly, in the interest of someone else. Not being owners from the normative perspective, they are nonetheless owners from the socioeconomic one.

The social doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church applies the legal denotation of ownership. Not everyone is an owner and, yet, those who are not deserve at least the right of usage: “It is therefore understood that the right of usage is an element of the primary law of nature. In other words, each human being – simply because one is human – has the right to avail oneself of material resources to the extent necessary to preserve human existence.”49 Hence, what in Catholic social doctrine constitutes usage, in Marx’s perspective constitutes economic ownership of the means of subsistence.

In the second type of ownership of the means of consumption, on quite a different basis, the wage laborer is an owner of the “necessaries of life.” He is the owner of labor power functioning as a commodity; he hence acquires the means of consumption in the process of an exchange in which he sells his labor power. As Marx writes, the laborer transforms labor power belonging to him into the means of subsistence: “The value of labour-power resolves itself into the value of a definite quantity of the means of subsistence.”50 However, because of the transaction, the laborer acquires the means of consumption of lower use value than the use value of the labor power that he sold.

The third situation is different; that is, the situation of the owner of the conditions of labor. The owner of the conditions of labor is assured of the means of subsistence at each stage of his activity. Marx describes this in discussing various forms of common and individual ownership of land and instruments which precede capitalist production: “Included in both is the fact that he has the means of consumption in his possession before production, which are necessary for him to live as producer – i.e. during production, before its completion.”51 Next, Marx describes how it is that various owners of the conditions of labor are assured of the means of survival. On the one hand, members of a primitive society, as owners of the community property, are directly supplied with the means of survival ← 42 | 43 → since their land is not only a natural means of production but also a natural reservoir of food. On the other hand, the master craftsman appropriates the earlier created product and therefore possesses the means of survival for the new production cycle.

Elsewhere Karl Marx asserts that what is decisive in the position of the capitalist is not only the conditions of labor which belong to him but also the means of consumption. The latter, in the form of variable capital like a wage fund should be in the hands of the capitalist before undertaking production; if he wants his conditions of labor to become a means for the employment of a hired worker: “The employer, by commanding the means of employment, commands the means of subsistence of the worker, i.e., the latter’s life depends on him; just as the worker himself degrades his life activity to a mere means of existence.”52

This is the variable capital that is precisely the means of subsistence of the worker, which the capitalist owner of the conditions of labor holds prior to the initiation and for the whole duration of the production; or any other capitalist activity. This is a requirement because the employee does not possess such resources and cannot grant his employer a long-term credit in the form of unpaid wage. Consequently, each owner of the conditions of labor is the owner of the means of subsistence before and during production, before its completion. Here, it is less significant whether this activity is undertaken by himself personally or with the services of others: the owner’s means of subsistence permits him to economize his conditions of labor.

We should now consider the viewpoint popular among the Marxists: when defining the position of the owner, the category of the means of consumption is less important than that of the conditions of labor. This is not confirmed by the concepts of Karl Marx; in his eyes, these two categories are mutually complementary. A correct depiction of ownership relations comes to light only when they are scrutinized through both these lenses.

Conclusions: General Concepts of Ownership

From the deliberations above, it appears that the question of “what is ownership” can be understood twofold. On the one hand, this can be taken as a question as to who exactly is the owner. On the other hand, it can be taken as a query as to the form of ownership or system of ownership relations. ← 43 | 44 →

Evidently underpinning a Marxist analysis of the historical forms of ownership is a stable set of elementary categories which include:

1) the owner of the means of production (also known as the owner of the conditions of labor);

2) the owner of labor power functioning as a factor of labor;

3) the owner of labor power functioning as a commodity;

4) the owner of the means of exchange; and

5) the owner of the means of consumption (also known as the owner of the means of subsistence, of the means of survival, or of the necessaries of life).

Whenever Marx writes about a form, type, or system of ownership, it is possible to identify these fundamental components in the structure; all forms of ownership are composed of these categories. Although people are distinctly different owners in each of the historical forms, all the components appear within those forms of ownership; the only exception is the owner of the means of exchange, who appears in a few of the systems of ownership. A form of ownership comprises a system of relations found among people occupying owner positions in the meanings above.

We can now identify the relationships, in which owners participate in correspondence with different forms of ownership. Albeit a very generalized construct, anchored in the investigation presented in this chapter heretofore, it can be summarized as follows:

1) The owner of the means of production (i.e., the conditions of labor): (a) employs himself and/or others facilitating the utilization of such means as factors of labor (in other words, transforming the means of production and his own or someone else’s labor power into factors of labor); (b) appropriates the product created under those conditions of labor; (c) sells that product or otherwise provides others with access to the use value of the conditions of labor and of that product; and, finally, (d) is the owner of the means of consumption before and during the period of labor, until the new product is ready. Thus, the owner of the means of production converts objects of his property into the means of employment and the means for appropriation of the fruits of his own or others’ labor.

2) The owner of labor power functioning as a factor of labor is the one who simultaneously applies talents and skills – his own or those belonging to others – in the process of working, and appropriates the product created thereby. ← 44 | 45 →

3) The owner of labor power functioning as a commodity realizes his position, as does the owner of any other means of exchange, by selling his labor capabilities in exchange for the means of subsistence.

4) The owner of the means of exchange is someone who sells such means; more generally, someone who provides others with access to the use value of those means in exchange for other goods which are of need to him.

5) The owner of the means of subsistence is someone who consumes or who provides other people with access to consumption of those means.

The owner of the conditions of labor is also the owner in other meanings. Firstly, and above all, he is the owner of his own labor power – functioning as a factor of labor – and/or that of others depending upon whether he himself is working, and/or if he is employing others. Secondly, he is the owner of product which, in his hands, functions as a factor of labor, as a means of consumption, as a commodity – in an exchange economy – or as something else. Thirdly, he is the owner of the means of subsistence in a fashion unique only to him because he owns them before, during, and after the completion of the process. This description also refers to the owner of capital who can play all those roles as one person. Depending on what he acquires, his money allows him to play the role of the owner of the means of production (constant capital), the owner of the means of consumption, and the owner of the use value of someone else’s labor power (variable capital), and/or the owner of commodities (trade capital). When he uses his money as financial capital, he is the owner in all those meanings simultaneously, without maintaining direct contact with real economy.

There are such forms of ownership within which it is common that each member of the community plays all these ownership roles together. Such is the case with individual private ownership as well as with certain forms of common ownership.

Still, there are such forms of ownership, in which a part of the population plays only certain ownership roles. This would be, for example, the wage worker who is neither the owner of the conditions of labor nor the owner of labor power as a factor of production, nor the owner of the fruits of his own labors. In his hands, labor power is merely a good of which he is the owner. His ownership position is realized in the selling of his labor power as a commodity and in his consuming of the means of survival gained in the form of wages. Rather than employ someone, he is employed; rather than appropriate the product of his labor, he is divested of it. Moreover, he is not the owner of the means of existence before or after his engagement in an employment relationship; he is only such an owner over the course of his employment; a situation which forces him to renew this type of relationship. ← 45 | 46 →

The configuration of mutual relationships, in which the owners above enter, distinguishes explicit systems of ownership. Marx describes this, among other places, in Capital:

Whatever the social form of production, labourers and means of production always remain factors of it. But in a state of separation from each other either of these factors can be such only potentially. For production to go on at all they must unite. The specific manner in which this union is accomplished distinguishes the different economic epochs of the structure of society from one another.53

Regardless of whether these factors converge in one person, or whether their linkage is the outcome of interdependencies amongst many people, the form of ownership is fulfilled only in the sum of all the interconnected ownership roles above. This aspect of ownership is rarely undertaken when interpreting the theories of Karl Marx.

Most often, investigations probe into ownership of the petty bourgeoisie, capitalist, feudal, cooperative, common, or peasant farming types. Or, even more generally, there is talk of private or social ownership. However, none of this delves deeper into the internal structure of these synthesized concepts. Yet forms of ownership also differ from one another, since individuals can be owners in diverse ways within them; individuals can enter and remain in various ownership relationships. For Karl Marx, the form of ownership was more than a system of relationships between owners and non-owners of the means of production. Marx analyzed the complex configurations of relationships amongst varying kinds of owners: owners of the conditions of labor, owners of labor power, owners of the means of exchange (including money), owners of the means of subsistence, etc. Applying much more precise theoretical instruments in the analysis of ownership relations, Marx went further than has been presented by his successors with roots in sundry strands of Marxism.

1 Karl Marx [1865], Letter to J B Schweizer: “On Proudhon”, <http://marxists.catbull.com/archive/marx/works/1865/letters/65_01_24.htm> [accessed August 2017].

2 Karl Marx [1846], Letter to Pavel Vasilyevich Annenkov, <http://marxists.catbull.com/archive/marx/works/1846/letters/46_12_28.htm> [accessed August 2017]; Karl Marx [1847], The Poverty of Philosophy: Answer to the “Philosophy of Poverty” by M. Proudhon, <https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/download/pdf/Poverty-Philosophy.pdf> [accessed August 2017]; Karl Marx [1859], A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, <https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/download/Marx_Contribution_to_the_Critique_of_Political_Economy.pdf> [accessed August 2017].

3 Marx, Letter to J B Schweizer: “On Proudhon”.

4 Marx, Letter to Pavel Vasilyevich Annenkov.

5 Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, 113.

6 Piotr Sztompka, “O marksistowskiej koncepcji rozwoju – nieco inaczej”, Studia Filozoficzne, 145/12 (1977), 81.

7 Ibid.

8 Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels [1845–1846], The German Ideology, <https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/download/Marx_The_German_Ideology.pdf> [accessed August 2017], 32.

9 Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Volume III, <https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/download/pdf/Capital-Volume-III.pdf> [accessed August 2017], 555.

10 Ibid., 476.

11 Karl Marx [1867], Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Volume I, <https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/download/pdf/Capital-Volume-I.pdf> [accessed August 2017], 60.

12 Jarosław Ładosz, “Własność jako kategoria ekonomiczna a prawo własności”, in Własność, gospodarka a prawo: Studia o marksistowskiej teorii własności, ed. by Stanisław Kozyr-Kowalski (Warsaw: Państwowe Wydawnictwo Naukowe, 1977), 170–171.

13 Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels [1846], “Circular against Kriege”, in Marx and Engels, Collected Works (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1976), Volume VI, 35–51.

14 Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels [1845–1846], The German Ideology, 32.

15 Karl Marx [1857–1861], Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy (Rough Draft), <https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/download/pdf/grundrisse.pdf> [accessed August 2017], 417.

16 Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Volume I, 543.

17 Ibid., 119.

18 Ibid., 127.

19 Marx, Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy, 416.

20 Ibid., 414.

21 Ibid., 397–438.

22 Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels [1847], Manifesto of the Communist Party, <https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/download/pdf/Manifesto.pdf> [accessed August 2017], 18.

23 Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Volume III, 626.

24 Record of Marx’s Speech on The right of inheritance, The International Workingmen’s Association, From the General Council minutes of July 20, 1869, as taken by George Eccarius, <https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/iwma/documents/1869/inheritance-speech.htm> [accessed August 2017].

25 Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Volume I, 119–147.

26 Karl Marx [1875], Critique of the Gotha Programme, <https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/download/Marx_Critque_of_the_Gotha_Programme.pdf> [accessed August 2017], 7.

27 Karl Marx [1869], The Right of Inheritance: Report of the General Council. Written by Marx on August 2–3, 1869, Endorsed by General Council of The International Workingmen’s Association on August 3, 1869. <https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/iwma/documents/1869/inheritance-report.htm> [accessed August 2017].

28 Karl Marx [1870–1871], The Civil War in France, <https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/download/pdf/civil_war_france.pdf> [accessed August 2017], 61.

29 Marx, Engels, “Circular against Kriege”.

30 Czesław Strzeszewski, Własność: zagadnienie społeczno-moralne (Warsaw: Ośrodek Dokumentacji i Studiów Społecznych, 1981), 8.

31 Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Volume III, 485.

32 Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Volume III, 131.

33 Karl Marx [1881], Letter to Vera Zasulich: The “First” Draft, <https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1881/zasulich/draft-1.htm> [accessed August 2017].

34 Marx, Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party, 23.

35 Marx, Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy, 397–438.

36 Marx, Critique of the Gotha Programme, 10.

37 Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Volume I, 61–62.

38 Ibid., 120.

39 Ibid., 26–125.

40 Ibid., 61–62.

41 Ibid., 232.

42 Karl Marx [1847], Wage Labour and Capital, <https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/download/pdf/wage-labour-capital.pdf> [accessed August 2017], 9.

43 Marx, Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy, 174.

44 Marx, Wage Labour and Capital, 9.

45 Marx, Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy, 422–426.

46 Jacek Kurczewski, “Stosunki własności w społeczeństwach przedpaństwowych”, in Własność, gospodarka a prawo: Studia o marksistowskiej teorii własności, ed. by Stanisław Kozyr-Kowalski (Warsaw: Państwowe Wydawnictwo Naukowe, 1977), 406.

47 Marx, Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy, 422–424.

48 Ibid., 424.

49 Józef Majka, Etyka życia gospodarczego (Wrocław: Wydawnictwo Wrocławskiej Księgarni Archidiecezjalnej, 1982), 97.

50 Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Volume I, 121.

51 Marx, Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy, 421–422.

52 Karl Marx [1846], “Wages”, in Własność, gospodarka a prawo: Studia o marksistowskiej teorii własności, ed. by Stanisław Kozyr-Kowalski (Warsaw: Państwowe Wydawnictwo Naukowe, 1977).

53 Karl Marx [1863–1878], Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Volume II, <https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/download/pdf/Capital-Volume-II.pdf> [accessed August 2017], 22.

← 46 | 47 →

Chapter II:  A History of Privatization: Pre-Capitalistic Forms of Ownership

Historical Systems of Ownership

Marx applies a few typologies for historical systems of ownership. Consequently, specialized literature provides many different interpretations of his position in this regard. The most frequently presented – especially in political economy textbooks – is the one which identifies the five basic “modes of production”: (a) primitive, tribal, pre-class community; (b) slavery; (c) feudalism; (d) capitalism; and (e) socialism. However, this set is only partly in accord with the positions of Karl Marx. For instance, in A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, Marx states: “In broad outline, the Asiatic, ancient, feudal, and modern bourgeois modes of production may be designated as epochs marking progress in the economic development of society.”54 Yet his manuscripts from 1857 to 1859, the so-called Grundrisse, reveal an even greater number of modes of production and corresponding types of ownership. These include, among other things, the ownership of the tribal community, the Asiatic, the classical ancient, and the Germanic types; in addition to the slavery, feudal, and capitalistic.55 Furthermore, certain works reveal his thoughts about more than one communist type of ownership.56 In fact, Capital is rank with explications regarding several historical types of property relations.57 ← 47 | 48 →

That noted, the historical types of ownership distinguished by Karl Marx may be characterized by tracing his subsequent reflections. In more detailed analyses, it is clear that Marx refers to an irresolute number of types; including those just cited: “Property, then, originally means – in its Asiatic, Slavonic, ancient classical, Germanic form – the relation of the working (producing or self-reproducing) subject to the conditions of his production or reproduction as his own. It will therefore have different forms depending on the conditions of this production.”58 Grundrisse even mention a whole series of pre-capitalistic formations. For instance,

Communal property has recently been rediscovered as a special Slavonic curiosity. But, in fact, India offers us a sample chart of the most diverse forms of such economic communities, more or less dissolved, but still completely recognizable; and a more thorough research into history uncovers it as the point of departure of all cultured peoples. The system of production founded on private exchange is, to begin with, the historic dissolution of this naturally arisen communism. However, a whole series of economic systems lies in turn between the modern world, where exchange value dominates production to its whole depth and extent, and the social formations whose foundation is already formed by the dissolution of communal property, without [Here the manuscript breaks off].59

In addition, on more than one occasion, Marx speaks of the so-called mixed or transitional forms of ownership. Marx further notes a peculiar formation of society which existed in most of the Western European countries, a form whose key trait was a predominance of individual private property. Ownership relations manifest in this form cannot be reduced to either the feudal or the capitalistic type.60


ISBN (Book)
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 Gumuł a 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