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Studies in Socialism/The Radical and Private Property

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Democracy, under the impetus given it by organised labour, is evolving irresistibly toward Socialism, toward a form of property which will deliver man from his exploitation by man, and bring to an end the régime of class government. The Radicals flatter themselves that they can put a stop to this movement by promising the working classes some reforms and by proclaiming themselves the guardians of private property. They hope to hold a large part of the proletariat in check by a few reforming laws expressing a sentiment of social solidarity, and by their policy of defending private property to rouse the conservative forces, the petty bourgeoisie, the middle-classes, and the small peasant-proprietors, to oppose Socialism.

In the first place, to subscribe to such formulas as these means a real intellectual falling off for a part of the democracy. How can men as cultivated as M. Léon Bourgeois and M. Camille Pelletan find any sense in the declaration of the Radical party that affirms "the maintenance of private property"? Used in this general and abstract fashion the phrase "private property" has no meaning whatever.

In the course of human evolution private property has many times changed its form and its substance, its meaning and its scope.

In the societies that preceded ours private property embodied itself in forms of oppression which have been definitely abolished once for all. Slavery was one of the forms of private property. In Athens and Rome there were public slaves, slaves of the city or the state; but most of the slaves were simply a part of the patrimony of the citizens. The property in slaves was part of private property. The slaves either cultivated the lands of their Greek or Roman master or they laboured for his profit in the city workshops. Individuals owned them, disposed of them, forced them to labour, gave them away as presents, sold them, or left them to their heirs. And in the same way, when, after the collapse of the ancient society and the Roman régime founded on conquest, slavery was ameliorated and became serfdom, the serfs, too, bound to the land, were objects of certain private property rights. Under the Merovingian and Carlovingian kings there were royal slaves attached to the royal lands, and Church slaves attached to the Church lands, but the immense majority of the serfs belonged to lords who were in the end practically great landed proprietors with a personal property right in their possessions.

During the Middle Ages, from the tenth to the fourteenth century, serfdom was really established as one of the forms of what we call to-day private property. It was the lord who disposed of the labour of the serf. Agricultural serfs, thinly scattered over the great rural domains, and industrial serfs, bakers, smiths, goldsmiths, spinners, and weavers, gathered together in the outbuildings of the seignorial mansion, all these were under the domination of an individual; they were included in his property and sold by him with the estate. They were, like the land itself, like the fields, the vineyards, the cattle, one of the objects upon which the right of private property was exercised.


I understand, of course, that slavery and serfdom have been eliminated from private property. But can the Radicals be certain that every element of servitude, oppression, and injustice has also disappeared? And what right have they to use the phrase "private property" in a general and abstract fashion when the elemental meaning of the words varies with the very advance of history? Formulas like these are the negation of historic evolution. They condemn the party who adopts them to see nothing and to understand nothing. They put it outside the pale of science and of vital action.

Just as in ancient times private property admitted slavery and as in the Middle Ages it was compatible with serfdom, so to-day it allows the wages system. I am far from wishing to divert myself with the melancholy reactionary paradox of those Socialists who say that the slave and the serf were happier than the wage earner. The moral and material position of the modern workman is as a whole superior to that of the slave or the serf. We are not talking about that. I simply maintain that to-day private property is embodied in the capitalist form which permits a minority of privileged individuals to dispose of the work, the strength, and the health of the working classes, and to levy on them a perpetual tribute. And I maintain that when the Radicals declare in a summary fashion that they wish to uphold private property, either the declaration has no meaning at all, or it means that they want to uphold capitalistic property.

Whoever, in Greece or Rome, had simply announced that he wished to maintain private property, would have announced himself an upholder of slavery. Whoever, during the Middle Ages, had simply announced that he wished to maintain private or personal property, would have upheld at the same time serfdom and feudalism. And to-day, when the Radicals, in a generalised formula, announce to the world that they wish to maintain private property against our attacks upon it, they constitute themselves from that moment the guardians of capitalist property.

But how empty of true significance all these abstract formulas are! They do not merely restrict our conception of the evolution of private property when the thing itself is constantly changing; they also simplify it arbitrarily. For from age to age private property not only changes its meaning but also varies immensely in the matter of greater or less complexity. Sometimes it is applied to social relations that are extremely complex; again it seems to become more simplified. There are periods when human progress necessitates a complex notion of property; there are periods when it necessitates a simple one.


When slavery was changed to serfdom, property became more complex. The relations between master and slave were of a brutal simplicity. Then, in the Middle Ages, when the serf had a family and a patrimony, the master could not dispose of him so simply. The private property rights of the master in the serf are harder to define, less simple than the rights of the master in the slave. Human personality, which may be said to have been often non-existent in the slave and which was more evident in the serf, complicated the property relation; it introduced varied and uncertain elements into the conception of private property. And in this case, complexity certainly marks a step in advance. On the other hand, at the end of the eighteenth century, when the moment came for the middle classes and the peasants to give the death-blow to the feudal system, the Revolution tended to simplify and not to complicate property relations. It freed industrial property from the binding complications of the guild system. It freed agricultural property from the enormous entanglement of feudal and ecclesiastical dues. The bourgeois and the peasant were more distinctly, more absolutely owners, than they were under the feudal régime; and at that time, during the transition from feudalism to capitalism, the apparent simplification of property was a sign of human progress, just as, twelve centuries before, the complication of property had been a sign of human progress.

I read with absorbing interest the excellent work recently published by Giard and Brière, in which M. Henri Sée traces the history of the rural classes and the régime of the great landed estates in France in the Middle Ages. He brings out forcibly the changing complexity and perpetual transformation of property.

"It also appears to be certain," he says in his conclusion, "that in mediæval times men had a conception of property distinctly different from the one with which we are familiar. We see, at one and the same time, rights over the land exercised by the overlord, the vassal, and the tenant. The peasant who inherits his rights of tenure may be in a certain sense considered as a proprietor; if the rights of the lord were removed, the land he cultivates would belong to him without restriction. The rights of user, exercised collectively by the inhabitants of any given estate, might be regarded in some respects as property. That is to say that property, in the Middle Ages, had a much more complex character, much less abstract and clearly defined than in our day. Far from being immovable, the conception of property has been modified in the course of the centuries, and there is no doubt that it will be further modified in the future, that it will follow economic and social phenomena in their evolution."

There is the broad and far-reaching conclusion to which the French historians are more and more tending. What force can the scholastic and childish formula of the Radicals have when confronted with the sovereign findings of history and this living evolution of the conception of property? Just as it has been modified in the past the conception of property will be modified again; and it is certain that it is now going to evolve in the direction of greater complication, of richer complexity. A new force has to be reckoned with, a force which is going to complicate and transform all social relations, the whole property system. This new force is the human individual.

For the first time since the beginning of history, man claims his rights as a man, all his rights. The workman, the proletarian, the man who owns nothing, is affirming his own individuality. He claims everything that belongs properly to a man, the right to life, the right to work, the right to the complex development of his faculties, to the continuous exercise of his free-will and of his reason. Under the double action of democratic life which has wakened or strengthened in him the pride of a man, and of modern industry which has given to united labour a consciousness of its power, the workman is becoming a person, and insists upon being treated as such, everywhere and always. Well, society cannot guarantee him the right to work or the right to life, it cannot promote him from the condition of a passive wage earner to that of a free co-operator, without itself entering into the domain of property. Social property has to be created to guarantee private property in its real sense, that is, the property that the human individual has and ought to have in his own person.


Thus a social property right comes into being, for the benefit of the workers, and this right is extended to the many associations, local government units (communes), trade-unions, and co-operative societies, which, being in close touch with the individual, are able to protect his rights and guarantee his newly-won freedom of action more effectively and with greater suppleness than the nation could. In place, then, of the relatively simple and brutal capitalistic form of property, will be substituted an infinitely complex form, where the social right of the nation will serve as guaranty, by the intermediary of many local or professional groups, to the essential rights of every human being, the free play of all activities. Every capitalistic element will have disappeared; no man will be able to make use of another man to create dividends for himself, or profit, or an income, or rent.

But the new property in its vast complexity, national, communal, corporate, co-operative, will be, at the same time, individual; because no individual will be handed over to the tyranny of another individual or the tyranny of a group or of the nation; and the rights of each man will be guaranteed by contracts at once supple and precise, which, until common property is established, will represent private property in its final purged form.

So will be verified the conclusion of the historian, that our conception of property is to undergo still further modifications. And in this sense there is not a single searcher after truth, not a single scholar who is not working to prove the puerility of the Radical formula. In M. Sée's volume I read the long list of men of science, historians, workers in the archives and in the ancient charters, who have either gathered together or arranged or interpreted the documents he has used. And undoubtedly, among those men, there must be many who belong, or who think they belong, to the Conservative party, some even to the party of reaction. But all, no matter what their personal theories are, no matter what faith they hold, all are serving the cause of evolution, in other words, at the present moment, the cause of Socialism; because they do not stop at the surface of history but penetrate to the depths, and because they reveal to mankind the eternal motion that is continually breaking up and remoulding property according to new forms and new laws. And it is impossible that these studies of the great scholars should not penetrate gradually, through intermediaries, even to the middle-class youth.

So when the Radicals, hoping to put a stop to, or at least impede, the movement of working-class emancipation, speak of the thing that they, in their scholastic jargon, call private property, they will find themselves the object on the one hand of the anger of the labour democracy which will justly take them to task for defending the form of capitalist property under cover of an ambiguous phrase, and on the other of the disdain of science, which will contrast the reality of historic evolution with their abstract and petrified conception of property.


The time is not far off when no one will be able to speak to the public about the preservation of private property without covering himself with ridicule and putting himself voluntarily into an inferior rank. That which reigns to-day under the name of private property is really class property, and those who wish for the establishment of democracy in the economic as well as the political world should give their best effort to the abolition and not to the maintenance of this class property.

But let the Radicals note this fact. If their social formula, "maintenance of private property," has become void and meaningless, this result has not been brought about by the example of the past only, or even by the irresistible tendency of new forces to break the capitalistic mould. In bourgeois society itself, in the bourgeois code,[1] private property appears in such an incomplete form, is so hampered, restricted, and broken up, that even now and from the point of view of the bourgeoisie itself, one must grant that it is either childishness or an anachronism to speak about "the maintenance of private property."

And we Socialists, when we undertake to break up or gradually absorb capitalist property, will often find that we can direct the social movement toward the collectivist form by simply developing certain practices of bourgeois society, interpreting generously certain articles of its code, and hastening the forward march of our legislation in the paths along which it has already begun to move. But those who constitute themselves the guardians of private property not only deny the society of the future; they misunderstand the society of the present.

  1. The "Code Napoléon."