3. The End of Property

Communism is the end of property. Everyone knows this and it arouses a great deal of discomfort; some of it totally justified. The owners of large estates, of numerous sumptuous homes … will be obliged to moderate their lifestyle. Industrial and commercial fortunes will disappear. Those who will be expropriated, although today they possess a large part of society’s wealth, are a small and well-defined caste. On the other hand, we shall not as a general rule attack individuals; we shall act with reference to the nature of the goods in question. We shall seize the castles but will leave the houses alone, whether they belong to the poor or the rich! The concerns that have penetrated the consciousness of the proletarians and, above all, that of the peasants, are not justified. Communism is not the seizure from the oppressed of the little they possess.

• What Is Property?

This question is not so easy to answer. For proof of this, we call the reader’s attention to the polemic that pitted Marx against Proudhon. The latter had asserted, “property is theft”. Proudhon understood quite well that the origin of property was not nature, but that it was the product of a society in which relations of force, violence and the appropriation of the labour of others prevailed. But if one says that property is theft, and since theft can only be defined in relation to property, we find ourselves in a vicious circle.

The problem only becomes more complicated when one proceeds from the question of property to the question of its abolition. Is it necessary to abolish all property, whether in the means of production or personal possessions? Is it necessary to act selectively? Should we replace private property with collective or State property? Or is it a matter of the radical abolition of all property?

Communism opts for the latter proposal. It is not about the transfer of titles of ownership, but precisely the disappearance of property, plain and simple. In the revolutionary society you will not be able to “use and abuse” something just because you own it. There will be no exceptions to this rule. A building, a pin, a parcel of land: none of these things will belong to anyone, or, if you prefer, they will belong to everyone. The very idea of property will soon be considered to be an absurdity.

In that case, will everything belong equally to everybody? Will the first person who comes along be able to evict me from my house, strip me of my clothing, and take the bread from my mouth because I no longer own my house, or my clothing, or my food? Of course not; the material and personal security of each person will, to the contrary, be reinforced. Simply stated, it will no longer be the right of ownership that will be invoked for protection but the interest of the person in question will be the direct criterion. Each person must be able to feed himself in proportion to his hunger and seek lodgings and clothing at his convenience. Each person must be able to enjoy peace of mind. Certain ideologues want to see property as merely the extension of the animal’s territoriality into human society; in this way property would no longer be a fact pertaining to a specific era or even of a specific species, but as belonging to all animals. However, no one has ever seen a fox or a bear rent the territory that he owns, or inhabit a territory where he is only a tenant! Such things are nonetheless frequent in our society. It is precisely property which permits the use and the possession of something to be dissociated.

The fact that a good is not property provides no indication regarding the use to which it will be put; all that is certain is that it will be put to some use. A bicycle will be used to travel, and not only so that Mr. Martin, its legitimate owner, may travel. The question regarding whether or not human beings, for sentimental or personal reasons, need a fixed territory and objects with which they identify is not a question that can be answered with reference to the concept of property. So, the dental hygienists can rest assured: we are not proposing to make toothbrushes into common property.

To oppose individualism to collectivism, personal use to social use, in order to make this opposition the crux of a “choice between forms of society” is bourgeois cretinism. From this perspective it would be absolutely necessary to support rail transport against the personal automobile; in this way the communists would be in favour of the collective orgy and the bourgeois would be in favour of masturbation! We laugh at these kinds of disputes, they make no sense outside the context of practical circumstances. What is clear, however, is that we are not the ones who are responsible for the depersonalization and atomization of our existence.

Under current conditions the rights of property constitute a barrier against the destruction of personal life. It is in every possible way a derisory guarantee. It does not stop noise from penetrating the walls of poorly insulated apartments, it is of little avail against eviction; the peasant might be the owner of his land, but his title deed poses no obstacle to the advancing depopulation of the countryside.

Today there are fallow fields, uninhabited houses, wealth of every kind lies unused, and all of this is accepted as necessary; unfortunately the owners do not want, or, what is worse, are incapable, of either using or giving away these goods.

The idea of ownership does have some relationship to reality; it is also, however, a mystification: one can own something without having any power of control over it. It is a double lie: social and economic; and it also affects the relations between man and nature.

Property rights are necessary in capitalism. Exchange requires that everything be clearly defined. When it is a question of business dealings it is necessary to know who really owns a particular commodity and who does not. In the past, local custom could provide a framework for deciding how to use things and arrange matters; but when things acquired a degree of independence from men and could pass from hand to hand, custom was no longer enough. Only faint traces of it remain in the countryside: easement rights, the right to access springs and other sources of water, the right to glean after the harvest…. The commodity and capital need a discreet body of rules that are applicable regardless of the particular circumstances.

In the Middle Ages landed property in the modern sense did not exist. With regard to any particular parcel of land, the rights of the serfs, the local lord, the king, and the church could be exercised…. Until the 19th century a certain number of rules continued to restrict the power of the landowner by restricting him to taking no more than the harvest of the first mowing of a meadow, forbidding him from fencing off his land, forcing him to allow gleaning rights and pasturage of animals on fallow land.

In the world of bourgeois equality everybody is a free proprietor. The peasant owns his land, the industrialist owns his factory and the worker owns his labour power. There is no theft, but there are people who become wealthy and accumulate riches completely out of proportion to what their own labour would make possible. Property conceals relations of exploitation.

If the peasant has become an agricultural landowner and possesses the parcel of land he cultivates, he is no less subject to certain price fluctuations that are completely outside his power. Working constantly, he is nonetheless unable to become rich.

Property does not explain the power of the capitalist enterprise. The enterprise is the owner of fixed capital: buildings, machines, etc. But this does not take into account the wealth that passes through its owner’s hands and which constitutes his turnover.

The complex interconnections of the economy lead to a restriction of the rights of property. What you do in your house can have a negative impact on your neighbour. You cannot throw your wastes in a river with impunity just because you own part of the shoreline.

The absolute character of the right of property—it is “sacred and inviolable” according to the Declaration of the Rights of Man—is insignificant in relation to the forces and the unpredictable events of nature. The most intransigent landowner will be powerless if an erupting volcano were to bury his land; he can call the police, but he will not be able to evict the intruder. As a general rule, natural objects and phenomena do not punctually obey us.

As the nephew of the great chief Cochise noted, the white men spend their whole lives fighting over land. It is not men, however, who can possess the land, but, to the contrary, it is the land that possesses and feeds men. We all end up buried in it sooner or later.

• The Agrarian Question

The agrarian question is intimately linked to the solution of the problem of property. It is a vital question for the revolution. In the past, peasant armies suppressed the workers’ insurrections. The opposite also took place, as in Mexico. The small peasant has always been easily mobilized by the counterrevolution in the name of the defence of his sacred right to property.

In the industrialized countries, capital has done what it has accused the “reds” of wanting to do. It has expelled the majority of the peasants from their land. It can therefore no longer rely on the frightened masses of peasants to form the ranks of the counterrevolutionary armies. The supply of subsistence goods to the cities is still provided by the countryside, however. The party of order will always be happy to use this situation as a weapon against the revolution.

Where the agricultural workers do not own the land they cultivate, but are tenant farmers or wage labourers working for large estates, they will organize to carry on production. They will not have to answer to their old landlord or boss: the land will go to those who work it! If their former landlord or boss wants to join them in order to contribute his knowledge and labour, this would be of some help, but he will only be able to do so on the basis of equality.

Where ownership and cultivation of the soil coincide, where the peasant employs few or no wage labourers, the problem must be apprehended in a different manner: we must take into account, on the one hand, the interest of society as a whole, which cannot be supplied with food by discontented farmers; on the other hand, we must also take into account the proletarianized peasant, who depends on the capitalist system for his inputs and markets and who should understand that he has everything to gain from the communist revolution.

Capitalist development has taken place at the expense of agriculture. It has absorbed manpower and resources for industry. Communism will reverse this trend. Agriculture is its particular concern because of its role in food production as well as environmental protection. These are two areas where capitalism has demonstrated a distinct lack of prudence.

The institution of property, whether or not it is based on the family, will disappear along with the State and the legal system that legitimizes it. The use and habit of cultivating a particular parcel of land will continue and will even be organized by the revolutionary authorities. The peasants may organize upon this basis or, if they prefer, they may continue to occupy their parcel in isolation. It is likely that, at least for a certain period, both methods will be combined, each peasant being ensconced on his parcel but practicing more mutual aid than is presently the case for certain kinds of work and for the shipment of their products. Inheritance in the strict sense of the word will disappear—but who is more likely to possess the qualifications and the interest to succeed a farmer than his son!

The general rule will be to allow the peasants to organize agricultural production as they see fit. Coercion would be the worst and the most expensive solution of all.

The agricultural collectivization implemented by East Bloc capitalism has nothing to do with communism. It was not for ideological but for economic and class reasons that these programs were put into effect. It was necessary to combat the resurgence of the bourgeoisie in the countryside. The rich peasants were getting rich at the expense of the poor peasants by lending money at usurious rates of interest. They thus created a pole of accumulation for this interest capital that competed with the industrial pole of accumulation upon which the bureaucracy was based. This is why it was necessary to impose and to pay the price of agricultural collectivization.

And a heavy price was paid. In the early stages of collectivization in the Soviet Union, peasant resistance was so strong that the sharecroppers sector was decimated. The long-term consequence was the stagnation of agricultural productivity due to the lack of incentive on the part of the members of the Kolkhozes. This led to frequent policy changes with regard to family-owned farm parcels. Collectivization helped keep the peasants in the countryside by insulating them from the effects of direct economic pressure. This resulted in lower pressure and less competition in the labour market. The USSR preserved an exceptionally large number of peasants considering its level of industrial development. These peasants were dragged in the wake of industrial development like a prison chain gang.

By rejecting collectivization, do we therefore reject the task of revolutionizing and communizing the countryside? Absolutely not! To the contrary! The communist revolution is the liquidation of the commodity economy. This also holds true for the countryside.

The farmer will not make money in exchange for his labours if he is a wage labourer, nor from his commodities if he is an independent producer. He will gratuitously deliver his surplus production to society; in compensation, he will not have to pay for the goods required for his personal needs or his farm operations. He will no longer be motivated by the desire or the need for money. His motivation will be directly rooted in his interest in the work, by his love for his chosen way of life or by the desire to be useful.

The peasant will not have to work as hard as before. He will be able to request assistance from labour power made available by society. This will be made possible by the closure of a plethora of more or less parasitic enterprises and a reduction in the labour power utilized for the purposes of industry and the tertiary sector. It will be possible to provisionally shut down some productive enterprises in the era of giant agriculture in order to free up labour power. This would be unimaginable today.

Distribution, as well as production, will be transformed. The road that leads from the farmer to the consumer will be shortened by as much as possible. Products will be transported directly from a particular agricultural region to a particular city and this process will be organized by those directly involved. When one considers the difference between the price of production and the price paid by the consumer one will understand the significance of such a process of simplification.

The peasants will conduct the labour of cultivation and raising livestock either alone or with assistance from others. They will not work in isolation from the rest of society. We do not promise them absolute freedom. Agriculture depends today, and will continue to depend in the future, on other sectors of the economy. The most prominent such sectors are those that provide fertilizers and agricultural equipment; the independence of the peasants is thus necessarily restricted as a result of this condition. Furthermore, agriculture plays such an essential role that all those who depend on it cannot afford to ignore it.

Let us imagine an extreme case: if some farmers allow land to go uncultivated and herds to go untended because they no longer need to make money, it would be naïve to think that some people will quietly accept their fate and die of hunger. In such a situation it would be possible to cut off supplies to the lazy farmers as a countermeasure. The farmers are responsible for conserving their farmlands and must be able to live a comfortable life, but they must not be allowed to become parasites and, above all, they must not be allowed to hoard certain goods that others could use immediately.

Overcoming the separation of town and countryside is one of the goals of the revolution. This can only be accomplished very slowly since this separation is inscribed in stone and concrete. One cannot wave a magic wand and move skyscrapers here and forests there. It will be possible, however, to rapidly implement measures that will lead in this direction. For example, the provisional or permanent resettlement of urban populations in the countryside where small industrial centres can be established to complement the new population centres and, where this is possible, as adjuncts to local agricultural activities. Many people who were forced to leave the countryside or who find city life unsuitable will be happy to return to the country. Individual and collective gardens will multiply and will beautify these rural settlements and even the urban centres. This will be facilitated by tearing up the pavement of streets that will no longer be necessary due to reduced traffic. This will make it easier to recycle household wastes, reduce transport expenses and provide fresh vegetables to the population. One of the defects of capitalist agriculture is that it has become so separated from the consumer and the latter’s wastes and has had to compensate for these deficiencies by means of chemical or biological inputs that have to be constantly increased. In these gardens, children, the elderly and the handicapped who are today refused a role in production and are often destined to lives of boredom, can have something to do and make themselves useful. This will be a magnificent terrain for teaching a de-schooled young generation. Finally, this will help clean up our polluted air!

• From Scarcity to Abundance

The legal right and the mental attachment to property will die out in communist society because scarcity will become a thing of the past. It will no longer be necessary to hold on tightly to an object in fear of never being able to enjoy it if you turn your back on it for even a single instant.

What kind of magic do you intend to use in order to give birth to this fabulous era of abundance? This is the question that will be sarcastically asked by the bourgeois. There is nothing magical about it: we can make abundance arise because it is already here right in front of our noses. Nothing needs to be done to give birth to abundance except to free it from its bonds. It is capital which, by squeezing humanity and nature for the last two or three centuries, has made abundance possible: it is not communism which, all of a sudden, will produce abundance, but capitalism which has artificially maintained scarcity.

The formidable increase in the productivity of labour has not, or not yet at any rate, changed much with regard to the fate of the proletariat; it has even had negative effects. The power of capital has destroyed the traditional societies of the Third World without allowing its population access to the industrialized world. This factor, together with an enormous demographic expansion has plunged a large part of humanity into profound misery. Under these conditions, wage slavery is a veritable improvement compared to living as a beggar or a pauper.

The impact of nuclear energy and electronics has so far been experienced with respect to their military uses. Scientific progress has fortunately delivered us from those barbarous times when one had to see those one killed and sometimes was even splashed with their blood. Disgusting!!!

Even those inhabitants of the “rich” countries who have benefited from this increase in productivity are exploited. Wage increases and the progressive growth of consumption hardly compensate for the deterioration of their living conditions. Having more or better objects than were available in a previous era does not mean that one lives better. The worker has the car his father did not have, but his workplace and the countryside that he visits on weekends have become more distant. He loses in traffic jams the time he won with the shortening of the working day, and he has traded his physical for nervous exhaustion. With regard to its conditions of development, what industrialization gives with one hand it takes back with the other. It boasts of its remedies but it omits to mention that it was the origin of the illness in the first place. Nor is this accidental: the logic of commodity production requires that conditions of dissatisfaction be maintained. The doctor needs illness. As Fourier pointed out: in civilization scarcity is born from abundance and society moves in a vicious circle.

The human being has been gradually reduced to the passive role of consumer. His moribund state is reanimated with the artificial life of commodities. His misery becomes the technicolour reflection of commodities displayed in all the store windows and on sale for low prices.

In communist society goods will be freely available and free of charge. Social organization will be thoroughly disencumbered of money.

How would it be possible to prevent some people from hoarding wealth to the detriment of others? After a period of euphoria during which we will help ourselves to the existing stock of goods, won’t our society risk collapsing into chaos and inequality before totally succumbing to disorder and terror?

These concerns are not restricted to a small handful of privileged elements with a direct interest in maintaining the present system; they also express the point of view of those among the oppressed who are paralyzed by the fear that a social upheaval will make their situation worse. In the storm the big fish will be better armed for killing the little fish!

In the fully developed communist society the productive forces will be sufficient to provide for all needs. The feverish and neurotic desire to consume and to hoard will disappear. It will be absurd to want to accumulate goods: there will no longer be any money to pocket or wage workers to hire. Why accumulate cans of beans or false teeth that you will never use? In this stage of society, if some form of imposition still exists it will not be a restriction on the distribution of products but rather on the nature of the products, in the conditions that are imposed by the various specific use values of the products; there will necessarily be a selection of some possibilities and a rejection of others at the level of their manufacture.

When revolutionary society has first emerged from the fetters of the old world, the situation will be different. The revolutionary authorities, the workers’ councils, will have to formulate and guarantee the observation of a certain number of rules to prevent the resurgence of the habits and procedures of commodity society. Perhaps it will then be necessary to limit the number of cans of beans or pounds of sugar each person may possess in his home. It is not possible to predict just how long this stage will last; it will vary according to the greater or lesser poverty of the regions in question and will depend on the power and the resolve of the revolutionary party. A war provoked by the party of capital, which would cause setbacks for production and transport, would only prolong this transitional phase. If we base our estimate solely on the time required for the communist reconversion of the productive forces, the transitional period could be very brief; we saw how quickly the American economy was able to be transformed into a war economy during the Second World War!

With communism, the nature of production as a whole and the nature of the objects produced will undergo a radical transformation. The disappearance of exchange value will have a major impact on use value.

• The Transformation of Products

The commodities offered for sale on the market comprise an extremely hierarchical set of objects. There are not just one or even several commodities for each particular need; there is a multitude of commodities from the same enterprise or from the competition. Of course, this is all about satisfying the public and responding to the variety of its needs. The customer must have a choice! In practice his choice is restricted by his financial means and his social function. Numerous commodities respond to the same need but each one is distinguished by its quality and price; this is true of cookware, for instance. On the other hand, different products correspond to different uses; but these different uses are not available to the same individuals. For example, some people conduct their affairs by means of supersonic jets and other people by means of bicycles.

This hierarchy and differentiation of commodities is the reflection of competition between groups, extreme wage inequality, and the living conditions of the capitalist world. It leaves its mark on industrial development. The needs of the rich play the role of bellwether. Goods like the automobile lose a large part of their quality as articles of use when they cease to be the privilege of a minority and come within the reach of just anybody.

Communism does not propose to make everyone wear the same uniform and eat the same soup; but it will put an end to this disastrous diversification and hierarchy of products. New goods that are still scarce will be put to use first for collective purposes or else on a first-come, first-served basis.

With regard to clothing we can imagine that a reduced number of high quality articles of clothing will be produced, but in sufficient quantity to provide for all sizes and customary uses. They will be produced on a massive scale and by means of as much automation and machinery as possible. At the margins, workshops can be opened where machines and fabrics will be available for those who want to make different clothes for themselves or their friends.