The Right of Inheritance

Submitted by libcom on July 25, 2005

The First International Working Men's Association


From the General Council minutes of July 20, 1869, as taken by George Eccarius.

Citizen Marx opened the discussion on the question: The Right of Inheritance.

He said the question had been put by the Alliance of Social Democrats of Geneva and the Council had accepted it for discussion. The Alliance of Geneva demanded, above all, the entire abolition of the right of inheritance.

There were two forms of inheritance.

The testamentary right, or inheritance by will, had come from Rome and had been peculiar to Rome. The father of the Roman family had exercised absolute authority over everything belonging to his household. The Roman family father must not be compared with the father of a family of the present day. The Roman household had included slaves and clients whose affairs and interests and interests the head had been obliged to defend and maintain in public. There had been a superstition that when this man died his ghost remained as a watch in the house to see that things were done right, or to torment if things were managed wrong. In the early time of Rome, people had sacrificed to this house god; even blood feasts had been celebrated in his honor and to appease his wrath. By and by, it had become fashionable to compromise with this spirit by a heir-at-will. It had been the Roman immortality of the soul. The will of the deceased had been perpetuated by a testament, but this testament had not necessarily brought a fortune to the successor who inherited, but the will of the deceased had been looked upon as a religious duty. In course of time, these heirs-at-will had laid claim to the fortune too, but even in imperial times had never been allowed more than a fourth by law. That pagan superstition had been transmitted to Christian countries and was the foundation of the right of will as at present existing in England and the United States.

German right of inheritance was the intestate right, the family right, which treated an estate as a sort of co-proprietorship of which the father of the family was the manager. When this manager died, the property fell to all the children. The Germans had known of no other hereditary rights; the Church of Rome had introduced the Roman right, and the feudal system had falsified the German right, because feudal property bearing a military charged could not have been divided. The French Revolution had returned to the German right of inheritance. In England, we had all sorts of nonsensical things; the individual had the most absolute right to will away his property, even to disinherit his own offspring, and by this, rule long after he had ceased to exist. [Here, the sentence, "It was what kept the aristocracy in its present position and could be left to the middle class" is crossed out.] The right of will might be left for the middle class to deal with as it was a point which would work against the aristocracy. In Prussia, only a little of a man's property could be willed away.

The working class, who had nothing to inherit, had no interest in the question.

The Democratic Alliance was going to commence the social revolution with the abolition of the right of inheritance. He asked would it be policy to do so?

The proposition was not new. St. Simon had proposed it in 1830.

As an economical measure, it would avail nothing. It would cause so much irritation that it would be sure to raise an almost insurmountable opposition which would inevitably lead to reaction. If at the time of a revolution it was proclaimed, he did not believe that the general state of intelligence would warrant its being sustained. Besides, if the working class had sufficient power to abolish the right of inheritance, it would be powerful enough to proceed to expropriation, which would be a much simpler and more efficient process.

To abolished the right to the inheritance of land in England would involve the hereditary functions connected with the land, the House of Lords, etc., and 15,000 lords and 15,000 ladies would have to die before it became available. If, on the contrary, a workingmen's parliament decreed that the rent should be paid into the treasury instead of to the landlord, the government would obtain a fund at once without any social disturbance, while by abolishing the right of inheritance everything would be disturbed and nothing got.

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, sot hat every man had a right and the means to exercise his labor power. If we had such a state of things, the right of inheritance would be of no use. As long as we had not, the family right of inheritance could not be abolished. The chief aim of people in saving for their children was to insure them the means of subsistence. If a man's children were provided for after his death, he could not care about leaving them wherewith to get a living, but as long as this was not the case, it would only result in hardships, it would irritate and frighten people and do no good. Instead of the beginning it could only be the end of a social revolution. The beginning must be to get the means to socialize the means of labor.

The testamentary right of inheritance was obnoxious to the middle class; with this the state could safely interfere any time. We had legacy duties already, all we had to do was to increase them and make them progressive, as well as the income tax, leaving the smaller amounts, 50 pounds, for instance, free. Insofar only it was a working-class question.

All that was connected with the present state of things would have to be transformed, but if testaments were suppressed they would be avoided by gifts during life, therefore it would be better to tolerate then on certain conditions than do worse. First, the means for a transformed state of things must be got, then the right would disappear of itself.

Citizen Milner said it was but natural that people should question the right of inheritance seeing that so many were disinherited. Possession was nine points of the law, and in all ages people had striven to get possession of things. If all had the same right, there would be a family right to be divided, but if not, some would be dispossessed and others would keep possession forever. Had one mn a right to disinherit another? It led to dualism in the family. Possession led to dominion and dominion to slavery....

Citizen Marx replied: If the state had the power to appropriate the land, inheritance was gone. To declare the abolition of inheritance would be foolish. If a revolution occurred, expropriation could be carried; if there was no power to do that, the right of inheritance would not be abolished.

Citizen Marx consented to furnish [a resolution] at the next meeting [August 3, 1869].