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Private and collective property in historical context

14 April, 00:00
Sketch by Anatolii KAZANSKY from The Day‘s archive


The Orange Revolution gave an impetus to a generation change in government agencies, while 60-year-old politicians are being elbowed out by 40-year-olds. Does this have any effect on the attitude of the ruling elite toward our past? Ukraine’s map provides a negative answer to this question: over two dozen cities are still named after communist functionaries and two — Dniprodzerzhynsk and Dzerzhynsk — after the founder of the Soviet political police.

We lived under the communist regime disguised as socialism. All people over 20 years of age are products of Soviet schools. The process of squeezing past stereotypes out of people’s minds is painful. A number of individuals try not to look back at their past, the more so that the communist idea, abstracted from the horrible circumstances in which it was implemented, differs little from the Christian values. Another thing that has to be taken into account is that mass repressions have not been practiced during the lifetime of the existing generations. Even people born in the 1970s have no complaints about a regime that took care of them since their birth.

We often raise the matter of totalitarianism without having a clear idea of what this abstract political notion became in actuality. The Soviet system was omnipresent in that it held the masses together by tens of millions of state employees who were members of the CPSU, trade unions, the Young Communist League (Komsomol), an incredibly powerful secret police (the so-called Chekists), and millions of forcefully recruited informers who were literally everywhere. Every individual was subject to vertical ties with centers of power and denied horizontal ties — contact with fellow humans, often even within the family. This kind of social structure in the period of communist construction enabled the regime to perpetrate heinous crimes. In subsequent decades, however, it had to show genuine care about the people’s living standard, culture, leisure, health, and even peace of mind. Suffice is to recall forced treatment for alcoholism or interviews at party committees in conjunction with adultery.

How are we, former communists, to determine our mistakes? In Soviet times Marx and Engel’s Communist Manifesto was widely quoted and many quotations have become commonly known. One popular maxim said: “The theory of the Communists may be summed up in the single sentence: Abolition of private property.” We thought this thesis did not need proof. Then why has the communist regime brought about political terror and economic decline in three dozen countries?

The question must be put bluntly: “When private ownership of the means of production is abolished, does collective ownership replace it?” Then we will understand why communist propaganda differed so much from communist realities.


I insist that there can be only two forms of ownership: collective and individual. Individual property can be managed by more than one person; that is why it is known as private property.

Lawyers will reject this statement by an historian and will mention quite a few other statutory forms of ownership. They will have a point there, yet all forms of ownership known to humankind boil down to these two. This simplified approach helps a researcher with his historical analysis.

Lawyers determine the right of an individual or a legal entity to property as three powers: possession, use, and management. Ownership rights are codified depending on how these rights are formed in a given society. The evolution of the forms of ownership in time and space is the province of jurisprudence.

Interrelationships between the category of ownership/property and the evolution of society are the field of endeavor of historians. Without professional historical knowledge even the most prominent figures in other sciences may arrive at erroneous conclusions. This is precisely what happened to the founders of “scientific” communism. Their mistakes caused the world mind-boggling losses. Due to certain circumstances, the Ukrainian people must have suffered the worst from communism.

Soviet legislation did not recognize private ownership. An individual’s actual right to property was concealed under the fake category of personal ownership. At the same time, another invented category, that of collective ownership/property, quickly vanished from post-Soviet legislation. It was replaced with “communal ownership” (“municipal ownership “ in Russia). The 1991 Law of Ukraine “On Property” defined “communal ownership” as a kind of state ownership. The current Constitution of Ukraine regards it as an independent form of public ownership that is completely separate from state ownership.


Such metamorphoses make a historian wonder: What is the relationship between state and private ownership? I don’t mean the current privatization process in the post-communist countries. An historian has a bird’s-eye view of the transformation of forms of ownership/property and must think in civilization terms. He must consider, above all, the collective and private forms of ownership.

In the pre-civilization era the ownership right was not divided into separate powers vested in separate individuals. People owned property and natural resources collectively. The economy of every community was limited to collecting and hunting.

Did the notion of ownership exist at that period? Even if it did, it should be studied by biologists, not lawyers. At the time man was getting separated from the animal world in which every creature defended its right to a certain territory, which is an equivalent to the right to live.

Relationships among people began to get complicated with the emergence of reproducing industries, such as farming and cattle breeding. The primordial horde was replaced by tribal collectives that marked the appearance of society. Arnold Joseph Toynbee defined the dynamics of the historical process using this brief formula: “challenge and response.” Faced with challenges, human communities had to get mobilized to respond to them. Those who failed to do so sank into historical oblivion.

Humankind has been evolving in several parallel dimensions: socioeconomic, technological, and sociopolitical. These are interconnected, yet each has its own dynamics: positive (progress) or negative (regress). The emergence of private ownership in the socioeconomic dimension of the historical process could be compared to the invention of the wheel or use of fire in the technological dimension.

Private ownership, as a monopoly on possession, use, and management of property and natural resources, caused social distinctions among people. Communities with advanced structures embarked on the state-building process, as a result of which they received an advantage over others in the struggle for territory. After mastering advanced means of production, it became possible for man to produce more material values than was necessary for man’s physical existence. Man turned into a resource that could be possessed, used, and managed. The struggle for territory would then often turn into one for slave labor.

In the state-building process the main objective was not man who was captured and then turned into a slave, but a territory inhabited by tilling communities. Ancient countries, among them Greece and Rome, should not be referred to as slave-holding. These countries relied on the free farmer who was forced to pay duties to secure his own existence. Farmers made up the bulk of their armies without which these countries could not exist.

The socioeconomic dimension of evolution was marked by the long existence of an agrarian society (until the second half of the 19th century). At this stage countries could acquire various forms, but always on the basis of land ownership (nomadic societies being the only exception).

As a rule, state ownership of land was personified by the monarch — in other words, it was a kind of private property. The monarch exercised his right to own land by transferring some of his powers to people who discharged functions of the state (military, administrative, judicial, etc.). Some powers were delegated to the peasants; they were allowed joint land tenure, provided they paid their duties — in other words, they could work the land that was their collective property before the state-building phase. The need to enforce duties on the peasants gradually evolved into serfdom.

In this way feudal relations between landowners and tenants took shape in Western and Central Europe. The my-vassal’s-vassal-is-not-my-vassal rule imposed some restrictions on sovereign authority. A social system known as absolutism emerged only after monarchs could rely on the bourgeois strata, which developed as a result of market relations. This was when Louis XIV could say, L’ tat c’est moi (I am the state). In Russia, in lieu of feudal relationships, people of noble birth remained servilely dependent on the autocratic tsar while serfdom with time became strongly reminiscent of slavery.

In the phase of transformation of agrarian society into industrial one (socioeconomic dimension) and traditional society, into civil one (sociopolitical dimension), state property was no longer personified by the monarch. Even in Russia, prior to the revolution, despite the fact that it stubbornly preserved autocracy, this property was separated from that of the royal family. Under a ukase of Paul I, the “peasants of the state” — those who worked the lands owned by the royal family — were given the status “appanage peasants.” Yet in all cases state ownership of the means of production essentially remained a kind of private ownership because it functioned in a market environment.


In a period from the French Revolution through the revolution of 1848–49 European history showed a dramatic increase in its pace. Philosophers at the time were of the opinion that new horizons would shortly open up for humankind and that all it took was the abolition of private property.

We are accustomed to picturing Marx and Engels as a single intellectual whole that, prior to the revolution in Europe, came up with a materialistic concept of history (e.g., historical materialism) and laid the foundations of the theory of scientific communism. The true story was somewhat different.

In his Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, Marks, then 26, attacked the idea of abolishing private property. He believed that collective property ran counter to human nature. Further on he made a statement that was a deep insight rather than a result of the experience of humankind: “This type of communism — since it negates the personality of man in every sphere — is but the logical expression of private property, which is this negation.” In other words, he claimed that only the owner is destroyed, while private property is indestructible.

Engels had no such insights, as evidenced by his admiring description of Robert Owen’s colony in Hampshire. Marx and Engels overcame their disagreement on the abolition of private property while working on the best-known document of revolutionary Marxism, The Communist Manifesto (1848). Its main idea is the abolition of private ownership of the means of production. In that stormy revolutionary atmosphere this idea seemed simple and understandable. The proletarians, led by their party, had to destroy traditional society.

Marx and Engels did not specify the manner in which a society based on the rejection of private property and related commodity-monetary market relations would operate. They believed that the proletariat, after seizing power, would establish planned production and fair distribution of material and cultural values among people. Some dynamics was allowed only in the organization of consumption, in conjunction with the level of production of material values. To this end they distinguished between the lower phase of communism (production communism) and the higher one (consumption communism). In the lower phase the material values were to be distributed in proportion to one’s contribution and in the higher phase, in proportion to to one’s needs. Marxists eventually started identifying the lower phase of communism with socialism, a popular concept among ordinary people. Non-Marxists more often than not understood socialism as a policy of government aid to the underprivileged strata, by levying extra taxes on the propertied strata.

The Communist Manifesto essentially identified the abolition of private property with the establishment of collective ownership of the means of production. Indeed, what could be more understandable? The victorious Communist Party comes to power, expropriates the owners’ means of production, proclaims them public property, and sets up property management and distribution authorities for the benefit of the toiling masses.

Liquidation of the existing forms of private property fundamentally changed the society’s mode of existence. Was this for the better? Three generations of Soviet people could answer this question. More precisely, only the first generation, which was halved in the course of communist construction, could answer it. The next two did not have anything to compare life in a communist country with.

Propagandists convinced them that the countries in the West were no different from Russia before the October revolution because capitalism can only decay. Then the Iron Curtain fell and millions of former Soviet citizens went to the West as migrant workers. They went there out of their own free will, unlike the Ostarbeiters (eastern workers) during World War II, and were amazed to see that socialism had emerged but not in their country. The only reason why socialism with a capitalist face is not called socialism in the West is because the popular term had been appropriated by the Bolsheviks and National Socialists.


In 1903 Russia’s Marxists founded the Social Democratic Party, which instantly split into the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks. Both parties identified themselves as social democratic and were members of the Second International until it fell apart at the outbreak of the First World War. After the February revolution the Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin seized power [in Russia] and renamed his party “Communist.” He founded the Communist International and proceeded to build a commune-like state. Conversely, the European socialists revived the Socialist International after the war, which was in opposition to the Comintern.

And so all Marxists were communists at first and then became Social Democrats. Part of Russia’s Social Democrats, however, went back to communism. They proclaimed their devotion to the communist idea, turned into the state party, and started using the resources of a huge country in order to create a world-wide communist party. Despite their polarized programs, the socialists and the communists considered themselves to be followers of Marx. Which of the two groups was right? Or did they swear allegiance to two different kinds of Marx?


Marx and Engels started writing their Manifesto when they were quite young. After the Manifesto was published, Marx lived another 35 and Engels, 47 years. Both never found the time to solve the Manifesto’s biggest mystery: specify the mechanisms and the ways of transformation of private property, which underpinned humankind’s prior history, into collective, public, communist property.

They never did, although they co-authored two forewords to the Manifesto’s new editions, and then Engels wrote another five forewords. Never openly abandoning the forecasts offered in their work, they concentrated on studying the society in which they lived and which they called capitalist. Even more so, Marx’s major work, Das Kapital, contained a fundamental postulate that refuted the Manifesto’s revolutionary impatience: “Society can neither skip natural phases in its development, nor cancel them by decrees.”

The 1848–49 revolution put an end to the mounting social tension in the European countries and provided conditions for the development of a civil society. Communists turned into Social Democrats simply because they had chosen democratic rather than revolutionary ways to conduct their political activities. They had become convinced that it was best to seek agreement on the interests of labor and capital rather than destroy capital because the latter was as powerful an agent in the production process as the proletariat.

The Social Democrats did not reject the market idea in practice. They could campaign for tougher government control over business, redistribution of budget funds for the benefit of the poor, and even nationalization of the means of production (typically, through redemption). However, these and other efforts were for socialists just the means of rehabilitating the market economy and lowering social tensions. They regarded any business activity involving or increasing capital as an intellectual field on part with scientific, cultural, and religious endeavor. Moreover, private entrepreneurship was then regarded as the most important occupation because it made it possible to carry out socialist measures.

This democratic choice of the European Marxists was generalized and aphoristically expressed by Engels’s younger friend and closest associate by the name of Eduard Bernstein: “What is customarily called the end goal of socialism is nothing for me, while progress is everything.” Engels supported Bernstein, although he did not want him to publicly denounce any revolutionary Marxist dogmas. He was supported by Karl Kautsky, who influenced the German Social Democratic Party to adopt its Erfurt Program of 1891. Under this program the ultimate objective of the social democratic movement was nationalization of the means of production and replacing the market anarchy by a centralized distribution of products — in other words, communism.

They were still determined to do away with private ownership. Means of production had to become collective property. Although neither the Erfurt Program, nor the Manifesto, drawn up 43 years earlier, specified the property transformation mechanism, the principal distinction between these documents is that the former saw its ultimate goal achieved by reform, not revolution.

Bernstein and other European Social Democratic leaders refused to accept the Manifesto’s dogmas because they realized the constructive role played by capital in production and the opportunity of establishing peace in society. The founding fathers of Marxism did not argue their case with their disciples, but they were unable to discard the views they had adopted earlier. As it was, they were fortunate enough to find new willing disciples, especially among the Russian Social Democrats who must have simply ignored that statement about society being unable to skip phases in its natural development or cancel them by revolutionary decrees. They held high the dogmas of revolutionary Marxism and made an attempt to translate them into life. Lenin’s idea of a commune-like state turned out utopian, except that this utopian project was actually carried out. The Bolsheviks carried out this project using violence and terror.

What happened to private ownership of the means of production after the Bolsheviks proclaimed it “all people’s property”? In accordance with the Marxist tenet that it is impossible to cancel phases of natural evolution by decrees, private ownership of the means of production survived. The decrees simply re-designated the owner — this time it was the Bolshevik leadership. A combination of the political and economic dictatorships made the regime omnipotent and left the society at the mercy of the powers that be.


Private property is closely associated with the history of civilization, including its dark and bright aspects. Victories or defeats in societal life are explained not by the presence of private property as a socioeconomic category, but by the level of its centralization. When a handful of individuals in the higher political echelons have control over the country’s resources, this society is caught up in bondage. Conversely, democracy is rooted in the economic independence of every member of society.

Those who possessed all the resources had their own ideas about how to use them. History teems with records of abuse of power. Let me give you two examples.

Ancient Egypt did not have to fear strong enemies and so it did not spend much on its military. The Nile’s annual floods abundant, stable crops. It did not take the pharaohs long to figure out how to use their resources. They started building pyramids. Some say that a pyramid is a materialization of concepts about life after death. However, these concepts were formed before the pyramid epoch and persisted afterward.

After getting control over all the resources of the former Russian empire, the Council of People’s Commissars (Radnarkom) started organizing a multimillion army so as to get all of Europe under its control under the world revolution slogans. This project failed, due to objective reasons, but the Soviet communist system remained true to its aggressive messianic self to its dying day.

Does all of the above mean that collective ownership of the means of production could exist only in the tribal era? Could humankind return to it in the course of prolonged evolution?

There is one thing I can say: communism will long remain a utopian rather than a scientific doctrine. Humankind is not mature enough to adopt collective property. Well, perhaps our latest developments in science, technology, and engineering, impressive as they are, do not suffice. Perhaps collective property is incompatible with human nature, the way we reproduce — after all, we do it much the same as in the animal world. Perhaps there are other reasons due to which only private property and the related commodity-money market relations can secure social progress.

It is necessary to understand this simple truth: any unnatural, forceful means of bringing “bright future” closer to us will result in staggering losses and will not bring any positive results, as was the case in the 20th century. The present-day communists should be aware of this.

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