Some philosophers believe restrictions on the use of private property for profit and class warfare are prerequisites for a socialist society – I beg to differ.
In their 2020 book, The Ethics of Capitalism, Daniel Halliday and John Thrasher claimed that there was “no consensus answer” as to how socialism is defined, but proposed that two of its defining conditions were restrictions on the ownership of private property used for production and the elimination of social class distinctions.
They are, I believe, half right. While socialism does indeed require some limitations on who can profit from the productive use of private property, it does not - and cannot - require the elimination of social classes.
Is Productive Private Property the Problem?
Marxism - or some version of it - is what most people think of when they hear the terms “socialism” or "Communism". But in The Communist Manifesto, Marx wrote that “[t]he distinguishing feature of Communism is not the abolition of property generally, but the abolition of bourgeois property...” He also noted that - “the property of the petty artisan and the small peasant… there is no need to abolish that...”
What Marx - and socialists in general - seem opposed to was not the idea of private property itself, but the private control of large enterprises where the profits accrued to a small number of owners, rather than to the workers who actually produce the goods which yield those profits. Marx referred to such enterprises as bourgeois property - a term which, despite its somewhat anachronistic nature, I use here instead of the more modern and easily understandable phrase "corporate property."
It's important to retain a specific term for the type of property whose ownership and use for production socialists seek to limit. That is because a corporation could be a small start-up, an LLC, or a Mom-and-Pop store, whose owners reap most of the profits - but also do most of the work.
Let me illustrate this with a modern example.
When I rent my spare bedroom on Airbnb, I do the work of cleaning the room and checking in my guests, but I retain the majority of the profits (granting Airbnb their small percentage for the value that they provide me in arranging for a steady supply of trustworthy guests). Compare this to the owner of a large hotel chain. He cleans no rooms, checks no one in, and instead hires employees at the minimum possible wage to do the tasks necessary to extract value from the rooms. After paying as little as possible to his staff and for the maintenance of the property, he takes the majority of the profits himself. The latter would be a case of bourgeois property, which socialists wish to abolish or reform; the former would not - despite the fact that one of the parties in the first transaction is a large corporation.
This reminds us that it is not just a matter of scale that separates the acceptable artisanal enterprise from bourgeois property - it is really about who derives the lion's share of the profit - and whether that profit is proportionate to their labor.
Marx was not alone in highlighting the problem with bourgeois property. The Austrian economist and philosopher Ludwig von Mises called John Stuart Mill “the great advocate of socialism," saying that compared to Mill, "all other socialist writers — even Marx, Engels, and Lassalle — are scarcely of any importance.” Mill's model of market socialism did not argue that private property was inherently problematic, but it did emphasize that productive property should be owned mainly by the workers whose labor made it profitable.
Thus, it seems apparent that limiting the exploitation of private property for the profit of people besides the ones whose personal labor made that property profitable does appear to be a defining principle of socialism - but can the same be said of class distinctions?
Is Owning Bourgeois Property Synonymous with Class Distinctions?
This may appear to be a frivolous question. Of course it is! Those who own such property become rich at the expense of their workers, don't they? Aren't such disparities in wealth and power the defining feature of social classes?
Well... not entirely.
When I was a commander in the US Marines, everyone in my unit would rise when I came into the room. They did this as a sign of respect; just as I would always rise when my Commanding General entered the room. That was because military organizations are still a bastion of class-based culture, but it is a class is based on a hierarchical system of ranks, not upon our ownership of bourgeois property.
Interestly, many of the Marines who stood to recognize my rank actually owned more stocks in publicly-traded companies – that is, they had a greater share of modern bourgeois property than I did, since I have chosen not to invest heavily in that sector of the economy.
It is also worth noting that there are many athletes, actors and musicians whose class status is a function more of their fame or prowess than of their possessions - and that these sort of real-world examples mirror the "thought-experiments" of socialist philosophy.
John Stuart Mill - the great socialist - imagined a community where the land and all instruments of production were held as the joint property of the community, writing that “[t]he direction of the labour of the community would devolve upon a magistrate or magistrates, whom we may suppose elected by the suffrages of the community, and whom we must assume to be voluntarily obeyed by them...” So even in this market-socialist microcosm, Mill had envisioned the necessity of two classes - the magistrates, and everyone else. Add to that those human institutions that societies throughout the ages have found it necessary to implement for the sake of security – police and armies – and we can see that additional power-based class distinctions manifest organically.
Knowledge, too, is power. The doctor or dentist in Mill's imagined community would have a special class granted by their skills, to which even a magistrate or military commander might sometimes need to submit. In short, even if the policeman, the soldier, the doctor and the magistrate each held a share equal in the community enterprise to everyone else, it is hard to see their status as being the same, especially in the moment of crisis when the policeman or soldier draws their weapon, the magistrate wields his pen, or the doctor uses her scalpel.
Class status can also be granted by factors of biology, chance, and choice. To be a member of a certain race, ethnic group or religious sect in a particular time and place may confer either positive or negative class status.
Certainly, bourgeois property and the large sums of wealth that can be obtained from it within capitalist and feudal systems confer a definite sort of class status on the possessors of that wealth, but as I have outlined above, that is not the only way to obtain such status. Even absent private ownership of property in general, and of bourgeois property in particular, class distinctions would still exist.
What This Means and Why It Matters
The term "socialism" remains fraught with misunderstanding, especially in the United States. There are many who might point to some elements of centuries-old theories to suggest that an embrace of socialist principles would mean the loss of their property rights and a dystopian descent into class warfare.
But a careful reading of the great socialist philosophers paints a different picture - one that is consistent with the a consideration of real-world examples from our own society.
Class divisions are inherent in human society - they do not derive solely from the exploitation of poor laborers by rich property owners. And while none of the major schools of socialist philosophy recommend preventing individuals from owning private property or profiting from its use, they were in agreement that the control of productive property should be held by something other than a small group of capitalist elites. A model of employee ownership and profit-sharing is an example of how the theories of the past could be implemented in the present - and there are other approaches that might also help move modern societies forward to a more equitable world - where its 10 richest men no longer control more wealth than 3.6 billion of its other inhabitants.
What do you think?
Are you convinced, do you disagree?
Have questions, counterpoints, or another perspective?
Then please comment - I will look forward to reading your thoughts - and I thank you for reading mine!