Marx, Engels, and Property


For centuries, philosophers had been trying to determine the origin of property. Almost without exception, from Rousseau to Hobbs, property was the equivalent to the apple in the Garden of Eden. Property was the cause of the fall of the human raced from grace. In 1884 Engels wrote The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. Like the Utopian socialists before him, Engels imagined the end of the state and the coming of a communal equality, but the barrier is property. So fundamental to human nature that it was hard to eliminate, property had to start at some point in society and the question was why and how? Engels located the origin of property in the transition from hunting and gathering to agriculture. Once tribes settled onto a specific piece of land in order to farm it, the urge to claim the land and the fruits of the land evolved. Property ceased to be tribal and became individual over time and began to include the domesticated animals that assisted in the process of cultivation. But people were also crucial in the planting and tending and harvesting and agriculture was labor intensive. At some point, men emerged or put themselves forward as “owners” of “property” that was theirs along with “their” animals and “their” people, including “their” wives and “their” children.

Property became private; society became unequal; people became property. Just as Rousseau had trouble in explaining why free humans would voluntarily come together under the control of a social system, Engels had difficulty in explaining why women allowed men to become the owners of the very property they worked on. The transformation of women into property was undoubtedly facilitated by marriage in which a woman was exchanged between two men, her father, who “gives” her to her husband. Property, as land, objects, animals and people, was crucial to capitalism. Property, under capitalism, was transformed from its traditional form of land into commodities that could be purchased and owned. Marx said,

“…the product is an objectification of labor…”

“…new fangled sources of wealth, by some weird spell, are turned into sources of want…”

The “want” that Marx spoke of was a function of capitalism, which needed the mechanism of projection of desire upon the object. Thus desire became “reified” or solidified. Marx was writing just on the edge of the establishment of the department store and its vast array of tempting goods, but his insights were prophetic. He could not have known how the process of reification would work in the future, but he was aware of the connection between desire and the object, which was a “symptom” of the desire. Reification is a mental process and is part of the exchange value of an object. For example, people are convinced to act out their desired identities through the acquisition of an object. The more desirable the fantasy identity, the more expensive the object, and the more money a person is willing to pay for a Porsche, for example. However, reification on the commodity level is trivial in comparison to how reification acts on the level of the total society.

Reification is used to further the interests of the ruling class. The desire to acquire certain commodities was based upon an ideology of “success,” expressed through objects. The property purchased reinforced the capitalist system, which is dependent upon constant buying which, in turn, supports the power position of those who control the mode of production. The desire to own property is legitimated through ideology, encouraging consumption. To counter arguments that capitalism exploits the working class, the real consequence of desire is falsified, hidden, or denied in a process called “dissimulation.”

Dissimulation, which is a form of misdirection or lying, is an important function of ideology. Reification, then, is the denial of the power relations by placing these relations outside of time. The rich are not rich because of the capitalist system, the worker is not exploited because of the capitalist system, the unequal power relations are “natural.” The rich are rich because they “naturally” deserve to be in power and the poor are poor because they are “naturally” inferior. Property, while part of the ideology of capitalism, is an old and alien practice that has been absorbed into and transformed by the moneyed economy.

Echoing Hegel, Marx said, “…everything seems pregnant with its contrary…” Capitalism has a strange internal contradiction. The means of production, that is the entire labor-manufacture system, is socialized. Property, in contrast, refuses socialization in order to remain private, and yet the entire socialized capitalist system strives to accumulate private property. In other words, private property or ownership or profits remains individual or private, while workers and the practices and customs that allow their labor to be appropriated so that private property can be accumulated are socialized through laws. The rules and laws of the superstructure produce circumstances favorable to private ownership and property and lead to and result in the exploitation of laborers—all of which is made to seem both logical and natural, through the workings of ideology.

In order for the spell of ideology to be broken, the consciousnesses of the workers had to be raised though a revelation of the true state of affairs, leading to a revolution and an overthrow of the social system. To counteract this situation of appropriation and exploitation, Marx and Engels believed that property must be socialized and come under communal ownership. Contrary to today’s beliefs about socialism, Nineteenth Century socialists did not believe in “big government,” but looked forward to the day when the “will of the people” would supersede the state, which would, in Marx’s words, “Wither away.”

Also read: “Late Nineteenth Century Philosophy” and “The Philosophy of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels”and “Marx, Engels and Alienation” and “Marx, Engels, and Capitalism” and “Marxism, Art and the Artist”

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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