Problems of Anarchism


2.—Wherein Property is Subversive of Liberty.

I have already indicated that to demonstrate a truth in the abstract, even when it is generally accepted as such, does not imply its practical recognition and existence in fact. Nothing more plainly shows this than an inquiry into property as it exists today. For it is not one simple system based on justice that we find, but a complicated mixture of practices and ideas—the latter entailed by the former—which lead to confusion of statement and reasoning by nearly all of those who, recognizing the enormous evils of the prevailing system, criticize it or advocate its destruction. No less hopeless is the confusion of arguments used by its champions and supporters.

Violence, either direct or through law, accounts for the greater part of actual proprietary rights from the remotest past to the present time; as much in so-called free and civilized societies as in the most barbarous. The upholders of the existing order maintain the justice of current methods of obtaining wealth and the validity of present owners’ titles to the possession of property, by hypocritically falling back on the true theory which declares, in the words of Adam Smith, that the property which each man has in his own labor, as it is the original foundation of all other property, so it is the most sacred and inviolable. They defend their property on the assumption that it is acquired under the same conditions as the rights of those who obtain it by their labor without violating others’ rights; and uplift their hands in holy horror in their desire to save the poor man’s goods and the toiler’s right to his own when the wicked Communists cry, in the words of Proudhon but without his meaning, Property is robbery.

They can show you that laws are continually being made to protect the property of the producer, to insure his rights to the fruits of his toil,—mental or physical: that the spirit of the age follows the same course, and that justice requires that every man shall be secure in the possession of his own.

And they say: Down with the revolutionist, the robber who would deny our rights to the wealth we possess! ’Tis the poor we defend as well as the rich,—the workingman as quick as the capitalist.

And they go on building up wealth that other people produce, extracting it mercilessly from the rightful owners by means of customs, laws, and conditions that have grown up mostly in violence, wrong, and injustice, and are maintained today through force of arms and legal fraud; unmindful the while that this means of acquiring property denies completely the plain rights of others and renders private property, as conceived in the abstract and tacitly admitted by property defenders, impossible for the vast majority of its creators.

While conceding the fact that the just theory of property rights continues to gain ground both in general belief and in legal enactment, I am compelled to point out that its application is still extremely limited, and that in the industrial world under capitalistic conditions it does not obtain at all.

Modern industry and the accompanying economic conditions have arisen under the régime of status,—that is, under arbitrary conditions in which equal liberty had no place and law-made privileges held unbounded sway,—it is only to be expected that an equally arbitrary and unjust system of property should prevail.

On one side a dependent industrial class of wage-workers and on the other a privileged class of wealth-monopolizers each becoming more and more distinct from the other as capitalism advances, has resulted in a grouping and consolidation of wealth which grows apace by attracting all property, no matter by whom produced, into the hands of the privileged, and hence property becomes a social power, an economic force destructive of rights, a fertile source of injustice, a means of enslaving the dispossessed.

Under this system equal liberty cannot obtain.

The law of life, that each should receive the benefits of his own conduct, that nobody should obtain, without equivalent benefits given, the results of another’s life-sustaining actions, that every individual should reap the reward of his energies, the fruits of his labor,—this law, in conformity to which only can the race develop and any society of human beings continue to evolve, is not fulfilled. Industrialism, while growing up under the adverse circumstances just pointed out, has nevertheless developed the need and desire of complete individual freedom and consequently the demand for more equitable property conditions. So that, while private property in its true sense can hardly be said to exist, and certainly is outside the conception of modern capitalism, the abstract belief in it, showing the conscious need, has steadily grown.

History affords many examples of a growing belief, due to the realization of some pressing need and generally going along with a desire for enlargement of individual liberty, preceding the change which ends by making the belief an actuality. All true reforms are of this character. It is safe therefore to predict that the next step in the evolution of property, if it be not in the nature of a reaction,—a circumstance not impossible,—will be toward a fuller recognition of the right of private property.

3.—Communists and Property.

We can now with more confidence take up the issues which Communistic opponents of the existing order present. They demand the entire abolition of all property. Some writers of this school, or rather of one of the various schools, allow a title to property; use, they declare, should be the only valid title to the ownership of anything, possession the only claim.

The characteristic common to all advocates of common property in attacking the conditions now prevailing is to lay the blame for the evils that exist on the institution of private property.

Though the foregoing articles have indicated the nature of this fallacy, something more must be said in order to make it clear to those who are misled by it. It seems quite unknown to such reasoners that there exists today a body of thinkers who undoubtedly realize and deplore the vast and multitudinous evils with all their attendant miseries and injustices which arise out of the maladjustments of the present economic system, and who are as much opposed to the property scheme which it involves as the most violent revolutionary Communist.

But instead of taking effects for causes and believing the means to be the end, they examine more closely, search more deeply, and trace those evils, not to the institution of private property, but to causes that are as inimical to that institution as they are destructive of the conditions of a just social order.

Can the millionaire capitalist, the labor-robbing idler who lives on interest, the rich thugs of today and their army of parasites, be taken as the outcome of private property? Surely not. They are the direct result of restrictions and privileges, of legal and governmental origin, and of that social power and economic superiority before explained,—causes that render impossible the growth and diffusion of individual property among the mass of wealth-producers.

Inequalities in possession exist not so much because of inequalities in the power of individuals to acquire wealth under free conditions, but vastly more because political, social, and economic arrangements have always tended to create artificial inequality, to foster and increase whatever natural inequality did exist; a truth exemplified with as much force in the United States as in less free and progressive countries. How else explain the fact that society is divided economically into classes as distinct in the republic as in European countries, and the capitalistic form of property becoming even more concentrated in the hands of a privileged minority.

There certainly was a nearer approximation to a state of diffused individual property in the earlier stages of this nation’s career. Millionaires are a comparatively modern growth. Monopolies were few and had not then attained their present gigantic proportions. Privilege had not the same scope, nor had capitalism destroyed the power of the individual to acquire such wealth as he could produce by the exercise of his abilities.

Many modern economic evils were absent.

Prosperity was more general, if the standard of comfort was not so high. Yet who will claim that the institution of private property was less firmly established or less secure. The like truth holds of all newly-settled countries, in which artificial inequalities and the innumerable encroachments on equal freedom which the laws and arrangements of old societies present have not had time to manifest their influence. Still individual property in such places is none the less general.

The conclusion which is forced upon us, not only by such comparative considerations, but by a logical examination of existing circumstances, is that some other cause than the one which Communists ascribe is responsible for social evils.

It would appear that they sometimes realize this truth. Marx’s famous Communist Manifesto, which in 1848 made the ruling classes tremble in view of the Communist Revolution, and is to this day accepted as a text-book by various sections of the anti-property school, declares:

The Bourgeoisie are incensed because we aim to abolish private property. But in the very midst of society today private property has been made impossible for nine-tenths of its members. Its present existence in the hands of the Bourgeoisie is based on the fact that it does not exist at all for nine-tenths of the people. We are consequently accused of desiring to abolish that kind of property which involves as a necessary condition the absence of all property for the immense majority of society....

Communism deprives no one of the power to appropriate social products for his own use, it only deprives him of power to subject others’ labor by such appropriation.... Under the present system those who do work acquire no property, while those who do acquire property do no work.

If this reasoning means anything at all, it implies that private property should rest upon the right of the individual to the results of his labor, and that Communists condemn the existing property system because it is not based on this principle. But I am unable to affirm that the document as a whole would justify us in taking such a view.

Present-day exponents of Communism, however, seem to agree in the view of property rights which I have established. Says Kropotkine in his work, Socialistic Evolution:

Abolish the conditions which allow some to monopolize the fruits of the labor of others, apparently agreeing that each should be guaranteed the fruits of his activities. Another Communist, of no less pronounced views against the prevailing property relations, is still more emphatic on the same point. William Morris declares that, having labored towards the production is the only claim that can rightly be allowed to property or wealth.... The claim on any other grounds must lead to what in plain terms we must call robbery. (True and False Society, p. 17.)

As I shall presently show that there is no difference in their attitude towards private property between Communists of the type just quoted and the Social Democrats of the English Fabian Society, I may add to the above the Fabian view. Admitting, say they in Capital and Land, when treating of incomes from capital, admitting the fairness and advantage of guaranteeing to every man the equivalent of the result of his own industry, we deny that there is either justice or profit in the system which permits him to convert this claim into lien for a perpetual annuity. ...

In this sense, then, that we have in previous articles seen the justice of individual property, it is not denied by Communists; on the contrary, they agree in proclaiming the validity of its basis. And in so doing they admit that some other cause than the institution of private property must be sought in order to account for the evils and injustice which arise out of modern industrial and economic arrangements.

Wm. Bailie

This article is part of a serial: Problems of Anarchism.