“[T]he theory of the Communists may be summed up in the single sentence: Abolition of private property.” –The Communist Manifesto, Chapter 2
In addressing the inequities of 19th century European society, two German philosophers, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, building on the writings of ancient Greek philosophers in creating classless and egalitarian societies and the philosophies undergirding experimental communal living in the 19th century (inspired by philosophers like Charles Fourier), first articulated the political and economic system we now know as “communism” in their “Communist Manifesto.”
At the time of publication of the Communist Manifesto’s first edition (1847), there had been scant movement around the world toward liberal democracy (political systems that value liberty and the protection of individual rights for all citizens)—there had been our own revolution in the United States, liberalization in the United Kingdom, and a series of revolutions in France that had seen the nation swing from monarchy to republic to empire to monarchy, back and forth for decades.
As such, tremendous inequality remained among the populations of most European nations—and, perhaps not ironically, it was the year after the Communist Manifesto was first published, in 1848, that there was a series of revolutions in nations across Europe. In no uncertain terms, they cannot be characterized as communist revolutions, but much more in the vein of classical liberalism, rejecting monarchies and hierarchical societies for those that more highly valued individual rights.
Nonetheless, to the uninitiated, the ideas enshrined in the Communist Manifesto can be tremendously alluring—the idea of a society without classes, where all goods and property are owned in common, where the balance between work and life can be described as “from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs,” a statement written by Marx in his 1875 work, “Critique of the Gotha Programme.”
The concept of abolishing private property is a pernicious enough sentiment. But coupled with the idea of the community picking and choosing what some individual’s abilities are as well as determining what that individual’s needs are, and you have a political and economic philosophy that, when put into action in a society, inevitably leads to both oppression and poverty.
Bound up in Marx’s 1875 statement is the essence of force and coercion. Regardless of whether it is the “state” acting (and in Marxist philosophy, the state-centered transition phase between capitalism and communism is “socialism”), or the communistic society, you’re talking about force—the state determines what your “abilities” are, and you are forced to give of those abilities to society at large, regardless of your own feelings in the matter.
At the same time, the idea that the society then determines what your needs are, and that you’re unallowed to own property of your own, means that they can use the heavy hand of coercion to achieve their goals.
Moreover, the abolition of private property hamstrings the ability of a society to achieve economic prosperity and promotes political instability. Richard Pipes in his seminal work, “Property and Freedom,” looked at societies across history and, looking at how those societies protected private property, demonstrated the interrelationship between the protection of private property and the successful longevity of a nation. Peruvian economist and political scientist Hernando DeSoto, in “The Mystery of Capital” engages in something similar, but instead of looking through history, he looks at more recent examples around the world.
If you own your own private property, you can both use it to invest in some entrepreneurial idea, and you can utilize the property itself to support yourself and your family. Because you have a reliance on legal systems to protect that property, you can have hope in your future, and that hope creates that political stability.
The contrast is straightforward: if you don’t protect private property, if your society is centered on coercion and giving up your individual rights to the collective, this leads to oppression and economic stagnation. It is why just about every society founded on the principles outlined in the Communist Manifesto has failed, and others only remain because of brutal oppression or because they’ve adopted certain measures of state-sponsored capitalism.
Our own United States Constitution creates a classless society, starting with the idea that there is total equality among citizens. All of the rights (enumerated and unenumerated) apply to everyone, regardless of income level, race, etc. More importantly, it is predicated on the idea that those rights pre-exist the government, and aren’t bestowed by that government, that the Constitution itself is a restraint on government power and not the other way around.
Bound up in this is the 5th Amendment to the Constitution: “No person shall be deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law… nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.”
This is a stark and fundamental departure from Marx and Engels—as opposed to abolishing private property, our Constitution makes it clear that government can only take private property from individuals provided that three things happen:
(1) The property is being taken for a legitimate public use.
(2) That due process is accorded to the property owner.
(3) That if 1 and 2 are adhered to, that “just” compensation is given to the property owner.
Setting aside instances in which these three tenets are abused by government, from a constitutional perspective, this is a clear departure from communist philosophy.
And it undergirds other rights as well. Keep in mind, the several constitutions of the Soviet Union, for instance, protected things like free speech. But since the constitutions of the USSR didn’t protect private property, that right was held cheaply since the state could just confiscate the presses of a critical press and threaten the journalists themselves if they didn’t adhere to the “party line.”
The same can be said of other individual rights: freedom of religion, freedom of assembly, the right to keep and bear arms. Besides outlawing most private gun ownership outright, the state could use their coercive powers to keep these other individual rights “in check.”
By guaranteeing rights, and recognizing that power flows from the people to their government and not the other way around, and that regardless of who you were all adults had the same rights, our Founders created the classless society Marx dreamed of. It was the flawed vision of Marx and Engels that failed, because they didn’t understand how their approach could be fundamentally abused and used to oppress, that spawned a nightmare.
Andrew Langer is President of the Institute for Liberty.