The following text has been automatically reproduced by an Optical Character Recognition (OCR) algorithm. It may not have been checked over by human eyes. For matters of precision please consult the original pdf.

Anarchism and Private Property

Derek Browne

No more government of man by man, by means
of the accumulation of powers; no more
exploitation of man by man, by means of the
accumulation of capital.

Proudhon (1)
The majority of anarchists have been dedicated
opponents of capitalism, of those forms of society
which arise on the basis of private property in the
means of production. Thus, Proudhon (in the
passage quoted above) specifically alludes to the
existence of economic forms of oppression and
exploitation. For Marx, indeed, this kind of exploitation is not simply one amongst others of the forms
of oppression that are found in capitalist societies,
but is in many respects the most basic. Political
liberation without economic liberation is an
illusion (2).

It is not difficult to see, then, why anarchism has

usually been a species of socialis m. But it has not
universally been so: there is an ambiguous, minority tradition which regards itself as anarchist and
yet which is inalterably opposed to socialism.

Anarcho-capitalism has experienced something of a
revival in recent years, due in no small part (one
suspects) to the success of Robert Nozick’s book,
Anarchy, State, and Utopia (3), which, without
being a complete defence of the theory, takes it
very seriously and goes a long way in the direction
of accepting it. The theory is (purportedly)
‘anarchist’ in its demand that the state be abolished,
and it is capitalist in its demand that private individuals and firms be given exclusive control of the
entire social and economic affairs of society. Many
of the functions of existing states involve the illegitimate use or threat of coercion, and they are to
be condemned for that reason. Among the other
functions of existing states are some which it is
necessary or desirable to have performed, and
these will be performed (if they are performed at
all) by private individuals and. firms.

It can plausibly be argued that the primary impetus

for anarcho-capitalism lies in the reaction against
the growth of state powers, and against the advance
of socialism (4); but that is not the theory of its own
history that anarcho-capitalism offers. Instead, in
its quest for the patina of legitimacy that is bestowed on those who can claim an historical tradition
of their very own, it has borrowed heavily from one
1 P. -J. Proudhon, Les Confessions d’un Revolutionaire (in The Anarchist
~, ed. G.Woodcock, Glasgow, 1977, p166).

2 Karl Marx, ‘On the Jewish Question’, passim (in Marx: Early Writings,
Intr. Lucio Colletti, Harmondsworth, 1975).

4 Dr Mark Francis has been helpful on this question (but is not responsible
for the views expressed here). See also A. J. Taylor, Laissez-faire and
State Intervention in Nineteenth-century Britain (London, 1972), and
J. Viner, ‘The Intellectual History of Laissez -faire’, Journal of Law and
Economics, 3, 1960.

5 Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations (London, 1910), Book IV, Ch.2.


side (but an important side) of the classical liberal
tradition. The individualist themes in the views of
Locke and Adam Smith are major constituents of
liberalis m, as is the preference for the principle of
laissez-faire in economic affairs. But these were
not the only principles to which the liberal philosophers gave their allegiance: the lineage of the
welfare state, for example, might, w:ith about as
much justification, be trace~. to the reluctance of
the classical liberals to accept the full rigours of
unrestrained laissez-faire capitalism.

Yet if anarcho -capitalis m is at best one of the
illegitimate progeny of classical liberalism, it is
still true that its basic prinCiples are to be foun1
in some of the theories which were produced by the
rise of capitalism. But then, one can understand
why, during the transition to capitalism, the theorists of the new order should have seen government
by precapitalist vested interests as incompatible
with entrepreneurial freedom and the unfettere::1
market. It was necessary, under those particular
historical conditions, to keep state interference
with the affairs of individual entrepreneurs at a
minimum. Only then would the motive force for the
functioning of society be, not the whim or caprice
of king, nobility, or church, but the rational preferences and activities of, and the agreements and
contracts reached by, free and equal individual
citizens interacting in a free market society. Only
under these conditions could the proper operation
be enjoyed of Adam Smith’s delicious phantom, the
‘invisible hand’ (5), the felicitous mechanis m which
ensures that the wellbeing of all will best be served
if each individual seeks only his own advantage.

One important part of the classical liberal theory
of government was that that government was best
which governed least. In this lies the anarchocapitalist’s inspiration, for he concludes that the
government is best of all which governs not at all.

Importantly, however, it matters little whether one
accepts the full rigours of anarcho -capitalis m as does Murray Rothbard (6) – or whether, like
Nozick, one sees some advantage in permitting a
minimal state. In Rothbard’s case, the entire
apparatus of the state has been abolished, and those
of its activities which can be legitimately performed, and for which there is a commercial demand,
are carried out by individual entrepreneurs and
private firms, who sell their products on the free
market. Nozick, on the other hand, is sceptical
about the stability of such a system, and believes
that a minimal state can be morally justified.

Such a state would only play a ‘night watchman’

6 For a New Liberty (New York, 1973).

7 Nozick, op. cit. , p26.

role, performing, with a minimum of disruption
and interference, the tasks of ‘protecting all its
citizens against violence, theft, and fraud, ..• the
enforcement of contracts, and so on’ (7). In order
to keep the question of anarchis m – or of statelessness – in its proper perspective here, one should
note that the impact of the minimal state upon
society would indeed be very minimal, in comparison with the ubiquity and omnipotence of the driving
forces of the free market. The character of
anarcho-capitalist society would, in other words,
be d.etermined very thoroughly by its economic
structure, and only insignificantly by the presence
– or absence – of an attenuated P9liticaJ. superstructure. This can be brought out by e.mphasizing
that the· classical anarchists’ objections to Nozick’s
position would not be directed, for the most part,
against his residual political institutions, but
against his capitalist economic structures. The
differences between Nozick and Rothbard are finally of little significance.

In engaging with anarcho-capitalism, one is engaging with an anachronism: who would have thought
that this monstrous thing was still alive, that the
dingy shrine of the free market was still capable of
inspiring awe and devotion? The battle against
these views, one would have supposed, was fought
and done with a long ti me ago.

My main interest in this discussion is to use the
commonplace objections to laissez-faire liberalism
to penetrate a little further than is usually the case
into the moral foundations on which these theories
are erected.. I will show that, for all that anarchocapitalists are pleased to call themselves anarchist,
they are actually deeply at variance with the pri m ary values that inform classical anarchism. They
are not genuinely concerned for the liberation of all
people from exploitative and oppressive institutions
and practices. Instead, their theories are founded
upon a package of natural rights in which the right
to private property is absolutely basic. Such a
package of rights in fact provides the only remotely
plausible reason for construing the proper organization of society in the anarcho -capitalist way. But
this package of rights cannot be given a coherent
foundation in the values and interests of humankind,
and in the actual circumstances of human society.

For that reason, and in that sense, I regard
anarcho -capitalis m as morally incoherent.

The first axiom ·of anarcho-capitalism, according
to Rothbard, is the nonaggression axiom: ‘no man
or group of men have the right to aggress against
the person or property of anyone else.’ He defines
‘aggression’ as ‘the initiation of the use or threat
of physical violence against the person of prop~rty
of someone else’ (8). The basic right which defines
the sphere which must always be free from at least
physical aggression is ‘the absolute right to private
property of every man: first, in his own body, and
second, in the previously unused natural resources
which he first transforms by his labour’ (9). As a
corollary, people have a right to give away, to
recei ve, and to exchange property titles, after
which the new holder of the title possesses the
8 Rothbard, op. cit., p8.

9 ibid., p40.

10 ibid., p48. (cf. R.P.Wolff, In Defense of Anarchism (New York, 1976).

absolute property right.

This is the basis of the anarcho-capitalist case for
laissez-faire capitalism; statelessness also follows
from these premises, given that the state is a major
source of aggression against persons and their
property. The fact that the aggression is usually
institutionalized, working through police and the
judi~iary, taxation departments, and so on, makes
it not any the less the invasion by one group of
people of the rights of others (10).

The combination of statelessness with laissez -faire
capitalism yields a morally appalling theory of ‘the
good society’. Virtually all things – apart (at least
in a strictly formal sense) from people themselves may be and will be privately appropriated and
privately controlled. There will be nothing that is
publicly owned and to which public access is
guaranteed, because there will be no public body to
own it. All the earth’s surface, including mountains,
forests, lakes, rivers, beaches, and the sea itself,
will become private property. If anyone needs or
desires to use anything which he does not personally
own – if he wants to climb a mountain or walk in a
forest, to walk or cycle along a path or a road, to
swim in a river or in the sea, ·to cross a bridge or
to sit on a fence, he must first be sure that he is
granted the right to do so by the private owners of
these places, and must be prepared to buy the thing
that he wishes to use, or at the very least to pay a
fair rental for it. If he is denied access or use,
then he has no legitimate ground for complaint:

those things do not belong to him, and he has no
claim to them. Whoever owns a thing is entitled subject to certain restrictions – to decide how it is
to be used, or whether it is to be used at all (11).

The major restriction – probably the only one
Rothbard would allow – forbids deploying one’s
property in ways-which breach the nonaggression
axiom. As Nozick explains it, in a characteristic
passage: ‘My property rights in my knife allow me
to leave it where I will, but not in your chest.’ (12)
The other restriction – derived from Locke and
discussed at some length by Nozick – is supposed to
rule out certain varieties of initial appropriation;
but I would argue that it also affects, at the very
least, some kinds of exclusive or monopolistic
possession. Questions will be raised below concerning the ‘Lockean proviso’; for the present, it is
sufficient to see that whatever are the extremities
of the anarcho-capitalist property system that are
officially softened by these qualifications on the
right to initial acquisition, the general character of
the system remains unaltered. Under it, the many
different needs and services for which we now provide collectively will be privately owned and operated – subject always to the overriding require.ment
that they return a reasonable profit. Not only education and welfare services, but police forces and
law and arbitration courts will be privately (and
competitively) operated through market mechanisms.

The belief that the public welfare is an end which
can and should be deliberately pursued through
social action, even when it is commerCially unprofitable to do so, will be replaced by the inflexible law of profitability, and by the belief that the
only proper end for each individual, in his social
11 ibid., p108.


12 Nozick, op. cit. , pl71.

13 ibid, pp15Of.


activities, is to gain the maximum advantage and
profit for himself.

An anarcho -capitalist theory of the socially just
distribution of goods has been explored in some
detail by Nozick. The ‘entitlement theory’ (13) is
the theory of distribution which recognizes property
rights as the sole ground for legitimate claims in
justice. Having sole property rights in something
is both necessary and sufficient for its being just
that one should have possession and use of it. A
person has such property rights in the case either
of his acquiring previously unowned objects in a
morally legitimate way, or of his acquiring goods
from their rightful owners in a .morally legitimate
way. Nozick and Rothbard believe that a labour
theory of property can explain the notion of a morally legitimate acquisition of previously unowned
objects. A person makes his own a previously unowned object, on this view, whenever he ‘mixes
his labour’ with it (14). In the case of transfers of
holdings, these will bemo:ally legitimate whenever
goods are properly given away or bequeathed, are
properly exchanged in the free market, or whatever.

The standard distributive mechanisms and de facto
distributive practices of the free market economy
are therefore seen as the only mechanisms which
can ensure that justice, as defined by these principles, is done. Whatever are the holdings which
result from the proper functioning of the free
market, they will be just; their justice purportedly
follows from their reflecting the actual free decisions, preferences and agreements of individuals
in free interaction with each other. The moral
justification – indeed, necessity – of the free market is that, alone among distributive mechanisms,
it is fully compatible ‘with the moral base of the
theory in the natural rights to liberty and property.

The Morality of Natural Rights
My arguments against anarcho -capitalism begin by
advancing a theory of the moral basis – the only
coherent moral basis – of natural rights, in terms
of the particular attributes of people in virtue of
which they have those rights. It is an account
which lends itself to a reductive analysis of the
concept, an analysis in which reference to natural
or moral rights has been replaced by reference to
the moral significance of some of the natural attributes of some individuals. My analysis offers a way
of demystifying popular loose talk of individual

If a person has a natural right to Home sort of

thing, then there is amoral reason for his having
that sort of thing. In common with moral reasons
generally, it is possible for the moral strength of
the reasons which arise from natural rights to be
exceeded by the strength of contrary reasons. All
moral reasons I regard as being, in this sense,
prima facie: it follows that I do not regard it as a
necessary component of a defensible theory of
natural rights that they should be regarded as
‘absolute’, or as necessarily overriding.

The reasons that are encapsulated in natural rights
do not derive from the legal status of people, or
from their roles in different social institutions or
14 ibid, pp174f; Rothbard, op. cit. , p30.

15 Rothbard, op. cit., p30.


practices: these are, by contrast, grounds for
‘positive rights’. Instead, in virtue of a person’s
own individual capacities and attributes – when he
is considered as a creature ‘abstracted’ (to the
extent that this is possible) from the more contingent and accidental of his social roles – there is
some distinctive value in his having some things of
that kind. The adjective ‘natural’ implies nothing
more (nor less) mysterious than this distinction
between a person and his contingent or accidental
social roles.

Not every existing individual is a possessor of
natural rights. Each person is, but no pebble is;
whether or not other animals are is a disputed
question. It is not that there is a problem of identifying instantiations of properties of a peculiar
kind, namely natural rights, properties which some
things have and others do not ,more or less independently of their other properties. Instead, moral
rights are such that, if an individual has rights,
then it does so because it has certain other properties. If it did not have those other properties, it
could not have those rights. Furthermore, rights
are morally relevant: if one individual has a right
which some other individual does not have, then
there are some ways in which (other things being
equal) it would be morally improper to treat the
former while it would not be morally improper so
to treat the latter. Rights make a moral difference.

It follows that the properties in virtue of which an
individual has a natural right are properties which
themselves have moral significance.

The natural properties on which rights are based
are ones which have a wide, general significalce.

When an individual has these properties, it is the
case, not just that one or two particular sorts of
actions in one or two definite sorts of situations
would be wrong, but that whole classes and kinds of
actions affecting him would be wrong. These properties are such as to support prohibitions which
are not just particular and very definite ~ but q .lite
general. It is as though, in virtue of his particular
properties, each person were surrounded by a
‘moral space’ having fairly definite contours.

Certain guaranteed avenues ought accordingly to be
open to those persons, allowing them to move or to
grow in those directions; and fences against
various external forces ought to be erected in
various places around them, to preserve them
against the violation of whichever of their interests
are at stake.

To ascribe a natural right to an individual is to
ascribe to him a relatively permanent interest in
having some things, and in being protected from
others. It is to recognize that it is generally in his
interest that certain liberties or opportunities,
certain powers or goods, should ue permanently
a’!ailable to him, ‘and that normative guarantees
should be permanently available against his being
deprived of those liberties, opportunities, powers
or goodS. Generality and permanent relevance are
a part of the character of natural rights. They are
compendious ways of organizing the general moral
significance of some of the more permanent natural
characteristics of individuals. The content of a
natural right could, in principle, be spelled out in
detail, in a way which made no reference at all to
the concept of a right itself. This would involve
listing the jifferent kinds of thingG that other

persons ought to Jo or not to jo to a person in the
innumerable iifferent situations in which he might
possibly find himself, together with the legitimate
Je mands that he might make, in tho.3e circumstances,
in virtue of his possessing certain morally significant natural attributes.

It follows that natural rights are not a separate or
special kin:l of morally relevant consideration:

instead, the permanent availability, or provision,
or whatever, of the thing to which a person has a
right, is something which has a significant moral
weight, for a reason of an unmysterious kind.

There is, in short, some point or value in his
having that thing.

Several important consequences follow. In particular, natural rights cease to be surrounded by a
special aura: they do not, after all, amount to
strange properties which have a special and unique
moral importance. Instead, the nature and the
moral importance of any such right will be determinable by reference to the interests and the values
that it preserves. If any right is absolute and always
inviolable, then these interests must be of a spectacularly important kind. The present account, in
fact, offers real prospects for progress in arguments about such rights. We are no longer confronted with the unyielding problem, whether a
person’s right to the fruits of his own labour (for
instance) is absolute or not: instead, we are encouraged to unearth the values and interests that
such rights serve, and to assess the moral
significance that they have.

A further important consequence is in our increased ability to determine the extension of a
right. If a person has a right to something – such
as a right to private property – then how (lo we
establish which particular actions are incompatible
with it? If we regard rights as being basic and
unanalysable moral properties, it is not easy to
see how to proceed. But on my analysis, it is
reasonably clear. We should look to the attributes
and capacities on which the right is based, and
should spell OlJt the moral reasons which stem from

Finally, once our attention has been directed to the
morally significant attributes of human beings, we
are in a much better position to determine just
what their general importance and relevance is,
and so in that way to arrive at a defensible and
defen-:led list of natural rights.

The Entitlement to Private Property
The natural right that determines the shape of the
of justice is the right to private
property. If the argument is to succeed, it mU3t
show both that there are some facts about human
beings which have a moral significance of such” a
kind that the whole structure of free enterprise
capitalism is at lea!3t prima facie appropriate to
them, and that there are no other morally significant fa,~ts about human beings which would require
modifications of the free enterprise structure.

These conditions, however, are not fulfilled.

entitleme~lt theo~y

We can begin by a3king whether, in virtue of any
facts about them, persons should be considered as
having a right to private property.

Rothbard provides an account of the natural base of

this right. Property is necessary, he says, because
people ‘can only survive and flourish by grappling
with the earth around them’. They must ‘transform
the resources given by nature into … objects
more suitable for their use and consumption •••.

Man, in o’~her words, must own not only his own
person, but also material objects for his control
and use.’ ‘Surely,’ he continues, ‘if every man has
the right to own his own body, and if he must
grapple with the material objects of the world in
order to survive, then [he] has the right to own the
product he has made, by his energy and effort, a
veritable extension, of his own personality. He has
placed the stamp of his person upon the raw
material, by “mixing his labour'” with it (15).

What Rothbard cO:’1spicuously fails to explain at this
juncture is how his view is compatible with a capitalist economic system, a system in which the vast
majority of those who ‘mix their labour’ with the
raw materials do not own what they have produced,
while those who do own those products very often
have not laboured upon them.

But rather thrul pursue the economic ramifications
of different kinds of property relations, I want to
use the account of natural rights advanced above to
uncover the ‘moral bases’ of institutions of private
property. It will be necessary to inquire – however
briefly and inadequately – into the concept of private
property, and into the values and interests which
are affected by the existence or non-existence of
institutions o~ property of that kind.

In speaking of property as an institution, I wish to
‘3mphasize its dependence upon social phenomena upon expectations, generally agreed rights and obligations, entitlements and duties, and so on. Yet
I do not wish to regard it as pri.marily or necessarily a juridical phenomenon: legal possession can
be at variance with both social facts and expectations, and with morally justified entitlements to
the possession of things.

What especially needs to be discouraged is the view
that ownership of or property in a thing consists of
a single, substantial relationship between a person
and that thing, of a kind which is amenable to a
single, unified analysis. The point is not (or not
Simply) that the assertion ‘It is mine’ reports a
social rather than a natural relation, and reports
more fundamentally a social than a juridical relation; instead, it is that the truth conditions for
clai ms to ownership can be ma1Y and various.

There are a variety of different relationships in
which a tJerson might stand to some thing and in
virtue of which he will have various entitlements
to control or use that thing in certain ways, entitlements which other persons (or most other persons)
might not have. If he has some sufficient number of
entitlements to the virtually exclusive and relatively unfettered control and use of a thing, then he has,
or ought to be recognized as having, private
property in it. Conversely, a person might be
entitled, for various reasons, to ‘.lse an object in
some specific ways in some specific situations, but
these entitlements might not be sufficiently extensive and cohesive to a::no’.lnt to the kind of substantial entitlement that is a private property right.

In assessing the extent of an individual’s moral

See especially Marx, ‘Excerpts from James Mill’s Elements of Political
Economy’, pp274f, and Economic and PhilosophicallVlanuscripts, p34lf,
both in Early Writings, op. cit.


entitlement to the use of some thing, especially
when such entitlements are abstracted from the
moral contingencies of existing legal rights and
relationships, a variety of considerations relevant
to the impact on individual persons and on the
larger society of the appropriation of that thing
will be relevant. For instance, some things over
which property entitle mentsm ight be claimed,
themselves have morally significant properties
which limit, more or less severely, the ways in
which they can legitimately be controlled and used:

thus, in virtue of their morally significant natural
attributes, persons cannot legitimately be owned.

(I suspect that whales, tigers, and a variety of
other wild – that is, free – creatures, cannot
legitimately be owned either, for the same sorts of
reasons.) Again, natural objects and social products are regularly the focus of a variety of
interests of a variety o·~ people, and if the socially
or legally recognized property rights to some such
objects and products are at variance with these
morally fundamental facts, then those positive
property rights should be regarded as morally

Property and Social Relations
Let me now sketch in of the more important
interests and values upon which the institutions of
private property have an impact. Very importantly,
we must recognize the special value, for those who
have laboured upon them, that can attach to the
products of labour. The early Marx’s conception
of unalienated labour focuses powerfully, if obscurely ,on the profound relationships that can
exist between a craftsman (say) and the products
into which (as 1 would say) he pours his very soul,
and in the making of which he also contributes to
the making of himself, in various ways (16). Labour
of this kind can create bonds between people and
products which can be forcibly severed only at the
cost of doing considerable violence to a person’s
integrity. It is, I believe, in complex natural
pheno.mena of these kinds that the only secure
fO:lndations are to be found for the right to appropriate the products of one’s own labour. In that
case, it is important to recognize how rare these
(relatively) unalienated relations are, under capitalism. We must keep the realities of capitalism
before our minds here, because anarcho -capitaliS:s
often write as though their prinCiples would generate a stable system of what Marx calls ‘simple
(pre-capitalist) commodity production’ (17), in
which the direct production and exchange of goods
takes place entirely among small, independent
producers who own their means of production, and
in which no one works for wages. A more general
conclusion is yet possible: in any society in which
a technical division of labour operates in the production of individual goods, private, unalienated
relations of these kinds will be rare. It is difficult,
what is more, to supply any grounds other than
those just considered for a right to appropriate the
specific products of one’s labour. In the absence of
this special relationship between a worker and his
particular product, whatever interests are at stake
will be satisfied, for the most part, if the worker
enjoys adequate access to the means of production
and receives a sufficient and fair return for his
17 i:jee for example Marx, ‘Results of the Immediate Process of Production’

in Capital, Vol. I, Intr. Ernest Mandel (Harmondsworth, 1976), pp948f. ‘


work with them.

The case for personal possessions is of a different
sort. By being in the company of – the more
intimate – of his possessions, a person can be at
peace in the place where he is. Especially if these
are things that are heavily imbued with his own
past, with treasured experiences or even just with
the intimacy of long use and familiarity, they will
have a special significance for him that they do not
have fo:,:, others.

The most common sorts of ownership are of neither
of these kinds, however, in that the varied interests which ownership serves in most cases have
objects for which type-substitutivity (as we might
call it) holds. They are interests which would be
satisfied as well were other objects of the same
type substituted fo: the objects presently owned.

With few (if any) exceptions, the books in my
library – which are my private protJerty – satisfy
interests of mine which would be as adequately
satisfied were different copies of those books to be
substituted for those presently there.

That is a preli minary point. I suggest now that many
of the legitimate interests that people have in their
possessions in those cases (but only those cases)
where type-substitutivity holds, can be satisfied,
reasonably adequately, under a syste.m which does
not recognize private ownership of such goods, but
which does guarantee fair and adequate access to
those goods held in common ownership. Having
such guaranteed access is one of the primary advantages of ownership. But given that conditions of
moderate scarcity prevail for many goods in this
world, the privileged and usually exclusive access
which goes with private ownership must very often
mean that at least some other people, whose legiti mate interests in goods of that kind are just as
strong, are deprived of adequate access. Most of
the goods that are in private ownership are unused
for – perhaps most – of the time: most people
have legitimate interests which remain unsatisfied
because they lack access to the appropriate goods,
in virtue of their being ‘locked away’ in private
hands. For many goods, even under conditions of
only moderate scarcity, private ownership is a
wasteful institution, one which serves very poorly
the satisfaction of people’s interests. An adequately
realized institution of common ownership, however,
would offer a reasonable guarantee of access which is the major interest that is at stake here for all people, at the expense o..1ly of depriving
some of the satisfaction of their possessive
desires, desires which do not constitute morally
legitimate interests.

Not all goods for which type -substitutivity holds
would be scarce, if the social production of goods
were properly planned. In the case of such items as
personal clothing, the permanent possession and
exclusive use of them – though not to waste – might
well be the most convenient way of arranging adequate access for all to goods of that kind. Once the
issue of private ownership has ceased to be a
fetish, the potential is very grem: for flexibility in
the ways in which fair and adequate access to goods
for all is achieved.

I have not said that all the interests tha·t people
claim to have ought to be considered. Generally
speaking a perso:a has a legitima:.:e interest in some
thing if the use or consumption or whatever of that
thing pro”11otes his wellbeing. The theory that I
accordingly need – but am not going to provide here
– is not one directly of legitimate interests, but
rather one of the good life.

Some of the interests or desires that people have,
and which are satisfied by private ownership of
goods, are not legitimate interests, in my view.

These are interests the gratification of which is
usually personally damaging, and often also socially damaging. For Marx, private appropriation has
the effect of reinforcing egois m, of setting each
individual apart from his fellows. It encourages
each to see his owr~ private advantage as an end to
be attained by locking himself into a private world
in which his own nn terial possessions form
barriers which keep him at a distance from his
fellows. Against this isolating influence, Marx sets
the affirmadon of the social character of the individual person, an affirmation which is expressed
in the abolition of private property in favour of
common property. He is especially concerned to
underscore the illusion that is fostered by private
property, the illusion of private and separate
individuality, of our being each an ‘abstract individual’, ‘squatting outside the world’ – that is,
outside the social world (18). It should not be concluded from this tha·~ the distinction between
persons has no moral relevance. What Marx is
drawing to our attention is that an excessive emphasis has been placed upon that distinction in
liberal individualist ideology. If it is true that part
of our personal essence consists in our social relations, that our character as thinking, believing,
feeling, evaluating, desiring creatures both logically and causally presupposes our being nurtured
by a.:1d our continuing to exist in an environment
drenched with human (that is, social) significance,
then one does violence to the facts of human nature
if one insists too strongly on the independence and
autonomy of individuals. The fact of our being
physically discrete individuals is a bearer of
sufficient mOl”al Significance not to need the excessive support of extensive and pervasive institutions of private property.

Under a system of private property, in normal conditio:’1s of moderate scarcity, a minority of people
typically enjoy privileged access to an inequitably
large proportiol.l of the total social product. The
solution to this injustice does not lie in redistributions designed to secure private possessions (of
equal value) for all. In the first place, as Marx
saw, the effects of this would importantly include
the universalization of the damaging aspects of the
institution of private property (19). Secondly,
universal and equal private property would ens’ure
only that none had adequate access to all of the
goods in which they had legitimate interests. There
are insufficient goods to satisfy all the legitimate
interests of all people without sharing.

Property rights ha’}e a close relation – possibly
that of identity – with rights of access and control
(20). Under a system of common ownership,
18 Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right.

Introduction, p244, in Early Writings, op. cit.

19 Marx, Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, p346, in Early Writings,
op. cit.

20 Cf. Norman Malcolm, Ludwig Wittgenstein: A Memoir (London, 1958),

rights of access would be enjoyed by all who had
legitimate interests in those goods. When the right
to control also belongs to the co m monality , the
major consequence is that some individuals no
longer enjoy the expensive privilege of disposing
of goods in ways which do not serve the general

Classical liberalis m in certain moods , and modern
anarcho-capitalism per.manently, regara the unfettered individual use and enjoyment of one’s own
private property as the most fundamental and
worthwhile value of all. Personal ownership,
whether of one’s own body and bodily activities,
of land and raw materials, or of the products of
human labour, is the critical moral condition, the
preservation and nourishment of which is the
primary consideration – someti.mes, it almost
seems, the sole consideration – where the social
relationships of people are concerned. The
appalling consequences of taking this view seriously
can be seen as a reductio ad absurdum of the
initial elevation to such an inalJpropriate pree.minence of the ‘right to private property’.

A corrupt view is not necessarily, of course, an
incoherent one, but the anarcho-capitalist’s ascription of individual rights is actually incoherent as
well, in the sense that it fails to cohere with any
plausible theo’;:-y of the ·nature of humankind and of
human society. If we accept my analysis of the
moral content of natural rights, it beco.mes necessary to :lefend any proposed theory of rights
against the human interests and values that are at
stake. To refute the elevation of the classical
liberal right to private p:r:operty into the exclusive
principle of social organizatio:’1, it is necessary to
show simply that other interests which are at least
as important are also involved. This argument is
largely independent of what which suggested that the
interests and values on which possession is based
are far less important – far more morally ambivalent – than liberalis m allows.

Distribution and Justice
The theory of justice to which Nozick subscribes
regards the free market as the only institution
which can distribute goods in full accordance with
the natural rights of people to liberty a..,d private
property. The basic and very familiar objection to
this is that the normal operations of the free
market are very damaging to the interests 01 very
many people. The strength, in this context, of my
analysis of ‘natural rights is that it forbids the
deployment of any theory of rights to defend a state
of affairs in which the interests of any people are
severely and unnecessarily damaged.

Consider, now, that the free market presupposes a
prior distribution to all persons of (effective) rights,
and is justified by reference to that initial distribution. It purports to be the only institution which is
compatible with the possession by everyone of
these fui.1damental natural rights. But the consequence of the unconstrained operation of free
market forces is eventually to alter, very extensively and thOJ.”o·.lghly, this initial distribution. The
free market favours the ruthless and the most
acquisitive, and leads to the concentration in their
hands of wealth, power and opportunities, at the
expense of the deprived majority.


In order to meet the objection that the free market
is inco.mpatible with the very rights· that it is intended to preserve, classical liberalis.m offers a
severely curtailed account of the content of those
rights. Both Isaiah Berlin and John Rawls, for
instance, insist upon a distinction between the
possession of rights (to liberty and property, for
instance), and the enjoyment of the conditions
necessary for their effective exercise (21). The
deprived majority do not very often enjoy the
material conditioIE and the opportunities. necessary
for the effective exercise of their narrowlyconceived rights to liberty and possessions, it is
said, but they do ~o·~ have the additional secondorder right to enjoy those cO::lditio~1S, in any case.

The rights that all have are those narrowlyconceived rights – the formal guarantees of freedo.m of contract, security of pes sessions from
arbitrary seizure, and so on – that are preserved
even for those who are the victims of the worst
excesses of capitalis m.

My analysis of rights proves the arbitrariness of
this distinction. If people can legitimately be said
to have rights to liberty and possessions, then they
. must have interests which such rights would secure
for them. Even granted what I have questioned,
that private possessions are always (or generally)
good, the interests and values which would in that
case justify some sort of institution of private
property would not be sufficiently protected by the
‘thin’ set of rights proposed in liberal theory. It
is a poor theory indeed that sees no moral inconsistency be tween a person’s enjoyme!1t of rights
to liberty and possessions, and his enjoyment of
‘very little liberty and very few possessions.

Accordingly, if people can legitimately be regarded
as having rights to liberty and possessions, then it
must be the case that these things are of relatively
permanent interest or value to them. Given the
nature of these values and interests, it is certainly
true that people will suffer if they are coerced into
acting contrary to their own choices and desires,
and that this is a prima facie reaseH for denying to
anyone the freedom to coerce others. But given
the nature of those values and interests, it
is also true that people will suffer if they are prevented from realising their interests· by the exist:…

ence of oppressive soeial and econ.omic eO:l.ditions.

How could anyone justify, by reference to the
natural bases of rights, the ascriptian to people of
a right to the optimum a.mount of liberty (consistent only with the recognition of a like liberty for
all), without also recognizing a right not to be the
unwilling victim of oppressive and exploitative
social and economic conditions? It will not do
simply to point out that the recognition of ‘welfare
rights’ entails restrictions on the right to liberty.

The latter is not an absolute right (in any plausible
theory); and in any case, the recognition of a right
to liberty equally entails restrictions on welfare
rights. What is required is an accommodation
between the two sorts of rights, consistent with the
significance of their natural bases.

It is evident, then, that there is no moral justifica-

tion for distinguishing, in the severe and momentous way that liberals do, between the different
kinds of humanly-originated circumstances and conditions which can limit a person’s enjoyment of the
21 Isaiah Berlin, Four Essays on Liberty (Oxford, 1969), pliii; John Rawls,
A Theory of Justice (Oxford, 1972), p204.


ends which liberty and personal possessions serve.

It is true that direct physical aggression – the only

variety of interference with a person’s freedom
that Rothbard recognizes as illegitimate (22) – is
different from social and economic oppression.

This means that our response to the damage caused
by these different factors .might need to be different,
perhaps that our ascriptions of responsibility for
harming others in these different ways should be
different. It does not warrant the absurd conclusion
that social and economic oppression is of no moral


As it happens, the liberal theory of property has
not been wholly blind to the need to place restrictions upon private property rights. Nozick admits
that the right to appropriate previously unowned
goods must be limited by variant of the
‘Lockean proviso’. In its initial for.m in Locke,
this states that the appropriation of unowned raw
materials is only legiti.mate if ‘enough, and as good
[is] left in common for others’ (23). The interpretation of this principle raises problems with which I
am not concerned here, but its moral rationale does
need to be emphasized. The full rigour of the
liberal theory is indeed softened slightly by the admission that, in the case of initial appropriation,
the normal procedures licensed by the institution of
private property should be waived just in case the
interests of others would be severely damaged by
allowing those procedures to take their normal
course. But why is this qualification restricted to
the case of initial appropriation? Property rights
operate by warranting certain kinds of activities,
especially of use and control, directed to particular
objects. It is now admitted that some of the activities warranted by the full right to initial appropriationmight not be justified if the interests of others
are thereby severely damaged. But this is the thin
edge of the wedge: there are very many situations
other than that of unrestrained initial appropriation
in which the privileges of private property are
damaging to the interests of others. The exclusion
of the majority from free and equitable access to
the means of production, the almost unlimited
opportunities for exploitation and coercion that are
enjoyed by private monopolies in necessary goods,
the injustice and offence of vast wealth subSisting
at the expense of degrading poverty – these are but
some of the ills to which the institution of private
property is prone.

The Lockean proviso is intended by Nozick to moderate some of the more horrific consequences of
permitting uncontrolled private appropriation – to
·rule out, for instance, the legitimacy of a single
person’s acquisition of the world’s entire fresh
water supply (24). However, the problem (certainly
a difficult one) of making precise the notion that all
initial appropriation must be such as to leave
enough and as good for others, is not the only
prgblem that Nozick faces. He is also committed
– if he really cares about the rationale for such a
prinCiple – to the recognition of far more powerful
and extensive restrictions than this upon the
institutions of private property, controls which
turn out to be quite incompatible with the existence
of an economic system based on private property.

22 Hothbard, op. cit. , p8.

23 John Locke, The Second Treatise of Government, Section 27; see also
Nozick, op. cit., p175.

24 Nozick, op: cit., p179.

Locke also has a principle – we should notice which limits the volume of goods that may be
accumulated to that quantity which can be properly
used or disposed of. A person ‘offended against the
Law of Nature’ if he allowed the things in his
possession to spoil or perish ‘without their due
use’ (25). What is the rationale of this provision,
if not that the spoilage of goods is to be deplored
just in case the needs or interests that some have
in those goods remain unsatisfied? After all,
decay is an integral part of natural cycles, and is
hardly contrary to the ‘Law of Nature’ in itself.

The rationale of the prinCiple is surely that
accumulation is to be limited by the consideration
that none should be deprived, by the greed of others”
of the means to satisfy their needs and legiti.mate
interests. To take this seriously, however, is to
leave liberalism far behind.

Rousseau is a better guide than are the Libertarians
to the .moral status and implications of the institurtions of private property:

The first .man who, having enclosed a piece of
ground, bethought hi.mself of saying ‘This is
.mine, ‘ and found people si.mple enough to
believe him, was the real founder of civil
so~iety. From how .many cri.mes, wars, and
murders, fro.m how .many horrors and misfortunes might not anyone have saved mankind,
by pulling up the stakes, or filling up the ditch,
and crying to his fellows: ‘Beware of listening
to this imposter; you are undone if you once
forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us
all, and the earth itself to nobody (26).

26 J. -J. Rousseau, A Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, p192 (in The
Social Contract and Discourses, trans. and ed; G.D. H. Cole, London,

25 Locke, op. cit. , Section 37.

rorces of Pl’Oduclion
Relalions of Produclion
• Socialisl Sociely
Sean Savers

I Introduction
It seems evi:ient that class ‘jifferences ani class

struggle continue to exist in socialist societies; that
is to· say, in societies like the Soviet Union and
China, which have undergone socialist revolutions
and in which private property in the means of production has been largely abolished. I shall not
attempt to prove this proposition here; rather it will
form my starting point. For my purpose in this
paper is to show how the phenomenon of class in
socialist society can be understood and interpreted
in IVlarxist terms; and, in particular, to explain and
expound Mao Zedong’s attempt to do so. For one of
Mao’s most striking and important contributions to
Marxism was his recognition that ‘contraJictions
among the people’ continue to exist in socialist
society, an1 his attempt to explain them within the
theoretical framework of historical materialism.

Marx outlines his account of historical development
in the following well-known words:

It is not the consciousness of men that determines
their being, but on the contrary it is their social
1 This is a revised and much expanded version of a paper which appeared
originally in China Policy Study Group BROADSHEET, July 1977.

being that determines their consciousness. At a
certain stage of their development, the material
productive forces of society come into conflict
with the existing relations of production or what is merely a legal expression for the same
thing – with the property relations within the
framework of which they have hitherto operated.

From forms of development of the productive
forces these relations turn into their fetters.

At that point an era of social revolution begins.

With the change in the economic foundation the
whole immense superstructure is more slowly
or more rapidly transformed.

(Marx, Preface to A Contribution to the Critique
of Political Economy)
It has been common to interpret these words as expressing a simple form of economic or even technological jeterminism which would rule out the very
possibility of class divisions continuing to be a
fundamental feature of socialist society. For,
according to this account, a socialist society, by
abolishing the private ownership of the means of
production, thereby abolishes the material and
economic basis of class differences; and so classes
are jestined to die out in socialist society as the
forces of production are developed.

According to this interpretation, which I shall call

Download the PDFBuy the latest issue