As we saw in the first posting on this subject, there are four primary aspects of socialism. These are philanthropy, communitarianism, reform or abolition of religion, and — our topic for today — the abolition of private ownership. Again, it is important to note that a particular form of socialism may not include all or even any of these aspects, and yet still be true socialism.
That is especially the case with the abolition of private ownership. This is because (not understanding private property), many people confuse the abolition of private property, an absolute natural right, with the abolition of private ownership, a limited and socially determined right.
|Marx: "The abolition of private property."|
To explain, many socialists claim either that Karl Marx was wrong when he said that the theory of the communists can be summed up as “the abolition of private property.” Any one of three reasons is given for the claim that Marx was wrong, sometimes all three at once:
· Communism and socialism are not the same thing.
· A particular theory is not socialism because it allows private ownership.
· Some forms of socialism allow private ownership.
We will take these in the order given.
Communism and socialism are not the same thing. Shocking many people (especially socialists), communism is a form of socialism, and was always presented as such. In the 1840s when Marx and Engels were debating what to call their system, they wanted to use the term “socialism.”
The problem was that, while the term was relatively new, having been coined by the New Christian Saint-Simonian (i.e., “socialist”) Pierre Leroux cir. 1834 or so — as a pejorative! — by the late 1840s it had been coopted by the followers of Robert Owen as well as virtually everyone else demanding the shift of natural rights from the human person to the abstraction of the collective. As Alexis de Tocqueville related in his Reminiscences,
From the 25th of February  onwards, a thousand strange systems came issuing pell-mell from the minds of innovators, and spread among the troubled minds of the crowd. . . . These theories were of very varied natures, often opposed and sometimes hostile to one another; but all of them, aiming lower than the government and striving to reach society itself, on which government rests, adopted the common name of Socialism.
Socialism will always remain the essential characteristic and the most redoubtable remembrance of the Revolution of February. The Republic will only appear to the on-looker to have come upon the scene as a means not as an end. (Alexis de Tocqueville, The Recollections of Alexis de Tocqueville. Cleveland, Ohio: The World Publishing Company, 1959, 78-79.)
This presented Marx and Engels with a marketing problem: how to distinguish their brand of scientific (i.e., non-religious) socialism from “the democratic religion” types of socialism that reinvented religion instead of abolishing it. To do so, and citing the fact that Owenism had taken over the term socialism, Marx and Engels decided to use the somewhat older term “communism” to give them brand recognition, so to speak.
Thus, although the distinction remains unclear to this day, with “socialism” and “communism” still used interchangeably to some extent, communism came to mean non-religious or atheistic socialism, while socialism came to mean both everything that shifted natural rights from the human person to the collective and the democratic religion that replaced or transformed religion.
That was how Pope Pius XI did his classification. In Quadragesimo Anno, he condemned all types of socialism, whatever they might be called, on the grounds that all socialism is based on a theory of society contrary to truth, viz., that the collective instead of human persons is endowed with rights. (Quadragesimo Anno, § 117). In Divini Redemptoris, he completed his social doctrine and singled out non-religious socialism — “atheistic communism” — as being an especially bad type of socialism.
|Pope Pius XI|
A particular theory is not socialism because it allows private ownership. This is a particularly popular justification for claiming that what is demanded is not socialism. The problem is that it confuses the right to be an owner, with the rights of ownership — two different things.
The fact is that many forms of socialism do allow private ownership — but not by natural right. It is considered a right granted by the State for the sake of expedience or necessity, not because each person has the right by human nature itself. Whether or not you choose to call it socialism is a matter of semantics and salesmanship.
Now, this is where the confusion comes in. The right to be an owner is inherent in every single human being and is absolute. Period. The only way to prevent someone from being an owner is to present compelling evidence why that particular individual should not be permitted to own. Nor can this be arbitrary, but must be done only by duly constituted authority and in the agreed upon manner. An exception is made in the case of emergency.
In other words, only for just cause and by following due process can you deprive someone of the exercise of ownership.
Now for the catch. The right to be an owner is inherent and absolute. The rights of ownership — what may be owned and in what manner it may be used — are NOT absolute. They are “socially determined,” meaning that the way you use what you own and even what you own must cause no harm and must comply with the rules established for that society.
The only iron rule for how the exercise of property is defined for a particular society is that the rights of ownership must never be defined in such a way as to nullify the right to be an owner in the first place.
For example, the proposal of the agrarian socialist Henry George was that anyone may own as much land as he likes (the right to ownership) . . . but all income and control over the land passed to the State. In other words, the right to own land became utterly without meaning in Henry George’s scheme. Similarly, the Nazi law on landed property made “ownership” contingent upon whether the titular owner used it in a manner approved of by the State. He otherwise lost title.
In both cases the natural right to be an owner was rendered meaningless, abolishing private property as a natural right. Was private ownership abolished? A good Georgist or Nazi would say absolutely not. Was private property abolished? Absolutely.
Some forms of socialism allow private ownership. This is simply a restatement of the above argument, except that where something is declared not to be socialism because it allows private ownership, this version is where something is declared to be socialism because socialism allows private ownership, “therefore” it does not abolish private property. Both versions of the argument rely on confusing the natural right to be an owner, with the socially determined rights to use what is owned.