One thing that’s worth pointing out about revolutionary politics, is, as you know, the role of the means of production. Recently, I heard Aubrey Sitterson, who self-identified as syndicalist, on Rob Rousseau‘s 49th Parahell podcast. He mentioned a couple times about how socialism is about ownership of the value you produce. He also stipulated some socialists would also be interested in seizing the means of production.
Before I proceed, I just want to say: this isn’t an attack on Sitterson at all. I respect his position. I’m simply mentioning it, because it was the mental jumping-off point for this post (if anything, I mention both Rob Rousseau and Aubrey Sitterson, as recommendation to check them out). I also don’t know if this is his personal position, or a pro-union/pro-general strike/anti-Democratic centralism position. Since most of the communist writing I’m exposed to is Marxist, and although I’ve read some more anarchist-influenced texts, they aren’t what I think of first, and they don’t inform my worldview.
However, I wanted to use this post to explain why I think seizing the means of production is the defining socialist trait. The most useful way to understand this is by looking at the history of our relationship to the means of production, as well as our relationship to the objects of our productive labor.
For one, the private ownership of the means of production is a historical oddity of capitalism. No economic system before, or predicted to exist after, entailed private ownership of the means of production. That’s why it’s the singular defining trait of capitalism. Yes, there are other defining traits, such as a system of wage employment, but that’s a side-effect of private ownership of the means of production.
Let’s start with ancient slavery, which is simple. The masters would enslave a mass workforce to build something for the masters. Means of production at this time were so primitive, that there was no need for the slavemasters to “own” them, as it was ropes, pulleys, wheels, levers, wedges etc. At this time, labor itself was the closest thing to our modern conception of the means of production.
For a slightly more intricate example, let’s move to feudalism: a lot of feudal economies worked differently, but generally, a lord would own large chunks of land, and “allowed” the peasants to work on it. The lords didn’t provide means of production, the workers had that themselves. Instead, the lords, being something like a hybrid of our current capitalist class, and our government, would “tax” the objects of productive labor. In other words, let’s say you farmed grain. The farmer would grow enough grain to feed their family, and would take more grain for distribution at the market. However, the lord would seize a large portion of the grain, and would similarly seize portions of everything generated on the lord’s property.
There are other ways feudalism and feudal-like systems occurred too. For example, in Russia, they used fiefs, which were peasants bound to a piece of property. Also, it’s worth considering that under earlier forms of European feudalism, lords controlled much smaller lots of land. By the time of the French Revolution, lords controlled plots of land that were almost unmanageable, and helped contribute to the burgeoning capitalist class, who were able to generate surplus value through trade, due to the lords inability to have as overreaching control over the economy.
Throughout history, there has always been a merchant class, the people who bring goods to trade in market. This class would eventually evolve into the capitalist class. Merchants, craftsmen, and guilds represent early progenitors of what would become the capitalist class. Mercantilism developed in Northern Italy, hand-in-hand with double-entry bookkeeping, the system that created debit and credit, the foundational accounting element of capitalism. The Dutch East India Company was the seed that became global capitalism ie Imperialism. These developing systems allowed individuals to privately control more things that generate value than before.
As Industrialization happened, private ownership of value-generating material (the means of production) became more common. This began undermining the control that the feudal classes had. For example, imagine a feudal lord claims control over a village of 10,000 people. The lord takes value generated by those 10,000 workers. However, 100 of those 10,000 people are beginning to acquire industrial equipment that greatly increases the rate of production. Those 100 people can’t work on all that equipment themselves, so they begin paying their neighbors money to work the equipment, instead of those neighbors working independently. Then imagine that process accelerating, then culminating in the capitalists revolting against the feudal lords.
The trait that defines capitalism, that defines it as a categorical shift from previous economic systems, is the private control of the means of production. It’s the “property-fication” of the market in the form of capital. Even in feudal times, the workers owned the means of production. That’s not to say that feudalism was a better economic system, but it shows that private ownership of the means of production is the peculiar and unique characteristic of capitalism.
I’ll close with a passage from Friedrich Engels’ brief text “The Principles of Communism”. This is “Section 8 – In what way do proletarians differ from serfs?”:
The serf possesses and uses an instrument of production, a piece of land, in exchange for which he gives up a part of his product or part of the services of his labor.
The proletarian works with the instruments of production of another, for the account of this other, in exchange for a part of the product.
The serf gives up, the proletarian receives. The serf has an assured existence, the proletarian has not. The serf is outside competition, the proletarian is in it.
The serf liberates himself in one of three ways: either he runs away to the city and there becomes a handicraftsman; or, instead of products and services, he gives money to his lord and thereby becomes a free tenant; or he overthrows his feudal lord and himself becomes a property owner. In short, by one route or another, he gets into the owning class and enters into competition. The proletarian liberates himself by abolishing competition, private property, and all class differences.