Marxist and Liberal Theories on Property



Property can be largely termed as any physical or intangible asset owned by an individual in solitude or in a collective manner (Kilcullen 1). Considering current systems in the society, a property owner virtually has all the rights to a property including selling, renting, exchanging and such like privileges without having to consult anybody.

Common types of property include real, private, intellectual and public properties but their enforcement in law is very different. Property owners usually establish their relationship with property through titles but some philosophers are of the opinion that property owners establish their relationship with property through social convention (Kilcullen 2).

Some scholars have often viewed property as a resource where monetary benefits are derived while others consider it as a factor of production. However, most people relate to property in different ways. This definition is what characterizes property rights which individuals have towards ownership. Nonetheless, the right to property is sometimes defined by the societal perception of it.

In fact, this is what determines the law to property because law defined by the kind of perception the society holds towards property ownership to a large extent. Ownership of property, therefore, illustrates society’s perception of a people’s relationship to property. However, what is strikingly interesting, despite the various ways of analyzing property, is the fact that people tend to lose their control of property if the society’s perception towards the property, what is unfavorable.

This study analyzes the origins and evolution of property and how they are evaluated from the Marxist and liberalist points of views. The Marxist theory is entrenched on the determination of social stratification through capitalistic systems while the liberal theory majors on the equality and inequalities of property rights. These theories are further analyzed.

Marxist Theory on Property

The Marxist theory understands the evolution and development of property through society’s level of materialism. More or less, this is the kind of relationship people usually have towards each another while trying to fulfill their material needs and wants. This may involve the need to supplement daily needs like clothing, food, shelter and the likes. Proponents of the Marxist theory, therefore, view property as a factor of production and not an element of an individual or a group ownership (Bottomore 450).

In other words, according to the Marxist theory, private property is a productive resource which has returns to the owner. Such can be equated to the ownership of slaves because slaves have a profit element to them, which is service or labor to the master. With the above facts as its framework, the Marxist theory categorizes the origin and the evolution of property in several following ways.

First, the Marxist theory identifies the communal sharing of property as one of the first stages to property ownership. This was identified as one of the most primitive form of communism which did not acknowledge individual ownership of property, but acknowledged the communal ownership of property for community survival (Bottomore 450).

This stage of property ownership can be attributed to the first stages of humanity and communal living which was preferred to personalization of resources. This type of system, however, succeeded because there was a dismal population in the world at the time and the survival of humanity largely depended upon the nature. During this time, a man lived like an animal and he had not devised the ways of making the environment adjust to his will.

However, with the development of agriculture, private property set in and communist ownership of property started to slowly fade away (Bottomore 450). Consequently, productive property was developed which included the ownership of cattle and even slaves. This new age marked the second step in the Marxist theory because from here onwards, class differentials set in. Private property later started becoming quite popular.

Class differentials first developed from the ownership of slaves because there was the class of people who owned slaves while the slaves formed another lower class of people altogether. This was among the earliest forms of private property (Bottomore 450).

Also, during this time, the state developed and its systems were more puppet-like because they were used by the elite to justify their actions and control their property (slaves). Also, at the same time, a man learnt the art of controlling food production through agriculture in order to feed increased populations through large-scale farming. This was also another level of private property development.

When all these developments were taking place, democracy and authoritarianism was also taking shape but they represented different opposites. Democracy evolved out of the democratization of republic states while authoritarianism developed out of a failure of democracy to take shape (Bottomore 450). With the advent of private property, citizens were noted to have a lot of land in their possession when compared to public property. This was largely influenced by huge agricultural development necessitated by the agrarian revolution.

The elite of the society who owned slaves as their secondary property also had a lot of land in their possession as a primary source of property (where the slaves worked). This population group, therefore, established its source of production and created wealth, although a greater majority of the population had nothing in terms of property. Those who never had any form of property majorly included slaves and sometimes, they were forced to work for meager or no pay at all. Also, a greater majority of this population group included women who never had much regard in the society back then (Smith 250).

Slave ownership as a major form of property is analyzed by the Marxist theory as a system that exhausted itself until its collapse. In fact, there was an increasing need by the ruling class to acquire more slaves which caused a lot of problems in the society in controlling the vast empires that consequently arose. Such was the case with the Roman Empire. In this manner, aristocracy was born and a new stage of property founded (Bottomore 452).

This point outlines the third stage in property development which was widely known as feudalism. This system was especially noted in the European Dark Age which was characterized by a number of societal elements such as aristocracy, theocracy, hereditary classes, and nation states (Bottomore 452).

This period saw the aristocratic rise to power of individuals through monarchs or intermarriages and also the rise of religion to control most aspects of economics, social and political compositions of the society. At the same time, the hereditary class system developed and it retained wealth and property within specific classes (such was the case with India). Later fallen states transitioned into nation-states, like the in the case of England which transitioned from a province to an empire.

During this period of feudalism, there developed different types of classes in the society and the top most people were referred to as Lords, Kings, Serfs and the Likes, but the lowest people were in the slave class (although there was another social class slightly above the slave population). As the society adopted these new class structures, the level of trade between nations-states also surged and a new type of class (merchant class) was formed (Bottomore 452).

With the growth of the merchant class, the capitalistic system developed; still within the feudal system, conflicts started to emerge within the aristocratic system. These conflicts were primarily brought about by the development of the capitalistic system which threatened the position of the later ruling class. Other concerns were not necessarily tied up to property, money or power.

The motive to make property is the main characteristic of the capitalistic society but its goal of profit making is limited to a significant degree by the feudal system. For instance, the serf class could not advance into another class and become merchants because their role was primarily to work on the land.

From this point, the Marx theory notes that since the capitalistic system was restrained from fully achieving its potential (making profit), there was a series of social revolutions which ensued. This encompassed the French revolution, the English Civil War and the Glorious revolution (Bottomore 454).

From this point onwards, the Marxist theory notes that capitalism took a deep approach afterwards. This is where the bulk of the Marxist theory centers on because the theory thoroughly explores the system by which capitalism developed. Also, capitalism marks the fourth process in the evolution of property because it is the system that followed the feudal system.

In the capitalistic system, private property is no longer in the hands of the monarchs or the Lords who used to hold on to power in the feudal system but in the hands of capitalists. The capitalists, therefore, hold the power of property as a means of production but they operate in a free market economy where market forces determine the power of property. Many economists argue that a high level of government involvement in this system may prove disastrous in the long run (Bottomore 456).

Capitalism spreads across countries and societies and it is characterized by the exertion of influence and authority over people who relate to the factors of production at a lower level. The Marxist theory identifies that capitalists are always under the urge to exert their influence in the society and their possession of property is one way to do so (Bottomore 455). Through their control of property, they can control the state and exert their influence on others.

However, the existence of financial institutions reduces the influence of capitalists through private property because banks are in the position of taking large amounts of unused capital and advancing them to poor people in form of mortgages. The poor can, therefore, have an opportunity to own property just the same way the rich do. This is a way in which banks and financial lenders are able to improve the class mobility. However, the Marxist theory purports that in as much as banks and financial securities increase class mobility, the drive to make more profits is likely to see the creation of monopolies from the most successful institutions.

In the capitalistic system, property is the tool to which capitalists use to make profit and exert influence over others while people work for the factor of production (land) to make a living (wages). The power of capitalists through the control of property can then be safeguarded through legislations which are also in the control of capitalists to protect their wealth (property). A change in tax policy is one way through which the rich are able to safeguard their wealth.

However, the current systems in place, under the capitalistic system (though meant to have a universal representation), do not necessarily prevent a universal suffrage. In fact, for a long time, the capitalists have used the law to exclude a section of people in the society from having access to property. The population groups which have historically fallen victim to capitalists are women, children, colored people, poor people and other marginalized groups (Smith 215). In this kind of system, therefore, it is apparently clear that the government works to protect capitalists’ property because the government is comprised of capitalists at the first place.

However, in as much as the Marxist theory derives its authenticity from capitalism systems, it goes without saying that capitalism can also lead to its own downfall. This happens because capitalism created a new class of working class people whom it made a profit out of, depending on the relationship with the factors of production. However, the working class has forced capitalists to lower their profit levels through an increase in competition and this has created class conflict.

Nonetheless, the Marxist theory does not outline how the working class is able to achieve a state of class-consciousness but some scholars have noted that they are able to achieve this through suffering in the hands of capitalists (Bottomore 454). Such sort of resistance can potentially lead to the emergence of revolutions against capitalism and often, this is expected in the third world countries.

Nonetheless, we can deduce the fact that since most capitalists hold property, property rights are entitled to them, but the current social consciousness demands a transition of these rights so that other people can also control property. If analyzed critically, this is one of the elements for socialism and it may mark the end of capitalism through the transfer of property rights to socialist economies.

If the working class is able to cover ground, to the disadvantage of the capitalists, there may emerge a system of socialism. This is a form of communism. Communism has been potentially divided into two phases of socialism and stateless communism (Bottomore 458). Socialism is perceived as the period characterizing the overthrow of capitalism while stateless communism may be achieved when capitalism has already died.

This will be the period when property is communal. However, by property being communal, it does not mean that property will be controlled by all, it means that property will be in the hands of the working class. This will be the new dawn of the democratic communities because they will now own property as a factor of production (Bottomore 452).

Liberal View of Property

The liberalist view on property is largely based on the principles of John Locke and Thomas Hobbes who were advanced in the 17th century (Zucker 27). According to the liberal view, the existence of government is motivated by the goal of protecting personal security and property. This function of the government is very important according to the liberal view because without the protection of property, productive benefits derived from property would not be worthwhile.

In other words, the government prevents an individual from unlawfully taking someone else’s property without their consent or taking someone hostage to work as a slave. Everyone is, therefore, a danger to each other (Zucker 27). Property can never produce returns if people believe that the benefits to be derived from it can be potentially taken away. However, the liberalist theory does not just single out the need to protect productive labor only because it identifies that people also have to work to stay alive and more work is needed if one wants to achieve a higher level of civilization or if one wants to enjoy luxuries.

It is, therefore, correct to say that without the presence of government in protecting property, property would be of no use at all. Life would also seize to be good. In this regard, Hobbes (cited in Kilcullen 2) notes:

“In such conditions, there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain; and consequently no culture of the Earth, neither navigation nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea… [consequently] no knowledge of the face of the Earth; no account of time; no arts, no letters; no society [human companionship]; and (which is worst of all) continued fear and danger of violent death, and the life of man solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”.

Government can, therefore, be seen as making civilization realizable and even makes survival possible because it protects the right of people to own property and indeed even other resources. With this analysis as the framework, the liberal theory does not, therefore, see how universal suffrage cannot be possible as advanced by the Marxist theory because the government will protect everyone equally. In the same manner, civilization can also be realized by all and the well being of the society will also be upheld (Kilcullen 2).

However, reflecting back to the 19th century in England, the possession of property did not necessarily mean the safeguard of property to which a person worked for (Kilcullen 2). The system back then stipulated that since people were employees, the fruits of their labor were subjected to their employers’ ownership (Kilcullen 2).

However, proponents of the liberal theory note that this is not essentially true or fair because even the right of the employer to claim what the employee produces is derived out of the virtue of owning what one produces (Kilcullen 2). The only way they could, therefore, own what the employees produced was through voluntary consent because employees were at liberty of giving away their property or do anything with it.

However, inequality is likely to be created because people have different capabilities in production while others are in a better position of acquiring more property through gifts or rewards. In this manner, some people may accumulate so much property that some people would find it justifiable to work for such people.

The liberalists, however, note that the right of the employer to own property is only derived from his/her privilege in controlling the gifts or rewards accumulated and this includes voluntary exchange of property, from workers through voluntary exchange. An interference of a person’s right to exchange property voluntarily will, therefore, also be a violation of a person’s right to do anything with his/her property. This is the principle which according to liberalists, the free trade thrives on.

These factors withstanding, the liberalists were always afraid that with the advent of democracy, people would not respect the right of the employer to own property, just like other people (Kilcullen 4). This fear came out of the observation by liberalists that people were sometimes shortsighted and they would never understand the fact that employers also had a right to own property. Partially, they attributed this observation to people’s ignorance, hunger and the strong perception among many people that the property of the rich should be confiscated and distributed to the poor.

The liberalists noted that if this were allowed to happen, it would spell disaster to a lot of people and indeed the society at large (Kilcullen 4). The accumulation of capital would consequently decrease because people who would have the capability to do so would be discouraged out of it by socialism. In turn, people would starve or be unable to fend for themselves because a lack of adequate capital would mean that there would not be enough for everyone to survive. This is the reason why the liberalists emphasize a lot on the protection of property by the government.

Political economists also came up with the principle that when input is doubled, there was no way the same level of double output can be achieved. They, therefore, noted that if the input were tripled, the output would be less than triple (Kilcullen 4). This outlined the principle of diminished returns. Its relevance is that it requires more capital per head in the society for enough capital to be accumulated for everyone’s comfort.

If some part of capital is not allowed to be freely produced because of constraints on those who have accumulated a lot of capital, then some people would starve. Kilcullen gives an example that “millions of human beings crowded in a narrow space, deprived of all those resources which alone had made it possible for them to exist in so a narrow space” (9).

Capital accumulation is, therefore, very important for everyone in the society including the rich and the poor but more so, for the poor. The burden of tax on the poor must therefore be reduced while taxation should also be kept at operable minimums. Attempts to artificially increase wages should also be totally discouraged. This is true because if wages were allowed to artificially increase, property ownership would shift and the prices to own assets would be unreasonable. Unemployment among other social unrests would also set in.

This is also a part of the reason why proponents of the liberal theory have been against the existence of trade unions because they often engage employers in artificial increase of wages which contravenes their principle of free exchange of labor between employers and employees (Kilcullen 6). However, political economists note that this attempt will not reduce the inequalities in property ownership. Instead, they advance the fact that the working class population needs to be insulated from poverty through the population control (Kilcullen 4).

To a great extent, the liberalists propose that property needs to be protected from shortsighted people because it is in the great interest of the majority that this is done. Mill (cited in Kilcullen 10) however notes:

“Since men usually do what they like, often being perfectly aware that it is not for their ultimate interest, still more often that it is not for the interest of their posterity; and when they do believe that the object they are seeking is permanently good for them, almost always overrating its value; it is necessary to consider, not the permanent interest, but the immediate interests and habitual feelings that are likely to be most in accordance with the end we seek to obtain”. (Kilcullen 10).

With a lack of clear foresight among most people, Mill, therefore, proposes that even if there was a common institution which was to oversee justice to all, and people did not appreciate its role, it would be more prudent to give political power to the few who owned property so they might protect themselves from the majority (Kilcullen 10). This has been the main argument why the liberalists are against the democratization of property ownership.

Nonetheless, it should be noted that the proponents of an anti-democratization policy obviously belonged to those few people who owned a lot of property and they were possibly acting selfishly. However, it is also important to understand that the institutions they were protecting were to serve the interests of everyone and not just a given group or class in the society. The protection was also against only short sighted people in the society who never realized that their interests were interestingly very similar to the rich or the people who were in possession of a lot of property.

According to the liberalists, therefore, the right to pursue property should be limitless for all people because it is a part of their liberal right (Francione 45). This system is also the best way to create wealth to all people in the society according to the liberalists.

Through the liberty to be given to the people, many will be motivated by the desire to improve their conditions by engaging in productive utilization of private property and given the right conditions; many will find it easy to derive a lot of benefits from it. To create a friendly environment, the movement and security of property ought to be guaranteed. For this system to work as well, the level of government regulation also needs to be kept at an operational minimum.


In contemporary policy debates, both the Marxist and liberal theories apply to a significant extent. The Marxist theory identifies that property moved from the socialist system to capitalistic systems because of the creation of class barriers. In this regard, we can be able to deduce the fact that property perpetrates the class differentials and it majorly serves the wishes of the rich. Also, property seems to be an agent of influence to which property owners derive their control from. This changes the perception of property because in as much as we can see its benefit to other people in the society, it majorly serves the interest of the rich.

It is, therefore, very difficult to own property because it is a source of wealth through which the rich keep to themselves and safeguard it through existing laws as Marx advances. Since property ownership seems to be the key to class progression, according to the Marxist theory, this concept should be applied to contemporary debates about property because it is the key to a just society where people of all classes can get an opportunity to own property.

One way of doing so is through the support of financial institutions which collects unused money especially from the rich and advances it to the poor so they may also have the opportunity of controlling property and improving their status. Secondly, a policy change can be advanced through the tax system where the poor can be taxed less than the rich to empower them more.

However, this needs to be done with tact so that the fears advanced by the liberalists of infringement of property rights are not witnessed. This system is likely to transfer property rights from oppressive capitalistic systems to a more social and fair manner of property ownership. In fact, according to Marx’s evolution of property, this will be the next frontier after the capitalistic system.

However, as all these factors are being observed, the liberalist theory warns against a lack of safeguard to private property which also needs to be enhanced or else, capital creation may fail altogether and massive poverty is created. The liberal theory can, therefore, contribute to contemporary policy making; in that, certain policies need to be created to ensure a just property ownership and safeguard programme is realized.

This will also safeguard property rights. Nonetheless, the power of free will is also brought to fore and the policy planners should acknowledge the importance of according independence to property owners to do whatever they want to with their properties. The success of property policies in creating social order, therefore, rests in its production and safeguard.

Works Cited

Bottomore, Thomas. A Dictionary of Marxist Thought. London: Wiley-Blackwell, 1991. Print.

Francione, Lawrence. Animals, Property, and the Law. Temple: Temple University Press, 1995. Print.

Kilcullen, John. Liberal Democracy: Property. 2005. Web.

Smith, Barbara. The Reader’s Companion to U.S. Women’s History. London: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1999. Print.

Zucker, Ross. Democratic Distributive Justice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003. Print.

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