MIA: Encyclopedia of Marxism: Glossary of Terms



Public Domain

A product of labour is said to be “in the public domain” if it has no legitimate owner and may be used by anyone. Generally, the term is used with reference to intellectual property for which copyright has expired or images and ideas which are already in circulation and cannot be claimed as intellectual property. The term may also be used in relation to mineral rights and abundant gifts of nature which cannot be monopolised.

The growth of intellectual property has made great inroads into the public domain, with more and more things formerly freely available for use now commodified. As capitalism develops, more and more social labour is subsumed under capital: scientific and artistic labour, formerly supported by philanthropy, or the state, is commercialised, and free public services, like public education and health, are privatised. However, while capital is concentrated in fewer and fewer hands, the productive forces have become more and more socialised.

Under socialism, all social labour would be in the public domain – not only knowledge and art, but public utilities, basic foods, the gifts of nature – would all be freely available for use. Like “open source” software today, under socialism such freely available resources would be renewed and maintained by people giving their labour, not just to earn a living, but as an expression of their life.


Public Property and Private Property

Private property is the fundamental social relation of bourgeois society. A given product of labour being a person’s private property means that its use is exclusively subject to the will of that person, by right.

Public property is the form of property in which use of a given product of labour is subject to the will of the whole community.

Property takes different forms in different social formations. “Public property” is really a development of private property, rather than its real negation, since the concept is meaningful only in a society in which private property is posited. In tribal society, for example, social relations are not mediated through products of labour in the same way they are in a society based on private labour and exchange.

The Communist Manifesto of 1848 posed the question in this way:

“All property relations in the past have continually been subject to historical change consequent upon the change in historical conditions.

“The French Revolution, for example, abolished feudal property in favour of bourgeois property.

“The distinguishing feature of communism is not the abolition of property generally, but the abolition of bourgeois property. But modern bourgeois private property is the final and most complete expression of the system of producing and appropriating products that is based on class antagonisms, on the exploitation of the many by the few.

“In this sense, the theory of the Communists may be summed up in the single sentence: Abolition of private property.”

Public property arises in bourgeois society in two main ways: firstly, where capital is unable to provide the basic conditions for accumulation by its own methods, and the bourgeoisie invests in the state the right to build and maintain infrastructure; secondly, as the organised working class develops its strength and establishes its rights within bourgeois society, public property becomes a vehicle for provision of basic conditions of life for workers, such as health and education services, and so on. In the Communist Manifesto, Marx clearly envisaged public property as an essential part of the social revolution.

“The proletariat will use its political supremacy to wrest, by degree, all capital from the bourgeoisie, to centralise all instruments of production in the hands of the state, i.e., of the proletariat organised as the ruling class; and to increase the total productive forces as rapidly as possible.

“Of course, in the beginning, this cannot be effected except by means of despotic inroads on the rights of property, and on the conditions of bourgeois production;”

The form taken by public property depends on the form in which the will of the community is manifested: in general this means the state, so in general “public property” means “state property”. However, this is not necessarily the case. For example, Common Land, which continues as a remnant of feudal society in Britain is not state property and some supranational entities are governed by international treaties. That which cannot be taken possession of or alienated cannot in general be regarded as property, public or otherwise.

As Marx demonstrates in The Private Property and Communism (1844), Communism begins:

“(1) In its first form only a generalisation and consummation of it (of this relation). As such it appears in a two-fold form: on the one hand, the dominion of material property bulks so large that it wants to destroy everything which is not capable of being possessed by all as private property. It wants to disregard talent, etc., in an arbitrary manner. For it the sole purpose of life and existence is direct, physical possession. The category of the worker is not done away with, but extended to all. The relationship of private property persists as the relationship of the community to the world of things.”

and Marx calls this “levelling” crude communism:

“How little this annulment of private property is really an appropriation is in fact proved by the abstract negation of the entire world of culture and civilisation, the regression to the unnatural simplicity of the poor and crude man who has few needs and who has not only failed to go beyond private property, but has not yet even reached it. ...

“The first positive annulment of private property - crude communism - is thus merely a manifestation of the vileness of private property, which wants to set itself up as the positive community system.”

Thus, the abolition of private property and its replacement by public property is consistent with the most despotic forms of rule, and may actually be a regression. But Marx continues:

“(2) Communism (a) still political in nature - democratic or despotic; (b) with the abolition of the state, yet still incomplete, and being still affected by private property, i.e., by the estrangement of man. In both forms communism already is aware of being reintegration or return of man to himself, the transcendence of human self-estrangement; but since it has not yet grasped the positive essence of private property, and just as little the human nature of need, it remains captive to it and infected by it. It has, indeed, grasped its concept, but not its essence.

“(3) Communism as the positive transcendence of private property as human self-estrangement, and therefore as the real appropriation of the human essence by and for man; communism therefore as the complete return of man to himself as a social (i.e., human) being - a return accomplished consciously and embracing the entire wealth of previous development.”

Thus for Marx, the abolition of private property is by no means accomplished simply by the transformation of private property into public property. Communism implies the ultimate transcendence of the necessity for the relation of person to person to be mediated by property. The transformation of private property into pubic property simply opens the way.


Public Sector and Private Sector

The Public Sector is all that labour which is paid for by the community, i.e., state bodies at some level (municipal, national, ...).

The Private Sector is all that labour which is paid for out of capital or sold on the market by people on their own account.

The “Third Sector” is the remaining labour carried out in the social sphere – voluntary, ie., unpaid, labour – usually taken as inclusive of wage labour employed by non-profit organisations.

Historical Development: Before the rise of capitalism, the distinction between a public and private sector was meaningless; rather, private labour was extremely marginal, and the predominant organisation of labour was by traditional relations based on kinship, spanning both the state/political realm and the domestic sphere.

The beginning of the bourgeois epoch is marked by the emergence of a sphere of private labour growing up or inserting itself between the state and the family – civil society. Only this private labour is recognised by bourgeois economics, because only private labour serves to expand capital.

As this private sector grew and became more and more powerful, states were forced to turn to the private sector to sustain themselves, supplementing tax revenues by borrowing from private citizens. Even before the political overthrow of feudalism, European states functioned only by means of a “public sector” of employment and purchase of goods and services funded by tax revenue, as prisoners of capital.

Generally speaking, the scope of state activity, i.e., the pubic sector, grew only slowly up to the 1940s, with states taking responsibility for fighting wars, and maintaining infrastructure and essential public services which capital was unable to support by its own methods, i.e., which could not be exploited for profit.

Nothing which can turn a profit is ever left to the state – that is an almost universal law of capitalist development: if it earns, privatise it.

The Great Depression of the 1930s forced the bourgeoisie of the world to reconsider their idolisation of the market, and with the New Deal, the US embraced a strong public sector to stabilise the private sector, and ever after military spending has been used as a major driver for the private sector.

After the Second World War, governments in Europe took the advice of John Maynard Keynes to use public spending to maintain aggregate demand and smooth out the violent fluctuations of the business cycle.

In Britain, European and elsewhere, the Welfare State was established – a comprehensive range of public sector services in health, education, housing, old age and unemployment pensions, and so on, serving to pacify the militant workers movement which threatened the very existence of capitalism after World War Two. During the same period, in many countries, the public sector was used to build the infrastructure which was to lay the basis for the Post War Boom – railways, telecommunications, water, coal, gas and electricity supply. Thus, the post-World War Two period was a period of massive expansion in the public sector.

This came to an end in the late-1960s with the break up of the Bretton Woods arrangements. At this time, the usual Keynesian methods of stimulating economic activity by public spending failed, leading only to run-away inflation accompanied by continued growth in unemployment, a phenomenon called at the time Stagflation. As a result, Keynesianism fell into disrepute; Margaret Thatcher in Britain, and Ronald Reagan in the U.S. led the world into a period of Monetarist economics based on the theories of Milton Friedman which entailed continual cuts in the public sector. It is an irony of this period that, in general, both Thatcher and Reagan failed to stem public spending; they massacred the welfare state and public services like health and education, but police and military spending, unemployment benefits and other sources of public debt only grew.

The last quarter of the twentieth century resembled the very earliest days of capitalism in that the private sector has maintained itself by means of continual raids on the state purse. The valuable infrastructures built up as public property in the post-World War Two period, has been sold off cheaply to private investors. Thus, the last decades of the twentieth century saw some decline in the public sector via Privatisation and out-sourcing of public services.

The Public Sector and Socialism: Dating back to the Communist Manifesto, socialists have aligned themselves with defence of the public sector against capital. This makes a lot of sense, because, in many countries, it has only been through public services that workers have enjoyed decent health, housing and education. Indeed, the ethos of the public was one of Collectivism, as opposed to the Individualism of the private sector.

However, this has led to workers becoming dependent on the state. Workers’ organisations look after their members’ interests, not directly, by their own efforts, but via the state. But the state is controlled by capital. Bourgeois rights, both civil and political, allow workers to vote their representatives into parliament, but capital still controls the state, since the public sector must act by means of private labour.

Consequently, it is necessary to remember the distinction between growth of the public sector, and the Marxist notion of victory of socialism, as the self-emancipation of the working class, and of socialism as the free association of workers.

The public sector is a part of the bourgeois economy! It operates by the methods of capital, through “public funding”, collection of tax revenue, purchase of labour-power and other goods and services from the market.

Furthermore, the bureaucratic dispenser of public funding exerts just the same kind of social power and control as the managerial dispenser of capital. The third sector is as close to the notion of socialism as the public sector.

Public Sphere

The “public sphere” is a concept developed by Jürgen Habermas of an arena which existed in 17th-18th century Europe. However, it is widely accepted as a legitimate concept in today's modern society.

The public sphere is an arena which is outside of government or other political control and independent of the contraints of the market, to which all citizens of a polity have access, and in which public opinion may be examined, contested, formed and transmitted. Clearly there is little public space today which is free of the control of capital and the contraints of the market, but the concept remains valid nonetheless.

Under conditions where universal suffrage operates successfully and elected governments are capable of making laws, the task of communists is to “win the battle of democracy,” as Marx states in the Communist Manifesto.

Capital is able to control public opinion via the mass media, and even the best elected government is a slave to public opinion, so it is little use putting pressure or placing demands on elected governments, unless public opinion supports your demand. A public sphere is essential to the project of socialism, since only by creating a favourable climate of public opinion, can an elected government carry out measures which will create the conditions for socialism.



Russian unit of weight:

1 pud = 16.38 kilograms
1 pud = 40 funt


Pure Being

”Pure Being” is a Hegelian category which refers to that stage in a process of development where “nothing exists”. For example, in political struggle, at a latter stage there may be strikes and demonstrations forming a political movement ... but at the very beginning, all were isolated events. It is this very first stage in which all the conditions for something exist, but they have not yet given any “sign”, that Hegel calls “Pure Being”.

Further Reading:Hegel says “Being is pure thought” where he means that the Reason which is in the thing has not yet had any reflection in people's consciousness; it just is. See the Thematrix on the Hegel site for more about Hegel’s conception of thought and Being.