Paul Lafargue

The Evolution of Property

Forms of Contemporaneous Property

POLITICAL economists have laid it down as an axiom that Capital, the form of property at present predominant, is eternal; they have tasked their brains to show that capital is coeval with the world, and that as it has had no beginning, so it can have no end. [1] In proof of which astounding assertion all the manuals of political economy repeat with much complacency the story of the savage who, having in his possession a couple of bows, lends one of them to a brother savage, for a share in the produce of his chase.

So great were the zeal, and ardour which economists brought to bear on their search for capitalistic property in prehistoric times, that they succeeded, in the course of their investigations, in discovering the existence of property outside the human species, to wit, among the invertebrates: for the ant, in her foresight, is a hoarder of provisions. It is a pity that they should not have gone a step farther, and affirmed that, if the ant lays up stores, she does so with a view to sell the same and realise a profit by the circulation of her capital.

But there is a gap in the economists’ theory of the eternity of capital. They have omitted to show that the term capital likewise exists from all time. In a ship every rope has its appropriate name, with the exception of the bell rope. It is inadmissible that in the domain of political economy the terminology should have been so inadequate as not to furnish a name for so useful and all-important a thing as capital; yet it is a matter of fact that the term capital, in the modern sense, dates no farther back than the 18th century. This is the case also with the word philanthropy (the humanitarian hypocrisy proper to the capitalistic regime). And it was in the 18th century that capitalist property began to assert itself, and to acquire a preponderating influence in society. This social predominance of capital led to the French Revolution, which, although one of the most considerable events of modern history, was, after all, but a bourgeois revolution accomplished with those catchwords of liberty, fraternity, equality, justice and patriotism which the bourgeois were, later on, to employ in puffing their political and financial enterprises. At the time of the Revolution the capitalists were cattle so newly raised by society that in his Dictionnaire de Mots Nouveaux published in 1802, Sebastien Mercier thought it necessary to insert the word capitaliste, and to append the following curious definition:

“Capitalists: this word is well nigh unknown out of Paris. It designates a monster of wealth, a man who has a heart of iron, and no affections save metallic ones. Talk to him of the land tax and he laughs at you; he does not own an inch of land, how should you tax him? Like the Arabs of the desert who have plundered a caravan, and who bury their gold out of fear of other brigands, the capitalists have hidden away our money.”

In 1802 mankind had not as yet acquired the feeling of profound respect which in our day is inspired by the capitalist.

The term capital, though of Latin origin, has no equivalent in the Greek and Latin tongues. The non-existence of the word in two such rich languages affords a proof that capitalist property did not exist in ancient times, at least as an economical and social phenomenon.

The form of property which corresponds to the term capital was developed and acquired social importance only after the establishment of commercial production, which crowned the economical and political movement agitating Europe after the 12th century. This commercial production was stimulated by the discovery of America and the route to India by the Cape of Good Hope, by the importation of precious metals from America, the taking of Constantinople, the invention of printing, the family alliances among the sovereigns of Europe, and the organisation of the great feudal states, with the relative and general pacification which resulted therefrom. All these and other collateral causes co-operated to create a rapid development of capital, the most perfect of all forms of private property, and, it may be averred, the last. The comparatively recent appearance of capital is the best proof adducible that property is not immutable and always the same, but that, on the contrary, it, like all material and intellectual phenomena, incessantly evolves and passes through a series of forms which differ, but are derived, from one another.

So far indeed is property from being always identical that in our own society it affects divers forms, capable of being reduced to two principal ones.


  1. Common property of ancient origin, the type of which are the communal lands, exposed for centuries past to the encroachments of the nobility and bourgeoisie.
  2. Common property of modern origin, administered by the State, comprised under the term Public Services, (the Mint, Post Office, Public Roads, National Libraries, Museums, etc.)


  1. Property of personal appropriation.
  2. Property – Instruments of labour.
  3. Property – Capital.

(a) Property of personal appropriation begins with the food one eats, and extends to the articles of clothing and objects of luxury (rings, jewels, etc.), with which one covers and decks oneself. Time was when the house, too, was included in this branch of personal property; a man possessed his dwelling, a marble palace or a hut of straw, like the tortoise his shell. If by the application of machinery to industry, civilisation has placed numberless objects of luxury within the reach of the poor which hitherto have been purchasable by the rich alone, it has on the other hand deprived the bulk of the nation of their dwelling-house. It constrains them to live in hired apartments and furnished lodgings; and in the midst of unprecedented wealth it has reduced the producer to a strict minimum of property of personal appropriation.

Capitalist civilisation condemns the proletarian to vegetate in conditions of existence inferior to those of the savage. To waive the important fact that the savage does not labour for others, and to confine ourselves wholly to the question of food, it is indisputable that the barbarians who invaded and peopled Europe, and who, possessing as they did, herds of swine and other animals, and having within their reach all the resources of the chase in richly stocked forests, and of fishing in the seas and rivers – if ill-clad with the skins of wild beasts and coarsely-woven materials – partook of more animal food than do our proletarians, whose shoddy clothing, excellently woven by perfected machinery, is a very poor protection against the inclemencies of the weather. The condition of the proletarian is the harder in that his constitution is less robust and less inured to the rigour of the climate than was the body of the savage. The following fact affords an idea of the robustness of uncivilised man. In the prehistoric tombs of Europe skulls have been discovered bearing traces of perforations suggestive of trepanning. Anthropologists at first took these skulls for amulets or ornaments, and concluded that they had been perforated after death, until Broca showed that the operation could not have been performed on corpses by producing a number of skulls in which a process of cicatrisation was observable, that could not have taken place unless the trepanned person had survived the operation. It was objected that it must have been impossible for ignorant savages, with their rude instruments of bronze and silex, to practice so delicate an operation, considered dangerous by modern doctors, despite their learning and the excellence of their surgical instruments. But all doubts have been now removed by the positive knowledge that this kind of operation is practised by savages with perfect success. Among the Berbers of the present day the operation is performed in the open air, and after the lapse of a few days, to the infinite astonishment of European witnesses, the trepanned man is on his legs again and resumes his occupations just as if a portion of his skull had not been scraped away, for the operation is performed by scraping. Skull wounds, which entail such grave complications in civilised persons, heal with extraordinary quickness and ease in primitive peoples. Notwithstanding the frantic enthusiasm with which civilisation inspires the philistine, the physical, and maybe the mental, inferiority of the civilised man, allowing, of course, for exceptions, must be conceded. It will require an education beginning at the cradle and prolonged throughout life and continued for several generations to restore to the human being of future society the vigour and perfection of the senses which characterise the savage and the barbarian. [2] Morgan, one of the rare anthropologists who do not share the imbecile disdain professed for the savage and the barbarian by the philistine, was also the first to classify in logical order the abundant and often contradictory materials that have accumulated respecting savage races, and to trace the first outlines of the evolution of prehistoric man. He observes,

“It may be suggested as not improbable of ultimate recognition that the progress of mankind in the period of savagery, in its relation to the sum of human progress, was greater in degree than in the three sub-periods of barbarism, and that the progress made in the whole period of barbarism was, in like manner, greater in degree than it has been since in the entire period of civilisation.” [3]

The savage or barbarian transplanted into civilised society cuts a sorry figure: he loses his native good qualities, while he contracts the diseases and acquires the vices of civilised man; but the history of the Greeks and the Egyptians shows us how marvellous a degree of material and intellectual development a barbarous people is capable of attaining when placed in the requisite conditions and evolving freely.

The civilised producer is reduced to the minimum of personal property necessary for the satisfaction of his most urgent wants merely because the capitalist possesses means and to spare for the indulgence of his most extravagant fancies. The capitalist should have a hundred heads and a hundred feet, like the Hecatonchiri of Greek mythology, if he would utilise the hats and boots that encumber his wardrobe. If the proletarians suffer from the want of personal property, the capitalists end by becoming the martyrs of a superfluity thereof. The ennui which oppresses them, and the maladies which prey on them, deteriorating and undermining the race, are the consequences of an excess of the means of enjoyment.

(b.) Private property in the instruments of labour. Man, according to Franklin’s definition, is a tool-making animal. It is the manufacture of tools which distinguishes man from the brutes, his ancestors. Monkeys make use of sticks and stones, man is the only animal that has wrought silex for the manufacture of arms and tools, so that the discovery of a stone implement in a cavern or geological stratum is proof as positive of the presence of a human being as the human skeleton itself. The instrument of labour, the silex knife of the savage, the plane of the carpenter, the bistouri of the surgeon, the microscope of the physiologist, or the plough of the peasant, is an addition to man’s organs which facilitates the satisfaction of his wants.

So long as petty manual industry prevails, the free producer is the proprietor of his instruments of labour. In the middle ages the journeyman travelled with his bag of tools, which never left him; the yeoman, even before the constitution of private property, temporarily possessed the patch of land which was allotted to him in the territorial partition; the mediæval serf was so closely connected with the soil he cultivated as to be inseparable therefrom.

There remain many vestiges of this private property in the instruments of labour, but they are fast disappearing. In all the industries which have been seized on by machinery, the individual implement has been torn out of the worker’s hand and replaced by the machine tool – a collective instrument of labour which can no longer be the property of the producer. Capitalism divests man of his personal property, the tool; and the first perfect instruments he had manufactured for himself, his weapons of defence, were the first to be wrested from him. The savage is the proprietor of his bow and arrows, which constitute at one and the same time his arms and his tools, historically the most perfected. The soldier was the first proletarian who was stripped of his tools, i.e., his arms, which, belong to the government that enrols him.

Capitalistic society has reduced to a minimum the personal property of the proletarian. It was impossible to go further without causing the death of the producer – the capitalists’ goose that lays the golden eggs. It tends to dispossess him altogether of his instruments of labour, a spoliation which is already an accomplished fact for the great bulk of workers.

(c) Property Capital. The capital form of property is the truly typical form of property in modern society. In no other society has it existed as a universal or dominant fact.

The essential condition of this form of property is the exploitation of the free producer, who is robbed hourly of a fraction of the value he creates; a fact which Marx has demonstrated beyond refutation. Capital is based on the production of commodities, on a form of production, that is, in which a man produces in view, not of the consumption of the labourer, or of that of his feudal lord or slave-owning master, but in view of the market. In other societies, also, men bought and sold, but it was the surplus articles alone that were exchanged. In those societies the labourer, slave, or serf, was exploited, it is true, but the proprietor had at least certain obligations towards him; e.g., the slaveholder was bound to feed his human beast of burden whether he worked or not. The capitalist has been released from all charges, which now rest upon the free labourer. It roused the indignation of the good natured Plutarch that Cato, the sour moralist, rid himself of slaves grown old and decrepit in his service. What would he have said of the modern capitalist, who allows the workers that have enriched him to starve or to die in the workhouse ? In emancipating the slave and bondman, it was not the liberty of the producer that the capitalist sought to compass but the liberty of capital, which had to be discharged of all obligations towards the workmen. It is only when the capital form of property is in force that the proprietor can exercise in all its stringency the right to use and abuse.

These are the extant forms of property in modern society. Even a superficial view thereof will convince us that these forms are themselves undergoing change; e.g., while communal property of ancient origin is being converted into private property, private capitalistic property is being turned into common property administered by the State; but before attaining this ultimate form, capital dispossesses the producer of his individual tool and creates the collective instrument of labour.

Now having convinced ourselves that the existent forms of property are in a state of flux and evolution, we must be blind indeed if we refuse to admit that in the past also property was unstable, and that it has passed through different phases before arriving at the actual forms, which must, in their turn, resolve themselves and be replaced by other novel forms.

* * * *

In this essay I propose to treat of the various forms of property anterior to its assumption of the capital form. Before entering on my subject I would premise a few particulars touching the method employed by me in this attempt at a partial reconstruction of history.

All men, without distinction of race or colour, from the cradle to the grave, pass through the same phases of development. They experience at ages, which vary within narrow limits, according to race, climate, and conditions of existence, the same crises of growth, maturity, and decay. In like manner human societies traverse analogous social, religious, and political forms, with the ideas which correspond thereto. To Vico, who has been styled “ the father of the philosophy of history,” is due the honour of having been the first to apprehend the great law of historical development.

In his Scienza Nuova he speaks of “an ideal, eternal history, in accordance with which are successively developed the histories of all nations, from what state soever of savagery, ferocity, or barbarism men progress towards domestication.” [4]

If we could ascertain the history of a people from the state of savagery to that of civilisation, we should have the typical history of each of the peoples that have inhabited the globe. It is out of our power to reconstruct that history, for it is impossible for us to reascend the successive stages travelled by a people in their course of progress. But if we cannot cut out this history, all of a piece, of the life of a nation or a race, we can, at any rate, reconstruct it by piecing together the scattered data which we possess respecting the different peoples of the globe. It is in this wise that humanity, as it grows older, learns to decipher the story of its infancy.

The manners and usages of the forefathers of civilised nations survive in those of the savage peoples whom civilisation has not wholly exterminated. The investigations of the customs, social and political institutions, religious and mental conceptions of barbarians, made by men of learning and research in both hemispheres, enable us to evoke a past which we had come to consider as irrecoverably lost. Among savage peoples, we can detect the beginnings of property: by gleaning facts in all parts of the globe, and by coordinating them into a logical series, we may succeed in following the different phases of the evolution of property.


1. By capital is meant anything which produces interest: a sum of money lent, which at the end of months, or years, yields a profit; land that is cultivated, or any instrument of labour that is set in action not by its proprietor, but by salaried workmen; but the land which is cultivated by the peasant and his family, the gun of the poacher, the plane or hammer of the carpenter, albeit property, is not capitalistic property, because the owner utilises it himself instead of using it to extract surplus value from others. The notion of profit without labour sticks like a Nessus-shirt to the term capital.

2. Cæsar, to whom the panegyrists of our society allow certain powers of observation, never wearied of admiring the strength and skill in bodily exercises of the German barbarians whom he was forced to combat. So great was his admiration for them, that in order to overcome the heroic resistance of the Gauls, commanded by Vercingetorix, he sent across the Rhine into Germany for cavalry and light-armed infantry, who were used to engage among them; and as they were mounted on bad horses he took those of the military tribunes, the knights and veterans, and distributed them among the Germans. – De Bello Gallico, vii, 65.

3. Lewis Morgan, Ancient Society, Part 1, chap. iii. Ratio of Human Progress.

4. Una storia ideal, eterna, sopra la quale corrono in tempo le storie di tutti le nazioni: ch’ovumque da tempi selvaggi, feroci e fieri comminciarno gli uomini ad addimesticarsi. (G. Vico, Principi di Scienza Nuova, De’ Principi, Libero secondo, Section V, ed. di Ferrari, Milano 1837)

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Last updated on 14.9.2008