Paul Lafargue

The Evolution of Property

Family or Consanguine Collectivism


THE common tribal property began to break up as the family was being constituted. A few remarks respecting the family will render an exposition of the evolution of property more intelligible to the reader.

We are at present aware that the human species, before arriving at the patriarchal form of the family, in which the father is the head, possesses the estates and transmits his name to all his children, passed through the matriarchal form, in which the mother occupied that high position. We have seen, above, the whole clan living in great joint tenement-houses, containing a certain number of rooms for the married women. The private family is then nascent; when we find it constituted in the matriarchal or patriarchal form, a segmentation has ensued of the communal house into as many private houses as there are households. In the matriarchal family the mother lives with her children and her younger brothers and sisters; receiving her husbands, who belong to a different clan, each in his turn; it is then that family property makes its appearance.

Its beginnings were modest, for, at the outset, it consisted but of the cabin and the small garden surrounding it. Among certain people the patriarchal family may have been constituted and have superseded the matriarchal family prior to the constitution of family property, but the case is not universal; on the contrary it would seem that the revolution in the family was posterior to the formation of family property. Such was the case with the Egyptians, Greeks, and many other peoples the course of whose development was a normal one, undisturbed by the invasion of nations on a higher plane of civilisation.

So long as the matriarchal form subsists, the movables and immovables are transmitted by the women; a person inherits from his mother and not from his father, or the relations of his father. In Java, where this form of the family reached a high pitch of development, a man’s property reverts to his mother’s family; he is not at liberty to make a donation to his children, who belong to the clan of his wife, without the consent and concurrence of his brothers and sisters. If we judge from what we know of the Egyptians and other peoples, the male occupied a very subordinate position in the matriarchate. Among the Basques, who have preserved their primitive customs, notwithstanding Christianity and civilisation, when the eldest daughter, on her mother’s death, becomes an heiress, she becomes at the same time the mistress of her younger brothers and sisters. The male is under the tutelage of his own family, and when he “goes out” to get married, with his sister’s approbation, he falls under the dominion of his wife; he is subjected throughout life to female authority, as son, brother and husband; he possesses nothing save the small peculium which his sister gives him on his marriage. “The husband,” says a Basque proverb, “is his wife’s head servant.”

This elevated position of the woman affords a proof, let me observe in passing, that the physical and intellectual superiority of the male, far from being a primordial physiological necessity, is but the consequence of an economical situation, perpetuated during centuries, which allowed the male a freer and fuller development than it permitted to the female, held in bondage by the family. Broca, in the course of his discussion with Gratiolet on the relation of the brain weight and cranial capacity to the intelligence, conceded that the inferiority of the female might be due merely to an inferior education. M. Manouvrier, a disciple of Broca, and Professor at the Paris School of Anthropology, has demonstrated that the cranial capacities of the males of the Stone Age, which he had measured, were nearly as great as the average cranial capacities of the modern Parisians, whereas the cranial capacities of the females of the Stone Age were considerably greater than those of the modern female Parisians. [1]

Most disastrous has been the effect on the human species of this female inferiority; it has been one of the most active causes of the degeneration of civilised nations.

Without going to the length of pretending that in all countries the ascendancy of the female assumed the proportions which it attained in Egypt, it is an indubitable fact that wheresoever we meet with the matriarchal family we can note a dependency of the men upon the women, coinciding, frequently, with a degree of animosity between the sexes, divided into two classes. Among the Natchez and among all the nations of the valley of the Mississippi, the term woman, applied to a man, was an affront. Herodotus relates that Sesostris, in order to perpetuate the memory of his glorious achievements, erected obelisks among the conquered nations, and that to mark his contempt for those who had offered him no resistance he caused the female sexual organ to be engraved thereon, as emblematic of their cowardice. To apply to a Homeric Greek the epithet woman was a grave insult. On the other hand, the warlike women of the tribes of Dahomey employ the word man by way of an injurious epithet. Unquestionably it was the desire to shake off this feminine ascendancy and to satisfy this feeling of animosity which led man to wrest from woman the control of the family.

Presumptively this family revolution was accomplished when the movable goods of individual property had multiplied; and when the family estate was constituted, and had been consecrated by time and custom; it was worth the men’s while, for the nonce, to dethrone the women. There took place a positive dispossession of the women by the men, accomplished with more or less brutality, according to the nations; while in Ceremonialthe women conserved a measure of their former independence (a fact which caused Aristotle to say that it was among the most warlike peoples that the women exercised their greatest authority); at Athens, and in the maritime cities engaged in commerce, they were forcibly expropriated and despoiled. This dispossession gave rise to heroic combats; the women took up arms in defence of their privileges, and fought with such desperate energy that the whole of Greek mythology and even recorded history have preserved the memory of their struggles.

So long as property was a cause of subjection, it was abandoned to the women; but no sooner had it become a means of emancipation and supremacy in the family and society than man tore it from her.

Without entering more specially into the history of its evolution, I would lay stress upon this point, to wit, that the family, wherever or however constituted, whether affecting the matriarchal or patriarchal form, invariably breaks up the communism of the clan or tribe. At first the clan was the common family of all its members; afterwards there came to exist private families, having interests distinct from those of the clan considered as an aggregate of a number of families; the communal territory of the tribe was then parcelled out so as to form the collective property [2] of each family.

The existent European family must not be considered as the type of the family founded on collective property. The family was not reduced to its last and simplest expression, as it is in our day, when it is composed of the three indispensable elements: the father, the mother, and the children; it consisted of the father, the recognised head of the family collectivity; of his legitimate wife and his concubines, living under the same roof; of his children, his younger brothers, with their wives and children, and his unmarried sisters: such a family comprised many members.


The arable lands, hitherto cultivated in common by the entire clan, are divided into parcels of different categories, according to the quality of the soil; the parcels are formed into lots, in such wise that each lot contains an equal proportion of the different descriptions of soil; the number of lots corresponds to that of the families. A portion of the land is reserved in view of a possible increase of the population; it is let on lease or cultivated in common. To preclude injustice or grounds for complaint the shares were drawn by lot [3]; hence, in Greek and Latin, the words which designate lot (sors, cleros) signify also goods and patrimony.

If, when a family had complained of unfairness, they proved, on inquiry, that their complaint was justified, satisfaction was granted them by an additional allotment out of the reserve lands. The inquirers who have had opportunities of observing the way in which these partitions of the land are practised, have been struck by the spirit of equality which presides over them, and by the ability of the peasant land surveyors. Haxthausen relates how 

“Count de Kinsleff, the minister of the imperial domains, had in several localities of the government of Woronieje caused the land to be valued and surveyed by land taxers and land surveyors. The results went to show that the measurements of the peasants were in all respects, save for a few minor discrepancies, in perfect consonance with the truth. Besides, who knows which of the two were the more accurate?” [4]

The pasture lands, forests, lakes, and ponds, the right of hunting and fishing, and other rights, such as the imposts raised on the caravans, etc., are the joint property of all the members of the clan.

The allotments are cultivated by each family under the direction of its chief and the supervision of the village council; the crops are the property of the family collectively, instead of belonging, as at an earlier period, to the tribe or clan. A family is not allowed to cultivate their lot at pleasure, says Marshall. “They must sow their fields with the same grain as that of the other families of the community.” [5]

The system of cultivation is a triennial rotation. (1) corn or rye, (2) spring crops (barley, oats, beans, peas, etc.), (3) fallow. Not only the kind of seed to sow, but also the seed and harvest times, are prescribed by the communal council. Sir G. Campbell informs us that every Indian village possesses its calendar-Brahmin, or astrologist, whose business it is to indicate the propitious seasons for seed time and harvest. Haxthausen, an intelligent and impartial observer of the manners of the collectivist communes of Russia, remarks that

“the most perfect order, resembling a military discipline, presides over the labours of the fields. On the same day, at the same hour, the peasants repair to the fields, some to plough, others to harrow, the ground, etc., and they all return in company. This orderliness is not commanded by the Starosta, the village ancient; it is simply the result of that gregarious disposition which distinguishes the Russian people, and that love of union and order which animates the commune.”

These characteristics, which Haxthausen considers as peculiar to the Russian people, are but an outgrowth of the collective form of property, and have been observed in all parts of the world. We have seen that, to determine the seed time, the Indians did not obey human orders, but celestial considerations suggested by the astrologer. Maine, who in his quality of jurisconsult of the Anglo-Indian government, was in a position to closely study the village communities, writes:

“The council of the village elders does not command anything, it merely declares what has always been. Nor does it generally declare that which it believes some higher power to have commanded; those most entitled to speak on the subject deny that the natives of India necessarily require Divine or political authority as the basis of their usages; their antiquity is by itself assumed to be a sufficient reason for obeying them. Nor, in the sense of the analytical jurists, is there right or duty in an Indian village community; a person aggrieved complains not of an individual wrong but of the disturbance of the order of the entire little society.” [6]

The discipline referred to by Haxthausen is a natural and spontaneous product, unlike the movements of an army or the manoeuvres of the labourers on the bonanza farms of North America, which are produced to order. A Swiss clergyman, who wrote in the last century, teaches us that in the canton of Berne there existed the same orderliness and ardour in work observed in Russia.

“On an appointed evening,” he says, “the entire commune repairs to the communal meadows, every commoner choosing his own ground, and when the signal is given at midnight, from the top of the hill downwards, every man mows down the grass which stands before him in a straight line, and all that which he has cut till noon of the next day belongs to him. The grass which remains standing after the operation is trodden down and browsed by the cattle which are turned on to it.” [7]

The crops once got in, the lands allotted to the different families become common property again, and the villagers are free to send their cattle to de-pasture them.

Originally, the fathers of the families belonging to the clan, were alone entitled to a share in these allotments. It is only at a later period that the stranger settlers, having obtained the freedom of the city after a term of residence, were admitted to the partition of the land. Landed property belonged to the fathers, whence patria, fatherland; in the Scandinavian laws, house and fatherland were synonyms. At that time a man possessed a patria and political rights only if he had a right to a share in the land. As a consequence, the fathers and males of the family alone were charged with the country’s defence; they alone were privileged to bear arms. The progress of capitalism consists in confiding the defence of the country to those who do not possess an inch of land – who have no stake in the country – and to accord political rights to men who have no property.

Private property in land does not as yet obtain, because the land belongs to the entire village, and only the temporary usage of it is granted, on condition that it shall be cultivated according to the established customs, and under the supervision of the village elders charged with watching over the maintenance of those customs. The house alone, with its small enclosure, is the private property of the family; among some peoples, e.g. the Neo-Caledonians, the tenement was burnt on the death of the chief of the family, as well as his arms, his favourite animals, and, occasionally, his slaves. According to all appearance, the house for a long time was distinguished from the land, as a movable; it is so qualified in many customaries of France; in that of Lille, among others.

The house is inviolable; nobody has a right to enter it without the master’s consent. The justice of the country was suspended at the threshold; if a criminal had penetrated into the house, nay, if he had but touched the door-latch, he was secure from public prosecution and amenable only to the authority of the father of the family, who exercised the legislative and executive power within the precincts of the house. In 186 B.C., the Roman Senate, having condemned to death some Roman ladies, whose orgies compromised public morals, was forced to remit the execution of the sentence to the heads of the families; for the women, as constituting a part of the household, were answerable only to the master of it. To such extremes was this inviolability pushed in Rome that a father could not invoke the assistance of the magistrates or public force in case of his son’s resistance. In the Middle Ages this sanctity of the domicile still existed; at Mulhouse, for example, a burgher shut up in his house ceased to be amenable to the justice of the town; the court was bound to transport itself to his house door in order to judge him, and it was open to him to reply to the questions put to him from the window. The right of asylum possessed by the Church was merely a transformation of this sanctity of the house; as we shall see hereafter, the Church was but a sort of communal house.

The habitations are not contiguous, but surrounded by a strip of territory. Tacitus, and numerous writers after him, have assumed that this insulation of the houses was prescribed as a measure of precaution against fire, so dangerous in villages in which the houses are built of wood and thatched with straw. I am of belief that the reason for this very prevalent custom should be looked for elsewhere. It has been shown that the tribal territories were surrounded by a strip of uncultivated land, which served to mark the boundaries of other neighbouring tribes; in like manner the family dwelling is surrounded by a piece of unoccupied land in order to render it independent of the adjacent dwelling-houses; this was the sole land which, subsequently, it was permitted to enclose with palisades, walls, or hedges. In the barbarian codes it is known by the name of legal, legitimate court (curtis legalis, hoba legitima); in this spot was placed the family tomb. So indispensable was this insulation held to be that the Roman law of the Twelve Tables fixed the space to intervene the town houses at two-and-a-half feet. [8]

It was not the houses only, but also the family allotments of land which were isolated, so that the fear of fire could not have suggested the measure. A law of the Twelve Tables regulates that a strip of land, five feet in width, be left uncultivated. (Table VII., sec. 4.)

The breaking up of the common property of the clan into the collective property of the families of the clan was a more radical innovation than, in our day, would be a restitution of the landed estates to the community. Collective property was introduced with infinite difficulty, and only maintained itself by placing itself under Divine protection and the ægis of the law. I may add that the law was only invented for the purpose of protecting it. The justice which is other than the satisfaction of revenge, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth – the lex talionis, – made its appearance in human society only after the establishment of property, for, as Locke says, 

Where there is no property there is no injustice, is a proposition as certain as any demonstrated in Euclid. For the idea of property being a right to anything, and the idea to which the name injustice is given being the invasion or violation of that right.” [9]

As the witty Linguet said to Montesquieu, “L’esprit des lois, c’est l’esprit de la propriété.

Religious rites and ceremonies were instituted to impress upon the superstitious minds of primitive peoples the respect due to this private property of the family collectively, so greatly opposed to their communistic usages. In Greece and Italy, on appointed days of the month and year, the chief of the family walked round his fields, along the uncultivated boundary, pushing the victims before him, singing hymns, and offering up sacrifices to the posts or stones, the metes and bounds of the fields, which were converted into divinities – they were the Termini of the Romans, the “divine bournes” of the Greeks. The cultivator was not to approach the landmark, “lest the divinity, on feeling himself struck by the ploughshare, should cry out to him, ‘Stop, this is my field, yonder is thine.’” The Bible abounds in recommendations to respect the fields of one’s neighbour: “Thou shalt not remove thy neighbour’s landmark.” (Deut. xix., 14.) “Cursed be he that removeth his neighbour’s landmark.” Job, who has the soul of a landlord, numbers among the wickedest the man “who removes the land-marks.” (Job xxiv.) The Cossacks, with a view to inculcating on their children a respect for other people’s property, took them out for walks along the boundaries of the fields, whipping them all the way with rods. Plato, who drops his idealism when he deals with property, says, “Our first law must be that no man shall lay a hand on the boundary-mark which divides a field from his neighbour’s field, for it must remain unmoved. Let no man remove the stone which he has sworn to leave in its place.” (Laws, VIII.) The Etruscans called down maledictions on the heads of the guilty:

“He who has touched or removed the landmark shall be condemned by the gods; his house shall disappear; his race become extinct; his lands shall cease to bear fruit; hail, rust, and canicular heat shall destroy his harvests; the limbs of the culprit shall ulcerate and rot.” [10]

The spiritual chastisements, which make so deep an impression on the wild and fiery imaginations of primitive peoples, having proved inadequate, it became necessary to resort to corporal punishments of unexampled severity – punishments repugnant to the feelings of barbarian peoples. Savages inflict the most cruel tortures on themselves by way of preparing for a life of perpetual struggle, but such tortures are never punitive; it is the civilised proprietor who has hit upon the bene amat, bene castigat of the Bible. Catlin, who knew the savages of America well, states that a Sioux chief had expressed his surprise to him at having seen “along the frontier white men whip their children; a thing that is very cruel.”

The worst crime that a barbarian can commit is to shed the blood of his clan; if he kills one of its members the entire clan must rise up to take vengeance on him. When a member of a clan was found guilty of murder or any other crime he was expelled, and devoted to the infernal gods, lest any should have to reproach himself with having spilt the blood of his clan by killing the murderer. Property marks its appearance by teaching the barbarian to trample under foot such pious sentiments; laws are enacted condemning to death all those who attack property.

“Whosoever,” decrees the law of the Twelve Tables, “shall in the night furtively have cut, or caused to graze on, the crops yielded by the plough, shall, if he has reached puberty, be devoted to Ceres and put to death; if he has not arrived at puberty he shall be beaten with rods at the will of the magistrate and condemned to repair the damage doubly. The manifest thief (i.e., taken in the act), if a freeman, shall be scourged with rods and delivered up to slavery. The incendiary of a corn-stack shall be whipped and put to death by fire.” (Table VIII, Secs.9, 10, 14.)

The Saxons punished theft with death. The Burgundian law surpassed the Roman law in cruelty; it condemned to slavery the wives and children under 14 years of age who had not denounced their husbands and fathers guilty of stealing a horse or an ox. (XLVII, sec.1, 2.) Property introduced the common informer into the family.

These moral and material punishments, which are met with in all countries and which are everywhere alike ferocious [11], abundantly prove the difficulty experienced by the collective form of property in introducing itself into the communist tribes.

Prior to the institution of collective property, the barbarian looked upon all the property belonging to the tribe as his own, and disposed of it accordingly; the Lacedæmonian, we have seen, had the right to enter private dwellings without any formalities and to take the food he required. The Lacedæmonians were, it is true, a comparatively civilised people, but their essentially warlike existence had enabled them to preserve their ancient usages. The travellers who have fallen victims to this propensity of the barbarian to appropriate everything within his reach, have described him as a thief; as if theft were compatible with a state of society in which private property is not as yet constituted. But as soon as collective property was established, the natural habit of appropriating what a man sees and covets, became a crime when practised at the expense of the private property of the family, and, in order to set a restraint upon this inveterate habit, it was found necessary to have recourse to moral and physical punishment; justice and our odious criminal codes followed in the wake of collective property and are an outgrowth of it.

Collective property, if not the sole cause, was, at all events, the pre-eminent cause of the overthrow of the matriarchate by the patriarchate. The fate of the patriarchal family is intimately bound up with the collective form of property: the latter becomes the essential condition of its maintenance, and, so soon as it begins to break up, the patriarchal family is likewise disintegrated and superseded by the modern family; a sorry remnant, destined, ere long, to disappear.

Ancient society recognised the necessity of the integrity of collective property for the maintenance of the family. At Athens the State watched over its proper administration; anybody being entitled to demand the indictment of the head of a family who maladministered his goods. The collective property did not belong to the father, nor even to the individual members of the family, but to the family considered as a collective entity which is perpetual, and endures from generation to generation. [12] The property belonged to the family in the past, present, and future; to the ancestors who had their altars and their tombs in it; to the living members who were only usufructuaries, charged with continuing the family traditions, and with nursing the property in order to hand it down to their descendants. The chief of the family, who might be the father, the eldest brother, the younger brother, or, on occasions, the mother, was the administrator of the estate; it was his duty to attend to the wants of the individuals who composed the collectivity; to see that the lands were properly cultivated and the house kept in order, so that he might transmit the patrimony to his successor in the same state of prosperity in which he had received it at the death of his predecessor. To enable him to fulfil this mission the head of the family was armed with despotic power; he was judge and executioner; he judged, condemned, and inflicted bodily punishment on the members of the family under his control; his authority stretched so far as to empower him to sell his children into slavery, and to inflict the pain of death on all his subordinates, including his wife, although she enjoyed the protection, sufficiently precarious, it is true, of her own family. The quantity of land distributed was generally proportionate to the number of males in the family; the father, with a view to the procuring of servants to cultivate it, married his sons while still in infancy to adult women, who became his concubines. Haxthausen relates that in Russia one could see tall and robust young women carrying their little husbands in their arms.

The worn-out phrase “The family is the pillar of the state,” which modern moralists and politicians reiterate ad nauseam since it has ceased to be exact, was at one time an adequate expression of the truth. Where collective property exists, every village is a petty state, the government whereof is constituted by the council elected in the assembly of the family-chiefs, co-equals in rights and privileges. In India, where the collective form of property was highly developed, the village had its public officers, who where artisans (wheelwrights, tailors, weavers, etc.), schoolmasters, priests, and dancing women for public ceremonies; they were paid by the village community, and owed their services to the members having ancestral shares in the land, but not to stranger settlers. In the Greek republics the state maintained public prostitutes for the use of the males of the patrician families. Sir G. Campbell states, among other curious facts, that the smith and the artisans generally, were more highly remunerated in the Indian villages than the priest.

The head man of the village, elected for his ability, his learning, and powers as a sorcerer, is the administrator of the property of the community; he alone is privileged to carry on commerce with the exterior, that is, to sell the surplus of the crops and cattle, and to buy such objects as are not manufactured in the village. As Haxthausen observes:

“Commerce is only carried on wholesale, which is of great advantage to the peasant, who, left to himself, is often under the necessity of selling his products below their real value, and at unfavourable moments. As commerce is in the hands of the chief, the latter is able from his connections with the chiefs of the neighbouring villages to wait for a rise in prices, and take advantage of all favourable circumstances before concluding a sale.”

All those who are familiar with the deceptions practised upon peasants by merchants will appreciate the justness of the observation of Haxthausen. The French bourgeois, who pounced upon Algiers and Tunis as on a prey, expressed great moral indignation at being prevented from entering into communication with the Arabs individually, and obliged to treat with the chiefs of the community; they loudly and pathetically bewailed the unhappy lot of the wretched Arabs bereft of the liberty of allowing themselves to be fleeced by the European merchants!

Petty societies, organised on the basis of collective property, are endowed with a vitality and power of resistance possessed by no other social form in an equal degree.

“The village communities are little republics, having nearly everything that they want within themselves and almost independent of any foreign relations,” says Lord Metcalfe. “They seem to last where nothing else lasts. Dynasty after dynasty tumbles down, revolution succeeds to revolution; Hindu, Pagan, Mogul, Mahratta, Sikh, English are all masters in turn; but the village communities remain the same. In time of trouble they arm and fortify themselves; a hostile army passes through the country, the village communities collect their cattle within their walls and let the enemy pass unmolested. If plunder and devastation be directed against themselves, and the force employed be irresistible, they flee to friendly villages at a distance; but when the storm has passed over they return and resume their occupations. If a country remains for a series of years the scene of continued pillage and massacre, so that the village cannot be inhabited, the scattered villagers nevertheless return whenever the power of peaceable possession revives. A generation may pass away, but the succeeding generation will return. The sons will take the places of their fathers, the same site for the village, the same positions for their houses; the same lands will be re-occupied by the descendants ... It is not a trifling matter that will turn them out, for they will often maintain their posts throughout times of disturbance and convulsions, and acquire a strength sufficient to resist pillage and oppression with success.”

Farther on he adds:

“The village constitution which can survive all outward shock is, I suspect, easily subverted with the aid of our regulations and Courts of Justice by any internal disturbance; litigation, above all things, I should think would tend to destroy it.” [13]

Bourgeois exploitation cannot tolerate, alongside of it, the collective form of property, which it destroys and replaces by private property, the adequate form of bourgeois property. What has taken place in India and Algeria has occurred in France. The village collectivities that had lasted throughout the entire feudal period, and survived till 1789, were disorganised by the dissolvent action of the laws during and after the bourgeois revolution. The great revolutionary jurist, Merlin suspect (so called because he had been the proposer of the sanguinary loi des suspects) did more towards bringing about the destruction and confiscation of the communal lands of the village collectivities than the feudal lords had done in the course of centuries.

Over and above the reasons of a political character which prompt monarchical governments to patronise the family organisation based on collective property, there exist yet others, equally important, of an administrative character. As the collectivist village forms a number of administrative units represented by the chief who directs it and trafficks in its name, the Government makes the latter responsible for the levying of the taxes and the recruiting of the militia, and charges him with additional functions which are not remunerated. In Russia the Imperial Government lends its weight to the decisions of the communal council, incorporating into the army, and even despatching to Siberia, all those whose conduct is not approved of by the elders. In France, the monarchy anterior to 1789 exerted itself to uphold these peasant collectivist organisations, assailed on the one hand by the feudal lords, who brutally despoiled them of their communal possessions and privileges, and on the other by the bourgeoisie, who seized upon their lands by every means. [14]

The feudal lords encouraged the organisation of the peasants into family collectivities. Dalloz mentions a contract of the 17th century in which a lord causes his lands to be cultivated by métayers, on condition that the peasants shall have “in common, fire and food and live in perpetual community.” A legist of the 18th century, Dunod, furnishes us with the reason which led to the community of the cultivators: It is that “the seignorial domains are better cultivated, and the subjects better able to pay the tributes due to the lord when living in common than when forming separate households.”

Collective property, which destroyed the primitive tribal communism, established the family communism which secured all its members against want.

“The proletariat is not known in Russia,” wrote Haxthausen, “ and so long as this institution (the mir) survives, it can never be found here. A man may become impoverished here and squander his substance, but the faults or misfortunes of the father can never affect his children, for these holding their rights of the commune, and not of the family, do not inherit their father’s poverty.”

It is precisely this security against want afforded by collective property which is offensive to the capitalist, whose whole fortune reposes on the misery of the working class.

Collective property is remarkable not only for the tenacity and indestructibility of the small peasant collectivities which it maintained, and the well-being which it afforded to the cultivators of the soil, but also for the grandeur of its achievements. In illustration whereof let me cite the marvellous works of irrigation in India and the terrace-culture of the mountain slopes of Java, covering, Wallace informs us, hundreds of square miles; “these terraces are increased year by year, as the population increases, by the inhabitants of each village working in concert under the direction of their chiefs, and it is, perhaps, by this system of village culture alone that such extensive terracing and irrigation has been rendered possible.” [15]

The collective form of property, traces of which have been met with wherever researches have been instituted, has survived for shorter or longer periods, according to the industrial and commercial development of the country in which it obtained. This form, created by the splitting up of the common property of the tribe, was bound to disappear in its turn, with the disintegration of the patriarchal family, in order to constitute the individual property of the several members of the dissolved family.

Private property, which was to succeed collective property, grew out of it. The house and garden enclosed by walls and palisades were the private property, absolute and inalienable, of the family; no public authority had the right to trench on it. In the interior of the house the different members, not omitting the slaves, possessed a peculium, some private property independent of that of the family; this individual property, acquired by the personal toil of its owner, was often considerable; it consisted of slaves, cattle, and movables of various kinds. The right to a peculium was acquired slowly; in the beginning no one member of the family could possess aught in severalty; all that he acquired reverted of right to the community.

The arable and pasture lands of which the family had but the usufruct became ultimately their private property, and when the family was broken up, i.e., when every male upon marrying quitted the collective dwelling for a house of his own, landed property shared the fate of personal property – it was divided amongst the children and was held in severalty.

The evolution of property, passing from the collective to the private form, has been extremely slow, so slow, indeed, that in many a country collective property, but for an external impulse, might possibly have endured for centuries without suffering a change. Villages founded on collective property form economic units; that is to say that they contain all they require for the intellectual and material wants of their inhabitants, and that contrariwise, they comprise few elements capable of determining change; here all things are accomplished in accordance with traditions prescribed by the elders, and handed down like precious heirlooms. In effect, once a village has arrived at such a degree of industrial and agricultural development as to be capable of satisfying the natural and simple wants of the villagers, it would seem that it no longer finds within itself any cause for change; an impulse from without is required to set it in motion.

Agriculture, which was the determinant cause of the parcelling out of the common tribal property, was, moreover, one of the causes of the splitting up of collectivist property. In proportion as improved methods of culture were introduced, the peasants recognised that one year’s possession was insufficient to reap the benefits of the manures and labour incorporated with the lands that had been allotted them. They demanded that the partitions, hitherto annual, should in future take place every two, three, seven, and even twenty years: in Russia the government was constrained to impose the partitions on the taking of the census; the peasants call them black, i.e., bad partitions, which shows how uncongenial they were to the families who considered that they had proprietary rights in the lands which had been given them at the last distribution. Hence, it was the arable lands to which improved methods were first applied, which, in the first place, became liable to be divided only after a certain number of years, and which finally became inalienable; whereas the pasture continued to be apportioned annually. So long as the arable lands are not private property, the trees planted in the communal lands belong to those who have planted them, even though they grow in territory which is subject to periodical partition.

In the villages in which collective property obtains all the chiefs of families are co-equals; they all possess an equal right to a share in the allotment of the lands, because all originally belonged to the same clan; the strangers who have come to reside there as artificers, fugitives, or prisoners of war, are entitled, after having obtained the freedom of the city, which corresponds to the antique adoption by the clan, to share in the territorial partition equally with the original inhabitants. This admission of strangers was feasible only so long as the villages grew slowly and as the land to be disposed of remained abundant: the populous villages were forced to disseminate, to send forth colonies and to clear the neighbouring forests. Every family was free, indeed, to make clearances outside a given limit and during a stated period, and was held to have a possessory right in the lands which it had brought under culture. But this abundance of uncultivated land began to fail in the villages situated near the seashore or by the riverside, which, owing to their more favoured position, attracted a larger number of strangers. Into these villages, which grew into small towns, it became difficult to gain admission, and for a right of sojourn certain fees were levied. [16]

The new-comers were excluded from the territorial partitions, from the right of common of pasture, and from the administration of the towns; these rights were strictly limited to the primitive families, who constituted a privileged body, a sort of communal aristocracy, to wit, the municipal aristocracy, opposed alike to the feudal or warlike aristocracy and to the alien artificers. The latter, in order to resist the continual aggressions of the communal aristocracy, formed trade corporations. This division of the members of the city was throughout the Middle Ages a constant source of intestine warfare.

A degree of inequality crept into the primitive families: it would happen that to one family fell an undue share of allotments; that others, in order to discharge their debts, were compelled to relinquish the enjoyment of their lots, and so forth. This engrossing of the land profoundly wounded the sentiments of equality which had not ceased to animate the members of the collectivist villages. Everywhere the monopolisers of land have been loaded with maledictions; in Russia they are called the community-eaters; in Java it is forbidden to claim more than one inheritance. Isaiah exclaims:

“Woe unto them that join house to house, that lay field to field, till there be no place, that they may be placed alone in the midst of the earth.” (v. 8.)

But among the causes that operated most powerfully in bringing misery and disorganisation into the village collectivities were the fiscal charges, as witness Anglo-India.

At the outset the taxes were paid in kind and proportionally to the nature of the harvest; but this mode of payment no longer answers the claims of a government which becomes centralised; it exacts money payment of the taxes in advance, taking no account of the state of the crops. The villagers, as a consequence, are constrained to apply to the usurers, those pests of the village; this vile brood, who are countenanced by the government, rob the peasant shamelessly; they transform him into a nominal proprietor, who tills his fields with no other object than to pay off his debts, which increase in proportion as he discharges them. The contempt and hatred inspired by the usurers is widespread and intense; if the anti-Semitic campaign in Russia has given rise to such sanguinary scenes in the villages, it is because the peasant made no distinction between the Jew and usurer; many an orthodox Christian who needed not to be circumcised in order to strip the cultivators as clean as ever the purest descendant of Abraham could have done, was robbed and massacred during the height of the fever of the anti-Semitic movement. These various causes co-operated with the development of industry and commerce to accelerate the monopolising of the land, vested more and more in private families, and to precipitate the dissolution of the patriarchal family.


1. The following are M. Manouvrier’s figures:

Average cranial capacity of modern Parisians

Number of skulls


Capacity in cubic

77 male


41 female


Average cranial capacity of men and women of the Stone Age

Number of skulls



68 male


30 female


Thus the average cranial capacity of the male savage is inferior by 26 cubic centimetres, whereas the average cranial capacity of the female savage is superior by 84 cc. – L. Manouvrier, De la quantité de l’encephale, Memoire de la Société d’Anthropologie de Paris, III, 2nd fascicule, 1885.

2. This form of property, under another name than that of collective property, which term I employ in contradistinction to the primitive communist form, has of recent years been the subject of extensive research. It has been investigated in Germany by Haxthausen, Maurer, Engels, etc.; in England by Maine, Seebohm, Gomme, etc.; in Belgium by Laveleye; in Russia by Schepotief, Kovalesky, etc.

3. Dividing the land by lot has been everywhere the primitive mode of distribution. “The Lord commanded the children of Israel, entering the Land of Canaan, to divide the land by lot.” (Numbers xxxiii., 54; xxxvi., 2.)

4. Etudes sur la situation intérieure, la vie nationale et les institutions de la Russie, par le Baron A. de Haxthausen. French edition of 1847.

5. Marshall, Elementary and Practical Treatise on Landed Property, London 1804.

6. H.S. Maine, Village Communities in the East and West, p.63.

7. Essai sur l’abolition du parcours et sur le partage des biens communaux, par Sprungli de Neuenegg; publié par la Société d’Economie rurale de Berne (1763), cité par Neufchateau, dans son Voyage agronomique dans la Senatorerie de Dijon, 1806.

8. Table VII, sec.1. Restored text after Festus.

9. Locke’s Essay on the Human Understanding, Book IV., chap.iii., sec.18.

10. Sacred formula cited by Fustel de Coulanges, Cité Antique.

11. Property is invariably ferocious; until quite recently thieves were hanged after having suffered torture; the forgers of banknotes in civilised Europe were formerly sentenced to death, and are still condemned to hard labour for life.

12. Among the Germans and the Bavarians they were known by the name of estates belonging to the genealogies (genealogiæ) among the Ripuarian Franks under that of terræ aviaticæ; among the Anglo-Saxons under that of ethel or alod parentum.

13. Report of Select Committee of the House of Commons, 1832. The remarkable deposition of Lord Metcalfe is published in extenso in the appendix to Vol.XI.

Jurists, politicians, religious and socialist reformers have repeatedly discussed the rights of property, and these discussions, how interminable soever, have always come back to the initial point, to wit, that property had been established by violence, but that time, which disfigures all things, had added grace and sanctity to property. Until recent years the writers of philosophies of human society ignored the existence of collective property. Baron Haxthausen, who travelled in Russia in 1840, made the discovery, and published an account, of it in his Etudes sur la situation intérieure la vie nationale et les institutions rurales de la Russie. He remarked that the mir was the realisation of the Utopianism of St. Simon, then in vogue. Bakounine and the liberal Russians, who had never so much as suspected the existence of collective property in Russia, now re-discovered Haxthausen’s discovery; and as, in despite of their amorphous anarchism, they are above all things Russian Jingos, who imagine that the Slav race is the chosen race, privileged to guide mankind, they declared the mir, that primitive and exhausted form of property, to be the form of the future; it only remained for the western nations to obliterate their civilisation and to ape that of the Russian peasants.

In virtue of the principle that it is hardest to see what lies under our eyes, Haxthausen, who had discovered the mir in Russia, was unable to perceive the remains of the Mark, so numerous in Germany; he affirmed that collective property was a specialty of the Slavs. Maurer has the merit of having demonstrated that the Germans have passed through the stage of collective property; and, since Maurer, traces of it have been found in all countries and among all races. Before Haxthausen, the English officials in India had, indeed, called attention to this particular form of property in the provinces which they administered, but their discovery, buried in official reports, had obtained no publicity; but since the question has come under scientific observation it has been found that this same form had already been signalised by writers in the last, and in the first years of the present, centuries, notably by Le Grand d’Aussy, François de Neufchateau, in France, and the agronomist Marshall, in England.

14. Russian revolutionary socialists believe in the mir, and are in favour of its maintenance. They opine that the existence of a class of peasants living in collectivity must facilitate the establishment of agrarian communism. A socialist government, turning to account the communistic sentiments developed by collective property, might conceivably adopt measures favourable to the nationalisation of the soil and its social cultivation; but the establishment of a revolutionary socialist power in Russia is highly improbable during the maintenance, as a general fact, of this form of property. All village collectivities, organised on the basis of the mir, are independent; they are self-sufficing, and keep up very imperfect relations among one another, and it is an easy matter for any government to stifle whatever disposition they might manifest for federation. This is what has come to pass in India. The English Government, with an army of 50,000 European soldiers, holds in subjection an empire as thickly peopled as Russia. The village collectivities united by no federative bonds are powerless to offer any considerable force of resistance. It may be asseverated that the surest basis of governmental despotism is precisely collective property, with the family and communal organisation which corresponds thereto.

15. A.R. Wallace, The Malay Archipelago, 1869, Vol.I.

16. In his Histoire des biens Communaux jusqu’au XIII. siècle, 1856, M. Rivière cites an ordonnance of 1223, which states that every stranger for the right of sojourn at Rheims must pay a bushel of oats and a hen to the archbishop, eight crowns to the mayor, and four to the aldermen. The archbishop is the feudal lord; the contributions due to him are comparatively insignificant, whereas those exacted by the mayor and aldermen, who belong to the communal or municipal aristocracy, are very onerous for the period.

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Last updated on 14.9.2008