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The New International, August 1946


W. Brooks

[Letter on Meaning of the Word “Property”]


From New International, Vol.12 No.6, August 1946, pp.191-92.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.

Dear Editor:

Permit me please some admittedly very belated lines on the still prevailing mess concerning the “workers’ state” and “workers’ economy.” They may still be of some interest to you and your readers.

The matter is, in a large degree, a rather simple mix-up of the notional content of words. The word “property” has two meanings:

(a) The juridical meaning. In this sense it means the right to dispose of a thing (res, in the juridical sense), to do with it what one wants to. This property right can be limited. It can be limited so thoroughly by juridical (or even merely via facti) measures that simply nothing of its content remains. The Romans had a word for such utmost limited property in which nothing remained from the content of the legal definition of the property right but the mere name. They called this state: nuda proprietas. For illustration’s sake: Somebody owns a factory. The bank has a huge mortgage on it; besides the bank intabulated in its favor the prohibition to sell or to mortgage that factory without its consent and the prohibition to dispose of it in any testament, etc., etc. Besides it has intabulated in its favor the exclusive right to use the factory in any way it wants to – without ever being liable to pay any rent, any indemnity, or compensation whatsoever for its right of exclusive use. Besides, all these rights of the bank are unlimited by time. They are forever. Besides, we assume, the bank has the right to sell its rights in whole or in part. Well, the owner owns the “nuda proprietas.” The bank, however, is no proprietor at all (in the juridical sense): it has merely all the rights, one by one, which flow from the juridical property.

(b) The economic meaning. The economic proprietor is one who factually (not juridically) has the right to dispose of a property. In the example of our factory above or, still better, with all factories in a country (let us assume the bank above has the same rights as described above to all factories), the bank is the proprietor in the economic sense of the word. It is the bank which decides: what to produce, how to produce, what to do with the product, the price of the product, whom to sell it to, what wages to pay, to determine the working hours, the materials to be used, how to preserve the factory and the machines, whether and when to replace, to improve, to repair them, etc., how to organize the production and distribution, to determine which working men and official to hire and which not to, whom and when to dismiss, etc., etc. This bank would not be, under any circumstances, the proprietor of those factories in any juridical sense. The juridical proprietors would still be the men whose name is intabulated in some record at court. Let us call these men – in order to give them a collective name – the Blue Ones.

(Note: To be sure, the juridical property right may or may not coincide with the property in the economic sense. It sometimes does, sometimes does not.)

(c) Now, you may call this economy either by the name of the juridical or by the name of the economic proprietor: you may call it a bank-economy or a Blue Ones-economy. It’s just a matter of taste or terminology (in which sense you happen to want to use the word “property”). And now please replace the term Blue Ones and the bank by the Russian workers and the Russian ruling, say, strata. The Russian workers, say, are intabulated in the court records (or the constitution or somewhere else) as the proprietors of all the factories and all the lands. All right: They are the nude proprietors. The bank, I want to say the Russian ruling strata, however, is the economic proprietor and does with the means of production and the products what it pleases. Whether the rights of that strata are recorded at court or in the constitution or somewhere else is unimportant and so is the fact whether it has, maybe, no “rights” at all but possesses and exercises the content of all the rights, factually, with or without title. The whole juridical construction is of utmost unimportance, boring and darkening the issue.

(d) May I add another example to the above? Some oriental tyrant, say the Bey of Tunis (I don’t know whether this example is right) is the absolute sovereign in his country. But his sovereignty is a “nuda suverenitas” – all rights flowing from it belong to or are exercised by the French government exclusively. Now, you may call Tunis an absolute oriental despotism (which she legally is) or a French colony (which she virtually is) and can write carloads of paper defending either position. The reader himself may carry through the analogy to the Russian workers and the Russian ruling strata.


Fraternally yours,

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