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In popular online discussions of socialism, anarchism and/or Marxism a distinction is often made between "personal property" (possessions used by individuals for personal consumption) and "private property" (means of production, etc.). This distinction is closely tied to claims that left-wing ideologies seek to abolish private property, not personal property.

Where does this conception and line of argument originate? The Wikipedia article on "Personal property" states that "the distinction between private and personal property is an important one" in "political/economic theory" but the cited source makes no such distinction at all! Further down, the Wikipedia article says "In anarchist theory, private property typically refers to capital or the means of production, while personal property refers to consumer and non-capital goods and services." There are two footnotes on this statement. One is a random anarchist tract and the other is an editorial by Bhaskar Sunkara (who, incidentally, is not an anarchist). Neither reference provides a further source for the distinction.

The glossary of Marxists.org has an entry on "private property" which begins, "Private property is the right of an individual to exclude others use of an object, and predates the rupture of society into classes. In its undeveloped form private property is the simple relation of the individual to the natural world in which their individuality finds objective expression." If I'm reading that correctly, then my toothbrush and pillow actually are examples of private property, and would remain such even in a full classless and communist society.

Someone posed this same question on Reddit and received an answer affirming that the "personal/private property distinction... is incompatible with the Marxist analysis" and quotes the Italian Communist Amadeo Bordiga making exactly this point in 1958. So clearly this meme is older than the Internet then. But how old? The responsible Redditer states that they "don’t know where this private/personal distinction... originated from," but that it smells a bit like Proudhoun, the original anarchist-as-such.

Can Proudhoun or any similarly significant political theorist be directly credited for making an explicit distinction between personal and private property along these lines, however erroneous?


As I began formulating this question, I noticed another recent question here on Philosophy SE where the two concepts are mentioned. That question neither explicitly defines the concepts nor cites any sources about them. One of the answers gives definitions along these lines that I have described above, and when a comment asked for a source, only Wikipedia is mentioned.

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    It seems to be Stalin's invention. "Article 10 of the 1936 Constitution confirms the right of Soviet citizens to "personal" property. It is no longer called "private" property, as it was in the RSFSR Civil Code of 1922, and Codes of other Republics, but "personal" property. Private property which had been admitted to a limited extent during the NEP, was again banned with the prohibition of private employment for profit by the 1936 Constitution." Kucherov, Property in the Soviet Union, p. 384ff.
    – Conifold
    Apr 1 at 0:36
  • That looks like an un-real distinction concocted for the sake of winning an argument which doesn't truly exist, prolly in hope of bringing with that win, the votes of the ignorant. Else, what could the Question title mean? I see your distinction between 'personal…' and 'private property' as outside the remit of the British law under which I live, though the language accepts it. All 'personal' property is 'private'; by no means all 'private' property is 'personal.' How hard is it to see, 'personal' applies to one person's property while 'private' includes the property of a group? Apr 1 at 17:58

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I'd argue that section "2. Proletarians and Communists" of the Communist Manifesto also makes that distinction in the first few pages of that:

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.

While he explicitly tries to fend of this straw man:

We Communists have been reproached with the desire of abolishing the right of personally acquiring property as the fruit of a man’s own labour, which property is alleged to be the groundwork of all personal freedom, activity and independence

[...]

To be a capitalist, is to have not only a purely personal, but a social status in production. Capital is a collective product, and only by the united action of many members, nay, in the last resort, only by the united action of all members of society, can it be set in motion. Capital is therefore not only personal; it is a social power. When, therefore, capital is converted into common property, into the property of all members of society, personal property is not thereby transformed into social property. It is only the social character of the property that is changed. It loses its class character.

They don't explicitly name it as concepts, but what they describe makes a distinction between the personal ownership of an object and the social relation that is "bourgeois private property" and their desire to go after the 2nd rather than the first. Afaik the text didn't change but they added various prefaces for later versions, so in 1847/48 that was apparently already a talking point.

Some words in general though, I guess it's fairly obvious that linguistically the difference between "personal" and "private" isn't large and that also conceptually the two are majorly overlapping. Usually I'd argue that whatever is personal is also private, so what closely belongs to the person is also private, hence not public and thus subject to an exclusive social relation. Though what is private, is not necessarily personal, see means of production etc.

Now for extreme/"anarcho"-capitalists that distinction is completely artificial and they love to justify ownership of large amounts of capital to the point where they reach social relations, with comparisons to intimately personal property and "self-ownership". So regulating their business is to them like cutting off limbs. Now, I don't think that's a particularly good argument, but it allows for pretty obnoxious straw man arguments and excuses for taking things personal when they aren't even remotely meant to be...

Like even Marx and Engel's in 1848 found themselves compelled to make clear that they "aren't coming for your toothbrush" so to say.

Though what they call "capital" is not so much a physical object but rather the ability to set a society in motion (for their cause). It's a social relation rather than a personal object. Hence why the wage laborer doesn't actually builds a stockpile of something for themselves, but what they are paid in is capital, the ability to make other people work for them. Though their ability to do so stands in correlation to the overall amount of capital in existence and so is based on ratios rather than absolute values. So despite making money in absolute terms, their ability to command other people with that money, remains based on the comparison to that of a capitalists where their share of capital might remain stagnant or even decreasing. Like you could hire a handyman for a couple of hours while a boss can hire an employee full time... So the value of that capital relies on finding someone even worse off who's willing to work for that measly amount of capital.

So "capital" in that regard is more of a collective effort, that relies on all the participants not just those demanding/commanding it and has very little to do with possession of objects... That is apart from the fact that possession of particularly important and powerful objects can serve as capital.

So again one can kinda get a rough feeling why there is a distinction but it's really difficult to draw a fixed boundary between the two, because you can't really pin point it down to a particular object, it's rather the effect of having that object.

Also there's a general intrinsic contradiction of the enlightenment and "liberalism". In that on the one hand it stresses the individuality and independent nature of the individual, their private self and their own value demanding it's liberation from the oppression of the collective, like how disciples were just meant to follow and how peasants were literally pawns in the games of the emperors. While on the other hand if you exaggerate these qualities without limit you reach the point where you yourself become the oppressor to other people and where you yourself take away their individual liberty.

So this relation of "personal properties as objects of individual self-expression" can easily turn into a relation of expressing oneself by objectifying other people.

And it's some sort of Sorites paradox as to when it performs a phase transition from mere personal property to private property.

Of course you can take the other road and argue that all property is private property, which as said even personal property is technically private property (though usually not the most problematic or controversial private property and thus rarely mention in that context). Though who gets to own that then? Like you can nominally make it "public", but what does that actually mean? Like as soon as you've eaten you're meal it's undeniably private... Also to quote Bakhunin: "When the people are being beaten with a stick, they are not much happier if it is called "the People's Stick"."

Like dissolving private property relations is much more complicated than to say there is de jure no private property when de facto there's still plenty of that. It's not just about the possession of objects but about the social relations that follow from that or the other way around the social relations that serve as de facto possession/ownership.

So there's the complicated tradeoff between giving up society and all the synergetic benefits of it, going back to perfect liberation from other people but also a much more primitive existence or to give up oneself in favor of a community, which has a lot of potential to improve compared to the individual, but where you as an individual might end up playing a minor role or none at all and in effect might end up worse than outside of society despite a flourishing society, which is quite problematic because whether you like that or not but you cannot NOT be an individual without losing yourself in insanity or death (at least I know of no way to do it).

Or you need to construct a society of free and equal individuals that cooperate to achieve their full potential, but also don't try to overpower and throw each other under the bus. Which is much easier said than done.

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