What is Property?

  • John Torrance


I have argued that, in order to unearth — or construct — sociological foundations for Marx’s economic theories, the two concepts of estrangement and alienation must be kept separate and distinct. In the Introduction, ‘alienation’ (Entäusserung) was said to refer to the renunciation or relinquishment of possession or of a claim to something — usually, but not necessarily, in favour of another person. Its correlative was said to be ‘appropriation’ (Aneignung): taking into possession or assuming new powers of disposal over something — often, but by no means always, from another person. Clearly, neither term refers exclusively to relations involving ‘things’, since it is possible to alienate and appropriate activities or capacities, such as labour and labour-power, or persons (slaves) or abstract social entities (privileges, offices, freedoms, ‘goodwill’ etc.) However, it is fair to say that their primary reference is to things, and that these other uses, however common, are secondary, and have a figurative content. Or, to put it another way, that these diverse sorts of object are being assimilated to things and treated accordingly when they are said to be alienated or appropriated. So whereas solidarity and estrangement concerned the social bonding and sundering of persons, appropriation and alienation concern the making and breaking of social bonds between persons and things.


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  1. 27.
    B. Hindess and P. Q Hirst, in Precapitalist Modes of Production (London and Boston, 1975) ch. 4, treat the ‘Asiatic’ ruler as chief functionary of an impersonal state, which partially vitiates their ‘proof’ that an Asiatic mode of production cannot be specified. For Marx, the ruler represents, in his own person, a lineage that has successfully appropriated the collective (tribal, etc.) title to the land and to the surplus-labour of its inhabitants. He can mobilise against the village communes the same power of exclusion that the feudal landlord can exert against individual tenants. Communes defaulting on their tax rental can be dispossessed by massacre, enslavement or expulsion into the desert. For in both Asiatic and feudal modes of production the social division between non-worker and worker coincides with that between specialised and usually mounted warrior and peasant footsoldier. It is the former’s control of military force (a major precondition of occupation of the soil and means of distribution) that renders effective the landed monopoly of a patrimonial or feudal ruling class. In the Ancient mode of production this military specialisation is absent: the commune is a self-governing fortified city of warrior peasants. These points-which are conceptual and not empirical in their bearings — help to elucidate the puzzling articulation of the political and economic ‘instances’ in all these modes.Google Scholar

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© John Torrance 1977

Authors and Affiliations

  • John Torrance
    • 1
  1. 1.Hertford CollegeOxfordUK

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