Letter – What are the means of production?

Dear Editors

The review of my book Socialism for Soloists (October) is — overall — informative and fair. It is correct that the socialism the book defends allows people the freedom to buy and sell stuff and to agree to work for others at a wage.

I don’t think it is correct to say that soloists are libertarians. Libertarians are wedded to an expansive idea of appropriation and are indifferent to the consequences of property accumulation (whether by ‘initial appropriation’ or by transactional exchanges). I would rather say that soloists are liberals in the John-Stuart-Mill sense: there are limits to what governments may justly do, and people are entitled to be free of unconsented-to restraints except where others would be wronged.

Of course, on my account, ‘market socialism’ is not an oxymoron. Capitalism is a system in which the means of production are privately owned, and those who are not capitalists are faced with the choice of accepting a wage, begging, or starving.

In a socialist society, the means of production are the joint property of everyone, but other things may or may not be privately owned. In a liberal socialist society, things other than the means of production may become private property —my bicycle, my penknife, my laptop, for example.

The review characterizes my definition of the means of production as ‘peculiar.’ I would rather say that it is a definition implicit in the socialist tradition (I attach a paper defending it, https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/jopp.12211). Socialists who object to the very idea of private property need not take care to define what the term means, but (as I argue in the paper) other socialists should.

Bill Edmundson


We agree. Terms, especially in this context ‘the means of production’ need to be carefully defined. We have read your article on the subject (which was also the basis of one of the chapters in your book) and still say that a definition which excludes land and includes banks and online retailers is peculiar.

Land in the broad sense of natural resources is clearly an essential element in production. Production means humans transforming through their work materials that come from or originally came from nature into something they use (or ‘wealth’). Neither banking nor selling do this and so can’t be included in the category ‘means of production.’ Neither of them create any new wealth.

In your paper you criticise various definitions of the term which you characterise as Marxist. Marx himself, in his published works, was very careful to define the terms he used. In chapter 7 of Capital he examined ‘the labour process or the production of use-values’ and concluded:

‘If we examine the whole process from the point of view of its result, the product, it is plain that both the instruments and the subject of labour, are means of production, and that the labour itself is productive labour.’ (The ‘subject of labour’ being materials that originally came from nature and which humans using instruments fashion into ‘use-values’.)

This is why our Declaration of Principles (drawn up in 1904) defines socialism as a system of society based upon the common ownership and democratic control of the means and instruments for producing and distributing wealth by and in the interest of the whole community’.

It may seem redundant to refer to both ‘means’ and ‘instruments’ of production since instruments are also means of production, but it brings out that it is not only instruments that are to be commonly owned but also the subject of work, ie, natural resources.

This definition applies not just to capitalism but to any human society, including the earliest forms. An instrument of production is anything humans use to transform materials from nature into something they use and so, yes, does include simple tools.

Socialism doesn’t mean the common ownership of all instruments of production, not of people’s hand tools and garden implements (still less of their personal possessions), but only of those instruments that are, and have to be, socially (or, as you put it, severally) operated – large-scale plant and machinery, transport, energy, communications – and which are the means by which present-day society lives. What is to be commonly owned are those means which under capitalism function as ‘capital’, ie, are used not simply to produce more wealth but to produce more with a view to profit.

Socialism is not so much the common ownership of the socially operated means of production as their non-ownership; they won’t belong to anyone but will simply be there to be used. Common ownership is not the same as state ownership since the state is just as much a sectional (and so ‘private’) owner as a corporation. Common ownership precludes buying and selling as these are transactions between separate owners. In socialism not just the socially operated means of production but also what they are used to produce will be commonly owned; the only question then is how to distribute this, not how to sell it.

Your definition starts at the wrong end by deciding what should be commonly owned and then defining only these as ‘means of production’, excluding any which you consider should remain privately owned. That your definition still envisages the continuation of a capitalist economy, albeit in a rather unrealistic collectivised form, is shown by your inclusion of banks and online retailing as means of production. These can only be considered as necessary to production where there is production for the market even though they are not necessary for production as such. Also, they could only be state or co-operatively owned, neither of which is common ownership by and in the interest of the whole community.


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