Bernard E. Harcourt | “Property Is Theft!” | An Introduction

By Bernard E. Harcourt


“What is a picklock to a bank share? What is the burgling of a bank to the founding of a bank? What is the murder of a man to the employment of a man?”

— Macheath in Bertolt Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera[1]


Bertolt Brecht captures so brilliantly in these verses the expropriative nature of property—the paradoxical way in which legal property can amount to theft. Running a bank, Brecht declares, is no different than robbing a bank. Taking someone’s labor is no different than killing them—well, of course, you understand the exaggeration, but the point remains: alienating and extracting someone’s labor treats them as less than human.

Brecht’s anti-hero, Macheath, is about to be executed for his sins (there were many, but seducing the daughter of the beggars’ prince, Peachum, was at the very top, it seems). In his final lament, before heading to the gallows, Macheath reflects on his life of thuggery and urges everyone listening to question their own sacred beliefs about property.

It is here that our seminar, Abolition Democracy 5/13, will begin: with a rendition of these verses by the virtuoso singer and composer, Theo Bleckmann, as an introduction to inspire us all to rethink, with an open and clear but stirred mind, the matter of property.

In these verses, Macheath silently echoes Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, who famously exclaimed, in response to that provocative question he penned in the very title of his 1840 book, What is Property?:

“Property is theft!”

Proudhon, a self-proclaimed anarchist (one of the first, if not the first, but by no means a communist [2]) argued explicitly for the abolition of private property: “I demand, as a measure of general security, its entire abolition.”[3] Proudhon used the term “abolition” advisedly. He tied his argument directly to the exploitation of slavery. In fact, he equated property to slavery:

The exploitation of man by man [is] otherwise called slavery, usury, or the tribute levied upon the conquered by the conqueror, and the whole large family of taxes, duties, regalion rights, labour service, tithes, farm-rents, leases, etc., etc. – in a word, property.[4]

Proudhon and, famously, Karl Marx—although the two men were very much at odds in their reasoning—militated for the abolition of private property at a time when, across the Atlantic, abolitionists were challenging slavery. As Marx and Engels declared in 1848 in The Communist Manifesto, at a time when abolitionism was raging in the U.S.: “the theory of the Communists may be summed up in the single sentence: Abolition of private property.”

The relationship, interconnections, overlap, differences, and conflicts between the movements to abolish slavery and to abolish property are complex, to say the least. The historical record is fraught. But the resonances should seem so clear.

Chattel slavery was, of course, a form of property, and its abolition entailed technically the abolition of property. As W.E.B. Du Bois emphasized, “Property in the South had its value cut in half during the Civil War.”[5] But naturally, one half is not a whole. The abolition of slavery did not entail the abolition of property writ large. Au contraire… it was precisely the maintenance of property and profit-motives that was responsible for the reproduction of forms of slavery through convict leasing.

From the other end, the abolition of capitalist property-ownership was often presented as a liberation from relations of dominance no different than slavery. As Marx and Engels wrote in The Communist Manifesto: workers in capitalist systems are “slaves of the bourgeois class, and of the bourgeois state” and “are daily and hourly enslaved by the machine, by the over-looker, and, above all, by the individual bourgeois manufacturer himself.” Or as they concluded the Manifesto, “The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. Workers of all countries, unite!” Or, even more explicitly, as Marx wrote in his Critique of the Gotha Program: “the system of wage labour is a system of slavery.”[6]

The resonances are clear, but the history is fraught—especially the relationship between anti-racism and the labor movement.

And so we turn now, in this seminar, to the puzzle: How should we rethink the movements to abolish property through the lens of abolition democracy? How do we rethink Proudhon, Marx, and utopian socialist thinkers—as well as the entire political traditions of the labor theories of property and of value from Locke onwards—through the prism of abolitionism?

Resonances in Du Bois and Marx

We are not, by any means, the first. W.E.B. Du Bois was himself a brilliant reader of Marx, and his magnum opus, Black Reconstruction in America (1935), addresses specifically the connection between the German radical thinkers, the American labor movement, and the quest for the abolition of slavery. But even more, at a theoretical level, there are sharp resonances between Du Bois’s idea of abolition democracy and Marx’s materialist theory of the abolition of property. Let me point out three here.

First, both Du Bois and Marx ’s writings on abolition approach the task from both a negative and a positive perspective. Recall that, for Du Bois, the idea of “Abolition Democracy”—as we discussed in Abolition Democracy 2/13—represents a three-part ambition that includes, (1) in addition to the (negative) abolition of slavery and institutions of domination, and (2) in addition to the (positive) creation of new social institutions, (3) the radical transformation of our political economy. For Du Bois, classically, there is a negative and a positive dimension to abolition—with the overarching goal of radically transforming the economy. As Angela Davis explains, abolition democracy for Du Bois “is not only, or not even primarily, about abolition as a negative process of tearing down, but it is also about building up, about creating new institutions.”[7]

Marx as well imagined the negative and the positive—in fact, he explicitly referred to these different steps in his historical analysis of capital. As Étienne Balibar reminds us in his essay “The Expropriators Are Expropriated,” the element of negation was key to Marx, in large part because of his dialectical method. Marx wrote of expropriating the capitalist property-holders, who he referred to as “the expropriators”—so, expropriating the expropriators—through the Hegelian language of the “negation of the negation.”

But there was also a positive element, historically, and the same overarching project to radically transform the economy. Balibar points us to a key passage in Marx that resonates perfectly with the negative and positive sequence so important to Du Bois’s idea of abolition democracy. It is this passage from Capital, Volume III, chapter 27: “Capitalist joint-stock companies as much as cooperative factories should be viewed as transition forms from the capitalist mode of production to the associated one, simply that in the one case the opposition is abolished in a negative way, and in the other in a positive way.”[8]In other words, there is the direct negative moment, followed by a positive moment of creation on the way to a new horizon.

The positive moment is not necessarily final, determinative, or successful. Worker cooperatives, Marx emphasizes elsewhere, “are, within the old form, the first examples of the emergence of a new form, even though they naturally reproduce in all cases, in their present organization, all the defects of the existing system, and must reproduce them.”[9]But they represent a step forward, the construction of new institutions on the way to the abolition of property. In this sense, there is this three-fold structure to both abolition democracy and Marx’s writings on the abolition of property.

Second, there is also a similar notion that abolition is a self-actualizing process. Marx forecast the self-abolition of property, as Étienne Balibar again reminds us. Capitalist property-holders will meet their demise, precisely because of the expropriative nature of property, through a historical process of accumulation of capital and monopolization that will eventually undermine the capitalist economic system itself.

We could call this “auto-abolition.” In fact, in the same passage Balibar noted earlier, Marx uses the term “self-abolition”: “This is the abolition of the capitalist mode of production within the capitalist mode of production itself, and hence a self-abolishing contradiction, which presents itself prima facie as a mere point of transition to a new form of production.”[10]In other words, capitalism will fall under its own weight.

Du Bois as well argued that the system of chattel slavery collapsed under its own weight the moment that the South decided to take up arms against the North. The decision to go to war created an insurmountable conflict for the South: with four million persons enslaved, it either had to free them to maintain its economy and fight the North, or concede defeat. As we discussed at Abolition Democracy 4/13, on the abolition of slavery, Du Bois argued that the enslaved men and women, through the general strike and their escape to the Union army, “decided the war.”[11] Recall this key passage discussed last seminar:

Freedom for the slave was the logical result of a crazy attempt to wage war in the midst of four million black slaves, and trying the while sublimely to ignore the interests of those slaves in the outcome of the fighting. Yet, these slaves had enormous power in their hands. Simply by stopping work, they could threaten the Confederacy with starvation. By walking into the Federal camps, they showed to doubting Northerners the easy possibility of using them as workers and as servants, as farmers, and as spies, and finally, as fighting soldiers. And not only using them thus, but by the same gesture, depriving their enemies of their use in just these fields. It was the fugitive slave who made the slaveholders face the alternative of surrendering to the North, or to the Negroes.

It was this plain alternative that brought Lee’s sudden surrender. Either the South must make terms with its slaves, free them, use them to fight the North, and thereafter no longer treat them as bondsmen; or they could surrender to the North with the assumption that the North, after the war, must help them to defend slavery, as it had before. It was then that Abolition came in as a determining factor, and itself was transformed to a new democratic movement.[12]

Just as capitalism inextricably leads to its own negation in Marx, the system of chattel slavery self-combusted—or, using Marx’s tem, “self-abolished”—once the South went to war, on Du Bois’s reading.

Third, both Du Bois and Marx placed the “dictatorship of labor” at the heart of their ideas of abolition. The dictatorship of the proletariat was, for Marx and Engels, the core of their ambition. Interestingly, for Du Bois as well, it was central to his analysis. In fact the dictatorship of labor would have been a central step in the realization of abolition democracy, because it was essential, for abolition to achieve fruition, for freed Black women and men to have ownership of their own labor, as well as education and civil rights. As Du Bois explained:

At the time of the Civil War, it was, however, perfectly clear to Sumner and Stevens that freedom in order to be free required a minimum of capital in addition to political rights and that this could be insured against the natural resentment of the planters only by sort of dictatorship. Thus abolition-democracy was pushed towards the conception of a dictatorship of labor, although few of its advocated wholly grasped the fact that this necessarily involved dictatorship by labor over capital and industry.[13]

Abolition democracy, then, places at its center a notion of the dictatorship of labor as the only way to construct new institutions—as a necessary positive step forward. The “stand” it took after the Civil War, Du Bois explained, included: “temporary dictatorship, endowed Negro education, legal civil rights, and eventually even votes for Negroes to offset the Southern threat of economic attack.”[14] In other words, labor should be in control.

These are three areas of resonance between Du Bois and Marx, but there are more. The connections between Du Bois and Marx, and even more generally, between the abolition of chattel slavery and of private property, are multiple and rich—as are, beyond that, the connections between those abolition movements and the abolition of prisons, capital punishment, police, and the punitive state.

To return full circle, Bertolt Brecht highlighted these multiple connections in his play, The Threepenny Opera. Woven in Brecht’s tale of the unexpected redemption of the gangster and perhaps anarchist, Macheath, who is sentenced to death—recall that he is pardoned at the last moment by the Queen and bequeathed “the castle of Marmarel and a pension of ten thousand pounds a year”[15]—lies the question of private property and its future. It is to these questions that we shall turn in this seminar.

While I have your attention, I will touch, in the brief sections that follow, on some of the many connections to lay some groundwork for our discussion at the seminar.

Social Movement Symbioses: On Abolitionists and Labor Leaders

As a historical matter, the movement to abolish slavery in the United States coincided with the movement to abolish property in Europe, especially in Germany, France and England. Abolitionists on both sides of the Atlantic were fully aware. In fact, there is a fraught history of the relation between the two social movements, as W.E.B. Du Bois documented in his 1935 study, Black Reconstruction in America.

Du Bois traced the early confrontation between abolitionists and labor activists from Germany. He wrote of the German revolutionaries who arrived in the U.S. in the 1840s, only to repudiate or ignore the problem of slavery. Hermann Kriege, Wilhelm Weitling, Joseph Weydemeyer—leading German socialist revolutionaries—along with thousands of their ideological compatriots, crossed the Atlantic to militate for everything from land reform to Marxist socialism. But, as Du Bois emphasized, many of these socialists did not embrace the abolition of slavery, and some opposed it vocally. Here is Hermann Kriege speaking against the abolition of slavery while in the U.S. in 1846, quoted by Du Bois:

“That we see in the slavery question a property question which cannot be settled by itself alone. That we should declare ourselves in favor of the abolitionist movement if it were our intention to throw the Republic into a state of anarchy, to extend the competition of ‘free workingmen’ beyond all measure, and to depress labor itself to the last extremity. That we could not improve the lot of our ‘black brothers’ by abolition under the conditions prevailing in modern society, but make infinitely worse the lot of our ‘white brothers.’ That we believe in the peaceable development of society in the United States and do not, therefore, here at least see our only hope in condition of the extremest degradation. That we feel constrained, therefore, to oppose Abolition with all our might, despite all the importunities of sentimental philistines and despite all the poetical effusions of liberty-intoxicated ladies.”[16]

Wilhelm Weitling, for his part, did not explicitly condemn slavery and paid it little attention.[17] Joseph Weydemeyer and his socialist organization, Arbeiterbund, formed in 1853, at first did not challenge slavery, arguing that it was firmly rooted in the U.S.; but later, starting in 1859 at least, it condemned slavery.[18]

On Du Bois’s reading, Karl Marx turned things around and, working with the labor movement in England, promoted anti-slavery abolition in the late 1850s.[19] Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation in 1862 energized the English labor movement—in Du Bois’s words, “the workingmen of England held hundreds of meetings all over the country and in all industrial sections, and hailed his [Lincoln’s] action.”[20] Marx drafted an address to Lincoln from London, supporting him fully, stating:

“Sir: We who offer this address are Englishmen and workingmen. We prize as our dearest inheritance, bought for us by the blood of our fathers, the liberty we enjoy—the liberty of free labor on a free soil. We have, therefore, been accustomed to regard with veneration and gratitude the founders of the great republic in which the liberties of the Anglo-Saxon race have been widened beyond all the precedents of the old world, and in which there was nothing to condemn or to lament but the slavery and degradation of men guilty only of a colored skin or an African parentage. We have looked with admiration and sympathy upon the brave, generous and untiring efforts of a large party in the Northern States to deliver the Union from this curse and shame. We rejoiced, sir, in your election to the Presidency, as a splendid proof that the principles of universal freedom and equality were rising to the ascendant. We regarded with abhorrence the conspiracy and rebellion by which it was sough at once to overthrow the supremacy of a government based upon the most popular suffrage in the world, and to perpetuate the hateful inequalities of race.”[21]

In 1864, the International Workingmen’s Association, the First International, wrote to Lincoln, praising him for attacking slavery and tying the future of the working class to the abolition of slavery. “The workingmen of Europe felt sure that as the American War of Independence initiated a new era of ascendency for the Middle Class,” they wrote, “so the American Anti-Slavery war will do for the working classes […] to lead this country through the matchless struggles for the rescue of the enchained race and the Reconstruction of a social world.”[22]

Marx drafted, and signed, another letter in 1869 to the head of the National Labor Union, mentioning how the abolition of slavery, in his words “the liberation of the slaves,” had given “impulse” to “our own class movement.”[23]
The American labor movement at the time, though, for the most part, did not want freed Black men and women in their unions and favored segregation, viewing the Black worker as a threat to their livelihood. Du Bois decried this further exclusion, concluding, as Bob Gooding-Williams shows in his essay for Abolition Democracy 2/13, “Democratic Despotism and The New Imperialism,” that “the paradox of modern democracy is explained by the circumstance that democratic progress within Europe and America for white laborers has entailed the despotic exploitation in America and elsewhere of” persons of color. This would lead Du Bois to advocate elsewhere for a form of separatism for the Black worker and the formation of Black worker cooperatives. Notice the echo, again, of the negative and positive dimensions of abolition democracy.

Theoretical Imbrication

The theoretical framework surrounding the abolition of slavery and of prisons today, or more generally the theoretical framework of abolition democracy, is itself and has historically been intertwined with the critique of capitalism and private property.

Du Bois understood the two struggles—for racial and economic justice—to be inextricably linked. Du Bois, like Marx, took the position that political economy drives politics. His analysis of the rise and fall of Reconstruction, in fact his entire historical analysis, rests on a meticulous study of the transformation of private property and wealth in the South and North following the Civil War.

As Du Bois emphasized, what drove history, the relations between North and South, and the demise of Reconstruction, is that, as noted earlier, “Property in the South had its value cut in half during the Civil War.”[24]In a chapter tellingly titled “Counter-Revolution of Property,” Du Bois drew the many theoretical links between abolition of slavery and property:

Charles Sumner did not realize, and that other Charles—Karl Marx—had not yet published Das Kapital to prove to men that economic power underlies politics. Abolitionists failed to see that after the momentary exaltation of war, […] national industry could get its way easier by alliance with Southern landholders than by sustaining Southern workers. They did not know that when they let the dictatorship of labor be overthrown in the South they surrendered the hope of democracy in America for all men.[25]

Du Bois argued that racial justice required, for its achievement, that white and Black workers work together to socialize modes of production outside the framework of the established, racist American labor unions. Du Bois admired Marx as a theorist and economist, and generally leaned toward socialist ideals. As he noted in Black Reconstruction, “The record of the Negro worker during Reconstruction presents an opportunity to study inductively the Marxian theory of the state.”[26]And what it showed is that the only way forward, truly, is for the emancipation of the most oppressed around the world, namely men and women workers of color. In clear Marxian terms, Du Bois wrote:

Out of the exploitation of the dark proletariat comes the Surplus Value filched from human beasts which, in cultured lands, the Machine and harnessed Power veil and conceal. The emancipation of man is the emancipation of labor and the emancipation of labor is the freeing of that basic majority of workers who are yellow, brown and black.[27]

Despite the strong theoretical resonances, Du Bois’s own personal relationship to the Socialist and Communist Parties of America was complex, as he was more of a political pragmatist than ideologue. He was a member, shortly, of the Socialist Party in the 1910s and of the Communist Party near the end of his life in the 1960s, but both times more on a lark than on a mission. He also ran for the Senate on the American Labor Party ticket in 1950. But at many junctures, Du Bois had a tense, if not confrontational relation to the left establishment. During the defense of the “Scottsboro Boys” in the early 1930s, for instance, Du Bois and the NAACP were at odds with the Communist Party, which stepped in a bit of a void to provide zealous defense counsel[28]—more on this later.

Putting that aside, there is no doubt that Du Bois theoretically twined the concept of abolition democracy to the radical transformation of the economy. As he wrote, concluding the chapter on the “Counter-Revolution of Property” and offering a vision for the future, one of Abolition Democracy:

The rebuilding, whether it comes now or a century later, will and must go back to the basic principles of Reconstruction in the United States during 1867-1876—Land, Light and Leading for slaves black, brown, yellow and white, under a dictatorship of the proletariat.[29]

And Du Bois closed the chapter, as he does for every chapter in Black Reconstruction, with a stanza—this one all about the common:

Profit? What profit hath the sea
Of her deep-throated threnody?
What profit hath the sun, who stands
Staring on space with idle hands?
And what should God himself acquire
From all the æons’ blood and fire?

— Fannie Stearns Davis, Crack o’ Dawn[30]

The Prison and Property

Many of the early utopian socialists used the metaphor of the prison and the criminalization of the working class as an indictment of capitalist modes of production. Moreover, a lot of the early discourse of utopian socialists portrays industrial capitalism as a form of incarceration or, alternatively, as leading to criminality.

So, for instance, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809-1865) writes of the carceral nature of being governed in The General Idea of the Revolution in the 19th Century, published in 1851. Proudhon decries the state and government—recall that he was an anarchist—and uses carceral metaphors throughout. Proudhon writes:

“To be GOVERNED is to be kept in sight, inspected, spied upon, directed, law-driven, numbered, enrolled, indoctrinated, preached at, controlled, estimated, valued, censured, commanded, by creatures who have neither the right, nor the wisdom, nor the virtue to do so…. To be GOVERNED is to be at every operation, at every transaction, noted, registered, enrolled, taxed, stamped, measured, numbered, assessed, licensed, authorised, admonished, forbidden, reformed, corrected, punished. It is, under the pretext of public utility, and in the name of the general interest, to be placed under contribution, trained, ransomed, exploited, monopolised, extorted, squeezed, mystified, robbed; then, at the slightest resistance, the first word of complaint, to be repressed, fined, despised, harassed, tracked, abused, clubbed, disarmed, choked, imprisoned, judged, condemned, shot, deported, sacrificed, sold, betrayed; and, to crown all, mocked, ridiculed, outraged, dishonoured. That is government; that is its justice; that is its morality. And to think that there are democrats among us who pretend that there is any good in government; Socialists who support this ignominy, in the name of Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity; proletarians who proclaim their candidacy for the Presidency of the Republic! Hypocrisy! …”[31]

In a similar vein, Robert Owen (1771–1858) targets the punitive nature of society as the root cause, and its abolition as the remedy, for the inequality and injustices of society. In his main treatise, A New View of Society, Owen directly challenged his peers’ willingness to punish, even to sentence to death, the poor and the laboring class, without taking responsibility for the conditions of the working class: “such has been our education, that we hesitate not to devote years and expend millions in the detection and punishment of crimes, and in the attainment of objects whose ultimate results are, in comparison with this, insignificancy itself; and yet we have not moved one step in the true path to prevent crimes, and to diminish the innumerable evils with which mankind are now afflicted.”[32] Owen wrote against the death penalty, arguing that it is simply wrong to punish people who society had not invested in and put on the right path. It was a highly moralizing discourse—familiar to readers of Foucault’s critique of nineteenth century penal reformers in The Punitive Society (1973) and Discipline and Punish (1975)—that linked the carceral to the question of property. Owen advocated for a form of prevention: society should train people to act properly, rather than ignoring and then punishing: “Instead of punishing crimes after they have permitted the human character to be formed so as to commit them, they will adopt the only means which can be adopted to prevent the existence of those crimes; means by which they may be most easily prevented.”[33] For Owen, the transformation of economic relations was inextricably tied to the supposed criminality and vice of the popular classes, for which, he argued, society should take responsibility because it did not educate the poor.

For Louis Blanc (1811-1882) as well, the argument for worker cooperatives and workshops was structured around crime and criminality. Blanc argued that the competition on wages leads to destitution on the part of the poor and to a life of criminality; that the only way society seeks to redress the situation is through the penitentiary to reform criminals; but that there is a much better way to address all this, namely through the better organization of labor. Hence the title of his book, L’Organisation du travail (1839).

In a four-step demonstration, Blanc argued that:

  1. Wage competition leads to lower wages and to lives of destitution and criminality. “Un tel désordre est intolerable,” he declares.[34]In language that reads as if it were straight from The Punitive Society, Blanc writes—apologies, but it has to be reproduced in French:

Voici un malheureux qui a pris naissance dans la boue de nos villes. Aucune notion de morale ne lui a été donnée. Il a grandi au milieu des enseignements et des images du vice. Son intelligence est restée dans les ténèbres. La faim lui a soufflé ses ordinaires tentations. La main d’un ami n’a jamais pressé sa main. Pas de voix douce qui ait éveillé dans son cœur flétri les échos de la tendresse et de l’amour. Maintenant, s’il devient coupable, criez à votre justice d’intervenir : notre sécurité l’exige ! Mais n’oubliez pas que votre ordre social n’a pas étendu sur cet infortuné la protection due à ses douleurs. N’oubliez pas que son libre arbitre a été perverti dès le berceau ; qu’une fatalité écrasante et injuste a pesé sur son vouloir ; qu’il a eu faim ; qu’il a eu froid ; qu’il n’a pas su, qu’il n’a pas appris la bonté…, bien qu’il soit votre frère, et que votre Dieu soit aussi celui des pauvres, des faibles, des ignorants, de toutes les créatures souffrantes et immortelles.[35]

  1. It is this condition of disorder and criminality that gives birth to the penitentiary, based on the model of the Auburn and Walnut Street Prisons. In effect, the condition of the working class is the birth of the prison. Again, the language is remarkable:

c’est ce qui a donné naissance à la loi sur les prisons, telle qu’en mai 1844 la chambre des députés l’a votée. Cette loi a pour but d’éviter les dangers du pêle-mêle immonde qui rive, dans les prisons, les novices du crime à ceux qui en ont depuis longtemps contracté la gangrène. Cette loi introduit en France, non pas même le système d’Auburn, qui consacre l’isolement de nuit, mais le système de Philadelphie, qui consacre l’isolement de nuit et de jour. De sorte que pour sauver la société des fureurs du coupable que les prisons lui renvoient plus perverti, plus hideusement expérimenté, plus terrible, il a fallu en venir au système cellulaire, lequel n’est autre chose que l’ensevelissement avec la durée : peine effroyable qui aboutit à l’hébêtement, au suicide ou à la folie ![36]

  1. But rather than remedying, the prison creates worse harms:

“dans un ordre social mauvais par la base, tout système pénitentiaire aura des inconvénients immenses, inévitables. Le meilleur, celui qui moraliserait en effet le condamné au lieu de le torturer, serait lui-même un danger manifeste et un scandale.”[37]It is impossible to reform the prison, one must instead replace it. (Somewhat remarkably, the replacement is also placed under the sign of the penitentiary! As Blanc writes: “Concluons de là qu’il n’est qu’un système pénitentiaire qui soit efficace et raisonnable : une saine organisation du travail. Nous avons au milieu de nous une grande école de perversité incessamment ouverte, et qu’il est urgent de fermer : c’est la misère.”[38]

  1. It is necessary, then, and possible, to find another solution: rather than the prison, the reorganization of labor and the replacement of capitalized industry by worker cooperatives. The economic transformation flows from the criminogenic effects of misery and as a displacement of the prison.

In this way, the carceral sphere and political economy are linked throughout. For the early socialists, anarchists, and utopians, the abolition of economic injustice required the abolition of the punitive society.

This is true as well with many contemporary abolitionists, such as Angela Davis, who was herself philosophically trained in part at the Frankfurt School. Davis combines prison abolitionism with a critique of capitalist modes of production. Davis insists on studying not just prisons, but the “prison industrial complex,” specifically because that concept “insists on understandings of the punishment process that take into account economic and political structures and ideologies, rather than focusing myopically on individual criminal conduct and efforts to ‘curb crime.’”[39] Davis places her abolitionism within the framework of radical economic transformation.

But this is not true for all, of course. Some thinkers have interpreted Marx’s writings on the “lumpenproletariat” as an invitation to exclude the Macheaths of society from the dictatorship of the proletariat. Some critical thinkers, paradoxically, naturalize crime in the process of politicizing it. And of course, in actually-existing experiments with collectivism, there have been many tragic experiences with the prison, the camp, the Gulag.

So, it is important to study the relationship more closely. The link between capital punishment and prison abolition, racial justice, and the abolition of property has been at times fraught. That was certainly the case with the defense of the young men accused at Scottsboro, Alabama, in 1930, where, as a result of respectability politics, tensions arose between the American communist party and the NAACP.


There are many other dimensions to interrogate: the relation between the labor and the property theory of value in Locke, and the connection of property to settler colonialism, as Professor Dan-el Padilla Peralta will discuss; the place of abolition in Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Programme, as Professor Karuna Mantena will discuss; and, as we have already seen in Professor Étienne Balibar’s essay and his longer paper on The Communist Manifesto, as well as we will hear from Professor Amy Allen, the broader place of abolition in Marx’s thought.

Welcome to Abolition Democracy 5/13! We are delighted to welcome for this critical conversation Professors Amy AllenÉtienne Balibar, Theo BleckmannKaruna Mantena, and Dan-el Padilla Peralta.


[1] Brecht, Three Penny Opera, in Works of Bertholt Brecht, 92.

[2] See Proudhon, What is Property?, 195 (“The inconveniences of communism are so obvious that its critics never had to employ much eloquence to arouse disgust with it.”)

[3] Proudhon, What is Property?, 36 (my emphasis).

[4] Proudhon, What is Property?, 202 (my emphasis).

[5] Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America, 590.

[6] Marx and Engels, The Communist Manifesto (New York: International Publishers, 1948), 16, 44; Marx, Critique of the Gotha Program, Tucker 2d ed., 535.

[7] Angela Davis, Abolition Democracy, 69.

[8] Marx, Capital, Volume III, Chapter 27, p. 572 (my emphasis).

[9] Marx, Capital, Volume III, Chapter 27, p. 571.

[10] Marx, Capital, Volume III, Chapter 27, p. 569 (my emphasis).

[11] Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America, 57.

[12] Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America, 121 (my emphasis).

[13] Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America, 185 (my emphasis).

[14] Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America, 185 (my emphasis).

[15] Brecht, Three Penny Opera, 95.

[16] Hermann Kriege, quoted in Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America, 23 (my emphasis).

[17] Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America, 23.

[18] Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America, 24.

[19] Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America, 24; 89;

[20] Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America, 89.

[21] Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America, 89-90. A simultaneous address to Lincoln from the Manchester meeting held on December 31, 1863, stated: “We joyfully honor you, as the President, and the Congress with you, for the many decisive steps towards practically exemplifying your belief in the words of your great founders: ‘All men are created free and equal.’” Id. at 90.

[22] Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America, 218-219; see also Marx’s letter to President Andrew Johnson, id. at 354.

[23] Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America, 357.

[24] Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America, 590.

[25] Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America, 591-592.

[26] Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America, 381 n.*.

[27] Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America, 16.

[28] Dan T. Carter, Scottsboro: A Tragedy of the American South, 2nd editioin (LSU Press, 2007).

[29] Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America, 635.

[30] Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America, 635.

[31] Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, General Idea of the Revolution in the Nineteenth Century, in Proterty is Theft! A Pierre-Joseph Proudhon Anthology, ed. Iain McKay (Edinburgh: AK Press, 2011), at p. 598.

[32] Robert Owen, A New View of Society [1817], 30.

[33] Owen, A New View of Society, 22.

[34] Louis Blanc, L’Organisation du travail, 35/47.

[35] Blanc, L’Organisation du travail, 36/48.

[36] Blanc, L’Organisation du travail, 39/56.

[37] Blanc, L’Organisation du travail, 40-41/57.

[38] Blanc, L’Organisation du travail, 41/57.

[39] Angela Davis, Are Prisons Obsolete (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2003), 85.

Bernard Harcourt