On property and the right of inheritance

In September 1869, Mikhail Bakunin delivered a Report on the question of Inheritance to the Basel Congress of the International Working-Men’s Association. In it, he posed the following question;

But what separates property and capital from labour? What distinguishes the classes economically and politically from one another, what destroys equality and perpetuates inequality, the privilege of the few and the slavery of the many?

His answer: “it is the right of inheritance.”

I have already made the case for why “property is theft,” that most misunderstood and oppositional sentiment being both a key element of anarchist communism and the title of this blog. Here, I intend to discuss the logical and practical conclusion of that sentiment. Though it isn’t often articulated by modern anarchists, that conclusion is that, “from the standpoint of the all-round emancipation of labour and labourers, we must desire the abolition of the right of inheritance.”

Immediately, this position will raise objections. In making the case for the abolition of inheritance, I shall attempt to answer them.

The problem of definitions

As in the case of private property, those who object to inheritance rights face a substantial hurdle with definitions.

A person can currently inherit anything from a controlling stake in a business, to a house or farm, to their grandfather’s favourite set of cufflinks.The consequences of each form of inheritance are quite different, and anarchists do not seek to abolish them all.

As so often, Bakunin articulated the distinction most eloquently;

What we want to abolish, what we must abolish is the right of inheritance, which was established by jurisprudence and which constitutes the very basis of the juridicial family and the State.

It is also understood that we do not intend to abolish sentimental inheritance. By this we mean the passing on, to children or friends, of objects of slight value which belonged to their friends or deceased parents, and which, because of their long use, have personal meaning. Substantial inheritance is what guarantees to heirs, either in full or in part, the possibility of living without working, by levying upon collective labour either land’s rent or capital’s interest.

We intend that both capital and land – in a word all the raw materials of labour – should cease being transferable through the right of inheritance, becoming forever the collectie property of all productive associations. Equality, and hence the emancipation of labour and of the workers, can be obtained only at this price.

As such, inheritance as most people understand it will remain. No anarchist will rob anybody of the objects through which the memory of their dear and departed lives on. Likewise, even “property” could be inherited – as long as it is that property better termed a “possession.” As long as its purpose is not to “levy upon collective labour either land’s rent or capital’s interest,” then it may be passed on to an heir.

This is in keeping with the anarchist principle, as voiced by Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, that “possession is a right; property is against right. Suppress property while maintaining possession.”

The inheritance of capital

Thus, we are left with a clearly defined opposition to a specific form of inheritance.

The main arguments to the contrary come from conservatives, capitalists, and propertarians. As Simon Heffer has maintained in the Daily Mail, “those who accrued such wealth did so not purely to benefit themselves, but to ensure that their families never had to return to a life of economic insecurity.” So, “the more wealth cascades down the generations, the more self-reliant people become, and the less necessary the State is.”

The fatuity of this argument lies in the idea that “creating wealth is a very fair means of redistributing it.” We are to believe that such a thing is self-evident, “as we saw in the 1980s.” In reality, unemployment rose considerable, topping 3 million in 1982 and (bar a brief decline around 1989) remaining in the same ballpark until 1993, and homelessness increased from around 57,000 households in 1979 to around 127,000 in 1989.

Here we can also see the effects of inheritance upon this situation. According to a report for the Sutton Trust by the London School of Economics (LSE), “intergenerational income mobility” saw a “sharp decline” for “for children born in 1970” and reaching employment age under Margaret Thatcher “compared with those born in 1958.” Moreover, since then “mobility levels have not reversed or started to improve, and remain very low,” with “Inequalities in degree acquisition meanwhile persist across different income groups, with those from high income groups still over four times as likely to graduate as those from low income groups,” “mirroring the gaps that existed and widened with age for children born 30 years previously.”

As such, we return to Bakunin’s conclusions, over a century before the LSE report;

Need we demonstrate how the right of inheritance gives rise to every social, economic and political privilege? Plainly, it alone maintains class differences. Through the right of inheritance, both natural and passing differences among individuals, of fortune or prosperity, differences that should not outlive the individual themselves, are enternalized, one may say petrified. Becoming traditional differences, they create privileges of birth, they establish classes, they become a permanent source of the exploitation of millions of workers by mere thousands of the wellborn.

Only those inheriting privilege become “self-reliant” based upon “wealth cascading down the generations.” And even the idea that this represented “self-reliance” is fallacious. As the Class War Federation put it, “the workers could do without the capitalists but not vice-versa” as “the capitalist far from being a gift to the human race were, in effect, a bunch of parasites.”

“Anarcho”-capitalists such as Murray Rothbard defend this parasitism by arguing that “organization, hierarchy, wage-work, granting of funds by libertarian millionaires, and a libertarian political party” are part of “a whole slew of institutions necessary to the triumph of liberty.” Rothbard claims that “there is nothing in the slightest unlibertarian about organization, hierarchy, leaders and followers, etc., so long as these are done voluntarily.” The writers of An Anarchist FAQ refute this superficial idea of voluntarism on the basis that “social relations between capitalists and employees can never be equal, because private ownership of the means of production gives rise to social hierarchy and relations of coercive authority and subordination.”

Chris Wilson, in How a Libertarian Capitalist Became a Libertarian Socialist, makes the point that “a society in which human-created circumstances force people to “agree” to subject their will to that of a boss is by no means “free”.” Clearly, what Rothbard calls “the right of every man to his own person, the right of donation, of bequest (and, concomitantly, the right to receive the bequest or inheritance), and the right of contractual exchange of property titles” cannot apply to those same bosses. Rather than acquire their wealth through the homestead principle, capitalists accumulate their fortunes off the backs of workers in a system of domination. Their children should be heir apparent to absolutely nothing.

Hence Kevin Carson’s argument that the modern worker is “justified in taking direct control of production, and keeping the entire product of his labor” because, “like the slave or the serf,” they are “the victim of ongoing robbery” and work “in an enterprise built from past stolen labor.” In Carson’s words, “the only cases in which I have advocated seizure of the means of production by workers are those in which that notorious “socialist” Murray Rothbard advocated it.” “And even in those cases I advocated, not nationalization, but the direct homesteading of plants by the labor force, and their conversion to producer cooperatives competing in an unregulated market.”

But what of inheritance? Does even Carson’s argument not eventually lead back to a system of parasitism where heirs who have never worked for themselves may “levy upon collective labour either land’s rent or capital’s interest?”

Only if we accept the right of inheritance as immutable and, as evident from the content of this article, I do not.

If you accept the case made above, then the worker is “justified in taking direct control of production, and keeping the entire product of his labor,” as capitalism is “an enterprise built from past stolen labor.” From this it follows that “the right to receive the bequest or inheritance” will even in this instance lead back to parasitism, “because private ownership of the means of production gives rise to social hierarchy and relations of coercive authority and subordination.”

Concluding this line of thought, we return to Bakunin;

All social progress has proceeded from successive abolitions of rights of inheritance. First, the right of divine inheritance was abolished, the traditional privileges or punishments which were long considered the result of either devine benediction or divine malediction. Then the right of political inheritance was abolished, resulting in recgnition of the sovereignty of the people and the equality of citizens before the law. At present, in order to emancipate the worker, the human being, and to establish the reign of justice on the ruins of all the political and theological injustices of the present and the past, we must abolish economic inheritance.

The case could not be better stated.

4 Responses to “On property and the right of inheritance”
  1. Chris says:

    What you idiot want is full-blown communism.
    Why should property be theft?
    This is just an INSANE supposition.
    How can the fruit of labour (property) be theft?
    And why should i not be able to leave MY property to whom i decide ????
    It is MINE !! NOT yours. NOT the governments. MINE !!!!!
    How would you (or the government) be able to prevent me from giving to my kids whatever i want?
    It is technically IMPOSSIBLE to prevent inheritance.
    In order to do this, you would have to abolish CASH and also PRECIOUS METALS.
    You would also have to abolish gift contracts or purchase contracts with low price amount.

    It is ridiculous, wicked and very evil what you demand.

Check out what others are saying...
  1. […] have dealt with this idea more fully in Property is theft and On Property and the right of inheritance. In those two posts, I have alluded to the point I want to expand upon here. That is, that the […]

  2. […] fact the workers who are being robbed. We are the producers of wealth – our employers being parasites and theives who reap what we sow without lifting a finger. We need to fight back against a […]

  3. […] It is important that this distinction is made. After all, anarchists are opposed to the present class system and to the parasitice ruling class it maintains, not to ordinary people having a roof over their heads or possessions. When I, or others, justify attacks on property it must be remembered that we are arguing for opposition to capitalism, not to ordinary people. […]

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