A Reflection on Marx’s Definition of Theft

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Commonly referred to as the “Father of Communism,” Karl Marx revolutionized political thought during the 19th century, providing one of the first insights into how money and property ownership affects relationships amongst humans. In his essay Debates on the Law of Thefts of Wood, Marx discusses the view towards property and how it is imperative to develop clearly stated laws that provide equal punishment to all. 

The premise of the debate is the definition of the term “theft.” The Assembly is discussing whether simple offenses against forest regulations constitute theft. The deputy claims, “It is precisely because the pilfering of wood is not regarded as theft that it occurs so often” (Marx 128). His response sparks a lively debate where a hypothetical situation is proposed claiming a box on of the ear frequently occurs because it is not murder, and the best way to stop the practice would be to declare it as murder.

Another deputy makes the distinction between the pilfering of fallen wood that is no longer attached to a tree to that of stealing growing timber, warning that if the punishment were the same, many would lead a life of crime because they are not taking into account the person’s motive or frame of mind.

From there, the parties discuss how to categorize theft from the gathering of fallen wood. One man contends that “In the case of fallen wood, on the contrary, nothing has been separated from property” (Marx 129). This, he believes, constitutes the difference between the gathering of fallen wood from the theft of wood. 

However, based on this generalized definition of theft that does not take into account the person’s intent, anything that is separated from property can be considered theft, even identity theft. Pondering if every violation of property is deemed theft, he asks if private property is also theft, due to the fact that, “By my private ownership do I not exclude every other person from this ownership? Do I not thereby violate his right of ownership?” (Marx 131). Believing every crime has some aspects with right, he contends punishment is largely unsuccessful in deterring crime. 

With proposed penal provisions such as repayment for stolen property, a property owner is not only exempt from the law but can even turn crime into a business. A provision is suggested whereby any thief must not only repay the simple value of the goods stolen but must also pay an additional value as compensation for their crime. This sum is determined arbitrarily and is up to eightfold the value, turning crime into a lottery of sorts for the property owner. 

Ultimately, he concludes that the law only punishes the propertyless. If a landowner walks outside and retrieves a piece of wood from the ground, it is not theft because he owns the property. However, if a person who owns no property were to walk outside and commit the same act, it would be considered theft because he is separating the wood from property he does not own. He is then not only punished for his act with a possible prison sentence but is also forced to repay the value of the goods plus interest. 

Marx does a tremendous job in the essay demonstrating how laws and social systems can be designed to benefit the rich while taking advantage of the poor. The foundation is clearly built for his later works, where he advocates for the common good of man and the abolition of private property. He realized the danger concentrating wealth in the hands of a few well-off individuals, eloquently debating how ownership of property can unfairly provide special legal privileges to the rich, while simultaneously punishing the poor. 

Work Cited

Treviño, A. Javier. "Karl Marx: Debates on the Law on Thefts of Wood." The Sociology of Law: Classical and Contemporary Perspectives. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 2008. 128-39. Print.