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the historically evolving social relations that characterize the distribution (appropriation) of goods as elements of a society’s material wealth among individuals, social groups, classes, and the state. All the things that belong to a particular person (property owner) constitute the object of ownership, or property, of the person; therefore, relations of ownership are also called property relations. Since such relations are regulated by the laws of the state, they take the form of right of ownership, which includes the property owner’s power to possess, use, and dispose of property.

In any society, ownership of the means of production is of primary importance, since it also determines the nature of ownership of consumer goods. The link between the two results from the decisive role that the process of social production plays in the economic life of society. “The distribution of the means of consumption at any time is only a consquence of the distribution of the conditions of production themselves. The latter distribution, however, is a feature of the mode of production itself” (K. Marx, in K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 19, p. 20). The relations of ownership are objective in character.

Although ownership may seem to comprise only the objects belonging to any given person, the concept of ownership cannot be reduced to material content or to the relation of man to thing, as bourgeois ideologists do in order to demonstrate the eternal nature of capitalist ownership. Marxist-Leninist theory views ownership as a particular social relation between people and between social classes, a relation that develops in accordance with changes in the socioeconomic conditions of the life of society. Ownership defines the position of individual social groups within the system of production and the interrelations between such groups.

Like other social relations, ownership and the legal norms that regulate it are historical in character. “In each historical epoch, ownership has developed differently and under entirely different social relations” (Marx, ibid., vol. 4, p. 168). Each socioeconomic formation is characterized by specific forms of ownership, which correspond to a certain position and level of productive forces.

Historically, the first form of ownership was collective—communal ownership (seeCOMMUNE and PRIMITIVE COMMUNAL SYSTEM)—which was based on collective labor and social equality of all members of the commune. As a result of a long historical process, in which productive forces developed and collective labor and the communal economy evolved into individual, fragmented labor and small economic units isolated one from another, the commune disintegrated and private ownership arose (Marx, ibid., vol. 19, p. 419). Livestock, tools, other movable property, and, later, the land itself were transformed into the exclusive property of individual families.

Originally, private ownership rested on a family’s own labor. With time, however, increasing property inequality, which grew out of the progressive development of productive forces, and the alienation of individual families from the land brought the emergence of private ownership based on the appropriation of the fruits of others’ labor. Man came to exploit man, and society was divided into exploiting and exploited classes (seeSLAVEHOLDING SYSTEM and CAPITALISM). The slaveholding form of ownership rested on the appropriation of the labor of the slave, who, like the other means of production, was himself the property of the slaveholder.

The basis of feudal private ownership was landownership and the exploitation of the personally dependent, enserfed peasants. Unlike the slave, the serf was a participant in the relations of ownership in the sense that he owned a small plot of land and the means of production necessary to work it. A form of ownership in which the land did not being exclusively to any one person was characteristic of feudalism. Relations, both within the feudal upper class (seigniors and vassals) and between the feudal upper class and the direct producers, were founded on personal dominance and subordination. Ownership here was not free and unrestricted private ownership of land; rather, it was conditional land ownership, limited by the relations of personal dominance and subordination and directly linked to the political and military power of the feudal upper class.

Within the depths of feudalism there also arose relations of ownership unrelated to the binding of producers to the land. In addition to the small-scale private ownership of free peasants, there existed the ownership of urban artisans, who produced items for sale; such ownership was distinct from land ownership and free of feudal dependence.

With the development of productive forces and commodity production came the emergence of capitalist, or bourgeois, ownership, which differed fundamentally from previous forms of ownership: namely, it was based on the direct producers’ complete alienation from the material conditions of their labor. The rise of capitalist ownership went hand in hand with the expropriation of the rural population. As a result, large-scale private ownership of land arose and, with it, a large mass of legally free but propertyless persons, possessed of nothing more than their own two hands.

Bourgeois private ownership is based on capitalist commodity production, formal equality, and the formal freedom of individuals as owners. In contrast to the private ownership of small commodity producers, capitalist private ownership rests on the unre-compensed appropriation of the fruits of another’s labor and on the exploitation of man by man in the form of appropriation of surplus value.

As capitalism has evolved into monopoly capitalism and, especially, state-monopoly capitalism, the relations of bourgeois ownership have undergone fundamental evolution. Because of rule by the monopolies, the corporation has become the dominant form of organization of capitalist production. Associated (collective) forms of bourgeois ownership have become increasingly important—that is, the capitalist ownership by large stockholders. Such collective forms make bourgeois ownership no less capitalist and exploitative, and the working class remains alienated from the means of production. In essence, therefore, associated ownership is still capitalist. It is ownership by the largest capitalists joined together in monopolistic associations, which encompass industrial corporations, banks, transportation companies, commercial firms, and other companies that hold sway in the economic life of contemporary bourgeois society.

The scientific and technological revolution in the capitalist countries, along with the further growth of associated forms of ownership, has intensified the trend toward an increased role for state capitalist ownership. State capitalist ownership differs fundamentally from classical private ownership and from associated bourgeois ownership, namely, the direct owner is the state, which defends the interests of the ruling class. State capitalist ownership expresses the coalescence of the monopolies and the bourgeois state and serves as a means for redistribution of surplus value and the national income to the benefit of the private monopolies and those branches of the economy whose expansion at any given moment corresponds to the class interests of the big bourgeoisie. The extent to which the modern state participates in the process of social reproduction is evident from its share in the national income. In the advanced capitalist countries in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, the state’s share ranged from 25 percent in Japan to as high as 35 percent in the USA, 38 percent in Italy, 42 percent in Great Britain, and 48 percent in France. In the countries where the state controls a more or less substantial part of the production apparatus, the state has essentially been transformed into the main functioning capitalist (see Table 1).

Capitalist nationalization of ownership is carried out in order to improve conditions for accumulation of capital and to allow capitalist enterprises, especially in the various branches of infrastructure, to operate as efficiently as possible. For bourgeois society in the epoch of state-monopoly capitalism, a characteristic feature is the state’s rapidly growing role in the capitalist economy, a phenomenon that by linking the public sector closely with the private monopolies is intended to put the public sector at the service of the capitalist system as a whole. As the growing role of the state increases the socialization of production, it at the same time narrows the sphere of the monopolies’ direct rule—thus graphically demonstrating that the capitalist order’s fundament of private ownership is doomed—and creates the material prerequisites for the transition to socialism.

The communist and workers’ parties of the capitalist countries proceed from the premise that nationalization under the pressure and systematic control of the working class creates the conditions for sapping the economic and political rule of the financial oligarchy and thus enables the proletariat to conquer political power more easily. The relations of ownership under state-monopoly capitalism are, in a historical sense, the final forms of ownership based on the exploitation of man by man. On the strength of the contradictions inherent in the capitalist mode of production and especially on the strength of the growing contradiction between the social character of production and the capitalist form of appropriation, they have completely exhausted their usefulness. Through socialist revolution, a higher form of ownership arises—socialist ownership, which embraces national and cooperative ownership.

The profound social shifts in the world capitalist economy have produced today’s transitional forms of ownership, which at the present stage cannot as a rule be called either consistently capitalist or fully socialist. Such forms are typical of developing countries that have taken the path of independent economic and political development. In some developing countries, state ownership involves incipient elements of socialist relations, on the one hand, and preserves elements of capitalist or precapitalist production relations, on the other (seeSTATE CAPITALISM).

With all the concrete forms of ownership today, however, the current stage of social development has generally tended toward the transition from capitalist and precapitalist relations of ownership to socialist relations of ownership and to the evolution of these into communist ownership.

The question of ownership, both in theory and practice, has always directly or indirectly reflected the interests of the different classes. In its time, the bourgeoisie proclaimed feudal ownership a tremendous evil. Its ideologues depicted capitalist private ownership, entrenched by the bourgeois revolutions, as the most just form of ownership, the form most consistent with man’s natural rights. Capitalist ownership, as compared with feudal ownership, is progressive, since it quickens the growth of social production and material wealth; consequently, despite the existence of well-defined property inequality, it contributes to the development of the economy and culture of society. This progressive significance of bourgeois property was given philosophic and economic rationale by J. Locke, A. Smith, D. Ricardo, P. d’Holbach, F. Quesnay, G. Hegel, and others. However, they all viewed bourgeois private ownership as an eternal condition of social progress.

Under modern capitalism, as associated and state forms of private ownership emerged, the ideologues of monopoly capital no longer speak of the eternal or just nature of private ownership. In such theories as those of the welfare state, of industrial society, and the convergence of the two world systems, they try to portray the latest forms of capitalist ownership as the negation of everything connected with the bourgeois system of private ownership. Propagandizing the concept of the “diffusion of ownership,” the bourgeois economists strive to prove that under modern capitalism the number of small stockholders is growing and that this has a decisive effect on the operations of the large monopolies. In reality, however, the sale of stock by the large corporations to skilled and white-collar workers is by no means a “diffusion of ownership,” since the great mass of stock remains in the hands of a small elite (seePEOPLE’S CAPITALISM, THEORY OF). This shift from an unconditional apologia for private ownership to a grudging recognition of its historical limitations attests to the profound crisis in the bourgeois world view, which in turn reflects the growing crisis in the capitalist mode of production as a whole.

Without denying the progressive nature of capitalism and bourgeois ownership at a certain historical epoch, Marxism has demonstrated scientifically, through analysis of the contradictions in the capitalist mode of production, the inevitable collapse of the system of private ownership and the transition to a new, socialist society, a new economic structure of production, and, accordingly, a new social form of ownership (see).


Marx, K. “Formy, predshestvuiushchie kapitalisticheskomu proizvodstvu.” In K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd éd., vol. 46, part 1.
Table 1. The share of state enterprises in the economy of the Western European countries (late 1960’s)
 Percentage employed in state sectorTurnover (%)State share of capital investments (%)
TotalIn industry
Great Britain ...............
France ...............11.22.310.033.5
Italy ...............
Federal Republic of Germany ...............
Netherlands ...............
Belgium ...............8.04.513.5
Luxembourg ...............
Marx, K. Kapital, vol. 1, chap. 24; vol. 3, chaps. 31,47. Ibid., vol. 23; vol. 25, parts 1–2.
Engels, F. Proiskhozhdenie sem’i, chastnoi sobstvennosti i gosudarstva. Ibid., vol. 21.
Lenin, V. I. Razvitie kapitalizma v Rossii. In Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 3.
Lenin, V. I. Imperializm, kak vysshaia stadtia kapitalizma. Ibid., vol. 27.
Materialy XXIVs”ezda KPSS. Moscow, 1971.
Kolganov, M. V. Sobstvennost’ v sotsialisticheskom obshchestve. Moscow, 1953.
Tiul’panov, S. I. Ocherki politicheskoi ekonomii (Razvivaiushchiesia strany). Moscow, 1969.
Stoliarov, P. Voprosy teorii i istoricheskogo razvitiia form sobstvennosti v rabotakh K. Marksa. Kiev, 1970.
Politicheskaia ekonomiia sovremennogo monopolistich. kapitalizma, 2nd ed., vol. 1. Moscow, 1975. Chapter 16.
Shkredov, V. Metod issledovaniia sobstvennosti v “Kapitale” K. Marksa. Moscow, 1973.
Gosudarstvennaia sobstvennost’ i antimonopolisticheskaia bor’ba v stranakh razvitogo kapitalizma. Moscow, 1973.


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