The Woman Who Discovered Private Property
JULY 01, 1992 by WILLIAM HOLTZ
Professor Holtz, who teaches in the Department of English, University of Missouri-Columbia, is writing a biography of Rose Wilder Lane.
The final European Communist regime to collapse of its own weight was in Albania, a country, someone has said, that served to demonstrate how much government could be packed into a tiny space. Sadly enough, the internal repression necessary to maintain this regime had enslaved once more a people who had been struggling for centuries for freedom from external domination—by the Ottoman Turks, the Serbs, the Montenegrins, the Greeks, and finally the Italians. The most backward of European nations even before its seizure by Hoxha’s partisans at the end of World War II, since then Albania had fallen ever farther behind the modern world as its historically grounded xenophobia was reinforced by a reactionary Stalinism that cut it off even from its nominal compatriots in the Communist bloc. Now Albania is again open to Americans, although these must still travel in supervised tour groups.
One of the first Americans to travel extensively in pre-Communist Albania and to take an intelligent interest in its problems was Rose Wilder Lane (1886-1968), whose The Peaks of Shala (1923) documents her visit to some of that country’s remotest mountain regions. Lane was also the author of a classic handbook of libertarian thought, The Discovery of Freedom (1943). The two are not directly connected, although The Discovery of Freedom was in a way the culmination of a process of discovery that began when she went to Europe in the 1920s as a freelance writer.
Lane carried with her an essentially unexamined baggage of parlor-socialist ideas, common among writers and intellectuals of the time and attached to the historical spectacle of the developing Soviet Union. Her experience in Europe and in the Caucasus would lead her to question these ideas; her experience in her own country in the 1930s would lead her to rebel against them; and The Discovery of Freedom would be a distillation of her thought and experience.
In the mountains of Albania, Lane had one of her earliest practical encounters with the implications of personal freedom. There she met a woman who, in contravention of all tradition and teaching in her society, had discovered private property.
By chapter six of The Peaks of Shala, Lane had brought herself and her readers deep into the mountains of northern Albania, where in scattered and isolated villages she found a primitive yet noble tribal society, generous and courteous to guests but locked in blood feuds with neighboring tribes under the Law of Lec, which dated from Alexander the Great. She estimated that, except for their rifles, they were essentially living in the eighth century. The tribal leaders were much interested in her reports from the outside world, which she tried to interpret for them as best she could. But in one village Lane found a problem beyond her powers of explanation, as the village elders asked how they might settle a woman’s revolutionary claim to the fruits of her own labor. All she wanted, this woman said, was justice.
She told us with a calm precision; none of her people’s rhetorical flourishes. Even through the barrier of language I could see that she was stating her case as a lawyer might who was not addressing a jury.
She had been married five years; she was twenty-one years old. She had two children—boys. While she was married her husband had built a house. It was a large house; two rooms. She had helped her husband build that house. With her Own hands she had laid the slate on the roof. She liked that house. She had lived in it four years. Now her husband had been killed by the Serbs and she wanted to keep that house. She wanted to live in it alone, with her two children . . . .
Her husband’s brother, head of the family now, had taken it. He was living in it with his wife and children and brothers and cousins and—I forget exactly; seventeen of them in all. The family, which comprised all the village at the foot of the slope on which we stood, had decided that the house should be used for them. But she would not do it. She wanted that house all for herself; she said again that it was her house. Until she got that house nothing would content her or keep her silent.
“I Want My House!”
“But where do you suppose she got the idea?” Lane asked her interpreter. “Heaven knows,” he replied. “Who can tell what women will think of?”
Later that evening, the woman brought her appeal to a gathering of the tribal elders. “Undoubtedly we were among the most courteous people in the world,” Lane wrote, “but the next moment that idea was completely upset, for out of the darkness walked that rebel woman who believes in private property.”
She came quite calmly into the circle of the firelight, her beautiful hands low on her thighs, below the wide,silver-shining marriage belt, the blue beads twinkling at the ends of the long black braids of her hair, her chin up, and a light of battle in her eyes . . . .
“When am I going to get my house?” said the woman. She stood there superb, holding that question like a bone above a mob of starving dogs, and they rose at it.
I have never seen such pandemonium. Three chiefs spoke at once, snarling; they were on their feet; it was like a picture by Jan Steen changed into the wildest of futurist canvases. I expected them to fly at one another’s throats, after the words that they hurled at each other like spears. I expected them to strike the woman, so violently did they thrust their faces close to hers, clenching quivering fists on the hilts of the knives in their sashes. She stamped her foot, her lips curled back like a dog’s from her fine, gleaming teeth, and she stood her ground, flashing back at them words that seemed poisoned by the venom in her eyes. “My house!” she repeated, and, “I want my house!”
As the argument died down for a moment, Lane asked for an explanation from one of the elders. “Who can say what the avalanche wants?” replied the chief contemptuously.
“She would break our village into pieces. She has no respect for wisdom or custom. She says that a house is her house; she is a widow with two sons, and she demands the house in which she lived with her husband. She wishes to take a house from the tribe and keep it for herself. Have the mountains seen such a thing since a hundred hundred years before the Turks came? She is gogoli [insane].”
“I helped to build that house,” said the woman. “With my own hands I laid the roof upon it. It is my house. I will not give up my house.”
“My pen spilled ink on my excited hands as I tried to capture their words in shorthand,” Lane wrote. “I was seeing, actually seeing with my own eyes, the invention of private property!”
Then the oldest man . . . obviously the chief of chiefs—appealed to me.
“In your country, what would you do with such a woman?” And I perceived that I was obliged to explain to this circle of eager listeners a system of social and economic life of which they had never dreamed, of which they knew as little as we know of the year 2900.
Rose Wilder Lane tried to explain not merely the ownership of houses, but of land, and of property held for rents and investment, as well as the notion of hired labor and taxes paid to government. And failed, as she could see when another chief rose to make a passionate speech that convinced everyone but the complaining woman:
“Such things can never be. Even a child knows that it would be foolish to own a house in which he did not live. Of what use is a house, except to live in? As it is, each man has the house in which he lives, and there are houses for all, and they belong to the tribe that built them. It is impossible that a man can own a house. It is not the nature of men to own houses, and we will never do it, for the nature of man is always the same. It is the same today as it was before the Romans came, and it will always be the same. And no man will ever own a house.”
“Glory to your lips!” they said to him. “It is so.”
The woman, who had been sitting quietly listening to this, now rose and very quietly, without saying farewell, slipped out of the firelight, and in a moment, by the sound of the closing door, I knew she had left the house. But there was something about my last glimpse of her back that makes me believe she is still clamoring for her house, and will be until long after her baby sons are grown and married. Unless she gets it sooner.
What Lane had encountered in this Albanian village was, of course, a primitive communism, the kind with a small c. The big C variety she would encounter soon enough, as her travels took her to Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan during the time that these ancient nations were being absorbed into the growing Soviet Union. There she encountered the well-intentioned, blundering Soviet bureaucrats disrupting centuries-old agricultural practices with confiscations, allocations, and taxes on production that reduced some peasants to a despairing certainty of starvation. What was claimed as progress was really regress, she concluded; and she returned to the United States with her socialist opinions badly tarnished.
When in the 1930s she made a similar tour of the farms of her own Midwest and observed the New Deal farm programs in place, she found a familiar insertion of the hand of government between the worker and the produce of his labor. The result was a train of thought that finally produced The Discovery of Freedom, the subtitle of which told the real story: Man’s Struggle Against Authority.
In the long course of history, she argued, the insight into the absolute validity of personal freedom and personal responsibility was only an occasional glimmer in a dark chronicle of submission to authority. Its most promising flowering had been in the founding of the American republic, but its essence lay in the assertion of the individual human will. Which might happen anywhere, even in the medieval setting of an Albanian village in 1921, in the heart of a woman who had discovered private property.
Lane retained her love for Albania, living there for a year in 1926-27 even as she saw it sinking under Italian influence. She informally adopted the 12-year-old boy who was her guide and interpreter on the first mountain trip. She supported him through his studies at Cambridge and stood as godmother to his family after he married, even though she was never able to return to visit them. When this young man was interned, first by the Italians during World War II and then by the Communists after, she was able to provide clandestine support to his family, some of whom have now made their way to the United States. Among those Albanians who remain behind, working to build a free society in place of the most recent tyranny, are doubtless the descendants of that rebellious woman who had insisted on the right to keep what she had worked to build.