Letter on Henry George (I)

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Letter on Henry George (I)
by Leo Tolstoy
, translated by Nathan Haskell Dole
561904Letter on Henry George (I)Nathan Haskell DoleLeo Tolstoy

In reply to your letter I send you the enclosed with special pleasure. (1)

I have been acquainted with Henry George since the appearance of his Social Problems. I read that book, and was struck by the correctness of his main idea, and by the unique clearness and power of his argument, which is unlike anything in scientific literature, and especially by the Christian spirit which pervades the book, making it also stand alone in the literature of science. After reading it I turned to his previous work, Progress and Poverty, and with a heightened appreciation of its author's activity.

You ask my opinion of Henry George's work, and of his single tax system. My opinion is the following :

Humanity advances continually toward the enlightenment of its consciousness, and to the institution of modes of life corresponding to this consciousness, which is in process of enlightenment. Hence in every period of life and humanity there is, on the one hand, a progressive enlightenment of consciousness, and on the other a realization in life of what is enlightened by the consciousness. At the close of the last century and the beginning of this, a progressive enlightenment of consciousness occurred in Christianized humanity with respect to the working-classes, who were previously in various phases of slavery ; and a progressive realization of new forms of life the abolition of slavery and the substitution of free hired labor. At the present day a progressive enlightenment of human consciousness is taking place with reference to the use of land, and soon, it seems to me, a progressive realization in life of this consciousness must follow. And in this progressive enlightenment of consciousness with reference to the use of land, and in the realization of this consciousness, which constitutes one of the chief problems of our time, the fore-man, the leader of the movement, was and is Henry George. In this lies his immense and predominant importance. He has contributed by his excellent books both to the enlightenment of the consciousness of mankind with reference to this question, and to placing it on a practical footing. (2)

But with the abolition of the revolting right of ownership in land, the same thing is being repeated which took place, as we can still remember, when slavery was abolished. The government and ruling classes, knowing that the advantages and authority of their position amongst men are bound up in the land question, while pretending that they are preoccupied with the welfare of the people, organizing working-men's banks, inspection of labor, income taxes, and even an eight hours' day, studiously ignore the land question, and even, with the aid of an obliging and easily corrupted science, assert that the expropriation of land is useless, harmful, impossible.

The same thing is happening now as in the days of the slave trade. Mankind, at the beginning of the present and at the end of the last century, had long felt that slavery was an awful, soul-nauseating anachronism; but sham religion and sham science proved that there was nothing wrong in it, that it was indispensable, or, at least, that its abolition would be premature.

To-day something similar is taking place with reference to property in land. In the same way sham religion and sham science are proving that there is nothing wrong in landed property, and no need to abolish it. One might think it would be palpable to every educated man of our time that the exclusive control of land by people who do not work upon it, and who prevent hundreds and thousands of distressed families making use of it, is an action every whit as wicked and base as the possession of slaves; yet we see aristocrats, supposed to be educated and refined, English, Austrian, Prussian, Russian, who profit by this base and cruel right, and who are not only not ashamed, but proud of it. Religion blesses such possession, and the science of political economy proves that it must exist for the greatest welfare of mankind.

It is Henry George's merit that he not only exploded all the sophism whereby religion and science justify landed property, and pressed the question to the furthest proof, which forced all who had not stopped their ears to acknowledge the unlawfulness of ownership in land, but also that he was the first to indicate a possible solution to the question. He was the first to give a simple, straightforward answer to the usual excuses made by the enemies of all progress, which affirm that the demands of progress are illusions, impracticable, inapplicable. The method of Henry George destroys this excuse by so putting the question that to-morrow committees might be appointed to examine and deliberate on his scheme and its transformation into law.

In Russia, for instance, the inquiry as to the means for the ransom of land, or its gratuitous confiscation for nationalization, might be begun tomorrow, and solved, with certain restrictions, as thirty-three years ago the question of liberating the peasants was solved.

To humanity the indispensableness of this reform is demonstrated, and its feasibleness is proved (emendations, alterations in the single tax system may be required, but the fundamental idea is a possibility); and therefore humanity cannot but do that which reason demands.

For this idea to become public opinion it is only necessary that it should be spread and explained precisely as you are doing, in which work I sympathize with you with all my heart, and wish you success.


1 Written in answer to a German, occupied in spreading the ideas and system of Henry George in his own country, who wrote to ask Tolstoi what views he held concerning such an activity.

2 The Russian word soznaniye signifies both " consciousness " and " conscience," and as in these paragraphs seems to vibrate between the two concepts. ED.