Pamphlets (Tolstoy)/Some Social Remedies/Two Letters on Henry George and the Land Question
Two Letters on Henry George and the Land Question.
(The first written to a German reformer, who had asked for an expression of opinion on Henry George; and the second, to a Russian peasant in Siberia, who had heard something of Henry George and wished to know more.)
In reply to your letter I send you the enclosed with special pleasure. I have been acquainted with Henry George since the appearance of his Social Problems. I read them, 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 also stands alone in the literature of science, which pervades the book. 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 towards the enlightenment of its consciousness, and to the institution of modes of life corresponding to this consciousness. Hence in every period of life and humanity there is, on the one hand, a progressive enlightenment of consciousness, and on the other a realisation in life of what is enlightened. At the close of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th, a progressive enlightenment of consciousness occurred in Christianised humanity with respect to the working classes, who were previously in various phases of slavery; and a progressive realisation of new forms of life—the abolition of slavery and the substitution of free-hired labour.
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 realisation of this must follow. And in this progressive enlightenment with reference to the use of land, and its realisation 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 contributed by his excellent books both to the enlightenment of the consciousness of mankind and to the placing of it upon a practical footing.
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 governments 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, organising working-men's banks, inspection of labour, 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 18th and at the end of the 19th 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 that there is 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 cruel and base 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 Greorge's merit that lie not only exploded all the sophism whereby religion and science justify landed property, and pressed the question to the farthest proof, which forced all who had not stopped their ears to acknowledge the unlawfulness of ownerships in land, but also that he was the first to indicate a possibility of solution for 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 by 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 nationalisation, might be begun to-morrow, 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 their reason demands. It is only necessary, in order that this idea may become public opinion, that it should be spread and explained precisely as you are doing, in which cause I sympathise with you with all my heart, and wish you success.
The scheme of Henry George is as follows:—The advantage and profit from the use of land is not everywhere the same, since the more fertile, convenient portions, adjoining populous districts, will always attract many who wish to possess them; and so much the more as these portions are hotter and more suitahle, they ought to he appraised according to their advantages; the better, dearer; the worse, cheaper; the worst, cheapest of all.
Whereas the land which attracts but few should not be appraised at all, but conceded without payment to those who are willing to cultivate it by their own manual labour. According to such a valuation, convenient plough land in the government of Toula, for example, would be valued at about five or six roubles the dessyatin (about two and three-quarter acres); market garden land near villages at ten roubles; the same, but liable to spring floods, fifteen roubles, and so on. In towns the valuation would be from one hundred to five hundred roubles the dessyatin; and in Moscow and Petersburg, in go-ahead places, and about the harbours of navigable rivers, several thousands or tens of thousands of roubles the dessyatin.
When all the land in the country has been thus appraised, Henry George proposes to pass a law declaring that all the land, from such a year and date, shall belong no longer to any separate individual, but to the whole country, to the whole nation; and that thereafter everyone who possesses land must gradually pay to the State, that is, to the whole nation, the price at which it has been appraised.
This payment must be expended on all the public needs of the State, so that it will take the place of every kind of monetary imposition, both local and national—the custom house, etc.
According to this scheme it would follow that a landowner, who was at present in possession of two thousand dessyatins, would continue to own them, but would have to pay for them into the treasury, here in Toula, between twelve and fifteen thousand roubles a year, because hereabouts the best land for agricultural and building purposes would be included; and no large landowner would be able to bear the strain of such a payment, and would be obliged to give up the land. Whereas our Toula peasant would have to pay about two roubles less for each dessyatin of the same ground than he does at present, would always have available land around him which he could hire for five or six roubles, and, in addition, would not only have no other taxes to pay, but would receive all Russian and foreign articles which he needs without imposts. In towns the owners of houses and manufactories can continue to possess their property, bnt will have to pay for the land they occupy, according to its valuation, into the common treasury.
The advantage of such a system will be—
1. That no one will be deprived of the possibility of using land.
2. That idle men, possessing land, and forcing others to work for them in return for the use of the land, will cease to exist.
3. That the land will be in the hands of those who work it and not of those who do not.
4. That the people being able to work on the land will cease to enslave themselves as labourers in mills and factories, and as servants in towns; and will disperse themselves about the country.
5. That there will be no longer any overseers and tax collectors in factories, mills, stores, and custom houses, but only collectors of payment for the land, which it is impossible to steal, and from which taxes may be most easily collected.
6. and chiefly. That those who do not labour will be freed from the sin of profiting by the labours of others (in doing which they are often not to blame, being from childhood educated in idleness, and not knowing how to work); and from the still greater sin of every kind of falsehood and excuse to shift the blame from themselves; and that those who do labour will be delivered from the temptation and sin of envy, condemnation of others, and exasperation against those who do not work; and thus will disappear one of the causes of dissension between man and man.
(First published in The New Age. Revised from original.)