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Is this Communism?

Henry George: The Condition of Labor — An Open Letter to Pope Leo XIII in response to Rerum Novarum (1891)

I have said enough to show your Holiness the injustice into which you fall in classing us, who in seeking virtually to abolish private property in land seek more fully to secure the true rights of property, with those whom you speak of as socialists, who wish to make all property common. But you also do injustice to the socialists.

There are many, it is true, who feeling bitterly the monstrous wrongs of the present distribution of wealth are animated only by a blind hatred of the rich and a fierce desire to destroy existing social adjustments. This class is indeed only less dangerous than those who proclaim that no social improvement is needed or is possible. But it is not fair to confound with them those who, however mistakenly, propose definite schemes of remedy.

The socialists, as I understand them, and as the term has come to apply to anything like a definite theory and not to be vaguely and improperly used to include all who desire social improvement, do not, as you imply, seek the abolition of all private property. Those who do this are properly called communists. What the socialists seek is the state assumption of capital (in which they vaguely and erroneously include land), or more properly speaking, of large capitals, and state management and direction of at least the larger operations of industry. In this way they hope to abolish interest, which they regard as a wrong and an evil; to do away with the gains of exchangers, speculators, contractors and middlemen, which they regard as waste; to do away with the wage system and secure general cooperation; and to prevent competition, which they deem the fundamental cause of the impoverishment of labor. The more moderate of them, without going so far, go in the same direction, and seek some remedy or palliation of the worst forms of poverty by government regulation. The essential character of socialism is that it looks to the extension of the functions of the state for the remedy of social evils; that it would substitute regulation and direction for competition; and intelligent control by organized society for the free play of individual desire and effort.

Though not usually classed as socialists, both the trades-unionists and the protectionists have the same essential character. The trades-unionists seek the increase of wages, the reduction of working-hours and the general improvement in the condition of wage-workers, by organizing them into guilds or associations which shall fix the rates at which they will sell their labor; shall deal as one body with employers in case of dispute; shall use on occasion their necessary weapon, the strike; and shall accumulate funds for such purposes and for the purpose of assisting members when on a strike, or (sometimes) when out of employment. The protectionists seek by governmental prohibitions or taxes on imports to regulate the industry and control the exchanges of each country, so as, they imagine, to diversify home industries and prevent the competition of people of other countries.

At the opposite extreme are the anarchists, a term which, though frequently applied to mere violent destructionists, refers also to those who, seeing the many evils of too much government, regard government in itself as evil, and believe that in the absence of coercive power the mutual interests of men would secure voluntarily what cooperation is needed.

Differing from all these are those for whom I would speak. Believing that the rights of true property are sacred, we would regard forcible communism as robbery that would bring destruction. But we would not be disposed to deny that voluntary communism might be the highest possible state of which men can conceive. Nor do we say that it cannot be possible for mankind to attain it, since among the early Christians and among the religious orders of the Catholic Church we have examples of communistic societies on a small scale. St. Peter and St. Paul, St. Thomas of Aquin and Fra Angelico, the illustrious orders of the Carmelites and Franciscans, the Jesuits, whose heroism carried the cross among the most savage tribes of American forests, the societies that wherever your communion is known have deemed no work of mercy too dangerous or too repellent — were or are communists. Knowing these things we cannot take it on ourselves to say that a social condition may not be possible in which an all-embracing love shall have taken the place of all other motives. But we see that communism is only possible where there exists a general and intense religious faith, and we see that such a state can be reached only through a state of justice. For before a man can be a saint he must first be an honest man. ...

I have already referred generally to the defects that attach to all socialistic remedies for the evil condition of labor, but respect for your Holiness dictates that I should speak specifically, even though briefly, of the remedies proposed or suggested by you.

Of these, the widest and strongest are that the state should restrict the hours of labor, the employment of women and children, the unsanitary conditions of workshops, etc. Yet how little may in this way be accomplished.

A strong, absolute ruler might hope by such regulations to alleviate the conditions of chattel slaves. But the tendency of our times is toward democracy, and democratic states are necessarily weaker in paternalism, while in the industrial slavery, growing out of private ownership of land, that prevails in Christendom today, it is not the master who forces the slave to labor, but the slave who urges the master to let him labor. Thus the greatest difficulty in enforcing such regulations comes from those whom they are intended to benefit. It is not, for instance, the masters who make it difficult to enforce restrictions on child labor in factories, but the mothers, who, prompted by poverty, misrepresent the ages of their children even to the masters, and teach the children to misrepresent.

But while in large factories and mines regulations as to hours, ages, etc., though subject to evasion and offering opportunities for extortion and corruption, may be to some extent enforced, how can they have any effect in those far wider branches of industry where the laborer works for himself or for small employers?

All such remedies are of the nature of the remedy for overcrowding that is generally prescribed with them — the restriction under penalty of the number who may occupy a room and the demolition of unsanitary buildings. Since these measures have no tendency to increase house accommodation or to augment ability to pay for it, the overcrowding that is forced back in some places goes on in other places and to a worse degree. All such remedies begin at the wrong end. They are like putting on brake and bit to hold in quietness horses that are being lashed into frenzy; they are like trying to stop a locomotive by holding its wheels instead of shutting off steam; like attempting to cure smallpox by driving back its pustules. Men do not overwork themselves because they like it; it is not in the nature of the mother’s heart to send children to work when they ought to be at play; it is not of choice that laborers will work under dangerous and unsanitary conditions. These things, like overcrowding, come from the sting of poverty. And so long as the poverty of which they are the expression is left untouched, restrictions such as you indorse can have only partial and evanescent results. The cause remaining, repression in one place can only bring out its effects in other places, and the task you assign to the state is as hopeless as to ask it to lower the level of the ocean by bailing out the sea.

Nor can the state cure poverty by regulating wages. It is as much beyond the power of the state to regulate wages as it is to regulate the rates of interest. Usury laws have been tried again and again, but the only effect they have ever had has been to increase what the poorer borrowers must pay, and for the same reasons that all attempts to lower by regulation the price of goods have always resulted merely in increasing them. The general rate of wages is fixed by the ease or difficulty with which labor can obtain access to land, ranging from the full earnings of labor, where land is free, to the least on which laborers can live and reproduce, where land is fully monopolized. Thus, where it has been comparatively easy for laborers to get land, as in the United States and in Australasia, wages have been higher than in Europe and it has been impossible to get European laborers to work there for wages that they would gladly accept at home; while as monopolization goes on under the influence of private property in land, wages tend to fall, and the social conditions of Europe to appear. Thus, under the partial yet substantial recognition of common rights to land, of which I have spoken, the many attempts of the British Parliament to reduce wages by regulation failed utterly. And so, when the institution of private property in land had done its work in England, all attempts of Parliament to raise wages proved unavailing. In the beginning of this century it was even attempted to increase the earnings of laborers by grants in aid of wages. But the only result was to lower commensurately what wages employers paid.

The state could maintain wages above the tendency of the market (for as I have shown labor deprived of land becomes a commodity), only by offering employment to all who wish it; or by lending its sanction to strikes and supporting them with its funds. Thus it is, that the thoroughgoing socialists who want the state to take all industry into its hands are much more logical than those timid socialists who propose that the state should regulate private industry — but only a little.

The same hopelessness attends your suggestion that working-people should be encouraged by the state in obtaining a share of the land. It is evident that by this you mean that, as is now being attempted in Ireland, the state shall buy out large landowners in favor of small ones, establishing what are known as peasant proprietors. Supposing that this can be done even to a considerable extent, what will be accomplished save to substitute a larger privileged class for a smaller privileged class? What will be done for the still larger class that must remain, the laborers of the agricultural districts, the workmen of the towns, the proletarians of the cities? Is it not true, as Professor De Laveleye says, that in such countries as Belgium, where peasant proprietary exists, the tenants, for there still exist tenants, are rack-rented with a mercilessness unknown in Ireland? Is it not true that in such countries as Belgium the condition of the mere laborer is even worse than it is in Great Britain, where large ownerships obtain? And if the state attempts to buy up land for peasant proprietors will not the effect be, what is seen today in Ireland, to increase the market value of land and thus make it more difficult for those not so favored, and for those who will come after, to get land? How, moreover, on the principle which you declare (36), that “to the state the interests of all are equal, whether high or low,” will you justify state aid to one man to buy a bit of land without also insisting on state aid to another man to buy a donkey, to another to buy a shop, to another to buy the tools and materials of a trade — state aid in short to everybody who may be able to make good use of it or thinks that he could? And are you not thus landed in communism — not the communism of the early Christians and of the religious orders, but communism that uses the coercive power of the state to take rightful property by force from those who have, to give to those who have not? For the state has no purse of Fortunatus; the state cannot repeat the miracle of the loaves and fishes; all that the state can give, it must get by some form or other of the taxing power. And whether it gives or lends money, or gives or lends credit, it cannot give to those who have not, without taking from those who have.

But aside from all this, any scheme of dividing up land while maintaining private property in land is futile. Small holdings cannot coexist with the treatment of land as private property where civilization is materially advancing and wealth augments. We may see this in the economic tendencies that in ancient times were the main cause that transformed world-conquering Italy from a land of small farms to a land of great estates. We may see it in the fact that while two centuries ago the majority of English farmers were owners of the land they tilled, tenancy has been for a long time the all but universal condition of the English farmer. And now the mighty forces of steam and electricity have come to urge concentration. It is in the United States that we may see on the largest scale how their power is operating to turn a nation of landowners into a nation of tenants. The principle is clear and irresistible. Material progress makes land more valuable, and when this increasing value is left to private owners land must pass from the ownership of the poor into the ownership of the rich, just as diamonds so pass when poor men find them. What the British government is attempting in Ireland is to build snow-houses in the Arabian desert! to plant bananas in Labrador!

There is one way, and only one way, in which working-people in our civilization may be secured a share in the land of their country, and that is the way that we propose — the taking of the profits of landownership for the community. ... read the whole letter



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Wealth and Want
... because democracy alone hasn't yet led to a society in which all can prosper