A Socialist View of
the Land Question in England

Robert Blatchford

[Excerpts from the book Merrie England
published 1893, presenting a socialist case
against both landordism and monopoly capitalism]


The Manchester School will tell you that we cannot grow our own corn. That is not true.

They will tell you that as foreigners can grow corn more cheaply than we can, and as we can make cotton goods more cheaply than they can, it is to the interest of both parties to exchange.

I do not believe that any nation can sell corn more cheaply than we could produce it; and I am. sure that even if it cost a little more to grow our corn than to buy it, yet it would be to our interest to grow it. First as to the cost of growing corn. In the Industrial History of England I find the question of why the English farmer is undersold answered in this way:

The answer is simple. His capital has been filched from him, surely, but not always slowly, by a tremendous increase in his rent The landlords of the eighteenth century made the English farmer the foremost agriculturist in the world, but their successors of the nineteenth have ruined him by their extortions.


I know it has been said, and is said, that an English farmer owning his land cannot compete with foreign dealers ; but I think that is doubtful, and I am sure that if the land were owned by the State, and farmed systematically by the best methods, we might grow our corn more cheaply than we could buy it.

But suppose we could not. The logical result of the free-trade argument would be that British agriculture must perish. The case was very clearly put by Mr. Cobden in the House of Commons:

To buy in the cheapest market and sell in the dearest, what is the meaning of the maxim? It means that you take the article which you have in the greatest abundance, and with it obtain from others that of which they have the most to spare; so giving to mankind the means of enjoying the fullest abundance of earth's goods.

What do we lose? We lose the beauty and health of our factory towns; we lose annually some twenty thousand lives in Lancashire alone; we are in constant danger of great strikes, like that which recently so crushed our cotton-operatives; we are reduced to the meanest shifts and the most violent acts of piracy and slaughter to " open up markets" for our goods; we lose the stamina of our people; and we lose our agriculture.

PAGE 37-38

The following are facts which no man attempts to deny:

1. Large numbers of honest and industrious people are badly fed, badly clothed, and badly housed.

2. Many thousands of people die every year from preventable diseases.

3. The average duration of life amongst the population is unnaturally short.

4. Very many people, after lives of toil, are obliged to seek refuge in the workhouse, where they die despised and neglected, branded with the shameful brand of pauperism.

5. It is an almost invariable rule that those who work hardest and longest in this country are the worst paid and the least respected.

6. The wealthiest men in our nation are men who never did a useful day's work.

7. Wealth and power are more prized and more honoured than wisdom, or industry, or virtue.

8. Hundreds of thousands of men and women, willing to work, are unable to find employment.

9. While on the one hand wages are lowered on account of over-production of coal, of cotton, and of corn, on the other hand many of our working people are short of bread, of fuel, and of clothing.

10. Nearly all the land and property in this country are owned by a few idlers, and most of the laws are made in the interests of those few rich people.

11. The national agriculture is going rapidly to ruin to the great injury and peril of the State.

12. Through competition millions of men are employed in useless and undignified work, and all the industrial machinery of the nation is thrown out of gear, so that one greedy rascal may overreach another.


The old original capitalist who has rested from his labours, and whose works do follow him creative, frugal, and laborious he looms ever "at the back of the beyond." It is a beautiful conception, this of the first capitalist, and only shows that poetry, like hope, springs eternal in the human breast even the economical breast. Like Prester John and the Wandering Jew, he has a weird charm about him that almost makes one love him. But our reverence for an old legend must not blind us to historical fact, to wit, that the real origin of modern capital is to be found in the forcible expropriation of the peasantry from the soil, in oppressive laws to keep down wages, in the plunder and enslavement of the inhabitants of the New World and of Africa, in the merciless over- working of children in factories, …

As soon as land becomes private property, the landlord demands a share of almost all the produce which the labourer can either raise or collect from it. His rent makes the first deduction from the produce of the labour employed upon land. . . .

As soon as the land of any country has all become private property, the landlords, like all other men, love to reap where they never sowed, and demand a rent, even for its natural produce. . . . Adam Smith.

How contempt of human rights is the essential element in building up the great fortunes whose growth is such a marked feature of our development we have already seen. And just as clearly may we see that from the same cause spring poverty and pauperism. The tramp is the complement of the millionaire. Henry George

In a rude and violent state of society it continually happens that the person who has capital is not the very person who has saved it, but some- one who, being stronger, or belonging to a more powerful community, has possessed himself of it by plunder. And even in a state of things several degrees more advanced, the increase of capital has been in a great measure derived from privations which, though essentially the same with saving, are not generally called by that name, because not voluntary. The actual producers have been slaves, compelled to produce as much as force could extort from them, and to consume as little as self-interest, or the usually very slender humanity of their task-masters would permit. Johb Stuart Mill.


The British Islands do not belong to the British people; they belong to a few thousands certainly not half a million of rich men.

These men not only own the land, they own, also, the rivers and lakes, the mines and minerals, the farms and orchards, the trees and thickets ; the cattle and horses, and sheep and pigs, and poultry and game ; the mills, factories, churches, houses, shops, railways, trains, ships, machinery, and, in fact, nearly everything except the bodies and souls of the workers, and, as I will try to show you, they have almost complete power over these.

Yes, not only do the rich own the land, and all the buildings and machinery, but also, and because they own those things, they have reduced the workers to a condition of dependence.


First, as to the rich man's "right" to his wealth. I suppose that you, as a sensible and honest man, will admit this principle: viz., that a man has a "right" to that which he has produced by the unaided exercise of his own faculties; but that he has not a right to that which is not produced by his own unaided faculties; nor to the whole of that which has been produced by his faculties aided by the faculties of another man.

If you admit the above principle, then I think I can prove to you that no man has a right to the private ownership of a single square foot of land; and that no man could of his own efforts produce more private property than is commonly possessed by a monkey or a bear.

We will begin with the land; and you will find that the original title to all the land possessed by private owners is the title of conquest or theft.

There are four chief ways in which land may become private property. It may be confiscated by force; it may be filched by fraud; it may be received as a gift; or it may be bought with money.

Of the land held by our rich peers the greater part has been plundered from the church, stolen from the common- lands, or received in gifts from the Crown.


I want you to read that book, and also Henry George's Progress and Poverty and Social Problems, each is published by Paul, Trench, Triibner, & Co., London.

But leaving the men who have stolen the land, or got it by force, or fraud, let us consider the title of those who have bought the land.

Many people have bought land, and paid for it. Have they a right to it?


No. They have no right to that land, and for these two reasons.

1. They bought it of some one who had no right to sell it.

2. They paid for it with money which they themselves had never earned.

Land, you will observe, is the gift of Nature. It is not made by man. Now, if a man has a right to nothing but that which he has himself made, no man can have a right to the land, for no man made it.

It would be just as reasonable for a few families to claim possession of the sea and the air, and charge their fellow creatures rent for breathing or bathing, as it is for those few families to grab the land and call it theirs. As a matter of fact we are charged for breathing, for without a sufficient space of land to breathe on we cannot get good air to breathe.

If a man claimed the sea, or the air, or the light as his, you would laugh at his presumption. Now, I ask you to point out to me any reason for private ownership of land which will not act as well as a reason for private ownership of sea and air.

So we may agree that no man can have any right to the land. And if a man can have no right to the land, how can he have a right to sell the land? And if I buy a piece of land from one who has no right to sell it, how can I call that land mine?


The nobleman does not in most cases administer his estate. The estate is managed by farmers, who pay the nobleman a heavy rent for being allowed to do his work.

Therefore the landlord does not "create the value" of the estate. The value of an estate consists in the industry of those who work upon it. To say that Lord Blankdash has farm lands or town property worth 50,000 a year means that he has the legal power to take that money from the factory hands and farm-workers for the use of that which is as much theirs as his.


Have you ever considered the question of house rent? Suppose you own a cottage in a country village, and I own a cottage of the same size in a busy town, close to a big railway and a number of factories. You know that I shall get more rent for my house than you will get for yours. Why?

Because my house stands on more desirable land. The railway company would buy it. And then it is near to places of work, and workmen will pay more for it, especially as houses are scarce.

But did 1 make the railway? Did I build the factories? Did I do anything to make the wealth of the town, or the "value" of the land Not I. The workers did that, and so I am paid for what they did. That is to say, I am allowed, by raising my rent, to put a tax upon their industry.


When men talk of the ancient wealth of a country, of riches inherited from ancestors, and similar expressions, the idea suggested is that the riches so transmitted were produced long ago, at the time when they are said to have been first acquired, and that no portion of the capital of a country was produced this year, except so much as may have been this year added to the total amount. The fact is far otherwise.

The greater part, in value, of the wealth now existing in England has been produced by human hands within the last twelve months. A very small proportion indeed of that large aggregate was in existence ten years ago; of the present productive capital of the country scarcely any part, except farm houses and factories, and a few ships and machines; and even these would not in most cases have survived so long if fresh labour had not been employed within that period in putting them into repair.

The land subsists, and the land is almost the only thing that subsists. Everything which is produced perishes, and most things very quickly.

And again:

Capital is kept in existence from age to age, not by preservation, but by perpetual reproduction.

Does that surprise you? Nearly all the boasted "capital" or wealth of the rich is produced annually.


But though a monopoly of capitalists will not serve a useful purpose, it may be possible to find some kind of monopoly that will serve a useful purpose.

What we want is a monopoly which will raise wages and keep down rent and interest. This is to say, a monopoly which will ensure to the worker the enjoyment of all the wealth he produces.

There is only one kind of monopoly which can do this, and it is a State monopoly.

PAGE 103

Under Ideal Socialism there would be no money at all, and no wages. The industry of the country would be organised and managed by the State, much as the post-office now is; goods of all kinds would be produced and distributed for use, and not for sale, in such quantities as were needed, hours of labour would be fixed, and every citizen would take what he or she desired from the common stock. Food, clothing, lodging, fuel, transit, amusements, and all other things would be absolutely free, and the only difference between a prime minister and a collier would be the difference of rank and occupation.

PAGE 107

Suppose we began with the land. The land must be made the property of the nation. Very well, what about compensation?

Personally I am against compensation, but I suppose it would have to be given, and my only hope is that it would be kept as low as possible. So with the mines and the railways. They could be bought, and the smaller the price the better.

PAGE 131-132

No sensible man would attempt to oppose a law of nature. All natural laws are right. No natural law can be resisted. But before we give to any law implicit obedience we shall be wise to examine its credentials. Natural laws we must obey. But don't let us mistake the hasty deductions of erring men for the unchanging and triumphant laws of Nature. Let us begin, in this case, by asking whether the law of prey, which seems to be a natural and inevitable statute among the brutes, has any right of jurisdiction in the courts of humanity. Is there any difference between man and the brutes? If there is a difference, in what does it consist?

We need not get into a subtle investigation on this matter It is sufficient to use common terms, and say that man has intellect; animals only instinct. Consider the consequences of this difference. We have spoken and written language, which beasts have not. We have imagination, which beasts have not. We have memory, history, sciences, religions, which beasts have not. And we have intellectual progress, which beasts have not. I might go a great deal deeper into this matter, but I want to keep to plain speech and simple issues. Man has reason; beasts have not.

Now reason is a natural thing in man. Nature gave him reason, because reason is necessary to the working out of his development, and I mean to say that by reason we are to be guided, and not by the law of prey, which is a natural check and balance put upon unreasoning creatures. By how much a man's reason excels a brute's instincts is the man better than the brute. By how much one man's reason excels that of his fellows is he better than they. By how much any policy of human affairs is more reasonable than another policy is it best fitted to survive.

It seems, then, that the law of the Survival of the Fittest does apply to mankind; but it works with them in a manner different to that in which it works with the brutes. Well, I say that our Gradgrinds apply a natural law in an unnatural manner. That they would rule mankind by brutal methods.

PAGE 159

Put a number of well-disposed people into bad surroundings and compel them to stop there. In a century you will have the kind of people now to be found in the slums. Take, now, a lot of people from the slums and put them in a new country where they must work to live, where they can live by work, where fresh air and freedom and hope can come to them, and in a generation you will have a prosperous and creditable colony. Do you not know this to be true? Has it not happened both ways? Do not Dr. Barnardo's outcast children turn out well? Then what is the reason? Men are made by their environment.

PAGE 167-168

Society, according to my philosophy, is a union of people for mutual advantage. Every member of a society must give up some small fraction of his own will and advantage in return for the advantages he gains from association with his fellows. One of the advantages he derives from association with his fellows is protection from injury. The chief function of Government which is the executive power of the society's will is to protect the subject. Against whom is the subject to be protected? I should say against foreign enemies, against injury by his fellow-subjects, and against calamities caused by his own ignorance. We will lay by the first and third propositions, and consider the second.

The subject is to be protected by the Government from injury by his fellow-subjects.