A Socialist View of
the Land Question in England
[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.
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
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
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
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. . . .
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
The subject is to be protected by the Government from injury by his