Karl Marx and Henry George

Robert Bruce Brinsmade

[Reprinted from the Single Tax Review, October-November 1916]


W. H. Kaufman made a brave attempt in your March-April number to reconcile the doctrines of Marx and George, yet I hardly think he has succeeded where the masters themselves failed. In economics -- as Kaufman postulates -- exactitude of definition is all-important, but I find no warrant at all in the 2,200 tedious pages of the three volumes of the English edition of "Capital" to warrant Kaufman's translation of Das Kapital as "Private Monopoly." In fact, the first two volumes scarcely mention monopoly, being occupied chiefly with the origin and operation of the factory system in general and of the cotton manufacture of England in particular.

Single Taxers cannot consistently accept Marx's definition of value: "The average socially necessary labor time required to produce an article." Whatever measure of value may be found convenient, in some future cooperative commonwealth, under our existing system, it is certain that, the temporary prices may be fixed by the higgling of the market, they must finally depend upon the cost of reproduction on marginal land. Thus value is not fixed anywhere but on marginal land; and even there not alone by the cost of labor, but also by that equally necessary expense of production, the cost for the use of capital, called interest.

Basing his first two volumes of "Capital" on his wrong definition of value, Marx consistently reiterates in them that "surplus value" represents a robbery of the workman by his employer, who is thus considered a thief because he takes any interest on his invested true capital (buildings, machinery, etc.). And this absurd moral result was the chief feature of Marx's system that was opposed by George, as it tended to incite class antagonism and obstruct rational reform.

During his later years Marx began to focus his mind on the land instead of only on labor and capital; and, in volume III of "Capital" he records the result. Curiously enough he now discovers that the ordinary employer has little "surplus value" to steal, for by the action of free competition his profits will be reduced to the minimum interest essential for encouraging the investment of the necessary industrial capital. Therefore it is only one class of "capitalist" - the owner of some special privilege in production, like an unusual waterfall or urban site - that can be said to be getting anything that he doesn't deserve. This discovery, so naively recorded by Marx, overthrew all the claptrap of the then existing Socialist propaganda about the "slavery of the wage-system," the "exploitation of the proletariat by the bourgeois," etc. Yet Marx himself apparently made no public repudiation of this claptrap; and even the Socialist parties of today have not done so and still continue their absurd slogans.

The explanation of this anomaly is that volume III of "Capital" was published posthumously, and not till 1893, or twenty years after the Marxian Socialism of volumes I and II of "Capital" had become the doctrine of an international political party. The few Socialist leaders who ever perused volume III of "Capital" were evidently "practical" men who did not care to blow up the pedestals on which they were standing by announcing that the political economy of their platforms was a mesh of fallacies and so acknowledged by the founder of their party himself, before his death.

The first plank of Marx's International Platform of 1847, quoted by Kaufman, as advocating the nationalization of the rent of land, was evidently not considered of much importance by its author, for he did not investigate the subject of land for his "Capital" until near his death, some forty years later. Moreover, this plank is certainly not "the heart of Marxian Socialism," as Kaufman claims, because in every Socialist platform yet published "the public ownership of all means of production" is not only the heart, but 'the stomach, liver and lights.

The Socialist platforms say nothing about restricting public ownership to private monopolies, or even to Kaufman's "necessary" non-monopolies, if words have any uniform meaning in Socialist circles. Evidently Kaufman believes words can mean anything, for he takes upon himself to interpret Marx's laborious explanations and definitions in the sense that he deems useful to prove Marx a wise man instead of a "near fool."

Like all Socialist writers, Kaufman's ambiguity does not stop with words, but extends to economic relationships. His doubt if George could distinguish "if a fish swimming in a lake were land or capital" ignores the accepted definition of economic land, i e., "any natural resources which can be monopolized." Surely, the important question to determine is not the wildness of the fish but its susceptibility to monopolization. If monopoly is impossible then a fish, in a lake, is neither land nor capital, but a potential commodity (like an ungrown sheaf of wheat or an uncaptured wild turkey), and can only become an actual commodity and acquire value after the labor of catching it has been expended by some fisherman. Should the lake be monopolizable, then the fish would become a part of the natural resources of the lake just as an ore body is a part of the natural resources of mineral land. And just as the value of mineral land would depend on the net profit remaining after the cost of excavating and marketing the mineral had been paid, so the value of fishing "land" (a stocked lake), would depend on the cost of catching and selling the fish. If the fish had to be "hand fed," it would merely mean that the cost of feeding them would reduce the net profit (gross proceeds less cost for labor and capital), of operating the fishery as compared with one of self-feeding fish.

It certainly "is to laugh" at Kaufman's grotesque defense of George's "Labor Question" from the "contempt of the Marxian scholar." No one, much less George, needs any defense from such "scholars," for anyone who takes his title to scholarship from the perusal of Marx, is worthy of little intellectual respect. "Capital" may impress the ignorant Socialist proletariat by its length, its involved style and its array of tedious calculations; but it is safe to affirm that few of its admirers have ever read a tithe of its 2,200 pages. It is palpably one of the most tiresome of books - even in the "dismal" library of political economy - and, as I have previously explained, its conclusions, barring those in the last book on land, are out of accord with facts and tend to disrupt society by inciting class hatred.