The Story of the Georgist Movement
[Reprinted from the Henry George News,
Henry George did not claim to be original. Almost everything he said
had been said before. There were several social thinkers who even
anticipated his Single Tax idea. But none developed it into such a
complete and coordinated system as he did, and there was really no
Single Tax movement before George (unless we count the Physiocrats,
whose movement was confined to a small group of intellectuals).
It was the compelling logic cum inspiration of George's Progress
and Poverty, plus the author's personal magnetism, plus ripe
social conditions that launched the Single Tax movement. It took
several years, however, for this movement to take shape.
Soon after Progress and Poverty was published, George visited
Ireland and Great Britain and stirred up quite a storm, the land
question being a hot issue there at the time. His fame reverberated
back to his own country, and in 1886 he ran as an independent reform
mayor of New York -- something unheard of before then. During this
period (1879-1886), George did not emphasize Single Tax, but rather
the land question and reform in general -- and he welcomed the
alliance and support of land nationalizers, free traders, labor
organizers, reformers, even socialists. The main job, he felt was to
arouse public opinion, and he was sure that, once aroused, the public
would find its way to the truths he taught.
George lost the 1886 election (although there is some evidence that
there was an improper count of ballots), and thereafter his followers
began to differentiate themselves. There was a break with the
socialists, who thought they were using George for their purposes,
just as he thought he was using them for his! George and his more
loyal followers found they could not travel for long with the adepts
of conflicting philosophies.
Thenceforth the Single Tax Movement emerged, dedicated to the
furtherance of the specific reform proposed by Henry George: To
abolish all taxation save that upon land values. The term "Single
Tax" was suggested by Thomas Shearman, and George accepted it. He
welcomed the change from what had previously been a "Henry George
movement." Another feature of the trend in 1887 and after was
that business men and forward-looking men of wealth were attracted to
the movement, whereas thitherto George had been associated with mass
During George's lifetime, he was unquestionably the central figure of
the world wide Single Tax movement. He wrote, campaigned, traveled and
lectured incessantly. But there were also many others who began to
take the initiative and to carry forward the Single Tax idea through
writing, lecturing and campaigning.
When George died in 1897 (in the midst of another campaign for mayor
of New York), the movement continued unabated. Nevertheless, it may be
said that the first period of the movement closes with the death of
Henry George. We may subdivide this period into two: 1879-1886 and
The next period may be considered to be 1898-1931; that is, from the
death of Henry George to the founding of the Henry George School of
Social Science. (I am thinking primarily of the United States. Other
countries would have somewhat different "periods.") This
period may also be subdivided into two: from 1898 to the first World
War (1914 for Europe, 1917 for the U.S.) ; and from after the war to
Boom Period for Georgism
The first part of this second period was the high-water mark for the
Single Tax movement. During these years (1898-1914/1917), the Single
Tax acquired its most illustrious followers, made significant
political progress, and engaged in a widely varied program of
activities. There were numerous books, pamphlets, periodicals,
lectures, organizations, conferences, campaigns.
In the U.S., Tom L. Johnson became Cleveland's most famous Mayor, and
sought to introduce Georgist reforms. Joseph Fels, the soap
manufacturer, gave large sums of money for the express purpose of
trying to get the Single Tax adopted in some state of the U.S.
Exciting campaigns were conducted in several states, but all were
Generals Goethals and Gorgas, the engineer and physician of the
Panama Canal, were Single Tax converts, and so was Admiral Sims, "father
of the American Navy." Woodrow Wilson was influenced by George's
ideas and his cabinet was filled with Georgist-minded people,
including Louis F. Post, Newton D. Baker, Franklin Lane and others.
There was a regular Single Tax bloc in Congress.
Pittsburgh and Scranton, in Pennsylvania, adopted the graded tax law
whereby land was taxed at a higher rate than buildings. New York,
through the efforts of Lawson Purdy and others, introduced the
separate assessment of land and buildings, and many other cities
followed Suit. The California irrigation districts were started, with
a program of collecting land rent to pay for the irrigation. Single
Tax "enclaves" sprang up around the country -- small
communities which tried, within their limitations, to practice Single
In England, this was the period of great Liberal effort to put
through land value taxation, culminating in the Lloyd George budget of
1909 calling for a national land valuation. Besides Lloyd George,
there was a brilliant assemblage of statesmen connected with this
effort, including Winston Churchill, Lord Asquith, Campbell-Bannerman,
James Bryce and others. But the effort was, alas, doomed by an
implacable House of Lords, by shifting sands of party politics and by
the oncoming World War.
Throughout the British Commonwealth -- in Australia, New Zealand,
South Africa and Canada -- advances toward land value taxation were
made, This was the period, too, when legislation was passed which is
now bring. mg such rich oil revenues to the province of Alberta in
Russia, Denmark, Germany
In Russia, Leo Tolstoy was willing to call himself a disciple of
Henry George; and many Russian liberals espoused the Georgist
philosophy, the only serious rival of Marxism. We know only too well
how things turned out in Russia, as Tolstoy warned they would, if land
value taxation were not adopted.
In Denmark, great progress was made, educationally and politically.
One significant event was the Koge resolution of the smallholders in
1902 supporting the
In Germany there was an active Bodenreform movement under
Adolf Damaschke. And the pre-war German colony of Kiauchau, in China,
was a model colony, complete with Single Tax! A story of progress
during this period could be told for many other countries, too.
Argentina deserves mention.
And now we must take a look at the second part of our second period
-- after World War I. Alas! After such an inspiring start, we find the
tide receding. The legislative advances that had been made held firm,
with some exceptions. But there was a sad decline in the fortunes of
the Single Tax movement.
The numbers of adherents were diminishing year by year. The aging
Single Taxers were dying off and there were not enough new converts to
replace them. In England, the Liberal party was too shattered to take
up the fight. A Single Tax movement in Bolshevik Russia was
unthinkable. Germany was trying to recover from the war, and other "isms"
filled the air. In Denmark, at least, progress continued.
The Movement Nearly Died
And in the U.S. there was scarcely any movement left. There were a
couple of brave but futile attempts at forming a national Single Tax
party. But the atmosphere of the raucous twenties -- the jazz age, the
Harding-Coolidge prosperity, the Florida land boom, the era of
prohibition and fantastic nonsense-was not conducive to the spread of
The problems encountered by any movement (or any organism) are always
twofold. There are obstacles which the world presents, and there is
the internal condition of the movement or organism. It either
successfully meets the new challenge or it dies. Well, the Single Tax
movement came pretty close to dying!
But it didn't die! Two new developments in the U.S. in the twenties
were the formation of the Robert Schalkenbach Foundation and the Henry
George Foundation of America. The International Union for Land Value
Taxation and Free Trade was formed during this period, and the
international conferences were started. The Danish Justice party also
was launched, and there were new developments in other countries. But
in spite of all this, we still have to say that the movement was on
The most serious internal trouble with the movement was that it had
not developed any technique for increasing the number of adherents, or
even holding steady.
There was one man within the movement who saw this condition and
concerned himself about it. He was Oscar H. Geiger of New York, who
had been with the Single Tax movement since the days of Henry George
and had participated in many of its activities. He had lectured
constantly at meetings, dinners, conferences, even on street corners.
He took part in the political campaigns. He listened to numerous plans
for promoting the Single Tax. But he realized that no plan could
succeed unless there were more faithful workers. The agonizing problem
of declining numbers had to be met first.
Geiger felt that there was a need for a methodical educational
program. Only by reaching the hearts and rninds of people, only by
awakening in them the full depth of the Georgist philosophy, could
further progress be made. The propagandizing efforts thus far
undertaken were too superficial to do the job. With some exceptions
they did not evoke the necessary response to make dedicated converts.
The legislation already won in several places was not understood by
most of the people, and so often neglected, poorly administered or
bypassed. More under-standing and voluntary acceptance were needed,
especially on the part of the influential minority.
For years, Geiger had cherished the dream of an institution where his
educational ideas could be realized. The opportunity finally came to
him under sad circumstances.
The nineteen-twenties ended with the well-known stock market crash,
and the thirties were ushered in with the Great Depression. Geiger was
affected (as who was not?) and presently he found himself facing an
extended period of unemployment. Never was there greater need for the
Georgist philosophy! Would people listen now?
A Seed Was Sown
The idea grew firmer in Geiger's mind, and he resolved to devote the
rest of his life, and what meager resources he had left, to founding
the institution of which he had long dreamed. And so on January 1st,
1932, the Henry George School of Social Science was founded in New
The fledgling organization grew slowly but surely, and attracted
younger people, which was Geiger's special aim. He developed a course
Progress and Poverty, secured a charter, solicited
contributions, and rented a headquarters.
Overburdened with work, Oscar Geiger died in June 1934, but the
school was continued by his loyal band of students. It grew, enrolled
greater numbers of students and spread from city to city; then from
country to country, including Canada, England, Denmark, Australia, and
later Spain, New Zealand, Formosa and the Philippines. A
correspondence course was developed to reach students the world over.
The work continues to grow, and correspondence work has begun in other
languages. Besides Danish and Spanish, the course is offered in
French; and German and Italian work is being planned.
Now, twenty-seven years after the founding of the Henry George
School, it can look back on considerable progress and forward to
continued growth. At least one hundred thousand people have completed
the basic course throughout the world, and more than twice that number
have taken part of the course. The school's graduates tell others
about it, and so the influence spreads in concentric circles.
One hundred thousand is a woeful fraction of the world's population.
But an influential minority can produce results far in excess of its
numbers. After all, how many first-rate statesmen and intellectuals
are there in the world today?
In the U.S., the movement is at present predominantly educational.
(Note that most Georgists today would rather talk of the "Georgist
movement" than the "Single Tax movement." They feel
that what they are dedicated to is not merely a fiscal matter but a
thorough-going philosophy of freedom. Thus it has come full cycle --
first the "Henry George movement" then the "Single Tax
movement arid now the "Georgist movement.") Most Georgist
effort is marshalled around the Henry George School. The Robert
Schalkenbach Foundation (mentioned above) and the Lincoln Foundation
(formed in 1946) have undertaken special programs in order to increase
the attention paid to Henry George in colleges and universities. The
Henry George Foundlation is seeking to awaken interest in
Pennsylvania. There is also an incalculable amount of individual
effort going on. Georgists write letters. to the press, send
literature to legislators, speak up at public meetings, exert
influence in their organizations. Several have embarked upon political
careers and are exercising visible effects upon legislation.
I will not presume to survey the movement in other countries, but I
believe it is true that the educational work forms a substantial part
of the program in countries where there is a Georgist movement. To
this must of course be added the important political work of the
Justice party in Denmark, the work of young English Georgists in the
revivified Liberal party, the gratifying spread of land value rating
in cities of Australia and New Zealand -- to get a total world picture
of the movement.
Speaking for the U.S., I think it is fair to say that Oscar Geiger
and his Henry George School saved the Georgist movement from
extinction. The "third period" started in 1932 with the
founding of the school, and I would say that we are still in this "period."
(If we were to again subdivide into two, World War II would form a
line of demarcation.)
What now? Much remains to be done. The school has had its ups and
downs and is continually meeting new problems which it has to solve.
The educational work does, however, deserve the concentrated effort
and support of Georgists for some time to come. As the ideas spread
and take root, we look forward to the day when an enlightened
electorate will take hold of the Georgist philosophy and apply it