Peter Alexander Speek on the Single Tax

John R. Commons

[The Introduction to the book, The Singletax and the Labor Movement, a thesis submitted for the degree of doctor of philosophy, University of Wisconsin, 1915; published as a Bulletin of the Univeristy of Wisconsin, No. 878, 1917]


To Americans it is instructive to have our political and economic movements studied and described for us by foreigners. It is equally instructive to have our radical and revolutionary movements described by one who has taken part in those movements abroad. We get not only an objective judgment on ourselves, but also a view of the way in which American institutions affect a foreign revolutionary.

As a student in the Imperial University of Juriev, a teacher, then an investigator of rural conditions for the Zemstvo of the Government Pskof, then editor and proprietor of a socialistic, paper preceding the revolution of 1905, Mr. Speek was forced to leave Russia after the suppression of his paper by the reactionary government that followed. In Denmark he organized a cooperative society among the refugees, and started in New York, in 1909, a newspaper for the people of his own nationality, the Esthonians, which is still existing and developing.

With this background of experience in revolutionary socialism, as well as in practical efforts to help his own people, he sets himself to get an understanding of the most dramatic crisis that has occurred in this country between the two schools of radical labor philosophy, the German socialism of Karl Marx and the American individualism of Henry George. The crisis is affected somewhat by remnants of the American Greenbackism of Edward Kellogg.

In substance Mr. Speek finds that the economic, political and social conditions of Europe produce certain theories and philosophies of reform which the immigrants, with their unaccustomed civic liberties, try to realize in America. But the conditions here are different and they produce, accordingly, different theories and philosophies, such as the singletax and Greenbackism. As a result, sharp conflicts occur between the European and the American theories.

Yet the mass movements of labor originate and develop, not out of speculative theories or philosophies, but under the force of immediate and practical labor demands. This work shows, by analyzing both the philosophies and the demands, why it was that neither socialism nor the singletax, notwithstanding the fervent efforts of both schools, became the issue of the mass movement of labor in the decade of the eighties.

Yet Mr. Speek holds that, even if philosophies and theories have but little weight for the direct and practical ends of the labor movement, they are nevertheless necessary and immeasurably important for the sake of education. The singletax and socialism stirred up the labor leaders, the reformers, and even the academies.

This great contest of the eighties has not hitherto been studied by our economic or political historians, and Mr. Speek, by centering his attention on the Central Labor Union of New York, picks out the spot where the decisive battle was fought, and thereby fills a gap in the history of American labor. Incidentally, from a theoretical revolutionist he seems to have become a practical reconstructionist.