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
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.