[A letter written to Friedrich Sorge, a prominent
in the U.S. working-class movement, from London, 30 June 1881]
Theoretically the man [Henry George*] is utterly backward! He
understands nothing about the nature of surplus value and so wanders
about in speculations which follow the English model but have now
been superseded even among the English, about the different portions
of surplus value to which independent existence is attributed -
about the relations of profit, rent, interest, etc. His fundamental
dogma is that everything would be all right if ground rent were paid
to the state. (You will find payment of this kind among the
transitional measures included in The Communist Manifesto too.) This
idea originally belonged to the bourgeois economists ; it was first
put forward (apart from a similar demand at the end of the
eighteenth century) by the earliest radical followers of Ricardo,
soon after his death. I said of it in 1847, in my work against
Proudhon: "We can understand that economists like Mill"
(the elder, not his son John Stuart, who also repeats this in a
somewhat modified form) "Cherbuliez, Hilditch and others have
demanded that rent should be paid to the state in order that it may
serve as a substitute for taxes. This is a frank expression of the
hatred which the industrial capitalist dedicates to the landed
proprietor, who seems to him a useless and superfluous element in
the general total of bourgeois production."
We ourselves, as I have already mentioned, adopted this
appropriation of ground rent by the state among numerous other
transitional measures, which, as we also remarked in the Manifesto,
are and must be contra- dictory in themselves.
But the first person to turn this desideratum [requirement] of the
radical English bourgeois economists into a socialist panacea, to
declare this procedure to be the solution of the antagonisms
involved in the present method of production, was Colins, a former
old Hussar officer of Napoleon's, born in Belgium, who in the latter
days of Guizot and the first of Napoleon the Less, favoured the
world from Paris with some fat volumes about this "discovery"
of his. Like another discovery he made, namely, that while there is
no God there is an "immortal" human soul and that animals
have "no feelings." For if they had feelings, that is
souls, we should be cannibals and a realm of righteousness could
never be founded upon earth. His "anti-landownership"
theory together with his theory of the soul, etc., have been
preached every month for years in the Parisian Philosophie de
l'Avenir [Philosophy of the Future] by his few remaining followers,
mostly Belgians. They call themselves "rational collectivists"
and have praised Henry George. After them and besides them, among
other people, the Prussian banker and former lottery owner Samten
from East Prussia, a shallow-brained fellow, has eked out this "socialism"
into a thick volume.
All these "socialists" since Colins have this much in
common that they leave wage labour and therefore capitalist
production in existence and try to bamboozle themselves or the world
into believing that if ground rent were transformed into a state tax
all the evils of capitalist production would disappear of
themselves. The whole thing is there- fore simply an attempt, decked
out with socialism, to save capitalist domination and indeed to
establish it afresh on an even wider basis than its present one.
This cloven hoof (at the same time ass's hoof) is also
unmistakably revealed in the declamations of Henry George. And it is
the more unpardonable in him because he ought to have put the
question to himself in just the opposite way: How did it happen that
in the United States, where, relatively, that is in comparison with
civilised Europe, the land was accessible to the great mass of the
people and to a certain degree (again relatively) still is,
capitalist economy and the corresponding enslavement of the working
class have developed more rapidly and shamelessly than in any other
On the other hand George's book, like the sensation it has made
with you, is significant because it is a first, if unsuccessful,
attempt at emancipation from the orthodox political economy.
H. George does not seem, for the rest, to know anything about the
history of the early American anti-renters,** who were rather
practical men than theoretical. Otherwise he is a talented writer
(with a talent for Yankee advertisement too) as his article on
California in the Atlantic proves, for instance. He also has the
repulsive presumption and arrogance which is displayed by all
panacea-mongers without exception.
*GEORGE, HENRY (1839-97) American bourgeois economist, earlier a
sailor, gold-digger and printer. He was the founder of the
petty-bourgeois land reform movement.
**Settlers in New York State in the 'thirties and 'forties of the
19th century who refused to pay rent for their land and shot down
the sheriffs' officers who came to enforce payment. The no-renters
numbered thousands and turned the scale at several elections.
This collection titled Reminiscences
of Marx and Engels, published in Moscow (Foreign Languages
Publishing House) in 1958, includes the following coment by
Maxim Kovalevsky (1851-1916), a Russian sociologist, historian
and jurist, relating to Marx's opinion of Henry George:
"Knowledge of the history of economic doctrines enabled
the author of Capital to determine at once the degree of
originality of writers who forced themselves on the attention of
the public by the striking form of their works. In saying this I
have in mind mainly George, for whom almost as much enthusiasm
was shown at one time in England as for the person and doctrines
of Rousseau in the 18th century. Marx was almost the first to
notice that the teaching of the author of Progress and
Poverty repeated the physiocrats' views on agriculture as
the only source of net income and on the uniform agricultural
tax as liable to absorb the greater part of the rent to the
benefit of the state. An article was found in Marx's papers
criticizing George and proving the one-sidedness and
inadmissibility of his conclusions. It was not published until
after Marx's death..." [pp.297-298]