The desperate conditions for ordinary people in the industrialised nations brought the urgent need for relief of this poverty. The crushing injustices of the age galvanised a generation and a Socialist vision emerged of building a better world. Socialism became a great international tidal wave of idealism. And this great struggle against Capitalism, the apparent opposition, somehow obscured what so many people should have learned from Progress and Poverty.
And this is very hard for us to understand, when we hear what Henry Snell and Kier Hardie and many early Socialists say - and these people were the future at this time - how they ended up in great movements and in governments yet never once considered what they’d learned from Henry George, but were instead moved by another analysis of the maladies of the world. People like George Bernard Shaw seemed to have totally got it, and somehow lost sight of it.
The answer came to be seen, in various different shades and emphases, as the collective (state) ownership of the means of production. The millions of people who had read Progress and Poverty, and we feel, must have been convinced of its truth, even say that they were, somehow forgot it, seemingly lost touch with the real point. They persisted with a notion which had been revealed to them as being deeply flawed and the wrong way. What does this mean? We are deeply puzzled by an apparent graduation from Georgism to Socialism and may have to remain so.
A generation that had been exposed to Poverty and Progress came to accept the world as defined by Neoclassical economics. So, Socialism stood in opposition to Capitalism, for it was Capital that was visibly exploiting Labour, while the true gaolers became, and remain, invisible.
There was something mobilising about Socialism, unique to the age, that gave it this massive international appeal. It had some special power of communication. This is maybe something that Single Taxers, for there were many around, could have looked upon with some wonder at the time. Why did the simple explanation of the Single Tax not set people alight in the same way?
Maybe it was too simple for general comprehension, that this simple tax reform was the simple answer. Could it be as simple as that? Perhaps it was just boring. Socialism threw up art such that, in time, the CIA would put serious money into promoting American abstract expressionist art to counteract the influence of Socialist realism and the great posters it produced, and to promote the freedom of the West.
Did Socialism just have better posters? And a great motif with the hammer and sickle, and strong, exciting colours. Was Georgism just too gentle and sensible in an age where passions were overheated, and a call to arms, of us against them, was so much more resonant? Single Taxers didn’t want to throw anyone onto the street or have any great shocks. But the mood was that things were so wrong that only revolution and the complete overthrowing of society would do. Everything needed to be brought down and a new beginning made from scratch, year zero.
Nick Cohen said in The Observer in 2013:
Extremism is more exciting and dramatic, more artistic perhaps, than the shabby compromises and small changes of democratic societies. You suspect that half the great writers of the 1920s and 1930s supported fascism or communism just for the thrill of it.
Between the wars, Single Taxer ideas certainly had some presence in Britain as well as in the USA and many MPs, like Philip Snowden, were openly Georgist.
In 1919, the Commonwealth Land Party were founded in Stoke, by former Liberal MP, RL Outhwaite, who had worked closely with Chancellor Lloyd George, and JW Graham Peace, who had revived interest in land with his book, The Great Robbery, which includes much information about the Enclosures. And soon, the Single Tax Party of Carrie Chapman Catt in the US would adopt the name of Commonwealth Land Party. The UK party ran two candidates in the 1931 General Election.
As Labour Chancellor, Philip Snowden’s 1931 Finance Act was passed with measures to collect the economic rent from land, but the National government three years later stopped it before it could be brought into effect.
On two occasions in British parliamentary history, measures based on Henry George’s Remedy have been passed by the House of Commons. We’ve never heard of that before.
In 1935, Snowden wrote:
There never was a time when the need was greater than it is today for the application of the philosophy and principles of Henry George to the economic and political conditions which are scourging the whole world.
Various other pieces of Georgist-influenced legislation were close to becoming law in the 30s. WWII and Socialism finished all that, though the ideas lingered (and linger) on in dusty pockets in the Liberal Party, the party for whom policy was once drafted by Henry George.
But these were passing flashes of lightning and, for a century, Socialism would monopolise the progressive thought of the world. It had always been difficult to agitate for Single Taxer ideas without constantly having to deal with reproach from the left, that they were class traitors for not wanting to expropriate all the means of production; and reproach from the right, where Georgism itself was cast as a kind of totalitarian socialism.
From the start, the rent-takers had equated Georgism with Socialism because, in common with it, they are movements in the interests of the whole of humanity and not just for landed financial elites. Describing Georgism as Socialism reveals the true interests completely. For monopolists, the difference between the two is irrelevant.
The Georgist view certainly does have in common with Socialism that it is about the advancement of everybody. A key difference is that Socialism is concerned about the welfare of everyone, whereas Georgism is concerned with the moral rights of everyone; and were these granted, the welfare would take care of itself. Or maybe that Socialism wanted to lead the people to a promised land, whereas Georgism showed that the promised land was already there, it just had to be freed, and nobody needed leading.
Single Taxers were crowded out by these loud bastard twins of neoclassical economics, crushed by the walls of a simplistic binary system which human discourse was to be trapped within. They were slated from both sides when, in reality, Georgism is more truly Socialist than Socialism, and more truly Capitalist than Capitalism. That must have been hugely galling for the Single Tax evangelist of these years, whom we salute.
The Single Taxers certainly did try. This is a wonderful read. It’s the verbatim report of a debate that two thousand people attended at a hall in Chicago on a wintry afternoon in 1903, between Socialists and Single Taxers. Honestly, you don’t need to be interested in history or politics to enjoy reading this. It’s all in here. The debate was electric and erudite and makes today’s political fare dismal in comparison. The Single Taxers’ philosophy sparkles under attack. They were represented brilliantly here, armed, as they were, with the truth. Doubtless the exact same arguments were exchanged in debates in Britain and elsewhere. It remains a mystery to us how a tidal wave of people didn’t see this.
A persuasive and romantic culture developed around Socialism, speaking of solidarity and deliverance from the dark days of history into a golden age for humanity. People felt its paradigm to be in tune with the universe and with nature, the solution to the puzzle and the true dawn of civilisation. It was modernity and destiny, human maturity.
But the progress of the 20th century left visible some tortured ridges and torn and ragged edges to some pieces in the Socialist and Capitalist pictures, for Neoclassicism had the world fighting the wrong class struggle: the struggle isn’t capital versus labour, the real struggle is monopolists versus the real capitalists, the workers. The cause of struggle is obscured. Economics is simple and belongs to the people, but was lost.
And true today.