LEO TOLSTOY WRITES ….
It is with particular pleasure that I hasten to answer your letter, and say that I have known of Henry George since the appearance of his Social Problems. I read that book and was struck by the justice of his main thought – by the exceptional manner (unparalleled in scientific literature), clear, popular and forcible, in which he stated his cause – and especially by (what is also exceptional in scientific literature) the Christian spirit that permeates the whole work. After reading it I went back to his earlier Progress and Poverty, and still more deeply appreciated the importance of its author’s activity.
You ask what I think of Henry George’s activity, and of his Single Tax system. My opinion is the following:
Humanity constantly advances: on the one hand clearing its consciousness and conscience, and on the other hand rearranging its modes of life to suit this changing consciousness. Thus, at each period of the life of humanity, the double process goes on: the clearing up of conscience, and the incorporation into life of what has been made clear to conscience.
At the end of the eighteenth century and the commencement of the nineteenth, a clearing up of conscience took place in Christendom with reference to the labouring classes – who lived under various forms of slavery – and this was followed by a corresponding readjustment of the forms of social life, to suit this clearer consciousness: namely, the abolition of slavery, and the organization of free wage-labour in its place. At the present time an enlightenment of men’s consciences is going on in relation to the way land is used; and soon, it seems to me, a practical application of this new consciousness must follow.
And in this process (the enlightenment of conscience as to the utilization of land, and the practical application of that new consciousness), which is one of the chief problems of our time, the leader and organizer of the movement was and is Henry George. In this lies his immense, his pre-eminent, importance. He has helped by his excellent books, both to clear men’s minds and consciences on this question, and to place it on a practical footing.
But in relation to the abolition of the shameful right to own landed estates, something is occurring similar to what happened (within our own recollection) with reference to the abolition of serfdom. The Government and the governing classes – knowing that their position and privileges are bound up with the land question – pretend that they are preoccupied with the welfare of the people, organizing savings banks for workmen, factory inspection, income taxes, even eight-hours working days – and carefully ignore the land question, or even, aided by compliant science, which will demonstrate anything they like, declare that the expropriation of the land is useless, harmful, and impossible.
Just the same thing occurs, as occurred in connection with slavery. At the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth centuries, men had long felt that slavery was a terrible anachronism, revolting to the human soul; but pseudo-religion and pseudo-science demonstrated that slavery was not wrong, that it was necessary, or at least that it was premature to abolish it. The same thing is now being repeated with reference to landed property. As before, pseudo-religion and pseudo-science demonstrate that there is nothing wrong in the private ownership of landed estates, and that there is no need to abolish the present system.
One would think it would be plain to every educated man of our time that an exclusive control of land by people who do not work on it, but who prevent hundreds and thousands of poor families from using it, is a thing as plainly bad and shameful as it was to own slaves; yet we see educated, refined aristocrats – English, Austrian, Prussian, and Russian – making use of this cruel and shameful right, and not only not feeling ashamed, but feeling proud of it.
Religion blesses such possessions, and the science of political economy demonstrates that the present state of things is the one that should exist for the greatest benefit of mankind.
The service rendered by Henry George is that he has not only mastered the sophistries with which religion and science try to justify private ownership of land, and simplified the question to the uttermost, so that it is impossible not to admit the wrongfulness of land-ownership – unless one simply stops one’s ears – but he was also the first to show how the question can be practically solved. He first gave a clear and direct reply to the excuses, used by the enemies of every reform, to the effect that the demands of progress are unpractical and inapplicable dreams.
Henry George’s plan destroys that excuse, by putting the question in such a form that a committee might be assembled tomorrow to discuss the project and to convert it into law. In Russia, for instance, the discussion of land purchase, or of nationalizing the land without compensation, could begin tomorrow; and the project might – after undergoing various vicissitudes – be carried into operation, as occurred thirty-three years ago* with the project for the emancipation of the serfs.
The need of altering the present system has been explained, and the possibility of the change has been shown (there may be alterations and amendments of the Single Tax system, but its fundamental idea is practicable); and, therefore, it will be impossible for people not to do what their reason demands. It is only necessary that this thought should become public opinion; and in order that it may become public opinion it must be spread abroad and explained – Which is just what you are doing, and is a work with which I sympathize with my whole soul, and in which I wish you success.
Letter to a German Georgist, 1897.
Tolstoy, Leo, Essays and Letters, Oxford University Press, 1911,
Chapter XV1 Letters on Henry George, pp 213 – 238
[* The Emancipation of the Serfs in Russia was decreed in 1861, and was accomplished shortly thereafter.]