The Land Question in Europe: Victim of The Great Depression and Total War?

by Edward J. Dodson

Students of the history of the Georgist cause generally appreciate that the First and Second World Wars had the effect of diverting public and political attention from the plague of land monopoly and the solutions advanced by the successors to Henry George’s global campaign of the 1880s and 1890s. Yet, those who continued the campaign into the twentieth century did so with a deep commitment, if increasingly from the political and intellectual wilderness. Leading personalities within the Georgist movement remained committed to their principles throughout these challenging decades. In many countries, they numbered but a few dedicated souls. In Britain, however, there were outright Georgists and Georgist sympathizers sitting in Parliament and in many positions of responsibility and authority.

The early 1930s proved to be the high point of opportunity for diminishing the power of landed interests in Britain. By 1934, in the midst of the global depression, many of Britain’s leaders feared opening the door to social democracy (or, worse, full-blown state-socialism) by requiring the landed to carry a heavier burden of paying the cost of public goods and services. Centuries of domination by landed interests went unchallenged in the face of the current crisis. British Georgists now understood that neither Labour nor Liberal party leaders were sufficiently committed to the public collection of rent to stake their political lives on the issue.

One significant attempt to lift the discussion out of the wilderness and into the public consciousness occurred the previous year, with the publication of the book, The Great Robbery, written by J.W. Graham Peace. Peace had been instrumental in the founding of the opposition Commonwealth Land Party in the early 1920s, but had experienced considerable resistance to his proposals that the government purchase agricultural land for distribution to farmers. Although the party fielded candidates in the 1931 general election, none received sufficient votes.

Britain’s self-sufficiency in food production was also becoming a major political issue as the Depression continued. In November of 1934, Land & Liberty reprinted an article by Arthur R. McDougal dealing with the collapse of agriculture. McDougal called upon the government to thoroughly analyze the causes of problems before making policy decisions. He cautioned:

Whatever party does declare the truth will get plenty of support. It must go boldly forward and educate the much deluded people that we can have a prosperous agriculture without food taxes, subsidies or high prices simply by making rent fit prices and not prices fit rent.

If British Georgists had any reason for hope it rested on the presence of Philip Snowden in the government. In 1935, Snowden wrote to Charles O’Connnor Hennessy, President of the International Union for Land Value Taxation and Free Trade: “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.”

Snowden expressed his regrets at not being able to join Georgists for their September conference scheduled to be held in New York. His duties, he said, prevented him from leaving Britain. During these times of financial hardship, it is amazing that a conference could be planned at all.

In September of 1936, Georgists from around the globe made their way to London for the Fifth International Conference to Promote Land Value Taxation and Free Trade. One speaker, E. J. McManus of Liverpool, England, charged Britain’s successive governments with utter failure:

Had the vast political action of the last 30 years been right action it would have effected a more equitable distribution of wealth. It will be difficult to find any positive general improvement…. The wrong way has been followed and harmful political action has been taken, and is still promoted because certain fundamental facts have been ignored in the relations of man to external nature, and in the economic relations that naturally arise between men and tend to persist – relations that men recognize as beneficial for each other, and unite to prevent being disturbed. In consequence, not only has the end of political action been misconceived but also, in the attempt to remove social evils separately and by installments, false assumptions have been made as to the capability of the means selected to accomplish the particular end.

The public had also failed to listen to the message left by James F. Muirhead in his book, Land and Unemployment, published posthumously in 1935 by Oxford University Press:

The Old Order seems to have more or less collapsed; the outlines of the New Order to arise out of the ruins remains very vague. We begin to realize how much of our civilization rested on tradition and how little on reason. We are amazed, now that the crash has shaken the blindness from our eyes, how preposterous were many of the conditions that we accepted unthinkingly and even complacently.

In the United States, Joseph Dana Miller, reviewing Muirhead’s book in 1936, described it as “another book among the growing number that seek to present the Henry George philosophy as the antithesis of socialism.”

With the threat of global war on the minds of many, S. Vere Pearson (a physician by profession) put the situation into its proper context:

When justice gives equal opportunities to all at home such fears will go; discussions on disarmament will also end, for a foreigner can do no harm in a country where true justice reigns. Civil wars arise because of the fears fed by the injustices so rife in society, and rulers can distract the workers from destitution and discontent by leading them to wars abroad.

That, certainly, was what one could see happening within Britain and in so many other countries.

War and Its Aftermath

As the reach of Fascist governments expanded across the European continent, Georgists were forced to curtail their activities or find safety away from their homeland. Across the Atlantic Ocean, Georgists did their best to monitor events in Europe. As late as May of 1939, the editorial staff of The Freeman warned of the dangers war posed to liberty: “We shall hand over to a monster State every vestige of human liberty which was wrested from it for us during the centuries.”

In August of 1939, The Freeman editors dared to compare the state of the British empire with that of Rome near the end of its domination. Britain, they wrote, “is suffering from.., that moral degeneracy which comes both from living without working and from working without living.” What, they asked, would Britain do without the rents collected from its colonial subjects? Three months later, the same editors suggested something good might come from Britain’s wartime struggle:

Maybe it will help to break down some of the traditions which the landed aristocrats have built up for the vassalage of English workers. Maybe the English workers will find, through necessity, that the land in England can, if put to use, produce the many things they need for their livelihood – and is worthwhile fighting for.

In the United States, The Freeman editors continued to hope the scope of the war could be limited, that reform could “remove the forces within our country that are fast propelling us into the maelstrom.” However, they acknowledged a simple fact: “Organized murder has replaced organized living.” As the United States government increased its spending on military preparedness, The Freeman charged that sacrifices were not universally distributed:

When the sacrifice of the many redound to the benefit of a few nothing less than treason has occurred. And those who aid or make possible this private aggrandizement… are morally guilty of conspiracy to frustrate or hamper the success of the common cause.

Another story that caught the attention of The Freeman editors was “the buying up of bombed areas by land speculators” in England. The October 1941 issue reported that a government committee had been appointed to investigate and make recommendations. Land & Liberty’s editors had weighed in to call for actual reform. In the opinion of The Freeman, “… the general direction of England’s post-war policy is now toward the safeguard in of its land tenure system within the framework of a socialistic economy.”

Land and Freedom reported at the beginning of 1941 that the Georgist offices of the United Committee for the Taxation of Land Values had thus far managed to escape damage from the Luftwaffe bombing and the widespread fires that resulted. Land & Liberty continued to be published, if under difficult circumstances. And, despite The Freeman’s pessimistic assessment some fifty Members of Parliament comprising the Parliamentary Land Values Group in England were developing a plan to meet post-war problems, according to a letter received by Anna George de Mille from R. R. Stokes, M.P. That Spring, Land and Freedom heard from J. W. Graham Peace, who wrote:

In case you had thought us dead, let me tell you that nearly 200 meetings were held during last year; and in spite of the blackout and numerous other inconveniences, several open air meetings have been held in central London often interrupted by the barking of the A-A guns a few hundred yards away from our stand.

london_bombedLate in the Spring of 1941 disaster struck the Georgists in London. The headquarters of the International Union on Knightrider Street were totally destroyed by German bombing. Even worse, all records, manuscripts and the library were lost. Only the inventory of publications offered for sale survived, having been safeguarded by dispersing supplies throughout England. Quickly, new offices were found at 4 Great Smith Street, adjoining the offices of the firm that printed Land & Liberty. The issue planned for June of 1941 was to contain “twenty-eight of the best articles from Land & Liberty in the past eighteen months, dealing with the economic cause of war and with economic freedom as the basis of social justice and world peace.”

Land & Liberty’s offices at 4 Great Smith Street survived the remaining months of continued German bombing and remained operational throughout the rest of the war.

In Britain, a clear indication that people were now looking to government for a more secure level of well-being was the defeat in 1945 of the Conservatives and Winston Churchill in favor of the Labour Party and Clement Atlee. During the election campaign, Atlee countered Churchill’s association of Britain’s greatness with its respect for individual freedoms:

There was a time when employers were free to work little children for sixteen hours a day. I remember when employers were free to employ sweated women workers on finishing trousers at a penny halfpenny a pair. There was a time when people were free to neglect sanitation so that thousands died of preventable diseases. For years every attempt to remedy these crying evils was blocked by the same plea of freedom for the individual. It was in fact freedom for the rich and slavery for the poor. Make no mistake, it has only been through the power of the State, given to it by Parliament, that the general public has been protected against the greed of ruthless profit-makers and property owners.

The message was both powerful and timely. The British people had endured great suffering during the war. Elsewhere across the European continent legitimate government had to be re-established under pressures of communist insurrection or Soviet occupation. The Old Guard had to give ground or be pushed aside altogether. A decade later, Harry Pollard, writing in the Henry George News (May 1954), recapped what occurred following the war:

The Socialists in power began to do something almost unheard of in politics. They tried to keep their promises. They nationalized the Bank of England; the coal, electricity and gas industries; certain sections of road transport; British cable and wireless; civil aviation and iron and steel industry. They also set out to control the British economy physically with the idea in mind that they could iron out the severe fluctuations which led to the general slump.

The result of this type of planning – even in a Britain bolstered up by aid from overseas and with a world crying out for her manufactures – was not very satisfactory. In July 1949, Sir Stafford Cripps said of the post-war situation, “We have been trying to deal with it by a series of temporary expedients which have led to a series of crises as each expedient became exhausted.

You see, they found that attempting to control an economy was very much like trying to repair a very old bucket. As fast as one hole is plugged another opens and lets water again. Information received by the planners is often insufficient and out-of-date. In order to make any reasonable attempt at all, it is necessary to rely a great deal on personal analyses of the situation, which is another way of saying, guesswork.

So I believe that although socialism has failed to bring to England an era of justice and freedom – it has succeeded in embarking on a journey to a destination which, unfortunately, it may well reach.

The British people would experience some very difficult decades trying to retain a shrinking empire while being overwhelmed economically by the glut of goods from the United States, Germany and Japan. In desperation, British voters eventually succumbed to the exhortations of Margaret Thatcher to privatize and untax.

After the war, British Georgists decided to publish Winston Churchill’s speeches on the land question in pamphlet form, which were then widely distributed. ‘Whether Churchill would take a leadership role in calling for the taxation of land values after the war was not known. In 1952, when Churchill returned as Prime Minister, he made the following comments in a speech he delivered in Parliament:

I remember the old days, which were my young or younger days, when the taxation of land values and of unearned increments in land was a foremost principle and a lively element in the programme of the Radical Party to which I then belonged. But what is the situation which presents itself to us to-day? In those days we had the spectacle of valuable land being kept out of the market until the exact moment for its sale was reached, regardless of the fact that its increased value was due to the exertions of the surrounding community. Then we had the idea that, if those obstructions could be cleared out of the way, free enterprise would bound forward and small people would have a chance to get a home, or to improve their existing homes, and many other things besides.

However, in 1952, the national policies governing land use were found in the and Country Planning Acts. The constituency for the taxation of land values had long disappeared.

The Cold War and Western “Prosperity”

Those of us who came to embrace the same principles as Henry George during the decades following the end of the Second World War have been fighting against a very powerful force – the experience and illusion of expanding prosperity. For hundreds of millions of people around the globe, life gradually became better; futures seemed more secure. This was particularly the case in the United States, but parts of the Old World caught up and even surpassed the sense of well-being that had come to a majority of the US population.

To be sure, across the European continent the decade or so after the war ended was anything but prosperous. However, the strength of the United States economy was such that – once the Soviet threat was recognized and a counter-strategy adopted – a global rebuilding program became possible without the heavy burden of debt repayment. Defeating communism also required a commitment by governments to some level of social welfare and social democracy. Thus, despite the fact that the driving forces behind war had been territorial conquest and control over natural resources, the citizenry of every country where social democracy grew put any concern for the land question out of their minds, relegated to a past seemingly no longer relevant to their lives.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *