For Office Use Only

Book Details



Richard Giles


On p.28 of The Condition of Labour George draws the attention of Pope Leo XIII to the work of one of his Cardinals, Cardinal Lavigerie, Primate of Africa.  This Cardinal, late in his life, turned his attention to slavery and, in 1888 in Paris, he was bold enough to describe the brutal conditions of slavery existing in the Congo, then under the personal control of the King of Belgium.  His sermon so shocked European nations that an international conference on slavery in Africa was convened in Brussels soon afterwards lasting into 1889, that is, just two years before Rerum Novarum.  As a result the King Leopold was stood down and the Belgian government took over the administration of the Congo.  This, unfortunately, changed little.  Slavery merely turned into forced labour!

In the English-speaking world the issue of slavery had been prominent throughout the C19 thanks in Britain to the Clapham set and in the United States to the abolitionists.

In Britain the Clapham set was instrumental in the creation of Freetown in Sierra Leone, in the ending of the slave trade in 1807 and in the emancipation of slaves in the Caribbean in 1833.  This work of Venn, Wilberforce, Thornton and others was carried forward by that remarkable missionary explorer David Livingstone.  In the United States the abolitionists met far sterner opposition mainly in the Southern States.  The attack on Harper’s Ferry in Virginia in 1859 by John Brown and twenty-two of his followers precipitated a savage civil war out of which came the Emancipation Edict of 1862.

The youthful Henry George enthusiastically supported the Republican Party in this struggle and the similarity of chattel slavery to industrial slavery occurs often in his writing and lectures.  It is no surprise that, in attacking private property in land, George in The Condition of Labour should use this comparison. In fact, Leo himself had made the comparison when he said that “a small number of very rich men have been able to lay upon the masses of the poor a yoke little better than slavery itself” (S. 3).


Leo’s first defence of private property in land (S.5) is that preventing a worker from investing in land was contrary to the principle that one should be able to dispose of one’s income “as he pleases” and prevents him from “bettering his condition of life”.  George sums this up Leo’s argument this way: “That what is bought with rightful property is rightful property”.

To drive home the insufficiency of this argument George uses Leo’s own words, merely replacing the word “land” with the word “slave”: “if [a worker] lives sparingly, saves money, and invests his savings for greater security, in a slave, the slave in such a case is only his wages in another form; and consequently, a working-man’s slave thus purchased should be as completely at his disposal as the wages he receives for his labour”.

George says that this very same argument was put by American slave-owners either in the form of a poor man who had worked hard to buy a slave or as a widow left a few negroes by her late husband.  Indeed, George writes, if Arab traders in Africa were ever approached by the armed missionaries of Cardinal Lavigerie all they need do is to say that they bought their slaves with their hard-earned money!

As he declares about slavery elsewhere in The Condition of Labour: God is jealous.  He will not tolerate any other creation than His own.  Thus, George writes “there came on our nation a judgment of fire and blood” (p. 26), words reminiscent of civil war ballad “He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored”.

George argues that the purpose of slavery and private property in land is essentially the same: it is to live off some else’s labour.  That is contrary to God’s intention.  Each does this as well as the other.  In Progress and Poverty (p.355) George cites the American missionary against slavery who toured Scotland.  This missionary always ended his speeches by relating the diet of the slave.  But he soon found that in many parts of Scotland the diet of the slave exceeded that of the Scottish worker!


George goes further to postulate that “when the appropriation of land has gone so far that no free land remains … then without further violence the more insidious form of labour robbery involved in private property in land takes the place of chattel slavery …” (p.27).

This observation is only too true. In England, while peasants escaped serfdom, large estates replaced their peasants’ allotments and common land.  In Germany there were the Stein-Hardenberg reforms, in Russia the so-called Emancipation Acts.  There peasants paid for their civil rights with their land rights for, when the peasants were freed of forced labour, the aristocracy were compensated with much of the peasants’ land.

In the United States following the Civil War some Republicans had in mind to settle negroes on the larger plantations in what Thaddeus Stevens dubbed ‘forty acres and a mule’.  It came to nothing.  Few in Congress were brave enough to meddle with the inviolability of private property in land; indeed, many saw the landless slaves as a reservoir of cheap labour.  As one master put it to his slaves when he saw them staking out claims to his plantation. “What’s mine is mine and what’s yours is yours.  You’re just as free as I and the missus, but don’t go fooling around my land.  I have tried to be a good master to you, I have never been unfair.  Now if you want to stay, you are welcome to work for me.  I’ll pay you one-third the crops you raise.  But if you want to go, you see the gate”.  Thus, many slaves passed from slavery into something like forced labour.

As George writes you do not have to capture and hold a landless man “he comes of himself, begging the privilege of serving” (p.27).  In many cases the negroes as share croppers were worse off than they had been as slaves.  Certainly, as we just saw, the new arrangement made no difference to their owners; as George points out, it was even more convenient.  Is the situation any different for a factory worker or a factory executive?


Support for George’s view that land rights were exchanged for civil rights comes from Karl Marx in Capital (Tr.1887).  In recounting how capital came into existence Marx writes “This primitive accumulation [of capital] plays in Political Economy about the same part as original sin in theology” (p.667).   But, he says, while original sin explains why we have to work, primitive accumulation explains why some people do not have to work at all.  From the time of this primitive accumulation he writes “dates the poverty of the great majority” (ibid.).  Primitive accumulation of capital is “the complete separation of the labourers from all property …” (p.668).  That is, others’ control over land creates the landless labourer, or Proletarian, who has lost all “the guarantees of existence” he had under feudalism (p.669).  Marx sums it up this way.  “The expropriation of the agricultural producer, of the peasant, from the soil, is the basis of the whole process” (ibid.).   What Marx is saying is that the first form of capital was land.  For to Marx land is a form of capital.

However, Marx does not end his analysis at this point as George does.  For it must be remembered that, while Marx is very critical of capitalism, the essential theme of Capital is the progress of production. In setting out this history he now pretty well puts the landowner to one side and fixes his attention on the factory owner.  Marx argues that capital accumulation now passes to a new stage, to a new form, capitalist accumulation, the wages of employees that he calls surplus value.  We see that surplus value is not surplus product or rent.  Thus, the problem for Marx is not so much to capture rent from landowners as workers’ earnings from capitalists.

The remedy as Marx puts it in The Communist Manifesto (1847) “is to raise the proletariat to the position of ruling class, to win the battle for democracy” (p.104) when “all production has been concentrated in the whole nation” (p.105).  Leo thinks of this as “to transfer the possessions of individuals to the community” (S.5).

Yet the control over land need not be by ownership.  While the capitalist is usually a tenant his power still resides in his control of land, the power to take away its access from his workers.  It is the very same power that the landowner has over the capitalist tenant.  In the form of a modern lease this power is considerable.

As a previous speaker put it the Labour Question is essentially the Land Question.


Leo believed that private property in land was the first and inviolable step towards improving the condition of the masses.  Leo defended it at length.  At greater length George attacked it.  Yet there is another form of property in land.  It is the public ownership of land.   This is not discussed in The Condition of Labour so that this discussion will, necessarily, be very limited.

In Progress and Poverty (p.403) it did seem to George to be the answer.  There George explains that public ownership of land administered under a system of leases is one way to have equal rights in land.  It is simply a more difficult and cumbersome way to get it, and a way that could engender corruption.  However, in A Perplexed Philosopher, written a year after The Condition of Labour, George takes a quite different view.  Joint rights in land, that is, public ownership, he writes is not the same as the equal rights in land and often joints rights can be very unequal (p.27).

The reason is that in joint ownership of land its control belongs to the majority who as owners may legitimately impose whatever conditions of tenure it chooses.   In reality this control will be exercised by governments.

Public ownership of land may be more dangerous to liberty and justice than private ownership of land.  For one thing here land monopoly is far more centralised; in fact, if there happens to be only one government, this monopoly is, at least theoretically, absolute.  Also, the saving grace of most landlords is that they are idle; they merely collect the rent.  But in the politician legislative power is now combined with the power of the landlord.    The State as landlord is now able to legislate through leases.   Would governments acting as landlords be as diligent in protecting the rights of tenants as governments are now?

In China today thousands of municipal governments are busy expropriating tens of millions of peasants from their land, turning collective farms into industrial estates or simply selling it off.  Even here common land has become public land and is being used to raise revenue.


To identify private property in land with slavery might sound absurd at first.  After all, when Leo wrote that “Our first and most fundamental principle when we undertake to alleviate the condition of the masses must be the inviolability of private property” (Qu. p.22, CL), he is only saying what most of us think.  Buying a house, and buying more than one if we can, is the accepted formula by which ‘to better our condition’.

George would perhaps call it the corner-stone of individual economics.  But what seems clear as crystal in individual economics may have no place in political economy, that economy that advances ‘the wealth of nations’.  Progress and Poverty demonstrates that private property in land has no place in economics.

George says in The Science of Political Economy that, just as the body may adapt to the presence of a foreign object, so society adapts itself to the presence of private property in land.   One such adaptation is State Intervention set out by Leo and summarised by George on p.70.  State Intervention is the exercise of Christian charity, natural to an institution that, by tradition, has had the care of those who cannot help themselves.

But while it is natural for the Church to turn to this solution and what workers need is protection from their employers, this approach is not the approach that stems from its fundamental moral position.  That fundamental position requires the approach adopted by Henry George, the restoration of their natural rights.

Workers are not people who cannot help themselves.  They are not blind, crippled, terminally ill, or some class of inferior beings. They are well able to help themselves.  To do that they need equal rights in the use of land.

George writes “In the Encyclical you commend the application to the ordinary relations of life, under normal conditions, of principles that in ethics are only to be tolerated under extraordinary circumstances” (pp. 89-90).

The extraordinary circumstance here is not infirmity, it is injustice.  It is man-made and it is remediable. It is understandable that the Church should offer short-term protection of the needy by good works.  But charity is not the way to deal with injustice.

Andrew Forrest (of all people) put this rather well.  Speaking of aborigines he said “People do no need welfare; they need employment”.

George sums it up this way. “Charity is indeed a noble and beautiful virtue, grateful to man and approved by God.  But charity must be built on justice. It cannot supersede justice” (p.99).

Without the right to labour the next best thing was the poor law, first legislated in England under Elizabeth in 1601.

But, as Henry George points out, by substituting charity for justice, we bring confusion into rights.  For example there is the natural right to work.  But to assert a right to be employed by someone else is a “false right” (p.90).  Neither is there a right, except in the most extraordinary of temporary circumstances, to take one’s man’s property and give it to another.  It certainly should not be part of day to day public policy.

Here the Catholic doctrine of the universal destination of goods can come very close to “the community of goods” of the socialists (S.18). That doctrine does not seem to be what Leo envisages in S. 5 of Rerum Novarum.   In fact, both as public policies are founded, not on the restoration of natural and equal rights, but upon collective action aimed at the common good that ignores these natural and equal rights.  In other words, these policies are founded on what seems expedient.

The Church, we might presume, would not tolerate slavery from the argument that its hardships can be much alleviated by the paternal care of the slave master, or even by State Intervention to limit the control of slaveholders over their slaves.  The Church would assert the natural right of the slave.  It is the same in the sphere of the relations of employers and employees.  Right action demands not the kind paternalism of employers or ameliorative power of the State but the assertion of the natural and equal right of all to use land.

When the abolitionists in the United States attacked slavery they neither appealed to slave-owners to be less greedy or selfish in their treatment of their slaves, nor did they demand legislation that might improve the condition of slaves.  Instead, they reverted to principle.  They cited the Golden Rule; they cited the Declaration of Independence about inalienable rights.

In answering Leo’s argument that ‘what is bought with rightful property is rightful property’ George immediately reverts to principle; “purchase and sale cannot give, but only transfer ownership”(p.26).  From that it is an easy step to the deduction that, where ownership does not exist, it cannot be transferred.  Land cannot be owned and, thus, it cannot be transferred.  Or, as Leviticus puts it “The land shall not be sold forever; for the land is mine; for ye are strangers and sojourners with me” (Lev. 25:23).  In other words, land cannot be owned, it may only be used.  That view is attacked by Leo in S. 7 and in S. 10) it is called an ‘obsolete opinion’.

When in 1772 Lord Mansfield in the case of James Somersett declared that in England all men were free and thus, Somersett being a man was not a slave but free, he changed the course of history.  If only something similar might occur here. If Somersett were a homeless man it might have been said “All men have equal rights to the use of the earth. Therefore James Somersett cannot be landless.  From there it is but an easy step to the ‘single tax’.


George, Henry, Progress and Poverty (1879).

George, Henry,The Condition of Labour (1891) in The Land Question.

George, Henry, A Perplexed Philosopher (1892).

George, Henry, The Science of Political Economy, (1897).

Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum (1891) in The Land Question.

All works listed above are in the standard editions prepared by the Robert Schalkenbach Foundation, New York.

Marx, Karl, and Engels, Fredrich, The Communist Manifesto (1847,1967) ed. A.J.P. Taylor, Penguin Books, England.

Marx, Karl, Capital, (1887, 1977), Progress Publishers, Moscow, Vol. I, Chs. 26, 27.

Wikipedia consulted in relation to Stein Hardenberg Reforms and the Clapham set.

Richard Giles

Advanced Search

©2010 Association for Good Government | Web Site Design by BUNOLOGY