Russel Wallace : Alfred Russell Wallace (sic)
Nationalisation Society] (S380: 1885)
Although, as a society, we may not have made very great progress during the past year, yet our cause is none the less advancing with giant strides, and we may, I think, lay claim to having done good work in helping it on. In a question which is so vast and which involves such momentous issues it is not to be wondered at that there is a great diversity of opinion, and that people in general are somewhat confused by the vague and discordant teachings of the public press. While our doctrines are far too radical for the ordinary politician, a considerable able body of our Socialist friends think we do not go far enough; but we have confidence in the position we have taken up, and we already see indications that both parties are drawing nearer towards us. It is, I think, a most encouraging sign that the dogma of "free trade in land," which till quite recently was put forth as the one and only needful land reform, is now almost universally admitted to be quite insufficient, and it is avowed that something more is required in order to remedy the terrible state of things brought about by unrestricted land-monopoly. The disastrous overcrowding of towns and depopulation of the rural districts is now sought to be remedied by the establishment of joint-stock societies, to set up "industrial villages" and create a body of "peasant proprietors." These proposals invariably receive the warm support of all parties, including landlords, and none of our political teachers seem to have any misgivings as to the success of this mode of renovating our social system on commercial principles. But they have very imperfect knowledge if they think that such measures will suffice, while the causes which year by year [[p. 6]] compel the rural population to leave their native villages and flock into the towns remain still in action. On this important subject I propose to make a few remarks in connection with the most recent, and in many ways the most noteworthy, of these proposals, "The Small Farm and Labourers' Holding Company," as to the merits of which the Press has been almost unanimous and has blown the trumpet in its praise accordingly.
This company is essentially a landlord's movement, since I find among its founders and supporters the names of sixteen great landholders, and a large number of the junior branches of noble and landlord families. The sixteen great landlords--from Dukes downwards--who attended at the meeting at which the Society was founded, or wrote expressing their warm approval of it, hold between them more than half a million acres of land. The speakers who represented them at the meeting all expressed their sense of the vast importance of small farms and peasant-holdings. The country was being ruined for the want of them; and, accordingly, these holders of half-a-million acres proposed that the public should subscribe money and buy other people's land (when and where it happened to be for sale), and establish the small farms and peasant-holdings in regions quite away from the sacred half-million acres owned by themselves! It never seems to have occurred to them, or to anyone present, that no "Company" was needed, that not a penny need be raised, that secretaries and directors and chairmen (with their respective salaries) were quite unnecessary, if the owners of the half-million of acres then present would agree together that each and all of them would divide their own estates into "small farms," would themselves allow "labourers" to have "holdings," would permit population freely to grow on their lands, letting everyone, in fact, who wanted land for personal occupation have it on a permanent tenure, at the same rents as the farmers now pay for it. If only half of the 500,000 acres were so used, it would supply 5,000 small farms at an average of 25 acres, and 62,500 labourers' holdings at an average of 2 acres--about 67,000 additional families settled on the land, or a population of over a quarter of a million. How long will it be before the "Society" "Limited" will do as much as this? Will it be able to do as much in 10 years, or 20 years, or even 50 years--if it should continue to exist so long? I feel pretty confident that it will not; while what it does do will be far less beneficial, because, instead of allowing population to flow naturally over the land, people themselves deciding where they can best get a living upon it, they will be forced to live only on the particular farms and estates that may be purchased by this or similar companies, while the rest of England, Scotland, and Ireland remains subject to the very same influences which have depopulated and continue to depopulate their rural lands.
Now, is it not a most suggestive fact that not one of the landlords present promised to do anything of the kind, but by their silence made it pretty clear that they intended, as heretofore, to keep their own estates [[p. 7]] quite free from such low things as "small farms" and "labourers' holdings." One landlord indeed, Sir R. Loyd-Lindsay, offered the Company an estate of 400 acres, which he had just purchased in Berkshire at £10 an acre, "on any terms they might suggest"; but he was careful to add that it was not in the division of the county which he inhabited. This was apparently stated in order not to set the bad example of allowing poor people to have land in the neighbourhood of a great landlord's own domain--a thing evidently most repulsive to the landlord mind! One of the noble speakers referred to the fact that they would have "to face the expense of transfer" and to the necessity of having many small owners together in order that they could hire horses, with many other difficulties which are altogether imaginary, or would be obviated if they would simply let people have land where they require it and on a secure tenure. One--and so far as I can hear, only one--landlord in all England has done this--Lord Tollemache. On his estates in Cheshire and Suffolk he has numerous small farms, and no very large ones; he allows every labourer to have enough land to keep a cow and he allows anybody--mechanics, or retired tradesmen--to purchase or lease land to build and live upon, with ample space for gardens, and a field or two in addition at a fair rent wherever they desire it. And the result is, that here is a little oasis of comfort and contentment in the midst of the wilderness of misery and discontent produced by landlordism. Here there is no agricultural distress, the farms are eagerly sought after--the tenure of them being practically permanent at fair rents--the labouring population are well off and contented, and the farmers find that these independent and well-to-do labourers are the best of workmen, and, as the correspondent of the Daily News, says, "are loud in praise of the system." Strange to say, Lord Tollemache is described as a Tory of the old school, but he evidently realises as a fact, what others only state as a theory, that property is a trust, that the people have a right to have land to live and work upon, and that to allow them freely to have it is not only a great boon to them and to society, but is equally beneficial to the landlord himself. All honour to him for having so consistently acted upon these convictions! But what are we to think of those landlords who, having had this example before them for half-a-century, even now make no attempt to follow it, but come before the public as promoters of the "Small Farm and Labourers' Holding Company (Limited)," a company formed to throw dust in the eyes of the public, to find purchasers for otherwise unsaleable farms, and to keep the objectionable "small farmers" and "labourers" as far removed as possible from their own estates.
In order to show you the magnitude of the evils which this precious Company is supposed to be adequate to remedy, I will give you a few facts as to rural depopulation which are not generally known, as they have been allowed to remain buried in the Census Reports.
There are in England and Wales 2,175 registration
sub-districts, each [[p. 8]] containing four
or five parishes, and the population of these is given for the last two
censuses, showing their increase or diminution. Thinking that this would
afford the means of determining over what area the exodus of the rural
population to the towns has extended, I have drawn out a table showing
the proportion of each county in which the population has actually diminished
during the ten years 1871-81. This table shows us that, with the exception
of those counties which form residential suburbs to London, and a few
others which are thickly covered with manufacturing towns, the depopulation
extends to every part of England, and apparently to almost the whole of
the agricultural districts. The amount of diminution of population in
the Counties of England and Wales, and extending over more than half their
area, is 308,941. But this by no means shows the amount of migration from
these districts. For during the same ten years the population of the whole
country increased nearly 15 per cent., and rural populations increase
naturally much more rapidly than those of towns. The births in the country
are about three per cent. more, the deaths about twelve per cent. less;
so that we cannot put the normal increase of the rural populations at
less than 17 per cent. But the population of the decreasing areas in 1871
We thus see that the real exodus of the people from these particular districts has been nearly 1 1/4 million. But even this is not all; for, besides these areas where the population has actually decreased there must be a large additional area where they have increased less than the normal rate of 17 per cent., and this implies migration from a still wider area. Taking for example a few typical counties, I find that in Sussex, which shows but a small absolute decrease, the whole county except a few towns and their suburban districts have increased much below the normal rate, implying migration of the surplus rural population to the towns. In Hampshire the same occurs, only Portsmouth, Southampton, and Christchurch having increased up to or beyond the normal rate. In Buckinghamshire, not a single sub-district has increased normally. In Norfolk the same. In Leicestershire only the towns and some of their suburban districts have increased normally. In Derbyshire only 9 out of 25 sub-districts have increased up to the normal standard. In Cumberland the seaports only have increased normally, the rest of the county showing a very slight increase or none. The conclusion we arrive at, therefore, is, that over the whole of rural England there has been a continuous flow of population to the great towns, owing to the natural increase of the population not [[p. 9]] finding the means of existence elsewhere. Now, for the migration from these districts which increased much below the normal rate, we may, I think, fairly add three-quarters of a million, making, with the 1 1/4 million in the areas of absolute decrease, a total of nearly two millions of people, who in ten years only have been forced by the struggle for existence to leave the country for the towns!
Here we have the true dimensions of the evil to be grappled with, and we see that it is co-extensive with rural England. Yet now, the landlords, who have themselves directly caused the evil by systematically refusing to let land in "small farms" or "labourers' holdings," would have us believe that it is to be adequately met by a "Limited Company," having established which they may contentedly repose upon their vast ancestral estates, from which "small farmers," and "peasant holdings" are rigidly and systematically banished! To such a scheme in the face of such a great national crisis, the only fitting parallel is Mrs. Partington attempting to keep out the Atlantic with her mop!
Let us now turn to another subject. One of the most interesting occurrences of the present year was the Industrial Remuneration Conference in January last. Although the matters discussed were very largely mere side issues, yet some great questions affecting social economy were brought forward, among which the Land Question occupied a prominent place, and it was evident that Land Nationalisation was beginning to be discussed among the working classes, though its essential principles and overwhelming importance are not yet well understood.
Among the more important papers--because anything coming from the writer is sure to receive attention--was one by Mr. Frederic Harrison, on "Remedies for Social Distress." Owing to the limitation of time there was no opportunity of replying to this paper, and I had intended to do so in detail in my present Address; but I find that this would occupy far too much time, and I shall, therefore, confine myself to a few remarks on two points only, one a matter of principle, the other mainly a question of fact.
In arguing against the nationalisation of the land and the more equable distribution of capital which it would certainly bring about, Mr. Harrison maintains that there is "a universal tendency of organised industry, rural or urban, towards the massing and not the dispersion of capital;" and that "increased concentration of capital is an indispensable condition of modern successful industry." And he concludes thus:--"In the face of this universal law of modern industry, a law the more conspicuous the more free and virgin be the field of industry, how idle would it be to look for any regeneration of the industrial system to a natural dispersion of capital or land! In the teeth of universal tendencies such as these it is rather unnatural to struggle for the revival of the equable distribution of capital and land which marks the ruder types of society."
Now, such general propositions as this as to "universal tendencies and laws" [[p. 10]] are utterly valueless, unless you can first prove that they exist and have arisen under a social system founded on justice and freedom, and no such proof has been attempted. To illustrate what I mean, let us suppose Mr. Harrison to have been a Roman of the Augustan period. What would then have been his argument as to universal "social tendencies and laws?" Arguing with an advocate of free labour and enterprise, as against a system of slavery, he might probably have said:--"The universal tendency of modern progress is to divide men into freemen and slaves. Under this system alone is civilisation possible. Without slavery you cannot have a highly-cultivated, leisured class, able to produce those works of literature, art, and construction which are the marks of true civilisation. All history tells us the same story. Wherever you have civilisation you have slavery as its essential foundation. Look at the old civilisations of Egypt, India, Assyria, and Greece, all alike dependent on the existence of a small, cultured class, the possessors of myriads of slaves. To this system we owe all the grand monuments and works of art which those countries have produced, and whose ruins still exist. To this system we owe the splendours of Rome, the mistress of the world, and all that noble literature and art and refinement which has never yet been equalled." And he might have concluded almost in the very words he has used to-day--"In the teeth of universal tendencies such as these it is rather unnatural to struggle for a revival of the universal personal freedom and equality of condition which marks the ruder types of society."
The one argument is just as good, or as bad, as the other. Both, in fact, are equally bad, because they both rest upon the assumption that men have not equal rights to participate in the free gifts of nature to man. When one portion of society possess the Land, with all the powers and natural forces which it contains, and the other, and far larger portion, cannot even work or live, cannot obtain a particle of food or clothing, except on such conditions as the landholders collectively impose, they are--as Mr. George has so well shown--as truly slaves as were those who worked for Roman nobles or Southern planters. A system which has grown up under these conditions, and which is founded upon them, cannot set itself up as a guide as to what are the "universal laws and tendencies" of unfettered human industry.
In some respects, even, the modern slave is worse off than his predecessor in the ancient world, for he is the slave of machinery and capital, and to serve the purposes of his master is forced to live in huge cities far removed from the health-giving influences and spontaneous gifts of nature, and thus when, as so often happens, the capitalist has no immediate need for his labour, he must starve or live as a pauper. Much is asserted of the economy of this division of labour and production on the most gigantic scale, but it is not true economy, inasmuch as its results are to produce inordinate wealth for the few, incessant labour with widespread poverty and disease for the many. True economy is that which not only produces wealth freely but distributes it fairly; true economy must tend to the equalisation of both [[p. 11]] wealth and labour; true economy will not force men to be the slaves of machinery day after day, with no opportunity for that relaxation produced by change of labour, and that mental and physical invigoration which result from spending some portion of their time in tilling the soil the fruits of which they are themselves to gather. It is not true economy to place men in such a position that when work for an employer fails they are utterly unable to work for themselves. All this is false economy; and yet this is the system which Mr. Harrison tells us is founded upon "universal law and tendency"!
And when he descends from the heights of rhetoric and attempts to support his argument by an appeal to facts he is not accurate. He says: "The ancient controversies as to the great and little culture of land have now ended in this: that for the largest production of cereals and stock and for the highest scientific farming the big-scale culture at least is indispensable." This no doubt is what is repeated over and over again by men who claim to be authorities, but it is simply untrue, as I will prove to you by incontrovertible evidence. Lord Carrington has recently stated that his 800 allotment tenants in Buckinghamshire get a nett produce from the land of £40 an acre, while the most that a farmer can make out of the same land is £7 an acre. Here is big and small farming compared by the landlord, and his facts are supported by independent official evidence. It was proved before the Women's and Children's Employment Commission in 1868 that cottagers obtained an average return of £16 an acre above the farm rent. The Rev. Mr. Stubbs shows that his allotments at Granborough, in Buckinghamshire, cultivated by common labourers, produced 60 per cent. more wheat than the farmers' average, and 11 per cent. more than the average of the highest scientific farming. Thus a million labourers working for themselves would produce far more wheat than the same land does when cultivated by the most scientific farmers. Here is an actual fact, carefully recorded, worth a whole volume of assertions that the thing cannot be. And as to stock, Mr. Little, the Assistant Commissioner to the Royal Commission on Agriculture, in his account of Penstrase Moor in Cornwall--barren land entirely reclaimed by the labour of peasants and miners--shows that those little peasant holdings produce more than double the number of cattle and pigs per 100 acres than either the County of Cornwall or the Truro Union in which they are situated. Here, then, whether tested by the value of the total produce, by the quantity of wheat, or by the number of live stock, we see that small holdings beat large farms, not by a small margin, but by 50 or 100 up to 500 per cent.; while the moral and social advantages are so great that even if the produce were only the same or even less, the small culture system should be preferred. We see, therefore, that in the one case in which we can test it by an appeal to facts, the general statement as to the superior economy of large as against small-scale industry is [[p. 12]] shown to be absolutely untrue; and it is highly probable that when applied to other industries than agriculture it will be found equally untrue, because we have yet to see the value of diversity of occupation, of utilising spare time now wasted, and of that magic power of property which enables a man working for himself in his own house or shop to do half as much again as when working for a master, with little pleasure and no direct interest either in the quantity or the quality of his work.
We now come to the next point--the question of fact. Mr. Harrison maintains, and reiterates over and over again, that Land, as it now exists, is a manufactured article--that "an ordinary farm is as much artificial as a house or a factory." There is, he says, "hardly an acre of cultivated land in England which has not been made cultivated by a great outlay of labour and capital. It has really been as much built up as a railway or a dock." And thence he argues that even if the people of England have a right to the land of England, they have only a right to it as it was originally. "To seize it," he says, "after centuries of labour have been expended to utterly changing its very face and nature would be monstrously unjust." And further on he argues that the whole labour expended on reclaiming the land is so great that it often represents more than its present value; and concludes thus:--"Mr. George might as well claim the coats off our backs, on the ground that God made the sheep, as the farms which have been made by human capital and skill." And very much more in the same brilliant, but I think superficial, style.
Now, in all this there are two underlying fallacies: 1. The improvement to the land by culture is not, on the whole, nearly so great as is alleged, since in many cases it has been deteriorated and impoverished instead of being improved; and 2. The bulk of the improvement that has been made has been made by successive generations of tenant-cultivators, as an incident of cultivation, and the result, whatever it may be, is the heritage of the nation, not of the landlords, who have in most cases done nothing.
To take the last point first, Mr. Harrison argues as if the whole process of reclamation from forest or moorland, from marsh or mountain side, had been done by, or at the cost of, the landlords. But by far the larger part of the land now under cultivation has been so for many centuries, and was certainly brought under cultivation by successive generations of actual cultivators. This is proved by the fact that in 1557 wheat was exported from this country, which, taking into account the system of agriculture then pursued, the small crops raised, and the estimated population of England, shows that the amount of arable land was then nearly as great as now, if not greater.1 Of course we [[p. 13]] are speaking only of the land itself. Many farmhouses and buildings have been erected by landlords, and some other permanent improvements made by them, but neither we nor Mr. George have ever even proposed to take these away from their owners. The land itself, however, in so far as its value has been increased, has been improved bit by bit, by successive generations of tenants from Saxon times downwards, and we claim that the people of England, not the landlords only, are the true inheritors of that improvement.
But Mr. Harrison is equally in error in his estimate of the enormous amount of this increased value. On the contrary, it is very doubtful if the land of England, as a whole, is so inherently valuable now as it was three or four hundred years ago. There are two reasons for this opinion. In the first place, population was formerly distributed pretty uniformly over the whole country, and as there was then no system of sewerage (by which the fertilising refuse of men and animals are now carried away to the sea), almost the whole of the manurial products were returned to the land, and thus, with a regular system of fallows, its fertility was kept up. Now, on the contrary, almost all the vegetable and animal produce of the country is consumed in great cities far away from the land which produces it, and the manure is not returned to the land. Hence a progressive deterioration, only partially checked by the use of artificial manures.2 Again, we find, almost all over England, extensive tracts of poor pasture land which, by the ridges on its surface, show that it has formerly been ploughed. Much of this was probably once natural pasture, which, when on a good subsoil, is the most fertile of all land. During the periods when wheat was dear, under the old régime of the Corn Laws, this fine old pasture was everywhere broken up, and the top soil, rich in humus and vegetable fibre which had accumulated by thousands of years of grazing, gave for a few years immense crops of grain. Then, when its fertility diminished, fresh land was broken up and the other was allowed to go back into pasture. But its natural fertility had been irretrievably ruined. It now bears large crops of thistles and other noxious weeds, and is in many cases not worth half or a third of what it was before it was broken up. This was the work of the landlords, who got high rents for this corn-producing land; and if this, and the thousands of acres of chalk and limestone downs which have been similarly broken up and deteriorated, are taken into account, I think it [[p. 14]] very probable that instead of the landlords having improved the land, they have, by their greed for high rents, distinctly deteriorated it; and for this deterioration the people of England may perhaps present their bill when accounts come to be settled between them both.
Even the English language bears witness against Mr. Harrison's contention, for what word do we use when we want to express the best and richest undeteriorated land? We call it "virgin soil"--soil in a state of nature. How often do we hear of the difficulties of our farmers competing by means of the exhausted soil of England against the "virgin soil" of America! Yet, according to Mr. Harrison, this "virgin soil" is worthless, and only becomes good for anything after centuries of cultivation! Not only the English language, but history and experience alike bear testimony against this stupendous fallacy.
There are numerous other statements and arguments in Mr. Harrison's paper which appear to me to be equally unsound, but I have no time now to enter upon them. But I thought it essential to say a few words on this theory of "land being a manufactured article," because it was the main point in a lecture delivered by Mr. Harrison at Newcastle-on-Tyne last year, and, as I was informed by a person who heard it, produced much impression owing to the authoritative manner in which the proposition was laid down.
And this brings me to a somewhat personal matter. In a lecture on the Land Question at Newton Hall in February, 1884, Mr. Harrison is reported to have said that--"he thought that Mr. Wallace knew as little about the English Land Question and the management of English estates as Mr. George, and his studies in the Eastern Archipelago had not assisted him."
Now, as my practice--in this as in all other enquiries on which I have been engaged--is never to give my personal opinions as of any value, but always to set forth or refer to the facts and arguments which have led me to form the opinion, the above-quoted belief as to my "knowledge" is of little real importance. The question really is, are the facts we allege true, and are the conclusions we draw from those facts sound? But there are many people who will not, or cannot, follow out a train of reasoning founded on an elaborate statement of facts; they prefer relying on authority, and of course they like to know on what grounds any particular person is to be considered an authority. For that reason and that reason only, I beg leave to give you a short autobiographical sketch of my personal relations with the land and the land question.
I left school at the age of 14, and my real education then commenced. I joined an elder brother who was a land-surveyor, with considerable knowledge also of engineering and architecture. With him I spent seven years, in various parts of England and Wales, constantly engaged professionally with land. We lived almost the whole of this time in small towns or villages, in farmhouses or labourers cottages. We were engaged in surveying for the Tithe Commutation, [[p. 15]] for the Enclosure Commissioners, or for private estate-owners. We assisted in the process of valuation for the Tithe Commutation, and for Enclosures of Commons. Living thus almost constantly on the land and among farmers and country people, I soon took a great interest in agriculture. I studied the works of Sir Humphrey Davy and Baron Liebeg, at that time the great authorities on agricultural chemistry. When living in village inns I was often present at the meetings of the Farmers' Clubs, and heard agricultural matters discussed, and I really believe that at that period of my life I could have passed a very fair examination in theoretical and practical agriculture. Soon after I came of age, my brother died, and I succeeded him in a small connection as Surveyor and Architect, which occupied me till I went abroad five years later.
Thus, for the twelve most impressionable and most active years of my life I was living in the closest possible relation to the land and its cultivators, and I obtained a knowledge of peasant life and an interest in agriculture which has been a permanent acquisition to me. After returning home from abroad in 1862 I lived a few years in London, but since then have always resided in the country, and having acquired from Herbert Spencer the great principle that private property in land was absolutely wrong, I ever kept the subject in my mind, seeking out a mode by which this wrong might be practically and equitably abolished. About eight or ten years ago I began to see my way, and as soon as I had finished the various scientific works which were the result of my twelve years of tropical exploration, I put my ideas in order and wrote the article "How to Nationalise the Land," which appeared in the Contemporary Review in Nov., 1880, and which I believe led to the formation of this Society.
I trust you will excuse the apparent egotism of this narration, but it may perhaps be useful by showing that my whole life has been closely connected with the land, that I have had great opportunities for acquiring knowledge both of it and of those who cultivate it, and that the views I now hold and advocate are not, as Mr. Harrison thinks, the result of a hasty and superficial literary study, but are, to some extent, the outcome of the practical experience of a lifetime.
1In the 16th Century the population
of England is estimated to have been about four and a half millions, and
the country then produced all the wheat, barley, and other food which
it consumed. The consumption of wheat is now reckoned at about 8 bushels
per head; but at a time when there was no rice or potatoes, and when the
people were mostly countrymen, living much in the open air and in robust
health, we may fairly put the consumption of corn, especially as it was
of an inferior quality, at 12 bushels per head. This gives a total consumption
of 45 million bushels of wheat. The average crop at this time was about
13 bushels an acre, from [[p. 13]] which
we must deduct 3 bushels an acres for the seed sown, leaving 10 bushels
an acre net produce and this would have required 5,400,000 acres of land
to grow it. To this we have to add one third as much for fallows every
three years, bringing up the amount to over seven million acres,
besides the land cultivated in barley, oats, peas, beans, and other crops.
Now, in 1880, the amount of land in all these crops together was under
seven million acres, so that it is quite clear that the reclamation
and cultivation of the land of England dates back to very early times.
[[on pp. 12-13]]