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Alfred Russel Wallace : Alfred Wallace : A. R. Wallace :
Russel Wallace : Alfred Russell Wallace (sic)

Presidential Address of
Dr. Alfred Russel Wallace (S438: 1891)

Editor Charles H. Smith's Note: The text of Wallace's Presidential Address to the tenth annual meeting of the Land Nationalisation Society, held 18 June 1891. Printed in Report of the Land Nationalisation Society. 1890-91. (London, 1891). Original pagination indicated within double brackets. To link directly to this page, connect with: http://people.wku.edu/charles.smith/wallace/S438.htm

    [[p. 16]] The Report which has been presented to you this year is so full and so satisfactory that I need only congratulate you on the steady progress of our cause. And now that the country towns and rural villages are being aroused by the visits of two vans devoted to the great land question--our own and that of our friends and fellow-workers of the Land Restoration League--we may look forward with some confidence to the time when no Liberal candidate will have a chance of election who is not a thorough and radical land reformer. I trust that the lecturers and speakers at these van meetings will take every opportunity of enlightening the rural voters as to the real nature of the ballot, and do all in their power to convince them of the fact that their votes are now their own, and that, whatever landlords and agents may say to frighten them, the vote of any individual can never be ascertained except it is divulged by himself. We have already sufficient adherents to make us a power in the country, and we must now endeavour to make that power felt at the polls. When we can do that we shall see a wonderful change in the attitude of political parties, and even of the Government, towards the land question. Our arguments will then be admitted to have great weight; our proposals will then be treated as worthy of respectful consideration; and we ourselves, instead of being looked upon as wild fanatics aiming at the destruction of all that is most venerable and sacred in our institutions, will be classed among sober and earnest reformers, whose fundamental principles are indisputable, and must at no distant period become embodied in law to the great benefit of the community.

    Nothing can more clearly show the tendency of public and political opinion than the fact which has been referred to already in the Report, that Mr. Jesse Collings' SMALL HOLDINGS BILL was read a second time in the present session without opposition. For this Bill really involves some of the more important principles [[p. 17]] we advocate, though these are somewhat obscured by the form in which they are stated--a form adopted to avoid opposition from those who still hold to creating peasant proprietors rather than holders under the State or the municipality. The local authorities are, by this Bill, given power to purchase land and to sell it for small holdings of from one to fifty acres; but they are really to lease it in perpetuity at a rent calculated on the interest of three-fourths of the value of the land, the remaining fourth being paid by the tenant. This fourth part may be considered as representing, roughly, the value of improvements and of compensation for disturbance, which, under any circumstances, the tenant would have to pay, and also as affording good security against loss to the public by failure to pay the rent. If by putting it in this form opposition can be avoided there is little objection to be made on our part. But there are three important defects in the Bill. In the first place fifty acres is too high a limit since, as has been pointed out with great force by Mr. Bear, it would lead to the setting up of capitalist farmers by means of public credit, and would make it more difficult to supply suitable land to all real workers who might require it. Secondly, and this I think a much more important point, there is no provision made for the periodical revision of rents when land changes in value owing to the direct action of the community or to its mere growth, except by the inconvenient, costly, and harassing method of re-purchase and re-letting by the local authority. And lastly, the Bill is altogether permissive. The local authority may do this or not, but they are not compelled to do it. This is a fatal obstacle to any immediate utility of the measure if it passes. But, nevertheless, we should advocate it even with this grave defect; for the Bill itself contemplates being worked not by existing but by future local authorities, and, when parish or district councils are established and the councillors are chosen by universal suffrage, this matter of Small Holdings will determine the elections, and the workers of all kinds being in a large majority will be in a position to obtain all they want. Powers of compulsory purchase of land at fair agricultural values must however be given, or the Bill will be useless at all times; and as it is certain not to pass this session, and probably not while the present Government is in power, it is to be hoped that in another Parliament it may be possible to have it modified in the directions indicated. Its great superiority to all such Allotment Acts as have been or are likely to be brought in by this or by the next Government, is, that it will enable all would-be dwellers in the country to obtain land on fair terms, in practical perpetuity, to live and work upon, and thus to realise for the rural labourer that highest dream of his life, the possession of a "homestead of his very own." This is not, as Mr. Chamberlain and other of our opponents urge, a Bill [[p. 18]] to set men up in business at the public cost. It is, on the contrary, in the first place, a mere matter of justice to enable all Englishmen who desire it to make a home for themselves on their native soil; secondly, it would not be at the public cost, because it would at once leave a considerable margin of profit to go in relief of taxation; and, thirdly, it would benefit the whole community by striking at the very root of pauperism, and by leading inevitably to higher wages, and, as a consequence, to a greatly increased home trade.

    At our last annual meeting I ventured to discuss a subject of great theoretical and practical importance, the incidence of land taxation under the existing conditions of land-monopoly, and had the satisfaction of receiving the energetic support of that excellent land nationaliser and land restorer, Mr. T. F. Walker, of Birmingham. On the present occasion I propose to lay before you some considerations on another phase of our great subject, which I trust may receive equally effective support, while I think it will not excite so much, if any, antagonism.

    One of the most striking characteristics of the times in which we live is the extent to which the teachings of Socialism in its various forms are permeating society. Thoughtful men and women in ever-increasing numbers are becoming convinced that the time-honoured panaceas of politicians and economists are absolutely powerless to cure the terrible diseases of our modern social system. As wealth ever grows, poverty and starvation grow with it. Royal Commissions again and again report, but nothing ever comes of their reports. Men still die of starvation in the wealthiest and most luxurious city in the world. The proportion of all the deaths of the country which occur in workhouses, has, the Registrar General tells us, steadily increased from 5.6 per cent. in 1875, to 6.9 per cent. in 1888.1 In London the increase has been even more appalling, from 9.5 per cent. of the total deaths in 1872 to 12.6 per cent. in 1888. Every eighth death in London now occurs in a workhouse! In the face of this official demonstration that increase of wealth brings increase of want, and that all the charity, all the education, all the advance of science, and all the remedial legislation of the last fifty years have done nothing to check its inexorable advance, is it to be wondered at that the opinion should gain ground that the whole fabric of society rests on a rotten foundation, and that the only way to get rid of the horrors of starvation, misery, and vice everywhere around us is by a radical measure of reform which shall destroy the régime of individualism and competition that has so completely failed to secure the general well-being, and replace it by a complete system of co-operative socialism? They think that all [[p. 19]] the difficulties and possible dangers of such a social revolution must be faced as the only effectual means of putting an end to the terrible contrasts of wealth and poverty which not only persist, but increase, in all civilised communities, where millions spend their lives in excessive and debasing labor in order that other millions may live in luxury, and in complete or partial idleness.

    Now these earnest Socialists, while they are of course Land Nationalisers, are very much more. They think and believe that Land Nationalisation alone would do very little to remedy the evils that so impress them, and they urge that capital as well as land--all the machinery for creating wealth, should be equally nationalised. They therefore give us only a half-hearted support, and look upon it as almost a waste of time and energy to advocate our views. Their position may be illustrated by the remark of Mr. J. E. Williams of the Social Democratic Federation, who, after I had read my paper2 at the Industrial Remuneration Conference in 1885, asked me "to consider very seriously whether if we left all the machinery, all the railways, all large factories, and all the mines of the country in the hands of the rich capitalists, the working classes would still continue to be oppressed."

    I now propose, briefly, to show that I have seriously considered this question. And I think I shall be able to satisfy some at least of our Socialist friends that, once get the land into the hands of the people and the capital of the country will very soon follow it into the same hands. To make matters simpler, and more pleasant, I may say that I am in principle a thorough Socialist myself; but I am none the less firmly convinced that the shortest and easiest, perhaps the only road to Socialism is, in this country at all events, by the way of Land Nationalisation.

    Misconceptions as to Capital.--It will be necessary to make a few preliminary observations on the nature of capital, what it is and what it is not. And first, money is not capital. A man may have a houseful of money, but it is not capital till it is converted into tools or raw materials, and even then it will not be productive capital unless it can command both labor and intelligence to utilise it. We often hear the threat that if workmen strike for higher wages capital will go out of the country. That is an idle threat. True capital--railroads, factories, mills, &c., will not pay to carry away; and as for rich people taking money out of the country, that would hurt no one even now, and if we had possession of the land it would be an absolute benefit to us.

    Again, few persons realise how perishable and fugitive is capital. It wants constant looking after and constant renewal. Every few years new and improved machinery replaces the old, and even buildings have to be constantly repaired, and at longer or shorter [[p. 20]] intervals to be altogether re-built. We see how comparatively unimportant is the value of capital existing at any one time, when we observe the rapid renewal of that which has been destroyed by a great fire, like that of Chicago, or by a foreign invasion like that of France by Germany. In a very few years everything is replaced and everybody seems as well off as before. We also see how rapidly capital is created by the fact that so many wealthy men who now own mills and houses by the score began life with nothing. Capital, like all wealth, is created and grows solely by means of labor and intelligence applied to land or to the products of the land. It is one of the misleading errors of political economists that the three factors of wealth are land, labor and capital. The true factors, as long ago pointed out by our vice-president, Mr. Volckman, are land, labor, and intelligence. These existed before capital was created; and had capital been a necessary factor in the production of capital, then it could never have come into existence at all. It follows that, when the workers have free access to the land, and as the labor is certainly all their own, they only need the intelligence to produce in a very short time all the capital that is needed. It would be an insult to the working men of England to suppose that they have not the necessary intelligence;--it would moreover be contrary to all experience and all history, for whence has usually come the intelligence that has created the wealth of England, if not mainly from the ranks of the workers? Hargreaves and Arkwright, Watt and Stephenson, were not landlords or capitalists, though these last have derived much of their wealth from their inventions.

    Under present conditions the value of both capital and land to their respective owners, depends entirely on the amount of labor they can command. Both land and machinery are worthless, if left unused, while the former sometimes, and the latter always rapidly deteriorates in value. The landlord and the capitalist are therefore absolutely dependent upon the laborer, and if the laborer can be put in such a position as to be independent of them, he really becomes their master, instead of being, as now, their slave, and they will have to come to him and beg him to enable them to make something, however little, out of their property. The laborer will then be, as he ought to be, master of the situation; and Land Nationalisation will enable him to obtain this position just as surely, and perhaps even as rapidly, as if land and existing capital were both nationalised together.

    Let us then briefly consider how Land Nationalisation would work in this respect. I would first remark that when Mr. Williams spoke of us as leaving the mines and the railways in the hands of rich capitalists, he forgot that mines are part of the land and that we have always urged that the arguments in favour of Land Nationalisation apply with still greater force to all the [[p. 21]] mineral treasures of a country, because the use of them is not use only but actual destruction, and by largely exporting them for the aggrandisement of individual owners, we are simply robbing future generations. He may be quite sure that when the land is nationalised the minerals will not be left in private hands. Neither will the railroads and other means of communication. Public opinion is growing so rapidly on this question, that railroads will probably become public property even before the land. Many people think there is a financial difficulty in the way of this transfer, but this is a delusion. The Government might take over the administration of the railroads, in the interests both of the shareholders and the public, without requiring to raise or expend a single pound. They would simply amalgamate all the companies, and work all the lines by one central authority, paying the shareholders fixed dividends, estimated on those of the past five or ten years, and devoting all surplus profits, which would be certainly large, partly to the reduction of fares and to increasing the accommodation of the public, and partly to buying up the interests of shareholders. When these were all paid off the whole of the railroads might be either worked at very low fares so as to give a small profit, or, as is now very forcibly advocated in Australia, all travelling might be absolutely free, the expense being defrayed out of the general revenue.

    We will now return to the effects of Land Nationalisation.

    When every man who wished it, could have land on fair terms to cultivate or to live upon, we should soon find the country repeopled by men living on their own homesteads, and deriving a considerable portion of their subsistence from the fruit and vegetables, pigs and poultry, which they were able to grow during their spare hours, and with the help of their families. A large proportion of the millions who have migrated during the last twenty years to the great towns, driven away for the most part by the existing land monopoly, would surely return to their native towns and villages, and obtain their subsistence, either wholly or partially, by the cultivation of the soil. Many would still work in the towns, but, by means of cheap or even free trains and short hours of labor, they would be able to live five or ten miles away in the country or even further, and enjoy at once the advantages and pleasures of town and country life. Then for the first time in modern history the workman would be free. The capitalist would not, as now, own the house he lived in, and in any dispute about wages be able to hold over him the threat of eviction. Few would then be unemployed, and the capitalist could not, as now, get thousands of fresh men willing to work for any wages rather than starve. Under such conditions wages would inevitably rise until they absorbed all the product of labor, except the fair wages of superintendence and a very small interest on capital.

    [[p. 22]] No less important would be the absolute destruction of political despotism. Every man would be free to vote as he pleased, and the workers would then become, as they ought to become, the preponderating political force in the country.

    But having reached this point, a movement would inevitably arise towards the acquisition of the necessary capital by the workers themselves. There are, I believe, many processes in manufactures which can be carried on just as well in the workman's own house or workshop as in a large factory. Factories are of course useful and economical to the capitalist, enabling him to absorb to himself the surplus produce of thousands of men and machines. But the workers would benefit more if they worked for themselves, at their own homes, and with their own machines; and by a little co-operation the whole of the processes of many a factory could thus be carried on. Motive power could be conveyed to each of these workers from some central station, either by water, air, or electric transmission, and each man could thus work as many or as few hours as he pleased, alternating his machine work with out-door occupations, and thus adding both to his health, his enjoyments, and his profits.

    But this would only be one mode of co-operation. With independence and higher wages, workers of every kind could soon save enough to start small mills or workshops of the kind they were familiar with. And as these co-operative factories increased, those of the capitalists would run short of labor, and the hands they could get would demand and would certainly obtain higher wages and shorter hours. The competition would all be in favour of the men, who, working for themselves, would never be short of hands, and would not be troubled by strikes. The end would inevitably be that the capitalists would find their position untenable, and would everywhere offer to sell or rent their mills or factories for whatever they could get.

    Of course this assumes a fair amount of intelligence, industry, and economy on the part of the workers. But surely this is not a very large or improbable assumption to make with regard to men who, by the time these changes shall have come about, will have been steadily advancing in both ordinary and technical education, and who will have been for some time in possession of that personal freedom, political independence and power, and material well-being, which must inevitably be the first and immediate results of Land Nationalisation. It seems to me to be almost certain that those who as young men see our principles brought fully into action, will in middle age see the workers in co-operative possession of the bulk of the real working capital of the country.

    The powerful educational influences that will have been operating during these changes, will by that time render it possible, if public opinion then supports it, to extend this co-operation till it [[p. 23]] becomes first local and then national, culminating in the true co-operative commonwealth, which is the ideal of most modern Socialists. A system of Socialism thus established by men who have been gradually trained to effective co-operation, and to the responsibilities of political power, would have every chance of success. Under the happier conditions of society then prevailing paupers, criminals, and vagrants, will as classes have ceased to exist. The crass ignorance now so common will have been abolished. The obstructive power of the landed aristocracy, and of the privileged classes generally, will have died out.

    If, on the other hand, the attempt is made to establish such universal co-operation before the beneficial agency of Land Nationalisation has prepared the way, failure would almost certainly result, both from the strenuous opposition of all the forces of wealth and political power arrayed against it, as well as from the ignorance and unpreparedness of the millions who have been so long degraded by the cruel struggle for existence in our great cities. And the failure of the attempt would in all probability throw back true reform for at least a generation.

    I think I have now shown that Land Nationalisation is an essential preliminary to any other great social reform, and that Socialists should work heart and soul with us, without enquiring whether we are in favour of Socialism or not. Let them continue to advocate their own views, and educate the public in favour of Socialism, but let them also work earnestly with us. We have a long and a hard struggle before us. The combined forces of the landlords, the capitalists, and the official world are arrayed against us. But the vast multitude of the workers, though hitherto ignorant of their power, ignorant of their rights, and almost wholly untrained and unable to co-operate for any common cause, are now coming to our support; much of the independent intellect of the country is becoming convinced of the soundness of our views; the noble army of philanthropists, to whom be all honour, are now beginning to see that to relieve misery, however necessary for the moment, does no permanent good, and that to effect any permanent amelioration, they must join us in striking at the very root of the evil. If, in addition to these converts, we can gain to our cause some considerable proportion of the various groups of Socialists, we may consider ourselves within measurable distance of success; and it may be that many of our younger members will live to see the soil of our country freely open to the use of all her citizens.

    Then will no more be seen in our land, that most pitiable of sights, that crowning disgrace to our much-boasted wealth and civilisation--men whose children are in want of bread, asking for work, and asking for it in vain. (Loud cheers).

Notes Appearing in the Original Work

1. Fifty-first Annual Report of the Registrar-General, p. 71. [[on p. 18]]

2. "How to cause Wealth to be more Equally Distributed." [[on p. 19]]

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