The End of the Beginning

Charles Barker

[Reprinted from the Henry George News, December, 1954]

This is the anniversary of a great book. Progress and Poverty is now 75, well past the retirement age for most men and all but a tiny minority of the world's best books. But there is a huge difference between celebrating a person's 75th, and a book's. In the first case one has t6 assume there won't be many more. But in the case of a book one may hope, in this case it seems fair to believe, that the 75th birthday is not the beginning of the end, but the end of the beginning.

I suppose that it would be possible to take the top dozen or so of the world's great works on society, and by comparison decide at what age they made their transition of usefulness as books of great wisdom. Economics and politics are written about with an immediate reference to the times and the troubles the authors knew: Plato's Republic and Laws and Aristotle's Politics had an immediate bearing on the city states of ancient Greece; Milton's famous essay on freedom bore on forces of unfreedom from which he himself suffered; Adam Smith, writing about economic laws he believed to be timeless, was resisting 18th century mercantilism. I believe there is no important exception to the law of first relevancy: books are always, or nearly always, written with an author's intention to solve problems of justice or theory which trouble his own time.

Progress and Poverty is younger than any book I have mentioned to illustrate the second life in books, but its very special history none the less gives us some basis to examine the case. If 75 years are a little short, at least Progress and Poverty has lived through three distinct periods of a little more or a little less than a quarter century each, and they give us bases to consider the book's enduring power.

As for the first period, Progress and Poverty was a depression book; the crisis of the 1870's penetrates its lines, and one of Henry George's most telling criticisms of earlier economics was that economists had not tackled the problem of depression. It was also a California book; again a book with Ireland's crisis much in mind; it was of course an American book, inspired by the unique domain problem in the United States.

But the short 18 years of life which remained to Henry George after his masterpiece appeared were enough to show that the book had reached beyond the dimensions of its origin, and beyond the author's expectations, which were anything but narrow. As Henry George believed it would be, it was accepted as important for any, not just the one, economic crisis. While the book had a following in California, there was in the East, most of all in New York, a greater following than in the West, and in the United Kingdom a greater acceptance than in the United States. In 1891 Henry George had a rousing reception in Australia; and before long he learned of his very distinguished follower, Count Leo Tolstoy, the one of many Russian intellects who accepted his doctrines.

During the second period, 1897-1917, the reform period of Woodrow Wilson's administration, just before World War I, U. S. policy came nearest to being what Henry George wanted - not very close to be sure. But two distinguished Georgists had seats in the cabinet; two were elected to Congress in 1912; and a good number were placed in appointive offices, Louis Post, F. C. Howe and Brand Whitlock among them. After his administration of the Department of the Interior, Secretary F. K. Lane retained such faith in Henry George and Progress and Poverty as to believe that, with Emerson and William James, Henry George ranked as one of the three greatest figures in American literature and philosophy; and that with James and T. R. he was one of the twentieth century's three most influential figures in America.

Lane was putting in his own language a point we need to see: Henry George and his book was in the twentieth century affecting the general currents of American thought. By comparison with Progress and Poverty's first quarter century, much effort had been channeled as in a delta, into Henry George efforts: Land Restoration League in England and Scotland, opposition to Socialists, United Labor party, single-tax organizations and so on. Consciences were stirred as they entered the broader rather than the narrower streams of progressivism.

The third, most recent, and longest period in Progress and Poverty's life began in 1921 and has been the book's era of hard times, yet Progress and Poverty does live on in men's thoughts today. Look around you. There is new appreciation of Henry George in England; and there is a crop of studies of him recently done or in process, in universities in the Middle West.

As a recent visitor in the Middle East I bring back a stronger conviction, even, than I had when I started my book on Henry George that land and resource monopolization remains one of the world's great issues. The honored book is hardly in doubt. The text is clear. It is widely distributed. Its theoretical argument holds up, despite recent changes in theory. It is established in the recent literature of history and social criticism.

When the general purposes of Progress and Poverty are sought out, and the meaning behind what Henry George called "the remedy" and "the application of the remedy" is considered, the book becomes an historic plea for justice among men in their need to have access to the world's resources. Free trade is implicit. The end of monopoly in land h9lding the control of sites and resources -- is explicit. Change institutions if need be, said Henry George, but do not deny men their rights.