Origins and Solutions to 'the land problem'
[Reprinted from Land & Liberty, Summer
AS WELL AS reshaping the physical appearance of England the
enclosures made fundamental changes to the economic life of the
country. Enclosure began in the 15th century and continued for over
500 years. Indeed, its origins may go back to the Black Death in
1348-49 when depopulation made conversion of arable land into sheep
pasture a necessity since there was neither the labour to work the
fields (often a community would have lost half of its farm workers)
nor the people to consume their produce.
Enclosure was a legal process and it took many different forms. These
developed over the centuries in ways that make it difficult to get a
clear picture of what actually happened. Steven Hollowell has produced
a masterly study of the enclosures and unravelled an extraordinarily
complex story. He has also produced a blueprint for other researchers
on how to tackle record offices and archive repositories to extract
the necessary nuggets that will give a true idea of what many believe
to be one of the greatest episodes of social injustice in our history.
There were, the author says, ultimately three methods of enclosing
land for agricultural use: informal enclosure; enclosure by formal
agreement (but often confirmed by a legal court of law); and enclosure
by Private or General Act of Parliament. Interestingly, he points out,
there are at least fourteen Public Enclosure Acts still on the statute
The time scale makes it difficult to give a coherent picture of the
reasons and modes of enclosure. For example, J.R. Wordie analysed the
enclosure of Leicestershire as follows:
||% OF COUNTY ENCLOSED
Predominantly, agricultural efficiency was the original reason for
enclosure. There could be as many as 70 plots belonging to one farmer
scattered over the open fields. The moving of equipment from one small
plot to another, particularly when new, heavier, implements were
introduced, made farming laborious and unnecessarily time consuming.
Another factor was the Dissolution of the Monasteries with the Church
relinquishing its land to secular landlords. The Pilgrimage of Grace
in 1536 reflected the spiritual element of this great upheaval.
The Church continued to hold land --indeed the parish incumbent
relied on the income from his glebe farm and the tithes paid by the
villagers. Quite often when the parish was enclosed by Act of
Parliament the latter was replaced by a one-off grant of land. There
was also a Land Tax which was introduced towards the end of
the 17th century and eventually abolished in 1963. Again the
enclosures altered the way that this was collected.
A great many enclosures were accomplished by agreement and without
protest, but often there were bitter disputes. In 1607 an uprising
broke out in Warwickshire and spread to Northamptonshire and
Leicestershire. A mob of some 3,000 tore up the new enclosure hedges
and fences and filled in the new ditches. The protesters called
themselves Levellers or Diggers. At Newton 1,000 rioters were
confronted by a mounted body of the local gentry and their servants
and were routed. Between forty and fifty were killed and many more
were arrested, hanged and quartered, their quarters being put on
display in the local towns. Subsequently, Steven Hollowell tells us, a
pardon was issued.
There were other rebellions but inevitably they were crushed and
their leaders executed and the enclosures went on. Landlords would
evict cottagers from their homes and holdings after the harvest was in
and then let them perish during the long winter months with nowhere to
live. Karl Marx in Das Kapital claims:
About 1750, the yeomanry had
disappeared, and so had, in the last decade of the 18th century, the
last trace of the common land of the agricultural labourer.
Steven Hollowell thinks the Marxist view of enclosure far too
simplistic. A great number of enclosures were debated and argued over
quite peaceably and often at length. Some enclosure acts took twenty
to thirty years to complete. But the truth is that, even allowing for
disturbances such as the Swing Riots of the 1830s being mainly caused
by the agricultural depression, the country was totally, and often
violently, changed by the enclosures. The ordinary man lost his
independence and ability to sustain himself and family. As John Clare
Inclosure came and trampled on the grave
Of labour's rights and left the poor a slave...
This book gives an important insight into this complicated and often
apparently contradictory process. But as the author says: "There
is still much more to be uncovered before we know the complete story".
THE TRANSLATION of Michael Silagi's book by Susan N. Faulkner covers
some of the successes and failures of Henry George's ideas in Europe.
His efforts in Britain are well known with the People's Budget in
every history book. His ideas influenced the founders of the Fabian
Society, with Sidney Webb saying that Progress and Poverty "sounded
the dominant note of the English Socialist party of to-day".
What is less well known is his impact on Germany, Denmark, Hungary
and Austria, and outside Europe in Japan, China, Hong Kong, Singapore
In his homeland, the United States, his social philosophy was all but
forgotten after the first World War. Outside the USA there were
stalwart supporters with considerable influence. Tolstoy promoted
George's ideas in Russia and they were taken up by Kerensky, whose
administration introduced land and tax reform with peasants forming
their own cooperatives. However, Trotsky staged the Bolshevik coup
that brought Lenin to power. He abolished the Duma and the Kerensky
administration. Lenin's successor, Stalin, suppressed the peasants'
cooperatives, murdered their political leaders and herded farmers into
state-controlled collectives killing six million peasants in the
Ireland, with its less violent but nevertheless turbulent history,
should have been a fertile ground for George's ideas but he was
disappointed by what happened there. According to Silagi, with 600,000
tenant farmers and 20,000 landlords George thought Ireland a fruitful
country to consider the land question but, because the British
Parliament persuaded the landlords to ameliorate the lot of their
tenants, it never became a major issue. Instead republicanism replaced
Progress and Poverty was translated into German in 1881 where
land reformers existed in small societies. But by and large the
country was uninterested in the land question. August Stamm, a
forerunner of George, had called for the nationalization of land and
accused George of plagiarism. Henry George responded in an open letter
to the German land reformers:
At the time when I wrote Progress
and Poverty (and in fact until quite recently), I had never
beard of Dr Stamm; but I am ready to grant Dr Stamm the honor of
having gone into battle before me. When I spoke in Oxford, England.
Mr Marshall, the Professor of Economics, declared that there was
nothing in Progress and Poverty that was both new and true.
I replied that I was quite willing to accept this characterization
of my book, since what is true cannot be new. And that which gives
me the certainty that the conclusions I have reached are essentially
true is the fact that so many persons have independently reached the
In 1898, Adolf Damaschke, a keen follower of George, founded the
Union of German Land Reformers. In the same year Wilhelm Schrameier,
another Georgist, and Governor of Kiaochow, a large German colony in
China, introduced Land Value Taxation. This continued until 1914 when
the first World War put an end to German rule in China.
Perhaps the most remarkable story in this book concerns Hungary,
where Progress and Poverty had not appeared in translation
until 1914. There it was read by Julius J. Pikler, who had been a
panel doctor but later moved into the Statistics Office in Budapest
becoming Deputy Director in 1906. Single-handed, without the help of
any movement, organisation or political group, he persuaded the Mayor,
Deputy Mayor and head of the centre party to look at the merits of
LVT. His senior position in the government and his being a Freemason
no doubt helped. In November 1917 the Budapest City Council adopted an
"ordinance for the city land value tax in Budapest".
Pikler then toured the country and within a year had encouraged seven
other cities to adopt LVT. He went on to other countries, including
Austria, spreading the Georgist word. In 1923 he spoke at the
International Georgist Congress in Oxford and reported his activities
in an article in Land & Liberty.
The Hungarian experiment with LVT was ended, as so often has been the
case, by war and revolution. The LVT regulations were never rescinded
but in 1921 the authorities suspended the collection of the tax for
the time being. That, according to Michael Silagi, is the state of
affairs today, the city agencies not having returned to the matter
This is an important book for anyone who wants to know how LVT was
implemented in Europe and why, in so many cases, it failed. Often,
apart from war, the reason was simply voter apathy. A warning that all
Georgists should heed.