Book Review: The Pioneers of Land Reform
Lights of Other Days
The Pioneers of Land Reform, with an introduction by M. Beer, author of "A History of British Socialism." London: Bell & Sons, Ltd. Bonn's Popular Library. Social Economic Section.
The above work comprises three essays; the first, "The Real Rights of Man," by Thomas Spence, published in 1793; the second, "An Essay on the Right of Property in Land," by William Ogilvie, 1789; the third: "Agrarian Justice," Thomas Paine, 1795-6.
Messrs Bell are to be complimented on the tasteful manner in which they have presented these three essays to the public interested in social studies. The volume is a handy size, artistically bound, with clear type on a good paper, and is sold at a reasonable price—a combination not often achieved in the publishing world to-day.
The essays themselves are well worth preserving if only because they exhibit the social problem as it appeared to men of intelligence and sincerity before modern Socialism exposed the real nature of capitalism and revealed the futility of reform.
It was natural that men should see injustice in the extensive ownership of land before they observed the same injustice in the ownership of machines, mills, and other instruments of production. On page 6 Spence says : "It is plain that the land or earth, in any country or neighbourhood, with everything in or on the same, or pertaining thereto, belongs at all times to the living inhabitants of the said country or neighbourhood in an equal manner."
In his day capitalist industry had already reached the stage where, through division of labour, there were nearly always more workers on the labour market than were required in manufacture, the result being, as now, competition for jobs, which kept wages low. In addition, however, the assizes had the power to fix wages, so that, even when there was a demand for workers, wages could not rise above subsistence level.
These early fruits of the capitalist system— unemployment, low wages, and a general wretchedness of condition of the working class —were viewed by the "pioneers" from the standpoint of the prevailing notions of private property. Private property in land, or the means of wealth production, had, up till that time, not been questioned or challenged. The scientific age had only just begun. The stage where men analyse and sift the symptoms from the essentials, and discovering the cause of abnormal conditions to be fundamental, prescribe fundamental changes, had not been reached. Science was in its teens, feeling its way toward maturity. And social science was the most backward of all, because men do not begin to investigate the basis of their relations with one another until scientific methods in other spheres have demonstrated the necessity for its application.
Spence and Ogilvie wrote when men still living could remember the later enclosures of land that followed the break-up of the Feudal system. They actually lived in the period often described as that of the industrial revolution— the second half of the eighteenth century— when machine industry had its birth. Thus their ideas naturally reverted to the conditions that had so recently been swept away. They asserted that only by laws which would give to every man the right to occupy land sufficient for his requirements could poverty be abolished. Ogilvie's essay on "The Rights of Property in Land" is an exhaustive and detailed plan for giving every man this privilege. Subsequent history has shown that such a plan would have been futile. large capital outlay is just as necessary in agriculture to-day as in manufacture. The man who can neither buy nor hire machinery is a slave to the soil. The first bad harvest flings him into the grip of the moneylenders ; and if he is lucky, after long days of drudgery and nights of anxiety he may be able to -pay the interest and live as well as the artisan.
In most European countries a far greater proportion of the workers have been peasant-proprietors than in England, but it has not saved them from the poverty and wretchedness incidental to capitalism everywhere. The small holder cannot hope to compete with the big capitalists ; their position becomes more precarious and their condition more wretched with every advance in machinery and large-scale production.
Tom Paine and Thomas Spence were something more than "pioneers of land reform." Paine is much better known for his splendid efforts against dogma and superstition. Spence was a leader in all working-class movements of his day against capitalist oppression. ''He took part in all revolutionary movements, and was twice imprisoned, for altogether seventeen months," says Mr. Beer. In their day private ownership of land appeared to be the cause of poverty, because the worker had no means of living except by submitting to the manufacturers' conditions, In our day agriculture is not to be distinguished from any other subject of capitalist enterprise. Every industry has been capitalised, and is under the control of capitalists. The next step is the socialisation of industries and their control by the people.