In a former blog, I claimed that Alexander Gray [The Socialist Tradition
], though citing Anton Menger’s book, The Right to the Whole Produce of
, as the source of his knowledge about the
English Socialists — he called them “pre-Marxians — learned
nothing from him, i.e., from the thoughts of Menger himself.
First, concerning the definition of “socialism,” Gray is all
over the place talking about individualism, communism,
justice, efficiency, equality — finally settling for an
unsystematic classification of socialisms rather than for a
definition. And even the classification is done on the basis of
Anton Menger, by contrast, at the very beginning of his
book, sets up as his desiderata (criteria) for socialism three
disjunctive conditions. By “disjunctive” I mean that any one
of them singly is sufficient for socialism. And it is left as an
open question whether the three are jointly compatible. The
- Right to the whole produce of labor
- Right to subsistence
- Right to labor
He quickly notes that the third is a species of the second. In
other words, that labor is a way of getting subsistence.
In chapters 2-12 he goes over the literature on how these
desiderata were treated, mostly the first. He spends much
time considering how communities or associations were to be
organized. This applies to colonies, as well as to domestic
organizations. And in the last chapter 13, he offers possible
solutions through a consideration of land ownership, which
he lists as three possibilities:
- Private ownership and private use
- Common ownership and private use
- Common ownership and common use
Let me point out that this classification assumes that land is a
sellable commodity, and that it can be owned either by
individuals or groups. It does not include the possibility that
land is not owned.
All three alternatives can exist in present States. It is simply
which is preferable. The first alternative is what prevails in
the world, dominated by private corporations. The existing
laws allow private ownership, and the hiring of people for
private production and private profit (or for whatever the
He cites the Russian village (Mir) as an example of common
ownership, and private use (the second alternative). Actually
the Russian village did not “own” the land; it collectively
managed the land, and through periodic democratic
assemblies divided the arable land in some agreed to plots.
Proposals to nationalize the land are variations on this second
The third alternative was realized by the various communal
colonies — either religious or non-sectarian — which, for
example, were set up in the United States. He cites the
reporting of William Hinds [American Communities] for these
His conclusion is that the socialist ideal is satisfied by these
last two alternatives, but not having a clear proposal for
how subsistence relates to labor, he simply notes that the
right to subsistence prevails in these communitarian societies;
thus, satisfying one socialist desideratum.
Although I disapprove of ad hominem arguments, here I
offer an ad hominem circumstancial which should guide our
critical consideration of Menger’s proposals. He, as a salaried
professor of jurisprudence at the University of Vienna (and
wanting to keep his job), should have kept away from a
criticism of the State, and he did; simply mentioning that
anarchists wish to eliminate the State. He himself was
interested in how to lawfully realize socialism, i.e., in and by
a State. And he did have Bismark’s social legislation as a
My first observation is this. All primitive tribes and stateless
communities satisfy all three desiderata. But this is
anarchism, which is not under Menger’s purview.
My second observation is this. The Russian Mir was owned
by a landlord, and all of Russia was owned by a Czar, and
both required taxes from the village. The village only
determined land usage and how the taxes were to be distributed among the villagers.
My third observation is that all the communitarian colonies in
the United States had to purchase the land either from the
State or from individuals. In some cases, these colonies did so by
borrowing money, which they had to pay back with interest.
And let us not forget property taxes exacted by the individual
states. Thus, although all colonies became self-sufficient
concerning subsistence, they were forced to enter an outside
market economy to repay their debts.
Strictly speaking, the first — and main — ideal of socialism
cannot be fully realized by any of these alternative property
holdings, as long as there is a State which takes taxes.
The other consideration, pointed out by Menger, is that the
communitarian colonies — taken as individuals — were in
competition with other corporations and individuals for a
market. And success was not guaranteed. [This criticism
applies to Richard Wolff’s proposal for worker-owned
enterprises. And it does not solve the problem of
unemployment and homelessness.]
Although I am interested in what these communitarians
believed and how they managed their affairs, I am more
focused on the fact that they had to purchase their land
holdings, and that they had to pay property taxes.
I think there is a preconception in people’s mind about the
vast amount of land which was open to settlement in “the
frontier.” Well, let’s be clear, in areas where either a British
colony, or eventually a State made a survey and gained
control, i.e., jurisdiction, no land was available for free. Yes,
those who ventured into the frontier beyond government
control could eke out a living by hunting and gathering, and
even by building a homestead, i.e., by squatting. But beside
the danger of encroaching on Indian territory, as soon as the
government reached their territory, these squatters had to pay
for the land through what were called “preemption laws.”
This means that they had the first right to buy the land. If
they could not, they were evicted.
I found the book by Roy M. Robbins, Our Landed Heritage:
The Public Domain 1776-1936, an eye opener. This book
should be read in conjunction with Richard Morris, Government and Labor in Early America.
All land was the property of the State, and in May 20, 1785
(modified in 1787) a law was established that land was to be
surveyed into Townships, an area of 6 x 6 miles, divided into
36 “sections” of 1 x 1 mile (640 acres). [As an aside. Under
the Homestead Act of 1862, pioneers were granted 1/4
section (160 acres) (for a small processing fee and a
condition that the land be “improved” within 5 years), and in
1865 General Sherman proposed to give 40 acres to former
slaves — a proposal which was rescinded by President
Land was to be sold at auction with a minimum of $1 per
acre, and a $36 fee for the surveyed Township. (I have not
determined what was the minimal acres which were sold, but
apparently speculators gobbled up the land in huge chunks,
which they then sold at retail inflated prices. And there were
shady acquisitions galore.
My point is that prior to 1862 there never was land to be
taken legally for free.
Next, let me make some other observations. Menger says
that the first desideratum has implications of a negative sort.
He claims that it implies that no one is allowed to rent out
land, and that there is to be no interest taken on loans. I am
not sure how universal he means to make these prescriptions.
Given that farmers and manufacturers had to purchase land
and machinery, there were various proposed schemes to set
up Banks and Credit Unions which would take only a
minimal interest to offset the cost of processing a loan.
I want to end with the following observation as found in
Franz Oppenheimer’s book, The State:
“For as long as man
has ample opportunity to take up unoccupied land, “no one,”
says Turgot, “would think of entering the service of another;”
we may add, “at least for wages, which are not apt to be
higher than the earnings of an independent peasant working
an unmortgaged and sufficiently large property;” while
mortgaging is not possible as long as land is yet free for the
working or taking, as free as air and water.” p. 9-10