Gronlund, George, and Proudhon
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Gronlund, George, and Proudhon
Laurence Gronlund’s pamphlet on the “Insufficiency of Henry George’s Theory,” written, I presume, to secure the ascendency of the State Socialists over the followers of George in the councils of the United Labor Party, is for the most part keen and strong. He effectually disposes of George’s weak justification of interest, his absurd inverse ratio between rent and interest, his confused use of the word value, his poetical but utterly uneconomic dream that the nation can live in luxury on the proceeds of a single tax on land, his short-sighted expectation that an increase in wages will follow the abolition of the land monopoly though the monopoly of capital should be untouched (Gronlund shows that such a reform might actually decrease wages), and his erroneous accounting for “over-production” and recurring crises by mere speculation in land.
But, when Gronlund attempts to account for the phenomena last mentioned, he fails as utterly as George. According to Gronlund, they are due to the wage system, competition, and private enterprise. He shows truly enough, as Proudhon showed long before him, that gluts in the market arise because the wages of labor will not buy back its product. But suppose wages should increase to an equivalence with product. Then there would be no over-production, and still the wage system would be in existence. Not the wage system, therefore, but insufficiency of wages is the proximate cause of over-production. The remoter cause, the reason for this insufficiency, is to be found, not in competition, where Gronlund seeks it, but in its antithesis, monopoly, — monopoly, not simply of laud, but, first and most of all, of money. Free money, accompanied or followed by “occupying ownership” of land, will abolish interest, rent, and profits, establish an equality between wages and product, and make overproduction, panics, and enforced idleness impossible.
This was the central idea in Proudhon’s economic teaching. Having answered George, why does not Gronlund answer Proudhon? Does he prefer, like George himself, to answer only the weakest of his opponents? Or does he fight shy of Proudhon, remembering his unfortunate experience in trying to answer him seven or eight years ago? At that time Gronlund had just come to Boston from St. Louis under the auspices of W. G. H. Smart, then an active State Socialist. He was put forward by Mr. Smart and his friends in a sort of “ See the conquering hero comes “ fashion. I was the recipient of one of his first visits. He told me that he had heard of me as the translator of Proudhon, that he had read none of Proudhon’s writings, that he knew nothing of his thought, and that he desired to understand him. At his request, therefore, I lent him “What is Property?” I think this occurred on a Wednesday. On the following Saturday an advertisement appeared in the Boston papers, announcing that Mr. Gronlund, on that Saturday evening, would address a certain labor meeting on the subject, “ Proudhon, the Quack.” This title indicated the summary and confident manner in which he proposed to sweep out of sight the author of fifty volumes after a three days’ reading of only one of them. The address itself established two things conclusively, — that he told the truth when he said to me that he knew nothing of Proudhon’s thought, and that in his three days’ reading he had learned precious little of it. As far as I remember, he said literally nothing that was not an utter misrepresentation of Proudhon’s position and arguments. I will give one instance as a sample of the whole. Proudhoii devotes a chapter to showing that “property is impossible,” explaining that he means by “property” wealth legally privileged with the power of usury, and by “impossible” incapable of permanent existence. In other words, he shows that usury carries within itself the seeds of its own inevitable destruction. Gronlund, with book in hand and opened at this chapter, referred to it substantially in these words: “This man declares that property is impossible. How absurd! Do we not see property before us? Do we not own property? Is it not actually in existence? How ridiculous, then, to claim that property is impossible! What better evidence could be desired that this author is a quack!” Not one word to show the audience what Proudhon meant; not one word to show that he himself knew what he meant. And yet he declared that he had read the book thoroughly.
When he had finished his speech, one of his hearers, who had read Proudhon to some purpose, claimed the floor, and read the following words from the book which Gronlund had criticised: “We discover, singularly enough, that property may indeed manifest itself accidentally; but that, as an institution and principle, it is mathematically impossible. So that the axiom of the school—ab actu ad posse valet consecutio: from the actual to the possible the inference is good — is given the lie as far as property is concerned.” Of course this passage alone served to turn Gronlund’s ridicule back upon himself. After reading other extracts which disposed with equal effectiveness of Gronlund’s remaining misrepresentations, the speaker asked the audience which was the quack, — the man of science and learning who had spent a long life in laborious and studious analysis of the most important social problems, or the man who, after three days’ examination of a small part of the results of the other’s labors, pretended to adequately discuss and summarily condemn them as quackery. The question needed no answer, and the speaker sat down, leaving Gronlund sitting before the audience, as his own patron, Mr. Smart, expressed it afterwards, “in the attitude of a whipped school-boy.”
Perhaps the castigation then administered made Gronlund a wiser man. The strength of his criticisms on George would seem to indicate as much. If so, it would be interesting to see him once more try conclusions with the great thinker against whom he was once so eager to enter the lists and whose thought has now ten times the influence in this country that it had then. Discretion, it is true, is said to be the better part of valor, but it may be fairly claimed of the acknowledged leader of the State Socialists of America that he should either demolish the arguments of Anarchism, or else admit that it, rather than State Socialism, is the remedy for the existing social evils.
“To produce wealth in the shape of coal,” says Henry George, “nothing is needed but a bed of coal and a man.” Yes, one thing else is needed, — a pickaxe. This neglect of the pick-axe and of the means of obtaining it is a vital flaw in Mr. George’s economy. It leads him to say that “what hinders the production of wealth is not the lack of money to pay wages with, but the inability of men who are willing to work to obtain access to natural opportunities.” That this lack of access, in the proportion that it exists, is a hindrance to production is indisputable, but in this country it is but a molehill in labor’s path, compared with the mountain that confronts labor in consequence of the lack of money. In fact, the lack of access is largely due to the lack of money.
Benjamin R. Tucker, “Gronlund, George, and Proudhon,” Liberty 4 no. 26 (July 30, 1887): 5