I recently came across some of Marx's critique of Georgism, and was wondering where else the theories of these two thinkers conflict. Georgism to me certainly seems to have a slight materialist bent to it, along with the desire to prevent alienation of labour, and thus I wonder whence came Marx's main oppositions to George.

This was the criticism I read:

Karl Marx considered the Single Tax platform as a regression from the transition to communism and referred to Georgism as "Capitalism’s last ditch".Marx argued that, "The whole thing is ... simply an attempt, decked out with socialism, to save capitalist domination and indeed to establish it afresh on an even wider basis than its present one." Marx also criticized the way land value tax theory emphasizes the value of land, arguing that, "His fundamental dogma is that everything would be all right if ground rent were paid to the state."

If anybody could enlighten me on the philosophical incompatibilities between these two men, I would greatly appreciate it!

  • Do you have the source for the quote? Oct 1, 2019 at 5:31
  • 1
    Basically we have an economist and reformer compared to an economist and philosopher (the Hegelian background of Marx is fundamental to understand its thought) and a revoulutionary (also if only an harmchair one). Oct 1, 2019 at 8:20
  • i fwiw think 'reformer' is key here. what happened to the stackexchange user gordon? he would probably be great on this. fwiw, i've more or less given up on 'alienation': no-one really cares!
    – user38026
    Oct 1, 2019 at 10:30
  • @MarkAndrews three sources here: Marshall, Alfred, Principles of Economics. 1920. Library of Economics and Liberty. Andelson, Robert V. "Henry George and The Reconstruction Of Capitalism". Retrieved 14 January 2014. Marx, Karl. "Letters: Marx-Engels Correspondence 1881". www.marxists.org. Retrieved 9 October 2017.
    – october
    Oct 2, 2019 at 1:20
  • @MauroALLEGRANZA: Can he really be an armchair revolutionary if he can harm chairs? ;). Oct 2, 2019 at 6:37

1 Answer 1


Welcome, October !

Some contrasts between Marx and George are drawn out in an article by John Haynes Holmes. Holmes' plain and sometimes undiscerning lack of sympathy for Marx and extolling of George, and his over-use of exclamation marks, do not prevent some helpful points from being made:

It is unlikely, had Karl Marx and Henry George ever met, or ever studied profoundly one another's thought, that they would have agreed even on small matters. It is true that they were stirred by the same sentiment, a horror of poverty; that they were fixed in the same conviction, that poverty is a product of social injustice and therefore unnecessary; that they were dedicated to the same resolve, to correct injustice and abolish poverty. But in their understanding of the problem and their remedy of its evil, they were as far apart as the two poles. Marx with his Socialism and George with his Single Tax moved in precisely opposite directions. Rivals for two generations in the same great field of economic and political reform, they were molded as though by destiny to fundamental differences. John Haynes Holmes, 'Henry George and Karl Marx: A Plutarchian Experiment', The American Journal of Economics and Sociology, Vol. 6, No. 2, Essays in Honor of Francis Neilson, Litt. D., On the Occasion of His Eightieth Birthday (Jan., 1947), pp. 159-167: 160.)


Industry and agriculture

Holmes points out a crucial difference of background between Marx and George. George belonged to a still predominantly agricultural America, Marx to a rapidly industrialising Europe :

In this contrast of scene and setting, we discover a central contrast between these two men. Marx saw clearly the menace of capitalistic monopoly; George saw as clearly the menace of land monopoly. Marx focused his attention primarily on the factory, and only incidentally and accidentally on the land on which the factory was built and from which it drew its substance;2 George focused his attention on the land, and only incidentally and accidentally on the factory which stood upon the land. Marx never penetrated to the land as the ultimate source of all wealth; George did not follow through to the factory, and the whole system of which it was the baleful symbol, as a supplementary and very potent instrument of exploitation. Marx was not fundamental, as George was fundamental. Henry George was really getting down to the bottom of things! But the Single Tax will never reach to the top of things, never compass the whole area of social ill, until it has grappled at first hand not only with land ownership, but with monopoly control of production, finance capitalism, international cartels, and imperialistic wars. Our civilization, as it has developed through a hundred years, is neither agricultural nor industrial; it is both. Therefore must any reform, adequate to save our civilization, solve the problem of land and machine together. There is something more than chance in the dramatic circumstance that in the same age, and in the same way, two books captured the imagination of the American people-Henry George's "Progress and Poverty" (1879), and Edward Bellamy's "Looking Back- ward" (1888). (Holmes: 162-3.)

Materialism and God

ANOTHER CONTRAST. Karl Marx was a materialist, and based his whole philosophy upon the hard and fast doctrine of economic determinism, or "the materialistic conception of history." This attitude of mind was in part a reflex from Marx's strangely perverted hostility to religion, and in part also the result of the philosophical materialism which was rampant in the thought of Europe in Marx's formative years. It led to a new interpretation of the historical process which is of the greatest value. No one can write or read the story of mankind in the traditional pre-Marxian sense ever again! But it involved also a complete neglect of the moral and spiritual forces which indubitably play an important, perhaps the decisive role in the drama of human events, and thus persuaded Marx to surrender history to the gaunt and grim necessity of a mechanistic fatalism, and to project collapse or revolution as the denouement of our age. It contributed as well to his scorn for men, and his repudiation of democracy as the means of social advance. Henry George, on the other hand, was a religious man. Reared under the training of a religious family, he preserved to the end of his days, and in all his activities, an intense and moving religious consciousness. This did not mean any particular devotion to the rites and ceremonies of the church- on the contrary, his attacks upon the church for its failure to vindicate the law of righteousness among men were as vigorous as they were unanswerable. Neither did his religion take any special forms of pietistic practice or theological belief. With George, as with all great prophets, religion was a rule of life and an utter dedication to mankind. It was a recognition of and a reverence for God's will, a resolute determination that this will shall be done upon the earth, and a high sense of responsibility that this determination should not fail. "The religious spirit," writes Dr. Geiger,3 "was to him always the crusading spirit.... He led the attack upon the land monopoly in almost the spirit of a holy war; his economic postulates were the sacraments of a religion that was to make all men brothers and God a father whose ways could now be understood." I know of nothing more touching, in all the range of our American literature, than that famous passage in "Progress and Poverty" where George seems to have completed his great argument for the Single Tax. Through hundreds of pages he has made his way through the economics of rent, wages, interest, taxation, and at last has come to his conclusions. "My task is done," he writes. But it is not done! The pen sweeps on. "The thought still mounts. The problems we have been considering lead into a problem higher and deeper still." And George soars, in these last pages, like an aeroplane into the stratosphere, into a discussion of the meaning of life as "absolutely and inevitably bound by death." "Progress and Poverty" is the only treatise on political economy I know which ends with a statement of faith in the immortality of the soul. In this, George found assurance of those "eternal laws" which must at last bring vindication to the cause of truth.

It was this religious aspect of George's nature which enabled him to bring a solution to the baffling problem of a society which produces poverty in exact ratio to its production of wealth. It cannot be made too plain that Karl Marx, for all his exhaustive and exhausting examination of data and analysis of trends, had no remedy for a sick world. He simply awaited what he regarded -as the inevitable catastrophe which must overtake a capitalistic civilization, and tried to prepare the workers to take over the ruins, to become the heirs of chaos, and thus, through seizure of power amid disaster, to control the future in their own interest. Henry George saw no need of catastrophe. He had a remedy for the sickness of this world. He had a program which would save it in time, and thus prevent the calamity of the passing of one more civilization, which he saw as clearly and terribly as his Socialistic rival. What wonder that, when he had written the last page of his masterpiece, "in the dead of night, when (he) was entirely alone, (he) fell on (his) knees and wept like a child. The rest was in the Master's hands." This was a feeling, he wrote, which never left him. "It has been to me a religion, strong and deep." (Holmes: 164-5.)

The tried and the untried

ONE FINAL CONTRAST between these two men-and this not in their characters but their fates! The Marxian philosophy has had a chance to prove itself. "In the time of the breaking of nations," at the weakest point of the capitalistic-imperialistic system which was Russia, came revolution. The Bolsheviki, devout Marxians, were able at the critical moment in 1917 to seize power, and to use it to rear a Socialistic, or rather a collectivistic society. This society has now been in existence for thirty years, and has exercised supreme control during this period over a nation of 180,000,000 souls. It has been able to do exactly what it wanted to, or, if thwarted or opposed, has hacked its way ruthlessly toward its goal. Everything has been changed from Tsarism to Marxism, yet everything remains strangely the same. Poverty still prevails, tyranny still rules, exploitation still is rife. The revolution, as a revolution, has failed-and all for the lack of what Karl Marx never recognized- namely, liberty! The Soviets have sacrificed liberty, we are told, for security- somewhat, perhaps, as the dog on the bridge over the brook dropped his jawful of meat, to grab the other and larger piece of meat he saw reflected in the stream. There is no liberty in the new Russia-and there is no security. For the simple reason that liberty is the only real security! We are safe-as safe as we can be on this uncertain globe, and amid the manias of men!-only while we are free. It is because the Russians are not free that they are the most suspicious, apprehensive, and fearful people in the world today, and have failed thus to win their goal. Marxism has been tried, and for lack of liberty has been found wanting.

Georgism has not been tried. Nor would George want it tried by any imposition of authority. Liberty is essential to its whole meaning. George would free the land that man may himself be truly free. The world awaits therefore not an abrogation, nor even abridgement, but rather an ultimate extension of democracy. No sudden, least of all violent, revolution will accomplish this end; only the slow fulfilment of the truth, like the rising of the tide. (Holmes: 165-6.)

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