Champions of Agrarian Socialism

by Victor Cathrein (1888)
Chapter I: M. Emile de Laveleye and his Method.

The extent of a man’s possessions determines, in a great measure, his position in society. Property is the avenue to every enjoyment, nay, it is the necessary condition of education and refinement. No advance can be made in culture and civilization except through the comfortable affluence of at least a portion of society. No wonder, therefore, that the struggle for the possession of the earth, for the mine and the thine—the very pith and marrow of the social question—is as old as the history of mankind.

In truth, to find the first instance of this strife, we must go back to the shepherds of Abraham and of Lot. But the dispute has not always been so amicably settled. All the land to the right and to the left was soon occupied. Hence the battle had to be fought anew on the very ground on which the contending parties stood. The contest often became one of life and death, and was ended only for a time by bloodshed, by human slaughter, and the oppression of the weaker.

And here may be stated the indisputable fact, that this battle for the possession of the earth raged most fiercely whenever with the advancement of material culture the religious spirit had most degenerated. Such was the case in cultured Greece and in warlike Rome. How intimately the wane of religion is connected with the social strife of classes, may be more especially gathered from the fact that false “humanism” and the “Reformation” were followed by the War of the Peasants, just as the cynicism of the “Encyclopedists” was succeeded by the great social revolution in 1789.

But at no time has material culture reached a higher pitch; while religious belief has never fallen to a lower level than to-day. Hence we need not be astonished that the contest about ownership has now assumed unprecedented proportions. It no longer confines itself to this or that kind of property—to this or that class of people. Society, as a whole, has been drawn into the contest, and the entire range of property is involved in the dispute.

Besides, it must be observed that the battle has long since been extended to the domain of speculation. There it is waged with as much fierceness as on the field of daily life or in the province of politics. In fact, the great ranks of the “disinherited” are signally aided by the acquisition of numerous defenders from outside their own lists, who, more or less, sympathize with their socialistic tendencies and second their efforts both by the authority of their name and by the resources of their mind.

Especially in the case of landed property, socialists may boast of having found well-nigh unconditional adherents among men of science, such as J. C. Rodbertus and A. Samter in Germany, John Stuart Mill and Herbert Spencer in England, and others. All these scholars espouse the socialistic principle that the soil is by its very nature intended for the common possession of society at large, and is, therefore, destined to be reduced, sooner or later, to this collective possession. Hence they have been justly styled Agrarian Socialists. Their programme is the complete abolition of private property in land and the substitution of the State as the sole owner of the soil.

No one, however, among European writers deserves the name of Agrarian Socialist more truly and has more earnestly insisted in his demand that all landed property should be socialized, than the professor of political economy in the University of Liege, Emile de Laveleye. This scholar assails private ownership in land particularly from an historical standpoint. He endeavors to prove that everywhere and in all nations only collective possession of land (communal property) existed in primitive times, and that individual ownership was developed rather late and by degrees. This development, he says, was brought about mostly through cunning and deceit, till at length collective possession was almost entirely done away with. To support this theory, M. de Laveleye, besides several minor publications, has devoted his larger work—De la propriete et de ses formes primitives?[i] We may look upon his book as a fair specimen of its kind, and, with it as a guide, examine the question of landed property from an historical point of view.

Writers of the most different creeds and schools have pronounced M. de Laveleye’s book to be a work that not only merits consideration, but one that marks an epoch. It was, therefore, with anxious expectation that we examined its pages. According to our previous notion of an historical research, we expected the writer to introduce his readers to those nations of which we possess the most ancient historical monuments, especially to the Hebrews, Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, and Phoenicians; and only from these, we thought, he would pass on to other nations. But we were disappointed. The ancient Oriental races, among whom we are wont to place the cradle of the human family, are either not mentioned at all, or only glanced at in passing. The reader may ask, how is it possible, nevertheless, to put forward the historical proof that with all peoples there existed originally only collective ownership in the soil. The answer is very simple. The learned professor shows us how to go about the task.

To understand his course of reasoning, we must call to mind a theory regarded in liberal circles as a positive result of modern science. According to this theory, the human race has everywhere worked its way from semi-bestial savagery to its present state of civilization. Liberal science is even able to describe to us pretty accurately the different phases that man had to pass through until his development, according to our ideas nowadays, had become commensurate with his dignity.

Accordingly, in the development of man three principal periods are to be distinguished.

In the first period all men are supposed to be hunters, roving in wild hordes through forests and over plains, and living on the booty of the chase, be it on their fellow-men or on the beasts of the field. In this lowest stage there is, of course, no question of individual property, since men think only of the momentary satisfaction of their sensual appetites, and do not even dream of appropriating anything for their own permanent and exclusive use.

In the next stage we behold them as herdsmen, leading nomadic lives and driving their herds to such regions as abound in rich pastures. As the seasons change, they strike their tents and move elsewhere. At this second period, private ownership in land cannot as yet exist; however, individual proprietorship in chattels, and especially in herds, is steadily developing.

But gradually, either because they can no longer find free pastures on account of the increasing population, or because they have grown weary of a life of perpetual wandering, the tribes begin to form permanent settlements and to cultivate the soil. But even in this third stage they are at first unacquainted with individual ownership in land, for the tribe, as a community, takes possession of the surrounding district. Imperceptibly, however, the stronger members of the settlement, through violence and cunning, succeed in acquiring greater claims to the common property, and eventually appropriate whole tracts of land to the exclusion of others. At length, though comparatively very late, things are brought to such a pass that nearly all former common property, is swallowed up by private ownership, and a vast multitude of people is debarred, contrary to all natural right, from any share in the ownership of land. Such is the stage we have now attained.

To-day this theory is advocated not merely by students of nature. It is held as an undisputed truth by many political economists. For example, it is maintained by von Schaeffle,[ii] Samter,[iii] M. Wirth,[iv] and many others. M. de Laveleye also lays it down as the basis of his disquisition. However, we must confess that he puts it forth with great moderation, tacitly presupposing, or merely suggesting, rather than formally developing it. Yet at the very outset he declares that science “has established the opinion that the human race has everywhere passed through a state of civilization, or rather, perhaps, of barbarism, an image of which is presented to us, even now, in the life of the natives of New Zealand and Australia.”[v] Then follows a brief exposition of the origin of property in the manner above indicated.

This is not the place for a formal refutation of the theory of man’s evolution, nor is a formal refutation needed. That theory relegates to the myths of antiquity the primitive history of mankind as given in Genesis. But thus we are placed at once outside of Christianity, and, every clue to the original condition of man being lost, the freest scope is given to the imagination.[vi]

However, since the theory of evolution is the basis on which M. de Laveleye and many others establish their doctrine on land ownership, we may be allowed to make a few remarks in illustration of evolutionary tactics. Where proofs are wanting, boldness and persistency of asserting take their place: such is the favorite stratagem of evolutionists. To support the theory of evolution, repeated efforts have been made to show that even to our days several tribes have retained “for our instruction” the once general state of semi-bestial barbarism. Thus, if we are to believe a recent statement made by a scientist of Bonn: “In southern Asia and eastern Africa there are men who live together in hordes, who are in the habit of climbing trees and who subsist on fruits and are not acquainted with fire. They use sticks and stones as their only weapons, much after the fashion of the more advanced monkeys.” To this assertion we answer in the words of Mr. Peschel, certainly an unbiassed authority: “Tribes or hordes of men who live in a state not unlike that of monkeys, have never yet been met with by any trustworthy traveller of modern times. On the contrary, those very tribes which, according to the first superficial description of them, had been classed far below our standard of civilization, were afterwards found, on better information, to be considerably nearer to civilized nations. In fact, that portion of the human race has yet to be discovered which does not possess a language with certain laws and a more or less abundant store of words, a race which does not employ weapons, artificially sharpened, or to which, in fine, the use of fire is unknown.”[vii]




It is to these same tactics of evolutionists that the monster-error of man’s descent from the brute owes its all but universal ascendency in the scientific world. Not long ago we read in one of the most widely spread American reviews that “it has been clearly established by evolutionists that man, like the domestic animal, descended through geological periods in which he had no mentality above instinct. Before he showed mental activity, man, according to the best and now agreed authorities, led by Cope, was an anthropoid ape, and before that an anthropoid lemur.”[viii]

Now, what has science really proved in favor of the “bestial” pedigree of human kind? Nothing whatever. And to substantiate this statement, we can appeal to one of the greatest scientific authorities now living, Dr. Virchow, of Berlin, who, in his address on “Transformism,” delivered before the Sixtieth Congress of German Scientists and Physicians in Wiesbaden (18th-24th September, 1887), gave utterance to his views as follows:

“Practical anthropology begins only with the quaternary or diluvial epoch, from which parts of skulls and skeletons are preserved. … But what do these remains teach us? Do they show us man in a lower stage of bodily development elsewhere unknown? … Fanatics themselves were contented when they could approximate these skulls to the type of the Australians or Fuegians, or even of the Batavus genuinus, i. e., of an old Frieslander,

The distance of this position from what had been expected is very great indeed. An Australian may have many defects or excess-formations which give him a somewhat brutal appearance. Formerly this property was called bestial; recently it has been deemed better, in the interest of the theory of descent, to call it pithecoid. But bestial and pithecoid though he be, the Australian is neither a monkey nor a pro-anthropos. On the contrary, he is a true man; and if our ancestors, perhaps, were once like him—which, by the way, is doubtful—all the same, this would be quite irrelevant to the theory of descent. Fuegians have of late come among us, and we have had a chance to study their case. Brains of this tribe have been examined with all conceivable care, and the result is that our present methods are not sufficient to ascertain any fundamental difference between their brains and the brains of Europeans. The fact that they are savages or barbarians must not prevent us from acknowledging their purely human habitus.

But enough. The organization of diluvial man, as far as we know anything about him, was not below that of the savages of the present day. After seeing of late years both Esquimaux and Bushmen, Araucanians and Kirghises here in Europe, after receiving specimens of skulls from all those races that had been classed as the very lowest, it is now out of question to consider any savage tribe of to-day as an intermediate link between man and brute. Nor has any difference been shown, that could be taken as an indication of even a distinct species of men.

Hence I declared, several years ago, in the Anthropological Congress, that practical material has not yet been found for an inquiry into the pro-anthropos and the possible pithecoid intermediate links.”

The weight of Professor Virchow’s statements (for which, as the reader will have remarked in the quotation, he gives his reasons—and decisive ones) is the greater in this matter, as he is far from being an enemy of the theory of evolution. At the end of his address he says: “I have spoken as a friend, not as an enemy of Transformism, as I have always dealt with the immortal Darwin in a friendly, not in an adverse manner. However, I have at all times made a distinction between friend and follower. I can gladly hail a scientific hypothesis, and even support it before it is proved by facts, but I cannot adhere to it so long as sufficient proofs are wanting.”[ix]

But let us now return to M. de Laveleye and see how he applies the theory of man’s evolution to show that, in primitive times, only collective land ownership existed in all nations. If the theory be true, it necessarily follows that, in order to get a knowledge of the early state of mankind, we must turn to those peoples who are still lingering in the lowest stage of evolution, and are, consequently, bordering on the brute kingdom. Whatever we chance to find among them must have existed formerly in every nation when it was as yet in a like stage of development. Now, the Belgian professor endeavors to prove in his book that only collective land ownership is found among races that have made the least advance in civilized life, or in which, as he shrewdly expresses himself, “certain institutions of primitive times have been perpetuated till our own times.”[x]

To confirm his assertion, he first transports us to the Ural, and bids us admire the Russian mir, or village communities, with their possession of the soil in common. Then he brings us to the village communities in Java and India, and to the allmends of Switzerland. Next comes a description of the Teutonic marky and after a few pages on the Irish Celts, an account of the agrarian communities of the Arabs. In passing we hear something about the Mexicans and various Indian tribes of North and South America, moreover about the Britons, the Afghans, the Scandinavians, and the Danes. Finally we reach the Golden Age of Antiquity and become acquainted with the property holding in Greece and at Rome. But as we have already observed, the ancient Oriental peoples are either scarcely alluded to or are passed over in utter silence.[xi] The Holy Scripture, if for no other reason than its great antiquity, should have been taken into account at least as a merely historical document. But it is ignored with sovereign contempt. At the same time the picture of the advantages accruing to collective land ownership is made so attractive and bewitching, that we become quite incensed with the originators of individual property, and are led to say within ourselves: “Truly, we civilized Europeans deserve to be reproached with utter stupidity for having allowed ourselves to be thus cheated out of joint proprietorship.”

Yet, how charming soever all this may sound, we are unable to discover in it any historical proof for the primitive existence of common property in all nations. M. de Laveleye’s exposition would have weight only on the supposition that the above theory of evolution was admissible. But as such a theory is untenable, the whole superstructure falls to the ground. Hence, were we even to admit everything he tells us about the forms of proprietorship in Russia, Java, among the ancient Germans, in the Swiss Alps, etc., the historical proof for the early existence of an exclusively collective land ownership among all nations would still be lacking.

But we cannot place implicit confidence in the historical expositions of the Belgian professor. We would not, of course, accuse him of having intentionally falsified or misrepresented historical facts. Still, we may safely say that he did not enter upon his study with an unbiassed mind: he sought in history for a confirmation of his own preconceived ideas. We will show how he acted thus in the case of the Russians and Teutons, for example, the two most important nations at present under consideration.


[i] Paris 1877. Second edition. In this treatise the English edition of 1878, entitled Primitive Property, is referred to.
[ii] Bau und Leben des socialen Koerpers. Bd. III. S. 15 und 404.
[iii] Das Eigenthum in seiner socialen Bedeutung. Jena 1875, a. 78
[iv] Grundzüge der Nationalökonomie. Koeln 1871. Bd. I. S. 7 und 8.
[v] Primitive Property, p. I.
[vi] As an example of what conclusions are arrived at by scientists under the guidance of the imagination, may serve the view held by Sir John Lubbock and others with regard to matrimonial union. These gentlemen take us back to the savage hordes of primitive times and introduce us not only to a community of goods but to a community of wives. They tell us that it was only gradually that men succeeded in acquiring mates for themselves in severalty. A few months ago, March 6th, 1888, at the annual meeting of the Anthropological Society of Washington, the retiring president, Maj. J. W. Powell, said in his address on “Evolution in Civilized Man”: “It seems at first that men in groups agree to marry women in groups. A group of men holding a group of women in common, defend one another’s rights from violation from without, and live together in peace.” Such fictions of the modern brain, laboring both day and night under dreams of evolution, are nowadays styled Science par excellence, and men endowed with particular productiveness in this line lay special claim to the title of philosophers, that is, lovers of wisdom!
[vii] Peschel, Voelkerkunde. Leipzig 1875. S. 139.
[viii] North American Review, November 1887, p. 522.
[ix] Tageblatt der 60. Versammlung Deutscher Naturforscher und Aerzte in Wiesbaden vom 18. bis 24. September, 1887. S. 141 und 143. Notwithstanding this overwhelming authority, the great bulk of evolutionists and would-be scientists will, in all likelihood, still cling to their fanciful theory and continue to assert, and preach, i. Ere long, perhaps, they will advocate as a consequence of their doctrine the admission of animals, especially of the more amiable ones, into the human family. An unutterably silly article in the North American Review for March, 1888—beginning with, “Miss Kittie [the cat] is a favorite member of our family”—seems to forecast this new phase of evolution.
Remarkable as is Dr. Virchow’s address at the congress of Wiesbaden, in which 1,797 German scientists and physicians took part, no scientific journal in the English tongue, as far as we could ascertain, has taken notice of his utterances. Such silence is quite in keeping with evolutionary tactics.
[x] Primitive Property, p. 6.
[xi] The only exception is China to which an entire page is devoted in the chapter, “History of Landed Property in England and China.”

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