Letter to Friedrich Engels, November 26, 1869

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To Engels in Manchester

[London,] 26 November 1869[edit source]

Dear Fred,

This week I have not been really on my feet, and the business under my arm is still a bother. That’s why I didn’t thank you earlier for the notes on Carey, whose Volume I also received yesterday.

In my book against Proudhon, in which I still fully accepted Ricardo’s theory of rent, I already explained the fallacies, even from his (Ricardo’s) own point of view.

‘Ricardo, after postulating bourgeois production as necessary for determining rent, applies the conception of rent, nevertheless, to the landed property of all ages and all countries. This is an error common to all the economists, who represent the bourgeois relations of production as eternal categories.'

Mr Proudhon naturally converts Ricardo’s theory into an expression of egalitarian morals at once, and thus discovers in the rent determined by Ricardo:

‘an immense land valuation which is carried out contradictorily by the proprietors and the farmers ... in a higher interest, and whose ultimate result must be to equalise the possession of the land, etc.'

To this I remarked, inter alia:

‘For any land valuation based upon rent to be of practical value, the conditions of present society must not be departed from. Now we have shown that the rent paid by the farmer to the landowner expresses the rent with any exactitude only in the countries most advanced in industry and commerce. Moreover, this rent often includes interest paid to the landowner on capital incorporated in land. The location of the land, the nearness of towns, and many other circumstances influence the farm rent and modify the land rent... On the other hand, rent could not be the invariable index of the degree of fertility of the land, since every moment the modern application of chemistry is changing the nature of the soil, and geological knowledge is just now, in our days, beginning to revolutionise all the old estimates of relative fertility ... fertility is not so natural a quality as might be thought; it is closely bound up with the social relations of the time.’

As far as the development of cultivation in the United States is concerned, Mr Carey ignores even the most familiar facts. For instance, Johnston, the English agricultural chemist, shows in his Notes on the United States: the agricultural migrants from New England to New York State left worse for better land (better not in Carey’s sense of land, which still had to be made first, but in the chemical and also economic sense); the agricultural migrants from New York State who first settled beyond the Great Lakes, say in Michigan for instance, left better for worse land, etc. The settlers in Virginia exploited so abominably the land so suitable both in location and fertility for tobacco, their main product, that they had to move on to Ohio, where the land was worse for this product (if not also for wheat, etc.). The nationality of the immigrants also made itself felt in their settlements. The people from Norway and from our timber forests selected the rugged northern forest land of Wisconsin; the Yankees in the same territory kept to the prairies, etc.

Prairies, both in the United States and Australia, are, in fact, a thorn in Carey’s flesh. According to him, land not absolutely overgrown with forest is infertile by nature, that is all natural grasslands.

The joke of it is that Carey’s two great final conclusions (with regard to the United States) directly contradict to his dogma. First, as a result of England’s diabolical influence, the inhabitants, instead of socially cultivating the good model lands of New England disseminated to the poorer (!) lands of the West. Thus, a move from better land to worse. (Besides, by the by, Carey’s dissemination, in opposition to association, is all copied from Wakefield b) Second, in the south of the United States we have the misfortune that the slave-owners (whom Mr Carey, as a harmoniser, defended in all his previous works) take the better land under cultivation too soon and skip the worse. Thus, just what should not happen: starting with the better land! If, with this example, Carey convinces himself that the real cultivators — in this case the slaves — are induced neither by economic reasons, or other reasons of their own, but by external constraint, he should have been able to count on his own 5 fingers that this occurs in other countries too. According to his theory, cultivation in Europe should have originated in the mountains of Norway and proceeded from there to the Mediterranean countries, instead of marching in the other direction.

Carey tries, by means of an extremely absurd and fantastic theory of money, to conjure up anyway the very disgusting economic fact that, in contrast to all other improved machinery, the always better earth-machine, increases the cost of its product — at least for a period — instead of cheapening it. (This was one of the circumstances that struck Ricardo; but he poked his nose no further than the history of corn prices in England from about 1780 to 1815.)

As a harmoniser, Carey first proved there was no antagonism between capitalist and wage labourer. The second step was to show the harmony between landowner and capitalist, and this is done by showing land-ownership as being normal where it has not yet developed. The fact that may, under no circumstances, be mentioned is the great and decisive difference between a colony and an old civilised country: that, in the latter, the mass of the population is excluded by landed property from the soil, whether it be fertile or infertile, cultivated or uncultivated; while in the colonies, the land can, relatively speaking, still be appropriated by the cultivator himself. This may play absolutely no part in the rapid development of the colonies. The disgusting ‘property question’, and that in its most disgusting form, would of course put a spoke in the wheel of harmony.

As regards the deliberate distortion that, because in a country with developed production the natural fertility of the soil is an important factor in the production of surplus value (or, as Ricardo says, affects the rate of profit), it follows conversely that the richest and most developed production will be found in those areas most fertile by nature, so it should be higher in Mexico, for example, than New England; I have already answered this in Capital, p. 502 et seq.

Carey’s only merit is that he asserts, just as one-sidedly, the movement from worse to better land as Ricardo asserts the opposite. In fact, however, soil-types of differing grades of fertility are always cultivated simultaneously, and for this reason the Germans, the Slavs and the Celts very carefully distributed scraps of land of different types amongst the members of the community; it was this that later made division of the community lands so difficult. As for the development of cultivation in the course of history, this — depending on the circumstances — takes place in both directions simultaneously, and one direction or the other dominates according to the epoch.

The factor that makes the interest on the capital invested in the land a component part of differential rent is precisely the fact that the landowner receives this interest from capital which not he, but the tenant-farmer has invested in the land. This fact, known throughout Europe, is claimed to have no economic existence, because the tenant-farmer system has not yet developed in the United States. But this fact presents itself in another form there. The land jobber and not the tenant-farmer is ultimately paid in the price he gets for the land, for the capital expended by the tenant-farmer. Indeed, the history of the pioneers and the land jobbers in the United States is reminiscent of the worst horrors taking place, for instance, in Ireland.

But now damn Carey! Viva! for O'Donovan Rossa!

Last Tuesday’s meeting was very fiery, lively, vehement. Mr Muddlehead [Thomas Mottershead], or the devil knows what he’s called — a Chartist, an old friend of Harney’s — had foresightedly brought Odger and Applegarth along. On the other hand, Weston and Lucraft were absent, attending an Irish ball. Reynolds’s had published my resolutions in its Saturday issue, together with an abstract of my speech (as well as Eccarius could do it; he’s no stenographer) and Reynolds’s printed it right on the front page of the paper following opening editorial. This seems to have scared those who are flirting with Gladstone. Hence the appearance of Odger and a long rambling speech of Mottershead, who got it in the neck badly from Milner (himself an Irishman). Applegarth sat next to me, so did not dare to speak against; on the contrary he spoke for, obviously with an uneasy conscience. Odger said that, if the vote were forced, he would have to vote for the resolutions. But unanimity was surely better and could be obtained by a few minor modifications etc. Then I declared — since it is precisely him I wish to push into a corner — that he should present his modifications at the next session! At the last session, although many of our most reliable mentors were absent, we would thus have declared the resolution against one single vote. On Tuesday we shall be in full force.


K. M.