Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Liberalism, radicalism and nature: Henry George, Ireland, and the politics of land

Andrew Phemister

‘The death knell of thralldom’ ran the newspaper headline. A grand claim, certainly, but one that many reading it in 1880 believed could be true. For these American radicals, the fact that this ‘death knell’ was ‘sounding from the little Isle of Erin’ was simply a historical quirk, for its implications were universal. As one explained, just as the American Declaration of Independence had secured political freedom, and the Emancipation Proclamation legal freedom, the Irish Land War (1879-1882) was the beginning of a conflict that would eventually guarantee economic freedom for all. Understandably then, it seemed to some observers that they were witnessing the embryonic stages of a transformation ‘greater than either the French or American Revolutions’.

History often throws up serendipitous curiosities. Among these has to count the publication of a remarkable book at the tail end of 1879, just months into the early paroxysms of agrarian unrest in Ireland. It was a book that was to have a remarkable impact in all sorts of ways. It would become the touchstone work for a generation of radicals across the globe, briefly but powerfully uniting the nascent American labour movement and shaping the ideological direction of the British Labour Party. The political crises it energised would also force a fundamental reassessment of liberal politics and political economy on both sides of the Atlantic. Henry George’s Progress and Poverty argued that land was the common property of all, and offered a simple plan, the full taxation of ground rents, to turn this moral truth into a reality. George’s earnest and straightforward arguments, relying on familiar biblical and classical frames of reference, began ‘selling by thousands in the alleys and back streets of England’ and, indeed, across the world, where it was welcomed ‘as a glorious gospel of justice’.

The melding of these two events, the Irish Land War and Henry George’s Progress and Poverty, exponentially increased the political force and influence of each. It reframed the crisis of Irish land as a global conflict against possessive ownership and exploitation of the earth, while ‘the terrible object lesson of Ireland writhing in the grasp of a relentless landlordism’ gave Progress and Poverty ‘nine-tenths of its significance’. But what was it about these arguments over land that so powerfully captured the popular imagination, and harnessed so much radical energy?

On the face of it, these popular agrarian claims were ripe with contradiction. Looking at the issues from our current vantage, George’s argument that ‘laissez-faire (in its full true meaning) opens the way to a realization of the noble dreams of socialism’ appears confounding and oxymoronic. Likewise with the Land War, where the widespread rallying cry of ‘Land for the People’ was used to turn tenants into exclusive proprietors themselves. Taking a closer look, however, it is possible to fit these pieces together. What we find is a radical vision of liberalism, closely dependent on popular conceptions of economic justice, that many believed had solved the problem of aligning individual freedom with collective egalitarianism.

In the simplest terms, this popular international movement catalysed by George and the Irish Land War expressed the demand for access to the natural world and its resources by virtue of humans’ natural needs. It put forward an argument for participatory democracy that relied on these universal features of human existence. In doing so it took aim at both the enormous and unceasing acquisition of personal wealth, as well as the right of any authority or hierarchy to manage or maintain public welfare without the active involvement of its citizens. By reconstructing a political economy defined by natural limits (be those of human necessity, agricultural fertility, or social harmony), it was arrayed against both centralisation and accumulation. In this way these radical arguments did truly appear to many as uniting the aspirations for individual freedom, democracy and egalitarianism that prompted those comparisons with the late-eighteenth century political revolutions in France and the United States. As one Irish-American radical explained at the time: ‘I am a socialist and an individualist [for] no true individualism […] can ever exist in the world without socialism’.

In its own ideological prehistory, liberalism had been constructed on the bedrock of these core agrarian assumptions. But they were finally and fully cut away after the 1880s – a direct response to the dangers posed by Henry George and an internationalised Irish Land War. In a conflict in which individual rights were used to threaten possessive accumulation of property, many liberals thought it wiser to dispose of individualistic assumptions altogether. It was much safer for the security of private property to proclaim the value of protecting ‘civilization’, ‘progress’, social stability and public welfare rather than anarchic and individualistic ideas of popular democracy.

These issues are ones of enduring and contemporary relevance. Then, as now, tensions between a possessive, acquisitive view of individual rights and wider social stability dominated political discussion. Then, as now, the unpredictability of democracy seemed to demand technocratic management in order to preserve public welfare. Today, we grapple with these concerns in the face of environmental catastrophe, weighing access to natural resources with ecological sustainability. How is it possible to preserve participatory democracy when not only the existence of a stable political order, but indeed survival of the natural world itself, appears to require setting aside such messy and dangerous freedoms, and the challenge of achieving democratic consensus, for the greater good?

Some lessons present themselves. For one thing, it is worth remembering that individualised natural rights and a harmonised view of nature, now generally seen as retrogressive and even reactionary notions, were not in conflict with a vision of an egalitarian non-extractive society. They were instead, for a long time, the necessary components of it. This corporeal republican politics, which focused on the natural right to life and framed its arguments around the demand for self-preservation and the needs of the human body and mind, required access to land and to political collaboration. Holding on to what these ideas can teach us may prove especially important when we are faced with protecting the idea of democracy in the face of environmental collapse and its associated crises.

The watchword this radical movement was self-preservation. This concept justified not only access to the land to ensure human flourishing, but set limits on what others were rightfully entitled to as well. Expanding this idea to encompass our future as well as our present, this powerful demand for self-preservation might help us think about what we need, as human animals, to sustain a habitat that will promote our own flourishing and fulfilment. Just as Henry George and the Land War sought to redefine political possibilities through engagement with the politics of nature, we also need to learn to do the same.

Land and Liberalism by Andrew Phemister

About The Author

Andrew Phemister

Andrew Phemister is a Research Associate at Newcastle University. He has previously held postdoctoral positions in History at NUI Galway, the University of Oxford, and Edinburgh's ...

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