Needed: A Land Question Interpretation of History
[Reprinted from the Henry George News, May,
The history of man is a many-sided and complex thing. Who can tell
all that happens? The best we can do is to stake out key points in the
undivided total of reality - vantage points from which we can
understand a little of what goes on.
And so we have "interpretations." Older history books
concentrated almost exclusively on wars and political figures. Newer
books are somewhat broader in scope, taking in more of the social
The "economic interpretation of history" was Karl Marx's
outlook. He contended that the economic system of a society determined
everything else about it - its politics, its religion, its culture -
an extreme notion, and one with which Henry George would not agree.
George was fully aware of the prime importance of economics in
society and in history; yet he was not an economic determinist. See
his "master motive of human action," his "ode to
Liberty," and his "difference between the animal and the man"
in Progress and Poverty.
Human beings are not puppets pulled along by impersonal forces. They
are living, thinking (sometimes), many-sided creatures, conditioned,
to be sure, by their environment (which is also many-sided), but with
at least a modicum of free will. Any "interpretation" that
dwells upon one factor needs to be balanced by other considerations.
What about an "emotional interpretation of history"? How
many events in history took place or did not take place because of
emotions - fear, superstition, premonitions, visions, love, hate,
jealousy, hurt feelings, patriotic and religious fervor? One could
even write an "accidental interpretation of history." "For
want of a shoe the horse was lost" - "If Cleopatra's nose
had been shorter the face of the world would have been different"
- that sort of thing.
And something that deserves more probing is man's pre-history.
We still know all too little about that vast formative period from
man's early beginnings to the dawn of history. It would be worthwhile
to follow the steps by which each lesson was learned - which we take
for granted but which really are stupendous when you consider them -
speech, for instance; or the use of tools; or the formation of
At the beginning of recorded history we find that man, everywhere on
the globe, has reached about the same level of development at the same
time. How did this happen? Can there have been a continuous network of
But the most needed interpretation is the "land question
interpretation of history." A history of the world from the point
of view of land tenure systems, abuses, problems, struggles, reforms -
would shed new and unsuspected light on world events.