Letters: Marx-Engels Correspondence 1869

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Marx-Engels Correspondence 1869

Engels to Marx
In London


...And now for Carey.

The whole question at issue does not seem to me to have any direct connection with economics proper. Ricardo says, rent is the surplus yield of the more fertile pieces of land over that of the less fertile. Carey says just the same. ... They are therefore agreed on what rent is. The dispute is only about how rent arises. Now Ricardo's description of the process by which rent originates (Carey, p. 104) is just as unhistorical as all the similar detailed stories of the economists and as Carey's own great Robinson-Crusoeade about Adam and Eve (p. 96 seq.). In the older economists, including Ricardo, this is still excusable to a certain extent; they do not want any historical knowledge, they are just as unhistorical in their whole conception as the other apostles of the eighteenth century Enlightenment, with whom such alleged historical digressions are nothing more than a manner of speech enabling them to represent the origin of this, that or the other to themselves in a rational way, and in which primitive man always thinks and behaves exactly as if he were an apostle of eighteenth-century Enlightenment. But when Carey, who wants to develop his own historical theory, proceeds to introduce Adam and Eve to us as Yankee backwoodsmen, he cannot expect us to believe him, he has not the same excuse.

There would be no dispute at all if Ricardo had not been naive enough to call the more productive land simply "fertile." The most fertile and most favourably situated land "is, according to Ricardo, the first cultivated. Just the way a thoughtful bourgeois in a land that has been cultivated for centuries would be bound to represent the thing to himself. Now Carey fastens on to the "fertile," foists on to Ricardo the assertion that the lands most capable of productivity in themselves are those taken into cultivation, and says: No, on the contrary, the most naturally fertile lands (the valley of the Amazon, the Ganges delta, tropical Africa, Borneo and New Guinea, etc.) are not cultivated even yet; the first settlers, because they cannot help themselves, start cultivation on land which drains itself, namely, strips lying on hills and slopes, but these are by nature poorer land. And when Ricardo says: fertile and the most favourably situated, he is saying the same thing, without noticing that he is expressing himself loosely and that a contradiction can be introduced between these two qualifications connected by "and." But when Carey inserts a sketch on page 138 and declares that Ricardo puts his first settlers in the valley while Carey puts them on the hills (on bare crags and impracticable declivities of 45 degrees, in the sketch) he is simply lying about Ricardo.

Carey's historical illustrations, in so far as they refer to America, are the only useful thing in the book. As a Yankee he was able to live through the process of settlement himself and could follow it from the beginning: here, therefore, he knows all about it. Nevertheless there is no doubt a lot of uncritical stuff here as well, which would have first to be sifted out. But when he gets to Europe he begins inventing and making himself ridiculous. And that he is not unprejudiced even in America is indicated by the eagerness with which he attempts to prove the worthlessness, indeed the negative quality, of the value of the uncultivated land (that in some respects it is worth minus 10 dollars an acre) and praises the self-sacrifice of the societies which, to their own certain ruin, make waste land serviceable for mankind. Related of the country of colossal land jobbery, this produces a humorous effect. Moreover, he never mentions the prairie land here and it is very lightly touched upon elsewhere. The whole story of the negative value of the waste land and all the calculation he gives to prove it are after all best contradicted by America itself. If the story were true, America would not only be the poorest of countries, but would be becoming relatively poorer every year, because more and more labour would be thrown away on this worthless land.

Now as to his definition of rent: "The amount received as rent is interest upon the value of labour expended, minus the difference between the productive power (the rent-paying land) and that of the newer soils which can be brought into activity by the application of the same labour that has been there given to the work"--pp. 165-6. This may, within certain limits, have a certain amount of truth here and there, especially in America. But rent is in any case such a complicated thing, to which so many other circumstances contribute, that even in those cases, this definition could apply only if other things were equal, only to two pieces of land lying side by side. That "interest for the value of labour expended" is also contained in rent, Ricardo knew as well as he. If Carey declares the land as such to be worse than worthless then rent is bound of course to be either "interest upon the value of labour expended," or, as it is called on p. 39, theft. But he has still to show us the transition from theft to interest.

The origin of rent in different countries and even in one and the same country seems to me to be by no means such a simple process as both Ricardo and Carey imagine. In Ricardo, as I said, this is excusable; it is the story of the fishers and hunters in the sphere of agriculture. It is not in fact an economic dogma, but Carey wants to make a dogma out of his theory and prove it to the world--for which indeed historical studies of a very different sort from Mr. Carey's are necessary. There 'may even have been places where rent originated in Ricardo's way and others where it originated in Carey's way, and still others where its origin was entirely different. One might also remark to Carey that where fever has to be reckoned with, and above all tropical fever, economics pretty well cease to hold. Unless his theory of population means that with the increase of inhabitants the surplus population is obliged to begin work on the most fertile, i.e., the most unhealthy pieces of land, an attempt in which they either succeed or perish. If so, he has successfully established a harmony between himself and Malthus.

In Northern Europe, rent originated neither in Ricardo's nor in Carey's way, but simply from the feudal burdens which were later reduced to their right economic level by free competition. In Italy different again, see Rome. To calculate how much of the rent in the old civilised countries is really original rent and how much is interest for labour invested is impossible, because every case is different. Moreover it has no importance at all once it has been proved that rent can also increase where no labour is put into the land. The grandfather of Sir Humphrey de Trafford, in Old Trafford near Manchester, was so laden with debt that he did not know what to do. His grandson, after paying off all the debts, has an income of £40,000 a year. If we subtract about £10,000 of this, which comes from building land, £30,000 remains as the yearly value of the agricultural estate, which eighty years ago brought;n perhaps £2,000. Further, if £3,000 is taken as interest on invested labour and capital, which is a lot, there remains an increase of £25,000, or five times the former value, including the improvements. And all this, not because labour was put into it, but because labour was put into something else near by--because the estate lies close to a city like Manchester, where milk, butter and garden produce get a good price. It is just the same on a larger scale. From the moment England became a corn and cattle importing country, and even earlier, the density of population became a factor in the determination of rent, and particularly of rent-increases, quite independently of the labour invested in the land of England as a whole. Ricardo, with his "most favourably situated lands" includes the consideration of connection with the market as well, Carey ignores it. And if he were then to say that land itself only has a negative, but situation a positive value, he would have nevertheless admitted, what he denies, that land, just because it can be monopolised, has, or can have, a value independent of the labour invested in it. But on this point Carey is as quiet as a mouse.

It is equally indifferent whether the labour invested in the land in civilised countries pays regularly or not. More than 20 years ago I made the assertion that in our present society no instrument of production exists which can last from 60 to 100 years, no factory, no building, etc., which by the end of its existence has covered the cost of its production. I still think that one way and another this is perfectly true. And if Carey and I are both right, that proves nothing about the rate of profit or the origin of rent, it only proves that bourgeois production, even measured by its own standards, is rotten.

With these random comments on Carey you will no doubt have enough. They are very mixed because I made no extracts. As for the historical-materialistic-scientific trimming, its whole value = that of the two trees, the tree of life and the tree of knowledge, which he has planted in his Paradisical work, not indeed for Adam and Eve, who have to slave in the backwoods, but for their descendants. This wretched ignorant stuff can only be compared with the shamelessness which allows him to unburden himself of such nonsense.