Letters: Marx-Engels Correspondence 1869

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Marx-Engels Correspondence 1869

Letter from Marx to Engels
In Manchester


...In my book against Proudhon, [Poverty of Philosophy, ch. 2] where I still fully accepted Ricardo's theory of rent, I already showed what was false in it, even from Ricardo's own point of view.

"Ricardo, after having presupposed bourgeois production as necessary for the determination of rent, nevertheless applies it to landed property in every epoch and every country. These are the errors of all the economists, who regard the conditions of bourgeois production as eternal categories." Mr. Proudhon had of course immediately transformed Ricardo's theory into an expression of equalitarian moralty and therefore discovered in Ricardo's determination of rent, "an immense land valuation, carried out by farmers and landlords in opposition to one another...in a higher interest of which the final result must be to equalise the possession of the land between the exploiters of the soil and the industrialists."

Upon this I remark, among other things:

"In order that any valuation whatever, determined by rent, should have a practical value, it is always necessary to remain within the actual conditions of society. Now we have shown that the rent paid for his farm by a farmer to his landlord roughly expresses the rent only in those countries which are most advanced industrially and commercially. And this farm rent often also includes the interest paid to the landlord for the capital invested in the land. The situation of the land, the neighbourhood of towns and many other circumstances have their effect on the farming and modify the rent....On the other hand, rent cannot be a constant index of the degree of fertility possessed by a piece of land, since at each instant the modern application of chemistry comes in to change the nature of the soil, and it is precisely in the present day that geological knowledge is beginning to upset the old estimates of relative fertility .... fertility is not such a natural quality as might well be believed; it is intimately connected with existing social relations."

With regard to the progress of cultivation in the United States themselves, Mr. Carey ignores even the most familiar facts. The English agricultural chemist, Johnstone, for instance, shows in his Notes on the United States that the settlers who left New England for the State of New York left worse for better land (better not in Carey's sense, that the land has first to be made, but in the chemical and at the same time economic sense). The settlers from the State of New York who established themselves at first beyond the Great Lakes, say in Michigan, left better for worse land, etc. The settlers in Virginia exploited the land suited both in situation and fertility to their chief product, tobacco, so abominably that they had to move on to Ohio, where the land was less good for this product (though not for wheat, etc.). The nationality of the immigrants also asserted itself in their settlements. The people from Norway and from our high forest lands sought out the rough northern forest land of Wisconsin; the Yankees in the same province 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 which is not absolutely overgrown with forests is infertile by nature-including, therefore, all natural pasture land.

The best of it is that Carey's two great final conclusions (relating to the United States) stand in direct contradiction to his dogma. First, owing to the diabolical influence of England, the inhabitants, instead of socially cultivating the good model lands of New England, are disseminated over the poorer(!) lands of the West. Progress therefore from better land to worse. (Carey's "dissemination," in opposition to "association," by the by, is all copied out of Wakefield). Second, in the south of the United States there is the unfortunate fact that the slaveowners (whom Mr. Carey, as a harmonist, has hitherto defended in all his previous works) take the better land into cultivation too soon and leave out the worst. In fact just what ought not to be: starting with the better land! If Carey had convinced himself by this instance that the real cultivators, in this case the slaves, were decided in this course neither by economic nor any other reason of their own, but by external force, it would have been obvious to him that this condition also exists in other lands.

According to his theory, cultivation in Europe should have started from the mountains of Norway and continued to the Mediterranean countries instead of proceeding in the reverse direction.

Carey tries, by a highly absurd and fantastic theory of money, to conjure away the awkward economic fact that, unlike all other improved machinery, the earth-machine, which according to him is always a better one, increases--(periodically at least)--the cost of its products instead of cheapening them. (This was one of the points which influenced Ricardo; he could see no further than his nose, namely, the history of corn prices in England from about 1780 to 1815).

As a harmonist, Carey first proved that there was no antagonism between capitalist and wage-labourer. The second step was to prove the harmony between landowner and capitalist, and this is done by taking landownership where it is still in an undeveloped state and representing this as normal. The great and decisive difference between the colonies and the old civilised countries, that in the latter the mass of the population is excluded from land and soil--whether fertile or unfertile, cultivated or uncultivated--by the system of landed property, while in the colony land can, relatively speaking, still be appropriated by the cultivator himself--this fact must not be mentioned whatever happens. It must have absolutely nothing to do with the rapid development of the colonies. The disagreeable "question of property" in its most disagreeable form, would indeed knock harmony off its feet.

As for the deliberate distortion that, because in a country with developed production the natural fertility of the soil is an important condition for the production of surplus value (or, as Ricardo says, affects the rate of profit), therefore the converse must also follow that the richest and most developed production will be found in the most naturally fertile lands, so that it must stand higher, e.g., in Mexico than in New England, I have already answered this in Capital, p. 502 et seq."

Carey's only merit is that he is just as one-sided in asserting the progress from worse to better lands as Ricardo is in asserting the opposite. In reality, different kinds of land, unequal in their degrees of fertility, are always cultivated simultaneously, and therefore the Germans, the Slavs and the Celts took this into account and made a very careful division of the strips of land of different kinds among the members of the community; it was this which later made the breaking up of the common lands so difficult. As to the progress of cultivation throughout the course of history, however, this, influenced by a mass of circumstances, sometimes takes place in both directions at once, sometimes one tendency prevails for a period and sometimes the other.

Interest on the capital embodied in the land becomes a part of the differential rent just because of the fact that the landowner gets this interest from capital which not he but the tenant-farmer has put into the land. This fact, known throughout Europe, is supposed to have no economic existence because the tenant system is not yet developed in the United States. But there the thing takes place in another form. The land jobber and not the farmer gets paid in the end, in the price of the land, for the capital invested by the latter. Indeed the history of the pioneers and land jobbers in the United States often reminds one of the worst horrors taking place, e.g., in Ireland.