Marcus Hitch

Joseph Dietzgen and Henry George

TWENTY years ago Joseph Dietzgen died at Chicago and was buried at Waldheim Cemetery near where the Anarchist monument now stands. To commemorate the twentieth anniversary of his death his son, Eugene Dietzgen, has published an elegant volume of his miscellaneous writings, consisting mostly of hitherto unpublished matter, and entitled Erkenntnis und Wahrheit (Knowledge and Truth, J. H. W. Diets, Stuttgart, 1908). We hope that an English translation will speedily follow. The contents of the book are:

1. Private letters to his son about practical wisdom and getting on in the world.

2. A letter on Negro slavery, written in 1861; a letter to Karl Marx and a review, of his book, “Kapital”; an open letter to Prof. Heinrich von Sybel in reply to his attack on Marx’s “Kapital.”

3. Fifteen letters on Logic, known as the 2nd Series, and having for their subject a review of Henry George’s “Progress and Poverty.”

4. Ten miscellaneous articles on economics, philosophy and religion.

5. Ten letters to Mrs. Mina Werner, who was a playmate of his boyhood days. These contain what is perhaps the simplest and clearest statement of the Socialist philosophy and the dialectic method that can be made.

6. Four miscellaneous articles, including one on Goethe's love experiences.

7. An appendix, containing the article on Dietzgenism which appeared in the INTERNATIONAL SOCIALIST REVIEW for November, 1907; a disparaging criticism of Dietzgen’s work by George Plechanow, and an ample reply thereto by Paul Dauge of Moscow.

The controversy over the relative importance of Dietzgen’s work and his proper place in Socialist literature, as well as in philosophy, is getting more interesting as Dietzgen’s works become better known. But passing over that, we wish to call attention in this article to the 2nd Series of Letters on Logic, which discuss Henry George’s Progress and Poverty.



Dietzgen and George were both self-taught workingmen. George was a native American and Dietzgen belonged to us in about the same way that Marx belonged to England, and hence has a special interest for us. He was in America three times, first in 1849-1851, again in 1859-1861, and again in 1884-1888. He knew this country thoroughly, not only in its great cities, but also in its rural life, which he understood and appreciated as but few of our German comrades do.

Both Dietzgen and George, besides being self-taught men, had traveled and seen something of the world. Dietzgen had spent a number of years in Russia, while Henry George, in early life a sailor, could almost be classed as a globe trotter. His lecture tours extended not only from San Francisco to New York, but also to the British Isles and Australia. But his agitation was confined to Anglo-Saxon countries because of his ignorance of other languages. In this respect, too, he was typically American. Dietzgen, on the other hand, besides his mother tongue, had a good knowledge of both English and French.

If ever a man needed the corrective, broadening and humbling influences which are derived from a study of foreign languages and literature, Henry George was such a man. Lawrence Gronlund used to complain of him, and justly, that he did not know what his co-laborers in other countries had done and were doing. His narrowness in this respect is the antithesis of that generous internationalism of Marx and Dietzgen, and which in fact characterizes the whole Socialist movement.

Those who have made a study of Socialism know that it takes years to work into it and rise to an appreciation of what it means. Schaeffle found this to be true in his experience. Eugene Dietzgen confesses that it was not till years after his father’s death that he began to realize the fundamental importance of his teachings. Dietzgen says in one of his letters that to learn any sort of an ordinary trade, say shoemaking, requires an apprenticeship of at least three years. Yet when it comes to discussing logic and intricate questions of sociology, people with no training whatever do not hesitate to give their off-hand views as being the very, dictates of eternal reason and truth.

There is no evidence that Henry George ever devoted three days or even three hours to a serious attempt to grasp Socialism; yet on page 197 of his Political Economy he has erected a lasting monument of his ignorance and shallowness by a would-be funny criticism of Marx’s Kapital.

“Socialism,"” says George naively, “is more destitute of any central and guiding principle than any philosophy I know of.”


Perfectly true! It is based on the concrete wants of a class and not on the metaphysical logic of an abstract principle, and this is what George could not understand. What he wanted was the formula or recipe for Socialism expressed in drachms and ounces on a slip of paper with the beautiful simplicity and exactness of the single tax, and which could be filled at the nearest legislative drug store. This is something that cannot be found in Socialist literature, no not even in Marx’s Capital; so he threw aside the book in disgust.

In the early ’80s, while Eugene Dietzgen, the son, was living in New York, he became so much interested in reading Progress and Poverty that he sent a copy back to his father in the old country, and the perusal of this was the occasion of his writing the letters on Logic.

He says in his first letter:

“Logic is the science of distinguishing; its instrument, the intellect, is an instrument which makes distinctions. That is its faculty, by means of which it makes for us clear pictures of things. We are here now dealing with political economy for the purpose of getting a clear idea of it by making clear distinctions. In this way we kill two and even three birds with one stone: we criticize Henry George, get an insight into political economy, and give a demonstration of true logic. The first series of my letters gave an illustration of logic as applied to the human mind; this second series will illustrate it as applied to human labor. Mind or thought activity is the general domain which is connected not only with all that is human, but also with the Universe itself. Labor, which is the object of this second series, is no less universal, and, considered in its connection with the cosmos, serves admirably to illustrate our special study, human brain work.”

We cannot attempt here to follow Dietzgen through all of the fifteen letters on logic, but call attention particularly to the twelfth letter, in which he points out wherein he and George, though agreeing in their views of the physical world, disagree in their views of the spiritual world.

Of course Henry George’s chapter on interest could not escape the keen glance of Dietzgen. George is at first inclined to think that Proudhon got the best of Bastiat in their celebrated controversy about interest; but the abolition of interest on capital was more than George could stand for; so he finds that after all interest can be justified by the analogy of natural growth. This he does in the following manner:

Thesis: Interest on capital is just.



1. Interest is simply the spontaneous increase arising from the unaided processes of Mother Nature (land, plants and animals), which belongs to all, and the private ownership of which is unjust.

2. The products of labor are dead wealth which, instead of increasing in value, rapidly deteriorate, and the private ownership of this man-made wealth is just.

3. Ergo, interest on dead and deteriorating wealth (capital) is just.

Q. E. D.

This is as good an example of a paralogism as we know of. It is such reasoning as this that converts many readers of Progress and Poverty, not into single taxers, but into double taxers, i. e., Socialists. If Dietzgen had taken the time to extend his letters on logic so as to cover George’s “law of human progress” as laid down in Book X of Progress and Poverty, they would have made highly interesting reading. But every well-equipped Socialist can cover this ground himself by applying the principles of economic determinism instead of George’s ideological truth, justice, etc. George finds the mainspring of progress to have been, first, association; second, equality or justice. Thus association in equality is the law of progress. Association frees mental power for expenditure in improvement and equality (or justice or the moral law) prevents the dissipation of this mental power in fruitless struggles, says George. (Progress and Poverty, Book X, Chap. 111.) The fact is, the exact opposite is true. All our progress in the past has been made by association in inequality, under slavery, serfdom and wagedom, all of which, however, were just. George could not distinguish between justice and injustice. Dietzgen could. George knew only one kind of justice,—eternal justice. Dietzgen knew many kinds of justices, all temporal only.

Dietzgen and George furnish an excellent illustration of the difference between the dialectic and the metaphysical. George was a native of the land of patent medicines and universal specifics. As poverty is the universal disease he sought

a specific cure therefor and found it in the communization of land (Nature). He was broad enough to see that land includes water, but not broad enough to see that art is man’s nature and that nature includes human society and human labor. The separation of all things into nature on one hand and mankind on the other, with a barbed wire fence between them, is as fatal to a true insight as the old separation of things into mind and matter. George can unite all sorts of tools under the one category of capital, but cannot distinguish


between capital operated by the owner and that operated by wage labor. He can unite all sorts of labor products under the one category of wages, but cannot distinguish between the wages of the hired laborer working for another and the independent laborer working for himself. So that George’s defect consists in making distinctions and combinations where they are not needed and failing to make them where they are needed. In other words, he is short on logic, as Dietzgen clearly points out.

If Dietzgen had treated Progress and Poverty as George treated Marx’s Capital, by disdaining to seriously consider it, we should never have had the second series of letters on logic. But he was willing to learn from Henry George or from anyone

else. He gave Progress and Poverty a careful study and analysis, recognizing its merits and pointing out its defects in a sympathetic manner. If the single taxers of to-day would study Dietzgen’s works as fairly as he studied Progress and Poverty, they would learn someching to their advantage. They would discover that in the search for truth it is not generally a question of Either-Or but of Both-And; that the Socialist philosophy is not a one-sided, exclusive philosophy, but an inclusive one, viz.:

Not individualism or socialism, but individualism and socialism;

Not reform or revolution, but reform and revolution;

Not asceticism or indulgence, but asceticism and indulgence;

Not materialism or idealism, but both, within limits;

Not metaphysical or dialectic, but both, within limits.

And so on through the whole list. The fact that all things are part truth and only part truth prevents them, even when they differ, from being irreconcilable with each other, and enables them, even when similar, to be differentiated. Such is the dialectic method of thinking.

If the ideas of Dietzgen could receive from the public the attention which Henry George was able to secure for his they would revolutionize that shallow, sluggish and frivolous condition of mind so characteristic of present day life. In the preface of his Political Economy Henry George congratulates himself on his success in propagating his doctrines in these words: “Of all the men of whom I have ever heard who have attempted anything like so great a work against anything like so great odds, I have been in the result of the endeavor to arouse thought most favored.” But it was a flashy and short-lived success, like that of Proudhon with his famous scheme of equitable exchange; and Dietzgen disposes of George as


thoroughly and far more gently than Marx disposed of Proudhon in his Poverty of Philosophy.

In contrast to George’s too hasty exultation it is well to note that Dietzgen in a letter to his son says he does not expect that one person in a thousand will understand the full significance of his doctrine at first glance; in fact if only five persons in all New York become interested in his logic he will be satisfied. And the test of twenty years finds it now firmly rooted and steadily growing. Joseph Dietzgen was ten years older than Henry George, and died when he was past 59; George died in his 59th year. Both deaths were premature and the manner in which they happened is characteristic of the two men. They died in the harness, each engaged in his own peculiar method of work. Henry George was running for Mayor of New York. He was an experienced and gifted speaker and enjoyed putting his theories before the public as only an enthusiast can. But the strain of a political campaign was too much for him. He did not fully realize that what he had to fight against was not mistaken views of right and wrong, justice and injustice, about which he had written so eloquently; but the material economic interests of his opponents, which the property class will uphold though they break every law of God and man. Excitement and overexertion broke him down and he died before election day arrived.

Dietzgen was not so much of a public speaker. His favorite method of explaining his views was by addressing himself to an individual, either in letters or in conversation. One Sunday an afterdinner caller dropped in at the Dietzgen home. The conversation drifted to economic and social questions. The caller chipped into the talk with an ignorance of the questions only equalled by his self-assurance. No one who has not had the experience of arguing with an actual specimen of personified stupidiy until every limb trembles with excitement and indignation, can realize what a nervous strain it is. Dietzgen recalled his whole life spent in the study of these questions and the observation of social phenomena, all of which completely verified his views. That he should now have to maintain the most elementary and self-evident propositions against a blockhead merely to preserve the forms of courtesy literally broke his heart. While he was in the middle of a sentence, with uplifted hand, paralysis of the heart put an end both to his words and his life.

But both men had lived long enough to accomplish their work, so that others could go on with it. Moreover both left worthy sons who have devoted themselves to the task of


publishing the posthumous works of their respective fathers and propagating their doctrines. Henry George’s Political Economy, published after his death, added nothing to his reputation; but some of the most valuable of Dietzgen’s writings are found in his posthumous works, especially in this last volume, Erkenntnis und Wahrheit, which produces in the reader a strengthened conviction of the thorough consistency and rounded-out harmony of Dietzgen’s philosophy.


SOURCE: Hitch, Marcus. “Joseph Dietzgen and Henry George,” The International Socialist Review, vol. IX, no. 2, August 1908, pp. 92-98.

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