Marx’s treatment of the “so-called ‘primitive accumulation'” is one of the most historically detailed sections in Capital: A Critique of Political Economy (Volume 1). And it is one of the most interesting parts of Capital to read as a separate piece. (Here is an electronic text of the section.) It is Marx’s account of the historical processes of change in rural life of the fifteenth through eighteenth century in Britain and Ireland, through which peasants were forced off their land and the commons were enclosed. Marx believes that this separation of the peasantry from the land was a necessary condition for the development of capitalism, in that it created the conditions in which there was a pliable and abundant proletariat. This “free” proletariat was needed for the creation of the factory system and the development of manufacturing cities. So the process of primitive accumulation created the changes in social relations, property relations, and the accumulation of wealth that permitted the creation of the capital-labor relation and factory-based capitalism.
Marx sometimes puts this point in a fairly teleological way, looking at primitive accumulation as a necessary step on the road to British capitalism. (For example, he refers to this process as “the revolution that laid the foundation of the capitalist mode of production.”) But it is possible, and preferable, to read Marx’s analysis here less teleologically, as simply a detailed account of some of the crucial but contingent changes that took place in rural social relations during these centuries, without importing the idea that these changes were functionally related to the later development of capitalism. And read non-teleologically, the section holds up fairly well in relation to modern historical scholarship.
Marx describes the basic social relations of British rural life in the fifteenth century in these terms, as a freeholding peasantry with access to substantial common lands, pasture, and forest:
The immense majority of the population consisted then, and to a still larger extent, in the 15th century, of free peasant proprietors, whatever was the feudal title under which their right of property was hidden. In the larger seignorial domains, the old bailiff, himself a serf, was displaced by the free farmer. The wage-labourers of agriculture consisted partly of peasants, who utilised their leisure time by working on the large estates, partly of an independent special class of wage-labourers, relatively and absolutely few in numbers. The latter also were practically at the same time peasant farmers, since, besides their wages, they had allotted to them arable land to the extent of 4 or more acres, together with their cottages. Besides they, with the rest of the peasants, enjoyed the usufruct of the common land, which gave pasture to their cattle, furnished them with timber, fire-wood, turf, &c.
And he identifies the crucial turn towards expropriation of the free peasant proprietor:
In insolent conflict with king and parliament, the great feudal lords created an incomparably larger proletariat by the forcible driving of the peasantry from the land, to which the latter had the same feudal right as the lord himself, and by the usurpation of the common lands. The rapid rise of the Flemish wool manufactures, and the corresponding rise in the price of wool in England, gave the direct impulse to these evictions. The old nobility had been devoured by the great feudal wars. The new nobility was the child of its time, for which money was the power of all powers. Transformation of arable land into sheep-walks was, therefore, its cry.
(It is interesting to recall that Oliver Goldsmith describes the eighteenth-century version of this process in Ireland in his poem, The Deserted Village (1770):
Sweet smiling village, loveliest of the lawn,
Thy sports are fled, and all thy charms withdrawn;
Amidst thy bowers the tyrant’s hand is seen,
And Desolation saddens all thy green:
One only master grasps the whole domain,
And half a tillage stints thy smiling plain.
No more thy glassy brook reflects the day,
But, choked with sedges, works its weedy way;
Along thy glades, a solitary guest,
The hollow-sounding bittern guards its nest;
Amidst thy desert walks the lapwing flies,
And tires their echoes with unvaried cries:
Sunk are thy bowers in shapeless ruin all,
And the long grass o’ertops the mouldering wall
And, trembling, shrinking from the spoiler’s hand,
Far, far away thy children leave the land.
Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey,
Where wealth accumulates, and men decay.
Princes and lords may flourish, or may fade;
A breath can make them, as a breath has made:
But a bold peasantry, their country’s pride,
When once destroy’d, can never be supplied. )
And Marx emphasizes the coercive nature of this expropriation of the yeoman peasant:
Even in the last decade of the 17th century, the yeomanry, the class of independent peasants, were more numerous than the class of farmers. They had formed the backbone of Cromwell’s strength, and, even according to the confession of Macaulay, stood in favourable contrast to the drunken squires and to their servants, the country clergy, who had to marry their masters’ cast-off mistresses. About 1750, the yeomanry had disappeared, and so had, in the last decade of the 18th century, the last trace of the common land of the agricultural labourer. We leave on one side here the purely economic causes of the agricultural revolution. We deal only with the forcible means employed.
A crucial component of the “primitive accumulation”, in Marx’s interpretation, was the abolition of common property, culminating in the enclosure acts in the seventeenth century:
Communal property — always distinct from the State property just dealt with — was an old Teutonic institution which lived on under cover of feudalism. We have seen how the forcible usurpation of this, generally accompanied by the turning of arable into pasture land, begins at the end of the 15th and extends into the 16th century. But, at that time, the process was carried on by means of individual acts of violence against which legislation, for a hundred and fifty years, fought in vain. The advance made by the 18th century shows itself in this, that the law itself becomes now the instrument of the theft of the people’s land, although the large farmers make use of their little independent methods as well. The parliamentary form of the robbery is that of Acts for enclosures of Commons, in other words, decrees by which the landlords grant themselves the people’s land as private property, decrees of expropriation of the people. Sir F. M. Eden refutes his own crafty special pleading, in which he tries to represent communal property as the private property of the great landlords who have taken the place of the feudal lords, when he, himself, demands a “general Act of Parliament for the enclosure of Commons” (admitting thereby that a parliamentary coup d’état is necessary for its transformation into private property), and moreover calls on the legislature for the indemnification for the expropriated poor.
We even are afforded a glimpse of the economist’s view of the rationality of enclosure. According to John Arbuthnot, enclosure and the creation of private farms is a more productive use of land and labor:
Let us hear for a moment a defender of enclosures and an opponent of Dr. Price. “Not is it a consequence that there must be depopulation, because men are not seen wasting their labour in the open field…. If, by converting the little farmers into a body of men who must work for others, more labour is produced, it is an advantage which the nation” (to which, of course, the “converted” ones do not belong) “should wish for … the produce being greater when their joint labours are employed on one farm, there will be a surplus for manufactures, and by this means manufactures, one of the mines of the nation, will increase, in proportion to the quantity of corn produced.”
And here Marx describes the final stages of the “rationalization” of agriculture, in the expropriation of the Scots:
The last process of wholesale expropriation of the agricultural population from the soil is, finally, the so-called clearing of estates, i.e., the sweeping men off them. All the English methods hitherto considered culminated in “clearing.” As we saw in the picture of modern conditions given in a former chapter, where there are no more independent peasants to get rid of, the “clearing” of cottages begins; so that the agricultural labourers do not find on the soil cultivated by them even the spot necessary for their own housing. But what “clearing of estates” really and properly signifies, we learn only in the promised land of modern romance, the Highlands of Scotland. There the process is distinguished by its systematic character, by the magnitude of the scale on which it is carried out at one blow (in Ireland landlords have gone to the length of sweeping away several villages at once; in Scotland areas as large as German principalities are dealt with), finally by the peculiar form of property, under which the embezzled lands were held.
Eventually we come to the point where industrial capitalism is feasible and there is a “free” proletariat available for labor:
It is not enough that the conditions of labour are concentrated in a mass, in the shape of capital, at the one pole of society, while at the other are grouped masses of men, who have nothing to sell but their labour-power. Neither is it enough that they are compelled to sell it voluntarily. The advance of capitalist production develops a working-class, which by education, tradition, habit, looks upon the conditions of that mode of production as self-evident laws of Nature. The organisation of the capitalist process of production, once fully developed, breaks down all resistance.
And, of course, Engels picks up the story from the perspective of nineteenth-century Manchester and Birmingham, and the conditions of squalor and oppressive factory labor that resulted. (See an earlier posting on Engels’s sociology of the proletarian city.)
The English Marxist historians have devoted a lot of their attention to this period of British social history. (Harvey Kaye gives a very good account of the work of this generation of Marxist historians in The British Marxist Historians.) Maurice Dobb is one of the English socialist historians who has retraced Marx’s steps on this subject in some detail. One of Dobb’s important books, Studies In The Development Of Capitalism (1963), treats this process of the decline of the English peasantry and the rise of the proletariat, making use of the historical scholarship of the first part of the twentieth century. Some of Rodney Hilton’s research on this period can be found in Class Conflict and the Crisis of Feudalism: Essays in Medieval Social History (Rev). Several generations later, Robert Brenner gave a somewhat different interpretation of the history of agrarian change in England from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries; his views were developed in the splendid journal Past & Present and were separately published along with a round of critical reactions in The Brenner Debate: Agrarian Class Structure and Economic Development in Pre-industrial Europe.