In pre-capitalist societies, the labouring classes often enjoyed a large measure of control over the means of production. Medieval peasants, sometimes as individual owners, sometimes as members of a village collective, had direct access to the fields, pastures, woodlands, and plough-teams on which their livelihoods depended. Medieval artisans plied their trades in urban workshops, using their own tools, and as members of self-governing guilds.
Early capitalism emerged embryonically from the upper levels of this medieval social substrate. Rich peasants became agricultural entrepreneurs. The most successful master-craftsmen became big traders. Both capitalism and the bourgeois revolution were driven forwards by ‘the middling sort’.
Rising output and expanding markets increased opportunities to get rich. Those able to invest in estate improvement or new workshops gained a competitive advantage. The class gap between the richest merchants and farmers and the poorest labourers widened into a gulf.
Capital accumulation accelerated, especially from the late 17th century, but at first it took the form of merchant capitalism and the ‘putting-out’ system. Artisans continued to work in their own homes or premises, but they now produced not on their own account, but to order for a merchant capitalist.
The factory system changed all this. From the late 18th century onwards, industrialisation allowed capital accumulation to take off. The combination of mass-production machinery, water and steam power, and canals and railways doomed handicraft production.
Factory production grew exponentially. The population of Manchester increased from 23,000 in 1773 to 180,000 in 1838 – an eightfold increase in two generations. Where had all these people come from?
The making of the working class has always been a violent process. Peasants cling tenaciously to their land. Artisans treasure the freedom and dignity of independent craftwork. To create an industrial proletariat, it was necessary to separate the producers from the means of production. The history of capitalism is therefore a history of eviction, dispossession, and impoverishment.
The ruin of the English peasantry began in the Middle Ages, intensified during the 16th and 17th centuries, and reached its culmination in the 18th and 19th centuries. The principal mechanism was enclosure.
Medieval agriculture was based on open fields. Two or three large fields were divided into strips, each allocated to a peasant family, but the strips remained unbounded, since much agricultural work was done collectively. Each family, moreover, enjoyed various ‘common rights’ – such as use of the woods for fuel and hunting, and of the commons for pasture.
Enclosure gave one or more big farmers the right to fence off land and treat it as private property. Enclosure therefore meant the dispossession of the peasantry. For this reason, for several centuries, enclosure was the focus of a bitter class war in the English countryside.
An anonymous 17th century verse says it all: ‘They hang the man, and flog the woman, That steals the goose from off the common; But let the greater villain loose, That steals the common from the goose.’
The land-grabbers were usually backed by the state. During the late 18th and early 19th centuries, enclosure was driven forwards by a series of parliamentary enclosure acts. Parliament at this time was an assembly of propertyowners.
At the same time, the Highland lairds were evicting tenants from their estates in a wave of ‘clearances’ designed to create profitable sheep-pasture. Between 1814 and 1820, for example, the Duchess of Sutherland employed British soldiers to evict 15,000 peasants, burn down their villages, and repopulate 800,000 acres of clan land with 130,000 sheep.
The resistance of others was broken by poverty. The power-loom eventually threw 800,000 handloom weavers onto the streets. This did not happen all at once. Growing competition from factory production meant a steady ratcheting downwards of piecework rates.
The handloom weavers did not go quietly. They waged a desperate rearguard action, forming a secret movement, led by the mythical ‘General Ned Ludd’, and engaging in a series of machine-smashing attacks on factories.
The ‘Luddites’ were defeated by state repression. A mass show-trial at York in 1812 resulted in executions and deportations. The handloom weavers were eventually ground down by starvation and driven into the fast-growing industrial cities in search of work.
The proletarianisation of the Irish was yet more violent. Ireland was a British colony in which an Irish Catholic peasantry was dominated by a class of Anglo-Irish Protestant landlords. The Irish fought back with tremendous resilience, but again and again their revolts were smashed by superior military power and murderous repression.
Between 1845 and 1852, the staple crop of the Irish peasantry was afflicted with potato blight. While the landlords continued exporting food for profit, famine killed one million and drove another million to emigrate, reducing the total population by around 25%.
The proletariat of Manchester, Glasgow, and a dozen other northern industrial cities was created by the English enclosures, the Highland clearances, the Irish famine, and the impoverishment of the handloom-weavers and other craftworkers. It was created by starvation.
What Marx called ‘the primitive accumulation of capital’ always involves the more or less forcible expropriation of peasants and artisans from control over the means of production. Only thus can they be induced to labour for capital. ‘The history of this,’ Marx explained, ‘is written in the annals of mankind in letters of blood and fire.’
In South Africa, in the early 20th century, a mixture of high rents and crippling taxes were used to drive black peasants off the land and into the mines. Resistance was met with hut burnings, stock seizures, floggings, and executions. Some 4,000 were killed in a reign of terror following an uprising in 1906.
In Russia, in 1929-1932, the process took the form of what Soviet dictator Stalin called ‘the liquidation of the kulaks as a class’. This involved state repression against rich peasants, millions of whom were killed, deported, or dispossessed, and the forced ‘collectivisation’ of agriculture.
The dynamism of global capitalism over the last 250 years has meant that ever more communities of peasants and artisans have been dispossessed, impoverished, and turned into wage-labourers. The process can be seen today in China, India, and Brazil.
But that dynamism also continues to affect existing working classes. Old industries decline and new ones arise. There are as many call-centre workers in Glasgow today as there were engineering workers a century ago.
As the character and composition of the working class changes, as it is repeatedly reconfigured by competitive capital accumulation, so must the process of building class identity, class solidarity, and class organisation be renewed.
Marx contrasted ‘class in itself’ and ‘class for itself’. By the first, he meant the reality of class as a social relationship and an economic process – irrespective of whether or not workers are aware of their condition. By the latter, he meant the development of class consciousness and active class-based resistance.
The former is an objective fact, the latter a subjective decision. Workers may remain ignorant, fragmented, and passive: history’s victims. Or they may seek to understand their condition, unite with their fellows, and engage in struggle to change the world: becoming history’s agents.
On that distinction turns the future of humanity.
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