When Great Britain in the first half of the eighteenth century is described as being still an agricultural country, possessed of no “great industry” in the modern sense, the significance of this statement is not always fully comprehended. But in order to understand the development which followed, it is essential to grasp what the England of the early part of that century really was. The total population of England and Wales certainly did not exceed 6,500,000 people, all told, in 1750. More than three-quarters of these people lived in the agricultural districts or in small country towns which were dependent upon agriculture. Of the remaining 1,400,000 or 1,500,000 some 700,000 are computed to have been resident in London, but all the statistics of that period are very imperfect. Though manufacture was developing and commerce was relatively large, there was nothing to show that the nation was on the eve of the greatest industrial revolution the world has ever seen. The people were, as a whole, rather better off than they had been in the century before. The new growth of the towns brought about a larger demand for corn, etc., and rendered arable land more profitable than pasture in many localities. Thus more agricultural labourers were required, and unemployment was reduced. Much of the manufacture, such as the spinning and weaving of wool, was carried on in the villages throughout the country. Agriculture and manufacture were not as yet divorced from one another. Some of the artisans and their families still cultivated their own plots of land. Farmers and agricultural labourers were comparatively prosperous. Great Britain was even a corn-exporting country, as she had been in the days of the Roman occupation. Higher wages obtained than had been paid, relatively to the price of food, since the palmy days of the fifteenth century, the common land was still not wholly seized from the people, and general conditions were better than in the previous century.
Great, therefore, as were the drawbacks to the whole system of parish settlement which then prevailed, confining workers to the district in which they were born, if they wished to secure some provision for themselves and their children in sickness or old age; preposterous as seem to us the arrangements whereby the lords of the soil and their adherents were masters of all they surveyed; iniquitous as we necessarily deem the political disfranchisement of those whose labour supplied the privileged classes with their luxuries, and the violence and corruption by which these same privileged classes asserted and maintained their supremacy; nevertheless, when every possible allowance is made, it may be confidently asserted that there was far less misery and physical deterioration at the middle of the eighteenth century, in proportion to the population and general wealth, than there is to-day.
Thus, the England of the first half of the eighteenth century still an England of agriculturists and handicraftsmen, as it had been for many generations. Tillage had greatly improved, and much land had been reclaimed from marsh and forest. Mining had increased, and in some directions production for profit, unhampered by the more stringent Middle Age restrictions, had grown up. Production on the land, notwithstanding the change in the social relations and the conversion of dues and services into money payment, was not materially different from what it had been ages before in our own and other countries. In one respect, however, the cultivators and craftsmen were worse off than their predecessors of the times of Nebuchadnezzar in Babylonia or under the Antonines in Rome. Nay, even in the period of the monasteries they were not at such a great disadvantage. Of the Babylonian roads we have no full records, but we do know that the posts of the Babylonian monarchs were delivered with a regularity and rapidity which must put their means of communication on a level with their arable irrigation works. Of the Roman roads we can judge, not only by the rapid journeys made and the great marches accomplished by their armies, but by the remains of the fine causeways constructed by the legionaries in our own island. By these great roads their Empire was held together. The same with the Peruvians, who could by no possibility have maintained their control over their subjugated peoples, covering such a vast stretch of country, had it not been for their roads and bridges, with barracks and blockhouses erected along the highway.
There was nothing of all this in the Great Britain of the Georges. After the destruction of the monasteries, whose abbots, priors and monks kept up reasonable means of communication between their properties, for their own personal advantage, the roads in this island became almost impassable, except in summertime, over a large part of the country. The main highroads were hardly better than the subsidiary tracks. Transport was necessarily limited. Throughout the south of England the roads were as bad as “the infernal road,” described by Arthur Young as serving what were, even in his day (1770), the most populous and prosperous districts of Lancashire. This difficulty of home transport inevitably made the comparatively sparse population more scattered than the mere distances between the towns and villages would convey to the mind. The very traditions of road-making had died out; and home trade was so hampered by the cost, and even danger, of conveyance by land that the possibility of improvement seemed very remote. The deliberate enactments of the Middle Ages, confining trade within strict limits, were far less harmful to internal traffic than the chaos in transport due to abominable roads.
Thus, in production and distribution, the country life of England a hundred and seventy years ago was to all appearance little in advance, economically, of the England of the fifteenth century, or of the Continental countries which, politically, were far behind her in social development. One great distinction, however, there was, which, in the long run, dominated the domestic situation. The people, though completely freed from the direct trammels of villeinage and serfdom, had already been to a very large extent uprooted from the soil. The majority of the cultivators no longer owned the land upon which they toiled: the capitalist farmers had interposed between them and the landowners (to whom these farmers now paid differential rents in money) and employed the expropriated peasants as free wage-earners. The artisan class in the towns and cities was in much the same position. They were, as said above, in a better position than their fathers of the previous century, owing to the rise in the standard of life, based upon higher wages and lower prices for necessaries. But their personal freedom was nominal, not real. A state of things had been created below the surface to which there was so far no parallel in history. The middle class had gained political power; and their strength had been extended and confirmed both by the Civil War against Charles I and by the removal of James II in favour of William III.
The influence of the bourgeoisie was, in fact, slowly becoming supreme. This meant that pecuniary relations were being substituted for personal relations all along the line. Feudal obligations had practically lapsed; guild and municipal ordinances had fallen into decay; a large body of landless wage-earners had grown up out of the breakdown of the arrangements of the old time; enclosures were steadily proceeding and increasing the landless majority; commerce had attained a great development; finance had become an increasingly important factor in business life. All the social conditions were, in short, ready for the installation of capital in its last and dominant form.
As shown, this point of readiness was never attained in any of the ancient economic and social developments. Production for profit had made its appearance at more than one epoch, but it had never rivalled commerce and usury as a means of accumulating riches out of the employment of money. Neither in the period of chattel slavery, nor in that of serfdom, could capital, embodied in gold or silver, enter the field of production at large, simply for the purpose of emerging as a larger mass of monetary capital in the hands of the same capitalist, to be used again and again for the like process in order to obtain more profit. Capital, as the controlling force in economic and social life, demands not merely a large body of money wealth in private hands – that has been seen many times in human history without producing any such result – but it also calls for a large body of men, divorced from the soil, who, like their brethren in the towns and cities, have no independent resources outside their own power to labour: who are, too, by improvement in the pro cesses of production, losing control over their own tools and means of production which pass into the possession of the capitalist class. Now England had reached this stage of economic and social development in the latter half of the eighteenth century more completely than any other country. Thus, provided there were markets available, the success of capitalists who turned out commodities for profit instead of articles for use was certain. Production generally for exchange, thereupon, became the rule and no longer the exception. All the machinery for this transformation, in the shape of banks, credits, bills of exchange, large external trade, were ready, and had only to be expanded to meet the necessities of the situation.
But everything had proceeded gradually and unconsciously. Neither the English people themselves, their statesmen, politicians or leading economists had any idea that the time was near when the island of Great Britain would actually enter a period wherein capital, in its industrial profit-making shape, would completely subvert all the old forms of production, and act in a most revolutionary sense upon the whole of society. Adam Smith, whose great work appeared in 1776, when the influence of the large steam-motived machine industry was already having its effect, had not the remotest conception, either of the immediate or the ultimate result, of the vast change that was going on all round him. As his principal biographer puts it, the chief object of Smith’s Inquiry into the Nature and Sources of the Wealth of Nations, largely based upon the previous works of the French economists, “is to demonstrate that the most effectual plan for advancing a people to greatness is to follow that order of things which nature” – it is amusing to find the English economist appealing to “nature” after the fashion of Rousseau – “has pointed out, by allowing every man, as long as he observes the rules of justice” – another eighteenth-century abstraction – “to pursue his own interest in his own way, and to bring both his interest and his capital into the freest competition with those of his fellow-citizens.” It is creditable to Smith that, having in view this principal object of erecting the freest competition of capital and labour into a sort of economic deity, he should have been able enough to discern, and honest enough to proclaim, that farmers appeared to enter into a combination to keep down the rate of wages. But St Simon, who was born sixteen years before the publication of The Wealth of Nations, and issued his first important book in 1819, just a generation afterwards, and Fourier, who was writing simultaneously, both saw much farther than this; while the champions of the English proletariat, Adam Smith’s contemporaries, though unrecognised and even derided in their lifetime, were very far ahead of him in their appreciation of what was really going on. Nay, a hundred years earlier, the great Quaker, John Sellers, had already pointed out, when production for exchange and profit under capital was only in its infancy, that complete liberty of capital, so far from always facilitating exchange, frequently hampered it, by the necessity imposed upon the capitalist producer of transforming his goods into gold before he could profitably continue his operations. Here the antagonism between gold and commodities, afterwards so admirably illustrated by Marx and others, is first noted in economics; and its consequences, under capitalism, in bringing about unemployment for willing labourers, owing to an artificial obstacle placed in the way of a continuous absorption of the articles of use created, are animadverted upon.
This, however, is a partial anticipation of reflections that will more naturally come later. The main points to be considered and emphasised are: First, that capital, in its shape of control over production as a whole, for the purpose of producing articles of social use, not directly for such use, but for exchange, to obtain a profit for the capitalist himself, is quite modern, a form of production which has grown up within the last few generations, and was unknown, except as an accidental and transitory phenomenon, in all the endless ages of anterior production. Secondly, no matter how great the accumulation of money capital might be, it could not be continuously employed for the extraction of profit from the processes of industry on a large scale until the following circumstances arose:–
This put all new discoveries and inventions at the disposal of the employing class; divorcing the workers more and more completely from any control over the instruments and tools and machines of production used by them as wage-earners.
Industrial capital, in the sense of profit-making capital, is of recent growth; and has been disguised from the perception of people in general by the carelessness of historians, of whom Mommsen was a prominent offender, in applying the views of capital which obtained in the nineteenth century to the totally different conditions of ancient times. Similarly, with the forms of capital existing in the Middle Ages. Even in our own day, in the midst of the highly developed profit-making capitalism of the present century, which is spreading its influence all over the civilised world, we read such definitions as “Capital is stored-up labour devoted to the production of more wealth.” We are assured also that “capital” and “labour” have no antagonistic interests, and that the capitalist form of production for exchange and profit is and must be permanent. The owners of chattel slaves of old time suffered from the same hallucination. The feudal nobles who succeeded them held a similar view about the inevitability of serfdom. As Marx wrote: “Before the bourgeois system became general there was history; but with the installation of capitalism and wagedom history came to end. Capital producing for profit out of the unpaid labour of hired workers, capital whose possessors own and control factories, workshops, mines, ships, machinery, raw material, means of transport and last, not least, the labourers themselves as a class: this form of capital it is which in its earlier and later stages is destined to be the eternal mistress of production for the entire human race, according to the accredited representatives of the capitalists themselves.” About that they have, or had until lately, no doubt.
Let us take the second group of elemental conditions from which this wholly new and previously unthought-of capital arose. Obviously, the existence of propertyless persons, men, women and children, so completely emancipated from previous conditions as to be able – that is to say, forced – to sell their bodily power in order to subsist, is the primal necessity for the form of production which had slowly developed out of previous economic and social arrangements. It was a growth like other growths. Let all the other essential conditions exist and this fail, then the whole superstructure tumbles down. England first provided the basis for the capitalist system of production for profit; and for this reason the island of Great Britain, with its genuine proletariat, became the classic ground for investigation into the genesis of modern industrial capital.
During this development of the proletarian class at home, commerce and piracy, negro slavery and conquest, wholesale cheating and sheer robbery, were providing the nascent class of English profiteering industrialists with the capital necessary to take advantage of the wage-earning labourers, who were thus being made ready for their operations on a large scale. The hoarded wealth of India, seized and brought home by the early invaders, and afterwards remitted more legally and systematically by the authorised agency of the East India Company, provided the bulk of the necessary resources. The West Indian colonial system, based upon the toil of imported black slaves from Africa, and the nefarious opium traffic with China, also added to the accumulation of capital previously piled up by the persistent attacks on land and on sea against the Spanish colonies, where vast riches had been gathered and sent to Spain by equally nefarious methods. The history of this long course of rapine is well known. But the early records of plunder and the careers of our bold but unscrupulous freebooters are set forth in prose and in verse among the greatest glories of England’s commercial success and rising maritime supremacy. That the British Empire in India, for example, was built up and maintained by methods of conquest and annexation well-nigh as ruthless as those which marked the rise of the Roman power was recognised and denounced by a few high-minded Englishmen at the time, but has scarcely even yet been acknowledged by our own countrymen or by the world at large. Yet, when surveyed without prejudice, it is clear to any student that the origins of the capital which enabled England to come to the front at the end of the eighteenth, and during the greater part of the nineteenth century as the leading industrial and commercial country of the world, were worthy of that period which commenced with the expropriation of the people from the land in Great Britain itself; and was followed by a reign of cruel exploitation of men, women and children in English factories to which it is difficult to find a parallel, even in the horrors of ancient chattel slavery. Here, once more, we are face to face with the incapacity of man to understand or to mitigate the inevitable consequences of his own greed and rapacity, or to comprehend that the increase of the powers of the race to produce wealth with less labour might be turned to the ever-growing advantage of all, and not to the accumulation of riches for the few.
Those who saw this truth, amid the welter of economic change around them, were unable to impress their opinions upon the mass of their countrymen. But the brilliant and true statements of Robert Owen in 1802 that wealth might, even then, be made as plentiful as water, and that national co-operation for production was the only way to arrive at this desirable result, were derided more than seventy years later by Engels as Utopian Socialism. It was Utopian only in the sense that Owen appreciated, a hundred and twenty years, or four generations, ago, what we of to-day are only just beginning, as a nation, to understand and tentatively to realise. He and those who worked with him, and the Chartists who were his later contemporaries, did not fully grasp the slow historic movement of economic development and popular consciousness; slow still, in the early part of the nineteenth century, though the increase in the power of man over nature, in the production and distribution of wealth, was proceeding with a rapidity wholly unprecedented in the thousands upon thousands of years of earlier social growth. As it was, the class war and the economic, social and political antagonisms arising out of the new system have still to work their way until the mass of the people are able to comprehend the real facts of their own surroundings; then, by overmastering their own previous ignorance, they will qualify themselves to administer the still higher stage of human evolution which is the inevitable outcome of capitalist supremacy.
To return. By 1765 all was prepared for the great industrial revolution in Great Britain. There was a large, growing population of simple wage-earners, men, women and children divorced from the soil and destitute of property. There were also the Irish – now undergoing a process of expropriation like that which Englishmen had undergone, but in a harsher shape – ready to cross the Irish Channel when needed, in order to compete with Englishmen on a still lower standard of life. The capital necessary to build factories, purchase machinery, buy raw materials and pay wages had been accumulated from without, and the new and powerful forces of production and distribution were being provided at home. Division of labour among workers, giving to each labourer one small monotonous task, segregated from the entire whole of which it was destined to form a part – so bitterly commented upon by Adam Smith as ruinous to the worker in every way – had already paved the way for the concentration of bodies of wage-earners under one roof. This form of manufacture, prior to the establishment of the great factory industry, had brought such competition to bear upon the less organised individual workers in certain trades that thus, also, the struggle for life among the destitute labourers was increased. “Why,” asked one important economist, “do large undertakings in the manufacturing way ruin private industry but by coming nearer to the simplicity of slaves?” It was this simplicity of slavery under capitalism that had now begun in earnest; though Sir James Stuart himself, who asked the question, had as little conception as the rest of the terrible fate which production solely for profit, with the aid of the great inventions now coming into use, was preparing for the coming generation. All these great inventions, discoveries and improvements, so far as they were applicable to industry and production, fell into the hands, not of the people at large, but of the capitalist class who used them invariably against the interests of the wage-earners – wage slaves, as Sir James Stuart in effect called them – who were entirely at their command.
Last updated on 7.7.2006