Rise of the working class

1. The birth of capitalism

Chris Gaffney

Source: Labor College lecture
First published: Labor College Review, November 1986
Transcription, mark-up: Steve Painter

The birth of capitalism is the process of the penetration of capital into the sphere of production, whereas under feudalism surplus was basically the simple profit made from the buying and selling of goods. Here the merchant was limited in scope as most people had access to the means of production to satisfy the bulk of their needs. Most people lived then on the land and were largely self-sufficient.

What are the origins of the capitalist system? The triumph of capitalism required:

1. That the producers be separated from the means by which their material needs are produced. That is that the peasant, the guildman, the small producer should not be able to satisfy their needs through possession of the means of production.

2. That these means of production become the monopoly of one class — the rising bourgeoisie.

3. Finally it is the appearance of another social class separated from the means of production without any other way of earning a living than by the sale of its labour power to the sole possessors of the means of production.

This new class, the incipient working class said to become free with the decline of feudalism, became free in two senses.

(a) Free and not like slaves who are in fact part of the means of production and require maintenance as such.

(b) Free in that they are separated from the means of production and therefore able to sell their labour power to the capitalist, ie become wage labourers with no control of the enterprise. The process that clears the way for capitalism can be none other than the process that takes away from the labourer the possession of the means or production — a process that transforms the social means of subsistence and of production into capital, which can then exploit others’ labour and so realise a surplus and secondly, turning the people who produce for themselves into wage labourers. Capitalism grew out of the economic structure of feudal society. The dissolution of feudalism set free the elements that became capitalism.

The accumulation of capital

Capitalism dates from the sixteenth century. The money capital formed by means of usury and commerce were prevented from turning into industrial capital in the country by the feudal constitution, in the towns by the guild organisation. These fetters vanished with the dissolution of feudal society and the expropriation and large-scale eviction of the rural population. Secondly, for capitalism to develop it would require a considerable amassing of wealth if industry was to be able to develop beyond an elementary level.

Conventional wisdom explains this amassing of wealth as being due to diligent and thrifty people and their efforts, as against lazy spendthrifts. This teaches but one side of the coin — that the development of society had freed mankind from serfdom and the guilds.

Marx and other writers have shown that this amassing of pre-capitalist wealth was by a result of conquest, enslavement, robbery, murder and force.

Doubtless, many small guild masters and even small artisans or even wage labourers were able to build themselves into small capitalists — the rags-to-riches story pictured as the norm in film and capitalist propaganda.

This method of development was not nearly adequate for the new market created by the great discoveries (for example those of Columbus 1492). The introduction of vast amounts of money into the feudal societies was a product of:

(a) The discovery of gold and silver in America.

(b) The conquest and looting of the East Indies.

(c) The exploitation of Africa.

(d) Commercial wars of European nations, which raged on a global basis.

(e) European operations in China, leading to the Opium Wars in the 19th century.

The colonial system nurtured and ripened like a hot house both trade and manufacturing and production for the market generally. This was done through the monopoly of local markets to the destruction of any local competition, which was ruthlessly crushed (as in Ireland, India and until 1776 by the British in the Americas). This led to the enormous increase of accumulated wealth for the development of capitalist production formerly dwarfed within the old society of feudalism.

Such treasure, captured outside Europe by undisguised looting, floated back to the mother countries.

Holland by 1648 was the first to really develop the colonial system and already stood at the height of her commercial greatness. It was in total possession of the East Indian trade. Its fisheries, marine trade and manufacturing surpassed those of other countries. Yet by 1648 the Dutch people were overworked, poorer and more brutally oppressed than their contemporaries in any other country in Europe.

The commercial wars between the European nations in the 16th and 17th centuries were the result of competition for colonial spoils.

Thus we see that in the colonial system commercial wars, heavy taxation and public debt were ways of accumulating capital for the development of the capitalist mode of production.

We have seen the motor force for the development and expansion of the merchant industrialist and capitalist landowner, namely the means which capital was accumulated.

It was the agricultural producer, the peasant, that dominated feudal society and it was this producer that had to be torn from their means of production (the land) in order to be hurled as free and unattached workers on to the labour market. The expropriation of the agricultural producer (the peasant) from the soil was the basis of the whole process.

Serfdom in England

In England, serfdom had practically disappeared by the end of the 14th century. The immense majority of the population consisted then, and to a greater extent in the 15th century, of free peasant proprietors producing for their own needs. This was so even though the title under which the peasant held the land was feudal in character and involved an increasingly obsolete code of obligations and duties, such as armed service for the lord, work on the roads and harvesting the lord’s crops. Such wage labourers as existed were peasants working part of their time on the large estates, together with an insignificant number of wage labourers.

Besides, any wages, the peasants’ entitlements included four or five acres and a cottage. All peasants enjoyed the use of common land, which gave pasture to their cattle and the right to harvest timber and firewood. The soil was divided among the greatest number of sub-feudatories.

Such conditions, together with the prosperity of the towns so characteristic of the 15th century, allowed the existence of wealthy people but it excluded the possibility of capitalist wealth.

The beginning of the revolution that lay the basis for the capitalist mode of production took place in the late 1400s and early 1500s. Huge numbers of free labourers were thrown on to the marketby the disbanding of the feudal retinues. There had been a long and slow decline of the feudal nobility commencing in the 13th century. In the heyday of feudalism there were sometimes 50 to 100 households living directly from the feudal lords. The number of these attendants began to decline during the 16th century.

There were many reasons for this. One of the most important was at the instigation of the Royal Power. Henry VII (reigned 1485-1509) came to power after the two greatest feudal houses, York and Lancaster had slaughtered each in a series of battles during the 1400s(the Wars of the Roses). Henry VII sought financial and political independence from the great feudal lords and sought to establish royal power as unchallengeable. Henry VII and later Tudor monarchs (Henry VIII, Mary and Elizabeth) were able in large measure to do this through a growing alliance with the merchants. The merchants looked to the monarch to provide security and stability for their own development, which constant warring between rival feudal factions could not. Thus the royal power, itself a product of bourgeois development in its struggle for absolute sovereignty, forcibly hastened the dissolution of the bands of retainers — in order to remove any threat to the royal power.

Royal power was not the sole cause of the rise of the merchants, as the feudal lords themselves created a much greater and larger proletariat by forcibly driving the peasants from the land to which they had as much right as the feudal lord himself, as well as taking over the common land.

The rapid rise of the Flemish wool manufacturers and the greater rise in wool prices in England became the direct impulse and motivation for these evictions. Here was a market for wool. The development of wool manufacturing in East Anglia was a parallel occurrence. Here was a development that was a solution to the major malaise of the feudal lord. Put bluntly, the feudal lord needed money. He had increasingly converted the peasants’ feudal obligations into fixed money payments. This need for money, if he was to continue to live at the level he required, grew more desperate during the 1400s as the precious metals from the Americas poured into England. The 1400s were characterised by a continuing inflation and in consequence an increasing impoverishment of all social classes on fixed money incomes — such as the feudal landowners.

Transformation of the peasants’ land into sheep walks producing commodities for sale was therefore the demand of the nobility. Money in a period of rising prices was the power of all powers. Enclosures were not new, they had been going since the black death of 1380, and the rate of such enclosures did not increase greatly in the early 1500s. They were not carried out in all parts of the country, nor even by the 1700s were they complete. Yet the Tudor enclosures have a decisive importance. The quantitative transfer of land from open field to enclosure and from arable to pasture, proceeding continuously, assumes a new aspect with the widespread dispossession of the peasantry.

The change coincided with the growth of the population to five million, which was about the maximum the land could support under the feudal mode of production. Under these circumstances, enclosures of an extent that earlier might have not attracted special notice were bound to involve sweeping social changes.

As has been mentioned earlier, these changes coincided with the beginning of a rise in prices the result of the influx of precious metals into Europe, which had the effect of doubling profits and increasing wages by 50 per cent by the end of the 16th century.

The rise in prices became, in its turn an inducement to speed up enclosures, as the land became far more valuable. Rents and wages lagged far behind prices and the new sheep farmers made fortunes. The continuous rise in the price of corn, wool, meat and all agricultural products swelled the money capital of the farmer, while rents particularly (paid in 99-year terms) diminished in value.

The Catholic Church and the Reformation

The process of forcible expropriation of the people received a great push in the years 1536-39, when Henry VIII, heavily supported by the landowners, dissolved the monasteries.

The monks themselves mostly received pensions, but the great majority of monastery servants were less fortunate. The Roman Catholic Church at the time of the reformation was the feudal proprietor of a great part of English land. The suppression of the monasteries hurled their inmates into the proletariat.

The medieval papacy was a centralised international organisation that established a monopoly in the grace of god. This monopoly was often resented even by kings and princes.

At the same time its degeneration and great wealth made and easy and attractive prey to both kings and landowners.

England began competing for control of the papacy with France and Spain. When this failed they took the first steps towards freeing England from papal control.

Three strands made up the Reformation in England, which was initially opposed by the majority of the people. First, the break with Rome and the end of the large revenues paid to the papacy — this was universally approved except by the monks.

Secondly, the confiscation of the property of the church — this was the work of the crown and of the landowning class. It was less popular and led even to armed revolts.

Thirdly, the victory of the theological dogma known as Protestantism — this was the work of the middle and lower classes. Its progress was slow at first, until Catholicism was politically discredited by its connection with the hostile power of Spain. By way of contrast, Henry VIII continued to see himself as a good Catholic and impartially executed Protestants for denying the doctrine of transubstantiation and Catholics for denying that he was the head of the church. At Henry’s death in 1547 Protestantism was still a minority but a minority whose desires coincided precisely with the natural course of historical development.

The estates of the church were given away in the main to rapacious royal favourites or sold at a nominal price to speculating farmers who drove out the hereditary sub-servants and consolidated their holdings into one. The share of the poor in church tithes was tacitly confiscated.

This process was extended still further when, under William of Orange, even state lands were given away or sold cheaply. The common lands that had existed for communal use under feudalism were progressively seized by the great landowners from 1400-1550. These seizures were by the 1700s turned into capital farms. The effect was to release large numbers of former peasants for use as workers in the developing manufacturing industries.

Creation of the working class

However, these vast hordes of people could not be absorbed by the manufacturing industries in the numbers they were thrown on to the market.

Two remedies to this problem were attempted.

1. Legislation to check the enclosure of land.

This was quite ineffective and led to repeated attempts by acts of parliament to stop the movement towards enclosure, for example in 1489 a law was passed that no house was to be destroyed if the adjoining land was more than 20 acres.

Other acts limited the number of sheep a farmer could keep. All were ignored as the justices of the peace who were to enforce the laws were usually the very landlords who benefited by the enclosure. As Marx put it: “what capitalism required was not a free and prosperous peasantry, ‘The plough in the hands of the owners’ (Bacon) but a degraded and servile condition of the mass of the people, the transformation of them into mercenaries and of their means of labour into capital” (Marx Capital p 744).

2. Penal laws against the unemployed were effective but they did not solve the problem. The 16th century brought a variety of legislation punishing vagabonds, beggars and the unemployed with flogging, branding and hanging. During the reign of Henry VIII (1509-47) 10,000 people were executed for being vagabonds. Merely creating a mass of people forced to sell their labour power is not enough, the bourgeoisie used the power of the state to force wages down to levels that ensured maximum profit, to ensure dependence upon capital and to lengthen the working day.

Wage labourers, who grew in number in the late 14th century, formed only a small part of the population. The subordination of labour to capital was only formal, ie the mode of production itself had no specifically capitalistic character. During the period we are discussing, labour grew rapidly with every accumulation of capital.

Legislation aimed at increasing the working day was started in 1349 and maintained in subsequent years. It was against the law to pay wages higher than laid down by statute. Any coalition of labourers, a union we would call it today, was seriously punished from the 14th century up to 1825.

By the 16th century the conditions of labourers had worsened. Money wages rose, but not sufficiently to counter the inflationary rise in prices. However, the laws keeping wages down remained, together with ear clipping and branding of those who could not find work. In the manufacturing stage of capitalism such measures were not required, as the capitalist mode of production was strong enough to dictate its own terms. At this earlier stage the legislation was required to compel workers to fulfil their allegedly natural role.

Towards the end of the 16th century, change could be noticed. The industries of the town had absorbed a large part of the unemployed. The very growth of these towns had created an increased demand for bread, meat and other foodstuffs.

The result was that arable farming became more attractive and the pressure for enclosure eased. It is important to notice that the movement was not merely from arable to pasture and then back to arable. Rather, it was from peasant small-scale arable farming to large-scale sheep farming and then in part to arable farming but now it was large-scale and capitalist. Although the number of cultivators was less, the produce equaled former years because the agrarian revolution was accompanied by improved methods of cultivation and concentration of the means of production. Not only was the peasant set free to form part of the growing proletariat, this process destroyed the rural domestic industry that was largely producing for use and not for sale. The country areas were now part of a market for goods produced for sale. The destruction of domestic industry gave the international market the extension and consistency that the capitalist mode of production required.

It is, however, only modern industry, with its development of machinery that supplies the lasting basis of capitalist agriculture. Let us have a final look at the towns.

In the guilds and trades of the middle ages there was great stability in the means of production — weaving looms were passed from father to son. The cost of these looms being relatively small, each journeyman could expect to get back the value of a loom with a few years work. The industrial revolution, with its constant replacement of the existing means of production, which required greater and greater amounts of capital, made the entry of the small man into the productive process an increasing rarity. Existing small businesses fell victim to competition from larger enterprises, which by the 19th century were moving closer to the creation of monopoly.

Ownership and control of the productive forces fell into fewer and fewer hands and more and more erstwhile proprietors found themselves thrown into the working class.

The bourgeoisie, having torn the means of production from the mass of the people, had developed them to a point where each further development created new and greater problems of overproduction in a world where poverty and shortage were a fact of daily life for the larger part of humanity.

Far from developing or evolving naturally, the birth of capitalism was a product of war, greed, plunder and deceit. The rule of the capitalist class now threatens the very existence of the human race.


Karl Marx, Capital volume 1, chapters 26-32

Maurice Dobb, Studies in the development of capitalism

Arthur L. Morton, A peoples history of England

Gustav Bang, Crises in European history

Leon Trotsky, Marxism in our time

Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, The Communist Manifesto

Frederick Engels, Socialism, utopian and scientific

Ernest Mandel, Marxist Economic Theory