Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

'Historical materialism is the theory of the proletarian revolution.' Georg Lukács

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

10. The Creation of the Proletariat

'THE reader will recall that in Outline 9 it was shown how the merchants gathered together that accumulation which is the starting point of capital; and how, owing to their methods of accumulation, they were under the illusion that value was created in exchange.

If he has carefully read the chapters mentioned at the Outline’s end—and he should do so—he will have gained some knowledge of the horrors which accompanied this primitive accumulation. He will have found that the Congo atrocities are not without precedents in this terrible story of meanness, of treachery, of bribery, of massacre, of the artificial creation of famines, and of wars for slaves and plunder. It is indeed a tale which "harrows up the soul." He will have an insight into things which no orthodox history-book will supply. He will know how the much-admired Elizabethan mariners were busy trading captured slaves for rum, and how Hawkins, in particular, as a mark of royal recognition of his gallant exploits in this trade, received from good Queen Bess a ship called Jesus to encourage him in his Christian enterprises. "The Knights of the road never surpassed the Knights of commerce at this romantic process of loot and murder." Yet, in spite of this, it is often maintained that the capitalist class owns its capital because of its practice of thrift and abstinence.

The Necessity of a Proletariat.—Why does Capitalism need a class which has no other way of living than by the sale of its labour-power? To answer this question we must clearly understand what capital is. Capital is that part of wealth used to create more wealth with a view to profit and, as we have tried to show, only emerges upon the stage when certain historical developments have occurred.

Preceding forms of capital—merchants’ and usurers’—did not create more value.[The word "value" is a more definite economic term than "wealth," because the latter may include natural wealth, in the making of which no human labour was expended, though the given definition of capital still holds good, (as no person can use the wealth, for example, of a beautiful sunset to make more sunsets or wealth.)]The merchant and usurer only transferred values from their different owners; if no commodities or exchange-values were produced then they (the trader and the money-lender) would be idle. That the merchant, by at first dealing in the surplus products of the community, initiated, increased and encouraged commodity-production is not denied. But we saw in the last lesson that the cheating and looting of the merchants and the extortion of the usurers, in former Empires, through causing internal divisions and corruption and external pressure, created their own nemesis in the disappearance of their freemen customers and in foreign invasions.

This impossibility of regularly increasing values, except by the fresh expenditure of labour power, is thoroughly demonstrated by the Labour Theory of Value. "Labour," declared Petty, "is the father and active principle of wealth, lands are the mother." The accumulation of values was only potential capital until the serf and guild relations had been destroyed, and a class of people, free from all the old regulations and owning only one particular commodity, was forced to sell this commodity—thus supplying the labour-power without which capital cannot function. Industrial capital thus implies profit making by the appropriation of surplus value.

We will now turn from the theoretical to the practical aspect and attempt to notice the facts in English history which helped to produce this necessary proletariat, and follow how the 15th century Golden Age of the labourer was swept away. Remembering the relativity of all beginnings, no attempt will be made at chronological exactness; and it should be clearly understood that the factors hereafter noted did not operate separately, but were in constant interplay aiding each other.

The Break-up of the Feudal Bands.—As this point has already been dealt with in The Fall of Feudalism, we need not stop to describe how the policy of would-be absolute monarchs, the effects of war and new methods of war, and the growth of luxury and towns, combined to make the barons disband their retainers. Hitherto the number of his retainers was a criterion of the baron's wealth, but this standard was displaced in later years by another—the size of his rent-roll. The old lord of the manor, often residing in turn at his various manors and receiving labour services and rent in kind to provide for himself and his followers, made way for the new Court nobility and the absentee, money-rent receiving landlord. The fighting retainers became freebooters or sturdy beggars or flocked to the towns to find work.

The Confiscation of the Monasteries.—With the decline of Feudalism the Church, the chief upholder of its traditions, was attacked. The curious, enterprising, daring spirit of the age flouted the Church with its blind reverence for the past and its obstinate retention of beliefs concerning the world which voyages and thinkers had proved untrue. Our next Outline will contain further particulars of how her prestige was destroyed, new methods of reasoning adopted, and of how the coming of printing and education broke down her monopoly of learning, which was the source of her power in a dark, superstitious age. Her insolence and greed for revenue, her damming up of wealth which otherwise might have financed new undertakings, her crowds of idle monks, her many sacred holidays, and her indiscriminate charity which prevented the poor from acquiring industrious habits—the were the causes of the Reformation. In 1534 England separated from Rome and in 1536 and 1539 the huge rental and lands of one thousand religious houses were confiscated. The monks, the Church’s dependents, and the workers upon the Church’s lands followed the way of the disbanded feudal retainers. This confiscation of religious property was also used to weaken the Guilds by taking from them that part of their funds left and used for religious purposes.

High Prices.—These, too, played a part in reducing the labourer from his former comparatively independent state. The discovery of new supplies, and the resulting cheapening of the precious metals, in obedience to the law of value, caused prices to rise, and in the 16th century prices rose 100 per cent, while wages rose only 30 per cent. Another factor which raised prices and helped to worsen the workers’ conditions was the depreciation of the coinage, both in size and quality, indulged in by the early Tudor monarchs. Wages, then as now, only slowly followed the rising prices.

The Enclosures.—-The dilemma of the landlord, caused by the shortage of labour following the Black Death, found a solution in the increase of wool-gathering. At first the trouble was that no labour could be got; however, as wool-growing developed, the labourers and their holdings were in the way and their labour was no longer required. In the years 1540-1600, owing to the high prices obtainable for wool, the tendency to evict men for sheep was especially hastened. Beginning in a small way in the 13th century, the enclosure of land, in what had been practically a hedgeless country, was widely and rapidly adopted. The following figures will convey some idea of its extent and rate of increase in the 18th and- the first half of the 19th centuries: In the years 1710 to 1760, 334,974 acres enclosed. In the years 1760 to 1843, 7,000,000 acres enclosed. The process was something like this :—The lord would first of all introduce sheep upon his demesne in order to escape paying high wages. Then he would enclose the waste and restrict the tenants’ arable. Next the common lands with all their privileges would be enclosed, and the labourer would find his very existence threatened with the disappearance of his common rights and of the demand for his labour, as few men were required to tend the sheep. The lord would no longer occupy the manor house; the peasants were evicted from their holdings, and, as they tilled their land in co-operation, when two or three of them were shifted it often meant the breaking up of the whole village. Thus the demolition of the feudal manor was accomplished.

Preventive legislation, in 1489, 1514, and 1534, seeking to prevent the turning of arable into pasture land, and to stop this wholesale destruction of villages, was ineffective because the magistrates’ interests —they were landlords— were contrary to the laws they were supposed to administer. It can not be denied that the abolition of the open field system was beneficial in many ways to agriculture. But the benefits were made at the expense of one class for the benefit of the other. Kett’s Norfolk Revolt, in 1549, was an uprising of the peasants against the system of enclosures. The prosperity of the large landowners was the poverty of the peasants. The Golden Age became a memory.

Vagrancy and Pauperism. These were two of the immediate results. Disbanded from the little feudal armies, robbed of the shelter, charity, and protection of the monasteries, evicted from their holdings, and deprived of the use of the common lands, these vagrants and robbers became a danger to society through their homelessness and desperation. This danger was at first met by making appeals through the parish clergymen to private charity, but in 1601 it was found necessary to make the first Poor Law. Pauperism became a recognised institution in society. This Poor Law, however, was the outcome of fear rather than of sympathy with the expropriated, for one of the Elizabethan statutes lays it down that "Lusty and valiant beggars" were to be "grievously whipped and burned through the gristle of the right ear with an iron of the compass of an inch about" as a lasting sign of punishment. Before Elizabeth, in Henry VII’s reign, we read that 72,000 thieves were hanged. In the time of the Stuarts the Law of Parochial Settlement was necessary, because no person likely to become chargeable upon the poor rate was allowed to settle in any parish but the one of his birth. The flocking to the towns of the dispossessed villagers helped to break down the guild exclusiveness. The passing of the Statute of Apprentices reveals that trade was unregulated, and that apprenticeship was sometimes being evaded. Under this Act wages were often fixed so low by the magistrates that they had to be supplemented by grants under the Poor Law provisions. So with the coming of the "free" class, "free" from all its former security of subsistence, comes the problem of poverty and the "freedom" to starve. The sad and bitter story of the creation of his own class merits the attention of every thoughtful worker.

The Rise of the Manufactory.— The divorce from the means of production is now complete. Like the two very necessary poles of a magnet, accumulated values now face labour-power. The guilds and their regulations are undermined, and the vagrants are ready to be disciplined in the army of production by the rise of the manufactory, which first took place in the woollen industry. Long before the Industrial Revolution, while many industries were still in the guild and domestic stages of production, in the textile industry men were assembled under the single roof of the factory, where under careful supervision, the division of labour inside the workshop was introduced. From this came a simplifying and a division of operations, paving the way for an application of machinery, and increasing the pro ductiveness of labour.

In closing this Outline, in which we have tried to show the harsh circumstances which accompanied the birth of our class, we would make it clear that we have no desire to provoke useless regrets. To rhapsodise sentimentally over the sufferings of the early members of our class, to wish things had been otherwise, or to imagine what might have been, is a waste of mental energy.

The moving finger writes, and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy piety nor wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a line,
Nor all thy tears wash out a word of it.

The enclosures improved agriculture by eliminating waste; they also broke down the narrow outlook of the peasant proprietor and so made for progress.

Again, though Capitalism found it necessary to divorce the labourer from the means of production, by ways more vigorous than kind, before it could emerge and play its part upon the stage of history, we shall see in future lessons how in its progress it developed immense natural resources; solved the problem of production; brought the whole world into kinship; tended, and is still tending, to break down all barriers of craft, sex, colour and nationality between the workers; and is gradually drilling and educating us up to the point of control of industry.

By strenuous agitation, education in the social sciences in order to solve the problem of distribution, and by efficient organization, that time can be hastened when the separation traced above will be annulled, and the labourer will be again the owner and controller of the now highly improved means of production.

Books. Capital, Vol. I., Chaps. XXVII and XXVIII.(These contain a description of the expropriation of the peasants apd the succeeding legislation). Gibbins, Period III., Chap. I; Period IV., Chaps. I—IV. Warner, Chaps. VIII. and X. Value, Price and Profit (S.L.P. 4d.). Wage, Labour, and Capital (S.L.P., 2d.).'

From A Worker Looks At History, by Mark Starr.



At 6:55 am, Blogger Tessa said...

I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don't know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.




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