The Economic Doctrines of Karl Marx

6. The Dawn of the Capitalist Mode of Production

In the last paragraphs of the preceding chapter we have seen how capital constantly creates anew its preliminary conditions. But it is obvious that capital in its classic form could not be constituted until these preliminary conditions had been developed to a certain extent. What conditions brought them into existence is a question which we have not yet answered. In our investigation into the conversion of money into capital, we proceeded upon the assumption that, on the one hand, large sums of money existed in the possession of private persons, and, on the other hand, labour-power was offering itself as a commodity in the market. How labour-power became a commodity, what caused the accumulation of these sums of money, we left uninvestigated.

It remains for us to indicate the most essential facts pertaining to this subject.

The accumulation of capital signifies the renewal of the preliminary condition for capital. The original formation of the preliminary condition for capital, which preceded its development, is called by Marx primitive accumulation.

To the question as to the origin of capital, the economists give us the same answer, which they always have ready when they do not know or do not want to know the actual conditions: a Robinson fable. Such an answer possesses the double advantage, that no preliminary knowledge is needed for its invention, and that it can always be devised so as to prove all that is required.

And those Robinson fables, which aim at explaining the origin of capital and bringing it into harmony with current ideas of right, are among the most insipid stories of their kind. They differ from the stories of our childhood only through their tediousness.

Listen to Roscher, for instance: “Let us imagine a fishing people without private property in land and capital, dwelling naked in caves, and living on the sea fish which, stranded on the shore after the ebb of the tide, are caught with the mere hand. All workers may here be equal, and may daily both catch and consume three fish. Now a wise man restricts his consumption to 2 fish for 100 days, and utilises the provision of 100 fish collected in this manner to expend his whole labour-power for 50 days in the making of a boat and fishing net. With the help of this capital, he catches henceforth 30 fish daily.” All these stories of the origin of capital smell of similar rotten fish.

It is always the old story of the brave, industrious, and temperate worker who became a capitalist, and of the good-for-nothing loafer who dissipated his all, and as a punishment therefore is condemned, with his children and children’s children, to toil in the sweat of the brow for the industrious and their descendants to all eternity.

Primitive accumulation wears a different aspect if we study the history of Europe from the fourteenth century. It presents two sides, only one of which has become familiar in popular circles through the liberal historical school.

Industrial capital could not arise without free workers, workers who stood in no relation of servitude, or attachment, or guild compulsion. It required the freedom of production in place of the fetters of feudalism, it had to emancipate itself from the tutelage of the feudal lords.

From this standpoint, the struggle of aspiring capitalism appears as a struggle against compulsion and privileges, as a struggle for freedom and equality.

It is this side which is always emphasised by the literary advocates of the bourgeoisie. We have no intention of belittling the importance of this struggle, all the less so now that the bourgeoisie is beginning to deny its own past. But in contemplating this proud and brilliant side of history, the reverse side should not be forgotten; the creation of the proletariat and of capital itself. In his Capital, Marx thoroughly investigated this side as regards one country: England, the motherland of the capitalist mode of production, the sole country in which the primitive accumulation took place in its classic form. A few indications of the relative conditions will be found in the Poverty of Philosophy (Chapter II).

Unfortunately the corresponding development in Germany cannot be clearly traced, as it was impeded and distorted by the alteration of the trade route to the East from the Mediterranean Sea to the Atlantic Ocean, and then through the Thirty Years’ War and the century long exclusion of Germany from the world market.

The greatest obstacle which nascent capital encountered was, apart from the guild organisation in the towns, the common property in the soil of the village communes – sometimes of larger co-operative associations. As long as this existed, there were no masses of proletarians. Luckily for capital, the feudal nobility was looking after its business. Since the crusades, trade and commodity production had been developing more and more. New needs for commodities were arising, which urban industry or urban merchants supplied for money. But the wealth of the feudal noble was based on the personal services or the contributions in kind of the dependent peasants. With him money was scarce. He tried to steal what he could not buy. Nevertheless, the State power became stronger and stronger. The feudal levies of the lower noble were confronted by the hired soldiers of the towns and the princes. Waylaying became impossible. The feudal lords attempted to extort money and goods from the peasants, and thereby drove them to desperation – witness the peasant wars – without gaining anything very important for themselves. Thus eventually the feudal lords gradually resolved to share in the new enjoyments, to become commodity producers like the townsmen, and to obtain money by producing agricultural products like wool, corn and so on for sale and not merely for their own consumption as hitherto.

This necessitated the extension of their agricultural business, the management of which was transferred to inspectors, intendants, or tenants, an extension which was only possible at the expense of the peasantry. The peasants transformed into serfs could now be detached, that is, driven from their native places, and their holdings could be united with the territory cultivated by the landlord. The common property of the villages, over which the feudal lords had the over-lordship, was transformed into the, private property of the latter, and the peasant was thereby economically ruined.

An agricultural commodity in particular request was wool, which was needed by the urban textile industry. But the extension of wool production signified the conversion of arable land into pasture land for sheep and the expulsion of numerous peasants from their holdings, by legal or illegal methods, by economic means or direct physical force.

In the same degree that the urban textile industry grew, the number of peasants expropriated and bereft of property also increased.

In addition, the noble disbanded his numerous retinue, which under the new conditions was not a source of power, but a cause of financial weakness, and eventually the influence of the Reformation was also favourable to capital, as not only were the inhabitants of the cloisters turned into proletarians, but the Church property was surrendered to speculators, who ejected the old, hereditary vassals.

By such means a large portion of the country population was divorced from the land, from their means of production, thereby creating that artificial “overpopulation,” that army of propertyless proletarians, who are obliged from day to day to sell their labour-power, which capital requires.

It was the feudal lords who in this way prepared the ground for capital, who supplied proletarians to agricultural as well as to urban capital, and at the same time left the field clear for country commodity production on a large scale, for capitalistic agriculture. The capitalistic character which agriculture has since borne in connection with large estates was not effaced, but only distorted, through the servitude which adhered to it.

It is so much the more comical when the great landlords to-day masquerade as that class which is fitted by Nature to be the protector of the worker from capital, and to be the restorer of harmony between the two.

A general vagabondage prevailed in Europe in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries as a consequence of the numerous expropriations of the peasantry. It threatened to overwhelm society, which endeavoured to protect itself therefrom by punishments of horrible cruelty, with whippings, brandings, cutting-off ears, and even with death.

Whilst, however, more workers were set free than capital could absorb, the supply of employable workers often remained short of the needs of capital. So long as the capitalist mode of production was still in the period of manufactures, it was dependent upon workers who had acquired a certain degree of skill in their detail operations. It was often years before such workers could acquire the necessary skill. The variable element of capital then predominated considerably over its constant element. Consequently, the demand for wage labour grew rapidly with every accumulation of capital, while the influx of employable wage labour proceeded but slowly. Moreover, the skilled workers were not only relatively rare and much sought after, but the traditions of handicraft were still very much alive in them. The journeyman was on a social level very near that of the master, and might even hope to become a master. The wage workers had self confidence, were proud and refractory; they could and would not submit to the discipline and eternal routine of capitalist industry. A “higher power” had to intervene, in order to create docile workers for capital.

Just as it did for the protection of property from vagabonds, or for promoting the transformation of common property into private property (which Marx exhibited in detail as far as England was concerned), so the State power also intervened when it was a question of habituating the workers to capitalist discipline. Strict ordinances fixed the maximum of wages, extended the working-day, and prohibited labour combinations.

How much all this corresponded to the spirit of the bourgeoisie then fighting for “freedom” was shown by the latter when it captured political power in the French Revolution; it then waged an embittered war against the vestiges of common property in land which had still survived in France, and strictly prohibited labour associations.

With the proletariat, however, capital found its home market. Formerly every peasant family itself produced what it needed, food and the products of domestic industry. Now it was otherwise. Food was now grown as a commodity on the large estates, which consisted of the communal property and the individual peasant holdings thrown together, and found its market in the industrial districts. The products of capitalistic industry – at this period those of manufacture – found a market among the wage workers engaged in industry and on the large estates, and among the peasants themselves. Frequently their plots of land became too small to sustain them, agriculture became a subsidiary employment for them, domestic industry for the purpose of home consumption was supplanted by a domestic industry which produced commodities for the capitalists, for the merchants; one of the most horrible, but profitable forms of capitalist exploitation.

We have seen how the proletariat and artificial over-population were created, rendering possible capitalist mode of production, which, on its part, reproduces the proletariat and the relative over-population on an ever increasing scale.

Whence, however, came the wealth centred in a few hands which was a further preliminary condition for the capitalist mode of production?

The Middle Ages took over from Antiquity two kinds of capital: usurer’s capital and merchant’s capital. Since the Crusades the commerce with the East had grown enormously, and with it merchant’s capital and its concentration within a few hands-we need only mention the Augsburg firm of Fugger, the German Rothschild of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

Usury and trade, however, were not the only sources from which the sums of money flowed, which after the fifteenth century were to be transformed to an ever-increasing extent into industrial capital. Marx has described in Capital the other sources thereof. We refer the reader for details to this exposition, which form the conclusion to the brilliant historical treatise upon “primitive accumulation.” Here we shall only reproduce in Marx’s own pregnant words a short summary of the various methods of this accumulation:

“The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins, signalised the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production. These idyllic proceedings are the chief moments of primitive accumulation. On their heels treads the commercial war of the European nations, with the globe for a theatre. It begins with the revolt of the Netherlands from Spain, assumes giant dimensions in England’s anti-Jacobin war, and is still going on in the opium warn against China, etc.

“The different moments of primitive accumulation distribute themselves now more or less in chronological order, particularly over Spain, Portugal, Holland, France, and England. In England at the end of the seventeenth century, they arrive at a systematical combination, embracing the colonies, the national debt, the modern mode of taxation, and the protectionist system. But they all employ the power of the State, the concentrated and organized force of society, to hasten, hothouse fashion, the process of transformation of the feudal mode of production into the capitalist mode, and to shorten the transition. Force is the midwife of every old society pregnant with a new one. It is itself an economic power.”

The penultimate sentence of the passage quoted is very often cited, but generally torn from its context. Its interpretation is plain enough when it is considered in connection with what precedes it. Among the forces which served as the midwife of the capitalist mode of production was “the State power, the concentrated and organised power of society,” certainly not the power of the “State as such,” which is enthroned in the clouds above the class antagonisms, but the power of the State as the tool of a powerful and aspiring class.

The increasing proletarisation of the population, especially the peasantry, and the creation of the home market, on the one hand, and on the other, the accumulation and concentration of great wealth, and simultaneously, the creation of the foreign market, especially in consequence of the commercial wars and colonial policy – these were the preliminary conditions which, after the fifteenth century in Western Europe, combined to transform the whole of production more and more into commodity production, and simple commodity production into capitalist production. The scattered small businesses of the peasants and handicraftsmen were henceforth gradually destroyed and supplanted by large scale capitalist concerns.

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