PRIMARY ACCUMULATION: The expropriation whereby the countryfolk were divorced from the land
A new and terrible impetus was given to the forcible expropriation of the masses of the people during the sixteenth century by the Reformation and by its sequel, the pillaging of the ecclesiastical domains. At the time of the Reformation the Catholic Church, under feudal tenure, was the owner of a very large proportion of English soil. The suppression of the monasteries and the associated measures forced their inmates into the proletariat. The estates of the Church were, in large measure, given to rapacious royal favorites or were sold at ridiculous prices to speculative farmers and townsmen who hunted the copyholders off the land and compacted their holdings into large estates. The legally guaranteed right of impoverished countryfolk to a share of the tithes was tacitly confiscated.
"There are paupers everywhere!" exclaimed Queen Elizabeth after a journey through her kingdom. In the forty-third year of her reign it was at length found necessary to recognize pauperism officially by the levying of a poor rate . . . .
Ecclesiastical property had been the religious bulwark of the traditional system of land ownership. With the disappearance of the former the latter became untenable.
As late as the last decades of the seventeenth century the yeomanry, an independent peasantry, formed a more numerous class than the farmers. Yeomen had been the main strength of Cromwell's supporters, and, as even Macaulay admits, they contrasted favorably with the drunken country squires and the squires' servants, the country clergymen, who had to marry their masters' cast-off mistresses. By about 1750 the yeomen had disappeared; in the closing decades of the eighteenth century, the last traces of communal ownership of the land followed in their train. We are not concerned here with the purely economic causes of the agricultural revolution. Our present interest is in the forcible means which were used to bring about the change. . . .
The "glorious revolution" installed in power not only William of Orange but also the territorial and capitalist appropriators of surplus value. These gentry inaugurated the new era by a vast extension of the scale on which the robbery of State lands had hitherto been conducted. Domains were given away, sold at knock-down prices, or even annexed to private estates by direct usurpation. All this was done without the slightest regard for legal etiquette. The princely estates of the modern English oligarchy consist of the crown lands thus fraudulently appropriated, together with the stolen ecclesiastical domains (in so far as these were not lost once more during the republican revolution). Bourgeois capitalists facilitated the operation; their reasons for this were that they wanted land to become an ordinary article of commerce, wanted the field of large-scale agriculture to be extended, wanted the supply of masterless proletarians to be increased, and so on. Furthermore, the new landed aristocracy was the natural ally of the new bankocracy, of the recently-hatched high finance, and of the great industrialists (who at this time were ardent supporters of protective tariffs). . . .
The forcible seizure of the common lands, accompanied for the most part by the transformation of arable land into pasture, began in the fifteenth century and lasted on into the sixteenth. But at that time the process was effected by individual acts of violence against which the legislature fought, though vainly, for a hundred and fifty years. The advance made in the eighteenth century is shown in this, that the law itself now became the instrument by which the theft of the people's land was achieved, although the great farmers continued to apply their petty private methods in addition.
The parliamentary form of this robbery was to pass Acts for the enclosure of commons, decrees whereby the great landowners made a present to themselves of the people's land which thus became their own private property . . . .