Graphic Witness: Hugo Gellert
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Hugo Gellert: Karl Marx' 'Capital' in Lithographs

The expropriation whereby the countryfolk were divorced from the land [1 of 4]

PRIMARY ACCUMULATION: The expropriation whereby the countryfolk were divorced from the land

In England serfdom had practically disappeared by the latter part of the fourteenth century. Then, and to a still greater extent in the fifteenth century, the great majority of the population consisted of free peasant proprietors--no matter what may have been the feudal title under which their proprietary right was masked. In the larger seigneurial domains the former bailiff, himself a serf, was replaced by a free farmer. The agricultural laborers, wage earners, consisted, in part, of peasants who devoted their leisure time to work on the estates of the great landowners, and, in part, of an independent class of real wage earners which was small in number both relatively and absolutely. Even the members of this class of wage earners were, in fact, also independent peasants, inasmuch as, besides their wages, they were given cottages and arable land to the extent of four acres or more. Like the peasants properly so-called, they had the usufruct of the common land, on which they pastured their cattle, and from which, likewise, they obtained fuel, wood, peat, etc. . . .

The prelude to the revolution which laid the foundations of the capitalist method of production occurred during the last third of the fifteenth century and the first decades of the sixteenth. Great numbers of masterless proletarians were thrown into the labor market by the break-up of the bands of feudal retainers. . . .Although the royal power (itself a product of bourgeois development), in its endeavor to make sovereignty absolute, forcibly hastened the break-up of these bands, this was by no means the only cause of the phenomenon. What happened was that the great feudal lords, in defiant opposition to king and parliament, created a still larger, a much larger, proletariat by forcibly hunting the peasant off the land (although the peasant had the same feudal title as the baron himself), and by usurpation of the common lands.

The immediate impetus to this was given in England by the rise of Flemish wool manufacture and the corresponding increase in the price of wool. The great feudal wars had destroyed the old feudal nobility, and the new nobles were children of their own age to whom money was the power of all powers. Their motto was the transformation of arable land into sheep-walks. . . .

The legislative authorities were terrified by the spectacle of this revolution. They had not yet reached that pinnacle of civilization from which the "wealth of nations," that is to say, the formation of capital and the ruthless exploitation and impoverishment of the masses of the people is regarded as the last word of statesmanlike wisdom. . . .Popular complaints, and the legislation against the expropriation of the small farmers and the peasants (legislation which went on for a century and a half), were fruitless. Bacon unwittingly solves the riddle of the failure. In the twenty-ninth of his Essays he writes: "The device of King Henry VII was profound and admirable: in making farms and houses of husbandry of a standard; that is, maintained with such a proportion of land unto them as may breed a subject to live in convenient plenty, and no servile condition, and to keep the plough in the hands of the owners, and not mere hirelings." What the capitalist system required, on the other hand, was that the masses should be in a servile condition, should become the hirelings of capital; and that their means of labor should be transformed into capital. . . . Even in the first half of the eighteenth century there were complaints when an agricultural laborer's cottage was without an appurtenance of from one to two acres. To-day the cottager is fortunate if his cottage has a tiny plot of garden, or if he can rent one or two roods at a considerable distance from his dwelling. "Landlords and farmers," says Dr. Hunter, "work here hand-in-hand. A few acres to the cottage would make the laborers too independent."