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A history which is far from over (The War Against the Commons reviewed in ‘Counterfire’)

The War Against the Commons:
Dispossession and Resistance in the Making of Capitalism

by Ian Angus
$26.00 / 246 Pages / 978-1-68590-016-8

Reviewed by Elaine Graham-Leigh for Counterfire

In the space of less than four hundred years, from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries, the ruling class in England and Scotland managed to steal the land from the people. This was by a process of enclosure, in which wealthy landlords fenced off common land which had previously been available for the whole community to use. By the early nineteenth century, the progress of enclosure meant that the gentry and the aristocracy owned eighty percent of England’s farmland.

As E P Thompson summed it up, this was ‘a plain enough case of class robbery … a rupture of the traditional integument of village custom and of right’ which amounted to ‘the drastic, total imposition upon the village of capitalist property-definitions’ (p.114). Angus also quotes political economist Piercy Ravenstone, writing in 1821 on the nature of enclosure: ‘many millions of acres of land, which were virtually the property of the poor, have been converted in to property for the rich. The idle have in this, as in every other instance, been benefited at the expense of the industrious’ (p.157).

Perhaps the best-known examples of enclosure are the Highland Clearances of eighteenth and nineteenth-century Scotland. These saw the forced removal of entire Highland communities as landowners drove their people off their lands in favour of sheep farms. Enclosure in the Highlands led to ‘an unparalleled fall in population’ (p.138) as people were compelled to move to Scottish industrial cities like Glasgow, or to emigrate. The Clearances are one of the reasons why the Highlands of Scotland are today one of the most thinly populated regions in Europe.

Evictions in the Clearances, carried out by agents acting for the landowners, were often done in the most brutal way possible. On the Duchess of Sutherland’s estate, for example, a contemporary account relates how, when the inhabitants’ houses were pulled down with no warning, the Duchess’s factors immediately set fire to the wreckage so that the people wouldn’t be able to salvage any of their possessions. We’re told that ‘many deaths ensued from alarm, from fatigue, and cold; the people being instantly deprived of shelter, and left to the mercy of the elements’ (p.136).

Destroying the peasantry

The extent and brutality of the Clearances makes them stand out, but the malign effects of enclosure were not limited to the Scottish Highlands. People were not necessarily outright driven off their land in the way that they were in the Highlands, but everywhere, enclosing the common lands made life for remaining peasant smallholders difficult to impossible. The independent peasantry had relied on the common lands. With the commons captured by the local elite, they had nowhere to feed pigs, geese or poultry, nowhere from which to gather fuel or supplement their crops by fishing or hunting. For subsistence farmers, this could mean the difference between survival and indigence.

As Angus explains, conservative historians have tended to downplay the importance of enclosure. Economist E F Gay, for example, argued in the early twentieth century that sixteenth-century accounts of enclosure as ‘a menacing social evil’ were essentially exaggerated, the product ‘the excited sixteenth-century imagination’ (p.33). For the eighteenth century, others have argued that because we only have a few attempts to petition Parliament against enclosure, this means that most of the peasantry were, if not fine with it, at least indifferent to it.

Another strand of argument has it that even if the enclosure process was painful for the peasantry, it was a necessary evil. In this view, the agricultural revolution which transformed productivity in the early nineteenth century would not have been possible without enclosure. It may have been difficult for peasant smallholders at the time, but taking the long view, it was a small price to pay for modernity.

Angus points out, however, that since the 1970s, historians have been arguing that the open field farming practised before enclosure had equal potential for efficiency as farming in enclosed areas. Putting common agricultural land into the ownership of capitalist farmers does not automatically make it more productive; indeed, insecurity for smallholders can conceivably hold back agricultural improvements. Tenant farmers would have been less likely to spend money and time on improving the lands they farmed, if they felt that the only person likely to benefit from the improvements was their landlord.

Profit and capitalism

The argument that enclosure was necessary to improve food production falls down by conflating increases in production with increases in profits. As Angus shows, landowners’ aim in enclosing common lands was not to produce more food per se but to generate profit. What the landlords and capitalist farmers wanted ‘was not more food, but more land and more revenue’ (p.166). The enclosure movement is therefore tightly bound up with the development of capitalism and the emergence of the bourgeoisie.

That enclosure was a project specifically of the bourgeoisie explains the changing attitudes of governments to the process. Angus discusses how Tudor monarchs in the sixteenth century tried to limit enclosure, although not particularly successfully. In this, they were representing the old aristocratic interests in keeping mass peasant labour on the land, against those of the new bourgeoisie. The development in government attitudes to enclosure over the next two centuries depended on, and demonstrate, the extent to which that government had been captured by bourgeois interests.

Thus, the parliamentary victory in the English Civil War meant that parliament could remove any remaining feudal dues, but they did not move to prevent enclosure. Cromwell himself had spoken out before the civil war against the Fen drainage programme, which enclosed significant tracts of common resources in the east of England, but supported it when he was Protector. The completion of the bourgeois revolution with the accession of William III in the Glorious Revolution of 1688, meant that henceforward, there would be no question but that the government of the day was fully in support of enclosure.

In the sixteenth century, the monarchs and aristocratic interests were concerned about the socially disruptive effect of a dispossessed peasantry. This is demonstrated by a number of ferocious acts against vagrancy and unemployment. A 1547 act, for example, ordered that any vagrant who wouldn’t accept work would be branded and forced to work as a slave for two years. In 1563, the Statute of Artificers included the provision that no one could leave a job without written permission from their employer, with whipping as the punishment for anyone found to be lacking such permission.

In depriving peasants of their livelihoods, enclosure posed challenges for social control, which arguably were not completely overcome until the Industrial Revolution supplied alternatives to subsistence farming, and imperialism somewhere else for the surplus rural population to go. As Angus points out, a key difference between enclosure in England and lowland Scotland and enclosure in the Highlands is that the latter only happened once industrialisation was a present reality.

The process of enclosure was accompanied by the development of an ideology that defined an unwillingness to work for capitalist farmers, or indeed for capitalist factory owners, as laziness; as a moral problem to be overcome. Ruling classes are often prone to denounce those whom they are exploiting for not working hard enough. The enclosure ideology in this way was a development of medieval complaints about peasant disinclination to work to create a surplus for their lords once they had produced sufficient food to feed themselves. The difference here was that peasant land ownership was presented as the problem. When poor people owned their land, one encloser argued, ‘it operates upon their minds as a sort of independence; this idea leads the man to lose many days work, by which he gets a habit of indolence’ (p.178). Land ownership, of course, did not have this deleterious effect on bourgeois landowners.


In view of the large-scale theft of common land to which enclosure amounted, it would be more surprising if there had not been peasant resistance. Against the tendency of conservative historians to downplay the importance of enclosure and of resistance to it, Angus shows that peasants fought against enclosure from the very beginning. One of the earliest examples was Kett’s Rebellion in 1549, in which as many as 16,000 rebels against enclosure and other lordly abuses camped outside Norwich for six weeks and captured it twice. Angus is perhaps a little too dismissive of the history of medieval peasant rebellion on which Kett’s Rebellion can be legitimately seen as building, but he is clearly correct to argue for its significance in putting down a marker that the common lands were not going to be taken without a fight.

Resistance continued throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, with examples like the Midland Revolt of 1607, which involved many thousands of peasants across Northamptonshire, Warwickshire and Leicestershire tearing down fences, uprooting hedges and filling in ditches, the Western Rising of 1626-32, against the privatisation of royal forests, and the fight of the Fen Tigers against the drainage of the Fens. In the eighteenth century, some peasant communities did attempt to oppose enclosure by legal means, despite the disparities in resources between them and the bourgeois landowners. Others meanwhile took the law into their own hands by going ‘blacking’: organised poaching on royal forest land which, as E P Thompson argued in Whigs and Hunters amounted to a resistance movement against enclosure.

It could be objected, as E P Thompson himself was aware, that the organised poaching gangs were themselves engaged in capitalist production, poaching for profit, and that as Angus points out, it was ‘conducted with the violence that frequently characterizes capitalism’s illegal side’ (p.152). We don’t however have to adopt their contemporary characterisation as folk heroes to see the poachers as part of the fightback against enclosure. Indeed, they were something of a barometer, as poaching tended to increase in the years leading up to outbursts of social unrest.

The question of our attitude towards poaching gangs is part of a wider question of how Marxists should view peasant resistance to enclosure. It has been argued, for example by Silvia Federici, that Marx would be on the side of the enclosers, seeing enclosure as a necessary step to move from feudalism to capitalism and therefore on to socialism. The peasants had to become the proletariat and those resisting this process were simply reactionary. Angus has convincingly demolished this argument in a piece for Monthly Review on Marx and Engels’ attitudes to Russia’s peasant communes, helpfully appended here.

This is not to say of course that it is impossible to find examples of peasant resistance to enclosure which did lean towards support for reactionary elements of the ruling class, whether that is Highland support for the Jacobites or the tendency of Clubmen in the civil war to favour Royalists over the Parliamentarians. As Angus shows, however, the resisters against enclosure were often not so much arguing for a return to feudalism as they were calling for ‘a commons-based alternative to both feudalism and capitalism’ (p.59). They can be seen as part of the tradition of resistance to capitalism, rather than as a reactionary side-show.

Angus points out that all this is not only a matter of history. The commodification of agriculture is a current not just a historical issue. Capital’s war against the commons continues today in the Global South, as does resistance to it. The removal of the people from the land to work in industrial cities is also part of the mechanism which creates the metabolic rift, one of the reasons for capitalism’s inherent environmental destructiveness. The route to overcoming this does not lie in individuals or communities returning to an idealised communal past. As Angus says, this has been the expectation of utopian communal groups since the Diggers established themselves on St George’s Hill in 1649. Winstanley, in Christopher Hill’s words, ‘expected the state, in the Marxist phrase, to either away immediately’, but ‘experience was a hard teacher’ (p.84). The history of the war against the commons shows that it is not sufficient to attempt to withdraw from capitalism, but that we must organise to fight it.

Find the full review at Counterfire

The War against the Commons: Dispossession and Resistance in the Making of Capitalism

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