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Robbing the soil, 1: Commons and classes before capitalism

Originally published: Climate & Capitalism on August 1, 2021 (more by Climate & Capitalism)  |

Robbing the Soil is a new series of articles on capitalist agriculture, part of my continuing project on metabolic rifts. Your constructive comments, suggestions, and corrections will help me get it right. -IA


To live, humans must eat, and more than 90% of our food comes directly or indirectly from soil. As philosopher Wendell Berry says,

The soil is the great connector of lives… Without proper care for it we can have no community, because without proper care for it we can have no life.1

Preventing soil degradation and preserving soil fertility ought to be a global priority, but it isn’t. According to the United Nations, a third of the world’s land is now severely degraded, and we lose 24 billion tonnes of fertile soil every year. More than 1.3 billion people depend on food from degraded or degrading agricultural land.2 Even in the richest countries, almost all food production depends on massive applications of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides that further degrade the soil and poison the environment.

In Karl Marx’s words, “a rational agriculture is incompatible with the capitalist system.”3 To understand why that is, we need to understand how capitalist agriculture emerged from a very different system.


For almost all of human history, almost all of us lived and worked on the land. Today, most of us live in cities.

It is hard to overstate how radical that change is, or how quickly it happened. Two hundred years ago, 90% of the world’s population was rural. Britain became the world’s first majority-urban country in 1851. As recently as 1960, two-thirds of the world’s people still lived in rural areas. Now it’s less than half, and only half of those are farmers.

Between the decline of feudalism and the rise of industrial capitalism, rural society was transformed by the complex of processes that are collectively known as enclosure. The separation of most people from the land, and the concentration of land ownership in the hands of a tiny minority, were revolutionary changes in the ways that humans lived and work. It happened in different ways and at different times in different parts of the world, and is still going on today.

Our starting point is England, where what Marx labelled “so-called primitive accumulation” first occurred.

Common Fields, Common Rights

In medieval and early-modern England, most people were poor, but they were also self-provisioning–they obtained their essential needs directly from the land, which was a common resource, not private property as we understand the concept.

No one actually knows when or how English common farming systems began. Most likely they were brought to England by Anglo-Saxon settlers after Roman rule ended. What we know for sure is that common field agriculture was widespread, in various forms, when English feudalism was at its peak in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.

The land itself was held by landlords, directly or indirectly from the king. A minor gentry family might hold and live on just one manor–roughly equivalent to a township–while a top aristocrat, bishop or monastery could hold dozens. The people who actually worked the land, often including a mix of unfree serfs and free peasants, paid rent and other fees in labor, produce or (later) cash, and had, in addition to the use of arable land, a variety of legal and traditional rights to use the manor’s resources, such as  grazing animals on common pasture, gathering firewood, berries and nuts in the manor forest, and collecting (gleaning) grain that remained in the fields after harvest.

Common rights were managed, divided, and redivided by the communities. These rights were predicated on maintaining relations and activities that contributed to the collective reproduction. No feudal lord had rights to the land exclusive of such customary rights of the commoners. Nor did they have the right to seize or engross the common fields as their own domain.4

Field systems varied a great deal, but usually a manor or township included both the landlord’s farm (demesne) and land that was farmed by tenants who had life-long rights to use it. Most accounts only discuss open field systems, in which each tenant cultivated multiple strips of land that were scattered through the arable fields so no one family had all the best soil, but there were other arrangements. In parts of southwestern England and Scotland, for example, farms on common arable land were often compact, not in strips, and were periodically redistributed among members of the commons community. This was called runrig; a similar arrangement in Ireland was called rundale.

Most manors also had shared pasture for feeding cattle, sheep and other animals, and in some cases forest, wetlands and waterways.

Though cooperative, these were not communities of equals. Originally, all of the holdings may have been about the same size but in time considerable economic differentiation took place.5 A few well-to-do tenants held land that produced enough to sell in local markets; others (probably a majority in most villages) had enough land to sustain their families with a small surplus in good years; others with much less land probably worked part-time for their better-off neighbors or for the landlord.

We can see this stratification right across the English counties in Domesday Book of 1086, where at least one-third of the peasant population were smallholders. By the end of the thirteenth century this proportion, in parts of southeastern England, was over a half.6

As Marxist historian Rodney Hilton explains, the economic differences among medieval peasants were not yet class differences. “Poor smallholders and richer peasants were, in spite of the differences in their incomes, still part of the same social group, with a similar style of life, and differed from one to the other in the abundance rather than the quality of their possessions.”7 It wasn’t until after the dissolution of feudalism in the fifteenth century that a layer of capitalist farmers developed.


If we were to believe an influential article published in 1968, commons-based agriculture ought to have disappeared shortly after it was born. In “The Tragedy of the Commons,” Garrett Hardin argued that commoners would inevitably overuse resources, causing ecological collapse. In particular, in order to maximize his income, “each herdsman will try to keep as many cattle as possible on the commons,” until overgrazing destroys the pasture, and it supports no animals at all.

Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.8

Since its publication in 1968, Hardin’s account has been widely adopted by academics and policy makers, and used to justify stealing indigenous peoples’ lands, privatizing health care and other social services, giving corporations ‘tradable permits’ to pollute the air and water, and more. Remarkably, few of those who have accepted Hardin’s views as authoritative notice that he provided no evidence to support his sweeping conclusions. He claimed that “tragedy” was inevitable, but he didn’t show that it had happened even once.9

Scholars who have actually studied commons-based agriculture have drawn very different conclusions.

What existed in fact was not a ‘tragedy of the commons’ but rather a triumph: that for hundreds of years–and perhaps thousands, although written records do not exist to prove the longer era–land was managed successfully by communities.10

The most important account of how common-field agriculture in England actually worked is Jeanette Neeson’s award-winning book, Commoners: Common Right, Enclosure and Social Change in England, 1700-1820. Her study of surviving manorial records from the 1700s showed that the common-field villagers, who met two or three times a year to decide matters of common interest, were fully aware of the need to regulate the metabolism between livestock, crops and soil.

The effective regulation of common pasture was as significant for productivity levels as the introduction of fodder crops and the turning of tilled land back to pasture, perhaps more significant. Careful control allowed livestock numbers to grow, and, with them, the production of manure… Field orders make it very clear that common-field villagers tried both to maintain the value of common of pasture and also to feed the land.11

Village meetings selected “juries” of experienced farmers to investigate problems, and introduce permanent or temporary by-laws. Particular attention was paid to “stints”–limits on the number of animals allowed on the pasture, waste, and other common land.

Introducing a stint protected the common by ensuring that it remained large enough to accommodate the number of beasts the tenants were entitled to. It also protected lesser commoners from the commercial activities of graziers and butchers.12

Juries also set rules for moving sheep around to ensure even distribution of manure, and organized the planting of turnips and other fodder plants in fallow fields, so that more animals could be fed and more manure produced. The jury in one of the manors that Neeson studied allowed tenants to pasture additional sheep if they sowed clover on their arable land–long before scientists discovered nitrogen and nitrogen-fixing, these farmers knew that clover enriched the soil.13

And, given present-day concerns about the spread of disease in large animal feeding facilities, it is instructive to learn that eighteenth century commoners adopted regulations to isolate sick animals, stop hogs from fouling horse ponds, and prevent outside horses and cows from mixing with the villagers’ herds. There were also strict controls on when bulls and rams could enter the commons for breeding, and juries “carefully regulated or forbade entry to the commons of inferior animals capable of inseminating sheep, cows or horses.”14

Neeson concludes,

The common-field system was an effective, flexible and proven way to organize village agriculture. The common pastures were well governed, the value of a common right was well maintained.15

Commons-based agriculture survived for centuries precisely because it was organized and managed democratically by people who were intimately involved with the land, the crops and the community. Although it was not an egalitarian society, in some ways it prefigured what Karl Marx, referring to a socialist future, described as “the associated producers, govern[ing] the human metabolism with nature in a rational way.”16

Class Struggles

That’s not to say that agrarian society was tension free. There were almost constant struggles over how the wealth that peasants produced was distributed in the social hierarchy. The nobility and other landlords sought higher rents, lower taxes and limits on the king’s powers, while peasants resisted landlord encroachments on their rights, and fought for lower rents. Most such conflicts were resolved by negotiation or appeals to courts, but some led to pitched battles, as they did in 1215 when the barons forced King John to sign Magna Carta, and in 1381 when thousands of peasants marched on London to demand an end to serfdom and the execution of unpopular officials.

Historians have long debated the causes of feudalism’s decline: I won’t attempt to resolve or even summarize those complex discussions here.17 Suffice it to say that by the early 1400s in England, the feudal aristocracy was much weakened. Peasant resistance had effectively ended hereditary serfdom and forced landlords to replace labor-service with fixed rents, while leaving common field agriculture and many common rights in place. Marx described the 1400s and early 1500s, when peasants in England were winning greater freedom and lower rents, as “a golden age for labor in the process of becoming emancipated.”18

But that was also a period when longstanding economic divisions within the peasantry were increasing. W.G. Hoskins described the process in his classic history of life in a Midland village.

During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries there emerged at Wigston what may be called a peasant aristocracy, or, if this is too strong a phrase as yet, a class of capitalist peasants who owned substantially larger farms and capital resources than the general run of village farmers. This process was going on all over the Midlands during these years…19

Capitalist peasants were a small minority. Agricultural historian Mark Overton estimates that “in the early sixteenth century, around 80 per cent of farmers were only growing enough food for the needs of their family household.” Of the remaining 20%, only a few were actual capitalists who employed laborers and accumulated ever more land and wealth. Nevertheless, by the 1500s two very different approaches to the land co-existed in many commons communities.

The attitudes and behavior of farmers producing exclusively for their own needs were very different from those farmers trying to make a profit. They valued their produce in terms of what use it was to them rather than for its value for exchange in the market… Larger, profit orientated, farmers were still constrained by soils and climate, and by local customs and traditions, but also had an eye to the market as to which crop and livestock combinations would make them most money.20

As we’ll see, that division eventually led to the overthrow of the commons.

Primitive Accumulation

For Marx, the key to understanding the long transition from agrarian feudalism to industrial capitalism was “the process which divorces the worker from the ownership of the conditions of his own labor,” which itself involved “two transformations… the social means of subsistence and production are turned into capital, and the immediate producers are turned into wage-laborers.”21

Nature does not produce on the one hand owners of money or commodities, and on the other hand men possessing nothing but their own labor-power. This relation has no basis in natural history, nor does it have a social basis common to all periods of human history. It is clearly the result of a past historical development, the product of many economic revolutions, of the extinction of a whole series of older formations of social production.22

A decade before Capital was published, Marx summarized that historical development in an early draft.

It is… precisely in the development of landed property that the gradual victory and formation of capital can be studied… The history of landed property, which would demonstrate the gradual transformation of the feudal landlord into the landowner, of the hereditary, semi-tributary and often unfree tenant for life into the modern farmer, and of the resident serfs, bondsmen and villeins who belonged to the property into agricultural day laborers, would indeed be the history of the formation of modern capital.23

In Section VIII of Capital Volume 1, titled “The So-Called Primitive Accumulation of Capital,” he expanded that paragraph into a powerful and moving account of the historical process by which the dispossession of peasants created the working class, while the land they had worked for millennia became the capitalist wealth that exploited them. It is the most explicitly historical part of Capital, and by far the most readable. No one before Marx had researched the subject so thoroughly–Harry Magdoff once commented that on re-reading it, he was immediately impressed by the depth of Marx’s scholarship, by “the amount of sheer digging, hard work, and enormous energy in the accumulated facts that show up in his sentences.”24

Since Marx wrote Capital, historians have published a vast amount of research on the history of English agriculture and land tenure–so much that a few decades ago, it was fashionable for academic historians to claim that Marx got it all wrong, that the privatization of common land was a beneficial process for all concerned. That view has little support today. Of course it would be very surprising if subsequent research didn’t contradict Marx in some ways, but while his account requires some modification, especially in regard to regional differences and the tempo of change, Marx’s history and analysis of the commons remains essential reading.25


The next installment in this series will discuss how, in two great waves of social change, landlords and capitalist farmers “conquered the field for capitalist agriculture, incorporated the soil into capital, and created for the urban industries the necessary supplies of free and rightless proletarians.”26

To be continued ….


  1. Wendell Berry, Wendell Berry: Essays 1969-1990, ed. Jack Shoemaker (Library of America, 2019), 317.
  2. www.unccd.int
  3. Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, trans. David Fernbach, vol. 3, (Penguin Books, 1981), 216
  4. John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark, and Hannah Holleman, “Marx and the Commons,” Social Research(Spring 2021), 2-3.
  5. See “Reasons for Inequality Among Medieval Peasants,” in Rodney Hilton, Class Conflict and the Crisis of Feudalism: Essays in Medieval Social History (Hambledon Press, 1985), 139-151.
  6. Rodney Hilton, Bond Men Made Free: Medieval Peasant Movements and the English Rising of 1381(Routledge, 2003 [1973]), 32.
  7. Rodney Hilton, Bond Men Made Free, 34.
  8. Garrett Hardin, The Tragedy of the Commons, Science, December 13, 1968.
  9. Ian Angus, The Myth of the Tragedy of the Commons, Climate & Capitalism, August 25, 2008; Ian Angus, Once Again: ‘The Myth of the Tragedy of the Commons’, Climate & Capitalism, November 3, 2008.
  10. Susan Jane Buck Cox, No Tragedy of the Commons, Environmental Ethics 7, no. 1 (1985), 60.
  11. J. M. Neeson, Commoners: Common Right, Enclosure and Social Change in England, 1700-1820(Cambridge University Press, 1993), 113.
  12. J. M. Neeson, Commoners, 117.
  13. J. M. Neeson, Commoners, 118-20.
  14. J. M. Neeson, Commoners, 132.
  15. J. M. Neeson, Commoners, 157.
  16. Karl Marx, Capital Volume 3, trans. David Fernbach, (Penguin Books, 1981), 959.
  17. For an insightful summary and critique of the major positions in those debates, see Henry Heller, The Birth of Capitalism: A Twenty-First Century Perspective (Pluto Press, 2011).
  18. Karl Marx, Grundrisse, trans. Martin Nicolaus (Penguin Books, 1973), 510.
  19. W. G. Hoskins, The Midland Peasant: The Economic and Social History of a Leicestershire Village(Macmillan., 1965), 141.
  20. Mark Overton, Agricultural Revolution in England: The Transformation of the Agrarian Economy, 1500-1850 (Cambridge University Press, 1996), 8, 21.
  21. Karl Marx, Capital Volume, 1, 874.
  22. Karl Marx, Capital Volume 1, 273.
  23. Karl Marx, Grundrisse, 252-3.
  24. Harry Magdoff, “Primitive Accumulation and Imperialism,” Monthly Review (October 2013), 14.
  25. “The So-Called Primitive Accumulation”–Chapters 26 through 33 of Capital Volume 1–can be read on the Marxist Internet Archive, beginning here. The somewhat better translation by Ben Fowkes occupies pages 873 to 940 of the Penguin edition.
  26. Karl Marx, Capital Volume 1, 895.