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Dispossessed: Origins of the Working Class

Originally published: Climate & Capitalism on December 12, 2021 (more by Climate & Capitalism)  |

Articles in this series:

  1. Commons and classes before capitalism
  2. ‘Systematic theft of communal property’
  3. Against Enclosure: The Commonwealth Men
  4. Dispossessed: Origins of the Working Class

Who built the seven gates of Thebes?
The books are filled with names of kings.
Was it the kings who hauled the craggy blocks of stone?

—Bertolt Brecht, “A Worker Reads History

Much academic debate about the origin of capitalism has actually been about the origin of capitalists. Were they originally aristocrats, or gentry, or merchants, or successful farmers? Far less attention has been paid to Brecht’s penetrating question: who did the actual work?

The answer is simple and of world-historic importance. Capitalism depends on the availability of large numbers of non-capitalists, people who are, as Marx said, “free in the double sense.” Free to work for others because they are not legally tied to a landlord or master, and free to starve if they don’t sell their labor-power, because they own no land or other means of production. “The possessor of labor-power, instead of being able to sell commodities in which his labor has been objectified … [is] compelled to offer for sale as a commodity that very labor-power which exists only in his living body.”1

This article outlines some key experiences of the first great wave of commoners who were separated from the land in England in the 1500s and 1600s.

Some commoners went directly from following a plough to full-time wage-labor, but many, perhaps most, tried to avoid proletarianization. Christopher Hill has shown that “acceptance of wage labor was the last resort open to those who had lost their land, but many regarded it as little better than slavery.”2 Not only were wages low and working conditions abysmal, but the very idea of being subject to a boss and working under wage-discipline was universally detested. “Wage-laborers were deemed inferior in status to those who held the most minute fragment of land to farm for themselves,” so “men fought desperately to avoid the abyss of wage-labor.… The apotheosis of freedom was the stultifying drudgery of those who had become cogs in someone else’s machine.”3

The social order that capital’s apologists defend as inevitable and eternal is “the product of many economic revolutions, of the extinction of a whole series of older formations of social production.”4 Acceptance of the wages-system as a natural way to live and work did not happen easily.

The Dispossessed

Some people worked for wages in feudal society, but it wasn’t until feudalism disintegrated that the long-term growth of a property-less wage-working class began. It developed, directly and indirectly, from the destruction of the commons.

As we saw in Part One, there was significant economic differentiation in English villages long before the rise of capitalism. By the 1400s, in most communities there was a clear division between those whose farms were large enough to sustain their families and produce a surplus for the market, and the smallholders and cottagers who had to work full- or part-time for their better-off neighbors or the landlord.

Between the two groups was a surprisingly large category known as servants in husbandry–young people who lived with farm families to gain experience, until they could save enough to rent land and marry. They lived and ate with the farmer’s family, often had the right to keep a few sheep or other animals, and usually received a small annual cash payment. “Between one-third and one-half of hired labor in early modern agriculture was supplied by servants in husbandry, and most early modern youths in rural England were servants in husbandry.” At any time until about 1800, some 60 percent of men and women aged 15 to 24 were living-in as farm servants.5

In class terms, servants in husbandry were a transitional and temporary category, similar to apprentices or college students today. “Servants did not understand themselves, and were not understood by early modern society, to be part of a laboring class, youthful proletarians.”6 I stress that because many authors have interpreted a late seventeenth century estimate that more than half the population were servants to mean that most people were wage-laborers. In fact, most servants could best be described as peasants-in-training. A substantial layer of people who had to sell their labor-power did exist in the late 1600s, but they were still a minority of the population.

In the 1400s and early 1500s, most enclosures involved the physical eviction of many tenants, often entire villages. After about 1550, it was more usual for landlords to negotiate with their larger tenants to create bigger farms by dividing up the commons and undeveloped land. “It became typical for wealthier tenants to be offered compensation for the loss of common rights, while the landless poor, whose common rights were often much harder to sustain at law, gained little or nothing in return.”7

Loss of common rights was catastrophic for smallholders and cottagers. The milk and cheese from two cows could generate as much income as full-time farm labor, and their manure was fuel for the cottage or fertilizer for a garden. None of that was possible without access to pasture. Jane Humphries has shown that, before enclosure, in families where the men worked as day-laborers, the women and children worked on the commons, caring for animals, cutting turf and gathering wood for fuel and building, gathering berries, nuts and other wild foods, and gleaning leftover grain after harvest. “Since women and children were the primary exploiters of common rights, their loss led to changes in women’s economic position within the family and more generally to increased dependence of whole families on wages and wage earners.”8

At the same time, England was experiencing a baby boom–between 1520 and 1640, the population more than doubled, from about 2.4 million to over 5 million. That was still about a million fewer people than in the 1300s, before the Black Death, but the system that formerly fed 6 million people no longer existed. Population growth, rising rents, and the trend towards much larger farms were making it impossible for the poor to live on the land. It’s estimated that the proportion of agriculture laborers who had no more than a cottage and garden jumped from 11 percent in 1560 to 40 percent after 1620.9

Forced Labor

Turning the dispossessed peasants of Tudor and Stuart England into reliable wage workers required not just economic pressure but state compulsion. “Throughout this period compulsion to labor stood in the background of the labor market. Tudor legislation provided compulsory work for the unemployed as well as making unemployment an offence punishable with characteristic brutality.”10

The most comprehensive of those laws was the 1563 Statute of Artificers. Among its provisions:

  • Unemployed men and women from 12 to 60 years old could be compelled to work on any farm that would hire them.
  • Wages and hours for all types of work were set by local justices, who were drawn from the employing class. Anyone who offered or accepted higher wages was imprisoned.
  • No one could leave a job without written permission from the employer; an unemployed worker without the required letter could be imprisoned and whipped.

The pioneering economic historian Thorold Rogers described the 1563 Statute as “the most powerful instrument ever devised for degrading and impoverishing the English worker.”11 R.H. Tawney compared its provisions to serfdom: “the wage-laborer … can hardly have seen much difference between the restrictions on his movement imposed by the Justices of the Peace and those laid on him by the manorial authorities, except indeed that the latter, being limited to the area of a single village, had been more easy to evade.”12

But no matter what the law said, there were often more workers than paying jobs, so many hit the roads in search of work. Such “masterless men” frightened the country’s rulers even more than the unemployed who stayed home. Tudor authorities didn’t recognize any such thing as structural unemployment–able-bodied people without land or masters were obviously lazy idlers who had chosen not to work and were a threat to social peace. Like most governments then and now, they attacked symptoms, not causes, passing law after law to force “vagrants, vagabonds, beggars and rogues” to return to their home parishes and work.

A particularly vicious law, enacted in 1547, ordered that any vagrant who refused to accept any work offered be branded with a red-hot iron and literally enslaved for two years. His master was authorized to feed him on bread and water, put iron rings around his neck and legs, and “cause the said slave to work by beating, chaining or otherwise in such work and labor how vile so ever it be.”13 Vagabonds’ children could be taken from their parents and apprenticed to anyone who would have them until they were 20 (girls) or 24 (boys).

Other vagrancy laws prescribed whipping through the streets until bloody and death for repeat offenders. In 1576, every county was ordered to build houses of correction and incarcerate anyone who refused to work at whatever wages and conditions were offered.

As Marx wrote in Capital, “Thus were the agricultural folk first forcibly expropriated from the soil, driven from their homes, turned into vagabonds, then whipped, branded and tortured by grotesquely terroristic laws into accepting the discipline necessary for the system of wage labor.”14

Migration and emigration

Much of England was still unenclosed and sparsely populated, so rather than live as landless laborers, many families travelled in search of available farm land.

“This surplus population moved from the more overcrowded areas to the regions of fen and marsh, heath and forest; moor and mountain, where there were extensive commons still, on which a cottager with a little or no land could make a living from the rights of common, by which he could pasture some animals on the common and take fuel and building materials; where there were still unoccupied waste lands, on which the poor could squat in little cabins and carve out small farms for themselves; and where there were industrial by-employments by which a cottager or small farmer could supplement his income. By this migration and from these resources of common rights, wastelands and industry, the small peasant survived and poor or landless peasants were saved from. decline into wage-laborers or paupers.”15

But the largest number of migrants left England entirely, mostly for North America, or the Caribbean. Net emigration in the century before 1640 was close to 600,000, and another 400,000 left by the end of the century–extraordinarily large numbers from a country whose mid-1600s population was barely 5 million. What’s more, those are net figures–many more left, but their numbers were partially offset by immigrants from Scotland, Wales, Ireland and continental Europe.16

Most of the emigrants were young men, and about half paid for the dangerous ocean crossing by agreeing to be indentured servants for four or more years. That was a high price, but hundreds of thousands of landless peasants were willing to pay it. (For some it was not a choice: English courts frequently sentenced vagrants and other criminals to overseas indentured servitude.)

Labor in the Metropolis

For many of the dispossessed, establishing new farms in England or overseas was not possible or, perhaps, desirable. The alternative was paid employment, and that was most easily found–they hoped–in London.

“Whereas the population of England less than doubled from 3.0 million to 5.1 million between 1550 and 1700, London quadrupled from 120,000 to 490,000”–making it home to nearly 10% of the national population.17 London normally had a high mortality rate, and repeated outbreaks of plague killed tens of thousands, so that growth could only have occurred if about 10,000 people moved there every year. Living conditions were terrible, but wages were higher than anywhere else, and hundreds of thousands of landless workers saw it as their best hope.

Most histories of the city emphasize its role as a hub of global trade and empire. As Brian Dietz comments,

historians by and large hesitate to associate London with manufacturing. An industrial image somehow seems inappropriate.18

That’s understandable if “London” means only the walled capital-c City and the immediately surrounding parishes, where rich merchants lived and worked, and where guilds formed in medieval times still controlled most economic activity, but London was more than that. Most migrants lived in the eastern suburbs, which grew an astonishing 1400 percent between 1560 and 1680. In those suburbs, and south of the Thames, there were so many industrial operations that historian A.L. Beier describes the metropolis as an “engine of manufacture.” There were “water and corn mills on the rivers Lea and Thames; wharves and docks for repairing and fitting out ships between Shadwell and Limehouse; as well as lime-burning, brewing, bell-founding, brick and tile manufacture, wood- and metal-working.”19

In the metropolis as a whole, industry was more important than commerce. Few records of the size and organization of industries have survived, but it appears from burial records that in the 1600s, about 40 percent of the people in the metropolis worked mainly in manufacturing, particularly clothing, building, metalwork and leather work. Another 36 percent worked primarily in retail.20

Despite the growth of industry, few workers in London or elsewhere found long-term or secure jobs. Most wage-workers never experienced steady work or earned predictable incomes.

“Continuity in employment was not to be expected save among a minority of exceptionally skilled and valued employees. Most workers were engaged for the duration of a particular job, or in the case of seamen for a ‘run’ or voyage, while general labor was usually hired on a daily basis. The bulk of the laboring population, both male and female, therefore constituted a large pool of partially employed labor, which was drawn upon selectively as need arose.… For some, periods of fairly regular employment were punctuated by lengthy bouts of idleness. For others, days of work were scattered intermittently across the year.…21

London was by far the largest manufacturing center in England, but migrant workers played key roles in industrial growth in smaller cities as well. Among others, Coventry (population 7,000) attracted spinners, weavers, and cloth finishers, and Birmingham (population 5,000) was an important center for cutlery and nail manufacture.22

Working at Sea

Many peasants who lived near coasts supplemented their diet and income by occasional fishing. For some landless workers, that became a full-time occupation.

In previous articles I discussed the Fishing Revolution–“the development and growth of intensive fishing in the North Sea and northwestern Atlantic Ocean in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.” Thousands of workers travelled to distant fishing grounds, where they worked for six or more months a year, catching, processing and preserving herring and cod. The Newfoundland fishery alone used more ships and required more workers than the more famous Spanish treasure fleet that carried silver from Central and South America. The offshore bank-ships and onshore fishing-rooms were factories, long before the industrial revolution, and the men who worked in them were among the first proletarians of the capitalist epoch.

In the 1600s, English ships and fishworkers became a dominant force in North Atlantic fishing. “The success of the North Sea and Newfoundland fisheries depended on merchants who had capital to invest in ships and other means of production, fishworkers who had to sell their labor power in order to live, and a production system based on a planned division of labor.”23

The growth of long-distance fishing prefigured and contributed to the growth of a larger maritime working class. Mainstream economic histories of 16th and 17th century England usually discuss the merchant companies that financed and organized trade with Russia, Scandinavia, the Ottoman Empire, India and Africa, but few have much to say about the seamen whose labor made their trading voyages possible.

Fortunately, historians Marcus Rediker and Peter Linebaugh have been remedying that neglect. In Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea and The Many-Headed Hydra, they document the growth of a working class on merchant and naval ships–“a setting in which large numbers of workers cooperated on complex and synchronized tasks, under slavish, hierarchical discipline in which human will was subordinated to mechanical equipment, all for a money wage. The work, cooperation and discipline of the ship made it a prototype of the factory.”24

The capital that merchants invested in long-distance trade “necessarily set massive amounts of free wage labor in motion.”

In the mid-sixteenth century, between 3,000 and 5,000 Englishmen plied the waves. But by 1750, after two centuries of intensive development, their number had ballooned to more than 60,000. Merchant shipping mobilized huge masses of men for shipboard labor. These workers entered new relationships both to capital–as one of the first generations of free waged laborers–and to each other–as collective laborers.… These cooperating hands did not own the tools or materials of production, and consequently they sold their skill and muscle in an international market for monetary wages. They were an absolutely indispensable part of the rise and growth of North Atlantic capitalism.25

The Elizabethan Leap

Despite migration and emigration, England’s rural population grew substantially in the 15th and 16th centuries. The growth was accompanied by restructuring–the beginning of a long-term economic transition, away from farming to rural industry.

The rural population wholly engaged in agriculture fell from 76 per cent in 1520 to 70 per cent in 1600, and 60.5 per cent in·1670. The ‘rural non-agricultural population,’ a category which includes the inhabitants of small towns a well as those of industrial villages, rose from 18.5 per cent in 1520 to 22 per cent in 1600, and 26 per cent by 1670.26

Old rural industries prospered and new ones emerged as a result of what Marxist historian Andreas Malm calls the Elizabethan leap–the spectacular growth in the production of coal for both industrial and domestic use, replacing wood and charcoal. “The years around 1560 marked the onset of a virtual coal fever, all major fields soon undergoing extensive development; over the coming century and a half, national output probably soared more than tenfold.”27 There were substantial coal mines in south Wales and Scotland, but the largest collieries were financed by groups of merchants and landowners in northeast England. Shipments down the east coast, from Newcastle to the fast-growing London market, rose from 50,000 tons a year in 1580 to 300,000 tons in 1640.

“Large specialist workforces with an elaborate division of labor were employed in sinking, timbering and draining pits, the hewing, dragging, winding and sorting of coal and its transportation to riverside staithes, where it was stored ready for shipment downriver in keelboats to meet the collier fleets at the mouths of the Tyne and Wear.…

“The overall growth of the industry meant that by 1650 coal was Britain’s principal source of fuel, not only for domestic heating, but also for the smithies, forges, lime kilns, salt pans, breweries, soapworks, sugar refineries, dyeing vats, brick kilns and numerous other industrial processes which consumed perhaps a third of total output.”28

By 1640, the English coal industry was producing three to four times as much coal as all of the rest of Europe combined, and employed more workers than all other kinds of English mining combined.29 Some 12,000 to 15,000 workers labored directly in coal mining, and more worked in transportation and distribution–“those who produced the coal were greatly outnumbered by the carters, waggonmen, keelmen, seamen, lightermen, heavers, and coalmen who handled it on its way from pithead to hearth.”30

Spinners and Weavers

The growth of coal mining and coal-based industries was impressive, but wool was by far the most important raw material, and clothmaking was the largest non-agricultural occupation.31 Until the late 1400s most raw wool was produced for export, mainly to cloth makers in Flanders, but by the mid-1500s, almost all of it was spun and woven in England. By 1700 English textile production had increased more than 500 percent, and cloth accounted for at least 80 percent of the country’s exports.

For centuries, cloth had been made by individual artisans for family use and for sale in local markets, but in the 1500s production came under the control of clothiers who delivered large quantities of wool to spinners, then collected the thread and delivered it to weavers. They specified what kinds of thread and cloth should be made, and shipped the product to the London merchants who controlled trade with Europe.

Clothmaking involved multiple tasks, including shearing, sorting and cleaning the raw wool, separating and organizing the fibers by combing or carding, dyeing, spinning, and weaving. Spinning, done almost exclusively by women, was the most time-consuming and employed the most workers.

The importance of women in spinning is illustrated by the fact that in the 1500s, the word spinster came to mean a single woman, and distaff (the staff that held wool or flax during spinning) referred to the female side of a family line.

Working backward from the amount of cloth produced for export and domestic use, historian Craig Muldew estimates that at least 225,000 women worked as spinners in 1590, 342,000 in 1640, and 496,000 in 1700. These estimates assume that all the spinning was done by married women, who would have to do other household work as well. Some would have been done by single women, so the actual number of working spinners was probably somewhat smaller, but nevertheless, “spinning was by far the largest industrial occupation in early modern England.”32

Roughly speaking, it took ten spinners working full time to produce enough thread to keep one weaver and an assistant working full time. Weavers were almost all men: some were employed in workshops with a few other weavers, but most worked in their homes. By the early 1600s, it was not unusual for a single capitalist to employ hundreds of cottage workers, and some clothiers employed as many as a thousand, all paid on a piece-work basis. For capitalists, putting-out was an effective means of mobilizing many workers in a complex division of labor while retaining effective control and minimizing capital investment. Cottagers were a wonderfully flexible workforce, easily discarded when the market contracted, which it often did.

Some spinners and weavers were successful peasants who supplemented their income with part-time wage-labor, but a growing number received most of their income in wages, and topped that up with the produce of small plots of land and the commons. As Marxist historian Brian Manning points out, in the seventeenth century increasing numbers had no land–they were “were very poor at the best of times, but during the periodic depressions of trade and mass unemployment they came close to starving.”33 A class division was developing, between the peasantry and a rural proletariat.

The critical divide lay in the borderland in which small holders or ‘cottage-famers’ with a little land and common rights, but partly dependent on wages earned in agriculture or industry, shaded into landless cottagers wholly dependent on wages. In the background to the revolution the number of the latter was growing.34

In traditional handicraft production, the artisan purchased wool or flax from a farmer, decided what to make, and sold the finished product in a market or to an itinerant merchant. In the putting out system, a capitalist provided the raw material, dictated the type, quantity and quality of product to be produced, owned the product from beginning to end, and controlled payment. The producers were no longer independent artisans engaged in petty commodity production, they were employees in a system of capitalist manufacture.

A new class

As Marx wrote, a new class of wage-laborers was born in England when “great masses of men [were] suddenly and forcibly torn from their means of subsistence, and hurled onto the labor-market as free, unprotected and rightless proletarians.”35

With those words, and in his entire account of “so-called primitive accumulation,” Marx was describing the long arc of capitalist development, not an overnight change. It was sudden for those who lost their land, but the social transformation took centuries. In the early 1700s, two hundred years after Thomas More condemned enclosures and depopulation in Utopia, about a third of English farmland was still unenclosed, and most people still lived and worked on the land. It took another great wave of assaults on commons and commoners, after 1750, to complete the transition to industrial capitalism.

The century before the English revolution was a time of transition, a time when, to paraphrase Gramsci, the old order was dying while the new order was struggling to be born. An important part of that transition, as I have tried to show in this article, was the exclusion of uncounted commoners from the land, and the consequent birth of a new class of wage-laborers. None of the industries described here could have survived a day without them.

Over time, and with many detours and reverses, the dispossessed became proletarians.

Looking back, that transition appears inevitable, but it did not seem so to commoners at the time. They furiously resisted the privatizations that forced them off the land and into wage-labor. Mass opposition to the destruction of the commons was widespread, and some argued eloquently for a commons-based alternative to both feudalism and capitalism.

To be continued …


  1. Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, trans. Ben Fowkes, vol. 1, (Penguin, 1976), 272-3.
  2. Christopher Hill, Liberty Against the Law: Some Seventeenth-Century Controversies (Verso, 2020), 66.
  3. Christopher Hill, Change and Continuity in Seventeenth Century England (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1974), 221, 237.
  4. Marx, Capital v.1, 273.
  5. Ann Kussmaul, Servants in Husbandry in Early Modern England (Cambridge University Press, 1981), 3, 4.
  6. > Kussmaul, Servants in Husbandry, 9.
  7. Andy Wood, Riot, Rebellion and Popular Politics in Early Modern England (Palgrave, 2002), 83.
  8. Jane Humphries, “Enclosures, Common Rights, and Women: The Proletarianization of Families in the Late Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth Centuries,” The Journal of Economic History, (March 1990), 21. Humphries’ research focused on the 1700s, but her remarks apply with equal force to earlier years.
  9. Jeremy Boulton, “The ‘Meaner Sort’: Laboring People and the Poor,” in A Social History of England, 1500-1750, ed. Keith Wrightson (Cambridge University Press, 2017), 310-30.
  10. Maurice Dobb, Studies in the Development of Capitalism, Revised ed. (International Publishers, 1963), 233.
  11. Thorold Rogers, A History of Agriculture and Prices in England, vol. 5 (Clarendon Press, 1887), 628.
  12. R. H. Tawney, The Agrarian Problem in the Sixteenth Century (Lector House, 2021 [1912]), 33.
  13. > Quoted in C.S.L. Davies, “Slavery and Protector Somerset; The Vagrancy Act of 1547.” Economic History Review 19, no. 3 (1966), 534.
  14. Marx, Capital: v.1, 899.
  15. Brian Manning, The English People and the English Revolution (Bookmarks, 1991), 187-8.
  16. No one knows exactly how many people immigrated and emigrated, because no one kept records. These figures are from the most authoritative study: E. A. Wrigley and R. S. Schofield, The Population History of England 1541-1871: A Reconstruction (Edward Arnold, 1981), 219-228.
  17. Roger Finlay and Beatrice Shearer, “Population Growth and Suburban Expansion,” in London 1500-1700: The Making of the Metropolis, ed. A. L. Beier and Roger Finlay (Longman, 1986), 38. Other estimates of London’s 1700 population range as high as 575,000.
  18. Brian Dietz, “Overseas Trade and Metropolitan Growth,” in London 1500-1700: The Making of the Metropolis, ed. A. L. Beier and Roger Finlay (Longman, 1986), 129.
  19. A. L. Beier, “Engine of Manufacture: The Trades of London,” in London 1500-1700, ed. Beier and Finlay, 163.
  20. Beier, “Engine of Manufacture,” 148.
  21. Keith Wrightson, Earthly Necessities: Economic Lives in Early Modern Britain (Yale University Press, 2000), 313.
  22. Brian Manning, Aristocrats, Plebeians and Revolution in England 1640-1660 (Pluto Press, 1996), 62.
  23. Ian Angus, “Intensive Fishing and the Birth of Capitalism,” Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Climate & Capitalism, February-April, 2021.
  24. Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker, The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic (Beacon Press, 2013), 150.
  25. Marcus Rediker, Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea: Merchant Seamen, Pirates and the Anglo-American Maritime World, 1700–1750 (Cambridge University Press, 1987), 290.
  26. Wrightson, Earthly Necessities, 172.
  27. Andreas Malm, Fossil Capital: The Rise of Steam Power and the Roots of Global Warming (Verso, 2016), 48.
  28. Wrightson, Earthly Necessities, 170-71. A staithe was a wharf built specifically for transshipping coal.
  29. J. U. Nef, “The Progress of Technology and the Growth of Large-Scale Industry in Great Britain, 1540-1640,” Economic History Review 5, no. 1 (October 1934), 14.
  30. John Hatcher, The History of the British Coal Industry, vol. 1 (Clarendon Press: 1993), 350.
  31. Peter J. Bowden, The Wool Trade in Tudor and Stuart England (Routledge, 2010 [1962]), xv; B. E. Supple, Commercial Crisis and Change in England 1600-1642 (Cambridge University Press, 1959), 6.
  32. Craig Muldew, “‘Th’ancient Distaff’ and ‘Whirling Spindle’”. Economic History Review 65, no. 2 (2012), 518, 523.
  33. Brian Manning, Aristocrats, Plebeians and Revolution in England 1640-1660 (Pluto Press, 1996), 62.
  34. Brian Manning, 1649: The Crisis of the English Revolution (Bookmarks, 1992), 71-2.
  35. Marx, Capital v1, 876.