Socialist Studies Socialist Studies

Valuing The Commons

As Marx and Engels saw it, the enclosures and loss of common land were not just a land grab. The basis of agricultural capitalism meant the destruction of an independent and largely self-sustaining rural lifestyle as working people were turfed out of their villages, to become a new class of rootless drifting proletarians, driven to seek jobs in factories, mines and even in the colonies.

While the main wave of enclosure acts took place in the 1750-1850 period, there were enclosures already taking place even in the 13th century, in the Tudor period, through the 16th and 17th centuries, in the latter part of the 19th century - and some are still going on even now. Around the world, as capitalism has advanced globally, traditional lifestyles have been losing out, and former peasants and subsistence-farmers have become proles, part of the global working class, mere hands.

An ancient Charter and the people's rights

In his recent book PLUNDER OF THE COMMONS (Pelican, 2019), Guy Standing examined the 1217 Charter of the Forest and proposed this as a model for a new form of 'public ownership'. His subtitle "A Manifesto for Sharing Public Wealth" suggested he had some idea of common ownership but that is misleading.

While he rightly points to the basic idea of the old Charter of the Forest as guaranteeing a right of subsistence - "the poor man's overcoat" as it used to be called, when you look at what he proposes you see only tired old Labour/reformist proposals e.g. "ownership of all land in Britain should be registered with the Land Registry" (p350).

His proposed new charter would include a list of Labour's good causes, including environmental issues. It would not demand common ownership and democratic control of all means of producing wealth. Socialists argue for democratic control by and in the interest of the whole community but he offers only a set of state bureaucracies, NGOs and quangos.

However his book is of some value in that he reminds us that, along with Magna Carta, the 13th C brought in the Charter of the Forest which in common law guaranteed to commoners a number of important rights. As Richard Mabey saw it, 'common ground- was protected by ancient custom-sanctioned rights of usage:

It is now generally accepted that the rights that began to be defined in the 11th century represented the relics of a much wider network of unrecorded customary practice... a very old system that predates the Norman Conquest of 1066.

It was a system of "land tenure... in which one party may own the land but others are entitled to various rights in it such as grazing or cutting firewood."

Peter Linebaugh in STOP THIEF! - THE COMMONS, ENCLOSURES AND RESISTANCE (US, 2014, p151, citing Richard Mabey THE COMMON GROUND - A PLACE FOR NATURE IN BRITAIN'S FUTURE? 1980) had a wealth of detail about the commons and enclosures, and he also had a wider view. His book covered the historical process of land enclosures in Britain, and Linebaugh also saw similar processes happening in other countries.

Everywhere you look in the world you can discover traces of a world where communities once co-owned the land, co-operating in its use. He also described a variety of types of "commoning".

Even now when you walk along a footpath or canal tow-path, in town or country, your 'rights of way' are examples of these old rights, still surviving except where the property system has robbed us of them.

Linebaugh's book while it proposed no panacea, no quack reform or new charter, which is a mercy, was impressive in his accounts of how the working people resisted this historic land grab.

The real value of the 'waste'

In England, even largely barren heathlands, moors, marshes and fells had many uses. Until the enclosures of the 18th and 19th centuries, villagers were able to graze cows and sheep on the common; to keep pigs (e.g. the right of pannage is still used in the New Forest); to collect wood for building, fencing, tool-making; to cut peat or furze for fuel; to cut reeds for thatching, or birch twigs for besoms; to cut bundles of rushes to make rush candles, etc. There were also the right of 'lop and top' in woodland areas (in Epping Forest still practised in the 19th C), fishing rights, coastal forshore rights, and so on.

Several writers in the past gave detailed accounts of how using their ancient commons supported the villagers. These include Hampshire's pioneer naturalist, Gilbert White (THE NATURAL HISTORY OF SELBORNE, 1795); William Cobbett from Farnham, the farmer-radical who travelled over southern and Midlands England (COTTAGE ECONOMY, 1821-1823, and RURAL RIDES, 1830); Farnham's George Sturt (CHANGE IN THE VILLAGE, 1912), and J Alfred Eggar (LIFE & CUSTOMS IN GILBERT WHITE'S, COBBETT'S & KINGSLEY'S COUNTRY, c.1925). Between them they covered the main period of the enclosures, seen close up, intimately.

The useful commons and forests

Gilbert White was clear about the economic importance for the villagers of their commons, such as Wolmer Forest and Alice Holt:

Such forests and wastes... are of considerable service to neighbourhoods that verge upon them, by furnishing them with peat and turf for their firing; with fuel for the burning their lime; and by maintaining their geese and their stock of young cattle at little or no expense.
NATURAL HISTORY OF SELBORNE, Letter VII

Later Cobbett, who as a practical farmer really hated the barren heaths, praised some new enclosed and productive farmland:

The fields on the left... certainly are the most beautiful tract of fields that I ever saw. Their extent may be from 10 to 30 acres each. Divided by quickset hedges, exceedingly well planted and raised. The whole tract is nearly a perfect level. The cultivation neat and the stubble heaps... giving proof of great crops of straw, while, on land with a chalk bottom, there is seldom any want of a proportionate quantity of grain.

That said, Cobbett was angry at how enclosures had harmed the villagers:

Labouring people... invariably do best in the woodland and forest and wild countries. Where the mighty grasper has all under his eye, they can get but little.
RURAL RIDES, 1830

He also pointed out with anger that farmworkers were paid starvation wages - a fraction of what the lowest paid soldier would get, and even less than was paid to men in jail.

Social and economic change

When George Sturt later wrote of the Bourne villagers, a small hamlet a few miles south from Farnham, his older neighbours told of how in the past their lives had been very different:

The impoverished labouring people... were born in a self-supporting peasantry... I heard of the village cows, which used to be turned out to graze on the heaths, and had been told how fir-timber fit for cottage roof-joists could be cut on the common, as well as heath good enough for thatching and turf excellent for firing; and when to this was added the talk of bread-ovens at half the old cottages, and of little corn-crops in the gardens, and of brewing and wine-making and bee-keepin...
CHANGE IN THE VILLAGE, 1912 (Caliban Books, 1984)

It was not just the materials got from the commons but their use in country crafts, as seen by both Cobbett (COTTAGE ECONOMY) and Sturt, a century later:

But it was the common that made all of this possible. It was only by the spacious 'turn-out' which it afforded that enabled the people to keep cows and get milk and butter; it was only by the turf-firing cut on the common that they could smoke their bacon, hanging it in the wide chimneys over those old open hearths where none but such fuel could be used; and, again, it was only because they could get furze from the common to heat their bread-ovens that it was worth their while to grow a little wheat at home and have it ground into flour for making bread.
Sturt, CHANGE IN THE VILLAGE, 1912, Chap. 9

With enclosures had come concentration of land ownership and with it, pauperism, plus workhouses. By 1873, a government survey of land ownership found a quarter of the whole country was owned by just 710 aristocrats and their friends, and half of it was owned by just 4,000 families, and this was mostly the best land, seen as profitable to enclose.

That government report was hastily suppressed - its findings were too embarrassing. And no government since has repeated such a survey.
Guy Standing PLUNDER OF THE COMMONS, 2019

Enclosures as a historic land-grab

In her recent study of the enclosures in South Cambridgeshire, Alison Wittering showed how this legal process guaranteed that the rich and powerful got the lion’s share of the 'allotments', as Parliamentary Commissioners carved up local commons.

In one village in South Cambridgeshire the records showed how in 1814 the Commissioners charged the rich much less than the poorer bidders for both the cost of the land and for the, compulsory, fencing. One man who was allotted over 100 acres paid less than £3 per acre. The Church's parson got over 40 acres and paid nothing! But a man who got only 1.5 acres had to pay over £20 per acre - plus over £13 per acre for fencing.
Shirley Wittering ECOLOGY AND ENCLOSURES, p95

Another source recorded that in Wakefield, Yorkshire, 100% of the common lands were allotted to the Duke of Leeds, whose sole concern was for the coal below ground. Land allotted to the benefit of the poor: a generous 0%!

In many areas local people fought against enclosures. The long and often violent struggle in Otmoor near Oxford went on for decades. Local histories record many such struggles and conflicts. Everywhere such enclosures happened the effects for local people were disastrous.

A man-made famine

In the south of England there was such hunger that in 1795 there were food riots, led by women, and often supported by the soldiers, even in towns like Guildford.

In THE VILLAGE LABOURER 1760-1832 (1911), the Hammonds described the many effects of losing the commons: without somewhere to graze a cow, people were unable to have milk, and so children died from hunger. Fuel also was a problem, so home-made bread was replaced by shop bread. As a man in Bedfordshire put it:

"I kept four cows before enclosure, and now I don't keep so much as a goose, and you ask me what I lose by it!
THE VILLAGE LABOURER

With enclosures also came a loss of old lanes, footpaths and shortcuts, so that people were forced to walk a long way round to get to the fields or markets. And their small communities became increasingly isolated from what was going on in the outside world.

In a few decades, from the 1760s to 1842, when over 2000 Enclosure Acts were passed (even more Enclosure Acts came later), over 4m acres of common land became enclosed. The new landowners now controlled much larger estates, employing say 4 or 5 tenant farmers where before there had been 20 independent farmers or smallholders.

In Tilford, a Surrey village near Farnham, the medieval map showed 20 'bondholders' with holdings of either 15 or 30 acres, but its 1840 tithe map and other records showed only 3 major landowners, owning 80% of the allotted land (John Franklin, THE STORY OF TILFORD, 2000).

Tilford was surrounded by commons in every direction, heathland with soil too poor and arid to encourage enclosure.

Probably these extensive commons explain why in the late 18th C, when 40% of people in the Farnham area were paupers, in that village only 1 in 6 were paupers. Access to the commons meant villagers could still be largely self-sufficient.

Whose land?

Recently a systematic effort has been made by Private Eye to discover the dark secrets of landownership. In WHO OWNS ENGLAND? (2019), Guy Shrubsole has attempted a listing of all the major landowners, including the many whose identities are "unknown" or listed only in secretive offshore tax havens. The subtitle of his book is How We Lost Our Green & Pleasant Land & How to Take It Back, which sounded promising. Inequality in land ownership is "staggering. We can conclude... that 25,000 landowners - less than 1 per cent of the population - own half of England" (p268).

Shrubsole's proposal - "an inspiring manifesto" - is for a Land Reform Act and a Commission, to prevent any more privatising of state sector land, to increase the land available for council allotments, to control the market, to prevent land being used for tax avoidance/evasion, and so on. Which may be worthy but is hardly revolutionary. Reform is rarely "inspiring".

Nowhere does he urge that we should act collectively and politically to end both the private and state ownership of land, let alone argue that land like all means of production should become owned or co-owned in a social system based on the common ownership of all the means of production and distribution.

The modern capitalist era with the universal wages system and commodity production was historically founded on the expropriation of our rural ancestors. True, the old medieval and feudal system had its faults but the new capitalist system was and is uniquely ruthless. After all, the medieval manors had allowed the 'waste' to be used by the common people for grazing cows, getting fuel and building materials, and so much else.

But with the capitalist system poverty and pauperism grew, and with unemployment, desperate hunger drove many to the harsh hospitality of the newly invented workhouses. And their orphaned children were then farmed out as 'apprentices' to local farmers or faraway factories. Today, the 'safety net' of the modern 'welfare state', with its humiliating, degrading and bureaucratic system of inadequate and stingy 'benefits', is a very poor substitute for those "age-old" custom-sanctioned subsistence rights of the commons, seen for so long as "the poor man's overcoat".

A new class system

Historically, the capitalist system required a servile working class, utterly destitute of its own independent resources. How else could a class of exploiting factory-owners have managed to draw so many millions of unfortunate wage-slaves into the voiceless misery of the factories and mines, and stinking city slums?

Legalised theft of the village commons was an important fulcrum, a lever used to detach the new class of now rootless proletarians from their old neighbourhoods and villages, as mere wage-slaves. This is a part of the process that Marx described as the 'primitive accumulation of capital'.

The timid voices of Shrubsole and Salmon with their very limited reform proposals are far too feeble to tackle the basics of this system, one where by legal chicanery, by theft and force and fraud, a new class was created, driven off from the newly enclosed commons, in order to be exploited, at the mercy of the factory and mill-owners, and their successors, the modern multinationals.

It may be impractical to go back to a time when cottagers could keep a cow, grazing on the common and producing milk for the family. In an age of electricity and electronics, we would not wish to go back to flickering dim candles and rush-lights. The crofter lifestyle can hardly be sustained today.

But our reliance now is on commodities produced for profit, for the markets. This is a competitive system, geared to causing poverty, famine and wars, and it is highly wasteful.

As Socialists we argue there is another possible way of life: one based on having the land and other means of producing wealth owned in common and democratically managed "by and in the interest of the whole community". Since the enclosures, we and our predecessors have been alienated from the land which once gave such a variety of everyday provisions, a right of subsistence, strongly defended for generations.

But it is still possible for the working class to take back the land and build a better world. Not just to reform this cash-nexus class exploitation system but to overthrow it altogether.

The fact that we know the self-governing commons lasted for so many centuries is proof that there is nothing in so-called 'human nature' to prevent people from co-operating as a community, and devising and agreeing sensible, practical rules to avoid the over-exploitation of the commons.

Capitalism's anti-social greed

The so-called 'Tragedy of the Commons' was a myth based on the individualistic greed and competitive self-interest which are the key features of capitalism. The Charter of the Forest and the various rules about the governance of commons, recorded in so many places, prove this myth to be an ideological lie.

Garret Hardin's argument naively assumed that, unless land was privately owned, it would inevitably become over-grazed with an irresponsible free-for-all. This was widely held to prove that common ownership could not be sustainable. But the answer to this argument is that historically the use of the commons was always carefully managed, not by the state or the lord of the manor, but by the commoners - the local community - themselves.

The number of sheep or cattle grazing on the moors, fells or commons was controlled by practical rules such as 'stinting'. These rules could be detailed and specific (e.g. in South Cambridgeshire, see Shirley Wittering THE ECOLOGY OF ENCLOSURE...SOUTH CAMBRIDGESHIRE 1798-1850, 2013). They were always practical, rooted in the needs of the community and of the land, e.g. if cows and sheep were to be pastured after a corn harvest, the cattle were turned out first and later the sheep.

Landowners who even now try to close ancient paths and rights of way often come up against determined resistance by local people. Even now, when Trump declared in 2019 that he intended to buy Greenland, there was a unanimous howl of protest and outrage. "Greenland is ours! It is not for sale!"

In J Alfred Eggar's book (LIFE AND CUSTOMS..., c. 1925), he described several such conflicts, sometimes a legal challenge, sometimes by fisticuffs, and usually - but not always - successful. A useful shortcut was not given up lightly, and country people in many areas show they have an attitude. Even Eggar - himself a farmer and surveyor - showed sympathy for the villagers as against the gentry.

Consistently, Gilbert White, Cobbett, Sturt and Eggar, from the late 18th C to the early 20th C, these writers all argued for the importance of the old 'Cottage Economy', the many skills and country crafts that were disappearing, and which depended on the village having access to a piece of common land. Leafing through these old eye-witness accounts is to rediscover a now largely lost way of life, one of production for use, of use-values - not commodities.

Socialists argue for a system based on common ownership, soundly rooted in the historic realities of recorded community co-operation, thriving on those now stolen commons. That is why historical studies of those commons - and of the enclosures - are so important.

We are all too often accused of being impractical - mere Utopian dreamers. But in reality our demand for common ownership is justified and rooted in the reality of generations of people, in many parts of the world, where common ownership and democratic control has been successfully practised for centuries.

Back to top

Socialist Studies

email: enquiries@socialiststudies.org.uk | www.socialiststudies.org.uk