All Commentary
Wednesday, June 1, 1960

The Centuries of Communism

Mr. Winder, formerly a Solicitor of the Su­preme Court in New Zealand, is now farming in England. He has written widely on law, agriculture, and economics, his most recent book being A Short History of Money.

According to communist theory the whole history of the world dis­closes a slow and inevitable evolu­tion of humanity toward the type of society in which the means of transport, production, and ex­change will be held in common ownership. Feudalism was but a step in this evolution and, as the result of economic forces, modern bourgeois society arose inevitably upon its ruins. But this is not the end: evolution is proceeding as surely as the mills of the gods, and bourgeois society is slowly be­ing ground into the socialist state. Then the State itself will wither away and civilization will reach its final maturity in the perfection of communism.

Strange as it may seem, it is this theory of inevitable evolu­tionary development which gave Marxist communism the distinc­tion of being described as “scien­tific socialism.” Other forms of socialism were expounded by in­ferior thinkers such as Saint Si­mon, Fourier, and Owen, but their theories were unhistorical utopian inventions, whereas the theories of Karl Marx gave the world a sci­entific interpretation of history. He discerned communism at the end of the road, not as the result of a utopian wish but because he was a scientific economist.

Better economists than Marx have discovered that when his economic theories are original, they are also false; but that has made little difference to his fol­lowers, who remain convinced that the all-important scientific dis­covery of the nineteenth century was that the communist society is predetermined. Today this belief in the inevitability of his aims is the very basis of the Communist’s strength. It is held with a fanati­cism which, if not resisted, may completely destroy Western civili­zation. However, when we look at the evidence Marx produces for this inevitability, we find it of the scantiest possible kind—little more than a catalogue of the types of society he found in history. Al­though his Communist Manifesto does mention Rome, ancient civili­zations are of little use to him for they failed to evolve in the way his theories required. They disap­pear from history before reaching the final evolutionary stages he expected. He is, therefore, content to tell us that modern bourgeois society has arisen from the ruins of feudalism; and from this point the evolution toward communism proceeds, by dialectic steps, as the class struggle destroys one privi­leged group after another.

But, as Karl Marx is attempting to expound a philosophy of history, he is not entitled to commence his chain of causation just where he likes—that is, to choose the evi­dence which suits his case and to conceal the rest. Why not start at the earliest form of society of which we have any record? Start, in fact, not with feudalism, but with communism—primitive com­munism.

A New Light on Marx

Now this is not a suggestion palatable to Communists. They are, in fact, insulted by it and will conceive that it is merely a play on words put forward in a mood of flippancy. What possible connection can primitive commu­nism have with their ideal form of existence? Primitive commu­nism is of another world and no chain of evidence, they believe, can possibly be found connecting it with the modern communist ideal.

However, when we study primi­tive communism we discover facts which give us an entirely new out­look on Marx’s theory of social evolution. We find that there is not the difference we expected be­tween the communism practiced in Eastern Europe today and that primitive communism Marx ig­nored. Also, we find that we can trace the evolution from primi­tive communism through feudal­ism and other intermediate stages in social development far more clearly and with far more supporting evidence than Marx provided for his development from feudal­ism to the communism of the fu­ture. We will be surprised how short a time it is since the whole of Europe was occupied by so­cieties which were fundamentally communist, and we will find how clearly history has marked for us the road from one form of com­munism to another. By following this road, we will certainly obtain a far better appreciation of the miracle and virtues of modern so­ciety than most of us now possess; and we will make the startling dis­covery, which should have been ob­vious from the beginning, that the modern communism now being experienced in Eastern Europe is not the final stage in an evolu­tionary process but a reversion of mankind to a state of society which was universal in the primi­tive and not too distant past.

Extremes of Inequality

One mistake many people make concerning communism is to asso­ciate it with the idea of equality, whereas, it seems certain that nothing is more conducive to ex­tremes of inequality than the com­mon ownership of the means of production. This has been particu­larly so when the means of pro­duction has consisted chiefly of land.

There was a stage in the his­tory of man when it was possible that he did live in a state of equality. This was when the only source of subsistence was the food he gathered in its natural state or killed in the hunt. That equality was due to there being nothing left over after the pangs of hunger were satisfied. A man got his full share or died. The next stage began when domestic ani­mals were tamed or land was cul­tivated.

Land and herds became the first form of capital. They were not personal possessions but tribal. In this stage of primitive commu­nism there was little more equality than there is in a communist state today.

Greater mental or physical strength or skill gave men privi­leges and rights which their less fortunate fellows did not possess. We have numerous studies of tribes which owned land in com­mon, but nowhere do we find equality. Tacitus gives us one of the earliest studies of Europeans in a state of primitive communism. He describes the Germanic race when cereal production was in its early stages and when a tribe cultivated the soil for a year or two and then moved on to break up new ground. All lands were tribal lands for which the tribe continually had to fight. There was little democratic equality, slaves were common, and chiefs gathered around themselves privi­leged fighting men to be their companions.

Primitive Common Ownership

The modern anthropologist can give us numerous examples of primitive societies which held all capital goods in common owner­ship. When, for example, Euro­peans first reached New Zealand, they found not only land but many commodities such as canoes held in common. Yet slaves existed and chiefs were all-powerful. Some Europeans purchased large tracts of land from unscrupulous chiefs for a few guns and axes, only to discover that they had purchased tribal land of which they could not retain possession. When the British government eventually es­tablished law and order in New Zealand, it wisely recognized the Maori custom of holding land in common and went to great lengths to obtain the consent of every member of a tribe to land trans­fers. Even today the large number of names on Maori land certificates give unending trouble to lawyers.

The American Indian seems also to have held land and such capi­tal goods as he possessed in com­mon, but this does not seem to have resulted in equality.

It does seem to be true, how­ever, that at the very beginning of the stage of agriculture and animal husbandry, when tribes were very poor and constantly on the move, there was more equality than when they established them­selves in communal societies on settled areas of land. In fact, un­der the system of tribal owner­ship, the greater the wealth the more the power and privileges of the chief increased. He finally ob­tained so much power over the common source of wealth that no one could disobey his commands. At this stage communism bears a strange resemblance to feudal­ism. The feudal lord has been mistaken for the forerunner of the modern capitalist but, in reality, he is the natural and in­evitable product of a communal or communist society, which must of necessity place itself at the mercy of leaders who will always abuse their powers. This is prob­ably as inevitable a trend under communism today as it was under the primitive communism of the past.

Feudalism can be described as just one of the stages we have traveled in our development from primitive communism to modern free enterprise. This becomes the more evident if we study the ag­riculture and land tenure systems which prevailed in England from the Anglo-Saxon settlements to the end of the eighteenth century.

Cooperative Plowing

The great contribution to agri­culture made by the Anglo-Saxon was the heavy plow drawn by up­wards of eight oxen. It was with this that the early colonists broke up the lowlands of England and established what is now known as the open field system of agricul­ture. Under this system each set­tlement held its land in common and the greater part was divided into two large fields, one of which was plowed every second year and sown with rye while the other re­mained fallow. It was the custom of oxen to pull the heavy plow through the earth in short bursts of energy, a furrow’s length or “furlong” at a time, and then rest.

The plow with its string of oxen was very difficult to turn so that the result of a period of work was always a long narrow strip of plowed land. This was allotted to one member of the plowing team or perhaps to the owner of the plow or of one of the oxen. The next strip was allotted to another contributor to the common effort. Then as each day a new strip was plowed, it was reserved for other members of the community such as the blacksmith or the cowherd and, of course, for the chief and his companions who protected the settlement while the work was be­ing done. When each claimant had his plowed strip duly allotted, the procedure would start all over again until the whole field was plowed into numerous strips and each man in the settlement, which in time became the medieval manor, had separate strips al­lotted to him all over the open field. Often, of course, there were several plow teams working on the same field so that the chief would receive a very large number of strips.

Although the plowing was a communal effort, the cultivation of the strips was left to the tempo­rary occupiers, some of whom—if there were not enough slaves to do the job—would also have to look after the strips allotted to the chiefs and fighting men. The cattle, which in England from an early date were the property of individual tribesmen, grazed dur­ing the spring and summer months on the surrounding uncultivated land which—like the open fields—was common property. At an agreed date when the rye was har­vested, the field was opened to the cattle of the whole settlement, and they were driven in to graze the second growth. The strips, which for a few months had been held in severance, became once again the property of the tribe.

This seems, in theory, a fair enough system and probably at its commencement it was. The early Anglo-Saxon warriors who had just conquered the land were free men, and it is only reasonable that they should plow up part of the common land for the chief and his immediate companions who were perhaps constantly on the lookout for raiding Danes. As the country became more settled, it might be thought that these serv­ices for the chief would become lighter: instead they became heav­ier and eventually almost servile. During the Dark Ages we have little opportunity to trace the de­cay in the status of the Anglo-Saxon husbandman; but when the curtain which obscures history goes up again in the eleventh century we find that while the economic system has altered very little, the social system has been completely changed, thereby up­setting another of Karl Marx’s theories.

England of the Normans

As far as the economic system is concerned, the two-field system has given way to three fields, so that in the eleventh century only a third of the cultivated land lies fallow every year, while oats, wheat, and barley have taken the place of rye; but apart from this there is no fundamental change in agriculture. The plow teams still work the open fields in strips and the cattle are still turned in for the autumn grazing. Now, however, the signal for this is the ringing of the church bell. But the rights of those who occupy the strips in the open fields have been completely changed. Instead of the strips being re-allotted every year, their occupancy by individuals has become permanent; and they are held as grants from the chief—now become a feudal lord—on various tenures requiring personal services. Some of these services are of so light a nature that those who must render them can look upon their strips as practically freeholds; other grants are for purely military services: but most are held by villeins who must do agricultural work on the lord of the manor’s land. Some strips can pass by inheritance, others are held for the life of the tenant, others depend on the will of the lord of the manor. Society is di­vided into well-defined strata. Be­low the aristocracy are freemen, villeins, bordarii, cottarii, and serfs. The once tribal chief has become very much the lord and master.

The Conquest has made little change to either the economy or the social system, only substitu­ting a Norman for an Anglo-Saxon lord. The powers of these feudal lords are only limited by custom, but the rights of some strip holders are registered in the King’s Courts. Each lord in turn owes duties to another feudal lord greater than himself. Few con­tractual relationships exist in this early Norman period, the rights and duties of every member of so­ciety being fixed by customs which have developed during the Dark Ages: and every man has a master in a long hierarchy up to the king. We can see such a hierarchical system reappearing in Russia to­day.

No Private Property

The most important character­istic of the system, however, is that no one, not even the lord of the manor himself, can say, “This is my land. I shall do what I like with mine own.” The land of every manor is farmed collectively, fully as collectively as any communist farm in Russia, and its manage­ment is in the hands of the Manor Court. This important body which is presided over by the lord of the manor or his steward, is made up of the occupiers of strips in the open field who serve, in rotation, twelve at a time—thus, inci­dentally, providing us with the forerunner of the English jury. The authority of the Manor Court over the farming of all the open fields is complete, whether the strips are held by villeins, free­holders, or the lord of the manor himself. It decides what crops shall be grown and when the cattle will be let into the fields. It inflicts fines on those it considers do not keep to sound farming prac­tices or who neglect to repair their share of the common fences which protect the open field, or fail to keep clear the plow-made ditches between the strips or who at­tempt to keep more cattle on the common pasture than they are en­titled to. This last is a very f re­quent crime in medieval times. It would be unjust, when all grazing is held in common, for a man to own as many cattle as he likes. The number must be decided by the Manor Court according to the number of strips each man holds.

Collective Farms

The Communist will, of course, declare that this form of collec­tive farming is nothing like that practiced in Russia today. Well, it is true that great scientific ad­vances have been made in modern times: the tractor, for example, has taken the place of the ox. But the farming of a feudal manor does seem to resemble a modern Russian collective farm far more than it does any individually owned farm found today in Eng­land or America.

It certainly cannot be described as an example of capitalism. It has all the signs of an intermedi­ate stage developed from primitive communism. This collective form of agriculture remained the pre­dominant form in England for nigh on 1,200 years. In most parts of Europe it remained even longer, and still existed in parts of Russia when modern communism arrived to supersede it. In certain parts of England and in the Highlands of Wales and Scotland, where the land is poor, it never developed. In the Highlands of Scotland, tribal communities owning land in com­mon survived in a primitive form for centuries; but by the days of the Stuarts, communal rights had lost all meaning and the power of the chiefs over that land was greater than that of any English feudal lord.

The Beginnings of Ownership

Like all forms of collective pro­duction, the open field system changed very slowly. It was almost impossible for anyone with new ideas to experiment with his strips of land for he had to carry the members of the Manor Court with him, and in any case he lost his temporary and partial control over his strips as soon as the church bell rang to let in the cattle for the autumn grazing. But in spite of this, there was a slow but con­tinuous change, almost impercep­tible in the life of any one man. Very slowly, individuals began to raise themselves out of the collec­tive mass. Towns grew up to win freedom from their overlords and these created markets which the more enterprising countrymen wanted to supply. Lords of manors began to consolidate their strips in the open fields by exchange with their tenants, and this gave them a domain near the manor house which they could enclose. Some­times there was a general ex­change of strips among all the tenants of the open fields so that the whole land of a manor became enclosed. Just as important in giv­ing independence to the farmer was a slowly developing system of commuting personal service for definite cash rents. This created in­terests in land, many of which be­came virtually freeholds.

But in spite of this, the open field form of collective farming might have continued centuries longer than it did had not fate in­tervened in the form of the Black Death. This dreadful scourge of the fourteenth century, which is considered to have brought death to from a third to a half of the population of England, consider­ably hastened the change to in­dividualist farming. When this visitation had passed, the lord of the manor found many of the strips in the open fields untenanted and labor extremely scarce. Under these conditions there was often nobody to object to his enclosing at least part of his land, and he found that there was always some­one willing to take enclosed land off his hands at a reasonable rent.

There was one class of country­man who had begun to prosper outside the collective farming sys­tem even before the Black Death. This was the man who had devel­oped sheep runs in the less fertile hill country. He was always will­ing now to rent new enclosures. A great market for wool had grown up in Flanders, and these flock masters who were free from col­lective control did all they could to meet it. Sheep, the most gre­garious of all animals, thus as­sisted man to become an individu­alist. The feudal lords with their enclosed domains could have led the way in this development but they failed to grasp their oppor­tunity and preferred to lease their land to more capable men. The his­tory of Tudor times is full of the names of new entrepreneurs whose fortunes were founded on sheep.

The new men with their enclo­sures were hated by both aristoc­racy and commonalty alike, but they held their own. Henry VIII found them very useful because their wool earned foreign ex­change. He made them hated still more when he plundered the monasteries.

The animosity against the flock masters expressed itself in many an old saying:”Sheepe devour men.”

“Sheepe have eate up our meadows and our downes

Our corne, our woods, whole villages and towns.”

and, against the new men of wealth,

“A spawne sprung from a dunghill birth

Now prince in our land.”

But soon the flock masters were not the only new capitalists. Un­der the Tudors many open fields were enclosed by agreement among the lord and his tenants. Some of these new enclosures remained arable and were held on various terms which frequently gave the occupier the security of a free­holder. These men became the first independent yeomen of England. They were assisted by the fact that their interest in their hold­ings could be protected in the King’s Courts. Their property gave them little fortresses of in­dependence which they could hold against all men. It was the source of their freedom. Of this type of farmer, one writer tells us, “He is lord paramount within himself, though he hold by never so mean a tenure. He need not fear his audit, for his Quietus is in heaven.”

But toward the end of Eliza­beth‘s reign, reaction set in and what is now known as the period of Tudor enclosures came to an end. From then on, land, still the most important form of capital the country possessed, remained partly enclosed and partly under the open field system with the latter still predominating. Capital­ist and communal farming con­tinued side by side. When we con­sider the Civil War and the Revo­lution of 1688, it looks as if politi­cal feelings were as divided as the economic system.

Blith, a noted agricultural writer, and one of Cromwell’s cap­tains, was a great advocate of en­closures. He claimed that half the enclosed arable land of the country would produce more than all the arable land farmed in common, and he did not hesitate to state that the supporters of the older sys­tem were “enemies of the State”—an expression we have lately seen revived in Great Britain against those farmers whom Agricultural Committees allege to be ineffi­cient. Cromwell himself owned an enclosed cattle farm.

Observations on Early


A reflection concerning Amer­ica may here be in order. It is taken for granted by most Ameri­can writers that the communal farming practiced by the Pilgrim Fathers for a few years after they landed in America was inspired by religious beliefs. But when these first settlers left Plymouth, communal farming was still prac­ticed over the greater part of Eng­land, and they may well have been brought up in counties where any other system6 was unknown.

When in 1623 Governor Brad­ford debated with the leaders of the settlement whether “they should set come every man for his own perticuler, and in this regard trust to themselves,” these first American farmers were, in fact, echoing a debate which at that time was taking place in every English county.

It was not until the end of the eighteenth century, when internal dissension had come to an end, that the process of enclosure was renewed with vigor. The reason for this was that, with security restored and communications im­proved, it was becoming increas­ingly obvious which of the two systems was the more productive. The independent enclosed farmers were growing clover and grass pastures which improved grazing out of all recognition. They were also growing turnips, introduced into the country from Holland, then the most advanced agricul­tural country in the world. One result of this was that English animals could be adequately fed in the winter so that there was not the customary autumn killing and salting in brine of all but the minimum number of beasts. A study of breeding began, and there was a most remarkable improve­ment in the size and type of ani­mals.

All these improvements, how­ever, were confined to the farmer on the enclosed land. They were impossible in the open fields where all the cattle in the manor were turned on to one’s strips as soon as the church bell gave the signal in the autumn.

Under these circumstances the demand for enclosure became ir­resistible. But there were many difficulties: always some men re­sist change however desirable it may seem. If a few men refused to exchange their strips, which they frequently held in freehold tenure, they could prevent attempts to con­solidate and enclose farms. More­over, little could be done if the Manor Court could not be induced to agree.

At length Parliament came to the aid of enclosures. Providing it could be shown that three quarters of those holding strips in the manor’s open fields wanted enclo­sure, Parliament would always pass a private bill permitting it, and Commissioners were sent to see that the open fields were di­vided justly among all those who owned strips or held them by any less or tenure: the Church and sometimes charities received their share from the Commissioners.

Even the owners of cottages re­ceived land if they could show continued occupancy. Invariably, some of the land near the village and some of the poorer land no­body particularly wanted to fence was unallocated and to this day provides most English villages with their Green and Common.

A Problem with Squatters

Few who have studied the ques­tion have denied the wisdom of enclosing the open fields with their strips of land occupied by innumerable farmers and open during a large part of the year to all the cattle in the manor: it was the enclosure of the outlying graz­ing land that provided the difficul­ties. Squatters had often settled themselves on this land where they lived in extreme poverty but where they could always get wood for fires and perhaps graze a few geese or even a cow. When all but a small part of the manor com­mon was enclosed, this grazing had to cease and squatters had to move on without any home or se­curity whatever. Furthermore, some who had owned a few strips in the open field now found them­selves with land which was too small to justify the fences and buildings necessary for enclosed farming: and they sold out to larger holders. When they had spent the purchase money, they also felt dispossessed, and joined in the outcry against the new sys­tem, This outcry was so great that to this day it has left in the minds of most British people a wholly distorted view of enclosures. Many believe them nothing but the il­legal seizure of the property of the poor.

But this idea is completely false. They were the exchange and con­solidation of previously acquired property rights. The people of England would have starved if this change in the system of agricul­ture had been delayed any longer. The most radical writers of the eighteenth century supported en­closures. No one was more elo­quent and sympathetic in describ­ing the misery of the dispossessed squatters on the commons than Arthur Young, probably the most noted writer on agriculture of the period, yet he states, “While a county is laid out in open fields, every farmer tied down to the husbandry of his slovenly neigh­bour, there can be no good hus­bandry.” It was the improvement he saw in the newly enclosed farms that caused him to coin the fa­mous phrase, “the magic of prop­erty turns sand into gold.”

Between 1760 and 1815, eight­een hundred Enclosure Acts were passed by Parliament. Then an Act was passed to provide a suit­able procedure for all future ap­plications for enclosure, and very soon the land of Great Britain ceased to be collectively controlled by Manor Courts and the individ­ualist farmer was fully estab­lished. At this period when the land was being turned over to capitalist agriculture, there was also a great increase in the ac­quisition of capital assets other than land. This form of capital was accumulated by merchants and manufacturers who owed nothing to a feudal superior. With the adoption of capitalist enter­prise, British agriculture entered into a golden age of progress which was just in time to provide the New World with many of its leading breeds of farm animals.

Nothing New in Communism

Karl Marx was extremely un­scientific when he commenced his analysis of the social system at medieval feudalism. Had he gone back to the beginning of history, as he should have done, he would have discovered that there is nothing new in communism. When we study history, few social pat­terns can be pronounced upon dogmatically: but nothing is more certain than that feudal England was not an early form of capital­ism—it was instead a late stage of primitive communism. The feudal lord was not the first capi­talist boss but the last communist chief until he was resurrected as the commissar of the twentieth century.

As Marx believed that commu­nism was a new system to which society was evolving, he expected it to appear first in the more in­dustrially advanced countries such as England and America. Instead, it came first to Russia and very nearly to Spain, the most back­ward countries in Europe. This is comprehensible enough when we consider that in both these coun­tries individualism was a young and tender plant unable to stand the chilling frost of the ideas Marx so assiduously propagated.

Innovation, invention, change, all depend on the freedom and the duty of the individual to stand on his own feet. We can revert to communism very easily for it is the only system mankind has known throughout the far greater part of his existence. It is not a system to be attained by effort but one which returns to us when we dodge responsibility and fail to preserve our defenses; particu­larly our religious defenses. It is like the jungle awaiting silently around us ready to creep back and swallow up our feeble efforts the moment we cease struggling to hoe our vegetables and sow our grain. When it comes, it will not be an advance in evolution but a reversion to barbarism.

One Manor Survives

In England today most of the villages with their crowning churches have occupied the same site for centuries. But the appear­ance of the countryside, with its enclosed fields surrounded by hedges has delighted the eye of man only since the eighteenth century, when the greater part of England was enclosed for the first time. In Laxton in Nottingham­shire there survives one manor which still retains the open field system. It is kept alive now as an interesting survival and the Manor Court meets in a local pub. The lord of the manor is the Minister of Agriculture.

In many parts of the country and especially in the Midlands, the marks of generations of plow­ing in the open fields, and allow­ing water to make channels on each side of the strips, have not been entirely obliterated. If the American airmen who now fly so frequently across the English countryside will observe the grass­land below them very carefully, they will see that much of it is characterised by long undulations like the ground swell of the sea. Except for Laxton and the many village commons which still sur­vive, these just visible lines of an­cient strips are all that is left of the age-old communist agricul­ture of England.