The first capitalists were medieval merchants. From the entrepreneurial efforts of these merchants grew a significant and sustained economic expansion, a Commercial Revolution that laid the groundwork for the modern capitalism. [A note to experts in the history of modern Capitalism and to anthropologists…. Don’t get hung up yet about how this origin story begins. I know that we should all be suspicious of origin stories because they work by presuming linear trajectories that don’t match the evidence. But that is my point: our stories of the emergence of capitalism, whether we begin with medieval merchants or with Adam Smith, only work because we leave out complicating and uncomfortable details.]
Historians call medieval capitalist entrepreneurs “burghers” because they emerged as a cause and consequence of the growth of towns (burghs). A dynamic agricultural and demographic expansion, beginning around the year 1000, meant increased availability of food and a rapidly growing population. From Rome’s decline until the eleventh century, the economy of Europe combined subsistence farming (the barest survival supported by lots of prayer) with raid, plunder, and rapine. But now the more enterprising members of society had surpluses, which they could take to local and regional markets of their own making. The market economy steadily moved beyond trade in basic grains like wheat and barley, to include protein-rich beans and peas, as well as wine and cognac, some cheeses and meats, and also a growing variety of clothing, metal, leather goods, etc. Schools and a culture of bookish learning, stone buildings and Gothic architecture, royal courts, courtly literature other aspects of culture, religion, and governance appeared as secondary manifestations of market-based urbanization. The fantastic economic boom, while it waxed and waned here and there, lasted until the decades before 1300.
Interestingly, these merchant burgher capitalists also get counted among the first commies. The abundant literature that describes their links to communism and socialism remains largely invisible in the capitalist west. See, for instance, Direct Struggle Against Capital, A Peter Kropotkin Anthology, edited by Iain McKay (Edinburgh: AK Press, 2014).
How could they have been both capitalists and communists? The answer is interesting, and useful to contemplate. It has less to do with money than with something even more essentially human. What capitalism and communism have in common is politics – the pursuit of political interests.
Medieval merchants faced a problem, one that was insurmountable as long as they prioritized their individual interests ahead of the benefits of solidarity. To get anywhere to sell their wares they had to pay something to a local thug: to cross bridges or enter ports they paid tolls; to set up their market stalls they paid fees; to live in a town with a market they paid rents. You see, all the points of access to commerce and commercial livelihood were controlled by lords. In some places, the few remnants of ancient urban Rome, these lords were typically bishops. In the vast rural elsewhere, men who gave themselves pretty titles like prince or count terrorized their neighbors and extorted from merchants. To combat the violence of both kinds – the violence of churchmen and the violence of self-styled secular aristocrats, the merchants formed revolutionary organizations – they called them communes. Medieval communes spread rapidly across Europe, taking a variety of forms in Italy, German lands, the various regions of France, etc. Through their communes, merchants sought to replace arbitrary and rapinous exploitation by lords with new ways of organizing that would permit them to go about the business of increasing their wealth. This struggle to organize, to seek communal answers to their individual complaints, broadened, democratized, and socialized political relations. The same capitalists that Marx and others would describe as the bourgeoisie also count as the first group to fight for the self-management of workers and control of workers’ productive capacities.
The Commercial Revolution instigated by these capitalist-communists did not come to positive effect without violence. One of the most comprehensive records of a medieval commune comes to us from the memoir of Guibert de Nogent, who in 1115 described a revolt that happened three years earlier in the little town of Laon near Paris. The town’s burghers killed their bishop.
Bishop Gaudry was the kind of person that people on the web nowadays refer to as money-grubbing assholes (I’ll leave you to look it up). He was a member of the 1% of his time. When he was not visiting other powerful lords, learning from and sharing in the exploitative behavior of his high-placed friends, he spent his time extracting money from the inhabitants of the various towns he controlled. Gaudry had a habit, if we read Guibert right, of putting up tables outside of his churches so that as the parishioners emerged from mass he could force them, the wealthy burghers especially, to pay what he wished. After many years of this kind of extortion, the merchants of Laon came to Gaudry with a compromise: they offered to pay him a single annual lump sum, a tax paid on behalf of the whole community instead of individual dues arbitrarily and indiscriminately determined by the bishop himself.
Gaudry agreed at first, but later reneged. Given the continuation of the abuse, the burghers looked for an opportunity to turn the tables. While Gaudry was away in England, the burghers met and agreed that when he returned and attempted once again to engage in his customary abuses they would fight together to defend their mutual interests. He did return, and when he turned as usual to his self-legitimized thievery, some among them began to shout the agreed upon signal for confrontation in solidarity: “commune”.
A fight ensued, an urban civil war, with a mob paid for by wealthy burghers beating down the ruffians in the bishop’s employ. Guibert’s description reads at this point like a movie script, armed men jumping up onto altars, fighting from there until they succumbed to the hacking of axe blows to their shins. Bishop Gaudry hid behind the signs of his power for as long as he could (meaning that he disappeared while others fought his battle for him), and then he hid in a sort of pickle barrel. After a couple of his attendants, throttled and threatened with death, ratted him out, he pleaded for his own life and promised to return his ill-gotten gains. But it was too late. The commie capitalists killed him, splitting his head open in two directions. Then they chopped his body into parts, cut his episcopal ring from its cruel finger, threw the body parts into a corner of the cathedral church, already engulfed in flames, and then threw clods of something, perhaps their own feces, at the dead flesh. You can read an excerpt here: https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/source/guibert-laon.asp
In order to keep and enjoy their own capital accumulation, medieval Europe’s early capitalists-communists had to limit the ways that other people more powerful than themselves could extract it for their own use. To succeed, they had to join together, recognizing that the pecuniary gain of each individually was fragile unless they cooperated. The success of the Loan commune, as anyone knowledgeable of the ways of history can guess, was short lived. Louis VI, King of the Franks, installed another bishop who hired a larger and more forceful band of terrorists to reimpose episcopal authority, that is, to enforce lordly rights over the fruits of others’ labors. Nonetheless, in broad terms the commune movement changed the rules. First, the great lords had to allow to the new merchant class some avenues for political participation. The commie capitalists expected no less than something akin to ‘no taxation without representation’. In places like Catalonia, often described as “precocious” in its early development of democratic institutions, the burghers became a class of “proven men,” the probi homines or prohomes, who established a parliament that gave counsel to their count-kings about how much he could tax them. Later, the medieval communes provided a model for how the rules might be changed to benefit artisans, peasants, and industrial workers. Events like Wat Tyler’s Rebellion in England in 1381, the Catalan Remences Wars of the 1460s, the French Revolution that began in 1789, and the Russian Revolutions of 1917 play their part in this history of democratization.
I appreciate that this birth of both capitalism and communism in the same moment, the mutuality of their appearance in the persons of a newly monied class with its own interests, is not something that sticks very well in the modern American mind. First among the reasons is that we are conditioned to think of Capitalism, in capital letters, as American, and America as anti-communist and anti-socialist. But this requires us to be convinced, over and again in each generation, against much evidence to the contrary, that American history is unproblematic. The American “project” (from Revolution and Constitution to the Civil Rights Era and beyond), American territorial expansion (from Manifest destiny to American empire), American industrial successes (from railroads and automobiles through post-WWII suburban consumerism), and victories against non-capitalist foes (American socialism, Axis Fascism, Cold War Russia, etc.) all point in the same direction – or so we are taught – becoming for us parallel histories by which we conflate capitalism with democracy and democracy with American exceptionalism.
Guibert said that “commune” was an evil term. It is the gut reaction of good American capitalists to agree with him. But he goes on to surprise us by saying that the evil of communes comes from their being associations of lesser people to avoid paying what they owe their lords. That expression of it might stop you in your tracks, because it doesn’t sound very democratic, does it? Guibert, you see, was a churchman, an abbot, whose interests matched Gaudry’s. A modern analogy might be the cozy alliance between, say, Donald Trump and Jerry Falwell, Jr., each of whom helped the other to conceal a sordid past.
One good reason to look back to the evidence of the violence at Laon and the death of the bishop-thief Gaudry is that it reminds us to ask whose interests we serve when we exalt capitalism and denigrate its alternatives. Guibert’s text makes the answer obvious: It is always in the interest of those with some kind of power to defend and augment it at the expense of others. Twelfth-century capitalism was incomplete, and so was twelfth-century communism, but Gaudry and the merchants all knew that they had resources to defend. Having discovered the “both/and” of medieval merchants’ ambitions leaves us with a difficult choice. What is in your interest? To defend your own? Maybe you have resources to protect, but for how long can you do so, and at what cost to yourself and others? An alternative route is to fight alongside others to improve your lot against those who exploit you. But that might also require employing violence of one kind or another.
There is a third option, the one you typically employ if you are like most of us. Marx once called religion the opiate of the masses. Now our opiates are many and varied, and their effects are wonderfully devastating. Maybe reading this post counts among them. About that, even the Economist magazine, not exactly a bastion of socialism, is on to you: https://www.1843magazine.com/intelligence/the_big_question/what_is_the_opium_of_the_people_