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a distinct social stratum engaged in trade in the context of the dominance of private property. The merchant purchases goods not for his own consumption but rather for subsequent sale, in order to obtain profit; that is, he acts as an intermediary between the producer and the consumer (or between producers of various kinds of goods).
Trading intermediaries appeared in the period of the breakdown of primitive communal relations. The merchantry became an essential element of the social structure, however, only in class society, developing together with the growth of exchange and the social division of labor and, in the process, breaking up into different property groupings. The rich merchantry—commercial capital—emergea at one pole and small traders at the other. The merchantry was already important in the economies of many class societies of the ancient world (including Carthage, the Hellenistic states, ancient Greece, and Rome). In the early medieval period the most highly developed merchantry was found in the Arab countries, India, and China. The prevalent type was the itinerant merchant. In the 11th and 12th centuries, when the crafts separated from agriculture and cities arose, the merchantry in Western Europe developed simultaneously, especially in the great trade and crafts centers (Venice, Genoa, and the Hanseatic cities of northern Germany). The big merchantry of such cities amassed considerable monetary wealth. The merchantry became the leading component of the urban patriciate. To protect its trade interests, the medieval merchantry joined together in special corporations (such as guilds). By the 15th century, comparatively well-developed techniques of commercial operations had been worked out among the Western European merchantry (including bills of exchange and, in Italy, written accounting in the form of double-entry bookkeeping). Along with trade, the merchantry frequently engaged in usury and tax farming. The merchantry primarily serviced the feudal lords and the urban elite.
The activity of the merchantry became especially important in the period when feudalism disintegrated and the elements of capitalist relations emerged. In their dealings with the broad masses of small commodity producers, the merchant speculators exploited them, cornered their output, and supplied them with raw materials and sold their wares; in these ways the merchant speculators often became, in reality, capitalist entrepreneurs, the owners of manufactories. This penetration of merchant capital into the sphere of production was observed in some of the large centers of the wool industry (Florence and the cities of Flanders) as early as the 13th and 14th centuries, but it became extensive only in the 16th to 18th centuries, particularly in the Netherlands, England, France, and certain regions of Germany. In the era of the great geographical discoveries, the merchantry of Western Europe drew America, Asia, and Africa into the orbit of its trade activity, taking an active part in the exploitation of these lands. Large trading companies were formed: these managed to establish trade monopolies or even to attain military and political rule over entire countries and regions of the world (for example, the East India companies of the Dutch and the British). At this stage of development (16th to 18th centuries), the merchantry was active in the process of the primitive accumulation of capital; it became one of the sources for the forming bourgeois.
In a developed capitalist society, the merchantry loses its independent role; industrial capital and the industrial bourgeoisie come to the fore. Under imperialism, trade is controlled by large capitalist monopolies, and merchants of the traditional type, conducting trade independently, survive primarily in the retail trade, although even in this sphere they are increasingly being driven out by the commercial enterprises of the capitalist monopolies. In certain colonies and semicolonies, the compradore bourgeoisie, which is closely tied to foreign capital and economically and politically subordinate to it, formed from among the local merchantry engaged in intermediary trade during the 19th century.
REFERENCESMarx, K. Kapital, vol. 3, ch. 20. K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 25, part 1.
Kulisher, I. M. Istoriia ekonomicheskogo byta Zapadnoi Evropy, 8th ed., vols. 1–2. Moscow-Leningrad, 1931.
Lacour-Gayet, J. Histoire du commerce, vols. 1–6. Paris, 1950–56.
From the 17th century, the tie between merchant capital on the one hand and domestic industry and agricultural production on the other was strengthened. Internal trade gradually became the main source of accumulation for the merchantry. Contract and concession operations (the delivery of spirits, provisions, and the like; the farming out of the liquor profits) came to play an important role in the formation of big capital, which tied the owners of this capital to the feudal economic system. The big merchantry began to combine trade and usury operations with entrepreneurship in industry. The growing economic importance of the urban merchantry was reflected in legislation (including the Trade Regulations of 1653 and the New Trade Regulations of 1667). The changes that took place reflected the reforms of the first quarter of the 18th century: the corporations of gosti, torgovye liudi of the gostinaia, and sukonnaia sotnia were abolished, and the members of the corporations were formed into a new estate called the merchantry (kupechestvo), the rights and duties of which were the same as those of the posadskie liudi.
The estate was expanded by the addition of the Ukrainian merchants in the 17th century and of the guild merchantry of the Baltic region in the first quarter of the 18th. The merchantry of Byelorussia (except for the Jews) and of regions annexed in the second half of the 18th and first half of the 19th centuries received rights equal to those of the Russian merchantry. The merchantry of the Baltic region and, as of the 19th century, the merchantry of Poland and Finland, retained some of their special rights up to the 20th century.
The dominance of the serf system hindered the growth of the urban merchantry. In order to expand the autocracy’s social base in the cities and to increase government revenue, the government created the privileged guild merchantry in 1775. The new organization included the bourgeoisie of the Russian, Ukrainian, and later the Byelorussian cities: industrialists, big and middle merchants, representatives of the emerging banking capital, and representatives of usury capital, which persisted in the backward land. The city merchants not included in the organization formed the social estate of the meshchanstvo. The organization of the guild merchantry, which received final form in the Charter of the Cities in 1785, survived without radical changes up to 1861.
The crisis of the serf system led to the gradual decline of the guild merchantry of the cities and simultaneously to the growth and formation, also in estate form, of the peasant bourgeoisie, including a stratum of peasant merchants. In the first half of the 19th century, the guild merchantry grew extremely slowly. Between 1811 and 1840 the country’s taxpaying population increased by nearly 70 percent, but the guild merchantry increased by only 9 percent (from 201,200 to 219,400). There was a relative drop in the merchantry’s share of industry and trade, and many old merchant families were ruined. The government’s attempt in the Kankrin guild reform (1824) to restrict the petty trade of peasants and the meshchanstvo in the cities and thus strengthen the position of the guild merchantry ended in failure. At the same time, peasant trade and industries were growing. In 1812 the government, in the interests of the state treasury and taking into account the demands of the pomeshchiki (landlords), overrode the opposition of the guild merchantry and granted peasants engaged in commerce and crafts a status equal to that of the merchantry. From 1816 to 1824 peasants bought between 3,100 and 8,600 trade licenses a year. The stratum of peasant merchants, like the guild merchantry of the late 18th and first half of the 19th centuries, was not a narrow estate in terms of its social composition; the estate encompassed the forming peasant bourgeoisie, both commercial and industrial.
With the abolition of serfdom in 1861, the existence of a closed merchant estate in the cities was undermined, although the estates, including the merchantry, retained many of their rights in Russia up to 1917. As of 1863, access to the merchantry was open to people who came from all the other estates. But there was virtually no increase in the merchant estate in the second half of the 19th century: it had 219,400 people in the 1840’s and 225,600 in 1897. By the 20th century, the merchantry was an insignificant segment of Russia’s bourgeoisie. The merchantry as an estate was eliminated once and for all with the Great October Socialist Revolution.
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M. IA. VOLKOV