William C. Roberts
Original publication: academia.edu

What Was Primitive Accumulation? Reconstructing the Origin of a Critical Concept (2017)

This article was originally published in the European Journal of Political Theory.

These ideas are further explored in Marx’s Inferno: The Political Theory of Capital (2016), an absolutely essential work for those interested in Marxist theory.



It has been said that we are living in “an era of primitive accumulation.” [1] Whether or not processes of primitive accumulation especially mark the present, invocations of the term certainly do. When Taiaiake Alfred credits Glen Coulthard with having “rescued Karl Marx from his nineteenth-century hostage chamber,” [2] he has in mind Coulthard’s mobilization and reconstruction of Marx’s concept of primitive accumulation. When David Harvey claims that “the hallmark of […] ‘the new imperialism’” of the twenty-first century is “accumulation by dispossession,” [3] he is rechristening and reformulating Marx’s notion. When James Tully is pressed to identify how he would address the legacies of imperialism, he refers to the recent history of “dispossession, primitive accumulation, centralised state building, militarization, economic exploitation, and ecological destruction” in order to refuse any appeal to strong states or economic development, advocating instead a turn to “cooperative, community-based, ecological and non-violent traditions of self-reliance.” [4]

All of these users of Marx’s concept, [5] however, want to sever the notion of primitive accumulation from connections and connotations that burden it in Marx’s text. They agree that, in order to be redeployed in the present, Marx’s concept must be reformulated. And there is widespread agreement about the changes that must be made. First, Marx mistakenly portrays primitive accumulation as a bloody moment in the past, since replaced by the relatively bloodless workings of the mature capitalist system. Second, as much as Marx condemns the violent expropriation of the peasantry, he also justifies it as a necessary step on the way to the communist future.

I would like to take issue with the current rehabilitation of “primitive accumulation.” Rather than sever the concept from the context of its emergence, I propose to examine it in that context. Doing so reveals the stakes of Marx’s discussion: a proper disaggregation of the agencies responsible for capitalism. In the first instance, Marx is concerned to specify the agency of capital. Marx identifies primitive accumulation as “the prehistory of capital,” [6] not in order to consign it to the past, but in order to underscore the distinction between hoarding up wealth — money, land, products, whatever — and using it as capital. The violence of primitive accumulation can amass the former, but cannot make the accumulated wealth function as capital. This distinction — and the consequent distinction between capital and capitalism — is, Marx thinks, essential for understanding how capitalism operates, and what makes it different from other forms of society. Within capitalism, capital is the agent of accumulation by exploitation, not the agent of primitive accumulation.

This brings us to the second issue, for Marx, that of revolutionary strategy. As most commentators note, the state is the overwhelming agent of primitive accumulation. What goes unnoted is why. According to Marx, the state pursues policies of primitive accumulation because it has become dependent upon capital accumulation — economic growth — for its own existence and functioning. Policies of primitive accumulation are attempts by the state to secure the conditions of economic growth. This dependency of the state upon capital makes the state into an enemy of all attempts to refuse, evade, or escape capitalism. All such attempts will, just to the extent that they are or promise to be successful, encounter the armed agents of the state. This is where the state fits into capitalism. This epochal change in the role of the state explains Marx’s insistence upon the historical inevitability of conquest and expropriation. He does not justify primitive accumulation as a necessary step on the historical path to socialism. He argues, rather, that existing forms of petty production, and the forms of social solidarity they foster, are too vulnerable to the violent encroachments of capital’s mighty servant, the state. Liberation requires a strategy of conquering the conqueror and expropriating the expropriators.

Returning “primitive accumulation” to the context of its origination, therefore, actually brings Marx’s argument up to date. The recent reformulations of Marx’s notion are provoked by very real and ongoing processes of coercive and violent expropriation, the forceful separation of people from independent access to the means of living. But these processes underscore both the complementarity of state action and capitalist production and the irreducible difference between them. The continuing salience of capitalist accumulation to state action, and vice versa, indicates the contemporaneity of Marx’s analysis, not its obsolescence. Only by clarifying what primitive accumulation was in Marx’s text can we determine what it is and will be in the present and future.

The renovation of primitive accumulation

During the twentieth century, Marxist debate over primitive accumulation was defined by the contest between those who thought of it as an event in the past, and those who conceived it as a continuous and ongoing process. For those who took primitive accumulation to be “accumulation in an historical sense,” [7] “the adjective ‘primitive’ correspond[ed] to a clear-cut temporal dimension (the past).” [8] [9] They focused, therefore, on pinpointing the historical origin of capitalism in Western Europe, and especially in Britain. Opposed to them were those who argued that “the mechanisms of primitive accumulation […] do not belong only to the prehistory of capitalism; they are contemporary as well.” [10] [11] Those who forwarded this argument focused on the ongoing relationship between a capitalist interior or core and a non-capitalist frontier or periphery.

Despite their opposition to one another on political and historiographic grounds, the parties to these debates shared the presupposition that primitive accumulation marked the point of contact between capitalism and the non-capitalist world. After all, there is no contradiction between calling primitive accumulation “the pre-history of capitalism” and agreeing that it is ongoing. Rosa Luxemburg, the acknowledged fount of the thesis of continuous primitive accumulation, understood capitalism to be ever-expanding into non-capitalist zones. This is why she thought primitive accumulation to be ongoing; it marks the process of capitalism ingesting non-capitalism. [12] The prehistory of capitalism is being continuously re-enacted at the point of ingestion.

The new reading of primitive accumulation with which this essay is concerned departs in a crucial way from this common presupposition of the older debates. Rather than allowing that processes of primitive accumulation mark the frontiers — temporal and/or spatial — between capitalism and non-capitalism, the new accounts claim to locate primitive accumulation within capitalism itself. David Harvey’s formulation is representative:

Marx’s general theory of capital accumulation is constructed under certain crucial initial assumptions which broadly match those of classical political economy and which exclude primitive accumulation processes. […] The disadvantage of these assumptions is that they relegate accumulation based upon predation, fraud, and violence to an “original stage” that is considered no longer relevant or, as with Luxemburg, as being somehow “outside of” the capitalist system. [13]

According to Harvey, however, “accumulation based upon predation, fraud, and violence” is immanent in the operations of capitalism as such.

The same conclusion is reached by Silvia Federici. She claims that Marx “was deeply mistaken” when he “assumed that the violence that had presided over the earliest phases of capitalist expansion would recede with the maturing of capitalist relations, when the exploitation and disciplining of labor would be accomplished mostly through the workings of economic laws.” [14] Glen Coulthard concurs. Seconding Kropotkin’s objection to Marx’s “erroneous division between the primary accumulation of capital and its present-day formation,” [15] Coulthard argues that, in order to be “relevant,” the notion of primitive accumulation must be “transformed” so as to include “the persistent role that unconcealed, violent dispossession continues to play in the reproduction of colonial and capitalist social relations.” [16] [17] Eschewing the terminology of “primitive accumulation” altogether — in favor of his own coinage, “war capitalism” — Sven Beckert likewise argues that historians and theorists should emphasize that “slavery, colonialism, and forced labor, among other forms of violence, were not aberrations in the history of capitalism, but were at its very core.” [18]

All of these scholars agree, then, that Marx erred insofar as he conceived primitive accumulation as a violent process “that obliterates all non-capitalist social forms and institutes in their place relations of wage labor characteristic of nineteenth-century British industrial capitalism.” [19] They all seek to reformulate the concept so as to name the “political violence operative in the capitalization of social reproduction.” [20] As Massimo De Angelis put it in his influential early articulation of the new position, “the continuous element of Marx’s primitive accumulation could be identified in those social processes or sets of strategies aimed at dismantling those institutions that protect society from the market.” [21] Since non-capitalist or non-market social relations are always reconstituting themselves, [22] primitive accumulation must be conceived as the ever-renewed work of dismantling these non-capitalist relations.

This critical intervention dovetails with a second. Marx’s conception of primitive accumulation is supposed to have been integral to a “normative developmentalism” that casts the violent expropriation of the peasantry and other practitioners of “natural economy” as a painful but necessary stage through which humanity must pass on the way to socialism. [23] Thus, while “Marx was acutely aware of the murderous character of capitalist development,” Federici declares that “there can be no doubt that he viewed it as a necessary step in the process of human liberation.” [24] Likewise, Jim Glassman claims that “for Marx, primitive accumulation, however loathsome in its violence and hypocrisy, is a necessary step in the direction of fuller human development.” [25] Tully insists, as well, that “Marx’s specific explication of primitive accumulation” enshrines several processes “as unjust yet necessary and universal preconditions of the development of capitalism to communism,” including “the dispossession of Indigenous peoples; the destruction of non-capitalist modes of production; the individuation and commodification of human productive powers […]; and the commodification of the earth.” [26]

This criticism of Marx buttresses the first; both take him to task for the teleological Eurocentrism built into his conception of primitive accumulation. If capitalism looks like the Carolina slave plantation as much as the Manchester garment factory, then the sense that the slave plantation gives way to the garment factory disappears. If proletarian power is to be found in “a Quiche indian village in the Guatemalan hills” as much as in the strike organizations of London’s East End, then “Marx’s righteous horror of ‘petty producers’” is just a vestige of providential historicism, impatient for the rest of the world to catch up to Europe. [27] The colonial frontier is internal to capitalism’s most intimate workings, and so cannot be set off against a “more developed” metropolitan core, the operations of which foretell the future of the periphery. Any attempt to renovate Marx’s concept, therefore, must grapple with “the historicist bias that Marxism shares with mainstream developmentalism and globalization narratives,” a bias that “judges the extent of capitalist maturation by the degree to which wage labor regulated by free markets becomes the predominant form of organizing production.” [28]

These are powerful criticisms. It is easy to appreciate why they have won the day. I will argue, however, that they miss the point of Marx’s argument in Part Eight of Capital. Marx can — and does — affirm that processes of primitive accumulation are internal to capitalism. He insists nonetheless that they constitute the prehistory of capital because, while plunder, fraud, and theft can stock up wealth that can be used as capital, they cannot actually make that wealth function as capital. Capital works as capital by other means. The new reading of primitive accumulation obscures the necessity of this displacement of wealth into capital, and, with it, the distinction between capital and capitalism. Capital requires primitive accumulation, but cannot accomplish this accumulation for itself. It needs other agencies to act to its benefit. In this light, I argue, the historical trajectory Marx sketches in Part Eight loses the aspect of universal history and reveals itself to be, instead, an account of capital’s capture of the state, which undertakes capital’s dirty work because it has become dependent upon capital accumulation for its own existence. This is a strategic reality that Marx urges his contemporary anti-capitalists to confront, not a theoretical construction of historical development he foists upon them.

The context of Marx’s concept of primitive accumulation

Primitive accumulation is set off by Marx against the accumulation of capital, or accumulation by exploitation. In order to understand his conception of the former, we have to understand his conception of the latter. And in order to do this, we have to appreciate that Marx was an outlier among nineteenth-century socialists. [29] Most socialists echoed the theory of the Saint-Simonians, according to which the accumulation of capital, and the attendant exploitation of the workers, are the direct consequence of the conquest of the land and the extortion this allowed the landed to exact from the poor producer. In the words of The Doctrine of Saint-Simon, “Physical force and the exploitation of man by man are two coexisting, corresponding facts. The latter is the consequence of the former.” [30]

In England, this theory was promulgated by the influential Owenite, William Thompson, who declared that the present system of commerce was an “empire of force and fraud,” [31] and by the Chartist agitator Bronterre O-Brien, who claimed that “profitmongers and landlords” exercised an “unlimited and irresponsible power of murder and robbery over the mass of mankind.” [32] In Germany, Karl Heinzen argued that “the rule of force dominates capitalistic property relations.” [33] Later, Eugen Dühring’s thesis, that all economic relations are founded in the violent exclusion of some from the use of natural resources, was the subject of three chapters of Engels’s Anti-Dühring. [34] In France, the greatest proponent of this view, after the Saint-Simonians themselves, was Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. Proudhon argued that the “regime of exploitation” is “synonymous” with the “feudal regime, governmental regime, [or] military regime,” and that, “whatever phraseology is used,” “doing away with farm-rent and lending at interest” would eliminate “the last vestiges of the ancient slavery,” and, with them, “the sword of the executioner, the hand of justice, the club of the policeman, [and] the gauge of the customs officer.” [35]

Marx disagreed vehemently, and, during the time he was working on volume one of Capital, was especially concerned to combat the influence of Proudhon’s ideas within the International Workingmen’s Association. [36] He thought this way of thinking, by figuring capitalist exploitation as just another form of rent-seeking or extortion, misled the labouring classes in their struggle for self-emancipation. The Saint-Simonian theory made accumulation by exploitation into a moral problem of rentiers accruing and abusing their power over the propertyless. It took no account of the novel dynamism of capitalist exploitation, as opposed to the conservatism of pre-capitalist labour relations. Neither could it account for the novelty of struggles over the length and intensity of work.

Rather than being an index of the persistence of the pre-capitalist world, Marx argued that exploitation takes a novel form under capitalism. As Marx puts it, “as a producer of alien industriousness, as a surplus-labour-pump and an exploiter of labour-power, [capital] surpasses — in its energy, measurelessness, and effectiveness — all earlier systems of production based on direct forced labour.” [37] This is what Marx wants to elucidate: modern workers freely — and more effectively and energetically — do what ancient peoples had to enslave others to get done. In the French edition, he calls this “the great secret of modern society.” [38]

This secret lies in the market for labour-power, and in capitals’ exploitation of labour-power via the wage contract. Labour-power is, Marx claims, a very special commodity. It is “a source not only of value, but of more value than it itself has.” [39] This claim is now generally dismissed, even by many Marxists. It has fallen before the criticism that, in a growing economy, any basic commodity adds more value than is required to reproduce that commodity; corn, therefore, is exploited at the same rate as labour-power. [40] This criticism is too clever by half, however. [41] If we take the method of production as given, the quantity of any non-labour material of production will determine the quantities of all other non-labour inputs. For example, if we know how shoes are manufactured, a given quantity of rubber for the soles, or of leather for the uppers, will determine exactly how many shoes can be made, and how much of each of the other material inputs will be required. The quantity of labour-power purchased, however — for example, one day’s labour — will determine nothing, since how much actual labour one can wring from the purchased labour-power is a matter of work discipline, skill, and other factors.

Therefore, Marx argues, the institution of the labour market motivates a dynamic and expansive mode of production. Having purchased labour-power on the market and for a fixed period, the capitalist wants to “extract the maximum possible advantage” from this purchase while he or she can dispose of it. [42] Because the length and intensity of the working day are indeterminate, and because the capitalist can only realize a profit by selling the produce of labour, and because the surplus realized by the capitalist takes the form of money, of which one can always have more, capitalist production gives rise to a “boundless need for surplus labour.” Cases of “frightful” overwork were abnormal and exceptional in the pre-modern world, but overwork is normal, proper, and essential for the capitalist world. [43] This conclusion is confirmed, Marx argues, by the existence of laws limiting labour-time. Even though it is in the general interest of capital to keep the exploitation of labour-power within sustainable limits, the collective action problem inherent in production for the competitive market makes it impossible for capitalists to limit overwork voluntarily. Workers are equally powerless to independently establish a limit to the workday. Only “a law of the state, an overpowering social deterrent,” can control overwork under capitalism. [44] Marx thinks this is a complete historical novelty.

Setting limits to the working day is not the end of the story. The expenditure of labour-power can be intensified, and the labour process can be transformed by dividing and mechanizing the labour. This ongoing revolution in the mode of production obliterates the traditional forms and cyclical time of labour. [45] Hence, according to Marx, the capitalist use of labour-saving machinery, instead of reducing labour-time, “sweeps away all customary and natural limits to the length of the working day.” [46] The fight to impose limits on work does not end with the passage of eight- or ten-hours laws, but is endemic to capitalism because it stems directly from capital’s use of labour-power. [47]

Contrary to what other socialists argued, therefore, the capitalists’ exploitation of labour is not of a piece with feudal extortion. The accumulation of capital by the exploitation of labour-power roots capitalism in the labour market, not in the soil. The mechanisms and dynamics of capitalist exploitation derive from the impersonal domination of the labour market, not the personal domination of the local monopolist. [48] Hence, capitalist exploitation is open-ended and flexible, rather than conservative and tradition-bound, and it contains a built-in drive towards overwork that did not characterize previous forms of exploitation. Capitalist accumulation by exploitation is a historical novelty.

The prehistory of capital

With this understanding of accumulation by exploitation in mind, it is easy to see why primitive accumulation would pose a special problem for Marx. [49] By tracing the primitive accumulation of capital back to acts of forceful and fraudulent expropriation, Marx seems to be erasing his divergence from previously-existing socialist theory. Indeed, many readers of Part Eight have noticed exactly this problem. Michael Perelman claims, for example, that, “Marx’s depiction of primitive accumulation” as unfair and brutal “stood in contradiction to the main thrust of Capital,” according to which “the seemingly fair and objective rule of capital necessarily leads to exploitation.” [50] [51] Jason Read is less categorical, but is clearly exercised by the same concerns. “At times,” he claims, “Marx appears to argue that primitive accumulation and the overt violence it involves disappear in the day-to-day relations of exploitation; while at other times it appears that the violent lawmaking power of primitive accumulation is merely privatized and brought indoors in the factory.” [52] Saint-Simonianism, which Marx threw out the front door, seems to have snuck back in the window.

Given this concern, it is arresting that Saint-Simonian language crops up precisely in Marx’s summary statement of the history of primitive accumulation. Marx says that the rise of the “industrial capitalists, these new potentates,” presents itself as the result of a victorious struggle both against seigniorial power, with its revolting prerogatives, and against the regime of the guilds, with the fetters it placed on the free development of production and the free exploitation of man by man. But the knights of industry only supplanted the knights of the sword by exploiting events not of their own making. They have succeeded by means as vile as those that served the Roman freedman to become the master of his patronus. [53]

Alongside the contrast between the new industrials and the old “knights of the sword,” a staple of Saint-Simonian writing, this is the only place in Capital where Marx uses the Saint-Simonian phrase, “the exploitation of man by man.” That he makes these borrowings at just the point where he begins to discuss the origins of modern private property in the forcible seizure of common lands and the violent expropriation of both the small proprietors of Britain and the native peoples of Africa and the Americas calls for closer attention. What close attention reveals, however, is that, while Marx’s language echoes Saint-Simonianism, his claims contradict the Saint-Simonian theory, in two ways.

First, Marx reverses the historical tendency, for he denies the Saint-Simonian thesis that feudalism was more exploitative than capitalism: the rules of the guilds, on the contrary, placed “fetters” on “the free exploitation of man by man.” The Saint-Simonians thought of feudalism as the rule of military force, a rule that was gradually dismantled by the peaceful rise of the industrials, which left intact only the feudal remnants of the state and landed property. This is the narrative taken over and exaggerated by Proudhon. On Marx’s telling, however, “the old order of things” involved both an “industrial hierarchy” and “guarantees of existence.” While the direct producers were “bound to the soil, or […] vassals to another person,” they also had immediate possession of “their own means of production,” and this gave them a measure of protection. This older economic order collapsed into “the constitutive elements” of the “capitalist economic order” only because it was undermined by its prime beneficiaries, the lords of the land. [54] The feudal order gave rise in England, during and after the Wars of the Roses, to the military means and the pecuniary motives by which the lords would abolish feudal land tenures and dispossess the peasantry. They thereby also abolished their own personal, feudal power. In its place, they obtained monetary wealth and private property, and the new forms of impersonal, social power that came with these. The knights of industry did not supplant the knights of the sword, as the Saint-Simonians thought. Rather, the knights of the sword turned themselves into modern landlords.

Marx’s second intervention is more decisive, and is contained in the cryptic finale of his précis. He says there that the industrial capitalists “have succeeded by means as vile as those that served the Roman freedman to become the master of his patronus.” This analogy is obscure but precise. When Roman slaves were manumitted, their relationship to their master was not broken, but was transformed into one of a client to a patron. For a freedman to become the master of their patronus — their former master — would be a rank betrayal of the client-patron bond, a betrayal that can only be compared, in Roman law, to a child murdering their own parent. By the act of manumission, the patron gave to the freedman civil and social life. For the freedman to then enslave their patron, to take away their civil and social life, is inconceivable. [55]

Marx, with this striking analogy, claims that the capitalists were the prime beneficiaries of the lords’ dispossession of the peasantry, that they owe their status and powers to the lords’ abolition of feudalism, but that the capitalists, instead of becoming the lords’ clientele, usurped the lords’ place. The lords may have destroyed feudalism in their pursuit of money and private property, but the rise of capitalism, in turn, subjected the lords of the land to the rule of the emancipated capitalists, on whom they are now dependent. This dependency arises from the fact that, “whatever the proportion of surplus-value which the capitalist entrepreneur retains for himself, or transmits to others [e.g., landlords], he is the one who in the first place appropriates it in its entirety and he alone converts it into capital.” [56] [57] In short, Marx’s story insists that, after the lords betrayed their vassals, abolished feudal power, amassed landed estates, and created the modern proletariat, the rising capitalists, emancipated by the abolition of feudalism, seized dominion over the landlords who had freed them.

Therefore, contrary to both the Saint-Simonian story and the usual reading of Part Eight, Marx does not argue that capitalists originally amassed capital via primitive accumulation, and then, having monopolized the means of production, switched over to accumulation by exploitation. Instead, Marx argues that landlords amassed land through enclosure and expropriation, thereby creating also the modern class of wage labourers; the capitalists then rose up between these two classes, coming to dominate both by exploiting the newly available resource of unattached labour-power. The process of primitive accumulation “incorporated the soil into capital,” [58] but not by making the capitalists the owners of the soil. Instead, the owners of the soil, the landlords, became dependent, for the cultivation of their land, upon the capitalists’ mediation. The producer no longer had possession of the soil, and the possessor of the soil no longer had access to labour. What had been torn asunder must be reunited. This is what the capitalist accomplishes by stepping between the landlord and the workers. The capitalists’ power does not grow from conquest and plunder. The capitalists’ power comes from being neither the conquerors nor the plundered.

Marx confirms this reading at the beginning of Chapter 29, when he claims that the story of expropriation so far told has left unanswered the question, “where did the capitalists originally spring from?” Marx answers by claiming that they arose from bailiffs, share-croppers, and free peasants who were lucky enough to not be expropriated by the land-grabbers, and who were able to capitalize on the enclosures of common lands and the expropriation of their neighbours by expanding their field of production, utilizing the commons for pasturage, manuring larger plots, and employing larger gangs of farm-hands in cooperative labour. Their produce went to market, where it met the demand created by the “annihilation of the domestic industry of the countryside.” [59]

This interpretation is further supported by what Marx wrote elsewhere. Already in 1845, Marx and Engels had criticized the “True Socialists” for seeing “‘the extremes of our society’ in the opposition of rentiers and proletarians,” an opposition “belaboured by all moralists since time immemorial,” and “resurrected” by writers like Saint-Simon. [60] Thirty years later, Marx would insist that the landowners and the capitalists are distinct classes, noting that, “in England, the capitalist is mostly not even the owner of the land on which his factory stands.” [61] [62] In this relationship between capitalist and landlord, capital dominates. Thus, Marx criticized Malthus and Ricardo for failing to recognize that industrialization and cooperative labour — the capitalist mode of production — made rent differentials dependent upon differential employments of the land, and on the development and distribution of the forces of production. Landlords do not dictate terms to capitalists; on the contrary, the rent they can charge depends upon the capitalists’ development of industry. [63] Ricardo famously argued that “corn is not high because a rent is paid, but rent is paid because corn is high.” [64] Marx rejoins that exploitation is not high because rent is paid, but rent is paid because exploitation is high. Landlords can skim off the top only because the capitalist exploitation of labour-power accumulates a mass of surplus-value sufficient to feed even a class of idle rentiers. In Marx’s own words, “Even though landed property can drive the price of agricultural products above their price of production, it does not depend on this, but rather on the general state of the market, how far market price rises above the price of production.” [65] As he put it in The Civil War in France: “the landlord is now but the sleeping partner of the capitalist.” [66]

Therefore, Marx’s account of primitive accumulation does not undermine his account of accumulation by exploitation, since capitalists neither carried out the original expropriation of the producers nor inherited the monopoly power of the landed proprietors who did carry it out. Capitalists are able to exploit labour-power because they are situated between the expropriated masses and the few landed proprietors. It is from their position of relative freedom, vis-à-vis feudal constraints, that they were able to subjugate not only the poor labourers but also their old lords, who had delivered capital from its bondage only to become its clients.

Marx calls primitive accumulation “the prehistory of capital,” in short, not because capital (or capitalism) has its historical origin in acts of violence and theft, but because modern industrial capital originates in the opportunistic exploitation of new forms of freedom created by acts of violence and theft. Violence and theft are prehistoric because they cannot create capital, but only capital’s preconditions. [67] Acts of violence and theft are not yet the process of capitalizing upon the conditions created by violence and theft. Capital requires others to do the dirty work of creating its preconditions. As we will now see, this is crucial for Marx’s understanding of capitalism’s colonial and imperial reach, and for the practical lesson of Part Eight, how the labouring classes might overcome capital and establish a new mode of production.

The dependency of the state

The element of Marx’s argument in Capital that looks like “normative developmentalism” is his claim, in Chapter 32, that to continue the old system of small domestic industry and petty agriculture “would be, as Pequeur says judiciously, ‘to decree mediocrity for all.’” [68] This leads into his infamous claim that capital is the negation of private property grounded in labour, and that the proletarian revolution will be “the negation of the negation.” [69] Hence, Marx seems to inscribe capitalism in a Hegelian progressive history, within which primitive accumulation plays the role of the so-called bad side by which reason works itself out. Elsewhere in Part Eight, however, Marx attacks “the stoical peace of mind” of those defenders of the enclosures who argued that they were necessary in order to produce “more labour,” or else to establish “the due proportion between arable land and pasture.” [70] These arguments excuse the atrocities of primitive accumulation by reference to the economic progress they made possible, precisely what Marx is accused of doing. Since it seems churlish to accuse Marx of such blatant self-contradiction — and in the span of a mere thirty pages — it is only fair to see if Chapter 32 might be better interpreted in a different light.

If one leaves aside all preconceptions — everything one “knows” about Marx’s Hegelian historicism — Marx’s point in Chapter 32 is simply that there is no going back. The workers’ movement has to accept socialized production and organize to expropriate the capitalist class, not attempt to retrieve the modes of production capital has displaced. The question is: what, if not “normative developmentalism,” provides the directionality here? What has happened that imposes a backward and a forward on history?

Here it is crucial to note that Chapter 32 is sandwiched between two chapters in which Marx outlines the role of the modern state in primitive accumulation. There is a massive literature devoted to Marx’s understanding of the state. The better representatives of this literature distinguish between two models of the state in Marx. [71] The first, most commonly associated with “the Marxist theory of the state,” figures the state as an instrument of class domination. The second figures the state as a parasite, striving for or achieving a sort of independence vis-à-vis the bourgeoisie. [72] I argue that Part Eight of Capital contains a third model of the state, one that integrates elements of the instrumental and parasitic models: the state as dependent agent of capital. The state is parasitic in that it depends upon the accumulation of capital (as I will discuss below), and this dependency accounts for both the state’s “relative autonomy” from the actually existing class of capitalists, and for its very imperfect instrumental relation to capital as such. The state under capital is self-activating but subservient, a servile and corrupt henchman rather than a free agent. This relationship between the state and capital is crucial for understanding what Marx calls “systematic primitive accumulation,” [73] one manifestation of which is E. G. Wakefield’s proposal for “systematic colonization.”

Marx claims that the state has been the agent of “all” the methods of systematic primitive accumulation, “without exception.” [74] Under the colonial regimes, the states of Europe plundered the rest of the world, stealing means of production and labour-power on a massive scale. They thereby “gave a great boost to navigation and commerce.” Also, “the treasures directly extorted outside Europe by the forced labour of indigenous peoples reduced to slavery, by embezzlement, pillage, and murder flowed back to the mother-country in order to function as capital there.” Colonial expeditions and commercial wars were financed by the selling of public bonds. This system of state finance gave rise to a market for speculators, to national banks, and to a system of taxation that “contains within itself the germ of automatic progression.” Taxes, in turn, together with protective tariffs, ruined the remnants of the petty producers. [75]

Artisans, peasants, and indigenous peoples were simply overwhelmed by these state-led initiatives, in the mother country and in the colonies. As even so committed a partisan of the petty producers as Craig Calhoun has admitted, radical mobilizations of traditional communities fell apart whenever they extended “much beyond the range of direct, person-to-person communal ties.” [76] Local resistances were not in the same league as the powers they sought to resist, which were organized at the national and international level, and were capable of employing to great effect the impersonal bond of monetary payments.

Marx does not try to explain how the state came to have an interest in the accumulation of capital. He does, however, indicate mechanisms by which this interest is preserved and recreated. The relationship between tax revenues and public indebtedness is one such mechanism. Once the feudal ties have been severed, the central state can only act insofar as it can pay its agents, and buy the weapons and other implements with which those agents enact the state’s sovereign will. [77] The modern state acts with money. It can acquire the money with which it acts only if capital continues to accumulate within the territory it controls. This dependency of the state upon capital accumulation holds whether one looks to tax revenues or to public borrowing, and whether the government is “despotic, constitutional, or republican.” [78] In Michael Heinrich’s formulation, “the material foundation of the state is thus directly connected to the accumulation of capital; no government can get past this dependency.” [79]

Dependency is not passivity; the state is not a passive instrument of the bourgeois class, but a servant of capital. Servants might anticipate their master’s desire, or try to stay on the master’s good side while doing as little as possible, or try to play one master off against another. Servitude demands strategic and opportunistic action, not passivity. [80] Hence, whenever the conditions of capital accumulation are threatened, we should expect the modern state to act for the sake of securing those conditions, however irrational or superstitious its strategy may be.

Marx argues, against the doux commerce thesis, that colonial and imperial conquest are the predictable outcome of this dependence of the state upon capital. Capital can only pursue accumulation by exploitation where the conditions created by primitive accumulation exist. As capital’s dependent agent, the state executes and enforces the expropriations that capital needs but cannot itself carry out. Hence, Marx’s sarcastic invocation of “doux commerce” to characterize the “treachery, bribery, massacre, and meanness” of Dutch colonial administration in Celebes, Java, and Malacca. [81] The methods of systematic primitive accumulation — colonialism, protectionism, confiscatory taxation, and so forth — are not crude anachronisms in an era of peaceful commerce. They are predictable consequences of the state’s having “entered into the service of the makers of surplus-value.” [82] [83]

This account of the state’s role in primitive accumulation is the crucial context for Marx’s Chapter 32. The negation of the producers’ possession of the means of production is also the creation of agencies with both the power and the interest to destroy petty production. On the one hand, the development of capitalist large industry erodes the skill base of petty production and decimates demand for its products. On the other hand, the modern state, bound to the fortunes of capital, pursues tax, tariff, and colonial policies that “abridge the transitional phases” to the capitalist economic order by means of “a pitiless vandalism, spurred on by the most infamous motives, the passions most sordid and most hateful in their pettiness.” [84]

“The negation of the negation,” the destruction of these agencies of industrial capital and the modern state, cannot, argues Marx, be achieved by petty producers, traditional communities, or experiments in communitarian cooperation. Rather, it can only result from the creation of a new agency, with the power and the interest to destroy capitalist industry and the modern state. Marx thinks that the increasing concentration of capitalist wealth, the progressive deskilling and collectivization of labour, and the relative immiseration of the class of labourers dependent upon wages all conspire to make that class of labourers, and only that class, capable of overthrowing capitalism. “The masses,” unable to satisfy their needs except through cooperative, industrialized labour, have the means, via their “revolutionary combination,” to expropriate “a few usurpers.” [85] This coincidence of motive and means is the material condition for overcoming capitalism.

For Marx, this conclusion is underscored by the situation in the British settler colonies, to which he turns in the final chapter of Capital. As E. G. Wakefield discovered in Australia, machinery and money cannot command labour — that is, to act as capital — where “the bulk of the soil is still public property, and every settler on it can therefore turn part of it into his private property and his individual means of production.” [86] Capital, to be capital, needs primitive accumulation to occur. The cure for the “anti-capitalist cancer of the colonies,” [87] according to Wakefield, is for the government of the mother country to set an artificially high price on the land at the frontier, and use the money generated from the sale of this land to import new labouring settlers. Thereby, the government can establish the conditions of capital accumulation. This is “systematic colonization,” a policy taken up for a time by the British government. [88]

Wakefield’s plan carries a political lesson for Marx. The state’s interest in capital accumulation implies that, wherever worker colonies or other efforts to escape from wage-labour might actually endanger capital, worker separatists will confront not only the difficulties inherent in the organization of a “new moral world,” but also governmental policies backed by force of arms. Hence, the story of Wakefield’s discovery is an allegory about the necessity of large-scale political action to overcome capitalism. From the founding of the International Workingmen’s Association, Marx’s hope was that the organization might “succeed in re-electrifying the political movement of the English working class.” [89] Marx incessantly promoted within the IWMA the view that labourers should organize themselves by and for the sake of intervening in politics at the level of the state for the sake of dismantling the state. The end of Capital is one more piece of this advocacy. Without openly calling for a revolutionary movement to seize and overthrow the state, Marx nonetheless builds a case for the necessity of such a confrontation. [90]


To sum up: the criticism directed at Marx’s conception of primitive accumulation miss the mark. Marx does not confine primitive accumulation to the past, or to the frontiers of capitalism. He argues, rather, that primitive accumulation is an ongoing necessity internal to capitalism, but always anterior to the specific operations of capital. Capital cannot carry out primitive accumulation, even though it needs primitive accumulation in order to create the conditions in which alone it can operate. Hence, capital cannot be the only agent of capitalism; some other agency or agencies has to do the dirty work. In the case of England, the original agents of primitive accumulation were the lords of the land. In general, however, the primary agent of primitive accumulation has been and continues to be the state. Hence, also, Marx does not inscribe primitive accumulation in a normatively developmentalist history. Rather, he urges his fellow socialists to adopt a realist conception of the modern state. Dependent upon capital accumulation for its operations, the state can be expected to outflank and destroy efforts to escape from or stave off the capitalist mode of production. The magnitude of the state’s power, and the reliability with which that power is utilized to foster the conditions of capital accumulation, indicate to Marx that the workers must unite in large numbers and carry out a political struggle to dismantle the state and expropriate the capitalist class.

If the stakes here were only the interpretation of Marx’s chapters on primitive accumulation, this defense of Marx would be of limited import. But if Part Eight of Capital is not as Eurocentric and developmentalist as the new standard reading claims, then the conclusions of Marx’s argument cannot be dismissed. Perhaps Marx did not produce, in “primitive accumulation,” a useful conceptual tool, which can be taken out of its context, sharpened and cleaned up, and then put to our own uses. Perhaps his argument regarding primitive accumulation ought instead to challenge us to reformulate our theoretical understanding of and practical attitude toward both capital and the state.

Indeed, Marx’s argument directly challenges the theoretical and political tendencies of the contemporary critics of primitive accumulation. To be clear, these critics hold diverse — not to say contradictory — views. They do not form a single theoretical school or political party. Nonetheless, the framework of their critique of primitive accumulation indicates certain broadly-shared assumptions. They assume that capitalism is inherently and violently expansive, or imperialistic, and that anti-capitalist politics is, on the contrary, essentially a matter of securing zones of independence from the violent processes by which capitalism develops. Anti-capitalism is thereby figured as independence, sovereignty, autonomy, or secession from capitalism. This suggests a “strategy of exit,” or an emphasis upon “changing the world without taking power.” Hence, also, capitalism appears to be a moral problem, in the sense that a morally-problematic recourse to violence is its linchpin. It can be overcome only by converting violent others to the view that non-violent “commoning” is both morally superior and practically sustainable. The ligaments of a non-capitalist world are present, therefore, in existing practices of resistance and common-living. The task at hand is to scale up these local practices, and to knit them together in networks of solidarity and mutual aid. In short, only “the diabolical global complex of war and militarization” prevents “the structural causes” of “poverty, exploitation, environmental destruction and climate change” from being subjugated to “the democratic authority of the billions who suffer and die from them.” [91] [92]

Marx’s analysis of primitive accumulation casts grave doubts on this set of assumptions. If, as per Marx, primitive accumulation is not carried out by capital, then condemning the former need not touch on the latter. If primitive accumulation is the prehistory of capital, then the disavowal of violence is just as essential to capitalism as the continuation of plunder is its predictable consequence. [93] If the state is dependent upon capital accumulation, then we should expect both that the more sovereignty communities enjoy, the more pressure these communities will face “to open up their settlement lands to exploitation as an economic solution,” [94] and that the prevalence of democratic authority will not make a whit of difference in this dynamic. If the state is the servile agent of capital, then we can expect that alternative ways of life will be easily tolerated so long as they pose no threat to the accumulation of capital, and will face the full repressive power of the state if they do seem to threaten that accumulation. If this is a credible hypothesis about state action, then it is not a meta-narrative of historical development but a counsel of prudence that anti-capitalists organize and plan with the likelihood of this eventual confrontation in mind.

Finally, if Marx was right about primitive accumulation, it is not the desire to secure a form of life outside of capitalism that contains the germ of a post-capitalist world, but the need for large-scale, even global, cooperation. Making this world requires not a refusal of the technologically- and institutionally-mediated interdependency capitalism has foisted upon us, but an acceptance of it as our fate. Pre-capitalist modes of life and cooperation may well inform and inspire both anti-capitalist struggle and post-capitalist society, but since they grew up in response to conditions that were, by definition, untouched by capitalist accumulation, it would be extremely surprising if they were, as such, up to the task of governing a post-capitalist world. In short, there is no reason to think that any of us know how to live in a post-capitalist and post-imperialist way. Hence, there is no reason to think that converting others is the political task at hand. To what would we convert them? Capitalism poses not a moral or ethical problem, but a practical and political one. Surmounting this problem does not require a new or common ethical sensibility, or a change of heart, but a novel set of institutions.

It should not surprise us that Marx’s argument runs so directly against current concerns with primitive accumulation. The contemporary critique is, after all, a reiteration of the socialism and mutualism against which Marx constructed his own critical theory of capital, the Saint-Simonian theory of exploitation cast in new language. This is the evergreen anti-capitalism of “reactionary radicalism.” [95] As Tully points out, it is the anti-capitalism of William Thompson, William Morris, and Peter Kropotkin. [96] He does not mention that it is also the anti-capitalism of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. This anti-capitalism declaims against all “predation, fraud, and violence,” and imagines that it thereby rejects capital. Marx’s argument, however, is that capital, too, condemns all predation, fraud, and violence. Unlike reactionary radicalism, however, capital knows how to benefit from that which it condemns, and the state’s dependency upon economic growth guarantees that predation, fraud, and violence will continue to be regularly visited upon those without the institutional resources to prevent it.


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  1. Federici, 2012, p. 138. 

  2. 2014, p. xi. 

  3. 2004, p. 64. 

  4. 2011, p. 154. 

  5. Robert Nichols has recently argued that an irony of the debates over primitive accumulation is that, while this is supposed to be “a Marxist concept,” it actually “derives from Adam Smith.” [97] I think a close look at the textual history indicates, on the contrary, that “primitive accumulation” — as opposed to “previous,” “original,” or “sogennante unrsprüngliche” accumulation — is a Marxist concept through-and-through, deriving none of its sense from Smith. [98] 

  6. 1976, pp. 875, 928. 

  7. Dobb, 1963, p. 178. 

  8. De Angelis, 1999, sec. 1. 

  9. In this camp, De Angelis includes Lenin, Dobb, Sweezy, and Brenner, among others. 

  10. Amin, 1974, p. 3. 

  11. In addition to Amin, the Subaltern Studies Group, Luxemburg and Wallerstein are important theorists of the continuous character of primitive accumulation. 

  12. 2003, chap. 26-32. 

  13. 2004, pp. 73-4. 

  14. 2004, p. 12. 

  15. 1995, p. 221. 

  16. 2014, p. 9. 

  17. These debates are ably reconstructed by Nichols (2015, pp. 18-20). 

  18. 2015, p. 441. 

  19. Ince, 2013, p. 8. 

  20. Ince, 2014, p. 106. 

  21. 1999, sec. 5.2. 

  22. The influence of Karl Polanyi is patent in this formulation of the issue. 

  23. “Normative developmentalism” is Coulthard’s phrase (2014, p. 9); “natural economy” is Luxemburg’s (2003, chap. 26). 

  24. 2004, p. 12. 

  25. 2006, p. 611. 

  26. 2014, pp. 238-9. 

  27. Midnight Notes Collective, 1990, p. 6. 

  28. Ince, 2014, p. 116. 

  29. A fuller version of the argument of this section can be found in my book, Marx’s Inferno (Roberts, 2017, chap. 4). 

  30. Bazard et al., 1972, p. 63. 

  31. 1850, p. 255. 

  32. 1885, p. 142. 

  33. Bessner and Stauch, 2010, p. 151. 

  34. Engels and Marx, 1987, chap. II. 2-4. 

  35. 1923a, p. 287, 1923b, p. 337. 

  36. Marx’s antipathy to Proudhon’s system has been surveyed by McNally (1993). The influence of Proudhon’s ideas within the IWMA is the subject of Puech (1907). 

  37. 1976, p. 425. 

  38. 1989, p. 143. 

  39. Marx, 1976, p. 301. 

  40. Roemer, 1982, chap. 6, appendix. 

  41. Schweikart, 1989. 

  42. Marx, 1976, p. 342. 

  43. Marx, 1976, p. 345. 

  44. Marx, 1976, pp. 415-6. 

  45. Booth, 1991; Postone, 1993, chap. 5; Sohn-Rethel, 1978, pt. III. 

  46. 1976, p. 532. 

  47. Philip, 2001. 

  48. Marx does not dismiss concerns about accumulated economic power and exploitation by extortion. He denies only that these capture the capitalist exploitation of labour-power in its specificity. [99] 

  49. The argument of this and the following section draw upon arguments presented more fully in Marx’s Inferno (Roberts, 2017, chap. 6). 

  50. 2000, pp. 29-30. 

  51. Perelman’s account has been repeated by David Harvey, who claims that Part Eight “goes against the central presumption of the rest of” Capital, the immanent criticism of political economy (2010, p. 289; Perelman is cited on p. 293). 

  52. 2003, pp. 28-29. 

  53. 1976, p. 875. 

  54. Marx, 1976, p. 875. 

  55. For details about Roman manumission and patronage, see Mouritsen (2011) and Patterson (1982, chap. 9). 

  56. Marx, 1976, p. 710. 

  57. See also the citation of Thomas Hodgskin in Chapter 31: “The capitalist may now be said to be the first owner of all the wealth of the community” (Hodgskin, 1973, p. 98; quoted by Marx, 1976, p. 914). 

  58. Marx, 1976, p. 895. 

  59. Marx, 1976, pp. 905-6, 908, 911. 

  60. 1975, p. 464. 

  61. 2010, p. 343. 

  62. Marx’s statement, in this context, that “the monopoly of land ownership” is “the basis of the monopoly of capital” may appear to contradict my thesis, but does not. Only where the land has been consolidated into private property in the hands of a few are the mass of people reduced to propertylessness, and only then can the capitalist, owning the means of labour and renting the land, arise. As a necessary concomitant of mass expropriation, and a necessary condition for capitalist intermediation, the monopoly in landed property is a basis for capitalism without being constitutive of capital. 

  63. Ramirez, 2009. 

  64. 1973, p. 38. 

  65. 1981, p. 898. 

  66. Marx, 2010, p. 212. 

  67. Unlike Amin and Harvey, Marx never calls primitive accumulation “the prehistory of capitalism.” Only this phrase, and not Marx’s, would imply that primitive accumulation is historically antecedent to capitalism. 

  68. 1976, p. 928. 

  69. 1976, p. 929. 

  70. 1976, pp. 888-9. 

  71. Hunt, 1984, chap. 2-3; Sanderson, 1963. 

  72. Hunt, 1984, p. 4. 

  73. Marx, 1976, p. 915. 

  74. 1976, p. 915. 

  75. Marx, 1976, pp. 916-22. 

  76. 2012, p. 98. 

  77. The extent to which state agents will carry out their mandates simply because they are paid to do so should not be underestimated. Legitimation and patriotic fervour are, often enough, simply side-effects of sending the checks out on time. 

  78. Marx, 1976, p. 919. 

  79. 2012, p. 212. 

  80. Scott, 1990. 

  81. 1976, p. 916. 

  82. Marx, 1976, p. 922. 

  83. Fowkes mistranslates Marx’s Plusmacher as “profit-mongers.” 

  84. Marx, 1976, p. 928. 

  85. Marx, 1976, pp. 929-30. 

  86. Marx, 1976, p. 934. 

  87. Marx, 1976, p. 938. 

  88. Ince, 2013. 

  89. Marx to Engels, 1 May 1865; 1987, p. 150. 

  90. Maximillian Rubel was convinced that Marx had “deliberately reversed the last two chapters” of Capital in order to disguise its revolutionary conclusion from German censors (Marx, 1968, pp. 541, 1705-9). Despite the lack of any positive evidence for this thesis, Rubel could not believe that Marx’s final words would be “a historical chapter that ended and concluded the work with the defeat of the proletariat” (Marx, 1968, p. 1706). It did not occur to him that defeat also holds political lessons. 

  91. Tully, 2014, p. 244. 

  92. My characterization of these shared assumptions is obviously broad, but I have drawn the language of this characterization from across the range of the authors discussed; (see, especially: Coulthard, 2014, pp. 165-79; Harvey, 2004, pp. 75-83; Midnight Notes Collective, 1990, pp. 7-9; Tully, 2014, pp. 238-44). 

  93. Ince, 2013, chap. 1. 

  94. Coulthard, 2014, p. 77. 

  95. Calhoun, 2012. 

  96. 2014, pp. 235, 239. 

  97. As Nichols writes: “In The Wealth of Nations, Smith spoke of an ‘accumulation of stock’ that must be ‘previous to the division of labour.’ When Marx translated this into German, he rendered it as ‘die sogenannte ursprüngliche Akkumulation,’ and then, when Das Kapital was translated into English, it became ‘primitive accumulation.’ Not only are the main terms (‘previous,’ ursprünglich and ‘primitive’) not direct equivalents, but Marx distances himself from association with the idea through his use of the qualifier ‘so-called’” (2015, p. 27, n. 1). 

  98. While Nichols may well be right that “ursprüngliche Accumulation” originated as Marx’s translation of Smith into German, this did not become “primitive accumulation” when Das Kapital became Capital, but when it became Le Capital. This matters because the French translation of 1872-5 was “entièrement revisée par l’autour” (Marx and Engels, 1989, p. 3). Marx himself, then, bears responsibility for the transformation of what had been the second section of chapter six, “Die s.g. Ursprüngliche Accumulation,” and then chapter twenty-four, “Die sogen. ursprüngliche Akkumulation,” into a full-fledged Part Eight, “L’accumulation primitive.” 

  99. This is not the place to enter into a full reconstruction of Marx’s understanding of capitalist exploitation and its relation to force and compulsion. This issue is a fraught one within Marxological debates. One of the important current debates pits those who focus on the specificity of capitalist property relations and the exploitation of wage labour (Robert Brenner, Ellen Meiksins Wood, George Comninel, and others) against those who insist upon the heterogeneity of forms of labour within capitalism’s global ambit (Jairus Banaji, Neil Davidson, Ashley Smith, and others). Without imagining that it gets to the bottom of the differences dividing these scholars, drawing the distinction between capital and capitalism as this essay does illuminates the debate, which can be more polemical than edifying. Those who follow Brenner tend to reduce capitalism to the operations of capital, and thereby to cast anything involving “extra-economic coercion” as non-capitalist or pre-capitalist. Their critics rejoin that capitalism obviously encompasses all manner of slave labour, debt servitude, and colonial predation, and then draw the inference that capital may just as well enslave labour as hire it. Both sides, in short, collapse Marx’s distinction between capital and capitalism. Clearly distinguishing between the two may, therefore, allow for a more productive exchange. For a sense of the debate, see the recent symposium on Banerji’s work in Historical Materialism (Campling, 2013).