Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 26, 2007

What Marx meant by primitive accumulation

Filed under: economics — louisproyect @ 12:55 am

I plan to blog thousands of words over the summer about the “transition debate”, which involves principals including Paul Sweezy, Maurice Dobb, Robert Brenner, Jim Blaut et al but just want to jump the gun on something that is fresh in my mind.

Richard, of Lenin’s Tomb fame, has been posting rather frequently on this question. This in fact is what prompted me to return to the subject once again. Today he has a post about 16th century Holland that asserts “the essential character of surplus-extraction in the Dutch economy was pre-capitalist commerce and ‘political’ extraction.”

1) This led me to comment:

One of the difficulties faced in defining 16th and 17th century Holland as non-capitalist or pre-capitalist is that it logically entails answering the question in positive terms. If it wasn’t capitalism, what was it? Keep in mind that Engels’s schema in “Origins of the Family” defines capitalism as immediately following feudalism. He didn’t come up with these stages on his own. They were shared by Marx. Was 16th and 17th century Holland “feudal”? If so, then the word has no use as a strict social science category.

2) Richard replied:

We may be in need of a new typology, because the phrase ‘transitional forms’ doesn’t seem to capture what happened, and nor does ‘absolutism’. But I think that we can at least say that commerce develops in a variety of modes of production, and its character is determined by what mode of production it is integrated into. Dutch commerce was integrated into and reliant on the dyamics of a European system that was still largely feudal, with the exception of England, so I think it can be characterised as pre-capitalist precisely as the Italian city-states were.

3) I then commented:

I don’t think it is necessary to come up with a new typology. Marx already summed this “transitional” stage up as primitive accumulation. The chapter on the genesis of the industrial capitalist in Capital V. 1 is replete with references to slavery, trade monopolies like the East India Company. This is how capitalism began. It combined separation of the peasants from the means of production in Western Europe, slavery of Africans, forced labor in Latin America, colonial domination in Asia, etc.

4) Richard replied:

No, I’m sorry, that doesn’t cut it. First of all, he phrased it the “so-called primitive accumulation”.

—-

At this stage I prepared a lengthy comment on primitive accumulation but it got lost in the process of re-clicking the comment link by accident. In general, I don’t think that the comments sections of blogs are useful for these kinds of exchanges. They don’t incorporate the typographical tools that listservs provide, nor are they organized by thread, so that it is difficult to keep track of things. In light of this, I am going to say a few words about primitive accumulation here rather than on his blog.

To start with, the “so-called” is a reference to bourgeois economists who preceded Marx. He characterized their views in chapter 26 of Capital (The Secret of Capital Accumulation) as follows:

This primitive accumulation plays in Political Economy about the same part as original sin in theology. Adam bit the apple, and thereupon sin fell on the human race. Its origin is supposed to be explained when it is told as an anecdote of the past. In times long gone-by there were two sorts of people; one, the diligent, intelligent, and, above all, frugal elite; the other, lazy rascals, spending their substance, and more, in riotous living. The legend of theological original sin tells us certainly how man came to be condemned to eat his bread in the sweat of his brow; but the history of economic original sin reveals to us that there are people to whom this is by no means essential.

In other words, primitive accumulation in Adam Smith’s view was a kind of morality tale, like the one involving the ant and the grasshopper.

Marx retained the term primitive accumulation but gave it his own meaning:

The so-called primitive accumulation, therefore, is nothing else than the historical process of divorcing the producer from the means of production. It appears as primitive, because it forms the pre-historic stage of capital and of the mode of production corresponding with it.

There is nothing moral about this. It is accomplished through a combination of deceit, theft and superior class power. In chapter 31 (The Genesis of the Industrial Capitalist), he explains the role of primitive accumulation in the earliest stages of the capitalist system:

The different momenta of primitive accumulation distribute themselves now, more or less in chronological order, particularly over Spain, Portugal, Holland, France, and England. In England at the end of the 17th century, they arrive at a systematical combination, embracing the colonies, the national debt, the modern mode of taxation, and the protectionist system. These methods depend in part on brute force, e.g., the colonial system. But, they all employ the power of the State, the concentrated and organised force of society, to hasten, hot-house fashion, the process of transformation of the feudal mode of production into the capitalist mode, and to shorten the transition. Force is the midwife of every old society pregnant with a new one. It is itself an economic power.

You’ll note that Marx does not equate primitive accumulation with the enclosure acts, or other measures that separated the British peasant from the means of production in the late middle ages. He refers to the colonies and the protectionist system, an aspect of the early stages of capitalism that Robert Brenner, Ellen Meiksins Wood and Benno Teschke either ignore or regard as a kind of impediment to capitalist development. Did Marx view trading monopolies as impediments to capital accumulation? Obviously not:

The English East India Company, as is well known, obtained, besides the political rule in India, the exclusive monopoly of the tea-trade, as well as of the Chinese trade in general, and of the transport of goods to and from Europe. But the coasting trade of India and between the islands, as well as the internal trade of India, were the monopoly of the higher employés of the company. The monopolies of salt, opium, betel and other commodities, were inexhaustible mines of wealth.

He continues:

The colonial system ripened, like a hot-house, trade and navigation. The ‘societies Monopolia’ of Luther were powerful levers for concentration of capital. The colonies secured a market for the budding manufactures, and, through the monopoly of the market, an increased accumulation. The treasures captured outside Europe by undisguised looting, enslavement, and murder, floated back to the mother-country and were there turned into capital. Holland, which first fully developed the colonial system, in 1648 stood already in the acme of its commercial greatness.

Let me repeat for emphasis: “The treasures captured outside Europe by undisguised looting, enslavement, and murder, floated back to the mother-country and were there turned into capital.

In other words, the capitalist system was launched on the backs of looted, enslaved and murdered Indians and Blacks. These people don’t get much mention in Benno Teschke’s “1648”. Jim Blaut said this sort of thing was a function of Eurocentrism and I tend to agree with him.

I will have more to say about all this over the summer, but I want to conclude with a recommendation that comrades take a look at Michael Perelman’s “The Invention of Capitalism: Classical Political Economy and the Secret History of Primitive Accumulation”. It is a thorough debunking of the theories of Adam Smith and other more obscure political economists who held to the “original sin”, ant and grasshopper concept.

4 Comments »

  1. Note that Marx says: “England at the end of the 17th century, they arrive at a systematical combination, embracing the colonies, the national debt, the modern mode of taxation, and the protectionist system.” They arrive at a systemical combination– that would indicate a culmination, and a system able to turn the treasures captured outside Europe by looting, slavery, and murder into capital. What system could do that? A system that had already established the social relations of capital internally, in its domestic market.

    What systems could not do that? The sysems that in fact had failed to establish such capitalist relations internally, in its domestic market, in agriculture. Like Spain.

    Comment by s.artesian — May 26, 2007 @ 4:07 am

  2. Well, I don’t disagree with the explication of Marx’s analysis, but I will take the opportunity to clarify a few points.

    You’ll note that Marx does not equate primitive accumulation with the enclosure acts, or other measures that separated the British peasant from the means of production in the late middle ages. He refers to the colonies and the protectionist system, an aspect of the early stages of capitalism that Robert Brenner, Ellen Meiksins Wood and Benno Teschke either ignore or regard as a kind of impediment to capitalist development.

    I can’t say too much about Teschke, being familiar with only one of his books (and that doesn’t deal with this question at any great length) but neither Brenner nor Wood restrict primitive accumulation to the enclosure acts or, say, the transformation of land-lease mechanisms which (they say) produce the capitalist form of differentiation in the peasantry. So far as Wood is concerned, she does not described the colonies and protectionist system as an impediment to capitalist development: what she insists is that for the colonies to be capitalist (as in Ireland or English colonies in the Americas), there must already have been a transformation of social-property relations in the colonising country. This would seem to explain why some great colonisers didn’t then make the transition to capitalism (Spain is an obvious instance).

    The passage you cite from Marx appears in Brenner and Wood’s explanations for their focus on the political nature of the transition, as opposed to one that is effected simply by the development of commerce, division of labour and trade.

    Let me repeat for emphasis: “The treasures captured outside Europe by undisguised looting, enslavement, and murder, floated back to the mother-country and were there turned into capital.“

    In England, yes: not in Spain, where the loot was largely expended on non-capitalist forms of surplus-extraction and discipline (territorial expansion, religious control). It is obviously not sufficient to steal a bunch of loot for it to become capital: that loot is transformed by its integration into a capitalist social relationship into capital. Similarly, as Wood argues in The Origin of Capitalism (pp 148-9), slavery undoubtedly contributed a great deal to the augmentation and further development of capitalism in England, but for that to be so, the transtion must have already been made. This would partially explain why ancient slave societies, or other European powers that made use of slavery in the high middle ages and early modern period, didn’t make the transition to capitalism.

    Comment by lenin — May 26, 2007 @ 9:34 am

  3. So the debate between Lenin’s Tomb and Proyect is about whether or not we need new terminology to describe the particulars of 16th century Holland? Or is there more substance to it than that?

    I don’t see why the word transitional should be discarded – it’s vague enought include just about every social formation between feudalism and capitalism proper. But if people can come up with better terms that more accurately reflect the particular stage or phase in the transition from one to another, I’m all for it.

    Comment by Binh — May 29, 2007 @ 8:03 pm

  4. I think the differences between me and Lenin’s Tomb will be clearer in the next few months. I do think that the 16th and 17th centuries can be seen as transitional between feudalism and capitalism in the same way that the USSR was transitional between capitalism and socialism. That is why the debate is interesting to me. Looking at the “gray areas” of history is always a challenge.

    Comment by louisproyect — May 29, 2007 @ 8:10 pm


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