Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

April 27, 2015

Capitalism, slavery and primitive accumulation

Filed under: slavery,transition debate — louisproyect @ 6:44 pm

The inspiration for Political Marxism?

On Saturday morning I attended a panel discussion on Mike Zmolek’s newly published “Rethinking the Industrial Revolution” at the Historical Materialism conference held at NYU. This is a 1000-page work based on his dissertation that he began 20 years ago on the suggestion of his adviser George Comninel that the Brenner thesis should be extended forward historically to account for the industrial revolution. While I am sure that the book has a lot of interesting research based on a cursory glance at the dissertation in Proquest, my reaction is to wonder why the Political Marxism tendency, to which Comninel and Zmolek belong, has so little interest in another kind of extension, namely geographical. How in the world can you continue to ignore economic and social developments in the colonial world in the period of early modernity? In some ways it reminds me of that famous New Yorker cartoon where you see a map of the USA in which all the states recede in size increasingly as you move westward from Manhattan with California finally the size of a postage stamp. Substitute the British Isles for Manhattan and you get the Political Marxism perspective.

In the Q&A, Jim Creegan, a Marxmail subscriber and occasional contributor to Weekly Worker, raised a question about merchant capital. He thought that the role of state monopolies such as the East India Company was a major factor in the transition to capitalism in England and wondered why it was given short shrift in Political Marxism scholarship.

Charles Post, who is a Political Marxist and was a discussant in this panel, gave a reply to Creegan that I found quite startling. He informed him that this was an interpretation based on an understanding of “primitive accumulation” that belonged to Early Marx, before he became a full-fledged Marxist. It was the one that could be found in the German Ideology and Communist Manifesto and that was still in the shadow of Adam Smith—a Smithian Marxism so to speak. It was only after Marx had become “clear”, to use the Scientology term, in his later years of the Grundrisse and Capital that the real “primitive accumulation” emerged, one in which social property relations was the lynchpin rather than errant notions of buckets of booty from the colonies, slavery and all that other stuff got mixed in. In this interpretation, it was the enclosure acts, etc. that define primitive accumulation rather than the overseas accumulation of silver, etc.

While I thought I was pretty familiar with Marx’s writings, I had no idea that he wrote about primitive accumulation in German Ideology or the Communist Manifesto, even errantly, so as soon as I got home from the conference I checked it out. Now the last thing on earth that I could possibly be accused of is reading Charles Post’s mind but I have a feeling that he might have been referring to Marx’s emphasis on the role of commerce and the town in the late middle ages. For example, he writes in the German Ideology: “The immediate consequence of the division of labour between the various towns was the rise of manufactures, branches of production which had outgrown the guild-system. Manufactures first flourished, in Italy and later in Flanders, under the historical premise of commerce with foreign nations.” But this, of course, has no connection to Creegan’s question.

Probably the definitive take on primitive accumulation comes from Ellen Meiksins Wood, a leading doyen of the Political Marxism tendency. She limits it strictly to changes in the British countryside and regards any loot wrested from Latin America, Africa or Asia simply as fuel to the fire that was burning in Merrie Olde England:

The essence of Marx’s critique of “the so-called primitive accumulation” (and people too often miss the significance of the phrase “so-called”) is that no amount of accumulation, whether from outright theft, from imperialism, from commercial profit, or even from the exploitation of labour for commercial profit, by itself constitutes capital, nor will it produce capitalism. The specific precondition of capitalism is a transformation of social property relations that generates capitalist “laws of motion”: the imperatives of competition and profit-maximization, a compulsion to reinvest surpluses, and a systematic and relentless need to improve labour-productivity and develop the forces of production.

The critical transformation of social property relations, in Marx’s account, took place in the English countryside, with the expropriation of the direct producers. In the new agrarian relations, landlords increasingly derived rents from the commercial profits of capitalist tenants, while many small producers were dispossessed and became wage labourers. Marx regards this rural transformation as the real “primitive accumulation” not because it created a critical mass of wealth but because these social property relations generated new economic imperatives, especially the compulsions of competition, a systematic need to develop the productive forces, leading to new laws of motion such as the world had never seen before.

“Origins of Capitalism”, pp. 36-37

Furthermore, if Wood had been in attendance at this panel, she would have sharply rebuked Creegan for giving any credence to the idea that merchant capital was an important precursor to the full development of capitalist property relations. In “Empire of Capital”, she described the East India Company as “non-capitalist” and an impediment to economic growth even though in its early stages it helped the British textile industry grow by suppressing India’s advantage.

Unfortunately, by reducing the East India Company’s role in this matter to a sentence or two, Wood succumbs to the New Yorker Magazine cartoon version of history. It would behoove her or any other Political Marxist to pay heed to what R. Palme Dutt wrote in “India Today” back in 1949:

Immediately after, the great series of inventions, such as spinning-jenny and the steam engine, began in Europe which initiated the Industrial Revolution. The development of the age of inventions depended, not simply on “some special and unaccountable burst of inventive genius,” as the leading authority on English industrial history, W. Cunningham, writes in his Growth of English Industry and Commerce in Modern Times, but on the accumulation of a sufficient body of capital as the indispensable condition to make possible the large-scale outlay for their utilisation. Previous inventions of Kay’s fly-shuttle in 1733 and Wyatt’s roller-spinning machine in 1738 came to naught because they couldn’t be used for lack of capital. It was the plunder of India that thus set into motion one of the greatest revolutions of history – the Industrial Revolution. In his Law of Civilization and Decay, the American writer, Brooke Adams describes how it happened:

The influx of the Indian treasure, by adding considerably to the nation’s cash capital, not only increased its stock of energy, but added much to its flexibility and the rapidity of its movement. Very soon after Plassey, the Bengal plunder began to arrive in London, and the effect appears to have been instantaneous; for all the authorities agree that the ‘industrial revolution,’ the event which has divided the nineteenth century from all antecedent time, began with the year 1760. Prior to 1760, according to Bains, the machinery used for spinning cotton in Lancashire was almost as simple as in India; while about 1750 the English iron industry was in full decline because of the destruction of forests for fuel. At that time four-fifths of the iron used in the kingdom came from Sweden.

Plassey was fought in 1757, and probably nothing has ever equalled in rapidity of the change which followed. In 1760 the flying shuttle appeared, and coal began to replace wood in smelting. In 1764 Hargreaves invented the spinning jenny, in 1776 Crompton contrived the mule, in 1785 Cartwright patented the powerloom, and, chief of all, in 1768 Watt matured the steam engine, the most perfect of all vents of centralising energy. But though these machines served as outlets for the accelerating movement of the time, they did not cause that acceleration. In themselves inventions are passive, many of the most important having lain dormant for centuries, waiting for a sufficient store of force to have accumulated to set them working. That store must always take the shape of money, and money not hoarded, but in motion. Before the influx of the Indian treasure, and the expansion of credit which followed, no force sufficient for this purpose existed; and had Watt lived fifty years earlier, he and his invention must have perished together. Possibly since the world began, no investment has ever yielded the profit reaped from the Indian plunder…

The spoliation of India was thus the hidden source of capital accumulation which played an all-important role in helping to make possible the industrial revolution in England. Once the industrial capital was established in England, it needed markets to sells its products to. It was again India which was forced, to absorb these goods to enable the industrial revolution in England to sustain itself. India had to be de-industrialized in order to achieve this. After the victory of English industrial capital over its mercantile capital, India’s textile industry was destroyed leading to the destruction of its urban economy and the subsequent overcrowding in the villages and pushing India hundreds of years behind in its economic development.

Of course, Dutt was a leader of the Communist Party of India and as such might be susceptible to the sort of errant thinking that left the early Karl Marx beneath Charles Post’s exacting standards but surely we can accept the word of the Master himself in his mature phase. While the entire chapter 20 of V.3 of Capital (“Historical Facts about Merchant’s Capital”) would be edifying, it is essential to see how Marx viewed it in terms of the “transition” debate:

There is no doubt — and it is precisely this fact which has led to wholly erroneous conceptions — that in the 16th and 17th centuries the great revolutions, which took place in commerce with the geographical discoveries and speeded the development of merchant’s capital, constitute one of the principal elements in furthering the transition from feudal to capitalist mode of production. The sudden expansion of the world-market, the multiplication of circulating commodities, the competitive zeal of the European nations to possess themselves of the products of Asia and the treasures of America, and the colonial system — all contributed materially toward destroying the feudal fetters on production.

In other words, James Creegan was saying exactly the same thing that Karl Marx was saying, something that the Political Marxists can’t get into their thick skulls. In fact, in the chapter on the Genesis of the Industrial Capitalist in V. 1 of Capital, he doesn’t mention the enclosure acts at all. Instead he cites the East India Company, the slave trade, the extermination of the American Indian and all those other things that recede from the Anglocentric perspective of Post, Wood, Brenner, incorporated:

The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins, signalised the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production. These idyllic proceedings are the chief momenta of primitive accumulation. On their heels treads the commercial war of the European nations, with the globe for a theatre. It begins with the revolt of the Netherlands from Spain, assumes giant dimensions in England’s Anti-Jacobin War, and is still going on in the opium wars against China, &c.

In a very real sense, the debate that the Political Marxists have begun is not so much with people like the late James Blaut, Henry Heller, or Neil Davidson. It is with Karl Marx himself. As long as people have access to Capital, the last word on these questions according to his gatekeeper Charles Post, they will consider these words and realize that they are at odds with those who speak in his name as paragons of orthodoxy. A little less “orthodoxy” and a bit more modesty is in order.

On Sunday morning I heard presentations by John Clegg and Robin Blackburn in a panel on “Slavery in the Age of Capital” that were also important contributions to the ongoing debate over the “transition” question.

For those of you who have been keeping up with this debate, you are probably aware that Charles Post tried to apply the Brenner thesis to the American Civil War viewing slavery as a “precapitalist” institution that the northern bourgeoisie sought to destroy in order to carry out a bourgeois revolution, even if that concept is strictly verboten in Political Marxism circles. Once again, Karl Marx had a completely different take on the relationship of slavery to capitalism:

Direct slavery is as much the pivot upon which our present-day industrialism turns as are machinery, credit, etc. Without slavery there would be no cotton, without cotton there would be no modern industry. It is slavery which has given value to the colonies, it is the colonies which have created world trade, and world trade is the necessary condition for large-scale machine industry. Consequently, prior to the slave trade, the colonies sent very few products to the Old World, and did not noticeably change the face of the world. Slavery is therefore an economic category of paramount importance. Without slavery, North America, the most progressive nation, would he transformed into a patriarchal country. Only wipe North America off the map and you will get anarchy, the complete decay of trade and modern civilisation. But to do away with slavery would be to wipe America off the map.

Letter from Marx to Pavel Vasilyevich Annenkov, 1846

John Clegg not only would agree with this assessment. He goes even further and uses Karl Marx’s categories to defend the proposition that slaves produced surplus value. In other words, the chief difference between a wageworker and a slave was that the class relationship was based in the first instance on a contract between the buyer and seller of labor power but not in the second. Aside from that, there is really no difference since both types of labor is being exploited in order to produce commodities for sale on the capitalist marketplace for a profit.

Clegg has co-authored an article with Duncan Foley, the chair of the economics department at the New School Graduate Faculty and a highly respected Marxist scholar, which has been submitted to the Cambridge Economic History Review and that his talk was drawn from. I will not try to recapitulate it since it is quite complex but will instead refer you to a presentation he has given on it in the past: http://wearemany.org/a/2013/04/slavery-and-capitalism

What I can offer as well is Duncan Foley’s views on slavery and capitalism as they appeared on Gerry Levy’s OPE-List back in 2000:

It always seemed to me that slaves in the New World were very closely tied to the commodity-producing system. Certainly in the U.S. the main motive for holding slaves was to produce export crops like tobacco and cotton. The labor of the slaves added value to the inputs, like wage labor, and presumably more value than the value equivalent of their subsistence. (I suspect quite a bit of the subsistence was produced on the plantations.) Thus there was a potential surplus value in the employment of slaves.

Full: http://ricardo.ecn.wfu.edu/~cottrell/OPE/archive/0004/0110.html

Blackburn’s talk was focused on a discussion of some of the new research on slavery and capitalism that is found in books by Sven Beckert, Edward Baptist and Walter Johnson that he generally agreed with despite his concerns that they err on the side of drawing too much of an equation between wage labor and slavery.

Although I had tended to associate him largely with the Brenner thesis in the past, he made it clear that he was critical of Political Marxism and described Robert Brenner as having a long term problem with primitive accumulation, no doubt of the kind that involves the East India and company.

He was also very much in agreement with the basic thesis of Sven Beckert’s “Empire of Cotton”, namely that this commodity was instrumental to the growth of capitalism in Britain and, moreover, its colonial aspirations. When the British textile industry began to take off, it fueled the slave trade in the United States. As he put it, there can be different interpretations of whether slavery led to capitalism but no one could possibly disagree with the idea that the growth of capitalism led to the growth of slavery in the 19th century, a clear rebuttal of the idea that the two mode of production were inimical to each other. It may be the case that they would eventually come to blows but in the early stages, they were joined at the hip. Just as was the case in India, “extra-economic” coercion can often serve as a handmaiden to market relations even if some Marxists don’t get it.


  1. Many thanks for this insightful analysis.

    Comment by Abu Spinoza — April 28, 2015 @ 1:48 am

  2. Ninety percent disputing what Marx said, ten percent figuring out how a mode of production actually moved – this is “Marxist” cover for bourgeois liberal politics.

    Comment by Ms. Materialist — April 28, 2015 @ 5:00 am

  3. Thanks for the post. How does the debate between Marxists centering around politics and those who focus on economics relate to what is happening in Greece? I’ve been reading “Beyond Capital” by Meszaros and getting a hint of the background in terms of “transition.” I am interested in learning more.

    Comment by carpenterstogether — April 28, 2015 @ 2:37 pm

  4. I think I am in general agreement with this article. David Harvey points out, and I am very tempted to agree with him that so called ‘primitive accumulation’ plays a very important role today in the functioning of a capitalist economy.

    I think we need to be careful to distinguish between simple commodity production and the emergence of capitalism. The emergence of exchange value is different, if related, to the emergence of capitalism, this is how I read Marx. Of course Marx delivers this history in a logical way in capital, as Capital is not a history book but an economic one, so to come to the point, as the saying goes, Marx had to very generally sketch thousands of years of history and distill it so it fitted the logical sequence of the opening chapters of capital. I say this only to put what follows in some sort of context.

    “The essence of Marx’s critique of “the so-called primitive accumulation” (and people too often miss the significance of the phrase “so-called”) is that no amount of accumulation, whether from outright theft, from imperialism, from commercial profit, or even from the exploitation of labour for commercial profit, by itself constitutes capital, nor will it produce capitalism. The specific precondition of capitalism is a transformation of social property relations that generates capitalist “laws of motion”: the imperatives of competition and profit-maximization, a compulsion to reinvest surpluses, and a systematic and relentless need to improve labour-productivity and develop the forces of production.”

    This is not a dialectical way to look at this problem but more a causal theory as David Harvey would say. I am almost tempted to ask her, can you tell me the exact time and date that capitalism emerged then! This I think highlights the absurdity of her way of thinking. You can’t really talk about specific preconditions at all; this is because we are talking about the result of very long and protracted historical struggles. So she has almost certainly failed to factor in other vital preconditions that allowed capitalism to develop, of which brutal exploitation of the colonies stands among the most important. Another is the private labour of individuals taking the form of its opposite, namely social labour. But these pre conditions themselves are the result of other preconditions etc etc etc. And some of these so called preconditions only emerged later as capitalism developed, e.g. relentless need to improve labour-productivity.

    You can only, and you must admit it when doing it, look at this after the event and make certain logical deductions, e.g.
    To have a capitalism system you must have a class of people who are freed from the means of production and have only their labour power to sell. This in itself tells you next to nothing about the immense history that led to this state of affairs but does offer the path to a classless future.

    Comment by Simon Provertier — April 28, 2015 @ 5:10 pm

  5. After reading this post, I happened across a (to me) interesting article, “Karl Marx and the American Civil War,” by Donny Schraffenberger in the ISR for November 2011 (http://isreview.org/issue/80/karl-marx-and-american-civil-war).

    The piece is too complex to be summarized here, but one passage strikes me as worth quoting in its entirety:

    With slavery’s defeat, the epochal struggle between capital and labor emerged into full view. Infamous capitalists of the Gilded Age started to amass their fortunes in the Civil War, and their wealth would grow tremendously in the following decades. Huge factories, employing thousands of workers, sprang up, as the United States began its climb to become the world’s leading economic power. As Marx would famously write in [the] first volume of Capital [sic], “In the United States of America, every independent workers’ movement was paralysed as long as slavery disfigured a part of the republic. Labor in white skin cannot emancipate itself where it is branded in black skin. However, a new life immediately arose after the death of slavery. The first fruit of the American Civil War was the eight hours’ agitation.”

    Elsewhere, Schraffenberger quotes Marx as writing to Engels in January of 1861:

    “In my opinion, the biggest things that are happening in the world today are on the one hand the movement of the slaves in America started by the death of John Brown, and on the other the movement of the serfs in Russia.” [Emphasis mine]

    I can’t speak with authority here, but on the basis of what little I know of Brenner and Brennerism, the workers in Brenner’s view of capitalist development play a far more passive role than they do in the thinking of Marx. I have the impression that in Marx’s view the effect of the accumulation of capital attributable to slavery can be properly understood only in the light of the emerging conflict of labor and capital, whereas, to Brenner, the significant action historically speaking is nearly all confined to the emerging capitalist classes.

    This strikes me, if true, as both interesting and highly revealing of the essentially bourgeois character of Brenner’s thinking.

    Comment by Pete Glosser — April 29, 2015 @ 5:01 pm

  6. The case of the development of capitalism in Japan may actually help to shed some light on this issue.

    Here are a few passages from an article on Japan, quoting/paraphrasing Jon Halliday’s book, A Political History of Japanese Capitalism, which I think is a very instructive book on Japan. As the below passages show, Halliday argues that indeed Japan’s development in a capitalist direction (i.e., its primitive capitalist accumulation) was directly and intimately intertwined with its colonial adventures:

    “Jon Halliday, in his book A Political History of Japanese Capitalism, has shown that, from the beginning of the capitalist transformation of Japan [the Meiji period], her ruling classes were aware that the development of their modernity required ever increasing use of ancient methods of warfare, outright plunder, and subjugation of colonies in one form or another. So, from the early days of their modernizing, the Japanese rulers studied not only the Western countries’ modern sciences and philosophies and manufacturing and management methods but also the myriad aspects of colonial administration.

    “And the Japanese rulers put their studies to use. In Manchuria, they adopted a colonial rule-by-proxy method, while in Korea and Taiwan annexation was the preferred tool. In places like China where there were colonial rivalries that pit various European powers against each other or against the US, Japan would exploit those divisions.

    “It is also important to bear in mind that Japan is a country infamously poor in its own sources of energy as well as raw materials such as metals and minerals. As stated by Halliday, “The lack of raw material in Japan and the pressure applied against Japan by the unequal treatise led to the delay in the development of a heavy industrial base. But as the unequal treaties were revised and Japan engaged in expansion, a heavy industrial base became a vital necessity, particularly to cope with the large military building program. Clearly, Japan could not continue to have its navy built in England.”1

    “But this expansionist urge was not fueled merely by the need for raw materials. The need for the acquisition of colonies was integral to the development of capitalism per se in Japan. “Politically, the Meiji oligarchs were content with a rural and rural-based policy. The compromise between the feudal lords and the bourgeoisie did not allow the latter to destroy the medieval structure of agriculture. Colonization was one way to reduce the contradictions between industry and the preservation of feudal relics in the economy as a whole.”2”

    Full article at: http://mrzine.monthlyreview.org/2005/fiyouzat140805.html

    Comment by Reza F. — April 30, 2015 @ 6:54 am

  7. By 1936, Rajani Palme Dutt would have been 40 years old. He may or may not have had access to the (translated?) German Ideology between then and 1949 when he wrote the article you cited. However,, one would presume that he had formed his opinions on capitalist development with respect to India without being tainted by “Early Marx” during the first half of his life.

    Comment by Aaron — May 1, 2015 @ 6:06 pm

  8. My relatives’ shanty town was firebombed last month to pave the way for condo development. Cheaper than paying people to resettle or deal with protests. This was in Manila.

    Capitalism always depends on non contractual actions of violence and murder. It can’t function without it. And they work hand in glove with drug dealers, snitches and other criminal types in the lower classes when needed.

    Comment by purple — May 3, 2015 @ 11:32 pm

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