September 19, 2022  Morning Star (UK)

Finance capitalism didn’t fall from the sky fully formed: before you can invest, you must steal and before you can employ, you must enslave, explains the Marx Memorial Library. But was it just a stage, or does it exist today too?



“PRIMITIVE accumulation” means the acquisition of capital (physical or financial) by expropriation rather than through exploitation.

Exploitation — paying workers less than the value they create (the difference, surplus value, is accumulated as profit) — is the characteristic and universal feature of “mature” capitalism.

Expropriation means seizure, confiscation, robbery; it is direct.

The term primitive accumulation (Marx didn’t like the term, itself a mistranslation of Adam Smith’s “previous” or “original” accumulation) refers to the historical process of divorcing producers from the means of production by the appropriation of land, and taking captives as slaves, in tribal societies.

It appears as primitive, because the expropriation of the agricultural producer, the peasant, from the soil, forms a preliminary stage of the capitalist mode of production, effectively generating the preconditions for the ongoing accumulation of capital.

In the words of Marx, it is “not the result of the capitalistic mode of production, but its starting point,” playing “in political economy a similar role to original sin in theology.”

He continues: “The expropriation of the agricultural producer, of the peasant, from the soil, is the basis of the whole process.

“The history of this expropriation, in different countries, assumes different aspects, and runs through its various phases in different orders of succession, and at different periods.

“In England alone, which we take as our example, has it the classic form.”

Marx goes on to describe the process in Britain. His description is very different from the one given in Western history and economics textbooks even today, which equate the onset of capitalism with the expansion of domestic and international trade and then industrialisation, financed by thrift, royal patronage, merchant profit, commercial credit and overseas discoveries.

This account allows barely a minor role to slavery and the slave trade and presents the development of capitalism as a virtuous story, based on the determination of inventive, abstemious and responsible pioneers inspired by Christian or Quaker values — a story notably propounded in Max Weber’s 1905 work The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.

Marx tells it very differently. The final part of Capital Volume I constitutes the most searing indictment of the methods by which capitalism established itself.

Outlining the “so-called primitive accumulation” of capital, Marx recounts in fine detail the depredations inflicted on the agricultural populations of Britain and Ireland from the late 16th century onwards, ruthlessly sweeping away small peasant producers and culminating in the Inclosures Acts and the Highland Clearances.

The people were separated from the means of production (land, small-scale machinery and tools) and turned into urban or rural labourers now “free” to sell their labour power.

In the countryside landowners and emergent capitalist farmers stole common land and turned to large-scale mechanised agricultural production while in the burgeoning towns a primitive accumulation of labour power provided a ready workforce for a newly emergent capitalist class.

Several chapters detail the cruel legislation enacted against those who had been expropriated — “liberated” from their previous livelihoods; whipping and mutilating them for vagrancy and vagabondage, press-ganging the unemployed and destitute into military service, extending the working day, limiting wages, outlawing strikes and workers’ combinations.

Marx drew parallels with similar measures in France and Germany, laying bare the brutal means by which money was accumulated for use as industrial capital.

But primitive accumulation was not merely a domestic matter, Marx explains: “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 dimension in England’s anti-Jacobin war, and is still going on in the opium wars against China.”

Marx proceeds to highlight the role of state power in organising colonial trade monopolies, a national debt, taxation and trade protectionism to accelerate the transformation of the feudal mode of production into the capitalist mode in Spain, Portugal, Holland, France and — from the late 17th century — in England.

He reserves special scorn for the way in which Christian colonists, with the backing of governments and parliaments in the “mother country,” enslaved or massacred native peoples from Indonesia and Africa to the West Indies, Mexico and the United States.

Marx saw slavery and colonial plantation, and child labour in the cotton industry in Britain’s early industrialisation, as two sides of the same coin, declaring: “The veiled slavery of the wage workers in Europe needed, for its pedestal, slavery pure and simple in the new world.”

Capitalism, he said, comes into the world “dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt.”

As that process, led by Britain, spread throughout western Europe, capitalism still had to expropriate the many independent producers in Europe’s colonial settlements.

Otherwise, there could be no cheap labour for commodity production there, no profits from the introduction of modern machinery and the division of labour.

In the US, mass immigration, civil war, raising a national debt and taxes, together with the huge allocation of public land to mining and railway construction, accelerated the development of capitalist production. A similar path had been taken in Australia.

Comparable processes of primitive accumulation continue today, reflected in the huge shifts in population from the countryside to industrial areas, towns and cities in many parts of the global South.

In some countries, notably India, this is driven by landowning, industrial and financial interests, facilitated by legislation and the military power of the state.

In Volume III of Capital, Marx writes of the way that capitalism’s internal contradictions lead to big capitalists “dispossessing the smaller capitalists and expropriating the final residue of direct producers who still have something left to expropriate.”

In newly socialist countries where capitalism no longer triumphs but the “means of production” remain at a primitive level, the question of how to generate sustainable economic growth is a critical one.

China, for example, would probably not have survived in the face of financial (as well as military) aggression on the part of the US and its capitalist allies if it had not engaged in its own form of primitive accumulation.

But in China, as Communist Party of Britain general secretary Robert Griffiths argues, parallels with capitalism are inappropriate because the process has been centrally planned by a socialist state in order to develop what the Communist Party of China calls the “primary stage” of socialism.

Unlike early industrial capitalism in Britain and elsewhere, there is social protection for workers and control on the operation of private capital.

Meanwhile, in capital’s metropolitan heartlands and alongside exploitation through the extraction of surplus value, primitive accumulation takes new forms.

Well beyond the violence of the drug trade or “modern slavery,” it permeates society from the artificial housing shortage caused by hoarding of property whose money values continue to escalate, to monopoly price gouging (responsible for some 60 per cent of inflation today), coupled with escalating levels of indebtedness (credit is itself a claim on the production of future surplus value) which puts increasing pressure on workers to conform.

Particularly since the end of the 1970s, asset-stripping and the expropriation of property and services — public housing, parks, community facilities, education and health services, all of them secured through past struggles — further accelerate a transfer of wealth from the “many” to the “few.”

Primitive accumulation — capitalism’s “original sin” — is alive and well.


The Marx Memorial Library’s autumn programme includes a special lecture by Stewart McGill on September 29, dealing with some of the issues in this answer, and an eight-week online Introduction to Marxist Economics course starting on October 11. Details can be found at