Raya Dunavevskaya 1979

Lecture 13
Historical beginnings

Marx now turns to the historic beginnings of capitalism, and shows how “The economic structure of capitalist society has grown out of the economic structure of feudal society. The dissolution of the latter set free the elements of the former.” (p. 786) The capitalistic era dates from the 16th century. “The starting point of the development that gave rise to the wage-labourer, as well as to the capitalist, was the servitude of the labourer,” Marx writes, emphasizing that “The expropriation of the agricultural producer, the peasant, from the soil, is the basis of the whole process.” (p. 787)

Marx then proceeds to a description of-the expropriation of the agricultural population from the land, and the legislation against the expropriated: “The bourgeoisie, at its rise, wants and uses the power of the state to ‘regulate’ wages, i.e., to force them within the limits suitable for surplus-value making, to lengthen the working-day and to keep the labourer himself in the normal degree of dependence. This is an essential element of the so-called primitive accumulation.” (p. 809)

However, continues Marx, labor’s subordination to capital at the beginning “was only formal, i.e., the mode of production itself had as yet no specific capitalistic character. Variable capital preponderated greatly over constant.” (p. 809)

Marx next traces the genesis of the capitalist farmer and the manner in which the agricultural revolution created a home market for industrial capital: “With the setting free of a part of the agricultural population, therefore, their former means of nourishment were also set free. They were now transformed into material elements of variable capital. The peasant, expropriated and cast adrift, must buy their value in the form of wages, from his new master, the industrial capitalist, That which holds good of the means of subsistence holds with the raw materials of industry dependent upon home agriculture. They were transformed into an element of constant capital.” (pp. 817-18)

The historic beginnings of capitalism reach their climax in the genesis of the industrial capitalist; “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 moments of primitive accumulation. On their heels treads the commercial war of the European nations, with the globe for a theatre.” (p. 823)

These moments of primitive accumulation, furthermore, “all employ the power of the State, the concentrated and organised force of society, to hasten, hothouse 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.” (pp. 823-4)

Marx concludes: “The only part of the so-called national wealth that actually enters into the collective possessions of modern peoples is – their national debt... The public debt becomes one of the most powerful levers of primitive accumulation.” (p. 827)

Historical Tendency of Capitalist Accumulation

“What,” asks Marx, “does the primitive accumulation of capital, i.e., its historical genesis, resolve itself into?” And he answers: “In so far as it is not the immediate transformation of slaves and serfs into wage-labourers, and therefore a mere change of form, it only means the expropriation of the immediate producers, i.e. the dissolution of private property based on the labour of its owner.” (p. 834)

Thus we see the distinction between self-earned private property and capitalistic private property, based on the expropriation of the producers: “The capitalist mode of appropriation, the result of the capitalist mode of production, produces capitalist private property. This is the first negation of individual private property, as founded on the labour of the proprietor. But capitalist production begets, with the inexorability of a law of Mature, its own negation. It is the negation of negation.” This is proletarian revolution. For, along with the degradation and exploitation of the working class “grows the revolt of the working class,” (pp. 837,836)

“That which is now to be expropriated is no longer the labourer working for himself, but the capitalist exploiting many laborers. This expropriation is accomplished by the action of the immanent laws of capitalist production itself, by the centralisation of capital. One capitalist always kills many... .Centralisation of the means of production and socialization of labor at last reach a point where they become incompatible with their capitalist integument. This integument is burst asunder, The knell of capitalist private property sounds. The expropriators are expropriated.” (pp. 836-7)

Thus we see that the historical tendency of capitalist accumulation leading to its collapse is decided on the live historic stage by the class struggle. Marx concludes that the modern theory of colonisation demonstrates that even the capitalist ideologists know that “capital is not a thing, but a social relation between persons, established by the instrumentality of things.” (p. 839)


1. What is “the primitive accumulation of capital"? Does primary accumulation occur through “honest toil"?

2. Describe the double sense in which the laborer is free.

3. Marx writes that “The starting point that gave rise to the wage-laborer as well as the capitalist was the servitude of the laborer.” How does this servitude differ from outright slavery?

4. What is the meaning of the expression, “15,000 Gaels were replaced by 131,000 sheep"?

5. What is the inter-relationship between state legislation and the working day? In whose behalf did the state interfere? Is that a new role for the state to play?

6. Define the relationship between the expropriation of the agricultural population and the creation of the home market.

7. Explain the expression: “the negation of the negation,” Is that an automatic action? Has it any relationship to the actual class struggle?

8. Whet is the historic tendency of capitalist accumulation?

9. What are the fetters of production? How are they broken?

10. What is the relationship between the centralisation of the means of production and the socialisation of labor? Is there a conflict in this result of capitalist accumulation?

11. How are the expropriators expropriated? Is the abolition of small capitals by large capital part of this expropriation? Can large capital abolish itself?

12. What is the modern theory of colonisation? How did this reveal the true condition of capitalist production?

13. What is capital? Is it a thing? Is it a relationship of production? What is the connection between the two?