Karl Kautsky

Capitalism in the Ancient World

(March 1912)

Source: Giuseppe Salvioli, Der Kapitalismus im Altertum. Studien über die römische Wirtschaftsgeschichte, Stuttgart: J.H.W. Dietz Nachfolger, 1922.
Translated from French: Karl Kautsky
Original ed.: Le capitalisme dans le monde antique, études sur l’histoire de l’économie romaine, Paris, Giard, 1906 (<www.archive.org/details/lecapitalismedan00salvuoft>).
Translated into English: Daniel Gaido.
Marked up: Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Among the modern sciences, economic history is one of those whose field of research has expanded most rapidly, especially because of the rapidly growing wealth of primary materials. In spite of that, the picture we have of the economy of antiquity is still very vague and quite controversial. The blame for that should be placed less upon the lack of information about the past than upon the deficient knowledge of the present. Only by researching the environment closest and most accessible to us can we acquire the knowledge and methods to enable us to find our way in fields lying beyond it. We couldn’t have the faintest idea about the chemical composition of the stars if we were to shrink from acquainting ourselves with the component elements of our terrestrial globe. Only through a thorough investigation of the earth can we reach the preconditions for researching the star world. It would be equally impossible to reconstruct the physical appearance of extinct species from the meagre amounts of bone remains discovered if we were to have misgivings, in order to research their anatomy and physiology, about studying with the greatest zeal the contemporary animal species.

That is also true of economic history. It is impossible to comprehend the economic relations of the past and understand all their connections clearly as long as people have scruples about understanding the present mode of production in all its peculiarities and ruthlessly laying bare its laws of movement and development. Those scruples characterize bourgeois economy in contradistinction from scientific socialism. They need not be conscious, intentional considerations. But no matter how unconscious they might be, their obstructive effects arc no less powerful.

Those generalizations hold true naturally only for the practical problems of the present, but that is enough to make more difficult the research of problems of the past, far removed from the field of modern oppositions of interests. Indeed they make it more difficult, the more remote that past and the sparser and ambiguous its remnants. Only to those prejudices can be ascribed the fact that Karl Bücher’s conception of economic development, rather than Marx’s, can dominate completely the field of economic history, although the former is but a bad reproduction of the latter.

Economic history is for Marx a history of the development of the modes of production. That development assumes stable forms, which arc relatively easy to determine, as far as the production technique is concerned. However, the situation is entirely different regarding the forms of production, insofar as they do not represent the relation of men to nature, but the relations into which people enter with one another in order to remain masters of nature – that is to say, the economic relations. These last relations are of course very strongly determined by the technique. For instance, they naturally can be completely different in a place where a large railway network exists, than in a place where the only means of locomotion of the people arc their own legs. But the economic relations are not identical with the technical. If the latter arc determined and easily recognizable, the former arc fluid, and all the more difficult to recognize, the more production develops, the larger the producing societies, the more diverse their technique, and the older their history, because in the course of their development they increasingly mix up and combine old, antiquated forms with new ones.

It is not easy to find an Ariadne’s thread allowing us to find our way in that labyrinth. That is most nearly feasible with the help of the guiding lines provided to us by Marx.

As the earliest mode of production Marx recognized primitive communism. People lived together in little groups, in which everybody worked and owned in common the land, the most important means of production, in so far as it is permissible to speak about clear property relations in such primeval conditions. Work was carried out according to social customs, projects and agreements. The products belonged to society, and were likewise distributed according to social rules and agreements among its members; they remained within the society that produced them, and were consumed by it.

The development of technique leads the separate societies to produce surpluses above what they need for their own consumption. Simultaneously develops also the process of exchange: each group comes into closer and more frequent contact with other ones, living in other places, under different conditions, and producing different products. Thereby the conditions arise for the exchange of surpluses and the widening of the sphere of products consumed by each group.

Production for self-consumption begins to shrink and production for exchange acquires an ever greater importance. But thus begins also the displacement of social production by private production. Private property in the products of consumption expands continually, and with it develops also private property in the means of production, finally reaching also the most important of them, the land. The free labourer generally possesses at that stage his own means of production and disposes of his produce, which he exchanges for someone else’s. Everybody produces an ever greater quantity of products that he doesn’t need himself, and consumes others that he doesn’t produce, but has to exchange for his own products. But with private property in the means of production arises also the possibility of individual workers losing their means of production and becoming propertyless proletarians, or even private property themselves, i.e. slaves in a private undertaking. Finally arises also the possibility for some individuals to appropriate and accumulate the means of production of many others in order to exploit them, either directly, by buying bound workers, or indirectly, by forcing free propertyless workers to hand over to them part of their production, for instance through shared tenancies.

This accumulation of wealth can become a mass phenomenon even before the appearance of the capitalist mode of production; a sort of ‘primitive accumulation of capital’, as Marx called it, through different forms of violence, especially war. Already at the beginning of historical times, with the Babylonians and the Egyptians, we find from time to time such mass accumulations. The Roman army offered the most gigantic example of this phenomenon in antiquity, as Salvioli’s book clearly shows.

Each one of these accumulations always ended up, sooner or later, with the decline of the state in which they took place. The separation of the mass of the workers from their means of production finally led to the paralysis of economic and political life, to the downfall of the state that plundered its more barbarous neighbouring peoples, living under more primitive conditions. That was the end of every higher culture of antiquity about which some historical records have been preserved, in the basins of the Euphrates and the Nile as well as on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea.

A new clement appeared for the first time in the economy of northern Europe, as also there an epoch of primitive accumulation opened up since the fifteenth century. True, those states that led the way in that process, Spain and Portugal, finally reached a condition of paralysis like the states of antiquity. But the northern states lying on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean were able, through a favourable combination of circumstances, to combine the proletarianization of the majority of their population and the concentration of great wealth in few hands with the simultaneous growth of world trade, and in that way developed a new mode of production. Capitalism gathered the numerous propertyless workers available in the service of mass production, for which the great wealth accumulated, thanks to the simultaneous development of the natural sciences, placed at its disposal powerful means of production, while at the same time the new means of international commerce provided the necessary expanded market for the mass products.

What in ancient Rome and even in modern Spain was a cause of social decadence (the simultaneous formation of a mass proletariat and the concentration of huge riches in few hands) became since the seventeenth century, above all in England, the starting point for a new, higher mode of production, capitalism, which enormously strengthened the forces of state and society, and conquered the world in a swift triumphant procession. At the same time however it also developed in its midst a new and powerful opponent, the proletariat, that from a parasite [in antiquity] became the ever more powerful basis of [modern] society. The end, which in the society of ancient Rome was brought about by the invasions of the German barbarians, threatens capitalist society from its own workers. The latter, however, will not, like the former, destroy society in order to set up on its ruins a primitive mode of production and start the entire course of evolution anew, but, on the contrary, they possess the will and the capacity to perfect to the highest degree the mode of production whose pillars they are, by putting an end to private property on the rapidly growing means of production and turning them, from means of exploitation and degradation of the masses, into means of wealth, culture and leisure for all.

That is Marx’s conception of economic development. It has nowhere been set forth so expressly and comprehensively. But when one puts together his scattered remarks and applies the method he bequeathed us to the known facts of economic history, one reaches the synthetic view described above.

Against it Bücher sets forth the following three stages of economic development:

  1. The stage of the closed household economy (pure production for self-consumption, economy without exchange), in which goods arc consumed in the same economic unit in which they were produced.
  2. The stage of city economy (production for customers [Kundenproduktion] or stage of direct exchange), in which the goods flow directly from the producing economy to the consuming one, without intermediaries.
  3. The stage of political economy [Volkswirtschaft] (commodity production, stage of circulation of goods), in which the goods as a rule must pass through a series of economic agents before reaching the point of consumption. [1]

The order of succession of this tripartite division corresponds approximately to the guiding lines which economic development assumes according to Marx: social production, simple commodity production, capitalist production [i.e. commodity production based on wage labour – ed.]. But Bücher not only differed from Marx by the fact that his stages represent much more rigid and fixed forms than the fluid Marxist phases of development. The spheres that each one took into consideration were also different. Marx’s domain was the entire field of economic history. His conception enabled him to follow the previous economic development from its earliest beginnings in its full complexity and diversity, and to discover in it the embryo of the future. Bücher’s classification also claims to comprehend the entire economic development, but in fact it gives at each stage only an isolated phenomenon, a part for the whole.

Thus, for instance, Bücher places as the first stage, instead of social production, the closed household economy, one among the many forms of each production, and moreover one which appears at the period of dissolution of primitive communism and is to be observed alongside simple commodity production throughout its whole history, until the rise of the capitalist mode of production.

In the same manner the production for customers constitutes only one of the forms of simple commodity production. Even if we want to limit it to city economy (although commodity exchange appears long before the formation of cities, at the stadium of nomadic economy), urban commodity production is impossible without simultaneous commodity production in the countryside. However, the peasant bringing cattle, corn, wool, flax and similar products for exchange to the city, often does not exchange them directly with the consumers. He exchanges his cattle with the butcher, who then sells the meat to the consumer, his corn with the baker, or perhaps first with the miller, from whom the baker buys the flour, with which he then produces bread for the consumers. And it is surely not those who wish to wear a coat that buy the wool, but the wool-traders or cloth-makers. In the city itself there are numerous manual labourers who also produce for the traders or for other producers, and not directly for the consumers.

But if we find already under simple commodity production a whole series of wares, which ‘must pass through a series of economic factors, before reaching consumption’, then it is plainly erroneous to make this property the distinguishing feature of the next stage, the ‘political economy’, which Bücher himself once called ‘capitalist economy’. But indeed which other distinguishing feature can one devise in order to distinguish it from simple commodity production if, like Bücher, one refers for the characterization of the different modes of production, not to the totality of the process of production, but only to a small aspect of it, namely the circulation of the finished products? The social role of the worker in the production process, his social claim to the means of production and products, appear unimportant in Bücher’s characterization of the different modes of production. He is only interested in this question: how do the finished products reach the hands of the consumers? It is characteristic that the contemporary bourgeois theory of economic development, like the bourgeois theory of value, the marginal utility theory [Grenznutzentheorie], avoids dealing with the process of production and by ‘economy’ understands only the circulation of finished goods.

In his detailed investigation about the formation of ‘political economy’ Biicher mentions wage labour only in two short sentences. First on page 161:

There appears mass production based on the division of labour in manufactures and factories, and with it the class of wage labourers.

Bücher does not expand on this subject. Then on page 167 he adds:

Where outside labour [fremde Arbeit] is required, it consists during the first stage of permanent bound labourers (slaves, bondsmen), in the second stage of producers reduced to a state of long servitude, and in the third stage of workers entering into short contract relations.

That is all we learn from the social conditions of the workers. One can sec that the subject is handled as a purely subsidiary, totally indifferent question, and moreover incorrectly. This is because slavery is by no means a peculiarity of production for self-consumption. Slaves and bondmen have long and often enough worked in commodity .production. But it is downright absurd to sec in the shortness of the contract relation the economic peculiarity of wage labour in the capitalist mode of production. That, according to Bücher, is what distinguishes capitalism from all other modes of production. Apart from the fact that the difference in the duration of the work contract between manufacture and large-scale industry is not a pervading and fundamental one, the real outstanding peculiarity of modern wage labour is not only not emphasized, but directly disavowed in the above-quoted sentence from Bucher:

Where outside labour is required, it consists ... in the third stage of workers entering into short contract relations.

The ‘outside labourers’ appear thus as occasionally necessary. But what characterizes the third stage, the capitalist mode of production, is precisely the fact that in it ‘outside labour’ is not something incidental, which can often be dispensed with without any injury to the production process, but something necessarily determined by the character of the mode of production. At the ‘third stage’, ‘outside labour’ is the general form of labour, and its existence constitutes the precondition for the entire production process.

We can see that Bücher’s three stages, to the extent that they differ from Marx’s description of the development of the different modes of production, represent anything but a progress. Far from making the characterization of the separate modes of production sharper and more precise, his categories blur the differences between them, leaving their distinguishing traits completely out of the picture.

Not in spite of that, but precisely because of that, Bücher’s conception has come to prevail among bourgeois economists. For them the classical school was anathema, as it became unmistakably evident, especially under the influence of Marx’s Capital, that the laws of capitalist commodity production arc not eternal natural laws, but only characteristic of a passing historical stage. Therewith the perishableness of capitalism was demonstrated – a quite serious matter, considering the growing proletarian militancy that threatened to apply in practice the results of theoretical knowledge.

Then came Bücher’s very convenient discovery. He recognized that capitalist economy was a purely transitory historical phenomenon. But what was its distinguishing trait according to Bücher? The fact that goods must, as a rule, pass through a series of economic agents before they reach the consumers’ hands. Not a word about the private property on the means of production, about the propertyless character of the wage workers. If these arc the distinguishing traits of the capitalist mode of production, then they will and must disappear with it as soon as the proletariat is strong enough to abolish it. How much more harmless the further development of contemporary ‘political economy’ appears when its distinguishing trait becomes the passage of goods through different ‘economic agents’, and wage labour represents just a subsidiary accompanying phenomenon!

Thanks to this misinterpretation of the modern mode of production Bücher’s conception has become dominant in bourgeois economic history.

However it also obscures the most important points of view for the understanding of the economy of antiquity. No wonder that the historians and classical scholars declare that Bücher’s conception is incompatible with the facts discovered by them.

But not being trained in economics, the historians are not always sufficiently able to recognize the differences between the economic phenomena of antiquity and those of our time. They tend to make them too much alike. As a consequence they are bound to limit themselves to the discovery of isolated economic phenomena, a highly important and laudable task, whose further progress however clearly requires a theoretical reworking and elaboration of the numerous new materials.

Salvioli’s book constitutes in my opinion a remarkable beginning in that direction. Its author has a thorough knowledge of the economic relations, not only of antiquity, but also of the Middle Ages. Since 1884 he has worked as a professor at Italian universities. At first he belonged to the University of Palermo; since 1903 he has taught history and philosophy of right at Naples.

But his interest in research into the past did not lead him to an indifference towards the present. He applied himself to the study of the problems of our time with zeal. and. choosing a completely different path from that of the great majority of his colleagues, did not take the side of the bourgeoisie. Moreover, he despises adopting the apparently magnificent but in fact despicable pose of possessing an objectivity that is above the parties, that evades any clear-cut position, and answers the most pressing problems of the time with a question mark. Salvioli belongs to that tiny but select circle of professors who resolutely admit being on the side of the proletariat, professors that constitute a glorious peculiarity of Italian university life. He is a member of the Socialist Party, contributes to the party press, gives lectures on its behalf, and in 1894 was a candidate for Camera, though without success.

Much more momentous than for practical politics is however his socialist interest in science. He seriously applied himself to the study of Marxism, became familiar with historical materialism and the train of thought of Capital and applied them very appreciatively and intelligently to his studies on economic history.

One cannot call him an orthodox Marxist. For instance, he does not follow completely the Marxist terminology, sometimes using the term ‘capital’ in a context where Marx would have used the words ‘money’ or ‘means of production’ or ‘stock of products’ [Produktenvorrat]. He also understands historical materialism in a different way from that of the orthodox Marxists, when he assumes that this materialism traces back every social fact to economic motives, whereas we attribute every social peculiarity to specific economic conditions.

But these deviations are no reason tor us to fail to recognize that Marx richly fructified Salvioli’s thought and researches. Especially the historical parts in the third volume of Capital offered him numerous new insights and provided him plenty of stimuli, which his command of the ancient sources turned to good account. His work on capitalism in the ancient world, which first appeared in 1906 in French, is the result of a decade of work. It fascinated me so much, that I induced my son Karl to render it into German, and advised my friend Dietz [owner of the SPD publishing house Dietz Verlag] to publish the translation, a project to which Salvioli gave his consent in writing. True, it is a scholarly work, but it was written in a style so clear and easy to understand, that one needs to have no factual knowledge at all in order to comprehend it.

For this edition all foreign quotations and expressions have been translated, so that the work is fully understandable even for readers unacquainted with ancient languages and unfamiliar with the history of antiquity. But of course even a superficial knowledge of Roman history will facilitate its comprehension. A good introduction to the subject is the booklet of Leo Bloch Social Struggles in Ancient Rome. [2] If, after having read Salvioli’s book, one wishes to continue the study of ancient economic history, I would recommend Ciccotti’s book The Decline of Slavery in the Ancient World, which constitutes an excellent supplement to the present work, especially for the Greek period. [3] Naturally that doesn’t mean that I agree with every single statement in those books. For instance my conception of the Patriciate or Caesarism are very different from Bloch’s. But in the history of ancient society so much is still unclear and debatable, that there cannot be two authors whose opinions coincide completely.

Someone might wonder whether it is appropriate to ask the workers to sacrifice a fraction of the little spare time they dispose of by occupying themselves with antiquity, instead of concentrating their entire interest in the present. To which should be replied that the present surely requires their entire interest, but that a full understanding of the present presupposes knowledge of the past. If, as we said at the beginning, spatially and temporally remote phenomena cannot be understood as long as we arc not able to find our way in the present, one can also conversely say that a deep understanding of the phenomena nearest to us requires an acquaintance with distant events.

The only way to know things or phenomena is through their differences, What we call properties of a thing are in truth the characteristics that distinguish it from other things. Indeed a thing in itself can never be known: we can only know each thing or phenomenon by comparing it with other phenomena. So, in order to understand the capitalist mode of production we must also compare it with other modes of production. That comparison was already done at its dawn, through the contradiction into which it ran with declining feudalism. But we will understand capitalism, its problems and tendencies the better, the greater the number of modes of production we compare it with. Hence the great interest prevalent in our party for prehistory.

Needless to say that is also true of classical antiquity, and especially of the end of that period, which is precisely the main subject of Salvioli’s book. The end of the ancient world is of special significance for us, because its problems came into much closer contact with those of our times than those of any other pre-capitalist era.

The most significant product of that period has remained down to the present a powerful factor of practical politics: Christianity. True, a factor of a purely conservative nature since the rise of modern capitalism, but one that capitalism cannot dispense with. The products of ancient capitalism can only be fully overcome by the products of modern, industrial capitalism -through socialism.

The subject of Salvioli’s book is therefore connected by many threads with the struggles of our times.

Berlin, March 1912


1. Karl Bücher, 1904, Die Entstehung der Volkswirtschaft: Vorträge und Aufsätze, 4th ed., Tubingen: H. Laupp’sche Buchhandlung, p. 108. English edition: 1912, Industrial Evolution, New York: H. Holt and Company. (<www.archive.org/details/industrialevolut00bcuoft>).

2. Leo Bloch, Soziale Kämpfe im alten Rom, 3rd ed., Leipzig: B.G. Teubner, 1913. (Die ständischen und sozialen Kämpfe in der römischen Republik, 1900) (<www.archive.org/details/diestndiscsozia00bloc>).

3. Ettore Ciccotti, Le déclin de l’esclavage antique. French ed. revised and augmented with a preface by the author, Paris: M. Rivière et cie, 1910 (<www.archive.org/details/ledclindelescla00platgoog>).

Last updated on 13.11.2011