Karl Marx. Capital Volume One

Chapter Thirty-Three: The Modern Theory of Colonisation [1]


Political economy confuses on principle two very different kinds of private property, of which one rests on the producers’ own labour, the other on the employment of the labour of others. It forgets that the latter not only is the direct antithesis of the former, but absolutely grows on its tomb only. In Western Europe, the home of Political Economy, the process of primitive accumulation is more of less accomplished. Here the capitalist regime has either directly conquered the whole domain of national production, or, where economic conditions are less developed, it, at least, indirectly controls those strata of society which, though belonging to the antiquated mode of production, continue to exist side by side with it in gradual decay. To this ready-made world of capital, the political economist applies the notions of law and of property inherited from a pre-capitalistic world with all the more anxious zeal and all the greater unction, the more loudly the facts cry out in the face of his ideology. It is otherwise in the colonies. There the capitalist regime everywhere comes into collision with the resistance of the producer, who, as owner of his own conditions of labour, employs that labour to enrich himself, instead of the capitalist. The contradiction of these two diametrically opposed economic systems, manifests itself here practically in a struggle between them. Where the capitalist has at his back the power of the mother-country, he tries to clear out of his way by force the modes of production and appropriation based on the independent labour of the producer. The same interest, which compels the sycophant of capital, the political economist, in the mother-country, to proclaim the theoretical identity of the capitalist mode of production with its contrary, that same interest compels him in the colonies to make a clean breast of it, and to proclaim aloud the antagonism of the two modes of production. To this end, he proves how the development of the social productive power of labour, co-operation, division of labour, use of machinery on a large scale, &c., are impossible without the expropriation of the labourers, and the corresponding transformation of their means of production into capital. In the interest of the so-called national wealth, he seeks for artificial means to ensure the poverty of the people. Here his apologetic armor crumbles off, bit by bit, like rotten touchwood. It is the great merit of E.G. Wakefield to have discovered, not anything new about the Colonies [2], but to have discovered in the Colonies the truth as to the conditions of capitalist production in the mother country. As the system of protection at its origin [3] attempted to manufacture capitalists artificially in the mother-country, so Wakefield’s colonisation theory, which England tried for a time to enforce by Acts of Parliament, attempted to effect the manufacture of wage-workers in the Colonies. This he calls “systematic colonisation.”

First of all, Wakefield discovered that in the Colonies, property in money, means of subsistence, machines, and other means of production, does not as yet stamp a man as a capitalist if there be wanting the correlative — the wage-worker, the other man who is compelled to sell himself of his own free will. He discovered that capital is not a thing, but a social relation between persons, established by the instrumentality of things. [4] Mr. Peel, he moans, took with him from England to Swan River, West Australia, means of subsistence and of production to the amount of £50,000. Mr. Peel had the foresight to bring with him, besides, 300 persons of the working class, men, women, and children. Once arrived at his destination, “Mr. Peel was left without a servant to make his bed or fetch him water from the river.” [5] Unhappy Mr. Peel who provided for everything except the export of English modes of production to Swan River!

For the understanding of the following discoveries of Wakefield, two preliminary remarks: We know that the means of production and subsistence, while they remain the property of the immediate producer, are not capital. They become capital only under circumstances in which they serve at the same time as means of exploitation and subjection of the labourer. But this capitalist soul of theirs is so intimately wedded, in the head of the political economist, to their material substance, that he christens them capital under all circumstances, even when they are its exact opposite. Thus is it with Wakefield. Further: the splitting up of the means of production into the individual property of many independent labourers, working on their own account, he calls equal division of capital. It is with the political economist as with the feudal jurist. The latter stuck on to pure monetary relations the labels supplied by feudal law.

“If,” says Wakefield, “all members of the society are supposed to possess equal portions of capital... no man would have a motive for accumulating more capital than he could use with his own hands. This is to some extent the case in new American settlements, where a passion for owning land prevents the existence of a class of labourers for hire.” [6] So long, therefore, as the labourer can accumulate for himself — and this he can do so long as he remains possessor of his means of production — capitalist accumulation and the capitalistic mode of production are impossible. The class of wage labourers, essential to these, is wanting. How, then, in old Europe, was the expropriation of the labourer from his conditions of labour, i.e., the co-existence of capital and wage labour, brought about? By a social contract of a quite original kind. “Mankind have adopted a... simple contrivance for promoting the accumulation of capital,” which, of course, since the time of Adam, floated in their imagination, floated in their imagination as the sole and final end of their existence: “they have divided themselves into owners of capital and owners of labour.... The division was the result of concert and combination.” [7] In one word: the mass of mankind expropriated itself in honor of the “accumulation of capital.” Now, one would think that this instinct of self-denying fanaticism would give itself full fling especially in the Colonies, where alone exist the men and conditions that could turn a social contract from a dream to a reality. But why, then, should “systematic colonisation” be called in to replace its opposite, spontaneous, unregulated colonisation? But - but - “In the Northern States of the American Union; it may be doubted whether so many as a tenth of the people would fall under the description of hired labourers.... In England... the labouring class compose the bulk of the people.” [8] Nay, the impulse to self-expropriation on the part of labouring humanity for the glory of capital, exists so little that slavery, according to Wakefield himself, is the sole natural basis of Colonial wealth. His systematic colonisation is a mere pis aller, since he unfortunately has to do with free men, not with slaves. “The first Spanish settlers in Saint Domingo did not obtain labourers from Spain. But, without labourers, their capital must have perished, or at least, must soon have been diminished to that small amount which each individual could employ with his own hands. This has actually occurred in the last Colony founded by England — the Swan River Settlement — where a great mass of capital, of seeds, implements, and cattle, has perished for want of labourers to use it, and where no settler has preserved much more capital than he can employ with his own hands.” [9]

We have seen that the expropriation of the mass of the people from the soil forms the basis of the capitalist mode of production. The essence of a free colony, on the contrary, consists in this — that the bulk of the soil is still public property, and every settler on it therefore can turn part of it into his private property and individual means of production, without hindering the later settlers in the same operation.[10] This is the secret both of the prosperity of the colonies and of their inveterate vice — opposition to the establishment of capital. “Where land is very cheap and all men are free, where every one who so pleases can easily obtain a piece of land for himself, not only is labour very dear, as respects the labourer’s share of the produce, but the difficulty is to obtain combined labour at any price.” [11]

As in the colonies the separation of the labourer from the conditions of labour and their root, the soil, does not exist, or only sporadically, or on too limited a scale, so neither does the separation of agriculture from industry exist, nor the destruction of the household industry of the peasantry. Whence then is to come the internal market for capital? “No part of the population of America is exclusively agricultural, excepting slaves and their employers who combine capital and labour in particular works. Free Americans, who cultivate the soil, follow many other occupations. Some portion of the furniture and tools which they use is commonly made by themselves. They frequently build their own houses, and carry to market, at whatever distance, the produce of their own industry. They are spinners and weavers; they make soap and candles, as well as, in many cases, shoes and clothes for their own use. In America the cultivation of land is often the secondary pursuit of a blacksmith, a miller or a shopkeeper.” [12] With such queer people as these, where is the “field of abstinence” for the capitalists?

The great beauty of capitalist production consists in this — that it not only constantly reproduces the wage-worker as wage-worker, but produces always, in proportion to the accumulation of capital, a relative surplus-population of wage-workers. Thus the law of supply and demand of labour is kept in the right rut, the oscillation of wages is penned within limits satisfactory to capitalist exploitation, and lastly, the social dependence of the labourer on the capitalist, that indispensable requisite, is secured; an unmistakable relation of dependence, which the smug political economist, at home, in the mother-country, can transmogrify into one of free contract between buyer and seller, between equally independent owners of commodities, the owner of the commodity capital and the owner of the commodity labour. But in the colonies, this pretty fancy is torn asunder. The absolute population here increases much more quickly than in the mother-country, because many labourers enter this world as ready-made adults, and yet the labour-market is always understocked. The law of supply and demand of labour falls to pieces. On the one hand, the old world constantly throws in capital, thirsting after exploitation and “abstinence”; on the other, the regular reproduction of the wage labourer as wage labourer comes into collision with impediments the most impertinent and in part invincible. What becomes of the production of wage-labourers, supernumerary in proportion to the accumulation of capital? The wage-worker of to-day is to-morrow an independent peasant, or artisan, working for himself. He vanishes from the labour-market, but not into the workhouse. This constant transformation of the wage-labourers into independent producers, who work for themselves instead of for capital, and enrich themselves instead of the capitalist gentry, reacts in its turn very perversely on the conditions of the labour-market. Not only does the degree of exploitation of the wage labourer remain indecently low. The wage labourer loses into the bargain, along with the relation of dependence, also the sentiment of dependence on the abstemious capitalist. Hence all the inconveniences that our E. G. Wakefield pictures so doughtily, so eloquently, so pathetically. The supply of wage labour, he complains, is neither constant, nor regular, nor sufficient. “The supply of labour is always not only small but uncertain.” [13] “Though the produce divided between the capitalist and the labourer be large, the labourer takes so great a share that he soon becomes a capitalist.... Few, even those whose lives are unusually long, can accumulate great masses of wealth.” [14] The labourers most distinctly decline to allow the capitalist to abstain from the payment of the greater part of their labour. It avails him nothing, if he is so cunning as to import from Europe, with his own capital, his own wage-workers. They soon “cease... to be labourers for hire; they... become independent landowners, if not competitors with their former masters in the labour-market.” [15] Think of the horror! The excellent capitalist has imported bodily from Europe, with his own good money, his own competitors! The end of the world has come! No wonder Wakefield laments the absence of all dependence and of all sentiment of dependence on the part of the wage-workers in the colonies. On account of the high wages, says his disciple, Merivale, there is in the colonies “the urgent desire for cheaper and more subservient labourers — for a class to whom the capitalist might dictate terms, instead of being dictated to by them.... In ancient civilised countries the labourer, though free, is by a law of Nature dependent on capitalists; in colonies this dependence must be created by artificial means.” [16]

What is now, according to Wakefield, the consequence of this unfortunate state of things in the colonies? A “barbarising tendency of dispersion” of producers and national wealth.[17] The parcelling-out of the means of production among innumerable owners, working on their own account, annihilates, along with the centralisation of capital, all the foundation of combined labour. Every long-winded undertaking, extending over several years and demanding outlay of fixed capital, is prevented from being carried out. In Europe, capital invests without hesitating a moment, for the working class constitutes its living appurtenance, always in excess, always at disposal. But in the colonies! Wakefield tells an extremely doleful anecdote. He was talking with some capitalists of Canada and the state of New York, where the immigrant wave often becomes stagnant and deposits a sediment of “supernumerary” labourers. “Our capital,” says one of the characters in the melodrama, "was ready for many operations which require a considerable period of time for their completion; but we could not begin such operations with labour which, we knew, would soon leave us. If we had been sure of retaining the labour of such emigrants, we should have been glad to have engaged it at once, and for a high price: and we should have engaged it, even though we had been sure it would leave us, provided we had been sure of a fresh supply whenever we might need it.” [18]

After Wakefield has constructed the English capitalist agriculture and its “combined” labour with the scattered cultivation of American peasants, he unwittingly gives us a glimpse at the reverse of the medal. He depicts the mass of the American people as well-to-do, independent, enterprising, and comparatively cultured, whilst “the English agricultural labourer is miserable wretch, a pauper.... In what country, except North America and some new colonies, do the wages of free labour employed in agriculture much exceed a bare subsistence for the labourer? ... Undoubtedly , farm-horses in England, being a valuable property, are better fed than English peasants.” [19] But, never mind, national wealth is, once again, by its very nature, identical with misery of the people.

How, then, to heal the anti-capitalistic cancer of the colonies? If men were willing, at a blow, to turn all the soil from public into private property, they would destroy certainly the root of the evil, but also — the colonies. The trick is how to kill two birds with one stone. Let the Government put upon the virgin soil an artificial price, independent of the law of supply and demand, a price that compels the immigrant to work a long time for wages before he can earn enough money to buy land, and turn himself into an independent peasant.[20] The fund resulting from the sale of land at a price relatively prohibitory for the wage-workers, this fund of money extorted from the wages of labour by violation of the sacred law of supply and demand, the Government is to employ, on the other hand, in proportion as it grows; to import have-nothings from Europe into the colonies, and thus keep the wage labour market full for the capitalists. Under these circumstances, tout sera pour le mieux dans le meilleur des mondes possibles. This is the great secret of “systematic colonisation.” By this plan, Wakefield cries in triumph, “the supply of labour must be constant and regular, because, first, as no labourer would be able to procure land until he had worked for money, all immigrant labourers, working for a time for wages and in combination, would produce capital for the employment of more labourers; secondly, because every labourer who left off working for wages and became a landowner would, by purchasing land, provide a fund for bringing fresh labour to the colony.” [21] The price of the soil imposed by the State must, of course, be a “sufficient price” — i.e., so high “as to prevent the labourers from becoming independent landowners until others had followed to take their place.” [22] This “sufficient price for the land” is nothing but a euphemistic circumlocution for the ransom which the labourer pays to the capitalist for leave to retire from the wage labour market to the land. First, he must create for the capitalist “capital,” with which the latter may be able to exploit more labourers; then he must place, at his own expense, a locum tenens [placeholder] on the labour market, whom the Government forwards across the sea for the benefit of his old master, the capitalist.

It is very characteristic that the English Government for years practised this method of “primitive accumulation” prescribed by Mr. Wakefield expressly for the use of the colonies. The fiasco was, of course, as complete as that of Sir Robert Peel’s Bank Act. The stream of emigration was only diverted from the English colonies to the United States. Meanwhile, the advance of capitalistic production in Europe, accompanied by increasing Government pressure, has rendered Wakefield’s recipe superfluous. On the one hand, the enormous and ceaseless stream of men, year after year driven upon America, leaves behind a stationary sediment in the east of the United States, the wave of immigration from Europe throwing men on the labour-market there more rapidly than the wave of emigration westwards can wash them away. On the other hand, the American Civil War brought in its train a colossal national debt, and, with it, pressure of taxes, the rise of the vilest financial aristocracy, the squandering of a huge part of the public land on speculative companies for the exploitation of railways, mines, &c., in brief, the most rapid centralisation of capital. The great republic has, therefore, ceased to be the promised land for emigrant labourers. Capitalistic production advances there with giant strides, even though the lowering of wages and the dependence of the wage-worker are yet far from being brought down to the normal European level. The shameless lavishing of uncultivated colonial land on aristocrats and capitalists by the Government, so loudly denounced even by Wakefield, has produced, especially in Australia [23], in conjunction with the stream of men that the gold diggings attract, and with the competition that the importation of English-commodities causes even to the smallest artisan, an ample “relative surplus labouring population,” so that almost every mail brings the Job’s news of a “glut of the Australia labour-market,” and the prostitution in some places flourishes as wantonly as in the London Haymarket.

However, we are not concerned here with the conditions of the colonies. The only thing that interests us is the secret discovered in the new world by the Political Economy of the old world, and proclaimed on the housetops: that the capitalist mode of production and accumulation, and therefore capitalist private property, have for their fundamental condition the annihilation of self-earned private property; in other words, the expropriation of the labourer.



1. We treat here of real Colonies, virgins soils, colonised by free immigrants. The United States are, speaking economically, still only a Colony of Europe. Besides, to this category belong such old plantations as those in which the abolition of slavery has completely altered the earlier conditions.

2. Wakefield’s few glimpses on the subject of Modern Colonisation are fully anticipated by Mirabeau Pere, the physiocrat, and even much earlier by English economists.

3. Later, it became a temporary necessity in the international competitive struggle. But, whatever its motive, the consequences remain the same.

4. “A negro is a negro. In certain circumstances he becomes a slave. A mule is a machine for spinning cotton. Only under certain circumstances does it become capital. Outside these circumstances, it is no more capital than gold is intrinsically money, or sugar is the price of sugar.... Capital is a social relation of production. It is a historical relation of production.” (Karl Marx, “Lohnarbeit und Kapital,” N. Rh. Z., No.266, April 7, 1849.)

5. E. G. Wakefield: “England and America,” vol.ii. p.33.

6. l.c., p.17.

7. l.c., vol.i, p.18.

8. l.c., pp.42, 43, 44.

9. l.c., vol.ii, p.5.

10. “Land, to be an element of colonisation, must not only be waste, but it must be public property, liable to be converted into private property.” (l.c., Vol.II, p.125.)

11. l.c., Vol.I, p.247.

12. l.c., pp.21, 22.

13. l.c., Vol.II, p.116.

14. l.c., Vol.I, p.131.

15. l.c., Vol.II, p.5.

16. Merivale, l.c., Vol.II, pp.235-314 passim. Even the mild, Free Trade, vulgar economist, Molinari, says: “Dans les colonies où l’esclavage a été aboli sans que le travail forcé se trouvait remplacÚ par une quantité équivalente de travail libre, on a vu s’opérer la contre-partie du fait qui se réalise tous les jours sous nos yeux. On a vu les simples travailleurs exploiter à leur tour les entrepreneurs d’industrie, exiger d’eux des salaires hors de toute proportion avec la part légitime qui leur revenait dans le produit. Les planteurs, ne pouvant obtenir de leurs sucres un prix suffisant pour couvrir la hausse de salaire, ont été obligés de fournir l’excédant, d’abord sur leurs profits, ensuite sur leurs capitaux mêmes. Une foule de planteurs ont été ruinés de la sorte, d’autres ont fermé leurs ateliers pour échapper à une ruine imminente.... Sans doute, il vaut mieux voir périr des accumulations de capitaux que des générations d’hommes [how generous Mr. Molinari!]: mais ne vaudrait-il pas mieux que ni les uns ni les autres périssent? [In the colonies where slavery has been abolished without the compulsory labour being replaced with an equivalent quantity of free labour, there has occurred the opposite of what happens every day before our eyes. Simple workers have been seen to exploit in their turn the industrial entrepreneurs, demanding from them wages which bear absolutely no relation to the legitimate share in the product which they ought to receive. The planters were unable to obtain for their sugar for a sufficent price to cover the increase in wages, and were obliged to furnish the extra amount, at first out of their profits, and then out of their very capital. A considerable amount of planters have been ruined as a result, while others have closed down their businesses in order to avoid the ruin which threatened them ... It is doubtless better that these accumulations of capital should be destroyed than that generations of men should perish ... but would it not be better if both survived?] (Molinari, l.c., pp.51,52.) Mr. Molinari, Mr. Molinari! What then becomes of the ten commandments, of Moses and the prophets, of the law of supply and demand, if in Europe the “entrepreneur” can cut down the labourer’s legitimate part, and in the West Indies, the labourer can cut down the entrepreneur’s? And what, if you please, is this “legitimate part,” which on your own showing the capitalist in Europe daily neglects to pay? Over yonder, in the colonies where the labourers are so “simple” as to “exploit” the capitalist, Mr. Molinari feels a strong itching to set the law of supply and demand, that works elsewhere automatically, on the right road by means of the police.

17. Wakefield, l.c., Vol.II, p.52.

18. l.c., pp.191, 192.

19. l.c., Vol.I, p.47, 246.

20. “C’est, ajoutez-vous, grâce Ó l’appropriation du sol et des capitaux que l’homme, qui n’a que ses bras, trouve de l’occupation et se fait un revenu... c’est au contraire, grâce à l’appropriation individuelle du sol qu’il se trouve des hommes n’ayant que leurs bras.... Quand vous mettez un homme dans le vide, vous vous emparez de l’atmosphère. Ainsi faites-vous, quand vous vous emparez du sol.... C’est le mettre dans le vide le richesses, pour ne la laisser vivre qu’à votre volonté.” [It is, you add, a result of the appropriation of the soil and of capital that the man who has nothing but the strength of his arms finds employment and creates an income for himself ... but the opposite is true, it is thanks to the individual appropriation of the soil that there exist men who only possess the strength of their arms. ... When you put a man in a vacuum, you rob him of the air. You do the same, when you take away the soil from him ... for you are putting him in a space void of wealth, so as to leave him no way of living except according to your wishes] (Collins, l.c. t.III, pp.268-71, passim.)

21. Wakefield, l.c., Vol.II, p.192.

22. l.c., p.45.

23. As soon as Australia became her own law-giver, she passed, of course, laws favorable to the settlers, but the squandering of the land, already accomplished by the English Government, stands in the way. “The first and main object at which new Land Act of 1862 aims is to give increased facilities for the settlement of the people.” (“The Land Law of Victoria,” by the Hon. C. G. Duffy, Minister of Public Lands, Lond., 1862.)

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