16 July 2009

Primitive Accumulation

Karl Marx begins Capital, Volume 1, with three great, defining chapters on Commodity, Exchange, and Money. On this groundwork he constructs an overall outline of capital. Then, through many chapters, patiently and eloquently, he builds an exact description of the essence of capitalism, which is the extraction of surplus value from the waged citizen proletariat.

The extraction of surplus value is what distinguishes capitalism from earlier bourgeois relations of production. Bourgeois propaganda pretends that capitalism has always existed, but really its full hegemony was achieved less than a century and a half ago, in the 1860s. Whereas the previously dominant bourgeois relation of production, the Atlantic slave trade (see image) and plantation system, had ruled for more than three centuries before that.

Capitalists found it necessary to suppress the slave trade with violent naval action, and then to purge what remained of slavery with a bloody war, the US Civil War. That ended in 1865, just two years before the publication of Karl Marx’s “Capital”. The incompatibility of slavery with capitalism has to do with surplus value. The Slave was a wholly-owned commodity, whereas the Proletarian possesses his own commodity labour power, only to be compelled to sell it daily for the bare price of survival. Capitalism turned out to be much more profitable than slavery and was for that reason enforced, by war.

Within his many, mostly short, chapters in Capital Volume 1 on Surplus Value, Karl Marx interweaves a lot of descriptive material about capitalism in practice, including the long Chapter 10, almost a book on its own, called “The Working Day”. At Chapter 19 Marx comes to Wages, which we studied two days ago, and follows with capitalist Accumulation, which we looked at yesterday. These are still a continuation of the long exposition of Surplus Value, which is the heart of the book.

How did capitalism start?

Only after this point in Capital, that is from Chapter 26 of Volume 1 onwards, does Marx begin to discuss a primitive accumulation preceding capitalistic accumulation; an accumulation not the result of the capitalistic mode of production, but its starting point.” He goes back to the beginning. This is the point we have arrived at today. See the “backbone” link below and the “Intro” below the links.

Marx continues to examine Primitive Accumulation until his final Chapter 33, on Colonialism. The last eight chapters of the book are naturally of great interest to us in South Africa at this stage in our history.

The Communist University’s 24-part division of Capital Volume 1 (with some of its precursor texts) is available as a set of MS-Word downloads from the Internet for anyone who wishes to read the work in this way. But it is mainly designed for dialogue groups and study circles. Please feel free to download these texts and get on with it. There is no need to ask permission.

Native republic thesis – a precursor to the tripartite alliance

SACP GS Dr Blade Nzimande will address a seminar on the above topic on 7 August 2009 at 10h00 in COSATU House, 1 Leyds Street, Braamfontein, Johannesburg. Also present will be David Masondo (chairing) and Prof Eddie Webster.

Contact Priscilla Magau, priscilla.magau@gmail.com, pmagau@chi.org.za, or telephone 011 339 3040.

Books on education from MIA plus “Les Enrag├ęs” and Hegel:

Marxiststs Internet Archive books (these books can be bought, or downloaded free)

Click on these links:

CU Backbone posting:

1867, Marx, Capital, Volume 1, 26 and 27, Original Sin & Expropriation of People (5992 words)

CU additional posting:

What is to be done? (Extracts on Economism and the Vanguard Party)

Note that nearly all the Marx, Engels and Lenin texts of the CU have been downloaded from Marxists Internet Archive, which is a vast store of revolutionary literature.

Intro to Capital Volume One, Chapters 26 and 27, Original Sin & Expropriation of People

In the first of these two chapters on primitive accumulation, Karl Marx describes what is required before the system of surplus value can start pumping and reproducing itself. As he says, the myths around this origin are many, but the truth is written in blood and fire, the ruin of the feudal system, and the destruction of the semi-feudal, semi-bourgeois guilds in the towns of Western Europe. These revolutions made possible the existence of “free labourers”, which is to say people with no means of production or subsistence, who must sell their only possession – their labour power – in order to survive from day to day.

Chapter 26 is quite an easy read.

According to Marx, the capitalistic era began in the 16th century, but he does not say that capitalism was dominant or hegemonic at that time. Many of the bourgeois institutions that are nowadays taken as part of capitalism, such as double-entry book-keeping, banks, stock and bond markets, insurance, contract law and global freight navigation, were first developed under late feudalism, but especially under the big, bourgeois, transcontinental business of slavery, which is very different from capitalism.

How the “free labourers” historically came into existence is exemplified in the second of the two chapters, where Marx takes the “classic form” of this process as being that of England, starting from the 16th Century. Clearly the creation of the proletariat was contemporary with the slave trade while the latter was dominant. Capitalism only began to supersede slavery after it had matured during the period (roughly) 1500 to 1800.

The process of eviction of people from the land is popularly known in England as “the enclosures” and in Scotland as the “Highland clearances”. To South Africans, one can say that the book describes processes of dispossession that are familiar in South Africa even up to the present time. In the case of the Highlands of Scotland, one can also read that game parks (called deer forests) were replacing settlements of people from two centuries ago. The same thing is happening today in South Africa under cover of “green ecology”, and not only with game parks, but also with golf estates and the like.

With Chapter 27, it is not necessary to understand every local term, or remember every local event. What is applicable still is the class struggle that underlay it all, the victorious bourgeoisie that came out on top, and the great, dispossessed, working proletariat that was left as the principal basis for capitalist extraction of surplus labour from then onwards, but also as capitalism’s inevitable gravedigger.


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