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What is “Primitive Accumulation”? Marx’s and Kropotkin’s Viewpoints—A Background

category international | the left | opinion / analysis author Sunday February 10, 2019 14:27author by Wayne Price Report this post to the editors

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This was prepared as background for an anarchist study group which is reading Silvia Federici’s Caliban and the Witch; Women, the Body, and Primitive Accumulation. Federici is a well-known Marxist-feminist of a libertarian-autonomist Marxist perspective.

Karl Marx, Capital, Vol. 1 (my emphasis)

[Adam Smith and other theorists of bourgeois political economy explained “primitive accumulation”—also translated as “primary” or “original” accumulation—this way:] In times long gone by there were two sorts of people; one the diligent, intelligent, and, above all, frugal, elite; the other, lazy rascals, spending their substance, and more, in riotous living…Thus it came to pass that the former sort accumulated wealth, and the latter sort had at last nothing to sell except their own skins. And from this original sin dates the poverty of the great majority…and the wealth of the few….Such insipid childishness is every day preached to us…. [Instead, Marx refers to the enclosures which drove European peasants off their land, colonialism in India and elsewhere, African and Native American slavery, etc.]

In actual history it is notorious that conquest, enslavement, robbery, murder, briefly force, play the great part….The so-called primitive accumulation, therefore, is nothing else than the historical process of divorcing the producer from the means of production. It appears as primitive, because it forms the pre-historic stage of capital….The history of this, their expropriation, is written in the annals of mankind in letters of blood and fire….

The advance of capitalist production develops a working class…. [Today] direct force, outside economic conditions, is of course still used, but only exceptionally. In the ordinary run of things, the laborer can be left to the “natural laws of production,” i.e., to his dependence on capital….It is otherwise during the historic genesis of capitalist production. The bourgeoisie, at its rise, wants and uses the power of the state to “regulate” wages…to keep the laborer himself in the normal degree of dependence. This is an essential element of the so-called primitive accumulation….

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 blackskins, signalized the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production. These idyllic proceedings are the chief moments of primitive accumulation….They all employ the power of the state, the concentrated and organized force of society, to hasten, hothouse fashion, the process of transformation of the feudal mode of production into the capitalist mode, and the shorten the transition. Force is the midwife of every old society pregnant with a new one. It is itself an economic power….

Peter Kropotkin, The State: Its Historic Role
(Kropotkin’s views on the origins of capitalism and the modern state are consistent with those of Marx)

The role of the nascent state in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in relation to the urban centers was to destroy the independence of the cities; to pillage the rich guilds of merchants and artisans; to concentrate in its hands the external commerce of the cities and ruin it; to lay hands on the internal administration of the guilds and subject internal commerce as well as all manufactures, in every detail to the control of a host of officials….Obviously the same tactic was applied to the villages and the peasants. Once the state felt strong enough it eagerly set about destroying the village commune, ruining the peasants in its clutches and plundering the common funds….

Such was the role of the state in the industrial field. All it was capable of doing was to tighten the screw for the worker, depopulate the countryside, spread misery in the towns, reduce millions of human beings to a state of starvation and impose industrial serfdom.

Peter Kropotkin, Modern Science and Anarchism
(However, Kropotkin had criticisms of Marx’s concept of “primitive accumulation.”)

What, then, is the use of talking, with Marx, about the “primitive accumulation” —as if this “push” given to capitalists were a thing of the past? In reality, new monopolies have been granted every year till now….Everywhere the state has been, and is, the main pillar and the creator, direct and indirect, of capitalism and its powers over the masses….The state has always interfered in the economic life in favor of the capitalist exploiter. It has always granted him protection in robbery, given aid and support for further enrichment. And it could not be otherwise. To do so was one of the functions—the chief mission—of the state.

Karl Marx, Grundrisse [unpublished notebooks]
(Marx says that in the epoch of capitalist decline, capitalism returns to its earlier, non-market, methods, such as monopolization and state action.)

As long as capital is weak, it still itself relies on the crutches of past modes of production, or of those which will pass with its rise. As soon as it feels strong, it throws away the crutches and moves in accordance with its own laws. As soon as it begins to sense itself and become conscious of itself as a barrier to development, it seeks refuge in forms which, by restricting free competition, seem to make the rule of capital more perfect, but are at the same time the heralds of its dissolution and the the dissolution of the mode of production resting on it.

David Harvey, A Companion to Marx’s Capital.
(Harvey is a well-known Marxist geographer and theoretician. My emphasis.)

There were important aspects to the dynamic [of primitive accumulation] that Marx ignores. For example, the gender dimension is now recognized as being highly significant, since primitive accumulation frequently entailed a radical disempowerment of women, their reduction to the status of property and chattel and the reenforcement of patriarchal social relations….

There is…a real problem with the idea that primitive accumulation occurred once upon a time, and that once over, it ceased to be of real significance…Rosa Luxemburg put that question firmly on the agenda nearly a century ago….The long history of capitalism centers on this dynamic between continuous primitive accumulation on the one hand and the dynamics of accumulation through the system of expanded reproduction described in Capital on the other…

Since it seems a bit odd to call them primitive or original, I prefer to call these processes accumulation by dispossession.

(Harvey cites Luxemburg, but, like Federici, apparently is not aware that Kropotkin had made a similar criticism of Marx’s “primitive accumulation.” However, it could be argued that this criticism is unfair to Marx, since he did recognize that “direct force, outside economic conditions, is of course still used” and indicated that there would be a return to the methods of “so-called primitive accumulation” when capitalism “become conscious of itself as a barrier to development”— that is, in its epoch of decay, with the rise of modern imperialism, monopoly-finance capitalism, and the anthropocene.)

For further discussion see
: From the Great Witch Hunt to the Epoch of Capitalist Decay—Review of Silvia Federici Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body, and Primitive Accumulation
by Wayne Price

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