In the final part of his series on Marx's Capital, Adam Booth tries to answer the question of how capitalism initially arose. In what way was an initial disparity and inequality created to allow for the laws of capitalism to set in? It is this issue of “primitive accumulation” that Marx turns to in chapters 26-33.
In chapters 23-25, Marx explained how capitalist relations – through their own inner laws and internal dynamics – are able to reproduce themselves, whilst at the same time extending and expanding. In doing so, a growing quantity of wealth accumulates in the hands of the capitalist class, and an ever widening chasm opens up between rich and poor – between Capital and Labour.
Marx emphasises, in particular, that this accumulation of profits and increasing domination of Capital over Labour are not the result of any violation of right (i.e. property rights). Exploitation and inequality are not the result of cheating; profits are not obtained at the point of a sword or the barrel of a gun. In fact, it is the opposite: the accumulation and concentration of wealth flow precisely from adhering to property rights. No recourse to “force” or “might” is necessary to explain the situation of exploitation and inequality that society faces today. It is the result of the self-perpetuating laws and logic of the capitalist system itself.
“The great beauty of capitalist production consists in this, that it not only constantly reproduces the wage-labourer as a wage-labourer, but also always produces a relative surplus population of wage-labourers in proportion to the accumulation of capital. Thus the law of supply and demand as applied to labour is kept on the right lines, the oscillation of wages is confined within limits satisfactory to capitalist exploitation, and lastly, the social dependence of the worker on the capitalist, which is indispensable, is secured.” (p935)
Once set in motion, therefore, exploitation and inequality become self-fulfilling prophecies. But, Marx asks, what is the initial impulse that allows such a dynamic to begin in the first place? Despite what the ruling class and their apologists in politics and academia may claim today, the laws of capitalist production and exchange have clearly not existed for all eternity. Indeed, as Engels explains in his great work on the Origins of Private Property, the Family, and the State, even class society in general is a relatively recent phenomena; for the vast majority of human history, mankind was organised into “primitive communism” – tribal communities in which the means of production were held in common ownership.
How then, did capitalism initially arise? In what way was an initial disparity and inequality created to allow for the laws of capitalism to set in? It is this question of “primitive accumulation” that Marx now turns to in chapters 26-33.
For Marx’s peers, “this primitive accumulation plays approximately the same role in political economy as original sin does in theology” (Karl Marx, Capital, Volume One, Penguin Classics edition, p873). For the bourgeoisie, their privileged position in society is as unquestionably natural, divine, and eternal as the motion of the planets, resulting from the hand and will of God himself. If there is evil or injustice in the world, it is not the fault of capitalism, but because of the mistakes of our ancestors, many generations ago.
“Long, long ago 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 finally had nothing to sell except their own skins. And from this original sin dates the poverty of the great majority who, despite all their labour, have up to now nothing to sell but themselves, and the wealth of the few that increases constantly, although they have long ceased to work.” (p873)
The working class, then, so we are told, must accept their lot and be condemned to a lifetime of misery, merely because of the mistakes of their forefathers. Above all, the capitalist system remains sacrosanct, beyond reproach. The poor are to blame for being poor: this, in essence, is the argument of the ruling class, both at the time of Marx and, in the shape of the right-wing political representatives today, today.
The real origins of capitalist accumulation, however, as Marx notes, are far from this “peaceful” and “natural” ideal that the bourgeoisie imagines. Whilst accumulation and inequality may flow from capitalist relations themselves once established, “in actual history,” as Marx explains, “it is a notorious fact that conquest, enslavement, robbery, murder, in short, force, play the greatest part” (p874) in establishing such relations in the first place. “As a matter of fact, the methods of primitive accumulation are anything but idyllic.” (p874)
What exactly are these capitalist relations Marx talks of that are self-reinforcing? At heart, it is the relation between Capital – value that begets more value – and Labour. Not all money and wealth is capital, however; “In themselves, money and commodities are no more capital than the means of production and subsistence are. They need to be transformed into capital.” (p874) This transformation – of money into capital; the establishment of capitalist relations – requires the owners of wealth to be able to find a very unique commodity on the market: the commodity of labour power, which, alone, has the ability to create surplus value – i.e. more value than it itself contains.
And who is it that sells such a commodity? Only the free worker – that class of the dispossessed, who neither belong to another, nor have anything to sell but their ability to work for another. “Free workers, in the double sense that they neither form part of the means of production themselves, as would be the case with slaves, serfs, etc., nor do they own the means of production, as would be the case with self-employed peasant proprietors.” (p874)
For capitalist relations to take hold of society, therefore, a working class must first exist, and this “presupposes a complete separation between the workers and the ownership of the conditions for the realisation of their labour.” “As soon as capitalist production stands on its own feed, it not only maintains this separation, but reproduces it on a constantly extending scale. The process, therefore, which creates the capital-relation can be nothing other than the process which divorces the worker from the ownership of the conditions of his own labour.” (p874)
“…property in money, means of subsistence, machines and other means of production does not as yet stamp a man as a capitalist if the essential complement to these things is missing: the wage-labourer, the other man, who is compelled to sell himself of his own free will. He [the bourgeois political economists] discovered that capital is not a thing, but a social relation between persons which is mediated through things.” (p932)
“We know that the means of production and subsistence, while they remain the property of the immediate producer, are not capital. They only become capital under circumstances in which they serve at the same time as means of exploitation of, and domination over, the worker…
“…So long, therefore, as the worker can accumulate for himself – and this he can do so long as he remains in possession of his means of production – capitalist accumulation and the capitalist mode of production are impossible.” (p933)
At the root of this dilemma facing the early capitalists is the difference between individual (personal) property and capitalist private property: the former, “which rests on the labour of the producer himself”, and the latter, which rests “on the exploitation of the labour of others” (p931). For capitalism to take hold of society – whether it is in the transformation of society from feudalism, or in establishment of capitalist relations in the colonies – it must abolish the petit-production of the self-sufficient individual, and replace it with a system of production based on the exploitation of others.
The secret of primitive accumulation, therefore, Marx explains, “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-history of capital, and of the mode of production corresponding to capital.” (p875)
The creation of the “free worker” and the rise of the bourgeoisie
As Marx notes, “the economic structure of capitalist society” is not a deus-ex machina that has fallen from the sky or appeared from nowhere, but “has grown out of the economic structure of feudal society”. “The dissolution of the latter set free the former.” (p875) In other words, the working class required for capitalist relations was created from the material bequeathed by the preceding society – that of feudalism; a society where the vast majority were serfs tied to the land, peasants tending to their own plots, or labourers trapped inside the protected guilds.
The task of creating “free workers”, therefore, was “on the one hand…their emancipation from serfdom and from the fetters of the guild”. “But, on the other hand, these newly freed men became sellers of themselves only after they had been robbed of all their own means of production, and all the guarantees of existence afforded by the old feudal arrangements.” (p875) The petit-bourgeois mass had to be transformed into the paid wage-labourer. In short, the masses had not only to be released from the grip of the lords and the guilds, but also to be expropriated of their own property, ripped from the land, and driven into hands of the emergent bourgeoisie – the owners of wealth in the newly created towns and industries. “And this history, the history of their expropriation, is written in the annals of mankind in letters of blood and fire.”
At the same time, the nascent capitalist class could not simply dictate the terms of this process. Whilst the creation of “free workers” was necessary for capital, it was by no means beneficial to the guild masters and the feudal lords, whose wealth and power was based on the existing state of affairs. The establishment of capitalist relations, therefore, was not a mere economic matter, but was, at root, a political struggle between the old ruling class and the more dynamic emergent class of the bourgeoisie.
“In this respect, the rise of the industrial capitalists appears as the fruit of a victorious struggle both against feudal power and its disgusting prerogatives, and against the guilds, and the fetters by which the latter restricted the free development of production and the free exploitation of man by man.” (p875)
Whilst it is true, therefore, that every new form of economic and social organisation arises out of the previous society, “matured in the womb of the old”, it is nevertheless the case that such a process does not progress in an entirely smooth and gradual manner. At a certain point, there must be a qualitative change in economic and social relations, corresponding to the transfer of political power from the old ruling class – which has become a fetter – to the new, progressive class in society. Such a shift is the task of a revolution.
In England, the revolutionary events surrounding the Civil War saw the bourgeoisie assert themselves politically through Parliament in order to wrestle power from the monarchy, whilst in France, the revolution of 1789 overthrew the old feudal monarchy and aristocracy, establishing the French Republic, based on bourgeois law and bourgeois rights. In America, the national bourgeoisie took power through not one, but two revolutions: firstly, through the War of Independence against the British government in the late-18th century; and later in the American Civil War between the states of the North, which based themselves on capitalist relations, and those of the South, which defended slavery.
Indeed, this last example most aptly demonstrates the qualitative – revolutionary – shift required to establish capitalist relations: as long as slavery existed in the South, the capitalism of the North would remained hemmed in, for it required the existence of “free workers” across America – that is, of men and women who were neither the property of others, nor the owners of any property themselves – in order to grow and expand.
Today, bourgeois politicians and academics do not hesitate in labelling Marxists and socialists as being blood-thirsty maniacs for their desire to see a revolutionary change in society, equating the process of revolution with violence, death, and anarchy. Of course these learned ladies and gentlemen, whose main aim is to defend the status quo of capitalism, conveniently forget two facts: firstly, that it is the side of counter-revolution throughout history that has deployed the most violent and brutal means in defence of their privileges; and secondly, that the bourgeoisie, in their own conquest of power, has used the most revolutionary – and often extremely violent – methods to overthrow the old ruling class. Cromwell, Robespierre, and Lincoln: all of these revolutionary leaders did not hesitate to use force and might in their fight to overthrow feudalism and slavery, and thus establish the modern bourgeois society that we know today.
Enclosure of the Commons
Marx takes England as his main historical example in demonstrating how the process of creating the “free worker” concretely unfolded. The task facing the emergent class of capitalists in England was that as outlined above: to create a dispossessed class of wage-labourers that could fuel the needs of manufacturing in the growing towns. (Later on, as Marx explains, the bourgeoisie in the more advanced capitalist countries were also faced with the same task when attempting to establish capitalist relations in the colonies.)
In the transformation from feudalism to capitalism in England, this process of creating the “free worker” took place predominantly through the expropriation of the agricultural population, in what is often referred to as the “enclosure of the commons”. Much of the land in England had remained officially as “open fields” and “common land” up until the 16th century. From this time onwards, the process of enclosure became more widespread, with these open fields and commons being divided up, fenced off, and handed over to wealthy private landlords. Those who previously inhabited the commons would be forcibly evicted, frequently through means that were bloody and violent, leaving them with nothing to live on.
Marx notes the importance of the Reformation in this respect, in which land was taken from the feudal church and given over to wealthy, whilst at the same time forcing ordinary people to flee:
“The process of forcible expropriation of the people received a new and terrible impulse in the sixteenth century from the Reformation, and the consequent colossal spoliation of the church property. The Catholic Church was, at the time of the Reformation, the feudal proprietor of a great part of the soil of England. The dissolution of the monasteries, etc., hurled their inmates into the proletariat.” (p881)
With the bourgeoisie gaining political power, the law – far from protecting people against acts of violent eviction – becomes a tool precisely for this forcible eviction, with the Enclosure Acts of the 18th and 19th Century acting as a “Parliamentary form of…robbery”; “decrees by which the landowners grant themselves the people’s land as private property, decrees of expropriation of the people”. (p885)
“The spoliation of the Church’s property, the fraudulent alienation of the state domains, the theft of the common lands, the usurpation of feudal and clan property and its transformation into modern private property under circumstances of ruthless terrorism, all these things were just so many idyllic methods of primitive accumulation. They conquered the field for capitalist agriculture, incorporated the soil into capital, and created for the urban industries the necessary supplies of free and rightless proletarians.” (p895)
And yet, as Marx notes, the apologists of capitalism retain a “stoical peace of mind” in the face of this “most shameless violation of the ‘sacred rights of property’ and the grossest acts of violence against persons, as soon as they are necessary in order to lay the foundations of the capitalist mode of production.” (p889)
Again, whilst accusing Marxists of wanting “violent” revolution, the defenders of capitalism today forget their own extremely violent past. Capitalism has never and nowhere arisen peacefully, but rather comes into this world “dripping from head to toe, from every pore, with blood and dirt.” (p926)
Attacks on the poor
Whilst some of the newly created “free workers” were able to become paid wage-labourers, many of the dispossessed, having been driven from the land and into the towns, found themselves transformed from peasants into paupers. Despite ending up in a state of destitution through no fault of their own, such people were nevertheless punished for stalking the land with no shelter or means of living. As Marx notes:
“The fathers of the present working class were chastised for their enforced transformation into vagabonds and paupers. Legislation treated them as ‘voluntary’ criminals, and assumed that it was entirely within their powers to go on working under the old conditions which in fact no longer existed.” (p896)
The poor, in other words, were being punished for being poor. As it was then, so it is now, with the right-wing media and politicians demonising those who – having been thrown onto the scrapheap by capitalism, which is unable to provide jobs, decent pay, and affordable housing – have fallen into the safety net of the welfare state in order to survive.
By 1824, the Vagrancy Act was introduced in Britain, making homelessness and public displays of poverty illegal. Those who could not support themselves or find paid employment were forced to jump out of the frying pan and into the fire of the workhouse.
As Marx notes, the initial flood tide of the dispossessed entering the towns were not naturally attuned to a life of wage-labour. The discipline required by the capitalist mode of production had to be drilled into the newly formed working class. “Thus were the agricultural folk first forcibly expropriated from the soil, driven from their homes, turned into vagabonds, and then whipped, branded, and tortured by grotesquely terroristic laws into accepting the discipline necessary for the system of wage-labour.” (p899)
In the early formation of capitalism, as Marx explains, the “rising bourgeoisie needs the power of the state, and uses it to ‘regulate’ wages, i.e. to force them into the limits suitable for making a profit, to lengthen the working day, and to keep the worker himself at his normal level of dependence. This is an essential aspect of so-called primitive accumulation.” (p899-900) Once again, we see how the supposedly “natural” laws of capitalism were anything but in the early days of this system. Those who praise the superiority of the market today, with the apparently omnipotent and omniscient forces of supply and demand, fail to mention that, in its origins, the invisible hand required the iron-fist of the state in order to survive – that is, in order for the bourgeoisie to thrive.
Overtime, however, the explicit and open use of the force of the state gives way to the equally powerful force of tradition, routine, and habit. Forceful compulsion is replaced by economic compulsion, backed up ideologically through prejudices and so-called “common sense”; man-made laws regulating wages and hours become unnecessary with the rise of the laws of capitalist competition. The full force of the state, with its “armed bodies of men”, will of course still be called upon by the ruling class today in order to protect bourgeois property rights when necessary; but as Marx comments, “Direct extra-economic force is still of course used, but only in exceptional cases.” (p899)
In place of such force, therefore, the “advance of capitalist production develops a working class which by education, tradition and habit looks upon the requirements of that mode of production as self-evident laws. The organisation of the capitalist process of production, once it is fully developed, breaks down all resistance. The constant generation of a relative surplus population keeps the law of the supply and demand of labour, and therefore wages, within narrow limits which correspond to capital’s valorisation requirements. The silent compulsion of economic relations sets the seal on the domination of the capitalist over the worker.” (p899)
At the same time, the law was used to limit the rights of workers to organise and take action. But, with the growing quantitative and qualitative strength of the working class, even these “barbarous laws against combinations of workers collapsed in 1825 in the face of the threatening attitude of the proletariat”. (p903) The capitalists, and their political representatives, could do nothing but reluctantly allow workers to form unions, for fear that naked repression might provoke even greater ire and radicalisation.
“It is evident that only against its will, and under the pressure of the masses, did the English Parliament give up the laws against strikes and trade unions, after it had itself, with shameless egoism, held the position of a permanent trade union of the capitalists against the workers throughout five centuries.” (p903)
Indeed, the hypocrisy that Marx points out is evident today also, where the capitalists raise a hue-and-a-cry over the “vested interests” of the trade unions, attempting to turn public opinion against those who take strike action in defence of wages, conditions, and jobs, etc.; meanwhile, the capitalists themselves – a tiny, rich elite – close ranks in defence of their own interests – that is, in defence of the system that guarantees them such privileges and profits.
The economic basis of primitive accumulation
The creation of a new mass of wage-labourers was, at the same time, also the creation of a market for the goods that capitalist industries produced. Rather than finding a scattered and self-sufficient peasantry, merchants and traders would now find a concentrated base of consumers in the towns, with wages to spend on their commodities.
“In fact, the events that transformed the small peasants into wage-labourers, and their means of subsistence and of labour into material elements of capital, created, at the same time, a home market for capital…Previously a mass of small producers , working on their own account, had found their natural counterpart in a large number of scattered customers; but now these customers are concentrated into one great market provided for by industrial capital…And only the destruction of rural domestic industry can give the home market of a country that extension and stability which the capitalist mode of production requires.” (p910-911)
The same process was a factor in the growth of the post-war world economy, with new markets for capitalism created in the former colonies as a result of their independence and the establishment of new, local wage-labourers. This, in turn, gave an impetus to world trade, and the expansion of the world market – along with the destruction of the war itself – paved the way for an unprecedented growth of the productive forces.
Whilst the initial acts associated with primitive accumulation, as described earlier, may have required the use of force, nevertheless, they also relied upon prerequisite material conditions to be present. In particular, the eviction of the peasants – and their associated transformation in to wage-labourers – meant that there were now fewer hands working on the land; and yet, the population that needed to be fed, if anything, was growing.
The necessary condition for this drive of the peasant from the land and into the towns was, therefore, the growing productivity of the agricultural sector itself. And, as Marx notes, it was precisely the transformation of the land from open fields and commons into private enclosures that enabled this agricultural revolution:
“In spite of the smaller number of its cultivators, the soil brought forth as much produce as before, or even more, because the revolution in property relations on the land was accompanied by improved methods of cultivation, greater co-operation, a higher concentration of the means of production and so on, and because the agricultural wage-labourers were made to work at a higher level of intensity, and the field of production on which they worked for themselves shrank more and more.” (p908)
Later revolutions in production provided the same material basis for the growth of new industries and technologies. For example, it was the industrial revolution and, later, mass automation of manufacturing, that provided the increased productivity and decrease in labour time necessary to free up a sector of the working population for service-based industries. In the same way, it was the development of farming and husbandry at the dawn of civilisation, with an associated production of a surplus for the first time, which paved the way for the creation of class society.
Thus we see, in a basic and simple way, a demonstration of the Marxist – that is, materialist – concept of history: that it is, in the final analysis, the level of development of the forces of production that determines the limits within which any given society can grow.
Today there is talk of a “digital revolution”, with the growth of computing power and artificial intelligence opening up the possibility of automating – and eliminating – millions of knowledge-based, white-collar jobs. Under socialism, with a democratic plan of production, such technology could provide the material basis for an enormous reduction in the hours of the working week, with any remaining work shared out, and with no loss of pay. Under capitalism, however, the digital revolution has become a cause, not of celebration, but of concern, as these millions of workers find themselves in a race against the machine, and a race against each other, just in order to avoid being thrown onto the scrapheap of unemployment.
In this way, we see demonstrated the other basic tenet of the Marxist view of history: that, whilst the forces of production may lay the material basis for progress and development in society, in certain periods these forces of production come into conflict and contradiction with the mode of production – that is, how production and society is organised – and such progress will exist only in potential. In such periods, a revolution is necessary in order for this potential progress to be realised, as is the case with the potential offered by today’s extremely advanced technological developments.
“At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or – this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms – with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution. The changes in the economic foundation lead sooner or later to the transformation of the whole immense superstructure.” (Karl Marx, Preface to a Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy)
Debts and taxes
Marx identifies two other main sources of primitive accumulation – i.e. the use of force to create the basis for self-perpetuating capitalist relations: colonialism and the plunder of these colonies for their free labour and natural resources; and the creation of national debts, with an associated and accompanying fiscal (taxation) system.
The concept of state debt was not new to the capitalist epoch. Monarchs had frequently borrowed from the rich and wealthy, particularly in order to fund wars. The problem previously, however, was that such royalty would often default on their loans. Tired of losing their money, the rising bourgeois class in England pushed through with the establishment of a national bank – the Bank of England – in 1694, which would guarantee the repayment of government debts and give the financial lenders privileges over the money supply – i.e. the creation of new notes.
In principle, the idea of national debt makes little sense. The same result – i.e. the government raising money for state expenditure – could just as well be achieved through taxing the rich, rather than borrowing from them. Of course, from the perspective of the wealthy, lending the government money (in the form of credit) rather than giving it over (in the form of taxes) is far preferable: the rich get to keep their money, and at the same time earn a tidy sum on the side from interest.
“The public debt becomes one of the most powerful levers of primitive accumulation. As with the stroke of an enchanter’s wand, it endows unproductive money with the power of creation and thus turns it into capital, without forcing it to expose itself to the troubles and risks inseparable from its employment in industry or even in usury. The state’s creditors actually give nothing away, for the sum lent is transformed into public bonds, easily negotiable, which go on functioning in their hands just as so much hard cash would.” (p919)
With debts to repay, the state is then required to establish a properly functioning fiscal system through which to raise the taxes needed to fund these debts and interest payments. The result, however, as seen now in debt-laden countries across the world, is that the tail ends up wagging the dog. Government policy begins to revolve entirely around paying back the debts to its financial creditors, and – as is aptly demonstrated in modern day Greece – new loans are required just to pay off the old ones.
So it comes about that the bourgeoisie takes complete control over the running of the country – not simply through the electoral apparatus of a country, but by dictating policy to governments using strikes of investment and the threat of national insolvency. This is what we see today, where governments of every colour are carrying out the same policies of austerity under the aegis of international finance capital – and this is what is meant by the dictatorship of capital, which rides roughshod over democracy in this time of crisis.
“The national debt, i.e. the alienation of the state – whether that state is despotic, constitutional, or republican – marked the capitalist era with its stamp. The only part of the so-called national wealth that actually enters into the collective possession of a modern nation is – the national debt.” (p919)
These methods, combined with those already described above, are the forceful ways in which the nascent bourgeoisie assert the dominance of capitalism over society.
“The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the indigenous population of that continent, the beginnings of the conquest and plunder of India, and the conversion of Africa into a preserve for the commercial hunting of blackskins, are all things which characterise the daw of the era of capitalist production. These idyllic proceedings are the chief moments of primitive accumulation…
“These different moments are systematically combined together at the end of the seventeenth century in England; the combination embraces the colonies, the national debt, the modern tax system, and the system of protection. These methods depend in part on brute force, for instance the colonial system. But they all employ the power of the state, the concentrated and organised force of society, to hasten, as in a hothouse, 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 which is pregnant with a new one. It is itself an economic power.” (p916)
The historical role of capitalism
With primitive accumulation undertaken, capitalist relations established, and the rule of the bourgeoisie consolidated, right replaces might, and capitalism begins to set about on its historic role: to do away with the fetters of feudalism; convert the scattered personal property of petit-production into capitalist private property; and develop the productive forces – the forces of science and culture; of industry and agriculture; and of technology and technique.
“This mode of production [feudalism] presupposes the fragmentation of holdings, and the dispersal of the other means of production. As it excludes the concentration of these means of production, so it also excludes co-operation, division of labour within each separate process of production, the social control and regulation of the forces of nature, and the free development of the productive forces of society…
“…It has to be annihilated; it is annihilated. Its annihilation, the transformation of the individualised and scattered means of production into socially concentrated means of production, the transformation, therefore, of the dwarf-like property of the many into the giant property of the few, and the expropriation of the great mass of the people from the soil, from the means of subsistence and from the instruments of labour, this terrible and arduously accomplished expropriation of the mass of the people forms the pre-history of capital. It comprises a whole series of forcible methods, and we have only passed in review those that have been epoch-making as methods of the primitive accumulation of capital. The expropriation of the direct producers was accomplished by means of the most merciless barbarism, and under the stimulus of the most infamous, the most sordid, the most petty and the most odious of passions. Private property which is personally earned, i.e. which is based, as it were, on the fusing together of the isolated, independent working individual with the conditions of his labour, is supplanted by capitalist private property, which rests on the exploitation of alien, but formally free labour.” (p928)
Once established, the laws of capitalist competition act to concentrate and centralise the productive forces in society, creating a handful of monopolies that dominate each sector; multinational corporations that plan production within their firm on an international scale. Although still private in terms of ownership and appropriation, the productive process becomes increasing socialised: the producers are now inextricably linked into one common web of production and exchange; production for self-consumption is increasingly done away with; and the economies of each country are brought together into one world market, with supply chains that span the globe. All of this occurs for the sake of economies of scale, increased efficiency and productivity, and – ultimately – to decrease production costs and increase profits.
“This expropriation [of one capitalist by another] is accomplished through the action of the immanent laws of capitalist production itself, through the centralisation of capitals. One capitalist always strikes down many others. Hand in hand with this centralisation, or this expropriation of many capitalists by a few, other developments take place on an ever-increasing scale, such as the growth of the co-operative form of the labour process, the conscious technical application of science, the planned exploitation of the soil, the transformation of the means of labour into forms in which they can only be used in common, the economising of all means of production by their use as the means of production of combined, socialised labour, the entanglement of all peoples in the net of the world market, and, with this, the growth of the international character of the capitalist regime.” (p929)
All of this constitutes the historically progressive role of capitalism in its heyday, which “has accomplished wonders far surpassing Egyptian pyramids, Roman aqueducts, and Gothic cathedrals”. But, as the Marxist philosophy of dialectical materialism explains, at a certain point, everything turns into its opposite. The same forces that initially make capitalism progressive, driving forward the development of the productive forces and of society in general, the forces of profit and competition – these same forces later become an immense barrier to the progress of industry, science, and culture; a barrier that must be torn down if society is to continue moving forward.
“The monopoly of capital becomes a fetter upon the mode of production which has flourished alongside and under it. The centralisation of the means of production and the socialisation of labour reach a point at which they become incompatible with their capitalist integument. This integument is burst asunder. The knell of capitalist private property sounds. The expropriators are expropriated.” (p929)
The revolutionary task lying in front of humanity is to resolve the contradiction that capitalism has created: the contradiction between the socialised nature of the productive process – reflected in the immense level of planning that exists within the giant monopolistic multinational businesses that capitalism has spawned – and the private ownership and appropriation of the wealth that springs forth from this productive process.
Having negated individual private property and established capitalist private property, what is now needed is a further negation to take the means of production out of the hands of private owners, and place them instead in the hands of society as a whole – that is, to create a democratic and rational plan of production based on the needs of society, rather than the needs of capital.
“This is the negation of the negation. It does not re-establish private property, but it does indeed establish individual property on the basis of the achievements of the capitalist era: namely co-operation and the possession in common of the land and the means of production produced by labour itself.” (p929)
The agent of change for this revolutionary transformation is none other than the working class – the class of wage-labourers created by capitalism; “a class constantly increasing in numbers, and trained, united and organised by the very mechanism of the capitalist process of production.” (p929)
Despite what the ruling class may say today, however, with their scaremongering and warnings of violence and anarchy, such a revolutionary process, as Marx notes, would be far easier than the “incomparably more protracted, violent and difficult process” of primitive accumulation required for the origins of capitalism. “In the former case [of transforming scattered private property into capitalist property], it was a matter of the expropriation of the mass of the people by a few usurpers; but in this case [of transforming capitalist property into social property], we have the expropriation of a few usurpers by the mass of the people.” (p930)
All the objective conditions for socialist revolution exist: capitalism has created the material conditions necessary for socialism, bequeathing us a society of superabundance; at the same time, this same capitalist system is in crisis, and millions of people have become radicalised and are open to revolutionary ideas as a result. What is missing is the subjective factor – a revolutionary leadership that can link all the particular struggles under capitalism to the general need to overthrow capitalism and establish an international socialist society.
This chasm – between the objective necessity for socialism and the absence of the revolutionary leadership necessary for capitalism’s overthrow – is the primary contradiction that Marxists must set about resolving. It is the goal that the International Marxist Tendency is striving towards. If you agree with this revolutionary aim, then please join us in order to fight for a socialist future – the fight for the emancipation of humanity from the chains of capital and wage-slavery.