Chapter 26:  The Secret of Primitive Accumulation

Outline of Marx's Discussion:


What makes capitalism a new kind of society has been the creation of two new classes: a capitalist one made up of those who seek to organize most people's lives around the work of producing commodities and another, a class of workers, made up of those whose lives are subordinated to that organization. The secret of this creation—hidden by pro-capitalist political apologists in the telling of history—is that the emerging class of capitalists imposed this social order with brutality and violence, forcibly serparating people from their means of livelihood and destroying their ways of life. Those means included: privately owned tools, formal and informal land tenure and commons, such as pastures, fishing waters, forests and often language and culture to which everyone in a community had acess. Although this forcible separation created a situation where the reality (and threat) of destitution and starvation would largely replace the lash as a coercive instrument of control, violence continued to provide capitalists with a supplementary weapon for keeping people subordinated, right down to the present. This is true whether the violence has been wielded by corporate goons, paramilitary thugs or by government police and military.

Marx both critiques political economy by showing it to be at once apologetic and false and gives an overview of the actual processes through which capitalism emerged as a new kind of social order—an outline of the history he examines more thoroughly in the subsequent chapters.(3)

His analysis temporarily ignores the central subjects of political economy —the interactions of "money and commodities"—to focus on the social social conflicts that shaped the new world in which those things came to figure so centrally. The violence that capitalists required to impose their order reveals the depth of resistance. The agents of this new order, the "knights of industry", exploited every opportunity to achieve power, to subordinate the exploited classes of the old order in a new way and to usurp the power of the feudal lords, the "knights of the sword." Here the nascent capitalist class is portrayed as using "base" means, of "making use of events in which they played no part whatsoever" and of using various "revolutions"as "levers."

The Myths of Political Economy

Myths about the class structure of capitalism have served to justify its historical origins and on-going class disparities. The central myth, still promulgated today, is a morality tale that portrays capitalists as obtaining their wealth by frugally saving and investing. It suggests that everyone has always been able to become a capitalist by the same means, and those who do not, have no one to blame but themselves.

In 19th Century English literature, this myth was already the object of ridicule far more ascerbic than that of Marx's. For example, in Charles Dickens's (1812–70) 1854 novel Hard Times, which narrates the lives and tragedies of several people in a fictional Manchester-style, manufacturing city called Coketown, we find many passages where various persons are repeating this myth. Examples include the self-praising speeches of Mr. Josiah Bounderby—the novel's central capitalist—constantly bragging (falsely it turns out) about how he raised himself out of the mud to his present august position as mill owner and banker. (4) More concise, however, is a pretty exchange between Bounderby's ex-housekeeper Mrs. Sparsit and Bitzer, his light porter, general spy and informer at the bank, in which the repetition of the myth reveals both a distain for those irrational creatures (the workers) who put human relationships before personal profit and a self-delusion about the origins of wealth. Both, of course, are merely repeating the self-justifying truisms of Bounderby in an almost ritual, and mutually reinforcing, manner. (5) The effect is both comic and appalling.

This, again, was among the fictions of Coketown. Any capitalist there, who had made sixty thousand pounds out of sixpence, always professed to wonder why the sixty thousand nearest Hands didn't each make sixty thousand pounds out of sixpence, and more or less reproached them every one for not accomplishing the little feat. What I did you can do. Why don't you go and do it?
    "As to their wanting recreations, ma'am," said Bitzer, "it's stuff and nonsense. I don't want recreations. I never did, and I never shall; I don't like 'em. As to their combining together; there are many of them, I have no doubt, that by watching and informing upon one another could earn a trifle now and then, whether in money or good will, and improve their livelihood. Then, why don't they improve it, ma'am! It's the first consideration of a rational creature, and it's what they pretend to want."
     "Pretend indeed!" said Mrs. Sparsit.
     "I am sure we are constantly hearing, ma'am, till it becomes quite nauseous, concerning their wives and families," said Bitzer.  "Why look at me, ma'am! I don't want a wife and family. Why should they?"
     "Because they are improvident," said Mrs. Sparsit.
     "Yes, ma'am," returned Bitzer, "that's where it is.  If they were more provident and less perverse, ma'am, what would they do?  They would say, 'While my hat covers my family,' or 'while my bonnet covers my family,'—as the case might be, ma'am—'I have only one to feed and that's the person I most like to feed.'"
     "To be sure," assented Mrs. Sparsit, eating a muffin.
     "Thank you, ma'am," said Bitzer, knuckling his forehead again, in return for the favour of Mrs. Sparsit's improving conversation. "Would you wish a little more hot water, ma'am, or is there anything else that I could fetch you?"
(from Charles Dickens, Hard Times, Book the second: Reaping, Chapter 1: The Effects in the Bank.)

A subtler, but even more biting indictment of the myth of the self-made man, is contained in Charlotte Brontë's first novel The Professor which was written in 1846 but not published until after her death in 1857. The protagonist, a young man who becomes a school teacher, rather than a capitalist, only achieves success by fully participating in a dog-eat-dog world fully shaped by the laissez-faire, competitive capitalism of the 19th Century. The novel portrays the necessary combination of aggressiveness and defensiveness required for survival, as well as the ultimate loneliness and isolation of even the most successful competitors for status and love.  It is an amazingly modern treatment of what Marx in his 1844 Manuscripts and social critics in the 20th Century call the alienation of capitalist society. The pressures to which the young professor succumbs and the behaviors that he adopts continue to be depressingly widespread in contemporary academia where academics are pitted against each other in an endless struggle for publication, research funds and promotion.

In American literature and popular culture, this myth has taken many forms, including the novels for young adults of Horatio Alger (1832–99). With the rise of the modern corporation with its many-leveled wage and salary hierarchy, the myth has taken the form of stories of energetic individuals who work hard and scheme their way up that hierarchy, perhaps even to the top. From Horatio Alger’s young men to Michael J. Fox in The Secret of My Success (1987) or Melanie Griffith in Working Girl (1988), the myth has changed little. It has, however, also been repeatedly critiqued, in novels such as Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt (1922) or poems such as Edwin Robertson’s “Richard Cory” (1897), made famous in Simon and Garfunkel’s musical interpretation (1966). (6) I return to these critiques in my commentary on Chapter 7.

Controversy: Was Marx an "Historical Materialist"?

Declining to take on the history of capital everywhere, Marx announces that he will take the example of England as the "classic" case. And indeed throughout Capital most of Marx's examples are drawn from British history although from time to time, including this section on primitive accumulation, he brings in the experiences in other countries. However, since Capital was published in 1867, there are many who have tried to convert Marx's analysis of the rise of capitalism into a general theory of history, i.e., historical materialism. Engels's efforts in this direction built on a few generalizations that he and Marx had made in their early joint works The German Ideology (c.1846) and The Communist Manifesto (1848). In the former, they insisted on the material foundations of human life in the genesis of ideology. In the latter, aimed at differentiating their communist movement from a variety of socialist efforts, they famously wrote: "The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles." A decade later, in his brief preface to his Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1850) Marx wrote:

Given the generic character of this passage, characterizing human history in general, it is easy enough to see why some would see it as a first step toward a general theory of human history. Engels, but not Marx, went on to attempt the elaboration of such a general theory in writings such as Anti-Dühring (1878) and The Dialectics of Nature (1883), where he pushed beyond a general theory of history, to sketch a virtual cosmology—a dialectical materialism encompassing all of nature as well as human history, a cosmology in which historical materialism constituted a subset of a broader vision.

These works became essential references for official Soviet ideology, referred to in shorthand as histomat and diamat. At their nadir, during Stalin’s regime, both were reduced to a virtual catechism to which all Soviet intellectuals were forced to adhere. They were also used to justify—when it suited Soviet interests—demands that members of the Soviet-organized Third International in regions of the Global South support the development of capitalism against so-called “feudal forces.” In the wake of Stalin’s death in 1953 and of the Soviet crushing of the Hungarian Revolution in 1956, the theory was refurbished as an elaborate structural model by Althusser and his collaborators. The ongoing appeal of one version of historical materialism or another is evident in the continuing publication of the academic journal Historical Materialism (1997–), its conferences and its book series.

Unfortunately for those attached to the idea of a general theory of history, Marx wrote his own commentary on this kind of interpretation of his work. One author to whom Marx took exception was Nicolai K. Mikhailovski (1842–1904) who had used Marx’s analysis of primitive accumulation to argue the historical necessity for all countries, including Russia, to pass through the stage of capitalism. Yes, the czar should be overthrown, but that overthrow must be followed by accelerating capitalist industrialization of the country. This was a highly political issue in Russia in the 1870s and remained so right through the Russian Revolution when the Bolsheviks seized power and pursued precisely such a policy. Others, such as the populists, recognized no such inevitability, argued and organized for a revolution of workers and peasants that would undercut the beginnings of capitalism in Russia and permit a direct passage from the traditional village mir (a communal form of organization) to communism. In the process of rejecting Mikhailovski's interpretation, Marx refuses the conversion of his theory into "historical materialism":

Elsewhere in the same letter, to illustrate his objection to applying his analysis willy-nilly, Marx points out how the expropriation of peasants in ancient Rome led not to wage labor but to slavery.

Four years later, in a letter to Vera Zasulich (1849-1919), he again rejected the generalization of his theory and insisted on the open-ended possibilities of the Russian village mir as the basis of a new society:

He hoped, we now know, vainly, that revolution might give the mir a chance to become the point of departure for the growth of an alternative, more attractive culture and civilization. (10)

From these notes and from the treatment in Capital I draw two conclusions: first, this section on primitive accumulation shows the conditions and processes through which capitalism emerged and which it must maintain to reproduce its social order. People must be separated from alternative means of livelihood and driven into the labor market, where they can gain their bread only by working for business. (11) Second, it is a mistake to see this analysis as a linear stages theory that says all peoples have to pass through these processes.

Even today, when it can be argued that all countries have long been caught up in the capitalist web and their workers fitted into its net of exploitation, there is nothing in Marx that argues each subordinated group must progress through predetermined stages of development before they can fight to be free of capitalism. In a world organized around an extremely complex multinational division of labor, it makes no sense to interpret the call for a “universal development of productive forces” as a call for universal industrialization. Marx shows us how capitalist development has always involved underdevelopment, both as a process and as a strategy. The development of capitalism is not only based on the underdevelopment and impoverishment of all other modes of life but in the process, it generates a poverty it can never abolish because it provides an ongoing threat that not being directly exploited by capitalism can be worse than being exploited by it. (12) The division of labor, a corresponding income hierarchy and the promise of upward mobility have provided capitalists with carrots to induce acceptance of its rules of the game, but also with the sticks of unemployment and poverty to club people into line when the carrot does not provide sufficient motivation.

Extensions: Capitalism Can Not Eliminate the Alternatives

As he argues here, and again in Chapter 25 on accumulation, capitalist development never means giving everyone a living wage in exchange for work. On the contrary, many, perhaps most (on a world scale) of those whose previous ways of life are progressively destroyed are doomed to remain unwaged and poor.

This is one reason why so many people have resisted and fought to preserve their independence as communities and their uniqueness as cultures. In the United States, as in other so-called developed capitalist countries, most people have lost that struggle and been swept into the world of factories, offices, ghettos and suburbs. Some have preserved unique cultural attributes by forming rural or urban communities. We have the Amish in the countryside, Native Americans on reservations, and ethnic communities in cities. Others, from time to time, have broken away to form intentional communities that escape, to some degree, subordination to wage labor. But most people have been integrated into the waged/unwaged hierarchies of capitalist society. In the Global South, where factories have been fewer and capitalist development has concentrated its poverty, a higher percentage of people have had better luck in preserving some land, some control over their means of production and more of their traditional culture. They are not outside of capitalism, they too are exploited, as we will see, in a variety of ways, yet they still have some space that supports their ongoing struggle for autonomy. In Capital, Marx does not talk much about these situations because his historical examples are mostly drawn from the British Isles where very little of pre-capitalist social forms and culture survived.(13)


One place where access to land and community cohesion have made possible resistance to total subsumption to capitalism and a certain degree of autonomy is Mexico. In the early 1990s, in the run-up to the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the Mexican government pushed through a consitutional amendment aimed at undercutting one of the few fruits of the Mexican Revolution (1910-20) won by peasants and the indigenous: the collective ownership of land in the form of ejidos where the land belonged to communities and not to individuals and could not be bought and sold. While not organized like the Russian mir, the ejidos nevertheless provided the material foundations for peasant, especially indigneous, communities to survive and preserve elements of their languages, music, dress and self-organization quite different from the institutions of the centralized Mexican state. Thus, they have formed unwanted rigidities to Mexican and American business with an interest in expanding their investments and tapping more people as cheap labor.

While the amendment of the Mexican constitution pleased business, indigenous communities saw it as a death knell foretelling widespread ethnic genocide. As a result in the southern state of Chiapas the indigenous members of many communities united to form, equip and launch a rebellion against such a destiny. These are the Zapatistas, self-named after one of the heroes of the Mexican Revolution, Emiliano Zapata (1879-1919), a peasant from the state of Morelos who became leader of the Liberation Army of the South.

On January 1, 1994, the same day NAFTA went into effect, fighters of the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (EZLN, or Zapatista Army of National Liberation) poured out of the jungles and forests and seized six cities in Chiapas. As they did so they explained their rebellion as a last ditch defense against their extermination as peoples and demanded official recognition of their rights to preserve and evolve, in their own ways, their traditional forms of social organization. The Mexican government counterattacked with troops but was soon forced into negotiations by widespread protests all over Mexico and around the world. Those protests were sparked by the ability of the Zapatistas, especially their main early spokesperson Subcomandante Marcos, to clearly articulate not only NAFTA's threat to their communities and their demands for autonomy, but also a more general critique of neoliberalism that resonated around the world so much so as even to inspire foreign musicians, such as the band Rage Against the Machine to celebrate their rebellion in the song "People of the Sun." (14) Outflanked and defeated repeatedly in the subsequent political struggle, the state attacked again in early 1995 and was again forced to back off.

Over the last two decades, the conflict has continued and so far, despite the consitutional amendment permitting communities to be privatized, broken up, sold off and dispersed, the indigneous of the Zapatista movement have been successful in resisting such pressures. Indeed, they have continued to reorganize themselves in more and more explicitly anti-capitalist ways and carried those efforts to the rest of grassroots Mexico seeking ways of building a nationwide, anti-capitalist movement. (15) They continue to resist the final enclosure of the Mexican countryside and the completion of the kinds of processes described by Marx in these chapters.

Because many pre-capitalist forms in Britain were also exploitative, such as the rural world of tenants dominated by a landed aristocracy, Marx had no nostalgia for them. In many areas of the rest of the world, however, those cultures which predated capitalism were either not exploitative, or the people had spheres of autonomy filled with their own traditions, skills and rituals, as in Mexico where strong elements of precolumbian, mesoamerican culture have survived and evolved. (16) Where capitalism has succeeded in destroying such cultures the world has suffered an absolute loss of cultural diversity and human meaning with little to take their place other than the alienated world of capitalist poverty. Where capitalism has failed to impose its own rules of the game because of peoples' resistance, the conflict continues.

Late in his life, Marx not only studied the peasant mir in Russia but also delved into anthropological works on so-called primitive cultures, looking, his notebooks suggest, for further possibilities of avoiding the evils of capitalism through the further development of autonomous cultural practices. (17)

Today, we can look around the world, to some degree here in the U.S. and in the other "developed" capitalist countries, but to a larger degree in the Global South and see the wide variety of distinct ways of life which have been preserved (with change of course), or invented, that still offer a diverse array of alternatives to the dominant culture of capitalism. Whether these alternatives are judged satisfying or seen as points of departure, they show something extremely important: capital has never been able to shape the world entirely according to its own rules.

Beyond the survival of pre-capitalist cultural practices, people have also repeatedly created new kinds of social relationships that are incompatible with the capitalist rules of the game and in the process, have posed new alternatives to it. In his theoretical chapters, Marx shows capitalism really has no creativity at all, but lives by absorbing and harnessing the creativity of those it dominates. The realization of this constant failure of capital to bend all people during all their lives to its demands alerts us to the essential source of potential change: those alternatives preserved and created through struggle.

With these notes of warning about too simplistic an adoption of Marx's analysis as being universally valid in its details, and even more so as being a prescription for a painful but necessary historical passage, we can proceed to examine the elements of this original accumulation which Marx selected for detailed treatment



    primitive accumulation
    frugal elite
    lazy rascals
    historical materialism
    working class
    capitalist class
    development and poverty


(An * means that one possible answer to that question can be found at the end of the study guide.)

*1. What is the idyllic myth of the origins of capitalism, according to Marx?  What is his critique of that myth?

2. What are the two senses in which workers are freed during the period of the emergence of capitalism?  What two transformations are involved?

3. Who did the industrial capitalists come to replace in society?

4. Over what period does Marx consider capitalism to have emerged?

5. In footnote #1 Marx notes a case where workers who had once been driven into the cities came to be once more driven into the countryside. How is land reform like this process he describes?

6. What is the role of force Marx sees in the emergence of capitalism?

*7. What can we deduce about peoples' response to primitive accumulation from capital's need to use violence to impose its new kind of civilization?

8. "Only in England, which we therefore take as our example, has it (primitive accumulation) the classic form." England is for Marx his most steady point of reference and source of examples throughout Capital. Do you think this means that he sees in the history of the rise of capitalism in England an inevitable series of steps through which all societies pass? As an intellectual exercise, collect all the quotes you can to buttress such a position.

*9. How did Marx respond to Mikhailovski's application of the analysis in Capital to the case of Russia? Does he embrace or reject the interpretation of his theory as a general "historical-philosophical theory of universal development"?

10. Discuss the relationship of Marx's analysis in this chapter with the structure of presentation of all of Part VIII in this volume.

11. From the reading of this chapter, what can you say about Marx's concept of the working class? of the capitalist class?  of class? If not everyone has been drafted into the waged working class, through what other ways can you think of have people been forced to work for capital.

*12. Discuss the issue of cultural creation and destruction in the rise of capitalism.  Give some examples of cultures which were mostly, or entirely destroyed.  Was this destruction a one-time phenomenon of primitive accumulation or has it been an ongoing process?


1 Capital, Vol. 1., p. 874.

2 Ibid., p. 875.

3 This opening makes clear why the subtitle of Volume I of Capital is "A Critique of Political Economy." His critique does not provide an alternative political economy or economic theory of capitalism, but rather an analysis designed to inform struggles to overthrow it.

4 Dickens's character, Mr. Josiah Bounderby, has found a real-life incarnation in Donald Trump; the parallels between their incessant, narcissistic bragging and their lies about the sources of their wealth are striking.

5 Here too are parallels with the sycophants with which Trump surrounds himself.

6 Edwin Arlington Robinson, Selected Poems, New York: Penguin Classics, 1997.

7 MECW, vol. 29, p. 263.

8 Marx to Otechestvenniye Zapiski, November 1877, MECW, vol. 24, p. 200.

9 Marx to Vera Zasulich, March 8, 1881, MECW, vol. 24, pp. 370-371. Also available in the same volume are three drafts of the letter. See pp. 346-369.

10 These letters have played a role in efforts to show how Marx's later work escaped what seemed to be its early limitations. See Teodor Shanin, Late Marx and the Russian Road: Marx and the Peripheries of Capitalism, New York Monthly Review Press, 1983 and Kevin Anderson, Marx at the Margins: On Nationalism, Ethnicity and Non-Western Societies, Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2016.

11 In recent years, a debate arose about whether Marx's analysis of primitive accumulation is only applicable to the period of the rise of capitalism or also explains continuing processes of enclosure, dispossession and the imposition of markets in contemporary capitalism. See the articles collected in the second issue of the online journal The Commoner, September 2001.

12 This point was apparently made so frequently by the English economist Joan Robinson that the statement “The only thing worse than being exploited by capitalism is not being exploited by capitalism” has been repeatedly attributed to her. See her An Essay on Marxist Economics, London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2nd rev. edn., 1967.

13 Fortunately, a bit more has survived in England's first colonies, Wales (1282), Ireland (1603) and Scotland (1707), especially, for those of us who appreciate things Celtic, their traditional language, music and folklore. Capitalists, of course, try to co-opt/instrumentalize all such survivals—just as they do with wholly new artistic and musical creations —by turning them into profitable commodities and spectacles. Thus, folk and even protest music often wind up being sold for a profit. Of course, in the process capitalist commodification often becomes a vehicle for the widespread circulation of anti-capitalist messages and struggle. In the place of wandering troubadours such as Joe Hill (1879–1915) and Woody Guthrie (1912–67), who inspired workers' struggles as they moved from place to place, came LP recordings of Pete Seeger (1919–2014) spreading their songs across the USA, and Bob Dylan (1941–) inspiring the cultural revolution of the 1960s through LPs, tapes and televised performances. Today, with peer-to-peer digital sharing, YouTube and various social media, capitalist commodification has become more difficult and the circulation of anti-capitalist art and music more widespread than ever before. See Brett Caraway, "Survey of File-Sharing Culture", International Journal of Communication, no. 6, 2012, pp. 564-584.

14 “People of the Sun” got Rage Against the Machine banned by the Mexican government until 1999 when they were finally able to stage a concert in Mexico City. See their video The Battle of Mexico City (2001). The Zapatistas and their supporters have made extensive use of social media, beginning with email and webpages, to circulate information about their struggles and to coordinate resistance to government repression. See H. Cleaver, “The Zapatistas and the Electronic Circulation of Struggle” (1995), in John Holloway and Eloina Peláez (eds.), Zapatista! Reinventing Revolution in Mexico, Sterling, VA: Pluto Press, 1998, pp. 81–103.

15 This was the objective of “The Other Campaign” launched in 2005 as an alternative to presidential elections in Mexico. Having won a certain freedom to travel by dint of continuous struggle, a group of Zapatista spokespeople carried their message and questions about democratic alternatives to Mexico’s formal electoral system throughout Mexico.

16 See Guillermo Bonfil Batalla, Mexico Profundo: Reclaiming a Civilization, Austin: University of Texas Press, 1996.

17 See Lawrence Krader (ed.), The Ethnological Notebooks of Karl Marx: Studies of Morgan, Phear, Maine, Lubbock, Amsterdam: Van Gorcum & Co., 1972 and Anderson, Marx at the Margins.