Chapter 32: The Historical Tendency of Capitalist Accumulation

Outline of Marx's Analysis


This chapter sums up both the historical processes of primitive accumulation and the dynamics of capitalist development itself, especially the processes of centralization of capital and class struggle, which Marx argues will bring the overthrow of capitalism.

The Ideology of Private Property

Marx juxtaposes capitalist private property to small-scale, personal private property in the means of production, e.g., land and tools, which he notes existed to some degree under most earlier social systems. He contemptuously condemns the capitalist ideology of private property, not only because it serves as a justification for violence and exploitation, but also because it ignores how the creation of capitalist private property involved the mass destruction of earlier forms of property.

Private property is usually justified by appealing to people’s sense that it is only proper for individuals to have property/control/possession of the fruits of their own labor. Farmers who work the land should have property rights in that land and whatever their cultivation can produce. Artisans who weave cloth should own their looms and the cloth they have woven and be free to determine what becomes of it. Anyone who works, gets paid a wage, and uses that wage to buy something has a right to the personal ownership of that thing because, in a transformed way, it was obtained through personal effort. Such were the kind of arguments put forward by John Locke (1632–1704) in his Second Treatise of Civil Government in 1690.(1)

Marx argues that such reasoning, based on individual effort, is hypocritically used to justify something very different: the capitalist ownership and control of goods produced by other people (i.e., the workers in the factories owned and controlled by the capitalists). A concept of justice that makes sense at the level of the individual does not necessarily make sense at the social level, if applied to property relations between factory owners and workers. This distinction is ignored or skimmed over for the sake of justifying capitalist control over their workers’ products. But why should capitalists “own” the products of workers? Because the capitalists own the machines and raw materials? But labor is just as vital, perhaps more so, and that is “owned” by the workers. Shouldn’t both capitalists and workers own the products and share in whatever revenue comes from their sale? In Chapter 6, Marx argues that because they purchase workers’ “labor-power” (their ability and willingness to labor) capitalists own everything in the production process, i.e., both means of production and the labor of their workers, and therefore have unique property right to the products. However, one judges this situation, it is quite clearly not covered by an ideology based on the situation of individuals.

As the material in this section of primitive accumulation has made clear, the capitalists used violence to wipe out the personal means of production of most people, monopolizing them in their own hands. In this process, they showed no respect for "private property." How hypocritical then to use moral principles applicable to the individual to justify the results of the violation of those principles.

One other note on this mutation of property rights: while today there are many cases of personally owned, small businesses (mostly short-lived), the vast bulk of capitalist operations are organized through limited liability corporations in which "ownership" is diffused among a great many anonymous shareholders and their "property" is controlled by a handful of managers and, perhaps, a few shareholders who own substantial blocks of stock. Because of this mutation, capitalists sought, successfully, to have property laws rewritten in such a way that "corporations" are treated in much the same way as individuals with respect to property and other rights but not with respect to liability.(2) Rights are concentrated; liability is limited. This is the hypocritical context of the ideology of property rights: the property of giant multinational corporations (who often exercise power greater than many nations) is justified using ethical arguments applicable to a very different reality.

Revolution and Communism

Delacroix's Liberty Leading the People. Daumier's painting The Uprising.

Although he does not use the terms revolution and communism in this chapter, the "expropriation of the expropriators" clearly refers to the revolutionary overthrow of capitalists, while "social property" or the "possession in common of the land and the means of production" also clearly refers to communism as the form of post-capitalist society. In Capital, Marx makes only passing allusions to these two phenomena. He sets out an analysis of capitalism, but neither an analysis of possible revolutions nor blueprints for post-capitalist society.

Nevertheless, the book has a great deal about class struggle against capitalism. He shows, for example, how alienated workers come to constitute a threat to the survival of the system by self-organizing in factories—created by capitalists for the purpose of control and exploitation. He mentions such things as strikes (Chapter 10) and machine breaking (Chapter 15), but nothing about actual processes of revolution. In this chapter, the only comment touching this issue is his assertion that the overthrow of capital will be less violent and less protracted than the capitalist overthrow of the earlier modes of production. This will be true, he suggests, because workers are many and capitalists are few. But from such a comment to an analysis of how such an overthrow might take place is obviously a long jump and has been the subject of Marxist debate and organization ever since.

Both before and after he wrote Capital, Marx, along with Friedrich Engels and other friends, engaged directly in political struggles against feudal absolutism and against capitalism. Before and during the 1848 Revolutions in Europe, Marx and Engels both contributed to the emergence of a revolution against the absolutist state in Germany through journalism (publishing newspaper articles, the Communist Manifesto, etc.) and then, in Engels’s case, through direct participation in armed struggle against the state. Although there is relatively little in their writings on the subject of the methods to be used to overthrow capitalism, I think it is fair to say that while they thought many different forms of struggle were appropriate at different times and places, they were not optimistic about the likelihood of capitalists voluntarily stepping aside to allow workers to take over. After Marx’s death in 1883, during the years of the Second International (1889–1914), Engels and many other Marxists had great hopes that increases in workers’ right to vote (first men, then women) and the rise of social democratic parties could bring about a peaceful end to capitalism. Not only did that dream die with the onset of World War I, but in the decades since, even when social democrats have gained national power through elections, they have either proved complicit with capitalism or been overthrown. As a result, Marxists have split over this issue. Some continue to embrace an electoral path to the transcendence of capitalism; others have thought it impossible and organize for violent revolution.

Given his analysis of the growth of class struggle, always situating its development within the material conditions of the organization of capital and the self-organization of the workers, Marx also thought that the paths through capitalism to communism were multiple. Twenty-two years after the 1848 Revolutions, another revolution erupted in France and created the Paris Commune. Marx followed that revolution—centered in Paris—closely and his commentaries are among the most interesting of his writings. In the Civil War in France (1871), he describes and analyzes the sequence of events by which the French government was overthrown, a new revolutionary government established and then crushed by the old regime.(3) Marx drew no formulae from these events, any more than he had from the 1848 Revolutions. In each case, he sought to judge the adequacy of the measures taken in terms of the actual historical conditions obtaining at the time.

This approach made it impossible for Marx to design revolutionary strategies before the fact, a priori; every revolution would be unique in terms of which particular methods would be appropriate and successful. Clearly, he felt this to be the case in the 1870s when he was consulted about the possibilities of revolution in Russia. As I mentioned in my commentary on Chapter 26, he rejected the idea of applying his work on England, without qualification, to Russia and argued that the existence of a materially different situation, especially the existence of the peasant mir, implied that another path to and through revolution to "social regeneration" was at least possible.

Something similar can be said about Marx's approach to communism—a term chosen to differentiate his politics from existing ideas of socialism—a post-capitalist, classless society. In Capital, very little is said about this. He only mentions "social property" being established "on the basis of the achievements of the capitalist era: namely cooperation and the possession in common of the land and the means of production produced by labor itself."(4) We can assemble a variety of such limited comments from Marx's writings, from the 1840s to those in the 1880s, but nowhere is there a pre¬scription or formula, a design or a blueprint, for either the structure or the workings of a communist society.

In the mass media, the adjective "Marxist" is often used interchangeably with "communist," as in "a Marxist society" or a "Marxist government." Such terms are also used to refer either to some hypothetical post-capitalist society, or to existing societies that call themselves "socialist" or "communist," such as the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). Both uses are erroneous. First, Marx everywhere eschewed "utopianism" which, by definition, involves intentionally designing a better society that does not yet exist.(5) There have been many efforts to found utopian communities but none of them were designed by Karl Marx. He clearly believed in trying to imagine and in trying to achieve a better society, but he also felt, as in the case of revolution, that the form and content of such a society would be determined as a collective social project based on historical givens, and not on the implementation of any one, or even a few, persons’ ideas. Second, the founders and managers of the USSR appropriated Marx’s analysis of capitalism in two ways. They used his critique of capitalism to denounce the sins of their Western adversaries during the Cold War and, ironically, they appropriated his analysis of capitalist accumulation as a guide for accumulation within their own system.(6) The resulting “socialism” amounted to a new form of state capitalism, with only the mix of planning and markets differing from that in the West.

A basic methodological principle permeates Marx’s work on revolution and communism: to understand the direction in which society seems to be evolving, study the social forces at work forcing changes. For some idea about what a future society might be like, look both at those aspects of the current society which people are struggling to eliminate and at those new kinds of relationships they are struggling to bring into being or to nourish to full growth. This approach to understanding social change (as the basis for contributing to it), makes studying Marx still useful.


Towards the end of his analysis in this chapter, Marx uses two obscure terms: “the first negation” and “the negation of the negation.” Both derive from the writings of German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831) that Marx studied as a student and critiqued in the 1840s.(7) In Hegel's philosophical system, everything, both thought and the rest of the cosmos, develops "dialectically." That is to say, he saw everything unfolding in a complex kind of movement, which he analyzed in a series of lectures and books. Leaving aside the rest of the cosmos, Marx felt that Hegel was correct in grasping the form of social development that occurred within capitalism as dialectical. Therefore, from time to time, he found Hegelian concepts accurately denoted various aspects of the social relations of capital.

In this case, the "first negation" was capital's destruction of pre-capitalist social relations. As was typical of such a Hegelian concept, this first negation both destroyed some aspects of the old society (personal property), yet at the same time preserved something of the past (private property), while creating something new (capitalist private property). A person heavily burdened with dialectics.

The "negation of the negation" Marx imagined, would be the suspension of capital's monopolization of the means of production (capitalist private property), with all that entails, through revolution. Yet, again, Marx thought this second negation would also preserve something of the old system (cooperation and a sophisticated system of social production) while eliminating its more obnoxious characteristics (class domination, exploitation and alienation).

The concept of dialectics is most often presented in terms of the famous triad: thesis, anti-thesis, synthesis, in which a thesis (e.g., capitalism) gives rise to its anti-thesis (e.g., the working class), and this contradiction is resolved (e.g., through revolution) in a way that produces fundamental changes (e.g., the elimination of classes) while retaining progressive features of the old contradiction (e.g., socialized production). This triad, however, is only one brief moment of the Hegelian dialectic, spelled out at great length in his Science of Logic (1816) and other books, and also only one of the many moments of his analysis which Marx thought relevant to the analysis of social relations under capitalism.

There are reasons, however, to think long and hard about the differences as well as the similarities between Hegel and Marx. For Hegel, his dialectics was a cosmology, a science of an unending reality. There are plenty of reasons, however, to think that while Marx saw the social relationships of capitalism as dialectical—and therefore containing aspects grasped by Hegel—the antagonism of working-class struggle always posed the threat of a revolution in which synthesis would be impossible and the dialectical character of the class relationship ruptured completely. By implication, there is no a priori reason to think that the social relationships of post-capitalist society would be dialectical in the same sense that they are in capitalism.

Recommended Further Reading

Concepts for Review

    small scale industry
    simple commodity production
    mode of production
    centralization of capitals
    socialization of labor
    socially concentrated MP
    alien labor
    communal means of production
    social property
    negation of the negation

Questions for Review

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

*1. Discuss the relations of private property under pre-capitalist relations and compare/contrast them with those under capitalism. What do you think of the critique of the ideology of private property?

2. Does the term simple commodity production denote an historical period or a scattered phenomenon or what?

*3. In what sense has the working class as a class been united and organized by capital? How is it that "What the bourgeoisie, therefore, produces, above all, are its own gravediggers."?

4. What does Marx think of the motives of the newly emerging capitalist class? Do you agree? Why?

5. What do you think are the mechanisms of the centralization of capitals by which one capitalist expropriates another? At least a partial answer can be found in Chapter 25.

*6. Why should it be true that as "the mass of misery, oppression, slavery, degradation and exploitation grows; but with this there also grows the revolt of the working class . . ."? Is the first part of this statement an assertion that people are getting absolutely poorer?

7. What does Marx mean when he says that the "monopoly of capital becomes a fetter upon the mode of production"?

*8. Marx writes: "The centralization of the means of production and the socialization of labor 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." What is the "integument"?

9. What does it mean to say the capitalist mode of appropriation is the "first negation" of individual private property? What is the "negation of the negation"?

10. Marx says "Its (capitalism's) fall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable . . ." What do you think he means when he says "inevitable"? Is this prophecy or rhetoric?


1 John Locke, Two Treatises of Government, Peter Laslett (ed.), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1960, student edn., 1988.

2 The most notorious recent example has been the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission case in which a conservative Supreme Court used the free speech clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution to grant corporations the same ability to spend money influencing elections as individuals.

3 MECW, Vol. 22, pp. 307-359.

4 Capital, Vol. I, p. 929.

5 For an example of Marx and Engels's friendly, yet critical, comments on the utopian socialists, see the discussion in the Communist Manifesto. Given the relatively underdeveloped struggles of workers of their time, they argue, the utopians were led to substitute their own visions for the analysis of the positive directions of the struggles. "Historical action," the utopians hope, "is to yield to their personal inventive action, historically created conditions of emancipation to fantastic ones, and the gradual, spontaneous class organization of the proletariat to an organization of society specially contrived by these inventors. Future history resolves itself, in their eyes, into the propaganda and the practical carrying out of their social plans. . . . In proportion as the modern class struggle develops and takes definite shape, this fantastic standing apart from the contest, these fantastic attacks on it, lose all practical value and all theoretical justification.” MECW, Vol. 6, pp. 515–516.

6 This appropriation is clear in an essay by Yevgeni Preobrazhensky (1886–1937) titled “Primitive Socialist Accumulation” (1926) devoted to accelerating investment in industry via the expropriation of peasant surpluses. See Preobrazhensky, The New Economics, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1967, pp. 77–146. The main thing that differentiated his kind of accumulation from that analyzed in this part of Capital was the word “socialist.” Stalin instituted that expropriation with a vengeance via forced collectivization. See also Rita di Leo, “I Bolscevichi e «il capitale», Contropiano, maggio-agosto, 2/1969, pp. 273–344, and her Il modello di stalin: il rapporto tra politica e economia nel socialismo realizzato, Milano: Feltrinelli, 1977.

7 Notably “Critique of the Hegelian Dialectic and Philosophy as a Whole” (1843), MECW, Vol. 3, pp. 326–346, and “The German Ideology” (1846), MECW, Vol. 5, pp. 15–539.