So-called Primitive Accumulation

We begin with Part VIII of Capital instead of Part I for two reasons. In the first place, Part VIII is a lot easier to read, being less abstract and richer with historical detail. The chapters of Part I, which deal with "value" and money, tend to be very abstract and terse. In the second place, the study of Part VIII, which shows how the capitalist system originated, i.e., how capital originally created the working class and imposed its system on it, provides a very useful point of reference for the careful dissection of value in Part I.

Once we have seen how people were driven off the land and otherwise dispoiled of their means of production and reproduction, how their existing social and cultural relations were destroyed, how they were thus forced to sell their life-time as the commodity labor-power, and found their lives subordinated to work, then it is much easier to understand why Marx elaborated a "labor" theory of value (because the substance of the social relations of capitalism is imposed work) and why he pays so much attention to the "commodity form" (the form of the imposition of work). At each step of his abstract discussion of the substance, measure and form of value, we will find it easier to explore the social and class meaning of their various aspects thanks to our reading of Part VIII. If the imposition of work on most members of society through the commodity form, i.e., through the process of forcing them into the labor market, is the defining case of exchange in society, then we can see how every aspect of exchange, including the role of money, is an aspect of that central class relationship. To remember this after stating it as an abstraction is difficult. To remember it after having explored the historical period of the inception of the commodity form is much easier.

When we examine the structure of Part VIII we see that the material is organized in such a manner as to highlight the creation of the classes as the central issue in primitive accumulation:

Introduction, one chapter:

Creation of the Working Class, two chapters:

Creation of the Capitalist Class, three chapters:

Conclusion of Book, one chapter:

"Appendix" to Chapter 31, one chapter

In what follows, the commentaries on the chapters will not only highlight those aspects of primitive accumulation emphasized by Marx but will also draw attention to what I feel are two important aspects of primative accumulation that are not dealt with adequately in his treatment: 1) the social and cultural destruction caused by the spreading imposition of capitalist social relations, and 2) the fierce resistance to that imposition by those who did not want to be reduced to the status of "mere worker" in a class of workers. Marx used the expression "mere worker" in the Grundrisse (the manuscripts of 1857) when discussing the possibilities of moving beyond capitalism to a situation where people can become multidimensional. His negative view of the one-dimensionality of a life of imposed work, however, permeates all of his writing.