Commentary: Das Kapital (Capital)

By: The FHE Team

Chapter 32 is, rhetorically and logically, the end of the book Das Kapital (Capital). It sums up both the historical processes of primitive accumulation and, just as briefly, the dynamics of capitalist development itself -especially the processes of centralization of capital and the class struggle which Marx argues will bring the overthrow of capitalism.

If there is a basic methodological principle which permeates Marx’s work on revolution and communism it is the following: if you want to understand the direction in which society is evolving, then you must study the social forces at work pushing the social order in the direction it is moving. If you want to have some idea about what a future society might be like, then look both at those aspects of the current society which people are struggling to eliminate (presumably they would be gone from the future society) and at those new kinds of relationships people are struggling to bring into being or to nourish to full growth. With such an approach to understanding social change (as the basis for contributing to it) it becomes easy to see why studying Marx is still useful. He was an acute and perceptive observer of just such social forces and of the various issues in contention. Just how useful you judge his study to be will depend on the degree to which you find his analysis of capitalism in the 19th Century to be applicable to the capitalism we have to deal with at the beginning of the 21th Century.

The Historical Tendency of Capitalist Accumulation

Original work by Karl Marx

What does the primitive accumulation of capital, i.e., its historical genesis, resolve itself into? In so far as it is not immediate transformation of slaves and serfs into wage laborers, and therefore a mere change of form, it only means the expropriation of the immediate producers, i.e., the dissolution of private property based on the labor of its owner. Private property, as the antithesis to social, collective property, exists only where the instruments of labor and the external conditions of labor belong to private individuals. But according as these private individuals are laborers or not laborers, private property has a different character. The numberless shades that it at first sight presents reflect only the intermediate stages lying between these two extremes. The private property of the laborer in his means of production is the foundation of petty industry whether agricultural, manufacturing, or both; petty industry, again, is an essential condition for the development of social production and of the free individuality of the laborer himself. Of course this petty mode of production exists also under slavery, serfdom, and other states of dependence. But it flourishes, it lets loose its whole energy, it attains its adequate classical form, only where the laborer is the free private owner of his own conditions of labor manipulated by himself: the peasant of the land which he cultivates, the artisan of the tool which he handles as a virtuoso. This model of production presupposes parcelling of the soil, and scattering of the other means of production. As it excludes the concentration of the means of production, so also its excludes cooperation, division of labor within each separate process of production, the social mastery and control over nature, and the free development of the social productive forces. It is compatible only with a system of production, and a society, moving within narrow and more or less primitive bounds. To perpetuate it would be, as Pecqueur rightly says, “to decree universal mediocrity.”

At a certain level of development it brings into being the material agencies for its own dissolution. From that moment new forces and new passions spring up in the bosom of society; but the old social organization fetters them and keeps them down. It must be annihilated; it is annihilated. Its annihilation, the transformation of the individualized and scattered means of production into socially concentrated ones, of the pigmy property of the many into the huge property of the few, the expropriation of the great mass of the people from the soil, from the means of subsistence, and from the instruments of labor, this fearful and painful expropriation of the mass of the people, forms the prelude to the history of capital. It comprises a series of forcible methods, of which we have passed in review only those that have been epoch- making as methods of the primitive accumulation of capital. The expropriation of the immediate producers was accomplished with merciless vandalism, and under the stimulus of passions the most infamous, the most sordid, the pettiest, the most meanly odious. Self-earned private property that is based so to say, on the fusing together of the isolated, independent laboring individual with the conditions of his labor, is supplanted by capitalist private property, which rests on exploitation of the nominally free labor of others, i.e., on wage labor.

As soon as this process of transformation has sufficiently decomposed the old society from top to bottom, as soon as the laborers are turned into proletarians, their means of labor into capital, as soon as the capitalist mode of production stands on its own feet, then the further socialization of labor and further transformation of the land and other means of production into socially exploited and, therefore, common means of production, as well as the further expropriation of private proprietors, takes a new form. That which is now to be expropriated is no longer the laborer working for himself, but the capitalist exploiting many laborers. This expropriation is accomplished by the action of the immanent laws of capitalist production itself, by the centralization of capital. One capitalist always kills many. Hand in hand with this centralization, or this expropriation of many capitalists by few, develop, on an ever extending scale, the co-operative form of the labor process, the conscious technical application of science, the methodical cultivation of the soil, the transformation of the instruments of labor into instruments of labor only usable in common, the economizing of all means of production by their use as the means of production of combined, socialized labor, the entanglement of all peoples in the net of the world market, and with this, the international character of the capitalist regime. Along with the constantly diminishing number of the magnates of capital who usurp and monopolize all advantages of this process of transformation, grows the mass of misery, oppression, slavery, degradation, exploitation; but with this, too, grows the revolt of the working class, a class always increasing in numbers, and disciplined, united, organized by the very mechanism of the process of capitalist production itself. The monopoly of capital becomes a fetter upon the mode of production, which has sprung up and nourished along with, and under it. Centralization of the means of production and socialization of labor reach a point where they become incompatible with their capitalist integument. This integument is burst asunder. The knell of capitalist private property sounds. The expropriators are expropriated.

The capitalist mode of appropriation, the result of the capitalist mode of production, produces capitalist private property. This is the first negation of individual private property, as founded on the labor of the proprietor. But capitalist production begets, with the inexorability of a law of nature, its own negation. It is the negation of negation. This does not reestablish property for the producer, but gives him individual property based on the acquisitions of the capitalist era: i.e., on cooperation and the possession in common of the land and of the means of production produced by labor itself.

The transformation of scattered private property, arising from individual labor, into capitalist private property is, naturally, a process incomparably more protracted, violent, and difficult than the transformation of capitalist private property already in fact resting on socialized production, into socialized property. In the former case, we had the expropriation of the mass of the people by a few usurpers; in the latter, we have the expropriation of a few usurpers by the mass of the people.

Excerpted from Das Kapital (Capital), by Karl Marx.