At any given time, the accumulation of capital depends on some already existing capital to invest in the production process. Therefore, it appears that the capitalist mode of production as a historical formation presupposes some “original” or “primitive” accumulation. Adam Smith (1723–1790) called this “previous accumulation” and saw it necessary for the advancement of the division of labor and therefore of what he calls the “productive powers of labour.” He argues that “the accumulation of stock must, in the nature of things, be previous to the division of labour, so labour can be more and more subdivided in proportion only as stock is previously more and more accumulated” (Smith  1976). So, for example, in a market society, “a weaver cannot apply himself entirely to his peculiar business, unless there is beforehand stored up somewhere, either in his own possession or in that of some other person, a stock sufficient to maintain him, and to supply him with the materials and tools of his work, till he has not only completed but sold his web. This accumulation must, evidently, be previous to his applying his industry for so long a time to such a peculiar business” (Smith  1976).
Smith, however, grounds this claim on the ideological belief that division of labor and “stock” is somehow a feature of modern industrial societies, since “in that rude state of society in which there is no division of labour, in which exchanges are seldom made, and in which every man provides everything for himself, it is not necessary that any stock should be accumulated or stored up beforehand, in order to carry on the business of society” (Smith  1976). This claim is in fact untrue and based on a methodological individualism typical of classical and neoclassical political economy: even in hunting and gathering societies arrows and containers are produced and “stocked” before the production of food and, typically, along a division of labor within a community of producers. By means of this ideological counterposition between a “primitive” and a modern industrial society, Smith does not need to explain the historical emergence of the peculiar form of the “previous accumulation” and of social division of labor correspondent to capitalist societies. He does address the question of how a social formation in which market relations play a marginal role in the reproduction of people’s livelihoods (as in European societies up to the eighteenth century) can turn into one in which capital is accumulated in the hands of the few, while the vast majority turn into wage laborers. According to classical political economy, this previous “accumulation of stock” resulted from thrift and abstinence by a section of the population. Along this line Adam Smith, who believed capitalist market relations to be harmonious and beneficial to its participants, never confronted the historical process that originated these market relations.
Marx rendered Smith’s term “previous” as “ursprünglich,” which then was translated into English as “primitive” (Perleman 2000, p. 25). In Part 8 of Volume 1 of Capital (1867), Karl Marx (1818–1883) discusses “the so-called Primitive Accumulation.” Marx adds the pejorative so-called to emphasize the flesh-and-blood history that formed the precondition of capitalist production. In highlighting the historical process, Marx developed a different meaning of primitive accumulation in that he linked it to the notion of capital as “class relation” rather than as “stock.” Given that “the capital-relation presupposes a complete separation between the workers and the ownership of the conditions for the realization of their labour,” it follows that “the process … 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.” By turning “the social means of subsistence and production … into capital, and the immediate producers … into wage-labourers,” this process is therefore the basis of class formation. Thus, the “so-called primitive accumulation … is nothing else than the historical process of divorcing the producer from the means of production” (Marx  1976, pp. 874–875).
To illustrate this process, Marx refers to English land enclosures during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries; at times he also refers to the international dimension of primitive accumulation, such as the effect of the slave trade on Bristol and Liverpool. Furthermore, this process presupposes people’s resistance and struggles either implicitly, as in the case of the “bloody legislation” (Marx  1976, pp. 896–904), or explicitly, as in the case of the “barbarous laws against combinations of workers [that] collapsed in 1825 in the face of the threatening attitude of the proletariat” (p. 903).
There are perhaps two main interpretative frameworks of the concept of primitive accumulation within a century-long debate in Marxist literature. One framework sees primitive accumulation as a one-time/one-place phenomenon, the occurrence of which leads to the development of capitalism. The other framework instead emphasizes the continuous occurrence of primitive accumulation as an integral part of capitalism, whatever its stage of development. The first approach perhaps has its roots in Vladimir Ilyich Lenin’s (1870–1924) early study, The Development of Capitalism in Russia (1899). In a polemic against the Populists, who believed that the absence of a developed market would prevent capitalist development in Russia, Lenin argued that the disappearance of the peasants and their communities was precisely the prerequisite for the creation of the capitalist market. Lenin saw this process as inevitable and ultimately positive, although he often underlined its contradictions.
The second interpretative framework seems to emerge from Rosa Luxemburg’s (1870–1919) The Accumulation of Capital (1913). Her work points toward an interpretation of primitive accumulation as an integral part of capitalism and its development. Luxemburg regards Marx’s schemes of expanded reproduction as a representation only of the mathematical conditions for accumulation in cases in which there are no more than two classes. In reality, she contends, capitalist production must rely on third parties (peasants, small independent producers, etc.) to be commodity buyers. Thus the enforcement of exchange relations between capitalist and noncapitalist production becomes necessary to realize surplus value. However, this exchange relation clashes with the social relations of noncapitalist production. In order to overcome the resistance to capital that arises from this clash, capital must resort to military and political violence. Here Luxemburg introduces a crucial thesis that, independently of the validity of her reasoning and interpretation of Marx’s schemes of reproduction, seems to open the way to considering primitive accumulation as an inherent, continuous element of capitalism; as such it encompasses the world as a whole, and implies political and military force.
Elements of Lenin’s and Luxemburg’s interpretations can be found in subsequent approaches, although until the 1970s the influence of Lenin’s approach seemed to be greater. For example, in his classic Studies in the Development of Capitalism (1963), which generated much debate on the transition from feudalism to capitalism, economist Maurice Dobb (1900–1976) used the category of primitive accumulation to denote a well-defined age of accumulation of property rights, better known as the mercantile age, which predates capitalist production (p. 178). Also, in the context of the early Soviet debate on the transition to socialism, Evgenii Alexeyevich Preobrazhensky (1886–1937), in his book The New Economics (1926), argued for the need for a primitive socialist accumulation.
More recently, widespread opposition to global neoliberal policies of privatization and cuts in social spending linked to structural adjustment have refocused scholars’ attention on the category of primitive accumulation as a continuous and integral element of capitalism, although within different interpretative frameworks. More specifically, and in relation to political-economic issues, emphasis has been put on crises of overproduction and profitability creating a need for capital to engage in primitive accumulation. Thus, George Caffentzis, for example, refers to neoliberal policies following the profitability crises of the 1970s as “New Enclosures” (1995), while more recently David Harvey refers to “accumulation by dispossession” in The New Imperialism (2003), situated in the contemporary crises of overproduction.
The role of social conflict and class relations in defining the continuous character of primitive accumulation is also clearly spelled out in the literature. In the essay “Separating the Doing and the Deed” (2004), Massimo De Angelis argues that in different historical phases, profit-driven capital must devise strategies of enclosures, either by promoting ex-novo areas of commodification vis-à-vis resistance, or by preserving old areas of commodification vis-à-vis ex-novo social struggles claiming “new commons.” Also, and complementarily, the typology of “new enclosures” and “new commons” has been seen to include a wide range of resources, such as land, water, and knowledge, among others.
Finally, it has been argued that the current attempt by states and international institutions to control demographic rates depends on the expropriation or “enclosure” of the body, of the sexual and reproductive powers of women, for the purpose of accumulating labor power and thus promoting capital’s valorization requirements. In Caliban and the Witch (2004), Silvia Federici shows that the witch-hunt terror in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries opened the way for state attempts to control demographic rates and the reproduction of labor power, and she draws parallels with contemporary phenomena. In The Invention of Capitalism (2000), Michael Perelman has pointed out that primitive accumulation is linked to the social and sexual division of labor at least since the classical proponents of laissez-faire ideology (e.g., Adam Smith, James Steuart [1712–1780], and Edward Gibbon Wakefield [1796–1862]) were disguising a strategy for state-implemented primitive accumulation to shape the social division of labor.
Bonefeld, Werner. 2001. The Permanence of Primitive Accumulation: Commodity Fetishism and Social Constitution. The Commoner N.2 (September). http://www.commoner.org.uk/02bonefeld.pdf.
Caffentzis, George. 1995. The Fundamental Implications of the Debt Crisis for Social Reproduction in Africa. In Paying The Price: Women and the Politics of International Economic Strategy, eds. Mariarosa Dalla Costa and Giovanna F. Dalla Costa, 15–41. London: Zed.
De Angelis, Massimo. 2004. Separating the Doing and the Deed: Capital and the Continuous Character of Enclosures. Historical Materialism 12 (2): 57–87.
Dobb, Maurice. 1963. Studies in the Development of Capitalism. Rev. ed. London: Routledge.
Federici, Silvia. 2004. Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body, and Primitive Accumulation. New York: Autonomedia.
Lenin, Vladimir Illich.  1964. The Development of Capitalism in Russia: The Process of the Formation of a Home Market for Large-Scale Industry. Moscow: Progress Publishers.
Luxemburg, Rosa.  1963. The Accumulation of Capital. Trans. Agnes Schwarzschild. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
Marx, Karl.  1976. Capital. Vol. 1. New York: Penguin.
Mies, Maria. 1986. Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale: Women in the International Division of Labour. London: Zed.
Perelman, Michael. 2000. The Invention of Capitalism: Classical Political Economy and the Secret History of Primitive Accumulation. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Preobrazhensky, Evgenii Alexeyevich. 1965. The New Economics. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Smith, Adam.  1976. An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Massimo De Angelis