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Reconstituted Socialist Party of Great Britain - Marx Studies - Marx and the Genesis of Primitive Capital Accumulation .

Why are the historical origins of capitalism important? The answer is both economic and political. Capitalism’s apologists like to portray the beginning of capitalism and its subsequent development as benign; a social system generating sustained and harmonious growth benefitting all of society and lasting forever as an “eternal natural law” of human existence. The industrial revolution is seen by conservative historians as the work of disinterested inventors and Great Men; the stuff of self-help, entrepreneurship and other conservative “virtues” recently expressed in Simon Heffer’s book HIGH MINDS: THE VICTORIANS AND THE BIRTH OF MODERN BRITAIN (2013).

Fictional accounts of capitalism’s origins are to be found in the writings of the political economists long before Marx began his critique of political economy. Adam Smith, David Ricardo, James Steuart, and others all created fanciful stories of how the wages system was imposed on the working class using the myth of the industrious and abstemious worker and the idle dullard wanting to stay in bed all day. The moral of the myth being that hard work and saving money gave the world the up-right self-made capitalist exemplified later in Weber’s tale of the Protestant work ethic.

In the early 19th century, perhaps through the sheer number of Parsons who doubled up as political economists, Adam and Eve often made an appearance as examples of proto-capitalists productively digging and weaving in the Garden of Eden. Others would point to primitive hunters enjoying the natural propensity to “truck, barter and trade”. And Robinson Crusoe on his desert island, as he still does in contemporary economic text books, would lay the foundations for the justification of private property, buying and selling and the labour market, although a close reading of Defoe’s text shows no money exchanging hands between Crusoe and Friday.

What of the reality of capitalism’s origins? The answer to this question requires turning to the writings of Karl Marx, notably his three volume book, CAPITAL. Marx was one of the first critics of capitalism to present a comprehensive and historical account of the origins of the profit system and the appearance of the capitalist class. Part Eight of CAPITAL deals with so-called primitive accumulation and is split into the following seven chapters:

* The Secret of Primitive Accumulation
* The Expropriation of the Agricultural Population
* Bloody Legislation against the Expropriated
* The Genesis of the Capitalist Farmer
* The Genesis of the Industrial Capitalist
* The Historical Tendency of Capitalist Accumulation
* The Modern Theory of Colonization

Marx referred to “so-called” Primitive accumulation for two reasons. First, capital accumulation is an act of violent expropriation of the “people from the soil” (p. 896) and their forcible exclusion to the common land. Second, primitive capital accumulation is not a single causal act taking place at a particular point in time but an-going historical process “written in the annals of human-kind in blood and fire”. Primitive accumulation is a historical presupposition for capital accumulation in general where the capitalist class (the personification of capital) and the doubly-free working class set in motion a particular economic and political class struggle around the ownership and exclusion of the means of production and distribution.

The working class had to be both free from the means of production a free to sell their labour power on the labour market to employers. Such “freedom” was a complex historical process. Marx, for example, spent a whole chapter looking at the way in which the agricultural population were driven off the land concluding:

The spoliation of the Church’s property, the fraudulent alienation of the state’s domains, the theft of the common lands, the usurpation of feudal and clan property and its transformation into modern private property under circumstances of ruthless terrorism, all these things were just so many idyllic methods of primitive accumulation. They conquered the field for capitalist agriculture, incorporated the soil into capital, and created for the urban industries, the necessary supplies of free and rightless proletarians (Chapter 27, The Expropriation of the Agricultural Population pp 894-895)

In the following chapter; The Genesis of the Industrial Capitalist, Marx outlined six historical processes which were a pre-condition for the appearance of the industrial capitalist:

* Colonialism
* Public credit and the national debt
* Commercial wars
* Child-slavery
* Plantation slavery
* The enforced separation of workers from the means of production and the subsequent imposition of the exploitive wages system

The truth of capitalism’s origins “dripping from head to toe, from every pore, with blood and dirt” (p.926) cannot be buried and forgotten under subsequent layers of historical sediment. Despite the fiction of capitalism’s origins found in the writing of polemicists, old and new, historians, not all of whom would describe themselves as “Marxists”, have usefully highlighted the historical reality of capitalism’s origins confirming Marx’s own account he first set out in CAPITAL, published in 1867.

Two areas of current historical research stand out. First, there is the on-going forensic examination of county and government records and other testimonials of the use of what Marx aptly called “slave children” in the textile factories. And, second, there is the detailed study by historians of the Atlantic Slave trade, particularly the slave owners themselves, their sugar plantations, the wealth the commodity, sugar elicited for its sellers and the use of the proceeds of slavery to help part- fund the industrial revolution.

The Work House and the Primitive Accumulation of Capital

Through the Enclosure Acts (traced over several centuries by Marx in his chapter, The Expropriation of the Agricultural Population), peasants were forced off the land and into cities. However it was largely the children of the working class who were to be exploited in the new textile factories and to make their own contribution to the expansion of value, the accumulation of capital and the generation of profits necessary to get British capitalism off the ground.

Many working class parents were unwilling to allow their children to work in these new textile factories. To overcome this labour shortage factory owners had to find other ways of obtaining workers. One solution to the problem was to buy children from orphanages and workhouses. The children became known as “pauper apprentices” – Marx’s “slave-children”. This involved the children “signing” contracts that to all intents and purposes made them the property of the factory owner.

In WORKHOUSE CHILDREN, the historian, John Simkin stated:

Pauper apprentices were cheaper to house than adult workers. It cost Samuel Greg who owned the large Quarry Bank Mill at Styal, a £100 to build a cottage for a family, whereas his apprentice house, that cost £300, provided living accommodation for over 90 children.

The same approach was taken by the owners of silk mills.

George Courtauld who owned a silk mill in Braintree, Essex, took children from workhouses in London. Although offered children of all ages he usually took them from "within the age of 10 and 13". Courtauld insisted that each child arrived "with a complete change of common clothing". A contract was signed with the workhouse that stated that Courtauld would be paid £5 for each child taken. Another £5 was paid after the child's first year. The children also signed a contract with Courtauld that bound them to the mill until the age of 21. This helped to reduce Courtauld's labour costs.

And Simkin goes on to say:

Owners of large textile mills purchased large numbers of children from workhouses in all the large towns and cities. By the late 1790s about a third of the workers in the cotton industry were pauper apprentices. Child workers were especially predominant in large factories in rural areas. For example, in 1797, of the 310 workers employed by Birch Robinson & Co in the village of Backbarrow, 210 were parish apprentices. However, in the major textile towns, such as Manchester and Oldham, parish apprenticeships were fairly uncommon.

Another useful book, containing a number of academic papers on the subject of the use of children in the Mills is “A THING OF THE PAST?: CHILD LABOUR IN BRITAIN IN THE NINETEENTH AND TWENTIETH CENTURIES”, (ed. M. Lavalette1999).

In one of the papers included in the book, “Child Labour and British Industrialisation”, the authors, S. Horrell and J. Humphries remark:

Industrialisation did involve an intensification of child labour, and was associated with a rise in the proportion of children employed in factories. Protective labour legislation played only a minor role in the eventual withdrawal of children from paid employment and was probably more important in redistributing children than in stopping their work.

Noting that:

But perhaps more important than shading the debates about when child labour peaked, and what role legislation played in its eventual decline, our analysis has focussed attention on new issues to do with the sources of child labour and the ways in which it was used as part of a deliberate social policy to provide labour to trades and undertakings which would otherwise have suffered shortages

No moral conclusion is made by authors. Like Marx, they saw the primitive accumulation of capital - nasty, sordid, violent and unpleasant as it was -, as a necessary factor among many, for capitalism to develop as a dynamic social system. They conclude:

The story is not pretty. It was the most vulnerable and neglected of children who suffered most in the crucible of industrialization. But in suffering so they may have played a crucial strategic part in the development of the factory system and mechanized production, and so helped to lever the British economy onto a growth trajectory hitherto unimaginable.

After all, it was Marx, who, in a dispassionate piece of writing, wrote:

The bourgeoisie … has put an end to all feudal patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motely feudal ties that bound man to his “natural superiors”,” and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous “cash payment”. It has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervour, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation. It has resolved personal worth into exchange value and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms has set up that single, unconsciousable freedom – Free Trade. In one word, for exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, it has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation (THE COMMUNIST MANIFESTO AND THE LAST HUNDRED YEARS, centenary edition published by the Socialist Party of Great Britain, 1948 p.62).

The Atlantic Slave Trade

A considerable body of literature has been produced since Marx’s death showing the importance of plantation slavery to the development of capitalism and the expansion of value. Recent studies have shown a direct causal link between slavery, the financing of the industrial revolution via Banks and other financial institutions and capital accumulation

The true scale of Britain's involvement in the slave trade has recently been shown in documents revealing how the country's wealthiest families received the modern equivalent of billions of pounds in compensation after slavery was abolished. Using the records of the £20m paid in compensation to slave-owners in the 1830s for the loss of their ‘property’ as a starting-point, the Legacies of British Slave-ownership project has documented around 46,000 individual claims and awards made to those who either owned slaves or benefitted indirectly from ownership. This figure represented 40 per cent of the Treasury's annual spending budget and, in today's terms, calculated as wage values, equates to around £16.5bn.

Commenting on the study, the journalist, Sanchez Manning wrote:

Slavery on an industrial scale was a major source of the wealth of the British Empire, being the exploitation upon which the West Indies sugar trade and cotton crop in North America was based. Those who made money from it were not only the slave-owners, but also the investors in those who transported Africans to enslavement. From the 1700’s to 1810, British ships carried about three million persons to a life of forced labour (Britain’s Colonial Shame: Slave Owners Given Huge Payouts After Abolition, INDEPENDENT ON SUNDAY 24th February 2013)

Manning went on to say:

The previously unseen records show exactly who received what in payouts from the Government when slave ownership was abolished. Dr Nick Draper from University College London, who has studied the compensation papers: "There was a feeding frenzy around the compensation." A John Austin, for instance, owned 415 slaves, and got compensation of £20,511, a sum worth nearly £17m today. And there were many who received far more (loc cit)

Academics spent three years studying and collating some 46,000 records of compensation given to British slave-owners into an internet database. Some families used the money to invest in the railways and other aspects of the industrial revolution; others bought or maintained their country houses, and some used the money for philanthropy.

Professor Catherine Hall, who led the group of historians said:

Our overall finding is that British colonial slave-ownership was of far greater significance in Britain than has previously been recognised. What we have done is to establish the life-trajectories of some 3,000 absentee slave-owners in Britain, and analysis of this has allowed us to trace the legacies of slave-ownership in Victorian Britain (INDEPENDENT ON SUNDAY 24th February 2013)

In his lecture “WHAT DOES LOMDON OWE TO SLAVERY?” (26th October 2010), Dr Draper, another of the contributors to the research project, pointed out that only the slave owners were compensated by the British Government not the slave traders. What mattered more than the issue of slavery, both to the abolitionists and to the anti-abolitionists alike was the sanctity of private property ownership. The anti-abolitionists might have been opposed to slavery but they were not opposed to the institution of private property, of which slaves were a considered a legitimate part.

One glaring omission in Draper’s lecture was to give no acknowledgement to the pioneering work on the Atlantic Slave trade made by Karl Marx. Marx had long ago written:

…at the Peace of Utrecht, England extorted from the Spaniards, by the Asiento Treaty, the privilege of being allowed to ply the slave trade, not only between Africa and the English West Indies,…,but also between Africa and Spanish America. England thereby acquired the right to supply Spanish America until 1743 with 4800 Negroes a year…Liverpool grew fat on the basis of the slave trade. This was its method of primitive accumulation… (p.924)

Draper praises praise Eric Williams book CAPITALISM AND SLAVERY, published in 1944, but fails to mention that Williams was heavily influenced by Marx writing some eighty years earlier. Marx, it appears, is still persona non grata within some academic circles.

Of course it is important to understand the real and historical origins of capitalism to counter the conservative historiography of academics like Nial Ferguson and journalists like Simon Heffer. We are now several centuries away from the Genesis of capital accumulation and capitalism has developed into a world-wide social system of class exploitation where the primary social relationship is the one between the capitalist class and working class.

Plantation slavery and the use of child labour were just two historical factors necessary to form this social relationship but it capitalism as it exists today that is the source of the social problems facing the working class and the Planet. The political question to be addressed is not the factors that went into the formation of capitalism but to put an end to the anti-social expansion of capital once and for all. And this requires the conscious and political action of a Socialist majority replacing World capitalism with World Socialism. For with the genesis of the capitalism and the capitalist class came capitalism’s grave diggers; the world’s working class and they still have a world to win.


1). The database is available for viewing at: and Dr Draper’s lecture “WHAT DOES LONDON OWE TO SLAVERY?” can be seen at

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