Inicio > Economía marxista, Teoría crítica acumulada > “Primitive Accumulation and Capitalist Accumulation: Economic Categories and Social Constitution”: Werner Bonefeld

“Primitive Accumulation and Capitalist Accumulation: Economic Categories and Social Constitution”: Werner Bonefeld


The distinction between ‘inquiry’ (Forschung) and ‘presentation’ (Darstellung) is important for the understanding of Capital. Its ‘mode of presentation’ (Darstellungweise) does not follow the narrative history of capitalist development but begins with the finished forms – money, commodities, exchange value, etc. – in which capitalist social relations reproduce themselves. It is not until the analysis of primitive accumulation in Part VIII that the historical presuppositions of the analysis of chapter 1 are presented. Marx’s critique of political economy is thus in reverse order to the actual, historical sequence in which the social relations underlying these categories developed. The paper argues that although these underlying relations seemingly disappear in capitalist social forms, they are constitutive of it.


Over the last decade there has been an increase in the trafficking of women and children. New markets have emerged in human organs and babies. The proprietors of labour power are confronted not only with new forms of exploitation (see Caffentzis, 2003). They are also transformed into a dissectible resource to be operated on and sold. These developments have let some commentators to argue that we are witnessing the re-emergence of conditions of primitive accumulation (see, amongst others, Dalla Costa, 1995, 2003, de Angelis, 2001). These works show clearly that Marx’s insight according to which ‘a great deal of capital, which appears today in the United States without certificate of birth, was yesterday, in England, the capitalist blood of children’ (Marx, 1983, p. 707), remains a powerful judgement of contemporary conditions.

The paper argues that primitive accumulation describes not just the period of transition
that led to the emergence of capitalism. Its systematic content is in fact constitutive of
capitalist social relations. It is the premise and presupposition of capitalistically organised
social relations. Capitalist social relations rest on the divorce of the mass of the population from the means of production. This divorce was the result of primitive accumulation and is the historical presupposition and constitutive basis of capitalist social relations. At issue is thus the transformation of capitalism’s historical presupposition in dispossession into the constitutive premise of its existence. The conclusion looks at the consequences for socialist practice.

The separation of the means of labour from labour ‘is the foundation of [capitalist]
production” (Marx, 1972, p. 272).

Within the Marxist tradition, primitive accumulation is usually seen as an historical phase of transition from feudalism to capitalism. Capitalism developed out of primitive accumulation and once capitalism had been established, primitive accumulation was replaced by capitalist accumulation. It belongs to a historically specific process of transition towards capitalism (Zarembka, 2002). Some writers, for example Samir Amin, accept the time-specific delineation of primitive accumulation but add that it is also an inherent feature of the capitalist accumulation process as capital seeks to resolve crises of accumulation by means of imperialist subjugation of new populations. Writing in the 1970s, Amin (1974, p. 3) focuses this well when he argues that the mechanisms of primitive accumulation ‘do not belong only to the prehistory of capitalism; they are contemporary as well. It is these forms of primitive accumulation, modified but persistent, to the advantage of the centre, that form the domain of the theory of accumulation on a world scale’. Rosa Luxemburg’s (1963) contribution to the debate on imperialism at the start of the last Century argued similarly. Crises of capitalist accumulation find a temporary resolution in the imposition of conditions of primitive accumulation upon new populations, including the creation of new markets, discovery of new raw materials, and new and cheaper proletarians (see also Marx, 1966, ch. 14). Dispossession and expropriation are means of overcoming crises of capitalist reproduction. The werewolf hunger of capital for surplus labour, appropriating social labour time without an equivalent, develops through the expanded reproduction of dispossessed labour. That is to say, ‘to accumulate, is to conquer the world of social wealth, to increase the mass of human beings exploited by him, and thus to extend both the direct and the indirect sway of the capitalist’ (Marx, 1983, p. 555).

Akin to Marx’s discussion of, say, foreign trade as a counter-tendency to the tendency of the rate or profit to fall, one can thus argue that primitive accumulation, although the basis of the capitalist mode of production in its infancy, has become its own product through the innate necessity of this mode of production to not only create an ever expanding market but also to increase the ranks of the proletariat by means of continued dispossession. This dialectical figure, in which the presupposition of a process transforms into a necessary result of its operation, suggests that the relationship between accumulation by means of dispossession and accumulation by means of ‘making value expand itself’ (ibid.) through exploitation of free labour is more intricate than linear conceptions of historical time permit, however uneven the linearity.

Artículo Completo en PDF

  1. 12/03/2012 a las 18:45

    Un artículo muy profundo que nos muestra las limitaciones de la lectura de traducciones de Marx y las sutilezas del idioma alemán. Le dí una primera lectura rápida, pero necesito varias relecturas más. En particular me interesa el tema de la “presentación” de la teoría de Marx en forma de cuadros sencillos de ejemplos numéricos porque creo que los que propone Marx no son satisfactorios y encierran premisas restrictivas-en aras de la simplicidad- que derivaron en situaciones confusas y debates como el de la “transformación de valores en precios”. Le agradezco a Werner Bonefeld por este texto que aclara muchos puntos claves sobre el tema del manejo absurdo del tiempo laboral, el que -aparte de Marx- fue abordado hace casi un siglo por Bertrand Russel en un ejemplo sencillo de una fábrica de alfileres en su ensayo “Elogio de la Ociosidad” (In prize of Iddle Time -o un título parecido-). Los filósofos nos quitan mucho tiempo, pero nos ayudan a usar mejor nuestras propias neuronas, y eso es de agradecer.

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