Decolonize Marxism! Part One: Primitive Accumulation

The reality is that class structure is built atop the colonial structure of our economy, and the mode of production we call “capitalism” could not, would not, and cannot exist without it.

Decolonize Marxism! Part One: Primitive Accumulation

The central aim of this series is to critically develop certain elements in Marxist theory in an effort to render them useful for modern-day liberation struggles. I maintain that an understanding of colonial contradictions is indispensable to an understanding of class and vice-versa. Colonization enables the formation of class societies, which cannot exist or maintain themselves without it, and thus, its contradictions are considered in this analysis to occupy the same status of primacy as those of class society. These critiques should not be considered comprehensive, nor immutable. Rather, they are a collection of my (still evolving) attempts: to clarify my own understanding of the dialectic, to learn from the genius and limitations that exist side by side in the Marxist tradition, to contribute whatever modest perspective I may have to the struggle.


“We have seen how money is changed into capital; how through capital surplus-value is made, and from surplus-value more capital. But the accumulation of capital presupposes surplus-value; surplus-value presupposes capitalistic production; capitalistic production presupposes the pre-existence of considerable masses of capital and of labour power in the hands of producers of commodities. The whole movement, therefore, seems to turn in a vicious circle, out of which we can only get by supposing a primitive accumulation (previous accumulation of Adam Smith) preceding capitalistic accumulation; an accumulation not the result of the capitalistic mode of production, but its starting point. This primitive accumulation plays in Political Economy about the same part as original sin in theology. Adam bit the apple, and thereupon sin fell on the human race.”
~ Capital, Vol. 1

In Volume One of Capital, Karl Marx describes primitive accumulation as the historical process that changes pre-capitalist forms of life into capitalist ones. According to Marx, two preconditions must be met for this to occur: the transformation of the social means of subsistence and production into capital, on the one hand, and the transformation of the producers of commodities into wage-laborers, on the other:

“In themselves money and commodities are no more capital than are the means of production and of subsistence. They want transforming into capital. But this transformation itself can only take place under certain circumstances… two very different kinds of commodity-possessors must come face to face and into contact; on the one hand, the owners of money, means of production, means of subsistence, who are eager to increase the sum of values they possess, by buying other people’s labour power; on the other hand, free labourers, the sellers of their own labour power, and therefore the sellers of labour.”

In the context of a collapsing feudal system, it is important to note that a “free” laborer is one who has been divorced from their land and means of production and subsistence. The historical mechanism which freed serfs and slaves from the confines of the feudal system simultaneously robbed them of their means of production, compelling freedmen to work as wage-laborers, or proletarianizing them.

But one question remains unanswered: how was such wealth accumulated in the first place, that enabled proto-capitalists to start employing wage-labor on this massive scale? Was it truly, simply, because of the exploitation of freedmen in Europe?

By 1640, at least 197 tons of stolen gold and 17,000 tons of silver had reached Europe from the Americas, and the actual amount of the total bullion that was introduced to the European economy must be at least double, and possibly triple, these figures (J. M. Blaut, Colonialism and the Rise of Capitalism). The proto-capitalist class—merchants, industrialists, landlords, ship owners, shop-keepers, and the like—traveled to America to make money, took the profits they made from genocide, thievery, and the newly built slave economy, and invested them in European enterprises: purchasing land for commercial, industrial, and agricultural development (those markets in particular which the colonial market engendered), and ultimately, employing wage labor on a large scale in the development of these industries. The profits of the industrialization of Europe, together with the profits of colonialism, enabled the continued investment and expansion of colonial enterprise, not just in the Americas, but across the world.

The assumption that primitive accumulation in Europe was alone responsible for the mass proletarianization of Europeans is historically baseless.  The number of metal coins circulating in Europe increased eight- to tenfold over the course of the 16th century, alone (See Blaut). This was not because of European proto-capitalists driving European peasants from their land, thereby forcing them to work for wages. It was because European proto-capitalists moved to America, killed massive swaths of the population, built a slave economy, and exported the natural resources to Europe. In Europe, this stolen wealth was finally concentrated to the extent that it allowed the capitalist mode of production to flourish. Marx’s first prerequisite for the rise of capitalism is thus fulfilled, but it is not because Europe’s means of production and subsistence were concentrated and converted to capital—it’s because America’s were. From then on, the logics of capitalism and colonialism spread like wildfire, always fueling one another, but not after the simple pattern of base/superstructure.

Marx himself acknowledges the role of slavery and colonialism in the primitive accumulation process in Capital. But for noticing this, he spends surprisingly little time analyzing the situation with any seriousness. In his Eurocentric idealism, he presents this history with the same gravitas and congratulatory tone of any old colonist. From Chapter 33:

“The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins, signalised the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production. These idyllic proceedings are the chief momenta of primitive accumulation.”

Cedric Robinson helpfully explains the limitations of Marx's analysis:

“Driven, however, by the need to achieve the scientific elegance and interpretive economy demanded by theory, Marx consigned race, gender, culture, and history to the dustbin. Fully aware of the constant place women and children held in the workforce, Marx still deemed them so unimportant as a proportion of wage labor that he tossed them, with slave labor and peasants, into the imagined abyss signified by precapitalist, noncapitalist, and primitive accumulation. And how, can we suppose, was Marx’s conception of the mode-specific, internal development of European productive forces to accommodate the technological borrowings from China, India, Africa, and the Americas which propelled the West into industrialism and imperialism? As Andre Gunder Frank declares: the original sin of Marx, Weber, and their followers was to look for the “origin,” “cause,” “nature,” “mechanism,” indeed the “essence” of it [capitalism, development, modernization] all essentially in European exceptionalism instead of in the real world economy/system.”

There are other problems with the primitive accumulation thesis, as pointed out by Glen Coulthard in Red Skin, White Masks. One is what Kropotkin criticizes as an “erroneous division” between “the primary [primitive] accumulation of capital, and its present day formulation.” Indeed, Marx presented the violent dispossession of lands from workers and their subsequent proletarianization (the two main characteristics of primitive accumulation) as if it were a process confined to a particular period of early proto-capitalism:

“For Marx, although the era of violent, state dispossession may have inaugurated the accumulation process, in the end it is ‘the silent compulsion of economic relations’ that ultimately ‘sets the seal on the domination of the capitalist over the worker’”
(Coulthard, Red Skin White Masks)

However, we can see from the real development of world history and contemporary politics that this is not the case; that violent dispossession of Indigenous people from their lands remains a persistent, not a ‘primitive,’ part of capital accumulation.

Furthermore, although Marx tended to emphasize proletarianization of the worker as most significant, it would be an egregious error to forget that for both Native Americans and enslaved Africans, dispossession occurred (and continues to occur) on a large scale without corresponding proletarianization. Rather, Africans and Indigenous people were and are continuously robbed of their land, and subsequently prevented from joining the settler market of wage labor by various means— such as enslavement and incarceration—or they are relegated to a position which is subordinate not only to the interests and exploitation of the bourgeoisie, but also to settler labor.

This is true in settler colonies as well as non-settler colonies, as the political and economic sway of settler proletarians in the colonial metropole has a direct impact on the politics and economics of the Third World. It was true long before Capital was ever conceived of or published, and it is still true today.  Marx, however, tended to examine colonization only insofar as it impacted the activities of the European proletariat, and because of this, he vastly underestimated both the role that colonization plays in the formation of classes, and the significance of the difference between the forms of capitalist and colonial exploitation. In short, he only got one side of the story. His mistake has been inherited by many Marxists, who ignorantly suppose that class contradictions can be solved without addressing colonial ones, and act on this supposition, even if they’re not so bold as to say it aloud.


“As he explicitly states in chapter 33 of Capital, Marx had little interest in the condition of the ‘colonies’ as such; rather, what caught his attention was ‘the secret discovered in the New World by the political economy of the Old World, and loudly proclaimed by it: that the capitalist mode of production and accumulation, and therefore capitalist private property as well, have for their fundamental condition the . . . expropriation of the worker’ (emphasis added). When examined from this angle, colonial dispossession appears to constitute an appropriate object of critique and analysis only insofar as it unlocks the key to understanding the nature of capitalism: that capital is not a “thing,” but rather a ‘social relation’ dependent on the perpetual separation of workers from the means of production. This was obviously Marx’s primary concern, and it has subsequently remained the dominant concern of the Marxist tradition as a whole.”
(Coulthard, Red Skin, White Masks)

Though Marx began to reformulate the teleological aspects of his theory in the last decade of his life, as Coulthard and Robinson both pointed out, much of his work was informed by a problematic developmentalist ontology which viewed capitalism and colonialism as historically inevitable, and eventually beneficial to the development of societies’ productive forces. “Marx, along with Engels, tends in many of his works to view those outside Europe as ‘people without history,’ separate from the development of capital and locked in an immutable present without the capacity for historical innovation” (Hardt and Negri, Commonwealth).

This view ironically led him to see colonialism as necessary in certain circumstances (such as British rule in India) for bringing colonized peoples under the capitalist mode of production, so that they could develop their productive forces and ultimately progress towards socialism (Coulthard, Red Skin, White Masks). One obvious problem with this view is that we know that colonialism functions by preventing the development of productive forces which might lead to the self-sufficiency (and subsequent struggle for independence) of the colony.

The asymmetrical development of industries geared towards extracting raw materials from colonized land rather than developing industries that increase the productive forces of the colonized population; the dispossession of lands from Native people and the expropriation of slaves (in contrast to the expropriation of proletarianized workers); the stark observable differences between the settler and colonized proletariats in terms of both their material conditions, and their revolutionary/reactionary potential – these factors all point to the necessity of revisiting Marx and, without throwing away the useful and illuminating aspects of his work, seriously addressing his considerable theoretical errors.

And not just for better theory. Regrettably, these blind-spots have hindered left-wing movements ever since and have provided settler communists with a theoretical justification for their class-reductionist and colonialist antics. Just as Marx used to say that colonization would bring India, Africa, and America into the fold of modernity and bring them onto the r(evolutionary) path of socialism, Marxist teleology is used by many so-called “Marxists” to justify the current colonization of Africa by the billionaire class of the People's Republic of China. Lenin only scratched the surface of the real issue when he articulated labor aristocracy, and it’s no surprise that that privileged strata of labor has been trying to tear his thesis to shreds ever since. The reality is that class structure is built atop the colonial structure of our economy, and the mode of production we call “capitalism” could not, would not, and cannot exist without it.

It is this legacy of Eurocentric developmentalism that has led white leftists in the U.S. to believe they are historically destined to lead the “ignorant” masses to freedom. They see the reactionary behavior of their own proletariat and, rather than examining the historical/theoretical basis of this phenomenon (colonialism), they claim that the issue is a lack of class consciousness (mere ignorance) rather than the obvious, observable, concrete/theoretical explanation, which is that settler and colonized proletariats have antagonistic class interests.

Likewise, their inability to reach the Black masses with Marxism is due to their own lack of colonial/class consciousness, not because of a lack of colonial/class consciousness on the part of Black revolutionaries who don’t feel it’s necessary to invoke Marx every time they open their mouths. It is because they show up to anti-colonial protests and lecture colonized people on class, as if there isn’t already an implicit understanding among everybody else who’s there, that the struggle against colonialism is necessarily a struggle over material conditions. It’s because in their investigation, “the whole system is corrupt” is closer to their end point than their starting one. They scoff at real revolutionaries and revolutions, and see them as dangerous or extreme. In the meantime, they are content with buying slave-made products and living on stolen land, waxing philosophical on how they would organize under working conditions they have never seen, offering unsolicited advice to oppressed nations on how to wage their own liberation struggles, or telling them that “solidarity goes two ways” – as if they had ever demonstrated genuine solidarity with colonized peoples in practice, or even in theory.

Further Reading:

Blaut, J. M. "Colonialism and the Rise of Capitalism." Science and Society, vol 53, no. 3 1989.

Coulthard, Glen Sean. Red Skin, White Masks: Rejecting the Colonial Politics of Recognition. Langara College, 2017.

Du Bois, W. E. B. . Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880. University of Notre Dame, 2006.

Lenin, V. I. Imperialism, The Highest Stage of Capitalism B. I. Classics, 2017

Marx, Karl. Capital Vol 1. Penguin Books Ltd, 1992.

Negri, Antonio and Michael Hardt. Commonwealth. Harvard University Press, 2009.

Robinson, Cedric J. Black Marxism: the Making of the Black Radical Tradition. Chapel Hill University of North Carolina Press, 2000.