Critique of Dialectical Reason: v. 1: Sartre, Jean ...

Jairus Banaji

In the second, posthumous volume of Sartre’s masterpiece, The Critique of Dialectical Reason, which is largely given over to the attempt to make deeper sense of Russia’s industrial expansion under Stalin, that is, to the problem of how a command economy works, Sartre explains that the best history is defined as a synthetic movement or what he calls “totalizing compression”. He writes, “two dialectical procedures are possible on the basis of an identical social reality. On the one hand, a procedure of decompressive expansion which starts off from the object to arrive at everything … in this case thought may be called detotalizing and the event loses out to the signified ensembles. On the other hand, a procedure of totalizing compression which, by contrast, grasps the centripetal movement of all the significations attracted and condensed in the event or in the object”.1 I want to suggest in this lecture2 that we need to integrate Marx’s notion of primitive accumulation into a wider history of capitalism that allows for the combined nature of its evolution, and that one way of doing this is to treat primitive accumulation as one of those “practical significations” or “signified ensembles” or structures that form a permanent dimension of capitalism. This means breaking with the linearity of the simplified model of primitive accumulation that many Marxists still subscribe to, with its “stagism” if you like, and with the strong resonance of teleology that usually goes with that. Retrospective readings of capitalism start with large-scale industry and imagine that primitive accumulation explains how that came about. But, if there is a sense in which this may account for Britain’s industrial primacy, it is hard to see how it would “explain” most other industrial trajectories which were in any case influenced by Britain’s own expansion, either correlatively (as in India) or by negation (as with Britain’s main industrial competitors). In a critique of Marx’s pages, Gerschenkron made a great deal of this point, noting that the bank-financed industrial expansion that occurred in Germany did not presuppose anything like the protracted processes Marx had described.3 But, if my general suggestion is accepted, the obvious question of course is – what wider history? Do we have the categories for that? And how exactly do we see primitive accumulation fitting into this broader canvas?

It may help to start by dispelling possible misconceptions. At the level of national capitals, there is no inevitability which says that primitive accumulation will always succeed. Thus Spanish mercantilists such as Alberto Struzzi and Sancho de Moncada were relentless in their criticisms of Spain’s backwardness;4 Spain, in the later 16th and 17th centuries, offers a striking demonstration of the failure of primitive accumulation, precisely because nothing was as emblematic of this “original” accumulation as Spain’s amassing of American treasure and the pure predation and brutality involved in the way that was done. Spain amassed gold and silver but failed to convert this accumulated mass of precious metals into capital. Thus “Moncada urged Spain to emulate France and Holland, countries without mines, in which, because of industry and active commerce, gold and silver abounded”;5 and the naturalised Spaniard Struzzi wrote in 1624, “It is absurd to expect money to stay in Spain. It is needed in trade. The Dutch and others pay for goods in money, but it then returns to them by other paths through trade. There is no nation rich without trade”.6 For primitive accumulation to have succeeded, Struzzi was telling his readers, Spain would have had to have had a class of commercial capitalists strong enough to match the competition of “the Dutch and others”; yet, if we look at the Mediterranean as a whole, the two regions where no substantial class of indigenous capitalists ever emerged, at least not in a serious way, were precisely the great empires ruled over by the Spanish Habsburgs and the Ottomans, including cities like Naples that were under Spanish rule.7

Secondly, the amassing of a large capital stock even in the more advanced countries was not a sufficient condition of industrial capitalism. In the Netherlands, in the eighteenth century, “rapidly accumulating stocks of capital” led in fact to the financial sector becoming an “important sector of the economy in its own right”, as Jan de Vries tells us.8 Here, of “the large capital stock amassed by a century of profitable expansion … [l]ittle new investment found its way into industry”. It flowed instead into doubling the size of the VOC in the face of new competition from the French and English, into establishing a Caribbean plantation economy, and into a new type of whaling enterprise which faced higher capital requirements as the whaling grounds retreated further north.9 In the case of England, Christopher Hill had asked, “Where did the capital for the Industrial Revolution come from?” and replied, “Spectacularly large sums flowed into England from overseas – from the slave trade, and especially from the seventeen-sixties, from organized looting of India”.10 Yet Hill went on to make the point “it is not always easy to trace connexions so directly. There is not much evidence that the plunder of India flowed directly into industry: much of it was spent on conspicuous consumption, and on buying political immunity for the plunderers”.11 This puts paid to Marx’s implied suggestion that the “plunder” of Bengal by the servants of the East India Company who legally engaged in private trade was directly instrumental to industrial expansion in Britain. In East Indian Fortunes Marshall calculated that “£3,000,000 was sent home before 1757 and about £15,000,000 over the 27 years between 1757 and 1784”, but notes, about those who returned to Britain from Bengal, “Few … regarded their fortunes as capital for further venturing in trade or manufacturing in Britain”.12


Thus, the narrow sense in which many non-Marxist scholars, economists more than historians, understand “primitive accumulation”, namely, as the accumulation of capitals which are then channelled into industrial development13 is a misconception of the broader sense in which Marx himself understood this dimension of capitalism’s history. Primitive accumulation was viewed by him both as a long and violent history of dispossession, of what he called the “terrible expropriation” of the “great mass of the people from the soil”14 and as a process of consolidation of capital. Much of Marx’s attention was, of course, given over to the first side of this long “pre-history of capital”,15 but Chapter 31, which deals with the consolidation of capital, alludes to a very wide range of topics that include colonial trade and the colonial system, public finance, indirect taxation, commercial wars, protectionism, child labour, and the slave-trade. However, the overall impression a reader comes away with is that primitive accumulation was to Marx’s mind a sort of long “pre-history” of industrial capitalism as this had developed by the 1860s. The main drawback of this model in this stark form is its linearity. Centuries of violence and dispossession, and of states intervening to consolidate capital, are followed, in the way Marx tells this story, by the eventual triumph of large-scale industry. But the fact that Marx’s last chapter dealt with Wakefield suggests that he extended this narrative into the 19th century to include settler colonialism in his history of primitive accumulation at a time when Britain at least was widely thought to be suffering from a ‘superfluity’ or overaccumulation of capital,16 and, following this cue, I want to suggest a more complex or “combined” history of capitalism that allows, as I said, for the simultaneity of capitalism and primitive accumulation. A good example of this method is the way Rosa Luxemburg describes Russia in the 19th century. She notes that in Russia “big industry staged its real entry” only in the last two decades of the 19th century and goes on to say, “‘Primitive accumulation’ of capital flourished splendidly in Russia, encouraged by all kinds of state subsidies, guarantees, premiums, and government orders”, placing the expression itself in quotes.17 Again, the state is central to the process.

To allow for this history of capitalism, however, we need to establish a clear distinction between two forms or “determinations of form” that Marx himself tends either to conflate or to ignore. Marx saw what he called manufacture and the manufacturing period as signifying the emergence of industrial capital. In an interesting passage of the Grundrisse that I shall return to, the period of mercantilism is described as “an epoch where industrial capital and hence wage labour arose in manufactures”.18 Now, it is true that in the seventeenth century industrial production acquired new, enhanced, significance, for example, in the writings of those like the Calabrian Antonio Serra who saw state-supported production of manufactured exports as the most effective way of securing surpluses on the current account and the best form of a mercantilist policy.19 But, stated the way Marx does, this ignores the fact that these were largely merchant-controlled enterprises. As late as the eighteenth century, luxury-goods industries such as the Lyons silk industry were dominated by merchant’s capital, by the so-called marchands-fabricants studied by Carlo Poni in one remarkable paper.20 Those firms used the putting-out system and a battery of designers to generate the sort of flexibility that allowed them to dominate the European fashion market to the despair of competitors in England and Italy. In fact, as early as 1929, Henri Hauser had signalled the distinction involved here by writing, “at the end of the fifteenth century new industries appeared, the children of the Renaissance; war industries like the production of guns, luxury industries like silk; intellectual industries like printing, type-making and paper-making… It would, perhaps, be premature to speak of industrial capitalism… But let us at least speak of commercial capital being applied to industry”.21 Now, “commercial capital applied to industry” is not industrial capital in the sense in which the owners of modern large-scale industry have come to personify this. It seems more plausible to reserve the term “industrial capital” for enterprises that were run by manufacturers who were no longer merchants. In the US this transition was still ongoing in the 19th century cotton industry22 and there industrial capital proper only truly emerged in the shape of the large vertically integrated enterprises in oil, steel, chemicals, rubber and so on, that came about towards the very end of the nineteenth century.23 The same is true of the development of industry on the Continent, for example in Germany where industrial capitalism exploded in the early 1870s as bankers like Bismarck’s friend Bleichröder came around to financing that “great expansion”.24 In any case, the merchant-controlled manufacturing enterprises of the late medieval and early-modern periods cannot be seen as industrial capital in this stricter, modern sense.


In volume 3 of Capital, there is a passing reference to “the manner and form in which commercial capital operates where it dominates production directly”.25 The two examples Marx cites of this are first “colonial trade in general (the so-called colonial system)”, that is, the vast transatlantic commercial system which among other things revitalised slavery as a modern development, and secondly, “the operations of the former Dutch East India Company”; in short, two very substantial trade sectors in both of which Marx seemed to think commercial capital was active in new, more “direct” ways. As important as this text is another. “Industrial capital has value for them, even the highest value”, Marx says about the mercantilists in the Grundrisse passage that was cited earlier, “because it creates mercantile capital and the latter, via circulation, becomes money”.26 Now, it is this creation of mercantile capital via “industrial capital”, that is, via production, that forms the stable heart of the pre-industrial regime, and I’d like to suggest that it is plausible to see merchant or commercial capitalism as a system of accumulation where merchant capitals are characterised by this tendential drive to subordinate production directly. Of course, since the biggest commercial firms were always highly diversified business enterprises that moved capital between finance, trade and manufacturing, the expansion of mercantile capital in this pure sense was part of more complex strategies of accumulation. It might make sense to see merchant capitalism as characterised by “sectors”, of which the four or five main ones were (1) the Verlag-based manufacturing that first sprawled across large parts of the countryside of western and central Europe as early as the thirteenth century, reaching an absolute zenith in the eighteenth; (2) the big concentrated money-markets which moved in sequence from Venice to Antwerp to Genoa to Amsterdam and finally to London; (3) the commercial investments that went into trade sectors such as the Atlantic and Asia; in the Atlantic the productive capital financed by merchants took the form of plantations and slavery; and (4) the produce trades that were the typical form of British mercantile capitalism in the 19th century and characterised by advances to household producers circulated either directly (as in the Government’s monopoly of “Bengal” opium) or more generally through local brokers who were usually substantial indigenous merchants in control of their own networks. In Many-headed Hydra, Linebaugh and Rediker describe shipping as a “mode of production that united all of the others in the sphere of circulation”,27 and since most shipping magnates were also merchants, at least before the emergence of specialised shipowning in the late 18th century,28shipping should likewise be seen as a purely merchant-capitalist sector, a fifth one. The flexibility and sophistication of the bigger merchant firms lay not just in their minute knowledge of international markets but in their ability to move between sectors and combine them in various ways. On the other hand, the vast mass of lesser commercial capitals specialised within particular sectors, e.g. the London agency houses that financed much of the West Indian trade, or the cambisti or bankers who dominated Europe’s exchanges, starting with the very substantial money-market in Venice that was controlled by Florentine banks,29 and so on.

Today, we are in a much better position to flesh out some of the more abstract intuitions of Marxists like Preobrazhensky. When he argued that “the whole period of the existence of merchant capital” should “be regarded as a period of primitive accumulation, of the systematic plundering of petty production”,30 what he had in mind were sectors 1, 3 and 4 I have outlined above, basically Verlag + the colonial trades. By “plunder” he simply meant what Arghiri Emmanuel would later call “unequal exchange”, that is, enforced control over terms of trade in a world marked by mobility of capital/immobility of labour, for example, by holding the wages of weavers down, as all merchant capitalists were able to do when they monopolised raw materials. But Preobrazhensky situated himself in a tradition of historiography shaped by Franz Mehring’s views of merchant capital as the “revolutionary force of the fourteenth, fifteenth and sixteenth centuries”, one that “not only created modern absolutism but also transformed the medieval classes of society”.31 In Russia, this strand of history was best represented in the work of M.N. Pokrovsky, and Preobrazhensky showers praise on him when dealing with primitive accumulation.32 It is also there in Isaak Rubin’s lectures on economic history.33 Pokrovsky himself continued to maintain, as late as 1929, that “Commercial capitalism played a huge role in the creation of the Russian monarchy. It created this Russian absolute monarchy”,34 a position he was soon forced to retract. Thus when later historians like Georges Lefebvre posited a crucial “symbiosis between the State and the merchants” and argued that it was “the collusion between commerce and the State (that) promoted the development of capitalism” (this was the stand Lefebvre took in the transition debates),35 or, when Mousnier suggested that the absolute monarchies and large-scale capitalism were “functions of each other”,36 the same dissident historiography was being articulated. Indeed, Maurice Dobb himself devotes a whole chapter of Studies in the Development of Capitalism to what he calls “Capital Accumulation and Mercantilism”. He argues there that mercantilism was “essentially the economic policy of an age of primitive accumulation”, “a system of State-regulated exploitation through trade which played a highly important role in the adolescence of capitalist industry”.37 The peculiar nexus between state and capital reflected in the fluid array of mercantilist policies that have their origins in the later middle ages and reach their culmination in the seventeenth century seems to me to best describe the political economy of primitive accumulation.38

Before coming to this, however, let me say a bit about three of the five sectors I listed above. Putting-out networks were the “first hard evidence of a merchant capitalism”, Braudel wrote in Wheels of Commerce.39 Wolfgang von Stromer has argued that Verlag was the most widespread type of economic organisation in Europe before the advent of large-scale industry. The textile industries of the twelfth to sixteenth centuries and later were entirely based on it. It allowed for “export-oriented standardized mass production” and in South Germany for a concentration of production in entire industrial basins.40 In London in the seventeenth century, as Beier shows, “big City merchants” “organized craft production in the suburbs and countryside”, a development, he argues, that led “naturally to the industrial revolution because, as Dobb states, ‘[T]he capitalist merchant-manufacturer had an increasingly close interest in promoting improvements in the instruments and methods of production’”.41 In France, “concentrations of capital were in commercial form”, Lefebvre writes. “Millions of peasants worked for city merchants”.42 Picardy and Beauvais in the north of France became the base of a rural-based textile industry controlled by “powerful merchants”.43 Putting out [le travail à façon] was widespread in the Swiss textile industry of the early 19th century, as Veyssarat’s work shows,44 and outwork was still the predominant form of industrial organisation in Britain in the 1820s.45 Bythell who notes this cites Mendel’s argument that so-called “proto-industry” “created an accumulation of capital in the hands of merchant entrepreneurs, making possible the adoption of machine industry with its (relatively) higher capital costs”.46 Finally, it is worth noting Maxine Berg’s criticism that Marx’s model of manufactures was “useful in highlighting the features of some eighteenth-century industry” but it was a “linear model” and failed “to deal adequately with the features of the putting-out system and other related forms of domestic manufacture”.47 (Marx says little about putting out.)

The American plantations “were capitalist creations par excellence”, Braudel notes in Wheels of Commerce, and then clarifies, “[i]t was European trade that commanded production and output overseas”.48 London’s expansion in the late 17th century was fuelled by the plantation trades. But to start with, it is worth noting that “in terms of both capital value and overseas trade, the slave system was expanding, not declining, at the turn of the nineteenth century”.49 “Twice as much money was invested in the slave trade during 1791–1807, at the height of the abolitionist agitation, as in the agitation-free decades 1761–1780”.50 British slave-trade capital, Drescher argues, rose sharply at the end of the eighteenth century.51 “There was little vocal opposition to the trade between the sixteen-fifties and the loss of America, not even from Quakers”.52 In the plantations themselves, next to slavery, the critical relation of production was merchant economic control over planters. The total sum owing to London merchants by West Indian sugar planters, for example, was several million pounds by 1770, roughly as much as the total mercantile debt owed by the mainland colonies to London at this time, viz. £3 million.53 In Cuba, the Matanzas sugar economy was largely financed by the Havana merchant houses through so-called “refacción” contracts which guaranteed sugar supplies for export.54 The bigger merchant establishments such as the Torrientes were the main accumulators of Cuban capital.55 Yet, this is not the end of the story. When Baron Alphonse de Rothschild visited Cuba in 1849, it was not the Havana merchant houses but the London merchant banks, he claimed, “who are making all of the profit from commissions, credits and consignation”. “The sugar business here is the monopoly of the (Havana) exporters… However, they are not doing the most important or weighty business, this [is] being done by Barings, Coutts, Fruehling & Goschen in London”.56 And, for roughly the same reasons, in 1860 a North Carolina paper described New York as “the Northern state which had profited most by the slave labor of the South” thanks to the “commercial ties” that existed between them.57 Eric Williams was surely right to claim, “The commercial capitalism of the eighteenth century developed the wealth of Europe by means of slavery and monopoly”, and to say that “in so doing it (commercial capitalism) helped to create the industrial capitalism of the nineteenth century”.58 Williams describes a historical dialectic similar to primitive accumulation, but one in which one form of capitalism feeds into the expansion of another and destroys itself as it does so, except that it did not, as Drescher’s critique showed, since slavery continued to expand. Finally, it is worth noting that in Theories of Surplus Value Marx focuses on the planters rather than on the London houses that financed this whole web of trade. When he wrote, “the business in which slaves are used is conducted by capitalists”,59 he seemed to have the planters in mind. But in the Atlantic trades “there was a fundamental shift to the commission system” from the 1660s. British merchants supplied American planters “with a wide range of mercantile and quasi-banking services, including the provision of shipping, insurance, and eventually finance”.60 “The commission system, which was overwhelmingly centered on London, came to dominate the greater part of British Atlantic trade”.61 This explains how “at least half of the total for (Jamaica’s) import and exports made its way invisibly back to England (in freight charges, insurance, commissions, interest on debts, and transfers of money to absentee landlords). All in all, the net benefit for England in the year 1773 was getting on for £1,500,000. In London, as in Bordeaux, the proceeds of colonial trade were transformed into trading-houses, banks and state bonds”, says Braudel,62 confirming Rothschild’s point about where the profits of Cuban sugar went. Thus, Marx’s expression “conducted by capitalists” should really refer us back to a conglomeration of commercial interests at the heart of which lay the London West India houses whose judgements or instructions to the island agencies were “based on City news and outlook”.63


Finally, a third sector, the produce trades. British merchants who financed household production in India and West Africa in the 19th century did so through a system of advances. Mercantile advances embodied a circulation of capital. These were not transactions in the sphere of “simple circulation” but a means of integrating peasant household labour into the capitalist world market. Chayanov called this form of accumulation “vertical capitalist concentration”. By this he meant that “while in a production sense concentration in agriculture is scarcely reflected in the formation of new large-scale undertakings, in an economic sense capitalism as a general economic system makes great headway in agriculture”. Agriculture, he wrote, “becomes subject to trading capitalism that sometimes in the form of very large-scale commercial undertakings draws masses of scattered peasant farms into its sphere of influence and, having bound these small-scale commodity producers to the market, economically subordinates them to its influence”.64 The example Chayanov cited was of the large cotton merchants of the Knoop family. “The need to lay out money in advance made heavy demands for working capital”,65 which meant that the produce trades were characterised, over time, by a growing concentration and centralisation of capital, with giant firms like the United Africa Company (UAC, the trading arm of Unilever) dominating very large shares of the produce market in British West Africa.66 It was this sort of “vertical concentration” that sustained the largely British and French trades in palm oil, raw cotton, opium, wheat, tea, teak, rice, coffee, jute, rubber, groundnut and so on, all of which saw major periods of expansion in the mid-to-late 19th century and early twentieth.67On “very small farms” gross output per acre has always been the important calculation for households, as Krishna Bharadwaj showed for India back in the seventies; “very small cultivators” concentrate on high-value cash crops with a high labour input per acre.68 Jute was a prime example of this “forcing up of labor intensity”, as Chayanov characterised the economic behaviour of most farm households, and of course “[t]he key to making money out of jute manufacturing both in Calcutta and Dundee was to buy raw jute at as low a price as possible”.69 In parts of China the equivalent crop was tobacco, “the most valuable of all cash crops”, as Chen Han-Seng described it in a valuable study from 1939,70 except that here it was a large vertically integrated industrial firm B.A.T. or British American Tobacco that enforced the sort of price domination that held large numbers of peasant households in thrall. Prices were dictated by the company’s foreign leaf experts who were specially flown in from the US South, just as the English East India Company had, back in the eighteenth century, fixed the rates to be paid for a wide assortment of piecegoods from Bengal at their headquarters in London, two years before actual delivery, with no allowance for price increases that weavers had to contend with in the intervening period,71 and just as the French commercial houses that financed groundnut cultivation in Senegal fixed the prices to be paid to producers at their head offices in Bordeaux.72 The so-called “self-exploitation” of the peasantry fed directly into higher rates of surplus-value on these commercial capitals, and through them on the total social capital. “Is the general rate of profit raised by the higher profit rate made by capital invested in foreign trade, and colonial trade in particular?”, Marx had asked in volume 3,73 and replied of course in the affirmative. (Note that Emmanuel’s theory of unequal exchange presupposes equalisation of profits with unequal rates of surplus value, the latter thanks to immobility of the labour factor.)74

The expansion of mercantile capital was thus the standard form of capitalist accumulation for centuries together, even if this history has never been properly constructed. Any historian who does so would have to start with the fierce struggles between Venetian and Genoese capitalists for domination of the Byzantine markets in Constantinople, the Aegean and the Black Sea. But leaving that aside, it is quite clear that in the seventeenth century a major transformation took place, as the state stepped in to extend its formal backing to capital and the competition of capitals took on a much stronger “national” form. If Spanish mercantilism was a long lament on Spain’s failure to develop, the mercantilisms of France, Holland and England were quite different in character, as “[c]ommercial competition”, in the words of von Schmoller, “even in times nominally of peace, degenerated into a state of undeclared hostility: it plunged nations into one war after another, and gave all wars a turn in the direction of trade, industry and colonial gain”.75 A fascinating passage in Volume 3 refers to the commercial struggles of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries as “the industrial struggle of the nations on the world market” and sees the intervention of the state as seeking to accelerate the development of capital “by compulsion”, as Marx puts it. “It makes a substantial difference”, Marx says here, “whether the national capital is transformed into industrial capital gradually and slowly or whether this transformation is accelerated in time” by the use of tariffs and “the forcibly accelerated accumulation and concentration of capital, in short by the accelerated production of the conditions of the capitalist mode of production”.76 The passage ends with Marx underscoring both the “national”, that is, nationalist, “character of the Mercantile System”, as well as its purely capitalist content, saying that the mercantilists “show their awareness that the development of the interests of capital and the capitalist class, of capitalist production, has become the basis of a nation’s power and predominance in modern society”.77

The reference to primitive accumulation is unmistakable here, but what is interesting is that Marx now situates it within the global competition of capitals and it depends more than ever on the state’s “accelerating” role. All the various “methods” of primitive accumulation that were “systematically combined together at the end of the seventeenth century in England”, Marx had written, “employ the power of the state”,78 and there is a crucial sense in which the early development of capitalism was also about the expanding power of the modern state. It was Hilferding who picked up on this in the last piece of writing he ever drafted, but I shall come to that in a moment. In its most general sense, mercantilism expressed the identity of the interests of state and capital. This of course has been described in numerous ways, as “alliance”, “collaboration”, “liaison”, “partnership”, “backing”, “support”, and so on. For example, Rubin noted “during the age of merchant capitalism a close alliance was formed between the state and the commercial bourgeoisie, an alliance which found expression in mercantilist policy”.79 The general idea is nicely expressed in the way Brenner in his best work describes the relationship between Crown and company merchants, e.g. as the “powerful state backing” that “the City’s richest and most influential businessmen” received for their voyages of exploration under Elizabeth.80 But, in the sixteenth century, England was not a naval power. By the second half of the seventeenth century, “the navy not only grew in size but became an instrument of a national policy of commercial aggrandizement”.81 This is a central part of John Brewer’s argument in his brilliant book The Sinews of Power. By the early eighteenth century “the entire British fleet amounted to a capital investment of nearly £2.25 million”,82 half the value of the total capital invested in the Atlantic trade in the 1770s. Cromwell’s “foreign policy was dominated by economic considerations”, and “[f]rom the interregnum, commercial interests acquired a primacy in the formation of foreign policy”.83 Both French and English mercantilism had grown up in the shadow of Holland’s crushing commercial superiority in the second and third decades of the seventeenth century. Montchrétien’s Treatise of Political Economy (1615) shows both his admiration for as well as the profound influence of the Dutch. A major conclusion of his tract was the need to expand the pool of skilled labour and learn from the more advanced organisation of the Dutch manufactories.84 In England, Thomas Mun demolished the illusion that money was an independent force in the economy. He wrote, “It is not therefore the keeping of our Money in the Kingdom which makes a quick and ample Trade, but the necessity and use of our Wares in Forreign Countries and our want of their Commodities…”.85 Money mattered to the mercantilists of the seventeenth century chiefly as means of circulation, as a way of boosting liquidity and increasing the velocity of circulation to expand the flow of trade. By the late seventeenth century, as the Navigation Acts and the rapid expansion of English merchant shipping tilted the balance decisively in England’s favour, commercial wealth and naval power came to be seen as “mutually sustaining”. “The object of all three Anglo-Dutch Wars was to destroy Dutch trade and shipping”,86 but the broader assumptions behind this new-found aggressiveness were precisely those of any mature mercantilist state, the need to enforce a “national monopoly of the international carrying trade and of colonial markets”, to encourage import-substitute manufactures,87 and to convert the mass of the destitute and the unemployed into a productive labour force, not least, Bacon suggested in 1625, to contain sedition among the poor.88 It was left to Christopher Hill to note that “[a]ccumulation through monopoly trade was more rapid than in industry”, and that once large sums of capital were available for industrial investment by the late eighteenth century, “the navigation system itself became superfluous”.89

France, England and the United Provinces all had strong states and even if they differed radically in form, in substance they were essentially geared to promoting the needs of capital, since the strength of the state itself was increasingly seen as a function of the strength of “national capital”, as Marx called it in the passage I cited from volume 3. Thus Nicolas Mesnager in his mémoire to the Council of Commerce dated 1700 claimed, “Monsieur the cardinal de Richelieu did not find any means more effective to increase the power of the king and the wealth of the state than to increase navigation and commerce”.90 In the Netherlands, William of Orange agreed “Commerce is the pillar of the state”, but insisted, “if the security of the state was destroyed by French territorial expansion, the ruin of Dutch shipping and trade would assuredly follow”.91 And both there and in England the growth of the national debt depended crucially on excise duties, since “debt issues were underwritten by substantial increases in the excise on items like malt and beer”,92 and the greater part of tax revenue went into servicing the debt. As Brewer says, the term “mercantilist” “does provide a useful characterisation of an era in which the relationship between state power and international trade was seen as a problem of exceptional importance”.93 In short, the growth of capitalism was as much a function of governments and their financial needs as it was of the emergence of powerful groups of capitalists in international commerce and government finance, and it is this mutuality between state and capital which best defines the era of primitive accumulation. This was as true of French absolutism as it was of the Dutch Republic and of Britain’s fiscal-military state. Indeed, one of the most striking features of his pages on primitive accumulation is that the precise form of the state scarcely seems to matter to Marx.

Gerschenkron claimed “Marxism in general found it difficult to place the mercantilistic State within its conceptual framework”, and argued that this was because “Marxism at all times had difficulty with explaining dictatorial power. Even when, as in the case of Napoleon III, the State that was not dominated by a certain class could be presented as originating from an equilibrium of class power, the problem still remained that once the dictatorial State was established, it was able to pursue an independent policy of its own, because it had become an independent power in its own right… When it comes to Russia”, he said, “[t]he overriding consideration is that it would make little sense to regard the autocratic State as emerging from [an] equilibrium of class power”.94 There is a moment of truth in this criticism, but firstly, mercantilism was not confined to the absolutist states and in England, in fact, received its strongest expression in the Interregnum. Secondly, there have been significant attempts within the more creative strands of historical materialism to address this issue of the autonomy of the state. In his last, unfinished piece of writing called “The Historical Problem” Hilferding regarded the state’s existence as a machine aware of its own special interests as the state-power as the major problem of theory confronting Marxists. Indeed, in a paradoxical but I think perfectly true formulation he argued, “State power was objectively stronger in the heyday of liberalism than it ever was in the age of Absolutism”.95 “Under mercantilism the economy is not subordinated to the State”, he writes, “on the contrary, the State becomes a means of encouraging or establishing those economic interests and tendencies that simultaneously satisfy its own needs”.96 This is essentially the view I suggested in the preceding paragraph. Thus for Hilferding the “struggle to establish the absolute monarchy and with it the modern state” was a “struggle of the State-power [ein Kampf der Staatsmacht] against the ruling class”, one that was “supported by the bourgeoisie or sections of it”.97 For his part, Sartre has a similar if less extreme view in volume one of the Critique. He argues that “the State constitutes itself as a mediation between conflicts within the dominant class”,98 “constitutes itself as the organ of the contraction and integration of the class”, but crucially it “cannot take on its functions without positing itself as a mediator between the exploiting and the exploited classes”; “it affirms itself as a deep negation of the class struggle”. “The State therefore exists for the sake of the dominant class, but as a practical suppression of class conflicts within the national totalisation”.99 This, he says, is not pure mystification, because “the State really does produce itself as a national institution … it takes a totalising view of the social ensemble”, “it already posits itself for itself in relation to the class from which it emanates: this united, institutionalised and effective group … tries to produce itself and to preserve itself in and through itself as an essential national praxis, by acting in the interests of the class from which it emanates and, if necessary, against them. One need only look at the policies of the French monarchy between the fourteenth and the eighteenth centuries to see that it did not confine itself to providing mediation when forces were evenly balanced, but rather created this balance by perpetual changes of alliance, so that the bourgeoisie and the aristocracy would control each other, so as to produce itself, on the basis of this deadlock … as an absolute monarchy”.100

Whatever we think of these views, it is clear that the prevailing instrumentalist views of the nature of the modern state will simply not work in trying to describe its role in the era of primitive accumulation. There was no coherent mercantile interest for the state to be simply a pawn in the hands of this or that sector of capital. Moreover, as Wallerstein says, the growth of the national debt “reflected the growing autonomous interests of the states as economic actors”.101 In the case of Stalin’s Russia, arguably the last great episode of primitive accumulation in modern history, it is even less possible to derive the decisions of the state from any preformed classes. Under Stalin the “methods” of primitive accumulation ranged widely from dispossessing millions of peasants and breaking the resistance of an organised working class, even forcing it back into seriality, to the use of mass repression and terror as instruments of accumulation, the paroxysm of violence in 1937, the banning of abortion and revival of the cult of the family, the personality cult, manipulations of public opinion, and so on. Much of this has been brilliantly documented in Don Filtzer’s series of monographs which covers a very wide span of Russia’s industrial experience.102 The more abstract elements of analysis are given in volume two of Sartre’s Critique, and interestingly there he cites what must remain one of the more vivid images of Stalinist primitive accumulation, namely, John Scott’s account of the monstrous squandering of labour and production that occurred at the giant metallurgical complex at Magnitogorsk in the Ural industrial region, where between 1928 and 1932 “nearly a quarter of a million people came”, the vast bulk of them voluntarily, “seeking work, bread cards, better conditions”.103 Here Scott, who worked as an electric welder for five years in the thirties, saw those masses of uprooted peasants create “a gigantic plant and city” within five years. Under Stalin, he wrote, the “tempo of construction was such that millions of men and women starved, froze, and were brutalized by inhuman labor”.104 This had nothing to do with socialism, of course, since it presupposed the disarming of the factory committees which had occurred under the Bolsheviks very soon after the Revolution;105 presupposed also the silencing of the Opposition and suppression of a free press, and later, in the 1930s, that peculiar “reciprocity of incarnations” between Stalin and the bureaucracy which Sartre tries hard to fathom in his second volume. If there were limits to Stalin’s control of the Soviet bureaucracy, it remains true nonetheless that the bureaucracy saw itself as an incarnation of Stalin and of his frenetic drive to make Russia catch up with the west at any cost.



  • 1. Sartre, Critique of Dialectical Reason, vol.2, pp. 49, 188.
  • 2. This paper was presented as a keynote at the conference on primitive accumulation organised by the Institute of Social History in Amsterdam in May 2019.
  • 3. Gerschenkron, Economic Backwardness in Historical Perspective, Chapter 2, e.g., “Original accumulation of capital was not a prerequisite of industrial development in major countries” (p. 46).
  • 4. Perrotta, “Early Spanish Mercantilism”.
  • 5. Hamilton, “Spanish Mercantilism”, p. 234.
  • 6. Struzzi cited Perrotta, “Early Spanish Mercantilism”, p. 37.
  • 7. Zarinebaf, Mediterranean Encounters seeks to qualify this picture for the Ottomans, but fails to establish the presence of an influential class of merchant capitalists among the Turks.
  • 8. Jan de Vries and Ad van der Woude, First Modern Economy, p. 129.
  • 9. De Vries and van der Woude, First Modern Economy, p. 677.
  • 10. Hill, Reformation to Industrial Revolution, p. 200.
  • 11. Hill, Reformation to Industrial Revolution, pp. 245–6.
  • 12. Marshall, East Indian Fortunes, pp. 255, 215.
  • 13. Cf. Saville, “Primitive Accumulation”, p. 265.
  • 14. Marx, Capital, vol. 1, p. 928.
  • 15. Marx, Capital, vol.1, p. 875.
  • 16. Semmel, Rise of Free Trade Imperialism, Chapter 4.
  • 17. Luxemburg, Accumulation of Capital, p. 272.
  • 18. Marx, Grundrisse, p. 327; italics mine.
  • 19. Serra, Short Treatise on the Wealth and Poverty of Nations, ed. Reinert.
  • 20. Poni, “Fashion as Flexible Production”.
  • 21. Hauser, La modernité du XVIe siècle, with the extract translated in Kitch, Capitalism and the Reformation, p. 72.
  • 22. Porter and Livesay, Merchants and Manufacturers.
  • 23. Chandler, Visible Hand.
  • 24. Stern, Gold and Iron, pp. 164, 181.
  • 25. Marx, Capital, vol.3, pp. 446–7.
  • 26. Marx, Grundrisse, p. 328.
  • 27. Linebaugh and Rediker, Many-headed Hydra, p. 149.
  • 28. Milne, Trade and Traders, p. 96.
  • 29. Mueller, Venetian Money Market.
  • 30. Preobrazhensky, New Economics, p. 85.
  • 31. Mehring, Absolutism and Revolution in Germany 1525–1848, pp. 1, 3.
  • 32. Preobrazhensky, New Economics, p. 87.
  • 33. Rubin, History of Economic Thought, esp. Chapters 1 and 2.
  • 34. Barber, Soviet Historians, p. 61, citing A. Malyshev.
  • 35. Lefebvre, “Some Observations”, p. 125.
  • 36. Roland Mousnier, Les XVIe et XVIIe siècles, fifth edn (Paris, 1967), p. 98.
  • 37. Dobb, Studies in the Development of Capitalism, p. 209.
  • 38. Thus in the late 17th century the great English mercantilist Charles D’Avenant saw foreign trade essentially as a source of capital accumulation, cf. his view “as money that circulates at home begets money to private men, so bullion circulating abroad begets bullion to a country”, cited Lipson, The Economic History of England, vol. 3: The Age of Mercantilism, sixth edn. (1956), p.85. Cf. Hilferding, “The Early Days of English Political Economy”, p.486: “money is here regarded in its constant process of circulation, where it only goes out in order to come back in, each time in increased amounts”, from his essay on Mun and the early mercantilists.
  • 39. Braudel, Wheels of Commerce, p. 321.
  • 40. Wolfgang von Stromer, Revue Historique, 1991 .
  • 41. Beier, “Engine”, p.161, citing Dobb, Studies, p. 145.
  • 42. Lefebvre, The Coming of the French Revolution, p. 42.
  • 43. Goubert, Beauvais et le Beauvaisis de 1600 à 1730, p. ??.
  • 44. Veyssarat, Négociants et fabricants dans l’industrie cotonnière suisse, p. 205.
  • 45. Bythell, Sweated Trades, p. 13.
  • 46. Bythell, Sweated Trades, p. 249, citing Mendels, “Proto-industrialization”, Journal of Economic History, 32 (1972), p. 244.
  • 47. Berg, Age of Manufactures, first edn. pp.76–77; second edn., p. 65.
  • 48. Braudel, Wheels of Commerce, p. 273.
  • 49. Drescher, Econocide, p. 24.
  • 50. Drescher, Econocide, p. 25.
  • 51. Drescher, Econocide, p. 30.
  • 52. Hill, Reformation, p. 186.
  • 53. Nash, “Organization”, p. 124.
  • 54. Bergad, Cuban Rural Society, pp. 65, 167.
  • 55. Bergad, Cuban Rural Society, p. 173.
  • 56. Cited Inés Roldán de Montaud, “Baring Brothers and the Cuban Plantation Economy, 1814–1870”, p. 239.
  • 57. Foner, Business and Slavery, p. 191.
  • 58. Williams, Capitalism and Slavery, p. 210.
  • 59. Marx, Theories of Surplus-Value, pt. 2, pp. 302–3.
  • 60. Nash, “Organization”, p. 98.
  • 61. Nash, “Organization”, p. 103.
  • 62. Braudel, Wheels of Commerce, p. 279.
  • 63. Checkland, “Finance for the West Indies”, p. 467.
  • 64. Chayanov, Theory of Peasant Economy, p. 257.
  • 65. Marshall, East Indian Fortunes, p. 36.
  • 66. Fieldhouse, Merchant Capital and Economic Decolonization.
  • 67. Banaji, Brief History of Commercial Capitalism.
  • 68. Bharadwaj, Production Conditions, pp. 49, 64.
  • 69. Stewart, Jute and Empire, p. 44.
  • 70. Chen Han-Seng, Industrial Capital and Chinese Peasants, p. 23.
  • 71. Hossain, Company Weavers, p. 51.
  • 72. Marfaing, Evolution du commerce, pp. 177ff.
  • 73. Marx, Capital, vol.3, p. 344.
  • 74. Emmanuel, Unequal Exchange.
  • 75. Von Schmoller, The Mercantile System, p. 64.
  • 76. Marx, Capital, vol. 3, p. 920.
  • 77. Marx, Capital, vol. 3, p. 921.
  • 78. Marx, Capital, vol.1, p. 915.
  • 79. Rubin, History of Economic Thought, pp. 25–6.
  • 80. Brenner, Merchants and Revolution, p. 61.
  • 81. Brewer, Sinews of Power, p. 11.
  • 82. Brewer, Sinews of Power, p. 34.
  • 83. Hill, Century of Revolution, pp. 142, 143.
  • 84. Lublinskaya, French Absolutism: The Crucial Phase, Chapter 3.
  • 85. Mun, England’s Treasure by Forraign Trade (1628), cited Appleby, Economic Thought and Ideology in Seventeenth Century England, p. 40.
  • 86. Brewer, Sinews, p. 169.
  • 87. Brewer, Sinews, p. 168.
  • 88. Hinton, “Mercantile System in the Time of Thomas Mun”, p. 281.
  • 89. Hill, Reformation, p. 160.
  • 90. Cited Cole, French Mercantilism, p. 238.
  • 91. Israel, Dutch Primacy, p. 340.
  • 92. Brewer, Sinews, p. 119.
  • 93. Brewer, Sinews, p. 169.
  • 94. Gerschenkron, Europe in the Russian Mirror, pp. 79–80.
  • 95. Hilferding, “Das historische Problem”, Zeitschrift für Politik, 1 (1954), pp. 295–324, at 296.
  • 96. Hilferding, “Das historische Problem”, p. 296.
  • 97. Hilferding, “Das historische Problem”, p. 316.
  • 98. Sartre, Critique of Dialectical Reason, vol.1, p. 638.
  • 99. Sartre, Critique of Dialectical Reason, vol.1, p. 639.
  • 100. Sartre, Critique of Dialectical Reason, vol.1, p. 640.
  • 101. Wallerstein, Modern World System, p. 139.
  • 102. Especially Filtzer, Soviet Workers and Stalinist Industrialization (1986); Filtzer, The Hazards of Urban Life in Late Stalinist Russia (2010).
  • 103. Scott, Beyond the Urals, p. 61.
  • 104. Scott, Beyond the Urals, p. 54.
  • 105. Brinton, The Bolsheviks and Workers’ Control.