Hobsbawm, Marx and primitive accumulation

Philip Ferguson plf13 at SPAMstudent.canterbury.ac.nz
Sat Aug 5 23:15:31 MDT 2000

Mine writes:

>True, Julio Pino. *Shanty town* is not only a product of *failed
>industrialization*, but also an end result of "capitalist modernization"
>(urbanization) in the periphery of the world system. It is reinforced by
>imperialism of underdevelopment (Foreign and comprador classes). That being
>said, I find the *shanty town* example very relevant to Marx's discussion of
>primitive accumulation in Capital, where Marx sets the argument for p.a as a
>starting point of capitalism in the country side: a rural accumulation that is
>historically prior to capitalist accumulation in the cities. Once the country
>side is modernized with the commercialization of agriculture (capitalist
>farming) and institutionalization of private property regime, a forceful
>process of displacing the agricultural folk begins. The purpose is to
>the peasantry into wage laborers through massive migrations, in order to
>surplus for the accumulation of capitalism in urban areas. Once the displaced
>peasentry comes to cities under the pressure of modernization, and leave their
>livelihood and means of subsistence behind, they can not immediately adapt
>themselves to the discipline of wage labor and city life. Marx says that with
>this uneven development started by capitalism, semi-proleterians "were turned
>in massive quantities into beggars, robbers and vagabonds, partly from
>inclination, in most cases under the force of circumstances... the fathers of
>the present working class were chastised for their enforced transformation
>vagabonds and paupers. Legislation treated them as voluntary criminals, and
>assumed that it was entirely within their powers to go on working under
>the old
>conditions which in fact no longer existed"

Mine, I think you might be mixing up several different periods and places
here.  Capital accumulation in the countryside, certainly  in Europe, never
preceded capital accumulation in the cities.  Capitalist agriculture came
much later than *primitive accumulation*, which begins as early as the
fifteenth century in Europe.  When people were driven off the land in
Europe, the people who drove them off had no idea whatever that this would
help lead to capitalism.

For instance, Marx identifies one of the major periods of primitive
accumulation in Britain as Henry VIII confiscating church property and
driving off the peasants and flunkies of the medieval Catholic Church.
Henry did this for motives of his own (enrichment at the expense of the
church, wanting to divorce his Catholic wife, European power play, etc).
Neither he, nor anyone else, intended the creation of capitalism.

The countryside in Europe remained backward for hundreds of years, while
the urban centres modernised.  It was only once capitalism had taken root
that you get serious capital accumulation in the rural parts of the
capitalist countries.

In Europe, primitive accumulation was never intended to create a
proletariat - the proletariat was born out of the *descendants* of the
expropriated.  In Britain the first stage of primitive accumulation took
place several hundred years before wage-labour became widespread and the
modern proletariat took shape.  In other countries in Europe, where
capitalism developed later or more slowly, the  time gap was less.  During
this long gap between expropriation of the land and the emergence of the
proletariat, the expropriated and their descendants existed as vagabonds,
beggars, and so on, at the mercy of a range of horrendous laws - Marx
outlines these laws in England in vol 1 of 'Capital'.

If we look at a country like Russia before the revolution.  Here there was
massive capital accumulation in the cities, the largest factory in the
world being in Russia (I think it was the Putilov steel works?), the
proletarianisation of millions of former peasants, etc.  But rural Russia
remained largely feudal.

When we get to the twentieth century, however, and the imperialist
domination of the globe, the whole process speeds up.  Capitalists now know
that in order to create capitalism you need a working class and this
requires turning labour-power into a commodity, ie separating people from
their own means of production and therefore forcing them to sell, on the
market, their ability to work.

It's quite interesting looking at when and how capitalists and capitlaist
ideologists became aware of this.  One of the key figures is Edward Gibbon
Wakefield, whose two-volume 'England and America', published in the 1830s,
looked at why a lot of European settlements in the Americas had failed.
Wakefield was the ideologist of 'systematic colonisation' and his main
schemes were in NZ, where five of the main six early settlements were

Marx deals with in vol 1 of 'Capital' with what Wakefield learned from the
example of the English capitalist Mr Peel at Swan River (which, I think, is
now Perth).  Poor old Mr Peel had taken a load of money, machinery and
workers to Swan Fiver, imagining he could be a capitalist there.  But he
found his money and machinery were not capital after all, just money and
machinery.  This was because his workforce buggered off.  In other words,
without the wage-labour/capital relationship, money is just money,
machinery is just machinery.

Wakefield learned from this that it was necessary to ensure that workers
could not just take off and set up as independent producers on the land.
So, when it came to NZ, a price was put on land that ensured that each wave
of settlers would have to work as wage-labourers for a certain length of
time before they could amass the funds to buy land.  (Wakefield was a
liberal who wanted a society of upward mobility, so he envisaged each new
wave of wage-labourers eventually becoming small landowners.  Of course,
since the land in NZ was already occupied by Maori, this required that they
be separated from the land too.)

>Indeed, Hobs has the white man's bias of "modernizing the
>backward" and celebrating the "liberating dimensions of imperialism": mission
>of civilization by the colonizers.

>From what I have seen Hobsbawn write on Ireland, he struck me as pretty
awful on the national question - at least when it challenged his own ruling
class.  However, I think we should be careful about talking of "the white
man's bias of 'modernizing the backward' and celebrating the 'liberating
dimensions of imperialism': mission
of civilization by the colonizers."

If you look at the position taken by radical nationalist forces in Asia,
the MidEast, Africa, Latin America, thorughout this century, you will find
they were almost all modernisers.  Many of them were modernisers within
capitalism.  They wanted the same formal democratic rights and
modernisation which existed in Europe.  You will find very few radical
nationalists of colour who did not want to 'modernise the backward'.  This
desire to modernise was strongly resisted by the European powers.
Imperialism cannot create a unitary, modern world.

Philip Ferguson

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