"success will never come with the master-key"

Louis Proyect lnp3 at SPAMpanix.com
Sun Nov 26 10:37:49 MST 2000

>From Karl Marx's letter to the Editorial Board of Otechestvennye Zapiski
(Notes of the Fatherland):

The chapter on primitive accumulation claims no more than to trace the path
by which, in Western Europe, the capitalist economic order emerged from the
womb of the feudal economic order. It therefore presents the historical
movement which, by divorcing the producers from their means of production,
converted the former into wage-labourers (proletarians in the modern sense
of the word) and the owners of the latter into capitalists. In this history
‘all revolutions are epoch-making that serve as a lever for the advance of
the emergent capitalist class, above all those which, by stripping great
masses of people of their traditional means of production and existence,
suddenly hurl them on to the labour-market. But the basis of this whole
development is the expropriation of the agricultural producers. Only in
England has it so far been accomplished in a radical manner . . . . but all
the countries of Western Europe are following the same course’ etc.
(Capital, French edition, p. 315). At the end of the chapter, the
historical tendency of production is said to consist in the fact that it
‘begets its own negation with the inexorability presiding over the
metamorphoses of nature’; that it has itself created the elements of a new
economic order, giving the greatest impetus both to the productive forces
of social labour and to the all-round development of each individual
producer; that capitalist property, effectively already resting upon a
collective mode of production, cannot but be transformed into social
property. I furnish no proof at this point, for the good reason that this
statement merely summarizes in brief the long expositions given previously
in the chapters on capitalist production.

Now, what application to Russia could my critic make of this historical
sketch? Only this: if Russia is tending to become a capitalist nation like
the nations of Western Europe — and in the last few years she has been at
great pains to achieve this — she will not succeed without first
transforming a large part of her peasants into proletarians; subsequently,
once brought into the fold of the capitalist regime, she will pass under
its pitiless laws like other profane peoples. That is all. But it is too
little for my critic. He absolutely insists on transforming my historical
sketch of the genesis of capitalism in Western Europe into a historico-
philosophical theory of the general course fatally imposed on all peoples,
whatever the historical circumstances in which they find themselves placed,
in order to arrive ultimately at this economic formation which assures the
greatest expansion of the productive forces of social labour, as well as
the most complete development of man. But I beg his pardon. That is to do
me both too much honour and too much discredit. Let us take an example.

At various points in Capital I allude to the fate that befell the plebeians
of ancient Rome. They were originally free peasants, each tilling his own
plot on his own behalf. In the course of Roman history they were
expropriated. The same movement that divorced them from their means of
production and subsistence involved the formation not only of large landed
property but also of big money capitals. Thus one fine morning there were,
on the one side, free men stripped of everything but their labour-power,
and on the other, ready to exploit their labour, owners of all the acquired
wealth. What happened? The Roman proletarians became, not wage-labourers,
but an idle mob more abject than those who used to be called ‘poor whites’
in the southern United States; and what opened up alongside them was not a
capitalist but a slave mode of production. Thus events of striking
similarity, taking place in different historical contexts, led to totally
disparate results. By studying each of these developments separately, and
then comparing them, one may easily discover the key to this phenomenon.
But success will never come with the master-key of a general
historico-philosophical theory, whose supreme virtue consists in being

Louis Proyect
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