Late Marx and the Conception of ‘Accumulation of Capital’

Please cite the paper as:
Paul Zarembka, (2016), Late Marx and the Conception of ‘Accumulation of Capital’, World Economics Association (WEA) Conferences, No. 1 2016, Capital Accumulation, Production and Employment:, 15th May to 15th July 2016


Marxist political economy very often refers to the “accumulation of capital” as if it were a transparent concept, one easily understood from Marx’s work. The problem is that, as a concept, it is not clear what accumulation of capital is to mean. In fact, capital is so often referred as means of production, following the classical economists, that Marxist political economists have not seemed to have broken from Marx’s predecessors when mentioning the accumulation of capital.

Marx’s multiple-volume work was not called “Capital” in order to refer to means of production. Class is the fundamental issue. Therefore, his accumulation of capital must be understood with class in mind, not means of production, not constant capital.

Marx had assumed in Capital that he was offering an understanding of a world that was fully capitalist. This continued to be the context for his discussions of accumulation of capital that took place in Volume 1 and in Volume 2. And these discussions suggest, in major part, that more wage-laborers would be involved, in addition to more constant capital. However, when we read carefully his discussions, contradictions emerge. These are discussed in the first two sections of this paper.

Rosa Luxemburg clearly argued that expansion of wage-labor employment was fundamentally involved in the accumulation of capital. In the next two sections, we elaborate her main points and then point to responses by her critics.

Resulting from the preceding discussion, value as a concept may be called into question, first because an argument has been offered that the very concept of value falls without full realization of commodities produced. Even if we do not accept this argument, we still need to consider how value works in a theoretical environment in which non-capitalist environments are being penetrated by capitalism.

The article then briefly concludes that Marxist political economy may need some re-examination, as a result of the totality of the problems opened up by careful consideration of this one concept: the accumulation of capital.

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Recent comments



  • Dominic Tweedie says:

    I am very happy to see this discussion opened.

    For a long time I have taken “accumulation” to be the same as “primitive accumulation”, insofar as both are concerned with the assembly of the prerequisites for capitalist relations of production to exist, and to function. The only difference is that primitive accumulation takes place within a generally pre-capitalist world, whereas further accumulation takes place within a world already “bathed in the light of capitalism”.

    Certainly it is not the accumulation of money.

    In South Africa there is a phrase that is used – “accumulation path” – that is incompatible with the idea of accumulation as money-growth, and also incompatible with the idea of it as the expansion of the prerequisites for production. “Accumulation path” is a jargon in search of a meaning. It is a hindrance to understanding. It’s voodoo, actually.

    Without making an exhaustive list, the prerequisites for capitalism to exist and function include labour and a capitalist and a market (i.e. demand), and means of communication and transport. Money can be made out of nothing, if necessary. Given the other prerequisites and a good prospect of profit (increase), it can be found.

    Let’s not forget that Marx keeps saying that he is in search of the “secret of the self-increase of capital”; and that capital is not a thing, but a relationship.

  • Paul Zarembka says:

    I have an article in ‘The Commoner’, cited as 2002a in this submission, that deals with what I perceive as Marx’s clear understanding as to the meaning of ‘primitive accumulation’. In it, I argue that he reserved the concept for the transition to capitalism and should be retained exclusively for that historical period.

    As such, accumulation proper absolutely does include and needs to take serious account of current forms of separation from means of production, including the violence therein.

    My deeper concern is the lose usage of ‘accumulation of capital’ — simplified to ‘accumulation’ — within much of Marxist political economy. For me, it very often reads as a obligatory phrase needing to be included, without much hint as to its meaning.

    I hadn’t been exposed before to the phrase ‘accumulation path’. Thanks.

  • Mohinder Kumar says:

    Marx uses the concept in Capital Vol.1 as “the so-called primitive accumulation of capital” i.e. as a “method” of capital accumulation in the early / underdeveloped stages of capitalism. Yes, capital is not a structure or a thing or asset; it’s a relation. The “so-called” primitive method, he found, is very well used in later developed stages of capitalism as well i.e. in the form of such methods as power, bureaucracy, clout, encroachment, loot, grabbing and what not. The only thing is in advanced/ developed stages, such so-called primitive age methods take a more sophisticated form as cited above. To Marx, the essence of capitalism is appropriation and misappropriation which are same things.

  • Dominic Tweedie says:

    With respect, Mohinder, capital cannot be loot and all those things. Capital is a cyclical series, that requires regeneration and simultaneous growth. It consists of the capitalist; the corresponding proletariat; a market; and means of circulation which include money and transport and all of the technical software and hardware of trade which were historically created to serve the global slave economy; and at last the relations between all of these, which make them altogether to become “capital” (sometimes “a capital”, or “capitals”).

    Money as a hoard is only present transitionally, as slack in the system. Otherwise, hoarding is the province of the miser who refuses, unlike the capitalist, to throw money into circulation.

    The capitalist strives to control and posses the entire cycle, usually with only limited success.

    Primitive accumulation is the first assembly of all of these, before the state is possessed by the capitalist part of the bourgeoisie. Subsequent reassembly is not different in kind, but different in circumstances.

    Neither in primitive accumulation, nor in subsequent accumulation, is it ever a matter of grabbing, and what not. The deal whereby the proletarian sells labour-power and gives up all claim to the product of labour, is a bargain, and not a swindle. Sure, the capitalist takes the hide, and the worker gets a hiding. But to represent this as simple robbery is to miss the point.

  • Mohinder Kumar says:

    Dear Domonic, when “capital” was yet to be born i.e. in the pre-capitalist economic formations (though systems were impregnated for long period, awaiting the birth of capital), invasion, war, attacks, conquest etc. were the rule, which is still the case today. The genius of Marx, which was yet to grasp in full (according to him) the secret of capital’s automatic self growth by value begetting value may wonder today, had he been alive, that despite capital attaining immense power, its expansion still depends upon creating violence post-WW-II. It’s strange. Developed capitalist powers in the “center” may have imagined with gullibility that post-WW-II, they shall sit and rest while capital shall remote control what you said “global slave economy” in the periphery. But this did not happen or as you said happens “with limited success”. So, even today capitalist expansion cannot take place automatically, peacefully but needs the SPV of violence within/among countries.

    “Loot” is not literally that kind of loot as it is associated with decoits and bandits. It’s not even “misappropriation” or embezellment. It’s plain, simple, calm and quiet appropriation –of surplus value. But ultimately, this quiet process transforms into a series of violence. It could be through “market”. What was US war in the Middle East and West Asia? What was colonialism earlier? What was US/USSR invasion/ interference in Afghanistan? It’s war over resources. Yesterday it was for oil, tomorrow it could be for water. How capitalism came about in Spain in 17th C? Or in Britain or in France? What was “Enclosure Movement” in England? What shall we call this process of Politicians-Bureaucracy-Criminals nexus virtually encroaching from State land (entire hill sides) in Jammu Division of Jammu & Kasmir State in India? What shall we call Business-Corporate-Bureaucracy-Politician Nexus in one country after another, if it is not scam, swindle, corruption, threats, intimidation, killings and violence? Sophisticated outer forms conceal behind themselves (not always) absurd violent methods. Marx drew our attention in Capital-1 towards these processes and methods.

    What does “the-so-called” word pre-fixed to “primitive accumulation” in capital volume-1 signify? Marx clearly intends to say that even in advanced developed stages of capitalism, “the-so-called primitive” methods of accumulation of capital are used with impunity. So, he means to say, sophisticated advanced developed forms of capitalism are NO different from the “so-called primitive” stages in so far as “method” and means adopted to advancement/ expansion/ accumulation of capital(ism) are concerned. That’s why I used the word “loot” as economic history of nations developing from the earliest stages of capitalism reveals. They started with crass invasions, attacks, encroachments (of territories & wealth) and adopted more sophisticated “production processes” (as “manufacturing” replacing small producers’ and factory systems) as with industrialization, and thought that post-WW-II a degree of calmness and peace shall reign with automation of capitalist accumulation. But this dream was misplaced. Capital gives No rest to its owner/ possessor/ controller.

    Adam Smith earlier used word “primary accumulation of capital” which with Marx became “the so-called primitive” method of accumulation. Though both Adam smith and Marx intended to emphasize on stages of development of capital’s growth, Marx’s objective was to focus more on the manner, mechanism and method(s) by which capitalist expansion takes place. He was clear that throughout the process (up to the point he studied it) and in future also, capital CANNOT beget itself without creating violence. In India, e.g. it promotes communal violence through rightist forces of RSS. In Germany, it was Fascist forces as SPV of capitalism. Since Germany did not colonize any parts of the world, Hitler hallucinated that his amassed wealth (and other resources) must be used to create his sort of empire whose center would be Berlin. So, capital shall always drive men and nations towards “primitive” states of mind, howsoever “developed” materially we may become. Recall Marx’s concept of “phantasmagoria” of capital or spectral/ ghostly aspect of existence of capital i.e. creating madness. We should not forget need for understanding capital and its accumulation from Freud’s psychoanalytical perspective. “Accumulation for the heck of accumulation”!

  • Dominic Tweedie says:

    I think we have a problem, in the best sense. We have problematised the matter!

  • Arturo Hermann says:

    Marx clearly identified the following causal chain: profit, surplus value, surplus labour, unpaid labour in excess of “necessary labour” in the factory, rate of exploitation, alienation, concentration of capital.
    We can note that in labour market is quite unrealistic to assume perfect competition: namely, the same (or similar) starting point for a single isolated worker and for a big company. It is even too obvious that there are enormous differences in power and opportunities for the big company and the isolated worker and that, therefore, a person can be, out of necessity, induced to accept a very unfair contract. In this
    cases, then, competition is far from being “perfect”, as assumed in the classic hypotheses.
    As observed by Commons (in particular, 1913 and 1924), in a firm of, say, 10,000 workers, the management, in dealing with a single worker, has a power corresponding to the asset of all its workers, whereas an isolated worker can rely only on his/her contractual power. Hence, in normal circumstances the difference in power between the company and the worker would amount to 10,000 to 1,
    which implies that the worker has a fraction of only 1/10,000 of the power of the company! It is easy to see how distant is this situation from the hypothesis of balanced bargaining power of classic and neoclassic economics.
    Of course, Marx assumed the hypothesis of perfect competition à la Ricardo for good reasons, in order to explain his theory of exploitation. But, by “freeing Marx from Ricardo”, we can explain exploitation in a much more realistic framework of imperfect competition and market power.

  • Gerry Toner says:

    I am not sure Marx paid any attention to perfect competition and indeed refuted Ricardo’s concept of value. Marx’s underlying objective is to explain the movement of history. His Critique of Political Economy is precisely to dispute the technical basis of ‘economics’ as an explanatory system. As Paul, Mohinder and Dominic stress capital is a social relation and has a specific form with capitalism- wage relation and private property. If there is to be ‘justice’ it will include the end of the segregation of ‘economics’ from other forms of thought. The change we seek is in social relations not simply in analysis and analytical concepts. This is much more fundamental challenge that would require the end of the wage relation and the nonsense that is property. what we are discussing is after all ‘political economy’ that implies social change beyond the thought chamber.

    • capital2016 says:

      Your comment clearly reminds the Conference proposal of looking for researches into how to change social relations toward real democracy and justice. I think that the Conference participants will appreciate if you could make a commentary on the action proposed in the paper by Deniz Kellecioglu: “Elite appropriation of economics – the case for (r)evolutionary political economy”.

  • Dominic Tweedie says:

    Hic Rhodus, hic salta!

  • Arturo Hermann says:

    Hi, by the way, I addressed these aspects in a paper presented in a previous WEA Conference,
    I report here a paragraph:

    1.9 Historical Materialism and Psychoanalysis

    In this perspective, capitalistic society cannot be considered as a completely “exogenous factor” for social alienation. In fact, as this society has not arisen apart from the intended action of the actors involved, there comes up the issue of understanding the cultural and psychological foundations of capitalistic society in their relations with its material basis.
    In this regard, psychoanalysis has provided relevant contributions, which are still today largely overlooked.
    In this sense, many psychoanalytic studies underscore that in many cases social relations are based, at various levels, on a fight for
    power having its focus in — at real and/or symbolic level — “possessing institutions”. But, since an institution constitutes an organized whole of collective action controlling, liberating, and expanding individual action, this implies that “possessing” an institution relates to an unconscious fantasy of omnipotent control over all the relations occurring therein.
    This means that, for instance, ownership in its predatory and acquisitive meaning embodies — as shown in particular by Marx and Veblen — not a person-to-goods but a person-to-person relation. According to this interpretation, the reason why, under these predatory and neurotic habits, institutions are considered like things to be owned does not rest in the circumstance that institutions are appraised as things in any meaning of the word, but in the fact that “the owner” of the institutions, in trying “to control and dominate” the social relations taking place therein, disregards all the needs and opportunities that may potentially arise from the people involved in these (frustrating and
    neurotic) relations.
    For instance, in discussing Marx’s theory, Freud stresses the necessity of considering not only the influence of the economic organization of society on individual psychology, but also the role of psychological factors in shaping the “materialistic aspects” of society.
    As he notes,

    “The communists believe that they have found the path to deliverance from our evils. According to them, man is wholly good and is well-disposed to his neighbour; but the institution of private property has corrupted his nature. The ownership of private wealth gives the individual power, and with it the temptation to ill-treat his neighbour; while the man who is excluded from possession is bound to rebel in hostility against his oppressor. If private property were abolished, all wealth held in common, and everyone allowed to share in the enjoyment of it, ill-will and hostility would disappear among men. Since everyone’s need would be satisfied, no one would have any reason to regard another as an enemy; all would willingly undertake the work that was necessary. I have no concern with any
    economic criticisms of the communist system; I cannot inquire into whether the abolition of private property is expedient or advantageous [Here, there is a footnote in which Freud stresses his solidarity, also in relation to his own experience, with the situations of economic deprivation]. But I am able to recognize that the psychological premises on which the system is based are an
    untenable illusion. In abolishing private property we deprive the human love of aggression of one of its instruments, certainly a strong one, though certainly not the strongest; but we have in no way altered the differences in power and
    influence which are misused by aggressiveness, nor have we altered anything in its nature. Aggressiveness was not created by property. It reigned almost without limit in primitive times, when property was still very scanty.” (S.Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents, The Standard Edition, New York, Norton, 1961: 70-71).

    Despite these cautious remarks, when discussing the difficulty of lessening human aggressiveness, he observes that, “At this point the ethics based on religion introduces its promises of a better afterlife. But so long as virtue is not rewarded here on earth, ethics will, I fancy, preach in vain. I too think it quite certain that a real change in the relations of human beings to possessions would be of more help in this direction than any ethical commands; but the recognition of this fact among socialists has been obscured and made useless for practical purposes by a fresh idealistic misconception of human nature.”, (S.Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents, The Standard Edition, New York, Norton, 1961: 109).

    And then, he clearly points to a closer collaboration between Marxism and psychoanalysis,

    “The strength of Marxism clearly lies, not in its view of history or the prophecies of the future that are based on it, but in its sagacious indication of the decisive influence which the economic circumstances of men have upon their intellectual, ethical and artistic attitudes. A number of connections and implications were thus uncovered, which had previously been almost totally overlooked. But it cannot be
    assumed that economic motives are the only ones that determine the behaviour of human beings in society. The undoubted fact that different individuals, races and nations behave differently under the same economic conditions is alone enough to show that economic motives are not the sole dominating factor. It is altogether incomprehensible how psychological factors can be overlooked where what is in
    question are the reactions of living human beings; for not only were these reactions concerned in establishing the economic conditions, but even under the domination of those conditions men can only bring their original impulses into play—their self-preservative instinct, their aggressiveness, their need to be loved, their drive towards obtaining pleasure and avoiding unpleasure. In an earlier
    enquiry I also pointed out the important claims made by the super-ego, which represents tradition and the ideals of the past and will for a time resist the incentives of a new economic situation.”, (Freud, New Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis, The Standard Edition, New York, Norton, 1989: 220-221, original edition 1933).

    • Paul Zarembka says:

      Very interesting, Arturo. But what do we with it if we don’t accept such as ideas as Lorenz’s about native human “aggressiveness” (if I remember him correctly)?

  • Arturo Hermann says:

    Yes, Lorenz’s theory is utterly inadequate for explaining human behaviour, and the same can be said for Freud’s theory of death instinct. However, Freud’s theory is more complex than that, as he clearly recognizes the role of neurotic conflicts in reinforcing aggressiveness.
    Today, the theory of death instincts is dismissed by many psychoanalysts, who pinpoint the following intertwined factors in determining aggressive behaviour: (i) a reaction to emotional frustration, in particular at the early stage of development, as in the case of real or perceived lack of love and solicitude. (ii) Social conditioning, as when aggressive behaviour is ingrained in the institutional and cultural fabric and becomes a model to imitate in order to gain social approval. For instance, a boy knows that only if he becomes a brave warrior he would win a high social status and a beautiful girl. This however, is not tantamount to embracing a social determinism, because also individuals’ orientations and conflicts play a central role.
    In these cases, psychoanalysis stresses, a better understanding of the neurotic root of these conflicts can help overcome them, both at the individual and collective level.

  • Dr Harish Yadav says:

    Now a days The capitalistic ideology is changing its shape in the form of monopoly on different natural resources.

    • Stephen I. Ternyik says:

      Dear Dr. Yadav! The land monopoly on natural resources and location of real estate is the economic root of all forms of unearned income or unearned value capture; the fiat money monopoly of private banks and the public tax monopoly on labor and entrepreneurship reinforce this ancient feudal status quo, that is rentier capitalist ideology or neo-feudalism, i.e. the growing quantity of economic rent in capitalist societies is the root cause of distributive injustice and decline of productivity. It is this ‘exact’ pseudo-accounting of assets into liquidity(and vice versa) that is responsible for the current systemic crisis (and the coming greatest depression) of the financial command economy; afterwards, the territorial monopoly of the different natural resources will be divided between the sharks, the wolves and the vultures.

  • Lyn Eynon says:

    Marx’s assumption “that capitalist production is everywhere established and has possessed itself of every branch of industry” hides an essential aspect of capital accumulation in that the penetration of non-capitalist sectors is a continuous process, not just in its geographic extension but also within advanced capitalist countries.

    First, the activities of everyday life are increasingly transformed into wage labour through a prolonged process. If we think about eating, then we can see how historically agriculture has been transformed from a mixture of subsistence farming and local markets to globalised capitalism or how producing a meal at home now relies both on products packaged and purchased by corporations and on cooking equipment and utensils produced by capitalist industry. But this is not a completed process, as we can see from the growth in packaged meals for home consumption or in the hospitality sector. A recent development is the evolution of ‘take-away’ meals into ‘bring here’ meals with internet orders being supplied to a home address by teams on bikes or motor cycles, transforming the previously unpaid personal effort of collection into wage labour.

    Second, there is the politically driven process of privatising industries and services, including those impacting directly on personal life. Care of the elderly is an example, having moved initially from the home to public services, these have now largely been privatised with unstable debt-laden private equity playing a large role in the UK. What was once a private family matter has now become a source of capital accumulation based on wage labour.

    Third, there is the opening up of new sectors for capital accumulation, such as the ‘monetisation’ of personal data gleaned from the internet, or of personal genetic material. The spread of the finance sector also creates new opportunities for accumulation, even if not directly by exploiting wage labour, as in higher education based on student loans or the move from occupational pensions as defined benefit ‘deferred wages’ to a form of investment.

    What I would conclude from this is that the accumulation of capital, as a social relation rather than just quantitatively, is far from being a completed process, even in those countries in which it is furthest advanced. Indeed, its penetration into new areas seems to be essential for capitalist growth.

    • capital2016 says:

      Zarembka, you are right, a political economy discussion requires concepts clearly defined. In this Conference the Technical Background does not use Marxian but heterodox concepts and refers to capital accumulation as (idle) financial capital accumulation, money that has been not applied in production; as said Lyn, ‘monetisation’ became a kind of “investment”. The focus of the Conference is how to change social relations (one may add “of production” here) toward real democracy and justice. I think that the Conference participants would appreciate if you could please make a commentary on the action proposed in the paper by Deniz Kellecioglu: “Elite appropriation of economics – the case for (r)evolutionary political economy”.

  • Paul Zarembka says:

    Lyn, I agree completely. Your observations also imply the importance of delimiting “primitive accumulation” to the original rise of capitalism that Marx discussed in the last part of Capital, Volume 1.

    I am trying to encourage political economy to be clear about its concepts, not use “accumulation of capital” vaguely and meaninglessly.

    I am also saying that, for Marx, “capital” does not mean more means of production as it does in mainstream economics, but rather must be related to expansion of a social relation of production.