Basic principles of Marxism – Part Five: The bloody origins of capitalism

FRFI 90  October 1989

bloody origins

'The plains of North America and Russia are our corn fields; Chicago and Odessa our granaries; Canada and the Baltic are our timber forests; Australasia contains our sheep farms, and in Argentina and on the western prairies of North America are our herds of oxen; Peru sends her silver, and the gold of South Africa and Australia flows to London; the Hindus and the Chinese grow tea for us, and our coffee, sugar and spice plantations are in all the Indies. Spain and France are our vineyards and the Mediterranean our fruit garden; and our cotton grounds, which for long have occupied the Southern United States, are now being extended everywhere in the warm regions of the earth.' W S Jevons, economist of rising British capital writing in The Coal Question (1865)

'While the cotton industry introduced child-slavery into England, in the United States it gave the impulse for the transformation of the earlier more or less patriarchal slavery into a system of commercial exploitation. In fact the veiled slavery of the wage labourers in Europe needed the unqualified slavery of the New World as its pedestal'. Karl Marx, Capital.


In his analysis of the origins of capitalism, Marx challenges the elitist and racist assumptions of the bourgeoisie's ideologues.

'...The accumulation of capital presupposes surplus value; surplus value presupposes capitalist production; capitalist production presupposes the availability of considerable masses of capital and labour power in the hands of commodity production . . . '

From whence, then, comes capital and the mass of labour power - from primitive accumulation:

'an accumulation which is not the result of the capitalist mode of production but its point of departure'.

Marx mocked the role given primitive accumulation in capitalist economic theory: it played 'the same role in political economy as original sin does in theology'. One set of people, the European bourgeoisie, were saved by virtue of their economy, and became owners who employed labour power. The other set, other races and the working class, damned by ignorance and idleness, became the workers who sell their labour power. In a free market the industrious are bound to succeed in any trade and so it was, according to the bourgeois ideologues, that the European, and, in particular, British capitalists won fair and square.

Marx showed that capital, far from emerging out of fair trade, was wrenched into being by violence:

'The historical movement which changes the producers into wage-labourers appears, on the one hand, as their emancipation from serfdom and the fetters of the guilds, and it is this aspect of the movement that alone exists for our bourgeois historians. But, on the other hand, these newly freed men became sellers of themselves only after they had been robbed of all their own means of production . . . And this history, the history of their expropriation, is written in the annals of mankind in letters of fire and blood.'

Such was the birth of capitalism in Europe, but overseas:

'The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the indigenous population of that continent, the beginnings of the conquest and plunder of India, and the conversion of Africa into a preserve for the commercial hunting of blackskins, are all things which characterise the dawn of the era of capitalist production. These idyllic proceedings are the chief moments of primitive accumulation'. Karl Marx, Capital.


'Gold is a wonderful thing! Its owner is master of all he desires. Gold can even enable souls to enter paradise'.

Marx cited Christopher Columbus' letter from Jamaica dated 1503. Right from the start Europe's 'enterprise' in the Americas was a matter of capital accumulation. Gold and silver flowed across the Atlantic. In Europe the circulation of metal coins multiplied up to tenfold during the sixteenth century. Commodity production in-creased, and the means to dispose of vast amounts of wage labour grew.

Perhaps three million American Indians were enslaved by the Spanish in the first half of the sixteenth century, four hundred thousand in Nicaragua alone. Ninety per cent of central Mexico's thirty million people were slaughtered or perished from European diseases. Whole peoples were exterminated for gold and silver. Replacements were ordered from Africa. As many as one hundred million Africans were captured and traded by Europeans in three hundred years. As late as 1800 one in five died on the Atlantic crossing. Captain John Hawkins was rewarded by Elizabeth I with a ship, the Jesus, and a knighthood for his initiative in launching England into slavery. His coat-of-arms bore a representation of an African in chains.

Plantations supplemented mining profits. Barbados was England's first sugar colony, commencing production around 1640. In fifty years fifty thousand slaves were transported to this tiny island. Between 1650-1807 approximately three quarters of a million Africans were brought to Jamaica as slaves. By the end of the eighteenth century the Caribbean was transferring capital equivalent to ten per cent of Britain's entire income back to the 'mother country'. It was precisely the expansion of the world market in sugar and cotton that Marx saw ever worsening the conditions in which the slaves were held:

'But in proportion as the export of cotton became of vital interest to those (southern USA) states, the overworking of the Negro, and sometimes the consumption of his life in seven years of labour, became a factor in a calculated and calculating system. It was no longer a question of obtaining from him a certain quantity of useful products, but rather of the production of surplus value itself'. (Capital).

That surplus value fuelled the European bourgeoisie and the Industrial Revolution. James Watt, inventor of the steam engine 1763, expressed his gratitude to the slave owners who funded his experiments. Barclays Bank and Lloyds have their origins in the slave trade. Shipping, insurance, banking, industry and agriculture were all stimulated by slavery. Bristol, Liverpool, Nantes, Dieppe, Bordeaux, Marseille, Seville, Boston and New York all grew up on and flourished from the proceeds of slavery. Africa was depopulated, its metal and cloth industries destroyed, trade routes abandoned and people scarred with war and under-development which is felt down to today. Such was the legacy of the 'European civilisation-mongers' as Engels called them.


In the opening passages of the Communist Manifesto 1848, Marx and Engels exhilarated in the revolutionising powers of the new bourgeoisie: 'All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face, with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.'

As capitalism raced across the globe so:

'the cheap prices of its commodities are the heavy artillery with which it batters down all Chinese walls ... It compels all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois method of production . . . '

Marx and Engels hated the hypocrisy of the bourgeoisie and the violent injustices of their system, but they saw it as a higher form of production and precondition for the agent of its undoing, the emancipation of humankind, the proletariat. By its very revolutionising of the means of production capitalism outlived its need for plantation slavery, and in so doing strengthened the position of the US working class. The plantation proved too costly and inflexible for capitalism's new production methods.

By the 1830s slave grown cotton amounted to half US exports. Much of it came to Britain and left for India as cloth. In 1850 India absorbed an eighth of Britain's total exports and a quarter of its cloth. The British textile industry employed an eighth of the workforce and earned a twelfth of the national income. Of the British bourgeoisie's interest in India, Marx observed: 'the aristocracy wanted to conquer it, the moneyocracy to plunder it, and the millocracy to undersell it.' The 'millocracy', industrialists, sought to have cotton production transferred from the southern (US) states to India, and transfer the Atlantic trade to wheat from the newly settled prairies of the (US) Northwest. The campaign for the abolition of the Corn Laws was to this end. By 1849 all of India was conquered. With the abolition of the slave trade, 1833, India also provided a source of cheap, mobile labour, some of which was transferred to Ceylon's plantations.

When the US Civil War broke out in 1861 between the southern slave plantocracy and the northern states it was little wonder that the British bourgeoisie divided: in 1838 50 per cent of the bonds of the Cotton states were held in London. Marx and Engels supported the northern states,

'In the United States of America, every independent workers' movement was paralysed as long as slavery disfigured part of the republic. Labour in a white skin cannot emancipate itself where it is branded in a black skin. However, a new life immediately arose from the death of slavery. The first fruit of the American Civil War was the eight hours agitation, which ran from the Atlantic to the Pacific, from New England to California, with the seven-league boots of the locomotive'. (Capital)

The Civil War forced up the price of cotton and shortages occurred. Lancashire textile workers were thrown out of work. Public health surveys remarked upon how improved the workers looked now they could get some fresh air and light, and how edifying it was to see Lancashire girls finding the time to sew. Government employed doctors were despatched to estimate the minimum nutrition necessary to ward off starvation. Egyptian cotton exports rose tenfold during the War. India's were soon to follow.

From 1856-58 the British capitalists had fought the Second Opium War against China. Britain and India had a trade deficit with China. In order to pay for imports of tea, silk and silver the British East India Company promoted opium cultivation in India for export to China. When the Chinese resisted, the Economist of the day argued that the export of opium was a right of free trade. Opium revenues, it argued, were necessary to make good the trade imbalance with Australia (gold) and the USA (cotton). Writing in the New York Herald Tribune in 1853 Marx predicted

'it may seem a very strange, and a very paradoxical assertion that the next uprising of the people of Europe, and their next movement for republican freedom and economy of government, may depend more probably on what is now passing in the Celestial Empire (China) - the very opposite of Europe - than on any other political cause that now exists - more even than on the menaces of Russia and the consequent likelihood of a general European war'.

Marx had traced the global interconnectedness of capital, and the blow he predicted in China reverberated around the world to Europe and the USA. His analysis was a forerunner of Lenin's concept of imperialism and the need to support the oppressed nation's rights to self-determination.

Trevor Rayne


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