Graphic Witness: Hugo Gellert
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Hugo Gellert: Karl Marx' 'Capital' in Lithographs

Origin of the industrial capitalist [1/5]

PRIMARY ACCUMULATION: Origin of the industrial capitalist

The origin of the industrial capitalist was a less gradual affair than that of the farmer. Doubtless many small guild masters, and yet more independent petty artisans or even wage workers, developed into small capitalists, and later, by gradually extending the scale of the exploitation of wage labor, and thus extending accumulation, some of them developed into full-blown capitalists. In the infancy of capitalist production matters often took much the same course as during the early growth of the medieval town system, when the question which of the runaway serfs should become masters and which should become servants was to a great extent decided by the earlier or later date of their flight. The snail's pace of this method was by no means accordant with the commercial requirements of the new world market created by the great geographical discoveries at the end of the fifteenth century. But the Middle Ages had handed down two distinct forms of capital, ripening under extremely different socio-economic auspices, and which, prior to the era when the capitalist method of production became established, ranked as "capital" without qualification. I refer to usurers' capital and merchants' capital.

"At present all the wealth of society goes first into the possession of the capitalist. . . . He pays the landowner his rent, the laborer his wages, the tax and the tithe gatherer their claims, and keeps a large, indeed the largest, and a continually augmenting share of the annual produce of labor for himself.

The capitalist may now be said to be the first owner of all the wealth of the community, though no law has conferred on him the right to this property. . . . This change has been effected by the taking of interest on capital, . . . and it is not a little curious that all the lawgivers of Europe endeavor to prevent this by statutes, viz., statutes against usury. . . .The power of the capitalist over all the wealth of the country is a complete change in the right of property, and by what law, or series of laws, was it effected?"

The writer would have done well to remember that revolutions are not made by laws.

In the country districts, the feudal structure of society--and in the towns, the guild organization--hindered the transformation of money capital into industrial capital,--the transformation of the money capital that had been formed by means of usury and commerce. These hindrances vanished when feudal society was dissolved, when the bands of retainers were broken up, when the countryfolk were expropriated and in part driven off the land. The new manufactures were inaugurated in seaports, or else in parts of the countryside where the old urban system did not prevail, and where the guilds (which were a part of that system) had no say. In England, therefore, there was a fierce struggle between the corporate towns and these new industrial nurseries.

The discoveries of gold and silver in America; the extirpation of the natives, in some instances, their enslavement or in others, their entombment in the mines; the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies; the transformation of Africa into a precinct for the supply of the negroes who were the raw material of the slave trade--these were the incidents that characterized the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production. These were the idyllic processes that formed the chief factors of primary accumulation. Hard upon their heels came the commercial war between the European nations, fought over the whole surface of the globe. It was begun when the Netherlands broke away from Spain; it assumed gigantic proportions in England's anti-Jacobin war; and it found a recent* sequel in the opium wars against China. [*The first Opium War Britain fought was 1839-1842; the second, 1856-60].

The various factors of primary accumulation may be classified more or less chronologically, and with special reference to certain countries, such as Spain, Portugal, Holland, France, and England. In the last named, at the end of the seventeenth century, they were systematically assembled in the colonial system, the national debt system, the modern system of taxation, and the modern system of production. To some extent they rested upon brute force, as, for instance, in the colonial system. One and all, they relied upon the power of the State, upon the concentrated and organized force of society, in order to stimulate the transformation of feudal production into capitalist production, and in order to shorten the period of transition.

Force is the midwife of every old society pregnant with a new one. It is itself an economic power.