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

Historical tendency of capitalist accumulation

PRIMARY ACCUMULATION: historical tendency of capitalist accumulation

What does the primary accumulation of capital, its historical origin, amount to? In so far as it is not the direct transformation of slaves and serfs into wage earners (a mere change of form), it means only the expropriation of the immediate producers, that is to say, the dissolution of private property based upon the labor of its owner.

Private property, as contrasted with social or collective property, exists only where the means of labor and the external conditions of labor belong to private individuals. But the character of private property differs according as the private individuals are workers or non-workers. The innumerable shades which, at first sight, seem to be exhibited by private property, are merely reflections of the intermediate stages which lie between these two extremes.

The worker's private ownership of the means of production is the basis of petty industry; and petty industry is an indispensable condition for the development of social production and of the free individuality of the worker. Of course, this petty method of production is also found within the slaveholding system, within the system of serfdom, and within other dependent relationships. But it flourishes, manifests its full energy, assumes its adequate and classical form, only where the worker is the free private owner of the means of labor which he uses; only when the peasant owns the land he tills, and when the handicraftsman owns the tools which he handles as a virtuoso.

This mode of production presupposes a parcelling-out of the soil, a scattered ownership of the instruments of production. Just as it excludes the concentration of these means into a few hands, so does it exclude cooperation, the division of labor within the process of production, the social mastery and regulation of the forces of nature, the free development of the social energies of production. . . .

The desire to perpetuate the existence of such limits would be, as Pecqueur has rightly said: "a decree for the perpetuation of universal mediocrity." At a certain level of development this method of production brings into the world material means which will effect its own destruction. Thenceforward there stir within the womb of society forces and passions which feel this method of production to be a fetter. It must be destroyed, it is destroyed. Its destruction, the transformation of the individual and scattered means of production into socially concentrated means of production, the transformation of the pygmy property of the many into the titan property of the few, the expropriation of the great masses of the people from the land, from the means of subsistence, and from the instruments of labor--this terrible and grievous expropriation of the populace--comprises the prelude to the history of capital. . . .

As soon as this process of transformation has sufficiently disintegrated the old society, has decomposed it through and through; as soon as the workers have been metamorphosed into proletarians, and their working conditions into capital; as soon as the capitalist method of production can stand upon its own feet--then the further socialization of labor and the further transformation of the land and of the other means of production into socially utilized (that is to say, communal) means of production, which implies the further expropriation of private owners, takes on a new form. What has now to be expropriated, is no longer the laborer working on his own account, but the capitalist who exploits many laborers.

This expropriation is brought about by the operation of immanent laws of capitalist production, by the centralization of capital. One capitalist lays a number of his fellow capitalists low. Hand-in-hand with such centralization, concomitantly with the expropriation of many capitalists by a few, the cooperative form of the labor process develops to an ever-increasing degree; therewith we find a growing tendency towards the purposive application of science to the improvement of technique; the land is more methodically cultivated; the instruments of labor tend to assume forms which are utilizable only by combined effort; the means of production are economized through being turned to account only by joint (by social) labor. All the peoples of the world are enmeshed in the net of the world market, and therefore the capitalist regime tends more and more to assume an international character.

While there is thus a progressive diminution in the number of the capitalist magnates (who usurp and monopolize all the advantages of this transformative process), there occurs a corresponding increase in the mass of poverty, oppression, enslavement, degeneration, and exploitation; but at the same time there is a steady intensification of the wrath of the working class--a class which grows ever more numerous, and is disciplined, unified, and organized by the very mechanism of the capitalist method of production. . . .