Primitive Accumulation and Imperialism

By Magdoff, Harry | Monthly Review, October 2013 | Go to article overview

Primitive Accumulation and Imperialism


Magdoff, Harry, Monthly Review


To mark the centenary this year of the birth of Harry Magdoff, bom August 21,1913, Monthly Review is publishing the following talk found in his papers, and originally entitled "Primitive Accumulation." The precise date and occasion of the talk is unknown. However, an inspection of the contents suggests that it was probably delivered not long after the publication of Arghiri Emmanuel's article "White-Settler Colonialism and the Myth of Investment Imperialism," in the M ay-June 1972 issue of New Left Review, and before the publication of Magdoffs long article, "Colonialism: European Expansion Since 1/63," which appeared in the fifteenth edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica late in 1974. It appears that the audience was aware in advance of the two topics to be discussed: Marx's treatment of "So-Called Primitive Accumulation" in volume 1 of Capital and Emmanuel's article on "White-Settler Colonialism."

The extant manuscript was missing one page and consisted of a mixture of text and extensive footnotes, containing substantial supplementary material not necessarily included in the talk itself. In order to make it more readable I edited the original manuscript, incorporating much of the material from the footnotes into the text, and making minimal changes in the text. Editorial endnotes have been added, while the footnotes are Magdoff's own. The title was changed slightly to better reflect the contents of the piece.

The argument itself is separated into two parts, the first of which addresses issues around Marx's use of the concept of "Primitive Accumulation " (more correctly Primary Accumulation). Magdoff uses this both as a means of discussing Marx's historicaldeductive method and also as a means of explaining the complexity of the notion of Primitive Accumulation itself-a concept that Marx had taken over from the earlier classical political economists. In discussing the concept Magdoff addresses three of its aspects: (1) the creation of a capital fund for investment; (2) formation of a working class or proletariat; and (3) the making of an internal market. All of this is related in his discussion to the development of capitalism as a world system and the question of imperialism down to the present day. A central point for Magdoff was the depth of Marx's historical scholarship, which could not be simply sidestepped by the adoption of pseudo-theoretical formulae.

The second part of the argument focuses on the article by Emmanuel referred to above. Monthly Review Press had published a translation of Emmanuel's Unequal Exchange: A Study of the Imperialism of Trade two years before. But Magdoff is concerned here directly only with Emmanuel's New Left Review article. The dispute has to do with the latter's attempt to present imperialism in terms of trade relations and an atavistic white-settler colonialism (often in conflict with European imperialism), while sharply downplaying the role of investment imperialism, particularly foreign direct investment by multinational corporations. In M agdoff's view, the error here was the failure to develop the comprehensive historical approach that characterized Lenin's study of imperialism, specifically his work Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism (which Emmanuel discounted "as only an empirical analysis"), and the reliance instead on more limited formulae.' In Emmanuel's case this took the form of an argument that saw imperialism primarily in terms of unequal trade relations, while specifically denying the role of monopoly capital and international investment-therefore departing from Lenin's notion of late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century imperialism centered upon the "monopoly stage of capitalism. " In this respect, Magdoff considered Emmanuel 's approach a step back from the classical work of Marx, Lenin, and Luxemburg.

Worse still, from Magdoff's perspective, was the reduction by Emmanuel and others of Lenin's complex, multifaceted theory of imperialism to that of John Hobson in his Imperialism: A Study (1902), and thus to a crude underconsumptionism focusing mechanically on the export of surplus capital as the sole basis of imperialism. …

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