The New Palgrave Dictionary of Economics

2018 Edition
| Editors: Macmillan Publishers Ltd

Primitive Capitalist Accumulation

  • Ross Thomson
Reference work entry


The primitive (or original) accumulation of capital is a concept developed in Karl Marx’s Capital and Grundrisse to designate that process which generates the preconditions of the ongoing accumulation of capital. The character of these preconditions is derived from the concept of capital, understood to be the process whereby money is invested in the purchase of means of production and labour-power (the worker’s capacity to labour) which in turn produce commodities embodying surplus-value. Capital therefore presupposes money amassed to be accumulated, labour-power as the property of labourers separated from ownership of the means of production, and markets in which commodities can be sold. Primitive accumulation therefore must involve more than Adam Smith’s notion that ‘The accumulation of stock must, in the nature of things, be previous to the division of labour’ (1776, p. 260), whether the stock consists of money, means of production or means of subsistence. For this notion ignores the need for a proletariat, the importance of which is shown by settler colonies which have wealth but, insofar as the availability of land precludes the emergence of a market for labour-power, no capital.

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© Macmillan Publishers Ltd. 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Ross Thomson
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