Reading Rosa: By Ivan Drury

Some tips for first-timers about Rosa Luxemburg’s Accumulation of Capital

In two weeks the Alliance Against Displacement reading and discussion group will tackle some pages from Rosa Luxemburg’s Anti-Critique, where she defends the arguments advanced in her great tome, The Accumulation of Capital.

World War One broke out not long after the publication of her Accumulation, and one of the core ideas she advances there – that imperialism was “the political expression of the accumulation of capital in its competitive struggle for what remains of the non-capitalist environment” – became the basis for a tremendous split in the European left. A communist Pole in Germany, her resolute opposition to the first great inter-imperialist war landed her in prison for most of the war. While locked up, members of her own Party (who supported Germany in the war) launched attacks on her conclusions in the Accumulation. The selections from the book we’re reading in our discussion series are from her defense of her Accumulation – hence anti-critique. This summary of her masterpiece provides a more succinct version of her earlier book.

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Rosa Luxemburg speaking at a socialist rally during the war

We are reading this work a century later because it helps answer the main question of this reading series: what is the relationship between colonial (or imperial) dispossession and capitalist displacement? And more specifically, why do we discuss dispossession as an attribute of capitalism?

But reading Rosa comes with challenges about language. She was writing for working-class people a hundred years ago, but some of the language and concepts that were familiar to working people then are not familiar to us now. These include words like commodity, capital, primitive accumulation, circulation of capital, bourgeoisie, and proletariat. But rather than a dictionary of these terms, this article will outline the main problem Rosa saw with Marx’s explanation of how capitalism functioned, how she tried to resolve it, and why this idea is useful for us in our struggles against capitalism and imperialism (and its manifestations as colonialism) today.

Two ingrained forces of capitalist production

Capitalist production is driven by two ingrained forces: the first is the profit motive. The profit motive makes capitalists compete with each other. This is because two capitalists who invest in the production and sale of a product (or, in Marx’s terms, “a commodity”) will not sell that product for the same amount. Whichever capitalist finds ways to reduce the costs of producing their commodity without reducing their profit will sell cheaper. Supposing that their competitor has access to the same resources they do, a capitalist can only reduce production costs by squeezing their workers – by cutting wages, or by speeding up production. This squeeze does not only make the product cheaper, it increases the “suplus value” a capitalist extracts from their process of production. “Surplus value” is the amount of value a worker produces above the amount they are paid in wages.

The other driving force is that capitalist production is a “continuous process,” not a one-off event. There is a difference between “money,” which makes  trade possible and facilitates consumer society, and “capital,” which is money invested into the process of capitalist production. Capital is used to rent land for shops and factories to operate on, to buy the raw materials needed to make different products, to buy machinery to speed up manufacturing, and to buy labour power from workers. Capital can be invested within this process for a fairly long time – it doesn’t emerge as wealth again for the capitalist until products are made, sold, and profit is gained once again. Rosa Luxemburg explains that the continuous element of capitalist production also requires growth because the “social requirements” of production, with populations, are always growing.

Like the profit motive, the demands of the continuous process of capitalist production come down to squeezing and exploiting workers. To make the circle of capitalist production happen again and again requires reproduction. The energies of workers must be reproduced every day, and new workers must be reproduced every generation. Reproduction takes place in society and in our bodies.

Marx’s explanation of the “dizzying circle” of capitalist production

Karl Marx’s Kapital, Luxemburg says, explains the process of capitalist production and reproduction. He demonstrates that capitalism turns all of society into a servant of production. The bodies of wage workers become machines in service of that production, given only the nourishment that will allow them to go back to work the next day. These workers who earn wages for their labour are disciplined by the routine of work. Their daily life rhythms of sleeping, waking, and breathing are disciplined to the time schedule of production.

Unwaged workers, in what Marx calls the “hidden abode” of capitalist production, work behind the scenes to feed, clothe, clean, and emotionally and sexually satisfy waged workers. This point is developed more thoroughly by Sylvia Federici in her book Caliban and the Witch, which we’re also reading in our discussion series. Federici shows that in this hidden abode of production are women enslaved by husbands. In early expansionist periods of capitalist development, communities of women who refused that enslavement were hunted down and killed in “witch” trials. Later, those who refused to be part of the bourgeois family were bashed as gays, lesbians, and gender non-conforming people.

Also hidden in everyday processes of capitalist production is the historical process of the accumulation (or, theft) of wealth through the enslavement of millions of African people, and the murder and dispossession of Indigenous peoples. Only through this mass theft could capitalists accumulate the wealth they needed to kickstart industrial society and found the system of wage labour. Federici adds that the bloody founding of the industrial working class also accumulated race, gender, sexual, and national differences amongst this class. The lesson of accumulation and social reproduction is that capitalist production is not limited to the factory. It affects and transforms all parts of society. All of this is in, though not all elaborated within, the pages of Marx’s Kapital.

Imperialism: the answer to capitalist stagnation

This process is exhausting and overwhelming, Luxemburg says. And its complexity masks a problem: this process describes the operation of a single capitalist within the complex system of capitalist production overall. This single capitalist can grow their economy (as Premier Christy Clark says), but this “growth” is actually just them chipping away at the capital of other capitalists. If things worked this way, capitalists would always be exchanging money between themselves. That is, the overall amount of wealth (or capital) would always remain the same, just split differently between different players. A capitalism that is limited to musical chairs of wealth is a mask over what economists call “stagnation.” And stagnation rather than growth leads to collapse and economic depression.

What Kapital does not explain, Luxemburg argues, is the expansion of the “dizzying circle” of capitalist production. Marx’s circles of capitalist production don’t explain the growth of the total amount of capital in all of society. And yet total capital does grow. We can tell that capital has grown when we look at the amounts of wealth amassed at different moments in time since capitalism began.

The major insight of Rosa Luxemburg is this: she argues that the whole of capitalist production grows and sets up new and more powerful global circuits by stealing resources from outside of the compass of capitalist production. Accumulation, she says, is the war in Afghanistan and the colonial adventure in Haiti. It is tar sands mining that wrenches oil from sands previously unclaimed by Canadian colonialism. It is the “revitalization” of buildings lost from capitalist circulation to warehouse the poor. Accumulation is not only the origin of capitalist production, as Marx said it was. Accumulation is ongoing. Accumulation is imperialism, gentrification, and a regular feature of capitalist production. It is the secret of the growth of capitalist production as a whole.

For more, let’s turn to Rosa herself.

(Download the Conditions of Struggle reading package with the excerpt from Rosa Luxemburg’s Anti-Critique here)

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