Accumulation of Capital
First published 1913
Rosa Luxemburg’s Accumulation of Capital was timely when it was published in 1913 and reads like a contemporary book today. Concluding her analysis of capitalist accumulation and imperialism, she forecast ‘a string of political and social disasters … punctuated by periodical economic catastrophes’. This diagnosis was more accurate than Karl Kautsky’s elaborations about great power cooperation (published, ironically, in September 1914, a month into the first world war) and had more predictive power than Lenin’s 1917 pamphlet on imperialism.
Today’s readers will find striking parallels between Luxemburg’s analyses of early 20th-century industrial development in Russia and modern China. Her discussions of capital’s ‘Struggle against the Peasant Economy’, the role of ‘International Loans’, and ‘Militarism as a Province of Accumulation’ (chapters 29, 30 and 32) read as if she is writing about present-day multinationals, international financial institutions and military-industrial complexes.
In the first part of Accumulation of Capital, Luxemburg developed an abstract model of reproduction that, in her view, showed that neither investment nor consumer demand suffice to buy all commodities produced in any period and thus realise the surplus value needed to keep the accumulation process going. Additional demand, she concluded, must come from non-capitalist social strata – peasants and craft producers who, so far, lived outside the circuits of capital accumulation, but become part of them once they start purchasing commodities from capitalist producers.
Once all non-capitalist strata are absorbed into the process of capitalist production and reproduction, the external source of demand and capitalist accumulation dries up; the capitalist economy ends up in stagnation. Intensified class struggle, competition among firms and imperialist rivalries are the result of this economic process, because each capitalist has to accumulate to stay in business and, by doing so, outcompete other capitalists. This, in a nutshell, is Luxemburg’s model of accumulation. But it is nothing more than a model; the crucial question is how it applies to reality.
This is why the neglected second part of Accumulation of Capital is worth revisiting. Here, Luxemburg discussed historical debates between economists who denied that capitalist accumulation would ever suffer from a lack of effective demand and theoreticians of insufficient demand. The former painted the prospects of capitalist accumulation in bright colours and considered political intervention as an impediment to economic development. The latter saw capitalist economies plagued by insufficient demand and suggested all kinds of interventions to fix this problem.
Luxemburg didn’t make an argument about a linear descent from capitalist accumulation to stagnation, let alone the breakdown of capitalism. Instead, she showed how political conflicts recurrently opened up new spaces for accumulation, and how these phases of capitalist expansion mitigated class conflict – until the respective spaces for expansion were exhausted, capitalism got stuck in crisis and class struggle intensified again.
This ‘non-deterministic’ interpretation allows us to understand the long post-war boom and its supersession by a long decline, ending with today’s crises that bear so much resemblance to early 20th-century capitalism. Two world wars, revolutions, depression and the expansion of Soviet communism led to a fundamental reorientation of capital accumulation. The industrialisation of western countries and concomitant colonisation of the global South were replaced by, however incomplete, industrialisation projects in the post-colonial South and the colonisation of working-class households in the west.
Southern developmental states and western welfare states invaded so many non-capitalist territories and social strata that even investment in the already industrialised centres of the capitalist world-system reached unprecedented levels. Naturally, the combined investment booms in the centres and peripheries created an overabundance of production capacities.
In the 1970s, the question of finding sufficient demand was high on the business agenda. At that time, dreams of mass consumption weren’t fulfilled in all corners of the world – in fact, not even for everyone in the capitalist centres. So creating additional consumer demand would have been an economic possibility. Recurrent crises in the 1970s didn’t mark capitalism’s final frontier, at least not if one leaves ecological limits to accumulation out of the equation. Yet the subjugation of new social strata under the imperatives of capital accumulation had also produced new, potentially anti-systemic, movements of women, immigrant workers and ethnic minorities in the west and an upsurge of anti-imperialist struggles in the South.
Under these circumstances increasing numbers of capitalists found it preferable to slow down their investments, even if this meant lower profits, and use the combined forces of unemployment, fiscal and foreign debt crises to roll back workers, welfare and developmental states.
The irony of this capital offensive was that welfare and developmental states had created considerable public spheres during the boom that were partially disconnected from the accumulation process and could now be penetrated by capital. Thus, the privatisation of these public spheres opened new space for capitalist expansion. The collapse of Soviet communism and China’s world-market turn helped even further in this regard. Austerity policies in the aftermath of the recession are the latest effort to restart accumulation by dispossession.
Yet anti-austerity protests and strikes in the west and food riots or outright revolutions in the South indicate that ‘revolt against the rule of capital’ has become a necessity again, just as it was when Luxemburg wrote Accumulation of Capital.
Hilary Wainwright argues against reclaiming populism for the left and for a leadership that supports people’s capacity for self-government
It may seem as though these apps are working for us, but we are also working for the apps, writes Kurt Iveson
It's over 100 years ago that domestic workers began to organise to demand the same rights as other workers. Yet with LSE cleaners on strike this week, historian Laura Schwartz asks: how much has really changed?
Omar Barghouti asks whether Donald Trump, in his recent break with America’s long-standing support for the two-state solution, has unwittingly revived the debate about the plausibility, indeed the necessity, of a single, democratic state in historic Palestine?
Glenn Greenwald was interviewed by Amandla Thomas-Johnson over the phone from Brazil. Here is what he had to say on the War on Terror, Trump, and the 'special relationship'
In 1972 David Widgery wrote about the bitter intensity of love in capitalism
Andrew Dolan on how the left must match the anti-establishment rhetoric of the right, but with a different politics
Emma Snaith speaks with directors Emer Mary Morris and Nina Scott about the power of theatre to encourage community resistance to estate demolitions.
In the first of a series of interviews with migrants' rights and racial justice activists from the US, Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Peter Pedemonti, co-founder and director of the New Sanctuary Movement in Philadelphia
Photos from The World Transformed festival in Liverpool, by David Walters
Changing our attitude to Climate Change
Paul Allen of the Centre for Alternative Technology spells out what we need to do to break through the inaction over climate change
Introducing Trump’s Inner Circle
Donald Trump’s key allies are as alarming as the man himself
Secrets and spies of Scotland Yard
A new Espionage Act threatens whistleblowers and journalists, writes Sarah Kavanagh
#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part II: a discussion of power and privilege
In the second article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the silencing of black women and the flaws in safe spaces
How progressive is the ‘progressive alliance’?
We need an anti-austerity alliance, not a vaguely progressive alliance, argues Michael Calderbank
The YPJ: Fighting Isis on the frontline
Rahila Gupta talks to Kimmie Taylor about life on the frontline in Rojava
Joint statement on George Osborne’s appointment to the Evening Standard
'We have come together to denounce this brazen conflict of interest and to champion the growing need for independent, truthful and representative media'
Paul O’Connell and Michael Calderbank consider the conditions that led to the Brexit vote, and how the left in Britain should respond
On the right side of history: an interview with Mijente
Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Reyna Wences, co-founder of Mijente, a radical Latinx and Chincanx organising network
Disrupting the City of London Corporation elections
The City of London Corporation is one of the most secretive and least understood institutions in the world, writes Luke Walter
#AndABlackWomanAtThat: a discussion of power and privilege
In the first article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the oppression of her early life and how we must fight it, even in our own movement
Corbyn understands the needs of our communities
Ian Hodson reflects on the Copeland by-election and explains why Corbyn has the full support of The Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 15 March
On 15 March, we’ll be holding the first of Red Pepper’s Race Section open editorial meetings.
Social Workers Without Borders
Jenny Nelson speaks to Lauren Wroe about a group combining activism and social work with refugees
Growing up married
Laura Nicholson interviews Dr Eylem Atakav about her new film, Growing Up Married, which tells the stories of Turkey’s child brides
The Migrant Connections Festival: solidarity needs meaningful relationships
On March 4 & 5 Bethnal Green will host a migrant-led festival fostering community and solidarity for people of all backgrounds, writes Sohail Jannesari
Reclaiming Holloway Homes
The government is closing old, inner-city jails. Rebecca Roberts looks at what happens next
Intensification of state violence in the Kurdish provinces of Turkey
Oppression increases in the run up to Turkey’s constitutional referendum, writes Mehmet Ugur from Academics for Peace
Pass the domestic violence bill
Emma Snaith reports on the significance of the new anti-domestic violence bill
Report from the second Citizen’s Assembly of Podemos
Sol Trumbo Vila says the mandate from the Podemos Assembly is to go forwards in unity and with humility
Protect our public lands
Last summer Indigenous people travelled thousands of miles around the USA to tell their stories and build a movement. Julie Maldonado reports
From the frontlines
Red Pepper’s new race editor, Ashish Ghadiali, introduces a new space for black and minority progressive voices
How can we make the left sexy?
Jenny Nelson reports on a session at The World Transformed
In pictures: designing for change
Sana Iqbal, the designer behind the identity of The World Transformed festival and the accompanying cover of Red Pepper, talks about the importance of good design
Angry about the #MuslimBan? Here are 5 things to do
As well as protesting against Trump we have a lot of work to get on with here in the UK. Here's a list started by Platform
Who owns our land?
Guy Shrubsole gives some tips for finding out
Don’t delay – ditch coal
Take action this month with the Coal Action Network. By Anne Harris
Utopia: Work less play more
A shorter working week would benefit everyone, writes Madeleine Ellis-Petersen
Mum’s Colombian mine protest comes to London
Anne Harris reports on one woman’s fight against a multinational coal giant
Bike courier Maggie Dewhurst takes on the gig economy… and wins
We spoke to Mags about why she’s ‘biting the hand that feeds her’