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Capitalism's "Original Sin"

Updated on January 14, 2010

Primitive Accumulation

The perpetuation of capitalism, as Karl Marx describes it, requires the constant exploitation of the proletariat by the bourgeoisie.

Since profit and wages are inversely related (an observation made by Adam Smith and later agreed upon by David Ricardo), the capitalist must push down wages to an artificially low point (reinforced, he points out, by British Parliament), while the wage laborer is “doubly free” – as Marx sarcastically names it – in the sense that he is free to sell his own labor (which alienates him from the products he creates) and is “free” from owning the means of production.

That said, this constant exploitation of the wage laborer is not capitalism’s worst offense. Rather, it is the original acquisition of the capital that Marx calls the “original sin” of capitalism, analogous of course to Christianity’s original sin, which leads to the Fall of Man, plunging humanity into inescapable sin. Because of this, it is not just the way in which capitalism functions to which Marx objects; he objects to its very origins, and it is from this starting point that capitalism’s founding principle of private property begins to take its grotesque shape.

What is Capital?

It is essential to note that capital, in Marx’s terms, is not simply money. Rather, it is defined as money or machines with which the capitalist can create more money through investment.

“We have seen,” he writes, “how money is transformed into capital; how surplus-value is made through capital, and how more capital is made from surplus-value” (87).

This is what he calls the circuit of capital, whereby the capitalist turns money into more money by first converting it to capital, which he invests. He then points out, however, that this understanding of the system is incomplete, as it assumes that surplus-value already exists at the beginning of the cycle. After all, how can the capitalist invest his money without the surplus-value that is inherently present within capital? Even the man with extensive resources cannot afford the capital to invest unless his wealth exceeds the value that is needed to perpetuate its existence. In order for this to be possible, then, there must have been some form of primitive accumulation that led to the surplus-value, which could then be invested in the circuit of capital.

Where Did It Come From?

Adam Smith called this the “previous accumulation” – presumably because it was assumed to occur prior to the system about which he developed his political economic theory – but spent very little time expanding on the idea. Marx, however, sees primitive accumulation as a subject that is absolutely vital to examine because the nature of its bloody history is embedded into the capitalist system that it create.

“In actual history, it is a notorious fact that conquest, enslavement, robbery, murder, in short, force, play the greatest part” in the original creation of capital (874). It is due only to this force that surplus-value (which should have been given to the laborer but was instead extorted from him) is added to the wealth, thereby turning it into capital, which can go on to create more wealth for the capitalist while the wage-laborer has, essentially, nothing but his own skin to sell.

Capitalism emerges in “those moments when great masses of men are suddenly and forcibly torn from their means of subsistence, and hurled onto the labour-market as free, unprotected and rightless proletarians” (876). This begins with the seizure of communal farmland for private agricultural production at the end of the fifteenth century, as Marx outlines in Chapter 27.

In Chapter 28, he describes how it comes to full force in Western Europe throughout the sixteenth century when ruling classes showed no mercy towards the workers who had been forced off the land they had previously tilled for subsistence and even enforced legislation against them to keep wages low.

Eventually, that legislation was reversed and became, in effect, a minimum wage – the laws requiring lower wages being, at that point, an “absurd anomaly as soon as the capitalist began to regulate his factory by his own private legislation” (902) because competition between wage-laborers would naturally keep wages low even without legislation – but the damage of the wealth and power transfers was already done. It is this immoral and forceful reassignment of ownership of the means of production that has such profound implications for the operation of the rest of the capitalist system.

Stolen Property

Thus, not only has the capitalist robbed the proletarian of his right to the products he creates, but he has also robbed him of any property he had formerly owned or at least been allowed to occupy. 

“These newly freed men became sellers of themselves only after they had been robbed of all their own means of production, and all the guarantees of existence afforded by the old feudal arrangements” (875). 

With this framing of the process by which capitalism emerged, the reason for Marx’s outrage at the system becomes immediately clear:  primitive accumulation is the only means through which capitalism can come to fruition, and yet it requires the blind robbery of an entire class of people, leaving them without any reasonable option to amass wealth within the system. 

This, again, is Marx’s idea of the “double freedom” of workers:  “they neither form part of the means of production themselves, as would be the case with slaves, serfs, etc., nor do they own the means of production, as would be the case with self-employed peasant proprietors” (874).  The post-feudalism worker has literally no option other than to sell his sweat at a lower price than he is worth so that the capitalist may make a profit.


With the means of production in the hands of the bourgeoisie, then, and the proletariat left only with his own manpower to sell, capitalism begins to realize its true form. The most despicable aspect of the system, as Marx describes it, is the distribution of ownership of the private property.

“Private property… exists only where the means of labour and the external conditions of labour belong to private individuals. But according to whether these private individuals are workers or non-workers, private property has a different character” (927).

Marx’s issue with capitalism, therefore, is not so much the ownership of private property; it is who owns the property. Only when the worker is the sole owner of the means of production is the system just, and in capitalism this is not the case.

Capitalism originates in exploitation, and so it must utilize exploitation in order to continue. The capitalist cannot squeeze additional value out of his wealth unless he forcibly takes labor, resources, or both from someone else. And without that surplus-value, he has no capital with which to invest. And so, in order to obtain “capital,” the bourgeoisie must essentially steal it from the proletariat. This is the original sin of capitalism.

These doubly free workers, who are truly not free at all, no longer have any of the protections afforded to them by the feudal system. Instead, they are faced with a simple choice: work for a subsistence wage or die.

The capitalist, in forcibly acquiring surplus-value for himself, has stolen it from the wage-laborer. Not only has he transferred surplus wealth to himself, but he has also stolen the freedom of the worker by forcing him into a system in which he has no recourse.

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Capitalism, too, has no recourse. It can never become a “just” system because its very foundation is in force and bloodshed. Even if, somehow, the wage-laborer could be liberated or properly compensated for his time, the system would still not be redeemed because of primitive accumulation.

The inhumane ripping of surplus-value from the hands of the helpless proletarian was the beginning of capitalism (this, again, is the beginning of the circuit of capital, which leads to all investment in the capitalist model); without the depraved origins of primitive accumulation, capitalism cannot exist.

And so, thanks to its “original sin,” political economy can clearly see that the economic system of capitalism is doomed to immorality forever, much in the way that theology sees mankind to be fated after his original sin in the Garden of Eden.

Das Kapital

All of the above information is derived from my reading of Marx's Das Kapital and based on a political economy course I took in Fall 2009. The views described are simply my interpretations of Marx, not my own ideas about capitalism. Additionally, I'm not an expert; I just wanted to decant some of the ideas in the very dense volumes of Marx's work.  Criticism and correction are welcome!  Here's the version I used:

Marx, Karl. “Capital Volume I.” New York: Penguin, 1990.


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    • Duane Townsend profile image

      Duane Townsend 

      19 months ago from Detroit

      This is a fantastic read. Well done Helena.

      My views are that capitalism is ultimately an exploitative system, an evolution from feudalism.

      Capitalism is not humanity's best idea. It's simply a vehicle that took us from one place to another.

      Like Marx, I don't know what the next phase looks like, but I know it will be collective ownership based.

    • Keith Engel profile image

      Keith Engel 

      6 years ago from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

      LOL, look back, did I state that we were in a capitalistic society, we are in what is called a mixed economy, trade is restricted through government and regulation and thus isn't completely free due to this, there is some free trading going on, but it is severely limited as stated through the government control. I stated that Capitalism is what has made civilization possible, and it should be noted difference between civilization and society, of being civil and of being social.

      Ayn Rand explores these issues in capitalism the unknown ideal. The first chapter is what is capitalism, yet in some cases in this matter it seems she begins to philosophize midstream as well. With this piece, and I am not sure how long it will be now, will show this process of problem solving ability and the use of trade, and just how it eventually what took place is that people finally coined the term capitalism for what man has been doing once he started trading and stop using force as the means getting what he wanted, hence society and civilization was able to start.

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      Then in my final volley for tonight I would say that you must agree that the system we are in is not Capitalism, since it is not a true free-enterprise system. It is more a neo-feudal system controlled by large corporations and cartels masquerading as families. It started as a free enterprise system but has evolved into something else.

      I believe I make my point on this with references here:

      And with that I bid you goodnight and thank-you for a very pleasurable exchange. I shall be following your posts.

    • Keith Engel profile image

      Keith Engel 

      6 years ago from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

      Free Enterprise and Capitalism are one in the same. I think we actually agree, but the point of contention has been that the "definition" of Capitalism has become so muddied that people are unable to take it back, cut through the BS. As I pointed out, people begin philosophizing mid stream. Why do you think this piece ended up turning out to be 7 pages currently and not finished. The entire piece is actually showing how capitalism got started, when it got started, and how through its system of problem solving, actually got us to where we are today.

      That is the purpose of the piece, to provide the true definition of capitalism, which is the free enterprise system.

      The reason I might eventually try maybe to this as a book is because this has been done with so many other concepts and definitions. Education and Reproduction are two that come to immediate mind.

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      Free Enterprise, or Free Trade if you will is free and enterprising.

      There was a day when you could walk out and be a lawyer just by passing the bar, no other certifications needed. You could be a healer because you could heal people and they came to you. No certifications needed.

      When the tools available to you are controlled by laws and regulations or tied up in neo-guilds, it becomes an issue of having no tools, no means of production.

      Such a lack of tools creates lack of free trade and free enterprise. Your choices narrow down to submitting to the "clubbing." I think if you can draw a distinction between Capitalism and Free Enterprise, we are on the same page.

      One gives you the means and/or tools of production and trade. The other wants to USE YOU AS THE TOOL or means of production.

    • Keith Engel profile image

      Keith Engel 

      6 years ago from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

      Once more you are focusing on the people problem, not the tool. Here:

      For instance, today many people wish to blame guns for violence and murder and think that stricter rules and laws should be in place for guns. This is a naïve concept and way of dealing with a problem that has been a problem since Cain slew Abel. The problem isn’t with the tool, it is with man dealing with man in barbaric means. If a man wants to really kill another man, nothing is going to prevent him from doing so as if you remove on tool another can be found. You take a gun away, a man will just use a bow, take the bow away, a man will just use a knife, take the knife away, a man will use a stone, take the stone away, a man will just use his bare hands.

      In just examining even the great atrocity of war, it is the aspect of not dealing with another civilization or society through the means of production and trade, but instead of wishing to steal the means of production and trade generally that the other nation possesses. Even the instances when this isn’t the case and war is fought for ideological believes this is the same principle in that instead of the free trade and exchange of ideas and accepting that everybody is different, it is the use of barbaric force to force the ideas of one onto another or suffer the penalty of death to try to make everybody the same, an impossible reality to achieve.

      This then brings us to the many false labels that are then labeled at capitalism. That capitalism allows for exploitation, fraud, greed, and unfair advantages. Does the tool of capitalism and trade exploit people, or is it people who exploit others? Does fraud occur due to the tool of trade, or is it people whom do fraudulent acts so that they don’t need to produce and steal the means of trade? Does the tool of capitalism create greed, or is it envious people desiring more that creates greed? Is it the tool of trade that creates unfair advantages, or is it the lazy individual who creates their own disadvantage.

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      Now there we will have to disagree.

      I think Helenathegreat's very well written article makes the point that Capitalism, regardless of when it started, is precisely about getting from your fellow man by "clubbing" him.

      You can do this covertly, by deflating the currency you pay him with or overtly, by chaining him to a factory floor.

      On covert "clubbing" by deflating currency I have written two articles: and

      Most of us experience daily the overt "clubbing" that comes from the work world. No comment necessary on that.

    • Keith Engel profile image

      Keith Engel 

      6 years ago from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

      This then brings us to the two ways in which man can deal with one another and the concepts created to differentiate from the two forms. Man can either deal with another man honestly through trade and mutual understanding of trade, or man can deal with another man through the use of force to acquire some unearned gain. The first method is the very basis for the definition of civilization, the other is the very basis for the definition and concept of barbarisms. Civilization didn’t come about because men suddenly decided to start living together, civilization came about when men started to stop treating one another like wild animals and dealt with them through the means of trade.

      I follow the concept of Rand's Razor:

      "A "razor" is a principle that slashes off a whole category of false and/or useless ideas. Rand's Razor is addressed to anyone who enters the field of philosophy. It states, name your premises. Identify starting points, including concepts you take to be irreducible and then establish that these are objective axioms. Put negatively: do not begin philosophizing midstream. Do not begin with some derivative concept or issue, while ignoring it roots, how much such issue interests you. Philosophical knowledge, actually all knowledge really(Mine), is hierarchical."

      Unfortunately, most people begin philosophizing mid stream. Or to put it another way, they sit in the ivory tower instead of on top of it to peer out and back. I call this the long view instead of the short view. Using the long view and cutting through all the BS so to speak. The point I am making is that Capitalism got started the first minute somebody decided to trade with another man instead of club him. All the other issues that get brought up are not issues with capitalism, they are issues with barbarianism and clubbing him.

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      If you are referring to plundering and robbing as a way of life even in the hunter-gather culture, I agree. Even then, there were certain groups that found it easier to steal and/or provide "protection" in exchange for free labor in the form of food or goods. There were also imperialist groups, who, when they ran out of the best forageable land, drove another group off to homelessness.

      That doesn't make the empire-slave mentality of Capitalism a good thing. Just a step in the evolution of the race as a whole. As a race, based on what I've inferred from biologist Bruce Lipton, we are at the dinosaur stage--it's all about defending and keeping the turf.

      As our race evolves toward a mammalian stage, we may start to cooperate as one unified organism. (Just like the cells of our bodies learned to) I have an article on this at:

      You are definitely dealing with an intriguing topic. I know I am interested in counter-points like that, so I think 7+ pages might make a self-published e-pamphlet, just to get it out there?

      I don't know about their integrity, but I have heard of clickbank as the place where ebooks roll and you do make money from them.

    • Keith Engel profile image

      Keith Engel 

      6 years ago from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

      Actually, capitalism started out well before anybody realizes, even before your slave era business. Simply put, without capitalism, civilization wouldn't exist. I was actually working on this today, it currently sits at 7 single space pages in word, and it isn't completely done. This leaves me with a Dilemma as far as if I am going to be able to really publish it on here. I have some other lengthy articles and topics I want to cover, I think I might just write these out and see how long it will be and perhaps try to get a non fiction book published.

      Furthermore, the main point also, is that everybody since time inmemoriam has been trying to place blame on the tool, the system, instead of realizing, like a weapon, a tool is just a tool. People always have and always will be the problem with anything.

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      Unfortunately, not many. It's a very good point.

    • Keith Engel profile image

      Keith Engel 

      6 years ago from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

      True, but how many people actually realize that?

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      It's sad that Marx's writings are associated with systems like Communism or Socialism. Neither of these were even close to coming into existence at the time.

      Marx's Das Kapital is a handbook on Capitalism that everyone needs to read. Especially and ironically, for those who want to be successful in a capitalist economy.

      And for sure, capitalism started with the empire-slave era of humanity, when labor was extracted from slaves for free and accumulated as capital.

      Free-enterprise is a better system and can be started anywhere at anytime. Capitalism started out as a form of free enterprise but has dramatically evolved.

      All business and commerce are about solving problems. So I don't know how solving problems is suggested by the previous commentator to be unique to capitalism.

      I have a post on this subject and certainly invite commentary on my views.

    • Keith Engel profile image

      Keith Engel 

      6 years ago from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

      I suppose I had better write my hub explaining what Capitalism really is since its definition has gotten muddy and slandered against so much that has led to this false narrative. Yet, simply put, Capitalism has and always be about one simple matter and fact, solving problems.

    • Evan G Rogers profile image

      Evan G Rogers 

      8 years ago from Dublin, Ohio

      Hey there, good article. I must admit that I'm very much against socialism and communism and I disagree with Marx vehemently. But that doesn't mean we can't have a civil conversation! Please do not take anything I write as an insult!

      My views are libertarian, and thus, from the get-go, I will agree with you (and Marx, i suppose...) that stealing wealth is evil and should not be condoned. Indeed, this is ONE way to increase capital, but it is not the only way. Marx makes the mistake of calling this the significant factor of generating original capital - there are SO many other ways to do it, and he doesn't really show how a caveman thousands of years ago would have generated capital by killing his neighbor.

      Marx makes a terrible mistake when he claims that aggression is how capital is first accumulated. This (generalized) statement is flawed for the simple reason that the aggressors need to generate capital in order to invade a foreign adversary. If Peter wants to kill Paul (assuming the two are pretty equal fighters), Peter has to first generate capital to do so: find a giant rock, or sharpen a knife, or build a rope, or something of that nature.

      Capital can be accumulated in ways that are very different from aggression - you can, instead of going to a party, save your wealth and use it to buy something productive; someone could realize they could catch more fish by using some sort of easy-to-create tool; a good year in farming can lead to surpluses for the next year so that the farmer can use his labor in a different way. All of these examples 1- don't involve aggression, and 2- are very basic ways of generating "original capital".

      In regards to things like wages decreasing - this is a good thing (if there weren't inflation). In a land where people use real money, like gold, prices naturally tend to decrease as capital increases: the production of things becomes easier through technology and so prices go down. As prices of the majority of things in the market decrease (sometimes referred to as deflation - but be careful, deflation can also mean, more accurately, a decrease in the money supply) then wages naturally will go down as well. They likely won't go down too fast, so it really isn't a problem.

      Anyway, thanks for your time, and I hope you'll check out some of my stuff!

    • helenathegreat profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from Manhattan

      You're right, commissioner, that the Soviet interpretation of communism certainly did not work (though they had us fooled for a while). A problem I have with many critiques of capitalism is that they do not offer much of an alternative -- and while it's all well and good to criticize the current system, there's only so much you can say negatively about something if you don't have a better alternative in mind.

      My father told me many years ago that we would all be speaking Mandarin by the time I'm an adult. If the U.S. keeps going to China with our hands out like we're asking for allowance, then we'll certainly continue down that path.

    • commisioner profile image


      8 years ago from florida

      i am not as read up on the subject as some of you are. but i am a practical man and an observant one. i have seen pictures of the stores in the former soviet union before the fall and it did not matter how much or little money you had, there was nothing to buy. the only "communist" nation ever showing promise is today's china. they have still the same political leaders as in the past, but have adopted a capitalist system of industry and finance. the people are finally being rewarded for their labors. and they are now the richest nation on earth. we on the other hand (the u.s.) seem to be falling into an abyss with the socialist agenda forthcoming. now the chinese own most of our debt and could foreclose on our entire country if we keep going down this road. they know how it works. we are making ourselves look foolish by pushing towards a system that doesn't work and giving up on one that has worked every time it has been implemented. does anyone here speak maderine???

    • Artin2010 profile image


      9 years ago from Northwestern Florida, Gulfcoast

      What A M Werner said is soooo true Anarchy for those in power!!

    • A M Werner profile image

      Allen Werner 

      9 years ago from West Allis

      Actually, I believe that is what all governments are, whether by knife, election or coup - just an endless cycle of revolutions. In the end each new administration reflects the old Who song - The new boss is the same as the old boss. Peace.

    • helenathegreat profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago from Manhattan

      I agree that the various systematic ideas that Marx puts forward do not work, but I don't necessarily think that he expected them to. Other than in the Communist Manifesto, he often talks about how a new order needs to come to light, and no one will know exactly how it looks until after revolution. I think he would say that if you get it wrong, as so many communist nations have done, then you have another revolution and try again until you get it right. In much of his work, he claims that he can't know what the correct system will like, so his idea of communism is mostly speculation anyway.

    • A M Werner profile image

      Allen Werner 

      9 years ago from West Allis

      I'm winded just reading this. I think Marx still missed the origin because, as I see it from a religious viewpoint, there are just some things that were given freely to everyone - that being food and water, basic necessities. Once any government puts a value or price on these, all concepts of equality and freedom go out the window. Marx's system cannot work any better or any worse than the Capitalist system because greed and insecurity motivate men to take what others have. Every system of government does this. Just my thoughts. Nice read. Peace.


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