Rosa Luxemburg on Present-Day Capitalism, Colonial Genocide, and Indigenous Resistance

By Stephen D’Arcy

Sometimes, when reading Rosa Luxemburg’s great book, The Accumulation of Capital, published in 1913, it’s impossible to escape the feeling that one is receiving a clear, compelling explanation of the main trajectory of Canadian history — even when she never says a word about Canada. In the passages reproduced below, she walks us through an analysis of how capitalism was in its origins, and is still today, driven (by its relentless drive for profits) to seek control over the lands and resources of Indigenous peoples. When it finds Indigenous societies unwilling or unable to engage in commodity exchange, capitalism “knows no other solution to the problem than violence, which has been a constant method of capital accumulation as a historical process, not merely during its emergence, but also to the present day.”

Luxemburg reminds us, though, that the colonial violence of capitalist settler states does not go unchallenged. “For the [Indigenous] societies, on the other hand, since in such cases it is a question of their very existence, the only possible course of action is to engage in resistance and a life-or-death struggle….” The main conclusion of her analysis is that capitalism, by its very nature, is driven to pursue “the systematic, planned destruction and annihilation of any non-capitalist social formation that it encounters.” Capitalism’s logic, according to Luxemburg, is strictly genocidal.

To convey the outlines of her analysis, I reproduce here a few paragraphs from her book. (Note: some breaks between paragraphs have been added, to make it easier to read online.)

“….[C]apitalism above all wages a constant war of annihilation everywhere against any historical form of natural [that is, subsistence-based, pre-capitalist] economy that it encounters….The economic goals pursued by capitalism in its struggle with societies based on a natural economy…[include attempting] to gain direct control over important sources of the forces of production, such as land, wild game in the jungles, minerals, precious stones and ores, the products of exotic flora, such as rubber, etc….During original accumulation, i.e., during the historical emergence of capitalism in Europe at the end of the middle Ages, the dispossession of the peasants in the U.K. and on the [European] continent represented the most tremendous means for transforming the means of production and labour-power into capital on a massive scale. Since then, however, and to the present day, this same task has been accomplished under the rule of capital through an equally tremendous, although completely different, means: modern colonial policy.

“It is illusory to hope that capitalism could ever be satisfied with the means of production that it is able to procure by means of the exchange of commodities. Indeed, the difficulty for capital in this respect consists in the fact that, over vast expanses of the exploitable surface of the globe, the productive forces are in the possession of social formations that either have no inclination to exchange commodities or, worse still, cannot offer for sale the most important means of production on which capital depends, because their forms of property and social structures as a whole preclude this a priori [in advance]. This goes above all for the land, with all its rich mineral resources underground and its wealth of pastures, forests, and waterways on the surface, and also for the livestock of…pastoral peoples.

“From the standpoint of capitalism, the inference to be drawn here is that the violent appropriation of the colonial countries’ most important means of production is a question of life or death for it. However, since the…social bonds of the indigenous inhabitants constitute the strongest bulwark both of their societies and of the latter’s material basis of existence, what ensues is that capital introduces itself through the systematic, planned destruction and annihilation of any non-capitalist social formation that it encounters.

“This is no longer a question of original accumulation [at the dawn of capitalist development]: this is a process that continues to this day. Each new colonial expansion is accompanied by capital’s relentless war on the social and economic interrelations of the indigenous inhabitants and by the violent looting of their means of production and their labour-power. The aspiration to restrict capitalism to ‘peaceful competition,’ i.e., to commodity exchange proper, as it occurs between capitalist producing countries, rests on the doctrinaire delusion that the accumulation of capital could manage without the productive forces and demand of the [pre-capitalist] social formations, and that it could rely on the slow, internal process of the disintegration of the natural economy….Capital knows no other solution to the problem than violence, which has been a constant method of capital accumulation as a historical process, not merely during its emergence, but also to the present day.

“For the [Indigenous] societies, on the other hand, since in such cases it is a question of their very existence, the only possible course of action is to engage in resistance and a life-or-death struggle….Hence permanent military occupation of the colonies, indigenous uprisings, and expeditions to crush these are the order of the day for any colonial regime. These violent methods are here the direct consequence of the clash between capitalism and the natural [subsistence] economic formations that represent constraints upon its accumulation.

“The means of production and labour-power of these formations, as well as their demand for the capitalist surplus product, are indispensable to capitalism itself. In order to wrest these means of production and this labour-power from these formations, and to convert them into purchasers of its commodities, capitalism strives purposefully to annihilate them as independent social structures. From the standpoint of capital, this method is the most expedient, because it is simultaneously the one that is most rapid and most profitable…. British policy in India and that of the French in Algeria represent the classical examples of capital’s application of this method.”

[Source: Rosa Luxemburg, The Accumulation of Capital (1913), Chapter 27]

It’s probably worth adding to the above passages the following paragraph, in which Luxemburg draws attention to a commonality between the anti-capitalist struggles of European workers and the anti-colonial struggles of Indigenous and other colonized people around the world:

“The bourgeoisie, clearly affected in their class interests, scented an obscure connection between the ancient communist survivals that put up stubborn resistance in the colonial countries to the forward march of the profit-hungry ‘Europeanization’ of the indigenous people, and the new gospel of revolutionary impetuousness of the proletarian mass in the old capitalist countries. When the French National Assembly was deciding the fate of the unfortunate Arabs of Algeria in 1873, with a law on the compulsory introduction of private property, it was repeatedly said, in a gathering where the cowardice and bloodlust of the conquerors of the Paris Commune [anti-capitalist workers’ revolt] still trembled, that the ancient common property of the Arabs must at any cost be destroyed, ‘as a form that supports communist tendencies in people’s minds.'”

[Source: Luxemburg, “Introduction to Political Economy” (More precisely, p. 163 of The Complete Works of Rosa Luxemburg, Volume I: Economic Writings I)]

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