Development and Underdevelopment in the History of Economic Thought

Adam Smith and Karl Marx on Primitive Accumulation and the Slow Progress of Opulence

Lange Jérôme, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa

At the beginning of the Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith elevates the division of labour to the chief explanatory element of societies’ opulence. Yet, from the second part of Book 1 and throughout Book 2 of The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith defends the view that capital accumulation is the basis for the economic and demographic development of societies. At the beginning of Book 2 he holds, in fact, that a “previous” accumulation of stock is necessary to introduce the division of labour on a larger scale. Given this ambiguity, both division of labour and capital accumulation have been held to be the basic causal element in Adam Smith’s theory of development in different readings of his work. Smith’s treatment of the question of “primitive accumulation” in the Wealth of Nations was also famously Marx’s starting point for his chapter on this topic in Capital. But it can be shown, especially through an examination of Smith’s lectures and the ‘Early Draft’ of the Wealth of Nations, that the two authors fundamentally differed with regard to the understanding of this concept. While for Marx, “primitive accumulation” was at the origin of the rise of the capitalist class, Smith conceived of this notion within the context of the “early and rude stages” of society that formed the starting point of his theory of socio-cultural evolution known today as the “four stages theory”. It is here, too, that we must look for a resolution of the apparent conflict between division of labour and capital accumulation being the main causal element in economic development. Smith’s theory of economic development in fact is described by a positive feedback loop, in which different elements are linked by cumulative causation: both division of labour and the accumulation of stock depend on one another and can thus only have increased very incrementally and slowly at the beginning of the process of economic development, explaining what Smith called the “slow progress of opulence”.


Keywords: Adam Smith, Karl Marx, Primitive Accumulation, Division of Labour, Cumulative Causation, Positive feedback