The Accumulation of Africa

by Mikael Lyngaas


When we look at present day Africa in its post-colonial state of crisis, we often do so out of the lens of a lackluster historicism which overanalyses the physical domination of the European colonialists, but at the same time neglects the mechanisms of a rapidly expanding market economy as well as the vast ideological framework that came with it. In economic terms this is part of the process of which Karl Marx called primitive accumulation, a process of which feudalism meets its strained limits in the face of growing domination of the bourgeoisie. This is a process which first began in Europe but played just as much an important role of shaping the current condition in the African continent. If we start by the analysis of the logic of capital in primitive accumulation, as put forward by Marx, we can then analyze how the relations of production and productive forces coincides with the development of capitalism in Africa. Through examining theories of imperialism, we will focus on the economic side of colonialism so that we can gain key insights to this historical debate, as well as a wider understanding of the brutal oppression that persist to this very day.

In this essay I’ll examine capitalist accumulation and imperialism within an African colonial and post-colonial context.


  1. Introduction

If we focus on the history of Africa and the role of capitalism in this context, we have to first lay the historical and theoretical groundwork for analysing the given area and its characteristics. Most historians trace colonialism in Africa back to the Atlantic slave trade, or roughly from the 16thcentury onwards. Some tracing the Europeans involvement in Africa back to 15thcentury with the discovery of Cape of Good Hope in modern-day South Africa. These histories would still be remaining within the paradigm of bourgeoise history. Historical accounts of Africa can often be narrowed down to individual explorers like Vasco de Gama, slowly uncovering the “African mystery” which revels a rich land with weak power-structures.[1]Although it is true that the exploration of Africa was first conducted in the search for slaves and gold, we must not forget that these colonial “needs” did not appear out of thin air, or from some individuals desire to enrich themselves on the back of others. This “need” holds ideological properties, but in this text, we will try to analyze how such needs come about and in what way they manifest. In incorporating the science of history, as laid forward by Marx in his historical materialism, we take a step back and analyze the broader structures and mechanisms that would make Africa immensely profitable for capitalists, and how this relationship has evolved over time.

Historical materialism is based on the idea that human history is going through different stages of class societies consisting of two primary classes at stark opposition to one-another, one the oppressor and the other, the oppressed.[2]Class society is centred around relations of production which is dominated by one class over another and forces it’s mode of production onto the majority, the lower class. This breaks with the notion of individuals, ideas or ideals being at the centre of the progress of history, or as Marx says in the Grundrisse“Society does not consist of individuals, but expresses the sum of interrelations, the relations within which these individuals stand”.[3] Social progress, or the progress of history consist mainly of the development of the material productive forces, that being technology, labour etc. Because of this development humans enter into social relations persisting of a division of labour out of the necessity of creating a means of subsistence which then goes on to determine social class.[4]Let’s now move onto the main theoretical discussion in the thesis by analysing the development of capitalism in what Marx called primitive, or original accumulation through the theory of imperialism.[5]


  1. Primitive Accumulation

Jokingly, Marx mocks the idea of the introduction of capitalism as a theological “original sin” (Rosseau). Adam Smith was proven wrong in his theory of the emergence of capitalism as based simply on a rational ‘first initiative’, as Marx shows, the origin of capital was rather a process of extreme hoarding and dispossession of land which created private property and dealt the final death-blow to the feudal aristocracy. Primitive accumulation is the process by which capital was first acquired by the emerging bourgeoisie, which forces peasants of their common land and into rapidly industrializing cities, making them proletarians. Capital here is meant as the totality of the capitalist mode of production, that being a system which is capable of producing the means of subsistence and extracting surplus value from the working class. This is done by the introduction of wage labour, market economy and accumulation of value. Marx explains inCapital how the preconditions for capitalism are both the owners of money, means of production and means of subsistence as well as free labourers that unlike bondsmen and slaves are “free” to sell their labour-power. These two emerging classes, proletarian and bourgeoise hold a deeply unequal, yet dependant relationship to one-another. The bourgeoise needs the proletariat to produce, using their labour-power and extracting surplus value, re-investing and so on. At the same time as the infantile proletariat needs the bourgeoises meagre wages for food, housing etc. On one hand this meant the abandonment of feudal relations of productions such as with serfs, slaves and bondsmen, while on the other this did little in the short term to improve the lives of the lower classes. Marx examined critically the end of feudalism as the “victorious struggle both against feudal lordship and its revolting prerogatives, and against the guilds and the fetters they laid on the free development of production and the free exploitation of man by man”.[6]

The feudal-system, often overlooked, was built around lordship, often on a local level and divided into gradually smaller subfeudatories. Power was distributed to feudal-lords by Kings, Tsars and Califs and meant a decentralized and unstable political system, plagued with civil war. The strength of feudal-lords where not gauged by their wealth but on their number of subjects. The downfall of the feudal-system happened, not solely on political fragility but on the gradual breaking-up of farmers and their servitude to the lords. As explained earlier this was the first of the preconditions needed for the expansion of a capitalist mode of production.

The means of reproduction, that being subsistence, or new means of production, technology etc. is bound to not exceed a certain limit as to be unprofitable for the capitalist. The rate of economic exploitation is here quantifiable in terms of how much surplus value is extracted by the capitalist not only to make a profit, but to compete against other capitalists. Capitalist are always in competition with one-another for what is known as super profits, that being the profits made on behalf of other capitalist when one capitalist enterprise manages to produce something for below the average price, outcompeting competitors by selling more commodities. This advantage has traditionally been reached by acquiring new markets, cheaper labour or new technology, all of which put the global market in the precarious situation. This led to an increase in competition which were historically a primary driver of capitalism of which would be transformed through monopolization into what we call imperialism.


  1. Imperialism

The term imperialism was first used in theory by J.A. Hobson in 1902 where he lays out a detailed study of how the European states become imperialistic, mainly he argues that the driving force where nationalistic pride.[7]Following in Hobsons footsteps, V. I. Lenin took up Hobsons analysis of imperialism together with a reading of Austrian Marxist Rudolf Hilferding’s Finance Capital. Lenin lays out an explanation of the newest developments in capitalism in his 1916 book titled Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism.[8]He rejects Hobsons claim that imperialism could be separated from capitalism as a whole. Through the drive for competition between capitalists started by the process of primitive accumulation brought about a new phase of capitalist development. A capitalist wants to invest in new technology to produce under the average socially necessary labour time which then gives him the profits (called super-profits) that his capitalist competitors would otherwise make. With the increased productivity of industrialization, the intensified division of labour and global trade, the capitalist mode of production had slowly shifted away from intense competition over to monopolization. To ensure stability among the capitalist class, monopolies where established, not to put an end to competition but to concentrate production further as well as concentrate wealth in fewer hands. Lenin explains that through ‘combined-production’ how different branches of industry could come together, which is logical from a production point of view, but also immensely profitable, creating a more centralized enterprises of which Lenin calls cartels. The economic crisis of 1873 marks the start of the shift in capitalism from free competitions to the establishment of cartels in collaboration with banks create what is known as finance capitalism, creating the optimal condition for safe investments for cartels.[9]Banks, as well as state monopolies create the guarantee income of capitalists, even the ones on the verge of bankruptcy, one might say that these monopolies have become the “essence” of economic life.[10]

The increased monopolization in Europe also meant increased influence over politics from capitalists. As the economic mode had shifted, gradually from free competition over to monopolies, Lenin noted that the monopolies established “certain relations between political alliances, between states, on the basis of territorial division of the world, of the struggle for colonies, of the ‘struggle for economic territory’”. This development of finance capital and monopolies made the division of territory more intense as the European powers quickly advanced onto non-capitalist African lands, possessing millions of inhabitants and square miles. Marxist revolutionary Rosa Luxembourg writes in her bookThe Accumulation of Capital that “Imperialism is the political expression of the accumulation of capital in its competitive struggle for what remains still open of the non-capitalist environment”.[11]Luxembourg argues that capitalism is a mode of production of which is “unable to exist by itself, which needs other economic systems as a medium and soil”.[12]The contradictory nature of capitalism is that it on one hand strives to become universal, while on the other it is dependent on different modes of productions. Following Lenin and Hilferding, Russian Bolshevik Nikolai Bukharin criticizes Luxembourg on the importance of these non-capitalist elements. Bukharin responds that non-capitalist elements are not essential for capitalism, as that would be an obvious limitation to the contradiction of primitive accumulation.[13] Although it’s true that non-capitalist elements have played a vital role in accumulation, they mostly create for Marxists the necessity of international solidarity between classes (peasantry and proletariat). As we will explore later, Luxembourg’s theory inspired contemporary Marxian theorists like David Harvey.


  1. Colonialism & Neo-Colonialism

The colonial system grew directly out of the imperialist current in Capitalism which in turn meant the start of out-sourcing of labour as well as the beginning phase of global trade. Marx explains how the 17thcentury colonies were, as an economy a combination of modern taxation and debt as well as protectionism which were enforced with brute force.[14]

The main difference if we analyze the history of Africa through the lens of primitive accumulation is how different it is from Capitalisms birthplace. By the time Europe had begun taking and shipping slaves to the “New world”, most of sub-Saharan Africa still remained largely untouched by the grip of Capitalism. The political structure of African tribes and kingdoms where developed quite unevenly, taking many different forms, making some parts of feudal Africa on par with Europe in certain historical periods, while others were still dominated by economic and political structures based around barter.[15]Marx also notes this uneven relationship between the European wage labourers forced dependence on Capitalists and the colonial subject’s independence, previous to the slave trade.[16]The influx of slave labour into the labour market were immensely valuable for capitalists, driving down wages of wage labourers and increasing the reserve labour army, disciplining the work force.

The taking of African slaves to America came first as a solution to the ‘labour-problem’, or lack of labourers faced in the American colonies. With the increase of slaves, in this case the three-fold increase of slaves on North-American cotton plantations, the profit of plantation capitalists sky-rocketed from around 5 million worth in 1800 till 137 million worth in 1850.[17]The first half of the brutal exploitation of Africans were conducted in a way where European slave-traders only created infrastructure for the purposes of exploitation. Before the first world war virtually all African infrastructure was underdeveloped, something that would remain a trend until the end of colonialism. Railways were almost non-existent in Africa until the 1900s although the ones that were built served the purpose of furthering European capital.[18]After the partition of Africa and the European states began expanding their political monopoly many countries suffered immensely from the wars conducted by the Europeans against Africans. Guyanese historian Walter Rodney argues that “Imperialism derived from the expansion of the capitalist economy, while partition was determined by (a) the nature of African social formations, (b) the element of racism within the capitalist superstructure, and (c) the opposition of Africans to European incursion”. Africans fought back with all that they had, in many cases resulting in complete annihilation of tribes. But most of Africa had no revolutionary or nationalist tradition that would have clashed against colonial powers, with certain exceptions like the Ethiopians.[19]

After the second World War the European powers where weakened which meant the beginning of the decline of colonial rule together with a myriad of wars of national liberation, waged by Africans. During the 60s decolonization was taking place and most African nations achieved some sort of liberal democracy. This marked the start of the period of neo-colonialism which was first theorized by the first prime minister of Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah in his book Neo-Colonialism, The Last Stage of Imperialism. Nkrumah describes neo-colonialism as “the State which is subject to it is, in theory, independent and has all the outward trappings of international sovereignty. In reality its economic system and thus its political policy is directed from outside”. The forced hand of the colonial Europeans where replaced by overseas economic and financial exploitation taking the forms of predatory loans and enterprise, as well as expansion of capitalist hegemony in emerging social and cultural institutions. So, although the neo-colonial states had got a certain political independence, finance capital remained the ruler. Large amounts of ‘aid’ where given to the new African nations to increase the circulation of credit to then be returned to the aid-givers as profit. Immense ideological repression where also conducted by the western powers to ensure the African nations would not abandon the free market for a Soviet-style economy.[20]Not to even mention the discriminatory apartheid systems of South-Africa and Rhodesia. The rationale of imperialism had become ever more wide-spread ideologically in the public, making imperialism, as Chamberlain put it a “true, wise and economical policy”. Cecil Rhodes also gives us an interesting insight in the mindset of imperialism. He claimed that if Britain were to avoid a civil war, led by the working class, the colonial state needed to “acquire new lands to settle the surplus population, to provide new market” he continues “if you want to avoid civil war, you must become imperialists.[21]This was manifested by the declaration of the racist state of Rhodesia in what is today modern-day Zimbabwe. The supremacist ideology that emerged alongside colonialism such as race theories, eugenics and notions of Africans as barbarian savages or non-humans were not only a product of prejudice or a lack of understanding of other cultures, but an ideological construction. The shift away from slavery over to a full introduction of capitalism in Africa of which African Labourers would be used for the export of raw materials, the ideology of superiority was partly replaced by the ideology of Christian missionaries and fantasies of the saving the poor Africans (i.e. “white man’s burden”).[22]How can we use the theory of primitive accumulation and imperialism to theorize the post-colonial condition of Africa?


  1. Return to accumulation

Harvey poses a more contemporary theory of primitive accumulation in his bookThe New Imperialism where he tries to answer the problem of overaccumulation of capitalists. Overaccumulation occurs as a surplus of capital without profitable outlets (in the case of Africa this being raw material) as well as a surplus of labour from turning previous peasantries or colonial subjects into wage labourers which have had enormous consequences in Africa as we will explore. The problem of overaccumulation was ‘solved’ by what Harvey calls accumulation by dispossessionas a mechanism of capitalists to use various non-capitalist methods and elements for profit.[23]This alternative mechanism of accumulation became vital for the neoliberal order, which emerged as a return to market liberalization and privatization towards the end of the Cold War. Neoliberalism as an ideology was shaped as a replacement the state-centered Keynesian model which ‘stood in the way’ for market enterprise. Although theft has always been vital to capitals vicious accumulation, Harvey argues that after the crisis of the 1970s, the expansion of land thefts, deregulation of the labour market temporarily solved the problem of the increased surplus labour army and overaccumulation. This in turn meant the driving down of wages for workers globally and driving up of prices of housing, social security, education etc.[24]Following Luxembourg, Harvey argues that non-capitalist elements that became intensified during the 70s such as outsourcing, evictions and land-grabs where essential to the continuity of imperialism.[25]Staunch critique of Harvey, John Smith argues that Harvey over-emphasises these elements and “contrapose this[accumulation by dispossession] to the super-exploitation of wage-labour in the oppressed nations”.[26]The problem with Harveys theory is that it stretches itself thin by attempting to unify a theory consisting both of the fraud and coercive tactics of Capitalists together with the tendency of capitalism to accumulate wealth, turn peasants into wage labourers, expand private property and turn nation-states and banks into agents for imperialists.[27]

There are of course important points to take from both Luxembourg and Harvey in the discussion of imperialism, most notably that the process of primitive accumulation is still ongoing and taking on new forms. Non-capitalists elements are still important to imperialism. For example, the last decade saw over 42 million hectares of land converted from smallholder to commercial use were in Africa, a lot of them through dispossession.[28]But Harveys theory remains inadequate to provide a fruitful explanation of the changes in property relations and production that are still taking place since imperialisms birth.[29]



The process of primitive accumulation, or capital accumulation is by far nearing its end. It takes on new forms and organizations to exchange one crisis for another on the backs of millions. With the rise of neo-colonialism, it is clear that Africa is to be remain a continent under “development” where foreign investors and domestic bourgeoise reproduce systems of brutal oppression through dictatorships and corrupt democracy. Despite rapid GDP growth in most African nations, the wealth accumulated is concentrated in the hands of a few capitalists. The current phase of imperialism sees a huge expansion of investment in Africa by China. Generally speaking, the economy of African states has created a rapidly expanding inequality with industries geared solely towards global markets instead of domestic ones. The reaction to dispossession and repression of the working class in Africa have led to movements like Abahlali baseMjondolo and Landless peoples movement in South Africa as well as other radical groupings, some with revolutionary tendencies. Lack of infrastructure, work and housing will continue to drive the African proletariat towards economic and political crisis.

However, in theorizing imperialism and accumulation we must attempt to analyse both how capitalism is developing, and which tendencies are present in our period. As we have discussed, this remains both a political and economic struggle on ground as well as a theoretical struggle between intellectuals, parties, organizations and different strata’s of the global proletariat. Imperialists will continue to keep Africa from challenging the hegemonic economic powers through predatory means and alliance-building. Marx, Lenin, Luxembourg and other theorists give us profound and insightful tools in investigating the nature of political economy historically. Naturally they could have not completed Marx’s theoretical project of accumulation as both Lenin and Luxembourg wrote in the birth of Imperialism. This requires further investigation of the problem at hand, of which is outside the scope of this essay. The debate around imperialism carries on Harvey and Smith as well as with post-Marxists like Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt.









Bukharin, N. (1972). Imperialism and the Accumulation of Capital. I Chapter 6: Conclusion.Penguin Press.

Dybedahl, O. (2018). David Harveys kaotiske begreper. Agora 02-03 (Vol. 35), 17.

Harvey, D. (2003). The New Imperialism.Oxford University Press.

Hobson, J. A. (1902). Imperialism: A Study.New York: James Pott & Company .

Jameson, G. (2008). A Short History of Africa. Stanford University: Aerospace Computing Labratory.

John Bellamy Foster, R. W. (2003, November 1). Kipling, the ‘White Man’s Burden,’ and U.S. Imperialism. Monthly Review.

Kerstin Nolte, W. C. (2016). International Land Deals for Agricultre: Fresh insights from the Land Materix: Analytical Report II.CDE, CIRAD, GIGA, University of Pretoria.

Lenin, V. I. (2010). Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism.Penguin Books.

Luxembourg, R. (2003). The Accumulation of Capital.Routledge .

Mandel, E. (1967). The Marxist Theory of Imperialism and its Critics. I Two Essays on Imperialism.New York: Young Socialist Alliance .

Marx, K. (1973). Grundrisse .Penguin Books in association with New Left Review .

Marx, K. (2015). Capital: A Critique of Political Economy Volume I.Moscow: Progress Publishers.

Nkrumah, K. (1965). Neo-Colonialism, The Last Stage of Imperialism.Thomas Nelson & Son.

Rodney, W. (1970, April 11). The Imperialist Partition of Africa. Monthly Review .

Smith, J. (2016). Imperialism in the 21st Century .New York: Monthly Review Press.

Trading Economics. (u.d.). Unemployment Rate Africa 2013-2018.



[1](Jameson, 2008)pg. 8-10

[2]The use of “primary classes” is an important distinction as there is no fixed position in Marx, for example, the petit-bourgeoise elements of society, as well as ‘other’ classes which might develop outside the classic binary, such as the lumpen-proletariat. These subtle distinctions do not however mediate class-contradictions of the primary classes.

[3](Marx, 1973)pg. 193

[4]Ibid pg. 88

[5]We will use the word “Primitive” although it is misleading as the original German Ursprüngliche Akkumulationtranslates rather as “Original accumulation”, but for the sake of the translated works of Marx.

[6](Marx, 2015)pg. 507-508

[7] (Hobson, 1902)pg.52-53

[8]The “highest” stage of capitalism rather represents the “latest” stage rather than a final one.

[9](Lenin, 2010)pg.15-21

[10]Ibid. pg. 42

[11](Luxembourg, 2003)pg. 426

[12](Luxembourg, 2003)pg. 447

[13](Bukharin, 1972)

[14](Marx, 2015)pg. 534

[15](Luxembourg, 2003)pg. 167

[16](Marx, 2015)pg. 233

[17](Luxembourg, 2003)pg. 343

[18](Luxembourg, 2003)pg. 400

[19] (Rodney, 1970)

[20](Nkrumah, 1965)Introduction

[21](Lenin, 2010)pg. 92-97

[22](John Bellamy Foster, 2003)

[23](Harvey, 2003)pg. 149

[24]Ibid pg. 152-158

[25](Smith, 2016)pg. 227

[26]Ibid pg. 250-251

[27](Dybedahl, 2018)

[28](International Land Deals for Agricultre: Fresh insights from the Land Materix: Analytical Report II, 2016)

[29](Mandel, 1967)

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