First published in 1913, The Accumulation of Capital represents Rosa Luxemburg’s quintessential contribution to Marxism and an exceptional, yet equally controversial, ‘modification’ of Marx’s original scheme of accumulation. Built on a cordial critique of Marx’s model of expanded reproduction, Luxemburg’s intervention offers not only a new framework to study capitalist economic development, but also a historical and political compass with which the expansion of capitalist social relations through colonialism and imperialism can be expounded. To celebrate the centenary anniversary of the book in 2013, we assess the enduring relevance of key themes developed by Luxemburg in their conceptual implications, but also in their relevance to understanding dynamics within contemporary capitalism. The first part of the article engages with Luxemburg’s theoretical contribution to the analysis of capitalist expansion with reference to the transformation of peripheral spaces. The second part briefly discusses how the book can be utilised as a starting point to examine the characteristics of today’s crisis-ridden global capitalism. We conclude by highlighting a number of contentious points that challenge Luxemburg’s account, but ultimately claim that The Accumulation of Capital is still an invaluable resource for those who are interested in critically examining international political economy and geopolitics.
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For spatial-temporal insights extending this project of historico-geographical materialism into an examination of new state spaces of uneven development and class struggle in Bolivia, see Hesketh and Morton (2014).
Although Lenin’s (1916/1939: 10) insight is salutary here in noting that the uneven development of railways sums up ‘modern world monopolist capitalism […] as long as private property in the means of production exists’.
In tracing how finance capital suffers from a horror vacui, ‘since it rushes to fill every “vacuum”, whether in a “tropical”, “sub-tropical”, or “polar” region’, Nikolai Bukharin (1917/1929: 59–61) offers similar spatial insights on how the finance trusts Consortium Constaninopel and Banque de Paris et de Pays-Bas were intrinsic to railway construction in Turkey and Mexico, stimulating growth in the world economy and thus ‘the process of bringing separate geographic points of economic development closer to each other’. Although beyond the scope of this article, for the classic debate exploring disputes and tensions, see Luxemburg (1915/1972) and Bukharin (1925/1972).
For critical engagements with the notion of accumulation by dispossession, see the symposium in Historical Materialism edited by Ashman (2006).
In the form of the Great Baghdad Railroad (linking Berlin to Baghdad) traversing across the Ottoman Empire, ‘Turkey became the field of operations of German imperialism’, with the Deutsche Bank extending the interests of finance capital and German militarism ensuring the expansion of its foreign interests within the Turkish state (Luxemburg 1915/1967: 25). Similarly, Bukharin also refers to the role of the Deutsche Bank in Turkey in creating the Baghdad railroad and establishing a network of market relations that were always reinforced militarily. Capital export, as the seizure and monopolisation of new spheres of capital, is therefore crucial: ‘What we have in a “foreign” country are large sums of money, particularly of fixed capital, invested in gigantic constructions: railroads stretching over thousands of miles, very costly electric plants, large plantations, etc., etc. The capitalists of the exporting country are materially interested in “guarding” their wealth. They are therefore ready to go the limit in order that they retain the freedom of further accumulation’ (Bukharin 1917/1929: 101).
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The collective enterprise in co-authoring this article stems from the Marxism Reading Group within the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Nottingham, started in 2006. The group has retained a continued presence ever since, meeting every Wednesday afternoon in term-time to discuss collectively chosen texts. As a result, some 25 texts have been read to date covering a range of Marxist classics, past and present. The group has been a key collective project shaping spaces of self-development within an ever more market-driven higher education sector. The authors of this article would like to thank Phil Roberts for his involvement and input during the discussion of The Accumulation of Capital as well as Chris Hesketh, an alumnus of the collective, for separate feedback. We are also grateful for comments by three anonymous reviewers and Jozef Bátora, the editor of the Journal of International Relations and Development.
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Bieler, A., Bozkurt, S., Crook, M. et al. The enduring relevance of Rosa Luxemburg’s The Accumulation of Capital. J Int Relat Dev 19, 420–447 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1057/jird.2014.18
- capital accumulation
- peripheral space
- Rosa Luxemburg
- uneven development