For the early Marx, the history of civil society unfolded as a process of accumulation that took off with the privatization of archaic quasi-natural communities and came to a conclusion with the abolition of the state, property and the family.footnote1 Competition propelled a continuous accumulation of the results of the labour of preceding generations, making possible an ever more extensive ‘division of labour’. Marx’s first version of historical materialism was a history of the division of labour, but the latter term had a meaning in this period that it would subsequently lose: ‘Division of labour and private property are . . . identical expressions.’footnote2 The evolution of the division of labour was thus the history of private property, and in turn this was the story of the accumulation of capital as the stock of past, saved-up labour. Although Marx conceived of labour and capital in this essentially Smithian sense, the dynamic of their relationship was taken more dialectically. ‘Labour’, far from being a constant of the species-relation to nature, existed only in this divided form, one that culminated in the opposition of wage labour and capital: ‘Labour is man’s coming-to-be for himself within alienation, or as alienated man.’footnote3

The history of private property was thus the history of alienated labour, of living labour subjecting nature to its purposes but in turn becoming ever more subject to the power of its opposite, past labour, i.e. capital. The history of capital, so conceived, was the history of the formation of new needs, new forces of production and a broadening, eventually worldwide, division of labour. Essentially an elaboration of eighteenth-century Anglo-Scottish accounts of the history of civil society, Marx’s version extended the story of Ferguson and Smith up to the current age of the world market, with the European theatre of class struggles at its epicentre.

Within the larger field of bourgeois ideology, a German tendency could be distinguished from the Anglo-French one. The Hegelian school professed the primacy of the ideals of a people, as expounded in the spiritual superstructure of its constitution, religion, art and philosophy over the underside of its merely material existence. Marx argued that in the literary outpourings of idealist Germany, real history was made to appear as a pantomime of the separation, struggle and reconciliation of philosophical categories. For all its moments of real criticism, this allegory of history ultimately obscured the actual order of determination between the ideal and the material. As mentioned earlier, Marx looked back to pre-Hegelian Anglo-Scottish and French social thought in working out his own materialist conception of history, but the critical aspect of his relation to this older intellectual formation is harder to specify, since over this period its premises were often his own points of departure.

In contradistinction to his own, Enlightenment materialism was held to be mechanical. His criticism of it was acute: the atomistic individuality it posited at the foundation of the world formed the alienated vantage point of its own merely contemplative, i.e. powerless relation to this world, perforce conceived as an order of inviolable laws. It should be recalled though that from his dissertation years he was receptive to the more discordant strains of atomism—the idea that the unbridled competition of individuals—what Kant had called ‘asocial sociability’—was the driving force of the history of the coming into being of the modern world of commerce and constitutions. Underlying the tranquil laws of political economy was a pattern of atomistic strife that put its notion of equilibrium into question. Marx then came to conclude that the egoistic individual of eighteenth-century conceptions was not a natural given, but rather the product of the meltdown of traditional modes of authority and subsistence, and would eventually have to give way to a new species of social individuals. Civil society was the substratum of this entire history while modern civil society was only its latest phase—a secular age in which the ever more antithetical elements of the whole order of life represented themselves and contended in a sphere of political agency: the transformation of substance into self-conscious subject, to put it into the Hegelian terms that were effaced by their materialist inversion.

Marx offered a dazzling reformulation of the Scottish stadial sagas of the history of modes of life from savagery to civilization, leading up to the present. It was not just the so-called transition from feudalism to modern commercial civilization that had to be explained: the history of material life going back to the origins of the division of labour had to be made intelligible if the case for modern communism was to be made. The first partitions of primal-horde communities led to the establishment of the male-headed household, the pod from which all other forms of servitude developed. For the early Marx as for utopian socialists, the family was the foundation of the division of labour and the inter-generational accumulation of capital through inheritance, and thus: ‘That the supersession of the individual economy is inseparable from the supersession of the family is self-evident.’footnote4 Underlying the passages from archaic clans to ancient city-states, and from feudalism to modern bourgeois society, was a coercive process of development that was propelling mankind into a frightful era of civil wars.

For the early Marx, in accordance with the assumptions of The Wealth of Nations, ‘capital’ meant the inherited stock of instruments, materials and provisions created by past labour. Smith’s conception of capital logically entailed an account of its so-called primitive accumulation that Marx essentially reproduced. The evolution of European civil society was the story of the emergence of commercially alienable ‘mobile capital’ out of the inalienable ‘natural capital’ of land and communally owned conditions of production. The original accumulation of ‘mobile capital’ started with the political secession of towns from the jurisdiction of feudal law. Within the town, a class structure emerged based on the guild system in which the opposition of mental to manual labour set the mould for a subsequent division between capital and labour. Ongoing conflict between free towns and the feudal countryside then led to the erosion of serfdom as peasants fled into towns, constituting a proto-proletariat. This expanding population of uprooted refugees and their descendants underpinned the accumulation of monetary fortunes out of the old guild-based system, opening up class divisions between masters and journeymen. With the invention of bills of exchange and other sophisticated credit instruments, this stockpiling of wealth was liberated from older limits of the consumption and storage of goods. This in turn led to the development of continuous commercial relations between towns and to long-distance luxury trade with Asia, forming an extensive inter-regional division of labour. The amassed capital formed from long-distance trade subordinated and partly destroyed the guild system, creating the conditions for the development of manufacture.

The promotion of manufacturing sectors by early modern states seeking to amass account surpluses led to mercantilist wars and colonial conquests. The stimulus of the resulting influx of gold and silver deepened and expanded the home market. Demand resulting from either the emergence of new needs or population growth outstripped supply, leading to an industrious revolution, so to speak, that ‘forced all individuals to strain their energy to the utmost’.footnote5 As a pioneer of factory production England prevailed in these mercantilist wars, leading to the formation of a free-trade world market based on an English monopoly. This gave rise to the factory system in England, and the dissolution of older social relations on the continent even in the absence of comparable economic developments.