Etienne Balibar | “The Expropriators Are Expropriated”

By Étienne Balibar

“The expropriators are expropriated”: This is one of Marx’s most celebrated sentences, which is to be found towards the end of Chapter 24 of section 7 in Capital, Volume One. It is also one of the most enigmatic. I want to comment on it as a contribution to the discussion that is prompted by our twin references, in Abolition Democracy 5/13, to the texts by Proudhon and Marx on the social contradictions of private property.

The formula concludes a long syllogism, at the end of the development called “The historical tendency of capitalist accumulation.” I only quote the final sentence in the paragraph: “… The monopoly of capital becomes a fetter upon the mode of production, which has sprung up and flourished along with, and under it. Centralization of the means of production and socialization of labour at last reach a point where they become incompatible with their capitalist integument. This integument is burst asunder. The knell of capitalist private property sounds. The expropriators are expropriated.” The original has: “Die Expropriateurs werden expropriiert”, which any German reader will immediately identify as a “Fremdwort,” an alien word of French origin, among several others that pepper this development, in which the dialectical form of the negation of the negation is combined with economic, historical and juridical content. Very often this is perceived as the “revolutionary conclusion” of Marx’s critical analysis of capitalism, but to what extent is that the case? No doubt, the “dialectical” idea of the expropriation of expropriators names the “end” of what Marx described as a violent process of transformation, which leads to a “socialization” of the economy albeit in a “private” form. Communism should be able to build on that result, provided it abolished private property and the corresponding power exercised upon labour. We are not surprised, therefore, that Marx immediately adds a footnote in which a passage from the Communist Manifesto is quoted, where the Communist revolution is announced, as the historical achievement of the Proletariat. What he seems to indicate is the following: what could appear as a prophecy, to which the bloody suppression of the 1848 Revolutions had put an irreversible end, was in fact a very realistic anticipation. Through the scientific analysis of the “historical tendency of capitalist accumulation”, it now receives an irrefutable foundation.

Yes indeed. But we may wonder why the “revolutionary conclusion” is not located at the end of the book! It forms only the last paragraph in the penultimate chapter of the section on “The so-called Primitive Accumulation”, where Marx describes the origins of capitalism in the violent expropriation of small producers, which took place in the centuries before the industrial revolution. After this chapter comes still another one, on “The Modern Theory of Colonization,” which few readers really take into account. How can we explain this décalage, preventing the “end” to be located “in the end place”?

For a long time, I thought the most convincing hypothesis was censorship. When Capital Volume One was published in 1867 in Germany, it needed to pass through the censor’s authorization in the first place. Perhaps Marx reflected that the not so intelligent officials would look at the table of contents, plus the beginning and end of the book, would see mere erudition, a “scientific” treatise out of the grasp of the ordinary people, and wouldn’t object. But, Marx, was hoping, real activists would find the “expropriation of expropriators” in its place, and this would directly connect with their hopes and political objectives…

I am no longer certain that such an explanation is sufficient, because there is an intrinsic difficulty about the “conclusions” of the argument in Capital that even the “dialectics” of negation of the negation doesn’t entirely resolve.

A symptomatic reading, as Althusser would say, is necessary here. I alluded to the strange accumulation of “French” wording, more or less “Germanized,” in the surrounding paragraphs. In these passages, we may read the insistence and continuity of egalitarian and  “proto-communist” movements during the French Revolution, particularly the “Babouvistes” and “Enragés” who thunder against “expropriateurs,” “exploiteurs,” “usurpateurs,” and “accapareurs.” Marx, who had wanted to write a history of the Convention nationale, had received this tradition through direct and indirect sources. The quotation from the Manifesto becomes clearer: even without using the word, it brings with it the idea of a “revolutionary dictatorship,” a politics of salut public that counteracts historical violence with another one of opposite intention. This marks at the same time a continuity from the “radical” tendencies of the past “bourgeois” revolution to the future “proletarian” revolution, and a progress to be accomplished by the latter: in the meantime, the capitalist development will have transformed a utopian objective into historical necessity, reflecting the “centralization” of the means of production imposed by capital.

I believe that this first layer of interpretation is rather indisputable. But there is also a religious element that belongs to the treasure of eschatological hopes of liberation, periodically reactivated by movements retrieving the tradition of Jewish and Christian Messianism. The formula is in fact reminiscent of the Book of Isaiah: “And the people shall take them, and bring them to their place: and the house of Israel shall possess them in the land of the Lord for servants and handmaids: and they shall take them captives, whose captives they were; and they shall rule over their oppressors.” Messianism of course is frequent in Marx, especially when it is a question of the revolutionary mission of the Proletariat, a radically dispossessed class whose rebellion will put an end not only to capitalism but to every historical form of a class domination.

This reading pushes the idea of “historical tendency” to an apocalyptic end. But it is not the only possible one, far from, since it has a reformist double, more precisely an evolutionist double, in which the forms of capitalist expropriation appear not only as negative preparations, but virtual instruments of association.  We discover this possibility in a development which, in a sense, is a twin deduction of the “expropriation of expropriators”, but makes a completely different use of the dialectical transformation of private property. The passage from Capital Volume III, chapter 27 on “The Role of Credit in Capitalist Production” has acquired a special interest these days, because of its link to the analysis of “financialization of capital.” Here is an excerpt from the relevant passage:

“This is the abolition of the capitalist mode of production within the capitalist mode of production itself, and hence a self-abolishing contradiction, which presents itself prima facie as a mere point of transition to a new form of production (…) Expropriation now extends from the immediate producers to the small and medium capitalists themselves. Expropriation is the starting-point of the capitalist mode of production, whose goal is to carry it through to completion, and even in the last instance to expropriate all individuals from the means of production (…) Capitalist joint-stock companies as much as cooperative factories should be viewed as transition forms from the capitalist mode of production to the associated one, simply that in the one case the opposition is abolished in a negative way, and in the other in a positive way.”

I gave a longer quotation because this is less well-known than the passage in Volume One. It was never considered a “conclusion,” at most a side remark. But the formulas are almost identical on crucial points. We find the same hybrid French-German terminology of “expropriation,” to which is added “association,” one of the classical names of communism in Marx, directly inherited from “utopian socialism,” and the same problematic of the “dialectical reversal” which expresses the overcoming of capitalism as consequence of its own internal contradictions. Above all we find the same idea that the essence of revolutionary change is a conversion of expropriation into appropriation by the individuals of their own means of existence and their productive capacity, which had been “estranged” from them. However there are two essential differences: first, by invoking the financial mechanisms of banking and credit, Marx goes much further in looking into the very institutions of capitalism for a “prefiguration” of communism forms “within the capitalist mode of production”; and second, the strategy of communism appears here as the horizon of a combination or “reconciliation” of two heterogeneous historical inventions, which could be considered an overcoming of “private property,” albeit for opposite reasons: socialization through money, and socialization through labour, as it were. Summarizing all this, we see that the overcoming of capitalism depends on the emergence of a “force” that can join the opposites: what is furthest from the classless society (the financial institutions), and what comes closest to making it alive in the present (the worker’s cooperatives). This is a variant of the “expropriation of expropriators” that becomes today very relevant, not only because it forms an alternative to the messianic discourse, but because it finds echoes in current socialist projects. Still, we must concede that the “opposite forms” that Marx wanted to unite remain, most of the time, separated terms. The idea of cooperatives (or the analogous idea of the “new commons”) is very much alive. But the idea of using the financial structures of capitalism in a “revolutionary” way is also popular: when big pension funds started to play a decisive role in the development of hedge funds, it was proposed by some socialist theorists to “redeem” capitalism through pension funds whose owners would be the workers themselves, or their unions; more recently, we see Post-Marxist analysts of “liquidity” invent strategies for citizens to “take power” within the financial speculative operations. This is a minor mode with respect to the great revolutionary tradition, but still a way of interpreting the dialectical scheme of transformation invented by Marx.

Now I am aware that the reader/listener, hoping a resolution of the dilemmas, leading to the good interpretationMarx’s « conclusions » in Capital, is very unsatisfied. What to conclude? In my opinion this all means that Capital is unfinished in a positive way: it is an “open work,” that problematizes different theoretical and practical issues. What we observe is that Marx never ceased to bifurcate in the interpretation of the “tendencies” of capitalism and the political outcomes that they anticipated.  These bifurcations are more or less completely explored, but they correspond to real tendencies, which are more or less actualized, depending on conditions, countertendencies, and the historical transformations themselves. Today’s capitalism is more than ever subjected to the “logic” of endless accumulation, whose concept was derived by Marx from the critique of political economy. But capitalism’s institutions have considerably changed, particularly because it has been globalized and financialized, thus radically modifying the mechanism of crises, and even it was able to draw a benefit from socialist experiences for its own modernization. This capitalism that in a sense is “post-historical,” may look unsurpassable and invincible, because it has dissolved the forms and classical representations of the class struggle around which such themes as “expropriation of expropriators” were build and which served to imagine a revolutionary social transformation. This doesn’t mean that it is stable or peaceful. Rather, it is ultra-violent, involving organically endemic wars, brutal segregations of humans divided into educated and non-educated, sedentary and migrant, efficient and non-adapted, useful and disposable humans, in other terms a generalized “Hobbesian” competition among individuals and peoples. For us, the great question is how to define and construct the possible bifurcations, the immanent alternatives in this capitalism. And we are called to do so in the conditions of catastrophes – environmental and sanitary – of which Marx had no idea, or that he tended to marginalize, which reinforce the eschatological resonances of every “revolutionary” discourse.


This is an abridged version of my paper presented at the International Conference: Marx’s Capital after 150 years: Critique and Alternative to Capitalism, May 24-26, 2017, York University, Toronto, ON Canada (now published in Marx’s Capital after 150 Years. Critique and Alternative to Capitalism, edited by Marcello Musto2019 by Routledge). A previous version of this text was also published in the collective volume (in German): Matthias Greffrath (hsg.), Das Kapital: Politische Ökonomie im 21. Jahrhundert, Verlag Kunstmann Berlin 2017.

Bernard Harcourt