Golden Age

In his section on the ‘genesis of the industrial capitalist’ in Capital, Volume I, Marx famously describes Holland as “the exemplary capitalist nation of the seventeenth century” (Marx 1990 [1867], 651).1 The immediate context is a passage in which Marx fiercely denounces the role of Dutch colonialism in the East Indies (see the entry on the VOC in this collection). However, Marx returns to what is commonly known as the Dutch Golden Age at several other points as well. These passages are often insightful, though of course they do not present us with the latest word regarding the economic history of the early-modern Netherlands (Lourens and Lucassen 1992; Van der Linden 1997; Brandon 2011). They were based on careful reading and note-taking on the economic and political history of Europe from the sources available to Marx, in particular, extensive outtakes from Von Gülich’s five-volume history of trade (Von Gülich 1830-1845; Marx 1983, 245-64, 389-411, and 898-905). The material gathered from contemporary historians and seventeenth- and eighteenth-century observers, combined with his own anti-capitalist instincts, sometimes led him to quite hyperbolic descriptions. A good example is his contention that “by 1648, the people of Holland were more overworked, poorer and more brutally oppressed than those of all the rest of Europe put together.” (Marx 1990 [1867], 653). While there is interesting modern research that suggests that Marx was right to note that inequality and the level of exploitation in the Dutch Republic increased significantly during the Golden Age, his comparison with the rest of Europe seems overblown. Nonetheless, if we are willing to read between the lines of his more intuitive descriptions, a rich interpretation of the nature of the Dutch Golden Age emerges. This interpretation is in no way ‘economistic’– a crime of which Marx is often proclaimed guilty. In particular, it gives special attention to the role of the state, warfare, and colonialism in capitalist development.

There is little that is Golden in Marx’s version of the Dutch Golden Age. Its start coincided with the beginning of a cycle of commercial wars between European states, propelled by “the discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins.” (Marx 1990 [1867], 651). At its zenith, the Dutch violently dominated the European East-India trade and the commerce between the various parts of Europe. Contrary to schematic representations of this history, Marx did not see Dutch economic success in this period as the achievements of a pure ‘merchant capitalism’ that grew rich from exploiting suppliers and consumers without changing the relation of production. Rather, he stressed the links between trade and plunder abroad and the high level of development of the home economy. The proceeds from “undisguised looting, enslavement, and murder, floated back to the mother-country and were there turned into capital.” (Marx 1990 [1867], 653). The main achievement in the field of statecraft with which Marx credits the Holland burgher-administrators who look down on us from the walls of countless art museums was the development of an intricate system of public taxation, debt, and credit, which in itself became a new source of exploitation. By the beginning of the eighteenth century, the Dutch were outcompeted in the field of manufacture by the English. The Netherlands entered a long period of depression, and Dutch capital started to move across the Channel.

These scattered remarks provide less than a full history, but more than just rudimentary suggestions for an approach towards the rise and decline of the Dutch economy during the Golden Age. They form a possible point of entry from which to think in fresh ways about the transnational nature of the origins and historical development of capitalism itself. Marxist historians of the twentieth century have often tried to capture this history as a neatly separated sequence of national trajectories towards ‘real’ (meaning industrial) capitalism, which only came to full fruition in Britain in the course of the eighteenth century. Such an approach can draw from a particular (mis)reading of Marx’s (1990 [1867], 651) remark that

the different momenta of primitive accumulation distribute themselves now, more or less in chronological order, particularly over Spain, Portugal, Holland, France, and England. In England at the end of the 17th century, they arrive at a systematical combination, embracing the colonies, the national debt, the modern mode of taxation, and the protectionist system.

In this interpretation, ‘momentum’ is understood only in its narrow meaning of ‘instance’ or ‘moment’. The Dutch Golden Age provides the penultimate ‘failed moment’ before English success. It is puzzling how a text that is so dynamic in its portrayal of global interactions, explosive leaps, and complex interplay of forces and tendencies as the historical section at the end of Capital, Volume I, can be read in such a schematic, dull and pedantic way. The passage cited does not necessarily support it. The Latin ‘momentum’ refers not only to ‘moment’, but also to movement, motion, impulse or course; to change, revolution or disturbance; to cause, circumstance or influence.2 If we infer the possible meanings from the passage just cited, we might read the sequence of historical capitalisms sketched there in a very different fashion. Each of the states mentioned drew together particular impulses, changes, and influences from the great international swirl of capitalist development that they participated in. The Dutch contribution to this inherently trans-national process was to fuse local patterns of capital accumulation more solidly than had ever been done before with the expansion of world trade and the internationalization of finance, a fusion that relied heavily on state power. The more ‘systematic combination’ of these factors in eighteenth-century Britain could only arise in connection to capital’s advances elsewhere, both in Europe and in the non-European regions subjected or marginalized through colonization, slavery, war, and economic extraction. From a historical-methodological point of view, a re-reading of Marx’s section on ‘the so-called primitive accumulation’ that pays more attention to the Dutch case should not aim for constructing a slightly earlier and marginally different national trajectory towards capitalism, but to dissolve the strange marriage of Marxist historiography and national exceptionalism altogether. The specificity of the English moment, like the Dutch moment, must be understood through capital’s global instantiations. Starting this transnational opening-up from two opposite ends of the North Sea might not seem a very radical step. But it could be when this movement is elongated from one port of entry to another, across oceans.




The Dutch East India Company (Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie; VOC) was founded in 1602. It was a private company with extensive state support, monopoly rights to the Dutch-Asian spice trade, and far-reaching prerogatives to wage war and make treaties and alliances. The VOC became the instrument for the violent subjection of many parts of Asia to Dutch commercial interests until the end of the eighteenth century. It laid the foundations for the colonial regime of the Dutch in Indonesia that lasted well into the twentieth century. Without mentioning its name, Marx discussed the VOC and its legacy in a brief but powerful passage at the end of Capital, Volume I. After citing the British colonial administrator Thomas Stamford Raffles’s judgement that the history of Dutch rule in Asia was “one of the most extraordinary relations of treachery, bribery, massacre, and meanness”, Marx continues:

Nothing is more characteristic than their system of stealing men, to get slaves for Java. The men stealers were trained for this purpose. The thief, the interpreter, and the seller, were the chief agents in this trade, native princes the chief sellers. The young people stolen, were thrown into the secret dungeons of Celebes, until they were ready for sending to the slave-ships. An official report says:

“This one town of Macassar, e.g., is full of secret prisons, one more horrible than the other, crammed with unfortunates, victims of greed and tyranny fettered in chains, forcibly torn from their families.”

[…] Wherever [the Dutch] set foot, devastation and depopulation followed. Banjuwangi, a province of Java, in 1750 numbered over 80,000 inhabitants, in 1811 only 18,000. Sweet commerce! (Marx 1990 [1867], 651-652).

Marx mentions the VOC explicitly in Capital, Volume III, as part of his historical observations on merchant capital. Here he says that if one wants an example of the way in which merchant capital operates in places where it directly controls production, one should look at “the colonial system”, especially “the methods of the old Dutch East India Company” (Marx 1967 [1894], 329). As in the earlier passage, it is clear from the context that Marx’s reason to single out the VOC was his perception of the cruel and exploitative character of this company.

The process of knowledge collection behind those passages in itself gives an interesting starting point for reading Marx ‘from the margins’. Marx took extensive notes from the first volume of Raffles’s 1817 History of Java (Raffles 1817) while in London in 1853.1 At this time, he developed a great interest in colonial and semi-colonial societies, leading to his famous articles on India and China for the New York Daily Tribune. Many have rejected Marx’s articles on India from this period – or at least the years before the 1857 Sepoy uprising – for ascribing a ‘progressive’ role to colonialism. Nevertheless, it is clear from what Marx took from Raffles, that even at this early stage his willingness to see Western capitalism’s penetration into Asia as ‘necessary’ for future development was always circumscribed by his acknowledgement of the brutal and devastating impact that it had. In his “The British Rule in India”, Marx quotes a passage from Raffles saying that “The Dutch Company, actuated solely by the spirit of gain, and viewing their [Javan] subjects with less regard or consideration than a West-India planter formerly viewed the gang upon his estate, […] employed all the existing machinery of despotism to squeeze from the people their utmost mite of contributions, the last dregs of their labour”. Against Raffles, who berated the Dutch only to the advantage of the English, Marx pointed out that the British Rule in India is “only an imitation of the Dutch” (Marx 1979 [1853], 126).

Equally interesting is the special attention payed by Marx to slavery under the VOC. It should be kept in mind that the Dutch government abolished slavery in the East Indies as late as 1860, merely seven years before the publication of Capital, Volume I. Despite this late abolition, Dutch historians have all but neglected the role of slavery in the VOC empire until very recently (Van Rossum 2015). In contrast, Marx elevated it to a central plane. One simple explanation for his attentiveness to this issue is that it helped him to expose the violent origins of capitalist development, an objective that runs through Marx’s entire discussion of “the so-called primitive accumulation”: “In actual history it is notorious that conquest, enslavement, robbery, murder, briefly force, play the great part. In the tender annals of Political Economy, the idyllic reigns from time immemorial.” (Marx 1990 [1867], 620). What better way to illustrate the hypocrisy of the capitalist, than laying at his doorstep the thoroughly discredited system of slavery? After all, this was not only the moment of abolition in the Dutch East and West Indies, but also, more epoch-making, in the American South through the Civil War, and of the emancipation of the serfs in the Russian Empire. An outspoken opponent of slavery, Marx never missed his chance to emphasize capital’s complicity in it.

Generations of readers after Marx have interpreted those famous lines of Marx primarily as comments on capital’s recent antecedents. However, an even more potent re-reading might be possible; for throughout the famous chapter in which Marx discusses the cruelty of Dutch colonialism and slavery, he leaves clues that suggest he did not see this type of violence merely as a stepping stone for ‘modern’, developed capitalism, but as one of its contemporary companions. Stressing this continuity, Marx writes: “Colonial system, public debts, heavy taxes, protection, commercial wars, etc., these children of the true manufacturing period, increase gigantically during the infancy of Modern Industry” (Marx 1990 [1867], 656). Simultaneity is also implied in his famous comment that “[w]hilst the cotton industry introduced child-slavery in England, it gave in the United States a stimulus to the trans-formation of the earlier, more or less patriarchal slavery, into a system of commercial exploitation” (Marx 1990 [1867], 658-9). Is it a coincidence that when turning to the history of the VOC, Marx also especially highlighted the fate of “the young people stolen”? Starting from his sparse remarks on the VOC, we can see not only Marx’s acute interest in the global nature of exploitation and accumulation, but also his attentiveness to the threads that connected capitalism’s history to its present.