Issue 2, 2018: Marx from the Margins

Golden Age

Pepijn Brandon

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.




Brandon, Pepijn. 2011. “Marxism and the ‘Dutch Miracle’. The Dutch Republic and the Transition-Debate.” Historical Materialism 19 (3): 106-46.

Lourens, Piet, and Jan Lucassen. 1992. “Marx als Historiker der niederländischen Republik.” In Die Rezeption der Marxschen Theorie in den Niederlanden, edited by Marcel van der Linden, 430-54. Trier: Karl-Marx-Haus.

Marx, Karl. 1983 [1867]. Das Kapital. Kritik der politischen Ökonomie. Volume I [first edition, Hamburg 1867]. Marx-Engels Gesamtausgabe2, Volume II.5. Berlin: Dietz Verlag.

Marx, Karl. 1987 [1872]. Das Kapital. Kritik der politischen Ökonomie. Volume I [second edition, Hamburg 1872]. Marx-Engels Gesamtausgabe2, Volume II.6. Berlin: Dietz Verlag.

Marx, Karl. 1990 [1867]. Capital: A Critical Analysis of Capitalist Production. Volume I [Aveling / Moore translation]. Marx-Engels Gesamtausgabe2, Volume II.9. Berlin: Dietz Verlag.

Van der Linden, Marcel. 1997. “Marx and Engels, Dutch Marxism and the ‘Model Capitalist Nation of the Seventeenth Century’.” Science & Society 61 (2): 161-93.


1] This version gives a slightly different translation of the phrase than the translation used here.

2] It is noteworthy that in the first German edition of Capital, Marx did not use the word ‘Momente’ but ‘Methoden’. Cf. those passages in Marx 1983 [1867], 601 and Marx 1987 [1872], 674. The change in the wording of the second edition should be read as a broadening out and enrichment of his initial formulation, not as a conscious change of direction, for which there is no textual evidence.


Pepijn Brandon

Pepijn Brandon is Assistant Professor in Economic and Social History at the VU Amsterdam and Senior Researcher at the International Institute of Social History. He is the author of War, Capital, and the Dutch State (1588-1795) (Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2015; paperback: Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2017). While writing his contribution for this journal, he was a fellow at Harvard's Weatherhead Center for International Affairs.