Capital Volume II

Chapter 10: Theories of Fixed and Circulating Capital.
The Physiocrats and Adam Smith

In Quesnay the distinction between fixed and circulating capital presents itself as avances primitives and avances annuelles. He correctly represents this distinction as one existing within productive capital, capital directly engaged in the process of production. As he regards the capital employed in agriculture, the capital of the farmer, as the only really productive capital, he draws these distinctions only for the capital of the farmer. This also accounts for the annual period of turnover of one part of the capital, and the more than annual (decennial) period of the other part. In the course of the development the physiocrats incidentally applied these distinctions also to other kinds of capital and to industrial capital in general. The distinction between annual advances and others of longer duration has retained such importance for society that many economists, even after Adam Smith, return to this definition.

The difference between these two kinds of advances does not arise until advanced money has been transformed into the elements of productive capital. It is a difference that exists solely within productive capital. It therefore never occurs to Quesnay to classify money either among the original or the annual advances. As advances for production, i.e., as productive capital, both of them stand opposed to money as well as the commodities existing in the market. Furthermore the difference between these two elements of productive capital is correctly reduced in Quesnay to the different manner in which they enter into the value of the finished product, hence to the different manner in which their values are circulated together with those of the products, and hence to the different manner of their replacement or their reproduction, the value of the one being wholly replaced annually, that of the other partly and at longer intervals.[23]

The only progress made by Adam Smith is the generalisation of the categories. With him it no longer applies to one special form of capital, the farmer’s capital, but to every form of productive capital. Hence it follows as a matter of course that the distinction derived from agriculture between an annual turnover and one of two or more years’ duration is superseded by the general distinction into different periods of turnover, one turnover of the fixed capital always comprising more than one turnover of the circulating capital, regardless of the periods of turnover of the circulating capital, whether they be annual, more than annual, or less than annual. Thus in Adam Smith the avances annuelles transform themselves into circulating capital, and the avances primitives into fixed capital. But his progress is confined to this generalisation of the categories. His implementation is far inferior to that of Quesnay.

The crudely empirical manner in which Smith broaches the investigation engenders at the very outset a lack of clarity:

“There are two different ways in which a capital may be employed so as to yield a revenue or profit to its employer.” (Wealth of Nations, Book II, Chap. I, p. 189, Aberdeen edition, 1848. [Wherever Marx did not give a page reference to quotations from Smith’s work, editorial page references are given in square brackets to the London 1843 edition of An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, A new edition in four volumes. This and all the following quotations from Smith have been checked with this edition. — Ed.]

The ways in which value may be invested so as to perform the functions of capital, to yield surplus value to its owner, are as different and varied as the spheres of investment of capital. It is a question of the different branches of production in which capital may be invested. If put in this way, the question implies still more. It includes the question of the way in which value, even if it is not invested as productive capital, can function as capital for its owner, for instance as interest-bearing capital, merchants’ capital, etc. At this point we are already miles away from the real subject of the analysis, viz., the question of how the division of productive capital into its different elements, apart from their different spheres of investment, affects their turnover.

Adam Smith immediately continues:

“First, it may be employed in raising, manufacturing, or purchasing goods, and selling them again with a profit.” [Vol. II, p. 254.]

He does not tell us anything else here than that capital may be employed in agriculture, manufacture, and commerce. He speaks therefore only of the different spheres of investment of capital, including such in which, as in commerce, capital is not directly embodied in the process of production, hence does not function as productive capital. In so doing he abandons the foundation on which the physiocrats base the distinctions within productive capital and their effect on the turnover. More. He uses merchant’s capital as an illustration in a problem which concerns exclusively differences within the productive capital in the product and value-creating process, which in turn cause differences in its turnover and reproduction.

He continues:

“The capital employed in this manner yields no revenue or profit to its employer, while it either remains in his possession or continues in the same shape.” [Vol. II, p. 254.]

“The capital employed in this manner!” But Smith speaks of capital invested in agriculture, in industry, and he tells us later that a capital so employed divides into fixed and circulating capital! Hence investment of capital in this manner cannot make fixed or circulating capital of it.

Or does he mean to say that capital employed in order to produce goods and to sell these at a profit must be sold after its transformation into goods and by means of the sale must in the first place pass from the possession of the seller into that of the buyer, and in the second place change from its bodily form, goods, into its money-form, so that it is of no use to its owner so long as it either remains in his possession or continues in the same shape? In that case, the whole thing amounts to this: The capital-value that formerly functioned in the form of productive capital, in a form peculiar to the process of production, now functions as commodity-capital and money-capital, in forms peculiar to the process of circulation, where it is no longer either fixed or circulating capital. And this applies equally to those elements of value which are added by raw and auxiliary material, i.e., by circulating capital, and to those which are added by the wear and tear of instruments of labour hence by fixed capital. We do not get any nearer to the difference between fixed and circulating capital in this way.


“The goods of the merchant yield him no revenue or profit till he sells them for money, and the money yields him as little till it is again exchanged for goods. His capital is continually going from him in one shape, and returning to him in another, and it is only by means of such circulation, or successive exchanges, that it can yield him any profit. Such capitals therefore may very properly be called circulating capitals.” [Vol. II, p. 254.]

What Adam Smith here defines as circulating capital is what I want to call capital of circulation, capital in a form pertinent to the process of circulation, to a change of form by means of exchange (a change of substance and change of hands), hence commodity-capital and money-capital, as distinguished from its form pertinent to the process of production, that of productive capital. These are not different kinds into which the industrial capitalist divides his capital, but different forms over and over again assumed and stripped off successively by the same advanced capital-value during its curriculum vitae. Adam Smith lumps this together — and this is a big step back compared to the physiocrats — with the distinctions in form which arise in the sphere of circulation of capital-value, in its circular course through its successive forms, while the capital-value exists in the form of productive capital; and they arise because of the different ways in which the different elements of productive capital take part in the formation of values and transfer their value to the product. We shall see below the consequences of this basic confusion of productive capital and capital in the sphere of circulation (commodity-capital and money-capital) on the one hand, with fixed and circulating capital on the other. The capital-value advanced in fixed capital is as much circulated by the product as that which has been advanced in the circulating capital, and both are equally converted into money-capital by the circulation of the commodity-capital. The difference evolves only from the fact that the value of the fixed capital circulates piece-meal and therefore must likewise be replaced piecemeal, at shorter or longer intervals, must be reproduced in its bodily form.

That by circulating capital Adam Smith means here nothing but capital of circulation, i.e., capital-value in the forms pertaining to the process of circulation (commodity capital and money-capital) is shown by his singularly ill-chosen illustration. He selects for this purpose a kind of capital which does not belong at all in the process of production, but whose abode is exclusively the sphere of circulation, which consists solely of capital of circulation — merchant’s capital.

How absurd it is to start out with an illustration in which capital does not figure altogether as productive capital is stated right afterwards by him himself:

"The capital of a merchant, for example, is altogether a circulating capital."

[Vol. II, p. 255.] Yet we are told later on that the difference between circulating and fixed capital evolves out of essential differences within the productive capital itself. On the one hand Adam Smith has the distinction of the physiocrats in mind, on the other the different forms assumed by capital-value in its circuit. And both these things are higgledy-piggledy jumbled together.

But how a profit is to come into existence by changes of form of money and commodities, by a mere transmutation of value from one of these forms into another, is more than anyone can tell. And an explanation becomes absolutely impossible because he starts out here with merchants’ capital, which moves only in the sphere of circulation. We shall return to this later. Let us first hear what he has to say about fixed capital. [Vol. II, pp. 254-55.]

“Secondly, it (capital) may be employed in the improvement of land, in the purchase of useful machines and instruments of trade, or in suchlike things as yield a revenue or profit without changing masters, or circulating any further. Such capitals therefore may very properly be called fixed capitals. Different occupations require very different proportions between the fixed and circulating capitals employed in them. ... Some part of the capital of every master artificer or manufacturer be fixed in the instruments of his trade. This part, however, is very small in some, and very great in others. ... The far greater part of the capital of all such master artificers (such as tailors, shoemakers, weavers) however is circulated, either in the wages of their workmen, or in the price of their materials, and to be repaid with a profit by the price of work.”

Apart from the naïve determination of the source of profit weakness and confusion become at once apparent from the following: To a machine manufacturer for example the machine is his product, which circulates as commodity-capital, or in Adam Smith’s words, “is parted with, changes masters, circulates further.” According to his own definition therefore this machine would not be fixed but circulating capital. This confusion is again due to the fact that Smith mixes up the distinction between fixed and circulating capital evolved out of the manifold circulation of the various elements of productive capital, with differences in the form assumed by the same capital which functions as productive capital within the process of production and as circulation capital, that is to say, as commodity-capital or as money-capital, within the sphere of circulation. Consequently with Adam Smith things can function as fixed capital (as instruments of labour, elements of productive capital), or as “circulating” capital, commodity-capital (as products thrust out of the sphere of production into that of circulation), all depending on the position they occupy in the life-process of capital.

But Adam Smith suddenly changes the entire basis of his classification, and contradicts the text with which he had opened the entire investigation a few lines previously. This refers particularly to the statement: “There are two different ways in which a capital may be employed so as to yield a revenue or a profit to its employer,” [Vol. II, p. 254] namely, as circulating or as fixed capital. According to that these are therefore different methods of employing different capitals independent of one another, such as capitals that can be employed either in industry or in agriculture. And then we read [Vol. II, p. 255]:

“Different occupations require very different proportions between the fixed and circulating capitals employed in them.”

Fixed and circulating capital are now no longer different, independent investments of capital, but different portions of the same productive capital, which form different parts of the total value of this capital in different spheres of investment. Hence we have here differences arising from an appropriate division of the productive capital itself and therefore valid only with respect to it. But this runs counter to the circumstance that merchants’ capital, being merely circulating capital, is opposed to fixed capital, for Adam Smith says himself: “The capital of a merchant for example is altogether a circulating capital.” [Vol. II, p. 255.] It is indeed a capital performing its functions solely within the sphere of circulation and as such stands opposed in general to productive capital, the capital embodied in the process of production. But for this very reason it cannot be contrasted, as the circulating component part of productive capital, to its fixed component part.

In the illustrations Smith gives he designates the “instruments of trade” as fixed capital, and the portion of capital laid out in wages and raw materials, including auxiliary materials, as circulating capital (“repaid with a profit by the price of the work”).

And so he starts out, in the first place, from the various constituents of the labour-process, from labour-power (labour) and raw materials on the one hand, and instruments of labour on the other. But these are constituents of capital, because a sum of value which is to function as capital is invested in them. To this extent they are material elements, modes of existence of productive capital, that is to say, of capital functioning in the process of production. But why is one of these parts called fixed? Because

"some parts of the capital must be fixed in the instruments of trade." [Vol. II, p. 254.]

But the other part is also fixed — in wages and raw materials. Machines however and

"instruments of trade ... or suchlike things ... yield a revenue or profit without changing masters, or circulating any further. Such capitals, therefore, may very properly be called fixed capitals." [Vol. II, p. 254.]

Take for instance the mining industry. No raw material at all is used there, because the subject of labour, such as copper, is a product of nature, which must first be appropriated by labour. The copper to be first appropriated, the product of the process, which circulates later as a commodity, or commodity-capital, does not form an element of productive capital. No part of its value is invested in it. On the other hand the other elements of the productive process, labour-power and auxiliary materials such as coal, water, etc., do not enter materially into the product, either. The coal is entirely consumed and only its value enters into the product, just as a part of the value of the machine, etc., enters into it. Finally, the labourer remains as independent vis-à-vis the product, the copper, as the machine; except that the value which he produces by means of his labour is now a component part of the value of the copper. Hence in this illustration not a single constituent of productive capital changes “masters,” nor is any of them circulated further, because none of them enter materially into the product. What becomes of the circulating capital in this case? According to Adam Smith’s own definition the entire capital employed in a copper mine consists of fixed capital and nothing else.

Let us take on the other hand a different industry, one which utilises raw materials that form the substance of its product, and auxiliary materials that enter into the product bodily and not only as so much value, as is the case with fuel coal. The product, for instance the yarn, changes hands together with the raw material, the cotton, composing it, and passes from the process of production into that of consumption. But so long as the cotton functions as an element of productive capital, its master does not sell it, but processes it, has it made into yarn. He does not part with it. Or, to use Smith’s crudely erroneous and trivial terms, he does not make any profit “by parting with it, by its changing masters, or by circulating it.” He does not permit his materials to circulate any more than his machines. They are fixed in the process of production, the same as the spinning machines and the factory buildings. Indeed, a part of the productive capital must be just as continually fixed in the form of coal, cotton, etc., as in the form of instruments of labour. The difference is only that for instance the cotton, coal, etc., required for one week’s yarn production, are always entirely consumed in the manufacture of the weekly product, so that new cotton, coal, etc., must be supplied in their place; in other words, these elements of productive capital, although remaining identical in kind, always consist of new specimens of the same kind, while the same individual spinning machine or the same individual factory building continues its participation in a whole series of weekly productions without being replaced by a new specimen of its kind. As elements of the productive capital all its constituent parts are continually fixed in the process of production, for it cannot proceed without them. And all the elements of productive capital, whether fixed or circulating, equally confront, as productive capital, the capital of circulation, i.e., commodity-capital and money-capital.

It is the same with labour-power. A part of the productive capital must be continually fixed in it, and it is the same identical labour-powers, just as it is the same machines, that are everywhere employed for a certain length of time by the same capitalist. The difference between labour-power and machines in this case is not that the machines are bought once and for all (which is not so when they are paid for in instalments), while the labourer is not. The difference is rather that the labour expended by the labourer enters wholly into the value of the product, while the value of the machines enters only piecemeal.

Smith confuses different definitions when he says of circulating capital as opposed to fixed:

“The capital employed in this manner yields no revenue or profit to its employer, while it either remains in his possession or continues in the same shape.”

[Vol. II, p. 254.] He places the merely formal metamorphosis of the commodity, which the product, the commodity-capital, undergoes in the sphere of circulation and which brings about the change of hands of the commodities, on the same level as the bodily metamorphosis, which the various elements of productive capital undergo during the process of production. He indiscriminately jumbles together the transformation of commodities into money and of money into commodities, or purchase and sale, with the transformation of elements of production into products. His illustration for circulating capital is merchants’ capital, which is converted from commodities into money and from money into commodities — the change of form C—M—C pertaining to the circulation of commodities. But this change of form within the circulation signifies for the industrial capital in action that the commodities into which the money is reconverted are elements of production (instruments of labour and labour-power), that, therefore, the change of form renders the function of industrial capital continuous, renders the process of production a continuous one, or a process of reproduction. This entire change of form takes place in circulation. It is this change of form that brings about the real passage of the commodities from hand to hand. But the metamorphoses gone through by productive capital within its process of production are on the contrary metamorphoses that pertain to the labour-process and are necessary to transform the elements of production into the desired product. Adam Smith clings to the fact that a part of the means of production (the instruments of labour proper) serve in the labour-process (“yield a profit to their master,” as he erroneously expresses it) without changing their bodily form and wear out only by degrees; while the other part, the materials, change and by virtue of this very change attain their destination as means of production. This difference in the behaviour of the elements of productive capital in the labour-process forms however only the point of departure of the difference between fixed and non-fixed capital, not this difference itself. That follows from the fact alone that this different behaviour exists in equal measure under all modes of production, capitalist and non-capitalist. To this different behaviour of material elements corresponds however the transmission of value to the product, and to this in turn corresponds the replacement of value by the sale of the product. That and that alone is what constitutes the difference in question. Hence capital is not called fixed because it is fixed in the instruments of labour but because a part of its value laid out in instruments of labour remains fixed in them, while the other part circulates as a component part of the value of the product.

"If it (the stock) is employed in procuring future profit, it must procure this profit either by staying with him (the employer), or by going from him. In the one case it is a fixed, in the other it is a circulating capital." (p. 189.)

What strikes one here above all is that the crudely empirical conception of profit derived from the outlook of the ordinary capitalist, which wholly contradicts the better esoteric understanding of Adam Smith. Not only the price of materials and that of the labour-power is replaced in the price of the product, but also that part of value which is transferred by wear and tear from the instruments of labour to the product. Under no circumstances does this replacement yield profit. Whether a value advanced for the production of a commodity is replaced entirely or piecemeal, at one time or gradually, by the sale of that commodity, cannot change anything except the manner and time of replacement. But in no event can it transform that which is common to both, the replacement of value, into a creation of surplus-value. At the bottom of it all lies the commonly held idea that, because surplus-value is not realised until the product is sold, until it circulates, it originates only from sales, from the circulation. Indeed the different manner of origination of profit is in this case but a wrong way of expressing the fact that the different elements of productive capital serve differently, that as productive elements they act differently in the labour-process. In the end, the difference is not derived from the process of labour or self-expansion, not from the function of productive capital itself, but it is supposed to apply only subjectively to the individual capitalist, to whom one part of capital serves a useful purpose in one way, while another part does so in another way.

Quesnay, on the other hand, had derived these differences from the process of reproduction and its necessities. In order that this process may be continuous, the value of the annual advances must annually be replaced in full out of the value of the annual product, while the value of the investment capital need be replaced only piecemeal, so that it requires complete replacement and therefore complete reproduction only in a period of, say, ten years (by a new material of the same kind). Consequently Adam Smith falls far below Quesnay.

So there is therefore absolutely nothing left to Adam Smith for a definition of fixed capital except that it is instruments of labour which do not change their shape in the process of production and continue to serve in production until they are worn out, as opposed to the products in the formation of which they assist. He forgets that all elements of productive capital continually confront in their bodily form (as instruments of labour, materials, and labour-power) the product and the product circulating as a commodity, and that the difference between the part consisting of materials and labour-power and that consisting of instruments of labour is only this: with regard to labour-power, that it is always purchased afresh (not bought for the time it lasts, as are the instruments of labour); with regard to the materials, that it is not the same identical materials that function in the labour-process throughout, but always new materials of the same kind. At the same time the false impression is created that the value of the fixed capital does not participate in the circulation, although of course Adam Smith previously explained the wear and tear of fixed capital as a part of the price of the product.

In opposing circulating capital to fixed, no emphasis is placed on the fact that this opposition exists solely because it is that constituent part of productive capital which must be wholly replaced out of the value of the product and must therefore fully share in its metamorphoses, while this is not so in the case of the fixed capital. Instead the circulating capital is jumbled together with those forms which capital assumes on passing from the sphere of production to that of circulation, as commodity-capital and money-capital. But both forms, commodity-capital as well as money-capital, are carriers of the value of both the fixed and the circulating component parts of productive capital. Both of them are capital of circulation, as distinguished from productive capital, but not circulating (fluent) capital as distinguished from fixed capital.

Finally, owing to the wholly erroneous explanation that profit is made by fixed capital staying in the process of production, and by circulating capital leaving it and being circulated, and also on account of the identity of form assumed in the turnover by the variable capital and the circulating constituent of the constant capital, their essential difference in the process of self-expansion and of the formation of surplus-value is hidden, so that the entire secret of capitalist production is obscured still more. The common designation "circulating capital" abolishes this essential difference. Political Economy subsequently went still farther by holding fast not to the antithesis between variable and constant capital but to the antithesis between fixed and circulating capital as the essential and sole delimitation.

After Adam Smith has designated fixed and circulating capital as two particular ways of investing capital, each of which yields a profit by itself, he says:

"No fixed capital can yield any revenue but by means of a circulating capital. The most useful machines and instruments of trade will produce nothing without the circulating capital which affords the materials they are employed upon, the maintenance of the workmen who employ them." (P. 188.)

Here it becomes apparent what the previously used expressions “yield a revenue,” “make a profit,” etc., signify, viz., that both parts of capital serve as creators of product.

Adam Smith then gives the following illustration:

“That part of the capital of the farmer which is employed in the instruments of agriculture is a fixed, that which is employed in the wages and maintenance of his labouring servants is a circulating capital.”

(Here the difference between fixed and circulating capital is correctly applied only to difference in circulation, to the turnovers of different constituent parts of productive capital.)

“He makes a profit of the one by keeping it in his own possession, and of the other by parting with it. The price or value of his labouring cattle is a fixed capital”

(here he is again correct when he says it is the value, not the material element, to which the difference applies)

“in the same manner as that of the instruments of husbandry; their maintenance” (that of the labouring cattle) “is a circulating capital in the same manner as that of the labouring servants. The farmer makes his profit by keeping the labouring cattle, and by parting with their maintenance.”

(The farmer keeps the fodder of the cattle, he does not sell it. He uses it to feed the cattle, while he uses us the cattle themselves as instruments of labour. The difference is only this: The fodder that goes for the maintenance of the labouring cattle is consumed wholly and must be continually replaced by new cattle fodder out of the products of agriculture or by their sale; the cattle themselves are replaced only as each head becomes incapacitated for work.)

“Both the price and the maintenance of the cattle which are bought in and fattened, not for labour but for sale, are a circulating capital. The farmer makes his profit by parting with them.” [Vol. II, pp. 255-56.]

(Every producer of commodities, hence likewise the capitalist producer, sells his product, the result of his process of production, but this is no reason why this product should form a part of either the fixed or the circulating component of his productive capital. The product now exists rather in that form in which it is thrust out of the process of production and must function as commodity-capital. The fattened stock function in the process of production as raw material, not as instruments of labour like the labouring cattle. Hence the fattened cattle enter into the product as substance, and their whole value enters into it, just as that of the auxiliary material [its fodder]. The fattened cattle are therefore a circulating part of the productive capital, but not because the sold product, the fattened cattle, have the same bodily form as the raw material, the cattle not yet fattened. This is accidental. At the same time Adam Smith might have seen by this illustration that it is not the material form of the element of production but its function within the process of production that determines the value contained in it as fixed or circulating.)

“The whole value of the seed too is properly a fixed capital. Though it goes backwards and forwards between the ground and the granary, it never changes masters, and therefore it does not properly circulate. The farmer makes his profit not by its sale, but by its increase.” [Vol. II, p. 256.]

At this point the utter thoughtlessness of the Smithian distinction reveals itself. According to him seed would be fixed capital, if there would be no “change of masters,” that is to say, if the seed is directly replaced out of the annual product, is deducted from it. On the other hand it would be circulating capital, if the entire product were sold and with a part of its value seed of another owner were bought. In the one case there is a “change of masters,” in the other there is not. Smith once more confuses here circulating and commodity-capital. The product is the material vehicle of the commodity-capital, but of course only that part of it which actually enters into the circulation and does not re-enter directly into the process of production from which it emerged as a product.

Whether the seed is directly deducted from the product as a part of it or the entire product is sold and a part of its value converted in the purchase of another man’s seed — in either case it is mere replacement that takes place and no profit is made by this replacement. In the one case the seed enters into circulation as a commodity together with the remainder of the product; in the other it figures only in book-keeping as a component part of the value of the advanced capital. But in both cases it remains a circulating constituent of the productive capital. The seed is entirely consumed to get the product ready, and it must be entirely replaced out of the product to make reproduction possible.

“Hence raw material and auxiliary substances lose the characteristic form with which they are clothed on entering the labour-process. It is otherwise with the instruments of labour. Tools, machines, workshops, and vessels, are of use in the labour-process, only so long as they retain their original shape, and are ready each morning to renew the process, with their shape unchanged. And just as during their lifetime, that is to say, during the continued labour-process in which they serve, they retain their shape independent of the product, so too, they do after their death. The corpses of machines, tools, workshops, etc., are always separate and distinct from the product they helped to turn out.” (Buch I, Kap. VI, S. 192.) [English edition: Volume I, Ch. VIII, p. 203. — Ed.]

These different ways in which means of production are consumed to form the product, some of them preserving their independent shape vis-à-vis the product, others changing or losing it entirely — this difference pertaining to the labour-process as such and therefore just as well to the labour-processes aimed at satisfying merely one’s own needs, e.g., the needs of the patriarchal family, without any exchange, without production of commodities — are falsified by Adam Smith. He does so 1) by introducing here the totally irrelevant definition of profit, claiming that some of the means of production yield a profit to their owner by preserving their form, while the others do so by losing it; 2) by jumbling together the alterations of a part of the elements of production in the labour-process with the change of form (purchase and sale) that is characteristic of the exchange of products, of commodity circulation, and which at the same time includes a change in the ownership of the circulating commodities.

The turnover presupposes reproduction effected by circulation, hence by the sale of the product, by its conversion into money and its reconversion from money into its elements of production. But since a part of the capitalist producer’s own product serves him directly as means of production, he appears as a seller of it to himself, and that is how the matter figures in his books. In that case this part of the reproduction is not brought about by circulation but proceeds directly. However the part of the product thus serving again as means of production replaces circulating, not fixed capital, since 1) its value passes wholly into the product, and 2) it itself has been wholly replaced in kind by a new specimen out of the new product.

Adam Smith tells us now what circulating and fixed capital consist of. He enumerates the things, the material elements, which form fixed, and those which form circulating capital, as if this definiteness were inherent in these things materially, by nature, and did not rather spring from their definite function within the capitalist process of production. And yet in the same chapter (Book II, Chapter I) he makes the remark that although a certain thing, e.g., a dwelling, which is reserved as "stock" for "immediate consumption,"

“may yield a revenue to its proprietor, and thereby serve in the function of a capital to him, it cannot yield any to the public, nor serve in the function of a capital to it, and the revenue of the whole body of the people can never be in the smallest degree increased by it.” (p. 186.)

Here, then, Adam Smith clearly states that the property of being capital is not inherent in things as such and in any case, but is a function with which they may or may not be invested, according to circumstances. But what is true of capital in general is also true of its subdivisions.

Things form constituent parts of the circulating or fixed capital, depending on what function they perform in the labour-process. A head of cattle for instance, as labouring cattle (instrument of labour), represents the material mode of existence of fixed capital, while as cattle for fattening (raw material) it is a constituent part of the farmer’s circulating capital. On the other hand the same thing may now function as a constituent part of productive capital and now belong to the fund for direct consumption. A house for instance when performing the function of a workshop, is a fixed component part of productive capital; when serving as a dwelling it is in no wise a form of capital. The same instruments of labour may in many cases serve either as means of production or as means of consumption.

It was one of the errors following from Adam Smith’s idea that the property of being fixed or circulating capital was conceived as inherent in the things themselves. The mere analysis of the labour-process (Buch I, Kap. V) [ English edition: Volume I, Ch. VII. — Ed.] shows that the definitions of instruments of labour, materials of labour, and product change according to the various roles played by one and the same thing in the process. The definitions of fixed and non-fixed capital are based in their turn on the definite roles played by these elements in the labour-process, and therefore also in the value formation process.

In the second place, on enumerating the things fixed and circulating capitals consist of, it becomes fully apparent that Smith lumps together the distinction — valid and making sense only with regard to productive capital (capital in its productive form) — between the fixed and circulating components of the same, with the distinction between productive capital and those forms which pertain to capital in its process of circulation, viz., commodity-capital and money-capital. He says in the same passage (pp. 187 and 188):

“The circulating capital consists ... of the provisions, materials, and finished work of all kinds that are in the hands of their respective dealers, and of the money that is necessary for circulating and distributing them, etc.”

Indeed, if we look more closely we observe that here, contrary to his previous statements, circulating capital is again equated to commodity-capital and money-capital, that is to say, to two forms of capital which do not belong in the process of production at all, which do not form circulating (fluent) capital as opposed to fixed, but capital of circulation as opposed to productive capital. It is only alongside these that the constituents of productive capital advanced in materials (raw materials or semi-finished products) and really incorporated in the process of production then play a role again. He says:

“... The third and last of the three portions into which the general stock of the society naturally divides itself, is the circulating capital, of which the characteristic is, that it affords a revenue only by circulating or changing masters. It is composed likewise of four parts: first of the money ...”

(but money is never a form of productive capital, of capital functioning in the productive process; it is always only one of the forms assumed by capital within its process of circulation);

“secondly, of the stock of provisions which are in the possession of the butcher, the grazier, the farmer ... from the sale of which they expect to derive a profit ... Fourthly and lastly, of the work which is made up and completed, but which is still in the hands of the merchant and manufacturer. And, thirdly, of the materials, whether altogether rude, or more or less manufactured, of clothes, furniture, and buildings, which are not yet made up into any of those three shapes, but which remain in the hands of the growers, the manufacturers, the mercers and drapers, the timber-merchants, the carpenters and jointers, the brick-makers, etc.”

Nos. 2 and 4 contain nothing but products which have been thrust out as such from the process of production and must be sold, in short, which now function as commodities, hence as commodity-capital, and which therefore have a form and occupy a place in the process in which they are not elements of productive capital, no matter what may be their eventual destination, i.e., whether, in order to answer their purpose (use-value), they should finally be allotted to individual or productive consumption. The products mentioned in 2 are foodstuffs, in 4 all other finished products, which in turn consist only of finished instruments of labour or finished articles of consumption (foodstuffs other than those mentioned under 2).

The fact that Smith at the same time speaks of the merchant shows his confusion. Once the producer sells his product to the merchant, it no longer constitutes any form of his capital. From the point of view of society, it is indeed still commodity-capital, although in other hands than those of its producer; but for the very reason that it is a commodity-capital it is neither fixed nor circulating capital.

In every kind of production not meant for the satisfaction of the producer’s direct needs, the product must circulate as a commodity, i.e., it must be sold, not in order to make a profit on it, but that the producer may be able to live at all. Under capitalist production, there is to be added the circumstance that when a commodity is sold the surplus-value embodied in it is also realised. The product emerges as a commodity from the process of production and is therefore neither a fixed nor a circulating element of this process.

Incidentally, Smith here argues against himself. The finished products, whatever their material form or their use-value, their useful effect, are all commodity-capital here, hence capital in a form characteristic of the process of circulation. Being in this form, they are not constituent parts of any productive capital their owner may have. This does not in the least prevent them from becoming, right after their sale, in the hands of their purchaser, constituent parts of productive capital, either fixed or circulating. Here it is evident that things which for a certain time appear in the market as commodity-capital, as opposed to productive capital, may or may not function as circulating or fixed constituents of productive capital after they have been removed from the market.

The product of the cotton spinner, yarn, is the commodity-form of his capital, is commodity-capital as far as he is concerned. It cannot function again as a constituent part of his productive capital, neither as material of labour nor as an instrument of labour. But in the hands of the weaver who buys it it is incorporated in the productive capital of the latter as one of its circulating constituent parts. For the spinner, however, the yarn is the depository of the value of part of his fixed as well as circulating capital (apart from the surplus-value). In the same way a machine, the product of a machine-manufacturer, is the commodity-form of his capital, is commodity-capital to him. And so long as it stays in this form it is neither circulating nor fixed capital. But if sold to a manufacturer for use it becomes a fixed component part of a productive capital. Even if by virtue of its use-form the product can partly re-enter as means of production into the process from which it originated, e.g., coal into coal production, precisely that part of the output of coal which is intended for sale represents neither circulating nor fixed capital but commodity-capital.

On the other hand a product, due to its use-form, may be wholly incapable of forming any element of productive capital, either as material of labour or as an instrument of labour. For instance any means of subsistence. Nevertheless it is commodity-capital for its producer, is the carrier of the value of his fixed as well as circulating capital; and of the one or the other according to whether the capital employed in its production has to be replaced in whole or in part, has transferred its value to the product in whole or in part.

With Smith, in No. 3, the raw material (material not worked up, semi-finished products, auxiliary substances) does not figure on the one hand as a component part embodied in the productive capital, but actually only as a special kind of use-values of which the social product can at all consist, as a special kind of commodities existing alongside the other material constituent parts, means of subsistence, etc., enumerated under Nos. 2 and 4. On the other hand these materials are indeed cited as incorporated in the productive capital and therefore as elements of it in the hands of the producer. The confusion is evidenced by the fact that they are partly conceived as functioning in the hands of the producer (“in the hands of the growers, the manufacturers, etc.”), and partly in the hands of merchants (“mercers, drapers, timber-merchants”), where they are merely commodity-capital, not component parts of productive capital.

Indeed, Adam Smith wholly forgets here, in enumerating the elements of circulating capital, the distinction — applying only to the productive capital — between fixed and circulating capital. He rather places commodity-capital and money-capital, i.e., the two forms of capital typical of the process of circulation, in opposition to the productive capital, but that quite unconsciously.

Finally, it is a striking fact that Adam Smith forgets to mention labour-power when counting off the constituent parts of circulating capital. There are two reasons for this.

We have just seen that, apart from money-capital, circulating capital is only another name for commodity-capital. But to the extent that labour-power circulates in the market, it is not capital, no form of commodity-capital. It is not capital at all; the labourer is not a capitalist, although he brings a commodity to market, namely his own skin. Not until labour-power has been sold, been incorporated in the process of production, hence not until it has ceased to circulate as a commodity, does it become a constituent of productive capital — variable capital as the source of surplus-value, a circulating component part of productive capital with reference to the turnover of the capital-value invested in it. Since Smith here confuses the circulating capital with commodity-capital, he cannot bring labour-power under the head of circulating capital. Hence the variable capital here appears in the form of the commodities the labourer buys with his wages, viz., means of subsistence. In this form the capital-value invested in wages is supposed to belong to circulating capital. That which is incorporated in the process of production is labour-power, the labourer himself, not the means of subsistence wherewith the labourer maintains himself. True, we have seen (Buch I, Kap. XXI) [English edition: Volume I, Ch. XXIII. — Ed.] that from the point of view of society the reproduction of the labourer himself by means of his individual consumption is likewise part of the process of reproduction of social capital. But this does not apply to the individual, isolated process of production which we are studying here. The “acquired and useful abilities” (p. 187) which Smith mentions under the head of fixed capital are on the contrary component parts of circulating capital, since they are “abilities” of the wage-labourer and he has sold his labour together with its “abilities.”

It is a great mistake on the part of Adam Smith to divide the entire social wealth into 1) a fund for immediate consumption, 2) fixed capital, and 3) circulating capital. According to the above, wealth would have to be divided into 1) a consumption-fund which does not form any part of functioning social capital although parts of it can continually function as capital; and 2) capital. Accordingly one part of the wealth functions as capital, the other as non-capital, or consumption-fund. And here appears the absolute necessity that all capital be either fixed or circulating somewhat like the natural necessity that a mammal be male or female. But we have seen that the antithesis between fixed and circulating capital applies solely to the elements of productive capital, that consequently there is besides these a considerable amount of capital — commodity-capital and money-capital — exists in a form in which it can be neither fixed nor circulating.

Inasmuch as under capitalist production the entire mass of social products circulates in the market as commodity-capital, with the exception of that part of the products which is directly used up again by the individual capitalist producers in its bodily form as means of production without being sold or bought, it is evident that not only the fixed and circulating elements of productive capital, but likewise all the elements of the consumption-fund are derived from the commodity-capital. This is tantamount to saying that on the basis of capitalist production both means of production and articles of consumption first appear as commodity-capital, even though they are intended for later use as means of production or articles of consumption, just as labour-power itself is found in the market as a commodity, although not as commodity-capital.

This accounts for the following new confusion in Adam Smith. He says:

“Of these four parts”

(of the “circulating” capital, i.e., of capital in its forms of commodity-capital and money-capital belonging in the process of circulation, two parts which are turned into four by the material distinctions Adam Smith makes between the constituent parts of commodity-capital)

“three — provisions, materials, and finished work, are either annually or in a longer or shorter period, regularly withdrawn from it and placed either in the fixed capital, or in the stock reserved for immediate consumption. Every fixed capital is both originally derived from, and requires to be continually supported by, a circulating capital. All useful machines and instruments of trade are originally derived from a circulating capital which furnishes the materials of which they are made and the maintenance of the workmen who make them. They require, too, a capital of the same kind to keep them in constant repair.” (p. 188.)

With the exception of that part of the product which is constantly consumed again as means of production directly by its producers, the following general proposition applies to capitalist production: All products reach the market as commodities and therefore circulate for the capitalist as the commodity-form of his capital, as commodity-capital, regardless of whether these products must or can function in their bodily form, in accordance with their use-values, as elements of productive capital (of the process of production), as means of production and therefore as fixed or circulating elements of productive capital; or whether they can serve only as means of individual, not of productive, consumption. All products are thrown upon the market as commodities; all means of production or consumption, all elements of productive and individual consumption, must therefore be extracted from the market by purchasing them as commodities. This truism is of course correct. It applies for this reason to the fixed as well as the circulating elements of productive capital, to instruments of labour as well as material of labour in all forms. (This, moreover, ignores the fact that there are elements of productive capital which are furnished by nature, are not products.) A machine is bought in the market, as is cotton. But it does not follow from this by any means that every fixed capital stems originally from some circulating capital; that follows only from the Smithian confusion of capital of circulation with circulating or fluent, i.e., non-fixed capital. Besides, Smith actually refutes himself. According to him himself, machines, as commodities, form a part of No. 4 of the circulating capital. Hence to say that they come from the circulating capital means only that they functioned as commodity-capital before they functioned as machines, but that materially they are derived from themselves; so is cotton, as the circulating element of some spinner’s capital, derived from the cotton in the market. But if Adam Smith in his further exposition derives fixed capital from circulating capital for the reason that labour and raw material are required to build machines, it must be borne in mind that in the first place, instruments of labour, hence fixed capital, are also required to build machines, and in the second place fixed capital, such as machinery, etc., is likewise required to make raw materials, since productive capital always includes instruments of labour, but not always material of labour. He himself says immediately afterwards:

“Land, mines, and fisheries, require all both a fixed and a circulating capital to cultivate them;”

(thus he admits that not only circulating but also fixed capital is required for the production of raw material)

“and” (new error at this point) “their produce replaces with a profit, not only those capitals, but all the others in the society.” (p. 188.)

This is entirely wrong. Their produce furnishes the raw material, auxiliary material, etc., for all other branches of industry. But their value does not replace the value of all other social capitals; it replaces only their own capital-value (plus the surplus-value). Adam Smith is here again in the grip of his physiocratic reminiscences.

Considered socially it is true that the part of the commodity-capital which consists of products that can serve only as instruments of labour must — unless they have been produced to no purpose, cannot be sold — sooner or later function as instruments of labour, i.e., with capitalist production as their basis, they must, whenever they cease to be commodities, form real, as before they formed prospective, elements of the fixed part of the social productive capital.

But there is a distinction here, arising from the bodily form of the product.

A spinning machine for instance has no use-values, unless it is used for spinning, unless therefore it functions as an element of production and consequently, from the point of view of the capitalist, as a fixed component part of a productive capital. But a spinning machine is movable. It may be exported from the country in which it was produced and sold abroad directly or indirectly for raw materials, etc., or for champagne. In that case it has functioned only as a commodity-capital in the country in which it was produced, but never as fixed capital, not even after its sale.

Products however which are localised by being anchored in the soil, and can therefore be used only locally, such as factory buildings, railways, bridges, tunnels, docks, etc., soil improvements, etc., cannot be exported bodily, neck and crop. They are not movable. They are either useless, or as soon as they have been sold must function as fixed capital in the country that produced them. To their capitalist producer, who builds factories or improves land for speculative sale, these things are forms of his commodity-capital, or, according to Adam Smith, forms of circulating capital. But viewed socially these things — if they are not to be useless — must ultimately function as fixed capital in that very country, in some local process of production. From this it does not follow in the least that immovables are in themselves fixed capital. They may belong, as dwelling houses, etc., to the consumption-fund, and in that case they are not part whatever of the social capital, although they constitute an element of the social wealth of which capital is only a part. The producer of these things, to speak in the language of Adam Smith, makes a profit by their sale. And so they are circulating capital! Their practical utiliser, their ultimate purchaser, can use them only by applying them in the process of production, and so they are fixed capital!

Titles to property, for instance railway shares, may change hands every day, and their owner may make a profit by their sale even in foreign countries, so that titles to property are exportable, although the railway itself is not. Nevertheless these things must either lie fallow in the very country in which they are localised, or function as a fixed component of some productive capital. In the same way manufacturer A may make a profit by selling his factory to manufacturer B, but this does not prevent the factory from functioning as fixed capital the same as before.

Therefore, while the locally fixed instruments of labour, which cannot be detached from the soil, will nevertheless, in all probability, have to function as commodity-capital for their producer and not constitute any elements of his fixed capital (which is made up as far as he is concerned of the instruments of labour he needs for the construction of buildings, railways, etc.), one should not by any means draw the contrary conclusion that fixed capital necessarily consists of immovables. A ship and a locomotive are effective only through their motion; yet they function, not for him who produced them, but for him who applies them as fixed capital. On the other hand things which are most decidedly fixed in the process of production, live and die in it and never leave it any more after once entering it, are circulating component parts of the productive capital. Such are for instance the coal consumed to drive the machine in the process of production, the gas used to light the factory, etc. They are circulating capital not because they bodily leave the process of production together with the product and circulate as commodities, but because their value enters wholly into that of the commodity which they help to produce and which therefore must be entirely replaced out of the proceeds of the sale of the commodity.

In the passage last quoted from Adam Smith, notice must also be taken of the following phrase:

“A circulating capital which furnishes ... the maintenance of the workmen who make them” (machines, etc.).

With the physiocrats that part of capital which is advanced for wages figures correctly under the avances annuelles as distinguished from the avances primitives. On the other hand it is not he labour-power itself that appears with them as a constituent part of the productive capital employed by the farmer, but the means of subsistence (the maintenance of the workmen, as Smith calls it) given to the farm-labourers. This hangs together exactly with their specific doctrine. For according to them the value-part added to the product by labour (quite like the value-part added to the product by raw material, instruments of labour, etc., in short, by all the material components of constant capital) is equal only to the value of the means of subsistence paid to the labourers and necessarily consumed for the maintenance of their ability to function as labour-power. Their very doctrine stands in the way of their discovering the distinction between constant and variable capital. If it is labour that produces surplus-value (in addition to reproducing its own price), then it does so in industry as well as in agriculture. But since, according to their system, labour produces surplus-value only in one branch of production, namely agriculture, it does not arise out of labour but out of the special activity (assistance) of nature in this branch. And only for this reason agricultural labour is to them productive labour, as distinct from other kinds of labour.

Adam Smith classifies the means of subsistence of labourers as circulating capital in contradistinction to fixed capital:

1) Because he confuses circulating as distinguished from fixed capital with forms of capital pertaining to the sphere of circulation, with capital of circulation — a confusion uncritically accepted. He therefore mixes up commodity-capital and the circulating component of productive capital, and in that case it is a matter of course that whenever the social product assumes the form of commodities, the means of subsistence of the labourers as well as those of the non- labourers, the materials as well as the instruments of labour themselves, must be supplied out of the commodity capital.

2) But the physiocratic conception too lurks in Smith’s analysis, although it contradicts the esoteric — really scientific — part of his own exposition.

Generally speaking the advanced capital is converted into productive capital, i.e., it assumes the form of elements of production which are themselves the products of past labour. (Among them labour-power.) Capital can function in the process of production only in this form. Now, if instead of labour-power itself, into which the variable part of capital has been converted, we take the labourer’s means of subsistence, it is evident that these means as such do not differ, so far as the formation of value is concerned, from the other elements of productive capital, from the raw materials and the food of the labouring cattle, on which ground Smith in one of the passages quoted above places them, after the manner of the physiocrats, on the same level. The means of subsistence cannot themselves expand their own value or add any surplus-value to it. Their value, like that of the other elements of the productive capital, can re-appear only in the value of the product. They cannot add any more to its value than they have themselves. Like raw materials, semi-finished goods, etc., they differ from fixed capital composed of instruments of labour only in that they are entirely consumed in the product (at least as far as concerns the capitalist who pays for them) in the formation of which they participate and that therefore their value must be replaced as a whole, while in the case of the fixed capital this takes place only gradually, piecemeal. The part of productive capital advanced in labour-power (or in the labourer’s means of subsistence) differs here only materially and not in respect of the process of labour and production of surplus-value from the other material elements of productive capital. It differs only in so far as it falls into the category of circulating capital together with one part of the objective creators of the product ("materials" Adam Smith calls them generally), as opposed to the other part of these objective product creators, which belong in the category of fixed capital.

The fact that the capital laid out in wages belongs in the circulating part of productive capital and, unlike the fixed component of productive capital, shares the quality of fluency with a part of the objective product creators, the raw materials, etc., has nothing whatever to do with the role played in the process of self-expansion by this variable part, as distinct from the constant part of capital. This refers only to how this part of the advanced capital-value is to be replaced, renewed, hence reproduced out of the value of the product of means of the circulation. The purchase and repurchase of labour-power belong in the process of circulation. But it is only within the process of production that the value laid out in labour-power is converted (not for the labourer but for the capitalist) from a definite, constant magnitude into a variable one, and only thus the advanced value is converted altogether into capital-value, into capital, into self-expanding value. But by classing, like Smith, the value expended for the means of subsistence of the labourers, instead of value laid out in labour-power, as the circulating component of productive capital, the understanding of the distinction between variable and constant capital, and thus the understanding of the capitalist process of production in general, is rendered impossible. The determination that this part of capital is variable capital in contrast to the constant capital, spent for material creators of the product, is buried beneath the determination that the part of the capital invested in labour-power belongs, as far as the turnover is concerned, in the circulating part of productive capital. And the burial is brought to completion by enumerating the labourer’s means of subsistence instead of his labour-power as an element of productive capital. It is immaterial whether the value of the labour-power is advance in money or directly in means of subsistence. However under capitalist production the latter can be but an exception.[24]

By thus establishing the definition of circulating capital as being the determinant of the capital value laid out for labour-power — this physiocratic definition without the premise of the physiocrats — Adam Smith fortunately killed among his followers the understanding that that part of capital which is spent on labour-power is variable capital. The more profound and correct ideas developed by him elsewhere did not prevail, but this blunder of his did. Indeed, other writers after him went even further. They were not content to make it the decisive definition of the part of capital invested in labour-power to be circulating as opposed to fixed capital; they made it the essential definition of circulating capital to be invested in labour-power to be circulating as opposed to fixed capital; they made it the essential definition of circulating capital to be invested in means of subsistence for labourers. Naturally associated with this is the doctrine that the labour-fund, [Karl Marx, Capital, Vol. I, pp. 609-11. — Ed.] consisting of the necessary means of subsistence, is of a definite magnitude, which on the one hand physically limits the share of the labourers in the social product, but on the other has to be fully expended in the purchase of labour-power.


23 Cf. Quesnay, Analyse du Tableau Economique (Physiocrates, èd. Daire, 1. partie, Paris, 1846). There we read, for instance: "The annual advances consist of the expenses incurred annually for the labour of cultivation; these advances must be distinguished from the original advances, which form the fund for the establishment of the farming enterprise." (P. 59.) In the works of the later physiocrats these advances are sometimes termed directly capital: Capital ou avances Dupont de Nemours, Maximes du Docteur Quesnay, ou Rèsumè de ses Principes d’Economie Sociale (Daire, I, p. 391); furthermore Le Trosne writes: "As a result of the greater or smaller durability of the works of human labour, a nation possesses a substantial fund of wealth independent of its annual reproduction, this fund forming a capital — accumulated over a long period and originally paid with products — which is continually preserved and augmented." (Daire, II, pp. 928-29.) Turgot employs the term capital more regularly for avances, and identifies the avances of the manufacturers still more with those of the farmers. (Turgot, Rèflexions surla Formation et la Distribution des Richesses, 1766.)

24 To what extent Adam Smith has blocked his own way to an understanding of the role of labour-power in the process of self-expansion of value is proven by the following sentence, which in the manner of the physiocrats places the labour of labourers on a level with that of labouring cattle. “Not only his (the farmer’s) labouring servants, but his labouring cattle are productive labourers.” (Book II, Ch. V, p. 243.)