xbn .

Marx on Genesis 3

In the first volume of Capital, Marx writes: ‘Englishmen, always well up in the Bible, knew well enough that man, unless by elective grace a capitalist, or landlord, or sinecurist, is commanded to eat his bread in the sweat of his brow, but they did not know that he had to eat daily in his bread a certain quantity of human perspiration mixed with the discharge of abscesses, cobwebs, dead black-beetles, and putrid German yeast, without counting alum, sand, and other agreeable mineral ingredients’.

In the first volume of Capital, Marx writes: ‘Englishmen, always well up in the Bible, knew well enough that man, unless by elective grace a capitalist, or landlord, or sinecurist, is commanded to eat his bread in the sweat of his brow, but they did not know that he had to eat daily in his bread a certain quantity of human perspiration mixed with the discharge of abscesses, cobwebs, dead black-beetles, and putrid German yeast, without counting alum, sand, and other agreeable mineral ingredients’[1].

The comment is amusing enough, saturated as it is with Marx’s inimitable wit. But I am interested in why he refers to this particular verse from the Bible, from Genesis 3:17-18 to be exact:

And to the man he said,

‘Because you have listened to the voice of your wife,

and have eaten of the tree

about which I commanded you,

“You shall not eat of it,”

cursed is the ground because of you;

in the sweat of your brow you shall eat of it all the days of your life;

thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you;

and you shall eat the plants of the field’.

Is Marx’s comment just a witty aside, deploying a common enough phrase? Perhaps, but I suggest that a deeper reason lies behind Marx’s allusion to these verses. This text was at the core of efforts to provide a new myth of capitalism, a reworked myth found in John Locke, Adam Smith and Thomas Malthus. Indeed, it goes all the way back to Hugo Grotius. That myth sought to justify the increasing reality of private property, of markets for profit, and of the self-interested individual. At the heart of that new myth was the search for a new idea of human nature. But where do find insights into human nature? In the first stories of Genesis, for Adam and then Eve were created in the image of God. They were felt to provide us with the proper form of human nature.

The problem they faced was that the myth of Genesis is a story of rupture. The first human beings pass from a state of paradisiac bliss to one of punishment for disobedience. More specifically, the result of the Fall is one of pain, subordination, hard work and even harder-won food from the land. Self-interest means greed and punishment, and labour is the result of the self-interest. Obviously, this narrative of rupture and punishment would not do for the brave new world of capitalism. In response, these early theorists sought a narrative of continuity, a smooth transition from the created order to a world of self-interest, private property and labour. To achieve such a myth of continuity, they undertook a sustained and creative re-reading of Genesis 3.

For Hugo Grotius (1583-1645), private property appears in the garden itself. He begins with the common assumption that the world was created with common property,[2] so the problem is how to account for the emergence of private property. It would not do to argue that private property was the result of the Fall, for then such property would be sinful. So he fixes on the idea of use as the key to private property: ‘there are some things which are consumed by use, either in the sense that they are converted into the very substance of the user and therefore admit of no further use, or else in the sense that they are rendered less fit for additional service by the fact that they have once been made to serve’.[3] In other words, what applies to food also applies to everything else. Once you use something, it becomes your private property.[4] What does he do with the troublesome text of Gen 3:17-19? He both replaces it with other texts and then displaces its effect to later in the narrative. On the first count, he prefers Gen 1:29, in which God tells the first human beings that they may have every plant and every tree for food (barring the tree of good and evil); and Gen 9:3, in which the range of options for sustenance is extended to everything that moves.[5] The result is a ‘gradual process whose initial steps were taken under the guidance of nature herself’.[6] On the second count, he pushes the Fall and its curses to a later point in the story, to Cain and Abel, the flood and Babel.

John Locke (1632-1704) develops this myth further, although for him labour rather than use is the crucial mechanism for private property. This development finds its clearest expression in the fifth chapter of the second of Locke’s Treatises of Government. Locke initially follows Grotius, assuming that property was initially held in common (on the basis of Gen 1:28; 9:1 and Ps 115:16). However, he feels that use is not sufficient for private property, so he focuses on labour. But what is labour? In its basic form, it is the act of reaching out to acquire some food (Eve comes to mind). That act of appropriation constitutes labour:

Though the earth, and all inferior creatures, be common to all men, yet every man has a property in his own person: this nobody has any right to but himself. The labour of his body, and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his. Whatsoever then he removes out of the state that nature hath provided, and left it in, he hath mixed his labour with, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property.[7]

The result is the same as that of Grotius, with an addition. Not only has private property been smuggled into the garden, but so has labour. Indeed, for Locke a man’s person is already his own property, which means that private property is part of the created order. Yet, Locke is too diligent a student of the Bible not to be aware of the need to deal with Gen 3:17-19.[8] Here his reading is daring, for he links Gen 1:28 with 3:17-19. While the former speaks of subduing the earth and having dominion over it, the latter concerns labour and the sweat of one’s brow in tilling a recalcitrant earth for crops and bread. But Locke sees no tension, for the labour of tilling the ground is a natural outflow of subduing the earth. If the main form of labour improves the earth for one’s own property and benefit, then it must be the will of God. In other words, Gen 3:17-19 is merely a logical outcome of Gen 1:28. No longer do we have a myth of rupture, of a break between the garden and its outside. Instead, the first human beings pass smoothly from the former state to the latter – all of which takes place ‘in obedience to this command of God’. Obedience, not disobedience, leads to agricultural labour. Private property is therefore the will of God!

Both Grotius and Locke bequeathed what was now a reasonably developed myth to the classical economists, who developed it further. However, they also passed on the tension I have identified, between a narrative of rupture and of continuity. Grotius and Locke preferred the former, attempting to deal with the biblical narrative of rupture in creative ways. In the work of Adam Smith (1723-90), we find that tension in his various reworkings of the myth. On the one hand, he would like to see his legendary tribe of industrious manufacturers and traders as the paradigm of the human propensity to ‘truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another’.[9] On the other hand, this tribe is anything but such a paradigm, for they are primitive and ignorant and have not yet learnt the finer arts of commerce and civilisation.[10] It requires a significant shift for human beings to become market-oriented beings given to pursuing self-interest.

Smith’s unwitting achievement may have been to provide an account on the cusp between secular and religious approaches to economics, so much so that he can be read in both ways. But this was not the case with Thomas Malthus (1766-1834), with whom the Fall and thereby a narrative of rupture returns with a vengeance. The first edition of An Essay on the Principle of Population[11]offers a stark narrative in which the two forces of lust and hunger compete with one another. While the desire for procreation and for the production of food may have been a divine gift at creation, they inevitably lead to evil. In the end, lust is stronger than hunger, for human beings will procreate first before being concerned over having enough food. For the Reverend Malthus with his strong doctrine of sin,[12] this can only lead to vice, misery, starvation and death. Malthus offers no less than half a dozen versions of the myth, of which only one is vaguely positive, attempting a narrative of continuity. The remainder, however, veer strongly towards a narrative of rupture in which the Fall looms large. Indeed, Malthus restores not merely the curse of labour in tilling a recalcitrant soil, but also the curses in relation to women’s subordination to men and in relation to private property. Let me take a little more time with these, for Malthus appears soon before Marx began his research on economics. Malthus writes:

When these two fundamental laws of society, the security of property, and the institution of marriage, were once established, inequality of conditions must necessarily follow.

It has appeared that a society … must, from the inevitable laws of our nature, degenerate into a class of proprietors and a class of labourers.[13]

On three counts, life becomes worse: in relation to marriage, to labour, and to property. One may desire a society – whether a golden age in the past or a utopia to come – with the free availability of sex, without the need for labour, and property in common. But such an Edenic society is simply not possible. Take sex, for instance: free sex without the constraints of marriage would soon lead to unwelcome situations, especially with broods of children roaming the earth seeking scarce food. With no recognizable fathers to provide for them, women or perhaps society at large would be left to care for the children (not to mention the shame that attends women in this condition). Before long, men would realize they needed to care for their wives and children. Laws of marriage would follow, so the men could ensure their children had sufficient food, and the vulnerable wives could be protected even if they are subservient to their husbands. Here of course is the curse to Eve: ‘your desire shall be for your man, and he shall rule over you’ (Gen 3:16).

Or take property: it is all very well to have property in common, but soon enough the inveterate greed of human beings would lead to theft, especially as food became short and some horded it to the detriment of others. The only viable solution is to institute measures for the sake of public safety, measures that one happens to find in ‘civilized’ societies of the present. These include the clear demarcation of land as private property and ensuring the inviolability of every one’s property. Malthus imagines a council of wise, sober heads suggesting precisely this solution. Yet with this account, he swiftly tosses out the hard-earned conclusion of Locke. Property is no longer the natural outcome of God’s command to subdue the earth; it is the direct outcome of the Fall (Gen 3:17-19).

Or take labour: it may indeed be desirable to have no need for labour, with the whole earth and its resources allocated equally to all. But consider for a moment what happens to the children of those to whom it is allocated. There would hardly be enough to go around once the population increased. Some would starve: ‘It has appeared, that from the inevitable laws of our nature some human beings must suffer from want’, opines Malthus. Indeed, these ‘are the unhappy persons who, in the great lottery of life, have drawn a blank’.[14] Naturally, some would be able to appropriate more, some less. In this situation, it would – naturally – be far better if those with nothing had the opportunity to work for a pittance. The poor man has no property but his labour, so that is all he has to sell. But at least he would be able to have some access to the surplus of the proprietors, thereby surviving rather than starving.[15] This is a rather grim account of the origins of labour, as also its division into classes. Not only does it thoroughly question the narrative of continuity (progress) in Grotius, Locke and Smith, but it the biblical narrative of the Fall. The back-breaking labour of producing food is, like property, a punishment for disobedience.

In Malthus’s hands, three of the six curses of Gen 3:14-19 were returned to economic analysis. Even the most Edenic form of society, the most beautiful form that imagination can conceive, would soon fall into a far lesser state. This is a society of class differences, of haves and have-nots, of capitalists and labourers, all driven by the curse of self-interest – precisely the society we have now!

This mythic tension, between rupture and continuity, between regress and progress, is of course still with us now. Indeed, Adam Smith’s version competes directly with that of Malthus in the continued struggle for the dominant myth of capitalism. But let me return to Marx. It should be obvious by now why Marx refers to Genesis 3. Englishmen, especially English economists, did indeed know their Bibles well. This was not merely due to a pervasive influence of Bible in everyday culture, but more specifically because of the central role of Genesis 1-3 in the developments of the competing myths of capitalism. As is his wont, Marx both applies the story of Genesis 3 to the current situation and turns it against those economists. Sweat may indeed be part of the bread, but so also are abscesses, cobwebs, dead black-beetles, and putrid German yeast, without counting alum, sand, and other agreeable mineral ingredients. Indeed, the punishment of Gen 3:17-19 is nothing compared with the impact of capitalism on the lives of the working poor.

In order to show much worse, I close by quoting Marx, or rather, quoting the text of the factory report he uses in his analysis:

The work of a London journeyman baker begins, as a rule, at about eleven at night. At that hour he ‘makes the dough’, – a laborious process, which lasts from half an hour to three quarters of an hour, according to the size of the batch or the labour bestowed upon it. He then lies down upon the kneading-board, which is also the covering of the trough in which the dough is ‘made’; and with a sack under him, and another rolled up as a pillow, he sleeps for about a couple of hours. He is then engaged in a rapid and continuous labour for about five hours – throwing out the dough, ‘scaling it off’, moulding it, putting it into the oven, preparing and baking rolls and fancy bread, taking the batch bread out of the oven, and up into the shop, &c., &c. The temperature of a bakehouse ranges from about 75 to upwards of 90 degrees, and in the smaller bakehouses approximates usually to the higher rather than to the lower degree of heat. When the business of making the bread, rolls, &c., is over, that of its distribution begins, and a considerable proportion of the journeymen in the trade, after working hard in the manner described during the night, are upon their legs for many hours during the day, carrying baskets, or wheeling hand-carts, and sometimes again in the bakehouse, leaving off work at various hours between 1 and 6 p.m. according to the season of the year, or the amount and nature of their master’s business; while others are again engaged in the bakehouse in ‘bringing out’ more batches until late in the afternoon. … During what is called ‘the London season’, the operatives belonging to the ‘full-priced’ bakers at the West End of the town, generally begin work at 11 p.m., and are engaged in making the bread, with one or two short (sometimes very short) intervals of rest, up to 8 o’clock the next morning. They are then engaged all day long, up to 4, 5, 6, and as late as 7 o’clock in the evening carrying out bread, or sometimes in the afternoon in the bakehouse again, assisting in the biscuit-baking. They may have, after they have done their work, sometimes five or six, sometimes only four or five hours’ sleep before they begin again. On Fridays they always begin sooner, some about ten o’clock, and continue in some cases, at work, either in making or delivering the bread up to 8 p.m. on Saturday night, but more generally up to 4 or 5 o’clock, Sunday morning. On Sundays the men must attend twice or three times during the day for an hour or two to make preparations for the next day’s bread. … The men employed by the underselling masters (who sell their bread under the ‘full price’, and who, as already pointed out, comprise three-fourths of the London bakers) have not only to work on the average longer hours, but their work is almost entirely confined to the bakehouse. The underselling masters generally sell their bread … in the shop. If they send it out, which is not common, except as supplying chandlers’ shops, they usually employ other hands for that purpose. It is not their practice to deliver bread from house to house. Towards the end of the week … the men begin on Thursday night at 10 o’clock, and continue on with only slight intermission until late on Saturday evening.[16]


Grotius, Hugo. Commentary on the Law of Prize and Booty. Translated by John Clarke. edited by Martine Julia Van Ittersum Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2006 [1868].

—. The Rights of War and Peace. Translated by John Clarke. edited by Richard Tuck3 vols Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2005 [1625].

Locke, John. Two Treatises of Government and A Letter Concerning Toleration. edited by Ian Shapiro New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003 [1691].

Malthus, Thomas Robert. An Essay on the Principle of Population.  London: J Johnston in St. Paul’s Church-Yard, 1798.

—. The Unpublished Papers in the Collection of the Kanto Gakuen University. edited by John Pullen and Trevor Hughes Parry. Vol. II, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Marx, Karl. “Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Vol. I.” In Marx and Engels Collected Works, vol. 35. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1867 [1996].

Smith, Adam. An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979 [1776].

—. Lectures on Jurisprudence.  Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1982 [1976].

[1] Karl Marx, “Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Vol. I,” in Marx and Engels Collected Works, vol. 35 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1867 [1996]), 256.

[2] Hugo Grotius, Commentary on the Law of Prize and Booty, ed. Martine Julia Van Ittersum, trans. John Clarke (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2006 [1868]), 316.

[3] Grotius, Commentary on the Law of Prize and Booty, 317-318.

[4] He defines private property as follows: ‘the essential characteristic of private property is the fact that it belongs to a given individual in such a way as to be incapable of belonging to any other individual’. Grotius, Commentary on the Law of Prize and Booty, 317.

[5] Hugo Grotius, The Rights of War and Peace, ed. Richard Tuck, trans. John Clarke, 3 vols. (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2005 [1625]), II.2.2.

[6] Grotius, Commentary on the Law of Prize and Booty, 317-318.

[7] John Locke, Two Treatises of Government and A Letter Concerning Toleration, ed. Ian Shapiro (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003 [1691]), 2.27.

[8] Locke, Two Treatises of Government and A Letter Concerning Toleration, 2.33.

[9] Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations  (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979 [1776]), I.ii.1. Elsewhere he speaks of the ‘the natural inclinations of man’, assuming this initial slogan (III.i.3; see also II.i.2).

[10] Adam Smith, Lectures on Jurisprudence  (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1982 [1976]), 53. Smith was also deeply racist, ending up with a position that most of the world, apart from England was inherently deficient and backward.

[11] Thomas Robert Malthus, An Essay on the Principle of Population  (London: J Johnston in St. Paul’s Church-Yard, 1798).

[12] Thomas Robert Malthus, The Unpublished Papers in the Collection of the Kanto Gakuen University, ed. John Pullen and Trevor Hughes Parry, vol. II (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 12-19.

[13] Malthus, An Essay on the Principle of Population, 63, 91.

[14] Malthus, An Essay on the Principle of Population, 64.

[15] Lest one entertains the idea that the rich proprietors should give away their surplus and live at the same level of the rest of society, Malthus sagely warns that the rich are so few that such an act would make little difference, except perhaps to impoverish the rich. Perhaps aware of the somewhat shaky logic of such an argument, he adds that it would also take away the incentive to work (hunger) and thereby lead to idleness. Malthus, An Essay on the Principle of Population, 92.

[16] Marx, “Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Vol. I,” 257-258.

Like what you're reading?

You have Successfully Subscribed!

Share This

Share this post with your friends!