Problem with OED's First Use of "Capitalism"

Victor Steinbok aardvark66 at GMAIL.COM
Sat Mar 24 18:18:22 UTC 2012

What I see here is "capitalist" as "banker" or "money lender", not
merely "investor", as is given in the OED definition. "Capitalists"
appear to be people who lend out "capital" and live off the returned
interest. "Investment" is particularized use of such capital to make
loans to businesses, usually in exchange for partial ownership of the
enterprise--too narrow for use here. The meaning of "capitalism" as
listed in the OED seems to be oddly unrelated to this particular use.

> The possession of capital or wealth; an economic system in which
> private capital or wealth is used in the production or distribution of
> goods and prices are determined mainly in a free market; the dominance
> of private owners of capital and of production for profit.

Note that the "economic system", "use in production", "free market" and
"dominance of private owners" are all Marxian or anti-Marxian ideas.
None of them have any relevance for early usage.


On 3/24/2012 8:31 AM, James A. Landau <JJJRLandau at> wrote:
> from Google Books:
> Niles Weekly Register ---Saturday, July 22, 1815
> page 365, column 1, starting 15 lines from bottom
> "Antwerp, May 10---This city is in the utmost distress.---Failures are universal.  The most solid houses are trembling, and names hitherto respectable throughtout Europe,are falling entirely---the great capitalists are ruined by the depreciation of the bank paper of Vienna, Russia, Sweden,&c.  Thus our city,lately so flourishing,offers now only the spectacle of misery and wretchedness"
> An Introduction to the Sudy of Political Economy, or Elementary View of the Manner In Which the Wealth of Nations Is Produced, Increased, Distributed, and Consumed.  By D. Boileau.  London: Printed for T. Cadell and W. Davies, in the Strand, 1811.
> 21 citations in the text, e.g. page 370 "Idle capitalists could not be met with in a country that had reached the highest possible pitch of prosperity, for if a capitalist lives on the mere interest of his money, there must be some individuals indebted to him<snip>"
>       - James A. Landau

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