To appreciate the social significance of accounting today we must study it in changing socio-historical contexts and understand its ideas and techniques as products and producers of history. This paper (Part One) and a subsequent paper (Bryer, The history of accounting and the transition to capitalism in England. Part two: evidence, in press) argue for a social history of accounting change. In social history no theme has been more important than the meaning of modernity, and no explanation more debated than Marxs theory of the transition to capitalism in England. The papers argue that historians of accounting can make a major contribution to this debate. Part One uses accounting ideas to explain Marx's theory. Many believe his theory is ambiguous or relies on teleology or economic determinism. Sociologists often repeat Weber's argument that Marx overlooked the cultural foundations of socio-economic action; the need for a transition to the calculative mentality of modern capitalism. Marxist historians dispute whether the primary cause was the rise of trade or class conflict in agriculture. While historical evidence broadly supports the class conflict view, controversy continues. This paper shows that, when translated into accounting ideas. Marx's theory is unambiguous; relies neither on teleology nor economic determinism; is historically testable; includes class conflict in trade and agriculture, and calculative mentalities as necessary and sufficient causes of capitalism and. we argue. modern accounting. Part Two provides evidence consistent with Marxs theory from accounting, records produced during the English agricultural, commercial, and bourgeois revolutions. It concludes that accounting fur the transition to capitalism should have a high priority on the research agenda of accounting historians. (C) 2000 Elsevier Science Ltd. All rights reserved.