Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

June 28, 2013

Alan Knight: Brennerite Subalternist

Filed under: Mexico,transition debate — louisproyect @ 7:07 pm

Alan Knight

Although I picked up volume one (From the Beginning to the Spanish Conquest) of Alan Knight’s 3-volume history of Mexico mainly to get some background information on the Aztec ruins I visited there last month, I was intrigued to discover that he—like Adolfo Gilly, another leftist authority on Mexican history—had no problem tipping his hat to subaltern studies, supposedly something shunts you off into the vaporous world of postcolonialism and all the other trendy nonsense at odds with the muscular analysis Marxists learn in the weight rooms of dialectical materialism. If you’ve been listening to Vivek Chibber, you’ll know that subaltern studies is an entry level drug that might lead to more heavy stuff.

From Knight’s introduction:

I have tried to give a good deal of attention to ‘subalterns’ even though I have not used the term, at least not systematically. So I think I write ‘subaltern history’ just as I write prose, but I do not make an issue of it. At any rate, there is a fair amount of ‘bottom-up’ (popular) history in these pages, not least because ‘top down’ (elite) history cannot be understood in isolation; the two are dialectically related. It is true, however, and quite deliberate, that my ‘subalterns’ are seen more at work than at play, more in acts of protest than in moments of recreation, more on the streets and in the fields than in their own homes.

But as I skimmed through Knight’s book, I discovered—believe it or not—that his embrace of subaltern studies does not prevent him from also embracing the rock-ribbed “Political Marxism” analysis of the social system that existed in colonial Mexico, namely that there was no capitalism in colonial Mexico—not even in an embryonic form:

Nevertheless, the key determinants of Mexican development were to be found within the colony itself, and the character of colonial society was formed, above all, by the economic structures which underpinned it, by the labour systems which it engendered and by the forms whereby surplus was extracted from producers, be they miners or artisans, peasants, peons or slaves. Structures, systems, forms were all varied and mutating. We will examine and categorize them in due course. But the initial point to make is this: if such varied forms are to be given a single, encompassing title, it would be wrong to term them ‘capitalist’. Conversely, the only justified umbrella term – to be found within the conventional repertoire – would have to be ‘feudal’. Returning to the initial division of scholarly opinion, therefore, we prefer to conceptualize colonial Mexico as a feudal creation of a feudal Spain.

I suppose that we should be thankful to Knight for coming out and using the term feudal that I find much more useful than the “precapitalism” favored by most of the people who swear by their Robert Brenner. 1789 France? Precapitalist, of course. The United States in 1776? Same thing, silly.

As an old-fashioned kind of Marxist, I tend to go by what the classics stated, namely that feudalism rested on the production of use-values rather than commodities. Marx is fairly clear about this in the very first chapter of volume one of Capital:

A thing can be a use value, without having value. This is the case whenever its utility to man is not due to labour. Such are air, virgin soil, natural meadows, &c. A thing can be useful, and the product of human labour, without being a commodity. Whoever directly satisfies his wants with the produce of his own labour, creates, indeed, use values, but not commodities. In order to produce the latter, he must not only produce use values, but use values for others, social use values. (And not only for others, without more. The mediaeval peasant produced quit-rent-corn for his feudal lord and tithe-corn for his parson. But neither the quit-rent-corn nor the tithe-corn became commodities by reason of the fact that they had been produced for others. To become a commodity a product must be transferred to another, whom it will serve as a use value, by means of an exchange.)

Putting it in more succinct terms, the feudal estate involved peasants turning over a portion of their product to the lord. If they grew crops, the knights would eat them, etc. Right? I guess others can use the term feudal as they like. It is a free country after all.

The other thing worth mentioning is that feudalism was a fetter on production. I always refer back to Michael Perelman’s description of peasant life before there was capitalism, from his “Invention of Capitalism”:

Although their standard of living may not have been particularly lavish, the people of precapitalistic northern Europe, like most traditional people, enjoyed a great deal of free time. The common people maintained innumerable religious holidays that punctuated the tempo of work. Joan Thirsk estimated that in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, about one-third of the working days, including Sundays, were spent in leisure. Karl Kautsky offered a much more extravagant estimate that 204 annual holidays were celebrated in medieval Lower Bavaria.

Any resemblance between this state of affairs and colonial Mexico is purely coincidental. I tend to agree with John Cockcroft’s take in chapter one of “Mexico”, a world in which I doubt that Indians enjoyed a “great deal of free time”:

Merchant capital in New Spain, as in Europe, was a key agent in the development of capitalist institutions: if mining was the economic motor, merchant capital was the grease. By 1604 it had helped establish some 25 textile mills (obrajes) in Mexico City alone, plus many others in Cuernavaca, Puebla, Texcoco, Tlaxcala, and Queretero. One of the largest employed 120 workers, while others employed from 50 to 100—sizable figures for any manufacturing enterprise at the time. Producing mainly cotton and wool textiles (silk manufacture prospered for a century but gave way to competition from the Orient), the obrajes concentrated laborers in sweat-shop conditions. Some obrajes used the “putting out” system, permitting nearby Indian villagers to do the initial spinning. Trapiches (one or two loom producers) were common and, though partly competitive with obrajes, were generally subordinated to them in the network of marketing, credits, and supplies. Some weavers and spinners were able to continue to work at home, but the tendency in most places was toward the concentration of production under one roof (manufacture) and toward centralized control by obraje owners or the merchant bourgeoisie, often one and the same.

Odd to see that there were sweatshops in Mexico City in 1604. Not much has changed.

Of course, Political Marxists deny that Merchant Capital has anything to do with capitalism. For them, it is a “precapitalist” social formation that amounts to buying cheap and selling dear, like the Indians selling Manhattan for some beads.

Long before I read Cockcroft, I had come around to the same analysis. Referring to Perelman’s description of feudal life, I wrote:

Did any such wasteful practices exist in the New World? Were Spanish lords this lenient with their indigenous subjects? Complicating these sorts of questions is the fact that the Spanish used a feudal lexicon, referring to the ‘encomienda’ or ‘repartamiento’ (kinds of vassalage or fiefdom respectively) in the same manner as in earlier periods.

However, the underlying class relations that typified Spanish colonial society had nothing in common with the Old World feudalism as described by Perelman. To dramatize the difference, we need only to look at the ‘mita,’ a corvee-like form of labor servitude that replaced the ‘encomienda.’ The ‘mita’ was based on the Incan ‘m’ita,’ a form of labor servitude that existed in the Incan empire, itself a legitimately feudal system with its own characteristics. In “Peru’s Indian Peoples and the Challenge of Spanish Conquest: Huamanga to 1640,” Steve Stern is careful to retain two different spellings just to prevent confusion. He writes, “Traditionally, native society supplemented joint labor by the community as a whole with a rotation system. Peasants served a m’ita, or turn, out of the community’s total labors. The rotations allowed communities and ayllus to distribute collective labor needs or obligations in accordance with local reciprocities, which called for equal contributions of labor-time by the community’s kindreds.”3

The Spanish ‘mita’ had virtually nothing in common with this. When a Spanish lord dragooned an Indian into the mine or ‘obraje’ (early sweatshop, particularly for textile manufacturing), he set production quotas at a level beyond what a ‘mitayo’ worker could produce through his own labor. In order to meet them, the Indian would have to bring his children into the mine or ‘obraje’ to work, just as is the case in places like Bangladesh today. In extreme cases, the working conditions in New Spain (Mexico), Peru and Bolivia anticipated Nazi slave labor camps of the twentieth century. Operating ostensibly on the basis of feudal social institutions, sixteenth and seventeenth century Spanish colonies were actually in the process of removing all of the “feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations” that Marx referred to in the Communist Manifesto.

Finally, it is worth pointing out that Marx had an entirely different take on Merchant Capital, one that is much closer to my own reading and that of Cockcroft’s. This is from chapter twenty of volume three of Capital, “Historical Facts about Merchant’s Capital”:

There is no doubt — and it is precisely this fact which has led to wholly erroneous conceptions — that in the 16th and 17th centuries the great revolutions, which took place in commerce with the geographical discoveries and speeded the development of merchant’s capital, constitute one of the principal elements in furthering the transition from feudal to capitalist mode of production. The sudden expansion of the world-market, the multiplication of circulating commodities, the competitive zeal of the European nations to possess themselves of the products of Asia and the treasures of America, and the colonial system — all contributed materially toward destroying the feudal fetters on production.

Maybe the Political Marxists need to write a book on how Marx was so badly mistaken to believe that merchant capital contributed materially toward destroying the feudal fetters on production. I am sure that it would go over big at some academic conference, even if it is totally bogus.


  1. Originally, the Western Marxist discussion about historical change was very much influenced by the Soviet Marxist stage theory of history. This theory tried to fit history to the kind of schematic, mechanical model so eloquently stated by Gerald Cohen in “Karl Marx’s theory of history: a defence”. In other words, it has to be shown by orthodox historians how history progresses from one mode of production to the next, through a transition in which the conflict between forces and relations of production is played out, in such a way that the relations of production adjust to the new productive forces. It didn’t really matter, if the data told another story, because somehow the data had to be “dialectically” forced into this theoretical framework.

    But there was also another important influence among Marxist historians: Marxists had understood Marx’s Capital to be a theory of the whole capitalist economy or even the whole of capitalist society, they understood the theory to be directly applicable to empirical reality, and they understood Marx’s theory to be a finished (complete) theory of capitalism.

    Together, these two influences led to a tremendous academic confusion of the terminology about “capital”, “capitalist production”, “capitalist mode of production”, “capitalist economy”, “capitalist society.” It was a great merit of Ernest Mandel, whatever his faults, that he tried to bring some historical sense to bear on this terminological confusion. The great vice of the International Socialists is, that they have created even more confusion than there already was, by projecting the dogmas of Tony Cliff on the canvas of human history.

    Comment by Jurriaan Bendien — June 28, 2013 @ 8:47 pm

  2. Jurriaan is quite right. The whole thing is quite stagist.


    All in all, Brenner’s problem seems to be one of understanding transition. His schema seems to owe much to the sort of “stagism” that characterizes the intellectual milieu of the Analytical Marxism school, to which he has had a loose affiliation. Although Brenner, who is around sixty years old, has been involved with the American socialist formation Solidarity, it appears that he was not part of the Draperite current that helped to initiate it. Hal Draper, who broke with Max Shachtman, retained many ideas from the Trotskyist movement that Shachtman once belonged to. A key element of Trotskyist thought is combined and uneven development, which first appeared in Trotsky’s analysis of the coming Russian Revolution.

    As opposed to the narrow “stagist” conceptions of much of the Russian social democracy, Trotsky believed that Russian capitalism and precapitalist forms had a dialectical relationship to each other. Rather than seeing a revolutionary bourgeoisie in a life-and-death struggle against Czarist absolutism, Trotsky regarded the two as mutually reinforcing elements of a total system. That is why it would be a mistake to search for elements in the bourgeois parties that could reproduce the 1789 revolution Russian-style. It would be up to the peasants and workers to break with the feudal and capitalist past and create the only conditions for modernization and progress–the socialist revolution.

    In my last post, I alluded to the intellectual ties between CLR James, the most important Trotskyist thinker after Trotsky himself, and Eric Williams, who first drew attention to the interconnection between forced labor in the New World and the origins of capitalist hegemony in the Old. Key to his understanding was the importance of relatively unfree labor in one arena of the world capitalist system for the growth of a system based on free labor in the other. This connection, although unfortunately made without the benefit of an overall Marxist analysis, is also made by the dependency theorists and the world systems group that followed them.

    Comment by louisproyect — June 28, 2013 @ 8:59 pm

  3. Louis and Jurrian, the fact that you can mistake the arguments of Brenner, Meiksins Wood and others as “stagist” and following from the orthodox model of GA Cohen indicates that your polemic is not based on a very attentive reading of what they have written. Brenner and Meikins Wood were writing specifically AGAINST GA Cohen and other stagist conceptions of historical materialism that based themselves on a strict division of the forces/relations of production, base/superstructure etc., conceptions which they felt marred the transition debate.

    Meiksins Wood’s Capitalism Against Democracy contains a long critique of GA Cohen’s Marxism. Brenner can be seen arguing against the forces of production-centred Marxism that conceives the transition to capitalism as a story of the material base inexorably pushing up against and eventually rupturing the “fetters” of feudalism here: http://www.marxists.org/archive/harman/2006/xx/wbrenner.htm

    More generally, am I understanding your argument here correctly: commodity production = capitalism, harsh exploitation of (slave) labour = capitalist exploitation?

    Comment by Nik Barry-Shaw — June 28, 2013 @ 10:26 pm

  4. commodity production = capitalism, harsh exploitation of (slave) labour = capitalist exploitation?

    Actually my understanding of colonial Mexico is in line with Marx’s. You people have the burden to explain away what was totally clear in Marx, namely that “primitive accumulation” encompassed both the processes taking place in the countryside like the enclosure acts, as well as forced labor in Latin America. I should add that the Brennerites are not that focused on the enclosure acts. They are much more about lease farming, the sine qua non for the origins of capitalism. Odd, to say the least.

    Comment by louisproyect — June 28, 2013 @ 10:38 pm

  5. Well, actually, stagist ideology preceded Soviet Marxism.

    Ever since Engels wrote The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, the stage theory of history was quite fashionable among the social democrats of the Second International. From the mid 1890s to the outbreak of world war 1 in 1914, the labour movement in Australasia, Europe and North America experienced impetuous growth, and it created an ideology of the inevitable transition from capitalism to socialism. The laws of motion of history were propelling humanity toward socialism, as it were. That is how a lot of leftwing people around the world understood it back then. Interestingly, Henri Pirenne’s 1914 essay was called “The Stages in the Social History of Capitalism.”

    So actually the Soviet-type stage theory was not simply something which Stalin or Bukharin personally invented to justify the “socialism in one country” programme. Instead, it was a recycler of an optimistic perspective which had already inspired the labour movement before the outbreak of the world war. The stage theory was already there in the Second International, it was merely reshaped somewhat, to take account of the Soviet fatherland leading the world in the inevitable forward march to socialism.

    As Stephanie Coontz explained once, the labor bureaucracy found the idea of laws of motion inevitably propelling history toward socialism very attractive. Because if this was the case, then there was absolutely no use in resistance. The party was merely directing the workers to where history was taking them anyway. Any other idea was not just wrong; it was also useless.

    Similar kinds of ideology are also found in the context of development economics, and modernization projects around the world, right up to rebuilding Haiti. Modernization – the catch-up of developing countries to the level of developed countries – is presented as a completely inevitable capitalist process. Because it is inevitable, it is foolish and useless to resist it. That’s the most powerful idea there is.

    Comment by Jurriaan Bendien — June 28, 2013 @ 10:45 pm

  6. I am not saying that Brenner was following Cohen, or anything like that. My point was about the character of a “discourse” (if I may use that awful word) and the effect that it had on theorizing. My argument is, that the stagist interpretation of history, together with a warped interpretation of what Marx tried to do in Capital, had the disabling effect, that there was a lot of conceptual confusion about what “capital” is, what is “capitalist” and so on. These interpretations originated in the Second International, but they were popularized by the CPSU.

    The argument has never really been resolved in the Marxist camp, because the Marxist historians cannot agree about what is capital and what is capitalist, or about what the main historical dynamics actually were. The main problem is not with the historical facts, most of which are pretty wellknown by now. The problem is with the interpretation of the events, using concepts and theory of what capital is, what capitalism is, and what bourgeois society is.

    We know very well by now, that capital existed in various forms before capitalist factories existed, and that capitalist factories existed before the whole of society became capitalist. But the precise way in which the whole evolution took place is in dispute – not really – this is the point -because historians deny the evidence, but because of the concepts and theories they use to interpret the evidence.

    Comment by Jurriaan Bendien — June 28, 2013 @ 11:06 pm

  7. Just to add – if you consider this dispute trivial nitpicking, consider that even today Marxists cannot agree whether the Soviet Union was socialist, (state-)capitalist, a transitional formation, bureaucratic collectivist or whatever. If they cannot even agree about that, what hope is there that they can provide orientation and guidance for building an alternative society in the future?

    Comment by Jurriaan Bendien — June 28, 2013 @ 11:13 pm

  8. Funnily enough if you go back over older issues of Social Scientist you can find Partha Chatterjee (the devil himself!) discussing Brenner in some depth in the early 1980s and berating his (largely) stalinist critics for their failure to keep up. Strange but true…

    Comment by johng — June 29, 2013 @ 6:05 am

  9. For the academic chattering classes, a book such as the one by Chibber is just a lolly. They like to comment on the taste of the lolly. And then they go looking for the next lolly they can find. It is just that they imagine themselves to be engaged in Althusserian “class struggle”, when they comment on the book in a journal.

    Comment by Jurriaan Bendien — June 29, 2013 @ 10:18 am

  10. Jurriaan
    Apart from my own long awaited masterpiece, Deflected Permanent Revolution at Göbekli Tepe, could you give some examples of the Cliffite intrusions into human history that further confuse you or the masses? It might help me compile reading lists.

    Comment by Harry Monro — June 30, 2013 @ 10:10 am

  11. Louis, I speak basically as a fan of this blog: your treatment of political Marxism is way off, and has been consistently. You have the obligation to your readership to at least cite sources in your critique of this group. The reality is, what they say is very different from how you represent what they say; in fact, your characterizations are so reversed from the reality of this literature that your accusations of “stagism” and (elsewhere) a theory of simple historical accident, are borderline intellectually dishonest. Readers should look at the literature and judge for themselves if your characterizations are fair. Those with any familiarity with these debates–sympathetic or not to the object of critique–would immediately recognize your arguments setting up straw men.

    Comment by CLR — July 2, 2013 @ 2:04 am

  12. Harry, everybody knows that Tony Cliff wasn’t a great Marxist theorist, whatever his enthusiasm for workingclass socialism. His idea of the USSR as a “state capitalist” society is simply incoherent. He was a sophist and a rhetorician, toying with definitions and concepts which he did not understand properly.

    Private Enterprise and private ownership of the means of production was negligible in the mature Soviet Union, and foreign trade – representing only a very small part of the gross product – was for the most part state-controlled (most of it occurred within the framework of COMECON and wasn’t commercial trade but more a kind of countertrade). A property-owning bourgeoisie did not exist in the USSR, having being expropriated after 1917. There was no competitive capital market or competitive consumer market, nor a competitive labour market in which labour could be freely bought and sold.

    As Cliff explained, the USSR could not be a workers state, since the workers did not genuinely “rule” in the country. That was his main point. By a leap of logic, he then inferred that it must be “capitalist”. Since however the Soviet Union lacked any of the characteristics of capitalism, his innovation was that it must be a different and unprecedented kind of capitalism, namely state capitalism. He then proceeded to draw all kinds of crude analogies between the institutional framework of the Soviet Union and ordinary private enterprise capitalism. For example, the nomenklatura could be regarded as a “state bourgeoisie”, the state assets could be regarded as “one big capital” (even although nobody privately owned the assets), workers still earnt wages with their labour and were exploited, etc.

    Cliff’s idea of capital was simply that capital existed if there was a wage-earning working class which was exploited and oppressed. As far as he was concerned, whether the state owned the vast majority of the means of production, or whether the state did not own them, made absolutely no difference to the definition of capitalism.

    The curious part of the story is that neither the world bourgeoisie, nor Soviet citizens themselves, ever regarded the Soviet Union as “capitalist”. So this was a very funny kind of capitalism, a sort of “secret capitalism” where you did not know that you had it, even although you had it. A hundred million Soviet citizens were silly idiots (sic.) because they lived in a capitalist society but believed it was a socialist society.

    The “crunch” of the theory came in the 1990s, when the fullscale restoration of capitalism occurred. The whole institutional framework of the Soviet economy was rapidly in tatters and much of the infrastructure caved in, in fact many people died because of it, given that many essential services collapsed. It turned out that this whole institutional framework had been quite incompatible with capitalism, since it did not conform at all to the “logics” of capitalist accumulation and the logic of capitalist markets. It turned out that no kind of commercial capitalism had existed previously in the Soviet system, and that is why the restoration of capitalism was so problematic. Any kind of “commercial attitude” was very scarce among the population, who were used to having a right to a job, and free or heavily subsidized public services.

    Cliff would have been on much stronger ground, empirically and doctrinally, if he had argued that the Soviet Union was socialist, be it a specifically Russian socialism created in unique historical conditions, including two world wars and numerous smaller conflicts. After all, Marx and Engels had noted there were all kinds of different socialisms, some more desirable than others. Marx himself indeed criticized many kinds of socialisms and distanced himself from them. Such a definition would have alerted people to the reality that some kinds of socialisms are hardly “progressive” for humanity. But no, for Cliff socialism was “sugar and spice and all things nice”, and if there was no sugar and spice, then… it wasn’t nice. And not only that, it wasn’t socialism. In other words, there was only one kind of socialism for Cliff and that was true socialism, but true socialism has never existed… except in the SWP. That’s about as sectarian as you can get. Let us recall here that Marx and Engels poked fun at the “true socialists” already in the 1840s.

    The ultimate effect of Cliff’s theorizing is that the International Socialists have no concept of the transition to socialist economy except a few abstract slogans about “workers power” and “workers democracy” and suchlike. Anything like a socialist economic policy would be “reformism”. They have absolutely no idea of the institutional framework of socialist society or how to get to it, except that the workers have to take state power and practice democracy. The whole “theory” is therefore quite vacuous (a sort of opportunist putschism), since it consists only of abstractions and analogies, without any bearing on the reality of life in the Soviet Union. It is, above all, a moral theory about the dignity and rights of the workers.

    As a corollary, also, it is impossible for the IS to learn anything from the experience of the Soviet Union and similar societies about the transition to socialism. After all, those societies were never socialist to start off with, and so, there never was any element of socialist transition. There was only a transition to state capitalism and from there to “ordinary capitalism”. And so the transition to socialism remains a mystery and an enigma for the International Socialists, a sort of mystical faith without any experiential basis. All they know is, that you have to “smash the bourgeois state” and establish workers’ state power.

    If that is the approach, how can there be any assurance that if the International Socialists came to power, they would do any better than Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin did? Personally, I dread the thought of having to work under the klutzy SWP bosses (that is more like bad science fiction though, or a Proyectian apocalyptic nightmare, and unlikely to happen). Embarrassingly, they can’t even deal honestly with their own members when a female comrade complains about being raped by the former national secretary of their own party! So much for the morals. Believe me, what the IS offer is a “socialism of fools.” I don’t blame China Mieville for leaving the party, after all, if you are going to have science fiction, you might as well aim for good science fiction, not lousy, unbelievable science fiction.

    Comment by Jurriaan Bendien — July 3, 2013 @ 4:30 pm

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