Robert Brenner, the godfather of Political Marxism
One of the upcoming featured articles in the ISO’s International Socialist Review is titled “The poverty of Political Marxism”. Written by Alexander Anievas and Kerem Nisancioglu, it will obviously be a polemic directed against the academic trend dedicated to applying the “Brenner thesis” to various historical events, including the American Civil War.
Briefly summarized, the Brenner thesis claims that capitalism developed originally in the British countryside in the 17th century as a result of the introduction of tenant farming that put a premium on competition. Once it took hold in Britain, it diffused to the rest of the world.
Furthermore, Political Marxism has a fairly strict definition of capitalism. Without free labor, it simply does not exist. So, in the case of the Southern slave states, you had something called “precapitalism”, according to Charles Post. Needless to say, this category was not very prevalent in a Marxism that continued to stress the need for identifying social relations more exactly. Wouldn’t there be a need to distinguish 19th century plantations in Alabama from slave labor during Nero’s age?
Although Brenner never wrote much about the bourgeois revolution—as far as I know—his followers developed a theory that no such thing existed, especially in France in 1789 when, according to Brennerite George Comninel, the monarchy was toppled by aristocrats rather than the bourgeoisie.
I first learned about the Brenner thesis from Jim Blaut in the mid-90s when he showed up on the mailing list preceding Marxmail urging people to read “The Colonizer’s Model of the World: Geographical Diffusionism and Eurocentric History” that was a reply in part to Robert Brenner. After reading it, I was motivated to begin writing my own articles on the Brenner thesis but from a somewhat different angle than Jim’s. As someone who remained very much committed to Trotsky’s theory of combined and uneven development, I wanted to try to evaluate the Brenner thesis in terms of my own education in the SWP. I might have rejected the group’s sectarianism but continued to value the emphasis it put on Trotsky’s writings that saw the tendency for feudal social relations and modern capitalist property relations to co-exist as they did in Czarist Russia on the eve of the Russian Revolution.
Starting in the late 90s, I wrote 32 articles on the Brenner thesis that can be read here: http://www.columbia.edu/~lnp3/mydocs/origins.htm. Most were written after Jim had died of pancreatic cancer in 2000. At the risk of sounding either self-important or—more likely—like a crank, there was practically nobody criticizing the Brenner thesis except me. For the most part, this was a function of the thesis enjoying a kind of hegemony on the academic left. If you spent any amount of time on JSTOR as I did courtesy of my employment at Columbia University, you will discover dozens of articles paying tribute to Robert Brenner in the most glowing terms. What was the explanation for that? Jim Blaut tried to provide one in an essay on Brenner that was included in his follow-up to the Colonizer’s Model titled “Eight Eurocentric Historians”:
Robert Brenner is one of the most widely known of Euro-Marxist historians. His influence stems from the fact that he supplied a crucial piece of doctrine at a crucial time. Just after the end of the Vietnam War, radical thought was strongly oriented toward the Third World and its struggles, strongly influenced by Third-World theorists like Cabral, Fanon, Guevara, James, Mao, and Nkrumah, and thus very much attracted to theories of social development which tend to displace Europe from its pivotal position as the center of social causation and social progress, past and present. Euro-Marxism of course disputed this, and Euro-Marxists, while strong in their support of present-day liberation struggles, nonetheless insisted as they always had done that the struggles and changes taking place in the center of the system, the European world, are the true determinants of world historical changes; socialism will rise in the heartlands of advanced European capitalism, or perhaps everywhere all at once; but socialism will certainly not arrive first in the backward, laggard, late-maturing Third World.
What was badly needed at this juncture was a strong Euro-Marxist theory of the original rise of capitalism, a theory demonstrating that capitalism and modernization originated in Europe, and evolved thereafter mainly in Europe and with little influence from the non-European world and colonialism. The crucial questions were matters of medieval and early-modern history, of proving that Europe was the source of innovation back in those times, and so the modern European world (joined lately by Japan) is still, by implication, the main source of innovation. Robert Brenner supplied such a theory in two long essays in 1976 and 1977, followed by another in 1982.2 These essays are among the most influential writings in contemporary Marxist historiography, influential among conservatives and Marxists alike.
Over the past few years I have been gratified to see others wading in on the Brenner thesis, especially Henry Heller, the author of “The Birth of Capitalism”, a book that came out in 2011. Heller had two motivations in writing such a book: first, to prove that the lease farming analysis was false and second, to reestablish the legacy of the bourgeois revolution. Heller is also the author of “The Bourgeois Revolution in France, 1789-1815”, a book whose title obviously indicates its theoretical orientation just as much as Neil Davidson’s “How Revolutionary Were the Bourgeois Revolutions?”, another rebuttal to George Comninel and the Political Marxists.
I was also encouraged to see the Deutscher Prize awarded to Jairus Banaji in 2011 for his collection of essays “Theory As History: Essays on Modes of Production and Exploitation”. It came out the same year as Heller’s and was chosen over Charles Post’s “The American Road to Capitalism”. To my knowledge, Banaji has never referred to Brenner specifically in his writings but given his commitment to Trotsky’s theory of combined and uneven development, it was inevitable that he would implicitly challenge some of the basic precepts of Political Marxism by referring, for example, in one essay to the theses on the Eastern Question proposed at the Fourth Congress of the Comintern, where the colonial commission spoke of capitalism arising in the colonies on feudal foundations.
What I hadn’t counted on, however, was the new initiatives taken by younger scholars in the field, symbolized by the article by Alexander Anievas and Kerem Nisancioglu that will appear in the next ISR. Some time invested in a Google search revealed quite a rich vein of scholarly research carried out by these two and other like-minded critics of Political Marxism and that is available online. Let me review them now in the hope that you will dig in to this important theoretical question: how did capitalism arise?
1. Alexander Anievas and Kerem Nisancioglu, “What’s at Stake in the Transition Debate? Rethinking the Origins of Capitalism and the ‘Rise of the West’”, Millennium – Journal of International Studies 2013 42: 78
Interestingly, the article is a defense of combined and uneven development from the charge of Eurocentrism mounted by Indian scholars and by John M. Hobson, the author of “The Eurocentric Conception of World Politics”, “The Eastern Origins of Western Civilisation” and the great grandson of the man whose ideas on imperialism influenced Lenin.
The authors seek to resolve the contradiction between the “internal” explanation of capitalism defended by Brenner and the “external” (Italian city-state trade, Spanish plunder of the New World, etc.) defended by Sweezy and Wallerstein on a higher level. The article shows that the Ottoman Empire had a major role in creating the conditions for the rise of capitalism in Europe by undermining the possibility of European unity under the grip of an absolutist state:
Aside from these new commercial privileges, the effects of the Ottoman geopolitical buffer were especially pronounced in English intra-lord class relations and the peculiar development of the English state. A variety of authors have stressed the significance of England’s lack of involvement in continental geopolitical conflicts from 1450 onwards as a fundamental factor in its peculiar development of capitalism.
It also stresses the importance of the New World plunder that served as kind of supercharger for capitalist development internally:
In the first instance, the bullion confiscated in the Americas lubricated the circuits of capital accumulation within Europe as a whole, providing the liquid specie for Europe’s vibrant trade with the East. By 1650, the flow of precious metals from the Americas reaching Europe is estimated to have amounted to at least 180 tons of gold and 17,000 tons of silver. Between 1561 and 1580, about 85 per cent of the entire world’s production of silver came from the Americas. This provided the capital for European merchants’ profitable trade with Asia and East Africa in textiles and particularly spices.
2. Kerem Nisancioglu, “Before the Deluge: The Ottoman Origins of Capitalism”, a paper presented to a Millennium conference in 2012
This paper expands on the findings in the article cited above. I was particularly interested in this question since in prior discussions I have had with people on the Turkish left, including my wife, I always had the impression that the Ottoman Empire was certainly not capitalist, even if it was not exactly like European feudalism. What was it exactly? Nisancioglu characterizes it as being based on the tributary mode of production, a more general category that includes European feudalism. In the Ottoman Empire, the state was much more powerful than it was in Western Europe and hence far more capable of achieving control over a vast territory through internal financing for a standing army. In its confrontations with Europe, the Ottomans inadvertently created the conditions for the rise of capitalism that would eventually be their undoing:
The Euro-Ottoman relation was therefore marked by the relative backwardness of the European ruling classes, and the comparative weakness in its form of social reproduction. These European ‘privileges of backwardness’ encouraged and compelled its people – both ruling and ruled classes – to develop and adopt new ways of securing their social reproduction. At the same time, the relative strength of the Ottoman social form entailed a ‘disadvantage of progressiveness’, wherein the stability of social reproduction provided no immanent impulse for change or development. This relation of unevenness goes some way to explaining why the so- called miracle of capitalism would occur in Europe, and why it would not be repeated in Ottoman territories. That this divergence was a product of Ottoman progressiveness and European backwardness suggests that Eurocentric assumptions of historical priority need to be reconsidered.
3. Jamie C. Allinson and Alexander Anievas, “Approaching ‘the international’: Beyond Political Marxism”, Cambridge Review of International Affairs
I suspect that this article anticipates some of the same criticisms that Anievas and Nisancioglu make in the upcoming ISR article, although given the venue it was obviously less polemical than what we can expect to see. As was the case with the previous articles, Trotsky’s theory of combined and uneven development is invoked as a corrective to Political Marxism’s tendency to draw a sharp distinction between social relations dictated by the market and “extra-economic” coercion of the kind that existed under both feudalism and the absolutist states of the early modern era. That being said, I do find the article making concessions to Political Marxism that I would not have made. For example, they write:
Only under capitalist property relations do we see the structured differentiation of the political and economic into distinct institutional spheres as methods of surplus-extraction become uncoupled from ‘extra-economic’ coercive means. In other words, under capitalism extra-economic coercion (that is, state power) and economic coercion (the compulsion to sell one’s labour in order to access the means of production) are necessarily separate. ‘As in every other exploitative system’, Wood (2006, 15) writes, ‘there are two “moments” of exploitation: the appropriation of surplus labour and the coercive power that sustains it. In capitalism, however these two “moments”: are uniquely separate from each other’.
Unless I misunderstand them, they would put the plantation system of the old South outside the sphere of capitalist property relations since it rests almost exclusively on “extra-economic” coercive means. As I shall explain later, the most recent research demonstrates rather conclusively that the plantation system was fully integrated into the world capitalist system, thus restoring Eric Williams “Capitalism and Slavery”, an analysis based on the combined and uneven development principles Williams learned from CLR James, to its rightful place in the arsenal of Marxism.
4. Jamie C. Allinson and Alexander Anievas, “The Uneven and Combined Development of the Meiji Restoration: A Passive Revolutionary Road to Capitalist Modernity”, Capital and Class
If free labor is a sine qua non for Political Marxism, how does it explain the Meiji Restoration in which feudal relations in the countryside were used to reinforce capitalist property relations in the city? Easy…it ignores it.
Thanks to Allinson and Anievas, we get some insights into what happened in Japan and as it turns out Junkers Germany as well. They write:
This combined formation is not, however, to be grasped in a mechanical way but rather as emerging in the crises and responses of the actors in Japanese society. The Meiji reforms abolished the legal and economic basis of the samurai class and prebendal power over the direct producers. However, the abolition of the dues of the samurai class was achieved at the expense of the peasants, rendered notionally free but in fact still subject to ‘semi-servile’ agrarian relations (Hirano, 1948: 4). By this time, ‘Japan’s uneven development had produced a highly concentrated urban capitalist sector, contrasting sharply with conditions in the countryside that many Marxists came to see as vestiges of feudalism’ (Hoston, 1986: 9). The origins of Japan’s agrarian class crisis, which intertwined with industrial class struggle in the 1920s and to which ‘imperial fascism’ was a response, lay in this ramified social structure.
Back in 1997 or thereabouts, I wrote my first article on the Brenner thesis in which I came to similar conclusions:
Turning to Japan, the question of whether capitalist agriculture is a requirement for the advent of capitalism in general becomes even more problematic. Japanese Marxist scholarship has been the site of intense debates inspired by the Sweezy-Dobbs exchange. The Meiji restoration of the late 19th century is widely seen as the advent of the contemporary economic system, but there is scant evidence of bourgeois transformation of agriculture.
In “The Meiji Landlord: Good or Bad” (Journal of Asian Studies, May ’59), R.P. Dore dates the controversy as arising in the 1930s, long before Dobbs, Sweezy and Brenner stepped into the ring. The Iwanami Symposium on the Development of Japanese Capitalism, held in 1932, marks the starting point of a sustained effort to date the transformation of Japan from a feudal to a capitalist society. Especially problematic was the role of class relations in the countryside, which never went through the radical restructuring of Brenner’s 16th century England.
Referring to Hirano Yoshitarö’s “The Structure of Japanese Capitalism” Dore writes:
Hirano’s work contains a good deal of original research concerning the economic facts of the agrarian structure of the early Meiji, and the creation of a highly dependent class of tenant farmers. The landlords of Hirano, for example, preserved the semi-feudal social relations of the countryside which provided the necessary groundbase for the peculiarly distorted form of capitalism which developed in Japan. The high rents, maintained by semi-feudal extra-economic pressures, not only helped to preserve this semi-feudal base intact (by making capitalist agriculture unprofitable) they also contributed to the rapid process of primitive capital accumulation which accounted for the speed of industrial development. Thus the landlords were to blame for the two major special characteristics of Japanese capitalist development–its rapidity and its distorted nature.
It is hard for me to understand why the Political Marxists are so little motivated to look closely at what might be called “capitalism from above”. Isn’t it about time that we concluded that even though Marx had good reasons to chronicle the origins of capitalism in Britain as it was the “purest form”, resting as it did on market forces rather than extra-economic coercion, this particular historical example was in many ways unique? After all, Marx told the Russian populists that Capital was not intended as a universal schema for social development.
A free market in labor developed in Britain because there was a surplus of labor generated by the enclosure acts that forced self-husbanding farmers to seek employment as wage workers. In the colonies, the Indians could not be relied upon since they would run away from a plantation and subsist as they always had through hunting and fishing. Naturally you would import slaves from Africa and keep them disciplined by the whip and the noose.
Two books came out recently that set a high bar for Political Marxists like Charles Post. Frankly, I wouldn’t want to be in his shoes trying to answer Walter Johnson and Edward E. Baptist who carried out rigorous research of primary material in order to make the case that slavery in the Old South was capitalist, even if it didn’t correspond to a schema wrenched out of V. 1 of Capital. I have Johnson’s “River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom” and Baptist’s “The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism” and can’t wait to sit down and work my way through them.
While there may be excerpts from Johnson’s book online somewhere, I think your best bet is to read Gilbert Winant’s review in N+1, a Marxist journal of the new generation. Winant writes:
For Johnson, slavery is not something outside of capitalism or the American liberal tradition but the clearest instance of each. (John Locke lodged no complaints against human bondage.) Slavery should be seen not as a sure sign of economic backwardness, but as a technically refined system for coordinating abstract knowledge and bodily violence: intelligence and torture, free trade and imperial war, financial data and brutal physical toil—all adding up to booming world trade, accumulating wealth, and ecological degradation. In this picture, the Cotton Kingdom looks like nothing less than the homeland of neoliberalism, and master and slave, the origin story of contemporary America.
I would only add that I found it most odd that Ellen Meiksins Wood regarded John Locke as the philosopher par excellence of the emerging capitalist system since he wrote the constitution for the Carolinas colony that enshrined slavery as a natural right. That contradiction is, of course, for her and other Political Marxists to unravel.
If anything, Edward E. Baptist is even more emphatic on classifying slavery as part of the American capitalist system. I would refer you to Charles Larson’s CounterPunch review:
The men (often with a thousand pounds of iron connecting them) were part of a coffle, enslaved migrants walking seven or eight hundred miles, chattel property, being moved from the north to the south because the profits when they were sold to their new owners were one hundred percent. The slave trade in Africa no longer mattered because slaves in the more northern states (Virginia, especially, but also Maryland) were reproducing so quickly that they created an entire new source of labor. Baptist gives the year as 1805, and states that eventually a million slaves were herded this way to the South. Tobacco farming in the North was less profitable than cotton farming in the South. “The coffle chained the early American republic together.” Slaves walked and walked for five or six weeks, performing their ablutions as they moved. There wasn’t an iota of dignity for the men. Baptist refers to the entire procedure as a “pattern of political compromise” between the North and the South and notes that eight of the first twelve Presidents of the United States were slave owners.
Well, of course. Slave-owners led the American Revolution that Lenin considered to be an exemplary “revolution from below”. They were certainly the most consistent defenders of bourgeois prerogatives, including the right to own men and women as if they were beasts of burden. And after the Northern bourgeoisie reconciled with its Southern former enemies in 1876, “extra-economic” coercion was restored in the South and continued through most of the 20th century until Blacks mobilized to end Jim Crow just as they had in the 1860s to end slavery. And during slavery, Jim Crow and modern ‘free labor’ conditions (excluding the profit-making penitentiary system), it has remained capitalism all along. I will conclude with this thought. Capitalism is about commodity production for the purposes of gaining what Piketty calls “capital”—wealth in other words. Whether the labor that produces the wealth is in chains or “free” to be sold to the highest bidder makes hardly any difference at all, least of all to the bastards who rule the world.