Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

June 10, 2007

Did Agrarian Capitalism Exist?

Filed under: transition debate — louisproyect @ 11:50 pm

(This is the second in a series of posts on the Brenner thesis)

In volume one of Capital, Marx distinguishes between absolute surplus value and relative surplus value. The first involves lengthening of the workday, while the latter involves improvements in technology like the steam engine or the computer. It is the latter form of capital accumulation that interests Robert Brenner and drives his search for its earliest occurrence as a kind of social evolutionary breakthrough. Once this property relationship became established, it served to open up a pathway for what amounts to a survival of the economic fittest, just as the reversible thumb and the oversized brain served Homo sapiens.

The means of production–not exactly revolutionary

For Brenner, the breakthrough occurred quite by accident in the British countryside in the late middle ages, just as a reversible thumb and oversized brain occurred with Lucy 3.2 million years ago. If Albert Einstein and George W. Bush are descendants of Lucy, so is the modern-day robotics-controlled assembly line of today a direct outcome of the advent of tenant farming back in the 15th century. Before farming was done on a cash basis, the peasants owned their own land and had no motivation to make improvements. They were the original hippies. But after the big commercial farms took over, nobody fooled around any more. The new owners were like heroes out of an Ayn Rand novel, who lashed land and worker mercilessly in the pursuit of profit. Everything we have today we owe to these pioneers of capitalism in the 15th century.

Despite the fact that this evolutionary model does not really work too well when adapted to human history, let’s accept it on its own terms and take a look at whether the relative surplus value creation model makes much sense when you go this far back in history.

In April 1993, Robert Albritton posed the question in The Journal of Peasant Studies: “Did Agrarian Capitalism Exist?” (It is unfortunately available only in print). In testing the Brenner thesis against relevant data, he came to the conclusion that it didn’t exist, at least not on Brenner’s terms. If you are looking for a social system in which labor has become commodified, you won’t find it in the time and place that Brenner identified with the birth of capitalism.

Brenner dates these qualitative changes as beginning in the fifteenth century, but Albritton finds evidence much to the contrary especially with respect to the definition of commodified labor-power. If this involves market coercion as opposed to the “extra-economic” forces of feudalism, then there is little evidence of an agrarian proletariat until the 19th century, nearly a half-millennium later.

According to Robert Allen, who Albritton regards as the best compiler of agricultural statistics in the 1500 to 1750 period, labor productivity was virtually identical in France and England in the year 1600–with France enjoying a small edge (1.45 to 1.43). Since the Brenner thesis is constantly comparing the two nations as a case study, one has to wonder why the transformation in class relations that began taking place 150 years earlier in Great Britain took so long to pay dividends.

Allen does point to increases in labor productivity on British farms in the 18th and 19th century, but concludes that it had nothing to do with the introduction of machinery or the exploitation of wage labor. Concurring with Brenner, Robert Allen argues that large farms were more efficient than small, family owned farms but not because their output was greater. The per-acre revenue of a small farm, defined as 50 to 100 acres, was 3.3481 while that of the largest farm was 2.8003. The big difference was the labor cost per acre, which was 0.9687 for a small farm and 0.5526 for a large farm. Lower labor costs was key, not machinery.

Both the big farm and the small farm used horse-drawn plows but the big farm could deploy them across larger areas. With a small farm, the entire family worked but in a large farm, only adult men were hired who were obviously more productive. You can only push a child just so far. In other words, it made little difference whether you were dealing with horses or men. Economies of scale meant that you could make more efficient use of muscle power, particularly through the use of gang labor. You could bring in a crew of men to work, for example, during a corn harvest. Seasonal labor could be used effectively in the big British farms in the 18th century just as was the case in the latifundias of Latin America through the 20th century. This is not exactly, however, what Marx had in mind when he spoke about revolutionizing the means of production. If competition was supposedly unleashed in the British countryside in the late 1400s like a genie from a bottle, it sure took a long time for the wishes to come true.

Even if you overlook the all-important criterion of mechanization, there is still the troubling question of to what degree wage labor existed in the British countryside. Again, the evidence weighs heavily against Brenner. According to G.E. Mingay, half of all farms in Great Britain in 1831 employed no labor outside members of the immediate family. Citing an 1878 study of land distribution in Great Britain, Mingay also concludes that 70 percent of tenant farms, the supposed sparkplug of capitalist growth, were less than 50 acres–by any definition a small farm. Moreover, only 18 percent were larger than 100 acres. In other words, at the height of the industrial revolution, 82 percent of British farms did not pass Robert Brenner’s stringent litmus test.

Furthermore, according to Ann Kussmaul, when farms did use outside laborers in the mid-18th century, up to one-half were so-called servants-in-husbandry who were hired on an annual contract, lived in the farmer’s house, and were paid room-and-board plus a little spending money. This sounds more like indentured servitude than wage labor. Albritton believes that once you take these two categories into account–family farms and servants-in-husbandry–no more than 30 percent of agricultural labor was done on the basis of wages.

As is so often the case with the Brenner camp, Ellen Meiksins Wood is more than happy to own up to these contradictions. If capitalism is a system that is by definition based on the exploitation of a proletariat, it doesn’t seem to matter that much if the proletariat is nonexistent. She writes:

Some people may be reluctant to describe this social formation as “capitalist,” precisely on the grounds that capitalism is, by definition, based on the exploitation of wage labor. That reluctance is fair enough—as long as we recognize that, whatever we call it, the English economy in the early modern period, driven by the logic of its basic productive sector, agriculture, was already operating according to principles and “laws of motion” different from those prevailing in any other society since the dawn of history. Those laws of motion were the preconditions—which existed nowhere else—for the development of a mature capitalism that would indeed be based on the mass exploitation of wage labor.

I think it is possible to view the changes in British farming as “different from those prevailing in any other society since the dawn of history” but you can say the very same thing about chattel slavery and the turning of Peru, Bolivia and Mexico into a vast mine operated on the basis of a mixture of forced and free labor. In any event, trying to project the norms of the mid 19th century on the late Middle Ages seems rather ill-advised to say the least.

It is only in the Brennerite universe that such controversial ideas about class can be put forward in the name of orthodoxy. In his essay on Brenner in “Eight Eurocentric Historians,” Jim Blaut draws out the peculiarities of the agrarian origins of capitalism thesis:

We come now to what is probably Brenner’s strangest proposition. His theory is self-consciously Marxist, and self-consciously grounded in class struggle. In Marxist theory, class struggle tends to produce advances in cultural evolution because, putting the matter simply, the exploiters lose. For Brenner, the ruling class was defeated to the extent that peasants secured their freedom from serfdom. But this did not bring about the collapse of feudalism as a mode of production. That occurred (in England) roughly one hundred years later, according to Brenner, and it occurred because the ruling class won the class struggle. Brenner argues that, if the peasants had really won in the 14th century, the result would have been, not rural capitalism, but a society of freeholding peasant proprietors. Because peasant proprietors (in Brenner’s thinking) are not innovative, are satisfied to have a bucolic existence on their subsistence holdings, this form of society would not have gone through a transformation to capitalism. Brenner now points to France and makes one of his limited (and invalid) comparisons. In France, he says (inaccurately), the peasants won definitively, so freeholding peasants really came to dominate the society, established cozy links with the crown against the landlords, and as a result managed to maintain their position. This explains why capitalism did not arise in France. In England, on the other hand, the peasants lost. They secured the ending of serfdom but they did not succeed in winning full proprietorship of their land: they remained tenants of the same landlords. As a result, says Brenner, there appeared a sub-class of peasants who parlayed tenancy into capitalist agriculture. They negotiated rents with the landlords, rented larger and larger holdings, hired labor, and so became capitalist farmers, paying a portion of their profits to the landlords just as modern small businesses pay rent to the owners of their factories and offices. For Brenner, this was the real cookpot of capitalism. So the fact that English peasants lost their class struggle is the crucial explanation for the ending of feudalism and the rising of capitalism. This turns the class-struggle theory on its head.



  1. This is an interesting piece, with a very funny intro, but the conclusion from Blaut is preposterous. Where does it say, in some marxian decalogue, that the result of class struggle must invariably be ‘progressive’ if the ruling class loses? In what way is capitalism unproblematically an advance in cultural evolution? This is precisely to take for granted the progressivist mythology about capitalism that Brenner seeks to problematise. Aside from this, Brenner assigns the transition to capitalism to a variety of social agencies, not merely to a ruling class victory.

    Second, you must be aware that the criticisms by Albritton have already been addressed. Wood writes, citing precisely Albritton’s document, in The Origin of Capitalism (pages 57-9): “It turns out that what these critics mean is that French agricultural production in the eighteenth century achieved total outputs and/or land-productivity roughly equivalent to English agriculture. But consider the fact that it took fewer peope in England than in France to produce the same outputs – so that England could, for example, feed a proportionately larger urban population with fewer people engaged in agricultural production. This means that the so-called ‘equivalence’ of French and English productivity, far from challenging the distinctiveness of English property relations and agrarian capitalism, actually confirms it. These same distinctive conditions created both a potential non-agricultural labour force and a potential mass market for the most basic necessities and cheap consumer goods, which were essential conditions for the development of industrial capitalism. How, then, is Brenner’s argument affected by the other question, about the extent of wage labour? The problem here is not only an empirical one. We can agree that that the extent of wage labour was limited in early modern England, especially regular and permanent – as distinct from casual and seasonal – wage labour. And we can agree that the process of expropriation and proletarianisation was, by definition, absolutely central to the story of capitalism. But here, too, there is a begging of the question, and here again Brenner sets out to explain what others have taken for granted. Brenner does not assume that a pre-existing division between rich and poor peasants such as has existed at other times and places would inevitably lead to polarisation into rich farmers and dispossessed labourers. For example, both England and France in the later fifteenth century possessed a middle peasantry with relatively large holdings. (It might be added here that even in the sixteenth century, agricultural productivity in the two cases was not yet clearly different either.) Yet from this common starting point, they diverged in substantially different historical directions, the French toward increasing morcellisation of peasant holdings, the English toward the agrarian triad of landlord, capitalist tenant, and wage labourer; the English toward agricultural improvement, and the French toward agricultural stagnation. Brenner has been accused of neglecting the role of small and middling farmers in the rise of capitalism and of writing a history of capitalism ‘from above’. But in his argument, it is neither landlords nor middling farmers nor, indeed, any other single class whose agency explains the rise of capitalism. It is rather a particular system of class relations, within which the participants acted to reproduce themselves as they were, with the unintended consequence of setting off a process of development that gave rise to capitalism. It is certainly true, as some Marxist historians have argued, that the development of English capitalism required the development of fairly prosperous ‘middling’ farmers and that yeomen played a leading role in the history of capitalism. It is, however, another matter to suggest that, once small commodity producers had thrown of the feudal fetters preventing them from growing into larger commodity producers prosperous enough to employ wage labour, the advent of capitalism was more or less guaranteed. This is where Brenner departs from his predecessors. The first point that comes immediately to mind here is that richer peasants have existed at many times and in many places, without becoming capitalists. Thus it must be asked why richer peasants in England began to behave in ways substantially different from any other prosperous peasants throughout recorded history, why English yeomen were not like Russian kulaks, or indeed like large tenant farmers in France at the same time. That difference, and the reasons for it, are precisely what Brenner has sought to explain. Brenner does not assume that the English ruling class could simple have expropriated small farmers by brute force, or that they would have dones so even if they could, in the absence of very specific economic conditions that made the dispossession of small producers not only possible but also profitable. Brenner’s explanation of the differentiation of the English peasantry (the ‘rise of the yeoman’), which eventually ended in a polarisation between the capitalist farmers and the propertyless labourers, has to do with the new economic logic that subjected English farmers to the imperatives of competition in unprecedented ways and degrees. This logic was imposed on farmers whether or not they consistently employed wage labour. It applied even when the tenant was himself, or together with his family, the direct producer. The effect was to increase the pressures on less productive farmers and to drive them off the land, while more successful farmers acquired more land. In that sense, the differentiation of the peasantry was more effect than cause of the new property relations.”

    Comment by lenin — June 11, 2007 @ 8:24 am

  2. I guess Jim Blaut was demonstrating old fogy ideas he picked up from histories of the Russian revolution that it was progressive for peasants to be victorious against landlords. He spent much of his youth providing technical aid and studying those small family farms that Brenner derided as uncompetitive, in many instances won through struggle. He must have been put off by the idea of tenant farming as the locomotive of progressive change.

    I was hoping for a reply to my point about technology improvements and mechanization but could find none in the above paragraph. Also, if Richard chooses to define capitalism as coming into existence without a proletariat, he is free to do so. I just would remind him of what Michael Lebowitz wrote: “As for Brenner/Wood, they are certainly welcome to use any definition they want of capitalism— trying to pass it off as Marx’s understanding of capitalism and its tendencies is another matter, though.”

    Comment by louisproyect — June 11, 2007 @ 1:23 pm

  3. I guess Jim Blaut was demonstrating old fogy ideas he picked up from histories of the Russian revolution that it was progressive for peasants to be victorious against landlords.

    No, it is meritorious for the peasantry to win against the landlords, but that is not the same issue. Since Blaut’s definition of progress in this instance is whether it conduces to the development of capitalism, and since he insists here that capitalist social relations could only have come about by the victory of the peasantry, my response is that the development of capitalism is by no means unproblematically progressive. That seems to be consonant with Marx’s own view, if it matters.

    I was hoping for a reply to my point about technology improvements and mechanization but could find none in the above paragraph.

    I didn’t have time to touch on that, but a) you seem to conflate farm size with mechanisation, and b) I’m surprised to see Mingay cited in this context since – as you presumably know – Brenner specifically cites his arguments regarding farm sizes (in the 18th C this time) in his original NLR essay on ‘The Origins of Capitalist Development’: http://newleftreview.org/A185 (see footnotes 24, 74 & 76). The cited Mingay article from 1962 is here: http://www.jstor.org/view/00130117/di011727/01p0072l/0 You don’t say which book or article or review you are citing, but since the stats you present are duplicated in the first two pages of this essay it looks very much like you are citing this one, the one Brenner cites three times. Mingay does not actually ‘conclude’, that “70 percent of tenant farms, the supposed sparkplug of capitalist growth, were less than 50 acres”. He cites a 19th C polemicist and statistician, Caird, who “felt no hesitation in stating” this: it’s an estimate, consolidating an impression that Mingay broadly agrees with. The actual statistics he himself cites state that in the 18th Century, farms of under 100 acres dominated in 12 of England’s counties and were widespread in six others. That would leave, in the 18th C, approximately 17 counties in which smaller farms were neither predominant nor widespread. While drawing attention to the sustained presence of smaller farms, he notes that the balance of social forces favoured larger farms and that this resulted from a set of processes that had begun well before the 18th Century. Indeed, the whole essay is concerned with the rise of the large farms throughout the 18th Century, and describes the motivation on the part of entrepreneurial capitalist farmers to expand. It repeatedly highlights the attempts to do so, the ways in which this registers in such as things as tenancy turnover (as capitalists tried to maximise the profitability of the farm). It also engages with some of the limits to this process. In fact, as he demonstrates, there is no necessary contradiction between the consolidation of larger farms and the persistence of a large number of very small farms. Mingay also argues in Land and Society in England, 1750-1980 (1989) that, despite exponential population growth which England’s farmers were ill-placed to provide for, by 1851 80-90% of English food needs were still being supplied by English farmers, which suggests a certain amount of productive efficiency on their part. Perhaps this is because, as Mingay suggests in the essay you cite, although there is indeed a correlation between acreage and profitable growth, an increase in the size of one’s land is no longer the sole basis for productive improvement.

    You might have been citing a different essay, but if it’s this one, then the reference is a little odd since it doesn’t support your claim.

    Also, if Richard chooses to define capitalism as coming into existence without a proletariat, he is free to do so.

    Since I haven’t ‘chosen’ to define capitalism as coming into existence ‘without a proletariat’, this is a glib and unnecessary diversion. The passage I quote from Wood discusses the creation of a proletariat coterminous with the creation of capitalist social-property relations: it could not have been otherwise.

    I just would remind him of what Michael Lebowitz wrote: “As for Brenner/Wood, they are certainly welcome to use any definition they want of capitalism— trying to pass it off as Marx’s understanding of capitalism and its tendencies is another matter, though.”

    Lebowitz doesn’t have any more of a monopoly on the interpretation of Marx than Wood and Brenner do. Marx was not a finished work, but a work in progress, and marxists have typically disagreed over what to accept as vital to the theory and what to consider problematical. It really doesn’t sit well to disengage with the arguments by appealing to orthodoxy.

    Comment by lenin — June 11, 2007 @ 11:45 pm

  4. Some brief comments:

    1. If you go just a bit more deeply into Allen’s statistics, you will find the numbers actually support Brenner. LP and I argued this on Pen-L.

    2. Allen conflates farm size with capitalism, large=capitalist. That is not Brenner’s contention.

    3. Productivity must, under capital, be productivity of labor. The advance of English rural capitalism is in turning the land into capital, into a means of production, separate and apart from the conditions of labor. Brenner measures this increase in productivity and its repercussions– allowing release of almost half the population from agricultural labor.

    4. The “economics” of capitalist development require a transformation of agriculture. Such transformation had not been historically the product of expanding trade, richer merchants, bigger cities in societies where expanding trade, richer merchants, bigger cities did not change the social relations of agricultural production.

    5. Quantitavely, the impact of overseas colonies, the strategic importance of empire and slavery, in the origin of English capitalism, in the improvement of English agriculture, and in the driving forces of the English Revolution is quite limited.

    6. Qualitatively, and on the orthodoxy side of this argument– it is fundamental to Marxism that the transition/change of societies has to be a result of economic necessity– a necessary change in social relations of production. If merchant capital, if slavery, trade, empire do not run up against the limits of their own origin, then they do not trigger necessary transformations.

    No merchant/planter alliance has ever required, or reproduced, social changes leading to “modern” capitalism.

    Capitalism is not the product of some bolt of lightning hitting a primal soup of mercantilism, plantations, and artisan craft production, creating a DNA with a wage-labor gene.

    Brenner does exactly show the economic necessity, internal to England, that compels the reorganization of land as capital.

    Comment by s.artesian — June 12, 2007 @ 1:41 pm

  5. Perhaps if we call the social relations in 16th century England ‘proto-capitalist’ it would help avoid a useless debate about the definition of capitalism (does it require wage-labor? I think we all agree on some level that it does). What Brenner and Wood seem to be doing from my untutored perspective is providing a plausible account of the historical social process the created wage-labor, modern industry, mechanization; and they are using the marxist insight that revolutions in the social relations of production precede and condition revolutions in the forces of production. (Untutored: I’m an economist who just read Gregory Clark and went looking for something to read that would wash the taste out of my mouth.)

    Comment by t michl — January 18, 2008 @ 4:13 pm

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