Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

June 12, 2007

British farming resisted mechanization until the 1850s

Filed under: transition debate — louisproyect @ 5:31 pm

In Jim Blaut’s article on Robert Brenner in “8 Eurocentric Historians,” he dismisses the claim that there was anything particularly innovative in British farming:

Let us unpack this problem into smaller and more manageable ones. Firstly, Kerridge’s 16th-century agricultural revolution is still, as to timing, a century too late to satisfy Brenner’s theory: serfdom gave way to “free” tenantry before the end of the 14th century. Secondly, Brenner argues that technological advances, after the freeing of the peasants, led to the enlargement of holdings and the creation of capitalist farms. But the technological advances which had this effect occurred a couple of centuries later: effect therefore precedes cause. The two revolutionary technological advances actually discussed by Brenner were not at all revolutionary. He cites an innovation in irrigation technology (floating of water meadows), but this was neither very innovative — irrigation being an old art — nor very important.12 And he cites a new system of rotation involving the alternating of improved pasture with cropland (“convertible husbandry”), but this did not intensify production (some other, older, rotations were very much more intensive) although it was a solid advance in pasture technology.13 So the entire argument about a sort of instantaneous appearance of “rationality,” and then, immediately and directly, the beginnings of revolutionary technological advance, is simply empty.

I don’t know much about Robert Brenner’s expertise on farming matters, but Jim Blaut had the kind of hands on experience that would allow him to evaluate claims about technological breakthroughs. As an undergraduate at the U. of Chicago in the mid-1940s, he studied with geographer Robert Platt, a Latin America specialist, who encouraged Jim to study Latin American agriculture. This prompted Jim to study at the Imperial College of Tropical Agriculture in Trinidad after graduating the U. of Chicago. The Antipode tribute to Jim states, “The knowledge gained, especially courses on tropical soils with F. Hardy, was to serve him well in his later studies of small scale farming in Southeast Asia, of shifting cultivation in Latin America, and especially, in 1957, of soil erosion and conservation in the Blue Mountains of Jamaica.” Later on, he would become a visiting professor in Agricultural Economics at Cornell University in 1960 and a consultant in agriculture to the Venezuelan Government from 1963-64.

Since Robert Brenner bases his case to some degree on the writings of agricultural historian G.E. Mingay, it might be useful to look at another article by him in addition to the 1962 article on British farm size that I have cited. The title is “The ‘Agricultural Revolution’ in English History: a Reconsideration” (Agricultural History, July, 1963). The scare quotes are intentional.

The article is intended to correct the misunderstanding created by historians like J.L. and Barbara Hammond, who–in Mingay’s words–“elaborated the Marxist view of enclosure as the transformation of a settled peasantry into a landless proletariat, driven by want and class legislation to face the choice of either leaving the countryside to become the exploited tools of the factory masters, or of remaining there as the degraded, underemployed and underpaid hands of the capitalist farmers.”

This analysis Mingay describes as “seriously imperfect“. After acknowledging the improvements made in animal husbandry and adapting plants such as turnips to local conditions, he turns his attention to the question of the use of labor and machinery:

Of implements and machinery the story is different, for apart from improvements in the design of ploughs and the supplementing of the two-wheel carts by four-wheel wagons, there were few important advances that were widely adopted before the late eighteenth century. Then the Industrial Revolution eventually brought about the replacement of implements of local design, constructed of wood, stone or wrought iron, by the standarised factory product made of cast iron. It was about the 1780s that machines began to become important for lightening some of the laborious tasks of the farm, and the earliest ones included threshing machines, chaff cutters, root slicers and crushers. Many of these were first worked by hand or by horses, but eventually they were adapted to steam. However, the advance of the machines was slow, partly because many farmers were too small and too poor to buy them, partly because of the diversified output and varied growing conditions of English farming–the early American reapers, for instance, often failed in England–and partly because labor was plentiful and cheap. Only from about the 1850s did machinery become commonplace (although steam power was still highly exceptional), and only from that period could it be said to play a very significant part in agricultural output.

Now maybe Robert Brenner has a more sophisticated understanding of Marxism than I do, but I have always been under the impression that competition forces the bourgeoisie to replace living labor with dead (machines, in other words.) But in supposedly the most dynamic sector of British society, there was no need to do so. Gosh, you learn something new everyday.

 

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