Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 4, 2007

Turnips and the transition to capitalism

Filed under: transition debate — louisproyect @ 3:24 pm

About a month ago, I read Benno Teschke’s “The Myth of 1648: Class, Geopolitics, and the Making of Modern International Relations” with the intention of critiquing it as part of my summer foray into the Brenner thesis. Teschke, like Ellen Meiksins Wood, is a diehard supporter of the Brenner thesis and his book–originally a PhD thesis–attempts to explain the rise of the modern state system in terms of the “agrarian revolution” in 16th century Great Britain. Where there was such a revolution (growing turnips, etc.), an authentic modern state came into existence. Where there was not, the state remained feudal. Like Brenner, Teschke finds it convenient to compare Great Britain and France. I suppose it would have been too much to ask whether Teschke could explain how the USA eventually superseded Great Britain as the top capitalist power in the world, since its agrarian society was a combination of small family farms of the kind that supposedly held France back and big slave plantations that were even more backward from a “class relations” standpoint.

I decided not to write about Teschke because his ideas on the transition to capitalism were indistinguishable from Wood’s, who I do plan to say something about down the road. My immediate plans are to write about the mode of production in 17th and 18th century Bolivia and Mexico, but a book review in today’s NY Times of Tim Blanning’s “The Pursuit of Glory: Europe 1648-1815” prompted me to say something about British “uniqueness” once again.

Blanning’s premise is identical to Teschke’s:

In 1648 the Peace of Westphalia brought the Thirty Years’ War to an end. Although the Europeans didn’t know it, of course, this devastating conflict would prove to be the last of the Wars of Religion that had been tearing the continent apart since the start of the Reformation in 1517. Europe was entering a new age.

Despite the Renaissance, it was still a largely medieval world in its outlook, infrastructure and government in 1648. Europe was less wealthy and, in many ways, less economically advanced than other parts of the world, like Mughal India and China. By 1815, the year of the Battle of Waterloo, Europe was recognizably modern. It was also far in advance of the rest of the world economically, scientifically, technologically, politically and militarily.

Like the Brennerites, Blanning finds comparisons between the ant Great Britain and the grasshopper France most illuminating:

Why did France develop economically so much more slowly than Britain in the 18th century, with huge political consequences? One important reason was that Britain had an internal common market, but France was still riddled with internal tariffs and local taxes, causing no end of economic discontinuities.

And for Blanning, the humble turnip is also key:

In 1648 European agriculture had not changed much since medieval times. But enclosure, manuring, crop rotation, new crops like turnips and clover, and improved breeding brought forth a large increase in food production.

One result was a golden age for the landed gentry, whose rent rolls increased sharply, and their conspicuous consumption along with them. (Robert Walpole employed 50 people just to weed his gardens.) Another result was the freeing of manpower to work in the factories that were beginning to spring up in the English countryside. The industrial revolution came about because of turnips as well as steam engines.

Scenes from the transition to capitalism

I must say, parenthetically, that I always bemused by this obsession with turnips. I keep thinking of that pivotal scene in “Gone With the Wind” when Scarlett O’Hara returns nearly starving to her ruined but still beloved Tara plantation after the South has lost the Civil War. She plucks some turnips from the earth, takes a bite or two out of the clearly unappetizing root vegetable, and cries out:

As God is my witness, as God is my witness they’re not going to lick me. I’m going to live through this and when it’s all over, I’ll never be hungry again. No, nor any of my folk. If I have to lie, steal, cheat or kill. As God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again.

Could it be possible that Margaret Mitchell was anticipating the later groundbreaking work of Maurice Dobb and Robert Brenner? Was the lowly turnip a symbol of the New South, which had broken with feudal class relations? An inviting topic for the industrious graduate student, I would say. I would just ask that I be given credit in the preface for any dissertation that comes out of this.

The review concludes: “The Pursuit of Glory is history writing at its glorious best.” I will allow others to judge the merits of the book based on this assessment. Without wanting to sound too sectarian, I generally put a minus where the NY Times puts a plus and vice versa. Some of the best books I have read over the past 10 years were those I stumbled across through a vicious attack in the Sunday Book Review.

I am not sure about Blanning’s relationship to Marxism, either pro or con, but he certainly would seem to deserve the label “Eurocentric” that Blaut awarded Brenner and others far more retrograde. A London Telegraph review included this observation:

As this is a volume in a history of Europe, one thing that isn’t treated in any great depth is the rest of the world, even though the 18th century saw the discovery of Australia, and brought Africa and Asia into new relationships with Europe: thus fox tossing gets more space than the slave trade.

I can hardly blame Professor Blanning. Who would want to waste time writing about the slave trade when there are far more compelling topics such as fox-hunting or the turnip’s role in the rise of capitalism?

In his article on Robert Brenner in “Eight Eurocentric Historians,” Jim Blaut wrote that his “essays are among the most influential writings in contemporary Marxist historiography, influential among conservatives and Marxists alike.” That, indeed, is one of the great ironies of the Brenner thesis. While the author is no doubt a committed revolutionary, the idea that slavery and colonialism had no role to play in the rise of capitalism is surely seductive to conservatives who are repelled by calls for reparation. If the key to British wealth was the lowly turnip rather than chattel slavery, then what business do uppity Black militants have in calling for justice?



  1. If your readers have studied the class struggle through the travails of the Blackadder family the crucial significance of the turnip in English (though not British) history would be apparent. Brenner and Woods will go up in my estimation if you are right and they have truly grasped the turnip.

    Comment by Henry Monroe — July 4, 2007 @ 4:53 pm

  2. Blackadder? Is this the TV series co-written by Rowan Atkinson? He was very amusing as Mr. Bean, I must admit. I especially loved the episode when he locked himself naked out of his hotel room and tried to conceal his private parts using potted plants, etc. Sacha Cohen stole this bit for a scene in “Borat”.

    Comment by louisproyect — July 4, 2007 @ 5:02 pm

  3. I don’t know what he had to say about turnips, but certainly Marx didn’t agree that slavery and colonialism were not significant causes of the rise of capitalism.

    “Direct slavery is just as much the pivot of bourgeois industry as machinery, credits, etc. Without slavery you have no cotton; without cotton you have no modern industry. It is slavery that gave the colonies their value; it is the colonies that created world trade, and it is world trade that is the precondition of large-scale industry. Thus slavery is an economic category of the greatest importance.” –The Poverty of Philosophy (1847)

    Comment by Phil Gasper — July 4, 2007 @ 5:10 pm

  4. Phil, it is important to understand that Ellen Meiksins Wood explicitly divides Marx’s ideas on such matters between his early and supposedly incorrect phase and his later more correct phase. The Communist Manifesto, for example, is regarded as belonging to the early phase, with its emphasis on trade, slavery and colonialism. Supposedly, he broke with this view after the Grundrisse. Brenner places much emphasis on the definition of primitive accumulation in V. 1 of Capital as separation of the peasants from the means of production, but omits any reference to the chapter on the genesis of the industrial capitalist which does refer to trade, slavery and colonialism throughout.

    Here’s what Pakistani Marxist scholar Hamza Alavi has to say about this division between “early” and “late”:

    Wood is led away from that key definition in Marx’s thinking. Instead she mistakenly posits the existence of ‘two different narratives’ in Marx. The first of these she attributes to the German Ideology and The Communist Manifesto. In that ‘conventional model’, (as she puts it), history is a succession of stages in the division of labour, with a transhistorical (sic) process of technological progress and the leading role assigned to burgher classes who seem to bring about capitalism just by being liberated from feudal chains’. This rendering of Marx’s ideas is unrecognisable. (Wood, 1997: 10; emphasis added). The second ‘narrative’ in Marx, she writes, is to be found in the Grundrisse and Capital. That, she writes, ‘has more to do with changing property relations’. We can take this notion of ‘changing property relations’ as a euphemism (that obscures rather than clarifies) for the separation of the producer from the means of production. Further on Wood writes: ‘What Marx is trying to explain is the accumulation of wealth’ (ibid:13) Wood must know that there is a fundamental conceptual difference between the idea of accumulation of ‘wealth’ (which could include such ‘wealth’ as palaces or jewels etc. which are unproductive) and that of the ‘accumulation of capital’ that provides a basis of ever rising circuits of production. Accumulation of capital refers to the conversion of surplus value into productive capital, which sets in train a process of reproduction on a progressively increasing scale. It was the accumulation of capital that Marx’s work was all about. One should not have to point out such elementary distinctions to someone whose work has been celebrated so generously in Historical Materialism.

    full: http://ourworld.compuserve.com/homepages/sangat/Colonial.htm

    Comment by louisproyect — July 4, 2007 @ 5:32 pm

  5. If the later Suras of the Qur’an annul the earlier ones, why shouldn’t late Marx annul early Marx?

    Comment by Grumpy Old Man — July 5, 2007 @ 8:48 pm

  6. Rowan wrote series 1 with Richard Curtis, all the rest of the series were written by Curtis and Ben Elton. The Turnip was the fetish object of the peasant character throughout history, Baldrick, played by Tony Robinson. Despite this very New Labour line-up; Curtis, Elton and Robinson, the final series on WW1 was quite poignant. Rowan was very funny throughout, most people think the Elizabethan series was the best with Miranda Richardson has Bess (and probably had a better line on empire and the growth of capitalism than Brenner et al). All the series were like superior “1066 and all that” with 90’s political sensibilities. I’d still rate the Pythons as funnier and more radical in their history lessons, but for anyone who wrestled with Jethro Tull (not the dreadful rock band) in class Baldrick’s worship of the humble root was bound to raise a smile.

    Comment by Henry Monroe — July 5, 2007 @ 9:52 pm

  7. “If the later Suras of the Qur’an annul the earlier ones, why shouldn’t late Marx annul early Marx?”

    Marx changed his mind about a lot of stuff, but not this, as a quick perusal of the final part of Capital Vol. 1 should make pretty obvious. To be clear, Marx does not claim that slavery and colonialism are sufficient to explain the development of capitalism, but he does seem to be saying that they played an essential role in its concrete historical emergence.

    Comment by Phil Gasper — July 5, 2007 @ 11:19 pm

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