Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 5, 2007

More on the turnip

Filed under: transition debate — louisproyect @ 6:01 pm

Charles “Turnip” Townshend

After I posted yesterday’s mostly lighthearted entry on turnips and the transition to capitalism, Michael Perelman suggested I have a look at an August 1969 article in “The Quarterly Journal of Economics” by C. Peter Timmer titled “The Turnip, The New Husbandry, and The English Agricultural Revolution.” It challenges the view found in Tim Blanning’s new book “The Pursuit of Glory: Europe 1648-1815″ and elsewhere that without the turnip, there would have been no industrial revolution in Great Britain.

Although Brenner does not mention the turnip specifically, Eric Kerridge does place a lot of importance on it. As Jim Blaut pointed out in his article on Brenner in “Eight Eurocentric Historians,” Kerridge is Brenner’s main authority. For example, he has an article in the 1956 “Economic History Review” titled “Turnip Husbandry in High Suffolk” that claims an “agricultural revolution” was based on the introduction of “turnip husbandry.” For some economists, the turnip amounted to a booster rocket that could loft a backward society into the modern world. Ragnar Nurkse, an Estonian economist who taught at Columbia University and Princeton, was the Jeffrey Sachs of his day. He was consumed with problems of economic development and looked to Great Britain as a model for the rest of the world. In his 1953 “Problems of Capital Formation in Underdeveloped Countries,” he wrote on the turnip in terms that will be instantly familiar to those who have read Brenner, Wood and company:

Consider what happened in the original home of industrial development, in England in the eighteenth century. Everyone knows that the spectacular industrial revolution would not have been possible without the agricultural revolution that preceded it. And what was this agricultural revolution? It was based on the introduction of the turnip. The lowly turnip made possible a change in crop rotation which did not require much capital, but which brought about a tremendous rise in agricultural productivity. As a result, more food could be grown with much less manpower. Manpower was released for capital construction. The growth of industry would not have been possible without the turnip and other improvements in agriculture.

As I pointed out in a previous blog entry in this series, British farming operated under radically different rules than those prevailing under the industrial revolution. To just mention a couple of differences, British farms enjoyed very long leases in clear indifference to market mechanisms. They were also subject to a kind of feudal primogeniture. From the standpoint of the gentry, these measures ensured that the land would be developed according to the principles of “improvement.” However, genuine mechanized capitalist farming of the 19th century could care less about improvement and was geared to short-term profit.

In the traditional view of British farming accepted by Eric Kerridge, Ragnar Nurkse and Tim Blanning, lease farming encouraged the kind of competition that could lead to increased productivity. Just as the industrial revolution had its Great Men (Eli Whitney, James Watt et al), so did the agrarian revolution. Among them was Charles “Turnip” Townshend, the aristocrat who devoted himself to scientific farming after a career in government. He was credited with introducing the turnip in the 1730s as a way of making fodder available to livestock, thus replenishing the fields through manure. In Alexander Pope’s “Essay on Man,” Charles Townshend emerges as a symbol of British industriousness–an Aesopian grasshopper so to speak:

Why, of two brothers, rich and restless one
Ploughs, burns, manures, and toils from sun to sun;
The other slights, for women, sports, and wines,
All Townshend’s turnips, and all Grosvenor’s mines;

(Another Great Man of the agrarian revolution was Townshend’s contemporary Jethro Tull, who invented the seed-drill and whom the 1970s rock group was named after.)

Jethro Tull, no relation to Aqualung

More recent research, according to C. Peter Timmer, casts doubt on this version of British agricultural history.

To start with, the claims of fabulous increases in land value due to the introduction of the turnip and other improvements are–well–fabulous. In Norfolk, a region where soil improvement was more advanced than any place else in Great Britain, there was a landlord named Thomas Coke who was as esteemed as Charles “Turnip” Townshend. Using techniques introduced by Jethro Tull and others, he claimed that the capital value of his estate grew from 2,200 pounds in 1776 to 20,000 in 1816–nearly tenfold. Recent scholarship based on the financial records of the property estimate it at only twofold, a significant increase but probably not much different from landed property anywhere else in Great Britain or in Europe for that matter.

But of even more importance is the question of whether this agrarian revolution so highly touted by Kerridge and company had the effect of reducing labor input, an obvious sine qua non for productivity on the land as well as “freeing up” labor power for nascent industry.

According to economic historian David Grigg (“The Agricultural Revolution in South Lincolnshire”, 1966):

Under the Norfolk system the land was worked more frequently and more carefully than on the open fields. The turnip crop alone required an enormous amount of labour if it was to be properly drilled and hoed.

Drawing a statistical matrix from 18th century farming records, Timmer concludes that the new “improved” farm of 500 acres generated 2,843 pounds in revenue while the same-sized “old” farm generated 2,293 pounds, a modest increase but an increase nevertheless. However, the labor costs for the “improved” farm were forty five percent greater (33.7 / 23.2), while the capital costs were forty one percent greater (1021 / 722). For all the talk about how the agrarian revolution led to modern-day capitalism in Great Britain and the rest of the world, the records reflect somewhat of an indifference to profits. What an odd capitalist logic.


  1. Jethro Tull execrable? Come on, find me a better rock band with a floutist(sp?)!

    Comment by eugene — July 6, 2007 @ 6:50 am

  2. Kerridge is not Brenner’s “main authority.” If you read Brenner’s work you will find only 2 references to Kerridge in Brenner’s rebuttal in The Brenner Debate, neither remark having any relation to turnips, but rather to the actual social relations between peasants and lords, copyholders and landlords, and the transition to specialized production of grains and the growth in farm sizes.

    In his work on Pomeranz and China, which is really a demolition of Pomeranz’s thesis, Kerridge is included in the bibliography, but again Kerridge hardly forms the main authority for Brenner’s thesis– a thesis that concentrates on social relations rather than the things, the thing being the turnip.

    Comment by s.artesian — July 6, 2007 @ 12:39 pm

  3. You are right. Kerridge is not the only authority cited by Brenner. He also acknowledged R.H. Tawney and W.G. Hoskins. On the turnip, I stated that Brenner *did not* mention it explicitly but it is a cornerstone of this “agrarian revolution” approach.

    Comment by Louis Proyect — July 6, 2007 @ 12:52 pm

  4. I should add one thing. In Brenner’s New Left Review article, which Blaut was answering, Kerridge is the sole citation for the paragraph cited below. I am sure that everybody understands what “soil-enhancing crops” is a reference to. I must add at this point that I fully endorse British “high farming” techniques, which have much more in common with what is happening in Cuba today than the Central Valley of California:

    In fact, the new techniques which could have substantially increased output—the revolutionary systems of ‘up and down (or convertible) husbandry’, which replaced the old ‘permanent’ two- or three-field rotations by an ‘alternation’ of animal and arable production so as to eliminate fallows, while bringing in new soil-enhancing crops—required a very carefully supervised, skilled and technically proficient agriculture. [22]

    [22] See Eric Kerridge, The Agricultural Revolution, London 1967, pp. 181–221. Similarly, with the new irrigation systems, ‘the floating of the water meadows’, ibid. pp. 251–67.

    Comment by Louis Proyect — July 6, 2007 @ 12:58 pm

  5. Jethro Tull execrable? Them’s fighting words.

    Bet you’re Dylan fan. If so, your appalling lack of musical acumen is forgiven. You can’t help yourself.

    Comment by Martin Wisse — July 8, 2007 @ 11:17 am

  6. Due to popular demand, I no longer describe Jethro Tull as “execrable”. I will, however, reserve that adjective for Three Dog Night if their name ever comes up.

    Comment by louisproyect — July 8, 2007 @ 1:24 pm

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