Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

December 8, 2014

A response to an Ellen Meiksins Wood article in Jacobin

Filed under: transition debate — louisproyect @ 1:12 pm

Ellen Meiksins Wood

In a New Left Review interview with Bhaskar Sunkara, the 25-year-old founder of Jacobin magazine, we learn that the contributors are drawn partially from a pool of “grad students, young adjunct professors or tenured professors”. That being the case, I wonder what they make of a 4700 word article by Ellen Meiksins Wood that appears on the Jacobin website titled “Capitalism’s Gravediggers”. Despite its focus on ostensibly economic matters, it is distinguished by a breathtaking lack of economic data. I wonder if any of those “young adjunct professors” would have the brass to submit an article to a JSTOR type journal so bereft of evidence unless of course it was targeted to those categorized as philosophy.

I should add this is not the first time I have noticed such an absence from Wood. She seems to be allergic to statistics, an odd disorder for one specializing in political economy.

This article, which has appeared in various permutations over the years, tends to make assertions such as this:

A substantial class of English agricultural producers, mainly tenant farmers, had emerged on the ruins of the peasantry, which had seen its land expropriated. Separated from their means of subsistence, these agrarian capitalists were dependent on the market, and whatever their own consumption needs, were therefore required to meet those imperatives.

You would think that Wood might have taken the trouble to substantiate the claim that market relations were unique to the period in question since it is not only the basis for British exceptionalism but the “big bang” that got the capitalist system going. Without tenant farming based on short-term leases—literally—there would be no industrial revolution, no imperialism, and no commercials for auto insurance 5 times an hour on prime-time television.

By contrast, I just read a 65-page article by Eric Mielants titled “Perspectives on the Origins of Merchant Capitalism in Europe” that appeared in the Fall 2000 Review, a journal put out by the Fernand Braudel Center. Mielants, a critic of the Brenner thesis, writes:

After investigating data available in the Domesday book, the economic historian Snooks estimates that 40% of the economy in eleventh-century England was involved in market activities (the market being the sector where “all the major economic decisions in England were made”) and 60% in subsistence.

Mielants adds in a footnote: “Snooks estimates that 32.3 % of the English market sector in 1086 was rural and 7.8% was urban, hereby arriving at a total of 40.1% (1995: 40).” And that’s a good three centuries before Brenner’s big bang occurred. You would have had to assume that market relations only deepened over three centuries but prior to the introduction of tenant farming.

I should add that the References section (see below) of Mielants’s article is 19 pages long. Given what I have seen in the article, I am positive that he has immersed himself in this material over his relatively brief career. That is what I call scholarship as opposed to the sort of vaporous theorizing that Ellen Meiksins Woods is so good at.

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In the 33 articles I have written about the Brenner thesis (aka Political Marxism) over the years, I have tried to be scrupulous about providing evidence even though my articles were written for popular consumption on the Internet. For example, in an article titled “British Farming and Market Imperatives”, I wrote:

Colin Duncan’s “The Centrality of Agriculture” contains an excellent discussion of these issues in chapter 2, titled “Agriculture Privileged and Benign: English Capitalism in its Light-Industrial Prime”. Duncan agrees with Brenner that there was a profound change in property relations in the British countryside, but challenges the idea that this had much to do with “the maximization of exchange value by means of cost-cutting and improving productivity, by specialization, accumulation, and innovation,” to use Ellen Meiksins Wood’s words. Paradoxically, the “improvements” found in British farming in the pre-Industrial Revolution period involve greater costs and thorough defiance of market mechanisms.

To start with, British tenant farming in the “classical” period is marked by very long leases, up to 21 years. Long leases encouraged experiments with “improvement”, such as crop rotation, etc. The tenant farmer was expected to provide most of the capital for such ventures and could only be assured of staying profitable through a long-term lease. Capitalist logic, of course, would favor short-term leases since they tend to be more responsive to market fluctuations.

Such long-term leases were necessary for the tenant farmer to implement crop rotation cycles which often spanned 20 years. During a long cycle, it was not unusual for 2/3rds of the land to be allocated to grass, which had no commercial value but could be used to re-enrich the soil. Farm animals ate the grass and then supplied the manure that could be used to fertilize the crops. Colin Duncan writes:

Interestingly, and rather embarrassingly for Brenner, many of these new farming practices were very costly and did not allow labour to be shed, as [Keith] Tribe has recently re-emphasized [in ‘Genealogies of Capitalism.’] Rather, they often required additional labour inputs, and in large quantities. Clearly such improvements do not fit the pattern of industrial labour-saving technology so characteristic of our current economics and anachronistically posited by Brenner as a hallmark of early modern farming in England.

It might be useful to see how Karl Marx wrote about these issues in volume one of Capital. In chapter 29, titled “The Genesis of the Capitalist Farmer”, he supports his arguments with three rather meaty footnotes and that was not even to cover his ass if he intended to submit it for peer review.

Marx’s main interest in fact is the impact it had on the creation of dispossessed farmers now available for wage labor. In the preceding chapter (“Bloody Legislation Against the Expropriated, from the End of the 15th Century. Forcing Down of Wages by Acts of Parliament”), he hones in on this:

A tariff of wages was fixed by law for town and country, for piece work and day work. The agricultural labourers were to hire themselves out by the year, the town ones “in open market.” It was forbidden, under pain of imprisonment, to pay higher wages than those fixed by the statute, but the taking of higher wages was more severely punished than the giving them. [So also in Sections 18 and 19 of the Statute of Apprentices of Elizabeth, ten days’ imprisonment is decreed for him that pays the higher wages, but twenty-one days for him that receives them.]

Compare this description of the conditions facing the dispossessed with Woods’s assertion about the primacy of market relations: “Capitalism is a system in which all major economic actors are dependent on the market for their basic requirements of life.” That is true to some extent. The lash of the market coerces modern workers to accept minimum wages and to work in unsafe conditions. If you are a high school dropout, that’s what the market dictates. But in the early stages of capitalism, it was not the market that ruled. It was “extra-economic” forces that set wages. Leaving aside the debate with the “Political Marxists” over the exact nature of chattel slavery, we should never forget that the 16th century worker was literally forced by the gun to accept a below-market wage.

In chapter 30, titled “Reaction of the Agricultural Revolution on Industry. Creation of the Home-Market for Industrial Capital”, Marx acknowledges that the emergence of large-scale farming brought about improvements: “the soil brought forth as much or more produce, after as before, because the revolution in the conditions of landed property was accompanied by improved methods of culture, greater co-operation, concentration of the means of production.”

However, the real breakthrough was the creation of a class of wage workers who could now be made available for industry: “The peasant, expropriated and cast adrift, must buy their value in the form of wages, from his new master, the industrial capitalist. That which holds good of the means of subsistence holds with the raw materials of industry dependent upon home agriculture. They were transformed into an element of constant capital.“

If according to Marx the creation of a proletariat was a critical element—a sine qua non in some ways—for the origins of capitalism, it is almost besides the point for Wood and Brenner. In a Monthly Review article titled “The Agrarian Origins of Capitalism”, she writes that the term “agrarian capitalism” has no role for the nascent industrial proletariat that Marx dwells upon. She says, “This requires some explanation.” I would say so.

She concurs with Marx that: “Without that dispossessed non-agrarian work force, there would have been no mass consumer market for the cheap everyday goods—such as food and textiles—that drove the process of industrialization in England.”

But what separates Marx from Wood and Brenner was his laser-like focus on the evolution of the modern industrial system out of the handicrafts and manufacturing that preceded it historically. Chapter 15 of Capital is titled “Machinery and Modern Industry”. It puts this process under a microscope. While Britain always had a textile sector, it was only through the simultaneous development of labor-saving devices, including the windmills and watermills that could drive machinery, that the industrial revolution became possible. Wageworkers driven from their land became part of the early manufacturing system that eventually turned into the modern factory system.

To make such a transformation complete, capital was needed. A primitive accumulation that swept the self-sustaining farmer off his land was accompanied by another form of primitive accumulation that yielded the financial wherewithal to create the factories where they toiled. As the ultimate rebuttal to Political Marxism, Marx made it clear where the capital came from in chapter 31, titled appropriately enough “The Genesis of the Industrial Capitalist”. None of it was based on market relations. It was based on the gun and the ball-and-chain, the ultimate forms of “extra-economic” coercion that made all the rest possible. This was the real big bang, not lease farming in the 15th century British countryside:

The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins, signalised the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production. These idyllic proceedings are the chief momenta of primitive accumulation. On their heels treads the commercial war of the European nations, with the globe for a theatre. It begins with the revolt of the Netherlands from Spain, assumes giant dimensions in England’s Anti-Jacobin War, and is still going on in the opium wars against China, &c.

The different momenta of primitive accumulation distribute themselves now, more or less in chronological order, particularly over Spain, Portugal, Holland, France, and England. In England at the end of the 17th century, they arrive at a systematical combination, embracing the colonies, the national debt, the modern mode of taxation, and the protectionist system. These methods depend in part on brute force, e.g., the colonial system. But, they all employ the power of the State, the concentrated and organised force of society, to hasten, hot-house fashion, the process of transformation of the feudal mode of production into the capitalist mode, and to shorten the transition. Force is the midwife of every old society pregnant with a new one. It is itself an economic power.



  1. This is a good article. I taught the standard Marxist version of the origins of capitalism for over thirty years. Of course, the market is important. For one thing, it gives rise to a merchant class with a market and money orientation. Buy cheap and sell dear. But feudalism impedes the merchant too. So Marx’s ideas on primitive accumulation and the expropriation of peasant lands is really the key here. When Ellen’s thesis first appeared, I tried to incorporate some of it into my lectures. But it was difficult to do without changing the time frames a lot. In the end, I stuck basically with my original thinking. In the countryside, sheep farming was a key rural industry. These farms could be run on a capitalist basis, and wouldn’t even require enormous amounts of labor. Which meant dispossessed peasants moving to the cities to provide cannon fodder for urban industries. British imperialism helped enormously to seal the deal, generating an enormous influx of precious metals for more and more commerce. Everything more or less worked in tandem to give birth to capitalism.

    Comment by michael yates — December 8, 2014 @ 6:13 pm

  2. Thank you Louis for this rebuttal. The last part of Capital, Vol. 1, is perhaps the most overlooked part of this work by Marx. I would even hazard to say that it has been the most ‘dismissed’ part ever since the onset of a whole school of Marxists who think they can trace the development of capitalism based purely on economic criteria. It’s as if the ‘role of force’ in history and class struggle has been wiped clean. And that is the most anti-Marxist approach one can apply to the study of the history of capitalist development.

    The role of extra-economic measures to affect ‘market forces’ has never stopped. Case in point, all the right-wing legislation ongoing around the U.S. (particularly in states controlled by Republican legislators and governors) that try to legally ban collective bargaining, etc. As it was in the beginning, so it goes on now.

    Comment by Reza F. — December 8, 2014 @ 6:55 pm

  3. I might add that it is foolish to overlook class forces within feudalism. While peasant revolts always had a surface religious basis, underneath these were struggles over the rising surplus due to important technical advances within feudalism such as the three-field system, use of iron plows, better carts, etc. The need for a great deal of useless labor from a social point of view, such as supporting each lord’s military and household, taxed the serfs greatly and led to resentments. When lords tried to bring new lands into cultivation, serf labor was further taxed. Sometimes the customary rents had to be lowered. Combined with the new and growing merchant class, there were mounting tensions within feudalism.

    Comment by michael yates — December 9, 2014 @ 12:20 am

  4. Louis, dissing Wood because her essay is a schematic presentation of her position on the origins of capitalism, rather than a heavily-footnoted, sleep-inducing article in an academic journal article is pretty silly. Jacobin is not exactly the place for in-depth, technical arguments about the structure and productivity of English agriculture in the 15th century. if you want more stats, more data, more evidence from the defenders of the Brenner thesis, I suggest you read this recently published book by Spencer Dimmock:


    Michael: It is difficult to work with the Brenner thesisi without changing the time frames a lot, which is precisely why it is so controversial – because it upends so much of the older Marxist historiography, like the idea of the bourgeois revolution.

    Comment by Nikolas Barry-Shaw — December 11, 2014 @ 9:29 pm

  5. The point is that Wood has never written a scholarly treatment on the origins of British capitalism. Her articles and her one book on the topic are shallow. Most of the serious work involves careful attention to historical data. From what I’ve heard, Dimmock does roll up his sleeves and examine the data–albeit on behalf of a questionable goal.

    Comment by louisproyect — December 11, 2014 @ 10:29 pm

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