Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

January 27, 2016

Town and Tawney

Filed under: transition debate — louisproyect @ 4:39 pm

R.H. Tawney

As a follow-up to my articles on formal/real subsumption, I decided to reread Maurice Dobb’s “Studies in the Development of Capitalism”, an economic history of England that I remembered as a useful review of class relations both in the city and countryside. Despite the tendency to associate Robert Brenner with Dobb because both were involved with debates with Paul Sweezy, there is little doubt that Dobb was a lot closer to Sweezy. Indeed, Brenner wrote an article in 1978 titled “Dobb on the transition from feudalism to capitalism” that faulted him for giving too much credit to the towns.

For Brenner, Marxists—including Sweezy and Dobb—have overemphasized trade, particularly between England and other nations. Naturally such trade was what drove the growth of town and city, especially London, since the import of spices, silk, precious metals etc. were key to the handicrafts that emerged under feudalism and became the foundation for formal subsumption. If such goods could be purchased cheaply and through monopoly power, an accumulation of mercantile capital was the logical outcome—that, at least, was the argument.

Brenner rejected such arguments. For example, he wrote in his famous 1977 NLR article:

In sum, Sweezy’s entire account of the transition from feudalism to capitalism is based on the implicit assumption that capitalism already exists. This occurs because Sweezy mistakenly believes that trade/towns constitute a sort of capitalism in embryo. The expansion of trade/towns will transmit to the economy as a whole, even one dominated by serfdom, a tendency to self-transformation by means of processes of accumulation and innovation which will inevitably lead to the decline of feudalism (and ultimately the adoption of wage labour), due to the exigencies of the development of the productive forces.

Wood says the same sort of thing:

The tendency to identify capitalism with cities and urban commerce has generally been accompanied by an inclination to make capitalism appear as a more or less automatic consequence of practices as old as human history, or even the automatic consequence of human nature, the “natural” inclination, in Adam Smith’s words, to “truck, barter, and exchange.”

Perhaps the most salutary corrective to these assumptions—and their ideological implications—is the recognition that capitalism, with all its very specific drives of accumulation and profit-maximization, was born not in the city but in the countryside, in a very specific place, and very late in human history.

While I was mainly interested in finding out whether Dobb historicized the formal to real subsumption process, which would have meant looking at how handicrafts were superseded by manufacturing, etc., I was intrigued to see this reference to how the townsmen (bourgeoisie, in other words) became landed gentry—a kind of reversal of what might be expected:

Similarly, agriculture in the sixteenth century was under-going an important, if partial, transformation. It was a century, on the one hand, of extensive investment by city merchants in the purchase of manors; and while most of this appear to have been either speculative in intention or with the object of drawing rents from leases rather than of enjoying the profits of farming the land, instances were not altogether uncommon of capital being sunk in improvements and of the estate being worked with hired labour as a capitalist farm.

Whoa, I said to myself after reading this paragraph, that is really interesting. So city merchants were buying manors—I didn’t know that. Someone who might have made a killing on the London streets making hats or boots then went out and bought a bunch of land. Was there a possibility that this explained the transformations in the countryside? When an early capitalist invests in land, it was no doubt motivated by the same kind of acquisitiveness that led him to corner the market in hats or boots—or so it would seem.

In his discussion of these trends, Dobb cites R.H. Tawney’s “The Agrarian Problem in the Sixteenth Century” that was written in 1912 and available on Project Gutenberg. (http://www.gutenberg.org/files/40336/40336-h/40336-h.htm). Tawney was a Christian Socialist and strongly influenced by Max Weber. He is also someone that Brenner cited favorably on behalf of his own theory in “Agrarian class structure and economic development in pre-industrial Europe” so that might give him some credibility.

Part two of Tawney’s book is titled “The Transition to Capitalist Agriculture” and is obviously relevant to the topic under discussion. Tawney views the enclosure act as critical to the rise of capitalism: “The development of the textile manufactures, which for two centuries were the chief source of English wealth, could not have taken place without the production of cheap supplies of raw material, and the growth of the towns was dependent on the saving of labour from agriculture.” This certainly sounds consistent with Political Marxism, the notion of towns relying on labor-saving large farms. But there’s a larger framework for all this—the Tudor epoch as a “commercial age”:

The age is a commercial one in the more fundamental sense that large economic changes are initiated by classes and individuals. Foreign trade grows enormously in the early years of Henry VIII., though certain branches of it suffer a temporary set back at the end of the reign. The use of money, of which during the first quarter of the century there was a shortage, begins in the middle of it to spread throughout all classes. The industry which for the next three centuries is to be the chief manufacture of England becomes firmly established. Under the influence of widening markets, trade separates from trade. Within single industries there is an increasing subdivision of labour; many links intervene between the group supplying the raw material and the group which hands the finished article to the consumer; a special class of capitalist entrepreneurs appears to hold the various stages of production together, to organise supplies, and to find markets. Side by side with the development of manufacturing industry goes a development in the organisation of finance. In the woollen industry men buy and sell on credit. In tin-mining and coal-mining they sink shafts with borrowed capital. The first joint-stock companies are established in the middle of the century with capitals of from £5000 to £20,000. There is a regular money market in London, there are bill brokers, arbitrage dealings between it and the Continent, adventurers who take advantage of the increasing fluidity of capital to speculate on the difference in the rates at which it can be borrowed in the Low Countries and in England. By the end of the century London has partially ousted Antwerp as the financial capital of Europe.

In the second place, the social arrangements of England are such as to make it certain that this increasing activity will react almost immediately on agriculture and on agrarian relationships. There have been countries where a sharp line has been drawn between trade and agriculture, where the landowner could not engage in trade without degrading himself, where the tradesman could not buy up the noble’s land. But this has never been the case in England. In that precocious island the Lombards had hardly settled in Lombard Street, when Mr. Pole’s daughters discovered that the fine shades flourished their finest in country air, and there was a market for heiresses among the English aristocracy long before Columbus had revealed to Europe the Eldorado of the New World. From a very early date the successful merchant has bought dignity and social consideration by investing his savings in an estate. The impecunious gentleman has restored the falling fortunes of his house by commercial speculations, of which marriage into a merchant family, if not the least speculative, is not the least profitable. At the beginning of the sixteenth century both movements were going on simultaneously with a rapidity which was before unknown, and which must be explained as the consequence of the great growth of all forms of commercial activity. The rise of great incomes drawn from trade had brought into existence a new order of business men whose enterprise was not confined to the seaport and privileged town, but flowed over into the purchase of landed estates, even before the secularisation of monastic endowments made land speculation the mania of a whole generation. Great nobles plunged into commerce, were granted special trading privileges, and intermarried with the rising middle-class families who were often better off than themselves. In all ages wealth allies itself with wealth, and power with power. As soon as the appearance of rich merchant families creates a fresh and powerful interest in society, the old social system and the new coalesce, and each learns from the other—the merchant how to make a display as a landed proprietor and a Justice of the Peace, the old-fashioned landlord how to cut down expenses and squeeze the utmost farthing out of his property in the best City manner. Even if the political and economic environment had remained unchanged, the mere formation of commercial capital and of a moneyed class could hardly have failed to work a slow revolution in agrarian relationships.

This chronicle of what happened in the sixteenth century is obviously more consistent with Dobb than Brenner/Wood and—might I add—with reality itself. There was an interpenetration of town and country with the town arguably taking precedence. This essentially was Ernest Mandel’s view as well:

It is in the evolution, from the sixteenth century onward, of these local markets supplied essentially out of the surpluses of producers of use-values, into great metropolitan markets, that we must look for the origin of agricultural capitalism. The prodigious development of urban centres like London, Paris, Antwerp, Amsterdam, Hamburg, etc., upset the relations of supply and demand as regards agricultural produce. These great cities concentrated within their boundaries a considerable proportion of the national population in the case of London, 10 per cent of the British population from the end of the seventeenth century and 20 per cent by the nineteenth century. The supply of foodstuffs to these populations depended no longer merely on the neighbouring agricultural areas, but on a large proportion of the entire agricultural production of the whole country. This tended to level out agricultural prices on the national scale, and this in the sense that the prices paid in the metropolitan area became the basis for the national price of wheat.

Thereby, contrariwise to what happened in the local markets of the Middle Ages, the areas with big wheat surpluses which were near the capital could sell their wheat dearer than remote areas where there was a shortage (allowing for transport costs). After the metropolitan market the next stage, achieved in a single century, was the world grain market: London attracted not only the wheat needed for its own feeding but also all the wheat intended for export, for maximum valorisation on the markets of the world.

The appearance of vast metropolitan markets from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries onward was accompanied by a complete reversal of the food-supply policy of the big towns. For these it was no longer a question, as in the Middle Ages, of restricting the price of foodstuffs by every means. On the contrary, it was a question of ensuring by every means an adequate supply of foodstuffs for the town at any price.” It was in this sense that the metropolises played the part of an apparently unlimited market, thus fostering the introduction of capitalism in agriculture. No longer were only the surpluses of rural production sent to the town; the maximum possible amount of wheat was sent, so that often the country people were reduced to subsistence level.

The movement for the enclosure of common land was stimulated not only by attractive prospects for sheep-raising but also by very high prices of wheat. The appearance of the metropolitan market and the ending, for the agricultural producers, of free use of the soil (i.e., the introduction of capitalism in agriculture), were intimately linked together. The importance of this stimulus can be judged if one considers that, from 1500 to 1800, the price of wheat in Britain rose from index 100 to index 275, and in France from index 100 to index 572, whereas the prices of metals and textiles rose by only 30 per cent during the same period.

In the same epoch, the rationalisation of agriculture, the transition from the three-field system to the planting of crops which restore the soil’s fertility, and the growing use of chemical fertilisers, increased, first in Flanders, Holland and some parts of Germany, then later in Britain and France, the minimum funds needed by a farmer if he were to take advantage of this miraculous manna of rising agricultural prices. From the end of the eighteenth century one needed, in England, to dispose of a minimum capital of £5 an acre in order to exploit an arable farm, £8 an acre for a mixed farm, and £20 an acre for a cattle or sheep farm. The ownership of capital thus became the condition for any viable agricultural enterprise, however modest. In this way all the conditions for the penetration of capital into agriculture were realised.

–Marxist Economic Theory, V. 1, pp. 274-275


  1. Great stuff Louis. Doing a great job of exposing how utterly ahistorical the Brenner position was / is.

    Comment by Cedric Beidatsch — January 28, 2016 @ 4:51 am

  2. It’s been years since I read Roy Porter’s “English Society in the 18th Century,” but I suspect it would extend the argument. http://www.amazon.com/English-Society-Eighteenth-Century-Edition/product-reviews/0140138196/ref=cm_cr_dp_qt_hist_five?ie=UTF8&filterByStar=five_star&showViewpoints=0

    Comment by David Green — January 29, 2016 @ 10:00 pm

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