Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

January 31, 2016

“How the West Came to Rule”: a work for the ages

Filed under: transition debate — louisproyect @ 9:33 pm

When Jim Blaut succumbed to pancreatic cancer in 2000, he was denied the possibility of completing the third and final installment in a series of books about Eurocentrism. The first two—“The Colonizer’s Model of the World” and “Eight Eurocentric Historians”—were polemical but scholarly rebuttals to a wide range of thinkers, including Robert Brenner. The third was intended to demonstrate that a different kind of history could be written, one that gave the “people without history”—as Hegel put it—their proper due. When I finished reading Alexander Anievas and Kerem Nisancioglu’s “How the West Came to Rule: the Geopolitical Origins of Capitalism” this week, I was left with the feeling that Blaut’s book had finally been written.

“How the West Came to Rule” is a work of towering scholarly erudition combined with deep political insights that must be reckoned with, whichever position you take on a debate that has been ongoing since 1950 when Paul Sweezy critiqued Maurice Dobb’s 1946 “Studies in the Development of Capitalism” in the pages of Science and Society. For Dobb, the transition to capitalism was rooted in contradictions internal to European feudalism while for Sweezy foreign trade was critical. That being said, Dobb’s book could not possibly be mistaken for the much more radical “internal” interpretation of Robert Brenner and Ellen Meiksins Wood. In chapter five Dobb wrote:

In short, the Mercantile System was a system of State-regulated exploitation through trade which played a highly important role in the adolescence of capitalist industry: it was essentially the economic policy of primitive accumulation.

Moreover, there were indirect ways in which the prosperity of foreign trade in the Tudor Age aided industrial development in the ensuing century. Some of the fortunes made by foreign adventurers no doubt eventually found their way into industrial enterprise; while, as we shall presently see, the expansion of overseas markets, especially colonial markets, in the seventeenth century, to some extent acted as a lever to the profitability of manufacture at home.

For Brenner, these sorts of arguments were unacceptable. Capitalism originated in the British countryside in the 16th century because of a totally contingent set of circumstances that led to lease farming instead of self-husbanding family farms that were typical of other nations such as France. Tenant farmers were forced to compete in the marketplace to increase productivity and generate the profits needed to accumulate capital. Not only was foreign trade extraneous to this development; slavery and colonialism hardly entered the equation. Wood, who tended to be much more categorical in her formulations, put it this way:

This mode of providing for the basic material needs of English society brought with it a whole new dynamic of self-sustaining growth, a process of accumulation and expansion very different from the age-old cyclical patterns that dominated material life in other societies. It was also accompanied by the typical capitalist processes of expropriation and the creation of a propertyless mass. It is in this sense that we can speak of “agrarian capitalism” in early modern England.

Once this “big bang” occurred, everything else fell into place: the industrial revolution, the development of the British empire, and the diffusion of capitalist property relations to the rest of the planet. Any other interpretation was effectively outside of Marxism. That was the only way to interpret Brenner’s use of the term “neo-Smithian” to describe Paul Sweezy in a 1977 NLR article.

After Brenner and Wood staked out their positions, there were challenges from a number of Marxists grouped around Monthly Review including Andre Gunder Frank and Immanuel Wallerstein. As “world systems” theorists, they made the case that slavery and colonialism were a sine qua non for the development of capitalism. Until now, the parameters of the debate have followed the pattern established by Brenner/Wood on one side and Wallerstein et al on the other.

Alexander Anievas

Kerem Nisancioglu

All that changed with the timely intervention of Anievas and Nisancioglu who make a convincing case that the terms of the debate have been inadequate to analyze the dynamics at work in the formation of the capitalist system. While Wallerstein was correct to see the importance of colonialism and slavery, he nonetheless accepted the terms of the “internalist” camp, namely that capitalism originated in Britain. Once it was established there, it took advantage of its economic and military superiority to become hegemonic as a “core” exploiting a “periphery”.

But this binary opposition does not take into account the “external” forces that operated on Britain, without which its eventual domination would be impossible. Specifically, “How the West Came to Rule” looks eastward at the Ottoman and Mongol empires whose impact on Europe would be as crucial to the formation of capitalism as oxygen would be to life on earth. Indeed, it was Turkish historian Kerem Nisancioglu’s investigations into the class relations of the Ottoman Empire that inspired Anievas to work on the joint project that culminated in “How the West Came to Rule”. With so much of the Brenner thesis debate revolving around the Western Europe/New World axis for obvious reasons, it was a breakthrough of considerable intellectual and political weight to look toward the east as a way of raising the debate to a higher level.

While many of us are familiar with the impact of Ottoman culture on classical composers, like Mozart who incorporated elements of the Janissary marching band into Piano Sonata number 11 with its final “Rondo alla Turka” movement or Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, the evidence is much more profound when you look at Holbein’s “Ambassadors” from 1533, the year that Queen Elizabeth was born. At the center of the painting is a Turkish rug that undoubtedly refers to both the threat posed by the Ottomans as well as their value to a transnational economy bursting at the seams of feudalism.

The Turks were rivals to the Hapsburg monarchy that saw Ottoman incursions into Eastern Europe as a mortal threat especially since many of their subjects welcomed a system that was based on a less punishing tax system and that respected local customs. For Nisancioglu, the key determinant of Ottoman influence and power rested on its tributary mode of production that did not conform to the norms we associate with feudalism. (This is a question that has preoccupied me for some years as an amateur student of Turkish history and that grew out of visits to Istanbul over the years with my wife. In a Turkish language class at Columbia University, I once asked the professor for the Turkish word that referred to a feudal lord and he looked at me as if I had two heads.)

Nisancioglu explains that in the Ottoman Empire the peasants were taxed on a basis regulated by officials appointed by the Sultan and thus relinquished a lot less of their surplus product than their European counterparts. While by no means an agrarian paradise, the Ottoman peasant was freer and less exploited. Additionally, the Sultan had power over the local administrators of land—the timars—who had much less power than the feudal lords of Europe. In order to generate the revenue for its court and its potent military machine, the Sultans had no other recourse except to expand geographically and bring new subjects under their domain. So, in essence the Ottoman Empire had a smaller footprint in the territory it absorbed but an ineluctable need to keep expanding in order to support what one Turkish scholar called “the military-agricultural complex”.

The European feudal ruling class also ruled by expropriating the peasantry but political power was far more dispersed with the fiefdoms essentially functioning as independent entities above and beyond the monarch’s control. In order for the monarch to wage war, he or she had to go to merchants and bankers with hat in hand. This is what led to the enormous power of families like the Fuggers. By contrast, Ottoman military expeditions were financed directly out of the Sultan’s treasury which relied on a steady tax revenue. This meant that the mercantile system’s growth was stunted in comparison to Europe.

With little interest in the expansion of a mercantilist sector, the Ottomans neglected opportunities that would have been eagerly exploited by the British or French. For example, after a stunning victory over the Mamluks in 1517, the Turks had an open door to India with its spices. But the Sultan had far more interest in Southeastern Europe with its fertile soil to increase its tax base.

In a direct comparison with the Ottoman Empire, Western Europe was underdeveloped. But seen dialectically, it was this very “weakness” that allowed it to leapfrog Turkey. As the Ottoman Empire was extending its influence and control over vast portions of Eastern Europe and Asia Minor, it allowed trading networks to develop without interference from pirates or banditry. With a greater need for mercantile capital, the European feudal elites could benefit greatly from Pax Ottomana. With a safe route into India, merchants could export manufactured goods in exchange for raw materials that were essential to social reproduction such as the spices that could preserve meat or the silk that could be woven into fine garments. Turkey, in effect, was playing the same role that the USA played after Bretton Woods. Nisancioglu describes the process:

Trade and communication between the Ottomans and Europe also assisted in the transmission of social and technological knowledge, leading to a spurt of developments in European manufacturing, particularly those sectors imitating ‘Eastern’ products. The boost in French economic activity following a trade agreement with the Ottomans led to the `proto-industrialisation’ of towns as Marseilles. The competition in silk markets between the Levant and Venice inspired the creation of the hydraulic mill in Bologna which would later be adapted to construct Lombe’s Mill in Derby in the early 18th century—arguably the world’s first fully mechanised factory. Because Ottoman merchants were themselves were active agents in bolstering trade within the Empire and beyond, their own credit system and methods of accumulation such as the simsar monopoly association and mudaraba advance system became woven into the fabric of European commercial relations, prefiguring the ‘complete control of a commodity from production to sales’ that would become the of ‘company capitalism’.

Ottoman hegemony in the Mediterranean had consequences that ultimately made the “agrarian capitalism” hailed by Brenner and Wood possible, although it was never acknowledged in their scholarship. Put succinctly, the English benefited from Pax Ottomana while the Italian city-states were shut out. This meant that the nascent textile industry had easy access to wool, cotton, silk and mohair from the East. Furthermore, England’s isolation from the intra-feudal warfare of continental Europe allowed it to invest far less capital in the military. So pronounced was the “peacetime” dividend that by the 1550s Spain had seven times as men in arms than England. And none of this would have been possible without the open door the Ottomans provided.

With a declining military base, the English aristocracy lacked the means to forcibly extract agricultural surpluses as was customary in Spain or France. Furthermore, the English nobility was socially less stratified than on the continent with the gentry often emerging out of the urban mercantile class. With its burgeoning textile industry that had benefited from Ottoman ties, the displaced peasant was able to make do as a wage laborer in either the new tenant farms or in manufacturing. So when the social property relations that are the hallmark of the Brenner thesis were being born, the midwife was effectively the Ottoman Empire.

If the Political Marxists failed to take the East into account when they developed the theory of agrarian capitalism, it was an even more egregious failure to reckon with the role of slavery in the New World. Typically, when Robert Brenner refers to slavery in his 1977 NLR article, he amalgamates it with serfdom—a form of extra-economic coercion that belongs to the “precapitalist” epoch. However, the particular form that slavery took in the New World was hardly typical of feudalism, which was based primarily on the creation of use values. Slaves produced commodities—exchange value—for the capitalist market. If this distinction was lost on the PM’ers, it was not lost on Karl Marx who observed:

Direct slavery is as much the pivot upon which our present-day industrialism turns as are machinery, credit, etc. Without slavery there would be no cotton, without cotton there would be no modern industry. It is slavery which has given value to the colonies, it is the colonies which have created world trade, and world trade is the necessary condition for large-scale machine industry. Consequently, prior to the slave trade, the colonies sent very few products to the Old World, and did not noticeably change the face of the world. Slavery is therefore an economic category of paramount importance. Without slavery, North America, the most progressive nation, would he transformed into a patriarchal country. Only wipe North America off the map and you will get anarchy, the complete decay of trade and modern civilisation. But to do away with slavery would be to wipe America off the map.

Letter from Marx to Pavel Vasilyevich Annenkov, 1846

For Ellen Meiksins Wood, the New World had hardly anything to do with the origins of capitalism, as she explains in the book with that exact title. On page 148, she points to the failure of Spain to develop along capitalist lines despite amassing “huge wealth” from South American mines. By contrast, England took off even though its overseas colonization “lagged behind”. The same thing was true of slavery. Britain certainly did benefit from the slave labor that provided cotton to mills in Manchester but for Spain it was squandered on sugar and tobacco. This analysis, such as it is, was the one that was widespread on the left in the early 1990s from people who had never read Brenner or Wood. To some extent it was a kind of neo-Weberianism that exploited the idea of Spanish indolence.

Perhaps a tendency toward Anglocentrism that is endemic to PM prevented Wood from recognizing that Holland benefited greatly from Spanish colonization. (We should mention that Brenner and Wood differ over whether agrarian capitalism had developed there as well, with Wood in denial.) Holland had traditionally developed much stronger ties to Spain and as such was able to make good use of gold and silver bullion in both manufacturing and banking. Indeed, Karl Marx noted that Holland was “was the head capitalistic nation of the 17th century” in chapter 31 of V. 1 of Capital. This chapter, titled “Genesis of the Industrial Capitalist”, argues that “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.” Needless to say, the PM’ers tend to tiptoe around this chapter, regretting to themselves that Karl Marx ever made the mistake of writing it.

Furthermore, the gold and silver from the New World made its way into a variety of financial institutions across northern Europe and helped to lubricate trade with Asia. If England, Holland and French merchants had easy access to capital, it made the import of raw materials critical to early manufacturing possible whatever the fate of poor, indolent Spain. The mercantile capital provided from slavery and other forms of coerced labor in the mines of Mexico, Peru, and Bolivia gave both the Dutch and British East India Companies the leverage they needed to trade with the east and eventually monopolize them. For Wood, these trading companies are written off as “precapitalist”, a facile term that tends to blur more than it clarifies.

While the notion of chattel slavery as being “precapitalist” erodes apace under the impact of major scholarly contributions by Sven Beckert, Edward Baptist, and Walter Johnson, the benefit of Anievas and Nisancioglu is to put the question into the context of historical materialism and specifically Trotsky’s theory of combined and uneven development. The combination of English capital, American land and African slavery was unprecedented in human history and the reflexive tendency by PM’ers to aggregate it with serfdom can only be described as an intellectual failure of some magnitude. Anievas and Nisancioglu write:

Perhaps most importantly, market competition compelled plantations to operate according to distinctly capitalist rules of reproduction. The maintenance of the plantation was subject to costs and ‘market stimuli’ that constantly demanded renewed and expanding commodity production, where profit maximisation was the cardinal aim. As assets of fixed capital, slaves were ‘put to work’ in the name of profit, or else sold off to someone who would do so. Consequently, at least ‘nine tenths of American slaves were put to commodity production’, in which modern techniques of discipline and violence were deployed to concentrate and mechanise work, as well as accelerate its intensity. Such features meant that the condition of slaves was considerably closer to that the proletarians of England than that of the self-subsisting peasants of feudal Europe. Moreover, planters often made large investments in slave labour that could ‘enhance the productivity of future laborers’, as exemplified by South Carolina’s tidal rice plantations. Elsewhere slavers introduced labour-saving technologies, as in the case of the ginning machine, which in 1794 mechanised cotton cleaning.

Like much of the new scholarship of Baptist et al, Anievas and Nisancioglu hearken back to Eric Williams’s “Capitalism and Slavery”, a work that in turn was influenced by CLR James who was critical for helping to make the connection between the Caribbean and England. James, of course, was one of the major Trotskyist thinkers of the 20th century and surely someone who would be able to see the relationship between apparently opposed modes of production acting on each other dialectally. Rather than seeing slavery and capitalism as rival forms of class exploitation, James and Williams saw them as mutually reinforcing even if at a certain point the contradictions would make them mortal enemies.

When I first encountered the Brenner thesis around 1997 as a result of Jim Blaut’s participation in the Marxism list that preceded Marxmail, my immediate reaction was to evaluate it against Trotsky’s theory of combined and uneven development as I pointed out in an article posted to the list (this was before blogging existed.)

A key element of Trotskyist thought is combined and uneven development, which first appeared in Trotsky’s analysis of the coming Russian Revolution. As opposed to the narrow “stagist” conceptions of much of the Russian social democracy, Trotsky believed that Russian capitalism and precapitalist forms had a dialectical relationship to each other.

While apparently blessed by having learned about Trotsky’s theory of combined and uneven development as independent scholars rather than through the school of hard knocks in the Fourth International, there is every evidence that they have mastered it as equals to CLR James. It is a reminder that no matter how quixotic Trotsky’s attempts to build an alternative to the Stalinist movement, his ideas about permanent revolution, fascism, and other big questions in the class struggle remain pertinent.

Throughout “How the West Came to Rule”, there is a constant engagement with the dialectic of combined and uneven development. In a recent discussion of the book, Neil Davidson—another critic of the Brenner thesis—asked the authors whether the theory was necessary for their critique. In a way, that misses the point since all Trotsky was doing is applying Marxism to the Russian class struggle. If he had not coined the term, it would have amounted to the same thing. If you read “The Eighteenth Brumaire”, for example, the same sort of analysis leaps off the page.

The authors offer a succinct presentation of Trotsky’s theory that will be useful to readers that have not gone through the sort of internal cadre training classes I went through forty-five years or so ago. Unevenness refers to different levels of development within a society or between societies, with the plantation system in the Old South or the mixture of the most advanced factories and serfdom in Czarist Russia classic examples. In the latter case, Trotsky noted that Russia stood between Europe and Asia—his way of describing its uneven development: neither fully capitalist or fully feudal.

Combination refers to the ways in which the internal relations of any society are determined by their interaction with other differentially developed societies. In the case of Czarist Russia, this meant adopting the latest industrial technology from Germany or Britain. As the authors make clear, this “leapfrogging” was essential to England’s rise. As a relatively backward and isolated society in comparison to China or India, it used its backwardness as a way of catapulting to a higher stage since it was not burdened by a tributary mode of production that while allowing the Ottomans to rule a vast empire served as well to retard its development.

Finally, the most significant contribution of Alexander Anievas and Kerem Nisancioglu is to reorient Marxism to the proletarian internationalism that was its hallmark before “socialism in one country” became dominant on the left (facilitated to a large degree by thuggery and assassination.)

If my initial reaction to the Brenner thesis was influenced by my reading in Trotsky and CLR James, there was another aspect that troubled me when weighed against my Marxist training. I always considered capitalism a world system just the way I viewed socialism. In my days as an activist in the Nicaraguan solidarity movement, I tried to explain the Sandinista failure in terms of the expectations of the revolutionary movement of the early 20th century. There was no confusion about that in the time of Marx and Engels. When Engels considered the question “Will it be possible for this revolution to take place in one country alone?”, his answer was unambiguous: “No. By creating the world market, big industry has already brought all the peoples of the Earth, and especially the civilized peoples, into such close relation with one another that none is independent of what happens to the others.”

If socialism in one country was always an impossibility, it only makes sense to understand how capitalism operating as a global system practically from its inception makes internationalism a necessity. If “agrarian capitalism” always had an insular quality, that’s reason enough to approach world politics from the standpoint of “combined and uneven development”. To paraphrase John Donne, “no society is an island, entire of itself”.

In their conclusion, Anievas and Nisancioglu issue a ringing call for building a revolutionary movement that unites the many against the few in the spirit of the Internationale: “The International Union Shall be the human race.” We end now with their words::

The myriad dilemmas arising from the ‘inter-stateness’ of capitalism, this international dimension inscribed in all forms of development, confronting any revolution was clearly recognised – if not properly addressed – by Lenin. As he commented to fellow Bolsheviks in March 1919, ‘We are living not merely in a state, but in a system of states, and it is inconceivable for the Soviet Republic to exist alongside the imperialist states for any length of time. One or the other must triumph in the end’. In the field of IR, the apparent fact that revolutionary states quickly adopted the methods of traditional diplomacy and great power politics has been viewed as a striking vindication of the ‘timeless’ wisdom of political realism – a conclusion we clearly reject. But while it would be hopelessly naïve, if not intellectually disingenuous, to subsume an explanation ill the multitude of forces behind any socialist revolution’s ‘degeneration’, revolutionaries travel at their peril without recognition of the socially transformational power of ‘power politics’. And this ‘international’ dimension of development has much broader implications to revolutionary politics more generally.

Take, for example, our argument that the multiple labour processes in different parts of the world were crucial to the formation and subsequent reproduction of capitalism. In the period of the Industrial Revolution, coerced forms of surplus extraction in the Americas and Asia enabled capitalists in Britain to increase rates of exploitation and subordinate labour to the mechanics of the factory. Here the combination of uneven forms of exploitation was constitutive of capitalism’s expanded reproduction, and the real subsumption of labour. In the contemporary period, the divesting machinations of capitalism have continued and expanded into a global system of geopolitical violent and integrated production processes which afford it coercive and disciplining capabilities with an unprecedented international reach. The fluidities of finance capital, ‘just-in-time’ production, and logistics have only sharpened this sociological multiplicity – the international – into a machine of tyranny. Today, as always, wage repression, deteriorating work conditions and anti-strike practices are actively determined by variegated labour processes in different societies across the globe. In these ways, unevenness and combination act as disciplining features that maintains the capital relation as the basis of social existence.

So when considering the challenge of political multiplicity, we must not only connsider the level of ‘many societies’, but also many oppressions, many powers, many struggles, many actors and so on. Historically, sociopolitical differences borne of ‘many oppressions’ or ‘many struggles’ have been understood as something for the Left – and in particular the Party – to negate and sublate into the unity and singularity of revolutionary thought and practice. In this tradition, the programme has been presented as the higher ideological/strategic unity, and the Party the organisational form, in which political differences are ironed out, unity among disparate parts realised, and a homogenous political perspective pursued. In turn, the perspectives constructed by the leadership of parties and organisations are presented as the historical prime mover – the royal road – which simply needs to be replicated everywhere for capitalism to be overthrown. This negation of political difference sought by programmatic organisations generates a form of political autocentrism, and ontological singularity, where any given party or programme is posited as the sole and sovereign author of historical change. In this programmatic approach, difference is something not to be articulated, but destroyed; something to be redirected onto the True Path – where it cannot be redirected – exiled as a ‘bourgeois deviation’.

Drawing on our preceding analysis, we would argue that any politics that takes a singular – historically and geographically specific – experience and generalises beyond its own spatiotemporal conditions and limitations, is inherently limited, problematic and potentially dangerous. It is so precisely because it imposes a false universality on the uneven, multiform social experiences of proletarians. Insofar as capitalism has been built on the subjugation and marginalisation of multiplicity – both historically and historiographically – any anticapitalist politics that reproduces this subjugation and marginalisation is not worthy of the name.


  1. “towering scholarly erudition” I couldn’t have said it better.

    Comment by pam anievas — February 1, 2016 @ 2:04 am

  2. Another excellent article. However a minor correction is needed. ‘Britain certainly did benefit from the slave labor that provided cotton to mills in Birmingham. The cotton mills were in Lancashire and Cheshire to take the principal area, Manchester for example, and not Birmingham. Birmingham manufactured the guns and other metalware that was traded by the slaveships to African suppliers of slaves.

    Comment by Mike Tucker — February 1, 2016 @ 11:21 am

  3. […] outcome of a multiplicity of factors including the impact of the Ottoman Empire as I pointed out in my review of Alexander Anievas and Kerem Nisancioglu’s “How the West Came to Rule: the Geopolitical […]

    Pingback by Thoughts on John Clegg’s “Capitalism and Slavery” | Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — March 31, 2018 @ 8:41 pm

  4. […] prize in 2011 for “Theory as History.” Other critics of the Brenner thesis include Kerem Nisancioglu and Alexander Anievas, the authors of “How the West Came to Rule: The Geopolitical Origins of Capitalism,” and […]

    Pingback by The Origins of Commercial Capitalism – Radio Free — November 6, 2020 @ 10:21 am

  5. […] Deutscher prize in 2011 for “Theory as History.” Other critics of the Brenner thesis include Kerem Nisancioglu and Alexander Anievas, the authors of “How the West Came to Rule: The Geopolitical Origins of Capitalism,” and Irfan […]

    Pingback by The Origins of Commercial Capitalism - Open Mind News — November 6, 2020 @ 10:00 pm

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