Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

August 12, 2018

Political Marxism and petty commodity production

Filed under: farming,transition debate — louisproyect @ 8:14 pm

1854 Engraving of New England farmers engaged in petty commodity production

In his Catalyst critique of books by the New Historians of Capitalism (Walter Johnson, Sven Beckert and Edward Baptist), Charles Post levels the charge that they don’t ground their history of slavery in Marxist theory, in other words Political Marxism. Recently I have been reading books and articles about agriculture and capitalism that suggest it is Charles Post who needs to sharpen his own understanding of Marxist theory.

Part of the problem with the Brenner thesis is that it speaks in the name of Karl Marx on agriculture and capitalism even though Marx never spent much time in developing his own analysis. In fact, there has been an extensive record of theorizing about agriculture that basically starts at ground zero, from Lenin to Kautsky.

Just consider the chapter in V. 1 of Capital on “The Genesis of the Capitalist Farmer”. It is only 542 words long and repeats what is common knowledge, namely that starting in the latter part of the 14th century landlords leased large amounts of land to tenant farmers who then hired wage labor.

You can also find chapters on ground rent in V. 3 of Capital that begins by stating: “The analysis of landed property in its various historical forms is beyond the scope of this work.” In other words, the type of detail found in V. 1 of Capital about the origins of manufacturing and wage labor is utterly absent here. However, those looking for a definition of capitalist farming should take note of this in his introduction to the chapters on ground rent:

The prerequisites for the capitalist mode of production therefore are the following: The actual tillers of the soil are wage labourers employed by a capitalist, the capitalist farmer who is engaged in agriculture merely as a particular field of exploitation for capital, as investment for his capital in a particular sphere of production. This capitalist farmer pays the landowner, the owner of the land exploited by him, a sum of money at definite periods fixed by contract, for instance, annually (just as the borrower of money-capital pays a fixed interest), for the right to invest his capital in this specific sphere of production.

That certainly describes what took place in the English countryside but does it apply to the United States? Considering Charles Post’s emphasis on the small farmers of the north being the catalyst who made the transition to capitalism in the USA possible, it is worth considering what Marx wrote about them in the final chapter of V. 1 of Capital titled “The Modern Theory of Colonisation”. It basically draws a sharp contrast between England and “the colonies”, which means the USA and Australia. Quoting E. G. Wakefield’s “England and America,” Marx describes agrarian society as not based on capitalism, “In the Northern States of the American Union; it may be doubted whether so many as a tenth of the people would fall under the description of hired labourers…. In England… the labouring class compose the bulk of the people.”

Marx is emphatic: “So long, therefore, as the labourer can accumulate for himself — and this he can do so long as he remains possessor of his means of production — capitalist accumulation and the capitalistic mode of production are impossible.” Those who possess the means of production can refer to, for example, weavers of cloth in Medieval Europe who owned a loom and worked out of their house. The first step in moving toward capitalism consisted of a wealthy weaver setting up a shop with looms and hiring men and women to work for him.

Early farmers in New England operated on the same basis. With land grabbed from the Wampanoags et al, they used horse-drawn plows to prepare the soil as shown above, planted seed by hand and finally harvested the crops using a scythe. These were his “means of production” and the family members were his workforce, sometimes augmented by seasonal wage labor.

Among Marxists, this has been termed petty (or simple) commodity production. For example, Ernest Mandel writes: “Petty commodity production has its own characteristics which are neither those of feudalism (serfdom) or of capitalism (wage labour). The predominant form of labour is the free labour of small proprietors or semi-proprietors, owning their own means of production.” In England, it was possible to make the transition to capitalism because petty commodity production was wiped out through the Enclosure Acts. This was a key part of primitive accumulation, according to Marx:

Communal property — always distinct from the State property just dealt with — was an old Teutonic institution which lived on under cover of feudalism. We have seen how the forcible usurpation of this, generally accompanied by the turning of arable into pasture land, begins at the end of the 15th and extends into the 16th century. But, at that time, the process was carried on by means of individual acts of violence against which legislation, for a hundred and fifty years, fought in vain. The advance made by the 18th century shows itself in this, that the law itself becomes now the instrument of the theft of the people’s land, although the large farmers make use of their little independent methods as well.

Despite the overwhelming evidence that family farms existed outside the realm of capitalist property relations in the USA, Post sees them as the sine qua non for the birth of capitalism. What is critical for him is that the small farmer became a supplier of commodities to the home market in a period when manufacturing was taking off. Instead of producing goods mostly for home consumption, farmers began to specialize and use machinery to meet the growing demand:

Merchant-capital, through the mechanisms of land-law, land-speculation and the promotion of internal improvements, was responsible for the enforced dependence of free farmers on commodity-production for their economic reproduction. In particular, federal land-policy promoted the transformation of land into a commodity through the public auction of the public domain. This policy encouraged the speculative purchasing of large blocks of land, which forced actual settlers to purchase land from large land-companies at prices well above the minimal prices charged by the federal government. The cost of land-purchases and the burden of mortgages to the land-company forced the farmers to special- ise their crops and increase their production of commodities, thus becoming dependent on the sphere of commodity-circulation for their economic reproduction. The merchants also promoted internal improvements projects, such as canals and railways in the 1820s and 1830s, which lowered the costs of commodity-circulation, further promoting commodity-production.

The subordination of free farming to the law of value unleashed a process of increasing labour-productivity, technical innovation and social differentiation in the 1840s and 1850s. This period saw a sharp rise in the productivity of the farms of the old Northwest and the eastern Great Plains. This increase in the productivity of labour was accomplished through the introduction of labour-saving farm-implements, such as the mechanical reaper, new seed- drills and new ploughs.

You’ll notice what’s missing here, any mention of wage labor. So what if Marx stipulates that as long as the farmer possesses the means of production, the capitalist accumulation and the capitalistic mode of production are impossible. Charles Post knows better.

So you might ask yourself what’s the big deal. Even if these farmers were not capitalist farmers as defined by Karl Marx, who would deny that they were a cog in the machinery of capitalism? I would grant this as long as you grant the possibility that the same thing can be said about cotton plantations in the South. They were not capitalist, strictly speaking, but they made a major contribution to capital accumulation in the USA, something easily understood by everybody not blinded by Political Marxist orthodoxy—including Karl Marx, I might add:

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

It is also worth mentioning that the family farm never went the way of the dinosaur in the USA. According to the USDA, 97 percent of the 2.1 million farms in the USA in 2015 were family-owned. More importantly, 88 percent of them were categorized as small businesses. It is also true that roughly 2/3rds of the food we eat are produced by only 3 percent of the family farms but in many cases these are heavily capitalized and mechanized. For many of the wealthier farmers, the debt involved in maintaining such agrarian factories is like a huge bet made in Las Vegas. One mistake and you can go bankrupt.

An article by Mieke Calus and Guido Van Huylenbroeck in the Autumn, 2010 Journal of Comparative Family Studies includes a graph that shows how persistent family farming is, not just in the USA:

In 1978, Harriet Friedmann wrote an article for the Journal of Peasant Studies about “Simple Commodity Production and wage labor in the American Plains” that by its very title indicates the stubborn persistence of small family-owned farms. She studied wheat farmers in Cass County in North Dakota in the 1920s, the very people who identified with the Nonpartisan League featured in the documentaries I reviewed a while back. They were a mixture of populists and socialists who were descendants ideologically of the “free soil” abolitionists of the New England countryside.

Friedmann’s research revealed that the average household size was 5.2 people and that 85 percent of the wheat farms in Cass County were run by the family. Furthermore, when wage laborers were used on these farms in harvest periods typically, a goodly portion were the children of neighbors who saw lending out a son as a form of mutual aid. This has little resemblance to the wage labor used on English farms in the 18th and 19th century.

Ultimately, Marx’s business about wage labor being intrinsic to capitalist agriculture can be explained by an understandable tendency to think in terms of the factory system. In some cases this makes sense when you are talking about the immense meat and poultry production systems that have mechanized the raising, slaughtering and packaging of animals according to the Fordist model.

But producing wheat and other grains, fruits and vegetables is far too reliant on nature to become industrialized. Growing wheat in a place like Cass County involves a long growing cycle in which labor is not necessary. Indeed, that is the reason so much of American agriculture exploits immigrant, seasonal labor. Additionally, farms are not operating on raw material. In a factory, machinery can run 24 hours a day but on a farm a tractor might lie idle for months on end.

Despite Post’s insistence that the slave plantations were “pre-capitalist”, it was where factory-like conditions prevailed universally. If free labor was subject to the iron laws of the market in order to comply with the boss’s speedup, demands for wage reductions, it was the whip that maintained order in the south. If African slaves had not been available, maybe free labor would have taken root in the South just as it did in other cotton-producing countries in the 19th century such as Egypt that relied more on child labor.

According to Post, forced labor persisted in the South because of the failure of Reconstruction to root out the reactionary institutions that remained after the end of the Civil War. If there were competitive pressures on the gentry, they would have been forced to mechanize. At least, that’s the theory.

As it happens, the South did not mechanize cotton production until the 1940s and it had more to do with policies adopted by Roosevelt than anything else. In many ways, cotton was the best crop for investors since it was not subject to the contingencies of weather that made fruit and vegetables so risky. Since it was not perishable, it could be stored indefinitely until market conditions favored its sale. (This finding and what follows in the paragraphs below comes from Susan A. Mann’s “Agrarian Capitalism in Theory and Practice.”)

In rushing to meet the demand for cotton in WWI, Southern farmers ramped up production using credit. Since capitalist production is not rational, this led to a crisis of overproduction as soon as the war ended. When faced by rural unrest after taking office, FDR sought to stabilize production in the same fashion as he did with other agricultural sectors. He created the Agricultural Adjustment Act that benefited wealthy farmers but ruined sharecroppers who received a far lower payment for reducing the yields. This should come as no surprise since the Southern racist ruling class was solidly tied to the Democratic Party at the time.

In the absence of a sufficient sharecropping labor pool, the big planters were forced to invest in labor-saving machinery. However, it was not as if this machinery was for sale and the gentry refused to pay for it because sharecropping was cheaper. A cotton harvester, a key labor-saving device, only went on sale in 1941. Like much of agriculture, including tea, coffee, tobacco and much of the goodies we buy at Gristede’s or Whole Food that come from Mexico or California’s Central Valley, rely on stoop labor. And, for the most part, those who supply such labor are subject to the kind of coercion—including threats of deportation—that make the Brenner thesis based on free wage labor so irrelevant to capitalist farming.


  1. Years ago, I lived in a region of northern Ohio that, as far as I know, barely exists in literature and is only ever mentioned by anyone in public as a subject for faint amusement. Doris Day, in That Touch of Mink, is supposed to be from Upper Sandusky (which she mispronounces) –and then there’s Winesburg, Ohio. A few literati may recall Louis Bromfield–Malabar Farm is in the region–and Abraham Lincoln’s favorite humorist, Petroleum V. Nab y (David Ross Locke) edited newspapers in Bucyrus and Toledo. before and during the Civil War.

    Every year the buzzards return to Hinckley the way the swallows come back to Capistrano.

    Otherwise thhis area is almost without specific character apart from a perfunctory wave of the flag in the direction of Germany, which does not reach the level of hyphenation or actual bilingualismn. To the arithmetic of white identity, Northern style, this region stood during much of the twentieth century as the zero point from which any deviation could be measured. It was here that Warren Harding coined the term “normalcy.”

    To the point, the economy of this region traditionally was neither industrial nor agricultural but both. Among the industrial products of e.g. Bucyrus and environs historically were tapered roller bearings; highly engineered plow blades, wing shoes, moldboard shoes; rubber hoses;, steel castings, locomotive cranes, and fluorescent lighting. At one time, the area sent gigantic earthmoving machinery all over the world.

    In the 20th century, the towns here were full of factories (mostly, but not all, small or medium-sized) and the countryside was full of family farms of between two and five hundred acres.

    To a very large extent, the family farms remain and–unlike many in this country–seem to be hanging on to relative prosperity, while manufacturing is in steady decline. This does not appear to be Cougar Mellencamp/Farm Aid country.

    Perhaps this partly explains the deadly reactionary politics of the region, which is locked into the Ohio psyche with a radical stubbornness that is hard to understand. While the local farm economy is fully integrated with market capitalism, agricultural production here may be very much like what Louis describes-and therefore ,while contained within industrial capitalism, not altogether a part of it . Labor as we normally understand it plays a relatively small role except in the production of the machinery and chemicals on which the farmers depend to maintain production.

    This is not one hundred percent true–the region around Willard/Celeryville (where they grow celery!) employs numerous Latin-American migrants on an annual basis, for example–a complicating factor–
    but perhaps it.s true enough to be significant historically, even if the regional economy is in fact changing radically under the surface.

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — August 13, 2018 @ 1:20 pm

  2. Correction: Nab y=Nasby

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — August 13, 2018 @ 1:23 pm

  3. Correcton–role of labor–of course labor as we know it is intensely involved in the marketing and distribution of the agricultural products of the family farms as well as the production of farm machinery and chemicals.

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — August 13, 2018 @ 1:29 pm

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