Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 16, 2018

Thoughts provoked by the HM Symposium on “How the West Came to Rule”

Filed under: transition debate — louisproyect @ 3:48 pm

In 1976, Robert Brenner wrote an article titled “Agrarian Class Structure and Economic Development in Pre-Industrial Europe” in a scholarly journal that defined what would become known as “the Brenner thesis”. Based entirely on an accident of history, it was only in England in the late 14th century that agriculture became capitalist. There was a tripartite class relationship in which the landed gentry began leasing out land to tenant farmers, who then hired wage labor to produce for the market. Once capitalist farming kicked in, it paved the way for capitalism in general. So, if it weren’t for tenant farming, England never would have come to rule the world.

Before this miracle happened in England (and to a much lesser degree in Holland) and which would never be repeated elsewhere before the 19th century, most farming was done by peasants who only sold what was left over after satisfying family needs. These were “yeoman” farmers of the kind popularized in “The Little House on the Prairie” and many other heartwarming American sagas. They prospered until the redskins came along and destroyed their homes and kidnapped their children as depicted in John Ford’s “The Searchers”.

Now you would think that if tenant farming was a sine qua non for capitalist development, why didn’t yeoman farming in the USA inhibit the growth of manufacturing, especially in the north that fought for free labor in the Civil War? Charles Post has an explanation for this in his book on the origins of capitalism in the USA. It seems that the high price of land forced farmers to specialize and produce for the market rather than for their own subsistence. Once they became squeezed by competition, they sought ways of reducing labor costs, thus creating an impetus for farm machinery.

Now, it should be understood that this analysis cannot be found anywhere in Marx’s writings. In chapter 31 of V. 1 of Capital titled “Genesis of the Industrial Capitalist” (can’t be more specific than that, right?), he states emphatically:

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.

His main interest in the agrarian economy was not in tenant farming, etc. but how the landed gentry dispossessed yeoman farmers who would then be forced to become wage slaves. In chapter 27, titled “Expropriation of the Agricultural Population from the Land”, he wrote:

The prelude of the revolution that laid the foundation of the capitalist mode of production, was played in the last third of the 15th, and the first decade of the 16th century. A mass of free proletarians was hurled on the labour market by the breaking-up of the bands of feudal retainers, who, as Sir James Steuart well says, “everywhere uselessly filled house and castle.”

In chapter 26, which also deals with primitive accumulation, Marx geolocated the first sprouts of the capitalist system. It wasn’t England:

Although we come across the first beginnings of capitalist production as early as the 14th or 15th century, sporadically, in certain towns of the Mediterranean, the capitalistic era dates from the 16th century. Wherever it appears, the abolition of serfdom has been long effected, and the highest development of the middle ages, the existence of sovereign towns, has been long on the wane.

Now this would likely cause most people on the left to shrug their shoulders and ask themselves what’s the big deal. After all, as Marx once said, the point is to change it—not to pinpoint where and when it got started. If these debates were taking place in obscure scholarly journals, that would likely have been the end of it. But a year after Brenner’s dry as dust article appeared, he took to the pages of New Left Review to turn his thesis into a litmus test. If you agreed with Paul Sweezy that capitalism started off because of expanded international trade in the late middle ages, a hypothesis associated with Henri Pirenne, you were some kind of ideological Menshevik. Sweezy, Immanuel Wallerstein and Andre Gunder Frank were singled out as non-Marxist because they viewed colonialism and slavery as a sine qua non for the origins of capitalism in Europe. Considering what Marx wrote in chapter 31, you’d conclude that Brenner’s beef was with Karl Marx, not these three.

Today, the most vociferous Brennerite on the scene is Spencer Dimmock who wrote a book in 2015 titled “The Origin of Capitalism in England 1400-1600” that combines the kind of scholarly investigation of the material Brenner worked with in his first article with a slashing defense of Political Marxism (another word for the Brenner thesis) against its critics. The book can be downloaded from here.

I’ll give credit to Dimmock for a couple of reasons. It was he who made it downloadable, not someone trying to cheat him out of his royalties. (Ranked 1,611,042 by Amazon, they are probably rather modest.)

He is also the first PM’er to specifically address what Marx wrote about capitalism and slavery even if he gets it wrong. Referring to chapter 31, he cites Marx: “The different moments of primitive accumulation can be assigned in particular to Spain, Portugal, Holland, France and England, in more or less chronological order.”

However, according to Dimmock, the term “primitive accumulation” in that quote is derived from Adam Smith. It assumes that capitalism needed a “prior” accumulation of capital for a kick start. Even if Marx wrote that gold and silver from the New World from the sixteenth century onwards and super profits from the slave trade and plantations from the seventeenth century onwards were necessary, he was channeling his inner Adam Smith, just as Brenner accused Paul Sweezy in his NLR article. Gosh, who would want to be accused of promoting Smithian views? Not me.

Adam Smith did not use the term “primitive accumulation”. He called it “previous accumulation” instead. For Smith, this was a peaceful process, in which some workers worked harder and were thriftier than others. The money they put aside helped them become capitalists and build factories. Slavery, colonialism, dispossession and other violent measures did not enter the picture.

The latest issue of Historical Materialism has a symposium on Alexander Anievas and Kerem Nisancioglu’s “How the West Came to Rule: The Geopolitical Origins of Capitalism” that was published in the same year as Dimmock’s book. Dimmock and Post are among his critics, as well as Jairus Banaji, also a Brenner critic who is disappointed that the authors cede too much ground to Brenner. Neil Davidson, another critic, is also disappointed but mostly because they base their history on Leon Trotsky’s theory of combined and uneven development that in Davidson’s eyes (and Post’s as well) does not apply to precapitalist society. I can only say that HM deserves kudos for hosting such a symposium since the debate is just as urgent as it ever was. I suspect that for most people on the left it will only generate a shrug of the shoulders but for those who have been following the debate, it certainly is worth a trip to a research library to track down the latest issue. (Information on how to buy HM is at the end of this article.)

Post, like Davidson, came to his understanding of Trotsky’s theory of combined and uneven development through training in Trotskyist sects, just as was the case with me. His article is titled “The Use and Misuse of Uneven and Combined Development: A Critique of Anievas and Nişancıoğlu” and as the title implies makes the case that the theory is not useful in understanding world history in its totality. Of more immediate interest to me is Post’s critique of the authors’ reference to colonialism and slavery as being essential to the development of capitalism in England. He has a rather narrow view of their role: “The slave plantations of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries produced exotic items (coffee, sugar, tobacco) for a large, but primarily well-off market made up of nobles and government officeholders on the Continent and capitalist landlords and farmers in England.” It was only when cotton entered the equation that such imports could make a difference but Post qualifies that by saying it was the ex post facto consequence of industrial capitalism having taken root.

Funny to hear sugar being reduced to an exotic item marketed to the wealthy. By the mid-18th century, it had become the most valuable commodity in Europe and one savored by rich and poor alike. In a 1989 article titled “Colonialism and the Rise of Capitalism”, Jim Blaut identified sugar as a key commodity:

After the plantation system had proven its profitability in the Atlantic islands it leaped to Brazil and became even more profitable and much more important. Here, at the close of the 16th century, it was producing a profit permitting a doubling of productive capacity every two years, a profit which amounted, early in the 17th century, to £1,000,000 sterling per year. By the year 1600, the annual value of sugar exported from Brazil already amounted to £2,000,000 sterling – twice the annual value of England’s total exports to all the world; this should be viewed against the backdrop of the traditional view that England’s exports in that period, principally of wool, were paradigmatic for the “awakening” or “rise” of capitalism.

Turning to Dimmock, whose article can be read online just like his book, you get a restatement of the Brenner thesis and a dismissal of most of the “How the West Came to Rule” as a failure to understand the thesis or, understanding it, misrepresenting it. As for colonialism and slavery, Dimmock minimizes its importance in the same fashion as Post:

Without the super-profits of slavery, the history of capitalism and industrial development may have taken a different course. But given that the symbiotic development of agrarian and industrial capitalism had already taken great strides by the 1620s, when Virginia and Bermuda were only just emerging, and that the social structure of England had been irreversibly transformed by then, it is difficult to see how the force of this structure could have been restrained or ‘choked off’ so easily.

Well, for most people the term “industrial capitalism” evokes textile mills in Birmingham two centuries later but I’ll leave Dimmock to his own devices on this.

For me, the more interesting question is whether it took the tripartite agrarian class relationship central to the Brenner thesis to generate profit-seeking in the countryside. He writes:

Because in an established feudal/absolutist society peasants possess the vast majority of the land, and are able to derive their subsistence from that land without becoming overly dependent upon the market for their inputs through wages or trade income, the surplus from their production can only be sufficiently extracted from them by political force or its threat.

In Anievas and Nişancıoğlu’s reply to Dimmock, they refer to a Dutch historian named Jessica Dijkman who rejects the “idea that peasants were by nature subsistence-oriented and only turned to the market if they were forced to”. In her book titled “Shaping Medieval Markets”, she points to a significant degree of farmers producing for the market rather than for their family. Although she is hardly combatant in the Political Marxism debates, she refers to Brenner in a footnote as someone tied to that idea.

She compares Holland, Flanders (ie., contemporary Belgium) and England and produces statistics that belies the Brenner thesis. Let’s start with Holland:

By 1500 not just non-agrarian activities in the Holland countryside were market-oriented, but so too were most agrarian activities. This may seem surprising, since this development had not been accompanied, as it was in England, by the rise of large landownership, tenant farming, and wage labour. In Holland, for the time being, peasants held on to their land: the structure of small family farms remained in place until at least the middle of the 16th century. By then, about 20% of labour input in agriculture was performed as wage labour.

In inland Flanders, subsistence farming generally held sway but in the coastal areas, profit-seeking held sway. Large farms emerged that conformed to Dimmock’s accidental miracle of capitalist tenant farming in England and around the same time. Dijkman writes:

The result was a predominance of middle-sized and large leasehold farms that mainly produced meat, dairy, and commercial crops. The Veurne district is a good example. In the early 16th century, the polders around Veurne were an important cattle-farming region. Although very little information on the marketing of meat and dairy produced on the large farms in this district is available, there can be no doubt that most of these products were sold on the urban markets in the vicinity.

And when you line up the numbers, Holland and Flanders were far more advanced in terms of their use of wage labor, a sine qua non for the PM’ers:

The PM’ers are in unenviable position. Most joined this school decades ago and rarely go outside their comfort zone. I doubt that you will ever find someone like Dimmock or Post working on a global survey of how the tripartite agrarian institutions of late 14th century England can be seamlessly tied to the emergence of the industrial revolution. Mostly they are content to use inductive reasoning to make their case. Honestly, I would love to see someone as erudite as Dimmock produce data that leads to the conclusion that the British East India Company was inconsequential. Even if it was wrong, it would give me something to work with.

Essentially, they are not interested in the capitalist system. What they were looking for is evidence of the kind of class relations that Marx identified in V. 1 of Capital with its strict focus on the textile mills. This entails a kind of ideological selectivity that makes all those statements from Marx to the contrary disappear. Ones like this:

But as soon as peoples whose production still moves within the lower forms of slave-labour, the corvée, etc. are drawn into a world market dominated by the capitalist mode of production, whereby the sale of their products for export develops into their principal interest, the civilized horrors of over-work are grafted onto the barbaric horrors of slavery, serfdom etc. But in proportion as the export of cotton became of vital interest to those [southern] states [of the American Union], the over-working of the Negro, and sometimes the consumption of his life in seven years of labour, became a factor in a calculated and calculating system. It was no longer a question of obtaining from him a certain quantity of useful products, but rather of the production of surplus-value itself.


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7 Comments »

  1. England’s first colonial relationship was with Ireland.

    Do any of these authors discuss Ireland’s economic role with regard to the origins of capitalism?

    Comment by HH — October 16, 2018 @ 7:48 pm

  2. […] via Thoughts provoked by the HM Symposium on “How the West Came to Rule” — Louis Proyect: The Unre… […]

    Pingback by Thoughts provoked by the HM Symposium on “How the West Came to Rule” — Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist | James' Ramblings — October 16, 2018 @ 7:55 pm

  3. Behind JSTOR Paywall. Let me know if you want a copy.

    THE RISE OF CAPITALISM IN ENGLAND: REVIEWING THE BRENNER THESIS
    Author(s): Irfan Habib
    Source: Proceedings of the Indian History Congress, Vol. 74 (2013), pp. 734-745
    Published by: Indian History Congress

    Brenner by ignoring Ireland also seriously misreads English
    agricultural history. By 1700, he says, ‘England had become one of
    Europe’s largest grain exporters’ (p.318), implying, to an innocent
    reader, that such self-sufficiency then continued into the eighteenth
    century, when the real capitalist transformation of English agriculture
    took place. But the reverse was the case. Even in the first half of the
    eighteenth century, England had only ‘a small but growing surplus of
    grain export’, and this was ‘in later years converted into a deficit, so
    that in 1 800 its net grain imports amounted to over 2 million quarters.’27
    If ‘subsistence crisis’ had been, for a long time, ‘a thing of the past’ in
    England, as Brenner (p. 3 1 8) exultantly notes this was only because the
    vulnerability to it was transferred to Ireland. The Irish peasant had to
    eat potatoes so that the England could consume Irish wheat, meat and
    cheese. When blight forced a repeated failure of potato crops in Ireland
    in 1845-49, one million Irishmen simply died of starvation.28 It was
    not a ‘subsistence crisis’, it was wholesale subsistence-destruction.

    Comment by louisproyect — October 16, 2018 @ 9:10 pm

  4. French Marxist Henri Lefebvre found the seeds of capitalism in the monastic production of goods in medieval times, pushing it farther back than the 16th Century as described by Marx. I wonder if there has been any research about this.

    Comment by Richard Estes — October 16, 2018 @ 10:15 pm

  5. In fact, I think you mentioned Lefebvre’s belief in one of your earlier posts on this subject, but can’t find it very easily to link here.

    Comment by Richard Estes — October 16, 2018 @ 10:27 pm

  6. Thanks so much for the Ireland reference. I can access JSTOR and will look at the full article. I believe Sweezy invoked Pirenne in the Science and Society exchanges in the 1950s that later appeared as a MR book.. I get the sense that this earlier debate helped frame later arguments.

    Comment by HH — October 17, 2018 @ 4:11 am

  7. It doesn’t affect your argument but you need to make a correction to this statement ‘Well, for most people the term “industrial capitalism” evokes textile mills in Birmingham two centuries later’. Birmingham should be replaced by Manchester to be accurate.

    Comment by birminghamresist — October 18, 2018 @ 8:41 am


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