Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

March 10, 2019

The Primitive Accumulation debate

Filed under: Political Marxism,primitive accumulation,transition debate — louisproyect @ 9:57 pm

I want to alert my readers, especially those living in Europe, to a conference being held on May 9-11, 2019 at the International Institute of Social History in Amsterdam on the topic of “Toward a Global History of Primitive Accumulation”. Among the speakers are people I have a strong affinity with, including Marcus Rediker, Peter Linebaugh, Edward Baptist, and Dale Tomich. They are scholars who tend to identify with the definition of primitive accumulation in chapter 31 of V. 1 of Capital (Genesis of the Industrial Capitalist):

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.

While I doubt that any of the sessions there will directly address the Political Marxists, they implicitly challenge its premise that primitive accumulation refers exclusively to the emergence of agrarian capitalism in late 15th century England, the linchpin of Robert Brenner’s scholarship. For Brenner and his acolytes, slavery and all that colonialism stuff do not enter the picture. It is only when land was enclosed in England as part of the rise of tenant farming that the “social-property relations” unique to capitalism kicked in. When a tenant farmer began to hire wage labor to milk cows, shear wool, and harvest wheat with a sickle, it set into motion the competitive drive that allowed England to rule the world. Cotton being picked by slaves was “pre-capitalist” and if it hadn’t been fed into the maw of emerging English capitalism, it would have gone to waste in Spain or Portugal whose rulers were only interested in using the gold and silver extracted from Bolivia, Peru and Mexico to buy silk pantaloons from India, powdered wigs from Bulgaria, and tea from China. England was the proverbial ant and the Iberian empires were the proverbial grasshoppers.

Speaking of Aesop’s fable, it should be understood that Marx developed the theory of primitive accumulation to rebut Adam Smith who was trying to account for the emergence of a capitalist class. In Smith’s world, the capitalist was someone who was thrifty like the ant and put aside the capital that was necessary to hire wage labor in the nascent manufacturing sphere of 18th century England. In Smith’s language, the term was “previous accumulation” rather than primitive. Perhaps, the best term would be “primary accumulation” since it only denotes the gathering of capital used a priori to capitalism.

In chapter 26 of V. 1 of Capital, the allusion to Aesop is palpable:

This primitive accumulation plays in Political Economy about the same part as original sin in theology. Adam bit the apple, and thereupon sin fell on the human race. Its origin is supposed to be explained when it is told as an anecdote of the past. In times long gone by there were two sorts of people; one, the diligent, intelligent, and, above all, frugal elite; the other, lazy rascals, spending their substance, and more, in riotous living. The legend of theological original sin tells us certainly how man came to be condemned to eat his bread in the sweat of his brow; but the history of economic original sin reveals to us that there are people to whom this is by no means essential. Never mind! Thus it came to pass that the former sort accumulated wealth, and the latter sort had at last nothing to sell except their own skins. And from this original sin dates the poverty of the great majority that, despite all its labour, has up to now nothing to sell but itself, and the wealth of the few that increases constantly although they have long ceased to work.

Robert Brenner first presented this version of primitive accumulation in the 1977 NLR article that attacked Paul Sweezy, Immanuel Wallerstein and Andre Gunder Frank as “neo-Smithian” ideologues. He argues that prior to capitalist “social-property” relations, there was no surplus value since there was no wage labor. Thus, all the gold in Peru and all the silver and Mexico was outside the sphere of capitalism, strictly speaking. This analysis, of course, rests on the premise that slave labor was “pre-capitalist”.

With “social-property relations”, you get a kind of Procrustean Bed. Unless there is a capitalist paying wage labor, you are outside of the capitalist world. In Greek mythology, Procrustes took people captive and then either stretched out or cut flesh and bone from their legs so they would fit in his iron beds. At least the people being excluded from “social-property relations” in Brenner’s writings only suffer from historical mutilation.

In V. 2 of Capital, Marx had a more inclusive view of the sphere of capitalist property relations:

No matter whether commodities are the output of production based on slavery, of peasants (Chinese, Indian ryots). of communes (Dutch East Indies), of state enterprise (such as existed in former epochs of Russian history on the basis of serfdom) or of half-savage hunting tribes, etc. — as commodities and money they come face to face with the money and commodities in which the industrial capital presents itself and enter as much into its circuit as into that of the surplus-value borne in the commodity-capital, provided the surplus-value is spent as revenue; hence they enter in both branches of circulation of commodity-capital. The character of the process of production from which they originate is immaterial. They function as commodities in the market, and as commodities they enter into the circuit of industrial capital as well as into the circulation of the surplus-value incorporated in it.

For some Marxists, this was always an aspect of primitive accumulation that was either explicitly presented in chapter 31 referred to above or in need of amplification. In Rosa Luxemburg’s “Accumulation of Capital”, you get a clear statement about the intersection of capitalist and non-capitalist sectors in the accumulation of capital. In chapter 26, she writes:

[C]apitalism in its full maturity also depends in all respects on non-capitalist strata and social organizations existing side by side with it. It is not merely a question of a market for the additional product, as Sismondi and the later critics and doubters of capitalist accumulation would have it. The interrelations of accumulating capital and non-capitalist forms of production extend over values as well as over material conditions, for constant capital, variable capital and surplus value alike.

Hence the contradictory phenomena that the old capitalist countries provide ever larger markets for, and become increasingly dependent upon, one another, yet on the other hand compete ever more ruthlessly for trade relations with non-capitalist countries.

More recently, David Harvey adopted Luxemburg’s analysis in order to describe the same kind of ongoing process of capital accumulation in terms of “accumulation by dispossession”. In the 2004 Socialist Register, Harvey wrote:

A closer look at Marx’s description of primitive accumulation reveals a wide range of processes. These include the commodification and privatization of land and the forceful expulsion of peasant populations; conversion of various forms of property rights – common, collective, state, etc. – into exclusive private property rights; suppression of rights to the commons; commodification of labour power and the suppression of alternative, indigenous, forms of production and consumption; colonial, neo-colonial and imperial processes of appropriation of assets, including natural resources; monetization of exchange and taxation, particularly of land; slave trade; and usury, the national debt and ultimately the credit system. The state, with its monopoly of violence and definitions of legality, plays a crucial role in both backing and promoting these processes and there is considerable evidence, which Marx suggests and Braudel confirms, that the transition to capitalist development was vitally contingent upon the stance of the state – broadly supportive in Britain, weakly so in France and highly negative, until very recently, in China. The invocation of the recent shift towards primitive accumulation in the case of China indicates that this is an on-going issue and the evidence is strong, particularly throughout East and South East Asia, that state policies and politics (consider the case of Singapore) have played a critical role in defining both the intensity and the paths of new forms of capital accumulation. The role of the ‘developmental state’ in recent phases of capital accumulation has therefore been the subject of intense scrutiny. One only has to look back at Bismarck’s Germany or Meiji Japan to recognize that this has long been the case.

Returning to chapter 31, with its emphasis on slavery and colonialism, it is important to read the fine print. Since the chapter is concerned with the genesis of the industrial capitalist, it begins with his forerunner during feudalism who were small guild-masters, independent small artisans, or even wage laborers.

Eventually, as feudalism began to collapse, seaports arose beyond the reach of the feudal guilds in order to take advantage of increased global trade. Within these “free trade zones” of the 17th century captured so vividly in Gerald Horne’s The Apocalypse of Settler Colonialism: The Roots of Slavery, White Supremacy, and Capitalism in 17th Century North America and the Caribbean, you get the growth of manufacturing, mostly in textiles, woolen at first and then cotton.

Marx writes that “The treasures captured outside Europe by undisguised looting, enslavement, and murder, floated back to the mother-country and were there turned into capital.” Even though commerce belongs to an earlier type of capital, it dovetailed with the new industrial capital as Marx points out: “In the period of manufacture properly so called, it is, on the other hand, the commercial supremacy that gives industrial predominance. Hence the preponderant role that the colonial system plays at that time.”

The next to last paragraph of chapter 31 could not be clearer about what tends to be overlooked in Political Marxism:

Whilst the cotton industry introduced child-slavery in England, it gave in the United States a stimulus to the transformation of the earlier, more or less patriarchal slavery, into a system of commercial exploitation. In fact, the veiled slavery of the wage workers in Europe needed, for its pedestal, slavery pure and simple in the new world.



  1. Between Marx, Harvey, and Proyect, as presented, there seems to be little doubt about the role of slavery and related forms of unfree labor to the primitibve accumulation of capital, which also has to be seen to some extent as an ongoing process in the life of capitalism and not a stage that comes to an abrupt and conclusive end when capitalism proper begins.

    I am, however–as is doubtless obvious–not a scholar in these matters and so have to rely on others. What I don’t understand at all from what I’ve read is the motive of the Political Marxists in taking the stand they take–how does this analysis hook up for them currently with political practice? Is their horizon limited to JSTOR or do they actually stand for something politically at present?

    Brenner was rousted by Chibber, last year as editor of Catalyst. I make little of the few articles that I have sampled there, which struck me as purely academic, but what is B’s track record politically.

    Political Marxism, from my limited acquaintance seems to me purely a scholarly enterprise–if in many ways a perverse one–does it have actual politics as well?

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — March 11, 2019 @ 12:52 pm

  2. I did check the fall issue of Catalyyst, which contains at least one fairly high-level attempt (Sam Gindin)nto define socialism as requiring the persistence of the state and markets as opposed to actual (computerized) central planning and the famous withering away. By itself this tells me little–it could be just another screed from Jacobin and does not reveal much about the question of policital marxism as such, though I would class this as reactionary. Is this what PM is politically–a platform for revisionism with a scholarly face? The piece isn’t awfully scholarly IMHO, so JSTOR in this case doesn’t seem to be the objective … .

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — March 11, 2019 @ 1:01 pm

  3. There are politics but not as pronounced as they once were. In Brenner’s 1977 NLR article, he drew a line between his supposedly working-class orientation and that of Monthly Review that he characterized as adapting to bourgeois nationalists. Here’s how Jim Blaut saw it:

    In 1977 Brenner published a very different sort of essay in New Left Review. In this paper, “The origins of capitalist development: A critique of Neo-Smithian Marxism,” he restated his theory about the European origins of capitalism and then leaped forward into the 20th century to use this theory as a weapon against what he called “Third-Worldist” deviations in modern radical scholarship. The main targets of this attack were three well-known Neo-Marxists scholars, Andre Gunder Frank, Paul Sweezy, and Immanuel Wallerstein. These three were at the time perhaps the most widely-read English-language exponents of a theoretical perspective which emphasizes the crucial significance of colonialism and neocolonialism, and the struggle against it, in modern history and today; Frank’s view, a form of “dependency theory,” Wallerstein’s view, called “world-systems theory,” and Sweezy’s rather more traditional anti-imperialist Marxism, all differed in some respects but held in common the proposition that events outside of Europe have been crucial in social development since the rise of capitalism, and the Third World is thus crucial in the struggle for socialism.

    To answer this argument, Brenner said, in essence: The world outside of Europe has not been important for social development since the Middle Ages. It played no role in the original rise of capitalism. It was not prevented from developing by European imperialism. And too much enthusiasm for Third World struggles as against struggles within Europe (that is, by the European working class) will favor meaningless reformism in the Third World and will hinder, not help, the struggle for socialism in the world as a whole. Brenner now labelled his opponents as followers of Adam Smith rather than Marx, in their thinking about the forces of historical change, past and present. Frank, Sweezy, Wallerstein, and those who agree with them are “Neo-Smithians.”

    The New Left Review paper, unlike the essays in Past and Present, was a polemic. And an effective one. Euro-Marxists and Eurocentric conservatives give some credit to this essay for what they view as the demise of dependency theory and the decline of Third-World-oriented approaches to Marxism in the European academy. According to M. Cooper (1980: 81-82), Brenner showed that “Sweezy et al. have put forth nothing but a restatement of Adam Smith’s mechanistic and deterministic analysis of the transition from feudalism to capitalism.” According to John Browett (1980: 111), “the age of the radical-liberal dependency formulations has come to an end,” thanks in part, at least, to Brenner’s critique. According to Alan Macfarlane (1988: 191), Frank, Sweezy, and Wallerstein have been “demolished” by Brenner. And Brenner’s critique also came to the rescue of standard economic development theory at a time when its diffusion-of-economic-modernization formula was being cast aside in favor of anti-colonial, anti-foreign, and socialist strategies, most of them justified by Marxism. The development theorists cited Brenner and announced: Marxism is on our side.5


    Comment by louisproyect — March 11, 2019 @ 1:03 pm

  4. Louis–thanks very much for the enlightening summary.

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — March 11, 2019 @ 2:03 pm

  5. I have to say I find the last couple decades of big picture ramblings of Brenner, especially on finance, completely mind-numbing. Almost as mind numbing as Wallerstein! But the argument in your response to Kalosar is about the effects of the critique of Frank, Wallerstein, and Frank in the NLR essay, not the actual content of this critique. The assiduous reader will find that this critique is pretty devastating. Brenner’s politics are a matter of indifference to me but I will note that the the program of the sort of ‘development theorists’ you cite above as saying ‘Marx is on our side’ is of course attacked as absurd at the end of the paper, in favor of the position of Lenin.

    Similarly the main body of the post above does not touch the question of the first part of the NLR essay and the earlier papers on ‘agrarian capitalism’. In these Brenner may be wrong, but is operating scientifically within his proper domain and not as a big picture blowhard and guru. Let us suppose his heart attack to have arrived in 1980 and consider the merits. He is operating with the conception of the capitalistic mode of production propounded by Marx in Capital and the peculiar sort of rationality and system of imperatives operating on agents under it, and asking, when and how this Rube Goldberg machine (as it would seem to be before it got going) got going. You seem to have no interest in this question and are inexplicably threatened by anyone’s posing it. You think it will somehow eliminate the significance of the slave nightmare, colonialism, etc. in the development of the capitalistic mode of production’s coming to predominate globally, and in the comprehension of existing reality. The question is where, when and how the fire that overtook the planet – putting the parts in the dismal array we see before us – first started, and how.

    Comment by Mark Shapiro — March 11, 2019 @ 5:01 pm

  6. Maybe you haven’t read Chapter 31 of V. 1 of Capital. I am sure that Brenner read it at some point but he deftly never refers to it.

    Comment by louisproyect — March 11, 2019 @ 7:49 pm

  7. I am also not a scholar of Marxism, but from what I have read over the years, one of the things I learned about the transition from feudalism to capitalism is this: under feudalism the economic power and political power were centered in the same institutions (monarchy and the feudal lords associated with it, and the church). Under capitalism, by contrast, the economic power and political power are not *necessarily* held by the same group of people.

    This separation of the economic power from the political power, however, is only the surface appearance. Although they appear separate, the economic sphere cannot exist independent of the political. Just because the two spheres of power seem separated does not mean that the political has nothing to do with the economic makeup of the society, or with how the economic makeup came to have the shape it has.

    By ‘political’ I mean all those things from the legislative aspects of the state, the education system, the dominant media propagating the dominant ideology, the religious organizations, all the way to the right to exclusive use of brute force.

    Based on my admittedly limited understanding, I think the insistence of the Political Marxism on seeking a purely economic ‘origin story’ must, by design, ignore the political sphere in order to come up with an explanation of capitalism as an *economic* system. But capitalism is not just an economic system. It’s a way of organizing society based on profit motive. There’s a reason Marx’s generation understood ‘economy’ as ‘political economy’, not just a set of neutral set of production relations. ‘Social relations of production’ cannot exclude the political.

    We may separately look at economic and political factors for careful analysis, but we cannot explain fully how a capitalist society actually works without synthesizing both the political and the economic factors in our explanation. Really existing capitalism, from its inception to its late form we are suffering now, has always been highly dependent on state actors: they need to legislate laws to legalize, say, theft of land (or anything else), and capitalists always need the exclusive use of violence exercised by their state to enforce those laws. For example, in the U.S., it was the state that in the 19th century gave whatever number of miles on each side of the track to companies that built railroads; capital accumulation could not result in that land grab all by itself. The state had to intervene and steal that land from some to give it to railway companies.

    I simply cannot see any society under capitalism operating any other way.

    Comment by Reza — March 12, 2019 @ 3:14 am

  8. Limping along behind Louis et al, I think I now get a bigger picture. (Put your hand on your wallet.) Whatever injustice B. may have done to Sweezy, Wallerstein, et al, his approach IMHO certainly offered among other things at least an implicit challenge to the “romantic” (and exoticist and orientalizing) Eurocentric nationalist leftism that was so widespread in the US in the Sixties–for example, Guevara-ism (as opposed to the thinking of the real Che Guevara and the actual vital accomplishments of the Cuban revolution), “Maoism,” and all that.

    What part of “all that” was just safe (white) collegiate fashion protest culture like the narcissistic displays of the stunningly risk-averse DSA, IDK–the Sixties were in some ways far riskier for radicals–especially radicals of color–than the present, but in other ways much safer–but it seems clear in hindsight that many of those awakened by Sixties 3rd-worldism were also put to sleep by it immediately afterward, and left us in profound need of a deeper awakening.

    Among other things, wherever Movement protest culture led to something deeper, there was a bizarre fusion of “Marxism-Leninism” (i.e. Stalinism) and what Americans call Libertarianism that revived the political left temporarily at the cost of a broader Marxist understanding and ultimately in part paved the way for the neoliberal revival that has so completely blasted the the Left in our time.

    The third-worldism of the ‘Sixties Marxist left may have contributed to this, however unintentionally, as its ideas migrated through the filter of apodictic moral “truths self-evident” set forth in the Declaration of Independence, and wound up merely echoing the radical individualism of Thoreau et al.

    The effect of the Brenner blunderbuss may have been to blast that political synthesis too. So even in pointing to what experts assure me are the theoretical and historical errors of his position, one perhaps owes him a debt for having cleared the way for a genuinely Marxist polticial stance, however far he himself may have fallen short of it.

    Somewhere Louis links to an extraordinarily lucid essay by J. Blaut that offers a scholarly refutation of Brenner largely on B’s own terms that I found convincing though I would probably flunk an oral exam in which I was required to summarize the case–especially the very clever bit at the end where Blaut characterizes Brenner’s approach as Weberian in response to Brenner’s accusations against Sweezy, Wallerstein, et al of Smithism.

    This bears re-reading, but beyond this it seems that “classical” Marxist synthesis Louis and others are offering, standing on the shoulders of Camejo, Blaut, et al, really does constitute, for US radicals at present, a new view of, if one dares say it, the world systems behind the actual development and current crisis of capitalism and the natural environment.

    Is America capable of an economic political movement equal to the challenge of our times? Among other things, we might need a new “One Big Union,” classically Marxist in outlook, and without the cultism and libertarian nostalgia of the surviving tiny IWW fragment. And where would that come from? (Where did that come from? you may ask.)

    One imagines that Brenner and co. if still interested must be looking exclusively at the working classes of the “advanced” countries for an answer. But what is politically feasible worldwide in a broader–and truer–Marxist view?

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — March 12, 2019 @ 2:30 pm

  9. The question is in part what to make of e.g chapter 31 of Capital, from which you quote extensively above, if I remember. You manage no where to touch the actual questions posed by Brenner. These do not really pertain to original accumulation of capital, but the origin of productive capital and the capitalistic mode of production. Plenty of ‘capital’ was piling up in Spain, but nothing required categories not already needed to describe the Roman empire.

    Comment by Mark Shapiro — March 13, 2019 @ 1:38 am

  10. Whatever. I do find it interesting that chapter 31 never crops up in anything that Brenner, Wood, Chibber or Post have ever written. They are all super-orthodox Marxists but pretend that chapter 31 does not exist.

    Comment by louisproyect — March 13, 2019 @ 2:33 am

  11. Where do they contradict a single sentence of ch. 31? Its material is for example spread across the central chapters of Empire of Capital.

    This fracas is so remote from the actual material – the origin of the organization of social reproduction in the shape of a capitalistic mode of production – how is it even possible? – it might as well be a social media dispute. Thus for example the early Blaut essay mentioned above, which reads not like science, but like advertising copy against competitors in the academic market http://www.columbia.edu/~lnp3/mydocs/Blaut/brenner.htm sees no problem to solve, since the general organization of labor by the specifically capitalistic mode of production had always existed in the towns and cities. And as we know, what had always existed needs no explanation. The fire was always burning. Nothing happened but advances in shipping and arms.

    Comment by Mark Shapiro — March 14, 2019 @ 1:41 pm

  12. To repeat myself, they simply ignore ch. 31. If they responded to it, they would have big problems “debunking” Marx’s claim that slavery and colonialism produced the wealth that made industrial capitalism possible, not tenant farming.

    Comment by louisproyect — March 14, 2019 @ 1:58 pm

  13. “This fracas is so remote from the actual material … .” What kind of asshole tries to pass off this pretentious gibberish as argumentation? If this is somebody’s prize pig or protege, we are witnessing an academic fraud worthy of Felicity Huffman.

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — March 14, 2019 @ 4:09 pm

  14. Farans, are you objecting to the word ‘fracas’? I learned it from my Brooklynite mother as a child in the early seventies. No amount of invective can cover the fact that none of you is even pointing to an account alternative to Brenner’s of the question he is posing. As I said, this seems like a social media tempest in a teapot, when the question is about what happened.

    As for LP’s claim that Brenner and Meiksins Wood deny that slavery and colonialism produced the wealth that made industrial capitalism possible. I would like to see chapter and verse. If by the wealth that made IC possible, you mean money or money capital, the pile-up of gold, this is not sufficient for the internal constitution of the thing described in Capital v1-3. Marx states again and again that no pile up of money from any source, however depraved, can possibly lead social production to take capitalist form. Spain had plenty of slavery and colonialism, but it had nothing to do with the subsumption of all social production under capital. Mountains of commercial capital were involved in Mediterranean trade in Roman times. Under the sway of England, by contrast, slavery and trapped colonies and the like could indeed lead to the expansion of productive capital, of markets for its product, etc.

    Comment by Mark Shapiro — March 14, 2019 @ 8:49 pm

  15. As for LP’s claim that Brenner and Meiksins Wood deny that slavery and colonialism produced the wealth that made industrial capitalism possible. I would like to see chapter and verse.


    Of course they don’t deny it. They simply don’t refer to it. It is called benign Marxist neglect.

    Comment by louisproyect — March 14, 2019 @ 10:09 pm

  16. Carpet producers in Iran for *centuries before the age of capital* had known (and applied the knowledge) that you can extract huge amounts of surplus value from child labor, paying the child in food mostly, and selling those beautiful works of art for thousands of percentage points above what it cost to get the raw materials, the labor and the tools of labor, all under the same roof.

    So, the specific form of value extraction that we think only appeared under ‘capitalism proper’ had in fact existed for centuries, and not just in Europe. The market had also already existed in different social formations.

    The point of emphasizing where the original capital accumulation came from is to highlight that TWO things had to *come together* to make it possible for modern industrial capitalism to emerge: a huge amount of wealth AND the knowledge of how to extract surplus value from labor power. The latter had already existed: evidenced by ‘Persian Carpets’!

    The invasion of weaker neighbors, or far-off lands — to ‘extra-economically’ extract giant amounts of wealth — became possible with the developments in weaponry (knowledge of chemistry included), navigational knowledge, etc.

    Why the Spanish or the Portuguese didn’t connect the two and the British did is a separate issue. The knowledge of how to extract surplus value was known knowledge already; just not applied by Europeans on a large scale and to all sorts of products (instead of just carpets).

    However, the main point of the role of the non-economic still stands: the land dispossessions in England, were *extra-economic* measures that made possible the creation of a class of people who had no option but to sell their skills, gathered under one roof, with the tools of labor and the raw material provided by some owner of capital. But where did that capital come from? From theft.

    If no giant theft, no capitalist mass production, and no capitalist accumulation.

    I hope this is not a ‘fracas’ of an argument. I am open to being corrected and learn more, though.

    Comment by Reza — March 14, 2019 @ 10:59 pm

  17. “Social media tempest in a teapot”–you keep repeating these “winged words” like some kind of magic charm, but clearly have no evidence to offer or any case to argue. You haven’t said anything.

    I can’t speak for others, but I personally don’t give a damn about your mother–why even bring her up?

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — March 15, 2019 @ 3:35 pm

  18. No amount of invective can cover the fact that none of you is even pointing to an account alternative to Brenner’s of the question he is posing.


    Dude, I have only written 56 articles that are alternatives to Brenner. Apparently, you want me to write 2000 words or so to assuage you. I can’t waste my time but will only point you to what I have written in the past 20 years or so:


    Comment by louisproyect — March 15, 2019 @ 3:55 pm

  19. Reza–I’ve seen discussions of capitalism in Spain that point to the difficulties put in the way of commerce by the mountainous interior and the absence of long navigable rivers. This doesn’t sound completely idiotic to me–in any case by the beginning of the 20th century the Spanish Basque country and Catalonia in particular–less limited by such factors–were AFAIK pretty highly industrialized, but the country as a whole far less so–the discrepancy perhaps similar to but greater overall than the division between north and south in Italy. The Peninsular War certainly had a devastating impact during a very key period for the development of industrialism in Britain–I don’t know furthermore how the long conflict between the Spanish and British Empires, BTW–culminating in Spanish dependence on Britain as an ally against Napoleon and Spain as a major battleground–may have played into the overall development of the Spanish economy during the 19th century.

    IN addition, by the twentieth century, I have an idea (unconfirmed) that the Spanish colonies were furnishing more raw materials and commodities to world markets than Roman-style gold and silver tribute–indigo, sugar, tobacco, hides, etc. No idea what had become at that point of the great looted gold, silver, and gemstone fortunes that had bankrolled the Spanish aristocracy traditionally (if that was actually the case) or how these developed during the later seventeenth and eighteenth centuries through the 19th. How was that wealth realized in a more modern European market economy where people didn’t just go clinking around in armor with great sacks of coins when they wanted to buy things? Did grandees live on vast estates serviced by armies of serfs like Roman latifundia? What became of the great imperial Spanish families–what were they like during the time of the conquest and what did they develop into? How did the Spanish bourgeoisie develop as one assumes it did?

    One does not have to be a “Smithian” to see that participation in European trade must have required and permitted a certain modernization of the Spanish economy, which ultimately meant integration into the world system of European capitalism–Spain was and is, despite its glittering remote Arabic past, a decidedly European nation, QED … . The question is what happened over the centuries to the capital that was built up through looting and exploitation and what part it played, if any, in the partial industrialization of the country …. . Did the Spanish ruling classes just live off plunder the way (as I understand it) Toynbee thought the Romans did?

    There must be a lot of books on this. I wonder if anyone can suggest something that an old man of limited intellect could read without going any crazier than he already is … . In some ways, I suspect that Spain is not as exceptional capitalism-wise as some people want to think it is, Adam Smith be damned.

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — March 15, 2019 @ 4:32 pm

  20. “Why the Spanish or the Portuguese didn’t connect the two and the British did is a separate issue. The knowledge of how to extract surplus value was known knowledge already; just not applied by Europeans on a large scale and to all sorts of products (instead of just carpets).”

    It is impossible even to imagine a human social reproduction taking the form of the capitalistic mode of production before it actually happens, much less to reason according its norms. Once it exists it can be introduced intentionally by a state e.g. Japan or lately China and ex Soviet countries. Even the most superficial description: “the product of human labor /generally/ takes the form of commodity or merchandise” is impossible even to imagine. Nor do we have a population whose internal social reproductive relations take on the ‘fantastic form of a social relation between things’. The category of value Marx introduces in Capital 1 is not intended to operate outside the capitalistic mode of production, nor is the idea of the human metabolism with nature taking ‘abstract labor’ as its social form. It is the same with the category of surplus value. The extraction of surplus labor and a surplus product are of course the whole story of what goes by the name of civilization. There are pre-capitalist forms of most of the elements we come up inside this mode of life, e.g. ‘usury’ is ancient, banking capital recent. The capitalistic mode of production does not come bit by bit, it must be all together; anything that is thus organized, will have one or more states, can busy itself making colonies and relate itself commercially with anything out there.

    Comment by Mark Shapiro — March 15, 2019 @ 7:46 pm

  21. “The capitalistic mode of production does not come bit by bit, it must be all together; anything that is thus organized, will have one or more states, can busy itself making colonies and relate itself commercially with anything out there.”

    Apparently, this fellow has never heard of combined and uneven development.

    Comment by louisproyect — March 15, 2019 @ 7:54 pm

  22. > Apparently, this fellow has never heard of combined and uneven development.

    It is the desire to dispense with anything like the idea of combined and uneven development that fuels your campaign against e.g. Brenner and Meiksins Wood, whose problem you have clearly never posed to yourself. It is curious that you interpret my sentence as meaning that the cmp can only exist at all if it exists on a planetary scale, when of course it meant the opposite. It is like a fire that operates on an ever-extended scale, apart from crisis and revolution — feeding off, generating, forcibly obliterating and assimilating other forms. But a fire needs to start somehow. Mountains of accumulation and intense cosmopolitan trade are not enough. The Roman Mediterranean was clogged with ships.

    Comment by Mark Shapiro — March 16, 2019 @ 5:22 pm

  23. But a fire needs to start somehow.

    So, in your view it was tenant farming in the 15th century that was the genesis of capitalism? But Marx only viewed this as the genesis of the capitalist farmer. You will search in vain for any reference to tenant farming being the seed that led to industrial capitalism in chapter 29. To help you out, here is the entire chapter. Any resemblance between this and the Brenner thesis is purely coincidental:

    Chapter 29: Genesis of the Capitalist Farmer (https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1867-c1/ch29.htm)

    Now that we have considered the forcible creation of a class of outlawed proletarians, the bloody discipline that turned them into wage labourers, the disgraceful action of the State which employed the police to accelerate the accumulation of capital by increasing the degree of exploitation of labour, the question remains: whence came the capitalists originally? For the expropriation of the agricultural population creates, directly, none but the greatest landed proprietors. As far, however, as concerns the genesis of the farmer, we can, so to say, put our hand on it, because it is a slow process evolving through many centuries. The serfs, as well as the free small proprietors, held land under very different tenures, and were therefore emancipated under very different economic conditions. In England the first form of the farmer is the bailiff, himself a serf. His position is similar to that of the old Roman villicus, only in a more limited sphere of action. During the second half of the 14th century he is replaced by a farmer, whom the landlord provided with seed, cattle and implements. His condition is not very different from that of the peasant. Only he exploits more wage labour. Soon he becomes a metayer, a half-farmer. He advances one part of the agricultural stock, the landlord the other. The two divide the total product in proportions determined by contract. This form quickly disappears in England, to give the place to the farmer proper, who makes his own capital breed by employing wage labourers, and pays a part of the surplus-product, in money or in kind, to the landlord as rent. So long, during the 15th century, as the independent peasant and the farm-labourer working for himself as well as for wages, enriched themselves by their own labour, the circumstances of the farmer, and his field of production, were equally mediocre. The agricultural revolution which commenced in the last third of the 15th century, and continued during almost the whole of the 16th (excepting, however, its last decade), enriched him just as speedily as it impoverished the mass of the agricultural people. [1]

    The usurpation of the common lands allowed him to augment greatly his stock of cattle, almost without cost, whilst they yielded him a richer supply of manure for the tillage of the soil. To this was added in the 16th century a very important element. At that time the contracts for farms ran for a long time, often for 99 years. The progressive fall in the value of the precious metals, and therefore of money, brought the farmers golden fruit. Apart from all the other circumstances discussed above, it lowered wages. A portion of the latter was now added to the profits of the farm. The continuous rise in the price of corn, wool, meat, in a word of all agricultural produce, swelled the money capital of the farm without any action on his part, whilst the rent he paid (being calculated on the old value of money) diminished in reality. [2] Thus they grew rich at the expense both of their labourers and their landlords. No wonder, therefore, that England, at the end of the 16th century, had a class of capitalist farmers, rich, considering the circumstances of the time. [3]

    Comment by louisproyect — March 16, 2019 @ 6:00 pm

  24. Thank you Louis for the insight brought to us by Chapter 29.

    And for a fuller exposition we have Chapter 27, “The Expropriation of the Agricultural Population from the Land”, and chapter 28, “Bloody Legislation against the Expropriated … Forcing Down of Wages by Act of Parliament”, which go into great detail about *extra-economic* use of force that was necessary to bring about the accumulation of great wealth as well as the expropriation of the laborers from all means of independent survival, so as to make it possible to bring these two key elements together to make industrial capital possible.

    And as the detailed exposition by Marx indicates, it DID happen bit by bit, in a process spanning a couple of centuries.

    Comment by Reza — March 16, 2019 @ 8:23 pm

  25. The imaginary ‘chapters’ you are mentioning derive from the requirements of French serialization. Chapter seven of Capital in both German editions is “the accumulation process of capital”, with a first section on ‘capitalistic accumulation’, a second section on ‘the so-called original accumulation’ and a third on ‘the modern theory of colonization’. All the material you are citing comes from a single unbroken span of text ‘the so-called original accumulation’ which begins with what is now marked ‘the secret of original accumulation’. In the previous section, 7.1 he has in three subsections a-c explained simple reproduction, extended reproduction and the ‘general law of accumulation’.

    Now we come to 7.2 The whole continuous section is a single polemic against the illusion, which inevitably arises among those dwell under the cmp, that the process got must have got going when “In times long gone by there were two sorts of people; one, the diligent, intelligent, and, above all, frugal elite; the other, lazy rascals, spending their substance, and more, in riotous living” etc. etc. Thereupon we get an immense mass of material that aimed at showing what perfect nonsense this is, as it does quite well. It does not pose or solve the question considered by e.g. Brenner and Meiksins Wood; its thesis is negative and perfectly adequate to its target.

    Comment by Mark Shapiro — March 16, 2019 @ 10:03 pm

  26. It does not pose or solve the question considered by e.g. Brenner and Meiksins Wood; its thesis is negative and perfectly adequate to its target.

    I’ll tell you what. You find anything in Capital that lends support to the idea that tenant farming is the beginning of capitalism and I’ll donate $1000 to your favorite leftist cause. Brenner came up with this idea on his own and there’s nothing wrong with that. It is just that Marx specifically said that the industrial capitalist emerged not in the countryside but in the towns:

    The genesis of the industrial capitalist did not proceed in such a gradual way as that of the farmer. Doubtless many small guild-masters, and yet more independent small artisans, or even wage labourers, transformed themselves into small capitalists, and (by gradually extending exploitation of wage labour and corresponding accumulation) into full-blown capitalists. In the infancy of capitalist production, things often happened as in the infancy of medieval towns, where the question, which of the escaped serfs should be master and which servant, was in great part decided by the earlier or later date of their flight. The snail’s pace of this method corresponded in no wise with the commercial requirements of the new world market that the great discoveries of the end of the 15th century created.

    –Capital, ch. 31

    Comment by louisproyect — March 16, 2019 @ 10:14 pm

  27. Mark, Man you are obtuse!

    Yes, exactly, Marx is trying to show, step by step, that the paupers, the beggars, those that are portrayed by members of the dominant class as ‘lazy, rascals, etc.’ were actually MADE into paupers through a long history of dispossession, expropriation and *forced*, by law, into poverty, so as to create conditions in which they can be exploited further by the capitalist class. You just proved yourself wrong!

    As for the ‘imaginary’ chapters that I and other English-capable readers would refer to … whatever! I am reading from Penguin’s Classics edition of Vol. 1, which has an introduction by Ernest Mandel. Good for you that you can read German. Big deal! The *content* is the same content, and it proves you wrong no matter how you parse out the ‘imaginary’ chapters.

    Comment by Reza — March 16, 2019 @ 10:19 pm

  28. Reza, yes, that’s what I was saying.

    Louis, the question Brenner and Meiksins Wood pose is not clearly answered in Capital, there’s no reason why it should be really. All you have is a polemical chapter against the ‘original sin’ story. The falsehood of the original sin story is not an account of how the structure that Capital takes as its object, from page 1 on, got to be in place in a self-reproducing population. Thus we have the positive claims of e.g. Frank, Sweezy, and Wallerstein which are all clearly eternalization of specifically capitalistic rationality – as the tirade of Blaut effectively eternalizes and cosmpolitanizes the capitalistic mode of production itself, placing it in every city with a market in the world, from Uppsala to Tlatelolco.

    Comment by Mark Shapiro — March 17, 2019 @ 12:27 am

  29. > You find anything in Capital that lends support to the idea that tenant farming is the beginning of capitalism

    You should note that the expression ‘capitalism’ is not used in Capital. The topic is specifically capitalistic mode of production. I have no idea what people mean when they talk about ‘capitalism’. Capital is very ancient, not quite as ancient as money.

    Comment by Mark Shapiro — March 17, 2019 @ 12:37 am

  30. Mark, I really need to be educated here. So far, you have been negating mostly. But, can we get to the positive? You state: “the question Brenner and Meiksins Wood pose is not clearly answered in Capital …”

    OK … So, this is a genuine question: What is the question Brenner and Meiksins Wood pose, and in your understanding what is their answer?

    I’m really and genuinely interested to know what your positive input is.

    Comment by Reza — March 17, 2019 @ 2:10 am

  31. Brenner purports to have discovered the true meaning of the gospel according to Saint Marx and launches a decades-long polemic against “neo-Smithians” (surely one of the most dubious terms of scholarly invective ever devised).

    It is of course forbidden (polemics! horrors!) to turn this on its head and accuse Brenner of being a Weberian.

    In addition, confronted inescapably with Chapter 31, the slavish acolyte turns on a dime once more and pronounces that this chapter is mere “polemics”–unworthy (by implication) of the pure scholarship of Brenner, Ms. Hyphen-Hyphen, and Charlie Post–now no longer polemical Marxists apparently but Marx’s gravediggers.

    If what we are discussing here is pure scholarship on the liberal (bourgeois) model as opposed to what American liberals miscall “ideology”–not in any sense derived from de Tracy, but rather in the sense of leftwing nonsense that might upset a tenure committee–then the debate is not one within Marxism, but rather between Marxists and liberals–a very different kettle of fish and not IMHO–to borrow the currently fashionable cant–a “conversation” that is worth having, whether in the vile confines of “social media” or the sacred precincts of JSTOR. The point is not to interpret the world but to change it … .

    A president of the American Historical Society, as I seem to recall–I would love to have the source of the quotation–once said something to the effect that ” what we need now is more thoroughly decent second-rate work.”

    The graduate schools of America are stuffed with people of a sort of talent whose potential is limited to answering that call–tackers on, at best, of epicycles to the work of people of genuine intellectual significance, Brenner included.

    It’s all politics–when you talk about political economy the stick is always bent. Give Brenner credit–at least he seems to understand that much.

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — March 17, 2019 @ 2:43 pm

  32. Farans, there is no chapter 31 of Capital, there is a succession of paragraphs from the part entitled “On So-Called Original Accumulation”. The purpose of this part is stated at the outset: to destroy the apologetic ‘original sin’ origin story of the capitalistic mode of production. This apologetic theory is of a piece with e.g. theory that “profit is derived from the labour of the capitalist, and interest from his asceticism, in other words, from his abstinence”, considered earlier as a doctrine of accumulation in general. The section “On So-Called Original Accumulation” does not attempt a detailed positive account of the transition to generalized commodity production, generalized production under competition, generalized abstract, exploited, labor, in any population; it does not depict the origination of any particular “society in which the capitalistic mode of production rules” out of something else. Attempts have been made to give such accounts for parts of England and the Netherlands. They do not conflict with the attack on this imaginary or “so-called” “original accumulation”.

    Comment by Mark Shapiro — March 18, 2019 @ 3:04 am

  33. Farans, there is no chapter 31 of Capital, there is a succession of paragraphs from the part entitled “On So-Called Original Accumulation”.

    Where is the scholarly support for such an assertion?

    Comment by louisproyect — March 18, 2019 @ 12:01 pm

  34. The section “On So-Called Original Accumulation” does not attempt a detailed positive account of the transition to generalized commodity production, generalized production under competition, generalized abstract, exploited, labor, in any population … .

    Strange. In every edition of Capital I’ve seen, there is a Chapter 31. Of course one can guess at a deeper interpretive meaning here, but why take the bait?

    Shapiro’s “arguments” consist of increasingly fragmentary and barely grammatical Marx-colored iterations of words and phrases that appear to have some magical incantatory function for him. We just get this weird posture of lofty negation without any real support.

    The guy, has, as Robert Lowell once put it, “bypassed sense and even eloquence.”

    Sorry to have prolonged this. As Virgil said, non captat muscas aquila and–however (how dare I!) polemically–there are serious matters to be discussed here

    Brenner, Post, and Hyphen-Hyphen, IMHO–irritating as they can be–deserve far better.

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — March 18, 2019 @ 3:03 pm

  35. I’ve been rummaging about in French and German editions of Capital looking for V. 1 Chapter 31 and can’t find it. This may be because neither of the two editions I found has what an American would consider a functioning Table of Contents, and neither my German (virtually nonexistent) nor my OK French is up to the task of retranslating Moore and Aveling’s phraseology into precisely either Marx’s original German or the 1872 French version for the purposes of a text search through something like a thousand pages of dense prose.

    The French version is of the 1872 translation, apparently the last translation of Capital to be approved by Marx in his lifetime (??) but it does include a preface by Moore to the version with which English speakers are most familiar, in which he asserts that his English translation is based not on the 1867 German edition, which is what I think I downloaded, but rather on a later German edition which one presumes was Marx’s own last or penultimate word on the subject.

    My guess is that some later German edition–which might have appeared in Marx’s lifetime and been authorized by him (unlike Moore’s and Aveling’s posthumous translation) does include the disputatious Chapter 31. Engels apparently thought the Moore/Aveling version was OK, so some kind of “original text” counter-argument would be up against some pretty stiff opposition.

    But what do I know? Someone like David Harvey or–probably–any number of Marxmail subscribers will doubtless know the answer to this. Probably a good rummage in a university library would also do the trick, but I don’t have access to one currently. I’ve been knocking the “professoriate,” but they do have their uses.

    IN any case if the “succession of paragraphs” say the same thing as the disputed Chapter 31, it’s hard to see how Marx’s intent in writing them can be contested. Marx did revise Capital considerably throughout his lifetime, so a relatively minor rearrangement of some “paragraphs” hardly seems improbable, and–barring a substantial difference in content–rather beside the point.

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — March 18, 2019 @ 5:59 pm

  36. FYI–the 1872 French edition was republished in the 1980s, which is how Moore’s later preface got into the front matter.

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — March 18, 2019 @ 6:02 pm

  37. In fact, my “mystery” German edition ingludes a section “Genesis des industriellen Kapitalisten” that seems to be substantially word for word in the key passages he same as the disputed Chapter 31–only it isn’t marked out as Chapter Thirty-something but rather as section 6 of what I’m not sure, as the PDF I downloaded lacks running heads and other finding aids such as we American weaklings are used to.

    Here is the famous paragraph on slavery and the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production, which has quite a nice roar to it auf deutsch as nearly as I can make out–alas, I’m too old now to learn languages properly:

    Die Entdeckung der Gold- und Silberländer in Amerika, die Ausrottung, Versklavung und Vergrabung
    der eingebornen Bevölkerung in die Bergwerke, die beginnende Eroberung und Ausplünderung von
    Ostindien, die Verwandlung von Afrika in ein Geheg zur Handelsjagd auf Schwarzhäute, bezeichnen die
    Morgenröte der kapitalistischen Produktionsära. Diese idyllischen Prozesse sind Hauptmomente der ursprünglichen
    Akkumulation. Auf dem Fuß folgt der Handelskrieg der europäischen Nationen, mit dem
    Erdrund als Schauplatz. Er wird eröffnet durch den Abfall der Niederlande von Spanien, nimmt Riesenumfang
    an in Englands Antijakobinerkrieg, spielt noch fort in den Opiumkriegen gegen China usw.

    I could only find this by looking for the name Howitt, which appears a little below the quoted paragraph in all editions.

    Now tell me Marx didn’t write this–or he didn’t mean it, or it doesn’t matter, or what at all.

    Sorry for the length of this, but I hope it explains the silly controversy and vindicates Louis et al. Admittedly Shapiro is only half crazy–unfortunately, that’s the half he has been presenting here. It sounds as if he has garbled a passing remark from some professor to whom he wasn’t paying sufficient attention. Is this worth the attention? IDK.

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — March 18, 2019 @ 6:23 pm

  38. This could all be resolved at a single stroke by a look at the third and fourth German editions. I don’t have access, but I betcha the “imaginary” V. 1 Ch. 31 appears in one or both of those, Otherwise you have to imagine that Edward Aveling, Jenny Marx, Moore, and Engels all conspired to fake it–and why would they do that?

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — March 19, 2019 @ 6:20 pm

  39. I wouldn’t get too hung up on chapter 31 of V. 1. There’s a more thorough discussion of the origins of capitalism in chapter 20 of V. 3 of Capital. Nothing below has the slightest resemblance to the Brenner thesis. Not a word about tenant farming, just references to expanding trade not that different from Pirenne’s thesis that Paul Sweezy referred to in his debate with Maurice Dobb. In contrast to Brenner, Dobb placed a lot of emphasis on colonialism and slavery. Someone asked Charles Post about merchant’s capital at an HM conference. He laughed at the question.

    There is no doubt — and it is precisely this fact which has led to wholly erroneous conceptions — that in the 16th and 17th centuries the great revolutions, which took place in commerce with the geographical discoveries and speeded the development of merchant’s capital, constitute one of the principal elements in furthering the transition from feudal to capitalist mode of production. The sudden expansion of the world-market, the multiplication of circulating commodities, the competitive zeal of the European nations to possess themselves of the products of Asia and the treasures of America, and the colonial system — all contributed materially toward destroying the feudal fetters on production. However, in its first period — the manufacturing period — the modern mode of production developed only where the conditions for it had taken shape within the Middle Ages. Compare, for instance, Holland with Portugal.[5] And when in the 16th, and partially still in the 17th, century the sudden expansion of commerce and emergence of a new world-market overwhelmingly contributed to the fall of the old mode of production and the rise of capitalist production, this was accomplished conversely on the basis of the already existing capitalist mode of production. The world-market itself forms the basis for this mode of production. On the other hand, the immanent necessity of this mode of production to produce on an ever-enlarged scale tends to extend the world-market continually, so that it is not commerce in this case which revolutionises industry, but industry which constantly revolutionises commerce. Commercial supremacy itself is now linked with the prevalence to a greater or lesser degree of conditions for a large industry. Compare, for instance, England and Holland. The history of the decline of Holland as the ruling trading nation is the history of the subordination of merchant’s capital to industrial capital. The obstacles presented by the internal solidity and organisation of pre-capitalistic, national modes of production to the corrosive influence of commerce are strikingly illustrated in the intercourse of the English with India and China. The broad basis of the mode of production here is formed by the unity of small-scale agriculture and home industry, to which in India we should add the form of village communities built upon the common ownership of land, which, incidentally, was the original form in China as well. In India the English lost no time in exercising their direct political and economic power, as rulers and landlords, to disrupt these small economic communities.[6] English commerce exerted a revolutionary influence on these communities and tore them apart only in so far as the low prices of its goods served to destroy the spinning and weaving industries, which were an ancient integrating element of this unity of industrial and agricultural production. And even so this work of dissolution proceeds very gradually. And still more slowly in China, where it is not reinforced by direct political power. The substantial economy and saving in time afforded by the association of agriculture with manufacture put up a stubborn resistance to the products of the big industries, whose prices include the faux frais of the circulation process which pervades them. Unlike the English, Russian commerce, on the other hand, leaves the economic groundwork of Asiatic production untouched.[7]

    Comment by louisproyect — March 19, 2019 @ 6:34 pm

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