Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

November 6, 2020

Commercial Capitalism

Filed under: Counterpunch,transition debate — louisproyect @ 2:30 pm


COUNTERPUNCH, NOVEMBER 6, 2020

I’m not a professional historian, but I get to play one on the Internet.

One of the historical debates that I have been absorbed with since the mid-1990s is over capitalism’s origin. When James Blaut, an anthropology professor who died in 2000, showed up on the Marxism list around then, he had just published “The Colonizer’s Model of the World.” In this book and the next installment for a planned trilogy on Eurocentrism, he challenged the idea that capitalism originated in England and diffused to the rest of the world. The second book was titled “Eight Eurocentric Historians” and included a chapter on Robert Brenner, a professor emeritus at UCLA who gathered disciples under the banner of “Political Marxism.” In brief, Political Marxism, also known as the Brenner thesis, theorizes that capitalism began in the British countryside in the 15th century. For reasons too lengthy to detail here, lease farming on large estates set into motion a market-driven process that inevitably led to the industrial revolution and the British Empire.

As a corollary to the Brenner thesis, there is an argument that slavery and precapitalist colonialism had nothing to do with England’s “take off.” Furthermore, in the USA, as historians Charles Post and James Clegg argue, slavery was an obstacle to the growth of capitalism and had little impact on economic development in the north. Unlike the often arcane debate over whether lease farming was the prima facie basis for take off, the slavery debate had much more relevance to current days. The so-called New Historians of Capitalism, such as Edward Baptist and Sven Beckert, wrote books linking slavery to America’s capitalist success. For this transgression, the Trump administration linked their scholarship to Project 1619 and called for a curriculum purged of such anti-American propaganda.

Over the years, I have written sixty-two articles contributing to this debate, but assuredly nobody would mistake them for the work of a professional historian. On the other hand, since most of the exchanges occur in paywalled, peer-reviewed journals, my articles might be where many non-academics first learn about the issues.

This article will take up “A Brief History of Commercial Capitalism,” the latest book by Jairus Banaji, a professional historian who received the Isaac Deutscher prize in 2011 for “Theory as History.” Other critics of the Brenner thesis include Kerem Nisancioglu and Alexander Anievas, the authors of “How the West Came to Rule: The Geopolitical Origins of Capitalism,” and Irfan Habib, the author of articles such as “The rise of capitalism in England: Reviewing the Brenner thesis.”

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2 Comments »

  1. Louis, this is a really fine article. Your comments on Banaji make me eager to read his book. (James Blaut was a geographer.)

    Comment by Stephen S Gosch — November 6, 2020 @ 3:33 pm

  2. Louis, the fact that you know that “over the years you have written 62 articles” on this subject not 61 or 63 is a sinister sign post saying you need some R & R. I suggest take the train out to Coney Island the last stop, go by Nathans and pick up a couple of dogs and walk out and sit on the beach for a few hours with some light reading. I suggest “If The Dead Rise Not” by Philip Kerr it is about a Social Democratic detective in Berlin in 1934 forced out of the police by the Nazi’s and takes a job as the house detective at the Adlon hotel, Jewish owned. At any rate you need at least a mini vacation. Stay well.

    Comment by Michael Tormey — November 6, 2020 @ 3:47 pm


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