Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 26, 2015

Alexander Anievas and Kerem Nisancioglu on the Brenner thesis

Filed under: transition debate — louisproyect @ 8:33 pm

(From pages 22 to 27 of the above new book.)

The Brenner Thesis: Explanation and Critique

In what has become one of the most influential theorisations of capitalism’s emergence, Robert Brenner mobilised Marx’s emphasis on changing relations of production (for Brenner, reconceptualised as ‘social property relations'”) in order to historicise the origins of capitalism in terms of class struggles specific to feudalism.” These struggles were determined by relations based on the appropriation of surplus from the peasantry by lords through extra-economic means: lords would habitually ‘squeeze’ agricultural productivity by imposing fines, extending work hours and extracting higher proportions of surpluses. In the 15th century, this sparked class conflicts in the English countryside, where serfs rebelled against their worsening conditions and won formal enfranchisement. The liberation of serfs from ties and obligations to the lord’s demesne in turn initiated a rise in tenant farming and led to increased market dependence, as peasants were turned away from their land and forced into wage-labour as an alternative means of subsistence. Although peasant expulsions were met with significant resistance, the strength and unity of the English state ensured victory for the landed ruling class.” This concentrated land in the private possession of landlords, who leased it to free peasants, unintentionally giving rise to ‘the classical landlord—capitalist tenant—wage labour structure’.79

By contrast, in France, the freeing of the peasants and their ability to retain the land was bound up with the development of a centralised monarchical state that came to take on a ‘class-like’ character as an independent extractor of surpluses through the taxing of land. The French absolutist state consequently had an interest in securing and protecting peasant landowning as a source of revenue against the re-encroachments of the lordly classes. The ability of the peasants to hold on to the land in turn prevented the systematic emergence of wage-labour in France, hampering the transition to capitalism.80

For Brenner, the differential outcomes of the class struggles in England and France are explained by the divergent evolution of the English and French states. Curiously, in explaining these divergent state trajectories Brenner explicitly evokes ‘international’ factors: the Normandy invasions for England, and the political-military pressures of the English state on the French. The ‘precocious English feudal centralization … owed its strength in large part to the level of feudal “political” organization already achieved by the Normans in Normandy before the Conquest, which was probably unparalleled elsewhere in Europe’.81 As Brenner notes:

the English feudal class self-government appears to have been ‘ahead’ of the French in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, not only because its starting point was different, but because it was built upon advances in this sphere already achieved on the Continent, especially in Normandy. In turn, when French centralization accelerated somewhat later it was influenced by English development, and was indeed, in part, a response to direct English politico-military pressure. Thus the development of the mechanisms of feudal accumulation tended to be not only `uneven’ but also ‘combined’, in the sense that later developers could build on previous advances made elsewhere in feudal class organizations.82

Although evoking the concept of ‘uneven and combined development’ here, Brenner’s analysis proceeds within the confines of a comparative historical analysis whereby ‘the international’ remains an ad-hoc addendum to an essentially ‘internalise analysis of the changing balance of class forces and state formation. Nowhere does ‘the international’ enter into Brenner’s theoretical presuppositions centred, as they are, around his concept of ‘social property relations’. Yet, as Neil Davidson argues, ‘[b]y focusing almost exclusively on what [Political Marxists] call social property relations, they “have no terms” to explain events that lie outside these relationships’.” This is particularly problematic for Brenner and his followers, who explicitly reject any conception of the origins of capitalism as immanently developing from the contradictions of feudal society.” Rather, feudalism is conceived as a ‘self-enclosed, self-perpetuating system that cannot be undermined by its own internal contradictions’.”

Hence, in spite of an extensive and informative historical explanation, Brenner’s conception of the origins of capitalism based on shifting social property relations is conceptually too narrow and too simple; Brenner ultimately tries to explain too much with too little. In Brenner’s schema, Marx’s master concept, the ‘mode of production’ — conceived as the composite totality of relations encapsulating the economic, legal, ideological, cultural and political spheres — is reduced to the much thinner ‘social properly relations’ concept, which is itself reduced to a form of exploitation. Brenner’s error is to take the singular relation of exploitation between lord and peasant as the most fundamental and axiomatic component of the mode of production, which in turn constitutes the foundational ontology and analytical building block upon which ensuing theoretical and historical investigation is constructed. Yet, as Ricardo Duchesne argues, this stretches the concept of the ‘relations of production’ too far, as it seeks to incorporate under the logic of ‘class struggle’ all military, political and economic factors, while reducing military, political and legal relations — conceptualised as ‘political accumulation’ by Brenner — to functions of this singular relation.”

The result of this ontological singularity is a dual tunnelling — both temporal and spatial — of our empirical field of enquiry. Temporally, the history of capitalism’s origins is reduced to the historical manifestation of one conceptual moment — the freeing of labour — and in turn explained by it. Spatially, the genesis of capitalism is confined to a single geographical region — the English countryside — immune from wider intersocietal developments. Such tunnelling cannot explain why the extensive presence of formally free wage-labour prior to the 16th century (both inside and outside England) did not give rise to capitalism.” Nor can it explain subsequent social developments, by obliterating the histories of colonialism, slavery and imperialism, Brenner ‘freezes’ capitalism’s history.”

This substantially narrows Marx’s more robust conception of the process of ‘primitive accumulation’ to which Brenner and his students give so much analytical weight In explaining capitalism’s origins. In a famous passage, Marx wrote:

the discovery of gold and silver in America, the expiration, enslavement and entombment in mines of the indigenous population of that continent, the beginnings of the conquest and plunder of India, and the conversion of Africa into a preserve for the commercial hunting of blackskins, are all things which characterized the dawn of the era of capitalist production. These idyllic proceedings are the chief moments of primitive accumulation …. The different moments of primitive simulation can be assigned in particular to Spain, Portugal, Holland, France, and England, in more or less chronological order. These moments are systematically combined together at the end of the seventeenth century in England; the combination embraces the colonies, the national debt, the modern tax system, and the system of protection.89

In Marx’s temporally and spatially more expansive view, capitalism’s genesis was not a national phenomenon, but rather an intersocietal one. It therefore makes sense to follow Perry Anderson in viewing the origins of capitalism as a value-added process gaining in complexity as it moved along a chain of interrelated sites’.90

In contrast, Brenner spatially reduces capitalism’s origins to processes that obtained solely in the English countryside; towns and cities are omitted, Europe-wide dynamics are analytically active only as comparative cases, and the world outside Europe does not figure at all. Similarly excluded are the numerous technological, cultural, institutional and social-relational discoveries and developments originating outside Europe that were appropriated by Europe in the course of its capitalist development.91 In short, Brenner neglects the determinations and conditions that arose from the social interactions between societies, since ‘political community’, in his conception, is subordinated to ‘class’, while classes themselves are conceptualised within the spatial limits of the political community in question.92 This leads to the various moments of Eurocentrism outlined in the Introduction. Temporal tunnelling gives rise to the notion of historical priority; spatial tunnelling gives rise to a methodologically internalist analysis. For Brenner’s followers these problems are only compounded, as the possibility of the development of early capitalisms outside of the English countryside that Brenner allows for is rejected.93 The notion of the origins of ‘capitalism in one country’94 is thus taken literally.

This Eurocentrism of Political Marxist analyses is further reinforced by their conception of pre-capitalist societies as generally incapable of significant technological innovations by either the direct producers or exploiters. For in the absence of the market compulsions that are unique to capitalist property relations, Political Marxists claim that there was no equivalent systemic ‘imperative’ to increase labour productivity and generalise technical improvements across different economic sectors.” Under feudalism, the consequence of this systemic inability was that ‘real [economic] growth’ could only be achieved `by opening up new land for cultivation’.96 Moreover, the ‘cross-cultural’ diffusions of technologies and organisational forms which could facilitate modal transformations in recipient societies is explicitly rejected by Brenner since, as he writes, ‘new forces of production were readily assimilable by already existing social classes’.97

In short, Political Marxists deny the development of the productive forces any causal role in explaining the transition from feudalism to capitalism, since doing otherwise would inevitably run the risk of ‘technological determinism’, emptying human agency in the process.98 To counter this common charge of `techno-determinism’, it is important to note that the concept of ‘productive forces’ not only took on different meanings relating to different historical contexts in Marx’s writings (at one point it was identified with early social communities),99 but, moreover, should not be conflated with mere ‘technologies’. Rather, the forces of production refer to both the means of production — including ‘nature itself, the capacity to labour, the skills brought to the process, the tools used, and the techniques with which these tools are set to work’ — and the labour process — ‘the way in which the different means of production are combined in the act of production itself”.100

As this definition indicates, the forces of production (or ‘productive powers’) cannot be subsumed under any ‘techno-determinist’ interpretation. They are simultaneously material and social: for example, the ways in which tools are used involve both accumulated collective knowledge and a particular socio-historical context in which they operate. To say that there is a tendency for the forces of production to develop over time is simply to say that humans have been motivated to change them, and have done so in ways that have increased the social productivity of labour. Human agency is thus crucial to the process.101

What is more, the Political Marxist conception of pre-capitalist societies as relatively stagnant social formations, incapable of either endogenous or exogenously driven technological advances, has been challenged by a wealth of more recent studies of economic growth in pre-capitalist epochs.102 Indeed, sustained technological and organisational innovations, and thus agrarian productivity, were important features of late Medieval and early modern ‘European’ societies (see Chapters 3 to 6). Denying productive forces any explanatory significance prior to capitalism also generates a pervasive Eurocentrism, since it situates their development exclusively in modern Europe, as the harbinger of capitalist property relations. This obscures from view the extensive development of productive forces in non-European contexts, such as with the early modern tributary empires of the Ottomans and Mughals (see Chapters 4 and 8) and the dynamic colonial plantation systems in the Americas over the 16th to 18th centuries. In so doing, it occludes from the outset the possibility that productive forces transmitted from these extra-European sources to Europe contributed to the formation of capitalism in Europe itself (see Chapters 3, 4, 5 and 8).

So the Political Marxist conception of pre-capitalist societies as essentially developmental dead-ends is an historical claim that is both Eurocentric and difficult to sustain empirically. This should force us to reconsider the significance of productive forces historically, and re-evaluate the possibility of reincorporating their study into our theoretical explanations of the transition to capitalism.

May 1, 2006

Lenin’s Tomb and the Brenner thesis

Filed under: Latin America,transition debate — louisproyect @ 4:14 pm

Posted to www.marxmail.org on May 1, 2006

The estimable Richard Seymour of Lenin's Tomb has a posting on the Brenner thesis titled "Marxism, the bourgeoisie and capitalist imperialism" that is well worth reading, even though I do have a number of criticisms. Beforehand, I think it would be worthwhile to provide some historical background for those who are unfamiliar with the controversy surrounding the "transition" debate.

In 1950, Paul Sweezy wrote a critique of Maurice Dobb's "Studies in the Development of Capitalism" in the journal "Science and Society" that touched off a debate on the transition from feudalism to capitalism. Dobb viewed changes in the British countryside associated with "primitive accumulation" as key, while Sweezy stressed trade involving city-states such as Genoa and Venice with its neighbors to the East. Sweezy openly acknowledged the influence of Henri Pirenne, a historian of the middle ages who placed a great deal of emphasis on the interaction between Western Europe and Islamic trading centers.

Dobb's main defenders in the debate were veterans of Great Britain's Communist Party's Historians Group like himself, including Eric Hobsbawm, Christopher Hill and Rodney Hilton. For obvious reasons, these historians were very susceptible to "stagist" conceptions.

Not long after the debate died down, Sweezy and fellow Monthly Review editor Paul Baran developed a theory of monopoly capital that questioned the system's dynamism–particularly in the 3rd world. A UN economist based in Latin America named Andre Gunder Frank drew out the full implications of their work and put forward what became known as "dependency theory". He coined the phrase "development of underdevelopment" to describe the relationship between core and periphery nations. Furthermore, his work, which was largely based on an examination of Latin American society, could be seen as the scholarly counterpart to the Cuban revolution's deep involvement with guerrilla warfare in the 1960s.

After the Vietnam War ended and these guerrilla movements subsided or evolved into counter-productive semi-terrorist formations, there was a reaction to what was seen as the excesses of the 1960s. One young historian decided to challenge the Monthly Review School both on its understanding of the tasks of the colonial revolution as well as the views put forward by Sweezy in the "transition" debate. His name was Robert Brenner.

Brenner openly described himself as being in the tradition of Maurice Dobb, but was even more single-minded. Unlike Dobb, who did acknowledge the role of primitive accumulation in the New World to a limited extent (slavery does get an occasional mention in his Studies), Brenner sees the introduction of tenant farming in Great Britain in the 1400s as critical. Once feudal tribute was eliminated and once the profit motive was introduced, everything began to fall into place. From that point on, capitalism diffused outwards to the rest of the world.

In a 1977 New Left Review article titled "The origins of capitalist development: A critique of Neo-Smithian Marxism," Brenner defended his thesis about how capitalism originated as well as taking pot-shots at the "third-worldist" deviations of the Monthly Review. Brenner was not alone in taking up this polemic. He was linked with Bill Warren, Ernesto Laclau and Eugene Genovese. While they obviously approached things from somewhat different angles, they all tended to agree that Andre Gunder Frank was not a true Marxist and that capitalism was far more dynamic than the "dependency school" realized. Socialist Register editor Colin Leys, who started out as a "dependista," evolved into an enthusiastic supporter of the Brenner thesis and applied it in a somewhat novel manner to contemporary Kenya which was supposedly going through some sort of capitalist transition. The evidence was to be found in the rapid growth of tour companies, laundries and dry cleaning establishments owned and operated by native Kenyans. I kid you not.

Turning now to Richard's defense of the Brenner thesis, I want to focus on the following passage:

Richard writes:

"Since many left accounts of the rise of capitalism tend to accentuate the role of colonial exploitation in the 'primitive accumulation of capital', Wood points out that a) this is to confuse capital as social relation with capital as wealth and b) Spain was an early colonial power which exploited South America's mines to the hilt, yet tended to expend this 'capital' on feudal pursuits."

Did Spain expend its 'capital' on feudal pursuits? Keep in mind that Cervantes wrote "Don Quixote" at exactly the time that according to Wood it was steeped in feudalism. But the novel makes it clear that the befuddled knight's mishaps were rooted in his inability to understand that Spain was undergoing rapid change.

It actually might make sense just to remind ourselves what really feudalism was about. As Kautsky stressed, it involved the "natural economy", which meant production largely of use-values. Some scholars, including John Haldon, describe this as the "tributary mode of production." It is a closed economy marked by ruling class paternalism that seemed indifferent to profit and productivity. Michael Perelman points out in "The Invention of Capitalism":

"Although their standard of living may not have been particularly lavish, the people of precapitalistic northern Europe, like most traditional people, enjoyed a great deal of free time. The common people maintained innumerable religious holidays that punctuated the tempo of work. Joan Thirsk estimated that in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, about one-third of the working days, including Sundays, were spent in leisure. Karl Kautsky offered a much more extravagant estimate that 204 annual holidays were celebrated in medieval Lower Bavaria."

Whatever else one might say about Spanish rule in the New World, the indigenous peoples never "enjoyed a great deal of free time." Places like Potosi were instead marked by ferocious labor discipline and a thirst for profits. Wherever gold and silver were mined, the capital was recycled into the world capitalist economy. Furthermore, it is not very useful to draw hard and fast distinctions between a bourgeois British ant and a feudal Spanish grasshopper. Great Britain and Spain were partners in the general capitalist exploitation of Latin America. While Great Britain supplied the banking credit and the provisions, Spain provided the enforcement necessary to extract surplus value from indigenous slave labor.

It is also important to take into account that Spanish colonists invested the profits from mining in exactly the same fashion as their British counterparts from an early date. Just as Jamaican sugar plantations generated the wealth necessary to start a Birmingham textile mill, so did Mexican silver ore finance manufacturing. By the late 18th century, there was very little social or economic difference between Boston and Mexico City. D.A. Brading's "Miners and Merchants in Bourbon Mexico: 1763-1810" reveals the extent of the growth:

"In 1804 the corregidor of Querétaro counted 18 factories (obrajes) and 327 workshops (trapiches) in his town, the former group operating 280 looms and the latter up to 1,000. The larger firms wove woollen ponchos, blankets, serges, and sarapes while the smaller produced coarse cottons. In addition, there were another 35 workshops making hats and ten treating leather and suede goods. Estimates as to how many people were engaged in this industry varied. In 1803 the factory owners admitted that they kept over 2,000 men shut up within the walls of their prison-like establishments. In the same year the corregidor stated that some 9,000 persons of both sexes were occupied in the spinning, weaving and finishing of cloth. The industry's consumption of wool averaged about a million pounds and the value of its product was later reckoned to reach over million pesos a year. These figures, moreover, excluded the 3,000 workers employed by the tobacco monopoly."

Now one might account for the profusion of capitalist manufacturing in 18th century Mexico City as a product of the "diffusion" of capitalism from Great Britain that started in the 1400s, but that would be a Eurocentric mistake. Manufacturing existed before the 1400s and it took no special genius to understand that the combination of fixed and variable capital could generate surplus value.

For that matter, one might say that without the fortuitous "discovery" of the New World with its abundance of mineral wealth and the inability of native peoples to resist smallpox and other infectious diseases, there never would have been a capitalist take-off anywhere in Europe. Or to put in the concluding words of Jim Blaut's "Robert Brenner in the Tunnel of Time":

"If, indeed, the processes of historical change out of feudalism and toward capitalism (or something like capitalism) were going on in various parts of the Eastern Hemisphere in the late Middle Ages, and northwestern Europe was in no sense a leader, how do we explain the fact that Europe rose, Africa and Asia did not, and northwestern Europe developed industrial capitalism and empire? My own view focuses, again, on the matter of place: of location, or accessibility. We start with a conception of an eastern hemisphere with a number of mercantile-maritime centers, all developing and all interconnected. Iberian centers were very much closer to the Americas than were any competing centers. The wealth from American gold production, silver production, and plantation production, the value squeezed out of American and African and European labor in the process, the additional surplus value squeezed out of labor in the rest of the colonial world, and the resulting accumulation in Europe, allowed Europeans — an emerging proto-capitalist class, both urban and rural; an incipient bourgeoisie — to begin the dissolution of feudalism in Europe and begin to destroy competing proto-capitalist communities elsewhere. This beginning, in the 16th and 17th centuries, initiated a set of internal changes within Europe, those which led to a political transformation in the 17th-century bourgeois revolutions and eventually to an industrial revolution and industrial capitalism."

Full: http://www.columbia.edu/~lnp3/mydocs/Blaut/brenner.htm


September 4, 2019

Answering some questions about Robert Brenner

Filed under: transition debate — louisproyect @ 8:26 pm

Robert Brenner

Recently a dissertation student in Brazil asked me I’d be willing to answer some questions he had about Robert Brenner. I replied that I would be happy to but would like to do so on my blog since others might be interested in my replies.

So here goes:

1) Could you delineate a little biographical trajectory of Brenner, i.e., his main influences from the 1st and 2nd Internationals, his contemporary intellectual influences, allies and “groups”, his opponents and political participation, including in newspapers and journals in general?

I am not sure about the First and Second Internationals but I have heard experts on him claim that his main theoretical influence is Analytical Marxism. It is worth pointing out that Brenner contributed an article to the 1986 collection titled “Analytical Marxism” edited by John Roemer, a key AM’er. Brenner’s article is titled “The Social Basis of Economic Development” that can be downloaded from https://www.scribd.com/document/359014165/Robert-Brenner-The-Social-Basis-of-Economic-Development. (Be careful of scribd. They ask you to take out a free trial subscription but unless you forget to cancel it, the monthly charges can mount up as I once learned.)

Unfortunately, I don’t have a copy of my friend Henry Heller’s book on the Brenner thesis but a review of it in Against the Current is worth quoting:

As Heller argues, analytic philosophy was a “politically disengaged professional discipline preoccupied with constituting a formal model of knowledge. Born in the midst of the waning of Marxism in the 1980s, Analytical Marxism purported to salvage whatever could be saved by applying the same techniques of formal logic to Marxism. Committed to positivist logic, this approach rejected a dialectical sense of totality, movement and contradiction to its own cost. Brenner’s view of the transition is fundamentally weakened by this constraining methodology.”

The Political Marxist tradition argues that feudalism did not develop the forces of production, but instead was characterized by stagnation. They therefore reject the idea that development created the possibility for rising yeoman farmers, urban craftsmen, and new merchants to establish new capitalist relations of production.

Instead, they argue that capitalism developed as the unintended consequence of the class struggle between feudal lords and peasants only in England. Peasant resistance forced the end of serfdom, but the lords still retained control of the land. In this exceptional situation, the lords transformed themselves into capitalists who rented their land out to richer peasants who in turn hired poorer peasants as new wage laborers.

I have written a series of articles about the AM school that no longer has the following it had 20 years ago when I wrote about it. I did not cover Brenner in the series but would say that one of the key “contributions” of AM is its rejection of Marxist dialectics and  consequently a strong commitment to the kind of “stagism” that was endemic to the Second International. I have written in the past that Brenner’s chief influence on his own stagism comes from the British Marxist Historians School that was made up of CP members like Eric Hobsbawm but in writing this, it seems entirely possible that Brenner got more from the AM school than from them. In a nutshell, the CPers and the AM school are averse to the insights Trotsky provided in the theory of combined and uneven development. My article on AM’er Gerald Cohen might give you some idea of how this overlaps with Brenner’s theory that posts capitalism as a system that is absolutely distinct from feudalism and that began in England in the 14th century:

In the twentieth century, a “stagist” conception of Marxism drawn from the same sources that so enchant G. A. Cohen became the common wisdom of the 2nd and 3rd International. Trotsky’s conception of Permanent Revolution was a departure from this and is influenced not only by the political ideas but even the language of Marx and Engels in this particular article. Cohen’s desire to return Marxism to some sort of “orthodoxy” is a misbegotten project. It is based first of all on a misunderstanding of Marx’s ideas on history and, worse, it is tied to a particularly odd, if not outright bugged-out, notion of what it means to be a socialist revolutionary.

As to Brenner’s affiliations, he has a group of academics strongly committed to his theories. The most prominent of them have been Charles Post, Vivek Chibber, Mike Zmolek, and the late Ellen Meiksins Wood. Brenner, who is now a professor emeritus, no longer writes articles defending his ideas. Post and Chibber, who at one time were like tag team partners defending Political Marxism, had a falling out over Chibber’s embrace of neo-Kautskyism. This was around the same time Chibber removed Brenner from the editorial position he held at Catalyst magazine, which led to a bitter fight. So, as you can gather, PM does not lend itself to fraternal theoretical bonding. They make Trotskyists look like unity-mongers by comparison.

2) What do you think is the extent of Perry Anderson’s influence over Brenner’s formation?

None really. In fact, Anderson wrote a widely quoted take-down of Brenner’s “Merchants and Revolution: Commercial Change, Political Conflict, and London’s Overseas Traders, 1550-1653” in the London Review of Books. The book itself is not really about the core Brennerite idea of capitalism beginning in the British countryside but Anderson pokes holes in it, nonetheless. The review is behind a paywall but if you’d like a copy drop me a line. Here’s the relevant passage:

One side of Brenner’s polemic was aimed at neo-Malthusian orthodoxies, stressing the primacy of demography in Early Modern economic history, the other at neo-Smithian accounts that gave priority to cities and commerce – unwisely adopted, in Brenner’s view, by too many Marxists. He went on to draw the conclusion that the idea of a ‘bourgeois revolution’, lodged in the Marxist tradition, was misplaced: no bourgeoisie was needed to overthrow a feudal aristocracy, since the latter had changed itself and got to capitalism first anyway. The break with feudalism came not from any accumulation in trade or assault on absolute monarchy, but through an agrarian catharsis. Beside the self-conversion of the English landlords, every other strand in the emergence of capitalism was marginal.

For all the power of this case, there were always difficulties with its overall context. The idea of capitalism in one country, taken literally, is only a bit more plausible than that of socialism. For Marx the different moments of the modern biography of capital were distributed in a cumulative sequence, from the Italian cities to the towns of Flanders and Holland, to the empires of Portugal or Spain and the ports of France, before being ‘systematically combined in England at the end of the 17th century’. Historically, it makes better sense to view the emergence of capitalism as a value-added process gaining in complexity as it moved along a chain of inter-related sites. In this story, the role of cities was always central. English landowners could never have started their conversion to commercial agriculture without the market for wool in Flemish towns – just as Dutch farming was by Stuart times in advance of English, not least because it was conjoined to a richer urban society. Yet, even if the ‘bourgeois’ contribution to the economic genesis of capitalism is conceded, this does not mean that a political ‘revolution’ was necessary to smooth its path. That would have been one possible reading of Brenner’s case, with its emphasis on the immanent dynamism of competitive production for the market. Where does his new work leave the issue?

3) Brenner focuses his historical materialist approach around the idea that the primary factor behind the consolidation of a mode of production results from the importance of the relations of production, in detriment of the forces of production. Do you see his choice as a direct effort to eradicate the Soviet Stalinist version of the HM approach, mainly that exposed in “on dialectical materialism and historical materialism”? Or do you believe his main “target” is another one?

As I said before, my initial take on the Brenner thesis was that it derived from the British CP’s Historical Materialism School. Keep in mind that many scholars see it as round two of the Maurice Dobb/Paul Sweezy debate of the 1950s. While Sweezy came out of the CP himself, his approach to the origins of capitalism debate came from a “world systems” framework that would eventually be the hallmark of MR writers such as the recently deceased Immanuel Wallerstein. Dobb, like Brenner, saw the origins primarily as based in the British countryside but did allow colonialism and slavery to be part of the process.

With respect to the affinity that Brenner had with the CP historians, you can read what I wrote here for a fuller explanation.

4) Do you see any trace of an Althusserian influence on Brenner’s division of the two kinds of historical materialisms, between the young Marx’s one and old Marx’s one (as in Brenner’s Marx’s first model of the transition to capitalism [1985])?

I am not up to speed on Althusser’s distinction between the two kinds of historical materialism so I will take a pass on this.

5) Do you think Brenner’s work on transition and, more recently, on the world capitalist crisis, can be seen as one that promotes “methodological nationalism”, since his definition of a mode of production as a result of social-property relations is always referenced at the national level, matching his notion of (national) development patterns?

Quite honestly, I did not see much of a connection between the two Brenner theses, both of which appeared in the NLR. The first one was the 1977 article attacking the Monthly Review authors as “neo-Smithian”. The other was the 1998 special issue devoted entirely to his article “The Economics of Global Turbulence”. This is the only thing I have ever written about Brenner’s views on capitalist crisis in the current epoch. I am not sure how much it relates to his 1998 article but you might find it useful.

6) Do you think Brenner’s focus on the unparalleled promotion of economic development by the capitalist mode of production, and his recent critique of the supply side economics in his recent works, can be seen as a sign that Brenner is closer to Keynesianism or developmentalism than to Marxism in his analysis of the capitalist mode of production (despite the thesis on the decline of the profit rate)?

I haven’t been keeping track of those articles but I don’t find anything particularly revolutionary about Brenner’s most recent reflections on the capitalist political crisis. In 2004, Brenner called for a vote for John Kerry in clear defiance of Marxist principles on class independence. Here’s the final paragraph of the article  he co-wrote with Joel Jordan:

The bottom line is this: It is understandable that many leftists are revolted by the thought of calling for a vote for the Democrats.  But we appeal to them also to consider the anguish that the tens of millions of people around the world who have taken up the struggle against U.S. imperialism over the past four years will feel should Bush win again…and the fury if Nader once more enables it to happen.

7) Brenner talks little about revolution or socialism in his most famous works. What do you think is Brenner’s conception about the process of revolution in a capitalist society and what would a socialist mode of production “look like” to him? Do you think the focus on national social-property relations and national patterns of development are compatible with something other thank the strategy of taking state power and promoting change from top to bottom?

As might be obvious from what I wrote just above, Brenner, who is only a couple of years older than me, lost his revolutionary zeal many years ago. I suspect that this has a lot to do with being based in the academy. Keep in mind that Perry Anderson, who taught at UCLA alongside him, wrote a deeply pessimistic article in NLR in 2000 titled “Renewals” that stated:

For the Left, the lesson of the past century is one taught by Marx. Its first task is to attend to the actual development of capitalism as a complex machinery of production and profit, in constant motion. Robert Brenner’s ‘Economics of Global Turbulence’, taking up an issue of NLR, sets the appropriate example.footnote6 No collective agency able    to match the power of capital is yet on the horizon. We are in a time, as genetic engineering looms, when the only revolutionary force at present capable of disturbing its equilibrium appears to be scientific progress itself—the forces of production, so unpopular with Marxists convinced of the primacy of relations of production when a socialist movement was still alive. But if the human energies for a change of system are ever released again, it will be from within the metabolism of capital itself. We cannot turn away from it. Only in the evolution of this order could lie the secrets of another one.

8) Brenner has been accused of developing a Eurocentric approach to history. What do you think of this charge?

Yes, it is accurate. How does someone spend his entire academic career on the left without ever writing a single article about developments in Latin America or Africa? For that matter, neither do any of his acolytes. Just below is a part of a critique of Brenner that was written by my dear friend and comrade Jim Blaut. Reading it led me to write all the others that are collected here.

Jim Blaut, “Robert Brenner in the Tunnel of Time”:

Robert Brenner is a Marxist, a follower of one tradition in Marxism that is as diffusionist, as Eurocentric, as most conservative positions. I cannot here offer an explanation for this curious phenomenon: a tradition within one of the most egalitarian of all socio-political doctrines yet a tradition which, nonetheless, believes in the historical superiority (or priority) of one community of humans, Europeans, over another, non-Europeans. Eurocentric Marxists are not racist, nor even prejudiced, although most of them believe that Europeans have always been the leaders in the forward march of history; that Europe is the fountainhead of civilization, the main source of innovative social change. For these scholars, the origins of capitalism are European. Capitalism’s further development consisted of an internally generated process of improvement within its classic homeland, the European world. The impact of capitalism on the rest of the world has been, on balance, progressive. Colonialism and (today) neocolonialism are not significant for capitalism, are rather a marginal process, a temporary aberration or diversion or side-show, not a vital need of the system as a whole, which evolves in response to internal laws of motion.

This point of view is basic diffusionism: autonomous development at the center, diffusion of development to the periphery. It is also tunnel history: a form of tunnel-vision which tries to explain the rise of capitalism, and the rise of Europe, by looking only at prior European facts, looking, as it were, down the European tunnel of time, ignoring the history of the world outside of Europe both as cause of change within Europe and as the site of historically efficacious change in its own right (Blaut, 1989). The Euro-Marxists — as I will call the socialists of this tradition — accept this view, and so they are diffusionists. To this extent, they agree with their mainstream colleagues about the rise of Europe, of capitalism, of modernization, of industrialization, of democracy: basically all of it is European.

Euro-Marxism went into eclipse during the period when liberation movements were decolonizing most of the world. In this period, the idea that the colonial or Third World has been, and is, unimportant in social development was not popular among Marxists. After the end of the Vietnam War, however, this point of view became again popular, and indeed became the Marxism most widely professed in European and American universities. Today we witness the curious phenomenon that Euro-Marxists are quoted with approval by anti-Marxist scholars, who can use them to show that “real” Marxist scholarship supports some of the same doctrines, theoretical and practical, that conservatives do.

Robert Brenner is one of the most widely known of Euro-Marxist historians. His influence stems from the fact that he supplied a crucial piece of doctrine at a crucial time. Just after the end of the Vietnam War, radical thought was strongly oriented toward the Third World and its struggles, strongly influenced by Third-World theorists like Cabral, Fanon, Guevara, James, Mao, and Nkrumah, and thus very much attracted to theories of social development which tend to displace Europe from its pivotal position as the center of social causation and social progress, past and present. Euro-Marxism of course disputed this, and Euro-Marxists, while strong in their support of present-day liberation struggles, nonetheless insisted as they always had done that the struggles and changes taking place in the center of the system, the European world, are the true determinants of world historical changes; socialism will rise in the heartlands of advanced European capitalism, or perhaps everywhere all at once; but socialism will certainly not arrive first in the backward, laggard, late-maturing Third World.1

9) Do you think Brenner’s work is part of what is criticized in Kurz’s collapse of modernity thesis? What is your view about this debate?

Sorry, haven’t followed that at all.

November 5, 2018

Round two in the Robert Brenner-Vivek Chibber fight

Filed under: Academia,journalism — louisproyect @ 9:22 pm

A magazine with an editorial board made up of Vivek Chibber sycophants?

Last June I posted about the feud between Robert Brenner and his one-time disciple Vivek Chibber that had erupted over Brenner’s dismissal as co-editor of Catalyst Magazine. At the time, 15 well-known leftist academics protested Chibber’s power grab in an open letter. Soon afterward, Bhaskar Sunkara, the publisher of Jacobin and Catalyst, defended the move as necessary since it seemed that Robert Brenner not been keeping up with his editorial duties. Since Brenner is a professor emeritus, I wonder what he had been up to that interfered with his job with all that time on his hands. Going to the race track like Charles Bukowski, another elderly Angeleno?

In any case, Sunkara generously decided to keep him on as an associate editor, alongside fellow associate editor Mike Davis. Brenner said nothing doing and Davis quit the magazine as well. Sunkara was just as magnanimous in victory as he was with the ingrates from the Tribune magazine in England, the latest addition to the Jacobin publishing empire, who also felt like they had been cast aside like Willy Loman in “Death of a Salesman”. When I was in a high school production of Miller’s classic, I played his boss Howard who gave him the bad news that he was no longer needed. Willy’s response: “You can’t eat the orange and throw the peel away- a man is not a piece of fruit!”

A new statement decrying Catalyst has just appeared but taking a different tack. The first one simply called for Brenner to have his old post back but this time the call is for a new journal of the left that will fulfill the original mandate of Catalyst:

We had hoped Catalyst would offer an arena where the complex strategic and theoretical issues arising from the strange new world of 21st century capitalism could be debated at length. The journal took important steps in this direction, yet still needed to expand its circle of editors and writers in order to involve a wider variety of anti-capitalist theoretical and political currents, as a well as a more diverse array of voices. Instead, it moved in the opposite direction, making it necessary to envision an alternative project.

Chibber forced the issue by explicitly refusing to work with Brenner unless he was granted full editorial authority over Catalyst’s direction and content. He has now created an editorial board of five to give the appearance of dispersing authority. But in view of the fact that three of the new members are his former students and one a close friend, it is evident that his purpose was only to tighten his stranglehold. We have been left with no choice but to see to the creation of a new publication ourselves.

So Chibber has named three of his former students and a close friend to rubber-stamp his decisions at Catalyst. Why would anybody expect anything different? Chibber is a product of the kind of authoritarian culture that prevails in academia. To succeed in academia, it helps to be a sycophant. Chibber was once the sycophant to Brenner and has now assembled his own bunch of yes men. You’d expect someone teaching at NYU like Chibber to follow in the norms that prevail there. Just look at one former student of the disgraced NYU professor Avital Ronell reported:

Last year I worked as a teaching assistant for Avital Ronell. I hadn’t sought out the appointment; I am a doctoral student in comparative literature at NYU, and that semester I was, per the handbook, guaranteed a teaching job. A few months before the position began, I received an email from one of my professors informing me that Ronell’s other teaching assistants were “all taking her class and working hard to familiarize themselves with her particular methodologies, texts, style, and so on.” I was “encouraged” to do the same. I was told this was “an important part of the process with Prof. Ronell.” After all, there were other students eager to replace me.

You get more or less the same thing from Andrew Marzoni, who told Washington Post readers that “Academia is a cult”  a few days ago:

Academics may cast themselves as hardened opponents of dominant norms and constituted power, but their rituals of entitlement and fiendish loyalty to established networks of caste and privilege undermine that critical pose. No one says it aloud, but every graduate student knows: This is the price you pay for a chance to enter the sanctum of the tenure track. Follow the leader, or prepare to teach high school.

Can you imagine what would happen to one of Chibber’s dissertation students who had discovered in the course of his research that Political Marxism was a load of crap and had decided to write a thesis that said so? Fucking Chibber wouldn’t allow me to use the 3 minutes allotted to me at an HM conference at NYU a few years ago to make such criticisms so why would he put up with a dissertation student, who unlike a computer programmer like me, needed his support to move ahead professionally.

Most of the 180 people who signed the statement are academics like Chibber. Maybe Catalyst will surge ahead despite them but I wouldn’t count on that given the broad spectrum of opposition embodied in the statement that includes a number of Political Marxism devotees like George Comninel, David McNally, Charles Post, Benno Teschke, and Michael Andrew Žmolek.

The statement outlines a number of pressing issues facing the left such as “How and whether movements can engage in electoral politics in ways that amplify (rather than weaken) working class power built in workplaces and the streets, and that avoid falling back into social democratic and other reformist frameworks, which have, under various guises, been complicit in administering austerity worldwide for decades.” As a new subscriber to Catalyst, I am wondering how long it will take for the magazine to defend the perspective Chibber put forward in Jacobin that called revolutionary struggles against capitalism as passé as a Nehru jacket. So far, there hasn’t been an indication of that.

What makes this ongoing drama so comical in my view is the utter refusal to understand that beneath all the leftist rhetoric, Sunkara is a businessman. He hires and fires at will just like any other businessman. Even Monthly Review, an institution that still breathes fire for all its faults, decided to can Ellen Meiksins Wood over some dispute that was never made public. All of these magazines, including New Left Review, Historical Materialism, Capitalism, Nature and Socialism, et al, are a curious hybrid of socialist politics and petty capitalist production.

Given the state of the left today, such journals fill a vacuum that was left by the demise of the “Leninist” parties of the 1960s. Except for the ISO in the USA, Solidarity, and the British SWP, I can’t think of a single magazine worth reading that has an editorial board responsible to the people who pay dues to a party organized along democratic centralist norms. Moreover, Against the Current, Solidarity’s magazine that includes Robert Brenner on its editorial board, can be read in full online, a feather in their cap. Frankly, this should be the standard for all magazines speaking in the name of socialism. Producing print publications necessitates chopping down trees, after all. And if you are going to sell print publications, at least make them affordable to the average worker.

The statement concludes with a preview of coming attractions:

The signers of this statement look forward to the launching of a new journal committed to openness, experimentation, and a spirit of wide-ranging debate that can seriously take up the questions of the transformed character of capitalism, as well as class power and strategy. It should go without saying that these must include vibrant debates about gender, race, and sexuality as distinctive features of capitalist class relations. Just such a project is currently in the works.

Well, good. I’ll take out a sub to that as well. I need something to fill up my days as a retiree. Between a run in Central Park in the afternoon and catching some movie sent to me by a publicist, there’s nothing that gets the digestive juices flowing more than some academic journal putting forward policy recommendations that reflect the vast distance between those who offer them and the actual lives of working people who will never pay attention to Jacobin or Catalyst even if it snuck up to them on the street and bit them on the ass.

June 25, 2018

Robert Brenner, Vivek Chibber, and the “organization question”

Filed under: Academia,Political Marxism — louisproyect @ 6:19 pm

Robert Brenner

Vivek Chibber

On Saturday, I received a communication that threw me for a loop:

Dear Friends,

Catalyst has stood out as a bright spot in a dark time for radical politics. I have served from the outset as co-editor of the journal along with Vivek Chibber. Nevertheless, Chibber, backed by publisher Bhaskar Sunkara, has seen fit to remove me from my position — without any warning, pretense of consultation, or plausible justification. A number of contributors to Catalyst are now stepping in to try to limit the damage that this coup will inflict. Their statement below represents the first step in the campaign.

Robert Brenner


Catalyst Contributors’ Protest Robert Brenner’s Dismissal from the Catalyst Co-editorship and Demand for his Reinstatement

We, the undersigned, are contributors to Catalyst, who have published or have been commissioned to publish articles in the journal. We are writing to protest the removal of Robert Brenner from his position as co-editor of the journal and to demand his reinstatement.

Co-editor Vivek Chibber, backed by publisher Bhaskar Sunkara, who is also publisher of Jacobin, made this move unilaterally, without warning, and without any pretense of consultation. Chibber has refused to discuss it with Brenner or to consider Brenner’s proposals for re-configuring Catalyst’s editorial procedures to meet Chibber’s concerns. Nor has Chibber been willing to talk with several of the signers of this statement who contacted him to work out a resolution.

Catalyst is produced by Jacobin, which has provided indispensable support for the journal across the board in terms of finance, production, design, and circulation, while granting its editors total autonomy in terms of its content, especially politics. Jacobin has established itself as one as of the left’s more important institutions. We want to make it abundantly clear that that this letter is in no way an attack on Jacobin and that we have no desire to harm it in any manner. Just the opposite.

So far, Catalyst has been a striking success. It has defined itself as a radical political journal devoted to further developing Marxist theory as an essential guide for political intervention. It has insisted that this development requires dialogue with non-Marxist radical traditions, as well as dissident strains of Marxism typically excluded from major socialist journals, and it has placed a high priority on seeing to it that they are represented in its pages.

Catalyst’s point of departure is that the fundamental goal of working class emancipation has not changed. But it recognizes that continuing transformations in capitalism, the working class, and society/culture have raised different problems than those posed in the last great period of mass mobilization of the 1960s and 1970s.

The journal has thus tried to nurture and publish new theoretical and empirical work to address these changes. Especially due to the globalized nature of the economy and its crisis, which has fueled austerity, neoliberalism, and a growing rightwing populism virtually everywhere, the working class and the left across the world now confront the same challenges simultaneously. Catalyst therefore sees building a coordinated, international political response as an immediate priority.

Catalyst has clearly struck a chord on the left, attracting a remarkable level of interest and rapid growth of subscriptions in a relatively short period of time. Robert Brenner, who co-edited the journal along with Vivek Chibber, was the journal’s founder and has been its central motivating force. Taking take nothing away from Chibber, who has made indispensable contributions in every respect. Brenner was uniquely responsible for enabling the journal to establish itself and flourish, contributing more than his share in every aspect of Catalyst’s work. Given the journal’s success, his dismissal from the position of co-editor makes no sense and is self-destructive for the journal. He must be reinstated.

Chibber, backed by Sunkara, has justified the change in editorship by claiming serious shortcomings in Brenner’s performance as co-editor. According to them, he did not shoulder his proper share of the editing, tended to be late with the editing he did do, and failed to find replacements when he failed to complete jobs on time, compelling Chibber to swoop in to save the day. The burden of Chibber’s case is that he essentially functioned as editor-in-chief, taking the main responsibility for the journal, and that Brenner assumed a lesser and subordinate role but refused to acknowledge it.

This claim has no validity. Quite the contrary. Brenner did a disproportionate share of the editing, both quantitatively and qualitatively, and did most of the substantial editing jobs, as can easily be demonstrated and directly documented. Many of us can personally attest to the high quality of Brenner’s editing, which resulted in making our articles significantly better.

Brenner forwarded to Sunkara and Chibber a systematic and comprehensive response, in which he refuted their arguments point by point, with accompanying evidence.(See Appendix on Distribution of Editing, with detailed documentation, in email accompanying this statement.) But they refused to reply, and, up to this point, have failed to counter any of his assertions. We can only conclude that their case against him was no more than window dressing to provide a cover for what they intended to do in any case.

Even if, for argument’s sake, Chibber had done much more work for the journal than Brenner, we would still have to condemn this takeover as unprincipled and unproductive. What the journal needs now to build most effectively on its success is to broaden its editorial capacity, not narrow it further. A larger editorial board reflecting a greater range of left political perspectives would surely enhance the journal.

It gives us no pleasure to write this letter, but we feel we have no choice. The left, yet again, is digging its own grave, undermining its own achievements. No sooner did Catalyst establish itself as a useful institution, than it was dismantled from within via a Chibber-initiated coup. Given that the expulsion is so plainly self-destructive, it is actually quite difficult to figure out what really motivated it. A single individual’s grab for power and recognition? An unstated political agenda?

Whatever was behind it, the move must be reversed. We therefore call on Sunkara, who as publisher has final authority, and Chibber to re-instate Brenner. We ourselves hereby announce that we will not contribute to Catalyst unless and until Brenner is brought back as co-editor. We call on all others to similarly refuse to cooperate with the journal, as authors or in other capacities, until Chibber and Sunkara make that happen. We encourage those who support this effort to let Chibber and Sunkara know your opinion by emailing them directly.


Mike Davis
Aijaz Ahmad
Sam Ashman
Sam Farber
Mike Goldfield
Costas Lapavitsas
CK Lee
Zach Levenson
Isidro Lopez
Kim Moody
Trevor Ngwane
Mike Parker
Charlie Post
Suzi Weissman
Pedro Paulo Zahluth Bastos

The link above directed one to Brenner’s page at Catalyst, where the above statement appeared. You can still get to the page but the statement is gone. All you get is a blank page. Nice.

Mike Davis minced no words:

The Millennial generation’s enthusiasm for ‘socialism,’ however vaguely defined, is truly the horizon of hope in this otherwise darkening age. But, frankly speaking, Marxists have done a poor job of arming radical passions with deep analyses of the world crisis, its class actors, and emergent social movements. Catalyst – published by Jacobin and co-edited by Bob Brenner and Vivek Chibber- was launched last year precisely to provide a quality forum for such debates and explorations. It has surpassed all expectations in attracting exciting articles from a rapidly-growing and diverse community of contributors.

So why kill this vital force in its crib? For reasons which he disdains to explain to contributors and readers, Chibber has ‘fired’ Brenner with the complicity of Jacobin’s Bhaskar Sunkara, who controls the means of production. Rumor from the New York side insinuates that Brenner failed to fulfill his share of editorial work, but as the erstwhile ‘associate editor’ I can assure you that this is completely untrue. If anything, Brenner assumed the lion’s share of responsibility for editing articles, commissioning pieces and giving direction to the journal. He also lent it an intellectual prestige and political seriousness which I very much doubt Chibber, even with Sunkara’s support, can sustain.

Brenner has made desperate and sincere efforts to save the collaboration but they have been dismissed with a wave of Sunkara’s hand. Should the rest of us, who so enthusiastically rallied to Catalyst, simply acquiesce and eat cake? Certainly not – the project – the collective property of the contributors, must go on. Please stay tuned.

Today, Sunkara defended himself and Chibber on FB, likely pissing off even more those who wrote the statement:

There has not been a “coup” of any kind at Catalyst. We did not kick Robert Brenner off the journal. Rather, we asked him to move to being “Founding and Associate Editor,” which would still give him substantial influence in the journal’s direction, but would enable us to overcome the problems we were facing owing to his difficulties in meeting deadlines and carrying through on his commitments.

From the very inception of the journal it had led to serious problems with production. We did, in fact, try different solutions to make it work and had extensive conversations with Bob and others about this. But by late 2017 it reached a breaking point, when the journal was delayed for two consecutive issues – the second one being two months. And at the end of it, the material he had committed to acquiring and editing was not delivered at all, or was of a quality unsuitable for publication. Problems like this were now not only paralyzing Catalyst but also started to bleed over into the production of other projects. No quarterly journal can survive delays of this length and this frequency.

This is why we decided to suggest a change in responsibilities. It would be highly irrational for us to have taken this step if Brenner had indeed been shouldering most of the responsibility, as he claims. Why would I agree to “fire” him if this was the case? We have a long history with Brenner and respect him greatly. But not everyone can do everything, and shouldering the day-to-day responsibilities of a journal turned out not to be one of his strengths. We hoped that as Founding & Associate Editor he would still be able to lend his considerable talents to the project, without being a bottleneck in its production. We regret that we had to take this step, but there seemed little choice.

The campaign he is waging is self-indulgent and destructive. He cannot force himself onto a journal, if the people there feel that they can’t rely on him. Obviously, it’s unfortunate, but the old arrangement just wasn’t working.

On the bright side, we’ve managed to finalize three issues over the last six months that are of really great quality and Catalyst is still growing at the rate of around 75-100 subscribers a week.

This is the last thing we’ll have to say on this matter – though if you have any questions you can contact Vivek or myself personally.

The controversy has generated comments from NYU professors where Chibber is based. Nikil Singh, who is a critic of the Brenner thesis—at least as applied to American slavery after the fashion of Charles Post, tweeted this:

It’s Ironic that Jacobin, which prides itself on being an engaged alternative to insular campus left politics has chosen as its in-house intellectual someone whose politics is defined by seminar room victories and the worst kinds of petty, internecine intra-academic warfare.

Not long after the tweet appeared, he deleted it. I suppose he didn’t want to antagonize Chibber or fellow Political Marxist don in the sociology department Jeff Goodwin, who defended him and Sunkara on FB:

This statement rings true to me. Vivek Chibber has been a leading proponent of the work of Robert Brenner, who was central to his very formation as a Marxist. Chibber recently worked hard to secure a teaching position for Brenner at NYU, an effort scuttled by people hostile to Marxism. I know Chibber extremely well — we have been colleagues for many years — and I have never heard him express the slightest ill will toward Brenner. Quite the contrary. The idea that Chibber would try to drive Brenner off the journal Catalyst, which the two of them co-founded, for some unspecified but nefarious purpose doesn’t make sense to me.

Of course, it was true that Chibber was a leading proponent of Brenner’s work, a disciple actually. He was also very tight with Charles Post, another Brennerite, who got on his wrong side after criticizing an idiotic article that Chibber wrote for Jacobin ruling out socialist revolution for the foreseeable future. For Chibber, the “strategic perspective has to downplay the centrality of a revolutionary rupture and navigate a more gradualist approach.” His article is standard issue social democratic reformism, hardly distinct from what you might read in Dissent magazine as I pointed out here: https://louisproyect.org/2018/02/26/vivek-chibbers-apolitical-marxism/

Many years ago, when I was being trained in the Trotskyist movement, James P. Cannon’s “Struggle for a Proletarian Party” was required reading. This was his account of the fight with Max Shachtman and James Burnham in 1939 over the class character of the USSR. The term “organization question” is referenced heavily throughout. For Cannon, this was the Achilles Heel of the “petty-bourgeois” opposition that harped on things like his top-heavy leadership (true, I’m sure) rather than the underlying theoretical questions. Cannon wrote:

What is the significance of the organisation question as such in a political party? Does it have an independent significance of its own on the same plane with political differences, or even standing above them? Very rarely. And then only transiently, for the political line breaks through and dominates the organisation question every time. This is one of the first ABC lessons of party politics, confirmed by all experience.

In his notorious document entitled “Science and Style”, Burnham writes: “The second central issue is the question of the regime in the Socialist Workers Party.” In reality the opposition tried from the beginning of the dispute to make the question of the “regime” the first issue; the basic cadres of the opposition were recruited precisely on this issue before the fundamental theoretical and political differences were fully revealed and developed.

This method of struggle is not new. The history of the revolutionary labour movement since the days of the First International is an uninterrupted chronicle of the attempts of petty-bourgeois groupings and tendencies of all kinds to recompense themselves for their theoretical and political weakness by furious attacks against the “organisational methods” of the Marxists. And under the heading of organisational methods, they included everything from the concept of revolutionary centralism up to routine matters of administration; and beyond that to the personal manners and methods of their principled opponents, which they invariably describe as “bad”, “harsh”, “tyrannical”, and—of course, of course, of course—“bureaucratic”. To this day any little group of anarchists will explain to you how the “authoritarian” Marx mistreated Bakunin.

As it happens, both Brenner and Chibber are susceptible to prioritizing the “organization question”. I say this because someone privy to the feud informed me:

As I understand it, Brenner gave a ten or so page critique of an article Chibber had for the magazine (Catalyst) the long and short of which was that Chibber’s piece was fatally flawed. All said in the best academese of course.

So political differences will likely be papered over in order turn this into a Human Resources grievance. Who really believes that Brenner and one of his best known and most obsequious disciples were butting heads over whether he was keeping up with his editorial duties?

I don’t.

My advice is to look for the next issue of the Catalyst to read Chibber’s article. You can only guess what Brenner thought of it but are not likely to see any critique since he is not really in the habit of duking it out publicly with the exception of his NLR article about the 1997 financial crisis. Of course, that was easier to take part in since it involved rather cut-and-dry questions of how to understand the declining rate of profit and other key indicators. Having it out with one of his erstwhile devotees is probably not something Brenner has a stomach for although the sharp-elbowed Chibber would probably like to bring it on.

What lessons can we draw from all this? Brenner became the high priest of Political Marxism forty-one years ago after attacking Paul Sweezy in the NLR as a neo-Smithian Marxist. Hinging on your agreement that capitalism originated in the British countryside because of historical contingencies that gave birth to tenant farming, you were qualified to become a Marxist mandarin. He concluded his lengthy article with this:

The necessary interdependence between the revolutionary movements at the ‘weakest link’ and in the metropolitan heartlands of capitalism was a central postulate in the strategic thinking of Lenin, Trotsky and the other leading revolutionaries in the last great period of international socialist revolution. With regard to this basic proposition, nothing has changed to this day.

Well, yeah. Who wouldn’t want to be lined up with the “leading revolutionaries in the last great period of international socialist revolution.” 1977. Those were the days. Within a couple of years, Jack Barnes would be speaking in the same terms about developing a flawless revolutionary movement except in his case it was abandoning Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution rather than upholding arcane arguments about tenant farming.

Oddly enough as the left breaks with this kind of dogmatism that leads to needless splits, it is the cult of Political Marxism that is now embroiled in the same kind of feuds we used to see in the heyday of Trotskyism and Maoism. In our days, the prize was to become a Leninist vanguard. Today, it is being an editor of a quasi-academic journal like Catalyst.



Statement by David McNally on FB:

On the Uproar about Catalyst

These are trying times for the emerging New Left. While the old is dying, to paraphrase Gramsci, the new cannot yet be born. Thus, alongside, intimations of hope and new waves of resistance, we encounter a proliferation of “morbid symptoms.” It is difficult not to worry that the uproar at Catalyst, the journal associated with Jacobin magazine, is another case in point.

The uproar seems to originate in efforts to demote or fire Bob Brenner from his position as co-editor of Catalyst, in which role he served with Vivek Chibber. I am not privy to the internal machinations involved in Brenner’s removal/demotion, but when Mike Davis (the journal’s associate editor) says the rationale used is “completely untrue” I am inclined to pay close attention. Even more significant is what this direction would seem to signal for the project of building a new radical left.

From the start, many of us recognized the need for a serious U.S.-based journal of rigorously socialist analysis that could speak to a new generation of leftward-moving radicals. At the same time, many of us also felt that the Catalyst project would need to be expanded and opened up—to activists and theorists leading struggles against racism and police violence, organizing for migrant justice, fighting for gender and LGBTQ liberation, doing grassroots organizing in union, campus, and environmental justice campaigns, and so on. Ultimately, a journal of a real socialist movement has to be rooted in and accountable to a network of thousands of contributors, subscribers, readers, and activists who identify with and support its political project. And it can only achieve this by demonstrating that, notwithstanding who owns it, in practice it is a collective project “owned” by the movement that sustains it.

After Catalyst was launched, I had the opportunity to raise these points with Bob Brenner, and found him to be highly supportive of this perspective. Instead, however, Catalyst is shrinking its editors (to one)—and losing, it would seem, its associate editor, Mike Davis—at the very time it should be moving in the opposite direction.

Nearly twenty years ago, Ellen Meiksins Wood was purged from her editorship at Monthly Review. Hundreds of us wrote to MR, imploring it to reverse this disastrous decision. We had been thrilled by the new voices and perspectives Ellen had brought to MR, and we asked the Board that owned the review to reinstate her as an editor. They refused. MR severely damaged its standing on the wider left, and has never again played the role that it did in the mid- to late-1990s when Ellen was on board. The decision to turn their backs on hundreds of us who contributed to and subscribed to its journal, and who were spokespersons for it within a broad left, irreparably damaged MR’s political project, while also associating it with purges and bureaucratic edicts.

One would like to think that those who own and control Catalyst have the capacity to step back, regroup, and rethink. When a large layer of a journal’s contributors denounces an organizational maneuver (as they have in the case of Brenner’s removal/demotion), the warning signs are blinking brightly. Catalyst may well continue in spite of such maneuvers, but it will be very difficult for it to fulfill its initial promise. One can only hope that morbid symptoms will not prevail. We have been down that road before, and it is not a good one.

June 28, 2013

Alan Knight: Brennerite Subalternist

Filed under: Mexico,transition debate — louisproyect @ 7:07 pm

Alan Knight

Although I picked up volume one (From the Beginning to the Spanish Conquest) of Alan Knight’s 3-volume history of Mexico mainly to get some background information on the Aztec ruins I visited there last month, I was intrigued to discover that he—like Adolfo Gilly, another leftist authority on Mexican history—had no problem tipping his hat to subaltern studies, supposedly something shunts you off into the vaporous world of postcolonialism and all the other trendy nonsense at odds with the muscular analysis Marxists learn in the weight rooms of dialectical materialism. If you’ve been listening to Vivek Chibber, you’ll know that subaltern studies is an entry level drug that might lead to more heavy stuff.

From Knight’s introduction:

I have tried to give a good deal of attention to ‘subalterns’ even though I have not used the term, at least not systematically. So I think I write ‘subaltern history’ just as I write prose, but I do not make an issue of it. At any rate, there is a fair amount of ‘bottom-up’ (popular) history in these pages, not least because ‘top down’ (elite) history cannot be understood in isolation; the two are dialectically related. It is true, however, and quite deliberate, that my ‘subalterns’ are seen more at work than at play, more in acts of protest than in moments of recreation, more on the streets and in the fields than in their own homes.

But as I skimmed through Knight’s book, I discovered—believe it or not—that his embrace of subaltern studies does not prevent him from also embracing the rock-ribbed “Political Marxism” analysis of the social system that existed in colonial Mexico, namely that there was no capitalism in colonial Mexico—not even in an embryonic form:

Nevertheless, the key determinants of Mexican development were to be found within the colony itself, and the character of colonial society was formed, above all, by the economic structures which underpinned it, by the labour systems which it engendered and by the forms whereby surplus was extracted from producers, be they miners or artisans, peasants, peons or slaves. Structures, systems, forms were all varied and mutating. We will examine and categorize them in due course. But the initial point to make is this: if such varied forms are to be given a single, encompassing title, it would be wrong to term them ‘capitalist’. Conversely, the only justified umbrella term – to be found within the conventional repertoire – would have to be ‘feudal’. Returning to the initial division of scholarly opinion, therefore, we prefer to conceptualize colonial Mexico as a feudal creation of a feudal Spain.

I suppose that we should be thankful to Knight for coming out and using the term feudal that I find much more useful than the “precapitalism” favored by most of the people who swear by their Robert Brenner. 1789 France? Precapitalist, of course. The United States in 1776? Same thing, silly.

As an old-fashioned kind of Marxist, I tend to go by what the classics stated, namely that feudalism rested on the production of use-values rather than commodities. Marx is fairly clear about this in the very first chapter of volume one of Capital:

A thing can be a use value, without having value. This is the case whenever its utility to man is not due to labour. Such are air, virgin soil, natural meadows, &c. A thing can be useful, and the product of human labour, without being a commodity. Whoever directly satisfies his wants with the produce of his own labour, creates, indeed, use values, but not commodities. In order to produce the latter, he must not only produce use values, but use values for others, social use values. (And not only for others, without more. The mediaeval peasant produced quit-rent-corn for his feudal lord and tithe-corn for his parson. But neither the quit-rent-corn nor the tithe-corn became commodities by reason of the fact that they had been produced for others. To become a commodity a product must be transferred to another, whom it will serve as a use value, by means of an exchange.)

Putting it in more succinct terms, the feudal estate involved peasants turning over a portion of their product to the lord. If they grew crops, the knights would eat them, etc. Right? I guess others can use the term feudal as they like. It is a free country after all.

The other thing worth mentioning is that feudalism was a fetter on production. I always refer back to Michael Perelman’s description of peasant life before there was capitalism, from his “Invention of Capitalism”:

Although their standard of living may not have been particularly lavish, the people of precapitalistic northern Europe, like most traditional people, enjoyed a great deal of free time. The common people maintained innumerable religious holidays that punctuated the tempo of work. Joan Thirsk estimated that in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, about one-third of the working days, including Sundays, were spent in leisure. Karl Kautsky offered a much more extravagant estimate that 204 annual holidays were celebrated in medieval Lower Bavaria.

Any resemblance between this state of affairs and colonial Mexico is purely coincidental. I tend to agree with John Cockcroft’s take in chapter one of “Mexico”, a world in which I doubt that Indians enjoyed a “great deal of free time”:

Merchant capital in New Spain, as in Europe, was a key agent in the development of capitalist institutions: if mining was the economic motor, merchant capital was the grease. By 1604 it had helped establish some 25 textile mills (obrajes) in Mexico City alone, plus many others in Cuernavaca, Puebla, Texcoco, Tlaxcala, and Queretero. One of the largest employed 120 workers, while others employed from 50 to 100—sizable figures for any manufacturing enterprise at the time. Producing mainly cotton and wool textiles (silk manufacture prospered for a century but gave way to competition from the Orient), the obrajes concentrated laborers in sweat-shop conditions. Some obrajes used the “putting out” system, permitting nearby Indian villagers to do the initial spinning. Trapiches (one or two loom producers) were common and, though partly competitive with obrajes, were generally subordinated to them in the network of marketing, credits, and supplies. Some weavers and spinners were able to continue to work at home, but the tendency in most places was toward the concentration of production under one roof (manufacture) and toward centralized control by obraje owners or the merchant bourgeoisie, often one and the same.

Odd to see that there were sweatshops in Mexico City in 1604. Not much has changed.

Of course, Political Marxists deny that Merchant Capital has anything to do with capitalism. For them, it is a “precapitalist” social formation that amounts to buying cheap and selling dear, like the Indians selling Manhattan for some beads.

Long before I read Cockcroft, I had come around to the same analysis. Referring to Perelman’s description of feudal life, I wrote:

Did any such wasteful practices exist in the New World? Were Spanish lords this lenient with their indigenous subjects? Complicating these sorts of questions is the fact that the Spanish used a feudal lexicon, referring to the ‘encomienda’ or ‘repartamiento’ (kinds of vassalage or fiefdom respectively) in the same manner as in earlier periods.

However, the underlying class relations that typified Spanish colonial society had nothing in common with the Old World feudalism as described by Perelman. To dramatize the difference, we need only to look at the ‘mita,’ a corvee-like form of labor servitude that replaced the ‘encomienda.’ The ‘mita’ was based on the Incan ‘m’ita,’ a form of labor servitude that existed in the Incan empire, itself a legitimately feudal system with its own characteristics. In “Peru’s Indian Peoples and the Challenge of Spanish Conquest: Huamanga to 1640,” Steve Stern is careful to retain two different spellings just to prevent confusion. He writes, “Traditionally, native society supplemented joint labor by the community as a whole with a rotation system. Peasants served a m’ita, or turn, out of the community’s total labors. The rotations allowed communities and ayllus to distribute collective labor needs or obligations in accordance with local reciprocities, which called for equal contributions of labor-time by the community’s kindreds.”3

The Spanish ‘mita’ had virtually nothing in common with this. When a Spanish lord dragooned an Indian into the mine or ‘obraje’ (early sweatshop, particularly for textile manufacturing), he set production quotas at a level beyond what a ‘mitayo’ worker could produce through his own labor. In order to meet them, the Indian would have to bring his children into the mine or ‘obraje’ to work, just as is the case in places like Bangladesh today. In extreme cases, the working conditions in New Spain (Mexico), Peru and Bolivia anticipated Nazi slave labor camps of the twentieth century. Operating ostensibly on the basis of feudal social institutions, sixteenth and seventeenth century Spanish colonies were actually in the process of removing all of the “feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations” that Marx referred to in the Communist Manifesto.

Finally, it is worth pointing out that Marx had an entirely different take on Merchant Capital, one that is much closer to my own reading and that of Cockcroft’s. This is from chapter twenty of volume three of Capital, “Historical Facts about Merchant’s Capital”:

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.

Maybe the Political Marxists need to write a book on how Marx was so badly mistaken to believe that merchant capital contributed materially toward destroying the feudal fetters on production. I am sure that it would go over big at some academic conference, even if it is totally bogus.

October 12, 2008

Robert Brenner versus the dependency theorists

Filed under: economics,imperialism/globalization,Introduction to Marxism class — louisproyect @ 6:57 pm

[This was originally posted to the Introduction to Marxism mailing list.]

Ten years after Monthly Review published André Gunder Frank’s “Capitalism and Underdevelopment in Latin America”, Robert Brenner wrote an article in the July-August 1977 New Left Review that took aim at the “dependency school” associated with Paul Sweezy, Paul Baran, Samir Amin and André Gunder Frank. All of these authors were readily identifiable with Monthly Review, but Brenner attacked Immanuel Wallerstein as well, who was seen much more as a “world systems” theorist than a dependency theorist. Whatever differences existed between the dependency and world systems theories, they were united in their belief that capitalism was responsible for the development of underdevelopment in the 3rd world.

The proximate cause of Brenner’s article was to refute Paul Sweezy’s analysis of the origins of capitalism. In the 1950s, Sweezy debated Maurice Dobb in the pages of Science and Society over the “transition to capitalism question”. In “Studies in the Development of Capitalism” Dobb put forward the argument that capitalism developed through a combination of changes in the British countryside (enclosure acts, etc.) and colonialism in the New World. Strongly influenced by the historian Henri Pirenne, Sweezy took the position that a revival of trade with Asia was primarily responsible. Sweezy’s analysis influenced A.G. Frank as will be evident in Brenner’s polemics below.

Brenner adopted Dobb’s basic thesis but dropped the part about colonialism. Indeed, he was so emphatic about capitalism originating in the British countryside that he was positively hostile to any analysis that looked to “primitive accumulation” in the New World. In other words, he found the analysis of Baran and Frank that I have posted here over the past month or so to be outside of Marxism insofar as they supposedly put the struggle between nations over that of the class struggle. Basically, Brenner was arguing from the standpoint of classical Marxism against “Third Worldist” deviations-at least that is the way he saw it.

Brenner’s article is very long (70 pages) so I will only forward and comment on the sections that are relevant to the debate over dependency theory. (Unfortunately the article is only accessible to NLR subscribers so I really can’t supply a direct link.) My comments will appear in italics and will be enclosed by brackets. The “transition question” is of course very crucial to Marxist theory but will probably return to it later on after we have worked through the debates in Marxism over imperialism.

* * * *

New Left Review I/104, July-August 1977
Robert Brenner
The Origins of Capitalist Development: A Critique of Neo-Smithian Marxism


[André Gunder] Frank and Capitalist Development

It has thus been maintained that the very same mechanisms which set off underdevelopment in the ‘periphery’ are prerequisite to capital accumulation in the ‘core’. Capitalist development cannot take place in the core unless underdevelopment is developed in the periphery, because the very mechanisms which determine underdevelopment are required for capitalist accumulation. In the words of André Gunder Frank, ‘economic development and underdevelopment are the opposite faces of the same coin’. As Frank goes on to explain: ‘Both [development and underdevelopment] are the necessary result and contemporary manifestation of internal contradictions in the world capitalist system . . . economic development and underdevelopment are relational and qualitative, in that each is actually different from, yet caused by its relations with, the other. Yet development and underdevelopment are the same in that they are the product of a single, but dialectically contradictory, economic structure and process of capitalism. Thus they cannot be viewed as the product of supposedly different economic structures or systems . . . One and the same historical process of the expansion and development of capitalism throughout the world has simultaneously generated-and continues to generate-both economic development and structural underdevelopment.’ [3] Specifically: ‘The metropolis expropriates economic surplus from its satellites and appropriates it for its own economic development. The satellites remain underdeveloped for lack of access to their own surplus and as a consequence of the same polarization and exploitative contradictions which the metropolis introduces and maintains in the satellite’s domestic structure.’ [4]

Obviously such a view of underdevelopment carries with it a view of development, the unitary process which ostensibly brought about both. Frank’s primary focus has in fact been on the roots of underdevelopment, so it has not been essential for him to go into great detail concerning the origins and structure of capitalist development itself. Yet, to clarify his approach, it was necessary to lay out the mainsprings of capitalist development, as well as underdevelopment; accordingly, Frank did not neglect to do this, at least in broad outline. The roots of capitalist evolution, he said, were to be found in the rise of a world ‘commercial network’, developing into a ‘mercantile capitalist system’. Thus ‘a commercial network spread out from Italian cities such as Venice and later Iberian and Northwestern European towns to incorporate the Mediterranean world and sub-Saharan Africa and the adjacent Atlantic Islands in the fifteenth century . . . until the entire face of the globe had been incorporated into a single organic mercantilist or mercantile capitalist, and later also industrial and financial, system, whose metropolitan centre developed in Western Europe and then in North America and whose peripheral satellites underdeveloped on all the remaining continents.’ [5] With the rise of this system, there was ‘created a whole series of metropolis-satellite relationships, interlinked as in the surplus appropriation chain noted above’. As the ‘core’ end of the chain developed, the ‘peripheral’ end simultaneously underdeveloped.

Frank did not go much further than this in filling out his view of capitalism as a whole, its origins and development. But he was unambiguous in locating the dynamic of capitalist expansion in the rise of a world commercial network, while specifying the roots of both growth and backwardness in the ‘surplus appropriation chain’ which emerged in the expansionary process: [6] surplus appropriation by the core from the periphery, and the organization of the satellite’s internal mode of production to serve the needs of the metropolis. In this way, Frank set the stage for ceasing to locate the dynamic of capitalist development in a self-expanding process of capital accumulation by way of innovation in the core itself. Thus, for Frank, the accumulation of capital in the core depends, on the one hand, upon a process of original surplus creation in the periphery and surplus transfer to the core and, on the other hand, upon the imposition of a raw-material-producing, export-dependent economy upon the periphery to fit the productive and consumptive requirements of the core.

It has been left for Immanuel Wallerstein to carry to its logical conclusion the system outlined by Frank. Just as Frank and others have sought to find the sources of underdevelopment in the periphery in its relationship with the core, Wallerstein has sought to discover the roots of development in the core in its relationship with the periphery. Indeed, in his magisterial work, The Origins of the Modern World System, [7] Wallerstein attempts nothing less than to establish the origins of capitalist development and underdevelopment and to locate the mainsprings of their subsequent evolutions.

Wallerstein’s System

Wallerstein aims to systematize the elements of the preliminary sketch put forward in Frank’s work. His focus is on what he terms the ‘world economy’, defined negatively by contrast with the preceding universal ‘world empires’. So the world empires, which ended up by dominating all economies prior to the modern one, prevented economic development through the effects of their overarching bureaucracies, which absorbed masses of economic surplus and prevented its accumulation in the form of productive investments. In this context, Wallerstein declares that the essential condition for modern economic development was the collapse of world empire, and the prevention of the emergence of any new one from the sixteenth century until the present. Wallerstein can argue in this way because of what he sees to be the immanent developmental dynamic of unfettered world trade. Left to develop on its own, that is without the suffocating impact of the world empires, developing commerce will bring with it an ever more efficient organization of production through ever increasing regional specialization-in particular, through allowing for a more effective distribution by region of what Wallerstein terms systems of ‘labour control’ in relation to the world’s regional distribution of natural resources and population. The trade-induced world division of labour will, in turn, give rise to an international structure of unequally powerful nation states: a structure which, through maintaining and consolidating the world division of labour, determines an accelerated process of accumulation in certain regions (the core), while enforcing a cycle of backwardness in others (the periphery). [8]

Without, for the moment, further attempting to clarify Wallerstein’s argument, it can be clearly seen that his master conceptions of world economy and world empire were developed to distinguish the modern economy, which can and does experience systematic economic development, from the pre-capitalist economies (called world empires), which were capable only of redistributing a relatively inflexible product, because they could expand production only within definite limits. Such a distinction is both correct and necessary. For capitalism differs from all pre-capitalist modes of production in its systematic tendency to unprecedented, though neither continuous nor unlimited, economic development-in particular through the expansion of what might be called (after Marx’s terminology) relative as opposed to absolute surplus labour. That is, under capitalism, surplus is systematically achieved for the first time through increases of labour productivity, leading to the cheapening of goods and a greater total output from a given labour force (with a given working day, intensity of labour and real wage). This makes it possible for the capitalist class to increase its surplus, without necessarily having to resort to methods of increasing absolute surplus labour which dominated pre-capitalist modes-i.e. the extension of the working day, the intensification of work, and the decrease in the standard of living of the labour force. [9]


Wallerstein does not, in the last analysis, take into account the development of the forces of production through a process of accumulation by means of innovation (‘accumulation of capital on an extended scale’), in part because to do so would undermine his notion of the essential role of the underdevelopment of the periphery in contributing to the development of the core, through surplus transfer to underwrite accumulation there. More directly, Wallerstein cannot-and in fact does not-account for the systematic production of relative surplus product, because he mislocates the mechanism behind accumulation via innovation in ‘production for profit on the market’: ‘The essential feature of a capitalist world economy . . . is production for sale in a market in which the object is to realise the maximum profit. In such a system, production is constantly expanded as long as further production is profitable, and men constantly innovate new ways of producing things that expand their profit margin.’ (rfd, p. 398.)

Now, there is no doubt that capitalism is a system in which production for a profit via exchange predominates. But does the opposite hold true? Does the appearance of widespread production ‘for profit in the market’ signal the existence of capitalism, and more particularly a system in which, as a characteristic feature, ‘production is constantly expanded and men constantly innovate new ways of producing’. Certainly not, because production for exchange is perfectly compatible with a system in which it is either unnecessary or impossible, or both, to reinvest in expanded, improved production in order to ‘profit’. Indeed, we shall argue that this is the norm in pre-capitalist societies. For in such societies the social relations of production in large part confine the realization of surplus labour to the methods of extending absolute labour. The increase of relative surplus labour cannot become a systematic feature of such modes of production.

[The above paragraph is crucial to understanding the difference between Frank and Wallerstein on one side and Brenner on the other. For Brenner, the production of relative surplus value over and against absolute surplus value is a sine qua non for capitalism. The earliest stage of capitalism is marked by the production of absolute surplus value through 11 hour work days using very simple machinery. But with increased competition, capitalism is forced to rationalize production and improve labor productivity through technological innovation. In other words, the industrial revolution. Implicit in this analysis is the failure of the plantation and mining systems in the colonial world to live up to Brenner’s litmus test. To illustrate, Belgium was deeply involved in the production of relative surplus value when its working class produced automobile tires in the 1920s but in the Congo, when workers were dragooned into tapping rubber using the simplest of tools, there was only the production of absolute surplus value. In my view, this distinction between absolute and relative surplus value is not very useful in understanding colonial capitalism.]

[Brenner now turns to a lengthy discussion of his differences with Sweezy and Wallerstein over the transition from feudalism to capitalism that I am skipping over. Suffice it to say that his critique revolves around the idea that the transfer of wealth-including gold, silver, fur, etc.-from the New World to Europe could not account for the rise of capitalism. He makes this even more explicit when he turns once again to André Gunder Frank.]

Frank and his Critics

From this perspective, it is impossible to accept Frank’s view, adopted by Wallerstein, that the capitalist ‘development of underdevelopment’ in the regions colonized by Europeans from the sixteenth century-especially the Caribbean, South America and Africa, as well as the southern part of North America-is comprehensible as a direct result of the incorporation of these regions within the world market, their ‘subordination’ to the system of capital accumulation on a world scale. Frank originally explained this rise of underdevelopment largely in terms of the transfer of surplus from periphery to core, and the export-dependent role assigned to the periphery in the world division of labour. [83] These mechanisms clearly capture important aspects of the functioning reality of underdevelopment. But they explain little, for, as the more searching critics of Frank’s earlier formulations pointed out, they themselves need to be explained. In particular, it was stated, they needed to be rooted in the class and productive structures of the periphery. [84]

However, in more recent work, Frank has attempted to respond to his critics specifically by integrating an analysis of internal class structure into his theory of underdevelopment. He argues that ‘underdevelopment is the result of exploitation of the colonial and class structure based on ultraexploitation; development was achieved where this structure of underdevelopment was not established because it was impossible to establish. All other factors are secondary or derive from the basic question of the type of exploitation.’ [85] By this reasoning, it was the relations of exploitation which came to dominate Latin American and Caribbean production for export, especially slavery and other sorts of enforced-labour systems, which determined underdevelopment. Thus, ‘The colonial and class structure is the product of the introduction into Latin America of an ultraexploitative export economy, dependent on the metropolis, which restricted the internal market and created the economic interests of the lumpen bourgeoisie (producers and exporters of raw materials). These interests in turn generated a policy of under- or lumpen development for the economy as a whole.’ [86] Perhaps we could paraphrase Frank’s argument in the following terms: on the one hand, growing production for the market stimulated by world demand determined increasing pressure to extract greater surplus; on the other hand, the establishment of class systems of production based on the direct use of force determined that this increasing output would be achieved through the extension of absolute, rather than relative, surplus labour-with familiar results.

[The final paragraphs of Brenner’s article get to the political differences between “dependency theory” and what he offers up as a return to a class-based Marxism.]


Frank’s original formulations aimed to destroy the suffocating orthodoxies of Marxist evolutionary stage theory upon which the Communist Parties’ political strategies of ‘popular front’ and ‘bourgeois democratic revolution’ had been predicated. [107] Frank rightly stressed that the expansion of capitalism through trade and investment did not automatically bring with it the capitalist economic development that the Marx of the Manifesto had predicted. In the course of the growth of the world market, Chinese Walls to the advance of the productive forces might be erected as well as battered down. When such ‘development of underdevelopment’ occurred, Frank pointed out, the ‘national bourgeoisie’ acquired an interest not in revolution for development, but in supporting precisely the class system of production and surplus extraction which fettered economic advance. In particular, the merchants of the periphery backed the established order, for they depended for their profits on the mining and plantation enterprises controlled by the ‘reactionaries’, as well as the industrial production of the imperialists in the metropolis. But even the industrial capitalists of the periphery offered no challenge to the established structure-partly as a consequence of their involvement in luxury production serving the upper classes-while they merged with the ‘neo-feudalists’ through family connections and state office. As Frank asserted, to expect under these circumstances that capitalist penetration would develop the country was, by and large, wishful thinking. To count on the bourgeoisie for a significant role in an anti-feudal, anti-imperialist revolution was to encourage a dangerous utopia.

Yet, the failure of Frank and the whole tradition of which he is a part-including Sweezy and Wallerstein among others-to transcend the economic determinist framework of their adversaries, rather than merely turn it upside down, opens the way in turn for the adoption of similarly ill-founded political perspectives. Where the old orthodoxy claimed that the bourgeoisie must oppose the neo-feudalists, Frank said the neo-feudalists were capitalists. Where the old orthodoxy saw development as depending on bourgeois penetration, Frank argued that capitalist development in the core depended upon the development of underdevelopment in the periphery. At every point, therefore, Frank-and his co-thinkers such as Wallerstein-followed their adversaries in locating the sources of both development and underdevelopment in an abstract process of capitalist expansion; and like them, failed to specify the particular, historically developed class structures through which these processes actually worked themselves out and through which their fundamental character was actually determined. As a result, they failed to focus centrally on the productivity of labour as the essence and key to economic development. They did not state the degree to which the latter was, in turn, centrally bound up with historically specific class structures of production and surplus extraction, themselves the product of determinations beyond the market. Hence, they did not see the degree to which patterns of development or underdevelopment for an entire epoch might hinge upon the outcome of specific processes of class formation, of class struggle. The consequence is that Frank’s analysis can be used to support political conclusions he would certainly himself oppose.

Thus so long as incorporation into the world market/world division of labour is seen automatically to breed underdevelopment, the logical antidote to capitalist underdevelopment is not socialism, but autarky. So long as capitalism develops merely through squeezing dry the ‘third world’, the primary opponents must be core versus periphery, the cities versus the countryside-not the international proletariat, in alliance with the oppressed people of all countries, versus the bourgeoisie. In fact, the danger here is double-edged: on the one hand, a new opening to the ‘national bourgeoisie’; on the other hand, a false strategy for anti-capitalist revolution.

[The above paragraph is really the coup de grace that Brenner intended to deliver to Monthly Review Marxism. Although he does not spell it out exactly, the words “cities versus the countryside” are a veiled reference to Maoism. It is true that Monthly Review identified itself as Maoist to some degree and could have been challenged on that basis, but it is puzzling that Brenner did not make that line of attack clearer. Furthermore, the idea of adapting to the ‘national bourgeoisie’ is hardly supported by André Gunder Frank’s career. While his Marxism, and particularly his evolution into a “long wave” theorist, often left something to be desired, he was never one to stump for a progressive 3rd world bourgeoisie.]

True, bourgeois revolutions are not on the agenda. International capitalists, local capitalists and neo-feudalists alike have remained, by and large, interested in and supportive of the class structures of underdevelopment. Nevertheless, these structures have kept significant masses of use value in the form of labour power and natural resources from the field of capital accumulation. Until recently, of course, the class interests behind ‘industrialization via import substitution’ have not, as a rule, been strong enough to force the class structural shifts that would open the way to profitable investment in development. However, with contracting profit opportunities in the advanced industrial countries and the consequent drive for new markets and cheap labour power, potentially available in the underdeveloped world, such interests may now receive significant strength from unexpected quarters. Should a dynamic of ‘development’ be set in motion as a consequence-and that is far from certain-it could hardly be expected to bring much improvement to the working population of the underdeveloped areas, for its very raison d’être would be low wages and a politically repressed labour force. But this would in no way rule out its being accomplished under a banner of anti-dependency, national development and anti-imperialism.

[What would be Brenner be alluding to above? He is warning against an “anti-dependency” government that represses its own working class using “anti-imperialist” rhetoric. Possibly the most striking example of this tendency in the past 30 years has been the Islamic Republic of Iran. Once again, it must be underlined that Monthly Review has never adapted to the Islamic Republic notwithstanding the occasional strange posting on MRZine that Monthly Review editors have tolerated for reasons not worth going into here.]

Most directly, of course, the notion of the ‘development of underdevelopment’ opens the way to third-worldist ideology. From the conclusion that development occurred only in the absence of links with accumulating capitalism in the metropolis, it can be only a short step to the strategy of semi-autarkic socialist development. Then the utopia of socialism in one country replaces that of the bourgeois revolution-one moreover, which is buttressed by the assertion that the revolution against capitalism can come only from the periphery, since the proletariat of the core has been largely bought off as a consequence of the transfer of surplus from the periphery to the core. Such a perspective must tend to minimize the degree to which any significant national development of the productive forces depends today upon a close connection with the international division of labour (although such economic advance is not, of course, determined by such a connection). It must, consequently, tend to overlook the pressures to external political compromise and internal political degeneration bound up with that involvement in-and dependence upon-the capitalist world market which is necessary for development. Such pressures are indeed present from the start, due to the requirement to extract surpluses for development, in the absence of advanced means of production, through the methods of increasing absolute surplus labour.

[The warnings about ‘third-worldist’ ideology have to be understood in the context of the reaction against the excesses of the 1960s. Many socialists woke up with a hangover when they discovered that chants of “Ho, Ho Ho Chi Minh” had fallen on deaf ears in the U.S. and other industrialized countries. Basically, Brenner wanted to reorient the movement back to the metropolitan centers where the working class was powerful enough and advanced enough to “overlook the pressures to external political compromise and internal political degeneration”, but unfortunately not at all interested in socialist revolution. Not much has changed since Brenner wrote this article. The 3rd world continues to supply the shock troops against imperialism and the revolutionary process in Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Peru would seem to have a lot more in common with André Gunder Frank’s analysis than Robert Brenner’s, particularly when you keep in mind that Frank was calling attention back in 1967 to Mariategui, a relatively obscure figure in Marxism at that time but one destined to influence the Latin American revolution of the 21st century.]

On the other hand, this perspective must also minimize the extent to which capitalism’s post-war success in developing the productive forces specific to the metropolis provided the material basis for (though it did not determine) the decline of radical working-class movements and consciousness in the post-war period. It must consequently minimize the potentialities opened up by the current economic impasse of capitalism for working-class political action in the advanced industrial countries. Most crucially, perhaps, this perspective must tend to play down the degree to which the concrete inter-relationships, however tenuous and partial, recently forged by the rising revolutionary movements of the working class and oppressed peoples in Portugal and Southern Africa may be taken to mark a break-to foreshadow the rebirth of international solidarity. The necessary interdependence between the revolutionary movements at the ‘weakest link’ and in the metropolitan heartlands of capitalism was a central postulate in the strategic thinking of Lenin, Trotsky and the other leading revolutionaries in the last great period of international socialist revolution. With regard to this basic proposition, nothing has changed to this day.

[The reference to Portugal and Southern Africa clearly was intended to bolster the idea that the classical model of working class revolution was returning once again. However, at the very time that Brenner was writing these words, the Sandinista revolution was rapidly gathering strength and moving toward final victory. The class forces of that revolution involved small ranchers and the informal economy, hardly the traditional bastions of proletarian revolution. Perhaps today’s financial crisis will spur the world working class into action once again but it would be a mistake to dismiss social forces that have not been vetted by classical Marxism. History does move in wayward directions after all.]

December 18, 2007

Gindin, Brenner and capitalist catastrophe

Filed under: economics — louisproyect @ 7:11 pm

On the horizon?

On December 7th, there was an interesting debate on the current economic situation between Sam Gindin and Robert Brenner at the Brecht Forum in New York that can be seen here.

Gindin is associated with a current within Marxism that tends to be skeptical of claims that the capitalist system is passing through some intractable crisis. In his presentation, he characterized the post-WWII boom as an exception to the general rule, one in which the capitalist system is marked by instability, stagnation and growing income differentiation, etc. Measured by the criterion of the late 19th century, today’s world is fairly consistent with the long term tendencies of the capitalist system. To drive his point home, Gindin quoted Alan Greenspan about dire problems facing the American economy and then identified the quote as dating from 1980.

Brenner is Gindin’s polar opposite. Since 1998, when he wrote a book length article in the New Left Review titled “The Economics of Global Turbulence,” Brenner has tended to look for signs of a new worldwide depression in the style of 1929. (You can read an abbreviated version of this in Against the Current magazine.) A more recent example of his thinking can be found in a Guardian blog titled “That hissing? It’s the sound of bubblenomics deflating,” which concluded:

Yet there is reason to doubt the efficacy of the Fed’s reduced rates. How can consumers again rise to the occasion, when declining house prices increase saving, not spending? The consumption-led boom seems set to peter out. Will not the fall in the dollar that is bound to accompany the Fed’s move force up longer-term rates, threatening to drive down asset prices and curtail real growth? How can lower borrowing costs reduce the massive mortgage security losses that cannot but result from the tide of defaults that has only just begun? There is little doubt that rough times are ahead: the expansion may end with both a whimper and a bang.

In addition to the Brecht Forum video, you can sample Gindin’s latest views in a MRZine article titled “Is the Big Ship America Sinking? Contradictions and Openings.” In contrast to Brenner, Gindin finds continuing strength in the American economy:

The U.S. is losing manufacturing jobs at an alarming rate: the number of manufacturing jobs in the U.S. is today below where it was fifty years ago, and as a share of total jobs, manufacturing employment is today less than half of what it was then. Yet because of the high productivity of the remaining workers, manufacturing production is not disappearing: the volume of manufactured goods produced in the U.S. has increased six-fold since 1950. Remarkably, given the decline in manufacturing jobs, manufacturing production has maintained its share of the American economy’s real (after adjustments for price inflation) output. The U.S. continues to generate half the research and development done amongst the G-7 leading capitalist economies. According to the U.S. National Science Foundation, the American share of the global production of high-tech goods, in spite of all the outsourcing and the imports, actually increased from 25% a quarter of a century ago to 42% in 2003. It is certainly true that high-tech production in China and South Korea has increased much faster, but they started from a low base (about 1% in each country) and their global share has risen to what is still a fraction of the U.S. levels, at only 9% and 4% respectively.

Marxists are pretty evenly divided over these questions. Lining up with Gindin are Doug Henwood, Leo Panitch (Gindin’s writing partner and co-editor of Socialist Register, where many articles on this subject can be found) and Peter Gowan. Although they differ sharply on various other questions and even over the exact nature of the emerging economic crisis, Patrick Bond, David Harvey and Immanuel Wallerstein tend to line up with Brenner.

For obvious reasons, the organized Marxist-Leninist left goes even further than Brenner in seeing looming 1929’s on the horizon. The most intelligent defense of the “catastrophist” outlook can be found in the “In Defense of Marxism” website, associated with the Grant-Woods Trotskyist current. If you go to the economy subsection, you will find many “doom and gloom” articles authored by Michael Roberts. The latest, titled “Credit Crunch,” has this teaser:

Everywhere the cry is: credit crunch! You can smell the sweat on the brows of bankers as their necks are squeezed by the tightening credit noose. In all the offices of the great investment banks of Wall Street, the City of London and gnomes of Zurich, you can hear the hissing sound of the global financial bubble bursting and deflating.

This year my wife completed a PhD dissertation on whether three financial crises (the most recent involved the LTCM debacle) supported the hypothesis that the U.S. was in decline. In general agreement with the Gindin perspective, she demonstrated how each crisis was exploited by the American bourgeoisie to further its own interests globally, even though the resolution always involved new contradictions and dangers.

I confess to being wishy-washy on the topic. Perhaps I became immunized to the kind of hard-core catastrophist analysis associated with the Marxist-Leninist vanguard parties after hearing leaders of the American SWP describe the late 1970s in cataclysmic terms. For nearly the past 30 years, they have been predicting a global depression in the 1929 style. There is a certain logic to this. If you are trying to hold together an isolated and shrinking sect, hope takes the form of such predictions. While the rest of American society has fond hopes of prosperity, the far reaches of the Marxist left go to sleep at night fantasizing about Hoovervilles.


James P. Cannon and Felix Morrow: the Brenner and Gindin of their time?

It should be mentioned that some American SWP’ers have refused to accept the “catastrophist” recipes of the leadership in the past. In the last year of WWII, a debate broke out between party leader James P. Cannon and Felix Morrow, best known for his “Civil War in Spain.” Cannon spoke for the majority of Trotskyists when he proposed that American capitalism had begun an “absolute decline” in 1929 and that postwar Europe would face nothing but “dismemberment and degradation, and the propping up of the capitalist system with American bayonets”.

Morrow had a different take on Europe’s future. Anticipating the Marshall Plan and the eventual recovery, he wrote that the U.S. would invest in Europe so as to forestall the very revolution that Cannon predicted:

Trotsky never said that America would not sell or lend heavy machinery to the European countries. It was not in this way that he thought of America as ruining Europe. He knew very well that it was with the aid of America’s 1924-1928 loans that German industry was reconstructed and that this could happen again after the next war, if not in Germany itself, then certainly in other countries of Europe. Simultaneously, however, with its loans to Germany, US imperialism was spreading everywhere so that when German industry was reconstructed it found its possible markets preempted by American and other imperialisms. America was aiming to put Europe “on rations,” said Trotsky, in the sphere of world markets.

According to wikipedia, Morrow was expelled from the SWP in 1946 for “unauthorised collaboration” with Shachtman’s Workers Party, whatever that meant. Based on my experiences with the organizational norms of the SWP, this might have meant that he shared blintzes with Shachtman.

Despite my skepticism about 1929’s looming on the horizon, I do not think that the prospects for American capitalism are very good. In fact, when Peter Camejo wrote an article in Against the Current taking exception to Brenner (not online unfortunately) in ways that I found disturbingly bullish, I wrote a response that was influenced by Harry Shutt’s “The Trouble with Capitalism,” a book that shares Brenner’s main point, namely that competition between the U.S. and the recovered economies of Western Europe and Japan was responsible for declining profits. One of my observations seems eerily prescient:

Another interesting contrarian position found in Camejo’s article is that Americans do save a lot, despite all reports to the contrary. He bases this on home ownership and designates a mortgage payment as a form of savings. A house is not a home in Camejo’s world, but an investment. Based on this approach, “The fact is that U.S. citizens on the average have a larger ‘savings’ account than those of any other country, almost 40% higher than supersaver Japan.” Somehow this does not square with my understanding of the post-WWII situation, when most American workers not only owned a house, but had a savings account as well. Beyond this, most employees of Fortune 500 companies also could look forward to cashing in on a company pension plan, which guaranteed a fixed income based on longevity. The fact that most Americans today own nothing but their house, and owe a greater percentage of income to consumer debts–a fact neglected by Camejo–seems expressive of a general downturn, despite the number of laptop computers seen in Starbucks or the number of people walking down the street with a cell phone glued to their ear.

One can understand why Marxists, either in “vanguard” parties or in the academy, would tend to look for 1929’s on the horizon. For the past sixty years or so, starting with the period accurately described by Felix Morrow as one of capitalist expansion, the socialist movement has experienced nothing but contraction. Furthermore, after 1990 the Soviet Union collapsed and the parties associated with it, leaving aside their revolutionary credentials, also went into a steep decline. This leaves Marxists, except for the unrepentant types, looking a bit out of place.

This is not to say that things will always look so bleak. In a September 21, 2006 New York Review article (only available to subscribers) titled “Goodbye to All That?,” Tony Judt–certainly no friend of Marxism–admitted:

If Marxism fell from favor in the last third of the twentieth century it was in large measure because the worst shortcomings of capitalism appeared at last to have been overcome. The liberal tradition—thanks to its unexpected success in adapting to the challenge of depression and war and bestowing upon Western democracies the stabilizing institutions of the New Deal and the welfare state—had palpably triumphed over its antidemocratic critics of left and right alike. A political doctrine that had been perfectly positioned to explain and exploit the crises and injustices of another age now appeared beside the point.

Today, however, things are changing once again. What Marx’s nineteenth-century contemporaries called the “Social Question”—how to address and overcome huge disparities of wealth and poverty, and shameful inequalities of health, education, and opportunity—may have been answered in the West (though the gulf between poor and rich, which seemed once to be steadily closing, has for some years been opening again, in Britain and above all in the US). But the Social Question is back on the international agenda with a vengeance. What appears to its prosperous beneficiaries as worldwide economic growth and the opening of national and international markets to investment and trade is increasingly perceived and resented by millions of others as the redistribution of global wealth for the benefit of a handful of corporations and holders of capital.

Much as I’d like to take Judt’s musings to heart, I am afraid that “shameful inequalities” in themselves are not sufficient to produce class consciousness and revolutionary action. If the entire postwar period has been marked by capitalist expansion and prosperity (admittedly for some and not all) in the developed countries, it has also borne witness to the kind of immiseration in the developing countries that was characteristic of nineteenth century Europe that gave birth to an examination of the “Social Question” alluded to above.

But even in the 3rd world, the masses can go on for decades without rising up against neocolonialism and exploitation. Usually, an uprising is associated with a major shift in the political arena than any specific detonator like an outbreak of unemployment or inflation. For example, Cuba’s economic conditions were as favorable in the 1950s as they had been in any prior period, even more so possibly. It was the very “prosperity” that convinced liberals and social democrats to question the need for an armed struggle against Batista.

Ultimately, it was the emergence of an oppositional political culture in Cuba that led to a revolutionary onslaught. This brings me to a point that Gindin made in his presentation. He said that the problem today is political more than anything else. He said that if you had told him in 1975 that the U.S. would undergo the loss of good trade union jobs and welfare state social legislation with so little protest over the next 30 years or so, he simply would have not believed it–and neither would have I.

If there is anything that we can learn from Cuba’s socialist revolution, it is that leftists have to learn to break with the two-party system that keeps opposition politics within acceptable, capitalist parameters. For us, the launching of a mass, left of center leftwing party would be equivalent to the launching of Granma in 1956. It would be less dangerous but just as fragile an enterprise given the power and wealth of our class enemies. But no other course makes sense, especially given the ripening of economic conditions that might even result in a catastrophe down the road, for in that eventuality extremism of the right would challenge civilization as we know it.

June 1, 2007

Robert Brenner and primitive accumulation

Filed under: transition debate — louisproyect @ 6:03 pm

(This is the first in a series of articles on the Brenner thesis, aka the Transition Debate)

A series of blog entries on Lenin’s Tomb defending the Brenner thesis has inspired and piqued me to return to the transition debate. Richard Seymour, aka Leninology, is a graduate student originally from Ireland and a member of the British SWP. In keeping with “Leninist norms,” the SWP does not have public debates about current campaigns or on the “Russian question”, but members do express a range of opinions about the “transition debate”. For instance, party leader Chris Harman has debated Robert Brenner, defending a position more or less midway between Brenner and Jim Blaut.

For people unfamiliar with this debate, a word or two might be useful. In the 1950s, there was a series of exchanges between Paul Sweezy and Maurice Dobb over the origins of capitalism prompted by Sweezy’s review of Dobb’s “Studies in the Development of Capitalism” in Science and Society. Dobb was seen as explaining the rise of capitalism as a function of the introduction of market mechanisms in the British countryside, while Sweezy emphasized a rise in international trade in the late Middle Ages especially with Asian countries, largely on the basis of research by Henri Pirenne.

The debates simmered on through the 1960s but took on a new intensity after Robert Brenner published a couple of articles in the mid-70’s defending a more extreme version of Dobb’s approach. While Sweezy and Dobb maintained a rather collegial tone with each other (both were admirers of Stalin’s USSR), Brenner was far more polemical. In 1977, he wrote a NLR article titled “The Origins of Capitalist Development: A Critique of Neo-Smithian Marxism” that charged Sweezy with mixing Adam Smith and Karl Marx, a rather amazing achievement. The article summed up Brenner’s scholarly findings on the agrarian origins of capitalism as well as took issue with the “Third Worldism” of Monthly Review authors who had become identified with something called “dependency theory”. In a nutshell, dependency theory can be described in Andre Gunder Frank’s words as “the development of underdevelopment” under imperialism, an idea that always made sense to me in light of my travels in Nicaragua, Zambia and Tanzania more than 25 years ago. Brenner wrote:

Most directly, of course, the notion of the ‘development of underdevelopment’ opens the way to third-worldist ideology. From the conclusion that development occurred only in the absence of links with accumulating capitalism in the metropolis, it can be only a short step to the strategy of semi-autarkic socialist development. Then the utopia of socialism in one country replaces that of the bourgeois revolution—one moreover, which is buttressed by the assertion that the revolution against capitalism can come only from the periphery, since the proletariat of the core has been largely bought off as a consequence of the transfer of surplus from the periphery to the core.

In the next and concluding paragraph of this article, Brenner pins his hopes on “the current economic impasse of capitalism for working-class political action in the advanced industrial countries.” While I have neither the time nor the interest to pull together and analyze all the disparate elements of Brenner’s political thinking, this rather breathless over-projection of the tempo of the class struggle in 1977 suggests a certain affinity with another controversial article he wrote for the NLR 11 years later titled “The Economics of Global Turbulence” that basically predicted a Great Depression type meltdown in terms familiar to those who read the In Defense of Marxism website or the Militant newspaper.

As it turns out, the advanced capitalist countries have not collapsed and the “third world” struggles that Brenner dismissed continue to roil world politics. More recently, Brenner has pulled back a bit from the catastrophism of the 1998 article and has adopted a more cautious outlook, which amounted to calling for a Kerry vote in the last election.

One of the things that caught my eye when reading Richard’s blog was a comment about “primitive accumulation”. Citing Ellen Meiksins Wood, Richard writes:

For Marx’s truly Marxist take, we need to Grundrisse and Capital. In his account of “the so-called primitive accumulation” of capital, Marx moves from a conception of capital as wealth and trade to an understanding of capital as embodying a specific social relation.

Accumulation, whether from imperial theft or commerce, is not sufficient to create capitalism – it is not merely an augmentation of commerce.

A few paragraphs later, citing Robert Brenner’s “Merchants and Revolution,” Richard asserts that the East India Company was not part of this “social relation” primitive accumulation but merely another instance of commerce augmenting commerce, so to speak:

If you happen to have this book, and have been desperately flipping through pages of detail about the development of commerce, the rise of the merchant opposition, the East India company, the colonies and so on in search of the heuristic, here’s a tip: it’s in the postscript. Brenner goes to great labours to show that the merchant class was not a revolutionary class devoted to the overthrow of feudalism.

I scratched my head when I read this and wondered why it didn’t sit right with me. I then googled “East India Company” and “Karl Marx” and came up with a link to chapter 31 in volume one of Capital (“The Genesis of the Industrial Capitalist”) that referred to the East India Company as an example of “primitive accumulation . . .without the advance of a shilling.” Reading further, I discovered that chapter 31 was riddled with reference to colonies and various forms of non-market activity as expressions of primitive accumulation:

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.

The different momenta of primitive accumulation distribute themselves now, more or less in chronological order, particularly over Spain, Portugal, Holland, France, and England. In England at the end of the 17th century, they arrive at a systematical combination, embracing the colonies, the national debt, the modern mode of taxation, and the protectionist system. These methods depend in part on brute force, e.g., the colonial system. But, they all employ the power of the State, the concentrated and organised force of society, to hasten, hot-house fashion, the process of transformation of the feudal mode of production into the capitalist mode, and to shorten the transition. Force is the midwife of every old society pregnant with a new one. It is itself an economic power.

In order to understand where Wood got her ideas on primitive accumulation, you can turn to Brenner’s 1977 NLR article, where there’s also an attempt to define primitive accumulation strictly in terms of the British peasants being separated from their means of production. It is based on what Marx wrote in chapter 26 (“The Secret of Primitive Accumulation”) of Capital:

As Marx puts it [in chapter 26], ‘There can therefore be nothing more ridiculous than to conceive this original formation of capital as if capital had stockpiled and created the objective conditions of production—necessaries, raw materials, instruments—and then offered them to the worker, who was bare of these possessions.’ (Marx’s emphasis). At the same time, ‘In themselves, money and commodities are no more capital than the means of production and subsistence are. They need to be transformed into capital . . . So-called primitive accumulation, therefore, is nothing else than the historical process of divorcing the producer from the means of production.’

Well, that’s true–as far as it goes. If Marx had never written chapter 31 with all those references to colonization, slavery and trading monopolies being necessary for the birth of industrial capitalism, then Brenner and Wood would have a more convincing case.

But it is not just chapter 31 of Capital. While the “nothing else” quote from chapter 26 offered up by Brenner like a lawyer summarizing his case is quite convincing, there are contradictory, even neo-Smithian presentations of the problem by Marx and Engels, to use Brenner’s terminology. Take for example the Communist Manifesto, which is about as central to the Marxist literature as you can get. The first section on “Bourgeois and Proletarians” deals with the origins of the bourgeoisie:

From the serfs of the Middle Ages sprang the chartered burghers of the earliest towns. From these burgesses the first elements of the bourgeoisie were developed.

The discovery of America, the rounding of the Cape, opened up fresh ground for the rising bourgeoisie. The East-Indian and Chinese markets, the colonisation of America, trade with the colonies, the increase in the means of exchange and in commodities generally, gave to commerce, to navigation, to industry, an impulse never before known, and thereby, to the revolutionary element in the tottering feudal society, a rapid development.

This seems rather straightforward, doesn’t it? The bourgeoisie came from the towns, not the countryside, and “trade with the colonies” (plunder, in actuality) gave an impulse to the “revolutionary element in the tottering feudal society“. If, according to Richard, “Brenner goes to great labours to show that the merchant class was not a revolutionary class devoted to the overthrow of feudalism,” why didn’t he take the additional step to explain why Marx came up with all these “neo-Smithian” formulations in volume one of Capital and the Communist Manifesto? It doesn’t really require “great labours” to do so, only access to a personal computer and a knowledge of how to use google. Now I understand that google didn’t exist in 1977, but surely somebody with Brenner’s reputation as a world-class Marxist scholar would have taken the trouble to check the index of volume one of Capital for all occurrences of “primitive accumulation,” not just ones cherry-picked to support his own thesis.

It is also worth considering whether or not the chapter 26 definition of primitive accumulation (internal; market-oriented; agrarian) makes sense in Marx’s own terms. Keep in mind that Marx was trying to refute Adam Smith, who believed that thrift could explain the original capital that was used to fund manufacturing and industry. If this is the case, what does the Enclosure Acts, etc. really have to do with making capital available? Creating market conditions in the British countryside does not necessarily lead to a pool of capital. It seems much more likely that piracy, slavery, and colonialism will do the trick.

In my own view, the fact that Marx contradicts himself in chapters 26 and 31 simply points to a weakness in his approach to the problem of how capitalism arose. While most of his efforts were focused on identifying its origins within Western European countries, and Great Britain in particular, there was never that much attention paid to Africa, Latin America or Asia. And when he did turn his attention to Asia, he was wrong as the “Asiatic Mode of Production” would indicate. Despite his references to the East India Company, slavery and silver mining, you cannot really find a fully developed analysis of the mode of production in the colonial world. And the one reference that does exist–chapter 33 of Capital, v. 1, titled “The Modern Theory of Colonisation”–is curiously silent on the topic of slavery and indigenous peoples. Over the summer as I blog on these topics, I will try to sketch out an approach that does justice to colonial capitalism.

I want to conclude with a discussion of what Maurice Dobb had to say about non-market forces in the early stages of capitalism. Despite Robert Brenner’s efforts to represent himself as carrying on the tradition of Maurice Dobb, there are ample signs that the British historian believed that “extra-economic” factors were critical to the development of capitalism in Great Britain. His arguments can be found in chapter 5 of “Studies in the Development of Capitalism” (aptly titled “Capital Accumulation and Mercantilism”) and can be summarized in his own words as follows:

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

In trying to explain the origins of capitalism, Dobb takes exactly the opposite approach from Robert Brenner: “Least of all was it [capital accumulation] likely to happen under conditions approximating to free markets and perfect competition.” Indeed, in order for capitalism to take root in Great Britain, it was necessary to resort to the practices described in chapter 31 of Capital. Specifically, “there was a great deal of seizure of property and simple plunder” in order for the new bourgeoisie to assert itself. Not only was plunder necessary, an influx of precious metals in the sixteenth century created the price-inflation that could result into the transfer of land into bourgeois hands.

For Dobb, the Tudor age (1485-1603) was all about plowing colonial profits into new enterprises:

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

Finally, in sharp opposition to Robert Brenner, Maurice Dobb believed that in the early days of capitalism, the British bourgeoisie sought to curtail competition. Until the labor-saving devices of the industrial revolution became available to them, they would find ways to avoid direct competition with other emerging capitalist powers. This is why trading monopolies like the East India Company were crucial for the subsequent development of free trade policies. Dobb writes, “But until the vast potentialities of the new mechanical age, and of the new division of labour introduced by machinery, had become apparent, it was understandable that even the most enterprising of the bourgeoisie should look to trade regulation and political privilege for the assurance that his enterprise would prove profitable.”

In this period, when Great Britain sought to sell its products overseas, it took full advantage of what Brenner calls “extra-economic” forces. In other words, it sought to avoid competition through political pressure just as any aspiring capitalist power does in the early stages of its development. Dobb writes:

This political pressure often sufficed, indeed, to make colonial trade forced trading and the profit from it indistinguishable from plunder. Tudor voyages of discovery (in Sombart’s words) “were often nothing more than well-organized raiding expeditions to plunder lands beyond the seas.”

In other words, Dobb agreed with Karl Marx that:

The system of protection was an artificial means of manufacturing manufacturers, of expropriating independent labourers, of capitalising the national means of production and subsistence, of forcibly abbreviating the transition from the medieval to the modern mode of production. The European states tore one another to pieces about the patent of this invention, and, once entered into the service of the surplus-value makers, did not merely lay under contribution in the pursuit of this purpose their own people, indirectly through protective duties, directly through export premiums.

As Michael Lebowitz put it in a comment on PEN-L, ” As for Brenner/Wood, they are certainly welcome to use any definition they want of capitalism— trying to pass it off as Marx’s understanding of capitalism and its tendencies is another matter, though.”

In my next post, I will explain why Robert Brenner gets it wrong in trying to apply the template of the free-market industrial revolution period to a much earlier age.

December 1, 2004

Robert Brenner versus Chris Harman

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 4:28 pm

posted to www.marxmail.org on December 1, 2004

I just had a chance to listen to a debate between Robert Brenner and Chris Harman on the origins of capitalism that is online at:


I had no idea that Harman had involved himself in this ongoing controversy. An additional search revealed a paper by him titled “The Rise of Capitalism” at:


It was interesting to hear Brenner speak. For some reason, he has never made an appearance at the Socialist Scholars Conference. Perhaps this is a result of a kind of division of labor between him and Ellen Meiksins Wood with Brenner concentrating on contributions to small-circulation scholarly journals and Wood addressing more popular audiences, like the one that attended this debate.

In any case, it is very useful to have Brenner himself, rather than Wood, defending this point of view in a fairly easy to understand manner.

For Brenner, the key element of capitalism is growth and productivity. He seeks to unlock the key to the explosive and even revolutionary dynamic of this system, which he identifies as a particular outcome of the class struggle and natural conditions in 14th century Great Britain. A combination of population decline (from the Black Death) and tenant farming in the countryside produced a new historical set of circumstances that allowed a transition from feudalism to capitalism.

He says that this differs from the “dominant view” in Marxism that tends to see capitalism as “sprouting” from seeds throughout a given country. It was clear from his presentation of this question that he had Jim Blaut’s concept of “protocapitalism” in mind.

Brenner admitted that Karl Marx himself was guilty of this non-Marxist way of thinking in certain places, especially in the introduction to “Critique of Political Economy.” Since Brenner did not specify what was wrong with this work, I can only guess that it is formulations such as this:

Since bourgeois society is, moreover, only a contradictory form of development, it contains relations of earlier societies often merely in very stunted form or even in the form of travesties, e.g., communal ownership. Thus, although it is true that the categories of bourgeois economy are valid for all other social formations, this has to be taken cum grano salis, for they may contain them in an advanced, stunted, caricatured, etc., form, that is always with substantial differences. What is called historical evolution depends in general on the fact that the latest form regards earlier ones as stages in the development of itself and conceives them always in a one-sided manner, since only rarely and under quite special conditions is a society able to adopt a critical attitude towards itself; in this context we are not of course discussing historical periods which themselves believe that they are periods of decline.

I surmise that this would bother Brenner because it does not satisfy his rather *restrictive* (as he put it) definition of capitalism. For Brenner, there are two mutually exclusive modes of production that are as different from each other as night and day. In other words, an electric light cannot be on and off at the same time. A woman cannot be pregnant and non-pregnant at the same time. By the same token, you cannot have capitalism and feudalism at the same time either.

Needless to say, this sort of rigid stagism is a hallmark of the British Communist historians group that provided the ideological framework for the Brenner thesis. Harman quite rightly referred to the Brenner thesis debate as the second stage of one that began with the Paul Sweezy-Maurice Dobb debate of the 1950s.

Like Brenner, Dobb argued that capitalism was a unique event that occurred in the British countryside and that (implicitly) diffused throughout the world. If you look at the index of his “Studies in the Development of Capitalism,” you will find scant reference to slavery or anything else happening in the New World for that matter.

In distinction to Dobb, historians influenced by Trotsky’s theory of combined and uneven development tend to see the interpenetration of feudal and capitalist modes of production. For example, Eric Williams’ “Capitalism and Slavery,” which was influenced by CLR James, considers the two economic institutions as part of a whole. Slavery does not represent non-capitalism, but merely a form of the exploitation of labor that was necessary for the purer, industrial form to take off. Brenner and Wood disagree sharply with this view.

Brenner goes on at some length to belittle the notion of capitalist property relations taking root within feudal society and then overtaking and swamping it. Although this can be seen as an attack on Trotsky’s theory of combined and uneven development, it is also implicitly an attack on Lenin’s views as well.

Over and over again, Lenin made the point that capitalism was emerging from within the mostly feudal countryside in Russia. It was his analysis of this all-important question that was mounted as part of a debate with the Populists (who denied such a transformation) that propelled him into the leadership of Russian Marxism.

In “The Agrarian Programme of Social-Democracy in the First Russian Revolution, 1905-1907,” Lenin wrote:

In those two paths of objectively possible bourgeois development we would call the Prussian path and the American path, respectively. In the first case feudal landlord economy slowly evolves into bourgeois, Junker landlord economy, which condemns the peasants to decades of most harrowing expropriation and bondage, while at the same time a small minority of Grossbauern (“big peasants”) arises. In the second case there is no landlord economy, or else it is broken up by revolution, which confiscates and splits up the feudal estates. In that case the peasant predominates, becomes the sole agent of agriculture, and evolves into a capitalist farmer. In the first case the main content of the evolution is transformation of feudal bondage into servitude and capitalist exploitation on the land of the feudal landlords—Junkers. In the second case the main background is transformation of the patriarchal peasant into a bourgeois farmer.

You’ll note that Lenin says the “capitalist exploitation on the land of the feudal landords–Junkers.” In other words, the light is on and off at the same time.

I strongly suspect that for Brenner the only true case of capitalism before the 19th century is in Great Britain. I do know that Ellen Meiksins Wood denies that there was capitalism in France during the French revolution. Speaking for myself, I’ll go along with Marx, Lenin and Trotsky on these questions.

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