Chumps at Oxford

James Farmelant farmelantj at
Tue Oct 12 11:06:56 MDT 1999

On Tue, 12 Oct 1999 09:54:28 -0400 Louis Proyect <lnp3 at> writes:
>I am considering the possibility of a novel approach to to
>the Brenner thesis. Some years back I was on several mailing
>lists--including this one--with a Justin Schwartz. Justin was proud of
>connections to Robert Brenner, who he considered a jewel among
>Marxists, among whom he included himself. He was insistent that real
>Marxism was very, very, very rigorous stuff--which required the
>like tools of AM to do right. It was also apparently necessary to be
>educated at a proper university where such tools could be mastered,
>Oxford where he and Brenner were classmates.

As I recall Lou, Justin studied at the "other place" - that is at
Cambridge but we get the idea.  BTW the founding father
of AM, G.A. Cohen now a days an Oxford don, was himself
originally just a Yid from a commie family in Montreal.
I don't think that there is necessarily anything wrong with
wanting to make Marxism more rigorous or with attempting
to apply the tools of analytical philosophy towards the
elucidation of Marxian theory, although to date the quality
of the resulting work seems mixed.  Marx himself could
after all be as obscure and as "academic" as any university

Analytical philosophy or rational choice theory cannot of course
either by themselves or in conjunction with Marxism resolve
a historiographical question like the role of Britain in the
transition from feudalism to capitalism.  That is something
that is ultimately resolvable only by doing the historical
research.  Since I am not subscribed to PEN, I have not
been following how this issue is being debated there.
It is, however, my understanding that among Marxist scholars
there have two schools of thought concerning how the
transition from feudalism to capitalism was effected with
both schools having roots in Marx's writings.  One school
has taken an "exchange relations" approach which tends
to view capitalism in terms of production for profit through
market exchange as opposed to the near-subsistence
economy of feudalism.  For this school, capitalism emerged
out of forces like growth of trade and of an international
division of labor which were essentially external to feudalism.
The second school takes what has been described as a
"property relations" approach which empahsizes the idea
that capitalism as an ensembe of social relations of production
based on free labor, which entail a structural imperative to
continous capital accumulation.  Feudalism in contrast is
seen as based on relations of personal dependence,
mutual obligation and juridicially enforceable surplus extraction,
through such institutions like serfdom and vassalage.

For the first school it is the development of market forces
within the feudal economy which eventually lead its
self-tranformation - thus the characteriztion of this view
by its critics as "Smithian."  The second school holds that
feudalism was beset by internal contradictions  which
became manifest in class struggle, which destroyed
serfdom and opened the door for the development of
a new social structure based capitalist farmers (i.e. yeomen),
and landless laborers.

Both schools as I said can trace themselves back to Marx's
writings.  The first school can be seen as reflecting views
found in his writings of the 1840s and 1850s , whereas
the second school sees itself as building upon views that
Marx expressed in *Capital*.  When the modern debate
over the feudal-capitalist transition erupted in the 1950s,
Paul Sweezy emerged as a prominent exponent of the
first school while Maurice Dobb (a Marxist Cambridge
don) was a leading exponent for the second school.

In the more recent discussions of this issue, Wallerstein
has been a strong exponent of the first school, whereas
Brenner, for the second school.  Other people have attempted
to formulate more nuanced perspectives which combine
ideas from both schools.  Arguable this is what Perry
Anderson attempted to do in such writings as *Lineages
of the Absolutist State*.  Like Dobbs, Anderson saw the
changes in the social relations of production as preceeding
the development of the forces of production.  But on
the other hand he rejects the notion that it was class
struggle (or at least the sorts of class struggles emphasized
by Dobbs and Brenner) which were the decisve force
behing the transition to capitalism.  Anderson follows
Sweezy and Wallerstein in emphasizing the omportance
of towns and international trade but their influence was
seen as not as external to feudalism as such but as
rather representing a legacy of the classical civilization
of the ancient Greeks and Romans.

> I get the picture now of
>couple of middle-class Yids like myself sitting in a classroom at
>hearing about the exceptional wonders of Great Britain, the early
>breakthroughs in constitutional law, Shakespeare and large farming
>based on profit. This would be the English equivalent of the sort of
>nonsense dispensed at Harvard University on American exceptionalism.
>Now if you were a British kid at Oxford, you would want to gag on this
>tripe. I can imagine someone like Alexander Cockburn or Perry Anderson
>listening to some old fart in robes blathering on about yeoman farmers
>fantasizing about gunning him down with an AK-47. Apparently some
>found all this rather compelling. So a possible clue to understanding
>Wood and Brenner line up against Anderson and Blackburn is worship of
>Merrie Old England versus a desire to destroy it like Johnny Rotten.
>Myself I can't understand the allure of Oxford. I think the definitive
>on the school was Laurel and Hardy's classic "Chumps at Oxford." Stan
>Ollie decide that their careers are going nowhere and they decide that
>what's needed is to get a college degree. So off to Oxford they go.
>gets bumped on the head one day and remembers that he is actually Lord
>Bumpley-Grosbeck or something like that. Not only is he a brilliant
>scholar, he is a great athlete as well. The Oxford students come up to
>room to lionize him, while Ollie is turned into his valet whom Stan
>referring to as "Fatty". Finally, Stan bumps his head and returns to
>previous identity. Whereupon Ollie takes revenge...

That's probably closer to the truth about Oxford, however, I
remember how popular the TV production of Waugh's *Brideshead
Revisited* when it was first broadcast, here in the US by PBS
back in the early '80s, which I think was a good indicator
of the allure that Oxford has for many Americans.

Jim Farmelant

>Louis Proyect
>(The Marxism mailing list:

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