Were sugar plantations capitalist?

Louis Proyect lnp3 at SPAMpanix.com
Tue Oct 12 09:48:16 MDT 1999

Tahir wrote:
>It's quite hard to know exactly what this debate is about,
>but perhaps I could ask a naive question just to get in the
>picture, and then maybe a more important one.
>The naive question is why the mercantile period could not be
>referred to as proto-capitalist and just left at that?

I think it is more than a question of terminology. If we could agree that
proto-capitalism amounts to such-and-such, then we'd be making progress.
However, it is not so simple. We are confronted by a very strong tendency
in a certain Eurocentric brand of Marxism to establish Great Britain as
some kind of model or template. Societies are then judged on the basis of
whether they live up to that model or not. Also, dynamics is very
important. If you can not identify dynamics in Latin America in the 17th
century that were similar to those in contemporary Great Britain, the only
conclusion you can draw on the basis of this schema is that capitalism was
not being developed. Unfortunately, the people of Latin America were
getting capitalism but as Eric Williams put it, without any of the more
progressive features found in Europe where free labor typified class

>The question which builds on that one draws attention to the
>fact that capitalism as we know it is not just economic; it
>is surely also a political phenomenon. So the question then
>is: can we talk about capitalism existing before the
>bourgeoisie came to power? If we can, then surely we can
>talk about capitalism existing in other societies and
>historical epochs where this bourgeoisie never emerged
>and/or did not prevail to the same extent as in Europe. What
>would have happened to the 'capitalism' of the new world,
>slave trade, etc., if the 'bourgeois revolutions' in Europe
>had not succeeded? What would we have had then? At which
>point also can we talk about capitalism emerging in Japan?
>And what about the so-called 'national bourgeoisies' that
>have been identified in China, Iran and other Asian
>countries prior to the colonisation of these areas? It seems
>to me there is plenty of 'capitalism' to be found prior to
>the political triumph of the bourgeoisie, but surely when we
>speak of the capitalist mode of production and a society in
>which commodity production is quite predominant we mean a
>society in which the bourgeoisie rules?

These are all excellent questions. Coming to work on the bus this morning,
the thought popped into my head how Japan disproves the Brenner thesis.
There was no large-scale farming, but the Meiji restoration provided the
basis for capitalist development in the 1800s. Also, Japan--unlike
China--blocked its ports from colonial traders, thus eliminating the sort
of fate that awaited the Chinese. On a ceteris parabis basis, it appears
that colonialism is the crucial factor blocking "classic" capitalist
development in the so-called periphery (I use this term without any
political connotations and only because it is in the context of a debate,
where it is frequently used.)

Louis Proyect

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