Brenner Redux (was Re: Russell R. Menard on Eric Williams)

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Mon Oct 23 06:25:49 MDT 2000

>other stuff.  Ready for a good debate!  Except that I've got tons of
>student papers to mark!

You should add Perry Anderson to the list, especially "Lineages of the
Absolutist State". Ellen Meiksins Wood characterizes him as a Sweezy-ite in
her book defending the Brenner thesis.

My suggestion to you, Yoshie, is to read this material and then to write a
paper defending Brenner. Once that is written, it will help to focus the
debate. I read some of the same material as you did, but concentrated more
on scholarly papers in JSTOR that seemed independent of the debate per se,
especially material on the Junkers and the Meiji restoration.

By the way, I can't recall you making a statement on the key question under
debate. Do you agree with Robert Brenner that the mode of production in
colonial Latin America was precapitalist? Do you agree with Genovese that
the slavocracy was precapitalist, leaving aside the more controversial
questions about Gramscian "consent"? These are pretty fundamental
questions. In either case, you get an application of the Dobbs thesis,
perhaps in a schematic fashion but it is there nonetheless.

I would also suggest that you read Trotsky's "Permanent Revolution" since
it explains combined and uneven development. This theory was embraced by
CLR James, who then influenced Eric Williams' approach in "Capitalism and
Slavery". Although Paul Sweezy is the target of Brenner's polemics, I would
argue that it implicitly targets Williams, and as well the kind of Marxism
that filtered down to him indirectly from Trotsky.

I believe that Brenner's fundamental problem is one of stagism. He talks
about capitalism as a stage of economic and social development which
replaces feudalism in a kind of totalizing revolutionary fashion, Great
Britain being the classic instance. Trotsky's contribution was to show that
various stages of social and economic development can exist side-by-side.
For example, in Czarist Russia you had peasant servitude--despite the
abolition of serfdom--side by side with immense factories employing the
latest technology.

The contribution of "dependency theorists" grouped around the Monthly
Review was to see this phenomenon in a way that Trotsky probably could not.
Rather than seeing "precapitalist" social and economic formations as being
some kind of anchor holding back capitalism in a given country, they saw it
as being integral to the particular role of that country in the world
capitalist system. Specifically the plantation system, with all of its
anachronisms, served the role of facilitating capitalist development in the
core. As you know, Brenner rejects this kind of analysis out of hand. In
doing this, he rejects the Marxism that emerged out of the concrete
experiences of the Russian Revolution and turns back the clock to a kind of
sophisticated, academic Menshevism. (I should mention, by the way, that the
influence of Ernest Mandel was certainly felt on Perry Anderson.)

Louis Proyect
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