Introduction to the Brenner thesis

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Mon Oct 23 07:20:18 MDT 2000

The "Brenner Thesis"


I suppose most people who got their Marxist education in Marxist parties
share certain basic assumptions about how First World economic and
political hegemony over the so-called Third World has been achieved. It was
a function of economic exploitation going back to the discovery of the New
World and the several hundred years of advantage this gave the First World,
as it expanded its control over countries to the East as well. Gold and
silver mined by indigenous peoples, colonial plantations, disruption of
local handicrafts in places like India all worked together to give nascent
capitalist institutions in Europe the "supercharging" they needed to
leapfrog over other countries where similar institutions were also gestating.

So I was surprised, if not shocked, to discover that Robert Brenner, a
leader of the "third camp" Solidarity group based in the USA, wrote a
series of articles in the 1970s denying such connections. Brenner's
critique was directed against a group of thinkers who, like Paul Sweezy,
viewed themselves as operating in the Marxist tradition, and others, like
Andre Gunder Frank, who rejected Marxism partially or altogether. What they
all had in common was a perspective that development in the core countries
is a cause of underdevelopment in the so-called periphery. The prosperity
and global power of nations like the United States was a function of the
poverty and weakness of countries like Vietnam, Nicaragua and Angola.

But in Brenner's words (New Left Review, 104, 1977), these thinkers "move
too quickly from the proposition that capitalism is bound up with, and
supportive of, continuing underdevelopment in large parts of the world, to
the conclusion not only that the rise of underdevelopment is inherent in
the extension of the world division of labour through capitalist expansion,
but also that the 'development of underdevelopment' is an indispensable
condition for capitalist development itself."

I will argue that the 'development of underdevelopment' is indeed an
indispensable and inherent condition for capitalist development itself, but
before doing so it will be necessary to provide some historical background
into Marxist thinking on these questions. Since Brenner claims to be
defending classical Marxism against newfangled, neo-Adam Smithian
deviations, it would be useful to now review what Marx and Marxists have


In "The German Ideology", Marx writes:

"Manufacture and the movement of production in general received an enormous
impetus through the extension of commerce which came with the discovery of
America and the sea-route to the East Indies. The new products imported
thence, particularly the masses of gold and silver which came into
circulation and totally changed the position of the classes towards one
another, dealing a hard blow to feudal landed property and to the workers;
the expeditions of adventurers, colonisation, and above all the extension
of markets into a world-market, which had now become possible and was daily
becoming more and more a fact, called forth a new phase of historical
development, into which in general we cannot here enter further. Through
colonisation of the newly discovered countries the commercial struggle of
the nations amongst one another was given new fuel and accordingly greater
extension and animosity."

While Marx explicitly ties the introduction of "masses of gold and silver"
to changes in the "positions of classes to one another," Brenner on the
other hand dismisses the importance of such connections. In the NLR
article, he argues that the "build-up of wealth, and its concentration in
the hands of specific potential 'investors,' has occurred time and again
without discernible effect" and adds, "We are left to wonder why any wealth
transferred from the core to the periphery did not result merely in the
creation of cathedrals and starvation in the periphery." Leaving aside the
question of actual starvation in the periphery, the answer to why wealth
was not frittered away on cathedrals, diamond-studded knickers and gilded
toilet seats is quite simple. Commodity production had begun to sprout up
in Europe, just as it had in China and India. I will return to this
question, but there is no evidence that there was anything special or
unique about the European economy on the eve of Columbus's "discovery of
America," which is being ghoulishly celebrated 3 days hence.


You get a very strong sense that Brenner's fight was against Maoism. Since
this current had already fallen into disrepute when his articles were
written, could we be dealing with the beating a dead horse phenomenon?. The
notion of "core" versus "periphery" does suggest the Maoist People's War
schema of the countryside surrounding the city, but by the late 70s, China
had become an ally of the United States and Maoist groups had disintegrated
internationally. The Monthly Review itself had begun to disassociate itself
from the excesses of Maoism and was about to orient to new political
developments internationally, including the Central American revolution. So
was Brenner's attack more of a "mopping up" operation than anything else?

Brenner writes, "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." Now who can argue with such an alliance, except aging members
of Bob Avakian's Revolutionary Communist Party? Furthermore, the notion
that workers in the United States and Europe enjoy privileges derived from
"squeezing dry the 'third world'" couldn't have anything to do with Lenin
himself, could it?

Since Lenin's famous "Imperialism, the Latest Stage of Capitalism" has very
little to say about the periphery, one might conclude that this was not an
important part of his analysis. But Lenin's writings on imperialism are
much larger in scope than this particular essay, which focuses on the
rivalries that led to WWI. In reality, Lenin did have ideas on
core-periphery relations that sounded exactly like the sort of thing
published regularly in Monthly Review in the 1960s. Furthermore, some of
these ideas were simply an elaboration of those found in Marx and Engels
themselves, who were grappling with the relative conservatism of the
British working class.

Lenin wrote "Imperialism and the Split in Socialism" in October, 1916 in
order to answer the question: "Is there any connection between imperialism
and the monstrous and disgusting victory opportunism (in the form of
social-chauvinism) has gained over the labour movement in Europe?" This he
regarded as "the fundamental question of modern socialism." (After
witnessing the victory parades following Bush's victory over the Iraqis,
one might conclude that this still remains the fundamental question.)

Lenin notes that neither Marx nor Engels lived to see the imperialist epoch
of world capitalism, which began not earlier than 1898-1900, but they were
already aware that England had already revealed at least two major
distinguishing features of imperialism: (1) vast colonies, and (2) monopoly
profit (due to her monopoly position in the world market).

Lenin cites a letter from Engels to Marx, dated October 7, 1858, which
states: "...The English proletariat is actually becoming more and more
bourgeois, so that this most bourgeois of all nations is apparently aiming
ultimately at the possession of a bourgeois aristocracy and a bourgeois
proletariat alongside the bourgeoisie. For a nation which exploits the
whole world this is of course to a certain extent justifiable."

Was Engels a premature Maoist?

Lenin thinks that such a proletariat can not be mollycoddled:

"The bourgeoisie of an imperialist 'Great' Power can economically bribe the
upper strata of 'its' workers by spending on this a hundred million or so
francs a year, for its superprofits most likely amount to about a thousand
million. And how this little sop is divided among the labour ministers,
'labour representatives' (remember Engels 's splendid analysis of the
term), labour members of War Industries Committees, labour officials,
workers belonging to the narrow craft unions, office employees, etc., etc.,
is a secondary question."

The Communist International that was founded in opposition to the verbal
socialism of the trade union bureaucracy, parliamentarians, etc. not only
refused to cater to the prejudices of privileged workers in the
cosmopolitan centers, it was also committed to supporting revolutions of
"peripheral" countries against the "core" EVEN when they were LED by the
national bourgeoisie. Brenner's anxiety that dependency theory could open
to the door to the national bourgeoisie seems ill-placed in light of the
Comintern's support to the Kuomintang. It is often forgotten in the river
of Trotskyist polemics against Stalin's misleadership of the Chinese
Revolution that nobody, including Trotsky, was opposed to participation in
a KMT-led struggle for national independence, only that the Chinese CP had
to keep its own organizational and political integrity intact. Opposition
to the Kuomintang IN ITSELF was not the policy of Lenin or Trotsky.

In the Second Congress of the Communist International held in 1920 at Baku
(depicted memorably in Warren Beatty's film "Reds"), the interests of
peripheral nations were put at the core of the Marxist agenda. (Proceedings
and Documents of the Second Congress, edited by John Riddell, Pathfinder,
1991) In reports by Lenin and numerous delegates, there was little of
Brenner's anxiety to be found. Constant reminders of how one NATION
exploits another were made. In Session 4, July 26, 1920 Lenin remarks,
"First, what is the cardinal idea underlying our theses? It is the
distinction between oppressed and oppressor NATIONS." He also refers to
Comrade Quelch of the British Socialist Party who said that "the
rank-and-file British worker would consider it treasonable to help the
enslaved NATIONS in their uprisings against British rule."


Unfortunately, the revolutionary internationalism of the Baku conference
was to give way to the cautious policies of "socialism in one country."
Although Marxist scholarship as a whole suffered during Stalin's reign,
colonial questions perhaps suffered most. Wherever Communist Parties sank
roots, the intelligentsia who gathered around and joined such parties
tended to de-emphasize the question of oppressed and oppressor nations.
This was partially a function of the rise of the Popular Front, which
discounted the role of imperialism to begin with. It was also related to
Stalin's re-introduction of "stagism" into the workers movement. Where
Lenin and the early Comintern looked for ways to bypass capitalist
development and proceed directly to socialism, the Stalinists tended to
align with "modernizing" elites in peripheral countries, who could be
counted on to welcome foreign investment provided that it derived from
"enlightened" sources, like North American corporations in the time of
FDR's New Deal.

Against these utopian hopes, Andre Gunder Frank argued that bourgeois
development in Latin America was impossible. Brenner hails this as a step
forward: "Frank's original formulations aimed to destroy the suffocating
orthodoxies of Marxist evolutionary stage theory which the Communist
Parties' political strategies of 'popular front' and 'bourgeois democratic
revolutions' had been predicated. Frank rightly stressed that the expansion
of capitalism thorough trade and investment did not automatically bring
with it the capitalist economic development that the Marx of the Communist
Party had predicted."


Actually, the first turn against Stalinist orthodoxy predated "dependency
theory" by quite a few years. It was the product of a number of highly
original African-Caribbean thinkers, including Eric Williams, Walter Rodney
and CLR James. Not only did they manage to develop an approach to Marxism
that had little in common with Stalinist preconceptions, they also felt the
need to develop a better understanding of why their own African Diaspora
countries, and Mother Africa itself, could not seem to achieve the sort of
modernization and civilized standards predicated on the introduction of
capitalism. While there was plenty of capitalism in Africa and the
Caribbean, there seemed to be very little development. They sought to
answer the question why development in some countries was associated with
underdevelopment in others.

CLR James's 1938 "Black Jacobins" set the standard for scholarship followed
by others. While James emerges from the internationalist-minded Trotskyist
movement, he was always much more sensitive to racial and national
oppression than other movement leaders. His study of the Haitian slave
revolt is filled with sharp observations on how the underdevelopment of the
colonies was related to capitalist development in the mother countries:

"The slave-trade and slavery were the economic basis of the French
Revolution. 'Sad irony of human history,' comments Jaurès. 'The fortunes
created at Bordeaux, at Nantes, by the slave-trade, gave to the bourgeoisie
that pride which needed liberty and contributed to human emancipation.'
Nantes was the centre of the slave-trade. As early as 1666, 108 ships went
to the coast of Guinea and took on board 37,430 slaves, to a total value of
more than 37 millions, giving the Nantes bourgeoisie 15 to 20 percent on
their money. In 1700 Nantes was sending 50 ships a year to the West Indies
with Irish salt beef, linen for the household and for clothing the slaves,
and machinery for sugar-mills. Nearly all the industries which developed in
France during the eighteenth century had their origin in goods or
commodities destined either for the coast of Guinea or for America. The
capital from the slave-trade fertilized them; though the bourgeoisie traded
in other things than slaves, upon the success or failure of the traffic
everything else depended."

Kent Worcester's fine biography of James ("CLR James: a Political
Biography", SUNY, Albany, 1996) describes Eric Williams' debt to his
mentor. "Capitalism and Slavery", a book that figures in some ways as the
root of all intellectual evil in Brenner's scheme of things, was published
in 1944, 6 years after "Black Jacobins". Based on his dissertation at
Oxford, Williams met with James, his former tutor, on numerous occasions
when both were living in England. It seems that James read both drafts of
the dissertation and had a significant role in formulating the book's
primary thesis, namely that sugar plantations, rum and slavery trade helped
to catapult Great Britain into world domination at the expense of the
African peoples in the Diaspora. Without the underdevelopment of Jamaica,
Trinidad, etc., capitalist development in Great Britain would not have had
the supercharged character that it did.


Dependency theory was associated with the journal Monthly Review, which was
launched by Paul Sweezy and others in the ferment of the Wallace campaign.
It was an attempt to provide an independent voice for American socialism,
while it retained some degree of sympathy for the CPUSA. Sweezy himself was
never a member, although he was witch-hunted from the academy in the 1950s.
Sweezy and Paul A. Baran collaborated together to develop an analysis of
capitalism that basically was updated for the 20th century. When Marx wrote
the Communist Manifesto, capitalism was an extremely dynamic system. Baran
and Sweezy argue that with the advent of imperialism, stagnation and
under-utilization characterize the system. In "The Political Economy of
Growth", written 1957, Baran describes the awful fate of countries in the

"Thus the peoples who came into the orbit of Western capitalist expansion
found themselves in the twilight of feudalism and capitalism enduring the
worst features of both worlds, and the entire impact of imperialist
subjugation to boot. To oppression by their feudal lords, ruthless but
tempered by tradition, was added domination by foreign and domestic
capitalists, callous and limited only by what the traffic would bear. The
obscurantism and arbitrary violence inherited from their feudal past was
combined with the rationality and sharply calculating rapacity of their
capitalist present. Their exploitation was multiplied, yet its fruits were
not to increase their productive wealth; these went abroad or served to
support a parasitic bourgeoisie at home. They lived in abysmal misery, yet
they had no prospect of a better tomorrow. They existed under capitalism,
yet there was no accumulation of capital. They lost their time-honored
means of livelihood, their arts and crafts, yet there was no modern
industry to provide new ones in their place. They were thrust into
extensive contact with the advanced science of the West, yet remained in a
state of the darkest backwardness."

Resting on Sweezy and Baran's broad theoretical framework, Andre Gunder
Frank published a series of very influential studies on Latin America,
including "Accumulation and Underdevelopment in Latin America." His work
and the work of other Monthly Review authors, including Samir Amin, Eduardo
Galeano, Immanuel Wallerstein and Pierre Jalée, were basically empirical
confirmations of Sweezy and Baran's theory, as applied to Latin America,
Africa and Asia. Their scholarship was wedded to activity on behalf of
revolutionary or left-reformist governments. For example, Frank worked at
the highest levels of the Allende government. The impact of their
scholarship and the growing influence of the Monthly Review obviously had
to be connected to the Vietnam war and the movement that arose against it.
Vietnam itself was seen as the latest example of the "development breeding
underdevelopment" thesis, while positive examples such as Cuba and China
proved that there was at least one road open to peripheral countries:
socialist revolution.

As the Vietnam war came to a conclusion and the 1960s radicalization wound
down, a number of these thinkers lost their connection to the radical
movement and helped to transform dependency theory into something called
"world systems theory". Most closely associated with the work of Immanuel
Wallerstein, Harpur professor and director of the Fernand Braudel Center,
this methodology can be described as sub-genre of sociology and political
science. It attempts to integrate global economy, ecology, demographics,
etc. into a high-level perspective. In addition to taking a very broad
geographical view, it has also become associated with very long
chronological perspectives. Specifically, economic "long waves" have become
integral to world systems theory and Andre Gunder Frank, who has made the
shift into this academic specialty, has lately been entertaining the
possibility that we are on the cusp of a new 5000 year long wave, which
would raise all sorts of Y2K type issues. Although much of this stuff is
interesting, and I try to integrate its insights into some of the things I
have been writing about American Indians, it is basically a retreat from
political engagement despite its invaluable theoretical insights.

There are good reasons to be concerned by the inability of thinkers like
Andre Gunder Frank to conceptualize class questions. The answer to this,
however, does not lie in denial about national inequality. For a genuine
worldwide socialist movement to re-emerge, it will have to be imbued with
the spirit of Baku. Key to this is an understand that there *are* indeed
oppressed and oppressor nations.

In my next post, I will examine in some detail the fallacy in Brenner's
thinking about "precapitalist" societies. By drawing a contrast between
capitalist Great Britain and what he alleges to be precapitalist societies
in Latin America and other peripheral areas, Brenner fails to understand
these places and times in the complex and dialectical manner that they

While some of the more recent theories of the world systems constellation
of thinkers must be rejected, their empirical work can be deployed to help
us understand the exact nature of forced labor, modes of production, etc.
in 16th to 18th century Latin America. Since Brenner has totally ignored
this area of the world, it is incumbent upon us to remind ourselves of its
crucial role in the launching of the modern-day capitalist system.

Louis Proyect
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