Answering the Brenner thesis

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Mon Oct 23 07:41:12 MDT 2000

This post will focus on the "Brenner thesis" as it relates to Europe
specifically, and the replies made to it made by various scholars, which
are invariably and by necessity rooted in the rather dry and arcane world
of medievalist studies. Once this is dispensed with, I will address the
question whether a dynamic capitalism requires as a precondition the sort
of capitalist agricultural transformations stipulated by Brenner. Not to
keep people in suspense, I will argue that Germany and Japan, two of the
most powerful adversaries of British imperialism in the modern era, did not
undergo anything remotely resembling the capitalist agriculture
transformation which anchors the Brenner thesis. Finally, I will try to
place this controversy into a broader theoretical and political context.


For my money, the most succinct statement of the Brenner thesis can be
found in the initial article of "The Brenner Debate," edited by T.H. Aston
and C.H.E. Philpin. Written by Robert Brenner originally for publication in
the February 1976 "Past and Present," and titled "Agrarian Class Structure
and Economic Development in Pre-Industrial Europe", it states that England
was the site of an exceptional economic transformation in the late 15th
century. Elsewhere successful peasant revolts, especially in France,
consolidated their control over small and medium sized farms. These plump
and happy self-sustaining freeholders, relieved from the pressure to
compete, produced food for their own needs, and a surplus for the local
market. They were the hippies of their day.

But in England they were defeated. With this defeat, English landlords
gained control over 70-75 percent of the land, leased large parcels to
capitalist tenants who then employed newly landless peasants as wage
laborers. Under marketplace pressure, these capitalist farmers--the
Archer-Midland-Daniels of their day--introduced new technologies to make
profits, including convertible husbandry systems (don't ask me what this
is, but I suspect it has something to do with farm animals rather than
marriage.) The key for Brenner, however, was the existence of exploitative
class relations. The English countryside became, as we used to say at
Goldman-Sachs in the 1980s, lean and mean.

Once agriculture was transformed, leanness and meanness diffused out into
the rest of English society, which then became a highly productive economic
machine firing on all 8 cylinders, just like Reaganite America. Once you
could put food on the table in sufficient quantities, the English ants
could get busy and race ahead of all the European grasshoppers, especially
the fun-loving French. Brenner writes:

"It seems, moreover, that agricultural improvement was at the root of those
developmental processes which, according to E. L. Jones, had allowed some
40 per cent of the English population to move out of agricultural
employment by the end of the seventeenth century, much of it into
industrial pursuits. Obviously, English industrial growth, predominantly in
cloth, was in the first instance based on exports, spurred by overseas
demand. Yet such export-based spurts were common in Europe throughout the
middle ages and the early modern period; but previously none had been able
to sustain itself."

Once this powerful growth engine is in place, colonial trade can be used to
make it go even faster. But you have to have the proper engine first. By
analogy, if you use hydrogen fuel in a dragster, you can easily go a
quarter-mile in under 6 seconds. But if you put that same fuel into a
Volkswagen beetle, you won't get there much faster than if you were using
plain old gasoline. So gold and silver from Peru and Mexico was the fuel
and England was the dragster. Portugal would have been a Yugo.


In "Agrarian Class Structure and the Development of Capitalism: France and
England Compared," (in Aston-Philpin, "Brenner Debate"), Patricia Croot and
David Parker argue that France was just as lean and mean as England, if not
more so.

Large-scale farms were not even required for technological improvements on
English farms, they say. Not only was manuring and new crops innovated on
smaller farms, they also got into convertible husbandry. Such innovations
were necessary for the survival of smaller farms that lacked the capital
for large sheep flocks, the typical cash generator of 16th century England.

They also insist that the French peasant was not that carefree and
independent. During the 16th and 17th centuries, French peasants were
squeezed so tight that they had to seek supplementary income, just like
lots of small family farmers in current-day North America as depicted in a
recent depressing PBS documentary on an economically distressed family of
farmers. A significant minority of the French peasants became totally
dispossessed and ended up as vagabonds. This state of affairs was exactly
that as depicted in the fine motion picture "A Simple Plan," with northern
plains farmers so desperate they lie, rob and murder to survive. Of special
note is the performance of an ex-farmer on welfare played by Billie Bob
Thornton, who dreams of nothing more than regaining the family farm.
Thornton has a knack for playing down-and-out rural denizens based on
performances in this film and the memorable "Slingblade".

Croot and Parker insist that only 20 percent land was owned by French
peasants in the Toulousain and Lauragais regions by the end of the 18th
century. Here, as in England, wage labor was prevalent and secured through
the services of a "fermier", a middle man. In France and England, economic
duress set the pattern for class relations in the countryside. Brenner's
portrayal of British ants and French grasshoppers simply does not
correspond to reality.

Finally, there is ample evidence that English peasants actually fared
better than their French cousins. By the mid-17th century, they write,
"there was a far greater range of holdings with a significant proportion in
the middle range using some wage labor and producing a surplus for the
market." It was only in the beginning of the 18th century that
concentration of landed property begin to develop in England. This time
frame makes much more sense when speaking of agrarian capitalism rather
than the early 16th century of the Brenner thesis, when feudal property
relations were the norm. Most of Brenner's critics say the same thing: he
is projecting backwards into a remote and distant period in British history
class relations from a more contemporary time.


Robert Brenner was often linked with Ernesto Laclau and Eugene Genovese in
the 1980s. Although not quite forming a school, the three were widely
regarded as upholding a classical tough-minded version of Marxism as
opposed to the sort of wooly-headed populism that marched udner the banner
of "dependency theory". What they shared in common was a belief that the
"mode of production" was key. If the system did not revolve around free
labor and did not exhibit technological innovation driven by the lash of
competition, then it did not deserve the name of capitalism. Social
inequality was not sufficient.

(Of the three, Brenner is the only one who still has an affiliation with
Marxism. Laclau dumped Marxism for a version of post-Marxism called
"Radical Democracy" that he co-developed with Chantal Mouffe. It serves as
the ideological underpinning for much of the NGO-oriented experiments in
"civil society" in Latin American today. Genovese's evolution was more
extreme. He started out as a "primacy of class" Marxist with hostility to
black nationalism and feminism of the sort found in figures like Todd
Gitlin, but eventually broke with the radical movement entirely. Today he
is best described as a Roman Catholic southern agrarian reactionary. All
sharing a background in 1960s Marxism, Genovese, David Horowitz and Ronald
Radosh are among the most active and impassioned enemies of the left in the
USA today.)

With these connections in mind, it is interesting to turn to a paper
written by Shearer Davis Bowman in the Oct. '80 American Historical Review
titled "Antebellum Planters and Vormarz Junkers in Comparative
Perspective." To set the context for his comparison, Bowman cites Genovese
as arguing for "the genuine conservatism of the planters and proslavery
thought by insisting upon the 'precapitalist' character of the Old South's
'paternalistic' master-slave relation and the consequent 'prebourgeois'
outlook of antebellum planters--'the closest thing to feudal lords
imaginable in a nineteenth-century bourgeois republic.'"

By this criterion, the Junkers were just as 'prebourgeois.' The term
"Junker" is derived from the Middle High German "young nobleman" and
designates both the noble and nonnoble owners of legally privileged estates
(Rittengüter) in Prussia's six eastern provinces, the breadbasket of modern
Germany. Bowman identifies the similarities between the slave-states and
these provinces in terms of class relations:

"Although the legal and racial status of slaves on a plantation was
certainly quite different from that of the laborers on a Junker estate
(before as well as after the end of hereditary bondage in 1807), there were
significant parallels between the productive purposes to which menials on
plantations and Ritterguter were put and between the ways in which they
were governed. Each work force was subject to the personal, nearly
despotic, authority of the owner, and each worked to produce cash crops for
foreign and domestic markets. While Southern planters were growing cotton
or tobacco for shipment to Liverpool or New York, for example, East Elbian
Junkers were producing wheat or wool for shipment to London or Berlin. At
mid-century most plantations and Ritterguter also achieved a high,
cost-efficient level of self-sufficiency in basic foodstuffs as well. The
functional and structural analogies between the plantation and the
Rittergut are crucial to a comparative study of planters and Junkers,
because these estates and their work forces constituted the foundations of
their owners’ wealth, political influence, social status, and, in many
instances, even their self-esteem."

While Brenner makes a strict linkage between capitalist farmers exploiting
wage labor, Bowman points out that the Junkers were keen to make
improvements to their land where labor was anything but free. Captain Carl
von Wulffen-Pietzpuhl, writing in 1845, urged the creation of model farms
so that his fellow Junkers could explore "the advancement of Prussia's
practical agriculture". He declared that "the most rational" farmer managed
to use "land and soil most effectively" and that the "most important aspect
of rational agriculture" could be "reduced to the art of producing the
cheapest dung." (And this was over a century in advance of the introduction
of electronic mailing lists.)

The Junkers lord tended to have a view of himself as a kindly paterfamilias
attending to the welfare of his faithful people, just like the American
southern slave-owning class. While the slavocracy was able to impose its
rule through outright ownership, the German oppressors had various labor
codes--some extracted in the guise of "reforms" to keep his subjects in
line. The proper way to regard both systems is as a mixture of economic
control driven by the need for a capitalist gentry to support its
life-style through the mass production of agricultural commodities, and
political control based on forced labor. Reactionary authoritarian beliefs
wed to militarism did not prevent these ruling class elites from extracting
every bit of surplus from their properties through a combination of
technological innovation and forced labor.

So were they precapitalist or capitalist?


Turning to Japan, the question of whether capitalist agriculture is a
requirement for the advent of capitalism in general becomes even more
problematic. Japanese Marxist scholarship has been the site of intense
debates inspired by the Sweezy-Dobbs exchange. The Meiji restoration of the
late 19th century is widely seen as the advent of the contemporary economic
system, but there is scant evidence of bourgeois transformation of

In "The Meiji Landlord: Good or Bad" (Journal of Asian Studies, May '59),
R.P. Dore dates the controversy as arising in the 1930s, long before Dobbs,
Sweezy and Brenner stepped into the ring. The Iwanami Symposium on the

Development of Japanese Capitalism, held in 1932, marks the starting point
of a sustained effort to date the transformation of Japan from a feudal to
a capitalist society. Especially problematic was the role of class
relations in the countryside, which never went through the radical
restructuring of Brenner's 16th century England.

Referring to Hirano Yoshitarö's "The Structure of Japanese Capitalism" Dore

"Hirano's work contains a good deal of original research concerning the
economic facts of the agrarian structure of the early Meiji, and the
creation of a highly dependent class of tenant farmers. The landlords of
Hirano, for example, preserved the semi-feudal social relations of the
countryside which provided the necessary groundbase for the peculiarly
distorted form of capitalism which developed in Japan. The high rents,
maintained by semi-feudal extra-economic pressures, not only helped to
preserve this semi-feudal base intact (by making capitalist agriculture
unprofitable) they also contributed to the rapid process of primitive
capital accumulation which accounted for the speed of industrial
development. Thus the landlords were to blame for the two major special
characteristics of Japanese capitalist development--its rapidity and its
distorted nature."

Gosh, this is enough to make your head spin. Here we have a situation in
which, according to one of the deans of Japanese Marxist scholarship,
semi-feudal relations in the countryside served to accelerate Japanese
capitalist development. Just the opposite of what Brenner alleges to be the
secret of English hyper-capitalist success. Something doesn't add up here,
does it?


Anderson's "Lineages of the Absolutist State" is an alternative analytical
model to the one presented by Brenner (and defended by Ellen Meiksins Wood
in her new MR book "The Origins of Capitalism.") Simply put, Anderson sees
no contradiction between nominally precapitalist institutions and the
overall development of capitalism. While the French revolution has a
central role in the Marxist narrative as a turning-point in the abolition
of feudal class relations, Anderson's research revolves around the tendency
of feudal-like "absolutist" political and social institutions to create a
fertile environment for capital accumulation in the period leading up to 1789.

"Absolutism did not mean the end of aristocratic rule: on the contrary, it
protected at stabilized the social dominion of the hereditary noble class
in Europe. The kings who presided over the new monarchies could never
transgress the unseen limits to their power: those of the material
conditions of reproduction of the class to which they themselves belonged.
Commonly, these sovereigns were aware of their membership of aristocracy
which surrounded them; their individual pride of station was founded on a
collective solidarity of sentiment. Thus while capital was slowly
accumulated beneath the glittering superstructures of Absolutism, exerting
an ever greater gravitational pull on them, noble landowners of early
modern Europe retained their historical predominance, in and through the
monarchies which now command them. Economically guarded, socially
privileged and culturally matured, the aristocracy still ruled: the
Absolutist State adjusted paramountcy to the steady burgeoning of capital
within the composite social formations of Western Europe."

Recent historical research on the French revolution, referred to by George
Comninel in his "Rethinking the French Revolution: Marxism and the
Revisionist Challenge," tends to confirm Anderson's analysis. The notion of
a radical breach between precapitalist and capitalist structures has more
to do with liberal historiography than the concrete example of the 1789
revolution, where there was very little evidence of a revolutionary
bourgeoisie. The vanguard of the opposition to the absolutist state came
from within the absolutist state itself. The fighters and intellectuals
most associated with the Enlightenment were members of the court who sought
to rid French society of excess rather than destroy the existing system
itself. This is one of the best explanation for the residual influences of
the absolutist system through the 19th century that Marx referred to as


All in all, Brenner's problem seems to be one of understanding transition.
His schema seems to owe much to the sort of "stagism" that characterizes
the intellectual milieu of the Analytical Marxism school, to which he has
had a loose affiliation. Despite its academic sophistication, the AM school
is based on the Marxism of the Second International and has much more to do
with Plekhanov or Kautsky than the seminars of Oxford or Cambridge.

As opposed to the narrow "stagist" conceptions of Kautsky and Plekhanov,
Trotsky believed that Russian capitalism and precapitalist forms had a
dialectical relationship to each other. Rather than seeing a revolutionary
bourgeoisie in a life-and-death struggle against Czarist absolutism,
Trotsky regarded the two as mutually reinforcing elements of a total
system. That is why it would be a mistake to search for elements in the
bourgeois parties that could reproduce the 1789 revolution Russian-style.
It would be up to the peasants and workers to break with the feudal and
capitalist past and create the only conditions for modernization and
progress--the socialist revolution.

In my last post, I alluded to the intellectual ties between CLR James, the
most important Trotskyist thinker after Trotsky himself, and Eric Williams,
who first drew attention to the interconnection between forced labor in the
New World and the origins of capitalist hegemony in the Old. Key to his
understanding was the importance of relatively unfree labor in one arena of
the world capitalist system for the growth of a system based on free labor
in the other. This connection, although unfortunately made without the
benefit of an overall Marxist analysis, is also made by the dependency
theorists and the world systems group that followed them.

Robin Blackburn and Perry Anderson, who find themselves on the other side
of the fence from Brenner and Wood in this debate, have both been strongly
influenced by Ernest Mandel, who once served as a guiding light to the
editorial board of the New Left Review, despite all the problems this
entailed. While Mandel was strong on core features of Trotskyism such as
combined and uneven development, he was relatively weak on understanding
how the mass movement and revolutionary parties develop. In a time of
generalized ultraleftism, his tendency to adapt to short-cut pressures of
the radical movement might have disillusioned some of his followers. It is
entirely possible that the retreat of the New Left Review into academically
obscure subjects and discourse might reflect a desire to wash one's hands
of 1960s excesses.

In its own way, Brenner's thesis seems to be driven by some of the same
desire to move past the excesses of the 1960s. Instead of chanting
"Ho-Ho-Ho Chi Minh, the NLF is going to win", the Brenner thesis would
refocus our attention to the mainline of socialism, the mighty battalions
of the industrialized countries with their powerful working class. When
Brenner wrote his 1977 New Left Review article that conjoined scholarly
speculation on the origins of capitalism with a frontal assault on "third
worldism", I suppose that he like many of us assumed that a resurgence of
the class struggle in the industrialized countries was in the offing. The
economic deterioration of the Carter years seemed to point in the direction
of an upsurge in the labor movement, which the Sadlowski steel revolt and
fights in the coal fields against the UMW bureaucracy pointed to.

Unfortunately, these movements fizzled and we were left with a full two
decades of relative class peace. Meanwhile the sharp edge of the class
struggle appears to be in exactly those sites that were written off as
"third world" diversions, including Colombia which could easily turn into
the biggest military confrontation between US imperialism and revolutionary
forces since the 1980s in Central America. It is imperative for
revolutionaries everywhere, including Robert Brenner, to pay close
attention to developments such as these for in the final analysis workers
everywhere in the world have the same enemy: the world capitalist class.

Louis Proyect
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