Answering the Brenner thesis

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Mon Oct 23 13:42:54 MDT 2000

>The period in which I am interested is that from 1440 to 1650. There may be
>differences regarding  later periods, but they would be marginal. Also, I
>assume that "capital accumulation" implies a capitalist (or groups of
>capitalists) who *do* the accumulating -- and whose use of the accumulated
>capital is subject to capitalist (rather than pre-capitalist) constraints.
>did those capitalists come from?

The answer to your question is found in Chapter 20 of V. 3 of Capital
(Historical Material on Merchant's Capital). Here is a brief section:


There is no doubt -- and it is precisely this fact which has led to wholly
erroneous conceptions -- that in the 16th and 17th centuries the great
revolutions, which took place in commerce with the geographical discoveries
and speeded the development of merchant's capital, constitute one of the
principal elements in furthering the transition from feudal to capitalist
mode of production. The sudden expansion of the world-market, the
multiplication of circulating commodities, the competitive zeal of the
European nations to possess themselves of the products of Asia and the
treasures of America, and the colonial system -- all contributed materially
toward destroying the feudal fetters on production. However, in its first
period -- the manufacturing period -- the modern mode of production
developed only where the conditions for it had taken shape within the
Middle Ages. Compare, for instance, Holland with Portugal.[5] And when in
the 16th, and partially still in the 17th, century the sudden expansion of
commerce and emergence of a new world-market overwhelmingly contributed to
the fall of the old mode of production and the rise of capitalist
production, this was accomplished conversely on the basis of the already
existing capitalist mode of production. The world-market itself forms the
basis for this mode of production. On the other hand, the immanent
necessity of this mode of production to produce on an ever-enlarged scale
tends to extend the world-market continually, so that it is not commerce in
this case which revolutionises industry, but industry which constantly
revolutionises commerce. Commercial supremacy itself is now linked with the
prevalence to a greater or lesser degree of conditions for a large
industry. Compare, for instance, England and Holland. The history of the
decline of Holland as the ruling trading nation is the history of the
subordination of merchant's capital to industrial capital. The obstacles
presented by the internal solidity and organisation of pre-capitalistic,
national modes of production to the corrosive influence of commerce are
strikingly illustrated in the intercourse of the English with India and
China. The broad basis of the mode of production here is formed by the
unity of small-scale agriculture and home industry, to which in India we
should add the form of village communities built upon the common ownership
of land, which, incidentally, was the original form in China as well. In
India the English lost no time in exercising their direct political and
economic power, as rulers and landlords, to disrupt these small economic
communities.[6] English commerce exerted a revolutionary influence on these
communities and tore them apart only in so far as the low prices of its
goods served to destroy the spinning and weaving industries, which were an
ancient integrating element of this unity of industrial and agricultural
production. And even so this work of dissolution proceeds very gradually.
And still more slowly in China, where it is not reinforced by direct
political power. The substantial economy and saving in time afforded by the
association of agriculture with manufacture put up a stubborn resistance to
the products of the big industries, whose prices include the faux frais of
the circulation process which pervades them. Unlike the English, Russian
commerce, on the other hand, leaves the economic groundwork of Asiatic
production untouched.[7]

The transition from the feudal mode of production is two-fold. The producer
becomes merchant and capitalist, in contrast to the natural agricultural
economy and the guild-bound handicrafts of the medieval urban industries.
This is the really revolutionising path. Or else, the merchant establishes
direct sway over production. However much this serves historically as a
stepping-stone -- witness the English 17th-century clothier, who brings the
weavers, independent as they are, under his control by selling their wool
to them and buying their cloth -- it cannot by itself contribute to the
overthrow of the old mode of production, but tends rather to preserve and
retain it as its precondition. The manufacturer in the French silk industry
and in the English hosiery and lace industries, for example, was thus
mostly but nominally a manufacturer until the middle of the 19th century.
In point of fact, he was merely a merchant, who let the weavers carry on in
their old unorganised way and exerted only a merchant's control, for that
was for whom they really worked.[8] This system presents everywhere an
obstacle to the real capitalist mode of production and goes under with its
development. Without revolutionising the mode of production, it only
worsens the condition of the direct producers, turns them into mere
wage-workers and proletarians under conditions worse than those under the
immediate control of capital, and appropriates their surplus-labour on the
basis of the old mode of production. The same conditions exist in somewhat
modified form in part of the London handicraft furniture industry. It is
practised notably in the Tower Hamlets on a very large scale. The whole
production is divided into very numerous separate branches of business
independent of one another. One establishment makes only chairs, another
only tables, a third only bureaus, etc. But these establishments themselves
are run more or less like handicrafts by a single minor master and a few
journeymen. Nevertheless, production is too large to work directly for
private persons. The buyers are the owners of furniture stores. On
Saturdays the master visits them and sells his product, the transaction
being closed with as much haggling as in a pawnshop over a loan. The
masters depend on this weekly sale, if for no other reason than to he able
to buy raw materials for the following week and to pay out wages. Under
these circumstances, they are really only middlemen between the merchant
and their own labourers. The merchant is the actual capitalist who pockets
the lion's share of the surplus-value.[9] Almost the same applies in the
transition to manufacture of branches formerly carried on as handicrafts or
side lines to rural industries. The transition to large-scale industry
depends on the technical development of these small owner-operated
establishments -- wherever they employ machinery that admits of a
handicraft-like operation. The machine is driven by steam, instead of by
hand. This is of late the case, for instance, in the English hosiery industry.

There is, consequently, a three-fold transition. First, the merchant
becomes directly an industrial capitalist. This is true in crafts based on
trade, especially crafts producing luxuries and imported by merchants
together with the raw materials and labourers from foreign lands, as in
Italy from Constantinople in the 15th century. Second, the merchant turns
the small masters into his middlemen, or buys directly from the independent
producer, leaving him nominally independent and his mode of production
unchanged. Third, the industrialist becomes merchant and produces directly
for the wholesale market.

Louis Proyect
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