Brenner post reformatted

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Sat Oct 28 12:57:28 MDT 2000

(I am out of town this weekend and attempting to respond to
email through something called Whatever it gives
you in terms of convenience, it takes away in usability.
It does not create soft-end-of-line markers and turns every
paragraph into a gargantuan sentence. I suppose some venture
capitalist is laughing his way to the bank with the money
made from this garbage.)

When I first met Ellen Meiksins Wood 5 years ago at a MR
reception, I told her that I was a big fan. In fact I said
that she and Perry Anderson were my two favorite Marxist
writers (I have since learned to my bitter disillusionment
that people like this go to the bathroom just like you and
me.) Upon hearing this, she made a sour face and said,
"Perry and I actually hate each other." My guess is that
differences over the Brenner thesis accounted for the acrimony.
5 years later she was removed from the editorial board of MR
for reasons clearly understood to revolve around rival
interpretations of the Brenner thesis. In this rarefied
intellectual milieu, the Brenner thesis has been as much of
a split issue as "socialism in one country" has been in others.

I first heard about the Brenner thesis from Jim Blaut, a
Marxism list subscriber and major league scholar (with a
plain-spoken person like Jim, there would be no question
as to his going to the bathroom like everybody else.) Jim
had just written a book titled "Colonizer's Model of the
World" which took aim at Robert Brenner and other "Eurocentric"
historians who claimed that there was something special going
on Europe which allowed it to shoot ahead of the rest of the
world. Jim claimed that colonialism and slavery accounted
for the disparity and nothing else. Without the "discovery"
of the New World, the extermination of Indians and plundering
of their wealth, and the creation of a slave-based economy,
Europe would have remained where it was in the 15th century-a
backwater region that envied the wealth of Asia.

Jim is too ill right now to participate in debates, but what
he has said makes it doubtful that a serious debate can be
held on the Brenner thesis with Yoshie and her co-thinkers.
He says that either they have not read his criticisms, and
if they have, they have willfully misstated his arguments.
That has been exactly my reaction to Yoshie's intervention.
She continuously papers over differences to be all things
to all people. By announcing that she will synthesize Jim
Blaut and Robert Brenner, she might as well state that she
is synthesizing Stalin and Trotsky, or Genovese and Herbert

That being said, if there is to be a synthesis of any sort,
it is necessary to CLEARLY define THESIS and ANTITHESIS.
In debates on PEN-L, it has been impossible to even come to
terms about what Brenner and Woods are saying. She insists
that the Brenner thesis allows the possibility of the slave
trade being a key element of the formation of the capitalist
system, while my reading of Brenner and Woods convinces me
that the slave trade-in their view-was NONCAPITALIST.
Ricardo Duchesne, a PEN-L professor who has specialized in
these issues (he reviewed Andre Gunder Frank's "ReOrient"
for Science and Society), has been providing a running
commentary on Woods' book. He insists that the book is OPPOSED
to the idea that the slave trade was CAPITALIST. I should
mention that Duchesne has fought with Blaut over these
questions in cyberspace time and again. He is quite honest
about the reasons he supports Brenner against Blaut. Ricardo
is a Weberian opposed to historical materialism. He finds
sustenance for his arguments in the Brenner thesis.

Richard Fidler lines up with Yoshie in this debate. The
only trouble is that lining up with Yoshie is not necessarily
the same thing as lining up with Brenner. She has done
everything possible to paper over the differences and
make Brenner some kind of Mariateguist. This can only
be done by quoting Mariategui out of context. I have seen
Jim Heartfield do the same thing in order to show that he
was some kind of LM patron saint. In Mariategui's writings,
you can always find some kind of Marxist boiler plate that
is consistent with generalities found in the Communist
Manifesto. The same thing is true of Stalin and Enver
Hoxha for that matter. What Mariategui is really about is
using Incan ayllus as a launching pad for proletarian
revolutions. He is also a proponent of class-based proletarian
revolutions as opposed to APRISTA multiclass alliances.
Now if Yoshie wanted to have a discussion about Mariategui
and Peruvian politics, we could have had that discussion.
Instead her reference to Mariategui was of the same character
as everything else in this debate: shameless namedropping of
the kind that takes place at cocktail parties.

Just to recapitulate what Robert Brenner and Ellen Meiksins Wood
really stand for:

1. Capitalism originated in the 15th century in the British countryside. Because there
were nearly no workers (a mere bagatelle), she is forced to call this "Agrarian
This is not protocapitalism or mercantile capitalism or any
of the other incipient forms that Karl Marx discusses. It
is the REAL THING. It is characterized by the ECONOMIC
exploitation of the peasantry through the use of land rent
rather than the direct POLITICAL exploitation through tithe
and tribute that had marked feudal relations in the past.
By instituting rents, the countryside became regulated by
economic competition for the first time. When a peasant is
forced to come up with a money rent rather than a percentage
of a harvest, it puts pressure on him to innovate. In my
view, Brenner's thesis is directly related to the Analytical
Marxism school from which he emerges-although somewhat eclectically. TECHNOLOGICAL
aspect of the AM school. G.A. Cohen argues that technological
breakthroughs mark different stages in civilization. Very
few people believe that AM is genuine Marxism and most of
its leading proponents disavow Marxism nowadays. It is based
on British empiricism philosophically and is ill-equipped
to explain social and economic transitions.

2. The slave trade of the 16th through 19th century was
NONCAPITALIST in nature. It belonged to the realm of commerce
in which the governing economic factor was "buy cheap and
sell dear." I guess if you capture slaves in Africa and force
them to pick sugar cane in Jamaica for free, you are really getting it for wholesale.
The same thing applies to American
Indians. When the Indians sold the island of Manhattan for some
glass beads, you were also dealing with a "I can get it for
you wholesale" phenomenon. Obviously this is complete
horseshit. Commerce can certainly describe what took place
in the 15th century when spices from India were exchanged
for Egyptian camels. And so on and so forth. But to even
suggest that the slave trade fell into this category is
racially insensitive but a slap in the face to historical

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