Ellen Meiksins Wood versus Karl Marx

Louis Proyect lnp3 at SPAMpanix.com
Sun Oct 29 19:10:37 MST 2000

Ellen Meiksins Wood, "Origins of Capitalism", p. 101:

"Trade and empire, then were essential factors in the development of
industrial capitalism, but they cannot be treated as primary causes."


Karl Marx, Capital V. 1, ch. 31, "The Genesis of the Industrial Capitalist":

"The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement
and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the
conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a
warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins, signalised the rosy dawn
of the era of capitalist production. These idyllic proceedings are the
chief momenta of primitive accumulation. On their heels treads the
commercial war of the European nations, with the globe for a theatre. It
begins with the revolt of the Netherlands from Spain, assumes giant
dimensions in England's Anti-Jacobin War, and is still going on in the
opium wars against China, &c.

"The different momenta of primitive accumulation distribute themselves now,
more or less in chronological order, particularly over Spain, Portugal,
Holland, France, and England. In England at the end of the 17th century,
they arrive at a systematical combination, embracing the colonies, the
national debt, the modern mode of taxation, and the protectionist system.
These methods depend in part on brute force, e.g., the colonial system.
But, they all employ the power of the State, the concentrated and organised
force of society, to hasten, hot-house fashion, the process of
transformation of the feudal mode of production into the capitalist mode,
and to shorten the transition. Force is the midwife of every old society
pregnant with a new one. It is itself an economic power."


I would add that Karl Marx does write about the changes taking place in the
15th century English countryside in some detail. They are covered in
chapter 29, the Genesis of the Capitalist Farmer. Anybody who reads these
chapters comes away with the understanding that the changes in the
countryside, so crucial to Brenner, were preconditions for the formation of
agrarian capitalists. In chapter 31, there is absolutely no importance
given to changes in relationships between peasant and lord. What Brenner
has done is alter the causality in explaining the rise of industrial
capitalism. Instead of paying attention to the phenomena Marx deemed
important--slavery and colonialism, they place complete emphasis on
INTERNAL changes in the British countryside.

In other words, they are revising Marx.

Now, it is not necessarily such a bad thing to revise Marx. His theory of
the Asiatic Mode of Production required modification. But what Brenner did
was of a completely different nature. It removed the claws from the Marxist
analysis and made it palatable to an academic milieu that did not want to
hear about slavery, colonialism and imperialism. When Brenner wrote his
1977 New Left Review article attacking Paul Sweezy and company, it was part
of a shift taking place at the journal. The petty-bourgeois careerists at
the magazine no longer had mass demonstrations to speak at on behalf of
third world movements. As Tariq Ali said to a NYC audience last year, this
was around the time he had decided to put revolutionary politics on the
back burner. People like Ali who had made their reputation as Trotskyists
on the front lines defending the colonial revolution now turned their
attention to academia and cushy jobs in television and newspapers.

This tendency has only deepened since 1977 and the magazine, upon whose
editorial board Robert Brenner sits, just announced to the world that the
project of proletarian revolution was finished. Brenner and Perry Anderson,
a co-editor at NLR, are profs at UCLA where they organize high-falutin'
conferences under the auspices of the think-tank he runs there. When a
trade unionist approached Brenner to write a forward for a book, Brenner
made himself unavailable.

Brenner will never be seen hurling rocks at Israeli border guards like
Edward Said or organizing conferences on genocide on Indian reservations
like Jim Craven. His antagonist Jim Blaut has had a proud record as a
militant with the Puerto Rican Socialist Party. So I enjoyed seeing Jim
nail Brenner's ass to the floor in his summary: "Euro-Marxism no longer
needs Brenner's theory, because Euro-Marxism no longer worries much about
the Third World. Euro-Marxism is not entirely sure that the Third World
exists. It is not entirely sure that anything exists." This of course is a
reference to the NLR's turn toward post-modernish Marxism around the time
Brenner was giving Paul Sweezy a C+ on his Marxism 101 report card. No more
would you see embarrassing calls for solidarity with third world
guerrillas; the "grown up" radicals at the NLR would much prefer to discuss
Sartre than Sandino.

Louis Proyect
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