E. Wood's defence of Brenner

Yoshie Furuhashi furuhashi.1 at SPAMosu.edu
Thu Oct 26 01:17:00 MDT 2000

Ricardo wrote:

>When Wood (and Brenner) tell us that capitalism is not commerce
>they mean it. Capitalism  did not grow naturally out of anything that
>preceded it; it is so unknown in history, so novel, exceptional and
>incomparable, that when it came, it did so "fully fledged". (Those
>who claim that Brenner was not so ignorant as to ignore  the role of
>the colonial trade are simply missing the *essence* of  his thesis.)

Wood & Brenner (as well as Marx, for that matter) emphasize the
novelty of capitalism as a mode of production (in historical
materialism, analytical emphasis falls upon discontinuities, rather
than continuities; see _Grundrisse_ & _Capital_ especially).
However, _none_ of them argues that capitalism emerged at once,
"fully fledged," like the birth of Athena from the forehead of Zeus!
The emergence of capitalist social relations was a drawn-out
_process_ (not a linear Progress), born of contingent outcomes of
class struggles in Europe, Africa, & the so-called New World.

I have already cited Brenner's argument that we must study the
process of class struggles & class formations _in Africa_ to fully
account for the emergence of African slaves as commodities, as well
as class struggles & class formations _in the so-called New World_,
instead of simply speaking of the "need" of capitalism for slave
labor a la functionalism.  Now, allow me to turn to the English

*****   In England, _as throughout most of western Europe_, the
peasantry were able by the mid-fifteenth century, through flight and
resistance, definitively to break feudal controls over their mobility
and to win full freedom.  Indeed, peasant tenants at this time were
striving hard for full and essentially freehold control over their
customary tenements, and were not far from achieving it.  The
elimination of unfreedom meant the end of labour services and of
arbitrary tallages.  Moreover, rent _per se_ (_redditus_) was fixed
by custom, and subject to declining long-term value in the face of
inflation.  There were in the long run, however, two major strategies
available to the landlord to prevent the loss of the land to peasant

In the first place, the demographic collapse of the late fourteenth
and fifteenth centuries left vacant many former customary peasant
holdings.  It appears often to have been possible for the landlords
simply to appropriate these and add them to their demesnes.  In this
way a great deal of land was simply removed from the "customary
sector" and added to the "leasehold sector", thus thwarting in
advance a possible evolution towards freehold, and substantially
reducing the area of land which potentially could be subjected to
essentially peasant proprietorship....

In the second place, one crucial loophole often remained open to
those landlords who sought to undermine the freehold-tending claims
of the customary tenants who still remained on their lands and clung
to their holdings.  They could insist on the right to charge fines at
will whenever peasant land was conveyed -- that is, in sales or on
inheritance.  Indeed, in the end entry fines often appear to have
provided the landlords with the lever they needed to dispose of
customary peasant tenants, for in the long run fines could be
substituted for competitive commercial rents.

The landlords' claim to the right to raise fines was _not_, at the
start however, an open-and-shut question, _nor did it go
uncontested_.  Throughout the fifteenth century there were widespread
and apparently quite successful refusals by peasants to pay fines.
And this sort of resistance continued into the sixteenth century when
an increasing labour/land ratio should, ostensibly, have induced the
peasant to accept a deteriorating condition and to pay a higher rent
[if we believed neo-Malthusians].  Ultimately, the peasants took to
open revolt to enforce their claims.  As is well known, _the first
half of the sixteenth century was in England a period of major
agrarian risings which threatened the entire social order_.  And a
major theme of the most serious of these -- especially the revolt in
the north in the mid-1530s and Kett's rebellion in 1549 -- was the
security of peasant tenure, in particular the question of arbitrary

_If successful, the peasant revolts of the sixteenth century, as one
historian has put it, might have "clipped the wings of rural
capitalism"_.  But they did not succeed.  Indeed, by the end of the
seventeenth century, English landlords controlled an overwhelming
proportion of the cultivable land -- perhaps 70-75 per cent -- and
capitalist class relations were developing as nowhere else, with
momentous consequences for economic development.  In my view, it was
the emergence of the "classic" landlord/capitalist
tenant/wage-labourer structure which made possible the transformation
of agricultural production in England, and this, in turn, was the key
to England's uniquely successful overall economic development....

The continuing strength of the French peasant community and French
peasant proprietorship even at the end of the seventeenth century is
shown by the fact that some 45-50 per cent of the cultivated land was
still in peasant possession, often scattered throughout the open
fields.  In England, by contrast, the owner-occupiers at this time
held no more than 25-30 per cent of the land.    (emphasis mine,
footnotes omitted, Robert Brenner, "Agrarian Class Structure and
Economic Development in Pre-Industrial Europe," _The Brenner Debate:
Agrarian Class Structure and Economic Development in Pre-Industrial
Europe_, Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1987, pp. 46-49, 61)   *****

So, depending upon contingent outcomes of the drawn-out process of
class struggles & class formations in Europe, Africa, & the so-called
New World, (a) it is possible that capitalist social relations might
have emerged elsewhere in the world before the British conquered much
of the world; and (b), alternatively, capitalism might _not_ have
emerged _at all_, and we would be living in a world unlike the one in
which we struggle now, according to the line of thinking promoted by
Wood & Brenner.

In my opinion, the Wood & Brenner's arguments resist the myth of
linear, "stagist," "Eurocentric" Progress like _no_ other Marxists'
(other Marxists tend to be much more Hegelian).  And for this reason,
Alan Carling (correctly in my opinion) offered a qualification of
Brenner's view of social evolution (as well as a criticism of G. A.
Cohen's view of determinism):

*****   Subject: Re: Historical Progres
From: James Farmelant (farmelantj at juno.com)
Date: Wed Feb 02 2000 - 09:34:15 EST

...I think that the analogy to mutation lies primarily with the the
fact that Darwinism draws a distinction between the origins of new
variations (i.e. mutations) and their subsequent history when they
are subjected to natural selection.  In the case of the theory of
history, I think that Carling is attempting to draw a similar
distinction between the origins of new variations in the relations of
production as a result of class struggles and their subsequent
history in which they too will undergo selection within a context of
competition with rival regimes of production.  These new variations
may well be planned in their own right but that does not necessarily
mean that they will (or will not) ultimately triumph in competion
with other types of productive relations.

>Is the reference to Brenner's transition theory implicit
>here in particular?

The Thesis of Competitive Primacy is supposed to offer a basis for a
general theory of history but Carling in his "Analytical Marxism and
Historical Materialism: The Debate on Social Evolution" also
attempted to offer ana analysis of the feudalism-capitalism
transition that would be consistent with the more general theory of
history.  Carling sees his approach of drawing a distinction between
the origins of variations and their subsequent histories as crucial
for building an adequate account of the transition from feudalism to
capitalism and he elaborates such a theory which while drawing
heavily from Brenner's work is supposed to provide a synthesis of the
'Smithian' approaches pioneered by Paul Sweezy and Immanuel
Wallerstein which emphasize the role of the "hidden hand" of market
forces in propelling the transition to capitalism with the 'property
relations' approaches which were pioneered by such writers as Maurice
Dobb and Robert Brenner and which instead placed emphasis on the
internal contradictions of feudalism which according to Brenner in
part took the form of a demographic boom-bust cycle and which led to
intensifying class struggle between landlords and peasants.

For Carling writers like Dobb and Brenner correctly unveiled the
forces that created new variations in feudal relations of production
including those that evolved into capitalist ones.  But Smith and
Wallerstein are viewed as having revealed the forces that drove the
favorable selection over capitalist relations of production over
rival relations including the older feudal ones....

[The entire post is available at
<http://nuance.dhs.org/lbo-talk/0002/0120.html>.]   *****


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