Forwarded from Jurriaan Bendien (Dobb-Sweezy)

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Wed Feb 7 13:17:23 MST 2001

Thanks for this interesting post, Louis.

The debate about how to understand the origins of capitalism is not merely
a scholastic activity, because it influences our understanding of how to
supersede capitalism as well, how capitalism could "wither away". There are
some Marxists who want to restrict the categories of Marx's book "Capital"
strictly to industrial capitalism (the capitalist mode of production), but
this violates not only Marx's genetic method; it also turns the origins of
capitalism and the transition to socialism into a mystery. The advantage of
Ernest Mandel's approach (siding with Engels) was that he saw through this.
Therefore he can explain more adequately and consistently not only where
capitalism comes from, but also what it means to get beyond it. Tony
Cliff's "state capitalism" theory of the USSR for instance cannot do that,
therefore the Cliff school unfortunately lack any theory of socialist
transition, beyond holding banners and shouting about "workers power".

You write:

Unfortunately for the general health of Marxism, the Trotskyists did not
have much of an impact on the scholarly left, so we do not have any idea of
what a more dialectically informed analysis of the emergence of capitalism
out of feudalism would have looked like from those quarters.

Ernest Mandel's approach is basically to define "capitalism" as the
capitalist mode of industry defined in terms of private ownership of the
means of production, wage labour, etc. In other words, capitalism exists
when capital has taken over the production process. This is different from
e.g. Wallerstein or Gunder Frank who project capitalism back further into
history in the sense of merchant activity or simply market activity.
Second, Ernest Mandel denies the existence of only a single possible origin
of capitalism, he rejects a monocausal explanation of the origin of
capitalism, and he rejects any unilinear conception of historical
development. Third, he argues that so-called "original accumulation" occurs
all the time, initial money capital is being accumulated all the time, the
question is to understand how money capital can be converted into
productive capital - but there is not only one single factor at work here,
a number of socio-economic conditions must be satisfied. One of the main
problems of the capitalist in medieval times is that his capital easily
gets expropriated, and it takes many centuries before a "stable investment
climate" comes into being so that a process of continuous, uninterrupted
accumulation can take place. Fourthly, he argues that in pre-capitalist
society surplus-value is obtained through exchange (usury, merchant
activity, banking, criminality - a redistribution of value-added) as
against the surplus-value obtained directly from production in capitalist
society. That is to say, the category of the "more value" (mehrwert,
surplus-value) precedes the existence of capitalist society proper.
Fifthly, he argues that imperialism and the formation of a world market is
strongly implicated in the birth of capitalism (this is different from many
other Marxists who argue imperialism is a product of capitalism) Sixthly,
he develops a specific view about why the capitalist mode of production
took root and expanded first in Europa rather than in China, India or the
Middle East.


E Mandel, Marxist Economic Theory (completed 1960)
E. Mandel, Formation of the Economic Thought of Karl Marx
E. Mandel, Late Capitalism
E. Mandel, letter to Andre Gunder Frank
E. Mandel, "Marx's theory of primitive accumulation and the
industrialisation of the third world" 1967 (English transl. J. Bendien,
also published in German, French, Dutch, and Spanish).
E. Mandel, Introduction to Marx's Capital.
E. Mandel, Course on economics 1983.
George Novack, Understanding History.
Perry Anderson, Lineages of the Absolutist State



Louis Proyect
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