Ellen Meiksins Wood addendum

Louis Proyect lnp3 at SPAMpanix.com
Tue Jun 12 07:40:35 MDT 2001


I have subscribed to a number of Marxist print journals for some years now,
including Monthly Review. Generally, when one of them arrives in my mailbox
I read an article or two of immediate interest and then put it on the
shelf. Now I am going back through all of them systematically and trying to
catch up with articles I never read. I dread the thought of wading through
Science and Society with all the exegeses on Grossman, Kalecki, etc. but
what the heck, somebody's gotta do it. My pal John Hartman, who used to
teach sociology here at Columbia until he got the boot in a coup just
before receiving tenure, once told me that the something like only one
percent of articles in academic journals ever get read.

In any case, I was perusing 1999 Monthly Reviews last night and discovered
an article titled "Unhappy Families: Global Capitalism in a World of
Nation-States" by Ellen Meiksins Wood, which is online at:
http://www.monthlyreview.org/799wood.htm. This was a special combined issue
for July/August that reviewed the economic and social situation around the
world. It includes a piece on sub-Saharan Africa by John Saul and Colin
Leys that reads nothing like the 1978 Socialist Register article by Leys on
Kenya that had delusions of capitalist vitality in Moi's corrupt dictatorship.

But Wood's article, which is a preface to the others, is basically a
defense of the Brenner thesis. Think about it. She writes a book in 1999
called the "Origins of Capitalism" that is a defense of the Brenner thesis,
then she writes two lengthy articles in MR, this one and then another one
in the special issue on agriculture that make the same exact points! Not
satisfied with this, she takes the same article and lards it with attacks
on the late Jim Blaut which Against the Current prints in the most recent
issue. Is this a case of obsession or what? Now I try to write about this
stuff as well, but every time I do, I try to come up with new information.
For me, the pleasure in finding counter-indicative information about Spain
makes the trip to the library worthwhile. The thought, however, of taking
my original article that I wrote 3 years ago, when I first heard about the
Benner thesis from Jim Blaut and simply re-writing it, would be a big
turn-off. But then again, the only things I am truly obsessive about are
cell phones and commercials on FM classical radio stations.

The Wood article in the July-August 1999 issue has one advantage. It puts
forward in the most extreme manner imaginable the proposition that
capitalism only existed in England. She states categorically, "Capitalism
had emerged first in one country." Once it took root in England, it
diffused outwards but only as a function of a kind of state-sponsored
operation such as found in Germany or Japan. In England, the capitalist
economy preceded the bourgeois state, while everywhere else the opposite
was true. This leads her to characterize 18th century France as basically
feudal:

"The French absolutist state, for instance, had an economic logic quite
distinct from capitalist forms of exploitation or capitalist laws of
motion. Notwithstanding France's 'bourgeois revolution,' we can't (as I've
argued elsewhere) take for granted its 'spontaneous' evolution into
capitalism, in the absence of external pressures from an already existing
English capitalism."

The quotes around 'bourgeois revolution' is a reference to George
Comninel's Marxist spin on the French revisionist historians (Furet, et al)
who argue that the class conflict between landed gentry and emerging
industrial bourgeoisie was greatly over-exaggerated both in CP historians
like Soboul and among liberals. Whether this thesis supports the notion
that France was 'feudal' in the 18th century is of course another
proposition entirely and not exactly supported by the revisionists.

In any case, the main thrust of Wood's article and her sort of
super-dogmatic reading of Brenner is that capitalism is an economic system
that began in a single country and then diffused outwards. As Mark Jones
has pointed out, to support such a reading involves not only a willful
disregard of the historical record but an anti-Marxist approach to the
question of how social systems emerge. To quote Charles Brown's favorite
passage in V. 1 of Capital:

"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."

Louis Proyect
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