Reply to Ellen Meiksins Wood

Charles Brown CharlesB at
Fri May 25 12:28:11 MDT 2001

>>> jcraven at 05/17/01 01:53PM >>>
Response: It was said previously that Ellen Wood is a or even THE "leading"
Marxist theoretician. Since Marxists believe in the dialectical unity of
theory and PRACTICE, what forms and levels of "practice" (as in concrete
struggles in concrete ways) has she been/is she involved in exactly?

Just a question--not rhetorical--as I have never heard of her or read her
writings before this article (not that that means anything as there are a
whole lot of issues and practicioner/theoreticians about which/whom I am
ignorant). I personally found little in her last article of use in some of
the struggles in which I am involved; but maybe I am missing something.

Enlightment please.

Jim C



I have been trying to pull together a new comment on this issue for a couple of days. I don't have the time to write the whole comment now, but will start as it is getting dated in relation to the latest thread on this. The topic of the history and especiallly origin of capitalism has been the basis for a number of very heated and popular threads in these corners of left cyberspace. I want to start out by addressing Jim C's comment on the need for unity of theory and practice.

It is difficult to demonstrate the relevance to today's practice of the detailed analysis of events from 500 years ago or so. So, perhaps this thread is mainly of intellectual and scholarly interest.  My argument to the contrary ( a little) would be that the Marxist theory of capitalism is rooted in part in a long term theory of history even before capitalism, historical materialism. Marx , from whom we get our concern to always tie our theory to practice, made his theory most potent by looking at these larger historical wholes of longterm capitalism and long term class exploitative society. The succinct and famous expression of this is in _The Manifesto of the Communist Party_ ( the link between theory and practice is expressed in the fact that that document is founding a party for action).

More specifically here, I think that the Meiksins Wood, Brenner thesis ( and even Dobbs from Lou Proyect's discussion of Dobbs' thesis regarding origin in the towns and trade in England) is defective for informing practice in the year 2001 because it does not define capitalism as its whole system of wage-labor in the bourgeois homelands AND  oppressed forms of labor, such as slavery, in its colonies, plantations, ghettoes and barrios.  We need an understanding of capitalism today that sees it as from the beginning dependent upon forms of labor that are not fully waged. The racist oppression and creation of a caste of Black and other workers of color in the U.S. is not a non-necessary or contingent or dispensable aspect of U.S. capitalism, TODAY.  The inequalities between workers the imperialist centers and in the neo-colonies around the globe are a necessary condition of capitalism. This is a historical and structural fact of capitalism. The Proyect/Wood debate impacts the historical aspect of this.

I am glad to have the essay by Meiksins Wood in _Against the Current_ ( one of my hometown journals :>); I see Dave Finkel fairly often around town) , because I now have her exact formulations regarding Marx's discussion of the socalled primitive accumulation of capitalism. I have been arguing all along that Marx's version of the origin of capitalism is like mine above, i.e. more holistic or dialaectical geographically than Woods or Brenner. Reading Wood's discussion in the article , I would say that she does misinterpret or misread Marx on this issue. For those who have read my comments on this before this may sound like a mantra, but Marx says very explicitly that the slavery and colonialism were the "chief momenta " of the primitive accumulation of capitalism. Let me annotate some of Wood's discussion in "Eurocentric Anti-Eurocentrism" to get at this.

In a section as follows Wood starts out:

Challenging Eurocentrism
This kind of argument seems to me a regression, which forfeits much of the progress historians have made in challenging the Eurocentric model.  The real breakthroughs in opposing that model have come from historians―mainly Marxists, but also an economic historian like Karl Polanyi―who have undermined the naturalization of capitalism, the view that capitalism is basically a natural extension of certain universal human practices, which would itself have become universal if only all the world's peoples were as rational and free as Europeans. 

By insisting on the historical specificity of capitalism, they have dealt a fatal blow to the most Eurocentric principle of all: that the European path of development culminating in industrial capitalism is the natural order of things and that non-European civilizations that did not take that path, or faltered somewhere along the way, failed because they were somehow fatally flawed. 


CB: Although this is not yet a discussion of primitive accumulation, this is a central theoretical argument Wood makes, echoed in some of Yoshie's support of Wood's theses ( I expressed my disagreements with Yoshie on this , by the way, but I was very sorry to see Comrade Furuhashi leave the list related to this dispute). On this , let me say I think Wood misses a central idea of Marxist theory: that capitalism is not only a contingent historical process but also contradictorily a necessary extension of prior class exploitative society. Furthermore, commodity production ( production for exchange, not use by the producer) does exist in precapitalist society, and so there is a kernel or seed for capitalism in prior socieities.  The fact that Marx argues that capitalism is not the natural order of things is not the same thing as his arguing that capitalism is not caused in part by the prior existing societies and class structures. Wood's absolute historical specificity is not the same as Marx's approach. Capitalism does not spring from the head of Zeus fully born like Minerva or whatever.

As the Manifesto says:

"The modern bourgeois society that has sprouted from the ruins of feudal society has not done away with class antagonisms. It has but established new classes, new conditions of oppression, new forms of struggle in place of the old ones"

Here, Marx and Engels are not arguing that " the naturalization of capitalism, the view that capitalism is basically a natural extension of certain universal human practices," as Wood puts it.


The challenge begins with Marx's critique of classical political economy and its notion of "primitive accumulation."  In some of his own historical sketches (for instance, in the Manifesto) Marx never completely dissociated himself from the old model (which I call the "bourgeois paradigm").  There, the origin of capitalism was not so much explained as presupposed, as a new social form waiting to be released by the rising bourgeoisie when it finally threw off its feudal shackles. 

For Marx's truly distinctive "Marxist" approach, we have to look to his critique of political economy.  Although that approach was obviously much more developed in his revolutionary analysis of contemporary capitalism, in his dissection of "the so-called primitive accumulation" in volume I of Capital, he applied his critique to the historical question of the system's origin. 


CB: Here we see that Wood is somewhat aware that her approach is not the same as Marx's. Only she poses it as if Marx is partially stuck in what Wood calls the bourgeois paradigm.  Hardly. It is Wood who is partially stuck in a bourgeois paradigm. Wood doesn't seem to get that for Marx, the bourgeois revolution is a qualitative leap which is also a sublation. It both overcomes and preserves the old society.  Thereby , the new social form is to an extent existing in the struggles of the bourgeoisie in feudalism as a potential. Capitalism is not entirely arbitrary or contingent in relation to feudalism or  other previous class exploitative societies.

Marx's approach is fully Marxist ( :>)) in _The Manifesto_ and in _Capital_, In that approach, he sees some roots of the new society contained in the old. Specifically, the bourgeoisie are an oppressed class in feudalism , and their shape there prefigures their shape in capitalism. Simple enough. Not really that hard to believe or understand.

So, Wood begs the question or makes a circular argument here. Marx is not acting like true Marx when he contradicts Wood's version of Marx on the historical specificity of a "Marxist" approach to the origin of capitalism.

But actually, Marx is thoroughly a Marxist, and it is Wood who develops a non-Marxist approach to the question.


Here ( in his discussion of the socalled primitive accumulation in _Capital_) Marx did decisively break with the old paradigm and laid a foundation for important elaborations by later Marxist historians.  He insisted that wealth by itself wasn't "capital," that capital was a social relation, that the mere accumulation of wealth was not the decisive factor in the origin of capitalism, and that a transformation of social property relations―the expropriation of direct producers, specifically in England―was the real "primitive accumulation." 


CB: This is a misrepresentation of the text of _Capital_ and Marx's discussion of the "primitive accumulation. 

Briefly, "The So-called Primitive Accumulation" is Part VIII of Vol. I of _Capital_. This Part has 8 chapters, XXVI through XXXIII. Chapters XXVII through XXX discuss Wood's favorite topics in the English country side. But Chapter XXXI , "Genesis of the Industrial Capitalist" contain Marx's discussion of the critical role of slavery and colonialism in the primiitive accumulation. As far as I can see, Wood doesn't mention or discuss this chapter. And if of course carries the famous passages that contradict Wood's version of Marx's thesis:

"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"

Until Wood addresses this passage and chapter, I don't know what to say except , she missed half of Marx's discussion.

By the way, Jim Blaut is one of my heroes (more on that below) ,but I always pointed to this passage in discussions with Jim to argue that Marx's thesis is not as Eurocentric as Jim argued.

The phrase "the process of transformation of the feudal mode of production into the capitalist mode, " again contradicts Wood's general understanding of a Marxist theoretical approach to the relationship between capitalism and feudalism. And this is _Capital_, not The Manifesto.


The point of Marx's critique of "the so-called primitive accumulation" (and people too often miss the significance of the phrase "so-called") is that no amount of accumulation, whether from outright theft, from imperialism, from commercial profit, or even from the exploitation of labor for commercial profit, by itself constitutes capital, nor will it produce capitalism. 


CB: An interesting point here is that I too have long noticed the term "socalled". However, it is also interesting that in the passage above "socalled " is not used before "primitive accumulation" . We might infer from that the colonial holocaust was the REAL, not socalled, primitive accumulation. But I think Wood misunderstands the status of the "wealth" that was accumulated in the primitive accumulation. It is a necessary and critical premise to fully capitalist wealth and accumulation.

Also, near the beginning of the first chapter of this section, XXVI, "The Secret of the Primitive Accumulation" is a more direct assertion supporting what I am saying here:

"In actual history it is notorious that conquest, enslavement, robbery, murder, briefly force, play the great part. In the tender annals of Political Economy, the idyllic reigns from time immemorial. Right and "labor" were from all time the sole means of enrichment, the present year of course always excepted. As a matter of fact, the methods of primitive accumulation are anything but idyllic. "

The burden is on Wood to demonstrate that Marx said "enslavement" but meant "wage-labor", or that "conquest" does not refer to conquest outside of England.



The "primitive accumulation" of classical political economy is "so-called" because capital, as Marx defines it, is a social relation and not just any kind of wealth or profit, and accumulation as such is not what brings about capitalism.  Of course some accumulated wealth is necessary, but the specific precondition of capitalism is a transformation of social property relations that generates capitalist "laws of motion": the imperatives of competition and profit-maximization, a compulsion to reinvest surpluses, and a systematic and relentless need to improve labor-productivity and develop the forces of production. 


CB: Evidently, Marx thinks that accumulation of proto-capital wealth is a specific precondition of capitalism.   This seems the crux of the disagreement between what Marx says and what Wood substitutes as her more Marxist theory than Marx's.  Marx argues that the old forms of wealth and the forms of wealth in transition between the old forms and the capitalist form ARE "specific preconditions" of capitalistic accumulation. What else would "chief momenta " be ? The elements Wood lists are also necessary preconditions. It is a simple matter of expanding her list to enclude the activities of the Europeans around the globe as well as in the English countryside as NECESSARY to the initiation of capitalism.


The critical transformation of social property relations, in Marx's account, took place in the English countryside. 


CB: This is false, as demonstrated by the Chapter quoted above.  I have not found Marx calling the social property relations in the English countryside as "the critical tranformation of social property relations". Wood fails to understand slavery and colonialism as social property relations or their establishment ( or "transformation") as equally critical with what took place in the English countryside in the establishment of capitalism.

And to return to an original point, the imperialist relations with neo-colonies and Third World countries, and racist and oppressed national divisions of the working class within imperialist centers like the U.S. are just as critical, necessary, and definitional of capitalism today as are "the imperatives of competition and profit-maximization, a compulsion to reinvest surpluses, and a systematic and relentless need to improve labor-productivity and develop the forces of production" .   



"Marx regards this rural transformation as the real "primitive accumulation" not because it created a critical mass of wealth but because these social property relations generated new economic imperatives, especially the compulsions of competition, a systematic need to develop the productive forces, leading to new laws of motion such as the world had never seen before. "


CB: As demonstrated above, Marx does not treat the rural transformation as more real primitive accumulation than colonialism and slavery. 

Here let me mention something I haven't said before. It is true that the world had never seen the specific laws of motion of capitalist accumulation before. But those new laws of motion also included "globalized" colonialism and capitalist slavery.

 Furthermore, what was new in capitalism was not equivalent to what was necessary and critical in capitalism. Conquest, enslavement, robbery, murder, briefly force , had been seen by the world before however "in actual history it is notorious that conquest, enslavement, robbery, murder, briefly force, play the great part" in originating capitalism.



At the heart of this argument was Marx's insistence on the historical specificity of capitalism.  This meant that capitalism had a historical beginning and therefore a conceivable end.  Capitalism was not the product of some inevitable natural process, nor was it the end of history.  It had emerged in very specific historical conditions.  If it was spreading throughout the world, this wasn't because of any "diffusion" of inherently superior Western ideas and practices but because of capitalism's own specific imperatives, its ruthless drive for self-expansion. 


CB: Capitalism was not and is not the end of history , but it is a product of history. The idea that capitalism was caused by preceding conditions does not contradict the idea that it is also historically specific or the idea that it is not an inevitable natural process. Marx's position is that capitalism is the result of historical tendencies in the prior period. It doesn't just fall out of the sky, like a meteor, like a natural accident , either.

Enough for now. I will pull together some comments on Jim Blaut and Eurocentrism later. For now let me say, that "Eurocentrism" is a form of the concept of White Supremacy. White Supremacist action , if not that specific conception, was a necessary part of capitalism from its origin exactly because of the critical role of the primitive accumulation in the colonies and plantations. Capitalism is from the start, critically , a global system, with a concentration of oppressed labor / less than wage-labor forms outside of Europe. 

One question that those subscribing to the Wood/Brenner thesis must answer is why would the English and other Europeans spend so much time and resources on their colonies and slave trade if it was a non-critical aspect of their system ? Pursuing adventure as pirates around the world as fun and leisure doesn't make sense. The great risk of  these travels was taken because it played an important role in accumulating fortune, and this fortune was a "chief" part of  the first , primary or "primitive" CAPITALIST accumulation.

More information about the Marxism mailing list