Reply to Brenner/Wood, part 2

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Thu May 24 07:18:57 MDT 2001

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

>>REPLY: The "exploitation of labor for commercial profit" is obviously a
reference to the sort of thing that transpired on Jamaican sugar
plantations and Bolivian silver mines in the 17th century when the largest
labor force in human history was amassed in order to produce commodities
for the world market under the auspices of companies traded on the London
stock market. This has nothing to do with capitalism in Wood's eyes.
Actually to be fair, Wood and Brenner have simply ripped off Laclau who
developed this bizarre analysis first. At least Laclau had the
forthrightness to call this feudalism while Wood prefers vaporous
formulations like "exploitation of labor for commercial profit." One would
assume that she believed that North American slavery was precapitalist as
well, by this logic.<<

The critical transformation of social property relations, in Marx's
account, took place in the English countryside. In the new agrarian
relations, landlords increasingly derived rents from the commercial profits
of capitalist tenants, while many small producers were dispossessed and
became wage laborers.

>>REPLY: Of course. This is how British capitalism developed. Capitalism
developed differently in Latin America, Ireland, India, etc. It was
characterized by unfree labor. We are dealing with a system. Let me repeat

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.

>>REPLY: Superior practices? I don't think this is what Blaut was driving
at. He emphasized the susceptibility of indigenous peoples to European
smallpox and measles. If it wasn't for this, the fucking Brits would still
be walking around in sheepskins and burning peat moss to keep warm.<<

Marx's insights were elaborated by later Marxist historians, especially in
the famous "Transition Debate" which began in 1950 in Science and Society.
Here, the main issue was whether the transition from feudalism to
capitalism was brought about by external factors-in particular, the growth
of trade (as in the "commercialization model")-or by internal factors, a
development in social property relations.

In that debate, historians such as Maurice Dobb and R.H. Hilton challenged
the commercialization model. At least, they showed how the dissolution of
Western feudalism and the transition to capitalism was not brought about by
the expansion of trade, by urbanization, or by the increasing monetization
of the economy. Feudalism-a system constituted by a relation between
peasants in possession of the means of subsistence and lords whose
self-reproduction depended on "extra-economic," coercive surplus
extraction-was, they argued, compatible with a considerable degree of
urbanization, while trade was an essential feature of the system.

>>REPLY: The Dobb-Sweezy debate involved questions such as the Pirenne
thesis (whether the growth of cities and international trade broke the back
of feudalism), etc. Neither principal addressed the question of the role of
the New World.<<

Robert Brenner built on the foundation created by these Marxist historians
and especially their emphasis on the class relations between lords and
peasants. But he clearly felt that his predecessors were still conceding
too much to the old model. So, instead of assuming the prior existence of
capitalism, either as "protocapitalism" or as petty commodity production
trying to break out of feudal fetters to become a mature capitalism, he set
out to explain the emergence of a new and historically unprecedented social

>>REPLY: Yes, and in order to set the parameters of this discussion to
favor his own conclusions, he omitted any mention of the New World. This is
called stacking the deck.<<

In other words, Brenner set out to explain a real transition from one mode
of production to another. He laid out a detailed explanation of how social
property relations were transformed so that they set in motion a new
historical dynamic, the imperatives of competition, profit-maximization and
a tendency to relentless and systematic development of the productive forces.

>>REPLY: Now we are getting down to brass tacks. Wood refers to "a real
transition from one mode of production to another." This is the tip-off
that we are dealing with a self-fulfilling methodology. Any idiot can
figure out that the mode of production that preoccupied Marx in Capital was
that which evolved in Great Britain. A mass of propertyless free laborers
found themselves in opposition to a bourgeoisie that would pay them a wage
for their labor, which was a commodity. Unfortunately, Marx was only human
and could not focus on other areas of the world where the capitalist system
did not take this shape, such as Latin America. In Latin America the mode
of production that typified Great Britain was PRECLUDED from taking shape.
By the same token the mode of production that Marx analyzed in V. 1 of
Capital could not have emerged without the "noncapitalist" modes of
production in the New World. More recent scholarship has established the
DISTORTED but CAPITALIST nature of sugar plantations and silver mines but
since Brenner and Wood can't be bothered to analyze Latin America, you will
never find a citation for Sidney Mintz in all of their copious research.<<

Brenner's original argument concentrated on England, where certain very
specific social property relations made both landlords and tenants
dependent on the market and created an economy subject to market
imperatives. But he has since elaborated an argument seeking to show that
in parts of the Netherlands, there was a different route to market dependence.

>>REPLY: The Netherlands? How catholic of him. What about Java, for pete's

For Brenner, the divergence of European development, or, more precisely of
capitalist development in part of Europe, lies here, in the emergence of a
system of market dependent social property relations, not in "bourgeois
revolutions" or in the later development of industrial capitalism. He
clearly conceives of capitalism as a system of market imperatives-that is,
as a system in which the market functions not just as an opportunity to
exchange some goods for others, or even to make profit and acquire wealth,
but as a necessity, a compulsion, which imposes on production and social
reproduction certain inescapable requirements of competition,
profit-maximization, and increasing labor-productivity.

>>REPLY: Of course he considers capitalism as a system of market
imperatives. He is talking about Great Britain. He is Britocentric. Or
maybe Dutch-centric. But what about Latin America? If you read B. Traven's
"Jungle" novels, based on his experience in Chiapas, we are confronted by
repeated instances of indigenous peoples being shanghaied, dragged off to
mahogany forests and forced by trumped-up debt peonage to chop down trees
to satisfy the global demand for fancy furniture. This is taking place in
the early 1900s. What is this mode of production? Laclau, who Brenner stole
most of his anti-"dependency theory" ideas from, says this is feudalism. I
may not have a pedigree in European history, but something tells me that
what was going on in Chiapas has NOTHING to do with what is described in
Marc Bloch's books on feudalism.<<

Like other Marxist historians such as E.P. Thompson, Brenner understands
industrialization not as a transhistorical process of technological change,
nor the simple product of accumulated "capital" (i.e.; just wealth), nor
the cause of Europe's distinctive economic development, but the end product
of those specific economic imperatives which resulted from very distinctive
social property relations. The so-called Industrial Revolution was the
outcome of an economy already structured by capitalist social property
relations, which shaped the development of both agriculture and industry.

>>REPLY: Yeah, other Marxist historians like E.J. Hobsbawm and Christopher
Hill as well. Does the stage coach stop here?<<

Brenner's argument even challenged the old conception of "bourgeois
revolution." He criticized it as just another way of avoiding the question
of transition by assuming the prior existence of capitalism, in the person
of the "protocapitalist" bourgeoisie, just waiting to break free of feudal
chains. His argument is significant also because it broke with the old
Eurocentric habit of treating the development of capitalism as a general
European process, as if it were somehow the product of European racial or
cultural superiority.

>>REPLY: I guess the old conception of "bourgeois revolution" is a
reference to 1789, etc. Wood is a fan of Comninel's Marxist presentation of
the 'revisionist' historians on the French revolution. While I also reject
the notion that there was some kind of fundamental irreconcilable
difference between the landed gentry and the emerging bourgeoisie, I don't
know exactly what this has to do with Brenner. The English CP historians
who are his main influence would regard Comninel's thesis as anathema.<<

Brenner not only insisted on the specificity of capitalism as distinct from
other commercial societies outside of early modern Europe but also
identified the social conditions that distinguished one European society
from another, giving rise to capitalism in England but not, say, in France.

>>REPLY: the "commercial societies"? That's a new one on me. Let's add that
to Tom Bottomore's "Dictionary of Marxist Thought".<<

Louis Proyect
Marxism mailing list:

More information about the Marxism mailing list