[Marxism] Robert Brenner versus Chris Harman

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Dec 1 14:14:12 MST 2004

I just had a chance to listen to a debate between Robert Brenner and 
Chris Harman on the origins of capitalism that is online at:


I had no idea that Harman had involved himself in this ongoing 
controversy. An additional search revealed a paper by him titled "The 
Rise of Capitalism" at:


It was interesting to hear Brenner speak. For some reason, he has never 
made an appearance at the Socialist Scholars Conference. Perhaps this is 
a result of a kind of division of labor between him and Ellen Meiksins 
Wood with Brenner concentrating on contributions to small-circulation 
scholarly journals and Wood addressing more popular audiences, like the 
one that attended this debate.

In any case, it is very useful to have Brenner himself, rather than 
Wood, defending this point of view in a fairly easy to understand manner.

For Brenner, the key element of capitalism is growth and productivity. 
He seeks to unlock the key to the explosive and even revolutionary 
dynamic of this system, which he identifies as a particular outcome of 
the class struggle and natural conditions in 14th century Great Britain. 
A combination of population decline (from the Black Death) and tenant 
farming in the countryside produced a new historical set of 
circumstances that allowed a transition from feudalism to capitalism.

He says that this differs from the "dominant view" in Marxism that tends 
to see capitalism as "sprouting" from seeds throughout a given country. 
It was clear from his presentation of this question that he had Jim 
Blaut's concept of "protocapitalism" in mind.

Brenner admitted that Karl Marx himself was guilty of this non-Marxist 
way of thinking in certain places, especially in the introduction to 
"Critique of Political Economy." Since Brenner did not specify what was 
wrong with this work, I can only guess that it is formulations such as this:

"Since bourgeois society is, moreover, only a contradictory form of 
development, it contains relations of earlier societies often merely in 
very stunted form or even in the form of travesties, e.g., communal 
ownership. Thus, although it is true that the categories of bourgeois 
economy are valid for all other social formations, this has to be taken 
cum grano salis, for they may contain them in an advanced, stunted, 
caricatured, etc., form, that is always with substantial differences. 
What is called historical evolution depends in general on the fact that 
the latest form regards earlier ones as stages in the development of 
itself and conceives them always in a one-sided manner, since only 
rarely and under quite special conditions is a society able to adopt a 
critical attitude towards itself; in this context we are not of course 
discussing historical periods which themselves believe that they are 
periods of decline."

I surmise that this would bother Brenner because it does not satisfy his 
rather *restrictive* (as he put it) definition of capitalism. For 
Brenner, there are two mutually exclusive modes of production that are 
as different from each other as night and day. In other words, an 
electric light cannot be on and off at the same time. A woman cannot be 
pregnant and non-pregnant at the same time. By the same token, you 
cannot have capitalism and feudalism at the same time either.

Needless to say, this sort of rigid stagism is a hallmark of the British 
Communist historians group that provided the ideological framework for 
the Brenner thesis. Harman quite rightly referred to the Brenner thesis 
debate as the second stage of one that began with the Paul 
Sweezy-Maurice Dobb debate of the 1950s.

Like Brenner, Dobb argued that capitalism was a unique event that 
occurred in the British countryside and that (implicitly) diffused 
throughout the world. If you look at the index of his "Studies in the 
Development of Capitalism," you will find scant reference to slavery or 
anything else happening in the New World for that matter.

In distinction to Dobb, historians influenced by Trotsky's theory of 
combined and uneven development tend to see the interpenetration of 
feudal and capitalist modes of production. For example, Eric Williams' 
"Capitalism and Slavery," which was influenced by CLR James, considers 
the two economic institutions as part of a whole. Slavery does not 
represent non-capitalism, but merely a form of the exploitation of labor 
that was necessary for the purer, industrial form to take off. Brenner 
and Wood disagree sharply with this view.

Brenner goes on at some length to belittle the notion of capitalist 
property relations taking root within feudal society and then overtaking 
and swamping it. Although this can be seen as an attack on Trotsky's 
theory of combined and uneven development, it is also implicitly an 
attack on Lenin's views as well.

Over and over again, Lenin made the point that capitalism was emerging 
from within the mostly feudal countryside in Russia. It was his analysis 
of this all-important question that was mounted as part of a debate with 
the Populists (who denied such a transformation) that propelled him into 
the leadership of Russian Marxism.

In "The Agrarian Programme of Social-Democracy in the First Russian 
Revolution, 1905-1907," Lenin wrote:

 >>In those two paths of objectively possible bourgeois development we 
would call the Prussian path and the American path, respectively. In the 
first case feudal landlord economy slowly evolves into bourgeois, Junker 
landlord economy, which condemns the peasants to decades of most 
harrowing expropriation and bondage, while at the same time a small 
minority of Grossbauern ("big peasants”) arises. In the second case 
there is no landlord economy, or else it is broken up by revolution, 
which confiscates and splits up the feudal estates. In that case the 
peasant predominates, becomes the sole agent of agriculture, and evolves 
into a capitalist farmer. In the first case the main content of the 
evolution is transformation of feudal bondage into servitude and 
capitalist exploitation on the land of the feudal landlords—Junkers. In 
the second case the main background is transformation of the patriarchal 
peasant into a bourgeois farmer.<<

You'll note that Lenin says the "capitalist exploitation on the land of 
the feudal landords--Junkers." In other words, the light is on and off 
at the same time.

I strongly suspect that for Brenner the only true case of capitalism 
before the 19th century is in Great Britain. I do know that Ellen 
Meiksins Wood denies that there was capitalism in France during the 
French revolution. Speaking for myself, I'll go along with Marx, Lenin 
and Trotsky on these questions.


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