[Marxism] Robert Brenner versus Chris Harman

Jurriaan Bendien andromeda246 at hetnet.nl
Wed Dec 1 15:58:20 MST 2004

What's surprising in Brenner's thought is the lack of reference to the 
growth of world trade (formation of a world market), and imperialist 
ventures, in the development of capitalist industry - as referred to e.g. by 
Henri Pirenne and Ernest Mandel.

Industrial capitalism appears in Brenner's analysis as an almost purely 
endogenous, local European development, giving credence to David Landes's 
verities about the "superiority of European civilization", as if this 
civilization did not "borrow" (or steal) extensively from other regions.

Any serious study of the history of the Netherlands and Flanders, the true 
historical birthplace of the capitalist mode of production and the first 
joint-stock companies in the West, will  show that this interpretation 
really isn't very credible. The formation of the capitalist mode of 
production was inextricably bound up with international trade from the very 

This is how Marx briefly sketched the development in the famous Communist 
Manifesto, in my opinion quite accurately:

"From the serfs of the Middle Ages sprang the chartered burghers of the 
earliest towns. From these burgesses the first elements of the bourgeoisie 
were developed. The discovery of America, the rounding of the Cape, opened 
up fresh ground for the rising bourgeoisie. The East-Indian and Chinese 
markets, the colonisation of America, trade with the colonies, the increase 
in the means of exchange and in commodities generally, gave to commerce, to 
navigation, to industry, an impulse never before known, and thereby, to the 
revolutionary element in the tottering feudal society, a rapid development. 
(...) Modern industry has established the world market, for which the 
discovery of America paved the way. This market has given an immense 
development to commerce, to navigation, to communication by land. This 
development has, in turn, reacted on the extension of industry; and in 
proportion as industry, commerce, navigation, railways extended, in the same 
proportion the bourgeoisie developed, increased its capital, and pushed into 
the background every class handed down from the Middle Ages."

Marx adds that:

"The bourgeoisie has, through its exploitation of the world market, given a 
cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country. To 
the great chagrin of reactionaries, it has drawn from under the feet of 
industry the national ground on which it stood."

In other words, the origins of the capitalist mode of production were both 
endogenous and exogenous, involving international trade from the very 
beginning. Capitalism is cosmopolitan by its very nature, and in its very 
origins. That was the original insight which inspired Wallerstein's "world 
system" thesis (although the "world system" idea is nowadays 
indiscriminately applied in all sorts of contexts).

What is really missing from Brenner's analysis is a more detailed analysis 
of the nature of the privatisation processes which "primitive accumulation" 
implies - after all, both wage-labour in various forms, as well as capital 
(usury capital, bank capital, merchant capital) existed long before 
industrial capital made its appearance. There's more to it, than serfs being 
thrown off the land. As Ernest Mandel emphasized, the question is one of 
understanding the socio-economic and political conditions under which 
money-capital and commodity-capital could transform themselves into 
production capital.

There was no very developed industrial bourgeoisie in France at the time of 
the French revolution, but that obviously does not mean that there was no 
bourgeoisie at all. The urban bourgeoisie as a class in any case did not 
have its origins in industry, but in merchant trade.


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