[Marxism] Robert Brenner versus Chris Harman
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
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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