[Marxism] Robert Brenner responds

Xxxxxx Xxxxxxxx xxxxxxxx at xxxxxxx.xxx
Fri Dec 3 01:05:58 MST 2004

Robert Brenner wrote:

>You are right that the Marx quote below would definitely bother me, due
>to its ambiguity, and especially its (qualified) idea that"the
>categories of bourgeois economy are valid for all other social
>formations," which I emphatically reject.  As you say, I am for a
>restricted view of capitalism and the capitalist social property
>relations that were historically necessary for economic development.

Yet the precapitalist world was not a wasteland of stagnant productive forces.
Such a view, often held in particular about the non European 
precapitalist world and justified through spurious references to 
Irfan Habib, easily collapses into apologetic idea that only under 
capitalist relations has there and can there be accumulation. Marx 
rejected this view on the basis of his reading of Richard Jones (a 
view which Marx had earlier expressed in the Communist Manifesto to 
such effect that Schumpeter could later chide Marxists that Marx had 
no equal as a propagandist for capital; the early Marx was indeed at 
times a bourgeois Marxist--to use Catephores' phrase--before 
Schumpeter). Accumulation and development were however not the gifts 
of the bourgeoisie alone.

>But, my own view is taken directly from old Karl, beginning from Chapter
>1 of Capital I. So, I see the law of value as expressive of capitalism
>only, and as holding only under capitalist social-properly relations and
>due to the presence of capitalist social-property relations.

I am not quite sure what is meant by the law of value. Ceaseless 
increases in labor productivity? The explosive contradictions between 
unit value and use value? But that contradiction is wished away 
through the reified technical conditions/physical 
quantity/comparative static method implicit in analytical Marxism.

>development, see also Capital, Part  8 on the So=called [nb] primitive
>accumulation of capital. But, most of all, see PreCapitalist Economic
>Formations in Grundrisse, as well Capital, volume III, Ch 20 on
>Merchants Capital, Ch 36 on pre-capitalist forms of interest, and Ch 47
>on the genesis of capitalist ground rent...in which chapters I believe
>Marx pretty much puts paid to the pervasive notions of capitalist
>sprouts, merchant capital leading to capitalism, etc...and indeed
>decisively clarifies your quote from Marx below.

Oh, no, I think there are many places in which Marx emphasizes that 
merchant capitalists have not fufilled only the function of merchant 
capital but also reorganized the production process. Blackburn's 
study of New World slavery bears this out. The mistake here seems to 
be a reduction of merchant capitalists to personifications of 
merchant capital as that function is reduced and redefined in a fully 
developed capitalism. Banaji makes this criticism. Merchant capital 
has been converted into a ahistoric abstraction. One also hears the 
same criticism in Hamza Alavi's and Doug Maceahern's (sp?) 

>While I was initially inspired by Dobb, my view is very different from
>his. I am, in fact, very critical of Dobb's position for the same reason
>I am critical of the others that you refer to. Dobb's argument is, at
>bottom, in my view, a quite Adam Smithian one.  He believed that the
>only real barrier to development under feudalism was lordship--i.e. that
>"the interfering political"/predation etc. is the only real barrier to
>economic development...which would otherwise occur naturally vis a vis a
>free peasantry under the spur of commerce.  He saw capitalism growing
>out the differentiation of the peasantry, under the impact of trade, in
>early modern England, as the peasant-became-capitalist farmer, the
>revolutionary class par excellence.  By contrast, I see peasant
>possession as a barrier to economic development in general and
>capitalism in particular, as I don't see peasants as incipiently
>capitalist or embryonic capitalists, but having their own rules for
>reproduction, their operation leading not to economic development but to
>to economic involution. 

But apparently free peasantries can be reduced to defacto wage 
labourers under the pressure of merchant and/or usurer's capital. If 
we are not to fetishize wage labour, then we should be open to this 
possibility. The wage and surplus value can take disguised forms as 
Jairus Banaji has argued in a recent Historical Materialism.

>More generally, I see social relations of
>production--what I call social property relations--as entailing not just
>vertical relations of class, but also horizontal relations of exploiters
>with one another and producers with one another.  Without that, one
>could for example fetishize wage labor as the sine qua non of
>capitalism...when it is of course quite common, eg., in feudalism on
>lords' estates.

Now who is being Smithean? The focus on competition (esp as an 
explanation of downward profitability) is Smithean all the way 
through, as I suggested in my initial response to your NLR book on 
LBO-talk five or so years ago. The same pont was then made by 
Bonefeld and Lebowitz in Historical Materialism.  Wage labour is 
indeed the sine qua non of capitalism.

Independent of competition, each capitalist is already motivated by 
the possible appropriation of the maximal mass of surplus  value to 
realize technological progress as embodied in accumulated capital 
goods. 'Monopoly' need not be a fetter on technological progress.

The whole mercantilist period could not be understood if capital 
accumulation were impossible without free competition (what are we to 
make of Colbert's sponsorship of apparently capitalist enterprise?) 
Even the period of free competition may prove to be a myth. Braudel 
argued in the third volume of Perspective of the World:

"The rise of capitalism in the nineteenth century has been described, 
even by Marx, even by Lenin, as eminently, indeed healthily 
competitive. Were such observers influenced by illusions, inherited 
assumptions, ancient errors of judgement? In the eighteenth century, 
compared to the unearned privileges of a 'leisured' aristocracy, the 
privileges of merchants may perhaps have looked like a fair reward 
for labour; in the nineteenth century, after the age of the big 
companies and their state monopolies (the Indies companies for 
instance) the mere freedom of trading may have seemed the equivalent 
of competition. And industrial production (which was however only one 
sector of capitalism) was still quite frequently handled by small 
firms which did indeed compete on the market and continue to do so 
today. Hence the classic image of the entrepreneur serving the public 
interest, which persisted throughout the nineteenth century, while 
the virtues of laissez-faire and free trade were everywhere 
celebrated. The extraordinary thing is that such images should still 
be with us today in the language spoken by politicians and 
journalists, in works of popularization and in the teaching of 
economics, when doubt long ago entered the minds of the 
specialists..."(III, pp. 628-9).

I would retain wage labour, not competition, as the differentia 
specifica of capitalism. The difficulty is in the theorization of 
wage labour (see the excellent piece that Jurriaann forwarded by 
Marcel van der Linden). Wage labour is not ipso facto that labour 
which is paid a wage for which it has freely bargained. If paid out 
of revenue, such labourers should be understood as hired dependents, 
not wage labourers. And labor which does not freely bargain for a 
wage is not ipso facto not wage labour. Triple negative!  Of course 
this raises the question of the essential determinants of wage labour 
as theorized by Marx. I think it should be defined in such a way that 
it is exclusively within and constitutive of the capital relation. 
This would mean that those hired on feudal estates were not in fact 
wage labourers. Banaji has made this point for three decades.

>   Failure to theorize intra-lordly competition and
>peasant possession--both "horizontal" notions--is the conceptual source
>of Dobb's problems, in my opinion.  Of course, this view follows from
>the perhaps unorthodox view that subjection to competition is what makes
>for people take up capitalist rules for reproduction (profit
>maximization, specialization, accumulation, innovations) and so is the
>key to economic development...which makes the social property relations
>that make for market dependence and competition the sine qua non for
>economic development.

Again the mercantilist period shows clearly not only the built in 
monetary fetishism that classical economics would later obfuscate but 
also that capitalist enterprise has depended just as much on 
restriction of competition as free competition. Crisis brings out 
these two aspects of the accumulation process that the mercantilists 
saw clearly but economic ideology later papered over: money is the 
driving and end force of capital, and competition must be forcibly 
restricted for capital to accumulate. 

There are also questions about how competitive the market in leases 
actually was in rural England before, say, 1750. And then there are 
questions about in what specific ways productivity was actually 
increased as a result of this competition. And finally there are 
questions about what role English agrarian capitalism, however 
competitive and productive, actually played in the Industrial 

>As to combined and uneven development, I am an very strong partisan of
>the notion, though not entirely uncritically.  For many years I taught
>Trotsky's Results and Prospects, which I see as a signal contribution to
>Marxist theory, and, even more, revolutionary practice in Russia.  But,
>the point is that Trotsky was not theorizing the initial emergence of
>capitalism from non-capitalism, but  late development, development
>occurring in the context of, and indeed as a result of capitalism's
>already existing elsewhere. Obviously, once capitalism exists on the
>world stage, especially in its industrial form, the problem/issue of
>development is systematically transformed, not the same one as when
>capitalism existed nowhere. It was the systematic mixture of advanced
>modern capitalist industry in the towns and non-developing
>peasantry/state sponsored serfdom in the countryside that Trotsky was
>attempting to theorize, both for the question of development but even
>more for the question of class, revolution, and revolutionary alliances.
>   His statement is the indispensable place to start on all these issues,
>an extraordinary contribution...it was, incidentally, appropriated
>without citation, diluted, and robbed of its historical and radical
>content by Alexander Gerschenkron, who made himself famous by
>domesticating and in the process burying Trotsky's ideas.

>By the way, just so as not to be too agreeable, I think Lenin and
>virtually all of the Bolsheviks were more or less completely--and
>disastrously--wrong about the peasantry, as in the position you briefly
>describe below.  They believed that capitalism was developing in the
>Russian countryside due to the impact of trade, and that the peasantry
>was differentiating itself into capitalists and proletarians (Adam Smith

But I thought Lenin was at least correct on the point of 
differentiation within  the peasantry. In the Development of 
Capitalism in Russia. for example, he wrote :

At the other end of the spectrum of peasant classes, 'is the rural 
proletariat, the class of allotment-holding wage-workers. This covers 
the poor peasants, including those that are completely landless, but 
the most typical representative of the Russian rural proletariat is 
the allotment-holding farm labourer, day labourer, unskilled 
labourer, building worker or other allotment-holding worker. 
Insignificant farming on a patch of land, with the farm in a state of 
utter ruin (particularly evidenced by the leasing out of land), 
inability to exist without the sale of labour-power (= 'industries' 
of the indigent peasants), an extremely low standard of living 
(probably lower even then that of the worker without an allotment) - 
such are the distinguishing features of this type.' Approximately 
'all the horseless and a large part of the one-horse peasants' belong 
to this class (pp 177-78). 

>It was on this basis, that they failed, more or less
>completely, to understand the nature of the agrarian and eventually
>political crisis of the later 1920s in the Soviet. It was on this basis
>that they entertained the quite erroneous notion that the development of
>industry would bring part of the peasantry toward capitalism, leading
>incipiently capitalist kulaks to develop agriculture to support the
>towns.  It was on this basis also that many of them supported
>Preobrazhensky's misconceived idea of socialist primitive
>accumulation--the idea that the socialist towns could exploit the
>peasant cum capitalist countryside through unequal exchange...not
>realizing that the peasants simply would withhold their grain, since
>they weren't capitalists and had no intention of being such...and were
>not dependent on the market, so were shielded from capitalist
>competition and the need to trade. It was on this basis too that they
>tried to pursue a political program in the countryside of allying with
>the poor peasants/proletarians versus the kulaks, which of course
>managed to united the whole of the peasantry, rich and poor, against

I think it is an exaggeration to say that the whole peasantry was 
unified against them.  I quote here from the Russian speaking Nirmal 
Kumar Chandra's analysis 

"Table: Peasant Families as Kolkhoz Members
1928 June
1929 Oct
1929 Jan
1930 Feb
1930 Mar
1930 Apr
1930 Sep
1930 Jan
Number (000) 417 1008 1919 4627 8077 14597 9837 5495 6609
Percentage 1.7 3.9 7.5 18.1 31.7 57.2 38.6 21.5 25.9
Source: Davies 1980, pp 441-42.

There was no compulsion on peasants to join the kolkhoz before 
autumn, 1929 when the Party decided to hasten the pace. One can see 
that membership jumped from 1.0 to 14.6 million between June 1, 1929 
and March 1, 1930, and reached nearly 15 million on March 10. On 
March 2, Pravda published Stalin's famous article, 'Dizzy with 
Success: Problems of the Kolkhoz Movement', in which he berated the 
party cadres for compelling, in violation of the party directive, 
middle peasants by force to join the kolkhoz. (It was ironical as two 
years earlier Stalin had lauded the Ural-Siberian method of forced 
collection of grain against stiff opposition from Bukharin and 
others!) Shortly thereafter, the party decided that peasants could 
leave the kolkhoz if they so wished. By April 1, nearly one-third 
left, and the percentage of those remaining shrank to just above 
one-fifth on September 1, from nearly three-fifths in March; it 
crawled up slowly in the next few months.

Now, if all peasants rejected the kolkhoz, at least those who were 
forced to join from the autumn of 1929 should have left by April or 
September 1930. But one-fifth, a far from negligible fraction, of all 
families decided to stay on, signifying a divergence in peasants' 
attitude toward collectivisation. At the same time one must admit 
that the vast majority in 1930 were at least sceptical of the 
advantages of joining the kolkhozy as the figures above show.

Over the next few years, kolkhoz membership became almost universal. 
In view of the prevailing terror throughout the rest of the Stalin 
era one cannot assume that peasants joined voluntarily. However, 
sometime during the next few decades, though one does not know when, 
there was a sea change in peasants' attitude. The majority of western 
experts, though with many notable exceptions, have been asserting 
over the decades that socialised agriculture was grossly inefficient 
from its inception right up to the moment of the Soviet collapse. The 
private plots of the collective farmers, for instance, yielded much 
higher income (per day of work) than what they obtained from the 
kolkhoz. Given a free choice, they would leave such units in droves 
and set up private farms.

They got this freedom in post-Soviet Russia. Western loans were 
poured into certain regions like the Nizhnyi Novgorod to create model 
private farms, encouraging other regions to emulate [Shirokalova 
1997]. The results so far have been quite disappointing. In 1998 out 
of 91.7 million hectares of land under crops in the whole of Russia, 
5.9 million hectares were cultivated by new farmers, the 'citizen's 
garden plots' accounted for another 4.6 million hectares, and the 
rest was with 'agricultural enterprises' of the Soviet era. In the 
value of total agricultural output in Russia, the share of farmers 
stagnated at a paltry 2 per cent during 1994-98 [Goskomstat 1999, 
tables 15.3 and 15.9]. Thus de-collectivisation has not made much 
headway in contemporary Russia despite official and foreign 
patronage. That should lead to a rethinking on the role of socialised 
agriculture in the USSR, the peasants' perception of it, and its 
contemporary relevance."

>Partly on this basis, Trotsky completely misunderstood the
>political alignments of the late 1920s, thinking that Bukharin
>represented protocapitalism, i.e. the differentiating peasantry and was
>therefore on the right, while Trotsky's own forces represented the
>proletariat on the left, with Stalin wavering in the center.  When
>Stalin moved "left" to destroy the peasantry and force
>industrialization, Trotsky's followers naturally followed, since it was
>Trotsky's general position that had been adopted by Stalin. It was here
>Trotsky's own statism, inability to see/theorize the emerging
>statocratic character of Stalin's administration, that left him high and
>dry...and indeed  entirely unable to represent what working class
>resistance was developing in the late 1920s.

>As to stagism and statism, I think you will find that my own work is,
>however feeble, aiming systematically at every point against both of
>these. My initial NLR article in 1977 on the origins of capitalism, was
>an attempt to reject at once the stagism of the old CPs but also Marxist
>versions of dependency theory/third worldism..., which in either its
>revolutionary forms or its various reformist forms, would provide a
>cover, at best, to nationalist/statist developmentalism.   Most of my
>stuff in Against the Current over the years has been against the statism
>and the forces that support it--the trade union bureaucracy, the
>Democratic Party/Jesse Jackson, social democracy, and Stalinism and
>identified with the self-organized working class.

There should be no doubt that within the US you have been one of the 
very precious few writers and theorists who has remained true to the 
essence of socialism--that it must be the conquest of the working 
class itself.

Comradely, Xxxxxx

>  By the way, the
>capitalist sprouts idea, which you don't want to reject, has been  the
>staple of Stalinist statist regimes across the world...not to mention
>today's statist Stalinist capitalists in contemporary China, who adore
>Ken Pomeranz's stuff (see below), which is derivative from the CCP's own
>capitalist sprouter Li Bozhong.

I have attached three articles which are relevant to the historical
development issues that you raised below. The first is a fairly up to
date general statement of my view of these issues The second is a
critique of Ken Pomeranz's thesis, which sees capitalist development in
China in the 18th century, equal to England's...which argument you
should like since it combines the capitalist sprouts position with a
kind of dependency view. The third is on the Low Countries, where I
argue, counter to your guess, that the northern Netherlands was, like
England, capitalist and experiencing capitalist development in the early
modern period.

Best wishes robert

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