[Marxism] Neil Davidson feedback

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Oct 31 07:11:52 MST 2005

(My comments below)

Dear Louis,

Sebastian Budgen alerted me to your comments on the first part of my 
article on bourgeois revolutions. I’m glad you agree with some of it at 
least, and I hope that you will send in a response to HM once the second 
part appears – to me this is one of the central issues in Marxist theory 
and one over which it is actually worth having a fairly wide-ranging 
debate. I am very conscious of the need to account for the non-occurrence 
of similar revolutions outwith Europe and its overseas extensions, and the 
way in which the conquest of the ‘third world’ contributed to capitalist 
development, but in the Deutscher lecture I was really only trying to 
defend the scientific value of the concept against the Brennerites – Wood 
in particular. I agree that ‘extra-economic’ compulsion was typical outside 
Europe – but them, it was also quite common in Europe as well! I’m afraid I 
don’t find Jim Blaut’s arguments very convincing, but I will deal with the 
whole issue in forthcoming work on uneven and combined development, and in 
a book which I plan to write on the bourgeois revolutions which expands on 
the HM articles. (If you haven’t already seen it, you might be interested 
in a recent book by Jack Goody called Capitalism and Modernity, which deals 
with some of these issues.)

Very briefly (and this is not particularly original), I think that the key 
to the origins of capitalism in Europe lie in the very backwardness of the 
West compared to – in particular - the more developed Ottoman and Chinese 
empires. For this we need to be aware of the ‘catch-up and overtake’ 
aspects of uneven development, but it also means that we have to take 
seriously what Marx writes in the 1859 ‘Preface’ (not a very fashionable 
text I admit!). I mean the bit about the state superstructure needing to be 
overthrown to allow new modes of production to develop freely beyond a 
certain point. In some cases, as in China, the state proved too strong, too 
resilient for this to happen - as indeed it also did in France for many 
centuries. (There is a strong case, which Samir Amin among others has 
made,  for arguing that absolutism in the West was developing in a similar 
way to the tributary state in the East.) On this basis it seems to me 
possible to argue that capitalism was developing in China at an even 
earlier stage than in Western Europe (I think this is empirically 
demonstrable and that it is only Brenner’s incredibly narrow definition of 
capitalism that lets him deny this), but that its failure to break through 
was the result of a conscious strategy by the tributary ruling class to 
prevent potential rivals expanding to the point at which they might become 
a threat. As a result, social upheavals in China tended to be peasant 
revolts which changed ruling class personnel, but not the their 
socio-economic function.

This need to be developed, of course, but you get the general idea. I look 
forward to any contribution you decide write for HM.


Neil Davidson


Thanks for the feedback, Neil. I doubt, however, that I would submit 
anything to HM since I have sworn off submitting anything to print journals 
after a series of run-ins with James O'Connor, Immanuel Wallerstein, John 
Bellamy Foster who handle such business as if they were on my dissertation 
board or something. Anything I have to say on these matters is said on the 
Internet. Someone might coin a term one of these days along the lines of 
C.P. Snow's "two  cultures" to describe the yawning chasm between the print 
and electronic world.

With respect to the issues, I do have Jack Goody's book on my shelf and 
have read major sections of it, including the passage that tries to refute 
my old friend, the late Jim Blaut. I am generally underwhelmed by his 
arguments, although I appreciate his obvious effort to counteract what he 
calls "ethnocentrism". For one thing, he spends several pages trying to 
show that Subsaharan Africa was truly backward in comparison to Europe, but 
I don't recall Blaut ever trying to make such comparisons. He was far more 
interested in evaluating European society against India and China. Goody 
makes a big deal about the fact that Ghana did not have a written language 
(neither did the Incas), but for Jim the real question was always focused 
on food production and other basic necessities of life. He did recognize 
that Latin America was relatively backward to Europe, but that was a 
function more of the relatively recent arrival of the indigenous population 
to the continent rather than any inherent cultural deficiencies.

But the thing that really sticks out for me is Goody's challenge about why 
Spain or Portugal did not become major capitalist powers even though they 
were the direct benefactors of Incan and Aztec gold and silver. This is 
something that Jim and I heard a thousand times on Internet mailing lists, 
so it is really nothing new. I don't have the reference handy, but there's 
an article I referred to once that pointed out how England was the ultimate 
beneficiary of this wealth as it functioned as the banker for all the new 
plunder. It was also the commercial middle-man for expanding Spanish 
colonization. Finally, we have to divest ourselves of what I call 
"Iberiantalism", which is a tendency to look at Spain (and Portugal to a 
lesser extent) in the same terms that provoked Edward Said to take on the 
myths of "Orientalism". Here's what I found:

By all standard measurements of capitalist profit, the Spaniards enjoyed a 
roaring success. Profits from mining were invested in capitalist 
development throughout the New World. If we turn to D.A. Brading's "Miners 
and Merchants in Bourbon Mexico: 1763-1810" (Cambridge Press, 1971), the 
proof of rapid capitalist growth leaps off the page.

"In 1804 the corregidor of Querétaro counted 18 factories (obrajes) and 327 
workshops (trapiches) in his town, the former group operating 280 looms and 
the latter up to 1,000. The larger firms wove woollen ponchos, blankets, 
serges, and sarapes while the smaller produced coarse cottons. In addition, 
there were another 35 workshops making hats and ten treating leather and 
suede goods. Estimates as to how many people were engaged in this industry 
varied. In 1803 the factory owners admitted that they kept over 2,000 men 
shut up within the walls of their prison-like establishments. In the same 
year the corregidor stated that some 9,000 persons of both sexes were 
occupied in the spinning, weaving and finishing of cloth. The industry’s 
consumption of wool averaged about a million pounds and the value of its 
product was later reckoned to reach over million pesos a year. These 
figures, moreover, excluded the 3,000 workers employed by the tobacco 

By what standard can these operations be called 'feudal' without making a 
mockery of the English language? Furthermore, an unprejudiced view of the 
mother country would reveal an entirely different reality than the one that 
Wood would foist on her reader.

The Spanish government of the 1780s was fully swept up by and committed to 
the new capitalist doctrines sweeping Europe. King Carlos III commissioned 
the Sociedad Económica de Madrid to come up with a program for agricultural 
reform and economist Gasper Melchor de Jovellanos took charge of the 
project. His main principle, based on the physiocratic school, was that 
laws should not attempt to protect agriculture but only to remove obstacles 
to its development. While drawing from the physiocrats, he also echoed Adam 
Smith. He not only read the "Wealth of Nations" in French, but translated 
it into Spanish. "How admirable when he analyses!", he declared with 
respect to Smith. (7) There was resistance to Jovellanos's program from the 
landed gentry, but no more or less so than in any other country in Europe 
at the time, including Great Britain. In any case, the notion of a 'feudal' 
Spain is utterly false. The Crown only sought to limit the power of the 
landowners, who had long ago dropped any connections to the sort of feudal 
paternalism described above. They were involved with commercial 
agriculture, not production of use values. Even Robert Brenner admits that 
capitalist agriculture was widespread in Catalonia more than two centuries 

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