[Marxism] Alex Callinicos on "political Marxism"

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Apr 29 09:43:11 MDT 2013

 From the Nov.-Dec. 1990 NLR:

This [poliical Marxism] is a version of Marxism that it is hard not to 
have great reservations about. In part, these reservations stem from 
difficulties specific to Brenner’s account of the rise of agrarian 
capitalism. His writing has undoubtedly provided a valuable corrective 
to those accounts of the transition to capitalism which, from Pirenne 
and Sweezy to Braudel and Wallerstein, have accorded prime importance to 
the expansion of the world market. [6] Brenner is, moreover, right to 
stress the crucial role played by the emergence in England of a 
distinctively capitalist agriculture, especially in making possible that 
country’s establishment of first military and then industrial primacy 
over its rivals—particularly France—after 1689. [7] Nevertheless, 
Brenner’s exclusive focus on agrarian capitalism has encouraged, perhaps 
contrary to his own intentions, some wildly one-sided readings of the 
process of capitalist development. Probably the most lamentable example 
is George Comninel’s Rethinking the French Revolution (based, 
incidentally, on a dissertation supervised by Wood), which argues that, 
since there was no equivalent in pre-revolutionary rural France of the 
capital–wage-labour relations increasingly prevalent in the contemporary 
English countryside, ‘there simply were no capitalist relations—no 
appropriation of surplus-value, as opposed to commercial 
profittaking—that can be attributed to the [French] bourgeoisie.’ [8] 
What such arguments leave out of account is the extent to which early 
modern merchant capitalism, though still rooted in feudal social 
relations, provided a framework for the emergence of what Lenin called 
‘transitional forms’ through which capital began to acquire control over 
production. [9] One such form was what Robin Blackburn calls the 
‘systemic slavery’ of the British and French West Indies, and later 
Cuba, Brazil and the American South: the large-scale exploitation of 
slave labour, producing for the world market either mass-consumption 
goods (sugar) or industrial inputs (cotton). [10] 
‘Proto-industrialization’—the spread of rural industry, usually 
producing textiles, often on the basis of the putting-out 
system—represented another form in which labour was partially subsumed 
under capital, and arguably a more decisive one, since the abolition of 
slavery led often to a fragmentation of productive units, while the 
limitations of the putting-out system tended to drive capitalists to 
centralize the labour process in the factory. [11] The development of 
agrarian capitalism, on which Brenner and his followers concentrate, was 
part of a much broader process through which bourgeois social relations 
progressively undermined the old feudal order.

But it is not simply doubts about the historical claims advanced by 
Brenner (or, perhaps better, by those influenced by him) which give one 
pause when confronted with Wood’s employment of his work to construct 
‘political Marxism’. Historical materialism explains social 
transformations as the outcome of two mechanisms: first, the structural 
contradictions that arise between the development of the productive 
forces and the prevailing production relations; and secondly, and only 
in the context of the socio-economic crises generated by these 
contradictions, the class struggle. Capital does not only elucidate the 
conditions and forms of the extraction of surplus-value within the 
production process; it also locates capitalism’s chronic liability to 
recurrent economic crises in the tendency of the rate of profit to 
fall—the form of the contradiction between the forces and relations of 
production specific to that mode of production. Some of the greatest 
recent triumphs of Marxist historiography have been to delineate more 
precisely the nature of this contradiction in pre-capitalist modes. As 
Perry Anderson points out, G.E.M. de Ste Croix’s explanation of the 
decline of classical antiquity is an instance of the kind of ‘systemic 
contradiction’ that occurs ‘when the forces and relations of production 
enter into decisive contradiction with each other’. [12] Similarly, 
there is little doubt that, despite their disagreements, Brenner and 
Bois have greatly advanced our understanding of the form taken by the 
similar contradiction responsible for the late-medieval crisis of 
feudalism. [13]

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