[Marxism] Chris Harman on "rustic economism"

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Apr 29 10:07:51 MDT 2013


Chris Harman: Bob Brenner keeps reiterating the stagnationist thesis – 
although at one point he did seem to accept innovation spread to Europe 
from Sung China (where, incidentally, there has been some evidence of 
the use of waged labour on the land). Whether you want to call them 
‘feudal’ or ‘tributary’ modes of production, right across the Eurasia in 
the medieval period there were waves of innovation that caused 
transformations in production and increased output in both town and 
country. These take place spasmodically; they encounter institutional 
obstruction; there are periods of crisis. But the reality of expansion 
is there. You cannot deny it. To say that it ends in the crisis and that 
was the limit of the expansion is right. The feudal mode of production 
limited the expansion and created the crisis. But the expansion was real 
and to deny it is nonsense. All the research of the economic historians 
in Britain and France of the last 50 years has pointed to the reality of 
the expansion. I don’t know where Bob gets this idea of a secular 
decline in productivity – certainly there is evidence of a rise in 
productivity per unit of land (which of course is different to labour 
productivity). There may well have been a decline in labour productivity 
with the onset of the 14th century. The traditional argument is that it 
followed from using the least productive land to absorb the surplus 
population. But there is no evidence of that in the prior period. That 
old man Karl Marx may have been wrong about many things, but a certain 
mode of production can be associated with an expansion of production up 
to a certain point and then enter into crisis.

This also takes place outside Britain after the crisis of the 14th 
century. The discovery of the Americas led to the transformation of 
agriculture right across the world. I’m sorry, but the chilli was not 
native to India, nor was the tomato. The sweet potato was not native to 
China. The ordinary potato was not native to Ireland. You can go through 
the record. The peasants, however cautious and conservative they were, 
changed their methods. On top of that I can quote you from Georges Duby, 
Rodney Hilton, Guy Bois, all of whom talk about the transformations of 
agriculture in the 10th to 13th centuries, before the crisis of the 14th 
century. There was increased productivity, increased specialisation, 
increased cash crops, and so forth. And in areas close to towns – it is 
highlighted in Rodney Hilton’s book about the peasant revolts, Bondmen 
Made Free – there is the development of networks establishing 
relationships between the towns and the countryside. These are not just 
a matter of the extraction of surplus from the countryside. They are 
also about peasants beginning to buy things from the towns. And I have 
to insist that the growth of the towns is linked to the advance in 
agricultural techniques. This advance creates the conditions in which 
there are the beginnings of a differentiation between bigger and smaller 
peasant holdings, so that some peasants have the resources to protect 
themselves, at least to some degree, from the uncertainty associated 
with specialising in certain crops directed to urban markets. These 
changes, as I said in my introduction, are internal to feudalism and 
not, as Sweezy held, a product of an external growth of the market. This 
is what I am talking about when I refer to the advances in the forces of 
production creating new low level relations between people in production 
which in turn begin to impinge on the structure of the wider society.

The class struggle is absolutely central to my picture. I see new 
classes emerging and providing leadership to dispossessed classes in 
conflict with their exploiters. But the class struggle is not just a 
rural class struggle. I once characterised Bob’s position not as 
‘political Marxism’ but as ‘rustic economism’ because he sees the class 
struggle as just taking place in the countryside. But again, read Rodney 
Hilton or read the accounts of the peasant war in Germany in 1525, or 
read the description of the Hussites in 15th century Bohemia, and in 
each case there is interaction of discontent in the countryside with 
forces based in the towns which attempt to give expression to it. This 
is precisely the question not only of class struggle in the economic 
sense, but also of great ideological and political confrontations 
shaking society repeatedly over a period of three or four hundred years.

The breakthrough takes place when you have a culmination of the 
development of the forces of production, creating the beginnings of new 
classes which confront society in a new way. Then it is a question of 
the emergence of parties, revolutionary leaders and so forth. At the end 
of the day the outcome is decided by battles, and if there is bad 
leadership in those battles it has an effect. If you see this, you can 
see it is not just in Britain. These confrontations are both won and 
lost right across what is often called the Old World. It is this which 
explains the succession of religious heresies in 12th and 13th century 
Europe; it explains the rise of Sikhism in Moghul India; it explains the 
clashes between so-called pirates and the Chinese state in the Ming 
Empire. All these things are reflections of contradictions taking place.

All this is important – and I’m not attacking Bob here – when it comes 
to dealing with the ideas of people like David Landes that there was 
some cultural peculiarity of the British, or of the heritage of 
Graeco-Roman or of Judeo-Christian culture, which produced the 
breakthrough. In reality there was a clash on a world scale which was 
bound to break through at one point before others, which then 
generalises in the centuries after.

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