[Marxism] Question on Brenner Thesis

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Dec 10 05:42:03 MST 2014

On 12/10/14 3:41 AM, Ed George via Marxism wrote:
> In addition to this, insofar as it does address ‘what capitalism is’,
> how it comes into being, how it operates, how it might be superseded,
> the debate and the issues it raises are of practical importance now for
> Marxists (and for people who might not think of themselves as Marxists)
> but who are engaged in the struggle for a better – non/post-capitalist –
> world.

I think the most forceful explanation of the political ramifications 
came from Brenner himself in a NLR article )even if it is totally 
wrongheaded), unfortunately behind a paywall. The final two paragraphs 

	Most directly, of course, the notion of the ‘development of 
underdevelopment’ opens the way to third-worldist ideology. From the 
conclusion that development occurred only in the absence of links with 
accumulating capitalism in the metropolis, it can be only a short step 
to the strategy of semi-autarkic socialist development. Then the utopia 
of socialism in one country replaces that of the bourgeois 
revolution—one moreover, which is buttressed by the assertion that the 
revolution against capitalism can come only from the periphery, since 
the proletariat of the core has been largely bought off as a consequence 
of the transfer of surplus from the periphery to the core. Such a 
perspective must tend to minimize the degree to which any significant 
national development of the productive forces depends today upon a close 
connection with the international division of labour (although such 
economic advance is not, of course, determined by such a connection). It 
must, consequently, tend to overlook the pressures to external political 
compromise and internal political degeneration bound up with that 
involvement in—and dependence upon—the capitalist world market which is 
necessary for development. Such pressures are indeed present from the 
start, due to the requirement to extract surpluses for development, in 
the absence of advanced means of production, through the methods of 
increasing absolute surplus labour.

	On the other hand, this perspective must also minimize the extent to 
which capitalism’s post-war success in developing the productive forces 
specific to the metropolis provided the material basis for (though it 
did not determine) the decline of radical working-class movements and 
consciousness in the post-war period. It must consequently minimize the 
potentialities opened up by the current economic impasse of capitalism 
for working-class political action in the advanced industrial countries. 
Most crucially, perhaps, this perspective must tend to play down the 
degree to which the concrete inter-relationships, however tenuous and 
partial, recently forged by the rising revolutionary movements of the 
working class and oppressed peoples in Portugal and Southern Africa may 
be taken to mark a break—to foreshadow the rebirth of international 
solidarity. The necessary interdependence between the revolutionary 
movements at the ‘weakest link’ and in the metropolitan heartlands of 
capitalism was a central postulate in the strategic thinking of Lenin, 
Trotsky and the other leading revolutionaries in the last great period 
of international socialist revolution. With regard to this basic 
proposition, nothing has changed to this day.


In other words, Brenner's article was an attack on the Monthly Review 
and everything it stood for. The article is filled with arrogant 
dismissals of Paul Sweezy and all the people who contributed to a "third 
worldist" orientation over the years, including Andre Gunder Frank who 
despite whatever theoretical differences I had with him was a 
revolutionary to the marrow of his bones.

Meanwhile, Brenner--despite his fire-breathing radical rhetoric--urged a 
vote for Kerry in 2004. (http://www.solidarity-us.org/node/379)

For those who have been on Marxmail for a while and the list that 
preceded it, you are probably aware that I became motivated to examine 
these issues after running into Jim Blaut, a former subscriber who died 
in 2000.

Blaut devoted a chapter to Brenner in "8 Eurocentric Historians", the 
second in planned trilogy that was cut short by his death. The last 
installment was to be a proposal on how to do history that was not 

Fortunately, that chapter can be read online here: 
http://www.columbia.edu/~lnp3/mydocs/Blaut/brenner.htm. These are the 
opening paragraphs:

	Robert Brenner is a Marxist, a follower of one tradition in Marxism 
that is as diffusionist, as Eurocentric, as most conservative positions. 
I cannot here offer an explanation for this curious phenomenon: a 
tradition within one of the most egalitarian of all socio-political 
doctrines yet a tradition which, nonetheless, believes in the historical 
superiority (or priority) of one community of humans, Europeans, over 
another, non-Europeans. Eurocentric Marxists are not racist, nor even 
prejudiced, although most of them believe that Europeans have always 
been the leaders in the forward march of history; that Europe is the 
fountainhead of civilization, the main source of innovative social 
change. For these scholars, the origins of capitalism are European. 
Capitalism's further development consisted of an internally generated 
process of improvement within its classic homeland, the European world. 
The impact of capitalism on the rest of the world has been, on balance, 
progressive. Colonialism and (today) neocolonialism are not significant 
for capitalism, are rather a marginal process, a temporary aberration or 
diversion or side-show, not a vital need of the system as a whole, which 
evolves in response to internal laws of motion.

	This point of view is basic diffusionism: autonomous development at the 
center, diffusion of development to the periphery. It is also tunnel 
history: a form of tunnel-vision which tries to explain the rise of 
capitalism, and the rise of Europe, by looking only at prior European 
facts, looking, as it were, down the European tunnel of time, ignoring 
the history of the world outside of Europe both as cause of change 
within Europe and as the site of historically efficacious change in its 
own right (Blaut, 1989). The Euro-Marxists -- as I will call the 
socialists of this tradition -- accept this view, and so they are 
diffusionists. To this extent, they agree with their mainstream 
colleagues about the rise of Europe, of capitalism, of modernization, of 
industrialization, of democracy: basically all of it is European.

	Euro-Marxism went into eclipse during the period when liberation 
movements were decolonizing most of the world. In this period, the idea 
that the colonial or Third World has been, and is, unimportant in social 
development was not popular among Marxists. After the end of the Vietnam 
War, however, this point of view became again popular, and indeed became 
the Marxism most widely professed in European and American universities. 
Today we witness the curious phenomenon that Euro-Marxists are quoted 
with approval by anti-Marxist scholars, who can use them to show that 
"real" Marxist scholarship supports some of the same doctrines, 
theoretical and practical, that conservatives do.

	Robert Brenner is one of the most widely known of Euro-Marxist 
historians. His influence stems from the fact that he supplied a crucial 
piece of doctrine at a crucial time. Just after the end of the Vietnam 
War, radical thought was strongly oriented toward the Third World and 
its struggles, strongly influenced by Third-World theorists like Cabral, 
Fanon, Guevara, James, Mao, and Nkrumah, and thus very much attracted to 
theories of social development which tend to displace Europe from its 
pivotal position as the center of social causation and social progress, 
past and present. Euro-Marxism of course disputed this, and 
Euro-Marxists, while strong in their support of present-day liberation 
struggles, nonetheless insisted as they always had done that the 
struggles and changes taking place in the center of the system, the 
European world, are the true determinants of world historical changes; 
socialism will rise in the heartlands of advanced European capitalism, 
or perhaps everywhere all at once; but socialism will certainly not 
arrive first in the backward, laggard, late-maturing Third World.1

Finally, I want to say a couple of words about Ellen Meiksins Wood, 
Blaut and MR.

Not long after Blaut died, Wood wrote a shitty attack on him in Against 
the Current. (http://www.solidarity-us.org/node/993) It was written in 
the same patronizing style as Brenner's attack on MR, which is okay I 
guess. What was not okay that she chose to write it after he died. Blaut 
would have loved nothing more than to respond to these people both in 
print and on the Internet. For those who remember Jim, he was a 
democratic-minded scholar (and member of the Puerto Rican Socialist 
Party) who believed in the "leveling" dynamics of the Internet. Someone 
like Robert Brenner or Ellen Meiksins Wood would not go near it with a 
ten foot pole. I have been told, however, by a former UCLA student that 
he pays close attention to what I write. I may be an asshole but I am an 
informed one at that.

So the real question remains: how did MR hire Ellen Meiksins Wood to run 
their books department when she had a long record of disparaging the 
very thing that defined MR, its "third worldism". Those of you familiar 
with the dirty laundry of the left will probably remember that she was 
fired not that long after she was hired. My guess is that John Bellamy 
Foster finally woke up from his sociological peregrinations and figured 
out that she had an agenda hostile to MR's. I only wish someone would 
wake him up and let him know that Yoshie Furuhashi is tarnishing the MR 
escutcheon much worse than Paul Sweezy could have imagined.

More information about the Marxism mailing list