Robert Brenner versus Chris Harman


posted to on December 1, 2004


I just had a chance to listen to a debate between Robert Brenner and Chris Harman on the origins of capitalism that is online at:


I had no idea that Harman had involved himself in this ongoing controversy. An additional search revealed a paper by him titled "The Rise of Capitalism" at:


It was interesting to hear Brenner speak. For some reason, he has never made an appearance at the Socialist Scholars Conference. Perhaps this is a result of a kind of division of labor between him and Ellen Meiksins Wood with Brenner concentrating on contributions to small-circulation scholarly journals and Wood addressing more popular audiences, like the one that attended this debate.


In any case, it is very useful to have Brenner himself, rather than Wood, defending this point of view in a fairly easy to understand manner.


For Brenner, the key element of capitalism is growth and productivity. He seeks to unlock the key to the explosive and even revolutionary dynamic of this system, which he identifies as a particular outcome of the class struggle and natural conditions in 14th century Great Britain. A combination of population decline (from the Black Death) and tenant farming in the countryside produced a new historical set of circumstances that allowed a transition from feudalism to capitalism.


He says that this differs from the "dominant view" in Marxism that tends to see capitalism as "sprouting" from seeds throughout a given country. It was clear from his presentation of this question that he had Jim Blaut's concept of "protocapitalism" in mind.


Brenner admitted that Karl Marx himself was guilty of this non-Marxist way of thinking in certain places, especially in the introduction to "Critique of Political Economy." Since Brenner did not specify what was wrong with this work, I can only guess that it is formulations such as this:


Since bourgeois society is, moreover, only a contradictory form of development, it contains relations of earlier societies often merely in very stunted form or even in the form of travesties, e.g., communal ownership. Thus, although it is true that the categories of bourgeois economy are valid for all other social formations, this has to be taken cum grano salis, for they may contain them in an advanced, stunted, caricatured, etc., form, that is always with substantial differences. What is called historical evolution depends in general on the fact that the latest form regards earlier ones as stages in the development of itself and conceives them always in a one-sided manner, since only rarely and under quite special conditions is a society able to adopt a critical attitude towards itself; in this context we are not of course discussing historical periods which themselves believe that they are periods of decline.


I surmise that this would bother Brenner because it does not satisfy his rather *restrictive* (as he put it) definition of capitalism. For Brenner, there are two mutually exclusive modes of production that are as different from each other as night and day. In other words, an electric light cannot be on and off at the same time. A woman cannot be pregnant and non-pregnant at the same time. By the same token, you cannot have capitalism and feudalism at the same time either.


Needless to say, this sort of rigid stagism is a hallmark of the British Communist historians group that provided the ideological framework for the Brenner thesis. Harman quite rightly referred to the Brenner thesis debate as the second stage of one that began with the Paul Sweezy-Maurice Dobb debate of the 1950s.


Like Brenner, Dobb argued that capitalism was a unique event that occurred in the British countryside and that (implicitly) diffused throughout the world. If you look at the index of his "Studies in the Development of Capitalism," you will find scant reference to slavery or anything else happening in the New World for that matter.


In distinction to Dobb, historians influenced by Trotsky's theory of combined and uneven development tend to see the interpenetration of feudal and capitalist modes of production. For example, Eric Williams' "Capitalism and Slavery," which was influenced by CLR James, considers the two economic institutions as part of a whole. Slavery does not represent non-capitalism, but merely a form of the exploitation of labor that was necessary for the purer, industrial form to take off. Brenner and Wood disagree sharply with this view.


Brenner goes on at some length to belittle the notion of capitalist property relations taking root within feudal society and then overtaking and swamping it. Although this can be seen as an attack on Trotsky's theory of combined and uneven development, it is also implicitly an attack on Lenin's views as well.


Over and over again, Lenin made the point that capitalism was emerging from within the mostly feudal countryside in Russia. It was his analysis of this all-important question that was mounted as part of a debate with the Populists (who denied such a transformation) that propelled him into the leadership of Russian Marxism.


In "The Agrarian Programme of Social-Democracy in the First Russian Revolution, 1905-1907," Lenin wrote:


In those two paths of objectively possible bourgeois development we would call the Prussian path and the American path, respectively. In the first case feudal landlord economy slowly evolves into bourgeois, Junker landlord economy, which condemns the peasants to decades of most harrowing expropriation and bondage, while at the same time a small minority of Grossbauern ("big peasants”) arises. In the second case there is no landlord economy, or else it is broken up by revolution, which confiscates and splits up the feudal estates. In that case the peasant predominates, becomes the sole agent of agriculture, and evolves into a capitalist farmer. In the first case the main content of the evolution is transformation of feudal bondage into servitude and capitalist exploitation on the land of the feudal landlords—Junkers. In the second case the main background is transformation of the patriarchal peasant into a bourgeois farmer.


You'll note that Lenin says the "capitalist exploitation on the land of the feudal landords--Junkers." In other words, the light is on and off at the same time.


I strongly suspect that for Brenner the only true case of capitalism before the 19th century is in Great Britain. I do know that Ellen Meiksins Wood denies that there was capitalism in France during the French revolution. Speaking for myself, I'll go along with Marx, Lenin and Trotsky on these questions.