Ricardo Duchesne on the "transition debate"


posted to www.marxmail.org on September 23, 2003


With the exception of an occasional article in Against the Current or Monthly Review, most contributions to the "transition debate" occur in journals that can only be read in research or university libraries. Such is the case with Ricardo Duchesne's review of Ellen Meiksins Wood's "Origins of Capitalism" that appeared in the September 2002 Rethinking Marxism.


Rethinking Marxism (http://www.rethinkingmarxism.org/) was launched by professors at the University of Massachusetts who were influenced by the French theorist Louis Althusser and postmodernist trends in the academy. They also sponsor conferences at their campus that allow tenured professors who have never made a leaflet in their lives to lecture audiences on how to achieve socialism.


Duchesne's article is not only worth tracking down as a very effective rebuttal to Brenner and Wood but as a rarity in the academic world: a witty and highly readable essay that entertains while it educates. For veterans of PEN-L, it might come as some surprise to discover that he has written such an article for in the past he was one of the most vociferous opponents of James M. Blaut, both on that list and other lists where the origins of capitalism was a hot topic. For example in January 1998, he wrote the following on PEN-L:


"Now consider the dilemma Blaut finds himself: why did Europe came to dominate the rest of the World? Answer: geographical proximity of Europe to the Americas(!) gave it access to its metals and labor leading to the industrial revolution. Obviously the notion that European capitalism developed as a result of the exploitation of the Third World has been so roundly refuted I need not elaborate this here. Just a handy, if incomplete, stats: At most 2% of Europe's GNP at the end of 18th century took the form of profits derived from commerce with Americas, Asia, Africa! (I think source is K.O'Brien)."


However, Duchesne now believes:


"The major drawback of Wood’s Origins is its Eurocentric presumption that explaining the transition to capitalism is simply a matter of looking for those 'unique' traits that set Europe or England apart from the rest of the world. Marxists can no longer rest comfortably with the story that England and Europe emerged from the Middle Ages with an internally generated advantage over the rest of Asia."


I have to salute Duchesne for having the integrity to change his mind on a question in which he had so much prior investment. If other scholars had the same flexibility, the world of academic Marxism would be much more creative. As it stands now, there is tendency for positions to become hardened because reputations are at stake. A willingness to change one's mind might be interpreted as a sign of weakness. Ironically, the same kind of rigidity is at work in the activist Marxist realm as well, but instead of being driven by careerism it is driven by a kind of "vanguardism" that refuses to admit error.


The other thing I respect about Duchesne was his willingness to conduct a serious debate on the Internet, just as was the case with James M. Blaut. For far too many academics, Internet mailing lists are a kind of high-level chat-room where cleverness rather than rigorous thinking is the goal. When I see one-liners from a professor who is taking a break from his current print publication effort, I am reminded of the film "Ridicule" set in the court of Louis XVI where aristocrats vied with each other over who could come up with the most clever 'bon mot'.


The main virtue of Duchesne's article is its ability to answer Brenner and Woods on their own terms. While the question of land tenure 500 years or so ago might appear as dry as the parchment their deeds were written on, it is vital for understanding the underlying issues.


He begins by putting the debate in the context of the original exchange between Dobb and Sweezy during the 1950s. A common interpretation of this debate was that Dobb had a more consistently Marxist approach than Sweezy who supposedly believed that capitalism grew out of expanded commerce during the waning of the middle ages, especially between cities like Venice and Antwerp. Together with Rodney Hilton, Dobb looked to embryonic forms within feudalism itself that were unleashed as peasants struggled to free themselves. This led to class differentiation, competition and all the other now familiar traits of the capitalist system.


Duchesne shrewdly observes that if a "logic of accumulation" was already present in the Dobb-Hilton version of feudalism, then it was subject to the same failings as the Sweezy "commercialization" model. If capitalism is supposed to be such a radical departure from everything that came before it, then it is self-defeating to look for precursory forms in either trading centers like Venice or in the British countryside.


For Wood, the Brenner thesis avoids these problems by positing a kind of British exceptionalism. Unlike the rest of Europe, British lords were deprived of extra-economic powers as far back as the Norman Conquest in 1066. Stripped of their military force by a centralizing state anxious to maintain control over newly conquered land, the lords were forced to resort to a novel use of land under their control. Rather than seizing tribute from the serf, they leased out their land to yeoman farmers who were forced to introduce all sorts of technical improvements to ensure that the land produced sufficient revenue to satisfy the leaseholder. So, in other words, the seeds of Chase Manhattan Bank and General Motors were planted in the days of Ivanhoe. Perhaps the only way that the deus ex machina goals of Brenner and Wood could truly be satisified is the discovery of an invasion from outer space that introduced commodity production in the manner of the pods in "Invasion of the Body Snatchers".


The Brenner thesis rests on the assumption that the British gentry had accumulated vast amounts of land in the 14th to 17th century that could be leased to a yeoman. In other words through a kind of monopoly they were able to impose leaseholding on a landless class of aspiring tenant farmers in much the same way that postbellum plantation owners in the South were able to force freedmen to become sharecroppers.


There's only one problem with this interpretation. It appears that freeholders, or small proprietors to use contemporary language, rather than leaseholders, promoted the kind of technical innovations that distinguished British capitalist farming. Since Brenner regards small proprietorship as the enemy of capitalist farming, the evidence of such a mode of production would undermine his entire thesis. These peasants were frequently defended from landlords bent on enclosure by Parliament itself. As masters of their own land, "They were quite innovative and obtained higher yields per seed through extensive use of leguminous plants and complex crop rotations."


This jibes with Blaut's understanding of peasant small proprietorship, wherever it occurs.


"Next there is a very serious difficulty with Brenner's conception of medieval technology. He holds a very contradictory image of the peasantry. He thinks that medieval peasants were not at all innovative as to technology, but that some peasants became marvelously innovative as soon as they were touched by the magic wand of capitalism. The reasoning here is that peasants are conservative and unchanging, 'traditional,' so long as they own the means of production, the land, and gain their livelihood from it…This error aside, the fact is that peasants were not hidebound and traditional. We can infer this from modern research which disproves the contemptuous attitude which European 'modernization' theorists hold about peasants and their supposed 'irrationality,' 'traditionalism,' and the like --an attitude which Brenner evidently shares. We know this also from the painstaking research which has uncovered a broad array of peasant-generated technological advances in the Middle Ages."


I will have more to say about the question of land and productivity when I post the concluding article in my series on slavery, the Civil War and the Brenner thesis. Suffice it to say at this point, the equation between big agricultural estates operated as industrial enterprises and technological dynamism is very much part of the legacy of a kind of Marxism. Whether this is the kind of Marxism we need is another question entirely.