Lenin's Tomb and the Brenner thesis


Posted to www.marxmail.org on May 1, 2006


The estimable Richard Seymour of Lenin's Tomb has a posting on the Brenner thesis titled "Marxism, the bourgeoisie and capitalist imperialism" (http://leninology.blogspot.com/2006/04/marxism-bourgeoisie-and-capitalist.html) that is well worth reading, even though I do have a number of criticisms. Beforehand, I think it would be worthwhile to provide some historical background for those who are unfamiliar with the controversy surrounding the "transition" debate.


In 1950, Paul Sweezy wrote a critique of Maurice Dobb's "Studies in the Development of Capitalism" in the journal "Science and Society" that touched off a debate on the transition from feudalism to capitalism. Dobb viewed changes in the British countryside associated with "primitive accumulation" as key, while Sweezy stressed trade involving city-states such as Genoa and Venice with its neighbors to the East. Sweezy openly acknowledged the influence of Henri Pirenne, a historian of the middle ages who placed a great deal of emphasis on the interaction between Western Europe and Islamic trading centers.


Dobb's main defenders in the debate were veterans of Great Britain's Communist Party's Historians Group like himself, including Eric Hobsbawm, Christopher Hill and Rodney Hilton. For obvious reasons, these historians were very susceptible to "stagist" conceptions.


Not long after the debate died down, Sweezy and fellow Monthly Review editor Paul Baran developed a theory of monopoly capital that questioned the system's dynamism--particularly in the 3rd world. A UN economist based in Latin America named Andre Gunder Frank drew out the full implications of their work and put forward what became known as "dependency theory". He coined the phrase "development of underdevelopment" to describe the relationship between core and periphery nations. Furthermore, his work, which was largely based on an examination of Latin American society, could be seen as the scholarly counterpart to the Cuban revolution's deep involvement with guerrilla warfare in the 1960s.


After the Vietnam War ended and these guerrilla movements subsided or evolved into counter-productive semi-terrorist formations, there was a reaction to what was seen as the excesses of the 1960s. One young historian decided to challenge the Monthly Review School both on its understanding of the tasks of the colonial revolution as well as the views put forward by Sweezy in the "transition" debate. His name was Robert Brenner.


Brenner openly described himself as being in the tradition of Maurice Dobb, but was even more single-minded. Unlike Dobb, who did acknowledge the role of primitive accumulation in the New World to a limited extent (slavery does get an occasional mention in his Studies), Brenner sees the introduction of tenant farming in Great Britain in the 1400s as critical. Once feudal tribute was eliminated and once the profit motive was introduced, everything began to fall into place. From that point on, capitalism diffused outwards to the rest of the world.


In a 1977 New Left Review article titled "The origins of capitalist development: A critique of Neo-Smithian Marxism," Brenner defended his thesis about how capitalism originated as well as taking pot-shots at the "third-worldist" deviations of the Monthly Review. Brenner was not alone in taking up this polemic. He was linked with Bill Warren, Ernesto Laclau and Eugene Genovese. While they obviously approached things from somewhat different angles, they all tended to agree that Andre Gunder Frank was not a true Marxist and that capitalism was far more dynamic than the "dependency school" realized. Socialist Register editor Colin Leys, who started out as a "dependista," evolved into an enthusiastic supporter of the Brenner thesis and applied it in a somewhat novel manner to contemporary Kenya which was supposedly going through some sort of capitalist transition. The evidence was to be found in the rapid growth of tour companies, laundries and dry cleaning establishments owned and operated by native Kenyans. I kid you not.


Turning now to Richard's defense of the Brenner thesis, I want to focus on the following passage:


Richard writes:


"Since many left accounts of the rise of capitalism tend to accentuate the role of colonial exploitation in the 'primitive accumulation of capital', Wood points out that a) this is to confuse capital as social relation with capital as wealth and b) Spain was an early colonial power which exploited South America's mines to the hilt, yet tended to expend this 'capital' on feudal pursuits."


Did Spain expend its 'capital' on feudal pursuits? Keep in mind that Cervantes wrote "Don Quixote" at exactly the time that according to Wood it was steeped in feudalism. But the novel makes it clear that the befuddled knight's mishaps were rooted in his inability to understand that Spain was undergoing *rapid change*.


It actually might make sense just to remind ourselves what really feudalism was about. As Kautsky stressed, it involved the "natural economy", which meant production largely of use-values. Some scholars, including John Haldon, describe this as the "tributary mode of production." It is a closed economy marked by ruling class paternalism that seemed indifferent to profit and productivity. Michael Perelman points out in "The Invention of Capitalism":


"Although their standard of living may not have been particularly lavish, the people of precapitalistic northern Europe, like most traditional people, enjoyed a great deal of free time. The common people maintained innumerable religious holidays that punctuated the tempo of work. Joan Thirsk estimated that in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, about one-third of the working days, including Sundays, were spent in leisure. Karl Kautsky offered a much more extravagant estimate that 204 annual holidays were celebrated in medieval Lower Bavaria."


Whatever else one might say about Spanish rule in the New World, the indigenous peoples never "enjoyed a great deal of free time." Places like Potosi were instead marked by ferocious labor discipline and a thirst for profits. Wherever gold and silver were mined, the capital was recycled into the world capitalist economy. Furthermore, it is not very useful to draw hard and fast distinctions between a bourgeois British ant and a feudal Spanish grasshopper. Great Britain and Spain were partners in the general capitalist exploitation of Latin America. While Great Britain supplied the banking credit and the provisions, Spain provided the enforcement necessary to extract surplus value from indigenous slave labor.


It is also important to take into account that Spanish colonists invested the profits from mining in exactly the same fashion as their British counterparts from an early date. Just as Jamaican sugar plantations generated the wealth necessary to start a Birmingham textile mill, so did Mexican silver ore finance manufacturing. By the late 18th century, there was very little social or economic difference between Boston and Mexico City. D.A. Brading's "Miners and Merchants in Bourbon Mexico: 1763-1810" reveals the extent of the growth:


"In 1804 the corregidor of Querétaro counted 18 factories (obrajes) and 327 workshops (trapiches) in his town, the former group operating 280 looms and the latter up to 1,000. The larger firms wove woollen ponchos, blankets, serges, and sarapes while the smaller produced coarse cottons. In addition, there were another 35 workshops making hats and ten treating leather and suede goods. Estimates as to how many people were engaged in this industry varied. In 1803 the factory owners admitted that they kept over 2,000 men shut up within the walls of their prison-like establishments. In the same year the corregidor stated that some 9,000 persons of both sexes were occupied in the spinning, weaving and finishing of cloth. The industry's consumption of wool averaged about a million pounds and the value of its product was later reckoned to reach over million pesos a year. These figures, moreover, excluded the 3,000 workers employed by the tobacco monopoly."


Now one might account for the profusion of capitalist manufacturing in 18th century Mexico City as a product of the "diffusion" of capitalism from Great Britain that started in the 1400s, but that would be a Eurocentric mistake. Manufacturing existed before the 1400s and it took no special genius to understand that the combination of fixed and variable capital could generate surplus value.


For that matter, one might say that without the fortuitous "discovery" of the New World with its abundance of mineral wealth and the inability of native peoples to resist smallpox and other infectious diseases, there never would have been a capitalist take-off anywhere in Europe. Or to put in the concluding words of Jim Blaut's "Robert Brenner in the Tunnel of Time":


"If, indeed, the processes of historical change out of feudalism and toward capitalism (or something like capitalism) were going on in various parts of the Eastern Hemisphere in the late Middle Ages, and northwestern Europe was in no sense a leader, how do we explain the fact that Europe rose, Africa and Asia did not, and northwestern Europe developed industrial capitalism and empire? My own view focuses, again, on the matter of place: of location, or accessibility. We start with a conception of an eastern hemisphere with a number of mercantile-maritime centers, all developing and all interconnected. Iberian centers were very much closer to the Americas than were any competing centers. The wealth from American gold production, silver production, and plantation production, the value squeezed out of American and African and European labor in the process, the additional surplus value squeezed out of labor in the rest of the colonial world, and the resulting accumulation in Europe, allowed Europeans -- an emerging proto-capitalist class, both urban and rural; an incipient bourgeoisie -- to begin the dissolution of feudalism in Europe and begin to destroy competing proto-capitalist communities elsewhere. This beginning, in the 16th and 17th centuries, initiated a set of internal changes within Europe, those which led to a political transformation in the 17th-century bourgeois revolutions and eventually to an industrial revolution and industrial capitalism."


Full: http://www.columbia.edu/~lnp3/mydocs/Blaut/brenner.htm