The "Brenner Thesis"


I suppose most people who got their Marxist education in Marxist parties share certain basic assumptions about how First World economic and political hegemony over the so-called Third World has been achieved. It was a function of economic exploitation going back to the discovery of the New World and the several hundred years of advantage this gave the First World, as it expanded its control over countries to the East as well. Gold and silver mined by indigenous peoples, colonial plantations, disruption of local handicrafts in places like India all worked together to give nascent capitalist institutions in Europe the "supercharging" they needed to leapfrog over other countries where similar institutions were also gestating.

So I was surprised, if not shocked, to discover that Robert Brenner, a leader of the left-wing American group Solidarity, wrote a series of articles in the 1970s denying such connections. Brenner's critique was directed against a group of thinkers who, like Paul Sweezy, viewed themselves as operating in the Marxist tradition, and others, like Andre Gunder Frank, who rejected Marxism altogether. What they all had in common was a perspective that development in the core countries is a cause of underdevelopment in the so-called periphery. The prosperity and global power of nations like the United States was a function of the poverty and weakness of countries like Vietnam, Nicaragua and Angola.

But in Brenner's words (New Left Review, 104, 1977), these thinkers "move too quickly from the proposition that capitalism is bound up with, and supportive of, continuing underdevelopment in large parts of the world, to the conclusion not only that the rise of underdevelopment is inherent in the extension of the world division of labour through capitalist expansion, but also that the 'development of underdevelopment' is an indispensable condition for capitalist development itself."

I will argue that the 'development of underdevelopment' is indeed an indispensable condition for capitalist development itself, but before doing so it will be necessary to provide some historical background into Marxist thinking on these questions. Since Brenner claims to be defending classical Marxism against newfangled, neo-Smithian deviations, it would be useful to now review what Marx and Marxists have written.


In "The German Ideology", Marx writes:

"Manufacture and the movement of production in general received an enormous impetus through the extension of commerce which came with the discovery of America and the sea-route to the East Indies. The new products imported thence, particularly the masses of gold and silver which came into circulation and totally changed the position of the classes towards one another, dealing a hard blow to feudal landed property and to the workers; the expeditions of adventurers, colonisation, and above all the extension of markets into a world-market, which had now become possible and was daily becoming more and more a fact, called forth a new phase of historical development, into which in general we cannot here enter further. Through colonisation of the newly discovered countries the commercial struggle of the nations amongst one another was given new fuel and accordingly greater extension and animosity.

While Marx explicitly ties the introduction of "masses of gold and silver" to changes in the "positions of classes to one another," Brenner on the other hand dismisses the importance of such connections. In the NLR article, he argues that the "build-up of wealth, and its concentration in the hands of specific potential 'investors,' has occurred time and again without discernible effect" and adds, "We are left to wonder why any wealth transferred from the core to the periphery did not result merely in the creation of cathedrals and starvation in the periphery." Leaving aside the question of actual starvation in the periphery, the answer to why wealth was not frittered away on cathedrals, diamond-studded knickers and gilded toilet seats is quite simple. Commodity production had begun to sprout up in Europe, just as it had in China and India. I will return to this question, but there is no evidence that there was anything special or unique about the European economy on the eve of Columbus's "discovery of America," which is being ghoulishly celebrated 3 days hence.


You get a very strong sense that Brenner's fight was against Maoism. Since this current had already fallen into disrepute when his articles were written, could we be dealing with the beating a dead horse phenomenon?. The notion of "core" versus "periphery" does suggest the Maoist People's War schema of the countryside surrounding the city, but by the late 70s, China had become an ally of the United States and Maoist groups had disintegrated internationally. The Monthly Review itself had begun to disassociate itself from the excesses of Maoism and was about to orient to new political developments internationally, including the Central American revolution. So was Brenner's attack more of a "mopping up" operation than anything else?

Brenner writes, "So long as capitalism develops merely through squeezing dry the 'third world,' the primary opponents must be core versus periphery, the cities versus the countryside--not the international proletariat, in alliance with the oppressed people of all countries, versus the bourgeoisie." Now who would take such an alliance seriously, except aging members of Bob Avakian's Revolutionary Communist Party? Furthermore, the notion that workers in the United States and Europe enjoy privileges derived from "squeezing dry the 'third world'" couldn't have anything to do with Lenin himself, could it?

Since Lenin's famous "Imperialism, the Latest Stage of Capitalism" has very little to say about the periphery, one might conclude that this was not an important part of his analysis. But Lenin's writings on imperialism are much larger in scope than this particular essay, which focuses on the rivalries that led to WWI. In reality, Lenin did have ideas on core-periphery relations that sounded exactly like the sort of thing published regularly in Monthly Review in the 1960s. Furthermore, some of these ideas were simply an elaboration of those found in Marx and Engels themselves, who were grappling with the relative conservatism of the British working class.

Lenin wrote "Imperialism and the Split in Socialism" in October, 1916 in order to answer the question: "Is there any connection between imperialism and the monstrous and disgusting victory opportunism (in the form of social-chauvinism) has gained over the labour movement in Europe?" This he regarded as "the fundamental question of modern socialism." (After witnessing the victory parades following Bush's victory over the Iraqis, one might conclude that this still remains the fundamental question.)

Lenin notes that neither Marx nor Engels lived to see the imperialist epoch of world capitalism, which began not earlier than 1898-1900, but they were already aware that England had already revealed at least two major distinguishing features of imperialism: (1) vast colonies, and (2) monopoly profit (due to her monopoly position in the world market).

Lenin cites a letter from Engels to Marx, dated October 7, 1858, which states: "...The English proletariat is actually becoming more and more bourgeois, so that this most bourgeois of all nations is apparently aiming ultimately at the possession of a bourgeois aristocracy and a bourgeois proletariat alongside the bourgeoisie. For a nation which exploits the whole world this is of course to a certain extent justifiable." Was Engels a premature Maoist?

Lenin thinks that such a proletariat can not be mollycoddled:

"The bourgeoisie of an imperialist 'Great' Power can economically bribe the upper strata of 'its' workers by spending on this a hundred million or so francs a year, for its superprofits most likely amount to about a thousand million. And how this little sop is divided among the labour ministers, 'labour representatives' (remember Engels 's splendid analysis of the term), labour members of War Industries Committees, labour officials, workers belonging to the narrow craft unions, office employees, etc., etc., is a secondary question."

The Communist International that was founded in opposition to the verbal socialism of the trade union bureaucracy, parliamentarians, etc. not only refused to cater to the prejudices of privileged workers in the cosmopolitan centers, it was also committed to supporting revolutions of "peripheral" countries against the "core" EVEN when they were LED by the national bourgeoisie. Brenner's anxiety that dependency theory could open to the door to the national bourgeoisie seems ill-placed in light of the Comintern's support to the Kuomintang. It is often forgotten in the river of Trotskyist polemics against Stalin's misleadership of the Chinese Revolution that nobody, including Trotsky, was opposed to participation in a KMT-led struggle for national independence, only that the Chinese CP had to keep its own organizational and political integrity intact. Opposition to the Kuomintang IN ITSELF was not the policy of Lenin or Trotsky.

In the Second Congress of the Communist International held in 1920 at Baku (depicted memorably in Warren Beatty's film "Reds"), the interests of peripheral nations were put at the core of the Marxist agenda. (Proceedings and Documents of the Second Congress, edited by John Riddell, Pathfinder, 1991) In reports by Lenin and numerous delegates, there was little of Brenner's anxiety to be found. Constant reminders of how one NATION exploits another were made. In Session 4, July 26, 1920 Lenin remarks, "First, what is the cardinal idea underlying our theses? It is the distinction between oppressed and oppressor NATIONS." He also refers to Comrade Quelch of the British Socialist Party who said that "the rank-and-file British worker would consider it treasonable to help the enslaved NATIONS in their uprisings against British rule."


Unfortunately, the revolutionary internationalism of the Baku conference was to give way to the cautious policies of "socialism in one country." Although Marxist scholarship as a whole suffered during Stalin's reign, colonial questions perhaps suffered most. Wherever Communist Parties sank roots, the intelligentsia who gathered around and joined such parties tended to de-emphasize the question of oppressed and oppressor nations. This was partially a function of the rise of the Popular Front, which discounted the role of imperialism to begin with. It was also related to Stalin's re-introduction of "stagism" into the workers movement. Where Lenin and the early Comintern looked for ways to bypass capitalist development and proceed directly to socialism, the Stalinists tended to align with "modernizing" elites in peripheral countries, who could be counted on to welcome foreign investment provided that it derived from "enlightened" sources, like North American corporations in the time of FDR's New Deal.

Against these utopian hopes, Andre Gunder Frank argued that bourgeois development in Latin America was impossible. Brenner hails this as a step forward: "Frank's original formulations aimed to destroy the suffocating orthodoxies of Marxist evolutionary stage theory which the Communist Parties' political strategies of 'popular front' and 'bourgeois democratic revolutions' had been predicated. Frank rightly stressed that the expansion of capitalism thorough trade and investment did not automatically bring with it the capitalist economic development that the Marx of the Communist Party had predicted."


Actually, the first turn against Stalinist orthodoxy predated "dependency theory" by quite a few years. It was the product of a number of highly original African-Caribbean thinkers, including Eric Williams, Walter Rodney and CLR James. Not only did they manage to develop an approach to Marxism that had little in common with Stalinist preconceptions, they also felt the need to develop a better understanding of why their own African Diaspora countries, and Mother Africa itself, could not seem to achieve the sort of modernization and civilized standards predicated on the introduction of capitalism. While there was plenty of capitalism in Africa and the Caribbean, there seemed to be very little development. They sought to answer the question why development in some countries was associated with underdevelopment in others.

CLR James's 1938 "Black Jacobins" set the standard for scholarship followed by others. While James emerges from the internationalist-minded Trotskyist movement, he was always much more sensitive to racial and national oppression than other movement leaders. His study of the Haitian slave revolt is filled with sharp observations on how the underdevelopment of the colonies was related to capitalist development in the mother countries:

"The slave-trade and slavery were the economic basis of the French Revolution. 'Sad irony of human history,' comments Jaurès. 'The fortunes created at Bordeaux, at Nantes, by the slave-trade, gave to the bourgeoisie that pride which needed liberty and contributed to human emancipation.' Nantes was the centre of the slave-trade. As early as 1666, 108 ships went to the coast of Guinea and took on board 37,430 slaves, to a total value of more than 37 millions, giving the Nantes bourgeoisie 15 to 20 percent on their money. In 1700 Nantes was sending 50 ships a year to the West Indies with Irish salt beef, linen for the household and for clothing the slaves, and machinery for sugar-mills. Nearly all the industries which developed in France during the eighteenth century had their origin in goods or commodities destined either for the coast of Guinea or for America. The capital from the slave-trade fertilized them; though the bourgeoisie traded in other things than slaves, upon the success or failure of the traffic everything else depended."

Kent Worcester's fine biography of James ("CLR James: a Political Biography", SUNY, Albany, 1996) describes Eric Williams' debt to his mentor. "Capitalism and Slavery", a book that figures in some ways as the root of all intellectual evil in Brenner's scheme of things, was published in 1944, 6 years after "Black Jacobins". Based on his dissertation at Oxford, Williams met with James, his former tutor, on numerous occasions when both were living in England. It seems that James read both drafts of the dissertation and had a significant role in formulating the book's primary thesis, namely that sugar plantations, rum and slavery trade helped to catapult Great Britain into world domination at the expense of the African peoples in the Diaspora. Without the underdevelopment of Jamaica, Trinidad, etc., capitalist development in Great Britain would not have had the supercharged character that it did.


Dependency theory was associated with the journal Monthly Review, which was launched by Paul Sweezy and others in the ferment of the Wallace campaign. It was an attempt to provide an independent voice for American socialism, while it retained some degree of sympathy for the CPUSA. Sweezy himself was never a member, although he was witch-hunted from the academy in the 1950s. Sweezy and Paul A. Baran collaborated together to develop an analysis of capitalism that basically was updated for the 20th century. When Marx wrote the Communist Manifesto, capitalism was an extremely dynamic system. Baran and Sweezy argue that with the advent of imperialism, stagnation and under-utilization characterize the system. In "The Political Economy of Growth", written 1957, Baran describes the awful fate of countries in the periphery:

"Thus the peoples who came into the orbit of Western capitalist expansion found themselves in the twilight of feudalism and capitalism enduring the worst features of both worlds, and the entire impact of imperialist subjugation to boot. To oppression by their feudal lords, ruthless but tempered by tradition, was added domination by foreign and domestic capitalists, callous and limited only by what the traffic would bear. The obscurantism and arbitrary violence inherited from their feudal past was combined with the rationality and sharply calculating rapacity of their capitalist present. Their exploitation was multiplied, yet its fruits were not to increase their productive wealth; these went abroad or served to support a parasitic bourgeoisie at home. They lived in abysmal misery, yet they had no prospect of a better tomorrow. They existed under capitalism, yet there was no accumulation of capital. They lost their time-honored means of livelihood, their arts and crafts, yet there was no modern industry to provide new ones in their place. They were thrust into extensive contact with the advanced science of the West, yet remained in a state of the darkest backwardness."

Resting on Sweezy and Baran's broad theoretical framework, Andre Gunder Frank published a series of very influential studies on Latin America, including "Accumulation and Underdevelopment in Latin America." His work and the work of other Monthly Review authors, including Samir Amin, Eduardo Galeano, Immanuel Wallerstein and Pierre Jalée, were basically empirical confirmations of Sweezy and Baran's theory, as applied to Latin America, Africa and Asia. Their scholarship was wedded to activity on behalf of revolutionary or left-reformist governments. For example, Frank worked at the highest levels of the Allende government. The impact of their scholarship and the growing influence of the Monthly Review obviously had to be connected to the Vietnam war and the movement that arose against it. Vietnam itself was seen as the latest example of the "development breeding underdevelopment" thesis, while positive examples such as Cuba and China proved that there was at least one road open to peripheral countries: socialist revolution.

As the Vietnam war came to a conclusion and the 1960s radicalization wound down, a number of these thinkers lost their connection to the radical movement and helped to transform dependency theory into something called "world systems theory". Most closely associated with the work of Immanuel Wallerstein, Harpur professor and director of the Fernand Braudel Center, this methodology can be described as sub-genre of sociology and political science. It attempts to integrate global economy, ecology, demographics, etc. into a high-level perspective. In addition to taking a very broad geographical view, it has also become associated with very long chronological perspectives. Specifically, economic "long waves" have become integral to world systems theory and Andre Gunder Frank, who has made the shift into this academic specialty, has lately been entertaining the possibility that we are on the cusp of a new 5000 year long wave, which would raise all sorts of Y2K type issues. Although much of this stuff is interesting, and I try to integrate its insights into some of the things I have been writing about American Indians, it is basically a retreat from political engagement.

There are good reasons to be alarmed by the inability of thinkers like Wallerstein and Frank to conceptualize class questions. The answer to this, however, does not lie in denial about national inequality. For a genuine worldwide socialist movement to re-emerge, it will have to be imbued with the spirit of Baku. Key to this is an understand that there are indeed oppressed and oppressor nations.

In my next post, I will examine in some detail the fallacy in Brenner's thinking about "precapitalist" societies. By drawing a contrast between capitalist Great Britain and what he alleges to be precapitalist societies in Latin America and other peripheral areas, Brenner fails to understand these places and times in the complex and dialectical manner that they deserve.

While some of the more recent theories of the world systems constellation of thinkers must be rejected, their empirical work can be deployed to help us understand the exact nature of forced labor, modes of production, etc. in 16th to 18th century Latin America. Since Brenner has totally ignored this area of the world, it is incumbent upon us to remind ourselves of its crucial role in the launching of the modern-day capitalist system.

* * * *

This part of the post will focus on the "Brenner thesis" as it relates to Europe specifically, and the replies made to it made by various scholars, which are invariably and by necessity rooted in the rather dry and arcane world of medievalist studies. Once this is dispensed with, I will address the question whether a dynamic capitalism requires as a precondition the sort of capitalist agricultural transformations stipulated by Brenner. Not to keep people in suspense, I will argue that Germany and Japan, two of the most powerful adversaries of British imperialism in the modern era, did not undergo anything remotely resembling the capitalist agriculture transformation which anchors the Brenner thesis. Finally, I will try to place this controversy into a broader theoretical and political context.


For my money, the most succinct statement of the Brenner thesis can be found in the initial article of "The Brenner Debate," edited by T.H. Aston and C.H.E. Philpin. Written by Robert Brenner originally for publication in the February 1976 "Past and Present," and titled "Agrarian Class Structure and Economic Development in Pre-Industrial Europe", it states that England was the site of an exceptional economic transformation in the late 15th century. Elsewhere successful peasant revolts, especially in France, consolidated their control over small and medium sized farms. These plump and happy self-sustaining freeholders, relieved from the pressure to compete, produced food for their own needs, and a surplus for the local market. They were the hippies of their day.

But in England they were defeated. With this defeat, English landlords gained control over 70-75 percent of the land, leased large parcels to capitalist tenants who then employed newly landless peasants as wage laborers. Under marketplace pressure, these capitalist farmers--the Monsantos of their day--introduced new technologies to make profits, including convertible husbandry systems (don't ask me what this is, but I suspect it has something to do with farm animals rather than marriage.) The key for Brenner, however, was the existence of exploitative class relations. The English countryside was, as we used to say at Goldman-Sachs in the 1980s, lean and mean.

Once agriculture was transformed, leanness and meanness diffused out into the rest of English society, which then became a highly productive economic machine firing on all 8 cylinders, just like Reaganite America. Once you could put food on the table in sufficient quantities, the English ants could get busy and race ahead of all the European grasshoppers, especially the fun-loving French. Brenner writes:

"It seems, moreover, that agricultural improvement was at the root of those developmental processes which, according to E. L. Jones, had allowed some 40 per cent of the English population to move out of agricultural employment by the end of the seventeenth century, much of it into industrial pursuits. Obviously, English industrial growth, predominantly in cloth, was in the first instance based on exports, spurred by overseas demand. Yet such export-based spurts were common in Europe throughout the middle ages and the early modern period; but previously none had been able to sustain itself."

Once this powerful growth engine is in place, colonial trade can be used to make it go even faster. But you have to have the proper engine first. By analogy, if you use hydrogen fuel in a dragster, you can easily go a quarter-mile in under 6 seconds. But if you put that same fuel into a Volkswagen beetle, you won't get there much faster than if you were using plain old gasoline. So gold and silver from Peru and Mexico was the fuel and England was the dragster. Portugal would have been a Yugo.


In "Agrarian Class Structure and the Development of Capitalism: France and England Compared," (in Aston-Philpin, "Brenner Debate"), Patricia Croot and David Parker argue that France was just as lean and mean as England, if not more so.

Large-scale farms were not even required for technological improvements on English farms, they say. Not only was manuring and new crops innovated on smaller farms, they also got into convertible husbandry. Such innovations were necessary for the survival of smaller farms that lacked the capital for large sheep flocks, the typical cash generator of 16th century England.

They also insist that the French peasant was not that carefree and independent. During the 16th and 17th centuries, French peasants were squeezed so tight that they had to seek supplementary income, just like lots of small family farmers in current-day North America as depicted in a recent depressing PBS documentary on an economically distressed family of farmers. A significant minority of the French peasants became totally dispossessed and ended up as vagabonds. This state of affairs was exactly that as depicted in the fine motion picture "A Simple Plan," with northern plains farmers so desperate they lie, rob and murder to survive. Of special note is the performance of an ex-farmer on welfare played by Billie Bob Thornton, who dreams of nothing more than regaining the family farm. Thornton has a knack for playing down-and-out rural denizens based on performances in this film and the memorable "Slingblade".

Croot and Parker insist that only 20 percent land was owned by French peasants in the Toulousain and Lauragais regions by the end of the 18th century. Here, as in England, wage labor was prevalent and secured through the services of a "fermier", a middle man. In France and England, economic duress set the pattern for class relations in the countryside. Brenner's portrayal of British ants and French grasshoppers simply does not correspond to reality.

Finally, there is ample evidence that English peasants actually fared better than their French cousins. By the mid-17th century, they write, "there was a far greater range of holdings with a significant proportion in the middle range using some wage labor and producing a surplus for the market." It was only in the beginning of the 18th century that concentration of landed property begin to develop in England. This time frame makes much more sense when speaking of agrarian capitalism rather than the early 16th century of the Brenner thesis, when feudal property relations were the norm. Most of Brenner's critics say the same thing: he is projecting backwards into a remote and distant period in British history class relations from a more contemporary time.


Robert Brenner was often linked with Ernesto Laclau and Eugene Genovese in the 1980s. Although not quite forming a school, the three were widely regarded as upholding a classical tough-minded version of Marxism as opposed to the sort of wooly-headed populism that marched udner the banner of "dependency theory". What they shared in common was a belief that the "mode of production" was key. If the system did not revolve around free labor and did not exhibit technological innovation driven by the lash of competition, then it did not deserve the name of capitalism. Social inequality was not sufficient.

(Of the three, Brenner is the only one who still has an affiliation with Marxism. Laclau dumped Marxism for a version of post-Marxism called "Radical Democracy" that he co-developed with Chantal Mouffe. It serves as the ideological underpinning for much of the NGO-oriented experiments in "civil society" in Latin American today. Genovese's evolution was more extreme. He started out as a "primacy of class" Marxist with hostility to black nationalism and feminism of the sort found in figures like Todd Gitlin, but eventually broke with the radical movement entirely. Today he is best described as a Roman Catholic southern agrarian reactionary. All sharing a background in 1960s Marxism, Genovese, David Horowitz and Ronald Radosh are among the most active and impassioned enemies of the left in the USA today.)

With these connections in mind, it is interesting to turn to a paper written by Shearer Davis Bowman in the Oct. '80 American Historical Review titled "Antebellum Planters and Vormarz Junkers in Comparative Perspective." To set the context for his comparison, Bowman cites Genovese as arguing for "the genuine conservatism of the planters and proslavery thought by insisting upon the 'precapitalist' character of the Old South's 'paternalistic' master-slave relation and the consequent 'prebourgeois' outlook of antebellum planters--'the closest thing to feudal lords imaginable in a nineteenth-century bourgeois republic.'"

By this criterion, the Junkers were just as 'prebourgeois.' The term "Junker" is derived from the Middle High German "young nobleman" and designates both the noble and nonnoble owners of legally privileged estates (Rittengüter) in Prussia's six eastern provinces, the breadbasket of modern Germany. Bowman identifies the similarities between the slave-states and these provinces in terms of class relations:

"Although the legal and racial status of slaves on a plantation was certainly quite different from that of the laborers on a Junker estate (before as well as after the end of hereditary bondage in 1807), there were significant parallels between the productive purposes to which menials on plantations and Ritterguter were put and between the ways in which they were governed. Each work force was subject to the personal, nearly despotic, authority of the owner, and each worked to produce cash crops for foreign and domestic markets. While Southern planters were growing cotton or tobacco for shipment to Liverpool or New York, for example, East Elbian Junkers were producing wheat or wool for shipment to London or Berlin. At mid-century most plantations and Ritterguter also achieved a high, cost-efficient level of self-sufficiency in basic foodstuffs as well. The functional and structural analogies between the plantation and the Rittergut are crucial to a comparative study of planters and Junkers, because these estates and their work forces constituted the foundations of their owners’ wealth, political influence, social status, and, in many instances, even their self-esteem."

While Brenner makes a strict linkage between capitalist farmers exploiting wage labor, Bowman points out that the Junkers were keen to make improvements to their land where labor was anything but free. Captain Carl von Wulffen-Pietzpuhl, writing in 1845, urged the creation of model farms so that his fellow Junkers could explore "the advancement of Prussia's practical agriculture". He declared that "the most rational" farmer managed to use "land and soil most effectively" and that the "most important aspect of rational agriculture" could be "reduced to the art of producing the cheapest dung." (And this was over a century in advance of the introduction of electronic mailing lists.)

The Junkers lord tended to have a view of himself as a kindly paterfamilias attending to the welfare of his faithful people, just like the American southern slave-owning class. While the slavocracy was able to impose its rule through outright ownership, the German oppressors had various labor codes--some extracted in the guise of "reforms" to keep his subjects in line. The proper way to regard both systems is as a mixture of economic control driven by the need for a capitalist gentry to support its life-style through the mass production of agricultural commodities, and political control based on forced labor. Reactionary authoritarian beliefs wed to militarism did not prevent these ruling class elites from extracting every bit of surplus from their properties through a combination of technological innovation and forced labor.

So were they precapitalist or capitalist?


Turning to Japan, the question of whether capitalist agriculture is a requirement for the advent of capitalism in general becomes even more problematic. Japanese Marxist scholarship has been the site of intense debates inspired by the Sweezy-Dobbs exchange. The Meiji restoration of the late 19th century is widely seen as the advent of the contemporary economic system, but there is scant evidence of bourgeois transformation of agriculture.

In "The Meiji Landlord: Good or Bad" (Journal of Asian Studies, May '59), R.P. Dore dates the controversy as arising in the 1930s, long before Dobbs, Sweezy and Brenner stepped into the ring. The Iwanami Symposium on the

Development of Japanese Capitalism, held in 1932, marks the starting point of a sustained effort to date the transformation of Japan from a feudal to a capitalist society. Especially problematic was the role of class relations in the countryside, which never went through the radical restructuring of Brenner's 16th century England.

Referring to Hirano Yoshitarö's "The Structure of Japanese Capitalism" Dore writes:

"Hirano's work contains a good deal of original research concerning the economic facts of the agrarian structure of the early Meiji, and the creation of a highly dependent class of tenant farmers. The landlords of Hirano, for example, preserved the semi-feudal social relations of the countryside which provided the necessary groundbase for the peculiarly distorted form of capitalism which developed in Japan. The high rents, maintained by semi-feudal extra-economic pressures, not only helped to preserve this semi-feudal base intact (by making capitalist agriculture unprofitable) they also contributed to the rapid process of primitive capital accumulation which accounted for the speed of industrial development. Thus the landlords were to blame for the two major special characteristics of Japanese capitalist development--its rapidity and its distorted nature."

Gosh, this is enough to make your head spin. Here we have a situation in which, according to one of the deans of Japanese Marxist scholarship, semi-feudal relations in the countryside served to accelerate Japanese capitalist development. Just the opposite of what Brenner alleges to be the secret of English hyper-capitalist success. Something doesn't add up here, does it?


Anderson's "Lineages of the Absolutist State" is an alternative analytical model to the one presented by Brenner (and defended by Ellen Meiksins Wood in her new MR book "The Origins of Capitalism.") Simply put, Anderson sees no contradiction between nominally precapitalist institutions and the overall development of capitalism. While the French revolution has a central role in the Marxist narrative as a turning-point in the abolition of feudal class relations, Anderson's research revolves around the tendency of feudal-like "absolutist" political and social institutions to create a fertile environment for capital accumulation in the period leading up to 1789.

"Absolutism did not mean the end of aristocratic rule: on the contrary, it protected at stabilized the social dominion of the hereditary noble class in Europe. The kings who presided over the new monarchies could never transgress the unseen limits to their power: those of the material conditions of reproduction of the class to which they themselves belonged. Commonly, these sovereigns were aware of their membership of aristocracy which surrounded them; their individual pride of station was founded on a collective solidarity of sentiment. Thus while capital was slowly accumulated beneath the glittering superstructures of Absolutism, exerting an ever greater gravitational pull on them, noble landowners of early modern Europe retained their historical predominance, in and through the monarchies which now command them. Economically guarded, socially privileged and culturally matured, the aristocracy still ruled: the Absolutist State adjusted paramountcy to the steady burgeoning of capital within the composite social formations of Western Europe."

Recent historical research on the French revolution, referred to by George Comninel in his "Rethinking the French Revolution: Marxism and the Revisionist Challenge," tends to confirm Anderson's analysis. The notion of a radical breach between precapitalist and capitalist structures has more to do with liberal historiography than the concrete example of the 1789 revolution, where there was very little evidence of a revolutionary bourgeoisie. The vanguard of the opposition to the absolutist state came from within the absolutist state itself. The fighters and intellectuals most associated with the Enlightenment were members of the court who sought to rid French society of excess rather than destroy the existing system itself. This is one of the best explanation for the residual influences of the absolutist system through the 19th century that Marx referred to as Thermidor.


All in all, Brenner's problem seems to be one of understanding transition. His schema seems to owe much to the sort of "stagism" that characterizes the intellectual milieu of the Analytical Marxism school, to which he has had a loose affiliation. Although Brenner, who is around sixty years old, has been involved with the American socialist formation Solidarity, it appears that he was not part of the Draperite current that helped to initiate it. Hal Draper, who broke with Max Shachtman, retained many ideas from the Trotskyist movement that Shachtman once belonged to. A key element of Trotskyist thought is combined and uneven development, which first appeared in Trotsky's analysis of the coming Russian Revolution.

As opposed to the narrow "stagist" conceptions of much of the Russian social democracy, Trotsky believed that Russian capitalism and precapitalist forms had a dialectical relationship to each other. Rather than seeing a revolutionary bourgeoisie in a life-and-death struggle against Czarist absolutism, Trotsky regarded the two as mutually reinforcing elements of a total system. That is why it would be a mistake to search for elements in the bourgeois parties that could reproduce the 1789 revolution Russian-style. It would be up to the peasants and workers to break with the feudal and capitalist past and create the only conditions for modernization and progress--the socialist revolution.

In my last post, I alluded to the intellectual ties between CLR James, the most important Trotskyist thinker after Trotsky himself, and Eric Williams, who first drew attention to the interconnection between forced labor in the New World and the origins of capitalist hegemony in the Old. Key to his understanding was the importance of relatively unfree labor in one arena of the world capitalist system for the growth of a system based on free labor in the other. This connection, although unfortunately made without the benefit of an overall Marxist analysis, is also made by the dependency theorists and the world systems group that followed them.

Robin Blackburn and Perry Anderson, who find themselves on the other side of the fence from Brenner and Wood in this debate, have both been strongly influenced by Ernest Mandel, who once served as a guiding light to the editorial board of the New Left Review, despite all the problems this entailed. While Mandel was strong on core features of Trotskyism such as combined and uneven development, he was relatively weak on understanding how the mass movement and revolutionary parties develop. In a time of generalized ultraleftism, his tendency to adapt to short-cut pressures of the radical movement might have disillusioned some of his followers. It is entirely possible that the retreat of the New Left Review into academically obscure subjects and discourse might reflect a desire to wash one's hands of 1960s excesses.

In its own way, Brenner's thesis seems to be driven by some of the same desire to move past the excesses of the 1960s. Instead of chanting "Ho-Ho-Ho Chi Minh, the NLF is going to win", the Brenner thesis would refocus our attention to the mainline of socialism, the mighty battalions of the industrialized countries with their powerful working class. When Brenner wrote his 1977 New Left Review article that conjoined scholarly speculation on the origins of capitalism with a frontal assault on "third worldism", I suppose that he like many of us assumed that a resurgence of the class struggle in the industrialized countries was in the offing. The economic deterioration of the Carter years seemed to point in the direction of an upsurge in the labor movement, which the Sadlowski steel revolt and fights in the coal fields against the UMW bureaucracy pointed to.

Unfortunately, these movements fizzled and we were left with a full two decades of relative class peace. Meanwhile the sharp edge of the class struggle appears to be in exactly those sites that were written off as "third world" diversions, including Colombia which could easily turn into the biggest military confrontation between US imperialism and revolutionary forces since the 1980s in Central America. It is imperative for revolutionaries everywhere, including Robert Brenner, to pay close attention to developments such as these for in the final analysis workers everywhere in the world have the same enemy: the world capitalist class.