The Brenner Thesis as Iberiantalism

In Ellen Meiksins Wood's defense of the Brenner thesis over the past several years, you can lose track of the issues that made it so controversial in the first place. This was not simply an analysis of how capitalism began, it was also an intervention into the debate around development strategy that was raging in the 1970s. This article will consider Wood's defense in light of scholarly material on the question of the transition to capitalism. It will also refocus the discussion on the often tortured development debate itself, which in my view has tended to reflect the class composition of the principals with all of the obvious problems. Put simply, a North American or European professor in an African university or on a United Nations assignment will be in a poor position to analyze class relations in the host country and to recommend necessary solutions. Ultimately, those sorts of solutions can only emerge from parties such as the kind that Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin sought to build. Finally, the article will show how the Brenner thesis, if applied rigorously to modern South Africa, can only lead to absurd conclusions.

If you examine Ellen Meiksins Wood's polemic against the late Jim Blaut in the May-June 2001 Against the Current ("A Critique of Eurocentric Eurocentrism"), you will notice something very odd. Other than a citation of A.G. Frank's recently published "Reorient," all of the other six footnotes refer solely to articles written by Blaut or Brenner.

In contrast, Jim Blaut's chapter on Brenner in "Eight Eurocentric Historians" (Guilford, 2000) (about the same length as Wood's article) includes fifty-seven citations often referring to specialized, scholarly material. (1) For example, since Brenner's argument that capitalism began in the English countryside relies heavily on Eric Kitteridge's "The Agricultural Revolution," Blaut offers Titow's "English Rural Society, 1200-1350" as an opposing view. When David Harvey spoke at Jim Blaut's memorial meeting in NYC recently, he said that while Jim was a dedicated revolutionary, he was also a conscientious scholar. As he put it, he took all of the baggage that went along with it quite seriously, including footnotes.

Either Ellen Meiksins Wood is unaware of countervailing scholarly material or, being aware of it, considers the Brenner thesis of such divine inspiration so as to be immune from counter-arguments. This, of course, is no way to deepen our understanding of capitalism's origins. Since the Brenner thesis rests on the uniquely capitalist and uniquely productive character of British agriculture from the 15th century onwards, one might expect somebody defending it to investigate alternative interpretations.

One can only wonder if Wood has stumbled across Philip T. Hoffman's much-heralded "Growth in a Traditional Society: the French Countryside 1450-1815" (Princeton, 1996) in her peregrinations. Sifting through village records in Bretteville-l'Orguelleuse, Roville, and Neuviller, Hoffman makes a startling discovery. While at the outset he believed the failings of French agriculture "derived from the small size of peasant farms" and "the lack of English-style enclosures," the data gradually convinced him that sharecropping, a typical form of property relations in these villages, did not hamper productivity or innovation at all. (2) By all standard measures of labor productivity, France was the equal of Great Britain.

Or has she seen Kenneth Pomeranz's "The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy"? Pomeranz notes that in the sixteenth to eighteenth century, "China was closer to market-driven agriculture than was most of Europe, including most of western Europe." (3) He adds, "much of western Europe's farmland was far harder to buy or sell than that of China. Even in the nineteenth century, about 50 percent of all land in England was covered by family settlements, which made it all but impossible to sell."


As fruitful as it would be to explore France and China as counterfactuals to the Brenner thesis, my goal now is to subject Wood's rather off-the-cuff remarks on Spanish 'feudalism' to careful scrutiny. For Wood, Spain functions as an example of everything that can go wrong when you do not make the transition to capitalism. Instead of using its colonial wealth productively, Spain wasted it in "essentially feudal pursuits, especially war..." (An interesting perspective on war from a world-renown Marxist intellectual.) In contrast to Spain, the English were much more ruthless when it came to the exploitation of the land for farming. Concerned with commercial profit, they dedicated themselves to "improvement." Meanwhile, one would surmise that the vainglorious Spanish hidalgos were happiest, when not wasting good farmland, out looking for countries to pick fights with.

To put it bluntly, Wood's views on Spain and the Spanish colonies are a caricature. What is at work here is the kind of national and ethnic stereotyping that Edward Said attacked in "Orientalism." Perhaps we can coin a term to describe Wood's approach: Iberiantalism.

To begin with, it is necessary to tackle the question of whether there was such a thing as 'feudalism' in the Spanish settlements in the New World. One of the things that might confuse Wood is that the Spaniards created institutions such as the 'encomienda' (a kind of fiefdom) that had their origins--at least nominally--in feudal Spain. However, the class relations that typified Spanish colonial society had nothing in common with the Old World. To dramatize the difference, we need only to look at the 'mita,' a form of labor servitude that replaced the 'encomienda.'

Interestingly, the 'mita' was based on the Incan 'm'ita,' a form of labor servitude that existed in the Incan empire, a truly feudal system. In "Peru's Indian Peoples and the Challenge of Spanish Conquest: Huamanga to 1640," Steve Stern is careful to retain two different spellings just to make sure there is no confusion. He writes, "Traditionally, native society supplemented joint labor by the community as a whole with a rotation system. Peasants served a m'ita, or turn, out of the community's total labors. The rotations allowed communities and ayllus to distribute collective labor needs or obligations in accordance with local reciprocities, which called for equal contributions of labor-time by the community's kindreds." (4)

The Spanish 'mita' had virtually nothing in common with this. When an Indian was dragooned by the Spanish lord to go off to a mine or 'obraje' (early manufacturer operated in sweatshop conditions), production quotas were set arbitrarily at a level beyond what a 'mitayo' worker could produce. In order to meet them, the Indian would have to bring his children into the mine or 'obraje' to work just as is the case in places like Bangladesh today. In other words, Peru and Bolivia were turned into something like gigantic slave-labor camps.

Was this feudalism? If so, it was a peculiar form of feudalism considering the way that the system operated in Europe:

"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."(5)

It was exactly this kind of wasteful inefficiency of labor power that the rise of capitalism in Europe was directed against. In effect, the Spanish colonies were vast, early laboratories in which super-exploitation stripped of what Marx called "feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations" in the Communist Manifesto could be tested out.

By all standard measurements of capitalist profit, the Spaniards enjoyed a roaring success. Profits from mining were invested in capitalist development throughout the New World. If we turn to D.A. Brading's "Miners and Merchants in Bourbon Mexico: 1763-1810" (Cambridge Press, 1971), the proof of rapid capitalist growth leaps off the page.

"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."(6)

By what standard can these operations be called 'feudal' without making a mockery of the English language? Furthermore, an unprejudiced view of the mother country would reveal an entirely different reality than the one that Wood would foist on her reader.

The Spanish government of the 1780s was fully swept up by and committed to the new capitalist doctrines sweeping Europe. King Carlos III commissioned the Sociedad Económica de Madrid to come up with a program for agricultural reform and economist Gasper Melchor de Jovellanos took charge of the project. His main principle, based on the physiocratic school, was that laws should not attempt to protect agriculture but only to remove obstacles to its development. While drawing from the physiocrats, he also echoed Adam Smith. He not only read the "Wealth of Nations" in French, but translated it into Spanish. "How admirable when he analyses!", he declared with respect to Smith. (7) There was resistance to Jovellanos's program from the landed gentry, but no more or less so than in any other country in Europe at the time, including Great Britain. In any case, the notion of a 'feudal' Spain is utterly false. The Crown only sought to limit the power of the landowners, who had long ago dropped any connections to the sort of feudal paternalism described above. They were involved with commercial agriculture, not production of use values. Even Robert Brenner admits that capitalist agriculture was widespread in Catalonia more than two centuries earlier.


The Brenner thesis was not only an analysis of how capitalism got started, it also became a polemic against the "dependency theory" school that had emerged in the 1960s. Economists on the staff of the United Nations and visiting professors in third world countries had become pessimistic about the possibility of development. Some, who had become radicalized by Cuba and Vietnam, decided that socialist revolution was the only path forward. Key to their analysis was Monthly Review author Paul Baran's concept of the "development of underdevelopment" in the colonial or neocolonial world. Since "dependency theory" was focused on contradictions between the imperialist North and the "periphery," it became vulnerable to the charge that it lacked a sufficient grounding in the kind of class analysis that was necessary to transform an underdeveloped country. The reaction against the Monthly Review theorists was posited as a return to a kind of classical Marxism. Unfortunately, this kind of Marxism was one that predated the Russian Revolution. Essentially, it tried to resurrect Marx's famous dictum in Capital that "The industrially more developed country shows the less developed one merely an image of its own future."

Since many of the critics of the dependency school occupied the same social position as their targets, it is not surprising that they would be in a poor position to conceive of a truly Marxist solution to development, namely proletarian revolution. A job as a visiting lecturer at a university or in a United Nations office hardly puts you in a position to see social contradictions from below, as a trade union activist or peasant leader would. For these privileged foreigners, the colonial man and woman of the subordinate classes becomes a subject for study rather than an independent actor on a par with their observer.

The most interesting example of this sort of evolution is Colin Leys, who transformed himself from dependency theorist into critic all within the span of a year. Written in 1975, "Underdevelopment in Kenya: the Political Economy of Neo-Colonialism" puts forward views similar to those found in Samir Amin. Only a year after the publication of the book, Leys had changed his mind completely and affiliated himself with critics such as Robert Brenner, Bill Warren and Ernesto Laclau. What had changed his mind?

Evidently, other students of Kenyan society--also scholars from outside--had decided that not only was capital accumulation proceeding apace in the country, but that it predated imperialist control of the country which had been removed through revolutionary force in the 1950s. Reading their arguments, Colin Leys did a self-correction and announced that the local bourgeoisie was not so decadent and beholden to imperialism after all.

You can find his post-conversion views in a 1978 Socialist Register article titled "Capital Accumulation, Class Formation and Dependency: the Significance of the Kenyan Case." To start with, Leys tries to find some value in the writings of the wretched imperialist apologist Bill Warren:

"The conclusion which Warren's critics drew. . .was that the manufacturing growth rates of these countries were not evidence of 'autonomous industrial growth' in the Third World, as Warren believed. But this is a case of too much zeal. Britain, too, was once an 'exceptional' case."

After making a place at the table for Bill Warren, Leys then proceeds to declare on behalf of the Brenner thesis:

"Brenner, correctly in my view, stresses the centrality of the class relations which [Adam] Smith took as given. On this view, what is decisive for the development of capitalist production relations is the prior configuration and character of classes--for instance, the availability or otherwise of 'free' labour, the respective political power of non-landed and landed classes affecting the possibility of capital investment in land, and so on."

All these theoretical declarations are merely a prelude to his main task, which is to demonstrate the vibrancy of Kenyan capitalism. His notion of the centrality of class relations is less about identifying and focusing attention on potential gravediggers of the system, but on how the system can "develop" under the auspices of the native ruling class.

He makes much of the transfer of expatriate-owned ranches and coffee plantations to African owners. "Passenger road transportation was also in African hands by 1977 as were tour companies, laundries and dry cleaning, and a rapidly growing share of the hotel and restaurant sectors." This leads Leys to endorse comments made by an identified Kenyan state official, "In 15 years, if the political climate of Kenya and the world economy stay stable, 90% of manufacturing will be Kenyan owned." In the conclusion to Leys's article, he states, "In less abstract terms, Kenya appears, from this analysis, as a modest example of a 'systematical combination of moments' conducive to the transition to the capitalist mode of production."

The "moments" Leys is referring to are those mentioned by Karl Marx in the chapter on the genesis of the industrial capitalist in volume one of Capital. Specifically, they are the different "moments" of primitive accumulation which are "systematically" combined at the end of the seventeenth century in England. They include colonial plunder, slavery, extermination of the American Indian, etc. What this has to do with Kenyan ownership of laundries, etc., is anybody's guess. Rather it seems more akin to what Richard Nixon once tried to promote, namely black capitalism.


As Leys correctly notes, the availability or otherwise of 'free' labour is key for Brenner. Without free labor, there is no capitalism. Unfortunately, this fails to adequately deconstruct the relation between freedom and labor. The capitalist, above all, seeks labor to exploit. Freedom, no matter what the ideologists preach, is entirely secondary.

In Great Britain, labor had to be free because feudal ties to the land stood in the way of deployment for factory labor. It was more efficient to build factories in coastal cities, where ships could carry manufactured goods overseas to markets. If somebody was tied to the land, they couldn't very well be forced to move to the city in order to work 14 hours a day. They had to be free first.

However, under other circumstances force was required to make the hapless peasant from a feudal or communal village do their duty on behalf of capitalist civilization. This was especially true when the peasant was native to a colonized country and knew his way around in the forests or fields where he could hunt and fish in order to survive. Under these circumstances it was necessary to pass laws that forced the indigenous peoples to stay put and not run away from their duty. With these laws in place, work gangs could now extract minerals from the soil or pick crops on a plantation for the rest of their life, now that they were wedded to an estate or corporation. This is not feudalism. It is called chattel slavery or indentured servitude.

While it is easy to get confused about such questions when the people ordering indigenous peoples about lived in the good old days and referred to themselves as "Don" or "Sir," there should be no such confusion when it comes to modern South Africa. There was no feudalism in this country, but there was plenty of forced labor.

The entire history of South Africa has been about how to force the indigenous population to be successfully exploited by the white capitalist class, when all sorts of obstacles presented themselves, starting with the abolition of slavery in 1834 in keeping with laws already enacted in the rest of the British Empire.(8)

An ordinance passed in 1835 requiring ex-slaves to become apprentices to their previous owners did not fare too well as the kaffir ingrates insisted on deserting or damaging property. A new ordinance was passed in 1841 that established criminal sanctions for breach of contract by the servant but this solution proved short-lived as well. The ruling class next considered importing convicts from England, the Australian solution and one that the contemporary USA is moving towards as well. Finally, in a generous spirit they passed an 1853 ordinance that provided means of subsistence and a small cash wage based on a contract. Violations of the contract were punishable by a stiff prison sentence.

One of the consequences of such humanitarian legislation was the exodus of Dutch farmers into the east and northeast, whose religious convictions made them predisposed to traffic in human beings. When they migrated into their new home, they were sure to take their KhoiKhoi slaves with them who could be relied on for the dirty work on their farms.

The development of mining also created opportunities for the capitalist class, especially in light of the inexplicable desire of native Africans to subsist through farming rather than dig for diamonds or gold at a pittance. This led to the establishment of a mixture of wage and forced, contract labor. An 1872 proclamation declared that mine owners were obligated to pay a wage to a miner, while he would be forced to carry a pass when he was not at the site. Since diamonds were extremely valuable, labor conditions became prison-like. All sorts of extra-economic controls were instituted to keep workers in line. These controls were not feudal, nor was the system anything other than capitalism.

The biggest obstacle to the mine owners' plans, however, was the relative prosperity of the African peasant who was able to not only subsist on the fertile soil but sell a surplus in the commercial marketplace. This development was most pronounced in the Cape Colony. Taking pity on the understaffed gold mining companies, the state enacted a migrant labor system in the 1890s. Contracts to work in these prison-like compounds were made more palatable through prostitution and saloons (shebeens). Once a miner was recruited, he had to carry a pass around with him wherever he went.

And what of those stubborn souls who decided that they preferred to till the fields rather than dig for gold or diamonds? Thoughtful legislation took care of that. The Glen Gray Act of 1894 imposed a ten shilling tax on all men in the Cape colony who could not prove that they had been in wage employment for three months in every year.

These sorts of laws persisted throughout the twentieth century as South Africa was entering the ranks of the developed world. The vast wealth of South Africa rests on mining and mining, which in turn rested on unfree labor through the 1970s. Workers who quit a contract were characterized as "deserters" by the authorities and subject to arrest. A boycott by American unions finally abolished such "master and servants" acts, but long after the damage had been done.

From the standpoint of class relations, contemporary South Africa and colonial Spain have much in common. Capitalism is not about advanced technology. Until relatively recent times, a miner worked with a pick and a shovel. Nor is capitalism about "freedom". It is about producing surplus value. If a work force is not available to work for a wage, then the capitalist state will pass laws ensuring that various forms of unfree labor keep the system going. It is our job as Marxists to develop a class analysis that can maximize the power of the laboring classes politically. Quibbling over whether the worker is really a worker or not based on the peculiarities of a given country's history not only constitutes a form of pedantic quibbling, it is a detour from our task as revolutionaries.


(1) pp. 68-72

(2) p. 15

(3) p. 70-73

(4) pp. 80-113

(5) Michael Perelman, "The Invention of Capitalism", Duke University, 2000; p. 17

(6) p. 232

(7) Richard Herr, "The Eighteenth-Century Revolution in Spain", Princeton University, 1958; p. 377

(8) Robert Miles, "Capitalism and Unfree Labour: Anomaly or necessity?", Tavistock Publications, 1987; pp. 118-142