The Marxists’ Achievement


I recently caught up with an old friend of mine over Skype. As is my wont, I launched on an excruciatingly long monologue about my anti-Marxist perspective on capitalism. He suggested that I read Ellen Meiksins Wood’s Origin of Capitalism. It is a definitive restatement of the new orthodoxy that began with Robert Brenner’s seminal article from 1976, “Agrarian Class Structure and Economic Development in Pre-Industrial Europe.” The debate over the transition from feudalism to capitalism (“the transition debate”) has always been a ground where prominent Marxist historians (Dobb, Sweezy, Anderson, and so on) made their bones. In what follows (part I), I will present the knotty problem posed by the transition. I will then show how Brenner presents an elegant (and orthodox) Marxist explanation. Then I will lay out Wood’s explanation of the rise of capitalism. This will allow us to better appreciate and evaluate the Marxist lens. In part II of this essay (coming soon), I will demonstrate how Marxists are constantly reaching for variables and explanations extraneous to the frame to explain large-scale, and quite central, phenomena in the history of capitalism. Lastly, I will then lay out my argument for a different lens; one in which there is no need to constantly reach outside the model for explanations.

When the Black Death arrived in Europe in 1346, the entire continent was essentially feudal. To be sure, there was plenty of trade and towns; some, such as Bruges, quite brilliant. Only in the Italian city-states did merchants share political power with landed elites. But these were utterly peripheral to the large-scale reality of the feudal order. Almost all of Europe was characterized by political decentralization; a fusion of political, military, and economic power in the landed aristocracy; with the mass of peasants tied to the land and the lord, who extracted surplus in exchange for protection. The incredible stability of the feudal order was subjected to a dramatic demographic shock when the Black Death wiped out nearly half of Europe’s populace. On the side of the peasants, this led to sharply higher bargaining power, and demands for freedom, mobility, and less extraction. On the other side, a seigniorial reaction, as the lords frantically fought to suppress the revolting peasants. Reasoning on purely economic grounds, one would expect to find the end of serfdom across Europe. This is indeed what happened in Western Europe. In Eastern Europe on the contrary, what obtained was reserfment; an intensification of feudalism. For this reason, Brenner explained, the end of Feudalism cannot simply be traced to the Black Death (as argued by Dobb and Sweezy):

It was the logic of the peasant to try to use his apparently improved bargaining position to get his freedom. It was the logic of the landlord to protect his position by reducing the peasants’ freedom. The result simply cannot be explained in terms of demographic-economic supply and demand. It obviously came down to a question of power, indeed of force, and in fact there was intense Europe-wide lord-peasant conflict throughout the later fourteenth, fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, almost everywhere over the same general issues: first, of course, serfdom; secondly, whether lords or peasants were to gain ultimate control over landed property, in particular the vast areas left vacant after the demographic collapse.

The dramatic difference in outcomes between the East and the West is explained, according to Brenner, by the prevailing “balance of class forces”:

…their relative strengths in the different European societies: their relative levels of internal solidarity, their self-consciousness and organization, and their general political resource—especially their relationships to the non-agricultural classes (in particular, potential urban class allies) and to the state (in particular, whether or not the state developed a “class-like” competitor of the lords for the peasants’ surplus).

It was “peasant solidarity and strength in Western Europe” and the “superior institutionalization of the peasants’ class power” that was “central” to the superior ability of peasants in the West “to resist seigniorial reaction.” This is especially clear in the “pivotal comparative case—east versus west Elbian Germany,” where the peasant war of 1525 would’ve been “unthinkable” without the “strong development of communal life in (west) Germany.”

The end of serfdom did not, by itself, put Western Europe on the road to capitalism. Before Brenner, Marxist historians had always assumed that capitalism emerged spontaneously when the fetters of feudalism were removed; as if petty producers were simply waiting in the wings to become capitalists—in the manner of mammals who had been scurrying around between the feet of giant dinosaurs until the latter went extinct. Moreover, there is a clear association between capitalism and cities. It was held that the rise of capitalism was closely tied to the growth of cities and trade. Brenner destroyed these fundamental assumptions by demonstrating that capitalism (in the Marxist sense) arose not in cities but in the sixteenth century English countryside. Moreover, he showed how capitalism emerged from a class struggle between the landlords and the peasants. Namely, the peasant revolts had succeeded in ending serfdom but the big landlords were powerful enough to keep the land under their control (unlike France, where peasants acquired small holdings). This balance of class power had tremendous implications for the future of England and the world.

Agrarian Capitalism

[All quotations in this section are from Wood’s The Agrarian Origins of Capitalism.]

In pre-capitalist societies, peasants “had direct access to the means of their own reproduction,” so that their surplus could be extracted only by means of coercion. The “most basic difference between all pre-capitalist societies and capitalism” is that only in capitalism is the “dominant mode of surplus appropriation based on the dispossession of the direct producers whose surplus labor is appropriated by purely ‘economic’ means.” For the propertyless, the only way to survive in a capitalist society is to sell their labor for wages. This dependence on the market for survival is also true of capitalists, who “depend on it to buy labor-power, as well as the means of production, and to realize their profits by selling the goods or services produced by the workers.”

This unique system of market-dependence entails some very distinctive “laws of motion,” specific systemic requirements and compulsions shared by no other mode of production: the imperatives of competition, accumulation, and profit-maximization. And these imperatives, in turn, mean that capitalism can, and must, constantly expand in ways and degrees unlike any other social form—constantly accumulating, constantly searching out new markets, constantly imposing its imperatives on new territories and new spheres of life, on human beings and the natural environment.

Once we recognize just how distinctive these social relations and processes are, how different they are from other social forms which have dominated most of human history, it becomes clear that more is required to explain the emergence of this distinctive social form than the question-begging assumption that it has always existed in embryo, just needing to be liberated from unnatural constraints. The question of its origins, then, can be formulated this way: given that producers were exploited by appropriators in non-capitalist ways for millennia before the advent of capitalism, and given that markets have also existed “time out of mind” and almost everywhere, how did it happen that producers and appropriators, and the relations between them, came to be so market dependent? [Emphasis mine.]

England was a uniquely centralized state in early modern Europe. The big landlords controlled an unusually large proportion of the land. But “they did not possess to the same degree as their Continental counterparts the more or less autonomous ‘extra-economic’ powers on which other ruling classes could rely to extract surplus labor from direct producers.”

This distinctive combination had significant consequences. On the one hand, the concentration of English landholding meant that an unusually large proportion of land was worked not by peasant-proprietors but by tenants… On the other hand, the relatively weak “extra-economic” powers of landlords meant that they depended less on their ability to squeeze more rents out of their tenants by direct, coercive means than on their tenants’ productivity. Landlords had a strong incentive, then, to encourage—and, wherever possible, to compel—their tenants to find ways of increasing their output. In this respect, they were fundamentally different from rentier aristocrats who throughout history have depended for their wealth on squeezing surpluses out of peasants by means of simple coercion, enhancing their powers of surplus extraction not by increasing the productivity of the direct producers but rather by improving their own coercive powers—military, judicial, and political.

On their end, the tenant farmers “were increasingly subject not only to direct pressures from landlords but to market imperatives which compelled them to enhance their productivity.” The answer to the question—how did the relations between producers and appropriators came to be so market dependent?—lies, then, in the market for leases. “Where security of tenure depended on the ability to pay the going rent, uncompetitive production could mean outright loss of land. To meet economic rents in a situation where other potential tenants were competing for the same leases, tenants were compelled to produce cost-effectively, on penalty of dispossession.”

This mode of providing for the basic material needs of English society brought with it a whole new dynamic of self-sustaining growth, a process of accumulation and expansion very different from the age-old cyclical patterns that dominated material life in other societies. It was also accompanied by the typical capitalist processes of expropriation and the creation of a propertyless mass. It is in this sense that we can speak of “agrarian capitalism” in early modern England.

This transformation of social property relations was “firmly rooted in the countryside, and the transformation of English trade and industry was result more than cause of England’s transition to capitalism.” The defining characteristic of the agrarian relations in England was the “triad” of “landlords living on capitalist ground rent, capitalist tenants living on profit, and laborers living on wages.” The mass proletariat of propertyless workers that formed the base of the Industrial Revolution was, per Wood, the result of the relentless rise in productivity unleashed by agrarian capitalism. Of course, this being a debate among Marxists, such a claim is bound to ruffle some feathers:

Some people may be reluctant to describe this social formation as “capitalist,” precisely on the grounds that capitalism is, by definition, based on the exploitation of wage labor. That reluctance is fair enough—as long as we recognize that, whatever we call it, the English economy in the early modern period, driven by the logic of its basic productive sector, agriculture, was already operating according to principles and “laws of motion” different from those prevailing in any other society since the dawn of history. Those laws of motion were the preconditions—which existed nowhere else—for the development of a mature capitalism that would indeed be based on the mass exploitation of wage labor. [Emphasis mine.]

In any event, the “laws of motion” unleashed by the market in leases made English agriculture tremendously productive, with very large-scale consequences for England and the world it came to dominate:

Without a productive agricultural sector which could sustain a large non-agricultural workforce, the world’s first industrial capitalism would have been unlikely to emerge. Without England’s agrarian capitalism, there would have been no dispossessed mass obliged to sell its labor-power for a wage. Without that dispossessed non-agrarian work force, there would have been no mass consumer market for the cheap everyday goods—such as food and textiles—that drove the process of industrialization in England. And without its growing wealth, together with wholly new motivations for colonial expansion—motivations different from the old forms of territorial acquisition—British imperialism would have been a very different thing than the engine of industrial capitalism it was to become. And (this is no doubt a more contentious point) without English capitalism there would probably have been no capitalist system of any kind: it was competitive pressures emanating from England, especially an industrialized England that compelled other countries to promote their own economic development in capitalist directions.

Agrarian capitalism played a critical role in breaking from the Malthusian logic that characterized the ancien régime. Directly, by raising agricultural productivity, and indirectly, by stimulating the Industrial Revolution, the transformation of social property relations in the English countryside led to a relentless rise in per capita income that more than anything else marks the modern era apart from the rest of history.

The Marxist framework, especially in the advanced form laid out by Wood and Brenner, is a very powerful lens indeed.

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