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Submitted by Clive on Wed, 04/12/2002 - 09:14

These are some supplementary notes on Ellen Meiksins Wood's book 'The Origin of Capitalism'. I said in my review of 'Democracy Against Capitalism' that I didn't feel qualified to judge some of the historical questions she raises, since at least to some degree they depend on detailed knowledge outside my competence. Still, it's worth trying to summarise her argument and offer some tentative thoughts.

Wood argues there is a tendency in non-Marxist, and even in much Marxist, analysis to treat capitalism as natural, as simply the working-through of inherent human qualities present in all societies, and the historical emergence of capitalism as the mere evolution of pre-capitalist types of market. In particular, regarding the emergence of capitalism from feudalism, she attacks the 'commercialisation model', according to which capitalism was already present in feudal cities, and as the market spread was gradually able to outgrow feudal fetters until eventually 'bourgeois revolution' caused a qualitative breakthrough. Early modern colonialism (the conquest of what became Latin America, etc) is seen as merely the means whereby large amounts of wealth were amassed which could feed capitalist industrial development when the time came; the commercial empires of Spain, Portugal, the Dutch are assimilated to capitalism, whereas in fact they were not capitalist at all.

These analyses are at fault for several reasons. First, they assume what needs to be explained. The historical specificity of capitalism is much more remarkable than these theories suppose: to treat capitalism as a sort of ever-present promise which will seize its chance as soon as it can makes a mystery of most of human history. Why did capitalism emerge when it did and not before? Collapsing capitalism into 'the market' robs us of a serious analysis of capitalism, and treats it, in effect, as natural (in Adam Smith's words, natural human 'truck, barter and exchange'). Capitalism is special because the market becomes an imperative, determining all spheres of life, and therefore imposing a constant need to increase labour productivity. Through this process, the separation between 'economic' and 'political' occurs (discussed in my previous article): rather than through the direct force of the state, surplus is extracted from the direct producers (the working class) by the economic mechanism of the market (the exchange of labour power for wages).

Factually, also, therefore, the 'commercialisation model' misses the point. The assumption of capitalism gradually building up in the cities (hence the term 'bourgeois') is false (Wood criticises the conflation of 'capitalist' with 'bourgeois' in general). In fact there were 'two ways out of feudalism'. One was the absolutist state, which involved 'politically constituted' property; the other was capitalism. But capitalist transition occurred in one place, and in the first instance one place only - the English countryside. This was not merely, as many accounts have it, that peasants were deprived of land making them available to be wage-labourers: the forms of property themselves were transformed. In essence, feudal relations became subject - in a class struggle in which classes fought for their own immediate interests - to market imperatives. Once the market imperatives took hold, capitalism began. In time, it swept everything before it - because its imperative to increase labour productivity made it immensely more powerful and competitive than its rivals.

There was no such thing as 'bourgeois revolution', either in England or elsewhere, if by this is meant 'capitalist revolution'. Capitalist transition was the result of the emerging dominance of market imperatives; revolutions (like the French) may well have been led by 'the bourgeosie', but only in the sense that these were not capitalists at all. This part of the argument relates to the discussion on democracy in my earlier article: Wood argues that the Enlightenment was not simply to do with the emergence of capitalism, but reflected 'non-capitalist' ideologies. I think the point here is that while the capitalist property owners and their ideologues had a limited and self-interested concept of democracy, there were other democratic advocates around whose championing of the ideals of universal human emancipation can't be reduced to the 'needs' of the capitalist class. The democracy of the French and other revolutions was not because they were 'bourgeois revolutions'; rather, it was the result of the fact that they were not.

Wood's thesis is explicitly linked to the work of the American Marxist Robert Brenner (who is linked, as a matter of interest, to the 'Solidarity' group/Against the Current in the USA - one of the latter day 'bureaucratic collectivist' tendencies). In a previous life I was familiar with some of Brenner's work. Wood's argument here is in part a logical conclusion from Brenner's critique, in the 1970s, of 'neo-Smithian Marxism'. In an influential article, he extensively criticised the dominant neo-Marxist theories of 'underdevelopment' associated with Andre Gunder Frank and Immanuel Wallerstein, which accounted for the global rich/poor divide by a process in which the metropolis/core sucked surplus from the satellites/periphery. Brenner argued that this theory equated 'capitalism' with 'the market' after the manner of Adam Smith, not Marx. A properly Marxist (and genuinely explanatory, therefore) theory would reinstate class struggle, and in particular an understanding of capitalism as centred on the wage relation. Underdevelopment theory, like its parent, more general 'dependency' theory, tended towards economic nationalist solutions to the poverty of the 'periphery'. Brenner's focus suggested an internationalist, socialist answer.

The concern with the specificity of capitalism, and with class struggle as the motor for historical change (rather than globally-defined 'economic' processes), is clearly visible in the account of the origin of capitalism offered here by Wood. I think Brenner and his 'tradition' focuses another issue, too. The separation, in capitalism, of the 'economic' and 'political' spheres is of course a fairly basic Marxist concept, central in a sense to the theory of surplus value itself (it is what distinguishes surplus value from pre-capitalist forms of surplus). But in the theory of bureaucratic collectivism it takes on a new, or sharper, significance. The extraction of surplus in the USSR was plainly 'extra-economic', requiring an immense state apparatus to achieve it. This issue is at the heart of disagreements over 'bureaucratic collectivism' and 'state capitalism'.

It seems to me that the political implications of Wood's argument are harder to define that she thinks they are. The main argument, throughout, is derived from her general theoretical priority, which is to assert the historical specificity of capitalism - '... capitalism is not a natural and inevitable consequence of human nature... It is a late and localised product of very specific historical conditions' (p 193) - and on that basis offer a more defined and coherent socialist critique. Somewhat frustratingly, she does not spell out very specific political consequences. Moreover, the terms of the debate in which she sees herself writing is entirely in the academic arena: she does not deal with her argument's implications for an understanding of Marx's politics, still less the politics of later Marxists. Her general arguments are a trenchant critique of anti-Marxist 'market triumphalism' on the one hand and 'post-modernist' refusals to deal in meta-narratives on the other. But a range of more specific conclusions, I think, could be drawn.

Her historical account is persuasive up to a point - and as I have said, I don't know enough about European history in the period she is dealing with (the fifteenth century or so to the eighteenth) to comment in detail. But there is something counter-intuitive about much of it. (Counter-intuitive theories are not necessarily wrong, of course - look at quantum mechanics).

Capitalism emerged after a period in which powerful trade empires had dominated the world, in which huge sums of 'merchant capital' had been amassed. (She does not use the term 'merchant capital' at all, nor discuss it, though it is hardly an obscure category in Marxist theory, including theories of global capitalist development. In one such theory, that of Geoffrey Kay, it is the central concept which accounts for the backwardness of the 'third world'). Taking an overview of world history, that the period preceding modern capitalism was the period involving the conquest of the Americas, etc, does not seem accidental - as if the really important developments were taking place elsewhere.

Her entire argument is constructed around the claim that to accept any version of the 'commercialisation model' - the emphasis on the growth of trade prior to the emergence of industrial capital - is to naturalise capitalism, and assume what should be explained. I'm not sure this is true, though. If the emergence of capitalism is regarded as some kind of teleological inevitability (which is the view she is opposing), and history is 'read forwards' with each step seen as the unfolding of an immanent process, it is true. But why can't it simply be said that this is 'how it happened' - not that it could not have happened any other way, or that modern capitalist society was a fully-grown chicken in the egg of the Renaissance; but that this was the completely un-teleological process by which modern capitalism emerged? It does not seem to me that there is anything in such an approach which automatically 'naturalises' capitalism. The Dutch commercial empire, or imperial Spain, were not the same as ancient Phoenicia, or Carthage, or Rome - which were also 'commercial empires' to some degree at least. To assimilate more recent commercial empires to some category of 'commercial empire' would be just as ahistorical. 'Trade', in a Smithian framework, is a natural human tendency. But there is trade and trade. (As there is slavery and slavery, etc). In her concern to identity the uniqueness of capitalism, I think Wood might be in danger of conflating other distinct phenomena.

There is a kind of relentless logic to Wood's argument that makes me constantly want to say 'hold on'. Even on the separation of politics and economics, this is so. Is it true that 'actually existing capitalism' achieves this separation? Most capitalist societies throughout the history of capitalism have required pretty intensive state coercion to guarantee the extraction of surplus value. This is not quite the same as non-capitalist forms of surplus appropriation; and Wood does recognise the need for state coercion, which she sees as the result of capitalism's contradictions. (I think what she means is that capitalism necessarily generates resistance, so of course the ruling class needs repression). But I worry that the basic 'model' of 'normal' or average capitalism which she takes for granted is that of advanced capitalism, with more-or-less bourgeois democratic systems in place - where the economic/political distinction is quite clear. What about, say, Chile after 1973, though, or Nazi Germany?

She deals directly with a point I made in my previous article, about the Enlightenment and the democratic impulses of the 'bourgeois revolution', arguing, as I have indicated, that much of the Enlightenment was not 'capitalist' at all. It seems to me extremely dubious to try to separate out different aspects of Enlightenment thought - as though the properly capitalist ideologues of England are much different to the non-capitalist French. In reality, for example, Voltaire's lover, the remarkable Emily du Chatelet, translated Newton into French - and Voltaire himself saw his critique of the French aristocracy as the application of Newtonian science to society. Wood ultimately accepts that this separation can't really be achieved. But she seems to me to miss a more general point - perhaps it's the same point I've made above. Looked at with, so to speak, more distance, there is an obvious cumulative development in the history of ideas in Europe. I don't think Marxists have attempted to reduce this intellectual history directly to the 'needs of capitalist development' or the interests of the capitalist class (or if they have, they shouldn't). Indeed, it is Wood who seems to be trying to make this kind of reduction.

But why should we try to understand the Enlightenment directly in this way? There is, as some Marxists used to like to say, a certain ('relative') autonomy to the history of ideas. But modern society is enormously informed by the ideas generated throughout the Enlightenment - ideas which the participants in the French revolution, for example, certainly believed themselves to be influenced by, and which Marx, for example, was clearly influenced by and in a certain sense the inheritor of. I think there is a tendency to a kind of reductionism in Wood's approach to these questions (something which, in other areas, such as class, she is firmly opposed to).

Finally, then, on this question of revolution. You can dismiss the idea of the French revolution (or by implication many others since) as 'bourgeois' in the sense that they helped the development of, paved the way for, or whatever, capitalist development. But these revolutions, nevertheless, took place. What, then, are we to call them? The relationship between 'bourgeois revolution' and the bourgeoisie itself, or capitalist development itself, has always been, I think, more schematic in Marxist theory than Wood suggests. But plainly, revolutions result, directly or indirectly, in new constellations of political power or class rule. In broad historical perspective, the French revolution was surely more than merely a transfer of political power - it surely represented something new - hugely, irreversibly new - in human history. 'Bourgeois revolution' is an attempt to encapsulate that significance. To abandon it in favour of 'democratic revolution' (which seems to be the argument of the RDG and the CPGB - correct me if I've misunderstood), without a defining class character, does not seem to me a way forward.

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