The poverty of Political Marxism

The debate regarding the potential merits and limits of Political Marxism initiated by Paul Heideman and Jonah Birch in the pages of the International Socialist Review (ISR #90, July 2013) and the responses it has provoked from Neil Davidson (ISR #91, Winter 2013–14) and Charlie Post (ISR #92, Spring 2014) are very welcome developments. The relationship between Marxist theory and historical analysis is, of course, an incredibly important issue—one that goes far beyond the more limited question of explaining the transition from feudalism to capitalism to which Political Marxist or Capital-centric scholars have, so to speak, staked their claim to fame. Indeed, despite his very critical analysis of the pitfalls of Political Marxist theory, Neil Davidson points out the many significant works Political Marxists have produced, which stand as invaluable studies irrespective of one’s opinion as to the broader merits of Political Marxist theory. From Brenner’s own Merchants and Revolutions to Charlie Post’s The American Road to Capitalism to John Eric Marot’s The October Revolution in Prospect and Retrospect to Hannes Lacher and Benno Teschke’s recent interventions into International Relations theory, one finds an array of impressive and historically rich works of immense value.1

Yet, as we examine below, such works have proven invaluable in spite of—not because of—their adherence to the Brenner thesis in particular and the theoretical and methodological precepts of Political Marxism more generally. Indeed, as our title suggests, despite the significant works produced from within the Political Marxist camp, the perspective is replete with what we see as crippling theoretical weaknesses resulting in a persistent, gnawing gap between theory and history. In demonstrating these problems, we shall begin by detailing and then critiquing the infamous Brenner Thesis, before turning to a critical examination of Political Marxist approaches to the contemporary issues of war and imperialism. We must state at the outset, however, that notwithstanding our very strong criticisms of Political Marxism we do not believe the theory is as inimical to the International Socialist tradition as Davidson makes it out nor, even if it were, that this would necessarily be a problem. For the great merit of any thriving theoretical tradition is its ability to critically reflect upon its own assumptions and, when appropriate, to draw upon and absorb significant elements from other theoretical traditions. 

The spatiotemporal limits of the Brenner Thesis
In a series of penetrating articles and conference papers in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Robert Brenner—an economic historian from the University of California, Los Angeles— produced what would quickly become one of the most influential historical and theoretical accounts of the origins of capitalism, Marxist or otherwise.2 The significance of Brenner’s intervention cannot be overstated as it essentially dethroned a number of hitherto reigning theories of capitalism’s origins as exemplified by the then fashionable trade-centered approaches of Paul Sweezy and Immanuel Wallerstein and the demographic-oriented perspectives of others. Indeed, nearly four decades after Brenner’s first works on the origins of capitalism, what became known as the Brenner Thesis is now often conceived as the Marxist explanation of the transition.3 

The great achievement of Brenner’s approach was his mobilization of Marx’s emphasis on changing relations of production (which Brenner reconceptualized as “social property relations”) in order to reconstruct an account of the origins of capitalism in terms of class struggles specific to feudalism.4 In this way, whatever concerns we have about the overall theoretical content of his analysis, Brenner deserves credit for putting class struggles and conflicts back into the forefront of the debate about the transition from feudalism to capitalism.

For Brenner, these struggles were rooted in the specificity of feudal social property relations based on the appropriation of surplus from the peasantry by lords through extra-economic means. In this way, lords would habitually squeeze agricultural productivity by imposing fines, extending work, and extracting higher proportions of surplus. In the fifteenth century this sparked class conflicts in the English countryside, where serfs rebelled against their worsening conditions and won formal enfranchisement. The liberation of serfs from ties and obligations to the lords’ estates initiated a rise in tenant farming and led to increased market dependence as peasants were turned away from their land and forced into wage labor as an alternative means of subsistence. Although peasant expulsions were met with significant revolt, the unity of the English state and nobility ultimately ensured victory for the landed ruling class.5 This concentrated land in the private possession of landlords, who leased it to free peasants, unintentionally giving rise to “the classical landlord-capitalist tenant-wage labor structure.”6 

By contrast, in France the ability of freed peasants to retain their land was bound up with the development of a centralized monarchical state that came to take on a class-like character as an independent extractor of surpluses via the taxing of land. The French absolutist state thus had an interest in securing and protecting peasant landowning as a source of taxation against the re-encroachments of the lordly classes. The ability of the peasants to hold onto the land, in turn, prevented the systematic emergence of wage-labor in France, thus hampering the transition to capitalism.7 For Brenner, then, the differential outcomes of the class struggles in England and France are explained by the divergent evolution of the English and French states. These divergences explain both the coherence and unity of the landowning lordly classes and their relationship to their respective states. 

Yet, in spite of the extensive and informative historical explanation conducted by Brenner, the above formulation is conceptually too narrow and too simple; Brenner ultimately tries to explain too much with too little. In Brenner’s schema, Marx’s master concept, the mode of production—conceived as the composite totality of relations encapsulating the economic, legal, ideological, cultural, and political spheres—is reduced to the much thinner social property relations concept, which is itself reduced to a form of exploitation. Brenner’s error is to take the singular relation of exploitation between lord and peasant as the most fundamental and axiomatic component of the mode of production, which in turn constitutes the foundational ontology and analytical building block upon which ensuing theoretical and historical investigation is constructed. Yet this essentially stretches the concept of relations of production too far as it seeks to incorporate under the logic of class struggle all military, political, and economic factors, while reducing military, political, and legal relations—conceptualized as political accumulation by Brenner—to functions of this singular relation.8 

Brenner’s attempt to reduce this plurality of causes to the way in which class struggle plays itself out, results in both a temporal and spatial tunneling of our empirical field of vision and enquiry. Temporally, the history of capitalism’s origins is reduced to the historical manifestation of one conceptual moment—the freeing of labor—and is in turn explained by it. Spatially, the genesis of capitalism is confined to a single geographical region—the English countryside—immune from wider intersocietal developments. Yet such tunneling cannot account for why the extensive presence of formally free wage labor prior to the sixteenth century (both inside and outside England) did not give rise to capitalism elsewhere.9 Nor can it explain subsequent social developments; by obliterating the histories of colonialism, slavery, and imperialism, Brenner freezes capitalism’s history.10 This substantially narrows Marx’s more robust conception of the process of so-called primitive accumulation, to which Brenner and his students give so much analytical weight in explaining capitalism’s origins. In a famous passage, Marx wrote: 

The discovery of gold and silver in America, the expiration, enslavement and entombment in mines of the indigenous population of that continent, the beginnings of the conquest and plunder of India, and the conversion of Africa into a preserve for the commercial hunting of black skins, are all things which characterize the dawn of the era of capitalist production. These idyllic proceedings are the chief moments of primitive accumulation. . . . The different moments of primitive accumulation can be assigned in particular to Spain, Portugal, Holland, France, and England, in more or less chronological order. These moments are systematically combined together at the end of the seventeenth century in England; the combination embraces the colonies, the national debt, the modern tax system, and the system of protection.11

Here we see the much more temporally and spatially expansive conception of capitalism’s emergence that Marx provides. The story of capitalism’s genesis was not a national phenomenon, but, rather, an intersocietal one. It thus makes sense to follow Perry Anderson in viewing the origins of capitalism “as a value-added process gaining in complexity as it moved along a chain of interrelated sites.”12 

By contrast, Brenner spatially reduces capitalism’s origins to processes that occurred solely in the English countryside; towns and cities are omitted,13 Europe-wide dynamics are analytically active only as comparative cases, and the world outside of Europe does not figure at all. Similarly excluded are the numerous technological, cultural, institutional, and social-relational discoveries and developments originating outside of Europe that were appropriated and adopted by Europe in the course of its capitalist development.14 In short, Brenner neglects the determinations and conditions that arose from the social interactions between societies since political community is subordinated to class while classes are themselves conceptualized within the spatial limits of the political community in question.15

 In other words, there is a very crucial dimension of sociohistorical development missing in Brenner’s analysis: that is, the international or, more broadly, intersocietal relations. Consequently, within this spatiotemporal tunneling there emerges a particularly problematic form of Eurocentrism. Brenner’s spatial tunneling gives rise to a methodologically internalist analysis as he conceives the origins and sources of capitalist modernity as a product of developments primarily internal to England. This posits a strong “inside-out” model of social causality (or methodological internalism) whereby English-cum-European development is conceptualized as endogenous and self-propelling. In turn, temporal tunneling gives rise to the notion of historical priority as Europe is thereby conceived as the permanent core and prime mover of history. For Brenner’s followers, these problems are only compounded as the possibility of the development of early capitalisms outside of the English countryside that Brenner allows for is rejected.16 The notion of the origins of “capitalism in one country” is thus taken literally. 

This methodologically internalist mode of theoretical analysis is, however, contradicted by the intersocietal determinants that Brenner evokes in actually explaining why agrarian capitalism first developed in England. Remarkably, Brenner cites a distinctly geopolitical determination—the Norman Conquests of the eleventh century—as the central causal factor behind England’s intra-lordly cohesion, in turn explaining why they were capable of ensuring their victory over peasant revolts, thereby paving the way toward the rise of “the classical landlord-capitalist tenant-wage labor structure.”17 

Yet the appearance of the Normans in this manner is wholly problematic. For nowhere does Brenner’s treatment of this external determination enter into his theorization of the development of agrarian capitalism. Instead, the Norman invasion appears as an ad-hoc international addendum to an otherwise wholly internalist theoretical analysis.18 In other words, nowhere does the international enter into Brenner’s theoretical presuppositions centered as they are around his concept of “social property relations.” Thus, as Neil Davidson notes, “[b]y focusing almost exclusively on what they [Political Marxists] call social property relations, they ‘have no terms’ to explain events that lie outside these relationships.”19 This is particularly problematic for Brenner and his followers who explicitly reject any conception of the origins of capitalism as immanently developing from the contradictions of feudal society. Rather, feudalism is conceptualized as a “self-enclosed, self-perpetuating system that cannot be undermined by its own internal contradictions.”20

Without theorizing the international, Brenner finds no trouble tracing English nobility-state relations in the sixteenth century to an eleventh century cause. Spatial tunneling in theory thus leads to temporal tunneling of history, where historical conjunctures are explained by phenomena half a millennia apart. This leaves numerous questions over how far this picture of intra-lordly unity going back to the eleventh century stands up when tested against the evidence of the intervening years. What, for example, explains the fits of English intra-lordly struggle during the Hundred Years War or the War of the Roses? Our own work on the origins of capitalism seeks to address this deficiency by looking at how England’s internal ruling class unity was in fact predicated on its relative seclusion from the geopolitical tumult that gripped Europe in the aftermath of the Black Death. The development of capitalism in England was thus structurally conditioned by the geopolitics of Europe, and cannot be understood without reference to this wider intersocietal environment in which it formed a part.21 

The Political Marxist conception of capitalism
The inability to envisage capitalism emerging outside the English countryside derives, in part, from Political Marxism’s near Platonic conception of capitalism as a theoretical abstraction to which empirical reality must conform or remain something outside. If Wallerstein and World Systems theorists work with too broad a conception of capitalism, Political Marxists work with much too narrow a conception. As we have seen, for Brenner and his followers the origin of capitalism in the English countryside is explained by the unintended, contingent outcomes of the class struggle. For the Political Marxists, capitalism can be said to have emerged only when the direct producers have lost their means of subsistence and production and have become entirely dependent on the market.22 Market dependence is the sine qua non of capitalism.23 

Political Marxists thus draw a sharp distinction between (noncapitalist) extra-economic forms of surplus extraction and (capitalist) noncoercive forms of surplus extraction mediated by the market. Any mode of surplus extraction that does not conform to the latter market-dependent form is therefore considered noncapitalist. And since Political Marxists reduce Marx’s more robust mode of production concept to the “mode of exploitation,”24 any social formation characterized by extra-economic forms of surplus extraction is thereby conceived as noncapitalist. 

Yet to reduce a mode of production to its immediate form of exploitation runs the risk of conceptualizing capitalism as an “ideal-type” abstraction erasing “the many shades and connections between free and coerced labor that characterize actually existing capitalist social relations and labor regimes.”25 For example, in Marx’s writings on US and Caribbean slavery, he clearly conceived these extra-economic forms of exploitation as at least partially capitalist. As he put it: “The fact that we now not only call the plantation owners in America capitalists, but that they are capitalists, is based on their existence as anomalies within a world market based on free labor.”26 What then made American and Caribbean slavery capitalist was their functional place within a wider set of international economic relations dominated by capitalism. The expansion of slavery in the colonies and free wage labor in the imperial metropole were two sides of the same coin. What the Political Marxists’ admirably rigorous (if mistaken) conception of capitalism further vanishes are the various transitional forms of labor relations and regimes, involving different combinations of modes of production, which may lead in the direction of capitalism becoming more dominant. Indeed, the entire notion of Trotsky’s concept of combined development, conceived as an amalgamation of dissimilar modes of production within a social formation rather than geopolitical interaction, is entirely absent from the Political Marxist discourse.27 Yet again this unduly abstracts from the more messy and contradictory reality of really existing capitalisms. 

Politically, there is much at stake in this. The externalization of extra-economic forms of exploitation and oppression from capitalism ultimately leads Political Marxists to exclude the histories of colonialism and slavery from the inner workings of the capitalist mode of production, arguing instead that such practices were rooted in the feudal logic of geopolitical accumulation.28 While we would not go as far as to argue Political Marxists ignore colonialism and slavery per se, they certainly do absolve capitalism of any responsibility for these histories. 

Equally, it is possible to point to the continuing prevalence of racial, gender, and sexual hierarchies, often reproduced via non-market (as well as market) mechanisms, and ask how far these forms of oppression can be included in the Political Marxist critique of capitalism. The answer, it would seem, is they can’t. Ellen Wood, in a critique of “diversity, ‘difference’, and pluralism,”29 argues that “gender and racial equality are not in principle incompatible with capitalism. . . although class exploitation is constitutive of capitalism. . . gender or race inequality are not.”30 

These are difficult claims to sustain empirically. A variety of authors from traditions as diverse as Marxism,31 feminism,32 and subaltern studies33 have convincingly demonstrated that the origins of capitalism were heavily circumscribed by coercive, non-market forms of exploitation. Others have noted how inequalities based on gender34 and race35 continue to be inscribed in the very logic of capital accumulation. But constituted as they are by the disavowed extra-economic side of capitalism’s history, it is somewhat inevitable that their historical status might be considered secondary to a Political Marxist. Such claims strike an especially discordant note when considered in light of recent debates on the left. From recent splits in the Socialist Workers Party, to ill-defined accusations of “Vampire Castles,”36 narrow conceptions of capitalism typical of Political Marxism risk descending into a politics of myopia, wherein the manifold, complex and intersectional forms of oppression (re)produced by capitalism are obscured, disavowed, and externalized, rather than exposed, criticized, and dismantled.

A major point for Political Marxists is that the market dependence of economic units conceived as constitutive of capitalist social property relations is something that must be imposed from without. Under no circumstances, would people willingly choose to be capitalists or subject themselves to the systematic imperatives of the market. This conception of the origins of capitalism does have the great merit of denaturalizing the emergence of capitalism. Capitalism is neither inevitable nor innate to some preconceived notion of human nature akin to Smith’s famous passage about human beings having a “certain propensity in human nature. . . to truck, barter and exchange.”37

Yet, historical evidence does seem to support the contention that, under certain circumstances, people will willingly enter the marketplace, which may over time have the unforeseen consequence of making them market-dependent. In her meticulous study of the development of agrarian capitalism in Norfolk, England, Jane Whittle, for example, concludes that “[r]ather than retreating from the market, peasants used the market to escape from serfdom.”38 Similarly regarding peasant market activities, historian Stephen Hipkin has shown how, in the Romney Marsh area in the counties of Kent and Sussex, peasant tenants on their own initiative accumulated on the market a number of very large land holdings.39 All these developments were part and parcel of the long, drawn-out process of class differentiation among the peasantry that Brenner explicitly rejects.40 This is particularly significant given Brenner and Wood’s emphasis on the self-transformation of feudal landowners into capitalist landlords, for this assumes without explaining a class of relatively well-to-do peasants willing and able to take up commercial tenancies. Where did this class emerge from? It emerged from the prolonged process of differentiation among the peasantry themselves. 

This process of peasant differentiation has been well examined by Terence Byres in his critique of Brenner’s model of the transition from feudalism to capitalism. As Byres notes, “[t]he possibility. . . exists, for the peasant to produce surpluses, whether deliberately or adventitiously, and to market those surpluses.” This was an avenue available to rich peasants, who had emerged from a period of prior feudal differentiation, for they had “less restricted resources than middle and poor peasants; had larger plots and greater investment funds; and would, therefore, have been better able to produce surpluses and better able to undertake the attendant risks.”41 In a follow-up study, Byres traces this process of peasant differentiation in the English countryside concluding that a “long process of ‘prior differentiation’ had yielded a strong class of rich peasants, with the desire, the means and the capacity to accumulate and expand, if the opportunity presented itself.”42 It was the emergence of these wealthier, larger peasant tenants who also contributed to the engrossment of land, which was not, contra Brenner, the sole activity of the lordly class.43 Failure to recognize this process of prior class differentiation, as Brenner does, is to thus assume “without explanation, the existence of a class with the capacity and strength to take on commercial leases, to cope with and respond to market dependence, to compete in production, and so, ultimately, become a class of capitalist farmers.”44 

The flip side of this equation of peasant differentiation was the development of a stratum of peasant wage laborers compelled to work as tenant farmers. As Colin Mooers, a sympathetic critic of Brenner, writes: “The ability of the English lords to carry through an assault on the peasant rights in the seventeenth century can only be explained by the prior weakening of the peasant community as a result of economic differentiation.” For, as he continues, 

The breakthrough from below by the yeomanry on the basis of petty capitalist accumulation was a crucial intervening stage in the later development of large-scale capitalist farming. How else is it possible to explain the unique triadic pattern of English agrarian capitalism? The tenant farmers who worked the large capitalist farms of the eighteenth century on the basis of wage-labor, had to have come from somewhere.45 

The process of differentiation within the peasant classes, intimately bound to the growth of urban centers, was crucial to the transition from feudalism to capitalism and therefore needs to enter our theorizations of how capitalism emerged. Whatever the merits of Political Marxist theory as a whole, it would seem that the Brenner thesis is quite simply “historically untenable.”46

The separation of the political and economic: Theoretical implications for understanding capitalist imperialism and war
In his contribution, Neil Davidson takes Political Marxism to task for being unable to properly theorize capitalist imperialism and instances of war47 and, we would add, the very fact that capitalism takes the form of a multiplicity of states. This problem in part flows from Political Marxists’ conception of capitalism as defined by the substantive—not formal—institutional separation of the political and economic spheres. As Charlie Post puts it in response to Davidson’s criticisms: 

The Political Marxist insistence that the capitalist state is a sphere of “public” and “impersonal authority” institutionally separated from class production based on exploitation flows from Marx’s analysis of capitalism in Capital. For Marx, capitalism is the first mode of production in human history that does not require “extra-economic” (non-market) coercion to guarantee the production and appropriation of surplus labor, or the distribution of labor and means of production between branches of production. . . the specificity of the capitalist state is. . . that the state appears as a public, impersonal power separate from the process of accumulation and exploitation, which attempts to guarantee the conditions for the reproduction of capitalist social-property relations.48

As he later goes on to note, this separation of the political and economic under capitalism means that violence and coercion are not necessary for the exploitation of wage-labor and the appropriation of surplus value. Nonetheless, Post allows for the “possibility of either legally coerced wage labor or limited capitalist state intervention in economic life in certain historical conjunctures” whilst further noting that the use of violence and force is in fact required for the maintenances of capitalism’s “general conditions of production.” Hence, Post writes that “state violence is necessary to quash any and all resistance to the effects of modern capitalist imperialism, in particular in the global South.”49

There are two immediate points to make here. First, Post’s very qualified statement regarding the “possibility [emphasis his] of legally coerced labor or limited capitalist state intervention in economic life in certain historical conjunctures [emphasis ours]” somewhat gives the game way. Historically speaking, since the rise of corporate or “monopoly” capitalism in the late nineteenth century, the default setting of organizing capitalist societies has been systematic and sustained state interventionism. This is anything but limited in form or unique to a particular historical conjuncture. The decades before the First World War saw the increasing organization of economic life by the state, which was greatly exacerbated by the First World War, leading to various forms of “state capitalism.”50 This mode of capitalist development lasted right up until the 1980s after which the less visibly active neoliberal state gained traction. Yet, even under neoliberalism, which saw the denationalization of various industries, state interventionism still remained prevalent if in less directly evident ways.51 The point is that statist forms of capitalist development, as exemplified by contemporary China, are the norm not the exception. 

These problems concerning the striking gap between Political Marxists’ abstract conception of capitalism and its actual operation in history have been raised by various scholars, including Davidson, who hold to Tony Cliff’s theory of “bureaucratic state capitalism.”52 As we know, this holds that the Soviet-bloc states represented a particular form of capitalism. Yet irrespective of whether one agrees with such theory, and we do not, the Political Marxist conception of capitalism is unnecessarily restrictive.53 By raising the separation of the political and economic to a substantive, defining feature of capitalism, it becomes very difficult to understand the history of “actually existing capitalism” either within the advanced capitalist or developing states. And this brings us to the second issue: Political Marxism’s very limited conception of imperialism.

This, too, is on display in Post’s response to Davidson where he writes of how “state violence is necessary to quash any and all resistance to the effects of modern capitalist imperialism, in particular in the global South.” Yet this simply deals with the effects of capitalist imperialism and not the causes of it, nor does it deal with the question of inter-imperial rivalry, which is at the heart of Davidson’s critique. Indeed, Davidson explicitly raises the question of how Political Marxists can explain the origins of the two World Wars, noting that they typically conceive the period between 1914 and 1945 as “conflicts. . . between capitalist and precapitalist powers” thereby arguing that such conflicts were not “generated by the pure ‘imperatives’. . . of the system itself.”54 An alternative Political Marxist explanation of the First World War, offered by Robert Brenner, is even more problematic. Robert Brenner writes in regards to the causes of this war that “the action of any state can easily set off responses by other states that detonate a chain reaction controllable by none of them. Chain reactions of this sort are the stuff of international history and, though not in contradiction with standard historical-materialist premises. . . they are not fully illuminated by those premises, but require analysis in their own terms.”55 Not only is this account historically problematic,56 but again illustrates the untenable detachment of theory from history. The internationally constituted character of capitalist development (producing the classic “security dilemma” Brenner highlights) is merely assumed but in no way explained. Are conjunctures of war merely the object of history but not Marxist theory?57 

Perhaps more problematically still is the empirical upshot of these positions that war is in fact a historical “hang-over” of an epoch in which capitalism was not yet fully developed or, in Brenner’s case, cannot be explained by capitalism’s own “laws of motion.” Here Post does get to the heart of the matter when writing, in contradistinction to Brenner’s approach, that “we need to theoretically derive inter-state competition from the dynamics of real capitalist competition—which always involves one capital gaining market share and profitability at the expense of other capitalists—without falling into the theoretically problematic notion that capitalism has ‘two dynamics,’ one economic and the other territorial.”58 We are an absolute agreement with this position and have, in fact, sought to do precisely this—that is, to logically (not historically) derive the competitive states system from capitalism’s immanent laws of motion.59 While Post correctly rejects the classical Marxist theories of imperialism and raises this issue, it is entirely unclear how Political Marxism could actually provide such a logical derivation as a number of its most indefatigable proponents have actually argued the exact opposite.60 

Within the discipline of International Relations, Benno Teschke and Hannes Lacher have forcefully argued that capitalism retains a wholly contingent relation to a multi-state system. While one might legitimately question the historical connection between capitalism and the modern states system—claiming, as Teschke and Lacher do, that the latter emerged prior to the former—this in no way invalidates the systemic connection between the two as capitalism’s “laws of motion” perpetuate political multiplicity through its deepening systemization of developmental unevenness. In other words, uneven development must be viewed as a constitutive property of capitalism whether conceived as an abstract or historically determinate system of social relations. Thus, even if capitalism had emerged within a universal empire, it would have necessarily, by its own logic of process, created a system of multiple states, though the precise form that such states would have assumed is an open question.61 In this sense, one can indeed theoretically derive political multiplicity from capitalism itself. 

By contrast, Teschke and Lacher base their claims on the contingency of capitalist social relations being mediated and expressed through a plurality of political states from their strict definition of capitalism as constituted by the substantive separation of the political and economic spheres. Thus, according to Lacher and Teschke

capitalism developed unevenly not because it is in its nature—conceptually, of course (that is, abstracted from history and agency), it should even itself out internationally through world-price formation and the long-term equalization of profit rates—but because its spatio-temporally differentiated historical origin and expansion was from the first suffused with non-capitalist (and often anti-capitalist) elements that produced and kept reproducing unevenness, manifested in differential strategies of late development and catching-up.62

Consequently, they claim that “it is perfectly possible to imagine that had capitalism emerged within an imperial formation—let us say, the Roman Empire—it would not have required its political break-up into multiple territorial units.”63 It seems then, according to Teschke and Lacher, that both the contemporary system of sovereign states and uneven development are “historical legacies” of a distant feudal-absolutist past. In turn, they view the emergence of a fully capitalist international order after the Cold War as potentially heralding a kind of Kautskian era of ultra-imperial peace as capitalism, unlike feudalism or absolutism, does not require the war-assisted process of (geo)political accumulation. Hence, Teschke writes, “we should expect [capitalism] to bring about the decline of external geopolitical accumulation that defined the war-driven international conduct of the feudal and absolutist ages.”64 He goes on to describe international organizations as providing an “arena of peaceful inter-capitalist conflict resolution,” concluding that “the major lines of military conflict run between states that are locked out of the world market and those that reproduce the political conditions of the world market, backed up by the principle of collective security.”65

This would seem the logical conclusion of any strict interpretation of the social property relations approach which conceives the separation of coercive power and economic relations as the sine qua non of capitalist modernity, thereby making any war-assisted mode of capital accumulation seemingly irrational.66 From such a perspective, however, how can one begin to understand, let alone respond politically, to events such as the 2003 Anglo-American invasion of Iraq or the US-Russian conflict over Georgia in 2008? 

For Lacher and Teschke, then, interstate rivalries are part of the absolutist legacy bequeathed to capitalism—war is a nightmare from which capital is trying to awake. Their claims that there is then nothing inherent to capitalism which would have created multiple states in the first place leads to a degree of ambiguity regarding the possibility of contemporary processes of transnational state-formation. Here the property relations approach confronts empirical reality and comes off the worse. If, as Lacher and Teschke maintain, “the concept of capital entails a global state,” a position Brenner also seems to accept,67 capital is seemingly unaware of its own conceptual requirements as “the idea of a global state formation is hopelessly exaggerated.” Nevertheless, they admit, capitalist modernity remains “characterized by certain elements of interstate competition.”68 This idea of some natural correspondence between capital and a hypothesized global state would seem to be based on an understanding of capitalist development as solely characterized by globalizing and equalizing tendencies.

This all ties to a third difficulty with Political Marxism: the non-correspondence (or misrecognition) of conceptual abstractions (“capital”) and empirical realities (a conflictual states system). For the era of the two World Wars, this is particularly problematic as this was an epoch firmly situated within capitalist modernity, despite Lacher and Wood’s claims to the contrary which view the inter-imperial rivalries of the time as bound up with the protracted transition from the (non-capitalist) absolutism era to capitalism.69 One may then legitimately ask when reality might begin to impede upon our conceptions of it? The social realm is certainly a messy, complex affair, full of accidents, contingencies and the untheorizable. A grand theory of everything is unlikely. Problems emerge, however, when the central objects of our theories (the modern states system, geopolitical rivalry, war) are considered pure contingencies in relation to the abstractions we seek to explain them with. Ellen Meiksins Wood once criticized the Althusserians as viewing the relationship between the state and mode of production within actually existing social formations as having “little to do” with capitalism’s structural logic, thereby appearing “almost accidental.”70 Might not the same be said of Political Marxists’ conceptualization of the relationship between capitalism and the states system? 

Conclusion: In defense of theoretical openness 
As we have sought to demonstrate, Political Marxism is beset by a number of crippling theoretical issues of which the continuing disjuncture between their theoretical abstractions and concrete historical analyses remains most problematic. This does not necessarily mean that Political Marxism is incapable of offering theoretical answers to some of the questions raised in this article. However, there do remain a number of shortcomings that need to be addressed in order for it to provide the kind of theoretical analysis demanded by revolutionary socialists. We would argue that two issues are of particular importance. First, Political Marxists’ need to provide a more coherent theoretical account of inter-state rivalries, both past and present, of the kind Charlie Post himself notes. Second, they need to offer a theoretical analysis of the origins of capitalist development that transcends its currently Anglocentric and Eurocentric formulations in ways that address the very formidable historical studies provided by the California School and other scholars.71 

We must stress that none of our criticisms should hinder cooperation with Political Marxists in any political activities given many of their shared commitments to revolutionary socialism from below. Indeed, as Post notes, there is no one-to-one correspondence in theory and politics and any theoretical tradition is always at least partly politically indeterminate. Indeed, even advocates of the best of theoretical traditions can get their politics dreadfully wrong, as tragically witnessed in the recent events within the British far left. We hope that our criticisms of Political Marxism will thus be taken in the comradely manner in which they are intended, and help stimulate more debate and dialogue with the aim to further develop and refine Marxist theory and socialist praxis. 


  1. Robert Brenner, Merchants and Revolution: Commercial Change, Political Conflict, and London’s Overseas Traders, 1550–1653 (London: Verso, 1993); Charlie Post, The American Road to Capitalism: Studies in Class-Structure, Economic Development and Political Conflict, 1620–1877 (Leiden: Brill, Historical Materialism Book Series, 2011); John Eric Marot, The October Revolution in Prospect and Retrospect: Interventions in Russian and Soviet History (Leiden: Brill, Historical Materialism Book Series, 2012); Benno Teschke, “Fatal Attraction: A Critique of Carl Schmitt’s International Political and Legal Theory,” International Theory, Vol. 3, No. 2 (2011): 179–227; Benno Teschke, “Decisions and Indecisions: Political and Intellectual Receptions of Carl Schmitt,” New Left Review, Series 2, Vol. 67 (2011), 61–95; Hannes Lacher and Julian Germann, “Before Hegemony: Britain, Free Trade, and Nineteenth-Century World Order Revisited,” International Studies Review, Vol. 14, No. 2 (2012), 99–124. 
  2. See Robert Brenner, “Agrarian Class Structures and Economic Development in Pre-Industrial Europe,” Past & Present, Vol. 70 (1976), 30–75; “The Origins of Capitalist Development: A Critique of Neo-Smithian Marxism,” New Left Review, Series 1, Vol. 104 (1977), 25–92; “Dobb on the Transition from Feudalism to Capitalism,” Cambridge Journal of Economics, Vol. 2 (1978), 121–40; “The Agrarian Roots of Capitalism,” Past & Present, Vol. 97 (1982), 16–113; “World Systems Theory and the Transition to Capitalism: Historical and Theoretical Perspectives,” in Jochen Blaschke (ed.) Perspektiven des Weltssystems (Berlin: Campus Verlag, 1983), 80–111. The first and third of these essays are reprinted in T.H. Aston and C.H.E. Philipin (eds.), The Brenner Debate: Agrarian Class Structure and Economic Development in Pre-Industrial Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985).
  3. See references in Neil Davidson, How Revolutionary were the Bourgeois Revolutions? (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2012), 418–19.
  4. See Brenner, “Agrarian Class Structures” and “The Agrarian Roots of Capitalism.”
  5. Brenner, “The Agrarian Roots,” 252.
  6. Brenner, “Agrarian Class Structure,” 47.
  7. As Brenner puts it, in France “the state could develop, as it ultimately did, as a competitor with the lords, largely to the extent to which it could establish rights to extract the surplus of peasant production. It therefore had an interest in limiting the landlord rents so as to enable the peasants to pay more in taxes—and thus intervening against the landlords to end peasant unfreedom and to establish and secure peasantry property.” Thus, the French absolutist state was “instrumental in securing and protecting peasant proprietorship (and thus impeding capitalist development).” “Agrarian Class Structure,” 55, 57.
  8. Ricardo Duchense, “Robert Brenner on Political Accumulation and the Transition to Capitalism,” Review of Radical Political Economics, Vol. 33 (2001), 79-98.
  9. See, for example, Subhi Y. Labib, “Capitalism in Medieval Islam,” The Journal of Economic History, Vol. 29, No. 1 (1969), 79-96; Jairus Banaji, Theory as History (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2011).
  10. James M. Blaut, “Robert Brenner in the Tunnel of Time,” Antipode, Vol. 26, No. 4 (1991), 351-374.
  11. Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Volume I (London: Penguin, 1990), 915. As Davidson rightly notes, this passage simply cannot be interpreted, as some Political Marxists would have us believe, as an explanation of the genesis of industrial capitalism. Marx is quite clearly discussing the emergence of capitalism. 
  12. Perry Anderson, Spectrum: From Left to Right in the World of Ideas (London: Verso, 2005), 251.
  13. The relationship between towns and country is particularly problematic for the Political Marxists. For it is entirely unclear in their framework as to how capitalist property relations in the countryside spread to the urban centers or the rest of England for that matter. For Marx, this was not a problem as he conceived town and country in a symbiotic relationship in the development of capitalist social relations. As he wrote: “Urban labor itself had created means of production for which the guilds became just as confining as were the old relations of landownership to an improved agriculture, which was in part itself a consequence of the larger market for agricultural products in the cities.” Karl Marx, Grundrisse: Foundations of a Critique of Political Economy (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1973 [1861]), 508.
  14. Cho-yun Hsu, “Asian Influences on the West,” in Carol Gluck and Ainslie T. Embree (eds.) Asia in Western and World History: A Guide for Teaching (New York: M. E. Sharp, 1997), 22-31, 27fn2; John M. Hobson, The Eastern Origins of Western Civilization (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004),190-219.
  15. Kamran Matin, “Democracy without Capitalism: Retheorizing Iran’s Constitutional Revolution,” Middle East Critique, Vol. 21, No. 1 (2012), 37-56.
  16. Brenner sees capitalist property relations as emerging in such regions as Catalonia and the United Provinces before the development of capitalism in England, though he has not reflected on how these developments might problematize his theoretical account of the origins of capitalism, which exclusively focuses on the English countryside. Other scholars within the Brenner School have, by contrast, viewed the origins of capitalism as an exclusively English affair, rejecting the possibility of the antecedent development of capitalism in the Low Countries. See Robert Brenner, “The Low Countries in the Transition to Capitalism,” Journal of Agrarian Change, 1:2 (2001), 169-241; Ellen Meiksins Wood, “The Question of Market Dependence,” Journal of Agrarian Change, 2:1 (2002), 50-87; Charles Post, “Comments on the Brenner-Wood Exchange on the Low Countries,” Journal of Agrarian Change, 2:1 (2002), 88-95. 
  17. Brenner, ‘The Agrarian Roots of Capitalism,” 255-56. 
  18. Kamran Matin, “Democracy without Capitalism.”
  19. Neil Davidson, How Revolutionary were the Bourgeois Revolutions? (Chicago: Haymarket Press, 2012), 408. For a similar critique of Political Marxist approaches to International Relations, see Jamie Allinson and Alexander Anievas, “Approaching the International: Beyond Political Marxism,” in Alexander Anievas (ed.) Marxism and World Politics: Contesting Global Capitalism (London: Routledge, 2010), 197-214.
  20. Davidson, How Revolutionary, 411. For a particularly clear statement of the self-perpetuating nature of pre-capitalist property relations, see Brenner, “The Low Countries,” 185-186. Recently, Spencer Dimmock has sought to challenge Davidson’s criticisms of Brenner, and this one in particular, claiming that Davidson in fact “misreads” “every aspect of Brenner’s thesis.” In countering Davidson’s ostensible misreading, Dimmock also evokes (without theorizing) the Norman invasions as explaining inter-lordly cohesion thus falling into the very same problems Davidson diagnoses. It seems perhaps Dimmock who has not quite digested the theoretical upshots of Brenner’s thesis and not the other way around. Spencer Dimmock, The Origin of Capitalism in England, 1400-1600 (Leiden: Brill, Historical Materialism Book Series, 2014), Chapter 8. 
  21. Alexander Anievas and Kerem Nisancioglu, How the West Came to Rule: The Geopolitical Origins of Capitalism (London: Pluto, forthcoming 2015), Chapter 4; See also Alexander Anievas and Kerem Nisancioglu, “What’s at Stake in the Transition Debate? Rethinking the Origins of Capitalism and the ‘Rise of the West,’” Millennium, Vol. 42, No. 1 (2013), 78-102.
  22. Among Political Marxists, there is debate as to whether the loss of the means of subsistence and production are the required preconditions for the emergence of capitalism. See contributions cited in note 17. 
  23. Strangely enough, this definition of capitalism actually omits the necessity of wage-labor as a precondition for the emergence of capitalism. As Ellen Wood puts it: “Brenner’s history shows how economic units became market-dependent, in historically unprecedented ways, not because of the relation between capital and labor but before the widespread proletarianisation of the workforce and as a precondition to it.” Ellen Wood, “Horizontal Relations: A Note on Brenner’s Heresy,” Historical Materialism, Vol. 4, No. 1 (1999), 171-180, 176; See also Ellen Wood, “The Question of Market Dependence,” 51.
  24. Teschke and Lacher have in fact dropped the concept of modes of production in favor of “modes of exploitation.” 
  25. Ben Selwyn, “Beyond Firm-centrism: Re-Integrating Labour and Capitalism into Global Commodity Chain Analysis,” Journal of Economic Geography, Vol. 12 (2012), 205–226, 211. On the problems of conflating modes of production to forms of exploitation, see Colin Mooers, The Making of Bourgeois Europe: Absolutism, Revolution, and the Rise of Capitalism in England, France, and Germany (London: Verso, 1991), 22-23. 
  26. Marx, Grundrisse, 513. Elsewhere, Marx writes: “In the second type of colonies—plantations—where commercial speculations figure from the start and production is intended for the world market, the capitalist mode of production exists, although only in a formal sense, since the slavery of (blacks) precludes free wage-labour, which is the basis of capitalist production. But the business in which slaves are used is conducted by capitalists. The method of production which they introduce has not arisen out of slavery but is grafted on to it.” Karl Marx, Theories of Surplus-Value, Vol. 2 (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1969), 302–303..
  27. To be fair, Benno Teschke evokes the concept of “uneven and combined development,” though combination here remains at the level of interstate interactions. 
  28. Ellen Meiksins Wood, Empire of Capital (Verso: London, 2003), 44-72; Teschke, The Myth of 1648: Class, Geopolitics, and the Making of Modern International Relations (London: Verso, 2003), 197-212. 
  29. Ellen Meiksins Wood, “The Uses and Abuses of ‘Civil Society’” in Ralph Miliband and Leo Pantich (eds.) The Retreat of the Intellectuals: Socialist Register 1990 (London: Merlin Press, 1990), 74.
  30. Wood, “The Uses and Abuses of ‘Civil Society,’” 76.
  31. Banaji, Theory as History.
  32. Silvia Federici, Caliban and the Witch (New York, NY: Autonomedia, 2004).
  33. Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference. (Princeton, NJ: University of Princeton Press, 2000).
  34. Endnotes Collective, “The Logic of Gender,” Endnotes 3: Gender, Race, Class and Other Misfortunes.
  35. Chris Chen, “The Limit Point of Capitalist Equality,” Endnotes 3: Gender, Race, Class and Other Misfortunes. Available at: http://endnotes.org.uk/en/chris-chen-the-limit-point-of-capitalist-equality (last accessed February 21, 2014).
  36. Mark Fisher, “Exiting the Vampire Castle,” The North Star (November 22, 2013) available at http://www.thenorthstar.info/?p=11299 (last accessed February 21, 2014). For a critique of Fisher’s piece see Matthijs Krul, “Gothic Politics: A Reply to Mark Fisher,” The North Star (November 27, 2013), available at http://www.thenorthstar.info/?p=11339 (last accessed February 21, 2014).
  37. Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Causes and Nature of the Wealth of Nations (Digireads, 2004), 12. 
  38. Jane Whittle, The Development of Agrarian Capitalism: Land and Labour in Norfolk, 1440-1580 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 310. Elsewhere, Whittle writes of how as soon as agricultural demand recovered in the fifteenth century “it was tenants, not lords, who were in a position to exploit” market opportunities as “[t]hey could produce more cheaply than lords by exploiting their own and their family’s labour, and by managing their affairs directly.” Jane Whittle, “Tenure and Landholding in England 1440-1580: A Crucial Period for the Development of Agrarian Capitalism?” in Bas van Bavel and Peter Hoppenbrouwers (eds.) Landholding and Land Transfer in the North Sea Area (Late Middle Ages - 19th Century) (Turnhout: Brepols, 2004), 237-249.
  39. Stephen Hipkin, “Tenant Farming and Short-Term Leasing on Romney Marsh, 1585-1705,” Economic History Review, Vol. 53, No. 4 (2000), 646-76.
  40. See Brenner, “The Low Countries,” 196-97; Robert Brenner, “Property and Progress: Where Adam Smith Went Wrong,” in Chris Wickham (ed.) Marxist History-Writing for the Twenty-First Century (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 49-111, 87-88.
  41. Terence J. Byres, “Differentiation of the Peasantry under Feudalism and the Transition to Capitalism: In Defence of Rodney Hilton,” Journal of Agrarian Change, Vol. 6, No. 1 (2006), 17-68, 55, 57. See also R.W. Hoyle, “Tenure and the Land Market in Early Modern England: Or a Late Contribution to the Brenner Debate,” The Economic History Review, Vol. 43, No. 1 (1990), 1-20.
  42. Terence J. Byres, “The Landlord Class, Peasant Differentiation, Class Struggle and the Transition to Capitalism: England, France, and Prussia Compared,” Journal of Peasant Studies, Vol. 36, No. 1 (2009), 33-54, 37-38. 
  43. See Jane Whittle, “Tenure and Landholding in England, 1440-1580.”
  44. Terence J. Byres, “Differentiation of the Peasantry under Feudalism,” 64.
  45. Colin Mooers, The Making of Bourgeois Europe, 37.
  46. David Ormrod, “Agrarian Capitalism and Merchant Capitalism: Tawney, Dobb, Brenner and Beyond,” in Jane Whittle (ed.) Landlords and Tenets in Britain, 1440-1660 (Rochester, NY: Boydell Press, 2013), 200-215, 203.
  47. Neil Davidson, “Is There Anything to Defend in Political Marxism?” International Socialist Review, Issue 91.
  48. Charlie Post, “The Debate on Marxism and History: What is at Stake?” International Socialist Review, Issue 92.
  49. Post, “The Debate on Marxism and History.”
  50. See, among others, Gerd Hardach, The First World War, 1914-1918 (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1977); Sandra Halperin, War and Social Change in Modern Europe: The Great Transformation Revisisted (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004).
  51. Neil Davidson, “What Was Neoliberalism?”, in Neil Davidson, Patricia McCafferty and David Miller (eds.) Neoliberal Scotland: Class and Society in a Stateless Nation (Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Press), 1-89.
  52. See Colin Barker, “Some Reflections on Two Books by Ellen Wood,” Historical Materialism, Vol. 1, No. 1 (1997), 22-65; Sam Ashman, “Capitalism, Uneven and Combined Development and the Transhistoric,” Cambridge Review of International Affairs, Vol. 22, No. 1 (2009), 29-46.
  53. The question of what was the Soviet Union is massive and cannot be dealt with here. This issue will be explored in a forthcoming essay that will seek to reconceptualise the Soviet state as the contradictory combination of state capitalist and bureaucratic collectivist productive relations. See Alexander Anievas, “From World Revolution to ‘Socialism in One Country’: The Strategic Dilemmas of Soviet ‘Backwardness’”, in Alexander Anievas and Kamran Matin (eds.) Historical Sociology and World History: Uneven and Combined Development over the Longue Durée, forthcoming.
  54. Davidson, “Is There Anything to Defend.” 
  55. Robert Brenner, “What Is, and What Is Not, Imperialism?”, Historical Materialism, Vol. 14, No. 4 (2006), 79-105, 85. 
  56. It is historically problematic in that Brenner here is essentially arguing that the war was the result of the unintentional consequences of interstate interactions operating within an anarchic international system. Yet, as numerous historians have now well documented, the available evidence strongly suggests that in the run-up to the July 1914 crisis, German policymakers were consciously and actively seeking a military conflict as they aimed to launch a “preventive war” against Russia which they feared would militarily overtake them within a few years. Austrian policymakers in turn sought to use the crisis to militarily confront Serbia even at the risk of precipitating a wider European conflict. For a review of the historiographical debate on the war and its implications for Marxist theory, see Alexander Anievas, “Marxist Theory and the Origins of the First World War,” in Alexander Anievas (ed.) Cataclysm 1914: The First World War and the Making of Modern World Politics (Leiden: Brill, 2014), forthcoming.
  57. For an alternative Marxist approach to theoretically explain both the 1914-1918 and 1939-1945 conjunctures of war in terms of the inherently uneven and combined character of capitalist development see Alexander Anievas, Capital, the State, and War: Class Conflict and Geopolitics in the Thirty Years’ Crisis, 1914-1945 (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2014), Chapters 3, 5 and 6.
  58. Post, “The Debate on History and Marxism.”
  59. See Alexander Anievas, “Theories of a Global State: A Critique,” Historical Materialism, Vol. 16, No. 2 (2008), 190-206, especially 200-203. See also Alex Callinicos, “Does Capitalism Need the State System?”, Cambridge Review of International Affairs, Vol. 20, No. 4 (2007), 533–49; Neil Davidson, “The Necessity of Multiple Nation-States for Capital,” Rethinking Marxism, Vol. 24, No. 1 (2012), 26-46.
  60. The following few paragraphs draw on arguments first made in Jamie C. Allinson and Alexander Anievas, “Approaching ‘the International.’”
  61. Neil Davidson, “Many Capitals, Many States: Contingency, Logic or Mediation?”, in Alexander Anievas (ed.) Marxism and World Politics: Contesting Global Capitalism (London: Routledge, 2010), 77-93.
  62. Benno Teschke and Hannes Lacher, “The Changing ‘Logics’ of Capitalist Competition,” Cambridge Review of International Affairs, Vol. 20, No. 4 (2007), 565-580, 579.
  63. Teschke and Lacher, “The Changing ‘Logics’ of Capitalist Competition,” 574.
  64. Benno Teschke, The Myth of 1648, 267.
  65. Teschke, The Myth of 1648, 267.
  66. See Gopal Balakrishnan, “The Age of Warring States,” New Left Review, Series 2, Vol. 26 (2004), 148-160, 157–58.
  67. As Brenner writes, “Abstractly speaking, a single state governing global capital is perfectly conceivable and probably most appropriate from the standpoint of capital.” Brenner, “What Is, and What Is Not, Imperialism,” 84. 
  68. Teschke and Lacher, “The Changing ‘Logics’ of Capitalist Competition,” 566, 574–75.
  69. Hannes Lacher, Beyond Globalization: Capitalism, Territoriality, and the International Relations of Modernity (London: Routledge, 2006),140-41; Ellen Meiksins Wood, Empire of Capital (London: Verso, 2003).
  70. Ellen Meiksins Wood, Democracy against Capitalism: Renewing Historical Materialism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 55-56.
  71. See, for example, John M. Hobson, The Eastern Origins of Western Civilization; Kenneth Pomeranz, The Great Divergence: China, Europe and the Making of the Modern World Economy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000); Jack Goody, The Theft of History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007).

Issue #78

July 2011

Slavery and the origins of the Civil War

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