A challenge to political Marxism

The Birth of Capitalism:

A Twenty-First Century Perspective

CONTEMPORARY MARXISTS have perhaps spilled more ink in disagreements over the transition from feudalism to capitalism than any other theoretical or historical question.

Heller aims to re-establish the superiority of Marxism in explaining the transition against the revisionism that has swept the academy over the last three decades. Once the capitalist classes were able to roll back the 1960s upsurge, their academic hit men launched a crusade against Marxism. They attacked its explanation of how different modes of production like feudalism develop the forces of production, create distinctive relations of exploitation and oppression, and cause class struggles that can lead to revolution to bring into being new modes of production.Henry Heller’s new book, The Birth of Capitalism, is a very accessible single volume introduction to this debate. He summarizes and evaluates the various positions adopted by Maurice Dobb, Paul Sweezy, Immanuel Wallerstein, and Robert Brenner among many others. He combines the best insights of many of these writers into his own distinctive account of the rise and triumph of capitalism over its competitors in the world system.

In this context, Heller argues Robert Brenner’s so-called Political Marxist tradition, which has become hegemonic among left academics, is not only an inadequate response to revisionism but has in fact embraced many of its assumptions. The roots of this tradition lie in an informal gathering of left-wing academics that included Brenner called the “No Bullshit Marxism Group.”

They are an extremely heterogeneous group, combining authors with dramatically divergent views of Marxism like G. A. Cohen and Robert Brenner with thinkers like Philippe Van Parijs, who does not even call himself a Marxist. They are united by one thing: their rejection of the dialectic. In place of this traditional cornerstone of Marxism, they hoped to marry the tradition of analytic philosophy with Marxism to form a new union, “Analytic Marxism.”

As Heller argues, analytic philosophy was a “politically disengaged professional discipline preoccupied with constituting a formal model of knowledge. Born in the midst of the waning of Marxism in the 1980s, Analytical Marxism purported to salvage whatever could be saved by applying the same techniques of formal logic to Marxism. Committed to positivist logic, this approach rejected a dialectical sense of totality, movement and contradiction to its own cost. Brenner’s view of the transition is fundamentally weakened by this constraining methodology.”  

The Political Marxist tradition argues that feudalism did not develop the forces of production, but instead was characterized by stagnation. They therefore reject the idea that development created the possibility for rising yeoman farmers, urban craftsmen, and new merchants to establish new capitalist relations of production.

Instead, they argue that capitalism developed as the unintended consequence of the class struggle between feudal lords and peasants only in England. Peasant resistance forced the end of serfdom, but the lords still retained control of the land. In this exceptional situation, the lords transformed themselves into capitalists who rented their land out to richer peasants who in turn hired poorer peasants as new wage laborers.

In the rest of Europe, according to the Political Marxists, the more conclusive class struggle between peasants and lords blocked the development of capitalism. In some cases like France peasants won control of the land, thereby retarding the development of capitalism in agriculture. In Eastern Europe, the lords won the battle, thereby reinforcing feudalism.

Based on their focus on class struggle in the countryside, they call into question the theory of bourgeois revolution. They contend that since the lords were already capitalists by the time of the English Civil War, it was not in fact a bourgeois revolution. The capitalist class was already in power economically and just needed to push aside the so-called patrimonial monarchy. They also argue that the French Revolution was not a bourgeois revolution. As result, in a major concession to revisionism, they essentially call into question the entire idea of bourgeois revolution.

Heller criticizes the Political Marxists both theoretically and empirically. He argues that their abandonment of the dialectic is their fatal flaw. It leads them to a one-sided interpretation of the emergence of capitalism that isolates one determinant, class struggle, from the forces of production, the state, colonial slavery, and the world market.

Heller agrees with French historian Guy Bois’s critique of Brenner and his followers as voluntarists. Bois, who originally coined the term “Political Marxism” as an attack on Brenner, argues that they wrongly separate classes and class struggle from the development of the forces of production. In reality, the level of development of the forces of production shapes the capacities of classes. For example, the low level of development of the forces of production in ancient slave societies precluded slave revolutions from building socialism.

But Heller’s main charge against Political Marxism is that it is guilty of, in Chris Harman’s phrase, “rustic economism.” In narrowly focusing on class struggle in the countryside, the Political Marxists minimize the absolutist state’s role in both facilitating and hampering capitalism’s rise. They also mistakenly discount the role that bourgeois revolutions and the new capitalist state played in England and elsewhere in consolidating a national market and securing its national bourgeoisie’s position in the world system.

Precisely because of their isolation of class struggle from the rest of the emergent system, the Political Marxists, Heller contends, have produced a Eurocentric and indeed Anglocentric understanding of the transition. He agrees with Perry Anderson’s argument that Brenner’s idea of “capitalism in one country” is no more convincing than the idea of “socialism in one country.”

The Political Marxists wrongly isolate the emergent capitalism in England from the rest of Europe and the New World. By contrast, Marx himself argued that the emergence of English capitalism was the last stop in a European-wide series of attempts that began in the Italian city-states and spread to Germany, France, Holland, and England.

Moreover, Marx saw these developments of capitalism as part of a global process. In his discussion of primitive accumulation in England he explicitly connected the dispossession of peasants of their land and their transformation into wage laborers with emergent capitalism’s early colonialism. Thus he wrote the “discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, 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.”

Finally, Heller calls attention to how Political Marxists avoid the problem of the transition itself. As he points out, Brenner makes it seem as if the stalemated class struggle in the English countryside transformed feudalism into capitalism overnight. The presumption apparently is that free markets and free wage labor emerged immediately in rural capitalism.

In reality, capitalism emerged within feudalism over time and this process produced all sorts of transitional labor forms such as the putting out system in England or plantation slavery in the New World. As Heller shows, free wage labor really emerged in nineteenth-century England when the labor movement undid the myriad restrictions on workers’ labor mobility.

In place of Political Marxism’s undialectical account of the transition, Heller lays out a far more compelling account of the birth, consolidation, and expansion of capitalism throughout the world. He uses Trostky’s theory of uneven and combined development. Capitalism’s triumph was a global process but it happened unevenly. The more advanced attempts took advantage of backward economies. And, at points, backward societies were able to adopt techniques and methods from the more advanced and combine them with less developed economic structures.

First of all, he draws on Chris Harman’s epic People’s History of the World to argue that capitalism could have broken through in several feudal and tributary societies around the world. He shows that the development of the forces of production in these societies enabled the development of protocapitalist relations of production, but in each case, except Holland and England, the old ruling class and its state was able to prevent the emergence of the new system.

In many ways, Heller argues, Europe and England in particular enjoyed, in Trostky’s phrase, the “privilege of historical backwardness.” Protocapitalism there confronted a far less developed feudal state and therefore had a better chance of breaking through. But protocapitalism did not develop in just one country but in an uneven fashion across Europe and in connection with the world market. It first surfaced in the Italian city-states in the form of merchant capitalist control over the cloth industry and later in Germany, Holland, France, and England.

In each of these cases, the successful or unsuccessful breakthrough by capitalism was determined by whether the territorial state aided the consolidation of the capitalist market domestically and internationally. In Italy during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, merchant capital failed to consolidate a territorial national state and Italian capitalism. In Germany during the sixteenth century, the emergent bourgeoisie was unable to defeat the feudal lords and their state in peasant wars, which Engels called an early bourgeois revolution.

Capitalism was finally able to triumph in Holland in the first successful bourgeois revolution. The emergent bourgeoisie in the city and the countryside was able to defeat the feudal Hapsburg Empire and consolidate an independent capitalist nation state in 1648. But the dominance of merchant capital and the lack of cohesion of their new state prevented them from challenging their absolutist competition in Europe.

The second breakthrough was in England. Heller argues that Brenner was right to call attention to the development of agricultural capitalism, but his account of it is wrong. Brenner claimed that the feudal lords transformed themselves into agricultural capitalists. Heller shows that the most recent historical evidence disproves this argument; a whole section of the feudal ruling class never became agricultural capitalists.

Moreover, Heller argues the motor force for agricultural capitalism did not come from above, from the feudal lords, but from below from the richer peasants, the yeoman farmers. It was they who pushed the lords into renting land on which they began to employ wage laborers. He also points out how in the towns the craftsmen as well as the new merchants played a key role in the transition. The products and market they provided were integral components of the transformation of agriculture.

In this process, the Tudor and Stuart state, which balanced between the rising capitalists and the old feudal lords, enabled the development of capitalism through its state-sponsored enclosures of the land. This privatized land offered the yeoman farmers and some of the landlords the chance to own the land and develop agricultural capitalism. The state also facilitated colonial expansion and with that the rise of new merchant capitalists.

But, as Heller documents, the Tudor and Stuart state remained feudal with its base in the section of feudal lords and still committed to maintaining the old order. But it was a weak one, compared to the much stronger feudal and tributary states elsewhere in the world that were able to snuff capitalism out.

Therefore, a coalition of rising capitalist farmers, the capitalist lords, the new merchants, and the middling sort in the towns could overthrow the feudal state in 1649 and replace it with a new capitalist state that was finally consolidated in 1688. That new state got rid of the feudal impediments to capitalist development and more effectively prosecuted its interests against its absolutist rivals.

Thus, Heller contends the Marxist idea of bourgeois revolution is central to explaining the transition from feudalism to capitalism. While the rising productivity of the forces of production enabled capitalist relations to develop, a social revolution was necessary to get rid of the feudal state that in the last analysis upheld the old order. He argues that, contrary to the Political Marxists, this very same process occurred in France.

In his discussion of bourgeois revolution, he explicitly breaks from the crude Stalinist version of the theory, which both revisionism and Political Marxism use as a straw man. That Stalinist theory posits a conscious bourgeoisie leading the overthrow of the old state. Instead, Heller relies on Neil Davidson’s consequentialist theory of bourgeois revolution. In his brilliant new book, How Revolutionary Were the Bourgeois Revolutions?, Davidson argues that various classes can lead a bourgeois revolution to overthrow the feudal state, establish a capitalist state, and clear the way for full capitalist development.

Heller uses as an example Lenin’s distinction between the American and Prussia paths to capitalism. In the American path small producers built a capitalist state from below, where in the Prussian path, the German Junkers, the landed nobility, transformed their feudal state in order to impose capitalist development from above in order to compete with their imperial rivals. Thus, bourgeois revolutions do not need to be led by a conscious bourgeoisie.

Heller then turns to how these new capitalist states facilitated the triumph of the new mode throughout the world system. Contrary to neoliberal economics and Political Marxism—which presume an almost absolute distinction between politics and economics, between states and capitals—the new English state and others played a direct role in the economy through mercantilist policies. Heller describes how it “created a zone of imperial ‘free trade’ for its merchants and manufacturers, offered them protection, and gained favorable terms for their entry into other markets.”

The mercantilist state was decisive for the triumph of capitalism. From the beginning, as Heller shows, European states organized the plunder of the New World and enforced trade restrictions for the benefit of their capitalist classes. And the European states later divided the world into rival colonial blocs for the benefit of their respective capitalist classes. Contrary to neoliberal prejudices, the capitalist states continue to play this mercantilist role right down to today.

To conclude the book, Heller develops an explanation for why the West triumphed over the East. He argues that up until the eighteenth century, the Eastern tributary powers, especially China, were actually as developed as the capitalist West. It took the Industrial Revolution for the West to finally outdistance and then conquer the East.

The question is why, if capitalism is indeed a superior mode of production, why then did it take so long to vanquish the East? Some like Kenneth Pomerantz in his book The Great Divergence contend that the divergence was based on the unequal exchange. Others like Brenner argue that it was entirely internally driven. Heller argues that both have a point but each is one-sided. Of course, colonial domination played a role. But without the transformed capitalist relations of production the West would not have been able to vanquish the East.

He then explains why this triumph took until the Industrial Revolution in the nineteenth century to happen. He argues that early capitalism mainly expanded by lengthening the working day, in Marxists’ terms, extracting absolute surplus value. It was only with the Industrial Revolution that Western capitalists began to heavily invest in plant and machinery to increase the productivity of human labor, in Marxists’ terms, extracting relative surplus value.

Once they did so, they began to dramatically outstrip China and other tributary societies in the East, which they then conquered, colonized, and underdeveloped. While he dates the great divergence at the time of the Industrial Revolution, Heller stresses the original capitalist revolutions of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries positioned the West to eventually triumph over the East.

Heller’s dialectical account of the rise and global triumph of capitalism is compelling but it is not without problems. Some of them flow from his attempt to combine insights from competing theoretical traditions, from Third World Marxism to Trotskyism to those influenced by Stalinism. These problems become evident when he turns to his account of capitalism today and the prospects for socialism.

For example, he argues that the transition to capitalism “is still taking place in Asia, Africa and Latin America.” Given that the capitalist mode of production is completely dominant throughout the world this is a bit hard to grasp. And it is at odds with his very dialectical understanding of how capitalism could use precapitalist labor relations like slavery in the era of primitive accumulation.

As Jairus Banaji argues in his new book, Theory as History, the laws of motion of capitalism today shape even noncapitalist relations of production. Moreover, the law of uneven and combined development will continually recreate both development and underdevelopment, both advanced relations of production and backward ones like unfree prison labor. The world today is thoroughly capitalist without exception.

This last point raises an issue that emerges especially at the end of the book when Heller discusses the trajectory of the system. Like Giovanni Arrighi in Adam Smith in Beijing, he sees China as not fully capitalist and offering an alternative model of growth. Given Heller’s analysis of the mercantilist state at the origins of the system, one would expect him to see China as a thoroughly capitalist system, one divided between a state capitalist sector and a burgeoning private sector.

He never calls it a socialist society, of course, but he depicts it “as a market society dominated by a paternalistic bureaucratic state.” He further contends, “It is only the reticence of the state in the face of rising levels of rural protest that blocks . . . [China] from moving toward a complete capitalist transition.” His own discussion of the Prussian road to capitalism should lead him to exactly the opposite conclusion.

Mao’s revolution was a nationalist revolution. The state it created tried at first to develop its backward economy through autarchic state capitalism and then later through industrial production for the world market. Such an analysis enables us to understand why and how China has transformed itself into the capitalist workshop of the world and a rising imperial power.

Finally, Heller has drawn pessimistic conclusions about the prospects for socialism today. He claims that the achievement of socialism will take hundreds of years. This pessimism flows from his assessment that Stalin’s Russia and Mao’s China were some kind of socialism, rather than state capitalism. He thus sees their supposed transformation into capitalism as a setback for the socialist movement.

Based on this pessimistic outlook, he wrongly draws an analogy between the rise of capitalism and the fight for socialism. He argues that just as there were “experiments in capitalism” so there will be “experiments in socialism” that can progressively transform the system. The analogy is not helpful.

The bourgeoisie and their system could come to power over an extended period of time, but the working class will not be able to do so for two reasons. First, the capitalist farmers or merchants could develop their economic power under the feudal state before bourgeois revolutions. Workers cannot do the same thing; they cannot seize control of workplaces and bide their time before an assault on the capitalist state. The state will not allow redoubts of socialism within capitalism.

Secondly, if workers in one country do seize control of workplaces, topple the capitalist state, and build their own workers’ government, they will not be able to survive if that revolution does not internationalize. The capitalist states in the rest of the system will use their military and economic power to crush that state. If the new state does survive, it will be forced by dint of the military competition with the capitalist powers to turn into a form of capitalism, as Stalin’s Russia did.

Radicals who want to grasp how capitalism came into being should read Heller’s book alongside Neil Davidson’s magisterial How Revolutionary Were the Bourgeois Revolutions and Jairus Banaji’s Theory As History. These three books are key tools to arm a new generation of radicals against bourgeois revisionism and demonstrate Marxism’s superior capacity to explain and change the world.

Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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