Is there anything to defend
 in Political Marxism?

At the conclusion of their article, “In Defense of Political Marxism” (International Socialist Review #90, July 2013), Jonah Birch and Paul Heideman note that: “Advocates of Political Marxism like Robert Brenner, Ellen Meiksins Wood, and Charles Post share a tremendous amount with their critics like Jairus Banaji, Neil Davidson, and Ashley Smith in their common perspective on the necessity for revolutionary socialism from below.”1 It is certainly true that members of Solidarity like Brenner and Post are revolutionaries who have made significant contributions to issues of central importance to the Left, many of which are perfectly compatible with the International Socialist tradition.2 Others from the same organization, like John Eric Marot, have critically engaged with aspects of that tradition such as our attitude to the Left Opposition, but in comradely ways that helped to develop our collective understanding.3 

One of the difficulties with Political Marxism, however, is its political indeterminacy. Not all proponents are revolutionaries: Wood inhabits a position close to that of Ralph Miliband and his successors on the editorial board of The Socialist Register, although she too has made important theoretical contributions, above all in relation to the nature of democracy under capitalism. Other Political Marxists, however, inhabit an almost exclusively scholastic universe in which ferocious declarations of adherence to what they take to be the Marxist method are completely detached from any socialist practice, resulting in a kind of academic sectarianism.

The uneven relationship of Political Marxists to socialist practice is not however the main problem with this theoretical tendency. If it was simply a provocative historical argument about the emergence of capitalism then it would have no necessary implications for contemporary politics—and several Political Marxists have produced historical works which contain important findings independent of how persuasive or otherwise one finds the Brenner Thesis, notably Brenner’s own Merchants and Revolution and Post’s The American Road to Capitalism

But Political Marxism involves much more than this. In general, it rejects several fundamental aspects of historical materialism; more specifically, it misunderstands Marx’s method in Capital. It involves a tacit and, in my view untenable conception of human nature. More importantly, it involves a definition of capitalism of such extraordinary narrowness that—if taken seriously—would mean that most of the world has never been capitalist and is not capitalist even now. It inflates the supposed “separation of the economic and the political under capitalism” to the point where there is no longer a capitalist state as such, but simply the state under capitalism. Consequently, Political Marxism is incompatible with the theory of state capitalism: Brenner and Post are perfectly consistent in adhering to what is effectively a version of bureaucratic collectivism. In what follows I will explore these methodological objections to Political Marxism—although it is also open to empirical challenges that have to wait for another occasion.

Deconstructing historical materialism
Production, not property, is the basis of Marx and Engels’s own Marxism, and why their theory of social development privileges the development of the productive forces over productive relations. Contrary to what Political Marxists claim, neither Marx nor Engels ever revised this position. The notebooks that we now call the Grundrisse (1857–58) have a special significance for Political Marxists. It is here, they believe, that the new orientation on “social property relations” first appears. These claims are not, however, supported by the text itself. The following passage occurs in the course of a discussion of how landed proprietors can change the method by which they exploit their labor force:

The change in the form in which he obtains his revenue or in the form in which the worker is paid is not, however, a formal distinction, but presupposes a total restructuring of the mode of production (agriculture itself); it therefore presupposes conditions which rest on a certain development of industry, of trade, and of science, in short of the forces of production. Just as, in general, production resting on capital and wage labour differs from other modes of production not merely formally, but equally presupposes a total revolution and development of material production.4 

And it is here in the Grundrisse, not The German Ideology, that he then writes: “It must be kept in mind that the new forces of production and relations of production do not develop out of nothing, nor drop from the sky, nor from the womb of the self-positing Idea; but from within and in antithesis to the existing development of production and the inherited, traditional relations of property.”5 

Marx reiterated the same points directly after completing these notes, in that most profoundly unfashionable of texts, the “Preface” to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859). Birch and Heideman describe this as a “brief sketch.”6 In fact, it distils all the key aspects of historical materialism as it had developed since 1845. Furthermore, Marx deployed these concepts in writing Capital during the following decade. By then he had published several statements of his theory of socioeconomic development, both individually and with Engels, and could easily have simply referred to these before applying his general theory to the specific case of the capitalist mode of production without repeating the arguments yet again. Nevertheless, in chapter 1 of volume 1, Marx quotes the 1859 “Preface” in order explicitly to defend it from criticism that it is only applicable to the contemporary capitalist society.7 And it is here in Capital, not the Manifesto of the Communist Party that he adds: “The economic structure of capitalist society has grown out of the economic structure of feudal society. The dissolution of the latter set free the elements of the former.”8 Similarly, at the end of the book he states: 

For capitalist relations to establish themselves at all presupposes that a certain level of historical production has been attained. Even within the framework of an earlier mode of production certain needs and certain means of communication and production must have developed which go beyond the old relations of production and coerce them into the capitalist mould.9 

At the very end of the notes that became volume 3 he summarizes the thesis yet again: 

The sign that the moment of such a crisis [of a particular historical form of production] has arrived is that the contradiction and antithesis between, on the one hand, the relations of distribution, hence also the specific historical form of relations of production corresponding to them, and on the other hand, the productive forces, productivity, and the development of its agents, gains in breadth and depth. A conflict then sets in between the material development of production and its social form.10 

It is, however, elsewhere in volume 3 that Marx gives what is perhaps the fullest statement of the position in his entire output:

The specific economic form in which unpaid surplus labour is pumped out of the direct producers determines the relationship of domination and servitude, as this grows directly out of production itself and reacts back on it in turn as a determinant.On this is based the entire configuration of the economic community arising from actual relations of production, and hence also its specific political form. It is in each case the direct relationship of the owners of the conditions of production to the immediate producers—a relationship whose particular form naturally corresponds always to a certain level of development of the type and manner of labour, and hence to its productive power—in which we find the innermost secret, the hidden basis of the entire social edifice, and hence also the political form of the relationship of sovereignty and dependence, in short the specific form of the state in each case.11

The phrases that Marx uses here—“the relationship of domination and servitude...grows out of production itself,” the exploitative relationship “corresponds always to a certain level of the type and manner of labour, and hence to its productive power”—would appear to render this passage immune to misinterpretation, but alas, no. George Comninel quotes it and then goes on to give a textbook example of how to make a quotation mean the exact opposite of what it actually says: 

For the “base” on which “the entire social structure” is founded is not said to be production in any general sense, but “the specific economic form in which unpaid surplus-labour is pumped out of direct producers.” Even “the entire formation of the economic community” grows up out of these class relations of production, not the reverse. Admittedly, the exploitative relations are once again problematically said to be “always naturally corresponding to a definite stage in the development of the methods of labour and thereby its social productivity”—which, if we recognize technology to be a product of class society, seems once again to leave the horse behind the cart. Yet this assertion is something of an aside, and if allowance is made for Marx’s inclination to associate historical materialism with liberal-scientific materialism—a tendency even more notable in Engels, and notably embraced by their followers—the statement poses no real problem. Indeed, the “direction” of this correspondence can be reversed from what is normally understood, and priority given to the exploitative relationship, as it relates to “the development of the methods of labour.”12

Against this farrago I will simply make three points. First, the “social edifice” to which Marx refers is clearly intended as something separate from either the forces or the relations of production and, given that he immediately goes on to link it to the state, it fairly obviously corresponds to what he describes metaphorically in the 1859 “Preface” as the “superstructure.” Marx does indeed write that the basis of “the entire social edifice” is found in the relations of production, but why does that rule out, as a conceptually prior process, the basis of the productive relations being found in the productive forces? Second, Comninel pretends that the productive forces can be reduced to “technology,” even though Marx is actually referring to (and I quote) “the development of the methods of labour,” which is about human capacities, not technology. Finally, and most outrageously of all, Comninel simply tells us that he intends to reverse what Marx actually says in order to make the passage fit his own preconceptions, although—as we shall see—he is scarcely alone among Political Marxists in doing so. 

On the basis of the foregoing it is difficult to see how anyone could claim that Marx abandoned the centrality of the productive forces. His position might however still be false. The Political Marxist critique of what is usually, if wrongly, called “productive force determinism” has two aspects. One is that it has no explanatory power and fails to square with the known facts. According to Wood, “the proposition that history is propelled forward by the inevitable contradictions between forces and relations of production” is, in her view, “scarcely less vacuous than the general law of technological development in its simpler form.”13 The other concerns the way in which it supposedly diminishes human agency. 

But the productive forces do not “develop” themselves: they are not sentient, nor are they even independent variables, “calling forth” this or “selecting” that response from the relations of production. To say that forces of production have developed is simply to say that human beings have been motivated to change them and have then successfully done so in such a way that the social productivity of labor has risen as a result.14 Human agency is quite as decisive here as it is in the class struggle. When people develop the productive forces it creates a situation in which they, or other people, can adopt new, more compatible productive relations, of which there are not an infinite number. But although developing the productive forces makes certain types of society possible, it does not make them inevitable: it is an enabling condition. 

Here again the role of human agency is decisive. Ruling classes are never passive. By successfully preventing people from developing the productive forces to the point where they can lead to changes in productive relations, they have either ensured centuries of relative stagnation or the repetition of developmental phases that never progress beyond a certain point. In other relatively rare cases, this type of blocking maneuver led to outright regression, as it did across Western Europe in the fifth century, in the fourteenth, and again—although on a more regionalized basis—in the seventeenth; but even in these cases, the “anti-development” of the productive forces also led to transformations in productive relations: change does not always go in one direction. The process by which human beings first make progressive changes to the productive forces, then the productive relations and ultimately the superstructures can explain the two greatest social transformations that have occurred in human history: one was the transition from pre-class society (“primitive communism”) to various forms of class society (slave, feudal, tributary); the other was the transition from feudalism to capitalism.

Misreading Capital
Post in particular prefers to talk about “Capital-centric” rather than “Political” Marxism.15 There are two problems here. First as I have just explained, Capital does not exist in a void, but within a larger body of writing in which certain operating assumptions about social development, which Marx has already explained, are assumed still to be valid. You can no more treat Capital in isolation from the 1859 “Preface” (or, for that matter, the Eighteenth Brumaire) than you can Lenin’s The State and Revolution from his conception of the party.

Second, even in relation to the specific contents of Capital, Political Marxists misunderstand what Marx is doing. Alex Callinicos has drawn our attention to the difference between “the abstract model of capitalist production outlined by Marx in Capital” and the concrete forms that capitalism has actually taken: “The first is intended to isolate the essential features of capitalism, common to all its variants; the second seek, within the limits set by these features, to identify the diverse historical forms they have assumed.”16 In effect, Political Marxists do not seem to recognize that there is an abstract model in Capital. Apart from Brenner himself, they think that England was the only site of endogenous capitalist development and therefore assume that Marx takes English development as a model for the origin of capitalism because, in effect, it was the only example he had. 

It is, of course, not in dispute that England was the country where capitalism developed to the greatest extent. It was for this reason that Marx made it the basis of his analysis, in the same way that he always took the most developed form of any phenomena as the basis of his analysis. But in his mature work Marx repeatedly states that capitalist development took place beyond England in space and before England in time. He certainly describes “the expropriation of the agricultural producer” as taking its “classic form” in England.17 “Classic,” status does, however, rather depend on the existence of other, non-classic forms, which is presumably why passages of the following type occur throughout Capital

Although we come across the first sporadic traces of capitalist production as early as the fourteenth or fifteenth centuries in certain towns of the Mediterranean, the capitalist era dates from the sixteenth century. Wherever it appears, the abolition of serfdom has long been completed, and the most brilliant achievement of the Middle Ages, the existence of independent city-states, has already been on the wane for a considerable time.18 

Confronted with quotations of this kind, some Political Marxists simply deny that Marx meant what he wrote, as we have already seen in the work of Comninel. Take, for example, the question of the “so-called primitive accumulation.” Here is the famous passage from Capital where he traces the chronology of the different forms taken by this process:

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. These methods depend in part on brute force, for instance the colonial system. But they all employ the power of the state, the concentrated and organized force of society, to hasten, as in a hothouse, the process of transformation of the feudal mode of production into the capitalist mode, and to shorten the transition.19

Wood is unhappy with this passage, with its unfortunate references to “Spain, Portugal, Holland and France”; so we are told:

We should first take note that explaining the “genesis of the industrial capitalist,” not the origins of capitalism, nor the emergence of specifically capitalist “laws of motion,” nor specifically capitalist social relations, a specifically capitalist form of exploitation, or the imperatives of self-sustaining economic development. Marx is trying to explain how the accumulation of wealth was converted in the right conditions—that is, in already capitalist social relations (in England), from simply the unproductive profits of usury and commerce into industrial capital. As for the origins of the capitalist system, the “so-called primitive accumulation”—in Marx’s terms, the expropriation of the direct producers, in particular peasants—that gave rise to specifically capitalist social relations and the dynamic associated with them. Marx situates it firmly in England and in the countryside.20

Like the passage from Comninel discussed above, this is an extraordinary example of how to read a passage through a theoretical filter, translating as you go until its meaning is compatible with your own position. What does Marx actually say about “the expropriation of the direct producers, in particular peasants, that gave rise to specifically capitalist social relations and the dynamic associated with them”? Does he situate it “firmly in England and in the countryside”?

“The history of this expropriation assumes different aspects in different countries,” he writes in Capital, “and runs through its various phases in different orders of succession, and at different historical epochs.” More than one time and more than one place then. A footnote continues: “In Italy, where capitalist production developed earliest, the dissolution of serfdom took place earlier than elsewhere.”21 Marx could of course have been factually wrong but, regardless of the accuracy of his views (which have in fact been confirmed by modern scholarship), it is not possible to claim, on the basis of either his early or his mature work, that he believed capitalist development was restricted to England, or even to England and the United Netherlands. He certainly believed that by 1640 the capitalist mode of production had become dominant in England to a greater extent than anywhere else, but that was perfectly compatible with believing that capitalist production had developed elsewhere, within otherwise fundamentally feudal economies. 

Now, as Brenner himself admits: “[Marx] did not explain exactly why the English landlords did not desire or lacked the capacity to maintain or reconstruct serfdom (as did their contemporaries in East Elbian Europe). Nor did he make clear what made it possible for the English lords to succeed in expropriating the peasants from their means of subsistence and in reducing them to commercial farmers and wage laborers, when their contemporaries in France could not accomplish this.”22 This was not an omission on Marx’s part; he saw no need for a special mechanism with which to explain the appearance of capitalism in England because he did not think that the development of capitalism was unique to England, but a general phenomenon, at least in Europe. 

Defining capitalism
When confronted with those (very extensive) sections of Marx’s writings that contradict their views, Political Marxists either pretend that they mean something else, as Wood does in relation to primitive accumulation, or issue disapprovingly admonitions about Marx’s failure to understand his own theory. Comninel complains of “Marx’s very loose usage of the concepts of ‘capital’ and ‘capitalism’ in the historical sections of Capital, in contexts where he clearly does not mean the capitalist mode of production.”23 Rather than speculate on what Marx really meant, would it not be simpler for Comninel to accept that Marx means exactly what he says and that, consequently, he and his cothinkers have a different theory of capitalism than that of Marx? For Political Marxists, capitalism is defined by the existence of what they call market compulsion—the removal of the means of production and subsistence from the direct producers so that they are forced to rely on the market to survive. 

In fact, there have never been capitalist societies, even mid-Victorian Britain or the United States today, where all economic relations have been market determined. In some cases this has been because of the retention of pre-capitalist relations such as led to the reassertion of “moral economy” against “political economy,” of the “just price” against the “market price,” which occurred in England and Lowland Scotland as late as the end of the eighteenth century. (Indeed, if capitalist social relations of production were already in place by or before the English Civil War, then what were these great social struggles actually about?) But more commonly it has been the imposition of public or state provision and regulation by capitalist states. In other words, “pure” capitalist social property relations have never been completely dominant anywhere, nor—unless socialists completely fail in their objectives—will they ever be.

For Marx, capitalism was defined not as a system of market compulsion, but as one of competitive accumulation based on wage labor.24

How then, does any amount of commodities, of exchange values, become capital? By maintaining and multiplying itself as an independent social power, that is, as the power of a portion of society, by means of its exchange for direct, living labor [power]. The existence of a class which possesses nothing but its capacity to labor is a necessary prerequisite of capital . . . capital presupposes wage labor; wage labor presupposes capital. They reciprocally condition the existence of each other: They reciprocally bring forth each other.25

Again, these are not simply the juvenile effusions of the young Marx. He writes in volume 1 of Capital that the emergence of capital as a social relation is the result of two types of commodity owners: on the one hand, “the owners of money, means of production, means of subsistence” and “on the other hand, free workers, the sellers of their own labor power, and therefore the sellers of labor.” He concludes: “With the polarization of the commodity market into these two classes, the fundamental conditions of capitalist production are present.”26 Toward the end of volume 3, in a passage originally written in the mid-1860s, Marx gave what must, unfortunately, be one of his least accurate predictions: “It is unnecessary after the argument already developed to demonstrate once again how the relationship of capital and wage-labor determines the whole character of the mode of production.”27 

We have, however, to be clear what wage labor means. Its classic “free” form is not the only or even the most typical form it can take. Shahid Amin and Marcel van der Linden argue that the notion of “free wage labor” is essentially an ideal type, “an analytic core surrounded by numerous rings of labor relations that we would like to call intermediary.”28 Jairus Banaji argues that Marx used the term “mode of production” in two ways: one to refer to the technical process of production, or the labor process more generally; the other to encompass an entire epoch in the history of the social organization of production, in which particular laws of motion predominate. The existence of wage labor, for example, does not necessarily signify the emergence of the capitalist mode of production; wage labor also took place under feudalism, but primarily as a means of meeting the consumption requirements of the lords rather than contributing to the self-expansion of capital. It is rather that the existence of the capitalist mode of production determines that wage labor becomes the central means through which surplus extraction takes place. Equally, however, various types of unfree labor associated with pre-capitalist modes of production, including slavery itself, can also take place within the context of the capitalist mode of production and, in the terms Marx uses in the Grundrisse, both posit and produce capital.29 

Even if some social relations remain, initially at least, those associated with precapitalist modes in the purely technical sense, the decisive fact is that these technical relations are subordinated to capitalist laws of motion. Political Marxists repeatedly highlight the radical difference between capitalism and preceding modes of production. This emphasis is useful up to a point, but beyond it we lose all sense of what capitalism has in common with other exploitative class systems. Indeed, if capitalism did not possess this commonality, then it is difficult to see how it could have successfully incorporated aspects of these earlier modes, as it has in most of the world outside of a handful of countries at the core of the system where, quite exceptionally, capitalism exists in more or less pure form. Feudal lords were able, in some circumstances, to transform themselves into capitalists, just as ancient slave owners before them were able, in other circumstances, to transform themselves into feudal lords. The continuing fact of exploitation is what makes these adaptations possible. In this respect, as in many others, it will surely be socialism rather than capitalism that is distinct from all previous modes of production.

Human nature against capitalism?
In the Brenner thesis the emergence of capitalism, in England at least, is an unintended, contingent outcome of the actions of the two main feudal social classes, peasants and lords. Brenner conceives of feudalism as a self-enclosed, self-perpetuating system that cannot be undermined by its own internal contradictions. It is claimed that Brenner has an explanation for the—in his terms, highly unlikely—appearance of capitalism: the class struggle. In fact, it is the outcome of such class conflicts that Brenner is interested in, not the conflicts themselves. In the case of England, the outcome of the rural class struggle acted as a mechanism (“an exogenous shock”) for establishing capitalist social relations of production, but in the United Netherlands ecological pressures played the same role. Why does Brenner need such a mechanism in the first place? 

Essentially it is because Political Marxists cannot conceive of people willingly choosing to become capitalists rather than doing so only when the role was imposed on them. Stephen Miller makes the point that

[i]f capitalism were the deliberate design of sixteenth-century people, it would then seem to form part of the human DNA in manner of Adam Smith’s ‘...necessary...consequence of a…propensity in human nature…to truck, barter and exchange...’ How otherwise could sixteenth-century people have had the idea to bring capitalist relations of production into being? And if capitalism were “human nature,” how could people ever hope to supersede it.30  

Identifying a propensity to “truck and barter” is very far from claiming that this inevitably leads to the type of capitalist society that currently exists. In any case, Smith was not an advocate of capitalism but of “commercial society” and the latter term was not a synonym—the former was not used in Smith’s day—but describes a different system entirely. Smith distinguishes between “those original principles of human nature” (“of which no further account can be given”) and “the necessary consequence of the faculties of reason and speech”) and claims it is “more probable” that the propensity to barter belongs to the latter set of properties.31 As Dogen Göçmen has written, Smith’s refusal to place it alongside such “original principles” as “compassion and sympathy” means that he “formulates a hierarchical order” between these two conceptions of human nature in which the propensity to barter is situated lower down as a product of history, of our social being rather than what Marx called our species being.32

But there are as many problems with a conception of human nature that sees it as being uninterested in economic development as there are with a definition of capitalism based on the existence of market compulsion. The rejection of one form of bourgeois ideology should not blind us to the dangers of accepting another, albeit with the inversion of its value system. No mode of production is intrinsically alien to human nature. Human beings may not have a propensity for capitalism but they can develop such a propensity under certain conditions and without compulsion. What I am suggesting, therefore, is that the entire elaborate edifice of the Brenner thesis is based upon a conception of human nature in which it is seen as innately opposed to capitalism—indeed, in which it is seen as innately opposed to economic development as such—and will only be induced to accept capitalist relations under duress. While this may allow us the comforting thought that capitalism need not have happened, it also has certain other implications. For if capitalism is essentially a contingent or accidental historical outcome, then so too is the possibility of socialism. One does not have to accept, in Second International or Stalinist style, that human social development has gone through a succession of inevitable stages to reject the ascription of absolute randomness to key historical turning points as a viable alternative. Marx’s own position lends support to neither of these positions. 

How did the new, capitalist way of organizing production first emerge? The elements that would eventually combine to create the capitalist mode of production—not only market competition but also wage labor and commodity production—preexisted it by many centuries. Political Marxists are therefore right to insist that the existence of these elements does not in itself indicate the existence of capitalism as such. One can further agree with them that the socioeconomic activities that ultimately ended up producing capitalism were not, initially at any rate, necessarily undertaken with capitalism as a conscious goal. Neither of these observations should be taken to mean, however, that capitalism was an unlikely outcome. There are very few ways in which exploitation or the social relations of production more generally can be organized. “Slavery, serfdom and wage labor are historically and socially different solutions to a universal problem which remains fundamentally the same,” writes Fernand Braudel.33 Given this highly restricted range of options, the chances of something like capitalism arising were actually rather high, given certain conditions. 

Alan Carling has argued that it originally emerged as a result of what he calls “feudal fission”: “It was probable that something like English agricultural capitalism would arise out of something like European feudalism.” Why? Carling identifies two characteristics of feudalism as crucial to this outcome: political decentralization and the demographic cycle. The first meant that no state was in a position to impose a uniform system of production, with the result that new systems could develop in the spaces where sovereignty did not hold sway. The second meant that population collapse was regularly of such severity that it left spaces of this type (following the desertion of hitherto occupied land, for example), which could be filled by property and productive relations of an ultimately capitalist nature: 

If there are 10 or 20 independent fission experiments in each demographic cycle, the probability of at least one “English” outcome is very high, even if the probability is very low of an English outcome in any single experiment.... And England only has to happen once for capitalism to become established. That is why it is not as fanciful as one might suppose to suggest that the transition from feudalism to capitalism was almost inevitable—almost indeed a natural necessity of history.34 

It is not the demographic cycle in general that is significant here, but rather the specific downturn associated with the general crisis of the fourteenth century, which was in turn massively intensified by the incidence of the Black Death. Why did this catastrophe lead people to turn to new ways of economic organization? 

Political Marxists do not believe that anyone under precapitalist modes of production has any incentive to develop the productive forces. Or as Brenner puts it, the process whereby “individual economic actors adopt more effective techniques in bringing in new relations of production simply because the techniques are more productively effective decisively depends on the existence of capitalist property relations.” Why? Because only under capitalism “will the individual economic actors necessarily have the adopt new techniques.”35 Wood appears to believe that saying human beings have the desire and capacity to improve their material conditions is the same as saying that they have always been subjugated by the needs of competitive accumulation. One consequence of this denial that there might have been any positive incentives to embrace capitalist production is a tendency to portray peasant life before capitalism as essentially based on a natural economy of self-governing communities, which have no incentive to develop the productive forces, and into which the lords or the church only intrude superficially and occasionally in order to acquire their surplus. I do not recognize this picture. 

In a great passage from one of the early classics of Scottish vernacular literature, The Complaynt of Scotland, written by Robert Wedderburn but published anonymously in 1549, the character of “the laborer” [peasant] rages against the misery of his life: 

I labor night and day with my hands to feed lazy and useless men, and they repay me with hunger and the sword. I sustain their life with the toil and sweat of my body, and they persecute my body with hardship, until I am become a beggar. They live through me and I die through them.36 

Four centuries later the power of that final sentence is undiminished. Developing the productive forces seems to me to be at least as rational a response to the feudal exploitation it so vividly describes as the alternatives of “fight or flight” that are usually posed. People have wanted to do the former since the transition to agriculture; they have only had to do the latter since the transition to capitalism. The wish to better the circumstances in which we live has been one of the main impulses behind the attempts to develop the productive forces and it is intimately bound up with class society, not least because in situations where the direct producers have to hand over part of what they have produced to someone else, there is a very real motive—one might almost say, an imperative—to increase their output, a motive that need have initially nothing to do with market compulsion. 

Peter Musgrave, like Brenner, assumes that risk is the main factor preventing peasants from opting for profit maximization. What could overcome these concerns? Musgrave argues that it could only have been such insecurity that the risk was worth taking because it could scarcely be worse than current conditions.37 Increasing production, if it leads to greater disposable income, might give peasants the wherewithal to buy their way out of performing labor services, to hire wage labor to carry out work that would otherwise destroy the health and shorten the life of family members, or perhaps even to acquire heritable property which would remove them from feudal jurisdictions altogether. “Rather than retreating from the market,” writes Jane Whittle, “peasants used the market to escape from serfdom.”38 And in conditions of crisis, such as those that shook European feudalism in the fourteenth century, the pressure on the ruling class to raise the level of exploitation, and consequently on the peasantry to look for ways of escape, was of course heightened still further.

The consequences of separating the economic and political 
It is when we turn to the contemporary world, however, that the problematic aspects of the Political Marxist definition of capitalism for socialist politics become apparent. According to Benno Teschke, there is a “complete separation” between the political and the economic under capitalism:

Capitalism’s differentia specifica as a system of surplus appropriation consists in the historically unprecedented fact that the capital circuits of the world market can in principle function without infringing on political sovereignty. As a rule, capitalism can leave political territories intact. Contracts are concluded, in principle, between private actors in the pre-political sphere of global civil society.39

The qualifiers introduced by Teschke here—“as a rule” and “in principle” (twice)—suggest a certain conceptual unease, as if these rules and principles might not actually apply in reality, which is indeed the case. “Capital circuits” do operate outside the control of states in so far as they involve money capital; but money capital is ultimately dependent on the moment of production, which cannot escape territoriality and consequently a relationship with state power. Failure to distinguish between the logical development of categories in theory and their development in history leads to the danger of working with platonic or “ideal” conceptions of the capitalist economy and capitalist states which do not correspond to the operation of any actual capitalist economies or capitalist states. In this case, the danger is compounded by convergence with one of the key ideological positions of the bourgeoisie, now attaining something like its purest expression under neoliberalism, which is precisely that politics and economics are, or at least should be, separate realms. As China Miéville remarks, Political Marxists such as Teschke err in both of these respects, first by erecting an abstract model of capitalism and then by taking “capitalism at its own word”: “Rather than conceptualising the separation of politics and economics as a tendency, with an ideological component, he has understood it to be an absolute truth more important to the definition of capitalism than the actual composition of capitalism at any particular time.”40 In fact, capitals can perform some of the functions of states and states can act as capital.

Throughout the history of the system capitalists have employed extra-economic means to recruit, retain, coerce and control labor. The self-expansion of the total social capital can never be completely based on unfree labor, of course, because it assumes and requires general labor mobility; but “general” does not mean “universal,” and individual capitals can employ, have employed, and continue to employ unfree labor.41 As Vivek Chibber has noted, even the extent to which these supposed deviations from the capital relation have been discarded has not been because the system grows nearer to some abstract model, but because of successful resistance: “These practices were only abandoned once labour movements made their continuation impossible.”42 In many cases the type of controls exercised by capitalists relate specifically to the use of violence, and only a tacit adherence to Weberian definitions of the state (“a human community which (successfully) lays claim to the monopoly of legitimate physical violence within a certain territory”) can explain failure to recognise this fact.43 From the use of private armies by J. D. Rockefeller in America after the Civil War through to the current universal expansion of private security firms, violence has never been the monopoly of the capitalist state, for, as Timothy Mitchell argues, violence is not “contingent or external to the logic of history” but is “constitutive of both markets and monopolies.”44 

War and preparations for war involving imperialist states throw these issues into the sharpest relief. Political Marxists have two explanations for the World and Cold Wars of the twentieth century. 

One is that the world as whole was not completely dominated by the capitalist mode of production: between 1914 and 1945, conflicts were between capitalist and precapitalist powers; between 1945 and 1989, conflicts were between capitalist powers and those which at least claimed to be postcapitalist. In neither period, therefore, were conflicts generated by the pure ‘imperatives’ (to use Wood’s favored term) of the system itself. I am less concerned here with accuracy of this periodisation in relation to the spread of capitalist development (which I reject), than with the implications of the fact that capitalist imperatives now operate unimpeded: “For the first time in the history of the modern nation state, the world’s major powers are not engaged in direct geopolitical and military rivalry. Such rivalry has been effectively displaced by competition in the capitalist manner.” As a result, Wood claims, conflict between the states at the core of capitalism is unthinkable: “the classical age of imperialism…is now long over.”45 Wood further argues that the separation of the economic and the political under capitalism has ceased to operate, at least in the international arena level, as a result of the universalization of capitalist imperatives. As the rise of capitalist globalization requires states to become more deeply involved in management and organization of the economy, she writes, “The old capitalist division of labour between capital and the state, between economic and political power, has been disrupted.”46 

Why then does Wood believe that the demarcation between the economic and the political has only broken down with the onset of neoliberal globalization? “Capitalist imperialism has become almost entirely a matter of economic domination,” she writes, “in which market imperatives, manipulated by the dominant capitalist powers, are made to do the work no longer done by imperial states or colonial settlers.” In this case we should surely expect the incidence of war to decrease, perhaps even cease completely. However, having identified the difference between capitalist imperialism and earlier commercial and territorial empires which depended on extra-economic power, Wood then tells us that “the universality of capitalist imperatives has not at all removed the need for military force.” And what is this military force for? To impose the capitalist economic imperatives which we have previously been told are already universal! In the light of this rather circular reasoning, it is perhaps unsurprising that Wood discovers what she calls “paradoxes” in the current global situation, such as “while market imperatives may reach far beyond the power of any single state, these imperatives themselves must be enforced by extra-economic power,” or “the more purely economic empire has become, the more the nation state has proliferated.”47 On this analysis, military and political pressure up to the level of warfare will continue to be exercised by the imperial powers against states of the Global South, but not between those powers themselves.   

The other explanation, advanced for example by Brenner, is that, while states generally act in support of capital, the system of multiple states which capitalism inherited from feudalism means that even the biggest cannot predict or control the outcomes of their actions, since every other state is also acting in a similar way; as a result, counterproductive outcomes can result.48 At an extreme, these outcomes can involve catastrophes like the First World War, which is presumably why Brenner believes that a “global-state solution” would be in the best interests of capital. Now, if Brenner was simply pointing to the incommensurability of outcomes it would be difficult to disagree. His position goes further than this, however, to suggest that, not only are the consequences of certain actions unpredictable, but that from the point of view of capitalism, they are incomprehensible. 

The theoretical difficulty behind these arguments is a conception of capitalism as essentially involving market competition on the basis of price, behind which lies the compulsion to achieve cost savings through technical innovation. Brenner famously distinguishes “horizontal” competition between capitals from “vertical” conflict between labor and capital, which is helpful up to a point, but intercapitalist competition does not take place only through the market.49 In 1920 Nikolai Bukharin described “the struggle for spheres of capital investment . . . for the very opportunity to expand the production process” as an example of capitalist competition by other means.50 Chris Harman has argued that other nonmarket forms of competition involve “spending surplus value on ways of manipulating the market, advertising goods, creating a ‘product image’, bribing buyers in firms and state agencies.”51 Capitalist competition can be external to markets, but so too can the agents of competition be separate from capitals: they can be states, and competition between states tends to lead to conflict

As Giovanni Arrighi notes, there are two kinds of competition between capitals. The first amounts to a form of regulated cooperation in which all benefit from the expansion of trade. The second, however, involves “substantive” competition in which the profits of one capital are achieved at the expense of another; the situation ceases to be “positive-sum” and becomes “zero-sum.” This type of competition is not restricted to firms, however, but involves states, beginning with the behavior of the Italian city-states during the Hundred Years War.52 Arrighi thus concludes that “intercapitalist competition has indeed been the predominant influence” in causing contractions in profitability, and this is only tenable “provided that we include inter-capitalist wars among the most important forms of that competition.” If we do not, then it can lead to “the virtual eviction of world politics from the analysis of capitalist dynamics.”53 In this context, the situations that state managers and politicians face are similar to those which face individual capitalists. When a firm invests in new labor-saving technology to reduce its costs, rival capitalists ultimately must make similar investments, even at the risk that the initial cost of purchase, installation, and training will be so great as to threaten to force them out of business before the savings can be realized. Not investing means the virtual certainty of failure; investing means it is only a possibility. State managers and politicians behave similarly to capitalists in relation to national economies. But state managers and politicians also have to take decisions which, on balance, are likely to result in disaster because the alternative exposes them to even greater risk in the longer term, and this does not only apply in situations which are directly economic in nature. The trajectory of geoeconomic competition ultimately ends in geopolitical rivalry.

I agree with Birch and Heideman when they write of the transition debate that “we do not think the political stakes...are so high that they preclude collective organizing by people with differing views on the question.”54 Indeed, it would be the height of sectarian dementia to refuse to work with comrades because of a dispute over, for example, the extent to which capitalism had developed in France prior to 1789. But, as I have tried to show, the Political Marxist conception of capitalism has implications for contemporary practice as well as historical understanding, above all in relation to what we can expect from intercapitalist competition at the level of the state. These issues should not prevent cooperation with Political Marxists either, but they do suggest that a wholesale importation of their positions into the International Socialist tradition may be more difficult than Birch and Heideman think.    

  1. Jonah Birch and Paul Heideman, “In Defense of Political Marxism,” International Socialist Review, 90 (July-August 2013), 50.
  2. See, for example, Robert Brenner, “The Paradox of Social Democracy: the American Case,” in The Year Left 1985, eds. Mike Davis, Fred Pfeil and Mike Sprinkler (London: Verso, 1985); and Charles Post, “Exploring Working-Class Consciousness: a Critique of the Theory of the ‘Labor-Aristocracy’,” Historical Materialism, vol. 18, no. 4 (2010).    
  3. See, for example, John Eric Marot [2005], “Trotsky, the Left Opposition and the Rise of Stalinism: Theory and Practice,” in The October Revolution in Prospect and Retrospect: Interventions in Russian and Soviet History (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2013).
  4. Karl Marx [1957-8], Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy (Rough Draft) (Harmondsworth: Penguin/New Left Review, 1973), 277. 
  5. Marx, Grundrisse, 278.
  6. Birch and Heideman, “In Defense of,” 49.
  7. Karl Marx [1867]. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, vol. 1 (Harmondsworth: Penguin/New Left Review, 1976), 175, note 35.
  8. Marx, Capital, vol. 1, 874, 975.
  9. Ibid, 1064.
  10. Karl Marx [1894]. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, vol. 3 (Harmondsworth: Penguin/New Left Review, 1981), 1024. This passage is from Chapter 51, “Relations of Distribution and Relations of Production”—one cited by Robert Brenner as the basis of his interpretation. See, for example [1976], “Agrarian Class Structure and Economic Development in Pre-Industrial Europe,” in The Brenner Debate: Agrarian Class Structure and Economic Development in Pre-Industrial Europe, eds. T. H. Aston and C. H. E. Philpin (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 11, note 3.
  11. Marx, Capital, vol. 3, 927–28.
  12. George Comninel, Rethinking the French Revolution: Marxism and the Revisionist Challenge (London: Verso, 1987), 167. See also Benno Teschke, The Myth of 1648: Class, Geopolitics and the Making of Modern International Relations (London: Verso, 2003), 55-56.
  13. Ellen Meiksins Wood, “Marxism and the Course of History,” New Left Review 1, no. 127 (May/June 1981), 101–2.
  14. See, for example, Nikolai Bukharin [1920], “The Economics of the Transition Period,” in The Politics and Economics of the Transition Period, ed. Kenneth J. Tarbuck (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1979), 121 or Vladimir Lenin [1899]. The Development of Capitalism in Russia: The Process of the Formation of Home Market for Large Scale Industry, in Collected Works, vol. 3, 1899 (Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1960), 596.
  15. Charles Post, “Introduction,” in The American Road to Capitalism: Studies in Class-Structure, Economic Development and Political Conflict, 1620–1877 (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 2011), 2.
  16. Alex Callinicos, Theories and Narratives: Reflections on the Philosophy of History (Cambridge: Polity, 1995), 134–35.
  17. Marx, Capital, vol. 1, 90, 876.
  18. Ibid., 876.
  19. Ibid., 915–16. 
  20. Ellen Meiksins Wood [1999], The Origin of Capitalism: A Longer View (London: Verso, 2002), 48.
  21. Marx, Capital, vol. 1, 876, note 1. 
  22. Robert Brenner, “Bourgeois Revolution and Transition to Capitalism,” in The First Modern Society: Essays in English History in Honor of Lawrence Stone, eds. A. L. Beier, David Cannadine, and J. M. Rosenheim (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 294. For a more general argument about Marx’s supposed explanatory failures, see Wood, “Horizontal Relations,” 175.
  23. Comninel, Rethinking the French Revolution, 92.  
  24. Birch and Heideman write that “capital accumulation” is not the same as “competitive accumulation”: “long before capitalism, different groups of exploiters were fighting among themselves over control of productive assets—with the losers in these conflicts facing dire consequences.” But what they are describing is simply competition, not competitive accumulation; outside of capitalism the latter word simply means the piling up of material wealth. See Birch and Heideman, “In Defense of Political Marxism,” 45.
  25. Karl Marx [1847–49], “Wage Labour and Capital,” in Collected Works, vol. 9 (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1977), 213, 220.
  26. Marx, Capital, vol. 1, 874, 975. See also Marx, Grundrisse, 505.
  27. Marx, Capital, vol. 3, 1019.
  28. Shahid Amin and Marcel van der Linden, “Introduction,” International Review of Social History 41, Supplement 4, Peripheral Labor: Studies in the History of Partial Proletarianization (June 1997) 3, 4.
  29. Jairus Banaji [1977], “Modes of Production in a Materialist Conception of History,” in Theory as History: Essays on Modes of Production and Exploitation (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 2010), 50-52, 92-94; Marx, Grundrisse, 463.  
  30. Stephen Miller, “French Absolutism and Agricultural Capitalism: a Comment on Henry Heller’s Essays,” Historical Materialism, vol. 20, no. 4 (2012), 144; Adam Smith [1776], An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, edited by Edwin Cannan (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976), Book 1, Chapter 2, 17.
  31. Smith, The Wealth of Nations, Book I, Chapter 2, 17.
  32. Dogen Göçmen, The Adam Smith Problem: Human Nature and Society in The Theory of Moral Sentiments and The Wealth of Nations (London: Tauris, 2007), 159.
  33. Braudel, The Perspective of the World: Capitalism and Civilization, 15th-18th Centuries, vol. 3, (London: Fontana, 1985), 63.
  34. Alan Carling, “Analytic Marxism and Historical Materialism: the Debate on Social Evolution,” Science and Society, vol.  57, no. 1 (Spring 1993), 52–54. 
  35. Brenner, “The Social Basis of Economic Development,” 45.
  36. [Robert Wedderburn] [1549], The Complaynt of Scotland wyth ane Exortatione to the Three Estaits to Be Vigilante in the Deffens of their Public Veil. with an appendix of contemporary English tracts, re-edited from the originals by J. A. H. Murray (London: Scottish Text Society, 1822), 123. 
  37. Peter Musgrove, The Early Modern European Economy (Houndmills: Macmillan, 1999), 51.
  38. Jane Whittle, The Development of Agrarian Capitalism: Land and Labor in Norfolk, 1450-1550 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2000), 310. 
  39. Teschke, The Myth of 1648, 267.
  40. China Miéville, Between Equal Rights: a Marxist Theory of International Law (Leiden: Brill, 2005), 221.
  41. Jairus Banaji, “The Fictions of Free Labour: Contract, Coercion, and So-Called Unfree Labour,” Historical Materialism, vol. 11, no. 3 (2003), 79–80.
  42. Vivek Chibber, “Capital Outbound,” New Left Review, II/36 (November/December 2005), 155.
  43. Max Weber [1919], “The Profession and Vocation of Politics,” in Political Writings, edited and introduced by Peter Lassman and Ronald Speirs (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 310–11. 
  44. Timothy Mitchell, “Dreamland,” in Evil Paradises: Deamworlds of Neoliberalism, eds. Mike Davis and Daniel Bertrand Monk, (New York: The New Press, 2007), 30.
  45. Ellen Meiksins Wood, Empire of Capital (London: Verso, 2003), 143, 153.
  46. Ibid, 168.
  47. Ibid, 153, 154.
  48. Robert Brenner ‘What is, and what is not, Imperialism?’, Historical Materialism, vol. 14, no. 4 (2006), 84–85.
  49. Robert Brenner [1998], The Economics of Global Turbulence: the Advanced Capitalist Economies from Long Boom to Long Downturn, 1945-2005 (London: Verso, 2006), 25.
  50. Bukharin, “The Economics of the Transition Period,” 62.
  51. Chris Harman, Explaining the Crisis: a Marxist Reappraisal (London: Bookmarks, 1984), 43–4.
  52. Giovanni Arrighi, The Long Twentieth Century: Money, Power and the Origins of Our Times (London: Verso, 1994), 227.
  53. Giovanni, Arrighi, Adam Smith in Beijing: Lineages of the Twenty-First Century (London: Verso, 2007), 130, 132.
  54. Birch and Heideman, “In Defense of Political Marxism,” 50.

Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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