Sunday, 1 July 2012

The Birth of Capitalism- A 21st Century Perspective- Henry Heller -Pluto Press 2012-Part One

In the preface to this book, Henry Heller describes the aim of the book is to lay the foundations for a better understanding of the world we live in so that we can "shape the future." I am not very sure he succeeds.

The book is a 21st-century discussion and polemic on a timeworn debate in and outside the Marxist movement. The controversy over the transition from feudalism to capitalism debate has been waged since the early part of the 20th century. Heller insists that an understanding of the change debate is fundamental to understanding the nature of the capitalist crisis today. It should be warned that the subject of the book is complicated and requires a lot of background reading. For someone new to the subject this is advisable.

The conception of a transition from feudalism to capitalism had been under attack from the early 1970s. As Dominic Alexander states “ The origins of the capitalist system in a series of revolutionary transformations, political, industrial and even scientific was once broadly accepted, sometimes celebrated, by mainstream history. For over thirty years now, however, the relevance of the very concept of revolution to social change has been under systematic attack. One choice means of neutralising the idea of revolution is to posit the problem of ‘continuity and change’ in history. Approached with suitably myopic terms of reference, it is always possible to eliminate the discontinuities across time and to find that revolutionary phases in fact changed little. It is now possible to reject the very notion of a capitalist mode of production and any transition from ‘feudalism to capitalism’, by claiming, for example, the long existence of a single ‘world system’ of trade”.

Heller’s book is somewhat misleadingly titled as it mainly consists of an open polemic against the positions of the “Trotskyist” historian Robert Brenner. In fact, the only person mentioned more times in the book than Brenner is Marx. 

Heller places Brenner at the heart of this very contemporary debate over the emergence of capitalism. Brenner, a historian at the University of California, is, without doubt, an important voice, but I am not sure that he warrants a whole book which is devoted to destroying his theories.

Heller has a tendency to throw the words Trotskyist and Marxist around with gay abandon. Heller has been described as a Marxist himself which does not tell us a lot about his perspective. From his book, it would appear that he favors the approach of “separating out the decline of feudalism from the emergence of capitalism” as one member of the radical group the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) described his method.

This is clearly not the approach of Brenner who opposed a "conceptual and chronological divide" between feudalism and capitalism. Heller makes a serious case against Brenner in that he believes Brenner has an Anglo-centrist viewpoint. In that Brenner ignores the fact that capitalism did not occur solely in Britain in the early modern period.

Another charge hurled at Brenner is that he is “guilty of economic determinism in his disregard of the importance of the state as "the ultimate linchpin of capitalism." To Heller’s credit, he does attempt to place the origins of capitalism as an economic system in its correct historical setting. His book is an attempt to give a more all rounded and rational approach to understanding this complex historical puzzle. He is also correct to criticize an over dependence of many studies that concentrate solely on the appearance of capitalism in England.

Heller also rails against historians who concentrate too heavily on what he calls ‘euro-centrism’ in discussing the origins of capitalism. He accuses Brenner of this as well. To be honest, this is not the place to answer this charge and would require a doctoral thesis to refute or agree with this premise. What I would say that while Heller makes some right points regarding the previous historiography on the subject of the transition, he fails to clearly put his own position and more importantly to apply an orthodox Marxist position using the previous writings of the great Marxist thinkers of both the 19th and 20th century.

While I am not saying that a mechanical application of say Leon Trotsky’s analysis of the Law of combined and uneven development is required even a cursory look at it (which Heller does not do in his book) would add lots of clarification.

For instance take a look at this statement by Trotsky “...the entire history of mankind is governed by the law of uneven development. Capitalism finds various sections of humanity at different stages of development, each with its profound internal contradictions. The extreme diversity in the levels attained, and the extraordinary unevenness in the rate of development of the different sections of mankind during the various epochs, serves as the starting point of capitalism. Capitalism gains mastery only gradually over the inherited unevenness, breaking and altering it, employing therein its own means and methods. In contrast to the economic systems which preceded it, capitalism inherently and consistently aims at economic expansion, at the penetration of new territories, the surmounting of economic differences, the conversion of self-sufficient provincial and national economies into a system of financial interrelationships. Thereby it brings about their rapprochement and equalizes the economic and cultural levels of the most progressive and the most backward countries. Without this primary process, it would be impossible to conceive of the relative levelling out, first, of Europe with Great Britain, and then, of America with Europe; the industrialization of the colonies, the diminishing gap between India and Great Britain, and all the consequences arising from the enumerated processes upon which is based not only the program of the Communist International but also its very existence. By drawing the countries economically closer to one another and levelling out their stages of development, capitalism, however, operates by methods of its own, that is to say, by anarchistic methods which constantly undermine its own work, set one country against another, and one branch of industry against another, developing some parts of world economy while hampering and throwing back the development of others. Only the correlation of these two fundamental tendencies – both of which arise from the nature of capitalism – explains to us the living texture of the historical process. Imperialism, thanks to the universality, penetrability, and mobility and the break-neck speed of the formation of finance capital as the driving force of imperialism, lends vigour to both these tendencies. Imperialism links up incomparably more rapidly and more deeply the individual national and continental units into a single entity, bringing them into the closest and most vital dependence upon each other and rendering their economic methods, social forms, and levels of development more identical. At the same time, it attains this “goal” by such antagonistic methods, such tiger-leaps, and such raids upon backward countries and areas that the unification and levelling of world economy which it has affected, is upset by it even more violently and convulsively than in the preceding epochs." - Leon Trotsky, The Third International after Lenin, part 1, section 4

Brenner does not apply Trotsky’s method either. Heller, as I said earlier, describes Brenner as a Trotskyist. (Brenner writes for the Solidarity website) This is an irresponsible and inaccurate statement. From even a cursory look at the website Solidarity for which Against the Current is a part, you can see that far from being an orthodox Trotskyist he is what I would term a left radical. Heller throughout the book describes Brenner and his supporters as “political Marxists.”  Perhaps a more accurate term to describe Brenner is a political historian in the mode of E H Carr.

It is clear that there is a dialectical relationship between Brenner’s politics and his historicism. Does this make him a bad historian not at all? While ones politics does guide a person’s historical method and interest it does not necessarily affect their history writing in a negative way. E H Carr’s dictum regarding the bees buzzing in a historian’s head applies here.

Robert Brenner's article on 'Agrarian Class Structure and Economic Development in Pre-Industrial Europe' in Past and Present (1976) was his first real entry into the recent transition debate and has been described as” a framework within which to interpret the English Revolution of 1640 to 1660”.

Brenner's latest contribution to the debate is his book Merchants and Revolution. Its main subject is the role of the London merchants in the English revolution. Brenner is heavily criticised in Heller’s book for his heavy emphasis on this group of capitalists. Brenner was not the first historian to concentrate on this group. Although not a Marxist Valerie Pearl in her book provides us with the first and very substantial look into the allegiances of London merchants in the civil war.

Her research leads her to show that the majority of the biggest merchants who controlled the large chartered overseas trading companies and the government of the city were royalists, while the parliamentarians were 'merchants of the middle rank',. They were undoubtedly wealthy, but not the richest men in the city. They were “important traders but not directors of the chartered companies.”

In his review of Brenner’s latest book, Manning raises that “a serious problem in analyzing the parties is that even among well-documented groups like gentry and merchants there are substantial numbers of whom no information can be found of their allegiances in the civil war. Brenner has examined 274 of the London merchant elite, but for about half of them there is no evidence about which side they supported, and this must be borne in mind when drawing conclusions. Of 130 merchants who can be allocated to the parties, 78 were royalists, 43 were parliamentarians, and nine were side changers. Breaking these figures down, he finds that the leading merchants of the Levant and the East India companies, which controlled the city government before the revolution, were overwhelmingly royalists, while the Merchant Adventurers, who were now less dominant than they had been in the 16th century, were more evenly divided”.

It has been accepted by Marxist s and non-Marxists alike that merchant elite of London--the richest and most powerful citizens--were mostly royalists in the civil war. According to Manning “this substantiates the Marxist thesis, as advanced by Dobb that the great merchants were tied into the feudal society, their wealth and power were derived from royal and aristocratic grants and favors, and they were not agents of the transition from feudalism to capitalism. Brenner notes that the ability of these merchants to make a profit depended on buying cheap and selling dear, and so on their power to prevent overtrading in their markets and to restrict the number of traders, which could be achieved only by political assistance from the feudal monarchy and aristocracy in granting them monopolies, such as those of the Levant and the East India companies”.

With certain reservations, I tend to agree with this analysis.  As Marx said, 'commerce imparts to production a character directed more and more towards exchange value,' nevertheless, 'its development [and that of merchant's capital] incapable by itself of promoting and explaining the transition from one mode of production to another”.

If these capitalist were not the main force behind the transition from feudalism to capitalism, then who were. This is not an easy question to answer and to be brutally honest the answer is not actually found in Heller’s book. Heller does not rule out completely however that these merchants were part of the bourgeoisie. According to Dobb's phrases, 'compromised with feudal society' and were 'mostly parasites on the old economic order.'

How does Brenner' explain the transition from feudalism to capitalism and of the English Revolution? He says  “the rise of a capitalist aristocracy which was presiding over an agricultural revolution'. While the peasants possessed the means of production--land--the feudal class could appropriate part of their production only by juridical and political power, backed by force. The weakening of that power, as a result of peasant resistance, caused a crisis from which the feudal class recovered by shifting from claims to power over people to claims to power over land. Smaller holdings were consolidated into larger farms, which were cultivated not for subsistence but for the market, by means of wage labour. Landlords entered into 'contractual relations with free, market-dependent commercial tenants (who increasingly hired wage workers)...' Thus they came to rely on economic means--the market forces that determined land values and rents--rather than political and jurisdictional means to appropriate part of production, and so they became capitalists:... Capitalism developed in England from the end of the medieval period by means of the self-transformation of the old structure, specifically the self-transformation of the landed classes. As a result, the rise of capitalism took place within the shell of landlord property and thus, in the long run, not in contradiction with and to the detriment of, but rather to the benefit of the landed aristocracy".

To conclude this part, I agree with Manning when he states “Brenner has made an invaluable contribution to understanding the English Revolution by establishing the central role of colonial merchants and colonization, based on extensive research. That will need to be matched by a similar study making the development of industry and the industrial classes equally central”.


1.         The Birth of Capitalism: A Twenty-First-Century Perspective- A review by Dominic Alexander
2.        V Pearl, London and the Outbreak of the Puritan Revolution (Oxford, 1961), pp243-244, 276-277, 282-284.
3.        R Brenner, 'The Civil War Politics of London's Merchant Community', Past & Present, No 58 (1973).
4.       R Brenner, Merchants and Revolution, pp375-388.
5.        R Brenner, 'Bourgeois Revolution and Transition to Capitalism', in A L Beier, D Cannadine and J M Rosenheim (eds), The First Modern Society (Cambridge, 1989) pp291-292; Merchants and Revolution, pp668-670.
6.       Solidairity://
7.        The English Revolution and the transition from feudalism to capitalism A review of R Brenner, Merchants and Revolution: Commercial Change, Political Conflict and London's Overseas Traders, 1550-1653 (Cambridge University Press, 1993) £40 by Brian  Manning  Issue 63 of INTERNATIONAL SOCIALISM JOURNAL Published Summer 1994