The Brenner Debate (Part 3)

The more Brenner I read, and the more I read of his critics, the more I come to believe that he is misread more often than comprehended. Perhaps this is due to his combative and critical engagement with historical texts that he subjects to withering analysis; perhaps it is due to the fact that the specificity of his argument triggers an emotional response from those who have spent their careers concentrating elsewhere, confronting the orientalism, colonialism and forms of horrible domination that originated in Europe. The theoretical heavy-lifting that has cracked away at the methods of historiography, racism, ideology that reinforce and undergird colonial and imperial forms of domination accomplished an olympian feat that still is an unfinished process– I’m currently reading Ranajit Guha’s book Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency, a text that spawned the subaltern studies movement and look forward to sharing my thoughts from an author who studies peasants on their own terms, not from a viewpoint of power. I hope Guha’s perspective will give me a different angle on the peasantry and one that is specifically non-European. With so much modern scholarship serving to dislodge “Europe” from the privileged locus of  power, the fact that Robert Brenner finds the origins of capitalism, a revolutionary economic force, in the rural fields of England, a country that spawned genocidal and vampirical forms of domination across the globe, is a fact that is perhaps too painful to find credible.

One aspect of Brenner, as Rodney Hilton surmises in his introduction to The Brenner Debate is that Brenner’s emphasis on class struggle “leads, among other things, to the conclusion that a successful struggle by peasants to protect the integrity of the tenancy of their holdings led to a sort of historical regression.” Although worded in a blunt way, I find this to be close enough to what Brenner argues, although it opens up much larger questions: what do we mean by history? What is history? Implied in Hilton’s formulation is a nod towards a teleological framework that many find untenable and reminds one also of Hobsbawm’s thoughts on the peasant which Guha forcefully criticizes. Because the history of 20th century revolutionary movements saw the agrarian question and the question of the peasantry as crucial variables in the unfolding of the revolutionary process, the Brenner thesis must be grappled with in all its complexity as its ramifications quickly move into the territory of revolutionary politics. A bipolar problematic emerges from the Brenner Debate: The origins of capitalism vs. the tactics of revolutionary strategy in light of this thesis.

James Blaut, who pins a golden “E” on Brenner’s breast pocket by included him in the volume “Eight Eurocentric Historians” and criticizes Brenner as myopic, seeing history only through “The Tunnel of Time” states that Brenner’s muse is a jealous one. His focus on Europe and the dissolution of serfdom and feudal bonds as the locus of capitalism’s genesis is an obsessive tactic that selfishly snatched away the attention the world was giving to colonial rebellion in the mid-20th century:

His influence stems from the fact that he supplied a crucial
piece of doctrine at a crucial time. Just after the end of the Vietnam War, radical thought was strongly oriented toward the Third World and its struggles, strongly influenced by Third-World theorists like Cabral, Fanon, Guevara, James, Mao, and Nkrumah, and thus very much attracted to theories of social development which tend to displace Europe from its pivotal position as the center of social causation and social
progress, past and present…

Euro-Marxism of course disputed this, and Euro-Marxists, while strong in their support of present-day liberation struggles, nonetheless insisted as they always had done that the struggles
and changes taking place in the center of the system, the European world, are the true determinants of world historical changes; socialism will rise in the heartlands of advanced European capitalism, or perhaps everywhere all at once; but socialism will certainly not arrive first in the backward, laggard, late-maturing Third World.’ What was badly needed at this juncture was a strong Euro-Marxist theory of the original rise of capitalism, a theory demonstrating that capitalism and modernization originated in Europe, and evolved thereafter
mainly in Europe and with little influence from the non-European world and colonialism. (from “Robert Brenner in the Tunnel of Time”, Antipode, 1994)

Blaut’s fault is to see this focus as an either/or proposition. The bipolar problematic I sketch out above is forced into a narrow, one-way tunnel so that one is forced into believing that Brenner’s thesis on the origin only leads to a crude and limited vision of revolutionary praxis. But as most students of 20th century revolution know, the question is never either/or, but the relation, interconnectedness, international nature, and fragility of revolution. Blaut’s self-professed “third-worldist” perspective seemingly points towards the historical dead end of “socialism in one country”, what Brenner specifies in his New Left Review essay “The Origins of Capitalist Development: A Critique of Neo-Smithian Marxistm” as “semi-autarkic socialist development.”

Such a perspective must tend to minimize the degree to which any significant national development of the productive forces depends today upon a close connection with the international division of labour (although such economic advance is not, of course, determined by such a connection). It must, consequently, tend to overlook the pressures to external political compromise and internal political degeneration bound up with that involvement in—and dependence upon—the capitalist world market which is necessary for development. Such pressures are indeed present from the start, due to the requirement to extract surpluses for development, in the  absence of advanced means of production, through the methods of increasing absolute surplus labour.(p.92)

The devolution of countries that saw some successful “Communist” revolutions into highly effective capitalist economic engines would tend to bear out Brenner’s prognostication here from 1977. Directly opposed to the sort of “eurocentric” vs. “Third-worldist” approach of comrade Blaut, Brenner sees the axes of revolution as they have been theorized since Karl Marx emphasized the international character of proletarian revolution:

 Most crucially, perhaps, this perspective [semi-autarkic socialist development] must tend to play down the degree to which the concrete inter-relationships, however tenuous and partial, recently forged by the rising revolutionary movements of the working class and oppressed peoples in Portugal and Southern Africa may be taken to mark a break—to foreshadow the rebirth of international solidarity. The necessary interdependence between the revolutionary movements at the ‘weakest link’ and in the metropolitan heartlands of capitalism was a central postulate in the strategic thinking of Lenin, Trotsky and the other leading revolutionaries in the last great period of international socialist revolution. With regard to this basic proposition, nothing has changed to this day.(p.92)

Yes, implied in this analysis is that capitalist “development” has penetrated different geographical regions in a myriad of intensities and formations. But the central thesis must be, and has always been that the proletariat of the strongest imperialist powers have a decisive effect on and interconnection with the success and outcome of revolutionary movements across the globe. Just to name a few, can one speak of the Russian Revolution without including the “failed” revolutionary moment in post-war Germany? The Algerian War and revolution and its decisive relation to 1960s French radicalization and May ’68 in particular, not to mention the Vietnam War, which obviously was a key force in left politics in the United States; Brenner also mentions Portugal and Angola above. As Lenin succinctly puts it in his Letter to the Workers and Peasants of the Ukraine:

Capital is an international force. To vanquish it, an international workers’ alliance, an international workers’ brotherhood, is needed.

That is, before the Ukranian anarchists were crushed, along with Nestor Makno’s anti-Bolshevik army (see Gregori Maximoff’s writings as well). Without digging in too deep at this point on the question of peasant insurgency, the peasant question and agricultural questions more generally form the most difficult questions in transformation towards industrialization. Far from seeing him as uncritically supporting colonial revolution, my reading of Fanon finds a caution towards a revolutionary process that fails to connect geographically, internationally and fails to transcend the devolution towards the corrupt influence of a localized, party-influenced and capitalist-leaning bourgeoise. In this respect, the Brenner thesis’ emphasis on the transformation of agricultural social-production relations is moved to the forefront. What are the roadblocks to socialist transformation in historically “underdeveloped” countries? What does “Capitalism with Chinese Characteristics” mean? What is the difference between bourgeois revolution and peasant revolution and proletarian revolution?

Blaut ends his “Tunnel of Time” article with the following conclusion:

Brenner makes two basic errors. He does not pay attention to class struggle outside of northern Europe. And he does not notice that what was happening in the non-European world after 1492 was class-based commodity production, not merely “commerce. ”

As for class struggle, Brenner near the end of the “Neo-Smithian” article speaks of how “market demand” for sugar seemingly transformed the class relationships on Barbados from one of individual English farmers to plantations of slaves. But what Brenner emphasizes here and with another example of Colonial Virginia is that the market or capitalism has limits in the form of social-relations that are themselves the outcomes of years of class struggle– Slaves do not produce themselves; their availability is a function of class struggle elsewhere:

Had it not been for the outcome of processes of class formation and class conflict in Africa, the development of Southern society, indeed society throughout the Western hemisphere, might have been very different. Capitalism, itself, cannot account for it.

Here a process in Africa is seen as historically determinate and in a footnote mentions the scholarship of Walter Rodney and A.G. Hopkins both of whom he claims fail to account for the process of class struggle in Africa. The growth of the slave trade is usually explained by “rising demand”, but what Brenner calls for is an explanation of class formations that would allow for such a market to be available in the first place. Violent clashes between laborers and exploiters in some regions make slavery an impossibility.

As for Blaut’s comment on commodity production, not “commerce”, I think this is where he fails to understand Brenner in a fundamental way. There is no doubt that feudalism grew as a form and that Europe saw a rise in population, a rise in towns and a rise in the crafts industry from roughly 1000-1250. What is posited by Brenner is that there are fundamental limits inherent to the feudal system that strictly limit the degree to which a non-peasant population can be supported by the agricultural formations of the countryside. Brenner explains in many different ways how a growth in trades in most regions that were flourishing would in every case achieve a limit of growth due to a failure of agriculture to provide enough of a surplus to feed the nascent industrial population. This was the case even where wage-labor and other proto-capitalistic agricultural formations were present (such as certain regions of Italy) but not adopted due to contingent historical reasons. S.R. Epstein succinctly formulates the stakes in his paper “Rodney Hilton, Marxism and the Transition From Feudalism to Capitalism”:

a theory of the transition from one social-economic formation to the other must, at the least, explain the following historical questions: first, how did agricultural supply keep up with growing population (demand); second, how did exclusive property rights develop; third, how did the wage-based, non-agricultural sector expand, such that the share of population employed in agriculture fell from c.90-95 per cent at the outset of feudalism (across Europe, c. 1100) to c. 30 per cent as the capitalist socio-economic formation was taking full shape (in England, c. 1800); and fourth, how did technology in the energy and manufacturing sectors progress, as Marx put it, ‘out of the hand-mill into the steam-mill’.

Few critics of Brenner can reckon with the theoretical hurdles as they are formulated here. Without totally agreeing with every aspect of his argument, a good-faith engagement with his thinking at the very least requires one to recognize the contingency of the capitalist transition, a transition that has yet to force its way into every geographical space, as the resiliency of peasant agriculture continues to prove. Smearing Brenner’s work as “eurocentric” ironically reinforces the view that capitalism is somehow innate and a “natural” state for human beings because the rival thesis that privileges the gradual development of the forces of production leads us towards a teleology towards capitalism that Brenner rejects (and sees as quintessentially “Smithian”). Brenner makes a strong argument for the very small window that briefly opened up and allowed for the post-feudal transition, a history that those interesting in the anti-capitalist transition must confront.

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2 Responses to The Brenner Debate (Part 3)

  1. Pingback: Occupy “occupy” | Guava Purée

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