Eurocentric Anti-Eurocentrism

Against the Current, No. 92, May/June 2001

Ellen Meiksins Wood

THE QUESTION OF “Eurocentrism” is a vexing problem not only for academia but for the left. In the broadest sense, Eurocentrism can be understood as the implicit view that societies and cultures of European origin constitute the “natural” norm for assessing what goes on in the rest of the world.

Within this vast area of debate, one particular subtopic has been an object of intense scrutiny among scholars: the real-or-alleged centrality of Europe in preparing the explosion of economic development, science and technology, the Enlightenment and the expansion of the role of the individual-as well as intensified exploitation and colonial conquest-that heralded the modem world.

All these things, taken together, are commonly taken to be synonymous with capitalism.  It is precisely this identification that is challenged in this essay by Marxist historian Ellen Meiksins Wood, along with the notion that ascribing European agrarian origins to capitalism entails a view of Europe as a civilizing vanguard.

Other writers, including the late J.M. Blaut, have argued that Eurocentric assumptions have permeated the left’s theorization of the origins of modernity as thoroughly as they have dominated conventional “modernization” theory.  A wide range of scholars of color and Third World writers have contributed to the discussion.

The editors of Against the Current hope that Ellen Wood’s contribution will kick off an exchange taking up a number of issues, relating particularly to the theoretical and historical debate on capitalist origins-but also connecting this scholarly inquiry to some of the questions for the left in today’s global capitalist system.  While this discussion is only one part of developing a fuller understanding of the dynamics of liberation struggles and anti-capitalist movements, historically and today, we believe it can be a worthwhile one.

—David Finkel, for the editors of ATC

LIKE ANY GOOD socialist, I fervently believe that the struggle against racism, imperialism, and European “cultural arrogance” is absolutely essential to our project.  I also believe that scholarship designed to combat “Eurocentrism” has often produced extremely important results by challenging the idea—which comes in many different forms—that “the West” has always been, for one reason or another, superior to all other civilizations and is destined to remain so. But there are certain things about the fight against Eurocentrism that I’ve never understood.

There are, to begin with, serious problems involved in lumping together a very wide variety of writers in the category “Eurocentrism,” as if they were all centered on Europe in the same way, and as if they all shared the same contempt for non-Europeans.  The category includes racists who insist on the natural superiority of Europeans over Asians, Africans, and indigenous Americans; cultural chauvinists who think that, for whatever reason, “the West” has achieved a higher level of cultural development and “rationality” which has given it an advantage in every other respect; environmental determinists who believe that Europe has some distinct ecological advantages; non-racist historians who don’t give enough attention to the role of Western imperialism in European history; and Marxists who are neither racists, nor cultural chauvinists, nor ecological determinists, nor inclined to underestimate the evils of imperialism, but who believe that certain specific historical conditions in Europe, which have nothing to do with European superiority, produced certain specific historical consequences—such as the rise of capitalism.

But despite these problems in the concept of “Eurocentrism,” no one can deny that there is such a thing as European “cultural arrogance,” and we do have to accept that there are more than enough reasons to challenge conceptions of history that place Europeans at the center of the universe, to the detriment, or the exclusion, of everyone else. The idea of “Eurocentrism,” for all its faults, should at least put us on guard against such cultural practices.

That’s why I’m so puzzled by anti-Eurocentric histories, especially the histories of capitalism.  What puzzles me most about them is that, without exception (as far as I know), they are based on the most Eurocentric—not to mention bourgeois—assumptions.

Inverting Eurocentrism

Let’s look first at the standard “Eurocentric” account of how and where capitalism began.  Conventional non-Marxist European accounts of capitalist development from at least the eighteenth century have been based on two fairly simple assumptions.  Beginning with a conception of capitalism as simply “commercial society” (as it was called by Adam Smith and others), they assume that it was largely the result of growing towns and trade; and second, that this process of commercialization reached maturity when a critical mass of wealth was collected.

We can call these two assumptions the commercialization model of capitalist development, and the classical theory of primitive accumulation. What is missing in these accounts of capitalist development is any conception of capitalism as a historically specific social form, a system with historically unprecedented conditions, certain very specific relations of production or social property relations, which generate very specific and unique “laws of motion.” There is no acknowledgment that capitalism is a system of social relations in which profit-maximization and a constant need to revolutionize the forces of production are basic and inescapable conditions of survival, as they have never been in any other social form.

Instead, capitalism is conceived as a more or less natural outcome of age-old and virtually universal human practices, the activities of exchange, which have taken place not only in towns since time immemorial but also in agricultural societies.  In some versions of this commercialization model, these practices are even treated as the expression of a natural human inclination, in Adam Smith’s famous phrase, to “truck, barter and exchange.”

In other words, in these accounts capitalism doesn’t really have a beginning, and its development doesn’t really involve a transition from one mode of production to a very different once. They tend to take capitalism for granted, to assume its latent existence from the dawn of history, and to “explain” its development, at best, by describing how obstacles to its natural progression were removed in some places as distinct from others.

Of course, in these narratives it is the West that was most successful in removing such obstacles.  The main impediments have been “parasitic” political and legal forms, like feudalism or certain kinds of monarchy, which were cast off by the West. There have also been certain external barriers, like the closing of trade routes by “barbarian” invasions of one kind or another, so that capitalism really took off when the trade routes were reopened.

Other impediments often cited in the conventional accounts are “irrational” superstitions and certain kinds of religious or cultural beliefs and practices.  So another common corollary of this view is that economic development in the West was associated with the progress of “reason,” which means anything from Enlightenment philosophy to scientific and technological advances and the “rational” (i.e., capitalist) organization of production.  It tends to follow from these accounts that the agents of progress were merchants or “bourgeois,” the bearers of reason and freedom, who only needed to be liberated from feudal obstruction so that they could move history forward along its natural and preordained path.

How, then, do anti-Eurocentric histories differ from these classic explanations of the origin of capitalism?  The critiques generally take one or both of two forms.

First, they deny the “superiority” of Europe and emphasize the importance, in fact the dominance, of non-European economies and trading networks throughout most of human history, as well as the level of technological development achieved by some of the main actors (for example, Andre Gunder Frank’s argument about the Asian-dominated world economy, which, he argues, lasted until 1750-1800 [See note 1]); and/or second, they emphasize the importance of European imperialism in the development of capitalism.

Often this second thesis has to do with the role of British imperialism, particularly the profits of sugar plantations and the slave trade, in the development of industrial capitalism, though 1492 is also a major milestone in the earlier rise of capitalism, as it is for J.M. Blaut, who attributes European economic development in large part to the riches plundered from the Americas.[See note 2]

These two theses may be combined in the argument that the dominant non-European trading powers could and probably would have produced capitalism (or maybe even did, though further development was thwarted), if only they hadn’t been ripped off by Western imperialism.

Now clearly, no serious historian today would deny the importance of trade and technology in Asia and other parts of the non-European world, or, for that matter, the relatively modest level of development attained by Europeans before the rise of capitalism.  Nor would any such historian, especially on the left, deny the importance of imperialism in European history and the tremendous damage it has done. The question, though, is what this has to do with capitalism, and on that score, the anti-Eurocentric arguments tend to fall into precisely those Eurocentric (and bourgeois) traps they are meant to avoid.

The remarkable thing about anti-Eurocentric critiques is that they start from the same premises as do the standard Eurocentric explanations, the same commercialization model and the same conception of primitive accumulation. Traders or merchants anywhere and everywhere are seen as potential, if not actual, capitalists, and the more active, wide-ranging, and wealthy they are, the further they are along the road of capitalist development.  In that sense, many parts of Asia, Africa, and the Americas were well on their way to capitalism before European imperialism, in one way or another, blocked their path.

None of these critics seems to deny that at some point, Europe did diverge from other parts of the world, but this divergence is associated with “bourgeois revolution” and/or with the advent of industrial capitalism, once enough wealth had been accumulated by means of trade and imperial expropriation.  Since trade was widespread in other parts of the world, imperialism was the really essential factor in distinguishing Europe from the rest, because it gave European powers the critical mass of wealth that finally differentiated them from other commercial powers.

So, for instance, J.M. Blaut talks about “protocapitalism” in Asia, Africa, and Europe and argues that the break which distinguished Europe from the rest occurred only after wealth acquired by looting the Americas made possible two types of revolution in Europe, first the “bourgeois” and then the “industrial.” “I use the word `protocapitalism’,” he says, “not to introduce a technical term but to avoid the problem of defining another term, `capitalism.'”[See note 3]

This evasion is disarmingly candid, but also revealing.  Since Blaut does not conceive of capitalism as a specific social form, he can have no clear conception of non- or precapitalist modes of production with different operating principles, and no conception of a transition from one to the other.  Commercial practices shade into “protocapitalism,” which grows into “modern” capitalism.

“Protocapitalism,” argues Blaut, finally matured in “modern” capitalism because of wealth accumulated from the colonies.  Here, Europe had a distinct “locational” advantage because the Americas were relatively accessible to European empires.  It was this crucial geographic advantage, Blaut believes, that gave Europe privileged access to the wealth required to jump-start their bourgeois and industrial revolutions.

The “bourgeois revolutions,” which, according to Blaut, first truly distinguished Europe from the rest of the world, finally gave political power to the classes that had been enriched especially by colonial wealth, and allowed them to get on with the business of capitalist development unhindered by non-capitalist forces.  Once they took power, they were able to mobilize the state to facilitate accumulation and create the infrastructure for industrial development.  From then on, the Industrial Revolution, though it did not happen overnight, was inevitable.

In this version, the echoes of the old Eurocentric and bourgeois narrative are truly uncanny: Not only is European development basically the rise to power of the bourgeoisie, but advanced and wealthy non-European civilizations seem to be cases of arrested development because, even if through no fault of their own, they never did throw off their shackles by means of bourgeois revolution.  And here too, just as in classical political economy and its notion of “primitive accumulation,” the leap forward to “modern” capitalism occurred because the bourgeoisie had managed, in one way or another, to accumulate sufficient wealth.

Blaut tries to dissociate himself from the notion of “primitive accumulation” but seems to miss the point completely.[See note 4]  Accumulation from the American colonies, he argues, was not some “primitive” form of accumulation but, from the start, “capital accumulation: of profit.”  But this proposition simply confirms his affinity to the classic conception, in which “primitive accumulation” is indeed the accumulation of “capital.”

“Capital,” in that conception, is indistinguishable from any other kind of wealth or profit, and capitalism is basically more of the same, just as it is for Blaut.  “Primitive accumulation” is “primitive” only in the sense that it represents the accumulation of the mass of wealth required before “commercial society” can reach maturity.  In that sense, it’s very much like Blaut’s own conception of early “capital accumulation,” which, after 1492 and the looting of the Americas, reached the critical mass that made “mature” capitalism (or, in the terms of classical political economy, “commercial society”) possible.  Like classical political economy, Blaut’s argument evades the issue of the transition to capitalism by presupposing its existence in earlier forms.

As we’ll see in a moment, a decisive break from the classic model came with Marx’s critique of political economy and its notion of “primitive accumulation,” his definition of capital not simply as wealth or profit but as a social relation, and his emphasis on the transformation of social property relations as the real “primitive accumulation.” Yet critics of Eurocentric history have more or less returned to the old notion.

Even at the point where they diverge most emphatically from the classic Eurocentric histories, in their emphasis on imperialism, they simply invert an old Eurocentric principle.  In the old accounts, Europe surpassed all other civilizations by removing obstacles to the natural development of “commercial society”; in the anti-Eurocentric inversion, the failure of non-Europeans to complete the process of development, despite the fact that they had already come so far, was caused by obstacles created by Western imperialism.

So here again there seems to be no conception of capitalism as a specific social form, with a distinctive social structure, distinctive social relations of production, which compel economic agents to behave in specific ways and generate specific laws of motion.  And here again there is no real transition.  In much the same way that the old Eurocentric arguments took capitalism for granted, this one too avoids explaining the origin of this specific social form—or to be more precise, denies its specificity and hence evades the question of its origin—by assuming its prior existence (“protocapitalism,” not to mention even earlier forms of trade and mercantile activity).

There is no explanation of how a new social form came into being.  Instead, the history of capitalism is a story in which age-old social practices, with no historical beginning, have grown and matured—unless their growth and maturation have been thwarted by internal or external obstacles.

There are of course variations on the old themes, most of all the attack on imperialism.  There are also other refinements like the idea of “bourgeois revolution”—though even this idea, no matter how much it is dressed up in Marxist trappings, is not fundamentally different from Eurocentric-bourgeois accounts which treat the bourgeoisie as agents of progress and credit them with throwing off the feudal shackles that impeded it. But whatever variations are introduced into the story, basically capitalism is just a lot more of what already existed in protocapitalism and long before: more money, more urbanization, more trade, and more wealth.

Challenging Eurocentrism

This kind of argument seems to me a regression, which forfeits much of the progress historians have made in challenging the Eurocentric model.  The real breakthroughs in opposing that model have come from historians—mainly Marxists, but also an economic historian like Karl Polanyi—who have undermined the naturalization of capitalism, the view that capitalism is basically a natural extension of certain universal human practices, which would itself have become universal if only all the world’s peoples were as rational and free as Europeans.

By insisting on the historical specificity of capitalism, they have dealt a fatal blow to the most Eurocentric principle of all: that the European path of development culminating in industrial capitalism is the natural order of things and that non-European civilizations that did not take that path, or faltered somewhere along the way, failed because they were somehow fatally flawed.

The challenge begins with Marx’s critique of classical political economy and its notion of “primitive accumulation.”  In some of his own historical sketches (for instance, in the Manifesto) Marx never completely dissociated himself from the old model (which I call the “bourgeois paradigm”).  There, the origin of capitalism was not so much explained as presupposed, as a new social form waiting to be released by the rising bourgeoisie when it finally threw off its feudal shackles.

For Marx’s truly distinctive “Marxist” approach, we have to look to his critique of political economy.  Although that approach was obviously much more developed in his revolutionary analysis of contemporary capitalism, in his dissection of “the so-called primitive accumulation” in volume I of Capital, he applied his critique to the historical question of the system’s origin.

Here Marx did decisively break with the old paradigm and laid a foundation for important elaborations by later Marxist historians.  He insisted that wealth by itself wasn’t “capital,” that capital was a social relation, that the mere accumulation of wealth was not the decisive factor in the origin of capitalism, and that a transformation of social property relations—the expropriation of direct producers, specifically in England—was the real “primitive accumulation.”

The point of Marx’s critique of “the so-called primitive accumulation” (and people too often miss the significance of the phrase “so-called”) is that no amount of accumulation, whether from outright theft, from imperialism, from commercial profit, or even from the exploitation of labor for commercial profit, by itself constitutes capital, nor will it produce capitalism.

The “primitive accumulation” of classical political economy is “so-called” because capital, as Marx defines it, is a social relation and not just any kind of wealth or profit, and accumulation as such is not what brings about capitalism.  Of course some accumulated wealth is necessary, but the specific precondition of capitalism is a transformation of social property relations that generates capitalist “laws of motion”: the imperatives of competition and profit-maximization, a compulsion to reinvest surpluses, and a systematic and relentless need to improve labor-productivity and develop the forces of production.

The critical transformation of social property relations, in Marx’s account, took place in the English countryside.  In the new agrarian relations, landlords increasingly derived rents from the commercial profits of capitalist tenants, while many small producers were dispossessed and became wage laborers.

Marx regards this rural transformation as the real “primitive accumulation” not because it created a critical mass of wealth but because these social property relations generated new economic imperatives, especially the compulsions of competition, a systematic need to develop the productive forces, leading to new laws of motion such as the world had never seen before.

At the heart of this argument was Marx’s insistence on the historical specificity of capitalism.  This meant that capitalism had a historical beginning and therefore a conceivable end. Capitalism was not the product of some inevitable natural process, nor was it the end of history.  It had emerged in very specific historical conditions.  If it was spreading throughout the world, this wasn’t because of any “diffusion” of inherently superior Western ideas and practices but because of capitalism’s own specific imperatives, its ruthless drive for self-expansion.

Marx’s insights were elaborated by later Marxist historians, especially in the famous “Transition Debate” which began in 1950 in Science and Society.[See note 5]  Here, the main issue was whether the transition from feudalism to capitalism was brought about by external factors—in particular, the growth of trade (as in the “commercialization model”)—or by internal factors, a development in social property relations.

In that debate, historians such as Maurice Dobb and R.H. Hilton challenged the commercialization model.  At least, they showed how the dissolution of Western feudalism and the transition to capitalism was not brought about by the expansion of trade, by urbanization, or by the increasing monetization of the economy.  Feudalism—a system constituted by a relation between peasants in possession of the means of subsistence and lords whose self-reproduction depended on “extra-economic,” coercive surplus extraction—was, they argued, compatible with a considerable degree of urbanization, while trade was an essential feature of the system.

Even the spread of money rents, instead of rent in kind or labor services, did not fundamentally change the logic of feudalism.  Instead, the critical factor in bringing about the transition was the social property relations and class struggle between lords and peasants.

This was an important challenge to the commercialization model of capitalist development, but it still shared significant assumptions with that old model.  Although these Marxist historians had moved the center of gravity from the city to the country, and from the expansion of trade to relations and struggles between exploiting and exploited classes, they were still assuming too much of what needed to be explained.

They too tended to attribute the emergence of capitalism to the removal of obstacles—even though this time, the breakthrough was not the liberation of the bourgeoisie (“protocapitalists”) from feudal chains but class struggle by peasants.  Freed of their feudal impediments, they could, according to this explanation, start taking advantage of commercial opportunities and bring about the transition to capitalism simply by growing from petty commodity producers into full-fledged capitalists.

Robert Brenner built on the foundation created by these Marxist historians and especially their emphasis on the class relations between lords and peasants.[See note 6]  But he clearly felt that his predecessors were still conceding too much to the old model.  So, instead of assuming the prior existence of capitalism, either as “protocapitalism” or as petty commodity production trying to break out of feudal fetters to become a mature capitalism, he set out to explain the emergence of a new and historically unprecedented social form.

In other words, Brenner set out to explain a real transition from one mode of production to another.  He laid out a detailed explanation of how social property relations were transformed so that they set in motion a new historical dynamic, the imperatives of competition, profit-maximization and a tendency to relentless and systematic development of the productive forces.

His explanation had to do with the emergence of what he calls “market dependence,” a condition in which economic units depend on the market for everything they need, for the most basic requirements of subsistence and self-reproduction.  This contrasted, for instance, with those peasants who, because they remained in possession of their means of subsistence, were shielded from competition and free of the market’s compulsions, even if they were involved in market exchange.

Brenner’s original argument concentrated on England, where certain very specific social property relations made both landlords and tenants dependent on the market and created an economy subject to market imperatives.  But he has since elaborated an argument seeking to show that in parts of the Netherlands, there was a different route to market dependence.[See note 7]

For Brenner, the divergence of European development, or, more precisely of capitalist development in part of Europe, lies here, in the emergence of a system of market dependent social property relations, not in “bourgeois revolutions” or in the later development of industrial capitalism.  He clearly conceives of capitalism as a system of market imperatives—that is, as a system in which the market functions not just as an opportunity to exchange some goods for others, or even to make profit and acquire wealth, but as a necessity, a compulsion, which imposes on production and social reproduction certain inescapable requirements of competition, profit-maximization, and increasing labor-productivity.

Like other Marxist historians such as E.P. Thompson, Brenner understands industrialization not as a transhistorical process of technological change, nor the simple product of accumulated “capital” (i.e.; just wealth), nor the cause of Europe’s distinctive economic development, but the end product of those specific economic imperatives which resulted from very distinctive social property relations.  The so-called Industrial Revolution was the outcome of an economy already structured by capitalist social property relations, which shaped the development of both agriculture and industry.

Brenner’s argument even challenged the old conception of “bourgeois revolution.”  He criticized it as just another way of avoiding the question of transition by assuming the prior existence of capitalism, in the person of the “protocapitalist” bourgeoisie, just waiting to break free of feudal chains.  His argument is significant also because it broke with the old Eurocentric habit of treating the development of capitalism as a general European process, as if it were somehow the product of European racial or cultural superiority.

Brenner not only insisted on the specificity of capitalism as distinct from other commercial societies outside of early modern Europe but also identified the social conditions that distinguished one European society from another, giving rise to capitalism in England but not, say, in France.  The issue, of course, was not the superiority of England over France, or of Western Europe over Eastern, or of Europe over everywhere else. It was simply a question of the very specific historical conditions in which a very specific social form emerged, the historically specific social property relations of capitalism.

There is, in my view, much more to be done. We need, for instance, to explain the dynamics of highly commercialized societies that did not become capitalist, at least not until they came under pressure from already existing capitalist economies elsewhere.  Various kinds of non-capitalist commerce existed both in Europe and elsewhere, long before capitalism and well into the capitalist era. Some commercial powers achieved great wealth and cultural richness, and trade in these centers was sometimes associated with substantial production, both at home and in colonies.

Yet in the absence of certain transformations in social property relations, which made competition, profit-maximization and relentless development of the productive forces necessary conditions of survival and systemic reproduction, even the wealthiest and most advanced of these commercial societies did not set off the self-sustaining process of economic development which, in part of Europe, gave rise to capitalism and eventually its industrial form.

What makes these cases even more interesting is that in some of them, the level of commercial, cultural, even technological development substantially exceeded that in England at the point where it took off on its distinctive path of capitalist development.  China, for instance, was for a long time far ahead of Europe in general, not least in technology (and its achievements were, by the way, never more lavishly acknowledged than in the Eurocentric Enlightenment).

Even conventional economic histories will acknowledge the importance of the Indian economy and especially its textile industry.  Nor would it be news to even the most reactionary Western historian that Europeans in the medieval period borrowed massively from the Arabs, whose scientific accomplishments in particular were far superior.  This catalogue of non-European superiority could go on and on, citing accomplishments of various kinds in Africa and the Americas.  And even within Europe itself, late medieval and Renaissance Florence, on any measure of commercial sophistication, domestic manufacture or cultural achievements, was well ahead of the backwater that England was before its capitalist transformation.

But the point is precisely that superiority in cultural, technological, or even commercial development had nothing to do with the specific conditions that generated capitalism in one place and not in another.  Anti-Eurocentric historians are right to emphasize the backwardness of Europe, and especially of England.  But that argues against, not for, the basic assumptions of the commercialization model and the classical theory of primitive accumulation, in both the old Eurocentric model and its anti-Eurocentric inversion.

The emergence of capitalism is hard to explain precisely because it was not connected to any prior “superiority” or more advanced development.

Capitalism and Imperialism

But if we still have a long way to go, the basic elements of a serious challenge to Eurocentric history are already there, and it seems to me a backward step to give up the gains we have made. It is particularly counter-productive to deny the specificity of capitalism by diluting its meaning to cover any conceivable pattern of historical development in which there is commercialization and the “primitive accumulation” of wealth.  And again, it seems more than a little unhelpful to lump together under the rubric of “Eurocentrism” everything from rabid racism to Marxist histories that insist on the historical specificity of capitalism.

The irony is that the standard anti-Eurocentric arguments tend to hinder our understanding not only of capitalism but also of imperialism.  This isn’t to deny that they have provided us with a wealth of important and disturbing information about the evils of Western imperialism, but we tend to lose sight of how and why it operated as it did.

The first and most obvious point is that all the major powers in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Europe were deeply engaged in colonial ventures, conquest, plunder, oppression and slavery.  Yet these ventures were associated with very different patterns of economic development, only one of which was capitalist.

In fact, the one unambiguous case of capitalist development, England, was notoriously slow in embarking on overseas colonization, or even dominating trade routes; and the development of its distinctive social property relations—the process of “primitive accumulation” not in the sense of classical political economy but in the Marxist sense, the transformation of social property relations in the countryside—was already well underway by the time it became a major contender in the colonial race.

At the same time, Spain, the dominant early colonial power and the leader in “primitive accumulation” of the classical kind, which amassed huge wealth especially from South American silver and gold mines, and was well endowed with “capital” in the simple sense of wealth, did not develop in a capitalist direction.  Instead, Spain expended its massive colonial wealth in essentially feudal pursuits, especially war and the construction of its Habsburg empire in Europe.  Having overextended and overtaxed its European empire, it went into a deep and long-term decline in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

So we’re still left with the question of why colonialism was associated with capitalism in one case and not another.  Even those who are less interested in the origin of capitalism than in the “Industrial Revolution,” at a time when England really had become a preeminent imperial power, still have to explain why the association of capitalism with imperialism produced industrial capitalism in this case and not in others.

It seems to me very hard to avoid the conclusion that much, if not everything, depended on the social property relations at home in the imperial power, the particular conditions of systemic reproduction associated with those property relations and the particular economic processes set in motion by them. The wealth amassed from colonial exploitation may have contributed substantially to further development, even if it was not a necessary precondition of the origin of capitalism.  And once British capitalism, especially in its industrial form, was well established, it was able to impose capitalist imperatives on other economies with different social property relations.

But no amount of colonial wealth would have had these effects without the imperatives generated by England’s domestic property relations.  If wealth from the colonies and the slave trade contributed to Britain’s industrial revolution, it was because the British economy had already for a long time been structured by capitalist social property relations.  By contrast, the truly enormous wealth accumulated by Spain and Portugal had no such effect because they were unambiguously non-capitalist economies.

Ireland: The New Colonial Model

There is, though, more to the story.  If England was a late bloomer in overseas ventures, it did get an earlier start closer to home. Domination of Ireland was England’s first real imperial enterprise.  But, although there had been a long history of efforts to extend English rule and English law to “the wild Irish,” as well as other parts of the British Isles, a concerted campaign for outright colonization, by means of conquest and large-scale “plantation,” really took off in the late sixteenth century—at just the time when English domestic property relations were undergoing their own significant developments.

A new pattern of colonization emerged which was less the cause than the result of England’s transition to capitalism.  This pattern also became the model for English colonization of the New World.

The point here is that, in Ireland and then elsewhere, the English developed a form of colonialism different from the imperialism of its European rivals.  Compared to other European empires, the British was notable, first of all, for the prominence of white settler colonies, as distinct from other forms of imperial domination, such as trading empires or conquests for the purpose of appropriating precious commodities like silver; and there are some clear connections between this kind of colonization, in its specifically British form, and the development of capitalism at home.

The settlement of Ireland differed even from other European colonial settlements and reflected the logic of early agrarian capitalism.  The Spanish had their encomienda system, subjecting local populations to a form of slavery.  The French in New France had their quasi-feudal seigneuries. The Dutch had their trading posts and settlements to facilitate commerce and provision merchant ships.  Slave plantations for the production of highly marketable commodities like sugar became a common feature of both the old and the new imperialisms.  But the pattern of England’s early colonial ventures had certain distinctive features which reflected its distinctive domestic developments (not least, a surplus population dispossessed by agrarian capitalism).

The English in Ireland spelled out quite explicitly their intention of displacing traditional indigenous property forms and social relations with the property relations of south-eastern England, the birthplace of agrarian capitalism.  They did this partly by imposing the new system on Irish tenants, but more particularly, by dispossessing the Irish altogether and replacing them with English and Scottish settlers, who were supposed to transplant a productive and profitable commercial agriculture.

It was in Ireland, too, that the English began to develop an ideological apparatus for justifying the dispossession of indigenous peoples on the grounds that they were unproductive, that is, not producing efficiently and for commercial profit—in terms exactly like those used to justify enclosure at home in England.  Dispossession for the purpose of “improvement,” the promotion of productivity for profit, continued to be the object in the New World—except that clearing the land of its indigenous inhabitants increasingly took an even more violent, final, and genocidal form.

There is obviously a great deal more to be said about the various aspects of British imperialism, both in the New World and then in Africa and in Asia where it took different forms.  There is much to be said about how even older forms, including slavery, were shaped by the logic of capitalism.

But the main point here is that, however much we emphasize the role of imperialism in European economic development, we are still left with essential questions about why the various kinds of European imperialism were what they were and had the particular and varied consequences that they did. While we can understand the early Spanish empire, both its purposes and its results, without invoking capitalism, it is simply impossible to comprehend the British Empire without situating it in the context of capitalist development.


One of the most important lessons we can learn from Marx and the best Marxist historians is that we don’t have to take capitalism for granted.  Capitalism is a historically specific social form, with its own distinct systemic logic and its own specific contradictions, which came into being by means of intelligible processes of change, in specific times and places, for specific historical reasons.  This is vitally important not only because we need to understand those specificities in order to combat the system, but also because there is something profoundly liberating about understanding capitalism in this way and because without it socialism is literally inconceivable.

Understanding capitalism as a specific historical form is liberating in other ways too. Just as freeing the world of capitalism is an indispensable condition of freeing it from imperialism, insisting on the historical specificity of the capitalist system has always seemed to me essential to liberating the world from Western “cultural arrogance.”

It has never occurred to me that this emphasis on the historical specificity of capitalism, its distinctive nature and its specific historical origin, is a brand of Eurocentrism.  On the contrary, I know of no more effective way to puncture the Western sense of superiority than to challenge the triumphalist conviction that the Western path of historical development is the natural and inevitable way of things.

It seems completely self-defeating to try and challenge this triumphalism by appropriating its most basic assumptions about the nature of capitalism.  It is surely even more perverse to validate the superiority of capitalism by treating it as the universal standard of merit and progress.

It is as if, by claiming capitalism for itself, Europe is appropriating all that is good and progressive, as if a different historical path represents failure, and as if we can affirm the value of other societies only by claiming that they really did develop capitalism (or at least protocapitalism), or that they could and would have done so had history been allowed to take its natural course.

  1. Andre Gunder Frank, Reorient: Global Economy in the Asian Age (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998).
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  2. J.M. Blaut, The Colonizer’s Model of the World: Geographical Diffusionism and Eurocentric History (New York and London: Guilford Press, 1993; and Eight Eurocentric Historians (Guilford, 2000).
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  3. Colonizer’s Model, 165.
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  4. Colonizer’s Model, 187-88 and 210 n.20.
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  5. The original debate, with some additions, was republished in R.H. Hilton, ed. The Transition from Feudalism to Capitalism (London: Verso, 1976).
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  6. See especially his chapters in eds. T.H. Aston and C.H.E. Philpin, The Brenner Debate (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985).  On “bourgeois revolution,” see his “Bourgeois Revolution and Transition to Capitalism,” in A.L. Beier et al., eds., The First Modern Society (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989).
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  7. Brenner’s argument on the Netherlands will appear in a forthcoming issue of the Journal of Agrarian Change.  I have some doubts about that argument, which I spell out in an article also appearing in JAC some time after his comes out.
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Ellen Meiksins Wood is an advisory editor of ATC.  A new, revised and substantially expanded edition of Wood’s latest book, The Origin of Capitalism, will be published by Verso this year.

ATC 92, May-June 2001