A Response to Critics on Capitalist Origins

Against the Current, No. 97, March/April 2002

Ellen Meiksins Wood

LET ME START at the end. Christopher McAuley concludes his response to my piece on “Eurocentric Anti-Eurocentrism” with the accusation that “the Brenner-Wood thesis does not lend itself to . . . an inclusive vision of the future,” in which “non-European peoples have been and will continue to be instrumental in capitalism’s demise.”

He bases this contention on the fact that Robert Brenner and I don’t, in his view, attribute a big enough role to imperialism and non-European peoples in the genesis of capitalism. Surely it’s obvious that this is a non-sequitur.

Why on earth couldn’t non-European peoples play an essential role in the demise of capitalism even if they had played little part, or even no part at all, in its creation?? It would be crazy to believe that only Europeans (and, for that matter, only English peasants?) can struggle against capitalism, and just as crazy to believe that, unless non-Europeans were at the core of capitalism in its earliest days, they can’t be essential to anti-capitalist struggles today.

But this logical fault lies at the heart of McAuley’s whole argument, and something like it is also involved, I think, in many other well-meaning anti-Eurocentric critiques.

This doesn’t mean that the question of capitalism’s origin is irrelevant to contemporary politics. On the contrary, it’s vastly important. But its relevance has to do with understanding the nature of capitalism itself, what is distinctive about this social form and why it operates the way it does.

Understanding the specific nature of capitalism is certainly essential to identifying the most effective subjects and strategies in any challenge to capitalism today; and, by illuminating how capitalism works, a study of capitalism’s genesis and early development can offer some important guidance to socialist politics today.

The Nature of the Beast

The main problem with McAuley’s argument is that it’s not determined by an effort to explicate the nature of capitalism. What we get instead is something like this: There are two different Marxist models of capitalism’s origins. One emphasizes the expansion of trade, the other an internal transformation in social property relations.

McAuley aligns himself with the first, against me and Brenner, on the grounds that it gives more attention to colonialism (and maybe also on the grounds that people who subscribe to the other model tend to be of European descent).

So, what are we to deduce from this about what capitalism is? We could, I suppose, just conclude that, for McAuley, capitalism is lots of trade. I don’t think that’s all he means, but there’s no way of telling from his argument. At best, his notion of capitalism is circular: Capitalism emerged out of commercial growth in the late medieval and early modern eras; what emerged out of commercial growth in the late medieval and early modern eras was capitalism.

McAuley’s failure to grapple with the nature of capitalism naturally affects his understanding of my argument. The so-called “Brenner-Wood” thesis, he tells us, is this: “It was only when property rights became formally established such that property owners could dispose of their land as they saw fit that we can locate and date the origin of capitalism.” (26)

This doesn’t resemble anything I say; and the quotation from me that follows, about the efforts of landlords to establish exclusive property rights by extinguishing customary rights, and so on, isn’t about the location and dating of capitalism’s origin but about what followed from capitalist imperatives that were already at work.

The quotation he cites is introduced, in my book The Origin of Capitalism, by the observations that “From the standpoint of improving landlords and capitalist farmers, land had to be liberated from any such obstruction to their productive and profitable use of property. Between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries, there was growing pressure to extinguish customary rights that interfered with capitalist accumulation.”

The transformation in the definition of property was the consequence of a long historical process driven by certain historically unique economic imperatives, which required producers and appropriators to enhance productivity in response to competitive pressures.

If we want to “locate and date the origin of capitalism,” we have to identify those imperatives and how they came into being. But of course, it’s not a matter of “locating and dating,” if that’s supposed to mean that we’re looking for a particular date on which capitalism was founded, or a particular place detached from the larger world around it.

I don’t even remotely recognize my argument, or Brenner’s, in McAuley’s repetition of James Blaut’s accusation that people like us have a “mystical” notion of capitalism, instead of an “empirical theory of the transition,” and that our conception posits a single historical moment in which capitalism appeared, a moment which, claims McAuley, is the only thing that matters to us.

Transition from What to What?

The difference between us and McAuley (to say nothing of James Blaut) is not that he has an empirical conception of capitalism, while we have a “mystical” one, but rather that, apparently unlike him, we do have a conception of capitalism.

Without such a conception, it would be impossible to talk about “transition” at all. Transition from what to what?

This conception of capitalism is not a mystical notion detached from empirical reality but a conception of a specific social system with certain basic principles of motion and “rules for reproduction” (to use Brenner’s term), which operate in all the varied forms that capitalism has taken throughout its (relatively short) history.

These are the principles that allow us to describe all these cases, despite their many differences, as capitalist and not something else. The definition of capitalism I’m operating with is, to summarize it very briefly, as follows:

Capitalism is a system in which producing and appropriating classes are dependent on the market for the conditions of their self-reproduction.
It is a system in which class exploitation is mediated by the market, taking place by “economic” means, rather than by the “extra-economic” means that prevailed in precapitalist societies, where appropriating classes used direct coercive force to extract surplus labor from producers, above all peasants, who had non-market access to the means of production and were therefore sheltered from market imperatives.

Because of this new market dependence, both appropriators and producers are subject to the market’s imperatives of competition, accumulation, and increasing productivity; and the whole system, in which competitive production is a basic condition of existence, is driven by these imperatives.

The system grew to maturity when the market dependence of producers reached the point where labor power itself was completely commodified. But this commodification of labor power was the culmination, not the beginning, of a long historical process driven by capitalist imperatives.

When we talk about the “origin” of capitalism, we have in mind the conditions that set those imperatives in motion in the first place; and we talk about the “origin” not because we want to isolate a single historical moment when the system was born, but because we want to emphasize that these economic imperatives were different from anything that had existed before, setting off distinctive “laws of motion” and a distinctive historical dynamic.

We want to emphasize that the origin of capitalism really was a transition, indeed a transformation, from one social form, with its own operating principles and rules for reproduction, to another, different one, with different principles and different rules.

The New Market Dependence

It is, needless to say, impossible to identify a specific date, a decade or even a century, when the historical process began. But it’s not so hard to say that, at some point, the logic of capitalism is clearly visible where it wasn’t before. And it’s not so hard to identify the specific conditions in which that logic operated, in contrast to those in which it didn’t.

It’s not impossible, for instance, to see that in early modern England a system of landlord-tenant relations had developed that made both parties market dependent, in a historically unprecedented way. This differed fundamentally from the situation of precapitalist peasants who remained in possession of the means of subsistence and were therefore sheltered from competition and the compulsions of the market.

The new market dependence produced imperatives that would eventually issue in a mature capitalism.

It hardly needs saying that all this — not just the maturation of capitalism but the emergence of those conditions of market dependence that first drove the development of capitalism — involved a long historical process.

But it’s one thing to say that the origin of capitalism wasn’t something that happened in a single historical moment. It’s quite another to say that there is no recognizably fundamental difference between capitalism and any social form that preceded it, which seems to me pretty much what McAuley’s argument obliges us to believe. Unless we try to identify the historical specificity of the capitalist system, there’s no point talking about capitalism at all, let alone its origin.

Nor is it enough to say that capitalism developed differently in different places. Unless we’re willing to identify what all these cases have in common that entitles us to call them capitalist, we can’t even begin to discuss the system’s origin, development, or end.

To say that capitalism developed first in one place and not others is not, of course, to say that the relevant place had no relations with other parts of the world, and especially relations of trade. On the contrary, I’ve repeatedly said that English capitalism developed within a system of international trade and wouldn’t have developed without it.

My argument is simply that while trade was a necessary condition of English capitalism, no amount of trade, however extensive and profitable, would have produced capitalism without the transformation of social property relations I’m talking about. Nor did capitalism emerge in places that were far more commercially advanced than England.

Once that social transformation was underway, it also affected the nature of trade itself; and capitalism would eventually transform the world’s whole commercial system.

Empirical Disagreements

So much for the conceptual problem in McAuley’s response. Now, just a few words about his empirical objections. These have to do with the nature of English agriculture, the extent of medieval trade, and the difference between English and Spanish imperialism.

On the first point, McAuley contends that I (and Brenner) mistakenly place in the 16th or 17th century agricultural developments that occurred in England only in the 18th.

As I say in The Origin of Capitalism, the critical point for me has less to do with technical innovations than with changes in the use of land, driven by the need for competitive production and accumulation. That need is already visible in the 16th century, in England’s system of competitive rents, which was accompanied by distinctive requirements of increasing productivity and profitability as conditions of self-reproduction.

At least from then on, both landlords and tenants were increasingly compelled to seek ways to use land more cost-effectively, including transformations in property that would not only enhance concentration of land but also free it from customary rights and communal regulation.

It would be hard, for example, to explain the prominence of enclosure in the theory and practice of 16th century England, as well as other changes in property forms, without this transformation.

McAuley’s second complaint is that I (or the ”Brenner-Wood thesis”) underestimate the scale of medieval and early modern trade. I have no idea on what basis he makes this claim (apart from the fact that Blaut applies it to Brenner).

My whole argument (like Brenner’s) is predicated on the importance and extent of trade in the precapitalist world. In fact, the “thesis” at the heart of my argument is that, despite the degree of commercialization that had occurred in Europe and elsewhere (even more elsewhere), commerce cannot be identified with capitalism. That the scale of trade is not the issue in dispute is the very first premise of the “Brenner-Wood” thesis.

Finally, McAuley objects to my contrast between England and Spain and my observation that Spain’s enormous colonial wealth didn’t produce capitalism, while England, whose overseas expansion started relatively late, did produce capitalism.

McAuley’s argument seems to boil down to this: If England had had access to the wealth of the Americas before Spain, it would have acted as Spain did — for instance, using those riches “to purchase luxury and even food imports to the detriment of domestic production.” (29)

My first reaction to this was Maybe, but so what?” On second thought, it occurred to me that the logical conclusion of his argument is that English capitalism developed because England didn’t, at first, have access to vast colonial wealth, so it had to try something different. If that’s indeed what McAuley wants to argue, he’s welcome to it — but I kind of doubt he really wants to go there, since it undermines his whole argument against me.

Anyway, I have absolutely no idea what McAuley means when he casts doubt on “both the contention that the origins of capitalism antedate the era of England’s overseas expansion and that the use of unfree labor does not rank in the repertoire of capitalist labor forms.” (29)

Let me take the second point first: I’ve never said it. What I’ve said (as Peter Drucker in his response correctly points out) is that forms of exploitation like slavery were shaped by the new conditions of capitalism.

I’ve argued on other occasions that there’s no such thing as a “slave mode of production” and that the nature and use of slavery have varied substantially according to the larger system of social property relations in which it operates. Does anyone really want to deny that American slavery was different from, say, ancient Greek or Roman, for reasons having to do with its insertion into a larger capitalist economy?

As for the first point, I just don’t get it. McAuley seems to think that my argument is fatally challenged by the fact that “English capitalists chose to colonize (like Spanish non-capitalists) so soon after having happened upon the `self-sustaining process of economic development.’”

If by this he means to suggest that English capitalists would have had no need to colonize if they had already found another means of acquiring wealth, the answer seems obvious. First of all, the transformation of social property relations that was taking place did indeed set in motion the process of `self-sustaining development,’ but it was a very long way from the maturation of capitalist accumulation.

But more importantly, does McAuley really want to say that capitalism doesn’t create its own very specific and very powerful drive for imperialist expansion?

That’s my point: that all major European powers engaged in colonial adventures; that colonial wealth, no matter how great, did not by itself create capitalism; that England, a relatively late starter in colonial expansion, nevertheless produced the first capitalist system; and that the specific forms of imperialism which it developed were driven and shaped by its developing capitalist social property relations.

“Intellectual Racism”

McAuley’s response is motivated by the best political intentions. I have no problem with politically motivated history. On the contrary, I openly profess my own political intentions in what I write about history. But it’s a big mistake to let politics take over at the expense of evidence and logic.

That doesn’t help our political cause at all. And I have to say that McAuley’s failure of logic leads him into dangerous territory with his accusation that Brenner and I are “intellectually racist.” This is disgraceful not only because it misrepresents our arguments but also because we ought to be able to debate the evidence without name-calling.

The other day, I read an article in the paper about carvings found in Africa, which seem to suggest that abstract thinking emerged on that continent, before anywhere else and much earlier than previously thought. What would McAuley think of someone who refused even to contemplate the evidence, simply because it violated his racist prejudices? How is it different when McAuley calls us “intellectually racist” because he doesn’t like our reading of the evidence, for (illogical) political reasons?

I and others who agree with me may very well be wrong, and there is certainly a debate to be had about the evidence. But McAuley’s approach is no way to conduct a debate, least of all among comrades supposedly committed to the same goals. And this is quite apart from the fact that, as I said at the beginning, there’s no way you can logically get from what I say about the origin of capitalism to the conclusion that non-Europeans have no role to play in ending it.

Why Did Capitalism “Win”?

Peter Drucker has a very different approach. He basically agrees with what I say about the origin of capitalism but takes me to task for what I fail to say.

I should, he suggests, have pursued my observation that the fruits of imperialism may have had more to do with the maturation of capitalism into its industrial form than with the origin of capitalism itself; and he suggests that this may be a more important question, because it might demonstrate that capitalism couldn’t have won out — as it did only when it achieved its mature industrial form — without “contingent” conditions, such as colonial wealth.

This, Drucker argues, helps us politically, because it challenges the view that capitalism is “so efficient and dynamic that no other economic system can stand up to it.” (33)

My first reply is simply to say that my article, like my book The Origin of Capitalism, was indeed about the origin, and not about later developments. At the same time, I’m not sure I agree that the question about industrialization is more important.

I say this not because I disagree that capitalism “won” only after it had matured in this way, or that the “triumphant success and spread of capitalism depended on other factors besides capitalism’s laws of motion.” (31) I say it because I don’t think we can even begin to understand the process of capitalist industrialization, or the role of imperialism in it, without first understanding what capitalism is and what drove its relentless self-expansion, what made the development of industrial capitalism not only possible but, in a sense, necessary.

I think, though, that there may be a misunderstanding between Drucker and me about what the question is.

He writes “The proof of capitalism’s efficiency was only furnished during the nineteenth century, after the system was long established. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, however, when capitalist relations triumphed in English agriculture and then provided the basis for English industrialization, their superiority was far from clear.” (31)

No doubt this is true — though it should be emphasized that current scholarship in economic history is increasingly identifying the agricultural sector as the most dynamic in the English economy and the one that distinguished it most radically from Britain’s rivals.

But the issue isn’t when capitalism began to look “superior.” After all, its spread didn’t take place simply by some kind of imitation and cultural diffusion, once its “superiority” became clear to observers elsewhere (though it may be worth saying that the successes of English agriculture were quite visible to, say, 18th century French observers and were often cited as a model, long before Britain’s industrial triumphs).

The point is rather that the transformation of social property relations
which I call the “origin” of capitalism not only “provided the basis” of industrialization, as Drucker himself points out, but also created the imperatives that made accumulation, constant self-expansion, and competitive production basic necessities of existence and social reproduction. This happened nowhere else, not even in the most advanced economies like China.

I want to stress, again and again, that what I’m talking about is not just possibilities, not just what capitalism was able to do and why, but necessities, imperatives, compulsions, which are specific to capitalism. Whatever other factors were involved in the later development of capitalism, its triumph can’t be understood at all if we don’t understand those imperatives, which do indeed have a unique capacity to impose their economic logic on others.

It’s these economic imperatives — the imperatives of competitive production and accumulation — that make it possible for capitalism to extend its reach far beyond direct political domination. This is what makes capitalist expansion so different from older forms of colonial hegemony, which depended on direct political and military coercion and couldn’t extend further than the reach of `extra-economic’ power.

Of course, capitalist hegemony needs extra-economic coercion, but the specific hegemony of capitalist economic forces is, so far, unique. (I’ve been writing about the role of political/military coercion in this new kind of hegemony, but I can’t go into it here.)(1)

The “So-Called Primitive Accumulation”

The question of what role imperial wealth played in providing the conditions for the success of capitalist industrialization is still much debated. Since my object was to talk about the origin of capitalism, I didn’t get into that debate.

Instead I took as given the importance of imperialism in capitalism’s later development and tried to show how the prior transformation of social property relations — which set in motion a wholly new dynamic, the imperatives of competition and accumulation from then on shaped economic development and the nature of imperialism itself.

In this, I was following Marx, contrary to what Drucker seems to think. Drucker describes my account of Marx on “primitive accumulation” as “idiosyncratic” and loftily advises me that I “would do better not to appeal to it [the authority of Marx] when it is not on her side.” (33) While I agree with Drucker that Marx’s authority doesn’t settle anything, I suggest, with all due respect, that he read Marx again.

First, here’s what I said in my piece: “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.’”

Here’s what Marx says in Capital I, Chapter 26:

“In themselves money and commodities are no more capital than are the means of production and of subsistence. They want transforming into capital. But this transformation itself can only take place under certain circumstances . . . The capitalist system pre-supposes the complete separation of the laborers from all property in the means by which they can realize their labor . . . The so-called primitive accumulation, therefore, is nothing else than the historical process of divorcing the producer from the means of production. It appears as primitive, because it forms the pre-historic stage of capital and of the mode of production corresponding with it.”

Then (having said, by the way, that the “capitalistic era” began in the 16th century) he says “The expropriation of the agricultural producer, of the peasant, from the soil, is the basis of the whole process.” And only in England, he says, did it have “the classic form.”

In reading Marx on “the so-called primitive accumulation,” we have to be careful to distinguish his own views from his ironic account of the classical political economists whose theory he is criticizing. Remember the “so-called”?

It’s not (as I made clear in my piece) that Marx denies the need for some accumulation of wealth to make capitalist development possible. The point is rather, again, that no amount of wealth will be transformed into capital without the transformation of social property relations which he regards as the essential presupposition of capital. I don’t know how it could be any clearer.

Ambiguities of “Bourgeois Revolution”

As for the political transition that helped this economic transformation come to fruition, Drucker wonders why I reject the notion of “bourgeois revolution.” I agree that the English revolution(s) of the seventeenth century consolidated the position of the propertied classes who were the bearers of capitalism. I do, though, have several reasons for thinking that calling it (or them) a “bourgeois revolution” obscures more than it explains.

I tend to reject the concept of “bourgeois revolution” precisely because it doesn’t do the job that Drucker wants it to, namely explain the political dynamic of the transition to capitalism.

To put it briefly, serious Marxist historians have generally discarded the idea that capitalism came about by means of a direct class confrontation between a falling feudal landed aristocracy and a rising capitalist, essentially commercial, bourgeoisie.

Since this class confrontation between backward-looking landed classes and forward-looking urban, largely commercial, classes was what was supposed to have made revolutions “bourgeois,” once that idea had been set aside, the concept, for this reason alone, could be regarded as pretty much dead. But people have tried to hang on to it as an article of Marxist faith (despite the fact that the concept is not Marxist in origin and in many ways contradicts the Marxist conception of class struggle).(2)

The concept could be preserved only by diluting it beyond all meaning. First, the “bourgeoisie,” which by definition refers to towndwellers, was made to include any capitalist, or potentially capitalist, forces, whether they were commercial or landed classes — which, of course, begs the question.

But even that wasn’t enough to rescue the concept of bourgeois revolution. By now, it has come to be applied to any political, legal, and cultural changes that, one way or another, removed obstructions to the development of capitalism, irrespective of the class forces involved. This seems to me a weak and question-begging reason for retaining the adjective “bourgeois,” even if we accept that some kind of important political changes have occurred wherever capitalism developed.

Apart from that, it’s not at all clear what the “revolution” part of the formula means either. Is revolution an essential cause of capitalism, bringing it about by freeing capitalist forces held back by feudal chains? (If so, incidentally, how did they become capitalist in the first place? Do we have to assume the prior existence of capitalism in order to explain a revolution that supposedly brought capitalism into being?) Or is it a result of capitalism, in which already triumphant capitalist forces clear away the debris of precapitalist forms?

In the English case, for instance, the landed class that was leading the development of capitalism was already the ruling class before the revolution; and Parliament, the executive committee of that propertied class, simply consolidated its position in relation to the Crown.

Any real class struggle took place within the Parliamentary side and was not between a rising capitalist class and a falling feudal one, but between a ruling capitalist class and popular forces. That class struggle advanced capitalism not because the subordinate class won but because it lost, and not because the truly revolutionary forces were able to shape the state but because the counter-revolutionary forces within the winning coalition did so.

What does this have in common with the Revolution in France, supposedly the archetypal “bourgeois revolution”? Here, there was indeed something more like a political struggle between an aristocracy and a bourgeoisie; and it fits the classic notion better, because the bourgeoisie won and reshaped the state to its own purposes.

But that bourgeoisie wasn’t capitalist, or even, in the main, commercial. The revolutionary bourgeoisie consisted largely of professionals, office-holders, and intellectuals; and there’s lots of room for debate about how, or even whether, the Revolution advanced capitalism.(3)

You only have to read Marx’s brilliant essays on 19th century France, such as The Eighteenth Brumaire or The Civil War in France, to get a sense of how the material interests of the triumphant bourgeoisie had less to do with capitalism than with precapitalist-style careers in the state, and how this state, no less than precapitalist absolutism, lived on the back of the peasantry.

To make a long story short(er), I don’t think we socialists have anything to lose by retiring the concept of “bourgeois revolution.”It doesn’t explain much, if anything, about how capitalism developed, or about the connection between economic and political transitions.

Nor, as Marx himself made clear, was it meant to be a model for a proletarian, socialist revolution. So, who needs it? (I sense a whole new debate brewing here — which I’ll probably leave to others.)

This isn’t to deny, but on the contrary to affirm, that we have to be clear, as Drucker insists, about the political aspects of social and economic transformations. This is no less true about our situation today than about the origin of capitalism.

Today, for instance, I think we need to be very clear about the role of the state in “globalized” capitalism, and what that means for anti-capitalist struggles. Too many ideas about globalization, which take for granted the decline of the nation-state, are deeply misleading on that score; and the main reason, I would say, is because they don’t understand how capitalism works.

But that’s another story. All I can say here is that understanding the origin of capitalism is a good place to begin.


  1. I’ve been exploring the role of the state in today’s global capitalism, the growing disparity between capital’s global reach and its need for local, territorial states to maintain order and the conditions of accumulation, and the new forms of military intervention that the United States in particular is adopting to deal with a world order in which globalization is maintained by a system of multiple states. See especially “Where is the Power of Capital? Globalization and the State” in a forthcoming collection Anti-Capitalism: A Marxist Introduction, edited by Alfred Saad-Filho (London: Pluto Press) and “Infinite War”in Historical Materialism, February 2002.
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  2. See George Comninel, Rethinking the French Revolution: Marxism and the Revisionist Challenge (London: Verso, 1987) and Robert Brenner, “Bourgeois Revolution and Transition to Capitalism” in A.L Beier et al, eds., The First Modern Society (Cambridge, 1989). Among other things Comninel traces the history of the “bourgeois revolution” concept, shows its inconsistencies with Marxist analysis, and explores how it obscures more than it illuminates about the development of capitalism. Brenner argues that the concept simply begs the question, assuming the very thing that needs to be explained: it has to assume the prior existence of capitalism in order to explain the emergence of capitalism. The concept therefore undermines itself.
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  3. See Comninel, especially the Conclusion.
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from ATC 97 (March/April 2002)