On Capitalist Origins

Against the Current, No. 101, November/December 2002

Christopher McAuley


I want to thank you for having taken the time to respond [in ATC 97, March-April 2002—ed.] to my comments on your article “Eurocentric Anti-Eurocentrism” that appeared in the May/June 2001 issue of Against the Current.

I found your remarks helpful and they have forced me to further clarify and refine my own thoughts on the origins of capitalism. I hope that the benefits of your comments will be evident in what follows. Before proceeding, however, I would like to apologize for having misrepresented, in any way, your model of the origin of capitalism in my response.

Ironically, my primary reason for having referred to your book The Origin of Capitalism rather than relying solely on your article was to present your theory in greater detail. Again, if I failed to present it accurately, I sincerely apologize for I know how much I resent having my ideas distorted.

Based on the substance of a number of your points, it seems that the most useful place to begin these remarks is with my definition of capitalism. However, before I offer one, I think it necessary to say something about the logic that informs my definition.

As someone who wants to account for the extensive use of unfree labor in western Europe’s colonial world in general and England’s in particular between the sixteenth and twentieth centuries, my definition of capitalism cannot limit itself to the social forces operating on a select group of western European actors in select western Europe sites.

Moreover, it seems to me that this repeated recourse to unfree labor in the western European colonial world raises a more fundamental dilemma that should bear on one’s definition of capitalism: Either those overseas enterprises were non-capitalist, or the labor regimes imposed on indigenous, recruited and/or imported populations were, in fact, capitalist.

If one accepts, as I do, the latter proposition, then one must also recognize at least two manifestations of capitalist social relations that would become fully racialized by the end of the seventeenth century in the Atlantic world: the “’triad’ of landlords living on rents, capitalist tenant farmers on profits and farm labourers on wages (beginning) primarily in the corn and mixed corn and livestock downlands of the south and east (of England) before 1700;” and the triad of planters living on profits, overseers on wages, and unfree workers on allotments in the plantation societies of the Americas.(1)

Of course, this last division of labor has a history whose modern roots extend as far back as the eleventh century in the Levant. Because of what I and others believe to be the “plantation complex’s” role in the development of a proto-capitalist, if not a capitalist economy, plus its obvious relevance to the incorporation of Amerindian and African labor into that economy, I feel that a few words about it are in order here.

Among the many proto-capitalist/capitalist aspects of the plantation complex that scholars of it have noted, I believe that three are most important for the purposes of our discussion: its departure from medieval agricultural organization and production; its use of both wage and unfree labor; and its industrial appearance. Allow me to briefly say a few words about each point.

Breaking Feudal Traditions

More than one scholar of European colonialism in the late medieval/early modern eras has underscored the fact that the feudal elites who led victorious crusading armies in the eastern Mediterranean broke with tradition in the organization of agricultural production in their newly acquired lands.

Whereas mainland European landholders were not able to “organize agricultural production as [they] saw fit” because their tenants retained customary control of the how, if not always the how much to produce, their kith and kin who had wrested land from Muslim forces in the Levant were “above the local customary law” and could “plan production.”(2)

The Italian merchants to whom these commanders granted ceded lands as payment for the provisioning and transportation of crusading armies to the Levant were even more disposed than mainland noblemen to manage production because “these bourgeois tenants had originally been businessmen, accustomed to rational calculation and planning to use their property for the sake of profit,” and thus “were not inclined to let the new estates run themselves.”(3)

Moreover, because the yields of these new properties were also the payment of outstanding debts incurred by the crusaders, these merchants-cum-landlords had an interest not only in planning agricultural production, but also in marketing those yields. Thus sugar cane and the other crops cultivated in the Levant, Cyprus, Crete and in Sicily were not subsistence crops, but cash crops.

The ability of these colonial landlords to manage production was further insured by the purchase of unfree workers who could be used in any productive capacity without compromising their customary “rights,” for they had none. Such was how the plantation complex supplemented the wealth of the Lusignan and Cornaro families among others.

Second, the plantation complex was able to combine two labor regimes that we are wont to consider incompatible: free and unfree work. On the plantation itself it was typical to find a wage earning overseer supervising the gang or task work of enslaved laborers.

However, the symbiosis of unfree and wage labor did not end there; crops cultivated by enslaved workers fed processing industries far removed from the sites of cultivation and the laborers in those industries were paid in wages. Sugar refining, tobacco treating, and cotton manufacturing were the best known and most lucrative of those industries.

Development economists would later term the economic ties between raw material supply and the genesis of their subsequent processing industries, the forward linkages of the crop or mineralin question.

To these we must also add the transportation — particularly shipping — and other related industries or services (from cordage to insurance in the case of shipping) which the un- or semi-processed raw materials supplemented. Even though it is hard to determine if these industries or services should be deemed forward or backward linkages, those are enterprises that process the “goods that are used in producing the staple.”(4)

In any event, the point is that the plantation complex employed both free and unfree workers for over three-quarters of a millennium without any major conflict of interest between the two labor systems. There was a lot of truth, then, in Marx’s famous words in Capital that the “veiled slavery of the wage-workers in Europe needed, for its pedestal, slavery pure and simple in the new world.”(5)

Sugar as Industrial Prototype

Finally, in the case of sugarcane cultivation above all, the plantation complex had to be what Sidney Mintz has called a “synthesis of field and factory.”(6)

Much of this combination derived from the nature of sugar cane itself; in order to extract the maximum amount of sucrose from the cane stalk, it must be crushed soon after having been cut, its juice then boiled, and its by-products removed from the various grades of crystalline sugar that are formed when it is cooled.

As a result, harvesting and milling were necessarily highly coordinated, not to mention physically demanding activities, often requiring of the work force better than sixteen-hour workdays at harvest.

In fact, harvesting and milling were frequently year-round activities on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century sugar plantations because it was common for planters to plan the seeding of their cane fields such that some portion of them was always reaching maturity.

It is these and other aspects of the sugar plantation complex that moved Mintz to write that <169>one can see that the sugar-cane plantation, very early in its career as a form of productive organization, was an industrial enterprise.

“When it is remembered,” he continues, “that the plantation form was perfected (mostly with enslaved labor) by the Crusaders after 1000, was transferred to (and in part, perhaps reinvented on) the Atlantic islands by 1450, and was thereupon re-established in the New World colonies, the significance of their industrialism — at a time when industry itself was largely based on home labor, except for shipbuilding and some textiles in Europe itself — becomes more persuasive.”(7)

While obviously never becoming an industrial factory as it was fashioned in nineteenth century England, the sugar plantation complex was still an early union of farming and fairly elaborate crop processing.

Defining Capitalism

To return, now, to the central issue — my definition of capitalism — in light of the proto- or capitalist history of the sugar plantation and of other plantation complexes, I subscribe to a fairly simple definition: managed commodity production for profit by workers who do not own the means of production.

Whatever this definition lacks in sophistication it gains in its inclusion of the work experiences and economic contributions of enslaved and other unfree workers. This definition also renders ideologically consistent the use of unfree labor in western Europe’s overseas colonies between the sixteenth and twentieth centuries.

With that said, I can now turn to two other objections to my article that you raised: one, my “disgraceful” suggestion that those theorists of capitalism’s origins who do not locate colonized populations at the outset of that history are guilty of intellectual racism; and two, my equally illogical suggestion that if one denies colonized people a role in the birth of capitalism, then one must also deny them a role in its demise.

Allow me to respond to these charges. First, I must begin by restating what I wrote in the article: that Marxists and non-Marxists of color, as well as Marxists of European descent who have undertaken serious studies of non-European societies, are more inclined to underscore the role of those societies in the origins of capitalism than are their counterparts who are less familiar with those societies; and that the marginalization of those societies by these last named scholars may strike some people of color, both lay and academic, as indications of intellectual racism because they may reasonably wonder if the marginalization of those societies with which they identify personally is a modern day expression of the attitudes that at an earlier period slighted the importance of the enslavement and/or colonization of their foreparents.

This speculation or suspicion is nothing more or less than a reflection of the intellectual legacy of the capitalist exploitation of specific populations in specific ways based on notions of race, and its perpetrators’ and collaborators’ refusal to acknowledge the socioeconomic contributions of those populations based again on race no less than on class.

I am sorry that you felt that I had resorted to name calling or “playing the race card” as they say in raising this issue. My intention was/is simply to lay out the logic that informs a perspective of the origins of capitalism that differs from yours.

Forces of Transformation

My response to your second objection — my apparent insistence that in order for people of color to play a part in ending capitalism they must have played a role in its beginning — requires a preliminary statement.

As those familiar with at least some of his work already know, Marx devoted the bulk of his intellectual life not only to the description and analysis of the capitalist mode of production, but also to why and how it would come to an end.

Among the themes central to his scholarship were the historical formation, nineteenth century social experiences, and future political role of specifically the English and generally the European working classes. In the political mobilization and ideological maturity of these last, Marx saw the social force that could transform capitalism into socialism.

Thus, Marx’s project was as much descriptive and analytical as it was prescriptive. The union or dialectic of these two visions naturally raises, I believe, the issue of the degree to which Marx’s (or any scholar’s, for that matter) desires and expectations informed what he took to be the singular expression of capitalist social relations — that between owners of the means of production and sellers of labor power.

While I am not prepared to offer any guesses as to the precise degree to which that influence operated, my point is that the population whose evolution Marx thought emblematic of capitalist society was also the class that he posited would terminate it.

I imagine, then, that a similar conflation of description, analysis, and prescription on the part of some Marxist theorists of capitalism has worked to the scholarly disadvantage of unfree and/or colonized commodity-producing workers.

In these cases, the assumption is frequently that workers of this sort, largely unlettered and frequently dispersed over wide distances (and until the Mexican, Russian, and particularly the Chinese Revolutions, peasants were seen in the same light), neither were nor could have been political actors equal to their wage earning counterparts.

Many scholars (including Marx himself until his later years) have felt that these and other obstacles rendered the political mobilization of unfree and/or colonized workers virtually impossible in most instances, sporadic in only a handful of others, and lacking, then, the capacity to transform capitalist society into socialist society.

These scholars, I speculate, have subsequently minimized or flatly omitted from capitalism’s genesis and development, the economic contributions and social roles of these workers. In short, I maintain that there is an unconscious or conscious link between the class or classes whom a Marxist scholar believes is or are capable of revolutionary action, and her or his theory of the origins of capitalism.

This is what I meant by the statement that people of color will play a role in the demise of capitalism, just as they participated in its birth, but on which I did not have the space to elaborate.

I will end there. I hope that I have responded to most of your objections or questions and that my point of view on the origins of capitalism is now clearer.


  1. Ellen Meiksins Wood & Neal Wood, A Trumpet of Sedition: Political Theory and the Rise of Capitalism, 1509-1688 (New York: New Yok University Press, 1997), 16.
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  2. Philip D. Curtin, The Rise and Fall of the Plantation Complex: Essays in Atlantic History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 6-7.
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  3. Ibid, 7.
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  4. John J. McCusker & Russell R. Menard, The Economy of British North America, 1607-1789 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1985), 25.
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  5. Karl Marx, International Publisher’s 1967 edition of Capital, 711.
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  6. Sidney Mintz, >Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History (New York: Penguin, 1985), 47.
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  7. Ibid, 50-51.
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ATC 101, November-December 2002