Critical insights

Ellen Meiksins Wood The origin of capitalism Monthly Review Press, 1999, pp138, $13

This small book is a restatement and in some ways an extension of ideas that Ellen Meiksins Wood has previously expounded in her more sizeable work, The pristine culture of capitalism.

It contains insights into the origin of the capitalist system that logically should extend our understanding both of history, particularly the significance of classical 'bourgeois' revolutions such as in France; and also in more general terms of the real relationship between capitalism and democracy, a question that is not simply a matter of ancient history, but has implications for Marxists today. In particular, Meiksins Wood attacks the notion that there is any necessary connection between the rise of capitalism as a system and the rise of political democracy.

The core of comrade Wood's thesis is that the origin of capitalism as a world system was in England. Her analysis is derived from the views of the historian Robert Brenner, who in earlier debates argued against the traditional paradigmatic view that the seedbed of capitalism was in the medieval cities. Brenner, in a series of debates with more 'conventional' Marxists beginning in the 1970s, argued that such economic phenomena as the existence of merchant capital in isolated, city-based markets, and the enrichment of such merchants by transporting goods between scattered and disconnected local markets, had existed for many years and were in no way incompatible with or destructive of a society based on older forms of non-economic exploitation: for instance the extraction of feudal dues.

Rather, Brenner argued that such commercial forms of capital were essentially complementary to a general mode of production based on the extraction of a surplus product based on political coercion, as opposed to an essentially economic process, as under capitalism. Because commercial capital derives its profit from the sphere of distribution, in terms of taking advantage of varying price levels amongst different isolated markets internationally, it merely acts to fill a 'gap' in the pre-capitalist economy largely in terms of the distribution of luxuries produced by traditional non-capitalist artisans, and therefore does not touch the sphere of production itself.

In the Wood/Brenner thesis, the origin of capitalism as a system was in the English countryside, and its agency of creation was not a class of industrial capitalists (the bourgeoisie, according to the terminology of classical Marxism), but rather a peculiar evolution of relations between formerly feudal landowners and some of their subjects, the richer sections of the peasantry. The origins of this go further back into English history, particularly in the conquest of England by the Normans in 1066, who transplanted onto the indigenous Anglo-Saxon feudal economic relations a new imported aristocracy, beholden to a highly centralised and, as time went on, increasingly autocratic monarchical regime. The effect was that the main expression of pre-capitalist power in England was in this autocracy, and the local power of feudal lords, barons and the like vis-"¦-vis the crown was considerably less than with other comparable regimes in Europe. In particular, the political sovereignty of individual lords in their own fiefdoms, the very authority that they needed to appropriate surplus product for themselves, was effectively eroded. At the same time an ever more autocratic monarchy was demanding more and more tribute in the form of taxation from its vassal lords.

The result of this centralised monarchy in England, qualitatively different from any other of comparable development, was to create a modification of the normal (ie, feudal) relationship between landlord and tenant in the countryside, with the emergence of economic pressures on landlords to sell land tenancies to the highest bidder among the richer sections of the peasantry. This peculiar development led to a gradual development of market relations in the countryside. These were not yet capitalist relations, in that one thing that did not dominate was the wages system as the mode of exploitation of labour. But what it did lead to was the birth of an agrarian market, and a kind of proto-capitalism in which a market for land tenancies led to the enrichment of those tenants who were able by their own efforts to improve the productivity of land.

This of course also led to the enrichment of landed aristocrats, who were able to take advantage of this economic change and manage their leasing of land in such a way as to maximise their return from these 'economic rents'. There was a massive incentive for the enclosure and clearance of the land of the poorer peasantry, the annulment of 'common' rights and mass evictions, in order to make land suitable for 'economic' land tenure and therefore 'economic' rents.

Thus part of the result of the emergence of market relations in agriculture was the creation of a marginalised and lumpenised class of landless vagabonds - raw material for the next phase of capitalist development: the emergence of the working class. At the same time, the development of a primitive form of market relations in agriculture gave a major impetus to the growth of productivity in this sphere, at once providing work for a new sub-class of agricultural proletarians and the means by which a massively expanded city population could actually be fed and maintained.

The final consequence of this, of course, is that the growing market relations in the countryside could not but interact with the more commercial environment in the cities, and, together with the creation by the 'enclosures' (mass evictions) of a landless population with no access to the means of its own reproduction other than selling its capacity to work, provided a perfect basis for the emergence of enrichment based on a surplus extracted from this helpless city population. Thus, from an accidental conjuncture of historical circumstances in one country, an economic space was opened up for the creation of a form of economy fundamentally more productive than any that had existed before, and one with a built-in tendency to revolutionise the forces of production - capitalism.

Brenner's thesis, expanded and popularised by Meiksins Wood, goes a considerable way towards explaining why the English Revolution/civil war of the 1640s does not fit into the 'paradigm' of the bourgeois revolution expounded by Marxists since Marx's day. The classic model put forward by Marx and later Marxists, of the 'bourgeois revolution' involving a relatively straightforward confrontation between, on the one hand, the forces of the rising revolutionary capitalist class and, on the other, the old pre-capitalist ruling classes, conspicuously does not fit the English Revolution (indeed it is doubtful whether it really fits the French Revolution either).

The development of capitalist relations of production in England was largely the result of an economic process that saw the emergence of a capitalist landed aristocracy, whose interests were in no way contrary to the growth of capitalist relations of production in society as a whole. The relation of the English capitalist class to political democracy, and the whole 'bourgeois' question of formal equality before the law and the other paraphernalia of 'pure' capitalist democracy, was thus considerably more complex than many Marxists have assumed.

Thus while there is an objective contradiction between modes of economy based on the economic extraction of a surplus (ie, capitalism) and earlier ones, where the ruling class derived its surplus from one or another form of inherited 'divine right' backed up by naked coercion, to say that this contradiction has some automatic 'democratic' content would be false. In theoretical terms, this casts great doubt on the complacent views of many on the left today that questions of political democracy are something that socialists should not get involved with, as they 'belong' to the bourgeoisie. It is doubtful whether they ever did.

Wood also extends this logic to other aspects of the bourgeois revolution: for example, to the emergence of other major capitalist powers after England/Britain, particularly in Europe, but also elsewhere. One important point to be made about this is that capitalism in England, which emerged when no other capitalist power yet existed, must be viewed in terms of its birth in a different way from those capitalisms that developed subsequently. The very existence of earlier capitalist powers exerted political and economic pressure on later arrivals. In particular, aspects of British culture that have often been interpreted by Marxists and others as signs of endemic backwardness of British capitalism and the allegedly 'incomplete' nature of the bourgeois revolution in Britain, could, when viewed in this way, be paradoxically interpreted in the opposite sense, as signs of the more advanced and entrenched nature of that same British capitalism.

Conversely, the 'radical' features pertaining to the French revolution, from the terror against 'aristocrats' to the radical rhetoric of liberté, égalité, fraternité, to the code Napoleon, could similarly be viewed in another way as a sign of the fundamentally weak nature of French capitalism at that point, of its insecurity and underdevelopment compared to British capitalism. It can indeed be argued that the greater radicalism and secular revolutionism employed by the Jacobins in France, as compared to the less politically far-reaching consequences of the Cromwellian protectorate, reflected the weakness of the French bourgeois forces.

Indeed, though the formal ideology was different, there was a commonality (above all in the Napoleonic period, when the new French centralised bourgeois state was consolidated) with the capitalist 'revolutions from above' carried out by Bismarck in Germany, the forces of the Meiji restoration in Japan, etc. In Britain, conversely, the same social tasks were largely carried out at the base of society, in a more molecular way.

In short, the resort to greater coercion from above in France reflected the fact that market relations were far weaker and less established, and therefore required a surgical intervention from above, whereas in England market relations had a long history and were already in a commanding position in the economy. The necessary 'adjustment' of the superstructure of state power to the new economic base therefore happened far more 'naturally' and less bloodily, and also more successfully, since in France the bourgeois forces were not simply changing a form of government, but attempting to use coercion to overturn much more entrenched pre-capitalist ruling classes, without more than the vaguest idea of what they were fighting for. One piece of evidence for this 'incompleteness' in France that survives to this day is the existence of a sizeable peasantry, a pre-capitalist carry-over that has considerable social power, whereas its English equivalent disappeared many decades ago.

Another important insight of Meiksins Wood's work is the understanding that, in the evolution of capitalism out of the womb of the pre-capitalist society from which it emerged, market relations historically preceded the emergence of the proletariat as a class. Indeed, it was the emergence of new forms of market-based economic and social relationships between landlords and tenants, and indeed a resulting competition (prototypical of the classic competitive form of capitalism) among the tenants themselves, that provided the economic means by which the mass of the peasantry were deprived of their ties and common rights to the land, and thereby of any access to the means of production other than by selling their labour power to those in a position to buy it.

It follows from this analysis that the abstraction used by Marx in Capital (Vol I), of simple commodity production without the employment of wage labour, must have had a partial reality in England at least, though not in a pure form (because of the existence of 'economic' leases, and hence a form of capitalist rent). Early English agrarian capitalism, as expounded by Wood, existed from the early Tudor period and reached its peak in the earlier 18th century, prior to the emergence of mass manufacture and then the industrial revolution. Certainly this proves that, whereas market relations, once they come into existence, create their own potential gravediggers in the working class, nevertheless their emergence in a primitive form historically preceded the working class as a social force.

Wood's analysis also throws considerable light on some of the peculiarities of British history that Marxists have often found difficult to explain according to the bourgeois paradigm. For instance the considerable power of the aristocracy in bourgeois politics and 'affairs of state', which was still conspicuous in the early 20th century and was widespread in the 19th. These aristocrats nevertheless managed capitalism without too many major problems - for the simple reason that, despite appearances, they were not, as many believed, some archaic hangover from a previous social system, but rather a formation that had managed, despite its distinctive nomenclature and status, to become an integral part of the capitalist system as it had historically evolved in Britain.

The British monarchy, likewise, is not a relic of 'feudalism': indeed it was a moribund institution deliberately revived in the 19th century to serve the interests of capital, including of course the thoroughly capitalist British aristocracy. Thus, contrary to those on the left who believe that for revolutionaries to make a priority of attacking the anti-democratic institution of the monarchy would be in some way to dabble in issues that 'really' belong to bourgeois politics, in actuality by taking aim at the monarchy one is taking aim at one of the key props of bourgeois reaction in British politics.

Meiksins Wood's little book is therefore an essential introduction to some provocative, critical and important Marxist insights, and should be studied by thoughtful elements on the left as part of the process of re-arming ourselves politically for the future, and critically assessing the errors and failings of previous generations of Marxists internationally. Without such critical thought, deferring to the authority and historical reputation of noone, there can be no advance.

Ian Donovan