Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 31, 2005

Exchange with Neil Davidson

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 9:21 am
Dear Louis,
Sebastian Budgen alerted me to your comments on the first part of my article on bourgeois revolutions. I’m glad you agree with some of it at least, and I hope that you will send in a response to HM once the second part appears ­ to me this is one of the central issues in Marxist theory and one over which it is actually worth having a fairly wide-ranging debate. I am very conscious of the need to account for the non-occurrence of similar revolutions outwith Europe and its overseas extensions, and the way in which the conquest of the ‘third world’ contributed to capitalist development, but in the Deutscher lecture I was really only trying to defend the scientific value of the concept against the Brennerites ­ Wood in particular. I agree that ‘extra-economic’ compulsion was typical outside Europe ­ but them, it was also quite common in Europe as well! I’m afraid I don’t find Jim Blaut’s arguments very convincing, but I will deal with the whole issue in forthcoming work on uneven and combined development, and in a book which I plan to write on the bourgeois revolutions which expands on the HM articles. (If you haven’t already seen it, you might be interested in a recent book by Jack Goody called Capitalism and Modernity, which deals with some of these issues.)
Very briefly (and this is not particularly original), I think that the key to the origins of capitalism in Europe lie in the very backwardness of the West compared to ­ in particular – the more developed Ottoman and Chinese empires. For this we need to be aware of the ‘catch-up and overtake’ aspects of uneven development, but it also means that we have to take seriously what Marx writes in the 1859 ‘Preface’ (not a very fashionable text I admit!). I mean the bit about the state superstructure needing to be overthrown to allow new modes of production to develop freely beyond a certain point. In some cases, as in China, the state proved too strong, too resilient for this to happen – as indeed it also did in France for many centuries. (There is a strong case, which Samir Amin among others has made, for arguing that absolutism in the West was developing in a similar way to the tributary state in the East.) On this basis it seems to me possible to argue that capitalism was developing in China at an even earlier stage than in Western Europe (I think this is empirically demonstrable and that it is only Brenner’s incredibly narrow definition of capitalism that lets him deny this), but that its failure to break through was the result of a conscious strategy by the tributary ruling class to prevent potential rivals expanding to the point at which they might become a threat. As a result, social upheavals in China tended to be peasant revolts which changed ruling class personnel, but not the their socio-economic function.
This need to be developed, of course, but you get the general idea. I look forward to any contribution you decide write for HM.
Neil Davidson
Thanks for the feedback, Neil. I doubt, however, that I would submit anything to HM since I have sworn off submitting anything to print journals after a series of run-ins with James O’Connor, Immanuel Wallerstein, John Bellamy Foster who handle such business as if they were on my dissertation board or something. Anything I have to say on these matters is said on the Internet. Someone might coin a term one of these days along the lines of C.P. Snow’s “two cultures” to describe the yawning chasm between the print and electronic world.
With respect to the issues, I do have Jack Goody’s book on my shelf and have read major sections of it, including the passage that tries to refute my old friend, the late Jim Blaut. I am generally underwhelmed by his arguments, although I appreciate his obvious effort to counteract what he calls “ethnocentrism”. For one thing, he spends several pages trying to show that Subsaharan Africa was truly backward in comparison to Europe, but I don’t recall Blaut ever trying to make such comparisons. He was far more interested in evaluating European society against India and China. Goody makes a big deal about the fact that Ghana did not have a written language (neither did the Incas), but for Jim the real question was always focused on food production and other basic necessities of life. He did recognize that Latin America was relatively backward to Europe, but that was a function more of the relatively recent arrival of the indigenous population to the continent rather than any inherent cultural deficiencies.
But the thing that really sticks out for me is Goody’s challenge about why Spain or Portugal did not become major capitalist powers even though they were the direct benefactors of Incan and Aztec gold and silver. This is something that Jim and I heard a thousand times on Internet mailing lists, so it is really nothing new. I don’t have the reference handy, but there’s an article I referred to once that pointed out how England was the ultimate beneficiary of this wealth as it functioned as the banker for all the new plunder. It was also the commercial middle-man for expanding Spanish colonization. Finally, we have to divest ourselves of what I call “Iberiantalism”, which is a tendency to look at Spain (and Portugal to a lesser extent) in the same terms that provoked Edward Said to take on the myths of “Orientalism”. Here’s what I found:
By all standard measurements of capitalist profit, the Spaniards enjoyed a roaring success. Profits from mining were invested in capitalist development throughout the New World. If we turn to D.A. Brading’s “Miners and Merchants in Bourbon Mexico: 1763-1810” (Cambridge Press, 1971), the proof of rapid capitalist growth leaps off the page.
“In 1804 the corregidor of Querétaro counted 18 factories (obrajes) and 327 workshops (trapiches) in his town, the former group operating 280 looms and the latter up to 1,000. The larger firms wove woollen ponchos, blankets, serges, and sarapes while the smaller produced coarse cottons. In addition, there were another 35 workshops making hats and ten treating leather and suede goods. Estimates as to how many people were engaged in this industry varied. In 1803 the factory owners admitted that they kept over 2,000 men shut up within the walls of their prison-like establishments. In the same year the corregidor stated that some 9,000 persons of both sexes were occupied in the spinning, weaving and finishing of cloth. The industry’s consumption of wool averaged about a million pounds and the value of its product was later reckoned to reach over million pesos a year. These figures, moreover, excluded the 3,000 workers employed by the tobacco monopoly.”(6)
By what standard can these operations be called ‘feudal’ without making a mockery of the English language? Furthermore, an unprejudiced view of the mother country would reveal an entirely different reality than the one that Wood would foist on her reader.
The Spanish government of the 1780s was fully swept up by and committed to the new capitalist doctrines sweeping Europe. King Carlos III commissioned the Sociedad Económica de Madrid to come up with a program for agricultural reform and economist Gasper Melchor de Jovellanos took charge of the project. His main principle, based on the physiocratic school, was that laws should not attempt to protect agriculture but only to remove obstacles to its development. While drawing from the physiocrats, he also echoed Adam Smith. He not only read the “Wealth of Nations” in French, but translated it into Spanish. “How admirable when he analyses!”, he declared with respect to Smith. (7) There was resistance to Jovellanos’s program from the landed gentry, but no more or less so than in any other country in Europe at the time, including Great Britain. In any case, the notion of a ‘feudal’ Spain is utterly false. The Crown only sought to limit the power of the landowners, who had long ago dropped any connections to the sort of feudal paternalism described above. They were involved with commercial agriculture, not production of use values. Even Robert Brenner admits that capitalist agriculture was widespread in Catalonia more than two centuries earlier.

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