Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

September 4, 2019

Answering some questions about Robert Brenner

Filed under: transition debate — louisproyect @ 8:26 pm

Robert Brenner

Recently a dissertation student in Brazil asked me I’d be willing to answer some questions he had about Robert Brenner. I replied that I would be happy to but would like to do so on my blog since others might be interested in my replies.

So here goes:

1) Could you delineate a little biographical trajectory of Brenner, i.e., his main influences from the 1st and 2nd Internationals, his contemporary intellectual influences, allies and “groups”, his opponents and political participation, including in newspapers and journals in general?

I am not sure about the First and Second Internationals but I have heard experts on him claim that his main theoretical influence is Analytical Marxism. It is worth pointing out that Brenner contributed an article to the 1986 collection titled “Analytical Marxism” edited by John Roemer, a key AM’er. Brenner’s article is titled “The Social Basis of Economic Development” that can be downloaded from https://www.scribd.com/document/359014165/Robert-Brenner-The-Social-Basis-of-Economic-Development. (Be careful of scribd. They ask you to take out a free trial subscription but unless you forget to cancel it, the monthly charges can mount up as I once learned.)

Unfortunately, I don’t have a copy of my friend Henry Heller’s book on the Brenner thesis but a review of it in Against the Current is worth quoting:

As Heller argues, analytic philosophy was a “politically disengaged professional discipline preoccupied with constituting a formal model of knowledge. Born in the midst of the waning of Marxism in the 1980s, Analytical Marxism purported to salvage whatever could be saved by applying the same techniques of formal logic to Marxism. Committed to positivist logic, this approach rejected a dialectical sense of totality, movement and contradiction to its own cost. Brenner’s view of the transition is fundamentally weakened by this constraining methodology.”

The Political Marxist tradition argues that feudalism did not develop the forces of production, but instead was characterized by stagnation. They therefore reject the idea that development created the possibility for rising yeoman farmers, urban craftsmen, and new merchants to establish new capitalist relations of production.

Instead, they argue that capitalism developed as the unintended consequence of the class struggle between feudal lords and peasants only in England. Peasant resistance forced the end of serfdom, but the lords still retained control of the land. In this exceptional situation, the lords transformed themselves into capitalists who rented their land out to richer peasants who in turn hired poorer peasants as new wage laborers.

I have written a series of articles about the AM school that no longer has the following it had 20 years ago when I wrote about it. I did not cover Brenner in the series but would say that one of the key “contributions” of AM is its rejection of Marxist dialectics and  consequently a strong commitment to the kind of “stagism” that was endemic to the Second International. I have written in the past that Brenner’s chief influence on his own stagism comes from the British Marxist Historians School that was made up of CP members like Eric Hobsbawm but in writing this, it seems entirely possible that Brenner got more from the AM school than from them. In a nutshell, the CPers and the AM school are averse to the insights Trotsky provided in the theory of combined and uneven development. My article on AM’er Gerald Cohen might give you some idea of how this overlaps with Brenner’s theory that posts capitalism as a system that is absolutely distinct from feudalism and that began in England in the 14th century:

In the twentieth century, a “stagist” conception of Marxism drawn from the same sources that so enchant G. A. Cohen became the common wisdom of the 2nd and 3rd International. Trotsky’s conception of Permanent Revolution was a departure from this and is influenced not only by the political ideas but even the language of Marx and Engels in this particular article. Cohen’s desire to return Marxism to some sort of “orthodoxy” is a misbegotten project. It is based first of all on a misunderstanding of Marx’s ideas on history and, worse, it is tied to a particularly odd, if not outright bugged-out, notion of what it means to be a socialist revolutionary.

As to Brenner’s affiliations, he has a group of academics strongly committed to his theories. The most prominent of them have been Charles Post, Vivek Chibber, Mike Zmolek, and the late Ellen Meiksins Wood. Brenner, who is now a professor emeritus, no longer writes articles defending his ideas. Post and Chibber, who at one time were like tag team partners defending Political Marxism, had a falling out over Chibber’s embrace of neo-Kautskyism. This was around the same time Chibber removed Brenner from the editorial position he held at Catalyst magazine, which led to a bitter fight. So, as you can gather, PM does not lend itself to fraternal theoretical bonding. They make Trotskyists look like unity-mongers by comparison.

2) What do you think is the extent of Perry Anderson’s influence over Brenner’s formation?

None really. In fact, Anderson wrote a widely quoted take-down of Brenner’s “Merchants and Revolution: Commercial Change, Political Conflict, and London’s Overseas Traders, 1550-1653” in the London Review of Books. The book itself is not really about the core Brennerite idea of capitalism beginning in the British countryside but Anderson pokes holes in it, nonetheless. The review is behind a paywall but if you’d like a copy drop me a line. Here’s the relevant passage:

One side of Brenner’s polemic was aimed at neo-Malthusian orthodoxies, stressing the primacy of demography in Early Modern economic history, the other at neo-Smithian accounts that gave priority to cities and commerce – unwisely adopted, in Brenner’s view, by too many Marxists. He went on to draw the conclusion that the idea of a ‘bourgeois revolution’, lodged in the Marxist tradition, was misplaced: no bourgeoisie was needed to overthrow a feudal aristocracy, since the latter had changed itself and got to capitalism first anyway. The break with feudalism came not from any accumulation in trade or assault on absolute monarchy, but through an agrarian catharsis. Beside the self-conversion of the English landlords, every other strand in the emergence of capitalism was marginal.

For all the power of this case, there were always difficulties with its overall context. The idea of capitalism in one country, taken literally, is only a bit more plausible than that of socialism. For Marx the different moments of the modern biography of capital were distributed in a cumulative sequence, from the Italian cities to the towns of Flanders and Holland, to the empires of Portugal or Spain and the ports of France, before being ‘systematically combined in England at the end of the 17th century’. Historically, it makes better sense to view the emergence of capitalism as a value-added process gaining in complexity as it moved along a chain of inter-related sites. In this story, the role of cities was always central. English landowners could never have started their conversion to commercial agriculture without the market for wool in Flemish towns – just as Dutch farming was by Stuart times in advance of English, not least because it was conjoined to a richer urban society. Yet, even if the ‘bourgeois’ contribution to the economic genesis of capitalism is conceded, this does not mean that a political ‘revolution’ was necessary to smooth its path. That would have been one possible reading of Brenner’s case, with its emphasis on the immanent dynamism of competitive production for the market. Where does his new work leave the issue?

3) Brenner focuses his historical materialist approach around the idea that the primary factor behind the consolidation of a mode of production results from the importance of the relations of production, in detriment of the forces of production. Do you see his choice as a direct effort to eradicate the Soviet Stalinist version of the HM approach, mainly that exposed in “on dialectical materialism and historical materialism”? Or do you believe his main “target” is another one?

As I said before, my initial take on the Brenner thesis was that it derived from the British CP’s Historical Materialism School. Keep in mind that many scholars see it as round two of the Maurice Dobb/Paul Sweezy debate of the 1950s. While Sweezy came out of the CP himself, his approach to the origins of capitalism debate came from a “world systems” framework that would eventually be the hallmark of MR writers such as the recently deceased Immanuel Wallerstein. Dobb, like Brenner, saw the origins primarily as based in the British countryside but did allow colonialism and slavery to be part of the process.

With respect to the affinity that Brenner had with the CP historians, you can read what I wrote here for a fuller explanation.

4) Do you see any trace of an Althusserian influence on Brenner’s division of the two kinds of historical materialisms, between the young Marx’s one and old Marx’s one (as in Brenner’s Marx’s first model of the transition to capitalism [1985])?

I am not up to speed on Althusser’s distinction between the two kinds of historical materialism so I will take a pass on this.

5) Do you think Brenner’s work on transition and, more recently, on the world capitalist crisis, can be seen as one that promotes “methodological nationalism”, since his definition of a mode of production as a result of social-property relations is always referenced at the national level, matching his notion of (national) development patterns?

Quite honestly, I did not see much of a connection between the two Brenner theses, both of which appeared in the NLR. The first one was the 1977 article attacking the Monthly Review authors as “neo-Smithian”. The other was the 1998 special issue devoted entirely to his article “The Economics of Global Turbulence”. This is the only thing I have ever written about Brenner’s views on capitalist crisis in the current epoch. I am not sure how much it relates to his 1998 article but you might find it useful.

6) Do you think Brenner’s focus on the unparalleled promotion of economic development by the capitalist mode of production, and his recent critique of the supply side economics in his recent works, can be seen as a sign that Brenner is closer to Keynesianism or developmentalism than to Marxism in his analysis of the capitalist mode of production (despite the thesis on the decline of the profit rate)?

I haven’t been keeping track of those articles but I don’t find anything particularly revolutionary about Brenner’s most recent reflections on the capitalist political crisis. In 2004, Brenner called for a vote for John Kerry in clear defiance of Marxist principles on class independence. Here’s the final paragraph of the article  he co-wrote with Joel Jordan:

The bottom line is this: It is understandable that many leftists are revolted by the thought of calling for a vote for the Democrats.  But we appeal to them also to consider the anguish that the tens of millions of people around the world who have taken up the struggle against U.S. imperialism over the past four years will feel should Bush win again…and the fury if Nader once more enables it to happen.

7) Brenner talks little about revolution or socialism in his most famous works. What do you think is Brenner’s conception about the process of revolution in a capitalist society and what would a socialist mode of production “look like” to him? Do you think the focus on national social-property relations and national patterns of development are compatible with something other thank the strategy of taking state power and promoting change from top to bottom?

As might be obvious from what I wrote just above, Brenner, who is only a couple of years older than me, lost his revolutionary zeal many years ago. I suspect that this has a lot to do with being based in the academy. Keep in mind that Perry Anderson, who taught at UCLA alongside him, wrote a deeply pessimistic article in NLR in 2000 titled “Renewals” that stated:

For the Left, the lesson of the past century is one taught by Marx. Its first task is to attend to the actual development of capitalism as a complex machinery of production and profit, in constant motion. Robert Brenner’s ‘Economics of Global Turbulence’, taking up an issue of NLR, sets the appropriate example.footnote6 No collective agency able    to match the power of capital is yet on the horizon. We are in a time, as genetic engineering looms, when the only revolutionary force at present capable of disturbing its equilibrium appears to be scientific progress itself—the forces of production, so unpopular with Marxists convinced of the primacy of relations of production when a socialist movement was still alive. But if the human energies for a change of system are ever released again, it will be from within the metabolism of capital itself. We cannot turn away from it. Only in the evolution of this order could lie the secrets of another one.

8) Brenner has been accused of developing a Eurocentric approach to history. What do you think of this charge?

Yes, it is accurate. How does someone spend his entire academic career on the left without ever writing a single article about developments in Latin America or Africa? For that matter, neither do any of his acolytes. Just below is a part of a critique of Brenner that was written by my dear friend and comrade Jim Blaut. Reading it led me to write all the others that are collected here.

Jim Blaut, “Robert Brenner in the Tunnel of Time”:

Robert Brenner is a Marxist, a follower of one tradition in Marxism that is as diffusionist, as Eurocentric, as most conservative positions. I cannot here offer an explanation for this curious phenomenon: a tradition within one of the most egalitarian of all socio-political doctrines yet a tradition which, nonetheless, believes in the historical superiority (or priority) of one community of humans, Europeans, over another, non-Europeans. Eurocentric Marxists are not racist, nor even prejudiced, although most of them believe that Europeans have always been the leaders in the forward march of history; that Europe is the fountainhead of civilization, the main source of innovative social change. For these scholars, the origins of capitalism are European. Capitalism’s further development consisted of an internally generated process of improvement within its classic homeland, the European world. The impact of capitalism on the rest of the world has been, on balance, progressive. Colonialism and (today) neocolonialism are not significant for capitalism, are rather a marginal process, a temporary aberration or diversion or side-show, not a vital need of the system as a whole, which evolves in response to internal laws of motion.

This point of view is basic diffusionism: autonomous development at the center, diffusion of development to the periphery. It is also tunnel history: a form of tunnel-vision which tries to explain the rise of capitalism, and the rise of Europe, by looking only at prior European facts, looking, as it were, down the European tunnel of time, ignoring the history of the world outside of Europe both as cause of change within Europe and as the site of historically efficacious change in its own right (Blaut, 1989). The Euro-Marxists — as I will call the socialists of this tradition — accept this view, and so they are diffusionists. To this extent, they agree with their mainstream colleagues about the rise of Europe, of capitalism, of modernization, of industrialization, of democracy: basically all of it is European.

Euro-Marxism went into eclipse during the period when liberation movements were decolonizing most of the world. In this period, the idea that the colonial or Third World has been, and is, unimportant in social development was not popular among Marxists. After the end of the Vietnam War, however, this point of view became again popular, and indeed became the Marxism most widely professed in European and American universities. Today we witness the curious phenomenon that Euro-Marxists are quoted with approval by anti-Marxist scholars, who can use them to show that “real” Marxist scholarship supports some of the same doctrines, theoretical and practical, that conservatives do.

Robert Brenner is one of the most widely known of Euro-Marxist historians. His influence stems from the fact that he supplied a crucial piece of doctrine at a crucial time. Just after the end of the Vietnam War, radical thought was strongly oriented toward the Third World and its struggles, strongly influenced by Third-World theorists like Cabral, Fanon, Guevara, James, Mao, and Nkrumah, and thus very much attracted to theories of social development which tend to displace Europe from its pivotal position as the center of social causation and social progress, past and present. Euro-Marxism of course disputed this, and Euro-Marxists, while strong in their support of present-day liberation struggles, nonetheless insisted as they always had done that the struggles and changes taking place in the center of the system, the European world, are the true determinants of world historical changes; socialism will rise in the heartlands of advanced European capitalism, or perhaps everywhere all at once; but socialism will certainly not arrive first in the backward, laggard, late-maturing Third World.1

9) Do you think Brenner’s work is part of what is criticized in Kurz’s collapse of modernity thesis? What is your view about this debate?

Sorry, haven’t followed that at all.


  1. Mr. Proyect:

    Anderson’s review of MERCHANTS AND REVOLUTION in THE LONDON REVIEW OF BOOKS, expanded and included in a chapter of his SPECTRUM, is worlds away from a “takedown.” Rather, it is high praise–even in the passage you quote–and suggests a way in which you might want to drop your effort to accuse Brenner of Anglocentrism and “Euromarxism” because he sees capitalism beginning in the English countryside. In MERCHANTS, as Anderson points out, Brenner moves beyond this argument to talking about the development of capitalism in a series of struggles–including the struggle of (Puritan-affiliated) new merchants to escape absolutist monopoly and establish new trade routes, integrating them with production in the New World. This meant integrating them with the slave trade and slave plantations. These New World merchants and plantations, then, provided the wealth that underlay parliamentary initiative in the 1640s. In other words, Brenner sees black labor as crucial and perhaps even determining for the English Revolution, as C. L. R. James sees it for the French Revolution (THE BLACK JACOBINS), and Greg Grandin sees it for the American Revolution (EMPIRE OF NECESSITY). The fact that MERCHANTS in its original form (his dissertation) precedes “The Brenner Thesis” is another complication worth considering.

    But MERCHANTS AND REVOLUTION is tedious to read and still feels like an under-revised dissertation. Anderson’s chapter does a much better job of presenting its brilliant innovation for seventeenth-century studies, which takes it away from its white insularity in a way different from but also complementary to Linebaugh and Rediker’s THE MANY-HEADED HYDRA. The tradition of the British Marxist Historians continues most dynamically among marxist historians who aren’t British.

    Comment by Jim Holstun — September 5, 2019 @ 11:55 am

  2. Quite frankly, I have never read “Merchants and Revolution” and probably never will. My interest, as I pointed out, was in Anderson’s obiter dictum reference to the Brenner thesis itself. If you are not happy with me calling it a take-down, that’s fine, but at least it is a critique.

    Comment by louisproyect — September 5, 2019 @ 1:19 pm

  3. Well, I agree with Heller here, but on a different note and even though he’s your friend as you say, here’s some of the diarrhea he’s spreading around on Facebook:
    Luciana Bohne
    Yesterday at 17:47
    There is a “left” we can champion: the anti-imperialist global resistance which started, as predictable, with the invasion of Iraq and developed into the Russia-China bloc, backing Syria, Iran, Hizbollah, and Venezuela, and increasingly the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.. Forget about the “Western left.” It has drowned in the tub of lard that is the excuse for imperialism: humanitarian war.

    Comment by Richard Menec — September 6, 2019 @ 2:23 am

  4. Yeah, Henry has posted some dreadful stuff. It is that mechanical “anti-imperialist” thing.

    Comment by louisproyect — September 6, 2019 @ 12:42 pm

  5. I think there was quite a bit of difference between Brenner and the English Historical Materialist school (Dobb, Thompson, Hill, Hilton) in spite of some similarities. In some ways Brenner’s original article in Past and Present was an extension of the Dobb-Sweezy debate in that Brenner and Dobb wanted to focus on the internal dynamics of feudalism, by which they really meant the manorial system and serfdom, and it was also an attack on any effort to integrate ecological variables into Marxist analysis. But once you get past the emphasis on class, there is a good deal of daylight between the English Historical Materialists and Brenner.

    Comment by Citizen Rat — September 8, 2019 @ 1:58 pm

  6. As a follow-up to my articles on formal/real subsumption, I decided to reread Maurice Dobb’s “Studies in the Development of Capitalism”, an economic history of England that I remembered as a useful review of class relations both in the city and countryside. Despite the tendency to associate Robert Brenner with Dobb because both were involved with debates with Paul Sweezy, there is little doubt that Dobb was a lot closer to Sweezy. Indeed, Brenner wrote an article in 1978 titled “Dobb on the transition from feudalism to capitalism” that faulted him for giving too much credit to the towns.


    Comment by louisproyect — September 8, 2019 @ 2:08 pm

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