By Sarah Young
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The Birth of Capitalism

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Henry Heller
Issue 364

Henry Heller tells us that his aim is this book is to gain a better understanding of the world we live in so that we can “shape the future” and revitalise the link between intellectual enquiry, mass struggles and the labour movement. Heller’s book is a welcome intervention into the “transition debate” – the arguments about the transition from feudalism to capitalism.

Heller notes how the successive “rounds” of the debate have coincided with social upheavals. This reflects a desire to understand where capitalism came from, how transitory it is and the possibilities of going beyond it. Such arguments help us to understand the nature of capitalism today.

At the centre of the contemporary debate over the emergence of capitalism has been the arguments put forward by Robert Brenner, a Marxist historian at the University of California. Anyone who wants to engage in the debate must engage seriously with his views.

Heller starts from separating out the decline of feudalism from the emergence of capitalism. This would suggest a break from Brenner, who removed the “conceptual and chronological divide” between the two and argued that agrarian class struggle led directly to the decline of feudalism, paving the way for capitalism.

For Heller there are two approaches to the decline of feudalism: first, the one offered by Brenner where capitalism emerges from the feudal ruling class with landlords giving out capitalist leases; the second is Chris Harman’s analysis that sees the decline of feudalism as the result of the rising productivity of agriculture in the Middle Ages, which led to much greater social differentiation and new ways of creating wealth. The social upheavals of the 14th century are seen as proto-capitalist revolutions.

Harman’s pivotal contribution has in the past been ignored in academic circles. It is important therefore that Heller takes his intervention seriously and places it alongside others in the debate.

Heller aims to break out of the Anglo-centrism that has dominated much of the debate on the transition. He argues that the focus should not just be on the emergence of capitalism in England, but that the beginnings of capitalist social relations were in the whole of Western Europe. He considers early “experiments in capitalism” looking at Italy, Germany and France.

Heller then focuses on a third approach to understanding the emergence of capitalism, one that stresses the importance of the development of market exchanges and international trade (such as world-systems theorist Immanuel Wallerstein and monopoly capital theorist Paul Sweezy) and compared them with approaches such as Brenner’s that stress changes in the relations of production as key.

Heller rightly argues that this is a false dichotomy. Capitalism must be viewed as a totality that combines both production and exchange. Each was central to the development of capitalism as a new mode of production.

Heller suggests that Brenner’s overemphasis on the “relations of production” at the expense of the market is due to the influence upon him of analytical Marxism, which rejects a dialectical sense of totality, movement and contradiction, in favour of much more static model.

For Heller, Brenner doesn’t see capitalism as an expanding totality with both production and markets playing a necessary role. For Heller, although the market can never initiate accumulation, once capitalist relations are in place, the market can foster economic competition and capital accumulation.

The main strength of the book is that Heller places the development of the state at the centre of the birth of capitalism. For Heller, Brenner is guilty of economic determinism in his disregard of the importance of the state as “the ultimate linchpin of capitalism”.

By placing the state back into the centre of the analysis of the emergence of capitalism, Heller suggests we overcome the false contrast between the “European” path to capitalism, which is caricatured as a purely economic development, and the alternative development of capitalism elsewhere driven by state intervention.
The state was important in nurturing capitalism in its beginnings and in overseeing its development through mercantilism.

As well as helping to reject an overly economistic view of capitalism and a false distinction between economics and politics, Heller’s book emphasises the continued importance of the state in capitalism today.

The Birth of Capitalism is published by Pluto, £19.99.

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