File spoon-archives/marxism-international.archive/marxism-international_1997/marxism-international.9710, message 457


Date: Thu, 23 Oct 1997 15:25:12 -0400
Subject: M-I: rise of cap 1


 WPCHX-AT--  Introduction

     The problem of explaining the rise of capitalism
out of feudalism may be considerably less difficult
than we Marxists have thought it to be. For
conservatives it has never been much of a problem at
all. A century ago it seemed obvious that a Christian
god would guide His people to civilization and
modernity -- and thus of course to capitalism -- either
directly, via the March of the World Spirit, or
indirectly, by slipping good ideas into the heads of
good Christians, who thereby become uniquely
intelligent and progressive, or, even more indirectly,
by supplying Europeans with better heredity than non-
Europeans, or with a better natural environment. All
quite simple. The rise of Europe was something to be
taken for granted. It was not a problem, except as a
matter of detail, of determining which aspect of
European society had been the leading force in
modernization.

     The rise of Europe was viewed in those days as one
part of a great world-scale diffusion process, a
conception that we now describe as Eurocentric
diffusionism. This doctrine, which became codified
around the middle of the nineteenth century mainly as a
rationalization and support for colonialism, is quite
complex and elaborate, but its core is the following
set of straightforward propositions: (l) Europe
naturally progresses and modernizes. (2) Non-Europe
naturally remains stagnant, traditional, unchanging.
(3) The essential reason for progressive cultural
evolution in Europe is some force or factor which is
ultimately intellectual or spiritual.  (4) Progress
comes to non-Europe only through the diffusion of
European ideas, institutions, and people -- that is,
through colonialism. In this doctrine non-Europeans
have of course nothing to do with the rise of Europe+ce outside of
Europe (except to make invidious comparisons); we
simply look back down the European tunnel of time to
decide what, within that space, caused what, and when
(Blaut, 1987a; 1987b).
+t of the European elite, and it is
still necessary to explain and rationalize a system by
which European capital exploits non-European labor,
mainly (but not only) for the purpose of persuading
European populations that this exploitation is right,
rational, and historically natural, and so persuade
them to support the policies, pay the bills, and
willingly endure the blood sacrifices. And today,
still, an important component of this interest-bound
theory is its tunnel-historical conception of the
European past. It is still critically important to
demonstrate that European social evolution has always
been self-generated, owing nothing important to the
non-European world, that Europe (or rather Western
Europe, "the West") has always been, and remains today,
ahead of the rest of the world in level and rate of
development, that its economic system, capitalism, is
the core of its uniquely progressive character, and
that progress for the non-European world can only come
via the diffusion of capitalism (more precisely of
European-based multinational capitalism). So
diffusionism and tunnel history persist, though in a
modernized form.

     Eurocentric diffusionism, with its historical
component, tunnel history, is rooted in the interests
of a class community, and it is propagated by scholars
who work for and identify with that class. One does not
have to question the honesty or competence of these
scholars, and one does not have to dismiss all of their
work as erroneous or flawed -- most of it is not -- to
conclude that the theories which they put forward about
European and non-European history are in principle
questionable: all require to be examined from the
perspective of the class interests of other
communities, working class and non-European. Some of
these theories will turn out to be valid, others will
not. The body of ideas as a whole, however, will change
very markedly, and we will find ourselves abandoning
many, perhaps most, of the crucial propositions, and
all of the ones which assert that Europeans are better
or bolder or brighter than non-Europeans, and Europe is
and always has been more advanced and more progressive
than non-Europe. This holds true most pointedly for
theories about the rise of Europe, and the rise of
capitalism within Europe.

     We Marxist scholars have partial immunity to
diffusionism and tunnel history. We do not share the+of us are pretty much
free of Eurocentric chauvinism: we belong to a
tradition which insists on the absolute equality of all
human beings, and we identify with a social movement
which is worldwide and pan-cultural. But our immunity
is not complete, because we were trained in a
diffusionist tradition and we work in communities of
primarily non-Marxist scholars in which diffusionist
and tunnel-historical statements and theories are
considered to be unquestionably valid. As students we
had to, in effect, demonstrate that we accepted the
validity of these propositions; failure to do so was
interpreted by our professors as proof that we simply
did not understand the propositions and were therefore
obviously unfit to be licensed and employed as
scholars. At an even more basic level, we learned as
children to believe in European superiority and some of
these notions stay with us as unconscious, implicit,
beliefs throughout our lives. ("We" includes scholars
from colonial as well as metropolitan societies.) So in
the end we Marxist scholars have a peculiar problem
which is also a marvellous opportunity: we need to
review everything we have learned in our fields and
winnow out all of the Eurocentric chaff. This is a task
that is intellectually fascinating, and it should not
be very difficult since we are competetent scholars and
we have no class interest in Eurocentrism.

     But the task appears difficult in regard to this
one problem, the matter of explaining the rise of
capitalism. We start with the stubborn, undeniable fact
that capitalism rose to power in Europe and nowhere
else. How can a Marxist explain that fact without
conceding some evolutionary superiority to Europeans? 
Marx and Engels went about as far toward a non-
diffusionist answer to this question as any scholar
could go in their place and time, given that available
knowledge about the non-European world was wholly
diffusionist, most of it provided by the agents and
agencies of colonialism and thus reflecting the
explicit interest of denying that colonial peoples had
political histories entailing sovereignty, legal
systems defining and protecting property rights, and
the like. Marx and Engels could not avoid believing
that non-European peoples -- about whom, to repeat,
they knew almost nothing -- betrayed a lack of
modernity and lack of social progress. But Marx and
Engels knew that theories which explain social
evolution in terms of supposed intellectual and moral
qualities favoring innovativeness, progressiveness, and
the like, are elitist and false (Marx and Engels, 1976
[1846]). Thus they concluded, wrongly but not
unreasonably in the circumstances, that the problem+on-class
peasant communities, hence  to an absence of class
struggle and thus of progress.1 Tropical regions -- I
infer that this was meant to include Africa -- do not
develop towards capitalism because here "Nature is too
lavish...She does not impose upon [man] any necessity
to develop himself" (Marx, 1976 [1867], 513). These
geographical notions -- that Asia is dry and tropical
regions are bountiful -- were widely held by early
19th-century geographers (including Marx's professor at
Berlin), but in the 20th century they are no longer
taken seriously, even by the bourgeoisie.

     Later Marxists tended to skirt the problem,
probably because they, like Marx and Engels, were
unwilling to concede any cultural or mental superiority
to Europeans, yet were unable to get around the
stubborn fact that it was indeed Europe that developed
capitalism. This kind of attitude is evident in the
contributions to the classic "transition to capitalism"
exchange in this journal in the early 1950s (reprinted
in Hilton, 1976). I am inclined, however, to treat
these earlier views as part of the pre-history of the
problem, because the problem itself could not be
tackled directly until we knew a great deal more about
the non-European past than we did at the time of that
exchange, and therefore could concretely decide what
indeed was Eurocentric chaff and what was useable
knowledge. We did not reach that point before the
period of decolonization, which was also the period of
the rise of anti-imperialist scholarship in the
Tricontinent. But new standards have to be applied when
we examine Marxist statements about this problem which
have been made since that time. Generally speaking, any
attempt today to theorize about the rise of
capitalism -- and about feudalism, slavery, the so-
called "Asiatic mode of production," and matters of
this sort -- without taking into account what is now
known about non-European history, has to be criticized
very severely. 

     Unfortunately, many of the recent contributions
deserve this criticism. Three examples will suffice to
make the point. 

     Perry Anderson, in Lineages of the Absolute State,
recounts the standard diffusionist view, simply
declaring it to be Marxist (Anderson, 1974, 397-431).
European antiquity was distinguished by a uniquely+lism, freedom,
urbanization, and the rest, plus a uniquely non-
autocratic polity, plus "remarkable" agricultural
productivity; and so, quite naturally, came capitalism.

     Roger Gottlieb, in a 1984 article which rekindled
the "transition to capitalism" discussion in Science
and Society (Gottlieb 1984), argues that the transition
cannot really be explained in any "hard" or definite
way, and that, indeed, Marxism should not expect to
find internal laws of motion for modes of production
other than competitive capitalism. Gottlieb sees the
rise of capitalism as the product of a long list of
contributing but non-determinant factors, including
class struggle, feudal fractionated polities, the
development of "civil society," technology,
urbanization, and an expanding market, factors which he
believes were operating within Europe and not in other
societies -- but these other societies are not at all
discussed, nor is it noticed that some of these
"factors" were present in non-European societies and
some, in fact, diffused from them into Europe.2 

     Gottlieb's argument provoked an immediate and
anguished reply by David Laibman (1984; 1987), who
could not allow Gottlieb's rejection of determinate
laws of social evolution, and primacy of the mode of
production, to go unchallenged. In mounting the
challenge, Laibman produced his own theory of the
"transition," this one consisting basically of two very
peculiar theses. First, the Marxist theory of social
evolution in class society, with its mechanism for the
rise, decline, and replacement of class modes of
production, cannot be questioned (as Gottlieb questions
it) with merely empirical facts about particular
societies in particular periods and places. This is so
because historical materialism is not an empirical
theory: it is true as "synthetic a priori" (fide Kant).
This privileged status, above the merely empirical,
also solves the problem of explaining why the
transition to capitalism occurred in Europe and nowhere
else. The problem, says Laibman, is in the realm of
contingency, not theory, so (in effect) it is a matter
to be described but not explained. (Whether much is
gained by rescuing Marxist theory from eclecticism,
factor analysis, and a denial of the primacy of class
struggle by replacing these with Neo-Kantian
metaphysics is a question I do not have to discuss.)
Laibman's second step is to descend into that very
realm of contingency and so produce an explanation for
the European rise of capitalism. Historical+ronmental determinism of a 19th-century sort, but
it dredges up 19th century mythology about Africa and
Asia, and also leaves in place the false 19th-century
belief that Asian and African societies did not even
effect a transition out of communal pre-class society
until Europeans helped them out.

     Many other formulations have been put forward in
recent years, and not all of them are Eurocentric,
diffusionist, and tunnel-historical. Some Marxists
argue simply that the whole matter of Europe was an
accident. More precisely, the fact that the bourgeois
revolutions occurred first in Europe reflected merely a
temporary and minor regional variation in a general
evolutionary process that was occurring in many parts
of the Eastern Hemisphere. Europe had briefly and
slightly taken the lead, as other societies had done
previously, rather as one runner may forge into the
lead in a race and soon be overtaken by another. But
capitalism being capitalism, once it had gained power
in one part of the world it developed so explosively,
and did so in such a characteristically centrifugal
way, that no other society stood a chance of
effectuating its own bourgeois revolution: in effect,
Europe crossed the finish line first and the race was
over. The obvious difficulty with this argument lies in
the fact that it reduces a profound social revolution
to the level of a minor, almost accidental, regional
variation.

     Another theory, associated particularly with the
work of Samir Amin, accepts one rather small part of
the traditional view, the idea that medieval Europe was
more prone to change than other societies, but explains
this as being a result of Europe's geographically
marginal location on the edge of the hemispheric zone
of civilization (Amin, 1976, 1980, 1985). Being at the
edge, Europe did not develop the institutions of
feudal-tributary society as fully as did many other
regions, hence this form of society in Europe was more
fragile and more easily broken bown by class struggles
in the countryside and towns. There are two evident
difficulties here. First, the main heir to Roman
civilization cannot be considered marginal in a social
or geographical sense, any more than the heir to+ly unique "dynamism."

     In this essay I will put forward a theory which is
considerably more radical in its interpretation of
medieval and early-modern history. It is a theory
which, I believe, emerges quite naturally -- I would
almost say inevitably -- in the period when Marxists
begin to connect the problem of the rise of capitalism
in Europe to the findings of post-colonial scholarship
dealing with the medieval and early-modern history and
historical geography of Asia, Africa, and Latin America
including the Caribbean.  The crux of this theory is a
pair of propositions: 

          (1) Prior to the 16th century, Europe had
absolutely no advantage over Africa and Asia as to
level and rate of development out of feudalism and
toward capitalism, a process that was going on in many
regions of the Eastern Hemisphere. The fact that
Europeans reached the Western Hemisphere before
Africans or Asians did so is a reflection only of
location (accessibility), not level of development.

          (2) the conquest of America and exploitation
of Americans provided European protocapitalists
(merchants, artisans, acquisitive landlords, freehold
peasants, and others) with massive capital accumulation
which they used to dissolve feudal relations in Europe,
destroy competing protocapitalist communities outside
of Europe, and thus acquire the ability to gain
politial power in northwestern Europe. This was the
"transition from feudalism to capitalism," although it
was not really a transition but rather an unconformity
between two historical horizons, a still-feudal society
(undergoing fairly rapid decay -- though not only in
Europe) and a pre-industrial capitalist society, rising
quite suddenly after 1492. Nor was this a transition
from feudalism to industrial capitalism. Implicit in
this theory is the view that we have to explain the
political triumph of capitalism, the bourgeois
revolution of the 17th century, as a distinct problem,
and thereafter must see how the further development of
capitalism-in-power permitted it to reach the point
where unlimited expansion of productive capacity
becomes a realistic possibility and thus a
technological revolution in the methods of production
becomes necessary. This did not happen before the end
of the 18th century, well after the end of the story we
are telling here.+a, or it was not.
If not, then we need a second proposition, a strong
theory to explain why the bourgeois revolution occurred
in Europe less than two centuries later. In the
following paragraphs I will defend the first
proposition and then go on to defend the second.

     What, precisely, are we trying to explain, and
what are we not trying to explain? We are not trying to
build a general theory explaining how and why feudalism
became transformed into capitalism. We are trying to
explain why capitalism rose first in Europe. But the
theory being defended here, that 16th- and 17th-century
colonialism is responsible for the centration of rising
capitalism in Europe and for a quickening of that rise,
must affect the general theory of the transformation in
a number of ways. For one thing, the problem simplifies
itself, because no longer do we search in medieval
European history for a sufficient cause for the fact
that capitalism triumphed in the 17th century, since we
now claim that the triumph would not have taken place
until much later (and perhaps somewhere else or in many
places at once) had it not been for the exogenous facts
of early colonialism. For another thing, we no longer
bind ourselves to the European forms of the explanatory
variables. We argue in essence that the triumph of
capitalism occurred in Europe not because of uniquely
European facts but because of colonialism. So non-
European forms of feudal landholdings, unfree labor,
medieval protocapitalism, and much more become
legitimate variables for the general theory. But the
most critical implication, in my view, is this:
historical materialism postulates an evolutionary
process in human society as a whole, not in just one of
its communities, and the position argued here is
consistent with that project. Marx used data from the
European community to illustrate the evolutionary
process, not to define it, and we should do the same.

       Even Development in the Late Middle Ages3

     There is abundant evidence that profound cultural
change was taking place throughout the Eastern
Hemisphere during the period which Europeans (and
others) think of as the Middle Ages. In terms of modes
of production, it seems that the directions of change
and the rates of change were quite similar over many
parts of the hemisphere, and, if we speak at the level
of continents, over all three continents. On a
hemispheric scale, feudalism was declining, and in many
small regions, mainly urban and principally maritime-
oriented, a kind of primitive capitalism or incipient+th antagonistic classes, basically peasants and
landlord-rulers, sometimes with other class-sectors
interwoven into the structure but not dominating it. In
all these areas there was forced exaction of surplus
from peasants, although the form and intensity of
exploitation differed, sometimes taking the form of
serfdom, sometimes of tenant farming with rent paid as
labor, produce, or cash (but always with compelled
payment), and sometimes -- usually at the frontier with
non-class communities -- of tribute imposed and
collected on a community as a whole.  Because almost
all variations of this form of society involved clear
separation of a ruling class and a producing class, and
because the producing class was always to some degree
unfree while the ruling class was always the owner (in
some places, contingent owner) of land, the principal
means of production, and since the ruling class
exploited the producers, these societies were dominated
by a common mode of production, which most Marxists
would call feudalism -- of course detaching the mode of
production from the unique superstructural features of
European feudalism. Probably half of Africa, half of
geographical Europe, and half of southern,
southeastern, and eastern Asia were dominated by the
feudal mode of production in the 15th century.

     The ruling class, in feudal societies, is a
landlord class. In some regions the landlords held
titles indicative of hereditary status, but the
distinction between nobility and gentry has no
evolutionary significance and both forms were
widespread across the hemisphere (Blaut, 1976). It is
also true that in all these societies there were
parallel high-status groups, clergy, bureaucrats,
military people, etc., but there seems not to have been
any case of a large, clearly feudal society -- I
exclude a few cases of small urbanized power centers in
dry, pastoral regions, and a few large cities -- in
which wealth and status was clearly divorced from land
ownership and from the surplus extracted from peasants.

     Much effort has been wasted by Marxists who accept
Max Weber's distinction between feudal and service
tenures (a thesis meant to show that Asians societies
couldn't evolve feudalism, private property, and
capitalism) as a basis for claiming that feudalism did+nted fiefs on service tenure
and quickly farmed them out, or converted them into
private, heritable property, all displayed the
classical features of a landlord class. In any case,
holders of land on conditional tenure might move from
fief to fief but always held a fief and milked it of
surplus for their private benefit; and, in most
regions, service grants sooner or later became private
property.4


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