File spoon-archives/marxism-international.archive/marxism-international_1997/marxism-international.9710, message 62


Date: Sun, 5 Oct 1997 17:50:28 -0400
Subject: M-I: brenner pt. 2


                            PART II.

     Brenner reinforces his argument with what he
calls, rather ingenuously, "comparative analysis" --
ingenuously because all of the places compared with one
another lie within Northern Europe, and true comparison
would have to look at all possible cases of a given
type and so carry one over to Mediterranean Europe, to
Asia and Africa, and Brenner does not do this (see
Brenner, 1985a: 21, 30; 1985b: 220, 221, 260). He
points out, correctly, that serfdom actually increased
in Eastern Europe during the period when trade and
commerce were expanding throughout Europe, that is, the
16th and 17th centuries. He considers this fact to be
proof positive that there is no definite connection
between the decline of serfdom and the rise of trade:
serfdom can decline correlatively with the rise of
trade in one region (Western Europe) while it increases
with the rise of trade in another region (Eastern
Europe). This argument is easily answered. 

     The decline of serfdom took place in Western
Europe during (mainly) the 14th century; to compare
this with the rise of serfdom two to three hundred
years later in a very different region is unfair. In
Western Europe the rise of commerce took place
gradually over the centuries in a region already well-
developed agriculturally and with a dense population.
In Eastern Europe, the rise of serfdom took place in a
very different social and environmental setting.
Population was much less dense and expansion of
agriculture to some extent involved a spatial
enlargement of the agricultural region. When the
increased demand for grains in the 16th and 17th
centuries stimulated agriculture in this region,
landlords were confronted with serious labor shortage
and found it possible and profitable to intensify the
labor services on peasants, enserfing some of them and
deepening the burden of serfdom for others. So Brenner
cannot properly "compare" these two regions, different
in character and at very different times, and claim
then that he has proven that the decline of serfdom has
nothing to do with the rise of commerce (see Wunder,
1985; Le Roy Ladurie, 1985; Dodgshon, 1987). Indeed,
the rise of commerce in the Middle Ages is
qualitatively a different thing from the rise of
commerce in the early modern period, after the
discovery of America and the explosive expansion of
Europe's economy which took place in consequence of
that event.

     How, then, does Brenner explain the transformation
-- the fall of feudalism and the rise of capitalism? We
can begin by situating Brenner's theory in its
geographical and historical perspective.

     First: Geography. For Brenner, the world outside
of Europe was not at all involved in the
transformation. Indeed, he derides the idea that we
have to look at the non-European world, and attacks
writers like Wallerstein and Frank who suggest that we
should do so (Brenner, 1977, pp. 27-33, 38-41, 53-63,
67-68, 82-92). Brenner says nothing whatever about the
nature of medieval societies in Africa and Asia.
Clearly, he does not consider it necessary even to
raise the matter of comparing European and extra-
European societies in order to find out why the one
developed capitalism and the other did not. He does not
mention influences on Europe from Africa and Asia. He
ignores the late-medieval trade between Europe and
these two continents. Thus: the rise of capitalism is a
strictly European fact. 

     It is a Northwest European fact. The
transformation did not involve Southern or Eastern
Europe: only the West. Southern Europe is basically not
discussed, Eastern Europe serves only (as we saw) for
"comparison" with the West. But within northwestern
Europe, only England is really central to the
transformation. France is discussed in great detail,
but Brenner does so (as we will notice) in order to
show (another "comparison") why the transformation did
take place in England and did not take place in France.
So the decline of feudalism and rise of capitalism is
an English fact. 

     There is one further geographical restriction.
Towns were not involved in an important way. Brenner
believes (contra Sweezy and most historians) that the
internal development of European urban life was not
important in the rise of capitalism, nor was the role
of towns important as havens for escaped serfs, nor was
rural-urban trade of significance. The rise of
capitalism therefore is a rural English fact. 

     So Brenner's theory has this simple geography:
There is steady distance-decay of interest and
relevance as we enlarge the scale, from rural England
to England as a whole, to Western Europe as a whole, to
Europe as a whole, to the world as a whole. The place
where feudalism died and capitalism was born was a very
small region indeed: rural England.

     If the geography of Brenner's theory is restricted
and very definite, its history is both broad and
indefinite. The transformation, for Brenner, occurred
over four centuries. Many would agree that the process
was a long and slow transition from 14th-century
feudalism to 18th-century capitalism. Brenner does not
argue this way, however. The significant event was the
arrival of capitalist agriculture in the English
countryside during a rather brief, almost
revolutionary, epoch. But he telescopes a lot of
history into this brief period, throwing into it events
from the 14th, 15th, 16th, and 17th centuries, treating
some of these events as though they were coterminous;
even assigning 17th-century causes to earlier effects
(Brenner, 1985a: 35, 46-54; 1985b: 215, 252, 274, 276,
282, 294-297, 200-206, 309-311, 314-316).

     We come, then, to the theory itself. Class
struggle explains why feudalism collapsed and
capitalism rose and triumphed. Throughout the Middle
Ages, throughout Western Europe, the lords and the
peasants were engaged in ceaseless struggle over
control of the means of production and surplus labor
and product. As a mechanism for extracting the surplus
from the peasants, the landlords established and
enforced legal restrictions on the peasants, holding
them in serfdom. Although some peasants were legally
free, they were subject to some of the legal restraints
which were inflicted on serfs, so that, overall, the

medieval peasants were unfree as a class. Although
other classes existed in this feudal society, the basic
contending classes were landlords and peasants, and in
particular lords and serfs. Brenner argues that class
struggle in feudalism eventually produced an
insurmountable crisis, and feudalism gave way to a new
and higher mode of production, capitalism. But Marxists
are by no means agreed as to when that crisis occurred
and how and why the transformation took place. A major
difficulty for Marxists is posed by the fact that the
very serious crisis of the 14th century effectively led
to the end of classical serfdom (quickly in some areas,
slowly in others), but not to the end of feudalism as a
general system: the lords remained the ruling class,
the peasants were still to some extent under their
legal control (for instance, they could not, typically,
leave the manor without the lord's permission), and the
class struggle between peasants and landlords continued
for some time thereafter. Feudalism as a legal and
political system ended, formally (in a sense
symbolically), in 1688 in Britain, and even later in
most other parts of Western Europe. Industrial
capitalism did not appear, really, until late in the
18th century. Even rural capitalism did not become
significant until after 1600. The question, then, is:
what happened after the 14th-century crisis? Why did
feudalism still survive? Did it then gradually crumble,
without any further crisis, or simply transform itself
smoothly, gradually, into capitalism? If the
fourteenth-century crisis did not kill feudalism, what
did? 

     Brenner confuses the various phases of the process
and so mixes together the events of several centuries,
positing that there was a quick revolutionary
transformation that occurred roughly in the late 15th
century, and describing this revolutionary
transformation in such a way that it contains processes
that we know were characteristic not of the 15th
century but of the 14th, 16th, and 17th.9 It may seem
odd that a historian would make such errors, and to
understand it we must see one additional attribute of
Brenner's theory. It is not entirely an empirical
theory; it contains a great deal of mysticism.

     Brenner, like some other Marxists, holds to a very
mystical conception of capitalism. Capitalism is
conceived to be an entity, an essential thing. When it
arrives, it does so complete and entire, as though it
were a god descending from Olympus to govern human
affairs. So one does not really think of a "transition"
to capitalism: there comes a kind of mystical moment
when it arrives and takes over. The capitalism that
(according to Brenner) appeared in rural England in the
late 15th century is the same essential capitalism that
governs England today (Brenner 1985b: 234-236, 275,
293, 295-301; Brenner, 1977: 30-32, 61, 67-68, 78). Its
essence is the same. Over time, it develops in various
ways -- for instance equipping itself with
manufacturing industry --  but it remains the same
entity. And it retains the same essential properties,
some of which are quite mystical. Capitalism brings
with it instantaneous rationality. Suddenly
technological inventiveness and innovativeness appear;
they were not really present during the feudal age,
says Brenner (1985a: 29, 31, 33, 50, 59, 63n; 1985b,
214, 233-236, 290, 303, 206-316; Brenner, 1977: 26, 42-
43; 46; 68). Suddenly working people are "free," that

is, they begin to make economically rational decisions
in a free labor market. Suddenly society (English
society) acquires an "economy" (Brenner, 1985b: 227,
228n, 233; 1977: 30, 37). And more. This mystical
notion of capitalism substitutes for an empirical
theory about the transition: The merely empirical facts
may suggest a long, slow, transition, with many complex
and contradictory happenings, including some
regressions toward classic feudalism -- no matter. At
one mystical historical moment (or year, or handful of
decades) capitalism appears and transforms rural
England.

     Here, now, is the core of Brenner's theory. In the
14th century, the English peasants basically won their
freedom. The elimination of serfdom set in motion
several processes which then swept away feudalism.
Since peasants were now free, they would tend to rise
or fall in economic status, depending on such things as
the size of their holdings. This was a process of
differentiation of the peasantry into status groups
which soon became classes. The less successful peasants
remained as subsistence farmers or lost their holdings
and became landless laborers. The more successful
farmers now negotiated with the landlords/lords to
acquire leases on fairly large holdings, holdings now
large enough so that, with hired labor, they could
produce a profit and favor the accumulation of capital
(Brenner, 1985a: 30-63; 1985b: 274-327). But the key
factors in the process were these: First, the
elimination of serfdom freed the minds of the peasants
so that they could begin, rationally, to think up ways
to improve agricultural production. Second: the new
freedom from serfdom meant that agricultural laborers
would move around in a labor market, taking work where
the compensation was highest (Brenner, 1985a: 33).

These were the two essential features of capitalism:
capitalist rationality leading to technological
innovation; free wage labor, leading to competition
among employers and thus to efforts to reduce the cost
and raise the efficiency of labor. The larger peasants
now became small businessmen, leasing land from the
lords, hiring labor, competing with one another, and
accumulating capital or -- if unsuccessful -- going out
of business. In short, the standard menu of attributes
for a modern small business enterprise.      

     There are a number of very large problems with
this theory. The largest is a matter of timing. Serfdom
basically ended in the 14th century, but capitalist
agriculture -- the model we have just looked at -- was
almost unknown prior to about 1520 and did not really
become widespread for the next hundred years or more.
Indeed, when Brenner goes into detail about the
supposed attributes of capitalist agriculture in rural
England, he tends, more often than not, to be
describing the kinds of farms which were characteristic
of the 18th century -- some 400 years after the
collapse of serfdom. The error is most glaring when he
waxes enthusiastic about the new "rationality" and the
technological innovations which it produced. He speaks
of "revolutionary innovations," but there were none
such -- until much later.10 Brenner bases his argument
here mainly on one authority (Kerridge); many others
deny that there was such a revolution, at least in
matters of agricultural technique, some maintaining
that the real revolutionary epoch was the 18th century,
or maintaining even that nothing truly revolutionary
occurred in the English rural landscape before the
industrial revolution.11

     Let us unpack this problem into smaller and more
manageable ones. Firstly, Kerridge's 16th-century
agricultural revolution is still, as to timing, a
century too late to satisfy Brenner's theory: serfdom
gave way to "free" tenantry before the end of the 14th
century. Secondly, Brenner argues that technological
advances, after the freeing of the peasants, led to the
enlargement of holdings and the creation of capitalist
farms. But the technological advances which had this
effect occurred a couple of centuries later: effect
therefore precedes cause. The two revolutionary
technological advances actually discussed by Brenner
were not at all revolutionary. He cites an innovation
in irrigation technology (floating of water meadows),
but this was neither very innovative -- irrigation
being an old art -- nor very important.12 And he cites
a new system of rotation involving the alternating of
improved pasture with cropland ("convertible
husbandry"), but this did not intensify production
(some other, older, rotations were very much more
intensive) although it was a solid advance in pasture

technology.13 So the entire argument about a sort of
instantaneous appearance of "rationality," and then,
immediately and directly, the beginnings of
revolutionary technological advance, is simply empty.
Brenner has in mind the marvelously rapid technological
advance which accompanied capitalism during and after
the industrial revolution, the process which Marx
identified as a central feature of modern capitalism,
new technology being a crucial strategy for firms in
their competition with other firms; Brenner (quoting
Marx) insists that the "rational" process of constantly
revolutionizing technology is an essential attribute of
all capitalism, then casts all of this back into a time
when, in fact, constant revolutionary technological
advance just did not take place. The mysticism of his
concept of capitalism overrides the facts, and the 18th
century is pushed back into the 15th.

     Next there is a very serious difficulty with
Brenner's conception of medieval technology. He holds a
very contradictory image of the peasantry. He thinks
that medieval peasants were not at all innovative as to
technology, but that some peasants became marvelously
innovative as soon as they were touched by the magic
wand of capitalism. The reasoning here is that peasants
are conservative and unchanging, "traditional," so long
as they own the means of production, the land, and gain
their livelihood from it (Brenner, 1985a: 59, 63n;
1985b: 234-236, 306, 311, 313,; 1977: 36, 43). If they
are serfs, says Brenner, they have no incentive
whatsoever to think up and introduce technological
advances since the lords will reap the benefit. But
they become innovative, progressive, etc., when land is
a commodity and they must produce for sale in order to
be able to pay the rent on their land. Unaccountably,
Brenner seems to think that serfs owned the means of

production (and in various parts of his argument he
describes peasants, medieval and modern, as though they
were owners of land whereas in fact most were not
proprietors at any time in this period, in England or
elsewhere in northwestern Europe).14 This error aside,
the fact is that peasants were not hidebound and
traditional. We can infer this from modern research
which disproves the contemptuous attitude which
European "modernization" theorists hold about peasants
and their supposed "irrationality," "traditionalism,"
and the like --an attitude which Brenner evidently
shares. We know this also from the painstaking research
which has uncovered a broad array of peasant-generated
technological advances in the Middle Ages. 

     Brenner makes a somewhat similar, and equally
fallacious, argument about the feudal landlords who, he
says, have no incentive to innovate technologically
because they are, in essence, satisfied with their
social situation (Brenner, 1985a: 31, 43-44). Brenner
makes two errors here. Firstly, there were periodic
crises throughout the Middle Ages, and landlords were
very frequently faced with a lack of delivery of
surplus and a need to increase it. Brenner imagines
that the standard way to do so was to squeeze the
peasantry ever more tightly, rather than to attempt to
improve production methods, on the demesne farm or on
the peasant farms (1985b: 234-235 and elsewhere).
Granted that feudal lords were expert squeezers,
nonetheless many of the estates, lay and
ecclesiastical, made serious and important efforts to
improve agricultural methods and introduce better
technology. Brenner's next error is to assume that
squeezing had no limit: nowhere does he notice that
medieval serfs were suffering exploitation to and

sometimes beyond the subsistence line. Another fact
about the squeezing process which Brenner ignores: when
peasants are forced to increase the delivery of surplus
produce, they are under intense pressure to increase
their levels of production, hence are likely to (and
often do) innovate, technologically and in other ways,
in order to increase production: in other words, it is
simply untrue that serfs (and also landlords) have no
incentive to innovate. Secondly, Brenner dismisses out-
of-hand one of the basic arguments of Marxist theory:
in all class societies, the ruling class is always
seeking to increase its wealth; it is never satisfied
and the system is never in equilibrium. Brenner
conceives feudal society as having been governed by
completely different rules than those which apply to
capitalist society. It did not have an "economy." It
had precious little exploitation. And the feudal ruling
class supposedly was satisfied with a certain level of
income from its peasantry, or enough so to be willing
merely to squeeze the peasants as far as possible and
not to attempt to increase total production. Overall,
says Brenner (1985a: 41), this society was "stagnant."

     We come now to what is probably Brenner's
strangest proposition. His theory is self-consciously
Marxist, and self-consciously grounded in class
struggle. In Marxist theory, class struggle tends to
produce advances in cultural evolution because, putting
the matter simply, the exploiters lose. For Brenner,
the ruling class was defeated to the extent that
peasants secured their freedom from serfdom. But this
did not bring about the collapse of feudalism as a mode
of production. That occurred (in England) roughly one
hundred years later, according to Brenner, and it
occurred because the ruling class won the class
struggle. Brenner argues that, if the peasants had
really won in the 14th century, the result would have
been, not rural capitalism, but a society of
freeholding peasant proprietors. Because peasant
proprietors (in Brenner's thinking) are not innovative,
are satisfied to have a bucolic existence on their
subsistence holdings, this form of society would not
have gone through a transformation to capitalism.
Brenner now points to France and makes one of his
limited (and invalid) comparisons. In France, he says
(inaccurately), the peasants won definitively, so
freeholding peasants really came to dominate the
society, established cozy links with the crown against
the landlords, and as a result managed to maintain

their position.15 This explains why capitalism did not
arise in France. In England, on the other hand, the
peasants lost. They secured the ending of serfdom but
they did not succeed in winning full proprietorship of
their land: they remained tenants of the same landlords
(Brenner, 1985a: 48-49, 61; 1985b: 307-311). As a
result, says Brenner, there appeared a sub-class of
peasants who parlayed tenancy into capitalist
agriculture. They negotiated rents with the landlords,
rented larger and larger holdings, hired labor, and so
became capitalist farmers, paying a portion of their
profits to the landlords just as modern small
businesses pay rent to the owners of their factories
and offices. For Brenner, this was the real cookpot of
capitalism.16 So the fact that English peasants lost
their class struggle is the crucial explanation for the
ending of feudalism and the rising of capitalism. This
turns the class-struggle theory on its head.


Neo-Weberian Euro-Marxism

     Brenner wants to label Frank, Wallerstein, and
company "Neo-Smithians" because, in essence, they pay
so much attention to commerce, to trade, to
urbanization. He never quite denies them the status of
"Marxist," but this is implicit in his argument, as
commentators have pointed out (e.g., Macfarlane,
1988:191; Taylor, 1989:342-343). Of course, Marx did
not neglect commerce, trade, and urbanization. But Marx
gave ultimate causal authority to class struggle.
Brenner claims to do so, too. For him, Sweezy, Frank,
and Wallerstein abandon class struggle in favor of
commerce and the rest. This is quite unfair to Sweezy,
whose eye is on urban class struggle, and also to Frank
and Wallerstein, who simply notice that there was class
struggle in Latin America, Africa, and Asia as well as
Europe. But this is beside my present point. Brenner's
theory actually gives a rather minor role to class
struggle. 



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