HM 2015: How the West Came to Rule

Marxist scholars have long debated the origins of capitalism. Bill Crane reports on a fruitful debate at this year’s Historical Materialism conference about the recent book ‘How the West Came to Rule’.

Woodcut of Woman Spinning

The question of how capitalism emerged and became the basis of the international system has generated a number of incredibly fruitful debates among Marxists since the 1950s. How the West Came to Rule (London: Pluto, 2015) by Alexander Anievas and Kerem Nişancioğlu is the most recent, and perhaps the most ambitious, presentation of one of the many competing Marxist interpretations of the rise of capitalism. It was launched in a fascinating panel discussion including the authors and three respondents at the Historical Materialism conference in London.

Anievas and Nişancioğlu seek to elaborate the basic account of the rise of capitalism found in the concluding part of volume one of Marx’s Capital, wherein is described the factors including industrial production, the slave trade, the subjugation of the Americas as European colonies, the tariff system and the expropriation of agricultural producers from the land. Marx states that while these elements were more or less shared across Western Europe, it was only their ‘systematical combination’ in England in the seventeenth century which would give birth to capitalism as a world system rather than in isolated patches of industry and commerce.

How the West Came to Rule extends the scope of this argument both geographically and temporally. For Anievas and Nişancioğlu, factors outside medieval Europe played a role in making this relatively backward and fractured series of polities the cradle of the most revolutionary mode of production the world has yet seen. For instance, if it had not been for the conquests of the Mongolian hordes starting in the twelfth century, Europe would have remained isolated from the trade routes of the Middle East, India and China that were so crucial in giving rise to early commercial capitalism, and hence, to the desire of the Spanish and Portuguese, with Italian city-states riding on their backs, to expand their empires across the sea.

The authors argue, in contrast to much recent historical revisionism, that capitalism was established politically through the classic series of bourgeois revolutions in the Low Countries, Britain and France. Crucially, however, they add that early colonialism was necessary to complete the picture. Dutch capitalism could not have overcome its labour shortage and economic crisis of the early seventeenth century without the conquest of the East Indies, the genocide of much of the settled population, and the enslavement of the remainder to the production of cloves, nutmeg and pepper. Similarly, Britain’s rise as the dominant power of the emerging capitalist world-system was only complete after the Battle of Plassey in 1757, which gave it the economic and military might in the form of Indian soldiers to out-compete France and other rivals to the crown.

Anievas and Nişancioğlu frame their account of capitalism’s rise with Trotsky’s theory of uneven and combined development (U&CD). Following the international relations theorist Justin Rosenberg, they argue that U&CD can be used in a trans-historical manner to explain processes of inter-state competition and rivalry, economic backwardness and ‘catching up.’ While this would seem to apply most immediately to the series of what Henry Heller has called ‘experiments in capitalism’ by which capitalist industry was successively established in Italy, France and Germany, Holland and Britain during the late medieval period, each stage building on the technological advances and systems of labour management used in previous experiments, How the West Came to Rule argues that U&CD applies even before the rise of capitalism. The societies formed in conflict between Chinese tributary society and European feudalism on the one hand with Mongol nomadic society on the other show features of unevenness and combination of these societies in ways that prove enlightening when looking at the history of, for example, Tsarist Russia.

Some of the discussion of Anievas and Nişancioğlu’s book focused on their use of U&CD as a trans-historical concept. Neil Davidson, author of How Revolutionary were the Bourgeois Revolutions?, and a key source of their arguments on that topic, challenged the idea that U&CD can be usefully applied before the era of capitalism. Davidson argued that there are perfectly adequate theories that describe the combination of different modes of production, for example the Althusserian notion of articulation, and that hence U&CD’s use in this context is unnecessary.

Furthermore, Trotsky originally formulated the theory of U&CD as a justification for the strategy of permanent revolution: the ‘drawing together’ of different stages of economic development in a single country such as Russia in the early twentieth century could generate potentially explosive social conflicts and pave the way for a relatively small and young working class to inaugurate the socialist revolution on a world scale. In contrast, pre-capitalist modes of production do not share the economic dynamism of capitalism. U&CD can here only be used as a description rather than an analysis.

In his response to Davidson, Anievas likened trans-historical U&CD to Marx’s notion of ‘production in general.’ Indeed, in their book he and Nişancioğlu seek to center U&CD along the lines of specific modes of production. The kind of U&CD produced in the encounter of the early Russian state with the Mongol hordes, for instance, would be substantially different than the kind observed by Trotsky in the late Russian state’s encounter with mature capitalism.

In her contribution, Maia Pal also challenged Anievas and Nişancioğlu’s use of U&CD as an operative concept. For her, U&CD cannot be used to usefully explain developments in late medieval Europe that were essentially internal to specific countries. Legal systems arose for the purpose of justifying colonial expansion (in the case of Spain’s encounter with American Indians), and the power of the absolutist monarchy (in the case of France).

The development of legal institutions can show the divergent paths of absolutist European states. For instance, at roughly the same point in their development in the seventeenth century, the French state relied on a constantly fractured, divided and overlapping series of jurisdictions with over 80,000 legal functionaries, in contrast to England, which had radically centralised its legal system and only employed around 800. For Pal, these developments can only be explained in a context that is deliberately ‘internalist,’ in contrast to the internationalism used by Anievas and Nişancioğlu.

Robert Brenner’s ‘political Marxist’ account of the rise of capitalism formed another key theme in the discussion. For Brenner and his followers, the origin of capitalism is a development essentially unique to English agriculture in the late medieval period. Here and nowhere else, lords could not solve the crisis of productivity of the fifteenth century by increasing pressure on the peasantry. The Wars of the Roses and a series of peasant revolts had left the aristocracy weakened as a class and forced to deal with a radically centralised monarchy.

In this situation, Brenner writes, English lords turned to renting out their land to tenants on a competitive basis to improve their yields. Tenants were forced to technologically innovate to increase productivity, and their landlords were forced to rent out to more productive tenants. For Brenner, the emergence of ‘capitalist social-property relations’ unique to English agriculture explain the expropriation of the agricultural population and early industrialization that would come centuries later. Capitalism would then extend across the world through a process of political-military competition by which other states were forced to hothouse capitalism in order to hold their own against capitalist Britain.

In How the West Came to Rule, it is argued that the Brenner thesis is faulty both empirically and methodologically. Anievas and Nişancioğlu argue that capitalism could not have developed in England were it not for England’s relative isolation from power politics in Europe, a shield provided by its own geographic isolation and the political context of a series of wars between Hapsburg Austria and the Ottoman Empire in the southeastern part of the continent. Furthermore, the textile industry in the Low Countries provided the demand for English wool, which in turn fueled the process by which peasant cultivators were thrown off the land in order to turn it over to pasture.

Charles Post is the author of The American Road to Capitalism (Chicago: Haymarket, 2011), a collection of essays in which he applies Brenner’s analysis of the origins of capitalism to the post-revolutionary United States. In his contribution, he sketched out a political Marxist, or what he calls ‘Capital-centric Marxist’ response to many of the claims made in How the West Came to Rule.

Much of his argument focused on the role Anievas and Nişancioğlu assign to overseas colonisation in the rise of capitalism. Post agreed with them, and with a whole series of Marxist scholars stretching from Eric Williams in the 1940s to Robin Blackburn in the 1990s, that the slave trade and later plantation slavery in the US South provided much of the impetus to England’s capitalist industrialisation.

However, for Post, slavery itself was not capitalist, as it depended on extra-economic coercion of its workers, which tended to stymie comprehensive innovation and competition. It was only when harnessed to developing English industrialization that it could produce a capitalist outcome. In contrast, France had the world’s wealthiest slave plantations in St. Domingue. But the profits from the slave trade and production of sugar there were spent on luxuries and in purchasing noble offices for the mercantile bourgeoisie.

Similarly, Post challenged the interpretation offered of the Dutch East India Company (VOC) in How the West Came to Rule. According to him, it was the Dutch ruling class’ attachment to venal office-holding which led to the labour shortage crisis of the early seventeenth century. The VOC’s conquest of the East Indies was therefore an expression of non-capitalist imperialism.

This has large implications for how we view colonialism and early imperialism. In contrast to many figures of the classical Marxist tradition such as Lenin, Luxemburg and Bukharin, who argued forcefully that colonisation was driven by capitalist imperatives to seek outside markets and thereby counteract falling rates of profit, political Marxists like Ellen Meiksins Wood and Benno Teschke believe that colonialism was non-capitalist. Wood writes in Empire of Capital (London: Verso, 2002) that it was the pre-capitalist ‘political accumulation’ of European empires that led them to expand overseas. As Europe gradually became capitalist over the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, it could dispense with outright colonialism and exercise its control through the peaceful methods of free trade and competition.

In their response to Post, Anievas and Nişancioğlu countered that this interpretation of colonialism and slavery means that political Marxists cannot conceive of capitalism as inherently racialised from its origins. Capitalism, they argue following Rosa Luxemburg’s argument in The Accumulation of Capital, needed places outside of itself such as New World slavery to reproduce the wage-labour relation. Nişancioğlu also pointed out that political Marxists do not have an account of the rise of capitalism as inherently gendered, in contrast to Silvia Federici’s work on women during primitive accumulation. This unfortunately was not taken up fully in the discussion.

A main challenge offered by political Marxists to those of us who seek to ground the rise of capitalism in developments outside England alone is the problem of infinite regress. Latin America scholar Jeffery Webber put this forward in the discussion. If American gold, and warfare in southeastern Europe, and the Mongol hordes… were all necessary to the rise of capitalism, then can we say the developments that led to each of them were necessary, and so on back to the rise of class society itself?

Post capitalised on this in his response. As he noted, it’s all well and good to take account of many developments that contributed to the rise of capitalism. The key thing, however, is to identify which ones were most important. For him and other political Marxists, the emergence of capitalist social-property relations in English agriculture is clearly the superordinate development without which capitalism could not emerge as a mode of production. While the others may have been necessary in some sense, they could have still happened without producing capitalism.

As for myself, I find it useful to ask the reverse question: assuming English capitalism emerged more or less along the lines Brenner says it does, could it have survived and thrived without the colonies, without an established world commercial system, and so on? I see the linking of the two as the major accomplishment of How the West Came to Rule, which restates and elaborates Marx’s account of the transition.

There is not likely to be much common ground between political Marxists and those such as Anievas and Nişancioğlu, as well as Davidson and Jairus Banaji who attempt to frame an alternative, more orthodox Marxist account of capitalism’s birth. At a certain point we’ll have to agree to disagree, and go off to see whose account is more useful. Nevertheless, it was refreshing to see both political Marxists (Post and Pal) and their opponents (Anievas, Nişancioğlu and Davidson) in the same room agreeing on the importance of How the West Came to Rule in its ambition, its scope and the challenges it poses to future Marxist accounts of the transition.

As someone with a completely nerdy fascination with the transition debate, and who found Anievas and Nişancioğlu ’s work quite compelling, this was one of the best sessions of a brilliant conference. Hopefully the contributions of each participant will become available in publication, and I look forward to future discussion of their book.


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