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New Left Review I/104, July-August 1977


Robert Brenner

The Origins of Capitalist Development: A Critique of Neo-Smithian Marxism

The appearance of systematic barriers to economic advance in the course of capitalist expansion—the ‘development of underdevelopment’—has posed difficult problems for Marxist theory. [*] I wish to thank Alice Amsden, Johanna Brenner, Temma Kaplan, Barbara Laslett, Richard Smith and Jon Wiener for reading this manuscript and offering criticisms and suggestions. I am also grateful to Theda Skocpol for sending me, in advance of publication, her review essay on Immanuel Wallerstein’s The Modern World System, which was very helpful to me, especially on problems concerning the early modern European states. There has arisen, in response, a strong tendency sharply to revise Marx’s conceptions regarding economic development. In part, this has been a healthy reaction to the Marx of the Manifesto, who envisioned a more or less direct and inevitable process of capitalist expansion: undermining old modes of production, replacing them with capitalist social productive relations and, on this basis, setting off a process of capital accumulation and economic development more or less following the pattern of the original homelands of capitalism. In the famous phrases of the Communist Manifesto: ‘The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. Conservation of the old modes of production in an altered form was, on the contrary, the first condition of existence for all earlier industrial classes. Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty, and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. The bourgeoisie . . . draw all, even the most barbarian nations into civilization. The cheap prices of its commodities are the heavy artillery with which it batters down all Chinese walls . . . It compels all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production; it compels them to introduce what it calls civilization into their midst, to become bourgeois themselves. In a word, it creates a world after its own image.’

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