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New Left Review I/184, November-December 1990


Ellen Meiksins Wood

Explaining Everything or Nothing?

Alan Carling accuses me of ‘everythingism’—that is, of believing that ‘you need a complete explanation of something before you can have any explanation of something.’ Do I really? I thought I was stating a rather more modest requirement, namely that a ‘paradigm’ like rcm, which claims to improve on, indeed to replace, ‘classical’ Marxism, ought to add more than it subtracts from existing explanations. It was, after all, not I who made extravagant claims for rcm, that ‘it is now only within the rational-choice context that some of the leading questions on the classical agenda of Marxist theory—historical explanation and the delineation of social form, the collective dynamics of class struggle, the evolution and evaluation of capitalism—can be fruitfully discussed.’ [1] Alan Carling, ‘Rational Choice Marxism’, nlr 160, November–December 1986, p. 55. If Carling now wants drastically to modify those claims, by effectively conceding my principal argument that all the important theoretical and empirical work needs to be done in advance of applying the rcm model, then that’s fine with me.

I do not think, however, that Carling realizes the extent of the concessions he has made. He writes that he is ‘happy to second’ my criticism that rational-choice explanation ‘does not,’ as he puts it, ‘explain what it treats as a presupposition of its explanations.’ He continues: ‘and since the presuppositions often include (1) the preferences of the actor and (2) the social context in which the actor acts, rational-choice explanation often does not explain either the preferences or the social context of the actor.’ Surely this is a huge concession which leaves very little of rcm’s pretensions intact.

Rational Choice Marxism, if it is to make good its claims as something more than a very modest and limited parenthesis in the large corpus of Marxist theory, must be distinguished by more than the simple assumption that people (often) act reasonably. This much is assumed by classical Marxism—as is clear from Marx’s own analysis of capitalism, for example. But the core of any social explanation that centres on rational agency must then consist of specifying and explaining the social structures which set the terms of what is reasonable and preferable in any given context, and illuminating the different criteria of reasonableness or eligibility established by different systems of social relations. Carling now acknowledges that rcm is not much use in that respect, since it simply assumes the structures that need to be explained. (I also argued that rcm actually detracts from Marxism’s ability to construct such explanations.) He concedes that the hard work must be done in advance by some other means, but it is not clear to me what he thinks rcm adds to these prior theoretical and empirical accounts of structures and preferences—apart from their translation into formal models which themselves play no role in the construction of the explanation, and probably mystify more than they clarify. It is not clear, in other words, what he thinks is left for the rational-choice model to explain, once it assumes a given set of structures and preferences.

Carling might claim that rcm has the advantage of giving higher priority to the individual, but is that really true? rcm’s characteristic procedure is to impute preferences and structures, in the form of ‘resources’ or ‘assets’, to abstract individuals, in effect deducing their motivations from the structures or ‘macroprocesses’ themselves. The individual thus becomes, as I argued before, little more than an embodied structure. In fact, rcm explanations are even further abstracted from individual rationality and agency by the tendency, especially visible in Roemer (in contrast to ‘classical’ Marxism) to impose a transhistorical ‘rationality’, derived from capitalism, on all actors irrespective of their specific historical contexts. Even at lower levels of abstraction, in the study of particular empirical phenomena, rational-choice explanations typically derive whatever explanatory power they have not from the application of the rational-choice model but from a specification of the context in which the relevant choices are made.

If Every Textbook Contained Roemer’s Proof...

One major question I set out to answer in my text was whether, even if we grant Roemer his moral argument against capitalism, the price he exacts for it is worth paying. What effect, I ask, does it have on Marxist theory as a whole? Carling simply misreads the question. ‘Are you kidding?’ he asks indignantly. Would it not make a big difference if every neoclassical economic textbook contained a proof of capitalism’s exploitative character? Evidently he takes my question to be a rhetorical one, meaning that I am denying the huge effects of Roemer’s moral argument—when, of course, my contention is quite the opposite: that Roemer’s argument does indeed, and profoundly, affect his whole project of reconstructing Marxism, by undermining its explanatory power.

But since Carling has asked me a question, let me briefly try to answer it. Economists, it is true, tend to lag behind the rest of the world in acknowledging social realities, preferring to deal with abstract and formalistic models which have little to do with the substance of social life. In that sense, it would, of course, be very nice if economics textbooks contained a Roemerian proof. But would it make as much difference as Carling thinks? Conventional sociology, for example, has long been ready to acknowledge that inequality breeds inequality. Max Weber, after all, knew all about the consequences of unequal ‘market chances’, and standard sociology textbooks dealing with ‘stratification’ freely acknowledge these Weberian insights. Does Roemer really go beyond this?

There are now many even on the left (see Göran Therborn’s article in Marxism Today some time ago [2] Göran Therborn, ‘Vorsprung durch Rethink’, Marxism Today, February 1989, p. 28.) who question the relevance of ‘exploitation’ as an organizing category in the analysis of advanced capitalist societies. They are hardly likely to be convinced by formalistic mathematical proofs. Indeed, they would probably dismiss the relevance of the concept precisely on the grounds that in prosperous Western capitalisms exploitation has little meaning except as an abstract mathematical formula. This is, to be sure, an inexcusably sanguine view of capitalist prosperity, given the current, and growing, extent of poverty, homelessness and despair in advanced capitalist societies (not to mention the wastefulness and destructiveness of capitalism even at its best); but the proponents of this view are unlikely to be shaken by yet more mathematics—and apologists for capitalism even less so. If theories of exploitation are to be convincing, they need to be capable of explaining something—for example, the systemic logic and crises of capitalism which produce not only poverty and degradation but also waste, destruction, despoliation of the environment, the debasement of culture, and other consequences that deeply affect the lives even of those who are not materially disadvantaged by the system. Whatever Roemer’s model may tell us about exploitation as a moral problem, it detaches the theory of exploitation from any explanation of capitalism as a specific social system of production and accumulation; indeed it discards the very features of Marxist theory that allow it to deal with exploitation as a social relation and the driving mechanism of the capitalist system.

But if my principal theme was the explanatory weakness of rcm, it also needs to be added that the moral force of Roemer’s theory is itself pretty weak. A theoretical paradigm that asks us to view the transition from feudalism to capitalism as a benign interlude, during which serfs were offered a choice between the blandishments of feudal lords and the seductions of capitalists holding out the benefits of a proletarian condition, is hardly equipped to expose the harsher realities of capitalism. How much would Roemer’s moral indictment of capitalism mean to, say, Eastern European advocates of the ‘market economy?’

Begging the Questions of History—Again

It is Carling’s privilege to claim that he understands Robert Brenner better than I do, but does he really want to claim a better understanding than Brenner has of himself? At any rate, until Carling spells out his argument as he promises to do in his forthcoming book, I am obliged to suppose that, in order to pin the rcm label on Brenner who has explicitly refused it, Carling will have to define rcm with even less specificity than he has so far, even repudiating the methodological individualism which Roemer and others have regarded as an essential feature. Who knows? If rcm is defined loosely enough—for example, if it simply requires accepting that some regular social patterns are produced by people behaving reasonably in any given context—even I might qualify.

On the more substantive issue of Brenner’s theory of history and Carling’s attempt to reconcile Brenner with G.A. Cohen: Carling confirms in spades my conviction that rcm cannot explain history without assuming the very thing that needs to be explained. As I understand it, his argument proceeds as follows: (1) Brenner depicts feudalism as fundamentally static; (2) he therefore needs capitalism to get development going; (3) he therefore needs Cohen’s functional explanation, which, applied to Brenner’s account of English development, would suggest that the specific conditions that compelled England to ‘get development going’ had to occur; or more specifically, that if this particular England had not existed, there would have been another one (‘There will always be an England’, Carling wittily observes).

The leaps in this argument are truly prodigious. First, Brenner does not say that feudalism had no dynamic of its own, only that it had no systemic impulse to increase productivity by technical innovation (which is not, by the way, the same as saying that no technological innovations occurred). Indeed, his whole argument concerning the transition is predicated on the specific dynamic, the laws of motion, set in train by feudal property relations. Second, the proposition that ‘feudalism fetters the development of the forces of production; capitalism fosters their development’ does not mean that the development of productive forces is the motor of history, nor does it mean that capitalism had to occur, or that there had to be an England. It is completely unwarranted to jump from the unexceptionable proposition that capitalism uniquely fosters technological development to the contention that capitalism developed because it fosters technological development, or the even stronger claim that capitalism had to develop because history somehow requires the development of productive forces, or because less productive systems are necessarily followed by more productive ones. (If fostering the development of productive forces is the only principle of historical motion that Carling recognizes, and if the failure to foster such development means, by definition, stagnation, how would he explain historical transformations which did not take the form of advancing technical development—say, the decline of imperial Rome? But more on this later, in reply to Alex Callinicos.)

In short, Brenner has no need of Cohen. We need Cohen only if we start with Cohen, that is, only if we begin, as Carling does, with the assumption that the development of productive forces is the only available principle of historical movement from one mode of production to another, only if we assume the very thing that needs to be demonstrated. I cannot deny with absolute certainty that if there had not been one England there would have been another. Maybe there would have been. But we cannot simply assume it, and we certainly cannot allow the assumption to serve as a substitute for historical explanation. For that matter, we can do very nicely without the assumption that ‘there will always be an England’. There is, and could be, no evidence to support such a completely non-falsifiable proposition; and why do we need it anyway? Why is it not enough to say that there was an England? It is certainly reasonable to argue that, once capitalism had established itself, its spread was inevitable, because of its specific drive and capacity for self-expansion. But this says nothing about the necessity of its emergence, or even about the mechanisms by which it occurred.

Brenner seeks the moving force for the transition from feudalism within the dynamic of feudalism itself, not by reading capitalist principles and motivations back into history, nor by assuming some transhistorical ‘general theory’ of motion. Carling—not surprisingly, given the static quality of rcm’s ‘non-relational’ theory of exploitation—apparently cannot accept that the contradictions within a specific structure of social relations, with its own specific forms of activity, can set in motion a transformation into another social form. This is why he cannot accept that Brenner’s ‘special’ theory of feudalism can explain the transition without extraneous and circular assumptions derived from the ‘general’ theory of technological determinism. Here we have the perfect illustration of my central argument about rcm’s approach to history, about its irreducible need to assume the very thing that has to be explained.

On Markets and Other Matters

On politics: I am aware—and stated clearly—that there is a range of political views among rcmists. I am also aware that Roemer dislikes capitalism and has strongly criticized it. It is, I think, the greatest virtue of his work that he regards the critique of capitalism as a primary task of socialist theory, at a time when so many on the left have abandoned that project. But my argument was that the weakness of the rcm paradigm as a basis for criticizing capitalism is most strikingly illustrated by the fact that the one major exponent of the paradigm who has most systematically attacked capitalism has erected such a weak barrier against right-wing triumphalism, because his hands are tied by the narrowly formalistic requirements of the model and its subjection to the conceptual demands of neoclassical economics.

Carling takes exception to my statement that he himself effectively presents socialism as if it were ‘simply a quantitative improvement, an extension of capitalist freedom and equality’. I shall accept his insistence that he did not intend to lump equality together with freedom as a good partially provided by capitalism, though he repeatedly pairs them in precisely this way [3] See, for example, Carling, ‘Rational Choice Marxism’, p. 33. (and though he could legitimately argue that capitalism does advance equality in much the same ways and degrees that it advances freedom, by discarding ‘extra-economic’ and ‘prescriptive’ determinants). At any rate, my argument had to do specifically with his treatment of the market as a sphere of freedom, and on this score he made it very clear that socialism should be conceived as offering a wider distribution of this capitalist good. I objected to his formulation not because it acknowledges some kind of (limited) truth in capitalism’s claim to freedom and equality, nor even because it maintains that the capitalist market offers certain choices. My objection is rather that his account of the market is uncritical and onesided, that the market appears there above all—indeed only—as a sphere of freedom and not also a compulsion, a system of coercion. Even if we leave aside the typical function of the capitalist market as an instrument of power for large multinational capital, what about its imperatives of competition, profitability, and the commodification of all social values and relationships? Are these not compulsions which determine the disposition of people and resources in ways antithetical to freedom, democracy and self-determination as conceived by the socialist project? There is nothing ambiguous about Carling’s assertion that, while the workplace and the state are spheres of coercion, ‘the marketplace really is a free space’? [4] Ibid., p. 36. Carling refers, more or less dismissively, to the view that ‘what passes for freedom under capitalism is a covert form of oppression’ (‘Rational Choice Marxism’, p. 33); but, curiously, he has in mind only the manipulation of consumer demand, and takes no account of the more fundamental ways in which the capitalist market determines human lives and relationships, through the disposition of labour and resources, the imperatives of competition not only among capitalists but also among workers, and the commodification of all social life. This is an extraordinary proposition coming from someone who claims a better insight into the operations of capitalism than is possessed by ‘classical’ Marxism. And if our account of capitalist coercion is inadequate, on what basis will we construct our conception of socialist emancipation? Now, more than ever, we need to be clear about this, when advocates of marketization, East and West, identify freedom and democracy with the capitalist market, and are studiously evasive about its compulsions or about how they propose to separate out its freedoms and choices from its restrictions and coercions (when they are not openly embracing the market because of its coercions).

Finally, a very short comment on the ‘rational actor’. Here Carling just invents an argument for me and then proceeds to knock down his own straw man. I have no difficulty regarding, say, feudal lords or peasants as ‘rational actors’. Nor do I, as Carling suggests, criticize rcm on the specious grounds that the idea of a ‘rational actor’ is somehow reactionary. I do object to rcm’s tendency to universalize a particular form of rationality specific to capitalism, but I also maintain that the rcm claim to give centre stage to the ‘rational actor’ is largely spurious. The ‘rational individual’, with all his/her assets, turns out to be an embodied structure, and even (especially in Roemer’s account of history) the carrier of universal historical laws, the transhistorical logic of technological determinism.

What all this amounts to is that Alan Carling has failed to answer any one of my principal criticisms of Rational Choice Marxism: about its explanatory weakness (which he apparently concedes), about its question-begging and circular conception of history (which he simply reproduces), and about the explanatory price we are asked to pay for the meagre benefits of a moral argument too weak to withstand the onslaughts of capitalist triumphalism (which he just ignores). It is, again, to Roemer’s credit that, against the prevailing tide, he still regards the critique of capitalism as a major intellectual project for the left. But we need something a good deal more powerful than rcm as a basis for criticizing capitalism—especially now, when apologists for capitalism are not only declaring its final victory (as if it were no longer producing massive poverty, destruction of the environment, violent crime and cultural degradation) but even announcing the end of history altogether. Now, more than ever, we need something which does indeed creatively improve on ‘classical’ Marxism. Nothing Carling has said persuades me that rcm is it—or, for that matter, that we gain from it more than we lose.

A Few Observations in Response to Alex Callinicos: Forces and Relations of Production

In challenging Carling’s account of history, I asked what he would make of historical changes that did not take the form of advancing the forces of production, for example, the collapse of classical antiquity. A similar question might be put to Alex Callinicos, the more so as he cites the decline of Rome as a prime example against my version of historical materialism. I do not intend to debate ancient history with him, but the example is instructive and provides a useful point of entry into his interpretation of historical materialism.

Callinicos seems to have little sympathy for crude technological determinism (though it is not always clear how his own position differs from it). Instead, he castigates me for paying insufficient attention to the principle of contradiction, specifically the contradiction between forces and relations of production as the chief mechanism of major social transformations. The Roman case is meant to illustrate how such systemic contradictions (as distinct from some ‘voluntaristic’ agency like class struggle) produce historical change.

What, then, does the contradiction between forces and relations mean? It is not entirely clear what Callinicos wants it to mean, since his statement of the principle does not coincide with the historical examples he invokes to illustrate it. The explicitly stated principle, at any rate, has to do with dynamic impulses created by the development of productive forces: forces of production tend to develop, he argues; at some point, they come up against the limits imposed by production relations which make further development impossible; this contradiction compels productive forces to break through the restrictive integument, requiring relations of production to change and allowing forces to advance.

But what actually happens in the Roman case, as Callinicos himself understands it (via Geoffrey de Ste Croix as summarized by Perry Anderson)? Here is the systemic contradiction described by Anderson, interpreting Ste Croix: ‘a decline in the supply of slave labour consequent on low rates of internal reproduction, leading to offsetting attempts at slave-breeding, decreasing the rate of exploitation, which then necessitated complementary depression of free labour to sustain overall levels of surplus extraction.’ [5] Perry Anderson, ‘Class Struggle in the Ancient World’, History Workshop Journal 16, Autumn 1983, p. 68. Whether or not this is an adequate explanation of the transition from antiquity to feudalism, what does it tell us about the meaning of the contradiction that Callinicos has in mind? Here we have a case where the primary appropriating class reached the limits of surplus extraction and sought to compensate for a declining rate of exploitation by depressing the condition of peasant producers in order to widen the range of its appropriative powers. This was not a case where dynamic forces taxed the limits of restrictive relations. If productive forces were ‘fettered’, it is not in the sense that their inherent tendency to develop was thwarted, but rather that such a tendency was largely absent, or very weak, in the prevailing production relations, which encouraged the extension of extraeconomic surplus extraction instead of the improvement of labour productivity. Nor can it be said that production relations were compelled to assume a new form more conducive to the development of productive forces. On the contrary, it was more a matter of relations of production adapting to the limits of productive forces, a reorganization of surplus extraction to accommodate the limitations of production. As the imperial infrastructure—its cities, its road systems, its wealth, its population—disintegrated, and as the empire became increasingly vulnerable to ‘barbarian’ invasions (by peoples with less developed productive forces), the apparatus of surplus appropriation was effectively scaled down to the level of existing productive forces.

Although evidence is sparse, it can even be argued (as Marx and Engels, incidentally, did argue, for example in The German Ideology), that the result was a destruction of productive forces, a regression from the development of Roman antiquity. At any rate, long after the ‘crisis’, indeed after the better part of a millennium, the level of material life remained very low; and economic growth, when it did occur, for a long time was based not so much on the improvement of productivity as on the ‘extra-economic’ logic of a war economy, the logic of coercive appropriation and pillage. [6] See, for example, Georges Duby, The Early Growth of the European Economy, Ithaca 1974, p. 269. Feudalism did eventually bring about technical developments (though their extent remains a subject of controversy); but by this time, surely, the causal thread between the crisis of antiquity and the development of productive forces has worn rather thin. The connections would be exceedingly tenuous even if Callinicos were to reverse the order of causality, from his claim that developing productive forces strain the fetters of restrictive production relations, to an argument that production relations change to encourage the advancement of stagnant productive forces. If we are prepared to accept this kind of timescale, we can probably claim a direct causal link between almost any two widely separated historical episodes, without regard to the duration and complexity of intervening processes; but how informative would such a causal explanation be? And it still remains a question whether the availability (which by no means guaranteed the widespread utilization [7] See Robert Brenner, The Brenner Debate, Cambridge 1985, pp. 32, 233.) of technical innovations when they did occur determined social change—the more so as differences in the rate and direction of social transformations between, say, England (where agrarian capitalism eventually emerged) and France (where agrarian stagnation eventually set in) simply did not correspond to differences in their respective feudal technologies.

Contradictions and Rules for Reproduction

We can certainly call the Roman pattern an example of the contradiction between forces and relations of production; but if we do, we must mean something different from even the weakest formulation to which Callinicos subscribes, quoting Erik Olin Wright, namely that ‘the “weak impulse” for the forces to develop creates what Wright calls “a dynamic asymmetry” between the forces and relations such that “eventually the forces will reach a point at which they are ‘fettered’, that is, a point at which further development is impossible in the absence of transformation in the relations of production.”’ (n. 20) Although Wright hedges this proposition about with many disclaimers about the ‘weakness’ of the impulse, in Callinicos’s interpretation it clearly implies that historical movement is generated by the developmental impulse of productive forces. He maintains that ‘The conflict between the forces and relations of production can only serve as a mechanism of social change if the productive forces tend to develop and thereby become incompatible with existing relations.’ This means, unambiguously, that it is the advance of productive forces which impels history forward. Yet Callinicos cites as a prime example the case of Rome, where the ‘contradiction’ served as a mechanism of change not because forces were developing beyond the capacity of existing relations, nor even by bringing about an enabling transformation of social relations which had the effect of shifting stagnant forces of production, but, on the contrary, by compelling relations to sink to the level of productive forces. To accommodate this example, then, we would have to include among the possible outcomes of the contradiction the adaptation of production relations to the ‘fetters’ of productive forces, and perhaps even the destruction of those forces.

These difficulties cannot be overcome simply by adopting some version of Cohen’s ‘functional’ explanation, which allows a temporal priority to changes in production relations as long as we assume that the underlying reason for such changes is the need to advance the forces of production. This kind of ‘explanation’ works as a general account of history only if, as I have argued on other occasions, we are prepared to interpret it with such vacuous generality as to include every possibility from the revolutionary improvement of productive forces to their stagnation, even regression. This is not, of course, to deny that technical innovations occurred in pre-capitalist societies, or even that there were incremental and cumulative developments. The question is whether these developments constituted the dynamic force that motivated historical change—either (causally) before or (‘functionally’) after the fact. [8] Callinicos seems not to understand the difference between propositions having to do with the occurrence of technical innovations and those concerning the dynamics of historical change. For example, he accuses Brenner of acknowledging no differences in levels of development among various pre-capitalist societies, but he cites a passage which says nothing of the kind. Brenner’s argument is not that all pre-capitalist societies are on the same level of technological development, but rather that their various property relations have in common a tendency to encourage the expansion of extraeconomic surplus extraction rather than the improvement of labour productivity. This is why (see, for example, the passages cited in note 7 on p. 112 above) any failures to improve agricultural productivity in such cases may have less to do with the unavailability of new techniques than with the under-utilization even of existing technologies. This is not an issue that can be resolved by invoking a priori, universalistic and question-begging assumptions about the progressive directionality of history.

It would be better not to talk about the forces of production as if they represented an autonomous principle of historical movement, somehow external to any given system of social relations. Even if over the long term there is a cumulative directionality in the progress of human knowledge and technology, the cumulative continuities of history do not alter the fact that each distinct mode of production has its own specific connections between forces and relations of production, its own specific contradictions—or perhaps we should say, to use Brenner’s formulation, its own specific ‘rules for reproduction’. Let us take the Roman case (as described by Callinicos). What is at stake here is a crisis of appropriation. What makes it a crisis is not that sluggish production relations restrict the further development of (more or less) dynamic productive forces. It is rather that, within the limits of existing conditions, within the prevailing ensemble of productive forces and relations, the principal classes can no longer successfully pursue their normal strategies of self-reproduction. (Class struggle enters into the process here, and not simply at the point of transition, since strategies of reproduction are determined not in isolation but in relations between appropriators and producers.) When they reach their viable limits, the strategies are likely to change. This does not, however, necessarily imply the adoption of strategies more conducive to the advancement of productive forces. In pre-capitalist societies generally, the outcome is more likely to be an adjustment in the scope and methods of surplus extraction, or a reorganization of the extra-economic forces which constitute the power of appropriation, whether by direct exploitation or by pillage and war: the state, the military apparatus, and so on. (This also means, incidentally, that the advantage which any particular society may have in relation to others need not be directly proportional to the level of its productive forces. [9] This point relates to the argument put forward by Christopher Bertram in ‘International Competition in Historical Materialism’, nlr 183, September–October 1990, pp. 116–128. We cannot generalize throughout history the rules of international capitalist competition which give the competitive advantage to more productive economies—though even here, geopolitical or military superiority may not neatly coincide with productivity. In pre-capitalist societies, the effective organization of ‘extraeconomic’ resources is likely to be decisive.) The available productive capacities certainly establish the limits of the possible, but to say this is not to say either that less productive systems must necessarily be followed by more productive ones, or even that the developmental impulses of productive forces determine the necessity and direction of historical change.

The Specificity of Capitalism

This is precisely the reason for insisting on the specificity of capitalism, as distinct from other modes of production, and especially the specificity of its relationship between forces and relations of production. The transition to capitalism is historically unique because it represents the first case in which a crisis in strategies of reproduction produced not simply a transformation in modes of appropriation but a process the result of which was a wholly new and continuous drive to revolutionize the forces of production. It is specifically in capitalism that the dynamic impulse of productive forces can be regarded as a primary mechanism of social change. Capitalism is also unique in its particular systemic contradictions between forces and relations of production: its unprecedented drive to develop and socialize the forces of production—not least in the form of the working class—constantly comes up against the limits of its primary purpose, the selfexpansion of capital, which is sometimes impelled even to destroy productive capacities (as Thatcher’s Britain has reason to know). Socialism can no doubt be understood as building upon the developments of capitalism, while resolving its specific contradictions; but to acknowledge the specificity of capitalism is at the same time to insist on the specificity of socialism, not simply as an extension of, or an improvement upon, capitalism but as a system of social relations with an inherent logic of its own—a system not driven by the imperatives of accumulation and so-called ‘growth’, with their attendant waste, destruction and ecological devastation; a system whose values and creative impulses are not circumscribed by constricted notions of technological progress.

Callinicos thinks my version of historical materialism is too ‘voluntaristic’, too insensitive to objective determinations and structural contradictions. But we can recognize the particular structural contradictions of pre-capitalist societies, or capitalism’s own specific laws of motion and propensity to crisis, without reading the crises and contradictions of capitalism back into all history. [10] Incidentally, I did not, as Callinicos suggests, concede to Rational Choice Marxism its critique of the labour theory of value. On the contrary, I argued that, if we concede to Roemer his alternative theory of exploitation as a moral argument against capitalism, the theory is deprived of any explanatory power, any capacity to explain capitalism’s laws of motion, including its crises. The issue of ‘voluntarism’, which Callinicos regularly throws in my face (in what has become a more or less annual fixture), is a red herring, because the dispute between us is not about whether class struggle occurs within a framework of ‘objective’ determinations and structural contradictions, but rather about the particular nature of those determinations and contradictions themselves. If Callinicos is worried that my version of historical materialism tends toward a ‘collapse into social democracy’, he should keep in mind that the classic social democratic argument rests on a generalization of capitalist principles, a tendency to turn the historically specific laws of motion of one mode of production into a general law of nature, a refusal to acknowledge the specificity of capitalism and its systemic contradictions.

I suspect that Callinicos’s chief motivation is a desire to rescue, if not technological determinism, then some weaker form of historical unilinearism, according to which all history, sooner or later, must follow a single inexorable logic leading to capitalism—the ultimate outcome of which will be socialism. That this is his intention is suggested by his invocation of various problematic and question-begging formulae which have the effect of uncritically inscribing capitalism (and its supersession) in the universal laws of history. For example, he takes issue with George Comninel’s Rethinking the French Revolution (Verso, London 1987) on the grounds that his distinction between capitalist appropriation and commercial profit-taking fails to take into account ‘the extent to which early modern merchant capitalism...provided a framework for the emergence of what Lenin called “transitional forms”’. The problem here is that the coupling of ‘merchant’ with ‘capitalism’ begs the central question, assuming precisely what needs to be demonstrated, that mercantile activity as such contains an impulse toward capitalism, and that no distinctions need to be made between cases where commercial profit-taking does imply capitalism, with its systemic logic of accumulation, and those where it does not. Unlike Comninel, Callinicos ignores the prevailing context of property relations within which these activities take place. This is Pirenne et al.—the identification of capitalism with trade and its generalization throughout all history—all over again.

The concept of ‘proto-industrialization’ is equally problematic, suggesting that ‘the spread of rural industry’ somehow contained within itself the germs of industrial capitalism. Again, no account is taken here of the differences between, on the one hand, a self limiting rural industry still constrained by pre-capitalist social relations and showing no sign of a capacity to overcome those traditional restrictions, and, on the other hand, the specific case of England, whose already transformed economy, based on agrarian capitalism, was unique in its capacity to break through these age-old limitations, ‘its ability to sustain continuing industrial and overall economic growth in the face of the crisis and stagnation of the traditionally predominant cloth export industry.’ [11] Brenner, The Brenner Debate, p. 325. Perhaps Callinicos could, if he tried, really demonstrate that rural industry in, say, France contained the seeds of capitalism—not just the possibility of capitalism, given some external impulse (such as prior developments in, and competitive pressures from, England), but an internal impulse toward it. He is not, however, entitled simply to conceptualize the problem away by using language loaded with the very presuppositions that are in question.

I can sympathize with the wish to recapture history for socialism at a time of general retreat from the socialist project. I do actually think that ‘history is on our side’—but not in the sense that socialism has been inscribed in the inexorable laws of progress since the dawn of history, or that its coming is inevitable. For me, it is more a matter of the historically specific and unique possibilities and tensions created by capitalism which have put socialism on the agenda and produced the conditions for bringing it about. Even in Eastern Europe, where there are already signs of a return to old contradictions and class conflicts as the ‘discipline’ of the market takes hold, there may yet be an opportunity for the first time to test the proposition that the conditions of socialist emancipation reside in the specific contradictions of capitalism.




[1] Alan Carling, ‘Rational Choice Marxism’, nlr 160, November–December 1986, p. 55.

[2] Göran Therborn, ‘Vorsprung durch Rethink’, Marxism Today, February 1989, p. 28.

[3] See, for example, Carling, ‘Rational Choice Marxism’, p. 33.

[4] Ibid., p. 36. Carling refers, more or less dismissively, to the view that ‘what passes for freedom under capitalism is a covert form of oppression’ (‘Rational Choice Marxism’, p. 33); but, curiously, he has in mind only the manipulation of consumer demand, and takes no account of the more fundamental ways in which the capitalist market determines human lives and relationships, through the disposition of labour and resources, the imperatives of competition not only among capitalists but also among workers, and the commodification of all social life.

[5] Perry Anderson, ‘Class Struggle in the Ancient World’, History Workshop Journal 16, Autumn 1983, p. 68.

[6] See, for example, Georges Duby, The Early Growth of the European Economy, Ithaca 1974, p. 269.

[7] See Robert Brenner, The Brenner Debate, Cambridge 1985, pp. 32, 233.

[8] Callinicos seems not to understand the difference between propositions having to do with the occurrence of technical innovations and those concerning the dynamics of historical change. For example, he accuses Brenner of acknowledging no differences in levels of development among various pre-capitalist societies, but he cites a passage which says nothing of the kind. Brenner’s argument is not that all pre-capitalist societies are on the same level of technological development, but rather that their various property relations have in common a tendency to encourage the expansion of extraeconomic surplus extraction rather than the improvement of labour productivity. This is why (see, for example, the passages cited in note 7 on p. 112 above) any failures to improve agricultural productivity in such cases may have less to do with the unavailability of new techniques than with the under-utilization even of existing technologies.

[9] This point relates to the argument put forward by Christopher Bertram in ‘International Competition in Historical Materialism’, nlr 183, September–October 1990, pp. 116–128.

[10] Incidentally, I did not, as Callinicos suggests, concede to Rational Choice Marxism its critique of the labour theory of value. On the contrary, I argued that, if we concede to Roemer his alternative theory of exploitation as a moral argument against capitalism, the theory is deprived of any explanatory power, any capacity to explain capitalism’s laws of motion, including its crises.

[11] Brenner, The Brenner Debate, p. 325.

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