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New Left Review I/109, May-June 1978

Ben Fine

On the Origins of Capitalist Development Remarks

Robert Brenner’s article in nlr 104 concerns a number of issues that have been the subject of debate within Marxism. [1] ‘The Origins of Capitalist Development: a Critique of Neo-Smithian Marxism’, nlr 104, July/August 1977. Its focus is the explanation of the origins of capitalism, and related but not identical to this is the analysis of the transition from feudalism to capitalism. [2] The starting-point for any such debate is Marx’s theories of primitive accumulation, pre-capitalist forms of capital, and genesis of capitalist ground-rent—the first to be found in Volume I, the latter in Volume III of Capital. The debate on the origins of capitalism has continued in Rodney Hilton (ed.), The Transition from Feudalism to Capitalism, nlb 1976. Moreover, a distinction must be drawn between the origins of capitalism, the first transition, and the process of transition in the presence of existing capitalist formations. As such, considerations of the external forces (commerce) on pre-capitalist societies are integrated with an analysis of the internal dynamic of class structure, and conflict within the latter seen as primary. In contrast, Paul Sweezy, Immanuel Wallerstein and André Gunder Frank are shown to emphasize the role of exchange as the determinant rather than the stimulus of changes in class structure (and mode of production). As a result, Brenner is able to criticize the theory of surplus transfer associated with Frank, [3] See also, Arghiri Emmanuel, Unequal Exchange, nlb 1972; and the work of Samir Amin, e.g. Accumulation on a World Scale, New York 1974. both in terms of its historical and conceptual explanatory power and for its failure to draw the distinction between exchange-orientated and capital-based modes of production. Unequal exchange relegates class relations of production and their development to a subordinate role in any analysis. Again, this is not a new observation, but Brenner’s analysis sheds new light on all of these issues, first by bringing them together, and secondly by showing that the authors he criticizes share a common (and incorrect) problematic with Adam Smith, even if they draw different conclusions about the efficacy of the market-inspired division of labour for the periphery as opposed to the metropolis.

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