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New Left Review I/207, September-October 1994

Alex Callinicos

England’s Transition to Capitalism

Robert Brenner’s formidable reputation as one of the leading Marxist historians of his generation has rested till now on a series of bold interpretive essays in which he has sought to develop a distinct account of the transition from feudalism to capitalism. Chief among these are two articles, published in Past and Present in 1976 and 1982 respectively, which frame the debate that was provoked by Brenner’s explanation of the main trajectories of rural development in early modern Europe. [1] Robert Brenner, ‘Agrarian Class Structure and Economic Development in Pre-Industrial Europe’, and ‘The Agrarian Roots of European Capitalism’, both reprinted in T.H. Aston and C.H.E. Philpin, eds, The Brenner Debate, Cambridge 1985. Other essays have generalized from the particular conception of capitalism outlined in these articles, or have sought to use it to clarify other, more contemporary issues such as the plight of American capitalism and the collapse of the Stalinist regimes. [2] For example, Robert Brenner, ‘The Origins of Capitalist Development: A Critique of the Neo-Smithian Marxism’, nlr 104 (1977); ‘The Social Basis of Economic Development’, in John Roemer, ed., Analytical Marxism, Cambridge 1986; ‘The Deeper Roots of us Economic Decline’, Against the Current, n.s. 2 (1986), ‘Political Effects of us Economic Decline’, ibid, n.s. 3 (1986) and ‘The Soviet Union and Eastern Europe’, ibid., n.s. 3o and 31, 1991. Up to now, this remarkable body of work has to a large degree fallen within the canon of what has come to be known as historical sociology; it is concerned, that is, with identifying large-scale patterns of development over long spans of time, and has relied heavily on comparisons between different social formations as a means of developing and substantiating its arguments.

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