When I read Robert Brenner’s article, I rubbed my eyes in wonderment.footnote1 It was a long time since I had last looked at the debate on the transition from feudalism to capitalism in which I participated along with Maurice Dobb and others some thirty years ago (recently re-issued in expanded form under the title The Transition from Feudalism to Capitalism, nlb 1976, cited in what follows from this edition). I certainly had no recollection whatever of having presented what Brenner calls a neo-Smithian account of the origins of capitalism (the growth of trade gives rise to increased division of labour, rising labour productivity, and a smooth transition to a self-generating process of capital expansion). Could it be that my memory had completely failed me, or was Brenner making it all up out of an apparently fertile imagination?
On re-reading the text, I was relieved to find that my memory was not at fault. I did indeed put much emphasis on the growth of trade, but my interpretation of its significance for the rise of capitalism was entirely different from that attributed to me by Brenner. Put briefly, my argument was 1. that trade undermined and disintegrated the feudal system; and 2. in Marx’s words (quoted on p. 50): ‘The circulation of commodities is the starting point of capital. Commodity production, trade, form the historical preconditions under which it arises. World trade and the world market open up in the sixteenth century the modern life history of capital.’
Please note that there is absolutely no implication here of a smooth and continuous transition. In fact I was at pains to stress my agreement with Dobb that the end of feudalism and the beginning of capitalism were separated by some two centuries. Nor should ‘historical preconditions’ be confused with effective cause. Here again, I made my agreement with Dobb as clear as I could: ‘In general, I agree fully with Dobb’s analysis of the rise of capitalism. It seems to me that his treatment of this problem is exceptionally clear and illuminating: I would be inclined to rate it the
In conclusion, let me say 1. that Brenner’s trouble is rooted in a failure to distinguish, analytically as well as chronologically, between the decline of feudalism and the rise of capitalism; and 2. that much of what he says about the rise of capitalism seems to me interesting and valuable.