Readers will have to judge for themselves whether or not I have mischaracterized Paul Sweezy’s arguments. I do not think my understanding of his case is idiosyncratic. Other writers, most recently John Merrington in his ‘Town and Country in the Development of Capitalism’ (nlr 93, September–October 1975, pp. 71–5), have emphasized not only the derivation of Sweezy’s arguments from Henri Pirenne’s, but the parallel between the arguments of both of them and that of Adam Smith—especially, Smith’s ‘smooth’, evolutionary interpretation of the transition through the rise of trade and the division of labour.

In his ‘Comment’, Sweezy once again states that he thinks that ‘trade undermined and disintegrated the feudal system’. I cannot repeat my argument here, but I stressed the analogies with Smith in Sweezy’s view that trade arose from outside the feudal system (The Transition from Feudalism to Capitalism, nlb 1976, pp. 39–40); that it gave rise more or less directly to ‘a system of production for exchange alongside the feudal system of production for use’ (Transition, p. 42); and that the former more or less directly destroyed and surpassed the latter by virtue of its superior efficiency and productive power. As Sweezy stated, ‘The superior efficiency of more highly specialized production, the greater gains to be made by producing for the market rather than for immediate use, the greater attractiveness of town life for the worker: these factors made it only a matter of time before the new system, once strong enough to stand on its own feet, would win out.’ (Transition, pp. 43–4) In my nlr essay (p. 41, note 18 and p. 54), I did state that Sweezy’s arguments appear to me ambivalent and self-contradictory, and that he seems aware of the difficulties involved with the trade-centred approach—especially the problems of class formation and class conflict which appear to be posed by the different paths of development of different European regions (e.g. the ‘second serfdom’ in Eastern Europe). But to the extent he tries to deal with them—that is, attempts to take account of the processes of class development and class struggle which were essential to the transition—it seems to me that he leaves the ground of his trade-centred position and begins to argue from the viewpoint which it was his original purpose to attack.

Sweezy’s reference to what he believes to be a key distinction between the processes of the decline of feudalism and the rise of capitalism, and to the long period of time which separated the two—first raised in his ‘Critique’ of Dobb—does not appear to me to change matters. Sweezy attempted to develop this distinction through positing a phase of ‘pre-capitalist commodity production’ between feudalism and capitalism. But as Dobb argued, this was not clearly worked out. (Transition, pp. 46–52, 62) Sweezy did not specify the developmental tendencies of ‘pre-capitalist commodity production’, most especially its relationship to capitalism. By what processes did it give rise to capitalism? How did its internal functioning differ from that of capitalism? Precisely for this reason, it is by no means simple to determine the relationship between Sweezy’s ‘pre-capitalist commodity production’ and the processes of class formation and class conflict associated with Marx’s ‘so-called primitive accumulation’, to which Sweezy now refers in his ‘Comment’. Thus, Sweezy did not clearly specify the sort of social-productive relations which prevailed under ‘pre-capitalist commodity production’, the manner in which they fettered further economic development toward capitalism or, for that matter, the precise nature of the conflictual and destructive processes of ‘so-called primitive accumulation’ which were ostensibly necessitated. Nor did Sweezy specify what conditions, other than the rise of the market, made it possible for the ‘so-called primitive accumulation’ to take place and succeed (in some places, while it failed in others). On the other hand, Sweezy seemed to end up by saying that the phase of ‘pre-capitalist commodity production’ was in fact dominated by individual market-producing tenant agriculturalists and artisan industrialists (Transition, pp. 51–2), and emphasized the instability of such relations. He did not, indeed, explain why ‘pre-capitalist commodity production’ would not advance more or less ‘smoothly’ and directly toward fully-developed capitalism under the impact of the market (as would be expected in a system of simple commodity producers), with individual producers giving way via economic competition to more efficient capitalist enterprises operating on the basis of wage labour, co-operative production and investment in fixed capital. In other words, Sweezy’s ‘Critique’ could give the impression that trade turns not only feudalism into ‘pre-capitalist commodity production’, but ‘pre-capitalist commodity production’ into capitalism. The place of relatively autonomous, ‘discontinuous’ processes of class development and class conflict was not made clear; or it appeared to be strictly subordinated to—the necessary effect of—the growth of trade.

Robert Brenner