Robert Brenner’s article in nlr 104 concerns a number of issues that have been the subject of debate within Marxism.footnote1 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.footnote2 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,footnote3 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.

Brenner’s accomplishment is significant because of the great popularity enjoyed by theories of unequal exchange as an explanation of the development of underdevelopment from the origins of capitalism to the present day. What is revealed by Brenner’s success in criticizing unequal exchange as a theory of the origins of capitalism, however, is the poverty of the criticism so far levelled against the theory in relation to subsequent periods of capitalism. Here, theorization based on analysis of the development of class structure has simply been counterposed as the ‘correct’ alternative to (unequal) exchange-orientated explanations.footnote4 There has hardly been any analysis of the interaction between the internal development of production and the ‘external’ stimulus provided by capital, whether through commerce or otherwise.footnote5 Consequently, underdevelopment itself has not been adequately explained nor theories of unequal exchange satisfactorily criticized.

The purpose of this short note is to shed some light on these issues. By drawing upon Brenner’s analysis it will be shown that the developments involved in the origins of capitalism differ from those associated with the transition from peripheral pre-capitalism to capitalism and in the development of underdevelopment in peripheral capitalism. Whilst it should be clear that there is broad agreement with Brenner’s analysis, it is necessary at the outset to suggest some changes in emphasis from his work.

Brenner emphasizes that, in the pre-capitalist world economy linked by commerce, there are limited opportunities for feudal lords to adopt the profit-maximizing techniques to be associated with capital accumulation.footnote6 In addition, he stresses that feudal states can effectively isolate themselves from the competition of the world market because of their high degree of self-sufficiency. If left here, the role of commerce becomes completely insignificant as a stimulus to social change. Indeed, the only source of change would be the development of contradictions internal to each feudal state.

However, the development of exchange has the effect of expressing these internal contradictions in the world economy through the stimulus of competition in markets. The surplus appropriated by any lord is no longer identical with the surplus produced under his domain, but is determined by the exchange value of that surplus product. Forces are therefore acting to stimulate changes in the techniques of production as well as the mass and composition of commodities produced.footnote7 Brenner discusses development of the techniques of production in terms of absolute and relative surplus labour,footnote8 which can be defined in terms of a greater appropriation of surplus through more work and more productive work respectively.

Now, for Sweezy, Wallerstein and Frank, this competitive stimulus to change brings about a smooth transition to capitalism as more productive techniques are adopted. Brenner shows that the potential for relative surplus labour is limited by the feudal class relations of production, so that greater reliance is placed upon absolute surplus labour (and/or withdrawal into autarky). In any case, the stimulus of competitive exchange brings about an intensification of class struggle, the resolution of which determines subsequent developments. The resort to relative surplus labour would tend to bring into question the form of land tenure as a means of inducing or coercing productivity increase. Absolute surplus labour involves a direct clash between lord and serf over the existing conditions of land tenure and levels of rent.footnote9 The move toward autarky might reflect the impossibility of resolving class conflict through either development. The stagnation of production resulting from this ‘equilibrium’ may in turn be upset by the weakening of military power that accompanies a reduction in the mass of surplus appropriated (materials and workers cannot be released for war).

The ability to produce for the market is limited then by the existing class relations of production and their development, but also by other material conditions. Relative surplus labour improves productivity in the short run, but in the longer run may lead to soil exhaustion whatever changes occur in land tenure. Absolute surplus labour (or the decrease in peasant subsistence) may lead to exhaustion of the peasantry. Consequently, within each domain, the ability to produce for the market will fluctuate, presumably, around a mild upward trend. For the world economy, this may be reflected in a competitive pressure, formed as many domains expand production for the market more or less simultaneously, or with one or more domains expanding at the expense of others that decline. In either case, and this is of crucial significance for our discussion, the stimulus of competitive pressure through the market is limited on a world scale by the existence of feudalism. In other words, just as commerce is a stimulus and not a determinant of change so it is in addition a limited stimulus in the pre-capitalist world economy.footnote10 It is for this reason that the original transition to capitalism can be so protracted.