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.footnote1 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.footnote2 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.
Brenner’s new book, Merchants and Revolution, represents, by contrast, a marked change of intellectual tempo. Its discursive form is that of the historical monograph, not the interpretive essay. As the book’s subtitle—Commercial Change, Political Conflict, and London’s Overseas Traders, 1550–1653—indicates, its focus is highly concentrated. Brenner seems to be engaged in a micro-historical study of a group whose limits in space and time are firmly, indeed narrowly defined, rather than in the macro-historical exploration of la longue durée. And indeed many of the book’s over seven hundred pages are taken up with minute analyses, for example, outlining the prosopographies of
Yet even at its most microscopic, Brenner’s study is informed by larger themes, for two main reasons. First, its prime concern is with the role played by particular groups of London merchants during the English Revolution of the 1640s and 1650s, one of the decisive political episodes of modern times. Second, in identifying these merchants’ part in such greater matters, Brenner develops an interpretation of the Revolution which in turn draws on the broader theory of the transition from feudalism to capitalism which forms the focus of his earlier essays. In this review I shall concentrate on these more wide-ranging questions. But first an outline of Brenner’s main argument is necessary.
Merchants and Revolution is devoted chiefly to two main, and closely interlocking themes. The first is the emergence in the early seventeenth century of a distinctive group of London overseas traders, whom Brenner tends to call the ‘new merchants’. Their formation represented a break with the prevailing pattern of mercantile development. This was dominated by the role played by company merchants whose control of particular lines of trade depended on Crown charters granting them monopolies. Brenner traces a significant shift in the balance of power and wealth among the company merchants in the early seventeenth century. The Merchant Adventurers, whose pre-eminence in the City had rested on their monopoly of the export of semi-finished woollens to the Low Countries and Germany, were supplanted by merchants specializing in the import of commodities such as currants, sugar, and raw silk from the Mediterranean and the East Indies. The resulting reorganization of power in the City, marked by the increasing salience of the directors of the East India Company as ‘the most important mercantile governing body in London’ (p. 77), reflected the growth of an English home market whose demand for imports continued to grow despite the crisis of the cloth-exporting industries. Nevertheless ‘the rise of the Levant-East India combine’ (pp. 61–74) did not alter the fundamental structures of power in the City. Its leaders were drawn from the same commercial elite as the Merchant Adventurers, and were content to take a growing number of aldermanships at the top of the City oligarchy. Even more importantly, they, like the Merchant Adventurers, depended on state regulation of trade in order to control the commodity circuits on which their wealth depended.
The new merchants, by contrast, owed their position chiefly to their involvement in colonial enterprises in the new plantations of the West Indies and North America. After early efforts to create a royal monopoly, the Virginia Company, failed in the early 1620s, the company merchants effectively withdrew from colonial commerce. ‘The regulated trades. . .simply involved the carrying of commodities. They were operated under restricted, corporately controlled conditions designed to regulate competition, to minimize risk, and to ensure profits’
Exploiting the Americas (in every sense: the development of the West Indian sugar plantations marked the beginning of the African slave trade) could therefore only be the work of City outsiders. ‘Originally men of the “middling sort”, they were mostly born outside London and were, in many cases, the younger sons of minor gentry or prosperous yeomen. A few came from borough commercial families’ (p. 114). Brenner trades their careers, from their beginnings, some as colonial planters who used their profit to set up as merchants, others as London captains, retailers or artisans who entered colonial trade to cut out the middle man, through to the formation of a distinctive group marked, not only by definite patterns of economic behaviour, but by identifiable political and religious alignments. For as Brenner follows the path of figures such as the omnipresent Maurice Thomson, ‘the greatest colonial merchant of the day’ (p. 115), and uncovers the business partnerships and family alliances which bound together this new elite as it took shape, his book’s second main theme emerges, namely the specific role played by the different fractions of the London merchant community in the succession of political crises which culminated in the execution of Charles I and the proclamation of the Commonwealth.
It is quite impossible in the space of a short review article to do justice to the 440 pages Brenner devotes to a detailed analysis of the political involvements of the London merchants from 1620 to 1653 (pp. 197–637). Nevertheless, one basic thesis informs this analysis, namely that the socio-economic contrast drawn between the company merchants and the new merchants broadly corresponds to their political allegiances. Brenner shows that the dominant elite of merchants associated with the East India and Levant Companies generally backed the Crown—with the exception of the late 1620s, when their suport for Parliament is to be explained by the peculiar incompetence and eccentricity of Charles’s and Buckingham’s policies. The company merchants’ royalism, Brenner suggests, reflected their structural dependence on the Crown to grant and enforce the charters from