U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Political Marxism and the New Historiography of Capitalism and Slavery: Invitation to an open discussion

Today, I seek to open up a space for the discussion of the relation (or non-relation) of two intellectual projects: the new historiography of capitalism and slavery, on the one hand, and the analytical project called Political Marxism, on the other.

As Tim Barker suggests (I hope I am not mangling his point, here), there has been less dialogue between the two endeavors than might have been anticipated. Perhaps we have lacked the adequate venue for such a discussion. If that has been the case, I offer the comments section here as an open space for discussion, debate, fights, gnashing of teeth, crying, what have you.

First, some background: I recommend strongly that readers check out Stuart Schrader on slavery historiography and the new anti-Genovesean reading of the political economy of slavery. I think James Oakes’s essay on similar topics is helpful, too. Tom Cutterham cuts to the quick on many important related questions here.

In order to get things going, I will present a highly impressionistic and under-sourced (in other words, “bloggy”) picture of the two schools of thought, and suggest some points of harmony as well as friction.

Political Marxism is a term that causes a good deal of confusion. I was lucky to study, in undergrad, with an excellent representative of the Political Marxist tendency––the political scientist and comparative historian George Comninel––and to receive a pretty good education in its worldview. I think that this experience may still be usefully drawn upon to talk about contemporary Political Marxism.

To study the history of capitalism with a Political Marxist is to take on a concern with the fundamental distinction between “capitalism” as a very specific mode of exploitation and “capitalism” as a sort of placeholder word that encompasses modernity, progress, the disenchantment of the world, technological revolutions, consumerism, reification and alienation, etc. A student of Political Marxism learns that for “capitalism” to be “capitalism,” three features must be present: market-driven labor compulsion (that is, hunger, rather than some feudal bully, makes sure that you go out and find a job); a regime of accumulation based on surplus labor extraction (not robbery, nor discovery of some cave full of precious metals, nor the profits from unpaid slave labor); and the presence of a liberal state muscular enough to maintain the “rule of law,” thereby ensuring the protection of private property.

The alert reader will note that this way of looking at capitalism is quite different from that presented in many postmodern essays on capitalism, and considerably more technical than the Marxism upon which twentieth century social movements drew. And, indeed, the Political Marxists identified as discursive enemies precisely these two camps: first, the postmodernists and post-structuralists, who stood accused of abandoning materiality and class struggle, and second, the “vulgar Marxists” whose picture of capitalist development consisted of an interlocking series of “just-so” stories largely immune to further scholarly testing.

What postmodern and vulgar Marxists shared, Political Marxism charged, was a unilineal picture of capitalist development, unfolding at about the same rate across the West in the years after the Black Death. Not so, countered Political Marxism, for whom the key analytic imperative was the acknowledgement of capitalism arriving first among the agrarian improvers of Elizabethan England, accelerated by the enclosure movement, and congealing into a full-fledged mode of exploitation with its own laws of motion at some point around the time that Locke wrote his Second Treatise on Government. Simultaneous with this epochal transformation of the English countryside, the rest of the Europe (with the complicated partial exception of Holland) remained, steadfastly, un-capitalist. In France, Germany, Italy, and Spain, one found no market-driven labor force participation (those who worked were compelled to do so by extra-economic means), no market-driven wages (instead, customary wages and prices prevailed), no rule of law protecting private property (it was not until the late nineteenth century, in fact, that Continental elites made peace with private property as a positive good, and shook off the long-running suspicion of private property that ran from Plato to the Rerum Novarum).

I have not provided the full explanation that I was taught about the specifics of the class struggle that brought about capitalism in England and not in the rest of Europe. That can be found in the groundbreaking work of Robert Brenner (and the famous debates that Brenner conducted with other left economic historians in the 1970s and 1980s). Nor have I touched on the particular political gloss that scholars like Ellen Meiksins Wood put on this historical treatment of capitalism. Wood and others insist that if capitalism is distinguished by its novelty as a mode of exploitation that does not require extra-economic coercion to generate profits, then it is the very immanence of exploitation that ought to be targeted by revolutionary socialists. Identity politics––including struggles for racial justice and feminism––constitute, for Political Marxism, epiphenomenal distractions.

Now, in what ways does Political Marxism chime or clash with the new historiography of capitalism?

Here are some of the possible points of consonance: 1) the new historians of capitalism and slavery and the Political Marxists likely agree that the narratives of capitalist development proffered by, say, Joyce Appleby, don’t make very much sense, on the one hand, and embody certain narrative naturalizations of market society, on the other (by using, for example, the language of capitalist energies waiting to burst forth); 2) the new historians of capitalism and slavery and the Political Marxists likely agree that while it is impossible to say that one is “a little bit pregnant,” there is no inherent difficulty in describing a given historical formation as a larval stage, on its way to becoming capitalist (but possessing enough contingency to perhaps turn into something different): and if that settlement was agreed upon, a lot of conflicts over the question of whether slavery was capitalist or non-capitalist might reveal themselves to be poorly posed; 3) the new historians of capitalism and slavery and the Political Marxists agree that while capitalism involves markets, money, stocks, and banks, as well as movies, tabloid newspapers, and soccer games, these all must be traced back to a moment of exploitation and domination, or be convincingly described as relatively autonomous satellites.

Here, I think, is where the disagreements might lie: 1) the new historians of capitalism and slavery and the Political Marxists might really disagree about the economic character of slavery, and that might lead a Political Marxist to accuse a historian of capitalist that the latter is working with an ahistorical criteria of capitalism; it might also lead a historian of capitalism to charge the Political Marxist with setting up a language game and then demanding that others play it, and more seriously, give way to the charge that Political Marxists only see labor in capitalism when it is done by white bodies; 2) the new historians of capitalism and slavery and the Political Marxists might further quarrel about the erasure of the long history of colonialism, imperialism, and racialization from the history of capitalism, and argue about the racial stakes of the constriction of the narrative of capitalism’s rise to the enclosed space of the seventeenth-century English countryside; 3) the new historians of capitalism and slavery and the Political Marxists might then find it difficult to take up the question of American herrenvolk democracy and the rise of a particularly nasty form of racial capitalism in the wake of Reconstruction’s initial, egalitarian promise.

This, it seems to me, is a reasonably coherent (and, I hope, not too inflammatory) presentation of the debate, in potentia. No doubt I have gotten some things wrong, and have ignored details that are crucial to a proper staging––I hope you will let me know, in the comments, and I invite everyone with any interest in this debate to take the discussion in any direction that seems fruitful

40 Thoughts on this Post

S-USIH Comment Policy

We ask that those who participate in the discussions generated in the Comments section do so with the same decorum as they would in any other academic setting or context. Since the USIH bloggers write under our real names, we would prefer that our commenters also identify themselves by their real name. As our primary goal is to stimulate and engage in fruitful and productive discussion, ad hominem attacks (personal or professional), unnecessary insults, and/or mean-spiritedness have no place in the USIH Blog’s Comments section. Therefore, we reserve the right to remove any comments that contain any of the above and/or are not intended to further the discussion of the topic of the post. We welcome suggestions for corrections to any of our posts. As the official blog of the Society of US Intellectual History, we hope to foster a diverse community of scholars and readers who engage with one another in discussions of US intellectual history, broadly understood.

  1. Kurt,
    This is magnificent, and I want to thank you for laying out these terms and questions so clearly.
    Can I open the discussion with what may be a rather basic question? I think I’ve heard it as a joke before, but I am asking it non-facetiously: why is PM called “Political” Marxism?

    • Sorry, that is a bit inscrutable: what I mean to ask is, as a way of differentiating it from other theories of capitalism (and practices of resisting it), “political” has seemed to me like a non-intuitive choice to name this particular mode of analysis. What is the logic behind the name?

      • Andy, I’ve always understood it to refer to the claim by Brenner and his followers that history is structured by the contingent outcomes of class contestation, rather than by a transhistorical logic of (e.g.) the development of productive forces. So they stress that capitalism was only one potential road out of feudalism, with absolutism representing another–and neither is the natural or inevitable telos, just a political outcome of the struggle between social classes. But I may have the origin of the name wrong.

  2. Thanks for this Kurt. I must first admit that any theory that marginalizes such ubiquitous categories of oppression as gender and race is to me reactionary.
    But besides that point, I think that Sven Beckert’s distinction between “War Capitalism” and “Industrial Capitalism” is quite useful and reconciles much of the argument in ways that I find quite useful both historically and theoretically.

    • EZ, thanks also for flagging Beckert’s “War Capitalism”/”Industrial Capitalism” split. Let’s think further about that as an analytic maneuver…

      • “War capitalism” and “industrial capitalism” basically gloss onto Marx’s merchant vs. industrial capitalism distinction. It’s just that Sven wants to emphasize that the processes of commercial expansion were not smooth and free-market but rather backed by state violence. That’s a fine point, but I’m a bit nervous about the endless multiplication of capitalisms.

        Neil Davidson has a pretty thorough criticism of Brenner in his book on bourgeois revolutions. Jairus Banaji has good arguments, too. Both come from the basic position that Brenner’s anglocentrism is too narrow and is really about property relations rather than the actual processes of capital accumulation as they happened in historically messy, uneven ways.

        On that point, you’re right Kurt that Brenner et al. think slavery is not capitalist production, which seems nuts to me.

      • Andy, I actually think that there might be something larger here than a mere emphasis on the violence accompanied by merchant capitalism. Perhaps it’s not exactly what Beckert had in mind, but I found that the move from Merchant Capitalism to War Capitalism helped me think of capitalism a bit outside of the political economy discussion of the 18th and 19th century. I also think we need to move away from the theoretical splitting of hairs between forms of capital, relationships of production, the commodification of labor, and so on, which Marxists have always seemed all to enthusiastic about.
        I’m not certain I’m fully satisfied with Beckert’s conceptual distinctions, but I at least found them helpful to move to an analysis of power and the way it is organized in conjunction with the state.
        I think this is critical as we find theoretical approaches to capitalism that are useful historically and cast a broad global net.

  3. Thanks everyone for these comments. Charles Post–I really hope you will contribute; we would be flattered to host a response in whatever form you like. We are admirers of your work, and it would be terrific to have you share your insights here.

    I think that Tim is right about the origins of “Political” Marxism. The immediate antagonists were, no doubt, “Orthodox” Marxism, “Structuralist” Marxism, “Analytic” Marxism, and “Postmodern” Marxism. Programmatically, “Political” Marxism lines up with the grouping called Solidarity in the US, and to a significant degree with bottom-up labor organizing and the critique of pattern bargaining, corporatism, and business unionism. There has always been, I think, some mystery about the connection between theory and praxis in PM. When I last heard Brenner speak, he reitereated the line that I associate with him in this regard: “I think class struggle is great. I wish it would happen more often.”

    Eran– you have hit the nail on the head re: why many find PM too difficult a pill to swallow. The neglect of feminist and critical race histories of capitalism in PM extends even to its bibliography: classical political economy, Marx, Weber (read as an antagonist), Pirenne (ditto), Maurice Dobb (good), Paul Sweezy (bad), Braudel (bad), then battle with the Althusserians, Rational Choosers, and postmoderns, on one hand, and Third Way/mainstream scholars, on the other. You’ll notice: some books are conspicuously missing from that list, which leads to the neglect of certain ideas.

    (I should say, too, that I think the influence of Veblen and Schumpeter on Political Marxism has not been sufficiently appreciated–and that opens up a whole series of questions about the salience of the socially symbolic act within the historical process of capitalist development).

    • Tim and Kurt,
      Thanks, that is very clarifying, though I still fail to see why “political” best captures the intended distinction. PM argues for the primacy of class struggle rather than transformations in the forces of production: this I understand. But is “political” the best term to convey this difference? I suppose I am hung up two things: firstly, on the implication embedded in this opposition that technological or technical development is somehow apolitical, that “politics” is an antonym for “forces of production.” Secondly, the primacy of the class struggle seems to me to be rather poorly contained by the political: surely it is also cultural, religious, and many other things besides.

      Ultimately, I suppose I just want a better word for “the primacy of class struggle rather than productive forces” than “political.” But perhaps I am being pedantic, or missing the point here.

      • Andy, I think you are right on the money. “Class Struggle Marxism” might be an alternative, though clunky, but it would have one pronounced flaw: PM assumes that some periods and places have class struggles that matter, while others do not. Thus, Brenner’s entire project re: the boom and the bubble/the long crisis in profitability since the 1970s presumes that “class struggle” effectively stopped with the rise of Reagan and Thatcher, to be replaced by infra-capitalist competition.

        More broadly, your question of the narrowly economic construction of class struggle, as against the cultural, religious, etc, is key (we should recall that EP Thompson found little to get excited about in Brenner’s work).

        Let’s consider the question in even starker terms: what does it mean that PM only thinks of certain kinds of historical activities as “class struggles”? Or, what premises need to be in place to render such a picture legible? And how good are those premises?

      • The term “Political Marxism” comes from one of Brenner’s critics, Guy Bois. He charged Brenner with having a “political” (instead of the orthodox “economic”) version of Marxism because he ostensibly focused to much on class struggle, i.e., voluntarist political/social factors, and neglected what to Bois seemed the more structural economic factors and concepts like the mechanism of surplus value or the mode of production. Ellen Meiksins Wood adopted the term in a NLR article (published in 1981), because she thought it actually captured an important insight of Brenner’s approach, even though it was originally meant derogatorily:

        “The purpose of the present argument is precisely to overcome the false dichotomy that permits some Marxists to accuse others of abandoning the ‘field of economic realities’ when they concern themselves with the political and social factors that constitute relations of production and exploitation. The premise here is that there is no such thing as a mode of production in opposition to ‘social factors’, and that Marx’s radical innovation on bourgeois political economy was precisely to define the mode of production and economic laws themselves in terms of ‘social factors’.” (EMW)

  4. Kurt, thank you so much for this. Please give me a few days while I work up some thoughts. In the mean time, let me suggest another point of possible contention (which I’ try to address more fully in a future post) between these two paradigms (loosely defined) of capitalism. To what degree was the formation of a capitalist society, or a particular historical social formation organized around the logic of free labor, liberating? This isn’t to deny the exploitation and oppression inherent in the unfolding history of capitalism, but an affirmative answer would acknowledge that there was a liberating thrust on the other side of the dialectical coin. I’m not talking about this capitalist social formation as an ideal type, but as an actual historical formation that came into being sometime in the nineteenth century. Marx himself acknowledged that capitalism was the most creative and liberating force the world had yet seen. Many sophisticated Marxists and non-Marxists acknowledged this (thinking of Schumpeter here). Alexander Kojeve and Marty Sklar, among others, both read Hegel as the most sophisticated theorists of bourgeois society the bourgeois self, and the history of society as a history of the unfolding dynamics of recognition and the realization of self-consciousness through the negation of the world through labor–work as self-producing activity. The rhythms of Hegel’s master-slave dialectic run throughout Genovese’s interpretation, and condemnation of Southern slavery. Of course other theorists like Karl Polanyi never made this point, and insisted that the disembeding of the market was a utopian project which lead to immense social suffering and dislocation. I’m interested in this debate because if capitalism offers no hope of liberation, or transition to a liberated world, and only resistance, then we look to be in a tough spot–writing a history of the present with no hope.

    • Thanks very much for this comment. I think that the Hegelian interpretation depends on a certain sacralization of the labor process––a sacralization with which many Marxists are fine, but which I cannot help but see as non-scientific–it’s basically a religious premise.

      In his earlier decades, Marx identified the extraction of surplus from uncompensated labor-power as the key to capitalism’s dynamism; but in his later writings, it seems that he began to understand that the complexities of trading, speculation, and imperialism made his earlier “left Adam Smith” posture inadequate.

      It is to the great credit of PM, I think, that its scholars have grappled with these problems, and recognized that underlying the tendency of the rate of profit to fall is an entropic pattern of creative destruction that demands a course correction, rather than a Hegelian acceleration via some negation of the negation, that will lead from the current phase of austerity economics to some sort of functional planned economy.

      At the same time, PM writers are often eager to defend, say, the Western political tradition against decolonial critics, to affirm that liberal capitalism can accommodate quite substantial progress in the realm of individual rights. They tend to insist, however, that that progress tends to mean very little in regard to the fundamental relations of exploitation.

      I think that this reflex is deeply flawed, both analytically and strategically. To situate my critique with more precision: I think that Political Marxism thinks it can think the economic category “productivity” and the political category of “economic citizenship” without attending to race and gender and sexuality, and I think it cannot.

      But that makes me more of a cockeyed optimist, I think, than my discursive opponents.

      There is no master plan, nor timetable of development, nor universal telos. We’re all humans, and, right now, the worst are in charge. That’s something we can change. On what basis does their authority rest? Perhaps for the first time in history, as Jacques Rancière points out, the rich are different from you and me only in that they have more money. A hopeful situation, from one perspective.

    • I just wanted to note that I don’t mean to suggest that a free labor civilization, or a civilization based around individuals as bearers of commodities (labor power being one of them), and therefore bearers of universal rights and citizenship as members of a bourgeois national community, was “fully” achieved in the nineteenth century.
      Nor do I want to suggest that there is a simple polarity between free and unfree labor. Historians like Chris Tomlins, Seth Rockman, David Montgomery (particularly his book Citizen Worker) have greatly complicated our understanding of the spectrum between free and unfree labor, and have helped us better theorize how we approach the study of these categories, and the spectrum between them. But it does seem that a free labour society, or a bourgeois-capitalist society, was most fully realized in the 19th century united states. Barrington Moore and others, insisted that the American Civil War was the last democratic-capitalist revolution. Here is Marx on the matter: “Such a state of affairs…is at its most developed in the most modern form of existence of bourgeois society—in the United States. Here, then, for the first time, the point of departure of modern economics, namely the abstraction of the category ‘labour,’ ‘labour as such,’ ‘labour pure and simple, becomes true in practice.”

      • thanks for this! did not mean to step on it with my too-hasty responding.

        And yes, I think the angle you have highlighted––of nineteenth century America as a kind of global vanguard of international capitalism (a status achieved, to my mind, largely as a result of the peculiarities of American law)––is crucial to keep in mind in thinking about this new literature, and about how it harmonizes or clashes with the various Marxist historical traditions.

        Thanks so much for commenting, and please say more!

  5. Kurt you have provided an excellent frame here. Super productive. For example the way you posed questions about PM in relation to the new history of capitalism has led me to think about the problems of capitalism and slavery in new, first principle sorts of ways. In short, what are the stakes involved in limiting or expanding our view of the history of capitalism? Why are we so invested in whether or not American slavery was capitalist? Why now? I’d be interested in reading your thoughts on this, and anyone else’s who wants to chime in.

  6. Thanks everyone, and let’s keep this conversation going! And thanks very much to Tibor Rutar, for that excellent capsule history of PM’s lexical origins.

  7. Thanks so much, Kurt, for starting this conversation. Andrew, your questions are really provocative, and perhaps this will get at some of what you ask.

    Admittedly, I’m confining my contribution to the 19th c. US history of slavery, but maybe the best way to frame the question is in terms of competing material conceptions of modernity. In a concession to the adamantly anti-Genovese position of much of the HOC literature, we ought to see slavery not as an archaic, premodern social formation. Instead, the slavocracy should (as per John Majewski’s work on the grand ambitions of the Confederate state) be understood as a social formation that proposed putting slavery at the center of a commercial manufacturing society. But that society by definition would be fundamentally at odds with the wage-labor based system of New England-style visions of modernity. We cannot give up Genovese’s classical Marxist position (or that of the PM cadre) that, at the point of production, chattel slavery was not capitalism because it did not depend on the expropriation of surplus value for generating wealth. Slave masters could be an integral part of a global capitalist economy, but ultimately not capitalists with interests congruent to those in North (who too still depended on the forced labor of the South). Kyle rightly brings Barrington Moore into the discussion to help us grasp that the US Civil War was revolutionary because it expressed the violent contradictions of a barely coherent antebellum nation-state riven between two visions of what a modern society ought to look like–and who would be in charge. The conflict extends back to directly back to the fact each ruling class vision of the modern found its roots in basically antagonistic productive regimes.

    • Hi Kit,

      I think it is a mistake to refer to “Genovese’s classical Marxist position (or that of the PM cadre) that, at the point of production, chattel slavery was not capitalism.” Genovese did argue this, and so did Charles Post for quite different reasons. However as far as I am aware no Marxist prior to Genovese ever argued it, with the possible exception of Lenin who rather misleadingly referred to antebellum slavery as “feudal.” And I don’t think it follows from a PM approach (see my comment below).

      Marx himself repeatedly referred to American slavery as “capitalist”, and although in some of those passages he makes some qualifications, he never refers to it as “feudal” or “non-capitalist”. He is also very explicit that slaves produce surplus value. Other Marxist writers on this topic before Genovese have tended to concur. I think part of the confusion lies with the more voluminous Marxist writings on *ancient slavery* which does tend to be identified as non-capitalist.

      However I take your wider point about the limits to slavery in a world where wage labor is on the rise to be a salient one that is in need of further exploration.

      All the best,

    • I’m late to the party here, but I wanted to ask on just this point – why is this so? “chattel slavery [in the 19th century U.S.] (…) did not depend on the expropriation of surplus value for generating wealth”?

  8. Kurt, thanks so much for your highly illuminating observations, which have already produced quite a fruitful discussion. I have two questions/comments:

    1) Can questions related to race, gender, and sexuality be incorporated into the general framework of Political Marxism, have later exponents actually tackled thiese issues (and critiques) directly?

    2) Regular readers of the blog will remember well the debate occassioned by James Livingston’s provocative posts earlier this year. I read this post as an indirect riposte to Livingston’s critique of the new history of slavery, but perhaps you can elaborate on your specific take regarding said critique, for the sake of connecting the dots of the conversations in the blog.

    Kudos again for this post, I can’t help but admire the breadth of theoretical and historical knowledge that you display continually here, as well as the different stylistic regiters.

  9. Kurt, as always, thanks for the provocative and much-needed post. I am, in particular, intrigued by your third potential disagreement between Political Marxists and Historians of Capitalism, concerning the Reconstruction era and afterward. Would you mind saying a little more about that? I think that the bourgeoning field of Reconstruction intellectual history might prove to be useful here, to help further construct the intellectual arguments of the era over both race and labor. As David Roediger and others remind us, this was the era of both African American assertions of freedom in the South (and to an extent in the North too) and an age of labor agitation in the North–but, of course, the latter presupposes that we can separate Southern labor agitation from Northern conflicts.

    I think I want to come back to this question myself–whether here or in my own blog post. But thanks for raising all the questions, and as I said before I find the question about Reconstruction particularly illuminating. This question takes on a greater urgency, in many ways, considering that right now we could be having a much larger public discussion of the Reconstruction era than we currently have.

    • And of course, I need to consult my Dubois–but it’s a bit late! I’ll have to add that to my expanding reading pile for Thursday.

  10. “1) Can questions related to race, gender, and sexuality be incorporated into the general framework of Political Marxism, have later exponents actually tackled thiese issues (and critiques) directly?”

    Why not? I mean PM might not primarily be a framework for dealing with various sorts of oppressions, but it’s perfectly capable of doing so. I think people are afraid it’s not possible because PM’s definition of capitalism doesn’t include gender/racial oppression. But I would actually see this as a a good reminder that various oppressions simply aren’t reducible to capitalism or class exploitation in general, and that therefore they *can never be* only “epiphenomenal distractions” which will automatically disappear with the disappearance of capitalism.

    Also, PM’s definition of capitalism very clearly implies that even though you can’t logically deduce gender or racial oppression from the existence of capitalism, there are certain capitalist causal mechanisms that will, in various ways, sustain and even reinforce existing forms of oppression that are of non-capitalist origin. So, for example, you have the capitalist labor market on which laborers compete incessantly against each other. Here, on the one hand, capitalist will (knowingly or unknowingly) use and therefore reproduce existing, pre-capitalist forms of working-class segmentation — gender, racial, ethnic, religious differences — to their benefit, and, on the other hand, workers themselves will (knowingly or unknowingly) fall back on, and therefore reproduce, existing cultural/identity divisions so as to partially shield themselves from the pressures of market competition. Robert and Johanna Brenner, Charles Post, Vivek Chibber, and others have actually written quite a lot along these lines; EMW has written on race (and gender) in her collection of essays from 1995. There are also PM authors who have tried to explicitly theorize the changing form of *gender oppression* at the point of the transition from pre-capitalist to capitalist social-property relations (Gary Blank).

    I don’t want to oversell this. I don’t think there are any full-length PM books on gender and ethnic oppression, but it seems to me that (a) it isn’t even slightly true that the PM framework forbids or discourages such theorizing, and that (b) even though many (but certainly not all) PM theorists aren’t primarily concerned with theorizing gender or ethnic oppression, they have written about it.

    As far as I see it, PM is nothing else but: a materialist social theory in the sense that it emphasizes material interests, lived experiences and structural conditions of agents (not, for example, pomo free-floating discursive interpellations); plus a social theory that focuses on historically specific social-property relations (i.e., vertical and horizontal social relations between surplus appropriators and direct producers), on long-term social dynamics that follow from these relations, and on various explicit social struggles around these relations. If this is true, it seems to me that there is nothing to prevent PM from theorizing various forms of oppression (at least compared to other social theories). Or am I missing something crucial?

    • Thanks for your explanation, my comment was related to Kurt’s observations on the supposed blindspots of PM, especailly since my knowledge of Brenner and company is essentially nil. I do wonder to what extent modern notions of race, gender, and sexuality (and specially race) are ” forms of oppression that are of non-capitalist origin.” Yes, they are definitely not “reducible to capitalism or class exploitation in general,” but, as modern constructs, they emerge alongside the rise of capitalism. When we start thinking in terms of origin to demarcate the limits of what is capitalist and what is not, aren’t we getting into muddy waters?

      Regarding Chibber, perhaps his criticism of subaltern studies, which has been widely and quite coherently refuted from various viewpoints for its reductive approach to postcolonial and decolonial theories, is a sign of what Kurt reas as the “erasure of the long history of colonialism, imperialism, and racialization from the history of capitalism.” Or what could also be called the particular, versus the universalist thrust of Chibber’s narrative of capitalist drive.

  11. Thanks Kahlil, for your wonderful contributions and your very sweet note. I think that you hit the nail on the head: what matters for us as we move forward with the task of narrating the history of capitalism concerns the question of whether race and gender formation are exogenous or endogenous developmental forces. I think that the most forceful challenge to PM comes from intersectonalist political economists who insist that race and gender are endogenous. A much weaker challenge is that to which I gravitate, which is an epistemological skepticism about whether the “endogenous” and “exogenous” distinction is a) real b) useful or c) interesting.

    • Great points, Kurt and Kahil. I’m learning a lot from this thread.

      Would you two be able to help me figure some things out? I think PM, or a version of it, could allow for an endogenous account of racial and gender oppression. But I don’t think that PM offers up unified theory of oppression. That’s pointing way to much weight the theory of labor exploitation. I’m going to offer a few ideas below, primarily drawing from the work of Rich Schneirov, Marty Sklar, and James Livingston. Please correct me if I’m mistaken/wrongheaded/or just plain turgid and confused.

      The coming into being of a bourgeois-capitalist social formation (say, the one that came after the Civil War) dis-embeds or abstracts the economic out from its social and cultural fabric, and then reconfigures the social and cultural fabric around the logic of the economic. Participation in the economic sphere, by individuals who possess and exchange commodities (labor power, among others) presupposes and necessitates a degree of formal equality. This layer of formal equality conceals not only the mechanism of exploitation (through the social relations of production of wage labor) and compulsion (by the hungry belly) by which surplus value is extracted from labor power, but also practices, like patriarchy and white supremacy, which factor into the reproduction of labor power. For example, female domestic labor sustains the male breadwinner, while white supremacy pays “wages of whiteness”. I don’t think this reading collapses one into the other. I think an intersectional reading is necessary, and that the dynamics between various forms of oppression and exploitation are never static–but this is not to say that patriarchy and white supremacy are not transhistorical elements of American history. The historian would have to track how they transform, interact, intersect across historical time. Jim Livingston, for example, has shown how corporate capitalism undermined the fundamental social relations which gave rise to the patriarchical producer, opening of a space for the reconstitution of identity in the realm of culture, thereby laying the groundwork for modern feminism as well as more sophisticated forms of gender oppression.

      Furthermore, an intersectional understanding of political economy would have to account for a complex “mix” (Marty Sklar’s term) of political economies, in which a mix of political economies may constitute a particular historical formation. Plantation slavery may exist alongside/intertwined with/in contradiction with a political economy of simple commodity production (Jefferson’s small farmers) for the market(CMC), commercial capitalism of the Northeastern seaboard, the post War industrial capitalism of midwestern commercial farmers and the small entrepreneurial class, and the political economy of corporate capitalism which began to emerge in the late 1880s. After the Civil War, the slave political economy was eliminated, to be reconstituted as a political economy of sharecropping/tenantfarming, while in the North, simple commodity production sharply declined, while Northern capitalism was reconfigured (after protracted intraclass conflict) around industrial production and North Eastern finance, and eventually the corporate form.

      Of course, each of these political economies entailed their own (often overlapping, intertwined, and contradicting) legal-property systems, discourses, cultures, notions of the self, etc, and interacted with white supremacy and patriarchy in often different ways. In this sense, the civil was the just the a conflict between capitalism and slavery. As historians from Eric Williams to Beckert and Baptist have shown, a certain form of Northern capitalism developed hand in hand with plantation slavery. Yet, certain segments of Northern capitalism, particularly those bourgeois free labor elements, conflicted not only with slavery, but also with those capitalist elements in the North who had ties to the cotton kingdom. Rich Schenirov’s work on Chicago, and Beckert’s excellent work on New York, illustrates very well the cleavages within the capitalist class, and the competing visions of what a political economy of capitalism would/should look like.

  12. Robert: thanks so much for your comments. I agree that Reconstruction historiography is really where the rubber hits the road. And here, I think, with Alexander Saxton, Clyde Woods and Cedric Robinson, among others, I would make the claim that mass culture and the production of new forms of “knowledge” becomes a key components in the battle over and achievement of a unified capitalist state. To put it in stark terms: newly freed African Americans did not want capitalism, at least not on the terms of antebellum political economy. There were strong movements for agrarian self-sufficiency, on the one hand, and towards non-factory urban economies. The disaster of African American proletarianization–share-cropping and industrial labor (in Jim Crow unions, if unionized at all) went hand-in-glove with the twin projects of anti-black racist theater, film, and popular literature, and race science, all under the aegis of the lynching tree and against the background of Parchman Farm. And if the cultural production of racism (we could narrate an interwoven story of gender, as well) turns out to be a decisively endogenous force in the development of capitalism in 1890s Mississippi–then why not in the 1680s, the 1780s, or the 1830s? I’ve never heard a convincing rejoinder.

  13. Kyle, thanks so much for your comments.

    I have some thoughts about the form of the argument your are laying out, but they just reflect what I think (I wouldn’t want anyone to get the impression that my own cobbled-together and jerry-rigged approach has much to do with PM or the new history of capitalism).

    I am not so convinced that–in US intellectual historical terms––the conceptualization of “the economic” as an abstract force does not stretch back much farther, way before the Civil War (to Smith and Ferguson, at least, who were read in the early US). I think there is a sort of Polanyian story about disembedding that meets up with David Harvey’s “accumulation by dispossession” that is just too imprecise. It’s actually fairly Lovejovian–big picture “history of ideas”–and, as such, one of those weird places where Marxists are quite old-fashioned. (Young Perry Anderson was seduced by these sorts of stories, too).

    I am not sure, either, that “political economy” ever lost its shadings as a species of theology and moral philosophy (certainly, the more I read in late 19th century economic thought of the US, the more I am convinced of this, as was Sklar in his early writing on Wilson). In other words–I think Walter Benjamin’s writings on capitalism as theology, which strike most of us as revelatory, would have seemed ho-hum to most generations of pre-World War II economists. Of course, they would say! Capitalism IS a religion. Yes, it’s powered by a new universalization of personal guilt. That’s the whole story of our country! Read Cotton Mather!

    Shifting keys: I think that there are at least three big changes post-Civil War that matter greatly that are not quite accounted for in your presentation: 1) as Anson Rabinbach and George Caffentzis and Philip Mirowski argue, post-1860s we find a new conception (mostly borrowed from German physics and physiology of labor) of all human work as *energy,* and of capitalism as a thermodynamic system; this was genuinely new (it’s hinted at in places in Marx, and much moreso in Engels, but it renders Marx’s arithmetic equations obsolete, and demands a far more dynamic differential calculus). The energetic shift had massive consequences, including the alteration of the very form of “nature” and “natural resources,” and the birth of new sciences of fatigue and motivation, including but not limited to FW Taylor’s scientific management; 2) there is a rejection of bijectivism, or the one-to-one correspondence theory of truth, and a naturalization of both financial speculation and mental labor as productive and non-parasitic; 3) there is a tremendous explosion in the production of data of every sort, including a massive proliferation of copies, duplicates, records, carbons, phonographs, films, photograph, lithographs, models, statistics, numbers, files, typewriters, telegraphs, newspapers, etc.

    Along with this explosion in data comes a new crisis of objectivity, a new idea that economic thought should be guided by hypothetical modeling, a new professionalization of the university and its disciplines, the standardization of popular culture, and–most crucially–an extraordinary flood of nonsense and stupidity about the nature and meaning of skin color and national origin. From this point on, at least–it is true of earlier periods, but certainly Plessy constituted a turning point––the “wages of whiteness” were not hidden and psychological––they were public and naturalized as wealth and property, as well as access to freedom from extralegal violence.

    Those are three changes that strike me as absolutely central to any story of American capitalism after the Civil War. There are others (perhaps the most important, in my own work, concerns the changing conception of private property in American common law, and the growing centrality of certain readings of the doctrines of equity)–but I think, perhaps, by laying out these three I can indicate why I don’t find the narrative you suggest of an ascendant “bourgeois capitalism” and the dynamic transformation of the categories of “social” “economic” “cultural” and “political” quite convincing. Please, prove me wrong!

    Where I follow you, though, certainly, with Sklar–and here, there is a tremendous gulf between Sklar’s notion of dis-accumulation and PM, although Brenner’s recent work on the “malign” invisible hand suggests a rapprochment–is in taking seriously the possibility that maybe “capitalism” undergoes a qualitative change in the early 20th century, such that the “surplus” skimmed off the top of “labor-power” ceases to function as an engine of growth and turns in on itself.

    From such a perspective––even as early as World War I––we see signs that “capitalism” has more or less ended. It can only survive on the basis of aggressive state spending (in the first instance, on the military) and debt-driven consumerism. It is surprisingly easy to do a decade-by-decade reading of 20th century US capitalism as a kind of “Weekend at Bernies.”

    (I have not said much about the “competing capitalisms” thesis, which is one of the key contributions of the new history of capitalism. I will say more when I have had time to think about it–but for now, I can say that it occurs to me that it imputes more intelligence and wisdom to individual firm owners and to ruling elites as classes-for-themselves than I usually think is warranted, on the basis of the historical evidence. I think that in some cases, we see a presentist bias that inclines scholars to read 19th century economic decision-making as “rational,” with “rationality” defined as it would be in a 21st century economics textbook. There is no historical reason to expect such “rationality”––above and beyond a general desire to stay in business––from a given cotton factor or factory owner in 1842).

    • Kurt, fascinating points, many of which are completely new to me. I need more time to let them digest. I’m clocking out early for the weekend, but I’m going to be considering a response over the next few days. I’m going to focus on capitalism in the GAPE, which it seems that’s where both of our interests lie.

      Just a quick note:

      In regards to your observation that political economy was still thought about as a moral system, if not an entire cosmology, in the late nineteenth century, I agree completely! This is why I’m drawn to figures like Ely, Clark, Godkin, Commons and Veblen. The golden days, before mathematization and model building…but certainly “economic” activity in the broad sense of work, labor, production, and consumption were granted some kind of ontological privilege (although maybe not foundational). I’m really looking forward to Tim Shenks book on the “invention” of the economy. Hopefully it will clear some of this up.

      Anyway, next week, I want to try to flesh out the idea of capitalism as something that is produced and reproduced (there’s that phrase again) by cross-class social movements. This offers up a chance to introduce an understanding of hegemony into the mix. I think this is an important and interesting question. Who makes capitalism? Of course people do, but how can we theorize this? (while hovering closely to the historical record, of course)

  14. A comment on this passage from Kurt’s post:

    Simultaneous with this epochal transformation of the English countryside, the rest of Europe (with the complicated partial exception of Holland) remained, steadfastly, un-capitalist. In France, Germany, Italy, and Spain, one found no market-driven labor force participation (those who worked were compelled to do so by extra-economic means)…

    Putting aside the theoretical question of capitalist vs. un-capitalist, this is not really how I understand the situation in early-modern France in particular. Bad harvests, and consequent hunger, were a consistent possibility and a threat to French peasants’ survival.

    From R. Briggs, Early Modern France, 2nd ed. 1998, pp.44-45:

    …almost all pre-industrial economies seem to have existed in a state of permanent underemployment, largely seasonal, and seventeenth-century France was no exception. The existence of communal land, the possession of a small plot for intensive cultivation, and customary rights such as gleaning were all of vital importance to the peasantry in their constant battle for survival. Only at certain limited periods, above all harvest time, could they be reasonably sure of finding regular work…. Even if a man had been able to find regular work, he could still not have fed a family without his wife’s contribution, and the resulting surplus of female labour meant that women’s wages were only half those paid to men…. The precarious balance of the family economy could be broken at any time by personal disaster, such as accident or illness, or by one of the ‘crises de subsistence’; a bad harvest reduced employment at the moment when it was most needed.

    So while ‘feudal’ forms persisted to some extent in the countryside, it was the overriding need to survive and avoid starvation, rather than feudal ‘bullying’, that seems to have driven a lot of French peasants’ economic behavior (to use a vague, catch-all phrase), at least if the above-quoted passage from Briggs is accepted.

    • Thanks so much for this question. I hope I can answer it without digging into the literature, but let me just say that the excerpt you provide fleshes out exactly the difference that PM wants to highlight”

      “The existence of communal land, the possession of a small plot for intensive cultivation, and customary rights such as gleaning were all of vital importance to the peasantry in their constant battle for survival. Only at certain limited periods, above all harvest time, could they be reasonably sure of finding regular work”

      What we see hear is a pattern of peasant smallholding militating against the development of a free market in labor. Hunger was, of course, a motivation (as it is for most poor people throughout history) for French peasants, but in France there was no mass dispossession of peasants from newly enclosed lands, no roaming bands of men and women looking to hire themselves out as laborers, no doctrine of “improvement” overseen by a Royal Society that discovered within bounded and combined small plots of land (the very small plots of land that remained separated in France) new methods of crop rotation, horticultural refinement, animal husbandry, etc.

      On the question of “feudal bullies”: to the degree that French peasants were motivated to wok above subsistence, they were so driven by the need to pay taxes, tithes, and tributes. If, as Comninel and others argue, France had become a tax-office state in the 2 centuries prior to the Revolution, its countryside witnessed class struggle mainly as a clash over the intensifying confiscation of the agricultural surplus by various representatives of the absolute State. If some French peasants found themselves working 14 hour days like Lancashire counterparts, the former were slaving to meet tax requirements (with feudal bullies very much in mind), while the latter were compelled to work so hard and so long for reasons that all described as purely “economic.”
      Here, I have presented the PM line. There are other factors (ecological, religious, colonial, ideological, etc) that are not properly thematized above, perhaps fatally, depending on one’s perspective. All other things being equal, however, the analysis strikes me as pretty sound.

      • Thanks for the reply. I take your points on the differences from England, and I also understand better now the post’s reference to ‘feudal bullies’ (as, partly, a shorthand for combined pressures from landlords and agents of the state).

  15. Hi Kurt,

    I have a review essay coming out in the fall in Critical Historical Studies on this topic. Here I’ll summarize my argument as it pertains to your post.

    1. I don’t think the new HoC people are operating with a coherent conception of capitalism that can be straightforwardly compared to a PM approach. Rather they employ a number of conceptions, some of which are compatible and some of which are incompatible. On the compatible side would be Beckert’s account of pre-capitalist property relations in India, and the general stress on continuous productivity growth as a characteristic of capitalist societies (which they often see as matter of “escaping the Malthusian trap”). On the incompatible side would be their WST-inspired stress on the global (to the point of identify capitalism with global trade) and their narrow psychological view (at least in Johnson and Baptist) of the profit motive and its influence on slave productivity.

    2. I don’t think there is anything in either Marxism or PM that should lead one to think of antebellum slave plantations as “non-capitalist”. It’s true that this seems to Charles Post’s view, and that Brenner and Wood at times seem to concur. But the analytical clarity of PM means that one doesn’t need to take anyone’s word for it. According to PM a society is capitalist if the majority of producers depend on the market to reproduce themselves. Slaves of course were not dependent on the market in any direct sense, but in my view American slaveowners were: they were compelled to purchase their inputs of land, slaves, supplies and overseer labor on the market. If one takes as one’s unit of analysis the productive unit—the plantation—then these were thus clearly market dependent. For a plantation that failed to adopt productivity-enhancing techniques and technologies would fall behind and risk bankruptcy and foreclosure – thereby redistributing land and slaves to more enterprising planters. That this was empirically the case is I think amply demonstrated by recent work on slaveowner endebtedness and innovation.

    I think Charles Post agrees with me on this in principle, and thus on the conclusion that there is nothing in PM which would exclude slave plantations from being capitalist. Where we differ is how we conceptualize the nature of productivity growth under slavery. Olmstead and Rhode argue that bio-technical innovation in seed varieties (higher yields with easier to pick seeds) was the main driver of productivity growth. Post sees this as a limited one-off kind of innovation in line with his notion of extensive accumulation, whilst I see it as no different from mechanization (intensive accumulation) in its causes and effects. However it seems to me that this dispute is not really about whether slave plantations were capitalist (they were as long as they were market-dependent) but about whether they conform to a “norm” of capitalist development (extensive or intensive accumulation).

    3. I strongly disagree with you that “[i]dentity politics––including struggles for racial justice and feminism––constitute, for Political Marxism, epiphenomenal distractions.” I see my own work as well as Post’s as an attempt to think systematically about struggles for racial justice in a PM framework, and I don’t think anyone associated with PM would refer to these struggles as “epiphenomenal distractions.”


    • John, thanks for these excellent and extremely helpful comments. I look forward very much to reading your piece in Critical Historical Studies.

      I really appreciate the nuance in your replies, and I agree with everything you say, although I would push back a little re: slavery and PM’s model (taken largely from Capital) of capitalism as a new mode of squeezing surplus out of direct producers.

      Here, I think the way to go about the thought experiment is to look at the actual writings of PMists and to examine the “rules for reproduction” upon which PM insists. I confess to finding Genovese’s argument quite convincing vis-a-vis Brennerian “rules for reproduction.” In other words, the moves on the chess board available to plantation slave owners looked different from the moves available to the smallholder and different from the early capitalists of Lowell and Lynn.

      We need not embrace Genovese’s awful arguments about paternalism (which are really drawn from the most conservative German sociologists of the 19th century, not Gramsci, who was talking about how to make a Communist Party in the Mezzogiorno in the 20th century, an analytical problem very distinct from American slavery)
      to consider the correctness of his view that in terms of surplus value extraction, the slave South and the industrializing North were two different modes of exploitation, constituted by very different social property relations, and resting on two different models of how surplus is squeezed out of direct producers.

      If that is conceded, than I think we still agree that slavery is not capitalist. Put another way: if there is no correlation of the working day, the weekly wage, and the price of the commodity as it is sold on the market and generative of profits to the owner of capital, I don’t see how we are talking about a capitalist model of exploitation. Contra Genovese, we are talking about something much much worse, something unfathomably worse.

      PM is attractive precisely in its ability to reckon alternatives to old-fashioned stadial models of economic development, and to think contradiction and paradox in the history of transition.

      As far as race and gender go: is it not true that PM wishes to argue for racism and sexism as relations of domination and for class struggle as premised on relations of exploitation? All leftists, as I see it, are committed to the same goals of ending racism, sexism, and shifting the balance of forces to workers’ control of production (and probably also to some baseline defense of the environment). But the critical work on theorizing how race works for capitalism, or how the gendered division of labor interfaces with sexism and compulsory heterosexuality–I don’t think we would turn to PM texts to learn about that. And, it should be said, PM writers are often caustic, if not hostile, to the traditions that have contributed to our understanding of these phenomena–I see few cites to Walter Rodney, C.L.R. James, or W.E.B. Du Bois in PM texts, and only rare engagements with feminist autonomist Marxism, to say nothing of left Queer Theory. I think that the encounters are there to be had, if PM intellectuals are open to them, but as a matter of intellectual history, wouldn’t you agree that PM has resisted such encounters?

    • The point Post makes is that plantation slavery lacked productive-enhancing techniques that would create the market incentives. To my knowledge no one has proven this position empirically incorrect. Simply being involved in the cotton trade does not make one capitalist if there are no market mechanisms causing productive changes.

  16. Hi Kurt,

    Could you say what specifically you find convincing in Genovese’s argument? He concedes that slaves produce surplus value for their owners. The fact that their exploitation is more obvious than that of wage labor doesn’t make it any less capitalist on my view. Would you say that coerced wage laborers, such as illegal immigrants whose bosses retain their passports, are not capitalistically exploited?

    On the second point, James and Dubois are frequently cited by Post, and Wood’s article on race and gender are themselves frequently cited in the Marxist literature on race and gender. You may disagree with her conclusions, but you cannot say that she hasn’t taken these issues seriously.


    • Sure. I will try to write up a response to the Genovese question and post it Tuesday. It’s a big question, and my answer is probably pretty complicated.

Comments are closed.