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Re: Immanuel Wallerstein's Planet
by Louis Proyect
22 January 2002 16:55 UTC
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This is a hatchet job on Immanuel Wallerstein by Bob Fitch, who used to
edit Ramparts Magazine ages ago. I will not comment on some of the passages
that deal with aspects of Wallerstein's work that I am not familiar with. I
will say something, however, about the importance of Brenner's arguments in
Fitch's piece, since I have become somewhat of an expert on Brenner's
rather rancid, neo-Kautskyite writings.

FITCH: No one has done more to call Wallerstein’s emphasis on
core-peripheral trade into question than UCLA’s Robert Brenner – his
sharpest and most persistent critic. Now Director of UCLA’s Institute for
Social and Economic History and a former fellow of the Princeton Institute
for Advanced Study, Brenner has an international reputation not just as a
specialist in late medieval history, but as a ferocious critic and a
debater of the highest order. The Brenner Debate, edited by T. S. Ashton,
President of the Economic History Association, represents his widely
acknowledged demolition of the mainstream, Annales-Cambridge tradition of
medieval history.

LOUIS P: "Widely acknowledged" is a mischievous use of the passive voice,
something one would expect from the bourgeois press and not from a radical
journalist. Who acknowledged this? Ernesto Laclau? Ellen Meiksins Wood? Why
won't Fitch name names?

FITCH: Brenner is probably Wallerstein’s most damaging critic too, if only
because trade is more fundamental to the foundation of the The Modern World
System than absolutism. It would be nice to be able to explain the
core/periphera relation in terms of the strong state/weak state
distinction. But if he can’t, the bottom explanatory line must be showing
that underdevelopment and development along with the various “labor market
control mechanisms” – slavery, serfdom, wage-labor – are all produced by
the trading system that springs up in the 16th century.

But Dutch-Polish trade couldn’t have brought about serfdom in Poland,
Brenner points out, because it was well underway before the 16th century.
He cites big chunks of Wallerstein’s own Polish sources to establish the
15th century origin of the “second serfdom.” 

LOUIS P: Unfortunately, Fitch has the same "tunnel vision" of history that
Jim Blaut diagnosed in Brenner. Once you set parameters that are bounded
geographically by England and Poland, you leave out the crucial element of
England's "take-off", namely the relationship to the New World. Absent
throughout Brenner (and Wood's) copious writings on the origins of
capitalism is any detailed analysis of the class character of mining and
plantations in Peru, Mexico, Jamaica, etc. This is not only shoddy
scholarship, it is a slap in the face to the kind of internationalism that
marked Karl Marx's research project.

FITCH: Trade with the Dutch didn’t cause Polish serfdom, neither did it
cause Polish backwardness. Wallerstein is simply clueless about the real
motivation behind Polish serfdom, Brenner argues. “Wallerstein thinks that
the reason why Polish capitalism doesn’t develop is because the Dutch use
their strong state crowbar to break pry open the door of the Polish market
and force free trade on the weak-state Poles. In fact,” he says, “the door
was wide open: Polish lords promote free trade not because it’s in the
interest of the Dutch, but because they want to prevent free competition
for labor power which would limit their ability to control the serfs by

LOUIS P: The real dynamic at work was surplus product extraction from the
New World. Polish "backwardness" could have been alleviated if it had been
lifted up from the earth and plunked down in Western Europe. For Brenner,
the map of Europe is a bit like that famous New Yorker cartoon in which New
York City occupies 75 percent of the map and California is confined to 10
percent or so. Japan is peanut-sized.

FITCH: If the grain for linen trade didn’t cause Polish retardation, or
Polish serfdom,  it can’t be held responsible for Dutch development either,
argues Brenner. There simply was no such division of labor as Wallerstein
describes. Most of the wheat that the Dutch imported from Poland they
didn’t consume, but simply re-exported to the southern Mediterranean. The
Dutch were simply intermediaries between raw-material exchanging peripheral

LOUIS P: One can not blame Brenner for moving on to other subjects and
thereby not keeping up with current literature. But what is Fitch's excuse?
I'd be embarrassed to write something as ill-informed as his web article
(no responsible journal would have published it. Well, there's always
Against the Current.) If you read Kenneth Pomeranz's "The Great
Divergence", you'll learn that Chinese agrarian society was even more
capitalist than Great Britain's.

Louis Proyect
Marxism mailing list: http://www.marxmail.org

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