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Displacing Europe as the source of capitalism
by Louis Proyect
13 June 2002 13:02 UTC
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EPW Book Review June 01, 2002 

Role of Revisionism in History 
Trade in Early India: Themes in Indian History edited by Ranabir
Chakravarti (Oxford in India Readings); Oxford University Press, New Delhi,
2001; pp 506, Rs 650.

Origins of the European Economy: Communications and Commerce, AD 300-900 by
Michael McCormick; Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK, 2001; pp
1130, £ 40. 
Nigel Harris  

Ranabir Chakravarti has collected here some of the most significant
articles of the past half century on trade in Indian history – Shereen
Ratnagar (1994) and Maurizio Tosi (1991) on Harappan trade; Romila Thapar
(1976) on Dana and Dakshina as exchanges; Ivo Fiser (1954) on Setthi in
Buddhist Jatakas; B N Mukherjee (1996) on pre-Gupta Vanya and Kalinga;
Lionel Casson (1990) on maritime loans; D D Kosambi (1959) on feudal trade
charters; Chakravarti (1990) on northern Konkan (AD 900-1053); Brajadulal
Chattopadhyaya (1985) on early medieval Rajasthan; Jean Deloche (1983) on
ancient seaports; R Champakalakshmi (n d) on south Indian guilds; V K Jain
(1989) on merchant corporations; R S Sharma (1983) on usury in early
medieval times; John S Deyell (1990) on the Gurjara-Pratiharas; and S D
Goitein (1980) on trans-Arabian Sea trade. The editor provides a masterly
long overview of the field in the introduction and a most useful annotated
bibliography at the end. The book – nearly 500 pages – is excellent,
consistently stimulating, judicious and throughout most scholarly. The
detail and the detective work are impressive. 

Michael McCormick’s book is both narrower (in time period) and, given its
great length (1,101 pages), much denser. His is a grand attempt to put
together from many different sources a picture of the emergence of the
European economy in what used to be the Dark Ages. He uses a great
diversity of sources most creatively – documents (including those from the
Baghdad Caliphate), coin hoards, the provenance of holy relics, etymology,
early medieval monastic medical recipes, archaeological sites (the location
and residues of toll posts, industrial waste sites, sunken ship contents,
as well as the remains and sources of cargo). It is, of course, difficult
to identify what is commercial trade in all these sources, but he is adept
at rigorous inferences from limited data. As he notes, those who wrote the
records disdained trade and merchants in favour of kings, officials and
prelates, so trade is least documented.  Nonetheless, he has identified a
wealth of evidence to contradict earlier notions that Europe in these times
had very little trade. 

McCormick begins with an attempt to assess what of the late Roman empire
economy survived as the polity disintegrated, concentrating on the
persistence or change in routes of communication (of pilgrims, prelates,
diplomats and rulers as well as traders) from the beginning of the revival
in the seventh century. He plots the creation of new clusters of economic
activity, urbanisation, in the Mediterranean, the Frankish and Carolingian
empires, as well as the peripheral areas (Britain, eastern Europe and the
far north). Out of this, he identifies – in response to the major expansion
of the richer and more advanced Islamic world (up to the tenth century) –
the remarkable rise of Venice and the north Italian cities, the revival of
river trade and development of new trade points. It is an impressive and
fascinating compilation, a masterly summing up of the point we have reached
in the enquiry, a benchmark for further explorations. 

What is the justification for putting together these two works? It is to
consider the essence of historical research, revisionism. The perception of
the past is continually changing and must do so as evidence accumulates and
new sources become available. Yet revisionism is in principle always a
challenge for governments and the intelligentsia, for settled ways of
considering the past and thus our present. What makes history important
outside the ranks of historians is thus its impact on the present, how we
see ourselves and our times. Historians, whether they know it or not, are
thus continually undermining the present, subverting our comfortable
assumptions that we know who we are. It is not just more immediate
questions – as with the work of Israel’s revisionist historians
[Morris1987, Silberstein 1999], to the violent protests of the government,
showing that the official account of the foundation of the state in 1948 is
remote from the “truth” and this bears directly upon the appalling
conflicts in the Occupied Territories at the moment (no less, the myth of
the lands of the ancient Israelites is a powerful – if in principle absurd
– moral element in present Israeli claims). The revision of Irish history
[Boyce and O’Day 1996] has less painful relevance but is no less upsetting
for the ruling order. A recent London satire on the performance of British
generals in 1914 produced strong protests from the Conservative
backbenches, and one need not mention an obscure mosque at Ayodhya in a
similar connection. 

However, surely ancient or medieval history cannot have any such
importance? Yet even here the cultures within which we grow up do indeed
equip us in certain ways that can be challenged. Both Chakravarti and
McCormick present arguments that our views of the past are seriously wrong.
One of the most powerful reasons for this in my view is that history as a
formal study is an intellectual by-product of the rise of the modern state
over the past 300 years or so, and these origins easily turn it into a
glorification of the present and a reorganisation of the past to show the
steps by which the glories came about. Hegel’s extraordinary history of the
world as the saga of the self-realisation of the spirit of Reason,
culminating in the pinnacle of achievement in the Prussian monarchy of 1818
is thus not an unlikely model for histories written in the 19th century and
after. Chakravarti sees the myth of the brutish past as imposed by British
imperialism, a myth contrasting the “eternal, immutable, static and
stagnant India...stuck to its rural agrarian intertia” (p 2) with the
“vibrant, innovative, adventurous, progressive and dominant west”. But
McCormick shows that the British also invented a world of ‘static
subsistence villages’, ‘feudalism’, in their own past, this time to enhance
the glories of the present. After his immense work, he concludes that it is
no longer possible to defend the idea of a Europe as the “impoverished,
inward-looking and economically stagnant place many of us learned about in
our student days” (p 797). Indeed, the word ‘feudalism’ does not occur in
his index (though footnote 28, p 734, gives a short non-committal
reference). In other sources, the ‘industrial revolution’ has disappeared
or rather there are many industrial revolutions, not all equally
well-documented, at different points of time in the last three millennia.
Angus Maddison (2001) in his recent statistical account of the last
thousand years of the world economy similarly has no use for ‘feudalism’,
‘the industrial revolution’or a transitional phase of ‘merchant
capitalism’. Capitalism in his view rises unevenly in Europe from 1000 AD
up to 1820 when it finally emerges fully fledged. 

The reason why this is emerging now, I would like to suggest, is as a
byproduct of ‘globalisation’. The slow, contradictory and uneven emergence
of a single global economy is exposing how far history in the past has been
presented as the story of a separate, self-realising, autonomous ‘country’
or ‘society’ (for which read the population governed by one independent
sovereign state). The national defined the universe of concern, whether a
polity, a society, an economy or a culture (at the same time often imposing
a quite implausible homogeneity on the domestic). Globalisation thus
exposes not only the Eurocentric (or Anglocentric) character of the past
history of the rise of capitalism and its industrial revolution, it exposes
the idea of an autonomous national history in the pre-modern state period
in favour of a history of the world and its communities. 

One element in the old history is organising it so that capitalism arises
only in north-western Europe (and Britain specifically) at a particular
moment. Part of that is to deny the significance of trade in the past, or –
as in the case of both Rome and China – to say that what appears as
large-scale ‘trade’ (in grain, for example) is only the movement of state
appropriations. Thus, for example, in ancient Greece – now emerging as the
first prototype for free enterprise – de Ste Croix (1981:4) finds the
merchant class “a wholly imaginary” concept since significant commercial
trade did not occur in Greece and Rome. A capitalist class is reserved for,
say, the Netherlands in the 17th century, England in the 18th century, etc.
The insignificance of trade earlier partly fits the ancient European
prejudice against the trader (usually a foreigner) by peasant and lord,
both natural mercantilists. Such trade as there was, it is said, concerned
only the supply of luxuries to a small class of the wealthy, a phenomenon
entirely marginal to the isolated subsistence economy of the village. Yet
as Chakravarti notes, what are luxuries at the point of consumption may not
be luxuries at the point of production (he mentions black pepper from the
Coromandel coast), so that trade may indeed not be at all marginal but
compel the reorganisation of production. More important, the basic
proposition is false as shown in both these works. Thus, only modern
conceptions of ‘inter-national trade’ induce us to separate long and short
distance trade, ‘external’ and ‘domestic’ or ‘internal’ (implying the
modern separate national economies). But if we look at both then it is
abundantly clear that necessities were always traded and generally in bulk.
Even long distance trade occasionally handled necessities – salt, grain,
industrial, building or war raw materials, etc. Some of the large estates
that McCormick cites – and that earlier writers might have identified as
prototypical feudal domains – were important producers of marketed goods,
agricultural and craft manufactures, for long distance shipment. In some
cases (the evidence includes 2,500 industrial waste dumps and iron pits at
different sites throughout western Europe), the great estates were
important sources of exported metal manufactures. By implication, a pure
exchange economy was already important and sufficiently so to induce the
reorganisation of production so that producers were dependent upon
exchange. Furthermore, even if we accept the idea of trade being
significant in the past, the conception of a merchant class separate from
production looks increasingly doubtful – as both volumes show, often
merchants were landowners, mine owners and organisers of manufacturing. 

The economic geography of this economy was, however, quite unlike the
modern ‘political economic geography’ where development occurs almost
independently of natural endowment. It is a world of cities along water
courses, trading clusters, not political enclaves, with often only
contingent relationships to territorial rulers. International trade – trade
between ‘nations’ – exists only in the sense that inhabitants of different
cities are called ‘nations’ –Venetians, Florentines, Goans, Malaccans, etc. 

McCormick stresses the important role of the more advanced and wealthy
Islamic world in stimulating clusters of activity in backward Europe
between the 7th and 10th centuries, and perhaps the same may have some
bearing on the growth of Indian cities in the same period. The Abbasid
Caliphate in Baghdad (750-870) established some measure of economic
interaction within its sphere from the Atlantic to what became Iraq, with
linkages through the Gulf to littoral India and south-east Asia, and
through Andalus to the rest of Europe, particularly to the great trade fair
of St Denis near Paris. Neither book is, understandably, concerned to
explain the emergence of this engine of growth; McCormick suggests some
possible factors: the economic effects of territorial integration and some
measure of security of communication, a green revolution in some
agricultural areas, a propitious political and religious context, an urban
civilisation as the result of conquest, etc – but its effects in Europe
seem substantial. McCormick records the appearance of Arab coins in hoards
in the Italian cities, in Frankish and Carolingian Europe, and records of
some Arab traders and, more important, Jewish traders from the Muslim
world. Europe imported luxuries (with some industrial raw materials) but
still, he estimates, ran an export surplus, arising, he suggests, from the
export of slaves. Slaves were drawn from the Mediterranean littoral,but
then from further inland and finally from the periphery (Britain, eastern
Europe – whence the word ‘slave’ derived from Slav). He estimates that the
export was a response to the demographic disasters in the 8th century
Islamic world following on the ravages of bubonic plague (the first
recorded slave ship was in 748 from Venice). Slaves were, he says, also
drawn from Africa and Asia. 

But the European ‘Dark Ages’ are only one fragment in a story that, in
Chakravarti’s volume, suggests the importance of trade throughout earlier
periods, indeed, for much of recorded history. The subsistence village,
that stalwart character in so much of social science, can hardly ever have
existed. Of course, the trade in some ages may have been largely state
appropriations (especially of raw materials for war – for example, tin for
bronze), pillage or purchase by territorial rulers, but the movement of
goods on whatever account seems to be as old as any other economic
activity, and often on a scale that must have depended upon a
reorganisation of production, creating a class of producers dependent upon
exchange. This is not necessarily the same as the creation of private
merchant capital, although that also seems to have been crucial at
particular historical moments. 

Of course, there have been great fluctuations in the importance of this
trade economy. Europe in the sixth century appears to be one of those
troughs in activity, particularly marked (as also its reversal) in the
Mediterranean. The obverse to the troughs are great surges of growth that
in particular areas were sustained for quite long periods before being
curtailed by, one speculates, natural disasters, foreign invasion and
widespread destruction particularly of communications, the apparently
infinite depredations of territorial rulers, the collapse of markets
elsewhere, etc. But the surges take place on a long-term rising – albeit
slowly – plane of productivity, population and innovation. 

Many of our notions of the historical periods in the rise of capitalism owe
much to Marx. He performed a brilliant service in seeking to capture the
essence of a system, ‘capitalism’, and the historical logic which preceded
it and defined its peculiarities. Given the exiguous basis of the knowledge
available to him, a tiny fragment of what we have now, it was heroic. But
his scheme bears the marks of the time of its origin, already into the
period of domination of the modern state and its sociological shadow, the
‘nation’. His is an account of national capitalism in which the rise of
manufacturing is seen as the core distinctive feature, and the resulting
conflict of national classes sets the whole in political and social
movement. The national stress perhaps explains why he devoted so little
attention to the earliest phases of post-Roman European commercial and
manufacturing growth in the north Italian cities. He could not have seen
the earlier phases of growth outside Europe – from those clusters in
ancient India, Mesopotamia and China. He would no doubt have been
astonished to learn of the extraordinary growth of manufacturing under
China’s T’ang dynasty or, even more, the southern Sung (960-1279), with a
coal-fired metallurgical output not matched in Europe until the late 18th

If globalisation undermines the old forms of national history, the
collective self-glorification of the state, the post-industrial age
undermines the notion that manufacturing is the peculiarity of capitalism.
An age witnessing a decline in manufacturing in the developed countries
either suggests a post-capitalist system or that capitalism is not so
defined and the predominance of manufacturing was no more than a phase. The
second would seem more plausible and more consistent with the core of
Marx’s thought. But if capitalism is defined as a system of competitive
production for private profit and accumulation, an exchange system focused
on market-establishing prices which, in turn, determine the conditions of
production and territorial divisions of labour, then this has been a thread
in the economic story for perhaps thousands of years in one form or
another, one locality or another. In some cases – for example, southern
Sung China or even the time of Greek city-states – it appears to have been
economically dominant. It did not always include free labour and if that –
the existence of a free labour force – is made a defining element, it
narrows drastically the number of cases (but this still does not restore
the primacy of Europe or the modern period). Only in the past couple of
centuries has capitalism begun to have a dominance over the world capable
of surviving the disasters that afflicted it in the past. But even then,
the system still has far to go to achieve an unchallenged position – and
far to go in many fields to establish a set of world markets and prices,
with the corresponding division of labour of a single global economy. 

Meillassoux (1972) – according to Shereen Ratnagar in Chakravarti’s
collection – argues that any suggestion that capitalism is as old as
recorded society is to suggest it is ‘natural’ to human beings and
therefore cannot be changed. But this does seem a weak objection – as weak
as to suggest that agriculture or handicrafts are equally‘natural’. An
exchange economy has been part of the agrarian, mining and handicraft
economy for thousands of years without any suggestion that these need to
last for ever. 

If we disallow Marx’s account of capitalism as founded on the recent
phenomenon of national economies, as Euro-centric (and more narrowly,
Anglo-centric), it does not mean he did not detect something genuinely new
in the European case. But that was, I think, not capitalism per se, but a
state-directed capitalism, emerging out of the war-driven rivalries of the
European powers. Of course, warring rulers are as old as anything else in
recorded history, but not rulers who, in the interests of waging war
direct, shape or facilitate the accumulation of capital in the interests of
territorial purposes. Marx himself put his finger on the question in the
famous citation (Karl Marx-Frederick Engels, Collected Works, Lawrence and
Wishart, London, 1996, Vol 35, Capital, I, p 739): 

The different momentas of primitive accumulation distribute themselves now,
more or less in chronological order, particularly over Spain, Portugal,
Holland, France, and England. In England, at the end of the 17th century,
they arrive at a systematical combination, embracing the colonies, the
national debt, the modern mode of taxation, and the protectionist system.
These methods depend in part on brute force, e g, the colonial system. But
they all employ the power of the state... 

This is, incidentally, a good example of the omission of the Italian cities
– since they did not constitute a valid historical character, a country or
national state. Nor was this process one of ‘primitive accumulation’; that
had occurred many times before. But the decisive role of the state was, I
suggest, very new, dedicated to forcing the creation of a national
‘political economy’, rather than exploiting an existing cosmopolitan
economic geography of trading cities. This peculiar conjuncture – of the
state and its obsession with warfare forcing private capital and trade into
an exclusive national framework – may be Europe’s peculiarity.* 

*  *  * 

This has been a rather long excursus from these two excellent volumes. But
both have some importance in undermining our inherited conceptions both of
the economic system that exists now and of the past, of the relationship
between trade and the production economy in the past (and indeed, on the
doubtful distinction between merchant, agrarian and industrial capital).
Above all, they suggest that what is peculiar historically is not the
return to a ‘globalisation’which was the norm historically, but the
intervening period of state capitalism. Once we are able to displace Europe
(or Britain) as the exclusive source of ‘capitalism’, we can begin to see
many other false starts on the road to modern capitalism in many parts of
the world, and ask questions about why they did not succeed. In the end,
both volumes are powerful contributions to defining the present. 

*This is explored in much more detail in my The  Return of Cosmopolitan
Capital: Globalisation,  the State and War, IB Tauris, London, forthcoming. 


Boyce, D George and Alan O’Day (1996): The Making of Modern Irish History:
Revisionism and Revisionist Controversy, Routledge, London and New York.
De Ste Croix, G E M (1981): The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World
from the Archaic Age to the Arab Conquests, Duckworth, London.
Maddison, Angus (2001): The World Economy: A Millennial Perspective,
Development Centres Studies, OECD, Paris.
Meillassoux, C (1972): ‘From Reproduction to Production’, Economy and
Society 1, 93-105.
Morris, Benny (1987): The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem,
Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.
Silberstein, Laurence (1999): The Postzionism Debate: Knowledge and Power
in Israeli Culture, Routledge, London and New York. 

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

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