Chris Harman


Weak foundation

(November 2003)

From Socialist Review, No.279, November 2003.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Website.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The Myth of 1648
Benno Teschke
Verso £25

This book sets out to attack the conventional view in the academic discipline of International Relations which sees there being an unchanging form of interaction between states from 1648 to the present day. Teschke quite rightly insists the whole approach is untenable, since the relations between states change with changes in the social relations of production within each, and he provides useful accounts of the relations during the medieval period, the period of absolutism and that of modern capitalism.

However, two things stymie his argument.

First, he succumbs to the arcane language of the discipline he is criticising, making many passages nearly impenetrable to those of us who have not studied it. At points I could not help feeling that rather than Marxism infiltrating the academy, the academy was infiltrating and subverting Marxism.

Second, he bases himself on the self baptised ‘political Marxism’ propounded by Robert Brenner and Ellen Meiksins Wood. This stresses the centrality of class struggle in bringing about a change from one mode of production to another – and in particular from feudalism to capitalism – and so takes issue with those like Gunder Frank and Wallerstein who only point to systems of trade and markets. But it ignores something absolutely central to Marx’s own account – the development of the ways of making a livelihood (‘the forces of production’).

There is nothing intrinsically bad about disagreeing with Marx. But he pinpointed the role of the forces of production for a very important and inescapable reason. There is a tension between the tendency of humans to improve their capacity to make a livelihood and the fixity of existing social relations between them, and this tension creates the pressure for societies to change. Shifts in the forces of production are the material underpinning of the ups and downs of class struggles. They extend the range of possibilities open for human existence and, in doing so, enable people belonging to different classes to envisage new ways of living.

Once you take your eyes off such changes in production, then shifts from one mode of production to another appear almost accidental, a product of this or that great leader, or of the accidental balance of social forces at some point in history.

So it is that Teschke, following Brenner, sees a transition from feudalism towards capitalism taking place in Britain because peasants only half-won the battles they fought with the lords in the revolts of the late 14th century. In France, he sees no transition as possible because, he claims, the peasants won completely.

In a somewhat similar way, what is sometimes called the ‘feudal revolution’ or the ‘revolution of the year 1000’ – the final consolidation of serf-based exploitation right across Europe – is merely a result of the interplay of rivalry between various feudal lords.

What is missing in both cases is recognition of cumulative changes in production right through the medieval and early modern period. Teschke (again following Brenner and Meiksins Wood) dismisses these as insignificant, even writing of ‘non-developing’ societies. In fact, as the French historian Duby has stressed, there were massive increases in agricultural productivity (more than doubling the output per unit of land) from the 9th to the 14th centuries, associated with the adoption of new techniques, while Lynn White and Jean Gimpel have shown how the production, processing and movement of goods were transformed by the spread of innovations like water and wind mills, the compound crank, the spinning wheel, improved looms, the compass, cast iron, and finally the printing press.

These changes increased the weight within feudal society of elements which were at odds with the existing social structure. They led to the growth of trade and of towns, which were able, to varying degrees, to break from the control of feudal lords. With this went further growth of the market, increasing the pressure for personal relations between people engaged in production to be replaced by cash relations. As this happened, it was possible for kings to manoeuvre with the urban classes to lift themselves above the rest of the feudal lords, so creating a state, ‘absolutism’, that looked both back to feudalism and forward to capitalism.

Because he does not see this, Teschke does not see absolutism as a stage in the transition from feudalism to capitalism, but as a social formation standing apart from either. His is the completely undialectical approach of saying something must be either completely capitalist or completely non-capitalist. Nowhere is there any sense of a connection between economic transformation in the town and countryside with the cultural/ideological battles of the Renaissance, Reformation and Enlightenment, and of both the economic and ideological with the political battles in Holland, England, France and finally right across Europe.

These absurdities follow from a method which cuts history into self contained slices and then finds only accidental connections linking each to the slice that preceded it. The connection can only lie in the slow advance of the forces of production – which created the conditions in which the first embryos of capitalism could arise, not just in Europe but in parts of Asia and Africa as well (an issue which Teschke simply dismisses out of hand). The new embryos could only develop further when the social forces associated with them were capable of struggling against the resistance encountered from the old society. That is where class struggle came in – but it had to be thoroughgoing class struggle over political power, directed towards the centres of political power in the towns, not simply over economic issues restricted to the countryside. Force, as Marx put it, is the midwife of the new society. But it cannot be effective without a prior process of conception in which changes in production play a role.

What passes for ‘political Marxism’ ends up ignoring both the productive base out of which classes grow and the heights of the ideological and political superstructure where they wage their world-historical struggles. As a result Teschke’s book makes often perceptive observations, but fails to bring them together into a viable historical account.

Last updated on 27 December 2009