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Colin Barker

Capitalism and Material Life

(April 1975)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.77, April 1975, p.31.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Capitalism and Material Life 1400-1800
Fernand Braudel
Fontana, £1.75.

HERE’S A real rag-bag of a book. It’s completely mis-titled, for apart from a chapter on the forms that money took it has nothing to say at all about capitalism, or its emergence.

Indeed, calling this a book is almost a misnomer. What Braudel has given us is a collection of fascinating information, about the material aspects of life in Europe and elsewhere in the world in the years 1400 to 1800. The material – on population, food, housing, clothing, towns, and so forth – is ‘organised’ to the extent that each topic is dealt with in turn, as in an encyclopaedia. The social and economic and political relationships between men hardly appear at all. What does appear is a marvellous catalogue of the brute facts of material existence in various parts of the world at various times.

To make sense of the book, to use it, the reader will have to supply his own interpretations. Anyone interested in the period will get a good deal from Braudel’s work, in terms of raw, unsystematic data. You can learn about the terrifyingly low crop yields in Hungary (three ears of grain for every one sown), about the curious evolution of money, about the housing conditions in European cities, about the way the rice-harvest was gathered in China, about the disastrous effects on the population of Latin America of the Europeans’ importation of diseases.

The only unifying theme is the one that presumably made Braudel, mistakenly, give this collection its title: rich people lived better than poor everywhere. No one will be much surprised by that. But the interested reader can dip into this magpie collection and extract much of value from it.

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Last updated: 21.3.2008