Chris Harman & Robert Brenner: The origins of capitalism (Discussion, London, 2004)
The origins of capitalism Chris Harman & Robert Brenner. This is the transcript of the discussion which took place between Chris Harman and Robert Brenner at a school in London in November 2004 organised jointly by the journals International Socialism and Historical Materialism. Internatinal Socialism 111, 2006
Chris HarmanWe are discussing one of the most profound transformations in human history.Societies in western Europe and right across the world 1,100 years ago werecharacterised by a situation in which 98 or 99 percent of people lived in thecountryside, living off food they produced themselves, with very few towns, veryfew roads, very poor communications, a very low level of literacy, very little use ofmoney, very little exchange taking place and when it did in the form of barter. Thequestion is how that transformed itself into the society we have known for morethan 100 years in Europe—a society characterised by people living in largeconurbations, almost universally eating food produced by others and paid for by amoney system, and the massive growth of industry and communications. How didthis huge transformation, the change from what we usually call feudalism, tocapitalism, take place? Why did it take place first in Europe and then spread out tothe rest of the world?This discussion has involved many different points of view, both Marxist and non-Marxist. What I consider to be the often very arid writings of Max Weber areconcerned with this question. More recently David Landes, a free market economichistorian, has attempted to approach this question. What we are talking about todayare the debates within the Marxist tradition.These have involved three distinct stages.The first stage took place in the 1940s and 1950s and was conducted between agroup of Marxists roughly connected with the Communist Party, although notnecessarily members of it—Paul Sweezy, Maurice Dobb, Eric Hobsbawm—allparticipated in this debate. The second stage took place in the 1970s, involvingRobert Brenner debating with people like Emmanuel Wallerstein and Gunder Frank.The third stage of the debate, which is current today, involves a number of writerslike Kenneth Pomerantz and again Bob Brenner talking about the development ofcapitalism on a world scale.There are two elements in the current debate. There is a narrow debate about whycapitalism developed in Britain as opposed to the rest of Europe, and a wider debateabout whether capitalism could have developed outside Europe.
Chris Harman (8 November 1942 – 7 November 2009, Cairo, Egypt) was a British journalist and political activist, and a member of the Central Committee of the Socialist Workers Party. He was formerly the editor of International Socialism, and Socialist Worker. His main role in the IS (from 1978 the Socialist Workers Party (SWP)) was as a theorist and he produced numerous books and articles on a wide variety of topics. Almost all his writing appeared in the publications of the IS and SWP or has been published by related publishing houses, such as Bookmarks. He was first editor of Socialist Worker in 1976-77 and returned to the role after a break in 1982, remaining in the post until 2004, when he started editing the SWP's theoretical quarterly International Socialism Journal. Harman's work on May 1968 in France and other student and workers uprisings of the late 1960s, The Fire Last Time, was recommended by rock band Rage Against the Machine in their album sleeve notes for Evil Empire.
Harman died on 7 November 2009 following a cardiac arrest while lecturing at the Socialist Days conference of the Center of Socialist Studies (CSS) in Cairo, Egypt. He is buried in Highgate Cemetery, London, a few yards from Karl Marx's tomb and adjacent to his comrade Paul Foot.