The transition debates and capitalism's future

Justin Aukema

Chapel ceiling, Tokyo. Photo (c) Justin Aukema. 2014.

Introduction: the historical “transition” debate

When thinking about the future it can often be helpful to first consider the past. What hints of capitalism’s ultimate fate can we glean from investigating its origins? I believe there is much indeed to be found here. And much that can be applied to the present as well.

In the mid-1970s, historians including Robert Brenner debated the historical origins of capitalism. Their focus was mainly on Europe and especially on England. Brenner’s key contention was relatively simple. That capitalism emerged in the English countryside around the mid-16th century. Like Marx, Brenner understood that capitalism is basically defined by a social relationship wherein one class of people, the working class, must sell their labor power to another class, the capitalist class, in order to gain access to the means of their own social reproduction (e.g. food, clothing, housing, etc.). This relationship emerged under feudalism and vis-a-vis the dominant mode of production at the time, agricultural lands.

Brenner debated with other historians about the trajectory that led to the establishment of this social relationship. His main basis for analysis and comparison was England and France. England in the late 11th and 12th centuries had one of the weakest peasantries and strongest aristocracies in Europe. Most peasants owned no land, while the crown and aristocracy cooperated to form a hierarchical organization and feudal political system that was the “most highly developed [...] in Europe” (257). The ruling class thus formed a powerful block in opposition to the peasants. But for various reasons there was a declining rate of feudal profit in addition to other demographic concerns and these things created a crisis for the ruling feudal aristocracy eventually. In the 15th century, the English ruling class was not powerful enough to reimpose serfdom but it also didn’t grant peasant property rights. Instead, it rented out their land to tenants and leaseholders who relied on peasant wage labor to farm their crops. The result is that peasants were forced to sell their labor power, subject to market imperatives, and influenced by abstract labor (prices-wages set by fastest worker not slowest, etc.). In a word, it was the emergence of capitalist agriculture.

This was revolutionary because naturally it undermined the basis for the feudal mode of production. Namely, lords no longer had to rely on extra-economic (political or military force) compulsion to extract surplus. Instead, they could rely entirely on economic compulsion and market forces. Can’t pay your rent? Well, then, say goodbye to your job, it’s going to someone else. Like that.

But what about France? Well, there, they followed a different trajectory. Early on, the French monarchy established itself in competition with the various lords and aristocracy. The basis for the monarchy’s income was peasant taxation, so the monarchy actually worked to protect peasant private property from exploitation and appropriation by the lords. And in this way, there developed a “centralized system of surplus extraction” (261). The difference was between “property sanctioned by the monarchy” in France versus “serfdom backed by the crown” in England (262). But then in the late 13th century, French lords slowly began cooperating with the monarchy and transformed themselves into state administrators in the process. This continued to rely on the institution of peasant private property as the main basis for state income and now lords’ income as well. It also resulted in the creation of the French absolutist state which was a “transformed version of the old system” of feudalism (289). On an aside, in my opinion this situation bears some resemblance to Tokugawa Era Japan where the bakufu recruited various regional lords (daimyo) into a centralized system of taxation. In any case, though, this was “disastrous for economic development” because peasant private property created more and smaller subdivisions of private plots of land (290). As peasant land was hereditarily passed down, and as the population grew, farm spaces became smaller and less productive. Meanwhile, the more effective system of absolutist taxation resulted in most of the surplus being used for luxury consumption and war, both of which inhibited development.

Yet England under the capitalist mode of production instead flourished. Or, in the capitalist sense of the word “flourish” that is. In other words, productivity and wealth accumulation rose all without resorting to major military coercion or violence. Of course, this was all predicated on the increased immiseration of a majority of the peasantry, however. And herein lies the major problem. This is that capitalism emerged in England precisely because its peasantry was so weak, and because it was one of the most exploited in Europe. It is because the peasantry there had nothing to begin with that they were easily transformed first into agricultural wage laborers and later, via the enclosures, into an industrial proletariat.

So again, this contrasts with France (or at least some regions of France) where peasant property rights were nevertheless stronger and peasant resistance proved to be more powerful (at times and in general). As a result, capitalism, according to Brenner and others including Meiksins-Wood, developed later there. But the point I want to emphasize is this: this is not necessarily, in any way actually, a bad thing. It is only "bad" from a deterministic point of view in which capitalism is inevitable and/or an "improvement." Of course, I am not suggesting here that an institution such as the monarchy is necessary to protect average people's rights. That would be absurd. Similarly, I do not imply that feudalism itself is better than capitalism either. Rather, what I want to draw attention to is the relative political power differential between peasants of the two countries and the problem of peasant power and autonomy that emerges from the other "transition" debates in general. This suggests that where peasants had built up more power to resist feudal lords, they were also more successful at resisting the onslaught of capitalism. It is this key point that I feel deserves more attention and could be better appreciated in ongoing struggles today.

Lessons from the debate

Now, it doesn’t take too much of a stretch of the imagination to see how this history influenced Marx’s thinking on the transition not only to capitalism but also from capitalism. Cognizant of the history of English capitalism, Marx recognized one of its key contradictions. This was that capitalism immiserates the proletariat on the one hand, but also socializes production (through the division of labor) on the other. That is to say, it brings men into cooperation with each other and thus allows for the further development of the forces of production, more than could ever be produced simply by independent producers working in isolation. Eventually the new wealth and power created by capitalist agriculture and transformed social relations was enough to crush the weak framework of feudalism. And in the same way, saw Marx, socialized forms of production would ultimately crush and transcend the negative boundaries set by capitalism.

So this then begs the question: does social change only result from increased immiseration? Must the international proletariat go through more suffering and indeed completely lose everything before socialism/communism can be achieved? The answer is in fact “no.” There are two main reasons for this. First, as scholars from Marx to Wallerstein have noted, the transition to capitalism was in no way better nor inevitable. Other, better options may have been and are still most certainly available. Capitalism itself is historically situated and determined, with a definite beginning and end. In other words, we must reject the notion that capitalism represents a total social improvement or that it is somehow the best possible, current state of affairs. It is not. As Wallerstein noted, we factually cannot say this since it is impossible to map all of the other potential historical trajectories that could have been. Since they too remain speculative, our analysis of capitalism must also always simply be speculative.

Second, we can in fact draw an alternative lesson from the historical feudalism-capitalism debates. On the surface, Brenner’s analysis seems to suggest that weak peasantry=increased forces of production on the one hand, and strong peasantry=weaker forces of production on the other. Actually, this is partly true. But we need to remember that so-called “improved” forces of production, especially under capitalism, in no way represent an improvement for the mass of workers. Instead, the complete opposite is true. Improved capitalist productivity creates more exploitation for the workers and more surplus value extraction (and wealth) for the ruling class. And that’s it. Whatever “trickle-down effect” might remain is all relative. So now, consider again the comparison of the French and English peasantry. Or other peasantries in Europe where property rights were stronger for that matter. Where peasants remained in control of their own means of production productivity, true productivity, for them and the amount of surplus left over for their own consumption and reinvestment may have and in fact in many cases was actually much higher. But it still created a crisis of feudal value and also of political power for the ruling class. In other words, it may not have mattered that overall production or growth remained low since the lives of average peasants may still have been much better off. In this sense, the fact that the English peasantry owned nothing certainly made them “advanced,” but only in a capitalist and thus ironic meaning of the word.

Conclusion: Lessons for today

Today on the Western Left there are two main schools of thought. One is accelerationism and the other is degrowth. Accelerationism, I believe, is a highly cynical and nihilistic view that derives partly from the analysis of the transition debate and partly from an interpretation of Marx’s historical materialism. This is to say, simply, that forces of production must be developed to their tipping point to cause a shift to a new, ultimately post-capitalist, system. However, this view is damaging, I feel, because it is somewhat ambivalent or dismissive of the inevitable suffering that this will cause to the global working class. As seen in the debate above and even in Marx’s own writings, the development of capitalism is in inverse proportion to the immiseration of the proletariat. But accelerationism doesn’t have a sufficient answer to this problem. And so its adherents tend to be both dismissive of political social change on behalf of the working class and to embrace a deterministic attitude toward historical progression in general. Shō ga nai, they say, “it can’t be helped.”

The other view is that of degrowth. Now, there are different schools of degrowth thought. I have touched on some of them in another article, and so will skip over much of that discussion here. But the basic similarity between all of them is that they want to reduce consumption and the production of surplus value. Some think that this will lead to a revolution in the capitalist system that will inevitably lead to socialism. Others simply cynically push this doctrine in order to acclimate the working class to owning less in the first place in the face of overall declining value production on the one hand, and rising prices and demand on the other.

These are the two main schools of thought. The problem, as I have also argued elsewhere, is that both of these are fundamentally mistaken. Previously, I showed why this was the case simply from the perspective of capitalist accumulation. But here I want to argue that it is also proven wrong by historical analysis of the transition debate itself. The basic problem is that neither Marx nor Wallerstein nor probably even Brenner himself would have said that the result of capitalism from feudalism was ultimately the best possible route taken. They were simply pointing out the historical fact of what was and not what could have been.

But this doesn’t prevent us from speculating on what could have been. Neither do we have to remain blind to what historically benefited the working class then and what benefits them today. This is, most simply put, an increase in their political power, autonomy, and ownership rights. The commonality between the accelerationists, the degrowthers, and our WEF overlords is that they want to take everything away from us for various reasons ranging from a consolidation of ruling class power to delusions of a socialism sans class struggle. Yet if we read the history of the transition debate, as Brenner did, as a history of class struggle, then we know that increased power to prevent the emergence of capitalist social relations and the “development” of productive forces were in fact highly valuable and important. Similarly, applied to today, we can and I believe should reject any views that fail to prioritize or which minimize the impacts of class struggle.

In the real fight against capitalism, we can’t simply throw in the towel or imagine that reduced consumption will save us. Instead, workers must take back what is rightfully theirs, and what has been robbed from them under capitalist social relations. This includes but is in no way limited to: returning or enabling workers’ private property, giving control over not only of their own labor power but also over the entire production process (i.e. determining what gets made, how, and for whom), and restoring knowledge of the production process. Each of these things will work to repair the various metabolic rifts that were artificially created by capitalism including rifts between ourselves, our fellow man, and nature. It will also repair the rift created between mental and manual labor discussed notably by Harry Braverman so that workers themselves will consciously carry out all stages of production from planning to final product.

And these things can only be achieved by obtaining real political power. Struggles for higher wages, or against higher rents (or even taxes for that matter!) are most effective alongside demands for increased political autonomy as well. In fact, the latter is often even more important than the former in many cases. Ancient and medieval peasants wrote up contracts establishing fixed rents or their own village constitutions where they made the rules and not the lords. Did this result in lower value creation, “productivity,” and wealth accumulation? Hell yes it did. But only for the ruling class. The lives of average people and peasants were made immeasurably better through these struggles and reforms.

The real lesson from the transition debate for the Left today is to re-evaluate and to not judge harshly the historical and current actors who reject capitalism outright and instead embrace tradition and even so-called “conservative” values like family, ownership, autonomy, and freedom. For too long the Left has seen groups like the Luddites as backwards and misguided, oblivious to the coming and “inevitable” tidal wave that was capitalist development. And in doing so, they implicitly accept the ideological premise that capitalism itself represents a quantifiable improvement over past modes of life. Ironically, too, as torch bearers of progressivism the only thing they are really doing is serving as the vanguards of capital. But in their sympathetic portrayals of the historical working class, Brenner, E.P. Thompson and many others, I believe, saw this as the illusion that it really is.

The working class today, too, in the West is often derided as being “backward” or not holding the “proper” or “correct” attitudes or views from the perspective of many on the Left. As such, they and their real material or political concerns are often largely written off. The result is a profound lack of understanding of the role of class struggle and even a coherent theory of the working class on the contemporary Left. This suggests a major strategic crisis and paucity of imagination on the Left, and one which leaves it blind to understand either the lessons from history or the events unfolding before our very eyes today.


Aston, T. H., and C. H. E. Philpin, eds. The Brenner Debate: Agrarian Class Structure and Economic Development in Pre-Industrial Europe. 1st Edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

Braverman, Harry. Labor and Monopoly Capital: The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century. 25th Anniversary ed. edition. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1998.

Marx, Karl. Capital: Volume 1: A Critique of Political Economy. Translated by Ben Fowkes. Reprint edition. London ; New York, N.Y: Penguin Classics, 1992.

Wood, Ellen Meiksins. The Origin of Capitalism: A Longer View. Reprint edition. London ; New York: Verso, 2017.

Thompson, E. P. The Making of the English Working Class. Penguin, 2002.

Wallerstein, Immanuel. Historical Capitalism with Capitalist Civilization. 3rd edition. London ; New York: Verso, 2011.

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