This started out as a comment on this post at Gathering Forces but got long enough that I figured I’d make it into a blog post here.

I recently read this short book/long essay called Historical Capitalism by Immanuel Wallerstein. He makes the point that the history of actually existing capitalism has proceeded differently than some marxists have presented it. There’s are two historians of slavery who makes this point very clearly in regard to the role of slavery in theoretical expositions of capitalism vs in the history of actual capitalism as a world system – Walter Johnson, among other places in his essay “The Pedestal and the Veil”, and Dale Tomich in his book _Through the Prism of Slavery_. Heidi Hartman makes this point in another way in her essay “The Unhappy Marriage of Marxism and Feminism.” Jeanne Boydston’s history of housework and in some ways the whole Wages For Housework range of theorists are making this point too. The theoretical exposition of capitalism that Marx offers is incredibly powerful, but that theoretical exposition is different from an account of what actually existing historical capitalism has been and is (or, what historical capitalisms have been and are, as a global system). Marx could be much clearer about this, but he says or alludes throughout v1 of Capital to the point that he’s actually talking about an abstract theoretical capitalism — capitalism as an ideal type — as much as or more than actual capitalism.

Marx tacitly admits this for instance in the primitive accumulation section of the book he notes that he’s largely talking about British capitalism, which he asserts is the classical form of capitalism, and that actual capitalism has proceeded differently in other parts of the world. That means he’s abstracting from British capitalism in his writing, to build his model of the system. (That’s not particularly surprising, since he lived in Britain and had access primarily to British sources.)

Marx also notes the status of his remarks on capitalism when he says something like “to the degree that the business owner is fully a capitalist, he will re-invest all surplus” — this implies that actually existing capitalists don’t always conform 100% to the abstract model of what capitalists behave like. These sorts of abstract models are very useful but when the model gets confused for reality and reality differs from the model that can be a problem. To put it another way, actually existing capitalists rarely conform 100% to the logic of the capitalist system. Capitalism is a system which rewards and encourages economistic behavior, and the best of Marx and the marxist tradition is an attack on that.

E.P. Thompson said it well, I think: “The injury which advanced industrial capitalism did, and which the market society did, was to define human relations as being primarily economic. Marx engaged with orthodox political economy, and proposed revolutionary economic man as the answer to exploited economic man. But it is also implicit, particularly in the early Marx, that the injury is in defining man as “economic” at all.”

That’s a good statement on the importance of the early Marx. It took me a while to find that quote. On the way I found some more good stuff…

“While one form which opposition to capitalism takes is in direct economic antagonism – resistance to exploitation whether as producer or consumer – another form is, exactly, resistance to capitalism’s innate tendency to reduce all human relationships to economic definitions. The two are inter-related, of course; but it is by no means certain which may prove to be, in the end, more revolutionary. (…) [People] desire, fitfully, not only direct economic satisfactions, but also to throw off this grotesque “economic” disguise which capitalism imposes upon them, and to resume a human shape.” ( Note to self, see also these remarks on Thompson as libertarian communist –

To get back to Marx, I think his model of capitalism is incredibly powerful and is hard to overestimate, but it’s important to keep in mind that it’s a model, not the actual thing. It’s also worth pointing out that in much of the book part of Marx is doing is representing an ideal capitalism free from things that people might call external or impurifying elements; the idea is to say that a pure form of perfect capitalism (judged so according to the standards of the capitalist class and its ideologists) is still fatally flawed. That’s an argument for Marx proceeding as he does. Reconstructing the actual course of development and the present condition of historical capitalism(s) is a different project, though. To quote Thompson again, and this quote “This is the importance of the real history: it not only tests theory, it reconstructs theory.” (From the interview with Thompson in Radical History Review in 1976.)


I’m working on a post on v2 of Capital, wrote (well, mostly quoted) this bit while writing that post, decided to drop it into this post instead —
In the preface to v2 of Capital, Engels writes that “Marx’s surplus value (…) represents the general form of the sum of values appropriated without any equivalent by the owners of the means of production, and this form splits into distinct, converted forms of profit and ground-rent in accordance with very peculiar laws which Marx (…) expounded in Book III [of Capital]. We shall see there that many intermediate links are required to arrive from an understanding of surplus-value in general at an understanding of its transformation into profit and ground-rent; in other words at an understanding of the laws of the distribution of surplus-value within the capitalist class.” (10.) It seems to me that it’s also fair to say that a similar thing is true of the relationship between theoretical and historical capitalism – it requires many intermediate links between the theoretical understanding of capitalism, the theory doesn’t just give us what actually happened.

“one thing that is evident in some of the best Marxist cultural analysis is that it is very much more at home in what one might call epochal questions than in what one has to call historical questions. That is to say, it is usually very much better at distinguishing the large features of different epochs of society, as between feudal and bourgeois, or what might be, than at distinguishing between different phases of bourgeois society, and different moments within the phases: that true historical process which demands a much greater precision and delicacy of analysis than the always striking epochal analysis which is concerned with main lineaments and features.” (8.)
Raymond Williams, “Base and Superstructure in Marxist Cultural Theory”