British Marxian Economic Historians

For Dobb the warrant for the convergence of history, social theory, political economy, and philosophy is in the power of the particular sociohistorical analysis to illuminate the actual historical processes of human experience (Dobb 1951: 235). Much of the historical processes that had been dim behind the shadow cast by an empiricist methodology have now been illuminated by the historians directly influenced by Dobb. Collectively, they are known as the Communist Party Historians Group; their paradigm metaphor is ‘history from below’.

It was Dobb’s Studies that had directly inspired this tradition of historians (see Hobsbawm 1979: 23; Hill 1950: 315; Hilton 1947: 29-30; Kaye 1984, 1992; Schwarz 1982). Initially, the first generation of this group had come together in England in 1945 to discuss the second edition of A.L. Morton’s A People’s History of England (original published in 1938). The group included some of the twentieth century’s most prominent names in Marxian (socio-) historiography. Besides Dobb, regular attendees included Christopher Hill, Rodney Hilton, Eric Hobsbawm, Victor Kiernan, George Rude, Dorothy Thompson, E.P Thompson, and Dona Torr.

All of the members of the Group were also members of the Communist Party of Great Britain. Dobb’s Studies (Dobb 1946), published within a year of the Group’s formation, became a great intellectual interest to many of the Group’s members (see, for example, Hilton 1947; Hill 1947; Hobsbawm 1979). Especially significant to the participating members was Dobb’s ‘stages of development’ analysis that he employed in Studies.

In Studies, chapters two through six can be divided into roughly five distinct stages of development analyzed by Dobb. In each stage of development, Dobb’s analysis is driven methodologically by primacy given to the ‘pathological’ or crisis moments of history. The first stage is the ‘crisis of feudalism’ in the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries. The second stage is the bourgeois revolution of the seventeenth century. While the second stage is a reactionary response in an attempt to ‘save’ feudalism, and hence remains part of the development of feudalism, stage three is a movement away from feudalism. More specifically, stage three is the aftermath of the English bourgeois revolution during relatively the same time period as the second stage. The third stage initiated the rise of industrial capital and historically constitutes a prelude to capitalist development, and a more rapid deterioration of the feudal mode of production. The fourth stage is the social historical formation, or ‘making’ of a proletariat class dependent solely on wages for their livelihood. With the formation of a proletariat class, and only after the formation of the proletariat class, the conditions are set for the so-called industrial revolution in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, which is the fifth (Dobbian) stage of development.

As mentioned above, each stage of economic development more or less corresponds to a chapter of Dobbs Studies. Further, each stage would become a research agenda for, in order of their respective stages, Hilton, Hill, Thompson, and Hobsbawm. Hilton would take up the research of crisis and class conflict in thirteenth- and fourteenth-century (English) feudalism (stage one), Hill would focus his intellectual efforts on sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England (stages two and three), Thompson would write one of the most celebrated monographs in Marxian historiography concerning The Making of the English Working Class (to invoke the title of his book) (stage four), and Hobsbawm would research the industrial revolution[1] of England and the (more political) French Revolution during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries (stage five).

8 Studies in the Development of Capitalism

It was Dobb’s Studies that provided the basic framework for these historians (see Hobsbawm 1979: 38). Dobb’s influence also inspired a methodology and specific interpretation of Marx and Engel’s historical materialism, an interpretation quite at odds with the orthodox deterministic versions of historical materialism that ruled the era (e.g. Plekhanov’s The Development of the Monist

View of History, originally published in Russian in 1894 and later defended by Gerry Cohen in his Marx’s Theory of History: A Defence, published in 1978). A study of the writings of these Marxian historians will further enrich the methodological insights and ontological orientation of a Dobbian approach to social history. Although the historical periods of research of these historians are distinct, and the methodological emphases and biases may vary, it is suggested that these historians constitute a theoretical tradition (Kaye 1984; Despain 2011: 157-262).

Broadly, Dobb sets out to accomplish two aims in Studies. First, he endeavored to critique the ‘commercialization model’ of capitalism and better understand the dynamism of feudalism. Second, he wanted to better understand the crisis and stagnationist tendencies of contemporary capitalism by better understanding its historical genesis and institutional development.[2]

According to the commercialization model, the extension of long-distance trade, then the development of domestic exchange, and consequently, the rise of domestic markets are the primary dissolvents of feudal relations of production. Moreover, trade and markets are seen as alien or external forces operating outside of the internal structure of both feudal production and feudal exploitation. In turn, markets and money are seen as the catalyst for the emancipation of feudal peasantry from serfdom. The presence of markets and money, furthermore, are seen to have unleashed improvements in technology from the fetters of feudalism (Dobb 1946: 37-38). In that these forces are viewed as alien and external to the internal structure of feudalism, the internal social constitution of feudal production itself is viewed as (more or less) stable, save for the external pressures of markets and money. Moreover, in that the commercialization model assumes that feudalism was characterized by its particular stability, this implicitly suggests that the feudal mode of production tended to be technologically stagnant.

According to the commercialization model then, not only are markets and money exchange the ‘historical destroyers’ of feudal relations of production, but they also further engender the capitalist relations of production. Monopoly merchants, or the mercantile element of feudalism, in this view, are crowned as the principal begetter of emancipation of human beings from the shackles of feudal institutions.

Dobb’s dissatisfaction with the commercialization model is threefold: (1) the internal articulation is under-analyzed, hence the economic dynamism of feudalism remains obscure; (2) it is misleading on several accounts with respect to the transition from feudalism to capitalism; and (3) it overestimates the revolutionary role of the feudal mercantile element on the one hand, while on the other hand, it underestimates the conservative role of merchant capital in sustaining the social relations of feudal production.

In spite of the tremendous attention that the transition from feudalism to capitalism received following the publication of Studies, it was not Dobb’s primary concern for writing the book. Without exaggeration, the main intention of Studies was to understand the stages of economic development, growth, and crisis of capitalism. To do this, Dobb believed that he first needed to understand the transition that took place. First, in a contrastive (or scientific) sense, the structural dynamic of capitalism could be analyzed from, and compared with, the differences of the structural dynamic of feudalism. Second, Dobb believed that history is always present. The idea of history always being present refers to the fact that social structure, modes of production, and institutions always evolve from those of the past. Contemporary institutions are always rooted in previous institutions, and in part, constitute them.

For Dobb, history is a necessary endeavor to understand contemporary social being. Also, it was necessary to understand the institutions, the evolutionary development, and the contemporary forms of social being. Dobb’s approach to contemporary social being was not only historical, but also structural, institutional, divided into stages (of development), and orientated around the concept of agency. Dobb’s notion of social class includes all of these methodological motifs.

Social class is structural in that it is determined and defined by the mode of production. Social class is institutional in that it is mediated by the institutional forms. Stages of economic development (contingently) modify social class (and sociopolitical alliances). Finally, social class is the predominant aspect that determines political motives and social action. It is in this sense that for Dobb social class is the primary category for understanding the reproduction of any social arrangement or mode of production. The social class of an individual determines the ways in which a person flourishes in (or is enabled by) and suffers in (or is constrained by) a society.

Dobb not only turned to history to help understand contemporary social class and social being, but he also believed that a return to classical political economy, and especially the work of Marx, was of the utmost importance. The return to Marx was important for Dobb in that it was Marx who first emphasized both class struggle analysis and economic crises. Crises, of course, do not explain transformation or ‘transition’ from one system to a new one. Crises produce the opportunity for transformation, but only the actual historical agents can do the transforming. Crises have an additional importance to social science, which Dobb was anxious to understand. Methodologically, crises allow a theorist analytical access to the ways in which a system is either reproduced or transformed by means of understanding the historical episodes when a system fails to reproduce itself.

It is indeed striking to discover that Dobb’s main aim in Studies was to develop a theory for the self-regulation and reproduction of a capitalist economy. For Dobb to understand the political economy of twentieth-century capitalism, it was necessary to understand its institutions and history, and its historical emergence. It was to this aim that the historical chapters of Studies concerning feudalism and precapitalism were intended. What is remarkable is that these chapters contributed to the degree that they did for understanding feudalism and its mode of self-regulation, reproduction, and eventual transformation.

Dobb applies his historical reflections on the roots of capitalist institutions to the analysis and theoretical construction of twentieth-century capitalism. In short, Studies was a story of capitalism, first and foremost, with an aim to understand its stagnation, instability, and crisis tendencies in the twentieth century.

  • [1] Dobb, Hobsbawm, and Thompson were in agreement that the notion of an ‘industrial revolution’ wasa word too many. There was an industrial ‘take-off7 that occurred only after the centuries-long process ofprimitive accumulation. The process of primitive accumulation was as much a process of dispossession ofthe masses as it was the enrichment of the landlords and ‘merchant element’ (Dobb 1946: 221—254;Thompson 1963: 182^47).
  • [2] Significant attention has correctly been given to Dobb’s chapters on feudalism and especially the mechanisms of ‘transition’ from feudalism to capitalism. (The original debate is published in Hilton (ed.)1976; also see Despain 2011: 110-156.) Nonetheless, nearly half of Studies is concerned with capitalismand approximately a third of the book with contemporary capitalism. These highly insightful pages havebeen relatively neglected and underappreciated.
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