Capitalism in History (Irfan Habib)

From: Rakesh Bhandari (rakeshb@STANFORD.EDU)
Date: Mon Jun 09 2003 - 00:53:06 EDT
Social Scientist. v 23, no. 266-68 (July-Sept 1995) p. 15.


Capitalism in History


There is little dispute that England annually obtained large revenues
out of external sources: About the closing years of the eighteenth
century, William Pitt put it at  17 million per annum. But there has
been an air of inexplicable inconclusiveness in British scholarship
when one comes to the links of the foreign income with the financing
of the industrial revolution. Deane and Cole suspended judgement ('it
is impossible to say, without detailed research').42

Among Marxist historians Dobb had nothing to say about it  in his
Studies in the Development of Capitalism and Sweezy, in fact,
introduces a note of doubt when he says that 'Marx says very little
about the actual methods by which these [external] accumulations
found their way into industry'.43 Dobb had, however, claimed in his
Studies that land-owners who had usurped lands by way of an earlier
process of primary accumulation, now sold their landed assets to
invest in industry.44 When taxed by Sweezy to identify the class
which would buy it from them,45 Dobb, almost without design, stumbled
on to the role of colonial plunder:

>It seems an hypothesis worthy of investigation that in the
>eighteenth century there was a great deal of selling of bonds and
>real estates to such persons as retired East Indian 'nabobs' by men
>who, then or subsequently, used the proceeds to invest in the
>expanding industry and commerce of the time, so that the wealth
>acquired from colonial loot fertilized the industrial revolution.46

In so far as colonial tribute comprised wage-goods (tea, tobacco,
rum, calico) and raw-materials (silk, indigo), largely obtained
'free' at the level of national acounts, it enlarged industrial
capital, by simply reducing costs. It is, therefore, difficult to
understand why one should pore over 'the records of private companies
and public institutions' to determine whether English capitalism
obtained any sustenance from the massive colonial exploitation around
the globe.47

The history of primary accumulation thus establishes beyond any doubt
that capitalism could not have arisen in England without (a)
destroying its peasantry, and (b) subjugating and exploiting external
economies all over the world. The arrival of capitalism was not a
natural internal process: Subjugation of other economies was crucial
to the formation of industrial capital within it. In other words,
colonialism, in its harshest forms, was not a mere attendant process
to the rise of capitalism, it was one of its basic, inescapable
premises. The 'snail's pace* of the growth of capitalism within the
petty mode could, at last, now be changed into rapid growth
'hot-house fashion', showing that force, the basis alike of
peasant-eviction and of colonialism, 'is itself an economic power'.48

End of excerpt

If I understand the Brenner thesis correctly, Habib is begging the
question. The land which was sold to East Indian nabobs was not
valuable in itself; it had been made valuable by the rent which
capitalist tenants were  able to pay once that they had 'improved'
the land under the compulsions of the new social relations.  Habib
himself recognizes this point:

>The drive for rent led to the eighteenth century enclosures, since
>large landowners found that capitalist farmers, using the methods of
>new husbandry, could pay them higher rents.

Yet Habib's point seems to be that without external plunder no one
would have been able buy the land at its "value." Indeed his
hypothesis raises the question of whether the East Indian nabobs and
others paid more than the actual value of the land as they were
choking from an excess of plunder.   Habib also seems to believe that
the attempt to increase rent through enclosures and forced evictions
generally was in part a result of trying to keep up with the
inflation engendered by the inflow of American silver, initially
extracted by Amer-indians who suffered inferiority in military

I find the second half of the essay about imperialism much less
interesting. there is no real clear theoretical formulation which
would keep to the standards of the old debates between Hilferding,
Bauer, Luxemburg and Grossmann.

  Habib himself seems to be a very interesting character; on the one
hand, he makes favorable, albeit meaningless, references to Stalin
and Mao; on the other hand, he dismisses as dogmatic their stagist
theories of history. That he has been a central figure in Indian
historiography is not in question. He is quoted across the political
spectrum; in his notes on the relevance of the Asiatic Mode of
Production to India, Perry Anderson relies almost entirely on Habib
(though that must have rankled Ram Sharan Sharma).

Ian Wright may find this piece interesting as well as Habib refers to
a petty mode of commodity production not only in England but also
China and India.

SEE ALSO AMIYA KUMAR BAGCHI's review of Habib's Essays in Indian
History: Towards a Marxist Perception,  1995,
Social Scientist. v 24, no. 272-74 (Jan-Mar 1996) p. 89.

Bagchi ends the review by subjecting Habib's untenable views on the
character of what was actually existing socialism to sharp critique.

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