OPE-L Theory as History: Ernest Mandel's historical analysis of world capitalism

From: Rakesh Bhandari (rakeshb@STANFORD.EDU)
Date: Wed Nov 05 2003 - 06:31:07 EST


Theory as History
Ernest Mandel's historical analysis of world capitalism
Conference at the International Institute of Social History
Amsterdam, November 10-11, 2003 (address)
For participants and papers see the programme.
For more information contact Jan-Willem Stutje: jst@iisg.nl

Ernest MandelBelgian Marxist Ernest Mandel (1923-1995)'s analysis of
the development of world capitalism occupies an important place in
his extensive work. His magna opera, Marxist Economic Theory (first
published in French in 1962) and Late Capitalism (first published in
German in 1972), bear witness to this fact. Both works have a
historically oriented starting point. Mandel considered Marxist
Economic Theory an attempt to demonstrate that 'only Marx's economic
teaching makes possible the synthesis of the totality of human
knowledge, and above all a synthesis of economic history and economic
theory'. (Mandel 1968: 17) In Late Capitalism he reaffirmed this
standpoint, and then posed the question: 'Why is there still no
satisfactory history of capitalism as a function of the inner laws of
capital ... and still less a satisfactory explanation of the new
stage in the history of capitalism which clearly began after the
Second World war?' (Mandel 1975: 23) Late Capitalism was above all
Mandel's attempt to respond to the second of these two needs.
The Free University of Brussels, the International Institute for
Social History and the Ernest Mandel Foundation are organizing a
conference on Mandel's contribution to a 'satisfactory history of
capitalism as a function of the inner laws of capital'. The
organizers consider that a conference of this kind meets a real need.
A consistent historical theory has been sorely lacking in discussions
on the development of world capitalism. While we do have the
world-systems approach of Immanuel Wallerstein and his co-thinkers at
our disposal, this theory is limited to the sphere of circulation and
does not give sufficient weight to social conflicts (Van der Linden
2001). Several authors, including Eric Wolf (1982: 297) and Kay
Trimberger (1979-80), have maintained that a good alternative exists
to Wallerstein's conceptualization of the modern world-system: Ernest
Mandel's theory of the capitalist world economy as 'an articulated
system of capitalist, semi-capitalist and pre-capitalist relations of
production, linked to each other by capitalist relations of exchange
and domination by the capitalist world market'. (Mandel 1975: 48-49)
Mandel gives considerable weight to the historical importance of
social struggles, and considers the growth of the capitalist mode of
production since the late eighteenth century as 'a dialectical unity
of three moments: (a) ongoing capital accumulation in the domain of
already capitalist processes of production; (b) ongoing primitive
accumulation of capital outside the domain of already capitalist
processes of production; (c) determination and limitation of the
second moment by the first, i.e. struggle and competition between the
second and the first moment'. (Mandel 1975: 47)
The conference's aim is to subject Mandel's historical theory of
world capitalism to a critical examination. The following five,
closely interrelated questions are central to this critical

1.      The concept of 'capitalism'. Widely divergent answers have
been given in the Marxist tradition to the question of how the
'capitalist mode of production' should be defined. This was evident
for example during the two so-called 'transition debates', in the
1950s (Sweezy versus Dobb) and the 1970s (the Brenner Debate), as
well as in the prolonged controversy over the nature of Soviet
society. Mandel always took a very clear standpoint of his own in
this general debate. What are the merits and weaknesses of his
2.      The origins of capitalism. Mandel pointed out in several
different publications that primitive accumulation and the existence
of a substantial agricultural surplus product were necessary but
insufficient conditions for the transition to a capitalist society
(1968, II, 443-445; 1969: 75-78). The quantity of money capital
accumulated in Moghul India for instance was probably no less than in
Europe during the same period (Mandel 1971). Yet it was in Europe,
not in India, that capitalism made its breakthrough. Mandel explained
this 'Europe first' pattern as a result of a different relationship
of forces between the state and the bourgeoisie. The stronger the
bourgeoisie was, the more continuous capitalist accumulation could
be. 'In the last analysis the uneven development of capital in East
and West results from the dissimilarity of the two regions'
agricultures, from two different relationships between land, water
and the masses of people, which led in the East to a greater
centralization of the social surplus product thanks to an agriculture
based on irrigation and led in the West to a dual economy and a
greater decentralization of the social surplus product.' (Mandel
1969: 79) This position is controversial, as can be seen from the
ongoing debate about the role that the colonies played in the
industrialization of Europe (e.g. O´Brien 1982; Wallerstein 1983;
O´Brien and Prados de la Escosura 1998) as well as in the so-called
Brenner Debate.
3.      The periodization of capitalism. Mandel uses a 'periodization
of capitalist development' in three phases: freely competitive
capitalism, imperialism, and late capitalism. Critics have maintained
that this division is inadequately grounded (e.g. Massarat 1976:
147-156). The question can also be raised whether 'merchant
capitalism' might be considered a fourth (earliest) phase.
4.      Uneven and combined capitalist development. Following Trotsky
(1977: 27-28), Mandel always defended the theory that the development
of world capitalism is characterized by unevenness, to such an extent
that latecomers can skip over stages that the pioneers were forced to
go through (e.g. Mandel 1970). This theory seems at first sight
fairly self-evident, but the question is what it actually contributes
to our understanding of history. Elster (1986: 55) has claimed that
the theory is 'rather vapid', inasmuch as it amounts to no more than
'a denial of the theory of unilinear development' and 'does not make
any positive contribution'.
5.      The collapse of capitalism. If capitalism blocks of
possibility of the concrete utopia of human community, how can this
utopia be achieved? Mandel always opposed determinist theories, like
those of Henryk Grossmann (Mandel 1968: 328) and Rosa Luxemburg
(Mandel 1972: 29), which predicted capitalism's inevitable collapse,
and opposed the dominant 'Communist' ideology, which also assumed
that the system's end was a theoretical and historical certainty.
In order to understand the zigzags in the history of capitalism,
Mandel relied on the theory of 'long waves'. The fact that he himself
had mistakenly clung to the idea, not borne out by the facts, of an
irreversible stagnation of the economy shortly after the Second World
War contributed to his later theoretical position. His mistake
convinced him that a third type of rhythm, alongside the short-term
industrial cycle and the system's overall life cycle, must be studied
in order to grasp capitalism's dynamics. Critics point to the central
role assigned to the tendential fall of the rate of profit in 'long
wave' theory. Is this the only factor that determines the dynamics of
capitalism, or is it only one of many? Even if the fall of the rate
of profit gives rise to counteracting tendencies, are these enduring
or does the theory lead once more to a scenario of so-called
collapse? Mandel himself emphasized the importance of this set of
issues (Mandel 1995: 8).

Elster, Jon (1986), 'The Theory of Combined and Uneven Development: A
Critique', in: John Roemer (ed.), Analytical Marxism (Cambridge
[etc.]: Cambridge University Press, and Paris: Editions de la Maison
des Sciences de l´Homme), 54-63.

Mandel, Ernest (1968), Marxist Economic Theory (New York: Monthly
Review Press). Originally Traité d´économie marxiste (Paris:
Julliard, 1962).

Mandel, Ernest (1969), 'Die Marxsche Theorie der ursprünglichen
Akkumulation und die Industrialisierung der Dritten Welt', in: Ernst
Theodor Mohl (ed.), Folgen einer Theorie. Essays über 'Das Kapital'
von Karl Marx (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp), 71-93.

Mandel, Ernest (1970), 'The Laws of Uneven Development', New Left
Review, 59 (January-February), 19-38

Mandel, Ernest (1971), 'Agricultural Revolution and Industrial
Revolution', in: A.R. Desai (ed.), Essays on Modernization of
Underdeveloped Societies, Vol. 1, (Bombay: Thacker & Co.). Reprint
as: 'Agricultural Revolution and Industrial Revolution',
International Socialist Review, vol. 34, No. 2 (February 1973), 6-13.

Mandel, Ernest (1975), Late Capitalism. Trans. Joris de Bres (London:
NLB). Originally: Der Spätkapitalismus (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp,

Massarat, Mohsen (1976), Hauptentwicklungsstadien der
kapitalistischen Weltwirtschaft (Lollar: Verlag Andreas Achenbach).

Mandel, Ernest, Long Waves of Capitalist Development: A Marxist
Interpretation (revised edition), London 1995, ( first ed. 1980).

O'Brien, Patrick (1982) 'European Economic Development: The
Contribution of the Periphery', Economic History Review, 35, 1-18;

O'Brien, Patrick and Leandro Prados de la Escosura (1998), 'The Costs
and Benefits of European Imperialism from the Conquest of Ceuta, 1415
to the Treaty of Lusaka, 1974', in: Debates and Controversies in
Economic History (Madrid, 9-69.

Trimberger, Ellen Kay (1979-80), 'World Systems Analysis: The Problem
of Unequal Development', Theory and Society, 8, 127-137.

Trotsky, Leon (1977), The History of the Russian Revolution (London:
Pluto Press).

Van Der Linden, Marcel (2001), 'Global Labor History and `the Modern
World System´. Thoughts at the twenty-Fifth Anniversary of the
Fernand-Braudel-Center', International Review of Social History,

Wallerstein, Immanuel (1983), 'A Comment on O'Brien', Economic
History Review, 36, 580-583.

Wolf, Eric R. (1982), Europe and the People Without History (Berkeley
[etc.]: University of California Press), p. 297.

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