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The Beginnings of Capitalism in Central Europe

Edited By Cyril Levitt

This book focuses on the beginnings of capitalism in Central Europe with emphasis on the German-speaking areas from the 14th to the 17th century. It also reviews and assesses the writings on the topic by the most important thinkers of the twentieth century. At the center of the presentation are the developments in mining, metallurgy, smelting, book publishing, clock making, ship building and advances in trade, commerce and finance. This book will be of interest to students of medieval and early modern European history, the so-called transition debate of feudalism to capitalism, social scientists and historians who are interested in the various transitions in human history, and philosophers who follow developments in the changing issues regarding freedom and bondage over the course of human development. Anthropologists who are familiar with Krader’s writings on the development of the Asiatic mode of production will be interested to see how Krader treats this transition from feudalism to capitalism by way of comparison and contrast.

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Reply to Krader in Context by Cyril Levitt

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Reply to Krader in Context


In the Author’s Foreword to The Beginnings of Capitalism in Central Europe Lawrence Krader describes the focus of his work as follows: “The present work concerns the beginning of the capitalist system and of modern bourgeois society in Central Europe, primarily in the German-speaking region and is presented as a contribution to the solution of an essential part of the question of periodization in human history. Yet, this book is not offered as a history text.” In spite of this specific focus, I thought it would be interesting to ask a scholar of late medieval and early-modern Europe for his views on Krader’s work. Since Dr. Levine and I have been colleagues and friends for decades now and share similar views on freedom of expression and attempts within the academy to limit the same, and, recognizing his pre-eminence as a historian in this field of work, I offered him a platform to assess Krader’s work in English translation, a first draft of which he read and extensively commented upon. I am grateful for his input. I did not expect his work, or the work of any single historian, to present a full picture of this narrow field of history and it may be that his comments may not in fact be representative of this area of the discipline. And yet in the spirit of debate and principled criticism which he and I both respect and encourage, I will take this opportunity to respond to some of his comments in relation to the present work.

Palaeontology, Anthropology, Archaeology and related disciplines have been concerned with the question of periodization of human history and over the ←xxv | xxvi→course of the last several centuries have proposed various schemata regarding such classification. Some of these classificatory systems are based primarily on the use of materials in tools and have entered into popular consciousness in expressions such as the Old Stone Age, the New Stone Age, the Iron Age, etc. Other classifications, especially those created by late 19th century evolutionists used broad cultural markers for the designation of periods, such as that of the American lawyer and amateur anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan’s tripartite division of Savagery, Barbarism and Civilization, the British jurist and leader of the Historical School of Law, Henry Sumner Maine’s phrase ‘from status to contract’, Emile Durkheim’s contrast of mechanical and organic solidarity, Ferdinand Tönnies Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft, and many others.

As an anthropologist, Krader outlined his theory of development which he distinguished from the theory of evolution, the former limited specifically to the human order, the latter to the material-biotic order of nature. The major discontinuity within the over-arching continuity of human development is the division between communal and civil society, the latter distinguished by the division into social classes, the presence of a public and a private sector, and the formation of the state. Within civil society, there are various organizations of economic and social life, distinguished among other factors by the specific relations to material nature (tools, technics, raw materials, means of production, intellectual achievements in mathematics, philosophy and the sciences, etc.) and the relations between the classes of the labouring population and the classes of non-producers (state officials, priests, healers, landowners, etc.). In this book Krader wrote of capitalism that it is the form of organization of the economy in modern civil society.

One of the important, although not the only way of distinguishing among the various economic formations of civil society concerns the form and substance of social labour. In all forms of civil society labour is bound in substance. In the so-called Asiatic mode of production, the substance of labour is social, the form, communal. The communal-social form of labour is bound to the village by custom, habit and tradition; it is thus a transitional form from communal to civil society, with a state, a weak division into a private and a public sphere and nascent social class divisions. A surplus is made over to the state in the form of rent-tax (for the separation of the private—rent and the public—tax had not been systematically elaborated). In classical antiquity the predominant form of labour is slavery by which the slave is bound as the property of the master who is invested with the ius utendi et abutendi. In feudalism, which Krader, following Marx in this matter, believed was a phenomenon limited to European history (with the possible exception of Japan), the serf was bound to the land glebae adscripti. The advance of the capitalist organization of the economy and along with it the development of the ←xxvi | xxvii→ideology of freedom is given expression in both the organizations of the class of wage labour in the towns and among the peasants in their rebellions and uprisings in the countryside. Along with the growth of wage labour and as a necessary aspect of it the formal freedom of wage labour, came the right to contract for the sale of its labour power as juridically equal to the owners of capital (some of whom in the earlier period of mining, for example, were also wage labourers), the right to mobility, the freedom of movement, etc.

Philosophically, Krader has taken up and employed a number of categories found in the writings of Hegel, that of form and substance having already been mentioned. Other categories prominently employed by Krader from this source include mediate and immediate relations, subjective and objective aspects of human development, the notion of moments in the theory of development and of mediation in the theory of labour. No reference is made at all in Levine’s critical assessment of this book to any of these important concerns given Krader’s focus on the problem of periodization in writing it. And the definition of capitalism that Levine presents in his review—buying cheap and selling dear—is lacking in historical specificity and is overly simplistic. Buying cheap and selling dear would apply to almost any society in which commodities are produced, which as Engels pointed out in his introduction to Volume III of Capital, is something like 5,000 to 7,000 years old and is not specifically related to any form of capitalism let alone to its modern system. If one were unkind one might refer to it as a kind of Fred Flintstone view of contemporary capitalism. Perhaps it is a watered-down version of C.B. Macpherson’s notion of possessive individualism.

One gets the feeling that in ignoring Krader’s specific intentions and objectives in writing this book that Levine has set up a straw man. Not only does he not take note of the fact that Krader’s main concern is with the question of periodization—even if historians don’t consider it worthy of their attention—leaving it out of mention altogether sets up the argument for criticism by a misrepresentation of its concerns. The same can be said of the book’s very title: The Beginnings of Capitalism in Central Europe (emphasis added). Almost all of Levine’s references are related to the English data and most of these are from the 17th, 18th and 19th century, whereas Krader’s overwhelming concerns are related to the 15th and 16th centuries. Krader does, on occasion, refer to comparative data with England, Italy, France, Turkey, etc., but his primary concern is with Central Europe in the 15th and 16th century. Krader explicitly states that England had overtaken Germany in the production of coal for use in mining by the middle of the 16th century: “Yet, in the second half of the 16th century, England had taken over the leading position in the production of iron in Europe and maintained it during the subsequent industrial revolution till the 19th century.” And, “Hard coal was used as industrial fuel in ←xxvii | xxviii→England earlier than in Central Europe.” If Krader did not develop a comparative treatment of capitalist development in England with that in Central Europe, it was on account of the fact that it was not his intention to write such an account.

Furthermore, Levine’s linking Krader’s approach with that of Maurice Dobb ignores Krader’s explicit critique of Dobb (and Sweezy and Hilton) in this book (pp. 49, 78, 79, 94, 126n) and a much more extensive criticism of Dobb and other apologists of Marx, and indeed of official communist versions of the theory of value in his book Labor and Value. Additionally, along with an appreciation of some of Marx’s insights regarding the origins of capitalism in Europe, Krader is critical of Marx’s oversights (pp. 50, 53, 65, 77, 96, 103, 109, 119, 130, 324). A further point of contention is Levine’s criticism of what he refers to as mid-century methods and data sources which he suggests were outmoded before the 1990s when Krader published this book in the German original. But again, this is a straw man, since the question concerning periodization is ignored by Levine who takes up the book as a history text which Krader explicitly denied at the outset of the work.

Consider the following statements by Levine regarding Dobb and Krader: “Both works [Dobbs’ and Krader’s] concentrate on the origins of capitalism in the formal relations between capital and labour; neither work gives much credence to the agricultural origins of industry, consumer demand, urbanization, historical demography, transportation, technology, and, in particular, energy sources. Indeed, Krader’s essay—like Dobb’s—is remarkable for the way in which a 21st century student of “the transition” recognizes the absence of the gigantic historiography which is pertinent to this subject. It could be said that contemporary studies render Krader’s vision almost unrecognizable or, at the very least, anachronistic.” One of the explicit themes of the book concerns the relations of form and substance with regard to labour, to rights and freedoms in the modern condition of civil society under developing capitalism. But the achievement of formal freedom by wage labour—for the first time systematically in human history—first by the town proletariat and somewhat later and at a slower pace by the peasants in the countryside—stands in contrast to the lack of the substance of freedom, a condition acknowledged poetically by Goethe at the end of Faust. And I leave it to the reader of this work to judge the fairness of Prof. Levine’s criticism that Krader has ignored everything but the formal relations of capital and labour. See for example, with regard to the peasants’ important role in the beginnings of capitalist development in Central Europe: “The peasants and the working class remained separate from one another; only sporadically did they take up contact. However, they did not behave passively to each other, as Karl Marx believes, when he speaks about the expulsion of the peasants from the countryside; they were in no way the mere recipients of the initiatives of others, but rather an active moment in history.” And ←xxviii | xxix→“In substance, the peasants had participated in the world market already in the 15th to the 17th century and they had already contributed in an essential way to money revenue at first west of the Elbe, thereafter in the territory east of the Elbe as well.” And again: “Capitalism was established by the total activities of the peasants, the town working class and the entrepreneurs. These activities were carried out not through the common consciousness, but rather separated in the various social classes in the different countries. Thus, one cannot speak of a unitary revolution but rather of several waves of activity independent of one another.” The charge that Krader ignored changes in technics and technology is incomprehensible to the translator of this book who spent hours trying to find English language equivalents for developments in technics and technology from the 14th to the 16th century in mining, metallurgy and smelting, and in other trades over the course of that time. Transportation and the role of different fuels were also extensively covered in the book, as even the casual reader will easily see. Demographic changes are presented in a number of different tables as well as in the text.

And in conclusion, one can only wonder that for all of the anachronism with which Levine charges mid-20th century scholarship not one single example of how the new historiography has shown that any of Krader’s main points concerning the beginnings of capitalism in Central Europe has been significantly challenged by its discoveries.

History students of the late Charles Tilly were rumoured to have given a clever twist to the title of their professor’s collection of essays As Sociology Meets History, referring to it “As Sociology Eats History.” We might, with some justification, suggest Levine’s treatment of this book is an example of contemporary historiography’s self-congratulation in ignoring both anthropology and philosophy.

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