A note on “Political Marxism”

I received notice today that my Sabbatical request for Spring 2020 has been approved. This is of course great news. In celebration,  I decided to put some thoughts on paper, with the caveat that today’s entry, as with my last one, is just “thinking out loud”.

My hope is by that time I will be in a position to begin some actual writing. With any luck, I may be able to have my first chapter in hand. As I indicated in my last entry,   I plan to address some philosophical/methodological issues about assessing rival theories on economic evolution in an opening chapter.

As I have been thinking about how to organize my study, I have been feeling a bit overwhelmed by the scope of the study I had set forth, especially with respect to addressing and organizing my discussion of Marxist theories of social evolution. However, more or less by happy coincidence, I stumbled across an interesting blog on Political Marxism.  I was gratified to note that the issues around which I wrote my doctoral dissertation (The Political Economy of  Rural Social Change in Pre-Industrial England).  University of Utah, 1992) still have some currency. As I argued in my dissertation, and probably more clearly in  an article I wrote based on my dissertation, I thought that the Marxist approaches suffered from what I saw as a dogmatic approach to social change, especially in the way in which Paul Sweezy was accused of multiple heresies.

 In re-reading, for the first time in many years, Sweezy’s argument (linked above) I was struck by the way in which  Sweezy emphasizes the ways in which the manorial system based on serf labor  interacted with the growing commercial and urban organization of trade of the high middle ages. In my own dissertation and article, I went farther, and emphasized the ways in which technology, social structure, demography and markets interacted at the system level.  Though some of my professors thought my objective overly ambitious and irreverent, I was struck by the way that Marxist anthropologists such as Eric Wolf and quasi-Marxists such as Marvin Harris had already done much of the heavy lifting. Both Wolf and Harris in their own way address what I think are three significant defects in the approach of “political Marxists” such as Robert Brenner:

  1. A lack of clarity about the nature of “feudalism” in Europe: neither involuntary semi-free labor and political decentralization were unique to medieval Europe;
  2. An over focus on the need to find “internal contradictions” to a specific mode of production, thereby dismissing significant analysis of the very different commercial, demographic and political developments in early modern Europe;
  3. An overemphasis on the “autonomy” of politics from the material base of society.

So here, if you will, is perhaps a way to organize my discussion of Marxist theories of social evolution.

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