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Robert Brenner Agrarian Class Structure and Economic Development in Pre-Industrial Europe

Robert Brenner Agrarian Class Structure and Economic Development in Pre-Industrial Europe

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The Past and Present Society
Agrarian Class Structure and Economic Development in Pre-Industrial EuropeAuthor(s): Robert BrennerSource:
Past & Present,
No. 70 (Feb., 1976), pp. 30-75Published by: Oxford University Press on behalf of The Past and Present SocietyStable URL:
Accessed: 17/12/2009 08:40
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change n late medievaland earlymodernEuropehave continued obe constructed lmostexclusively n termsof what might looselybe called "objective" economic forces, inparticular demographicfluctuationsand the growth of trade andmarkets. A variety ofmodelshavebeen constructed entring ntheseforces.But whateverthe exact characterof the model, andwhether the pressureforchange s seen to arise romurbanizationnd the growthof tradeoran autonomous emographic evelopment,market upply-demandmechanisms usuallyassumed o provide he elementaryheoretical underpinnings. So, the response ofthe agrarianeconomy toeconomicpressures,whatever heir source,s more or less taken orgranted, iewedas occurringmoreor less automatically,n a directioneconomically etermined y "the laws ofsupplyand demand".In the construction f these economicmodels he questionof classstructure ends o be treated n a variety f ways. Typically, here sthe statement hatone is abstractingforthe moment) rom he socialor class structure or certainanalytical urposes.lThe fact remainsthat in the actualprocessof explanation,hat is in the "application"of the model to specific economic historicaldevelopments, lassstructure ends, almost nevitably, o creep back n. Sometimes, tis inserted, n an ad hocway, to comprehendhistorical rendwhich the model cannot cover. More often,however, consciously orunconsciously, lass structure s simply ntegratedwithinthe modelitself, and seen as essentially hapedby,or changeablen terms of,the objective economic orces aroundwhich the model has beenconstructedn the first place. In the most consistent ormulationsthe very fact of class structure s implicitlyor explicitly denied.Long-term conomicdevelopments understoodn termsof changing
* This paper was originally presented at theAnnual Convention of theAmericanHistoricalAssociation,December
An earlierversionwas givenat the Social Science Seminar of the Institutefor Advanced Study Princeton,New Jersey,April
I wish to thankProfessorFranklinMendeis, ProfessorT. K. Rabb, Professor Eleanor Searle and ProfessorLawrence Stone, for thesubstantial time and effort they gave in commentingon and criticizing thispaper. I owe a special debt to Mr. Joel Singerfor the great amount of help hegave me, including both information and analysis,in trying to understandGerman developments.1 See for example below, p. 34. M. M. Postan,"Moyen Age", IXe CongresInternational es SciencesHistoriques,Rapports,(Paris,
I950), pp.
225 ff.
institutionalizedelaiionships f "equalxehange') etween ontraet-ingindividuals rading different,relativelysearce "faetors"underchangingmarketonditions.2It isthe purpose ofthis paper to argue that such attempts ateconomic model-buildingare necessarilydoomed from the startpreciselybecause, nzostcrudely stated, it is the structureof classrelations, f classpower,whichwill determirlehemanner nddegree to which particularemographie ndeommercial hangeswill affectlong-run rends n thedistribution f ineomeandeconomic rowthand not
vice versa.
Classstructure, s I wishhere to use the term,hastwo analyticallyistinct,but historicallynifiedaspects.3 First,therelationsof the directproducers o one another, o their toolsand tothe land in theimmediateprocessofproduction what hasbeen called he "labourprocess" r the "socialorcesof production".Seeondly, he inherentlyonflictive elationsofproperty alwaysguaranteed irectlyorindirectly, n the lastanalysis,by force-bywhichan unpaid-for artof the product sextracted rom the directprodueers y a class ofnon-produeers whieh might be called he"propertyrelationship"orthe "surplusextractionrelationship".It is around he propertyor surplusextractionelationshiphat onedefineshe fundamentallasses n a societythe class(es)of directproducerson the one hand and thesurplus-extracting,r ruling,class(es) n the other.4 Itwouldbe myargumenthen that different classstructures, specifically "propertyrelations" or "surplusextraction elations",onceestablished, end toimpose ratherstrictlimitsand possibilities,ndeedrather pecifieong-termpatterns, nasociety's economiedevelopment. At thesame time, I wouldcontend,class structures end to be highlyresilient n relation o theimpactof economicforces;as a rule, they arenot shaped by, oralterablen termsof,changes n demographic rcommercialrends.Itfollows thereforethatlong-term eeonomieehanges, and mostcrucially eonomie rowth,eannotbe analyseddequatelyn termsoftheemergeneeof anypartieular onstellationf "relatively carce
Fora recent attempt toapply this sort of approacho the interpretation fsocio-economic change in themedieval and earlymodern period, see DouglassC.North and Robert PaulThomas, The Riseof the Western World(Cambridge,
Thefollowing definitionsderive, of course, fromthe work of Karl Marx,especially: "Preface" to AContribution o theCritique of Political Economy(NewYork,
970 edn.);"The Genesis ofCapitalist Ground Rent" and"Distribution Relations andProduction Relations", inCapital, 3 vols. (NewYork,
edn.), iii, chaps.xlvii and li; and"Introduction" to Grundrisse(London,
This is not necessarily toimply that classes existor have existed in allsocieties. Classes, in myview, may be said to existonly where there is a"surplus extraction"orpropertyrelationship n thespecific sense implied here,that isin the last analysisnon-consensual andguaranteedeither directly orindirectly by force.

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