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Charles Post
Department of Social Science
Borough of Manhattan Community College-CUNY
199 Chambers Street
New York, NY 10007;

I want to thank the editors of Science & Society for the opportunity to respond to
Daniel Gaidos (2013) critique of my The American Road to Capitalism (2012).
limitations of space, I will not be able to engage all of Gaidos arguments,
but will in-
stead focus on his three most important criticisms. First, Political Marxism (I prefer
Capital-centric Marxism) is a revisionist current within Marxism, (229) rejecting the ca-
nonical version of historical materialism contained in Marxs 1857 Preface to the Contri-
bution of the Critique of Political Economy,(1989) where the trans-historical develop-
ment of the productive forces determines the course of human history. Second, my re-
visionism leads me to question Marxs account of the transition from feudalism to capi-
talism in The German Ideology (1976a) and The Communist Manifesto (1970) in which
capitalism first developed in cities and then gradually spread out into the countryside.
(230) Finally, my concrete-historical account of the origins of capitalism in the United

The American Road to Capitalism has just been awarded the 2013 Paul M. Sweezy Marxist Sociology
Book Award by the Marxist Section of the American Sociological Association. I would like to thank Ellen
Meiksins Wood and Kit Adam Wainer for comments on an earlier draft of this essay.
The issue of the bourgeois-democratic versus capitalist revolutions, including my interpretations of the
French and American Revolution and US Civil War, will be discussed at length in my How Capitalist
Were The Bourgeois Revolutions?: A Review of Neil Davidson, How Revolutionary Were The Bourgeois
Revolutions? currently under review for Historical Materialism.


States, particularly my analysis of northern family farming and southern plantation slav-
ery, differs from those of Marx himself, Engels, Lenin and George Novack.
For Gaido, the Capital-centric Marxist rejection of the primacy of the productive
forces means the rejection of a rigorous materialism rooted in human labor in favor of a
highly voluntarist view in which the class struggle is left alone to determine the course
of historical development. (229) The opposite is, in fact, the case. Our argument is that
the relations human beings enter into with one another to produce and reproduce hu-
man existencesocial-property relations (Brenner, 1985, 11-12)shape the relation
between humans and the natural world as mediated through the use of toolsthe labor
process or forces of production. Put another way, strong rules of reproduction (laws of
motion) produce distinctive patterns of development and forms of crisis are specific to
each set of social-property relations. While necessary periods of crisis intensify class
struggle and open the possibility of the emergence of qualitatively new forms of social
labor, it is the unpredictable outcome of class struggle that ultimately determines
whether the old social-property relations survive or what type of new social-property re-
lations emerge. Clearly, a number of historical conditionsmost importantly the struc-
ture and dynamics of the dominant social-property relations (the localized coercive rent-
taking typical of feudalism was a necessary precondition for the endogenous emer-
gence of capitalism in English agriculture)shape the variety of possible outcomes of
class struggle. However, ultimately it is the outcome of the class struggleand not the
logic of the development of the productive forcesthat determine which social property
relations emerge.

There are a number of good reasons for Marxist to reject the canonical version of
historical materialism contained in the 1857 Preface. First, there are important questions
about its scientific status. Arthur Prinz (1969) carefully reviewed the strictures Prussian
and other German state censors placed on the publication of critical and radical materi-
als. Prinz concludes that the 1859 Preface, in particular its emphasis on the trans-
historical development of the productive forces as the expense of the role of class
struggle, may have been written to elude censorship rather than to elaborate Marxs un-
derstanding of history. Further, Marxs account of the evolution of capitalist industry in
Capital, Volume I (1976b, Chapters 13-15), in which capitalist social-property relations
take hold of existing labor-processes (artisanal manufacturing) and transforms them
contradicts the notion that the forces of production determine class relations.
Even the
most sophisticated versions of productive forces Marxism have been unable to identify
the selection mechanism that guarantees that the new class relations that emerge his-
torically are more amenable to the development of the productivity of labor through the
use of tools. (Chibber 2011) In sum, the notion that history is driven by the progressive
development of the productive forces reads the specific dynamics of capitalism back-
ward onto the entirety of human historydepriving Marxs analysis of the capitalist
mode of production of its specificity and originality. (Wood, 1995, Chapter 4)
There are even more compelling reasons to jettison Marxs narrative of the ori-
gins of capitalism in his writings before the 1850s. As Wood (2002, Part I) and Brenner
(1989) have pointed out on numerous occasions, the notion that capitalism begins in the
medieval cities and expands into the countryside assumes what must be demonstrat-

A similar argument is presented in Braverman, 1974.

edthe origins of the uniquely capitalist dynamics of specialization of output, labor-
saving technical innovation and the accumulation of means of production. The com-
mercialization thesis, by equating capitalism and commerce, implies that capitalism has
existed in embryo for the entire history of class society. Commodity exchange between
town and country was much more extensive in antiquity and in the various Asian and
African trade empires
than in Europe after the commercial revolution of the late 13

century, yet capitalism did not develop outside of England. Even more importantly, his-
torical research over the past six decades has challenged the notion that the develop-
ment of medieval towns and trade undermined feudalism and led to capitalist production
in Europe. As Maurice Dobb (1976) pointed out in the original transition debate in this
journal, Henri Pirennes (1980) historical work, upon which Paul Sweezy (1976) based
his analysis, had been dismissed by most historians on factual ground by the late
1940s. More recently, Brenner (1985a and 1985b) reviewed the historical literature
which continues to challenge the empirical validity of claims that the growth of towns
and commerce undermined feudalism and necessarily led to capitalism in early modern
Europe. Rather than commerce dissolving feudal relations, it led to the restructuring
and reinforcement of feudal relations in Eastern Europe during the second serfdom in
and 15
centuries. Today, most Marxian historians recognize that trade and the ur-
ban-rural division of labor were a feature of feudalism. (Merrington 1976)
At the heart of Gaidos critique of The American Road to Capitalism is my devia-
tion from the insights of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Novack on US capitalism. Gaido is ex-
tremely critical of what he, correctly, identifies as my central thesisthat the auction of

See Brook 2010; Coe 2003; Ehret 2002, Thapar 2002.

public lands and resulting social monopoly of land in the five decades after the Constitu-
tional Settlement of 1787 subordinated northern rural households to market coercion or
the law of value, compelling them to specialize output, introduce labor-saving tools and
methods and accumulate land and tools in order to obtain, maintain and expand land
holdings. In the course of his essay, Gaido makes two, contradictory, claims. First, he
claims that all self-organized, rural household production throughout history has been
subject to market coercion/the law of value. In other words, northern farmers were al-
ways subject to competitive pressures that forced them to specialize, innovate and ac-
cumulate, becoming a home market for industrial capital. Second, he argues that the
continuous forcible expropriation of Native American populations allowed farmer-settlers
to obtain cheap land on the frontier, engage in subsistence production, and avoid wage
labor. For Gaido, it appears that family farming in the north was both a spur and obsta-
cle to capitalist development in the 19
century US.
Gaido begins by challenging the validity of the concept of independent household
productiona form of social labor in which legally free rural households are not com-
pelled to specialize, innovate and accumulate in order to obtain, maintain or expand
land-holdings, claiming such a concept is not to be found in Marxs writings. (230). In-
stead, Gaido, following Engels supplement to Capital, Volume III (1981), insists that
commodity production is always subordinated to the law of value. (237) It is true that
Marx did not use the term, which was introduced by the Marxian rural sociologist Harriet
Friedmann (1980). However, Marx (1976b, Chapter 33) recognized situationsin set-
tler-colonies like Australiain which legally free people can appropriate landed property
without successful commodity production, marketing only physical surpluses above

what is necessary to maintain themselves and their neighbors. Rosa Luxemburgs con-
cept of a peasant economy in her Accumulation of Capital (1968, Chapter XXIX) is
nearly identical to Friedmans concept of independent household production. More im-
portantly, there is voluminous historical research on the persistence of independent
household production until the last quarter of the 20
century in most of the global
South, much of which has been published in Journal of Peasant Studies and Journal of
Agrarian Change over the past forty years. In sum, there are sound theoretical and his-
torical reasons for identifying forms of rural household production in which legally free
producers are not subject to the law of value.
Gaido appears to contradict his claim that northern rural household production
was always subject to market coercion, when he argues that the development of peas-
ant holdings through land confiscation or colonization delayed the appearance of wage
labor and therefore the development of capitalism in depth. (233) Following George
Novack (1935 and 1957), Gaido implies that land on the northern frontier was sufficient-
ly cheap to allow urban workers to escape wage-labor and engage in safety-first agri-
culture, producing for their own and neighbors subsistence and marketing only physi-
cal surpluses. The clearing of the estatesthe expropriation of the least productive
and competitive rural producersdid not take place until the late 19
and early 20

centuries. (249) This account is not only historically inaccurate, but contradicts Gaidos
earlier claim that independent household producers are always subordinated to the
law of valueto the compulsion to economize labor time through specialization, innova-
tion and accumulation. Put simply, either northern farmers were always subject to com-
petitive pressuresand the ultimate penalty of losing their land if they did not produce

at or below socially average necessary labor-timeor there was a transition from inde-
pendent household to petty-commodity production in the US.
There is ample historical evidence that the shift from independent household to
petty-commodity production took place in the first four decades of the nineteenth centu-
ry. After a renewed debate on the social organization of northern agriculture before the
American Revolution, which I reviewed in detail in Chapters 2 and 4 of my book, there is
a clear consensus that colonial northern farmers were able to obtain land outside the
land marketthrough squatting on unoccupied lands as individuals or groups, and
eventually obtaining legal title to the land at below market prices. As a result, colonial
farmers were free to devote the majority of their labor-time to the production of use-
valuestheir own and their neighbors subsistence. While no individual household was
self-sufficient, neighborly exchange of labor and produce guaranteed community in-
dependence. Physical surpluses were marketed, and cash was used to purchase the
handful of goods local communities could not produce themselves. However, the repro-
duction of the independent households did not depend upon successful market compe-
tition-- producing at or below socially average necessary labor timeand did not pro-
duce a dynamic of specialization, innovation and accumulation. Instead, there was an
actual regression of the productive forces in northern colonial agriculture compared with
contemporary English agriculture, as northern farmers abandoned the up-and-down
husbandry that market English farming since the 16
century. (Lemon, 1976, 163-178)
I also provide detailed documentation of how the class conflicts between northern
farmers and merchants and land speculators in the two decades after the Constitutional
Settlement of 1787 fundamentally altered the conditions under which rural households

obtained, maintained and expanded landholdings. (Post 2012, Chapters 2 and 5) The
defeat of the cycle of rural revolts in the 1780s and 1790s not only scuttled demands for
inflationary measures and debt relief, (241) but effectively ended squatting in the re-
gions east of the Appalachians, opening the way to the massive commodification of
landed property through federal and state public land sales that began in the 1790s.

While pockets of independent household production survived through the 1830s in the
trans-Allegheny northwest, by the 1840s almost all actual settlers had to purchase land
from private speculators and land companies at prices well above the federal minimum
prices. In Iowa, on the frontier of northern settlement in the 1850s, the portion of farmers
who purchased land from speculators rose from 78.1% in 1850 to 85.7% in 1860.
(Swierenga, 1968, 48-50, 100-123) The rising burden of mortgages and taxes com-
pelled actual settlers in the 1840s and 1850s to sell to survivespecialize output, in-
troduce labor-saving tools and accumulate land and tools. (Post, 2012, Chapter 2; Levy,

Gaido claims that the defeat of the northern farmers in the 1780s and 1790s was temporary, claiming
that Jeffersons election in 1800 represented the break-up of the bourgeois-planter bloc (Federalism)
and the beginning of the dominance of various farmer-planter agrarian fronts (Democratic-Republicans
and Democrats). First, the alliance between the northern merchants and bankers and the largest southern
planters continued in the form of the National-Republican and Whig parties of the 1820s through mid-
1850s. (Sellers 1969). Second, the Democratic-Republics and Democrats, who were the dominant party
through most of the antebellum period, never abolished auctions as the main way of transferring public
lands to private individuals and corporations. (Mayer and Faye, 1977; Kennedy 2003).
According to Gaido, From this analysis it follows that the existence of a class of latifundia-owners who
monopolized the land before the colonization process, the presence of a bloated state bureaucracy and
the absence of credit markets would have created the ideal conditions for the development of petty-
commodity production and therefore of capitalism. (239) Clearly, if the latifundia-owners extracted rents
through extra-economic coercion, and state expenditures funded politically constituted property (offices)
through the collection of taxes as a major form of surplus extraction from the peasantryas was the case
in much of 19
century Latin Americathen non-capitalist agriculture would have been reproduced.
However, in the US land speculation did not produce a class of landlords, nor did taxation fund politically
constituted property. Instead, land speculation and rising capitalist state taxes in the US provided a lever
against peasant economy (Luxemburg, 1968, Chapter XXIX), compelling household producers to be-
come petty commodity producers.

Gaido challenges my interpretation of the impact of the US public land system,
claiming that falling minimum prices and acreage offered for sale, the Pre-Emption Act
of 1841 and, most importantly, the Homestead Act of 1862 made vast expanses of the
public domain available to settlers at low or no cost. Not only did these measures pro-
duced wide-spread landownership in the nineteenth century US that Marx (1972, 49)
discussed in a letter to the US socialist Sorge,
but as Lenin argued (1954, 44n.), pro-
duced higher levels of agricultural mechanization than other contemporary societies.
Unfortunately, none of these claims are empirically verifiable. First, while minimum pric-
es and acreage did decline in the first half of the 19
century, there were no maximum
prices charged and maximum acreage sold at public auction. By the 1850s, unimproved
land sold for an average of $4.00 per acrefour times the minimum price of $1.25 per
acre. Land near railroad lines sold for between $8.00 and $12.00 per acre6.5 to near-
ly 10 times the federal minimum price. (Atack, Bateman and Parker, 2000, 311-312)
Second, the Pre-Emption Act of 1841, which allowed actual settlers to purchase land
they occupied at federal minimum prices, was prospective (only applied to those who
occupied public lands after 1841) and was most often used by land speculators to pur-
chase lands that were then resold to actual settlers. (Gates, 1968, 238-245). Finally, the
Homestead Act, while ostensibly allowing any US citizen to lay claim to 160 acres of
surveyed government land, actually distributed a very small portion of the public do-
main after the Civil War. As both Paul Gates (1936) and Fred Shannon (1936) pointed
out, the best located landsalong the railroad linescontinued to be auctioned for

Gaido cites data that as late as 1870, 43% of all white men over 21 (and 39% of the total population)
owned real estate. (241-242) This data does not necessarily support Gaidos claims. First, not all owners
of real estate were necessarily farmersmany owned urban real estate. Second, and more importantly,
the conditions under which farmers obtained land compelled them to sell to survive.

market prices either by the private railroads or the federal government. Lenins (1970,
119) claim that the Homestead Act implemented in a capitalist way the Narodnik idea
of distributing unoccupied lands to all applicants was factually incorrect.
Gaidos and Novacks claim that the expansion of household production on the
northern frontier provided an alternative to wage-labor is also without empirical basis.
Gaido and Novack revive the Turner thesis (Turner 1893), which claimed that cheap or
free land on the frontier provided a safety-value for laboran alternative to selling
their labor-power to capitalin the US until the end of the 19
century. Since the 1930s,
historical research (Shannon, 1936; Shannon, 1945; Danhof 1941) has effectively de-
molished the Turner thesis. The cost of establishing a viable farmincluding the rising
cost of land and mortgages, the expenses associated with clearing and fencing land,
etc.placed farm ownership beyond the means of even the best paid, steadily em-
ployed urban worker in the 1840s and 1850s. Put simply, after c. 1840, all potential
farmers in the northern US had to sell to survivespecialize output, introduce labor-
saving tools and methods and accumulate capitalin order to obtain, maintain and ex-
pand land-holdings.
Finally, Gaido challenges my analysis of plantation slavery. We agree that the
master-slave relation, even though it was part and parcel of the capitalist world market
of the nineteenth century, was not capitalist. However, Gaido rejects my critique of Eu-
gene Genoveses (1967) claim that the stagnation of labor productivity under slavery
was the result of the unfree laborers lack of motivation to work consistently and de-
velop skills. Instead, the slave, as means of production of production in human form,
could not be easily expelled from production, blocking the introduction of labor-savings

tools and methods. Gaido first argues that it is hard to see how a population artificially
kept in a state of illiteracy, deprived of civil and political rights and driven by the lash
could be as productive as Northern farmers and workers. (244) He also asserts that my
analysis of slavery runs directly counter to Marxs statements without mentioning it.
(244) The fact that slave were as productive as legally free wage laborers in the North in
industries with similar technologyiron smelting, cotton textile manufacture and min-
ingdirectly contradicts Gaidos claim that unfreedom made slaves less motivated and
skilled workers. (Starobin, 1970, Chapter 1, and 15363; Lewis, 1979.) Marx said many
contradictory things about the dynamics of slaveryeven in Capital. Gaido cites one
quote from Capital, Volume I (1976b, 303-304) that supports his claim that slaves were
unmotivated workers incapable of sustained labor or developing skills. One can also
find Marx (1976b, 1029-1034) arguing that guaranteed subsistencethe masters need
to maintain the slaves value as fixed capitalmade the slaves unmotivated workers;
that slavery was a capitalist form of social labor (1976b, 345); and that the purchase of
labor-power plays the role of fixed capital under slavery (1978, 554).
Ultimately, the disagreement between Gaido and myself is as much methodolog-
ical as theoretical and historical. For Capital-centric Marxists like myself, the revival of
historical materialism as a scientific approach to the study of the world has best been
advanced by the critical Marxist engagement with historical data in the forms of archival-
primary sources and the best of the (predominantly non-Marxist) secondary historical
literature. Historians and social scientists in various disciplines have used Marxist cate-
goriessocial relations of production, labor-process, laws of motion, class struggle, the
state to produce historically grounded analyses of concrete societies. In a period

when subjectivist and idealist frameworks such as post-modernism have had a profound
influence on the intellectual left, this critical Marxist historical research has reaffirmed
that the purpose of theory is to explain the material world. This engagement of critical
Marxism with historical data has not only deepened our understanding of actual history,
but has helped renew historical materialist as a theory. Unfortunately, for Gaido, histori-
cal materialism is best defended as dogma, where arguments made by authorities are
incontrovertibly true. It matters little that Marxs own theory evolved over time, or that
classical Marxists often fashioned analyses based on impressionistic or incomplete his-
torical materials. What matters is what the Marxist masters argued, not whether their
arguments are theoretically coherent or factually valid. I hope that the readers of Sci-
ence & Society will read The American Road to Capitalism and make their own, inde-
pendent judgment on which method will revive Marxism in the 21

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