Cover image for The origin of capitalism
The origin of capitalism
Wood, Ellen Meiksins.
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New York : Monthly Review Press, [1999]

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vii, 138 pages ; 21 cm
Histories of the transition. The commercialization model and its legacy ; Marxist debates ; Marxist alternatives -- The origin of capitalism. The agrarian origin of capitalism ; From agrarian to industrial capitalism ; A brief sketch ; Modernity and postmodernity -- Conclusion.
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HB501 .W615 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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Few questions of history have as many contemporary political implications as this deceptively simple one: how did capitalism come to be?

In this clarifying work, Ellen Meiksins Wood refutes most existing accounts of the origin of capitalism, which, she argues, fail to recognize capitalism's distinctive attributes as a social system, making it seem a culmination of a natural human inclination to sell and buy.

Wood begins with searching assessments of classical thinkers ranging from Adam Smith to Max Weber. She then explores the great Marxist debates among writers such as Paul Sweezy, Maurice Dobb, Robert Brenner, Perry Anderson, and E. P. Thompson. She concludes with her own account of capitalism's agrarian origin, challenging the association of capitalism with cities, the identification of "capitalist" with "bourgeois," and conceptions of modernity and postmodernity derived from those assumptions.

Only with a proper understanding of capitalism's beginning, Wood concludes, can we imagine the possibility of it ending.

Reviews 2

Booklist Review

Wood is one of the editors of Monthly Review, the 50-year-old independent socialist journal. She was also an editor of and major contributor to last year's thought-provoking Capitalism and the Information Age, and she boldly defended Marxist theory and socialism in Democracy against Capitalism. Wood finds fault with those who assume capitalism is a "natural and inevitable consequence of human nature." She surveys major historical accounts of capitalism's origins and offers an alternative interpretation, contending that capitalism is not the end point of a continuum but rather a "historically specific social form and a rupture with earlier [other ones]." She also uses English agrarian capitalism as a historical example to demonstrate capitalism's "deeply contradictory" effects, pointing to "widespread dispossession and intense exploitation" as the costs for achieving material prosperity. Much of the material here has appeared elsewhere in various journals and collections of essays, but Wood successfully integrates it into a compact, coherent argument. --David Rouse

Choice Review

This extremely valuable book offers an insightful tour of the historical debates surrounding the transition from feudalism to capitalism. Wood (coeditor of Monthly Review) presents the issues with clarity, even for those unfamiliar with the debates. She takes issue with the Commercialization School, which insists that the market naturally arose as people engaged in profit-seeking activities as soon as they had an opportunity to do so. For Wood, capitalism was not an inevitable product of human nature or technology, but instead resulted from a unique constellation of forces. In contrast to the Commercialization School, the author focuses on conditions that allowed the market to compel people to follow its dictates or perish. For example, she notes that while capitalism took firm root within English feudalism, the absolutist state rather than capitalism emerged out of conditions of French feudalism. Wood locates the origin of capitalism within the unique structure of British agriculture, in which the aristocracy profited by intensification of production rather than by the extraction of feudal rents. This book is must reading for anyone with even the remotest interest in the origins of capitalism, or economic thought in general, from undergraduates through professionals. M. Perelman California State University, Chico