Capitalism’s Journey Through History

THIS book is born of the conviction that “one cannot understand contemporary period without analysing the profound upheavals which the development of capitalism has brought in societies throughout the world” and a desire to understand “the various aspects of this development: simultaneously economic and political and ideological; simultaneously national and multinational; simultaneously liberating and oppressive, destructive and creative.”

This book, while providing an overview of emergence of capitalism through the past five centuries, takes you through the pillage and plunder of  this period and carefully dissects facts and figures. It quotes works of  prominent minds who were moving through a sea monumental changes and were grappling with emerging realities – at times anticipating and at times prophesying. Like today, most of the time they were just not equipped to predict the massive structural changes taking place – throughout there is striking recurrence of certain lines of thinking.

The book is divided into two parts, the first covering the period 1500-1870, titled ‘From Gold to Capital’ and the second covering the period since 1870, titled ‘The Era of Imperialism’.

The first part describes the long journey towards capitalism. It shows how capitalism established itself in the process of decomposition of feudal society (15th century). At this stage the principal means of surplus labour remained ‘tributary’ and later, loot from the pillage of America. Great fortunes were made in this period and Europe got its first flush with the formation of merchant banking and banking bourgeoisie, the appearance of nations and the establishment of modern states, expansion of trade and domination on a world scale, transportation and production and above all emergence of new attitudes and ideas.

This period was characterised by the rise of the bourgeoisie which, when initially faced  with opposition from feudal classes, aligned with monarchy advocating “mercantilism” and then finding virtues in free trade when it felt strong enough to dominate the world trade. It armed itself with the new ideas of freedom and free consent and allied itself with ‘enlightened nobility’ when it was strong enough to confront monarchy.

With the expansion of markets, both domestic and international, there rose a need for increased production. This led to a move away from artisanal to large scale production. The idea of ‘freedom’ was used by bourgeoisie in England to mean freedom to trade and produce – and freedom to pay the lowest possible prices to workers. In France where the bourgeoisie did not have much say in affairs of state – it meant political freedom. The three Revolutions of the 18th century – the American, French and ‘Industrial Revolution’ in England firmly established the bourgeoisie and set the stage for intensified rivalries between great powers.

Growing population and modernization of agriculture released a massive labour force. This labour force formally and really submitted its labour to capital. This was a period of harsh working conditions and misery for workers. Emigration was a way out. Revolts were suppressed ruthlessly. The industrial revolution and the process of industrialisation provided capitalism with hitherto unmatched transformative powers – affecting all aspects of society. At this time, after many attempts the working class unions, trade unions etc. started to emerge. From the liberal utopia and critics of socialist utopia emerged Marx’s ideas of “scientific socialism.”

The second part of the book covers the post-1870 era. The fight for colonial resources and supremacy gave rise to great rivalries. It was an era of imperialism where national capital functioned and developed on a world scale. The beginning of the 20th century saw the formidable power of  capitalism coming under severe strain. As workers’ power gathered strength, the competition between national capitalisms got accentuated. Within the next fifty years there were two world wars and a great depression. There were revolutions in Russia and China. Communist thought spread far and wide. National movements in colonies worldwide took shape.

The last portion of the book takes us through the period 1945-2000. These chapters titled “Capitalism’s Great Leap Forward” and “The End of Twentieth Century”, analysing the collapse of Russia and the future of socialism are weak spots of the book. In the discussion of the ‘great leap forward’, the author identifies, rather unconvincingly, generalized statism as the reason for collapse. The last chapter, which is a later addition, is mostly descriptive. Its analysis of globalisation or alarms about the environment just do not gel with the rest of the book. Obviously promises of the crises-to-come of  capitalism  do not make us any wiser.

In his introduction Beaud tells that “I was not worried about scientific authority figures of my discipline, nor the reactions of my colleagues, nor my own abilities. I took on this project. I recognize and admit the temerity which possessed me back then; now, twenty and more years later, I am no longer sure I would attempt it again.”  It was a brave and fruitful attempt anyway.

—Girish Ghildiyal