Brenner debate

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The Brenner debate was a major historical debate on the origins of capitalism, characterised in 1985 by the historians Trevor Aston and C. H. E. Philpin as 'one of the most important historical debates of recent years'.[1] The debate tested the thesis of Robert Brenner's article "Agrarian Class Structure and Economic Development in Pre-Industrial Europe", published in the seventieth issue of the academic journal Past & Present.[2]

Brenner's thesis[edit]

In the summary of Shami Ghosh, Brenner's thesis 'proposed an explanatory framework for the evolution in England, during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, of what he defined as "agrarian capitalism" ':

a transformation of relationships between landlords and cultivators led to the creation of a largely free and competitive market in land and labour, while simultaneously dispossessing most of the peasants. Thus from the old class divisions of owners of land on the one hand, and an unfree peasantry with customary rights of use to land on the other, a new tripartite structure came into being, comprising landlords, free tenant farmers on relatively short-term market-determined leases and wage labourers; this Brenner defines as ‘agrarian capitalism’. Wage labourers were completely market-dependent – a rural proletariat – and tenant farmers had to compete on the land market in order to retain their access to land. This last fact was the principal motor of innovation leading to a rise in productivity, which, coupled with the growth of a now-free labour market, was essential for the development of modern (industrial) capitalism. Thus the transformations of agrarian class structures lay at the root of the development of capitalism in England.

The subsequent debate[edit]

Brenner's ideas were the focus of a symposium in around 1977, several contributions to which also appeared in the pages of Past & Present. Brenner's article and the discussions that followed it have a broad significance for understanding the origins of capitalism, and were foundational to the 'Political Marxism' movement.[3]

The debate has been seen as a successor to the 'Transition debate', conducted in the journal Science & Society in response to Maurice Dobb's 1946 Studies in the Development of Capitalism.[4] As with the Brenner Debate, these articles were subsequently collected and published as a book.[5]

Postan and Hatcher characterised the debate as attempting to determine whether Malthusian cyclic explanations of population and development or social class explanations governed demographic and economic change in Europe.[6] The debate confounded existing beliefs regarding class relations in the Economy of England in the Middle Ages and agricultural societies with serfdom in general, engaging twentieth-century historiography of the economics of feudalism in the West and the Soviet Union. It has remained influential in twenty-first century scholarship,[7][8][9] even though Brenner's key ideas have not achieved consensus[10]


Brenner's original article, and the symposium on it, led to a series of publications in Past & Present:

  • Brenner, Robert (1976). ‘Agrarian Class Structure and Economic Development in Pre-Industrial Europe,’ Past & Present, 70, February, pp. 30–75.
  • Postan, M. M. & John Hatcher (1978). ‘Population and Class Relations in Feudal Society,’ Past & Present, 78, February, pp. 24–37.
  • Croot, Patricia & David Parker (1978). ‘Agrarian Class Structure and the Development of Capitalism: France and England Compared,’ Past & Present, 78, February, pp. 37–47
  • Wunder, Heide (1978). ‘Peasant Organization and Class Conflict in Eastern and Western Germany,’ Past & Present, 78, February, pp. 48–55.
  • Le Roy Ladurie, Emmanuel (1978). ‘A Reply to Robert Brenner,’ Past & Present, 79, May, pp. 55–59
  • Bois, Guy (1978). ‘Against the Neo-Malthusian Orthodoxy,’ Past & Present, 79, May, pp. 60–69
  • Hilton, R. H. (1978). ‘A Crisis of Feudalism,’ Past & Present, 80, August, 3-19
  • Cooper, J. P. (1978). ‘In Search of Agrarian Capitalism,’ Past & Present, 80, August, pp. 20–65
  • Klíma, Arnošt (1979). ‘Agrarian Class Structure and Economic Development in Pre-Industrial Bohemia,’ Past & Present, 85, November, pp. 49–67
  • Brenner, Robert (1982). ‘The Agrarian Roots of European Capitalism,’ Past & Present, 97 November, pp. 16–113

These studies were republished with some additional material in The Brenner Debate: Agrarian Class Structure and Economic Development in Pre-Industrial Europe, ed. by Trevor Aston and C.H.E. Philpin, Past and Present Publications (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), ISBN 0521268176, which was to be reprinted many times.

A related and parallel debate also took place in the pages of the New Left Review:

  • Brenner, Robert (1977). ‘The Origins of Capitalist Development: A Critique of Neo-Smithian Marxism‘, New Left Review, I/104, July–August pp. 25–92.
  • Sweezy, Paul (1978). ‘Comment on Brenner,’ New Left Review, I/108, March–April, pp. 94–5
  • Brenner, Robert (1978). ‘Reply to Sweezy,’ New Left Review, I/108, March–April, pp. 95–6
  • Fine, Ben (1978). ‘On the Origins of Capitalist Development,’ New Left Review, I/109, May–June, pp. 88–95

As of 2016, Brenner's most recent statements of his ideas, making some small modifications to his earlier claims, were:

  • Brenner, R., 1985. ‘The Social Basis of Economic Development’. In Analytical Marxism, ed. J. Roemer, 25–53. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
  • Brenner, R., 2001. ‘The Low Countries in the Transition to Capitalism’. Journal of Agrarian Change, 1: 169–241.
  • Brenner, R., 2007. ‘Property and Progress: Where Adam Smith Went Wrong’. In Marxist History-Writing for the Twenty-First Century, ed. C. Wickham, 49–111. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


  1. ^ Trevor Aston and C. H. E. Philpin, 'Preface', in The Brenner Debate: Agrarian Class Structure and Economic Development in Pre-Industrial Europe, ed. by Trevor Aston and C.H.E. Philpin, Past and Present Publications (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), p. vii.
  2. ^ Agrarian Class Structure and Economic Development in Pre-Industrial Europe. Past & Present 70 (1976), pp. 30–74
  3. ^ Ellen Meikisins Wood, The Origin of Capitalism: A Longer View, 2nd edn (London: Verso, 2002), esp. pp. 50–64.
  4. ^ Chris Harman, 'The Rise of Capitalism', International Socialism Journal, 102 (Spring 2004).
  5. ^ The Transition from Feudalism to Capitalism, ed. by R. H. Hilton (London: Verso, 1976).
  6. ^ M. M. Postan, John Hatcher, "Population and Class relations in Feudal society" Past & Present 78 (1) 24–25
  7. ^ Peasants into Farmers? The Transformation of Rural Economy and Society in the Low Countries (Middle Ages- 19th Century) in Light of the Brenner Debate, ed. by Peter Hoppenbrouwers and Jan Luiten van Zanden, CORN Publication Series, 4 (Turnhout: Brepols, 2001), ISBN 250351006X.
  8. ^ Ellen Meikisins Wood, The Origin of Capitalism: A Longer View, 2nd ed. (London: Verso, 2002), esp. pp. 50–64.
  9. ^ S. Dimmock, The Origin of Capitalism in England, 1400–1600 (Leiden: Brill, 2014).
  10. ^ Shami Ghosh, 'Rural Economies and Transitions to Capitalism: Germany and England Compared (c.1200–c.1800)', The Journal of Agrarian Change, 16.2 (April 2016), 255–90, DOI: 10.1111/joac.12096.