The Birth and Development of Capitalism

On Tuesday 14th, many undoubtedly celebrated Bastille Day, paying respect to the rebel movement behind the French Revolution.

Probably the most significant event in eighteenth-century Europe, this revolution reshaped European history, changing the face of France forever. For anyone unaware of what actually occurred during this remarkable few years, violence broke out across the nation after the Bastille was stormed by revolutionary forces. Such violence would later overthrow the monarchy, throw the country into chaos, and trigger a series of conflicts extending as far as the Middle East, securing it in the minds of many generations to come. Even with these drastic outcomes aside, it still deserves a place in world history, for this was the event that brought about an economic system still standing today; this was the event that brought about capitalism.

Bataille de Jemmapes 1792

Bataille de Jemmapes, 1792

The idea of a capitalist revolution may sound foreign to you, which is understandable; in a world where capitalism has long been the system which nations have tried to prevent revolution from overthrowing, the thought that it could exist as a revolutionary theory may sound strange to many, yet just like communism, capitalism had to start somewhere, and 1793 is one of the most profound examples of such an instalment. If the transition it enacted isn’t obvious, we have to remember that feudalism – the system’s predecessor – were the days of landlords, peasants, absolute monarchy, and a heavy religious influence on the populace. All of the above were revoked or transformed after the transfer of power took place, and the main focus of production was no longer the peasants labouring on the aristocrat’s land, but the workforce in the factories of Paris, Lyon or Toulouse.

However, although possibly the most dramatic, the transition in France is obviously not the only example; it is believed by many that capitalism originated many years ago, in the regions of northern Italy, and the ideas of a revolution against feudalism can be seen in the English Civil War, the European Enlightenment, and events reaching as far back as the Crisis of the Late Middle Ages. To give you an idea of how long unrest had been present, Europe – arguably the most advanced continent at that time period – experienced almost half a millennium of tensions and trauma with the rise of the new productive means. As a result, society saw many profound changes up to the late eighteenth century, at which point France had finally reformed its economy.

But we have to remember that at this stage, many nations were still stuck in the dark ages of serfdom, and though they would later progress, they did so in a different manner. In the podcast ‘Is Marxism a Science?’ provided by wearemany.org*, the speaker David Whitehouse looks into this when it refers to the German transition to capitalism, which, whist revolutionary in its own way, was not dramatic or profound like that in France. The states of Germany, as Whitehouse explains, were yet to catch up with more advanced European nations, and thus constructed industrialised economies whilst still under feudal leadership. The same can be said for the third world, which, still not completely capitalistic, relied on this kind of ‘uneven development’ (as he puts it) to allow progression to occur.

1024px-1909_Carl_Stilling_Schmiede_anagoria

Carl Stilling: The Forge – Germany, 1909

We can also see how such development has possibly occurred on a deeper level in countries like Russia or, perhaps more profoundly, China, for these were largely feudal and backward regimes, yet in both, communist revolutions (or, at least, revolutions claiming to be of a communist nature) took place. Here it would appear that not only has development occurred on an uneven level, with both feudal and capitalistic features present, but it has almost completely skipped a stage. Whether or not these revolutions were truly Marxist is a debate for another time, but the preface to the Communist Manifesto’s Russian edition talks of the peasantry possibly building communism in the country, suggesting that such a progression may be possible, and thus and thus that capitalism need not always develop fully.

Even if this isn’t the case, we can see through this pattern of mixed progress – where undeveloped societies were forced to prematurely catch up with developed ones – the extent to which capitalism has transformed the world through its own evolution; western Europe and North America have practically raced ahead, forcing other regions of the world to industrialise quickly, and this is all down to the colossal scale on which capitalist production took place. On this subject, Marx also wrote that the bourgeois class, ‘during its rule of scarcely 100 years has created more massive and more colossal productive forces than have all preceding generations together’, which allows us to see how the implementation and the spread of capitalism has truly revolutionised society.

*find it here: http://wearemany.org/a/2010/06/is-marxism-science

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