Marxism and Merchant Capitalism

by cominsitu


by Jairus Banaji

Draft of a chapter for The Handbook of Marxism, eds., Sara Farris and Alberto Toscano.


‘Merchant’s or trading capital’, as Marx refers to it as the start of the sequence of chapters where this is discussed in Capital vol. 3 was largely marginal to Marx‘s understanding of the capitalist mode of production, which, of course, was embodied in the dynamics (the laws of motion) of industrial capital and personified by the industrial capitalist. In fact, in its leading form, viz. as commercial capital, it was simply a transmuted form of industrial capital itself, a circulation of the commodity capital of the industrialist, for ever penned into [industrial] capital‘s circulation sphere‘. Merchant capitalists do figure in Volume 3 but they do so strictly only as agents of industrial capital.

I shall argue that it was perfectly consistent for Marx to argue in this way, since he saw the accumulation of industrial capital as the driving force behind the capitalist mode of production and his interest lay in analysing the accumulation process of a total capital dominated by large-scale industry. However, this conception will not work historically when Marxists have to deal with periods of history where industrial capitalism (the capitalist mode of production in Marx‘s sense) was largely embryonic or even completely absent. The reason why most Marxists tend not to be troubled by this is that the centuries of early capitalism (to use a conventional term that was popular among historians roughly a century ago) have on the whole been framed either in terms of a historically nebulous age of primitive accumulation‘ (Dobb) or, from the fifties on, as a prolonged transition from feudalism to (industrial) capitalism with its implied ―coexistence of modes of production. But a major upshot of this conceptual indifference, so to speak, has been the abdication of this whole field of history to historians working largely outside a strictly Marxist tradition, even if at least some of those historians, notably Braudel, were profoundly influenced by Marx. READ PDF

See also:

Translations by Banaji: