Early Modern Capitalism: Economic and Social Change in Europe 1400-1800

Early Modern Capitalism: Economic and Social Change in Europe 1400-1800

Early Modern Capitalism: Economic and Social Change in Europe 1400-1800

Early Modern Capitalism: Economic and Social Change in Europe 1400-1800

Synopsis

This volume takes stock of recent research on economic growth, as well as the development of capital and labor markets in early modern Europe. The book underlines the diversity in the economic experiences and suggests how this variety might be the foundation of a new conception of economic and social change.

Excerpt

Eric Hobsbawm once stated the issue in the clearest of terms. 'Nobody', Hobsbawm declared in Marxism Today in 1962, 'has seriously maintained that capitalism prevailed before the 16th century or that feudalism prevailed after the 18th' (Sweezy et al. 1978:162). This statement maintains in effect that, during the early modern period, Europe was transformed from one type of society into another. The nature of this transition, as well as its precise outlines, have continued to fascinate historians and social scientists alike: this book seeks to add some new elements to our understanding of this crucial issue in the history of Europe, and indeed the world.

Like all conceptual tools, the word 'capitalism' works on two levels simultaneously. It obviously refers to certain aspects of the realm of human experience, more specifically of the economic and social order of modern society. At the same time, 'capitalism' is self-referential, to the extent that the word can hardly be used innocently, in a purely descriptive sense. Whoever speaks or writes about 'capitalism' must immediately confront issues of definition and interpretation (Sombart 1930; Dobb 1946: chapter 1; Braudel 1982-84 Volume 2:232-49; Hilger 1982). This book consequently includes both empirical and reflective contributions.

The use of the word 'capitalism' is not necessarily the prerogative of radical historians. It is a fact, nonetheless, that the history of the debate about the rise of capitalism in Europe reflects the ups and downs of the left-wing intellectual heritage in the West since World War II. Immediately after that war, communism as a political system, and therefore Marxism as an intellectual framework, struck many as offering a significant alternative to the prevailing doctrines of the time. However, the disclosures in 1956 by the Soviet authorities of Stalinist brutalities, as well as the subsequent economic prosperity and international successes of the Western countries during the later 1950s and the 1960s, did little to help the cause of Marxist historiography (Kaye 1984). It was only with the disenchantment of the Vietnam War and the subsequent economic recession that Marxism again became a force to reckon with, in the universities as well as on the streets. In the mid-1970s, in the span of only a few years, a number of seminal works on the rise of capitalism appeared, almost all of which contained extensive references to the work of Karl Marx. In 1974 Immanuel Wallerstein published the first volume of his Modern World-System; in 1976 Robert Brenner published his first essay in Past and Present about the agrarian roots

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