The Brenner-Wallerstein Debate - Robert Denemark
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The Brenner-Wallerstein DebateAuthor(s): Robert A. Denemark and Kenneth P. ThomasReviewed work(s):Source: International Studies Quarterly, Vol. 32, No. 1 (Mar., 1988), pp. 47-65Published by: Blackwell Publishing on behalf of The International Studies AssociationStable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2600412 .Accessed: 30/01/2012 15:23
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International Studies Quarterly (1988) 32, 47-65
The Brenner-Wallerstein Debate
ROBERT A. DENEMARK
Memphis State University
KENNETH P. THOMAS
University of Chicago
One of the most critical evaluations of Immanuel Wallerstein's world- systems perspective comes from Marxists who dislike the dominant role played by trade as opposed to class interaction in his analysis. At the forefront of this critique is Robert Brenner, whose article in New Left Review, "The Origins of Capitalist Development: A Critique of Neo- Smithian Marxism," has elicited far less of a debate than is warranted. In the first part of this article we carefully outline the various parts of this important critique, briefly drawing attention to some of the much more fundamental issues each addresses. In the second part we consider one of the most important of these issues, that of the most appropriate level of analysis for understanding political phenomena. The debate over this point revolves largely around events in Poland in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Thus this rather arcane topic takes center stage in an argument with far broader implications. We conclude that while one should maintain a wider system level of analysis, more attention must be paid to the concrete determinants of power within political units as well.
Introduction The world-systems perspective put forward by Immanuel Wallerstein has elicited a great deal of critical comment. Its stress on a system level of analysis and the importance it attaches to trade have not, however, gone unchallenged. The result has been a lively interaction that has advanced our understanding of the world political and economic system. However, one of the more interesting critiques, now ten years old, has been largely ignored. Robert Brenner's "The Origins of Capitalist Develop- ment: A Critique of Neo-Smithian Marxism" (New Left Review, 1977) is a complex Marxist critique of the first of Wallerstein's world-system volumes, and takes the perspective to task for its methodological, conceptual, and empirical content. Yet to date few authors have addressed themselves to this major attack, and then only
Authors' note: The order in which the names of the authors appears is arbitrary. The work was a truly collabora- tive effort. We would like to thank Mark Gasiorowski, Piotr Gorecki, Charles Lipson, William Marty, Susanne Hoeber Rudolph, the members of the Program on International Politics, Economics and Security at the University of Chicago, and the editors and anonymous reviewers of ISQ for their comments. An earlier draft of this article was presented at the 1985 meeting of the American Political Science Association.
C 1988 International Studies Association
48 The Brenner-Wallerstein Debate
selectively. This is unfortunate because Brenner's criticisms cut to the heart of some of the most important questions posed by Marxist critics of world-systems analysis, as well as some of the more fundamental questions raised by students of international political economy and world politics generally.
This article is designed to accomplish five tasks. First, we will fully outline the points of contention that exist between Wallerstein and Brenner. Each will be placed in its broader context as part of a debate of interest to students of political economy. Second, we will begin the process of assessing the merits of the arguments each makes. Particular attention will be paid to the question of the most appropriate level of analysis for studying politics. The claim of the world-systems school is that the system level of analysis is the correct one from which to gain a vantage point on phenomena of interest. This is disputed by Brenner and others, and Brenner's analysis of this question will be the topic of much of the rest of this paper. For Brenner, the nation-state is the proper level of analysis, and the proper unit of analysis is the class. For Wallerstein, in contrast, the world-system is the proper level of analysis, and there are a number of units of analysis of interest, including classes and states.
This debate will not be considered in the abstract. Our third task will be to take up these arguments empirically. We have chosen to do so in the context of a single critical case. The case we have chosen is that of Poland in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, a period in which a fundamental restructuring of the economy took place. A very strong set of reasons exist for our choice of such a seemingly arcane case. First, both Brenner and Wallerstein rely heavily on an analysis of events in Poland during this period to support their different contentions. Each agrees on the centrality of Poland during this period to the theoretical question at hand.
The fact that both Brenner and Wallerstein deal with Poland is not the only reason for us to consider it important. Each author deals with a number of countries that might serve as good test cases. Our study has convinced us, however, that Poland is in fact the ideal testing ground for these competing interpretations. Poland's economy was relatively undiversified during this period, and it was set in the context of a far simpler world than has existed since. Relatively few historical or contextual variables stand in the way of a direct consideration of the competing propositions.
Poland may also be identified as a "strongly" incorporated area using the criteria suggested by Hall (1986) for differentiating levels of incorporation. Poland provided an important staple, grain, in not insignificant amounts to the most important areas of the core through the medium of a highly organized and centralized process. This grain did not come from a relatively small region of the country, nor were the trade patterns that developed particularly vulnerable to disruption.
Finally, Poland is not a "straw" case. In our view Brenner's argument that even foreign military intervention does not alter the essentially internal, class-based mechanisms that determine social organization is a weak one that has already fallen prey to an analysis by Bergesen (1984). Wallerstein goes further. He contends that forces far less obtrusive than a foreign military presence can fuel important changes. Our choice of Poland during this period allows us to consider this stronger version of Wallerstein's proposition.
Poland may thus be formally identified as a "crucial case" under the criteria for such a test that Eckstein (1975) has developed. It is a strong case that has been identified by all the participants as being of central theoretical importance. To a very significant extent only the variables of interest to us operate. This makes the study of Poland during this period of great general interest. The sequence of events there is directly related to the arguments Brenner and Wallerstein make regarding the most appropriate level of analysis from which to understand political and economic events. If either should fail to adequately explain events in Poland it would be a major stike against his chosen theoretical perspective.
ROBERT A. DENEMARK AND KENNETH P. THOMAS 49
Our fourth task will be to shed light on some of the critical socio-economic and political processes of this period. This is necessary in that no real consideration of Poland can proceed without some understanding of the linkages that tie these phenomena together. Central to this part of the paper are discussions of surplus transfer and land/labor ratios. The mechanisms of surplus transfer are of consider- able interest from the perspective of various literatures and we will challenge the ways in which both Brenner and Wallerstein deal with this subject. We will also offer some points designed to help clarify the nature of this important debate. Land/labor ratios are of less contemporary importance, although our discussion will seek to shed some light on why they are of interest in this case and how such issues might fit into our consideration of more contemporary events.
Our final tasks are evaluative. We will consider the relative strengths and weaknesses of each of the competing explanations offered and conclude that Wallerstein's use of a system level of analysis is better suited to explaining social and political phenomena than Brenner's state-level analysis. We will argue that Brenner's exclusive focus on events within the nation-state reduces our understanding of the pattern of incentives for actors within the state in those frequent cases where such incentives are "externally" generated.
Nevertheless there are serious flaws in Wallerstein's argument as well. Waller- stein's position is weakened by his reliance on the process of unequal exchange in a period when the requirements necessary for that dynamic to play itself out were absent. Likewise, his broad focus, while allowing us to understand the forces that circumscribe events, presents issues such as the exact form of labor exploitation that evolves and the methods designed to implement it in far too directly predetermined a manner. Little attention is paid to the actual forces and processes that mold the resulting social forms at the micro level. We will conclude that while one should maintain the wider system level of analysis, more attention must be paid to the concrete determinants of power within a political unit as well. Finally, we will review the relevance of these conclusions for students of international political economy and of world politics more generally.
The Debate between Brenner and Wallerstein
Robert Brenner criticizes Wallerstein along six interdependent lines. Each criticism points to a similarity between the method of Wallerstein and that of Adam Smith as compared to that of Karl Marx.
The Definition of Capitalism The first critique rests on the very definition of capitalism itself. To elucidate his points, Brenner locates Wallerstein in the context of the debate between Paul Sweezy and Maurice Dobb over the transition from feudalism to capitalism (Sweezy, 1954).
Sweezy argued that this transition took place in part because of the development of trade and in part because of the differentiation of urban and rural life. The provision of luxury goods (and weapons) via trade engendered in feudal lords a need to increase their incomes. This need manifested itself in the search for more efficient forms of accumulation. The nascent division of labor between village and estate that had developed proved to be much more efficient than the manoral system and was thus strengthened. This led, albeit slowly, to the commutation of labor services to money rents and eventually to the use of (capitalist) tenants on the land.
Dobb takes a very different tack. He emphasizes internal, "qualitative" changes such as the increasing alienation of the worker from the means of production, increasing productivity, and innovations that allowed for the extraction of greater amounts of relative, not just absolute, surplus value. From this perspective the
50 The Brenner-Wallerstein Debate
specific effects of trade and specialization were facilitated by the transition; they did not cause it.
Brenner agrees with Dobb and is much more critical of Sweezy than Dobb was. Feudal lords, he argues, could not envision the option of increasing production by freeing labor to increase worker productivity and their own incomes, since this assumes a capitalist logic not yet in existence. The change from labor dues to money rents is likewise seen as completely unimportant because serfs were not yet separated from their means of production or free to seek wage labor (Brenner, 1977:43-44). Brenner also notes that there was no necessary compulsion to increase incomes as would exist given market pressures. A simple increase in absolute surplus wrung from the peasants, and not a transition to a whole new system, would be the more likely response to trade from this perspective.
Further, Brenner suggests that the idea that the budding urban areas provided a haven for fleeing serfs and hence a home for wage labor is not correct. The periodic demographic crises, brought on in part because of an increased exploitation of rural labor, limited the food production necessary to support urban areas while the ultralimited market for luxuries created by the lords gave rise to a restrictive guild system and not to free wage labor (Brenner, 1977:47).
Sweezy's definition of the transition from feudalism to capitalism as the point at which production for exchange replaces production for use is thus rejected by Brenner, who argues that both trade and production for exchange were inherent parts of the feudal system. The trade in preciosities and weapons supported feudal- ism rather than undermined it (Brenner, 1977:46, 49). The free labor power offered as a commodity and the necessity to produce for the market-phenomena that define capitalism in Brenner's view-are not brought into being by what Sweezy identifies as important.
Not surprisingly, Wallerstein's suggestion that "production for sale in a market in which the object is to realize the maximum profit" as the defining element of the capitalist world-system (Wallerstein, 1974b:398) is immediately rejected by Brenner, who suggests that such a definition implies that capitalism is simply and inevitably the result of a trade-based division of labor fueled by the profit motive in a world of (capitalistically) rational actors (Brenner, 1977:53-55). For Wallerstein, then, the commodification of labor power is not seen as essential for accumulation on an extended scale or for innovation to take place.
Brenner concludes that this view of capitalism as adopted from Sweezy by Wallerstein is at best ahistorical and at worst circular in that it assumes that a capitalist dynamic already exists and leads to the development of the capitalist system. This logic is shown by Brenner to be an integral part of the ideas of Adam Smith and thus, he suggests, it is prone to the same limitations as Smith's work is.
A synthesis of this debate leaves us with the much broader question that made the initial exchange between Sweezy and Dobb of such interest. What is the nature of epochal change? Do the contradictions inherent in a system induce paralysis and allow for the rise of a whole new set of dynamics, or does the groundwork for a new era lie just beneath the surface of society, waiting only to be brought out by a weakening of older, temporarily more dominant forces?
The Growth of Capitalism
Given the fundamental rift between Brenner and Wallerstein on the nature of capitalism it is not surprising that disagreement would also exist on the central dynamic of its growth. For Brenner, growth and development occur when labor is divorced from the means of subsistence and production such that neither worker nor owner is self-sufficient. Such a situation fuels the need for extended accumulation
ROBERT A. DENEMARK AND KENNETH P. THOMAS 51
and innovation, which gives capitalism its extraordinary productive capacity and its particular viciousness. Technical advance, productive variation, and any other actions that increase productivity and generate relative surplus value stand at the heart of dynamic capitalist growth.
Brenner does not deny that other phenomena, specifically trade, may play a minor role in the growth process. But he is quick to downplay any additional contribution on the part of such secondary phenomena and hence clearly rejects Wallerstein's proposition that trade may have a determining impact upon capitalist growth and development. His denial is most complete and proceeds in three parts.
Brenner begins by denigrating the suggestion that primitive accumulation (usually via trade) played a decisive role in the development or expansion of capitalism (Brenner, 1977:66-67). Brenner notes that primitive accumulation was a concept used by Smith and harshly criticized by Marx in part for its circular nature-the assumption that the accumulation of capital, which presupposes surplus value and hence capitalist production, can explain the origin of capitalism. Brenner sees the really important questions as being those that consider why accumulation from outside an area (as in exploitation of the periphery by the core) was necessary in the first place, why this new wealth would be used for productive and not unproductive purposes, and why accumulation of this sort, which had existed before, had never before had this particular impact. Brenner contends that Wallerstein addresses none of these questions and that the answers to them lie in the elucidation of specific class structures and relations and not in the simple existence of such accumulation.
Brenner's second criticism of Wallerstein's view of growth and development is that it rests solely on quantitative expansion. As more areas are brought into a system, specialization increases and more absolute surplus may be siphoned off (Brenner, 1977:56-57). The first part of this formulation is seen as based upon Smith's conception of the gains to be made from expanding specialization. The second part derives directly from the dispute over definitions discussed above. The presence of relative surplus value is viewed by Brenner as evidence of the inner dynamic toward accumulation and growth, which define capitalism, while increasing absolute surplus does not suggest this same process at all.
Third, Brenner rejects what he believes to be Wallerstein's picture of the dynamics of the development of the system as a whole. Brenner interprets Wallerstein as suggesting that the mode of labor control, and indeed the entire class structure of an area, is determined by the requirements of maximizing production of exports (Brenner, 1977:56-57). He reads Wallerstein as saying that once an area is incorporated into the system, the class formation that best facilitates the production of goods to be offered on the world market will inevitably come into being.'
Again we are faced with a much broader questionjust below the surface. The field of international political economy has been significantly affected by studies of dependency and the imperialism of free trade. Along with our search for quantifi- able variables we appear to have adopted trade as an important phenomenon. But to what extent is this (and not much more complex phenomena such as the expanding division of labor, the increased commodification of labor power, or the acquisition of surplus value) adopted for the sake of expediency? To what extent might we be ignoring what is truly fundamental, and instead studying processes that are epiphenomenal largely because they are easiest to identify and measure quantita- tively? Both the proper role that trade should play in Marxist analysis and a more careful consideration of the role it does play in the world are at issue here.
' Brenner's rather odd interpretation appears to result from his failure to distinguish between "capitalism" as he defines it and "the capitalist world system" as Wallerstein uses the phrase.
52 The Brenner-Wallerstein Debate
The Nature of Underdevelopment
Following on Brenner and Wallerstein's disagreement over development, their third major area of discord regards the nature of underdevelopment. Brenner's critique includes a general review of Andre Gunder Frank's "development of underdevelop- ment" hypothesis, an analysis of the role that Wallerstein asserts the state plays in underdevelopment, the question of the impact that the type of good produced and traded may have on an area's development, and the applicability of Arghiri Emmanuel's concept of unequal exchange.
Brenner places Wallerstein squarely in Frank's camp. Underdevelopment is here believed to be caused by external exploitation. Areas capable of providing important goods are dominated by more advanced countries, always in competition with one another for resources and outlets for capital, which quickly introduce or solidify systems of forced labor or slavery. All activity becomes outwardly directed and takes place to the detriment of the "colony." Frank buttresses this argument by noting that where highly valuable goods were discovered after initial colonization, small (Eu- ropean) freeholders were replaced by forced or slave labor, as happened in Barbados in the mid-seventeenth century (Frank, 1975:451-56). Where goods of great value were not found, as in North America, exploitation was less direct, immigrant freeholders were not displaced, and later development was facilitated.
Brenner's criticism of these propositions echoes his earlier arguments. He con- tends that exploitation results not from external demand but from the type of class structure that evolves and it is only within the context of the relations of owners to labor that underdevelopment can be understood (Brenner, 1977:85-86).
Brenner also takes issue with Wallerstein's contention that the development of a weak state in peripheral areas allows for underdevelopment. Wallerstein suggests that countries that develop a strong state apparatus gain both an initial and a long-term edge over those that do not. A strong state may act to codify laws favorable to commerce, and as a major purchaser of goods and services, as a provider or guarantor of capital, and as a mobilizer of sundry necessary resources. Areas where a state apparatus is not strong will be at a disadvantage both in the short and long terms when stronger states may exploit the weaker area in such a way as to stop a strong state from ever evolving there.
Brenner argues against this idea both theoretically and empirically. First, he notes that such a proposition assumes capitalist motivation prior to the existence of capitalism. Second, he points out the circular nature of a proposition that suggests that a weak state leads to underdevelopment and underdevelopment to a weak state. Finally, Brenner claims that the strong state of France did not secure for itself a position in the core. Poland, too, had a strong state in Brenner's view, and this did not prevent its ending up in the periphery. Similarly Prussia, a raw-materials producer, developed a strong state.2
Brenner is also critical of the proposition that the type of good produced and exported will have an effect on development. Wallerstein suggests that one of the reasons underdevelopment exists in certain areas is that they were relegated to the task of producing raw materials. Such production entails few linkages and is externally oriented. Brenner contends, however, that the nature of a good cannot in and of itself determine the nature of development in the area that produces it. To support his position, Brenner notes that North America produced nothing but raw materials, mostly food staples, through its early history. Rapid and successful North American development is not to be seen as an anomaly, however. What differenti-
2 A good analysis of Brenner and Wallerstein on the role of the state may be found in Garst (1985). He argues, correctly in our view, that Wallerstein's position changed subtly between the first and second volumes of The Modern World-System.
ROBERT A. DENEMARK AND KENNETH P. THOMAS 53
ated this from other raw-materials producing areas was the existence of free wage labor, which facilitated innovation and accumulation at an early stage (Brenner, 1977:86-90).
Finally, Brenner questions the relevance of Emmanuel's concept of unequal exchange in this context. Unequal exchange is seen by Wallerstein as playing a large and even predominant role in the transfer of surplus from the periphery to the core. Brenner notes, however, that unequal exchange as conceived by Emmanuel rests on the equalization of profit rates across the world market given the possibility of cross-border capital mobility. Clearly any system so based would be hard set to function in the period from 1450 to 1640 which Wallerstein discusses. The small amount of trade relative to production that might be expected in this era also limits the relevance of this mechanism.
A number of broad questions arise from this part of the debate. In essence it is a call for a more careful consideration of the nature of the relationships between and among classes, the state, production, and exchange. More specifically, we are led to question the degree to which class interaction guides and mediates all of the other processes while remaining insulated from changes in the strength of the state, the nature of production, or in the extent and direction of exchange.
The Role of the Individual
The fourth area of disagreement between the two authors concerns the ability of individuals to recognize and act upon their own best interests. Wallerstein and his precursors are accused of assuming that individuals would act in a manner consistent with what we today call economic rationality. That feudal lords would move to increase production when in need of additional funds, that serfs would recognize their superior bargaining position in times of demographic decline, that the leaders of countries would help augment systems of production that increased revenues from exports-all of these are viewed by Brenner as incoherent, ahistorical assumptions. This atomism, a key facet of the works of Adam Smith, is clearly viewed as incompatible with the Marxian tradition.
This atomism is criticized by other authors as well. Theda Skocpol decries Wallerstein's "two-step reduction," first of "socio-economic structure to determina- tion by world market opportunities and technical production possibilities" and second, of "state structures and policies to determination by dominant class interests" (Skocpol, 1977:1078-79). Such treatment implies that individuals always and clearly see their interests from among the universe of possibilities and that the optimization of those interests is clearly and neatly convertible into requisite policies, institutions, and actions. The role that the individual plays, the degree to which context constrains that action, and the translation of interests into outcomes-that is, the role of politics-are all part of this debate.
The Appropriate Level of Analysis
The fifth area of disagreement revolves around the question of the appropriate level of analysis. Wallerstein suggests that his perspective is superior to others in part because it successfully identifies the critical nature of events that occur outside the boundaries of an individual country. Foremost among his examples of these impacts, identified largely in terms of trade in necessities, is the peripheralization of Eastern Europe and especially Poland during what he terms the "long" sixteenth century.
Wallerstein argues that the crisis of feudalism in the fourteenth century engen- dered in Europe the drive for three things: gold to ease liquidity problems; new sources of basic commodities such as food and fuel; and a desire on the part of the
54 The Brenner-Wallerstein Debate
nobility to augment their incomes. Western European states, notably Portugal because of its advantageous geographical position, its weak military position vis-a-vis Spain, and its highly centralized state apparatus (a consequence of the reconquest), found external trade to be a solution to these problems (Wallerstein, 1974a: chapter 2). To the extent that these countries did move to increase their trade, a further need arose for food to support the growing urban commercial sector.
In Eastern Europe the same crisis engendered the same drives. Here, however, geography and other factors (such as lack of capital) restricted the opportunity for overseas expansion 'a la Portugal while providing in its stead the Western European demand for grain. This, Wallerstein suggests, largely explains the "refeudalization" that occurred in the 1500s when labor dues, which had declined with the demo- graphic crisis, were increased in response to opportunities for trade. It is upon this and similar examples that Wallerstein bases his claim with regard to the appropriate level of analysis. The situation in Poland, he asserts, can be understood only as a manifestation of the development of capitalism on a world scale. He goes on to suggest that the system that evolved in Poland must be viewed as a capitalist system: capitalist in that the development of capitalism elsewhere and this system's inclusion of Poland through the medium of exchange helped determine the specific relations of production that emerged in Poland. As Poland's development can be understood only in terms of developments elsewhere, and as those developments were capitalist in natuWre, Poland must be viewed as part of the capitalist system.
Brenner disagrees completely. His first argument is that the "big impact" of the world market (by which he appears to mean the largest concentration of exports), can be seen in Poland only after refeudalization and hence could have in no way contributed to it (Brenner, 1977:80-8 1). Second, he claims that at their height Polish exports were too small (only between 5 and 7 percent of total production) to have had any real impact at all-much less a determinative one.3 Third, he notes that Poland did not respond to price increases with increased production as one would expect of a "capitalist" area or system. While Polish exports did rise, Brenner suggests the increase was due more to the vicissitudes of weather than to market demand.
To Brenner's disservice he never directly addresses the question of the appro- priate unit of analysis, but his position is clear if only implicit in his statements. Each individual country is viewed as being a virtually impermeable unit within which all relevant data necessary for the explanation of events reside.4 If Poland suffers from the state of affairs correctly described but not explained by Wallerstein, the reasons for this may be found in the internal class structure of Poland without the need to consider external conditions (Brenner, 1977:71). Finally, neither Poland nor cer- tainly the entire system could be considered in any way "capitalist," since capitalism's defining element, the commodification of labor power, was absent. On this, Brenner is most adamant.
The question of the appropriate level of analysis from which to address questions is among the most hotly debated of the issues raised. Since the publication of Singer's (1961) seminal article the debate has proliferated and three different levels are championed, explicitly or implicitly, by a variety of authors both within and outside the mainstream of international relations scholarship.
3 Brenner's estimate of the magnitude of exports relative to total production is part of a larger dispute on this issue, which is discussed by Maria Bogucka (1981). She concludes that Polish grain exports during this period were more in the range of 20 to 25 percent of total production (Bogucka 1981:14).
' It is interesting to note that on page 76, in a discussion of the rise of England, trade is admitted to play a critical role, but that Brenner later ignores the implications of this for his assumption that the nation-state is the appropriate unit of analysis.
ROBERT A. DENEMARK AND KENNETH P. THOMAS 55
Methodological individualists like Buena de Mesquita argue that "scientific analysis cannot evade this ultimate accountability and responsibility of the decision maker," and while his position is not wholly exclusionary regarding the use of nation-states, alliances, or even systems, they are seen to function as constraints on individual choice, which when studied with "sensitivity," allows us to avoid the pitfalls of the Arrowian paradox and proceed with the greatest efficiency toward the making of the most "meaningful generalizations" (Buena de Mesquita, 1981:5).
The traditional level of analysis in international relations is the state. Krasner describes the state as an "autonomous actor" whose objectives "cannot be reduced to some summation of private desires" (Krasner, 1978:5-6). He argues that the state may be a unitary actor because its central decision makers possess a consistent set of goals across time and that such a treatment provides a degree of explanatory power superior to that of interest-group liberalism or Marxism.
Structuralists, too, have their representatives of both traditional and radical flavors. Waltz argues that when the "organization of units affects their behavior and their interactions, then one cannot predict outcomes or understand them merely by knowing the characteristics, purposes, and interactions of the system's units," and a systems approach is necessary (Waltz, 1979:39). The need for study at the systemic level is strongly indicated, he suggests, by the "repeated failure" of explanations derived "through examination of interacting units" (Waltz, 1979:68). Outside the North American mainstream, this issue is also addressed in the work of Marxists like Poulantzas who believe that the appropriate unit of analysis is social class, while the appropriate level of analysis is the nation-state (Poulantzas, 1975).
The sixth and final critique leveled at Wallerstein is clearly the weakest. Brenner notes that if Wallerstein's position is correct the result would be some "politically" unacceptable conclusions: "So long as incorporation into the world/market division of labor is seen automatically to breed underdevelopment, the logical antidote to capitalist underdevelopment is not socialism, but autarky" (Brenner, 1977:91). This is clearly a case of working backward from one's conclusion and does nothing to advance the debate on development and underdevelopment.
The Question of the Appropriate Level of Analysis
With the exception of this last point, each of these criticisms is interesting and warrants further consideration. In this section, however, we are going to concentrate on the differences between Wallerstein and Brenner regarding the proper level of analysis. This is a central issue because the development of a system-level perspective is the raison d'etre of world-systems analysis. Since both authors discuss Poland extensively, and since Poland otherwise fits the criteria of a critical case, an examination of fifteenth and sixteenth-century Polish history will shed light on their competing claims. We will compare and review the explanations given by each for the changes that took place in Poland during those centuries, a period during which the lot of the peasantry became steadily more onerous, the aforementioned "second serfdom."5
5 Recent historiography has emphasized that the second serfdom was not a homogeneous phenomenon and did not touch all sectors of Polish society. There existed throughout both free peasants and free rural wage labor. Nonetheless, the second serfdom affected a large proportion of the peasantry and concentrated resources into export production, crippling Polish handicrafts and industrial development. A good introduction to this literature is Maczak et al. (1985).
56 The Brenner-Wallerstein Debate
Explaining the "Second Serfdom"
While Brenner never explicitly argues for using the nation-state as the unit of analysis, his position on the question is quite clear: social change within a country can be explained by the processes of class formation and class struggle that take place within it. No other hypotheses are necessary. Although he does not deny that a country's trade relations can have some effect on these processes, they enter into the equation only as one of many factors that influence the relative strength of contending classes (Brenner, 1976:53). Oddly enough, in his critique of Wallerstein, even this qualification gets lost and class struggle appears, to all intents and purposes, as a deus ex machina with no presuppositions. Indeed, he argues that Poland's incorporation into the world system cannot account for the worsening of conditions for the peasantry because the second serfdom in fact preceded "the big impact of the world market" (Brenner, 1977:81).
In this section we will consider Brenner's claim by seeking to understand the nature and timing of both the "big impact" of the grain trade and of the second serfdom. Careful analysis casts doubt on Brenner's version, and we suggest some of the reasons why trade plays more of a role in "internal" processes than Brenner would have us believe.
Wallerstein locates the beginnings of the Baltic grain trade in the fourteenth century and notes that the "coerced cash-crop labor" that characterized the second serfdom was "widespread by the 16th century throughout the periphery and semiperiphery of the European world economy" (Wallerstein, 1974a:92).
In point of fact, Polish grain exports were not important until the Poles conquered Danzig (Gdansk) in the Thirteen Years War (1454-66), thereby assuring themselves secure access to the Baltic (Hoszowski, 1960:122). According to Marian Malowist, in the 1460s annual grain exports through Danzig amounted to about 2,500 lasts (1 last equals approximately 60 bushels), increasing to 6,000 to 10,000 lasts annually at the end of the century (Malowist, 1959:184). Other authorities give comparable figures: Stanislaw Hoszowski gives 10,000 lasts for 1490, and the Cambridge History of Poland also gives 10,000 lasts for the end of the century (Reddaway et al., 1950:447). Trade grew steadily through the first half of the sixteenth century, reaching the level of 50,000 lasts annually by 1560, by Hoszowski's estimate. Between 1620 and 1650 this was to reach a peak in the vicinity of 75,000 to 120,000 lasts, with Malowist giving the lower figure, Hoszowski the higher, and the Cambridge History settling for 100,000 lasts.
What was happening with the peasantry at this time? In the first place, their legal status was worsening. New laws restricting peasant mobility began to surface in 1493 and are among the earliest surviving statutes of Poland's parliament, the Sejm (Cowie, 1977:321; Wyczanski, 1985:141). Subsequent laws to reduce movement off the land were passed in 1496 (when it became illegal for more than one of a peasant's sons to leave the soil without the landlord's permission), 1501, 1503, 1505, 1510, and 1511 (Fox, 1924: 111; Malowist, 1959:182; Maland, 1973:283; Anderson, 1974:282). In 1511 the peasants lost their right of appeal to royal courts, and in 1518 the king agreed not to accept the complaints of subjects against their lords at all (Reddaway et al., 1950:260, 426).
It should be noted, however, that the economic well-being of the peasants does not seem to have deteriorated significantly as an immediate result of the enactment of these laws. Malowist notes that increased duties placed on the peasants generally occurred when grain prices were favorable, thus minimizing their impact and reducing the resistance that they might otherwise have put up (Malowist, 1959:188).
More detrimental in nature were the sharp increases in labor dues over this period. Jerome Blum notes that labor dues stood at one day per week in the first
ROBERT A. DENEMARK AND KENNETH P. THOMAS 57
quarter of the sixteenth century (Blum, 1957:830). By 1550 this had increased to three days, and in 1600 it stood at six days per week (Stavrianos, 1981:66). This change took place over a period that saw a 300 to 500 percent increase in grain exports. So while the second serfdom "ruined" the peasants in the long run, as Malowist asserts, it appears to have had its worst effects later in the sixteenth century when labor dues increased drastically. Figure 1 shows the relationship between grain exports as reported by a number of sources, laws restricting the peasantry, and feudal labor dues.
Which came first, then? The answer depends on how we conceptualize the relationship between trade and the worsening of the peasants' lot. Clearly grain exports were at their peak only after the brunt of refeudalization. But evidence indicates that significant increases in exports did precede the major attacks against the serfs' legal status and ability to appeal to royal courts. These attacks began after the 300 to 400 percent increase in grain exports that took place in the last half of the fifteenth century. Our view is that the initial increase in trade made landlords aware of new opportunities to increase their income at a time when manors faced economic decline from the demographic crisis of the period, from the lords' desires for goods now available in the market, and from the financial squeeze faced by those lords who received fixed money rents from their peasants during that time of inflation. Thus the earlier grain trade, even though it was not very large, provided an incentive for landlords to increase their production. Because of the relative shortage of agricul- tural labor and the low level of technology, their activity took the form of trying, ultimately successfully, to tie the peasants to the land and destroy their ability to petition higher authority when their burdens appeared unjust. If this view of the process (trade as motivator) is correct, then Brenner is wrong in searching for a "big impact" of trade. The grain trade obviously could not have grown to its higher levels until there was a solution to the problem of the labor shortage. Although export figures at the end of the fifteenth century were low relative to those of a century later, they had experienced an intense rise of three-fold or four-fold proportions over a period of less than four decades. More and more landlords had to be providing grain for export and it is difficult to imagine that the funds they earned were not part of the reason they decided to engage in this new activity. Hence, we contend that trade had its impact at relatively low levels of exports-prior to the passage of the laws restricting the peasantry-by providing a form of relief from the pressing problems of the day and motivating political action by the lords to solve their labor shortage.
This view is further supported by the dating of the second serfdom provided by Blum, Malowist, and Topolski, the authorities on Poland whom both Wallerstein and Brenner accept, and whom Brenner accuses Wallerstein of misusing (Brenner, 1977:80). For instance, Blum says merely that at the end of the fifteenth century the peasants were "well on their way" to reenserfment (Blum, 1957:821). Malowist describes the second serfdom as beginning at the end of the fifteenth century and requiring more than 100 years to carry through (Malowist, 1966:27). Jerzy Topolski, on whom Brenner relies particularly heavily, dates it as "the 16th and the first half of the 17th centuries" (Topolski, 1974:347). Brenner seems to be close to Blum's position when he says that by 1500 the debasement of the peasantry had "gone a long way," but as we have seen above he combines this with a claim that this was before the world market could have had an impact on class structures (Brenner, 1976:41). As we have suggested, however, there is no need for there to have been a large volume of trade for it to have had a "big impact" on the class structure of Poland.
On the question of the relative timing of these two processes, then, we would argue that once Polish lords were able to export significant amounts of grain (which became possible only when they had a secure outlet on the Baltic), they had the incentive to
58 The Brenner-Wallerstein Debate
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ROBERT A. DENEMARK AND KENNETH P. THOMAS 59
increase the amount of farm labor at their disposal. Under the prevailing ratios of land to labor this could be done only through the reenserfment of the peasantry. We are able to date this at least as early as 1490, slightly before the passage of the first laws restricting the peasants. Thus, on the question of dating, it appears that Brenner's explicit argument in "The Origins of Capitalist Development" is incorrect.
The Struggle between Lords and Peasants
The fact that Brenner is incorrect in his assertion that the increase in trade came too late to play an important role in the onset of the second serfdom certainly does not prove that Wallerstein is by default correct. As we have noted, Brenner's view is that the development of Poland depended on the form and distribution of class power with trade playing a minor role as one of the many factors that in this instance increased the ability of the lords to triumph. He contends that it was the specific class structure that led to what might now be called "the development of underdevelop- ment." Brenner suggests four ways in which the class relations brought this about (Brenner, 1976:41):
1. The availability of serf labor discouraged innovation in agriculture; 2. the lord's surplus extraction meant that the peasants had no money; hence, it was
impossible for a home market to arise; 3. the restrictions on peasant mobility precluded the growth of industrial labor, and
weakened the towns; 4. the lords worked to eliminate merchant middlemen between themselves and
foreign traders and encouraged imports of manufactures from the West, thus undermining any possibility for the growth of locally controlled commerce or industry in Poland. We would not deny that these factors play a critically important role in under-
development. They are broadly acknowledged in somewhat different terms by Chirot (1975) and by Wallerstein himself. Brenner's contention, both in his critique of Wallerstein and elsewhere, is that class relations determine the manner in which commercial (or demographic) phenomena are translated into social structure (Aston and Philpin, 1985). Hence the distribution of class forces, and not the existence or the form of trade, is the primary determinant of development. What determines the relative strength of the classes, however, are "the sources of class solidarity and power of the peasantry, especially in their village communities, and of the lords, especially in their military organization and above all their state" (Brenner, 1978: 129).6 But neither the nature of incentives for action nor the question of timing is well understood by reference to these factors alone. As Richards (1979:492) notes, any search for "first causes" is likely to founder on the shoals of the complex and interactive nature of trade and class conflict. Indeed, from a Marxist perspective it is a truism that class struggle is ever-present. What Brenner must account for is why Polish class struggle took the form it did. He does not address the question of incentives for action and so is unable to explain why the owning class sought this specific set of legal restrictions on the mobility of the peasants. Brenner is also unable to address the question of timing. Clearly peasant mobility hindered an increase in manoral production, but why were earlier liberalizations overturned only at this particularjuncture? Was it coincidence alone that saw such changes in class structure taking place so quickly after the acquisition of a secure Baltic port and a large increase in grain exports?
6A more detailed analysis of the peasants' organizations may be found in Brenner (1976). For a critique, see Topolski (1981).
60 The Brenner-Wallerstein Debate
Brenner's (Inadequate) Retort
Apart from the potential shortcomings of his own analysis, Brenner does not adequately address three of Wallerstein's stronger supporting points: the effects of surplus transfer, the importance of the nature or relative value of the good produced, and the role of military activities. Only in the context of the argument on surplus transfer does he help illuminate some real shortcomings in Wallerstein's work. Brenner's attempt at clarification, however, fails to shed much additional light on the subject.
First, Brenner's internal focus obscures the question of surplus transfer. Brenner initially contends that surplus was transferred from the core to the periphery, then contradicts himself and refuses to rule out the possibility of "a long-term transfer of surplus away from the periphery" (Brenner, 1977:84, our emphasis). Clearly any such surplus can be transformed into capital, which means that some countries could benefit from having more available capital for investment than they would have otherwise, at the likely expense of others. If, as Wallerstein argues, there was a transfer of surplus from Poland to the West, it would be comparatively easier for the countries of the West to industrialize than it would be for Poland (Wallerstein, 1979:18). This is true even if, and perhaps specifically because, most industrial production in the sixteenth century required relatively small amounts of start-up capital, as Brenner himself suggests (Brenner, 1977:67).
It should be noted that neither Brenner nor Wallerstein actually gives us a very persuasive argument of how surplus transfer occurred. Neither provides us with the type of data that would help decide this issue (such as information on profits from manorial accounts or early commercial ledgers). Indeed the data they do cite are largely irrelevant to the question of surplus transfer per se. Brenner sees the relative terms of trade as important in assessing whether there is surplus transfer. He argues that because the price of grain increased relative to manufactures in the seventeenth century, there was probably a transfer of surplus to the periphery rather than away from it at that time (Brenner, 1977:63,72). Wallerstein, on the other hand, apparently believes that the balance of trade is more important, as he pays close attention to Poland's trade balance in the second quarter of the seventeenth century. At the same time he suggests, following Wyczanski, that grain prices fell and the terms of trade declined (Wallerstein, 1980:131-33).
In fact, neither the terms of trade nor the balance of trade can be directly translated into information on surplus transfer. Within the confines of Marxist economics, moreover, Brenner cannot argue that a shift in the terms of trade causes a similar shift in surplus transfer, because there may have been an underlying shift in socially necessary labor time that led to the price changes. In the case of Polish grain and Dutch cloth, it is quite plausible that this occurred. In Marx's version of the labor theory of value, a gain in productivity will mean a fall in the value of each unit or product, all other things being equal. And since the price of a good oscillates around its value, the price should fall by a similar proportion (Marx, 1976:36). In the seventeenth century it was indeed the case that Dutch productivity was increasing while Polish grain productivity was stagnant or even declining (Wallerstein, 1980:132-33), so the shift in terms of trade Brenner reports is perfectly comprehen- sible.
Yet this would have no necessary effect on the transfer of surplus value because if price equals value in both importing and exporting there would be no transfer of surplus value. However, if the Dutch were consistently selling their goods at a price
ROBERT A. DENEMARK AND KENNETH P. THOMAS 61
above their value, and/or buying grain below its value, they would receive additional surplus value. This would be true no matter what the process by which it occurred, and it will be true independent of the relative value of the goods traded. It should be equally clear, too, that there is also no necessary connection between balance of trade and surplus transfer, unless and until a consistently negative balance of trade caused an actual shortage of physical capital.
Brenner does point out a major flaw in Wallerstein's discussion of surplus transfer: the method by which it occurs. As we have noted, Wallerstein explicitly invokes Arghiri Emmanuel's concept of unequal exchange to account for surplus transfer in the sixteenth century. According to Emmanuel, unequal exchange takes place when countries exchange as "equal" commodities that do not have an equal amount of labor embodied in them. The country with the higher organic composition of capital7 or the higher wages will see a gain in surplus value as a result of the exchange, as long as there is sufficient capital mobility between the areas to bring about an equalization of the rates of profit in both of them. If this condition holds, higher wages (adjusted for productivity) cannot affect the rate of profit (which will be determined by competition among capitalists) but can increase prices, which will then be higher than their value in terms of labor. When such goods are exchanged for products from a low-wage or slightly mechanized country, which will have prices below their values, there will be a transfer of surplus from the low-wage (or low-mechanization) to the high-wage (or high-mechanization) area (Emmanuel, 1972: chapter 2).
As Brenner rightly points out, Wallerstein overlooks the necessity for capital mobility to make the whole process work, and capital was not very mobile in the sixteenth century (Brenner, 1977:63). Emmanuel himself believes capital mobility was very low then, and adds that differences in wage rates were also much less than they are today (Emmanuel, 1972:41). If we remove the dynamic of unequal exchange from Wallerstein's argument, he is hard-pressed to account for the transfer of surplus value. The closest he comes to giving an alternative account of its occurrence is when he discusses the debt cycle of Polish lords. These lords often borrowed from Danzig merchants who had in turn borrowed from Dutch interna- tional merchant bankers. This led to low prices for the purchasers since they essen- tially had a monopsony vis-'a-vis the producers and merchants to whom they lent (Wallerstein, 1979:41). This may provide Wallerstein with an acceptable alternative analysis, but substantial work remains to be done. And although this is an important problem, we may still conclude that Wallerstein is on firmer ground than Brenner. The fact that Brenner accepts the claim that surplus transfer did take place (even if he does so only grudgingly and without reference to any specific process) helps make Wallerstein's case the stronger of the two.
Relative Value of the Good Produced
A second of the strengths found in Wallerstein's argument that Brenner fails to adequately address revolves around the effect the nature or relative value of the good produced in a country has on that country's development. Brenner contends that North America, which produced primary products for a metropolitan market, developed much differently than South or Central America although both of those areas were engaged in the same general task. Surely then the role of primary- product producer determines nothing in and of itself. What Brenner fails to consider, however, is that North America was not as highly sought after for what it produced as were other areas and hence its social and economic structure was not as
7 This is the ratio between constant capital (machinery, raw materials, etc.) and variable capital (wages).
62 The Brenner-Wallerstein Debate
closely controlled. If dominant classes are receiving high rates of return for products being produced by relatively scarce, yet low-wage labor, they will want no alternative activities to develop that might draw away that labor or raise wages. Where agricultural returns are less remunerative, where landholdings are smaller and where the control that comes from the attention of jealous lords or the metropole is absent, commerce and manufacturing are more likely to develop and this is undoubtedly beneficial in the long term.
Finally, Brenner ignores military considerations by restricting his level of analysis to a single country. In discussing Poland he notes that "the wars which totally disrupted the sputtering Polish economy from the middle of the 17th century did not allow for the foregoing dynamic retrogression to work itself out" (Brenner, 1977:70) This surrender of the utility of Marxism for explaining events as central as major wars is unfortunate. Perry Anderson (1974) provides a Marxist explanation for these events that appears much more consistent with Wallerstein than with Brenner. In discuss- ing the rise of absolutism in the East (as contrasted to its rise in the West) he suggests that twin processes should be noted. The East was sparsely populated relative to the West and labor scarcity had fueled liberalization primarily because no power existed that could stop peasants from leaving for unknown areas or escaping to the estates of more "liberal" landholders. A codification of laws regarding labor and a structure capable of enforcing those laws appeared necessary even to the fiercely anticentralist eastern feudal aristocracies. Largely powerless "central" leaders would obviously be quick to comply with such demands, and Anderson concludes that in one sense, a central state apparatus was "purchased" at the cost of the formalization of serfdom, the destruction of the remaining "traditional communal freedoms of the poor" (Anderson, 1974:195).
Anderson suggests that the central state apparatus was also necessary in the context of growing absolutism in the West. Absolutist states were more capable of identifying and realizing their interests, especially militarily, given that they could call upon significantly greater resources by virtue of their structures than could decentralized states. Anderson suggests that nowhere is this made clearer than in Poland, where the virulently antiabsolutist feudal aristocracy paid for its ideology with its national independence. Poland, once the largest country in Europe and one possessed by what Brenner suggests was a "strong state," was successively defeated and partitioned by more centrally oriented and thus militarily superior states in what Brenner identifies as a discontinuity in the Polish decline.
Anderson concludes that such lessons were not easily ignored. He suggests that the need for centralization created by military necessity and the need to control labor helped give rise to an absolutist state in the East. While not as autonomous as its counterparts in the West, such an apparatus clearly set the stage for the changes in class relations in which the central state apparatus would be involved in the future. The military aspect of this change is simply not comprehensible when development is viewed solely from within individual countries.
Brenner in no way strengthens his position on this when he turns his attention to other areas where class structures were in large part determined by military conquest. Brenner chooses to discuss the case of the Caribbean, where the indige- nous population was largely wiped out and slaves imported to produce sugar, in terms of class struggles that are viewed as independent of the world market. Brenner appears to believe that the crucial issue is whether "the class structure was immediately determined by the needs of the market and capital accumulation" (Brenner, 1977:87). While it may well be that the extermination of the original
ROBERT A. DENEMARK AND KENNETH P. THOMAS 63
population of the Caribbean was "immediately determined" by the market (and he does not consider the impact this would have on his position if it were true), surely it is not necessary to meet such a high standard of proof to demonstrate the importance of the sugar trade in determining the class structure of the West Indies. Many other military operations that have affected the class structure of a country have been undertaken for directly economic reasons as well. Bergesen (1984:367) gives further examples from Spanish America, and rightly asks Brenner: "How can the autonomous evolution of Aztec and Inca class relations have created Spanish Latin America?" Quite simply, Brenner's narrow focus does not allow us to comprehend adequately such cases.
Summary and Conclusion
Robert Brenner's critique of Wallerstein and the world-systems school includes a number of important points, all of which speak to broader issues in the study of socio-political and economic phenomena. Of central importance is the question of the most appropriate level of analysis for understanding and interpreting such phenomena. Here we have to conclude that Wallerstein's use of the world-system is superior to Brenner's narrower focus on the nation-state. In the critical case of Poland and the rise of the second serfdom Wallerstein's analysis is more consistent with the historical record and better suited to explaining the timing of important events. Brenner's suggestion that refeudalization preceeded the growth of the grain trade appears inconsistent with the positions taken in the very sources he cites. His implicit insistence on focusing only on the period of peak trade is logically flawed and does not take into consideration the subtleties or complexities of production and class interaction. Brenner's counterarguments fail to explain the specifics of method or of timing and do not address points as important as the relative values of the goods produced or the effects of military actions or of surplus transfer. On this last point Brenner does identify some serious problems with Wallerstein's analysis, but does not draw them to their logical conclusion or offer a viable and consistent alternative interpretation.
This does not mean that Wallerstein's account of the rise of the second serfdom is entirely satisfactory. It is, in its essence, bicausal, with the growth of trade and the low labor/land ratio the main determinants of the lords' decision to seek reenserfment (Wallerstein, 1974a:99). While this speaks to the incentives the lords had for restricting peasant mobility, it tells us little about their ability to carry out such a political program. While the land/labor ratio will tell us something about this issue (since low population density could mean there simply were not enough peasants to put up effective resistance), combining that with Wallerstein's other explanation for the lords' success, (the weakness of the towns; Wallerstein, 1974a: 104) still does not seem sufficient to explain fully why the lords won.
It is at this point that a useful synthesis of these disparate perspectives might provide us with a much more complete understanding of the process of peripherali- zation. The incentives and disincentives provided by external stimuli to an undiver- sified and stagnating area explain the timing of critical interactions and provide the parameters within which they will take place. Where labor is both in short supply and too poor to serve as a market, dominant classes will have strong incentives to alter their conditions. Labor will be appropriated to serve the interests of the one dynamic sector-that of exports-and conditions will become harsher as the returns to this form of exploitation become better and more widely recognized. This peripherali- zation will be exacerbated by the physical (military) vulnerability of the regions involved, the debilitating nature of producing goods of relatively low value and few
64 The Brenner-Wallerstein Debate
linkages, and by the possible transfer of surplus value. All of these processes will be conditioned by the nature of the market for the good or goods offered in trade.
With this synthesis in place three general conclusions may be drawn from our analysis. First, the debate over the most appropriate level of analysis is well addressed by applying the arguments of both Brenner and Wallerstein to the critical case of Poland. We may conclude that Wallerstein's focus on the broader world-system level is a more useful basis from which to understand socio-economic and political phe- nomena. This is well illustrated in the case of the second serfdom, a critical event that cannot be understood in the absence of a consideration of system-level interactions.
Second, this analysis leads us to the conclusion that while Wallerstein's emphasis on the world-system level is superior to the more state-centric orientation of Brenner, it is not alone a sufficient basis from which to gain insight into processes and events of importance. World-system phenomena circumscribe interaction and provide impor- tant incentives and disincentives, but one cannot adequately deal with social reality unless one learns to translate these forces into the more specific effects they will have on internal political and economic interactions. Neither the identification of world- system forces nor of internal political dynamics can stand alone.
Finally, we have outlined a model of Polish peripheralization that we believe helps us better understand that process in general. So long as one is careful to consider the relevant market, the nature of the goods being produced and the linkages between the incentives and disincentives that market provides for important domestic forces, one may apply this model of Polish peripheralization to other, more contemporary situations. For many reasons and in many respects the debate between Brenner and Wallerstein is of significant interest to students of international political economy and of world politics more generally.
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