In a review for Counterfire, Dominic Alexander finds Henry Heller’s The Birth of Capitalism: A 21st Century Perspective to be “rich in fascinating historical debates…provid[ing] a comprehensive and eminently readable introduction to a complex field at the centre of the Marxist tradition of history. It will be of great use to anyone concerned the problem of capitalism, its origins and development.” In his detailed review Alexander offers some criticisms but overall finds much to praise:
While sometimes Heller seems to concede too much to undialectical conceptions in these debates, in other respects he mounts an impressive and important defence of central arguments in the Marxist understanding of capitalism’s development. His chapters on the bourgeois revolution offer a robust case that the Dutch, English and French revolutions were real social revolutions representing the victory of a bourgeois class over feudal state power. Here again the target is Robert Brenner and his followers, particularly Ellen Meiksins Wood, and Georges Comninel on the French Revolution.
Heller finds that the economistic approach of the ‘political Marxists’ encourages them to accept the de-coupling of the revolutions from any bourgeois class so that the French revolution was, for example, bourgeois without being capitalist, while the English was the other way round (p.117). In effect, this school of historians, for all their brilliance in some areas, fell into line with the revisionist attack on the Marxist theory of history which grew from the 1970s onwards (pp.70-2).
Aside from this controversy, the chapters on bourgeois revolution from above and below (four and five) are a rich and lucid resource covering the work of historians who have been substantiating Marx’s theory of revolution in the transition to capitalism.
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A 21st Century Perspective
Fresh intervention into the historical debate over the transition from feudalism to capitalism. Considers the past and possible future of capitalism.