Henry Heller: The Birth of Capitalism: A 21st Century Perspective.

Author:Risak, Martin
Position:Book review

Henry Heller The Birth of Capitalism: A 21st Century Perspective, Pluto Press: London, 2011; 320 pp: 9780745329598, 17.50 [pounds sterling] (pbk)

For progressive academics, knowledge and sciences are not ends in themselves, but important levers for change--it is our self-understanding that 'before we can change the world, we first have to understand it' (Hyman 2012: 163). And as Henry Heller writes in this book, 'if we want to understand the present, and act effectively within it, knowledge of the past is more necessary than ever', because 'to understand what is happening now, we have to understand how we got there'. In this tradition, the new series 'The Future of World Capitalism' wants to 'foster intellectual renewal, restoring the radical heritage that gave us the international labour movement, the women's movement, classical Marxism, and the great revolutions of the twentieth century'. It is therefore no surprise to find, given this understanding of history, that the first book in this series deals with the past. Henry Heller, a professor of history at the University of Manitoba, Canada, sets the stage for the discussions on the future of capitalism as well as making the discussion about the transition from feudalism to capitalism ('the birth of capitalism') accessible to the wider public. This is a discussion that has been going on for quite some time, and involves Maurice Dobb and Rodney Hilton as well as Immanuel Wallerstein, Robert Brenner and Perry Anderson. Building on their seminal works, Heller tries to add the political dimension. In his view, capitalism is certainly a mode of production, but must be understood as a political entity too. The author makes the political order central to his account of capitalism's history, underscoring the role of the state in nurturing capitalism at its beginnings, overseeing its development through mercantilism and through combined and uneven development, and then being itself transformed by revolution.

The book is organised across six chapters, which follow the narrative on the rise of capitalism more or less chronologically from its origins 500 years ago to the present, where it unfolded in Asia, Africa and Latin America. Brenner starts with the decline of feudalism and the first, not fully sustainable experiments with capitalism in Italy, Germany and France. Capitalism was only here to stay in England, which is the focus of Chapter 3. Brenner then looks at the bourgeois revolutions in...

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