In his 1973 essay ‘Marxist History, a History in the Making: Towards a Dialogue with Althusser’, the French historian Pierre Vilar wrote ‘Anybody can call himself a historian. Anybody can add ‘Marxist’ to the title if he sees fit. Anybody can call anything he likes ‘Marxist’. Nevertheless, if there is one thing more difficult and rare than to become a historian, it is to be a Marxist historian’. The self-styled Marxist historian Jarius Banaji considers himself in the company of these rare few, and his A Brief History of Commercial Capitalism is another contribution to his long list of works of Marxist history and historiography. The fundamental premise of the book is that Marx and Marxists have grossly misjudged the period and extent to which merchants were not only involved in, but also directly organised, global production. In this misjudgement, the Marxist tradition has been doomed to fail in its understanding of the history of capitalism as such. Banaji responds to this failure by presenting a specifically Marxist study of merchant and commercial periods. Whether Banaji does in fact stand among the ranks of the all too rare Marxist historians remains to be seen
This brief history is a temporally and geographically sprawling historiography of commercial and merchant capital that draws on historical accounts written in an impressive seven different languages. Chapter 1 addresses the Marxist ‘orthodoxy’ that relegates merchant capital to a purely intermediary function; mediating exchange of commodities but bearing no direct role in production. But this orthodoxy, Banaji contends, is at odds with not only the non-Marxist historiography since the 1940s but also Marx’s own comments on situations where merchants do in fact dominate production directly (85, 107). Chapter 2 then moves to discussing the three infrastructural cornerstones of commercial capitalism: trading colonies, wholesale markets, and bills of exchange. Chapter 3 reviews the competitive struggle from the twelfth- to the eighteenth-century between the prominent trading nations such as Venice, Genoa, Portugal, the Dutch Republic, France, and England, but also the Byzantine Empire, India, and China. It was between the sixteenth- to the eighteenth-centuries, but especially the seventeenth-century, that the state became intimately bound up with these commercial conflicts in the interest to secure commercial dominance as a national entity (48). Chapter 4 homes in on British mercantile capitalism and its managing agencies where ‘The blurring of lines between commercial and industrial capital was nowhere more evident’ (67) since control of industrial enterprise was subordinated to trading companies. The chapter also discusses the commercial expansion of the nineteenth-century and Greek dominance of the Levantine trade.
Another case of this ‘blurring’ is examined in Chapter 5 where Banaji explores ‘the putting out system’. There, Banaji shows the way that a range of industries were directly subordinated to, and hence commanded by, merchant capital. In discussing three major examples of this ‘merchant manufacturing’––the Florentine wool industry, Lyon’s silk industry, and Oriental Carpet Manufacturers across vast regions––Banaji shows how the ‘merchant controlled, managed, and coordinated production itself’ (86). The final chapter concludes by discussing the large merchant firms of the early twentieth-century and the significant role of brokers in the sectors of wholesale trade, as well as how ‘By compressing the chain of circulation’ (99), mercantile interest was bound to different levels of the commercial system as a result of what Banaji terms ‘vertically integrated’ firms and industries. Lastly, an appendix on ‘Islam and Capitalism’ asks why ‘the Middle East down to the final years of the Ottoman Empire (and in Iran, even later) [did] not evolve into a modern capitalist economy’. Banaji’s response to this is that, on one hand, capitalists failed to form a class and, on the other, there was an absence of an Islamic counterpart to the West’s aggressive mercantilist expansion and the state backing of merchants (132–3).
In a paper entitled ‘Commercial Capitalism in the Mediterranean from the Late Republic to Late Byzantium’ Banaji contends that historians writing about merchant and commercial capitalism ‘almost never define the object of their discussion’. Ironically, A Brief History of Commercial Capitalism exhibits this same trait. Its object––commercial capitalism––is never defined. This lack of explanation, especially from an avowed Marxist historian, is particularly odd considering that in Marx’s writings on merchant capital (kaufmännisches Kapital, Kaufmannskapital) and commercial capital (kommerzielles Kapital, Handelskapital), never once did he speak of commercial capitalism (Kapitalismus). Regardless, this book is largely a Marxist response to and problematisation of the ‘Marxist reticence about merchant’s capital’ (3). Rare though Marxist historians may be, as per Vilar’s proclamation, Banaji claims to be among their ranks. And so it is worth asking, what exactly is Marxist about Banaji’s response to this Marxist reticence?
The book first opens with an outline of the various notions of ‘capital’ across a long range of centuries and landscapes; ‘capital’ as property or assets, sum invested, money put to work, and so on. In a somewhat indirect way Banaji demonstrates how an economic category––in this case, capital––transforms across different historical contexts. That is to say, how this concept is historically specific. For this, Banaji can certainly claim his status as a Marxist. After all, Marx’s critique of political economy relies a great deal on this historicising––that is also to say de-naturalising––gesture. As against ahistorical bourgeois economists, who in conceiving economic categories independently of society characterised capitalist relations as natural and pertaining to all social life, Marx, as early as the late 1840s, was adamant that such categories are social, historically determined, and therefore transitory. However, Banaji’s continuity with Marx on this point lasts all too briefly. Despite his opening, the remainder of the book unreflectively relies on transhistorical notions of capital, wealth, value, labour, and profit. This transhistorical use of economic categories facilitates his presentation of a long durée narrative of the history of capitalism in which disparate mercantile and commercial practices are treated, pros hen, as instances of a coherent system of merchant or commercial capitalism.
What especially unites these disparate conceptions and practices across these vast periods of time as ‘commercial capitalism’ is an all too broadly conceived notion of profit-seeking. This, however, poses problems for the Marxist historian because it robs the Marxist account of its central contribution to the understanding of capitalism: the peculiarity of surplus-value and exploitation (not to mention Marx’s analysis of the homogenisation of concrete human labour to equal abstract human labour as well as value-creating socially necessary labour-time in a commodity-producing society). Contra to profit upon alienation of the mercantile class (buying cheap and selling dear), the extraction of surplus-value in capitalism still begets profit even when commodities are sold at their value. And while the putting-put system is certainly a case of the latter, as many Marxists have long agreed, it is difficult to see how the vast stretch of history––at least from the twelfth-century onwards––can be subordinated into commercial capitalism if not for an expanded and universalising grasp of economic categories and practices. The assumption that capitalism is simply when profit, trade, and labour transpire is neither an historically nor theoretically refined assessment. Fundamentally, the conflation of different economic categories, and particularly of profit-seeking activities, loses the elemental piece of Marx’s critique of political economy.
The use of such transhistorical notions, however, is not only a misstep for a Marxist historian, but for a historian per se. After all, several non-Marxist historians have, for some time, questioned the extent to which the term ‘mercantilism’ has given a false unity to disparate events in history (see, for instance, a summary of several debates in Lars Magnusson’s The Political Economy of Mercantilism). This unified narrative is nevertheless made possible when the broader components of the historical context are abstracted away from, as is the case in A Brief History of Commercial Capitalism. Aside from the lack of attention to the historical specificity of economic categories and practices, among these decisive components are also the various economic ideas of the times. These are especially important, as the ideas of mercantile thinkers influenced public opinion, state policies, and economic activities. The different ideas put forth in many of the periods, with which Banaji is concerned, have profoundly shaped mercantile and commercial processes and realities. To account for these ideas is therefore to understand these periods with greater veracity. Apart from some passing remarks on a few prominent figures and economic principles, that Banaji, a thinker well-known for his insistence on the intimate relationship between theory and history, treats these periods largely in vacuo from economic ideas of the relevant periods is surprising, to say the least.
At any rate, it could be argued that the Marxism of the book lies in Banaji’s incorporation of Marx’s historical remarks into his economic history. Of course, isolating the historical writings from Marx’s theoretical framework is questionable considering how closely associated Marx’s studies of history were with his project of critique. Nevertheless, the historical remarks ‘scattered through the corpus of Marx’s own writings’ (9) illuminate fascinating paradoxes in Marx’s understanding on merchant and commercial capital (85, 107). But even Banaji’s treatment of these texts is analogous to how he treats economic categories; in complete isolation from their historical context. Many of the texts consulted by Banaji are in fact manuscripts, and not completed works, that were edited and published posthumously (Grundrisse, Theories of Surplus-Value, Capital, Volume III; Capital, Volume II). That Marx’s thinking is full of ambiguities comes, therefore, as no surprise. The writings in these manuscripts were a direct product of Marx’s ever-developing historical knowledge over the course of life-long investigations. Marx’s extensive historical studies from 1863 all the way to 1882––in tandem with his studies of the Physiocrats, Mercantile systems, classical political economy, national economy, and so on––went far beyond his own nineteenth-century European milieu. Even as early as 1850 in the Neuen Rheinischen Zeitung. Politischökonomische Revue, the young Marx and Engels were following the developments of world trade:
The centre of gravity of world commerce, Italy in the Middle Ages, England in modern times, is now the southern half of the North American peninsula. The industry and trade of old Europe will have to make huge exertions in order not to fall into the same decay as the industry and commerce of Italy since the sixteenth century, if England and France are not to become what Venice, Genoa and Holland are today. In a few years […] the Pacific Ocean will have the same role as the Atlantic has now and the Mediterranean had in Antiquity and in the Middle Ages – that of the great water highway of world commerce.
Given the weight that Banaji places on Marx’s historical remarks, it is surprising that he does not investigate Marx’s broader corpus––the latter of which is spent exploring matters such as Italian merchant cities, long-distance trade, and world trade networks. In considering only Marx’s canonical texts, a plenitude of such relevant historical writings and excerpts are simply neglected in Banaji’s ‘Marxist’ analysis. Neither does Banaji consult the historical works that informed Marx’s historical studies. This ultimately leads Banaji to provide an either incomplete or completely empty assessment of Marx’s analysis of the historical subjects at stake in A Brief History of Commercial Capitalism.
Yet, the insufficiency of the investigation does not end there. Recalling Banaji’s fundamental preoccupation about the Marxist reticence, the extent of his attempt to search for researchers ‘consciously working in a Marxist tradition’ (8) is questionable in the face of a great tradition of Japanese Marxology, of which a number of works have either been translated or reported upon in the languages Banaji reads. Since the 1950s, beginning with Uno Kōzō’s theory of capitalism, Japanese Marxists have contributed considerably to the studies of commercial capital. After Uno, this field developed in the form of the Unoist school with Uno’s notable student Yamaguchi Shigekatsu, and his 1983 publication of Competition and Commercial Capital. Today, this area of study remains one of most popular in Japanese Marxian economics. Among the contemporary scholars of this tradition is Shimizu Masashi who considers commercial capital not simply as an agent of industrial capital but also, like Banaji, a direct organiser of production processes, seeing the putting-out system as an exemplary case of this wider role. This surely casts doubt on the thoroughness of Banaji’s efforts to find Marxist traditions and researchers in the thick of this reticence.
The title of A Brief History of Commercial Capitalism certainly does not deceive. As a general history of mercantile and commercial capital, Banaji offers an expansive historiography that brings together a breadth of sources. But Pierre Vilar was correct to declare that it is difficult and rare to be a Marxist historian. Banaji’s own attempt at a Marxist history perhaps falls short on at least three separate fronts: 1) accounting for the historical specificities of capitalism (a fundamental element of Marx’s critique of political economy); 2) ignoring Marx’s broader historical studies; and 3) neglecting past and present Marxist research on merchant and commercial capital. In view of these problems, does Banaji still stand among the rare few?
Anitra Nelson | Sep 24 2222
I find this review disappointing. It targets the player not the ball, which is galling. Trained in history, and as an economic historian, I find the derision of Jairus Banaji as an historian unwarranted and mildly hysterical. (David Graeber and a host of others are more loose with historical evidence in their analytical argumentation.) The question of definitions is equally unjustified. On the one hand, in Chapter 1 of A Brief History of Commercial Capitalism, Banaji satisfactorily situates his perspective with respect to Marx’s Capital III Chapter 20. On the other hand, if you were more historian-like in your approach, you would understand that historians rarely define the key word they focus on but rather fondle it, nurture it, reveal it’s surprises, and so on. Anyway, aren’t the complaints here a mere cover for the reading group’s real problem with Banaji, i.e. of taking an orthodox workerist interpretation of Marx while Banaji dares to grapple with the commercial sphere of circulation as if it really matters (and it does). Moreover, it is worth contemplating to what extent a workerist interpretation is colonial/ neocolonial — industry is all that matters; commerce is below us. (All the arguments rallied against Andre Gunder Frank rear their ugly heads.) My own interpretation, of course, is closer to Banaji’s and recognises that capitalism is production for trade. It’s not that circulation is more important than production or that production is more important than circulation. Capitalism walks on two legs. And it dances! That Marx starts Capital I with commodities and money has no significance? Skip the first couple of chapters, maybe?
Shane Hopkinson | Sep 28 2222
Not just the first chapters but even Vols 2 and 3 weren’t edited by Marx so they might not be fully Marxist either.
Clearly the reviewer has a knowledge of a range of issues that might be brought into a discussion about the limits of Banajis book. Is doing back to the 12th century too expansive? Perhaps. Do Japanese Marxists (or others) have some useful insights? Probably but instead of explaining these in the context of a “brief history’ of less that 200 pages we just told, more or less, that Banaji isn’t an orthodox Marxist. You think? Of course he isn’t – so much the better for him I would say.
Disappointing if people want a better idea of what this book is about well you could read it its less than 200 pages but failing that Nick Land’s review is more informative https://www.rs21.org.uk/2021/02/21/review-of-jairus-banaji-a-brief-history-of-commercial-capitalism/
J-L Garcia | Sep 29 2222
I think both responses miss the point of this great critical (but not hysterical (!!?)) review.
Firstly, I think we as scholars should abandon the idea that reviews should simply be ‘informative’ (a loose and dangerous criterion that more often than not suppresses critical or negative reviewers). If you want to know what the book is about, read the blurb or perhaps read one of the countless glowing reviews the book has received (though many of these also point to problems that Arapko raises here, first and foremost the book’s disorganised and sometimes confused character). Reviews should first and foremost challenge readers to think in new ways about a book’s blindspots and limitations. This is made all the more appropriate given Banaji’s own practice of being extremely critical to the point of straw-manning and outright hostility in his own academic practice. So lets not let our hackles be raised by a – to my mind – biting but ultimately quite measured critical review (Tom Brass’ review comes to mind as easily more critical but no less interesting https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0896920520961434?journalCode=crsb). After all, the praise Arapko’s review has received online indicates she has clearly touched upon something here – problems in this work that go far beyond heterodoxy or his lack of focus on production (a claim of Nelson’s that frankly I cannot find reflected in the above review).
It is clear to me that Arapko neither goes after the person of Banaji nor can her investigation be reduced to the accusation of heterodoxy. The second claim (shared by both Nelson and Hopkinson) is I think so preposterous it warrants little response. Where in Arapko’s review are questions of orthodoxy or heterodoxy raised? If Banaji considers himself to be writing a ‘specifically Marxist’ history that responds to the ‘Marxist reticence’ then isn’t it justified to investigate the Marxist nature of this very history? Unless ‘Marxist history’ is to become so loose as to include any-approach-to-history-whatsoever (is it just history “from below”, is it anyone that focuses on exploitation all too broadly conceived?) then it seems to me to be not only a valid but a vital question to ask. What is especially disconcerting about the above replies is that they equate such questioning (I am hesitant to call it critical questioning because the question ‘what makes a Marxist analysis Marxist?’ should not be considered either critical or profound) with political or theoretical orthodoxy. By this light Marx and Engels should never have sought to differentiate their approach to history from other socialists, Anti-Dühring springs to mind. Should Michael Heinrich – far from orthodox! – also be scolded for criticising Marxists for being neo-Smithean or neo-Ricardians, i.e., not holding Marx’s theory of value??
Nelson’s response is particularly strange in this regard. Where in the above piece is there evidence for orthodox workerism? Arapko’s previous review (https://marxandphilosophy.org.uk/reviews/20392_how-to-read-marxs-capital-commentary-and-explanations-on-the-beginning-chapters-by-michael-heinrich-reviewed-by-ksenia-arapko/) was of Heinrich’s commentary on Capital Vol. 1 and I see far more Heinrich in this text than I see orthodoxy (especially ironic as he is always lambasted by his ‘readers’ for focusing too much on exchange). Arapko’s challenge to Banaji is here also clear. It is not that he deals with circulation (I’m leaving aside the (hysterical?) accusation of colonial/neocolonial investments). It is that Banaji – and here Arapko is a good follower of Marx/Heinrich – wants to equate various different forms of commercial activity across space and time and call them all (commercial) capitalism. What unifies buying cheap and selling dear with the putting out system if not an all too broad notion of profit-seeking? Why can’t we go further back to other forms of profit seeking if that is the case? Why not go back to Ancient Greek commercial activity, start back further in China or India? (a point already made by Andreas Bieler here https://andreasbieler.blogspot.com/2022/03/the-limits-to-commercial-capitalism.html). In essence, her claims have nothing to do with the focus on circulation and everything to do with the inexplicit and perhaps uninvestigated theoretical framework that allows these various practices to be united under a single concept. Surely to ask for him to account for this framework is not a dogmatic request. What Arapko wants from Banaji is what everyone wants, clarity about the object of investigation and precision in his use of concepts which is actually not even a Marxist demand but a historical one!
This links to the final point in an already all-too-long comment. The flip-side of the accusation of orthodoxy is the claim about the historians true craft – which is apparently fondling (who knew!). Here again this seems utterly unjustified in relation to Arapko’s review. To begin with, it is worth noting the rhetorical gesture of immanent critique she is engaged in in that section (and this relates to the point I made above about Banaji’s own hostile way of relating to other theorists and authors). Banaji complains about people not defining what they are discussing – and he does the same! Surely the joke behind this claim is not lost on the reader. But even putting aside the tongue-in-cheek character of Arapko’s response it is worth noting that her call for definitions is nothing more than the call for the historically specified use of categories. For if the historian does not work with such historically specified categories they run the risk of anachronism, a problem that plagues far more history than most would admit (again Marx and Heinrich are here good historians, not good Marxists. The problem with Smith and others was the problem of anachronism which resulted from his not realising that value and wealth might all mean different things at different points in human history – i.e., be defined and therefore understood differently. Even Graeber & Wengrow discuss this in their recent book when discussing the naturalisation of long-distance trade and markets and reference Smith!). The outrage expressed at Arapko’s call for definitions is indicative of the almost wilful misreading of most of this review. Which historian of the Enlightenment – for example – would not demand of themself a precision with regard to their concepts and categories or not impose upon themself the onus of explaining what it was (i.e. defining it)? Let us not forget Banaji himself insists that one of the two ‘strongest’ features ‘…of Marx‘s discussion of merchant‘s capital in Volume 3 relate first to the distinction he draws at the very start of Part Four when *defining* this type of capital’ (‘Marxism and Merchant Capitalism’, np). Definitions are extraordinarily important not only for Banaji but for Marx, Marxists and historians alike.
After all of this being said neither of the above comments have substantially responded to Arapko’s (three by my count) main concerns: i) how does Banaji justify the conflation of the putting- out system (already recognised by Marx and popular Marxist historians like Hobsbawm as capitalist) with buying cheap and selling dear? ii) how fair is it to talk about a ‘Marxist reticence’ when he not only mischaracterises the position of Dobb (see Paul Cammack’s brilliant review – https://whatsworthreading.weebly.com/brief-history-of-commercial-capital.html – which also sheds light on how jumbled and unclear Banaji’s book is by showing how ultimately simple Banaji’s contribution is, i.e. that merchants contribute to the historical development of capitalism and some even become industrial capitalists, though Cammack does indicate that there is no such thing as commercial *capitalism* (a claim also questioned by Arapko)) but also ignores the extremely rich tradition in Japan? iii) if you did want to produce a Marxist theory of merchant capital or understand what Marx was thinking and saying (to be fair, two different projects) then why not investigate the numerous resources in Marx’s corpus (not just the ‘big books’)?
I hope Banaji or other serious students of Marxism/history will rise to the challenges of this review.