Robert Kurz: The destructive origins of capitalism. The ‘military revolution’ in 16th century Europe

First posted February 16, 2018

There are innumerable versions of the birth of the modern era. Historians do not even agree about the date of this event. Some make modernity begin in the 15th and 16th centuries, with the so-called Renaissance (a concept invented in the 19th century by Jules Michelet, as the French historian Lucien Lefevre has shown). Others see the real rupture, modernity’s launching point, in the 18th century, when the philosophy of the Enlightenment, the French Revolution and the beginnings of industrialization shook the planet. But whatever date historians and modern philosophers prefer for the beginning of their own world, they agree on one point: its positive conquests are almost always taken as its original impulses.

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FORUM: The Military in World History

The artistic and scientific innovations of the Italian Renaissance are considered to be just as important for the rise of modernity as Columbus’s great voyages of discovery, the Protestant and Calvinist idea of specific individual responsibility, the enlightenment liberation from irrational beliefs and the rise of modern democracy in France and the United States. In the technological-industrial field, the invention of the steam engine and the mechanical loom are recorded as the “starting guns” for modern social development.

This last explanation was emphasized above all by Marxism, due to the fact that it was in harmony with the philosophical doctrine of “historical materialism”. The true motor of history, according to this doctrine, is the development of the material “forces of production”, which repeatedly enter into conflict with the “relations of production” which have become too constraining and demand a new form of society. The leap into industrialization is thus the decisive point for Marxism: the steam engine, according to this simplified formula, was the first machine to break with the “current of the old feudal relations of production”.

At this point a lamentable contradiction in the Marxist argument arises. Thus, in the famous chapter on the “primitive accumulation of capital”, Marx occupied himself in his magnum opus with periods that predate the steam engine by centuries. Is this not a self-refutation of “historical materialism”? If “primitive accumulation” and the steam engine are to be found historically separated from one another, the productive forces of industry could not have been the decisive cause of the birth of modern capitalism. It is true that the capitalist mode of production was only definitively pushed forward by the industrialization of the 19th century, but, if we look for the roots of this development, we have to dig deeper.

It is also logical that the first seed of modernity, or the “big bang” of its dynamic, would have to arise in a largely pre-modern environment, since otherwise there could not have been an “origin” in the strict sense of the word. Thus, the very precocious “first cause” and the very late “full consolidation” do not represent a contradiction. If it is also true that for many regions of the world and for many social groups the beginning of modernization was delayed until the present day, it is equally certain that the very first impulse must have occurred in a remote past, when we consider the enormous temporal expanse (from the perspective of the lifetime of a generation or even of an isolated person) of social processes.

What was ultimately new, in a relatively distant past, which inevitably set the history of modernization into motion? One can fully concede to historical materialism that the greatest and principle point of relevance does not correspond to a simple change of ideas and mentalities, but to the full development of material and concrete facts. It was not, however, productive force, but on the contrary a resounding destructive force which opened up the road to modernization, that is, the invention of firearms. Although this correlation is much older than is generally recognized, the most celebrated and influential theories of modernization (including Marxism) always underestimated it.

It was the German economic historian Werner Sombart who, shortly before the First World War, in his study War and Capitalism (1913), subjected this question to an in-depth and detailed examination. Only in the last few years have the technological-military and war-economy origins of capitalism been widely discussed, as for example in the book Cannons and Plague (1989) by the German economist Karl Georg Zinn, or in the work The Military Revolution (1990) by the American historian Geoffrey Parker. But neither of these investigations found the reception they deserved. Tvidently, the modern western world and its ideologues will only grudgingly accept the view that the ultimate historical foundation of their sacred concepts of “freedom” and “progress” must be sought in the invention of the diabolical death-dealing instruments of human history. And this relation also applies to modern democracy, since the “military revolution” remains to this day a secret motive for modernization. The atomic bomb was itself a democratic invention of the West.

The invention of firearms destroyed the pre-capitalist forms of rule, since it made the feudal cavalry militarily derisory. Even before the invention of firearms the social consequences of long-range weapons were anticipated; thus, the Second Lateran Council, in 1139, prohibited the use of the crossbow against Christians. Not by chance, the crossbow, imported from non-European cultures to Europe, was until the year 1000 considered to be the weapon of choice for bandits, outlaws and rebels. When the much more effective cannons came into use, the destiny of mounted and armored armies was sealed.

The firearm, however, unlike the crossbow, was no longer in the hands of an opposition “from below” which confronted feudal rule, but rather brought about a revolution “from above” with the help of princes and kings. The production and mobilization of the new weapons systems were not possible on the basis of local and decentralized structures, such as had until then characterized social reproduction, but demanded a completely new organization of society on various planes…. read more:

see also

Militarism and the coming wars