Cambridge History of Capitalism

Humphrey McQueen has been working for the past year or more on a historical analysis of the development of capital within capitalism. As part of this work he has written a detailed critique and review of the “Cambridge History of Capitalism” – see his short introduction attached. It also has a link to the complete review article, which is recommended reading!

Regards, Ross.


The review is a further step towards a study of the origins of capital-within-capitalism, or, the revolution within capital. The aim is to present a 60,000 word account of how capital became ‘the product of its own reproduction’ by June 2017 for the sesqui-centenary of Marx’s Capital, the centenary of the Bolshevik revolution, and my seventy-fifth birthday.

Feel free to pass the link onto anyone with the time and inclination for 25,000 words and 12,000 more in footnotes.


An historical materialist assay.

That Comfortable Word ‘Growth’

The old problem of establishing canons of selection and settling who determines them has been ’solved’ by abolishing selection altogether. Everything now goes in, as if in answer to the familiar question in children’s examinations, ‘Tell all you know about X.’

  1. I. Finley (1983).[2]

The essence of the problem of ‘the destiny of capitalism in Russia’ is often presented as though prime importance attaches to the question: how fast? (i.e., how fast is capital developing?) Actually, however, far greater importance attaches to the question: how exactly? And to the question: where from? (i.e., what was the nature of the pre-capitalist economic system in Russia?)

V.I. Lenin (1899)[3]

The jacket blurb on volume one of The Cambridge History of Capitalism announces that, ‘[s]tarting with its distant origins in ancient Babylon, successive chapters trace its progression up to the “Promised Land” of capitalism in America.’ The biblical gloss to this marketing gambit cannot help but remind one of the parishioner who, in the wake of criticism of the literal truth of the Bible and the Darwinian challenges to Genesis, told her minister that she ‘found great support in “that comfortable word Mesopotamia”.’ And so does repeating ‘growth’ for our Cambridge authors who demonstrate no surer understanding of capitalism than the old dear had of a place name. The eighteenth-century preacher, George Whitefield – who could make congregations laugh or cry by how he pronounced ‘Mesopotamia’[4] – had nothing on the effect induced by the contributors as they evade ‘capitalism’ by intoning that comfortable word ‘growth’. Their promotional summary continues:

Adopting a wide geographical coverage and comparative perspective, the international team of authors discuss the contribution of Greek, Roman, and Asian civilisations to the development of capitalism, as well as the Chinese, Indian and Arab empires. They determine what features of modern capitalism were present at each time and place, and why the various precursors of capitalism did not survive. Looking at the eventual success of medieval Europe and the examples of city-states in northern Italy and the Low Countries, the authors address how British mercantilism led to European imitations and American successes, and ultimately, how capitalism became global.

Putting aside the thought that capitalism might have been born that way, we can comfort ourselves that the first of the volume’s thirty tables is of ‘Mediterranean shipwrecks datable within hundred-year ranges, graphed according to an equal probability of sinking in any year during the date range for each wreck.’ (p. 49) With such guides, the titanic task of locating the black box[5] of ‘capitalism’ is in safer hands than the quest for Malaysian Airlines flight 370 as we trawl an arc from co-editor Larry Neal’s ’Introduction’ across eight of the eighteen chapters in hope of encountering an account of what distinguishes capital within capitalism.[6]

Humphrey McQueen


31 March 2015

[1] Larry Neal and Jeffrey G. Williamson (eds), The Cambridge History of Capitalism, volume I, The Rise of Capitalism: from Ancient Origins to 1848, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2014, 616 pages. Quotations will be referenced by bracketed page numbers. My thanks go to Joe Collins. Peter Curtis, Bruce McFarlane, Walter Struve and Gary Werskey.

[2] ‘How it really was’, Ancient History Evidence and Models, Pimlico, London, 2000, p. 61. My use of this quotation began as a slap at the Cambridge effort but has become a backhander for my review.

[3] V.I. Lenin, The Development of Capitalism in Russia, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1964, pp. 380-1; Karl Marx: ‘It is not what is made, but how, and by what instruments of labour, that distinguishes different epochs.’ Capital, I, Everyman, London, 1957, p. 172; Penguin, London, 1976, p. 286; Foreign Languages Publishing House (FLPH), Moscow, 1958, p. 180.

[4] Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, Brewer’s, Edinburgh, 2009, p. 862.

[5] ‘Once upon a time the organisation of the firm … was a black box. Into this box went labour and capital and out came products. Some venturesome economists have wondered what the black box contained.’ Armen A. Alchian and Suzan Woodward, ‘The Firm is Dead: Long Live the Firm’, Journal of Economic Literature, 26 (1), March 1988, p. 65.

[6] For the distinctions between capital across the millennia and capital-within-capitalism see my ‘Re-fining capital’. Unless otherwise stated, my writings are accessible on

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