1 June 2020

The Making of Capitalism in France:

Interview with Xavier Lafrance

Xavier Lafrance

Xavier Lafrance teaches political science at the Université du Québec à Montréal. With Charles Post, he co-edited the book Case Studies in the Origins of Capitalism (Palgrave 2018) and he is the author of The Making of Capitalism in France. Class Structures, Economic Development, the State and the Formation of the French Working Class, 1750-1914 (Brill, « Historical Materialism Book Series, 2019) – now out in paperback

This interview first appeared at

Could you tell us about your political and intellectual background ? In the introduction to The Making of Capitalism in France, you write that the theoretical framework you are inclined towards is the one you call “political Marxism” (which you prefer to call Capital-centric Marxism): could you say more about your relationship to this theoretical tradition?

In the book, I’m using the “Political Marxist” framework developed by Robert Brenner and Ellen Meiksins Wood from the late 1970s and early 1980s, building on Marx’s mature critique of political economy. In his early works – especially in The German Ideology andThe Communist Manifesto – Marx was still under the influence of Adam Smith’s classical presentation of the “commercial model”, in which the expansion of market exchanges drove an ongoing division of labour and development of productive forces that culminated with the rise of capitalism (or what Smith called “commercial society”).

Marx broke with these Smithian assumptions in the Grundrisse and in his masterpiece,Capital (hence the phrase “Capital-centric Marxism). In these works, Marx rejected the classical political economists’ notion of a “so called primitive accumulation” initiating the emergence of capitalism. He stressed that no amount of commercial expansion or accumulation of monetary wealth could ever by themselves explain the transition to capitalism. Capital is not a thing but a “social relation” and the emergence of capitalism required a radical transformation of class relations – a qualitative reconfiguration of social power, not a mere quantitative accumulation of wealth. To explain this transformation of class relations, Marx devoted most of the last section of the first volume ofCapital to an analysis of the mass and violent expropriation of peasants from their land that took place in the English countryside during the early modern period.

Building upon and developing Marx’s argument, Brenner published landmark articles[fn]Brenner, Robert (1976) ”Agrarian Class Structure and Economic Development in Pre-Industrial Europe”, Past & Present, no. 79 pp. 30-75;  Brenner, Robert 1977, ‘The Origins of Capitalist Development: A Critique of Neo-Smithian Marxism’,New Left Review, I, no. 104: 25–92. [/fn] in the late 1970s on the agrarian and English origins of capitalism. In these articles, he breaks with analyses of the emergence of capitalism that assume the very thing that need to be explained. Most historical explanations of the origins of capitalism have been circular, suggesting that capitalism emerged out of pre-existing, if embryonic, capitalist dynamics. Ancient profit-taking commercial practices, typically involving buying cheap in one region and selling dear in another, thus tend to be equated with capitalism. We are left with historical explanations that revolve around the removal of obstacles to timeless (proto) capitalist processes, an endeavour often attributed to urban merchants, sometimes involving violent revolutions. Historical lines of demarcation are blurred, and the unique imperatives of capitalism are naturalised. This is precisely the kind of framework that was rejected by Brenner.

An earlier Marxist “transition debate” had taken place in the 1950s, around the exchange between Maurice Dobb and Paul Sweezy.[fn]Hilton, Rodney (ed.) (1985), The Transition from Feudalism to Capitalism, Verso. [/fn] Whereas Sweezy related the rise of capitalism to the growth of trade and urbanisation, Dobb maintained that the latter were not a threat but in fact fully compatible with feudalism. For Dobb, the critical factor behind the transition was class struggle between lords and peasants, which freed the later from feudal impediments and allowed them to engage in petty commodity production and to eventually become full-fledged capitalists. Brenner retained Dobb’s focus on class struggles in the countryside while getting rid of his Smithian assumptions.

Launching a new transition debate that came to bear his name, Brenner engaged the dominant non-Marxist explanations of the emergence of capitalism, explaining that both the “commercialisation model” and the “demographic model” assumed that the early modern agrarian economy responded to changes in supply and demand of land on the market. Doing this, these models presumed that specifically capitalist dynamics propelling producers to specialise, innovate and accumulate existed transhistorically, and they were consequently unable to account for the divergent paths of development that emerged across Europe in the wake of the spread of trade from the eleventh century and the demographic collapse of the fourteenth.

Brenner explained how, under feudalism, the possession of land by peasants outside of market competition, and the consequent use of extra-economic coercion to extract rents in labour, while fuelling the accumulation of military means and trade of luxury goods as part of state building projects led by feudal ruling class, ruled out the systematic development of productivity through improved methods of labour-saving techniques. As population rose, the tendency toward the parcellisation of landholdings through partible inheritance lead to declining yields per acre and labour input and, eventually, to demographic collapse. While they were universal across European feudal societies, Brenner showed how the impact of commercial and demographic trends diverged following the balance of power within and between classes in a given region.

In Eastern Europe, where peasant had not developed strong communal village organisation, landlords where able to impose a “second serfdom”. In Western Europe, stronger solidarity allowed peasant to freed themselves from serfdom while preserving effective possession of their plots through stable, customary rents. Lordly attempts to consolidate leaseholds and to raise rents were checked by peasant resistance and short circuited by the consolidation of Absolutist monarchies – in France and elsewhere – whose main source of revenue was taxes. Extra-economic surplus appropriation was thus preserved partially via a new form of state-mediated exploitation (though rent remained a major source of revenue).

In England, however, an epoch-making transformation of class relations took place allowing for the rise of a historically new form of economic exploitation. There, the unintended consequence of the ruling class strategy of reproduction in face of the feudal crisis was a transition to agrarian capitalism as lords reacted to the peasants’ ability to gain their legal freedom by imposing commercial, capitalist leases on tenant farmers. This process was backed by a relatively more centralised English state and led to specifically capitalist social property relations in which the tenant farmers’ access to their land became market dependent. This market dependence compelled producers to specialise, innovate and accumulate in order to pay rising rents set by market competition. The upshot was unprecedented sustained economic growth and a breakaway from Malthusian demographic cycles. 

In short, while most historians and social scientists assume, in Smithian fashion, that growing market opportunities will automatically lead producers to adopt capitalist behaviours, Brenner showed how the latter only ensued from specific social property relations that were at first confined to England and that compelled economic actors to reproduce through market competition and profit maximisation. As Wood puts it, capitalism emerges precisely when markets are no longer sets of market opportunities but become coercive forces. This, of course, has important implications for our theorisation of historical materialism.

 Your problematisation of capitalism plays a key role in your approach to the development of capitalism in France: in what sense is analysing capitalism as a social system rather than a “purely” economic phenomenon crucial to you as a Marxist scholar?

The historical analysis discussed above reveals that capitalism is not simply “more of the same”; it is not a mere expansion of “economic” phenomena, be it trade, as Smithian believes, or productive forces, as many Marxists suggest. Its advent requires a reconfiguration of social power and is the result of class struggles.

As part of the “Brenner Debate”, launched by the work discussed above, the French historian Guy Bois accused Brenner of “political Marxism” – thus coining the name by which this approach came to be known –  for giving to much weight to political factors, namely class struggles, at the expense of economic factors, especially the contradictions between forces and relations of production. Bois’s critique, however, was well beside the point, since it took for granted a separation of the “political” and the “economic” that is specific to capitalism. Under feudalism and other non-capitalist social forms, surplus was extracted through “extra-economic” means, namely political, juridical and military power. Feudal lords used their personal political power directly in the process of surplus appropriation, which led Brenner to speak of “politically-constituted property” in reference to non-capitalist modes of production. Consequently, in these non-capitalist societies, class struggles tended to be overtly and directly political in nature, and the balance of power between classes as well as the level of solidarity within classes played a greater role in shaping the evolution of feudal societies and economies.

While class relations and struggles remain central under capitalism, this system is radically distinct in the way it makes both producers and exploiters dependent upon successful market competition for their reproduction. This system’s unique laws of motions, or rules of reproduction – the law of value which compels producers to economise labour-time through specialisation, the use of labour-saving innovations and the ongoing accumulation of surplus-value – operate via the mechanism of price competition. In other words, though it always preserves forms of unfree labour, capitalism is uniquely reproduced through the “dull compulsion of the market place” rather than prominently through forms of extra-economic coercion. Capitalism allows for a separation of the “political” and the “economic” as the state can become – though this has always been the result of struggles from below – a public sphere of impersonal power. This public character of the state does not fundamentally threaten the reproduction of class divisions and exploitation since the latter is now privatised in individual units of production.

The separation of “economic” and “political” spheres is thus in fact a reconfiguration of social power through which some political functions and powers (over production and distribution) are apparently depoliticised and confined to an “economic” sphere where they fall under the logic of “self-regulated” markets. Moreover, the unique dynamism of capitalism, the constant drive to develop productive forces, operates much more independently of the desires and goals of either individual capitalists or the state. This systematic development of productive forces – and their determinant impact on broader social, political and cultural processes – is actually something that is specific to capitalism, and, contrary to Bois’s (and many Marxists’) belief, is not a transhistorical motor of development.

To get a better grasp of these issues, consider the fact that Brenner speaks of “social property relations” and not simply of social relations of production. He does this to avoid the notion that technical change in the immediate process of production would mechanically lead to a new social division of labour, new class configurations, and, ultimately, a new form of state and ideological “superstructure”. Doing this, Brenner, and Wood, remain in the track of Marx’s mature critique of political economy and his crucial insight that each historical mode of production functions according to its own distinctive internal logic. This logic, according to Marx, is determined by the way in which “unpaid labour is pumped out of direct producers” by an exploiting class. In other words, in class societies, modes of production are always simultaneously modes of exploitation – i.e. sets of social property relations.

Hence, as I put it in the book, analyses informed by a historical materialist framework must “begin with the multi-layered and complex configuration of social power that shapes how societies reproduce themselves[fn]It should be mentioned that this social reproduction involves not only class, but also gender relations. For a sympathetic, yet critical, discussion of « political Marxism » from a social reproduction theory standpoint, see Nicole Leach (2016) « Rethinking the Rules of Reproduction and the Transition to Capitalism : Reading Federici and Brenner Together », in Xavier Lafrance and Charlie Post (eds.),Case Studies in the Origins of Capitalism, Palgrave, pp. 317-342. [/fn] while allowing one class to appropriate a surplus at the expense of another (or several others). Put another way, we begin with an assessment of social property relations – which always involve horizontal relationships of competition and collaborationwithin classes as well as vertical conflictsbetween classes – that impose ‘rules of reproduction’ on social agents and consequently orient macro-level social and economic phenomena.”

Historical materialism looks at the ways in which humans establish social relations of reproduction with nature and how these fundamental social relations structure other sets of social, political, and cultural experiences. As Wood explains, “the forms of [social] interaction [with nature] produced by human beings, themselves become material forces, no less than are natural forces”. Now, in class societies, the focus moves to the ways in which classes reproduce themselves – in relation with each other and with nature – and how this affects social and political reality. The nexus of class exploitation patterns other forms of social relations and is consequently not an epiphenomenon responding to the development of forces of production. On the contrary, the configuration of class relations of exploitation orients the development (or non-development) of productive forces within a given mode of production. That is, social property relations shape the behaviour that individuals and class must adopt to reproduce themselves, and thus establish patterns of economic development and social conflict at a macro level. Whereas, in feudal society, surplus appropriation by a class at the expense of another took an extra-economic form that tended to stall economic development and made class conflicts overtly political, in capitalist societies exploitation is mediated by market relations that compel economic actors to adopt profit-maximising behaviours and that tend to depoliticise class conflicts.

All of this is useful to conduct research, because it provides a clear understanding of what capitalism is and allows us to observe the emergence of capitalism and the ways it re-orients social relations and unfolds in actual historical processes. Without this clear understanding of distinctive capitalist dynamics, it would not make much sense to attempt to explain and describe the transition to capitalism in France or any other country/region. Beyond these academic endeavours, the historical materialist framework and the conception of capitalism presented here have important political consequences. In order to think and act strategically as anti-capitalists and socialists, we need to have some sort of understanding of the capitalist terrain on which we are fighting; we need to have some grasp of the forms of power that we are confronting and of their specific dynamics. Moreover, Marx’s point that capitalism is a historical – as opposed to a natural or transhistorical – phenomenon is a fundamental precondition for all socialist politics because it signals that this system had a beginning and will have an end – just how it will end (leading to “barbarism or socialism”) depends on our collective struggles.

Contrary to other Marxists, such as  Perry Anderson for example – who, in Lineages of the Absolutist State (1974), argues that French absolutism facilitated the capitalist transformation of the economic structures – you write that the formation of the absolutist state was rather an alternative path out of the crisis of feudalism. Could you expand on this? In what sense is a comparison with England in the same epoch relevant?

Anderson suggests that the absolutist state was a “redeployed and recharged apparatus of feudal domination” – the way through which a challenged old noble class established a new form of state-constituted surplus appropriation.[fn]Anderson, Perry, 1974, Lineages of the Absolutist State, Verso. [/fn]Yet, he also maintains that the dissolution of feudalism severed the unity of politics and economics at the level of villages, while the emerging state reactivated Roman law, thus enacting new forms of exclusive property conducive to a progressive establishment of capitalist agriculture and supporting the interests of a nascent manufacturing class.

While Anderson’s account offers important insights, it does not allow to grasp how absolutism actually took France away from the capitalist path taken by England in the wake of the fourteenth-century feudal crisis.[fn]One of best critiques of Perry Anderson’s important book is offered by Benno Teschke, 2003, The Myth of 1648. Class, Geopolitics and the Making of Modern International Relations, New York: Verso. [/fn] In France, peasants gained their freedom and secured possession of the land and fixed rents during the late medieval period. These gains were allowed by relatively strong solidarities embedded in village communities, but also by intense competition for land and peasants among landlords, which was inefficiently mitigated by unstable bonds of vassalage. Resistance from below, lack of intra-class cohesion, and competition from a monarchical state seeking to both safeguard and tax small peasant property severely threatened the nobles’ interests. While political, and often military, conflicts with the crown remained endemic, many nobles were compelled to turn to the concentrated monarchical state apparatus, supplementing rent with tax revenues. The incorporation of sectors of the old nobility and, increasingly, of the high bourgeoisie to the state, was realised through the granting or sale of venal offices. Accumulating wealth through tax/office structures, interests on loans to the Crown, commercial monopolies, and, still to a large extent, rent, a parasitic class of financiers and tax-farmer aristocrats formed the social basis of the new state.

The formation of this new mode of exploitive production had consequences of critical importance for the country’s political and economic development. The selling of venal offices amounted to a privatisation of state power, which was pulverised by the very process that was meant to consolidate it. Together with the reproduction of a myriad of competing feudal local and regional jurisdictions within the state, this made the development of a modern administrative apparatus impossible, as state officials used their offices as patrimonial means of enrichment.

This renewed mode of extra-economic class exploitation was also not conducive to sustained economic growth. France did experience substantial agricultural and manufacturing growth from the end of the late seventeenth century slowdown to the Revolution, as growing urban demand and colonial trade fuelled commercial production. Commercial agriculture, however, was nothing new and neither landlords nor peasants faced incentives nor imperatives to specialise, adopt new farming techniques or consolidate plots and estates. Landlords had no thought of expropriating peasant and, on the contrary, pursued the practice of pinning down ever more of the peasants’ labour to the soil. Even in the Paris basin, where commercialisation was most widespread, systematic calculation of labour costs was unheard of, the number of small peasant farms remained important and continuously grew, while traditional, quasi-feudal leases remained the rule. Outputs grew because more plots were put under cultivation and large reserves of rural labour were exploited by landlords on the land and merchants in proto-industrial production. Light years away from a process of capitalist transition, as Steve Miller explains, this increase of output took place “through the intensification of labour and stagnating or declining returns to each additional hour of work”.[fn]Miller, Stephen, 2009, ‘The Economy of France in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries: Market Opportunity and Labor Productivity in Languedoc’, Rural History, 20 (1), p. 6. [/fn]

Things took a radically different turn in England. Put simply, agrarian capitalism emerged as an alternative to absolutism. Centralised state power and greater class cooperation allowed landlords to enforce “economic” leases. Landed property and economic rent rather than politically constituted property became the cornerstone of English ruling class reproduction and absolutist temptations were definitely put to bed with the so-called “Glorious Revolution” of 1688, which allowed landlords to assert their parliamentary power over the crown. Economic leases established rents through market competition, thus compelling tenants to specialise, increase labour productivity, innovate, and to reinvest surpluses to preserve access to their land. The upshot was sustained economic growth in the countryside that caused ongoing dispossession of customary tenants, and fuelled rapid demographic growth and urbanisation leading to the rise of competitive, mass labour and consumer markets – all of which lifted the Malthusian cap on industrial development in England.

Moreover, the reliance on economic rent as opposed to politically constituted property made possible the development of a modern state apparatus.[fn]Brewer, John 1989, The Sinews of Power: War, Money, and the English State, 1688–1783, Cambridge: Harvard University Press. [/fn] Because its economy was much more productive and its administrative apparatus more efficient, the English state was also able to borrow at advantageous rates to finance its military efforts. All of this provided a decisive geopolitical advantage to England.

In France, in the absence of agrarian capitalism, the expansion of state revenues was dependent on ongoing “geopolitical accumulation”, so as to acquire a larger tax-base. Sectors of French state elite sought to reform and liberalise the country’s agrarian and manufacturing sectors, but these attempts tended to threaten the extra-economic strategy of reproduction of the ruling class and were consequently often rolled back, and overall unsuccessful.

Unable to emulate English intensive economic development, the French state had to continue to rely on an extensive strategy. Yet, territorial conquest on the Continent was difficult and costly, while colonial expansion was increasingly checked by growing English power. Entrapped in successive military conflicts with its neighbour, the French state had to impose punitive taxes on its peasantry, to resort to the sale of offices that intensified the Byzantine character of its administrative apparatus, and to contract mounting debts. This created a catastrophic fiscal situation and widespread discontent among elite and popular classes – the background of the revolutionary explosion of 1789.   

According to you, the French Revolution was a bourgeois but non-capitalist revolution. In what way did the French Revolution not herald the rise of a capitalist economy?

The classical “social interpretation”, outlined by Georges Lefebvre, Albert Mathiez or Albert Soboul, remained dominant until the 1960s and depicted the Revolution as the act of a capitalist bourgeoisie liberating itself from the shackle of feudalism, thus allowing capitalism to fully blossom in France. They took their cue from the early work of Marx, who was himself following liberal thinkers such as Turgot. This interpretation faced a severe challenge from “revisionist” historians such as Alfred Cobban in the 1950s and François Furet from the early 1970s. Revisionists unmistakably showed how the bourgeois that led the Revolution were not capitalists but rather landowners, state officials or lawyers. Some Marxists reacted to this devastating challenge with a “consequentialist” interpretation that maintained that, notwithstanding the motives of its agents, the Revolution had established a new political and legal context – with measures such as the abolition of privileges, intermediary bodies and guilds, or the suppression of internal custom barriers and the standardisation of weights and measure – that were conducive to an eventual emergence of capitalism.

“Consequentialism” is an attempt to rescue the notion of capitalist bourgeois revolution by emptying it of much of its content. It leaves us without a satisfactory causal explanation of Revolution and its empirical assessment of the impact of revolutionary transformations are flawed. Political Marxists[fn]Brenner, Robert, 1989, ‘Bourgeois Revolution and Transition to Capitalism’, in The First Modern Society: Essays in English History in Honour of Lawrence Stone, edited by A. L. Beier, David Cannadine, and James M. Rosenheim, 271–304, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; Comninel, George C. 1987,Rethinking the French Revolution: Marxism and the Revisionist Challenge, London: Verso; Teschke, Benno, 2005, ‘Bourgeois Revolution, State Formation and the Absence of the  International’,Historical Materialism, 13 (2): 3–26. [/fn] have put forth a new interpretation that disentangle the notions of “bourgeoisie” and “capitalist class” while retaining a class analysis of the Revolution.

Simply put, while the bourgeoisie and aristocracy both reproduced themselves on the basis of non-capitalist land-tenure and politically constituted property, they had differentiated access to state offices and privileges. Bourgeois and many lesser nobles remained excluded from special privileges of noble status, and the aristocracy, as the highest and exclusive inner circle of the nobility, monopolised the most prestigious and lucrative positions in the state apparatus. Calling for state positions to be “open to talent” and for liberal reforms of the state administration, the bourgeoisie did not attempt overthrow the existing mode of exploitation but actually to improve its position in its midst. The Revolution was an intra-ruling class conflict opposing bourgeois and aristocrats over the access to politically-constituted property, flanked by a popular movement of exploited artisans and peasants, in a context of intensifying geopolitical pressures experienced by the French state that contributed to an intense politicisation of fiscal issues.

The partial rationalisation of the state – the continuation of a longstanding project pursued by old regime reformers now taken over by an enlightened bourgeoisie – that took place during the Revolution and under the First Empire was limited by the reproduction of politically-constituted forms of appropriation across the revolutionary divide. Nepotism and quasi-patrimonialist practices remained ubiquitous within the administration. As is also universally recognised, the Revolution consolidated and contributed to the spreading of petty peasant property for decades to come. This ruled out the apparition of agrarian capitalism in France.

What was less well known, but has now been demonstrated by important historical works since around the late 1980s, is that revolutionary struggles waged by artisan and industrial workers led to major gains that gave a definitely non-capitalist character to their economic sector. Guilds had been abolished in practice by workers already in 1789, after decades of resistance against their subordination to their masters. The legislators that formally abolished guilds in 1791 acted largely after the fact, were informed by political rather than economic liberalism, and had plans to implement local regulations of trades. These legislative plans were not enacted for contingent historical reasons but local customary regulations were kept alive and thrived in following decades as workers applied the emancipatory spirit of the Revolution to their trades. Labour contracts ruling out subordination to employers became the rule, while a bon droit – a kind of “moral economy” in the sense given to this phrase by E.P. Thompson – came to regulate artisanal and industrial work and was enforced by new judicial institutions such as justices of the peace andprud’hommes councils. The latter overturned all attempt by employers to impose unilateral rules within workshops and factory, thus making impossible the subsumption of labour by capital.

In brief, the French Revolution amounted to a partial emancipation of labour – right a time when English workers experienced enhanced subordination to employers that were benefiting from the active legal support of the state in the context an of industrial revolution. The point, however, is not that this partial emancipation of French labour amounted to an obstacle to a latent capitalist industrialisation.  This emancipation was in fact tolerated for decades by French industrial employers who were not subjected to competitive market imperatives.

You write that, whilst industrialisation arrived quite early in France, capitalism by contrast arrived late. A key argument in your book is that the birth of capitalism in France did not happens endogenously. Could you explain why, on the one hand, capitalism developed late in France and, on the other, what external factors can explain the development of capitalism in France?

Industrial production took place under the old regime, but investment and mechanisation remained very limited, in spite of efforts by the state to stimulate industrialisation. On the eve of the Revolution, in its cotton trade, England had 260 spindles per 1000 inhabitants, against 2 in France, while there were 900 spinning-jennies in France against 20,000 in Britain, and no more than a dozen mule-jennies in the former country against 9000 in the latter. English superiority was overwhelming, and much of France’s industrial sector collapsed in the wake of the signature of a trade treaty by the two states in 1786. Instead of investing so as to make manufacturing facilities more productive French textile merchants simply bought English yarn to sell it in France.

Industrial investments accelerated in an unprecedented way over the decades that followed the Revolution, in the context of a protected national market, but industrial labour productivity remained much lower in France compared to Britain. This was because a much slower pace of mechanisation of production could be witnessed in France at the time. To illustrate this, consider that, in 1830, 3000 steam engines could be found in France, producing 15,000 horsepower, while Britain numbered 15,000, with an overall capacity of 250,000 horsepower. In 1840, France, with a population of 35 million, possessed steam engines producing 34,000 horsepower, while Britain, with a population of 19 million, had steam engines producing 350,000 horsepower. By 1850, these figures had respectively increased to 67,000 horsepower against 544,000 in Britain, and France had by then fallen behind Prussia.

A comparative analysis of processes of industrialisation in France and England raises pressing questions. For instance: how do explain that France had only 10 percent of England’s horsepower in 1840, even with a much larger population and plenty of financial resources? To begin to answer this question, we must accept that the transition to capitalism was not a Western European phenomenon – it began in England and was later imported on the European continent. Simply suggesting that France and Britain have followed distinct paths of industrialisation, as many historians have done, is insufficient at best. We must be very clear that different paths were taken because one country was capitalist while the other was not.

With this general framework in mind, an important first factor to consider is that, because agrarian capitalism was absent in France, the country’s internal consumer market remained limited and this necessarily slowed down industrial growth. But, beyond the extent and depth of the market, we must also consider its nature. Until the last third of the nineteenth century, there was no integrated and competitive market in France. In spite of the abolition of internal tariffs during the Revolution, the absence of adequate transport infrastructures implied that the French national economic space remained intensely fragmented and constituted of a series of local and regional markets. These local and regional spaces were not organised through the mechanism of price competition and remained regulated by customary trades usages enforced by institutions such as prud’hommes, commercial tribunals, and local governments. French merchant-industrialists made much of their profits as mediators between these disconnected economic spaces. As Jean-Pierre Hirsch explains, “the logic of an ongoing decompartimentalisation of circulation, of a levelling of costs and prices did not exist in the attitudes of the vast majority of merchants, or even in the declarations of their representatives. Above all, as years passed, nothing indicated an evolution toward a less ‘imperfect’ market, nor a will to reduce the number of filters through which supply and demand were at play.”[fn]Hirsch, Jean-Pierre, 1991, Les deux rêves du commerce. Entreprise et institution dans la région lilloise (1780–1860), Paris: Éditions de l’École des hautes études en sciences sociales, p. 392. [/fn]

The other important factor that explained the absence of competitive imperatives in France was the strongly protectionist policies – including prohibitive tariffs on different items and outright prohibition of cotton good imports – adopted by the Restauration in 1816 and 1817, at the end of the Napoleonic Wars and of the Continental Blockade. This protectionism insulated French manufacturers from English competition.

As I explain in the book, because of all this, capitalist social property relations remained absent in France, where industrial firms where not compelled by price competition to systematically mechanise production, innovate, improve, and discipline labour processes so as to maximise profits and beat competitors. Consequently, until the Second Empire, the mechanisation of French industrial production was fuelled by market opportunities rather than by market compulsion. Assessing French industrialisation over this period, William Reddy stresses “just how weak the force of competition” remained, and explains that firms were not evolving on “price-forming markets” and were consequently not compelled to engage in “cost-conscious management”. At the same time, the “twenty-fold advantage in productivity, and the attendant profit boosting potential that English machines provided to their owners did not escape French merchant-industrialists.[fn]Reddy, William, 1984, The Rise of Market Culture: The Textile Trade and French Society, 1750–1900, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 74, 100. [/fn]

French industrialists were strongly attached to protectionist policies and fought intensely to preserve them – they were not interested in being exposed to English competition, knowing that this would threaten their easy profits. The importation of capitalist social property relations – the building of an integrated and competitive market – was left to the French state, which finally decided to act resolutely so as to activate a capitalist transition in the face of intensifying international geopolitical competition stemming out of ongoing state restructuring processes and capitalist industrialisation emerging in different countries around the mid-nineteenth century.  

Could you say something about the development of the French working class? In the fourth chapter of your book, you cite the paradox highlighted by Ernest Labrousse in the 1950s that, whilst industrial development was quite slow in France, the working class was extremely combative throughout the nineteenth century. How do you explain this apparent paradox?

This paradox has been puzzling historians for a long time and two main types of explanations of the making of the French working class have been dominant over the last few decades. A first explanatory strategy, whose most influential exponent is William Sewell,[fn]Sewell, William H. 1980, Work and Revolution in France: The Language of Labor from the Old Regime to 1848, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. [/fn] has been to assert that, even though largescale factory production remained sparse in France, the country’s artisanal sector experienced a capitalist transition in the wake of the 1791 abolition of guilds. For reasons already discussed, I reject this thesis. The other important type of explanation, systematised among others by Tony Judt,[fn]Judt, Tony 2011 [1986], Marxism and the French Left: Studies in labour and politics in France, 1830–1981, New York: New York University Press. [/fn] stresses the irrelevance of economic transformations while focusing on the effect of a new political culture emerging in the wake of the Revolution. While recognising the importance of the “political culture” and institutions developed by French workers before, during, and after the revolutionary period, I offer an alternative materialist analysis in order to answer the paradox identified by Labrousse and others.

Simply put, I argue that French workers made themselves into a self-conscious class in a non-capitalist context, in the wake of the 1830 Revolution, and during the intense period of resistance that culminated with the 1848 Revolution. The working class was formed in opposition to a ruling class of notables that monopolised state power as a mean of exploitation, and through struggles seeking to consolidate gains made in the wake of 1789. French workers developed a republican-socialist agenda fighting for a democratic and social republic.

As I mentioned earlier, under the Restoration and the Orleanist monarchy, non-capitalist channels of surplus appropriation remained in place. The notability, mingling together nobles and great bourgeois, largely favoured “proprietary” or rentier forms of wealth – they prioritised the acquisition of land and buildings, secured lucrative interests on state and private loans, while investing only around 3.7 percent of its overall wealth in private firms during this period. As a rule, successful merchants and industrialists sought to join the notability by acquiring a mansion in the country side or private hotel in the city, and attempting to secure prestigious administrative or political careers for their sons. Notables remained attached to state offices as means of enrichment and markers of social standing.

It was against this ruling class that monopolised state power and revenues that French workers developed their class consciousness, constantly denouncing and collectively mobilising against state parasitism, the use of lucrative offices to serve private interests and the indirect taxes that burdened them. Workers fought against the parasitic monarchy and for a republic that would implement universal male suffrage as a way to take the state away from the ruling class.

But workers were also demanding a social republic that could consolidate and expandbon droit – the customary regulations of their trades. Conflicts that opposed workers to merchant-industrialists or workshop owners were not infrequent and revolved around attempts to circumvent customary regulations or to charge high interests on loans taken out by workers to pay for tools, for instance. These encroachments by “dishonest” employers were nothing new and had been taken place for centuries. They were repressed and contained byprud’hommes councils and justices of the peace – proximity judicial institutions that played a key role in preserving and extendingbon droit in trade communities – with considerable success, but loopholes remained and workers had to stay on guard and to mobilise to close them. Whatwas new, however, and explains much of the rising working-class resistance of the time – was the absence guilds since 1791; that is, of state-backed regulatory institutions and of formal injunctions compelling artisans to associate and to regulate trades. In the absence of regulatory institutions officially and actively backed by the central state, French workers mobilised to close regulatory loopholes in their trades by consolidating their rights and customary regulations, and this represented an inextricably political struggle.

At the time, French socialists decried the dangers of “competition” and “individualism”, but constantly did so by pointing to English developments. Many socialists developed their doctrines in an ongoing debate with British political economists and with liberal intellectuals that relayed their ideas in France. They were concerned that France might adopt the English economic system and wanted to avoid such a scenario.

At a more fundamental level, socialists were attempting to develop new principles that would hold French society together, after the evaporation of the corporatist paradigm in the wake of 1789 (the broader context in which the abolition of guilds took place and was justified in 1791). This is the reason why Jonathan Beecher presents them as “romantic socialists” who “were writing out of a broader sense of social and moral disintegration”. Their fundamental concerns were social and political, rather the economic: “their ideas were presented as a remedy for the collapse of community rather than for any specifically economic problem”.[fn]Beecher, Jonathan 2001, Victor Considerant and the Rise and Fall of French Romantic Socialism, Berkeley: University of California Press, p. 2. [/fn] In this respect, their thought was rooted in a long-standing debate in French political thought. As Ellen Wood explains, this debate had evolved for centuries under the old regime, and revolved around the challenge of integrating “a fragmented social order … a network of corporate entities”, and was informed by “a conception of society in which the totality of social relations, including economic transactions, was subsumed in the political community”.[fn]Wood, Ellen Meiksins, 2012, Liberty and Property: A Social History of Western Political Thought from Renaissance to Enlightenment, New York: Verso, p. 170. [/fn]

Socialists were deeply concerned by the fact that, in the new post-revolutionary French society, “individuals were becoming increasingly detached from any kind of corporate structure, and that society as a whole was becoming increasingly fragmented and individualistic”.[fn]Beecher, 2001, p. 2. [/fn] Simply put, as corporatism was fading as the formal, state-backed way of integrating society, they put forth socialism as an alternative to a capitalist form of social integration and regulation.

Struggling to serve their material interests and improve their living and working conditions by closing regulatory loopholes and to continue to consolidate and develop their customary rights and trade regulations, and taking their cue in part from socialist intellectuals, French workers also came to frame a new model of political governance and socio-economic organisation: a revolutionary democratic and socialist republic as a federation of organised trades. The rise of socialist republicanism became increasingly clear, for instance, with the canuts insurrection of the 1830s in Lyon, the great Parisian strikes of 1840, and, of course, during the 1848 Revolution.

In 1848, the government was compelled by popular mobilisations to create the Luxembourg Commission, which gathered representatives from all Parisian trades. As contemporary commentators claimed at the time the Commission rapidly became something like a “high court of prud’hommes” acting as sort of moral government of trades reflecting the free wish and express appeal of workers and heads workshops.  The Commission itself declared that it was “transformed incontinently, by the logic of things, into a high court of arbitration and exercises a sort of moral government by the free will and the express call of labourers and heads of establishments”.  Delegates determined the wages and usages that they considered most equitable, and new ones were elaborated, thus consolidating and expanding gains made by workers over previous decades.

Through the activities of the Luxembourg Commission, republican principles penetrated trades more concretely and more deeply than ever before. In the spring of 1848, work was becoming a “public activity”. Workers approached their trade organisations as public institutions and referred to their delegates, whose mandate they democratically controlled, as functionaries.  These developments had the potential to powerfully extend the democratisation of social relations of production initiated in 1789-1791, with the abolition of authoritarian guilds and their replacement by new and more democratic regulatory institutions. While republicanism permeated trades, the federation of trades –where, socialists hoped, cooperative workshops would become the rule – was also foreshadowing a potentially radical reshaping of the republic.

The Second Republic, and its socialist currents, of course, were violently repressed and overthrown. The Second Empire and Third Republic initiated a capitalist transition that led to a re-formation of the French working-class. This re-formation process was accomplished through an intense and unprecedented wave of strikes aimed at preserving and restoring customary regulations of trades and entailed the rise of an increasingly (though never completely) autonomous socialist movement vis-a-vis mainstream republican government parties. The re-formation of the working-class also took place at a time when nationalism and xenophobia were thriving and when the rise of industrial capitalism had a profound impact of social reproduction and gender relations. The latter issues deserve further investigation that should take its cue from the important work of Johanna Brenner and Maria Ramas on capitalism and the oppression of women.[fn]Brenner Johanna and Maria Ramas, 1984, « Rethinking Women’s Oppression », New Left Review, I/144. [/fn]

In your book, you argue that capitalism was imported into France by the state. What role did the consolidation of British industrial capitalism in this importation? How did this importation play itself out?

While liberal state officials had been attempting to implement liberal economic reforms in France – often against the will of merchant-industrialists – since at least the second half of the eighteenth century (efforts had intensified in the wake of the Seven Years’ War defeat to England), a successful capitalist transition finally began under the Second Empire and continued under the Third Republic. The combination of the instituting of a new regime in France, on the one hand, and of the emergence of a new international context, on the other hand, allowed and compelled the French state to initiate this capitalist transition. State actors and French elite remained deeply divided on the need and desirability to support the transition, but pro-capitalist forces finally held sway.

The consolidation of industrial capitalism during the second third of the nineteenth century had allowed the British state to raise unmatched revenues to fund its military without undermining its economic base, while technical innovations also allowed for the mechanisation of warfare. This transformed the international context, precipitating state unification and restructuring processes while ruling classes were compelled to modernise their economies by emulating the English model. Germany, the United States and Japan’s power grew rapidly, and France also had to adapt to this new context in order to maintain its geopolitical standing.

The rise of the Second Empire after the 1851 coup, imposed a personalised quasi-dictatorship that was freer of parliamentary control compared to previous regimes. Under the influence of liberal Saint-Simonian high-ranking public servants, Napoleon III rapidly asserted that an industrial revolution was necessary to consolidate the new regime. Rapid industrial growth would provide means to preserve the nation’s greatness – by successfully keeping at bay the growing military power of foreign ruling classes and their states – and to co-opt the working class – by reducing unemployment and increasing popular consumption.

The Emperor’s government rapidly liberalised the financial sector and actively supported to development investment banking. Yet, even as capital supply improved, capital demand remained limited in the absence of market imperatives that would make profit-maximisation a matter of economic survival and would compel French firms to systematically invest in labour-productivity enhancing technologies. The state consequently committed to building a competitive market by actively directing capital investments toward railroad building. The rapid development of railways, the construction of a national telegraph network, and the concomitant emergence of new commercial and marketing practices, led to the formation of an integrated and competitive economic space over the 1860s and 1870s, which wiped out whole regional industries as guaranteed profits derived from monopolies evaporated.

In parallel, the Emperor’s government used its unrestricted power regarding international trade policies to stimulate the modernisation of the economy by signing a commercial treaty with Britain in 1860 – against strident opposition from French industrialists who denounced a “coup d’État douanier”. This and subsequent commercial treaties with numerous European states exposed French industrial firms to foreign competition. A unified national market was now integrated to, and exposed to the competitive imperatives of, an emerging global capitalist market.

Within this new competitive context, French firms were compelled to seize control over labour processes so as to improve productivity. From the late 1860s, the Cour de cassation – France’s highest court of justice – began, with the Senate’s backing and against occasional opposition from theChambre des députés, to invalidate rulings byprud’hommes council, with the consequence of rapidly eroding customary regulation of artisan and industrial trades. The upshot was the gradual imposition of a new industrial and time discipline across the country.

Using Marx’s concepts, we can say that the subsumption of labour by capital was taking not only a formal but also increasingly a real form in core industrial sectors, as investments and mechanisation increased at an unprecedented pace. This happened because of tighter price competition in the context of the (so-called) long depression of the last third of the nineteenth century, as international integration was growing apace. The average annual growth of horsepower in use in French industry went from 9500 from 1839 to 1869, up to 32,800 from 1871 to 1894, before reaching 73,350 from 1883 to 1903 and 141,800 from 1903 to 1913. Accordingly, the share of industrial investments in total investments reached 38 percent from 1905 to 1913, up from 13 percent from the mid-1840s to the mid-1850s.

This unprecedented acceleration of industrial investments took place at a time when internal consumer demand stagnated. Consequently, these new “capitalistic” (to use François Caron’s phrase) patterns of investments cannot be explained by the pull of market demand. They were in fact fuelled by a qualitative transformation of social property relations.

While growing international demand contributed to the acceleration of French industrialisation from the second half of the 1890s and until World War I, the absence of agrarian capitalism in France implied that the country’s consumer market remained limited, and this considerably slowed down its process of capitalist industrialisation. Exposure to international price competition (and national competition in a newly integrated French market) did have the effect of rapidly eliminating cottage textile production and other forms of ancillary sources of income over the period. This forced growing numbers of poorer peasants that were unable to buy land and that had relied on proto-industrial activities to move to urban centres and to engage exclusively in industrial labour. The process of urbanisation, however, remained slow and limited. This was because, international competition also had the effect of devaluating land and this led many large landlords to shed part of their domains (as they began to increasingly invest in industrial firms), which allowed peasants that could afford it to buy new land and to secure plots that allowed them to be self-sufficient. The upshot was a seclusion of the French peasantry from ongoing economic changes for the rest of the century and well into the twentieth.

The French state and ruling class did not challenge this entrenchment of a large peasantry. The latter class had formed the basis of successive regimes and had often (though not always!) acted as a buffer against a radicalising urban working class. Political leaders, many still attached to a traditional rural France, delayed the transition to agrarian capitalism. Accordingly, they made sure to re-establish relatively higher tariffs on foreign agricultural products from the 1880s and 1890s. A massive French peasantry remained in place well into the twentieth century, and a capitalist transformation of the country’s agriculture induced by purposeful state policies was necessary before France could experience the economic boom of the so-called Trente Glorieuses.[fn]Isett, Christopher, and Stephen Miller 2017, The Social History of Agriculture: From the Origins to the Current Crisis, London/New York: Rowman & Littlefield. [/fn]

Your book concentrates particularly on the period 1750-1914 but slavery and colonialism don’t seem to play a major role in the changes you discuss. In How The West Came to Rule, Alexander Anievas and Kerem Nisancioglu criticise “Political Marxism” for its Eurocentrism – notably by minimising the importance of extra-European sources of wealth in the formation of European capitalism. Does this criticism seem valid to you?

Political Marxism has been accused of Eurocentrism by some but, following Ellen Wood,[fn]This has been brilliantly explained by Ellen Wood :[/fn] I would argue that it actually offers a deeply powerful response to Western chauvinism while, paradoxically, most anti-Eurocentric theories are based on Eurocentric assumptions. Eurocentrists explains the transition to capitalism in Western Europe by its capacity to remove obstacles to the maturation of commercial activities into modern industrial capitalism; obstacles that remain in place and consequently stall the development of non-Western civilisations. Most anti-Eurocentric responses reverse the argument while sticking to a similar conception of capitalism, claiming that the failure of non-European societies that had reached high level of commercial development – in many cases superior to European societies – to transit toward mature industrial capitalism derives from impediments stemming from Western imperialism. This line of argument assumes that non-Western societies ought to be judged according to their capacity to follow the capitalist path of development trailed before them by Westerners, as if capitalism was the natural order of things. As Wood puts it, there is “no more effective way to puncture the Western sense of superiority than to challenge the triumphalist conviction that the Western path of historical development is the natural and inevitable way of things”, and doing this implies stressing the historical specificity of capitalism.

Anievas and Nisancioglu refuse to work from a clearly defined conception of capitalism as a historically specifically social form and prefer to approach it as “assemblages” or “bundles” of social relations and processes. While their book is stimulating in many ways, this indeterminacy leads to serious theoretical and empirical flaws.[fn]See the excellent review of How the West Came to Rule by Spencer Dimmock for a discussion of these flaws :[/fn] These authors fault political Marxism for its “internalist” perspective, which, they claim, does not allow to factor-in “inter-societal” relations and the contribution of colonial plunder to the emergence of European capitalism. Anevias and Nisancioglu put forth an alternative explanation of the origins of capitalism using the notion of uneven and combined development as their central explanatory concept.

As first major problem with this perspective is that it is anachronistic.[fn]Post, Charles, 2018, « The Use and Misuse of Uneven and Combined Development : A Critique of Anevias and Nişancıoğlu », Historical Materialism, Vol. 26 (3); Rioux, Sébastien, 2015, « Mind the (Theoretical) Gap: On the Poverty of International Relations Theorising of Uneven and Combined Development »,Global Society, Vol. 29 (4), p. 481-509. [/fn] While states did try to emulate the best military and administrative practices of other states, geopolitical interaction before capitalism reproduced and deepened uneven development – there was no combined development of sustained economic growth because such economic dynamics where nowhere to be found. It was the consolidation of industrial capitalism in England that initiated uneven and combined patterns of global development, as non-capitalist ruling classes were forced to adopt capitalist social relations and patterns of industrialisation, and did so with uneven success.

Moreover, the accusation of “internalism” placed against political Marxists is unwarranted. Recall that our conception of historical materialism revolves around the concept of social property relation (or mode of exploitive production) that always encompasses vertical relations of class exploitation between exploiters and direct producers and horizontal relations (of competition or cooperation) between members of social classes. Both dimensions of class relations are given equal explanatory weight, and horizontal relations always involve a given logic of inter-societal interaction and competition between ruling classes and their states, including war, trade, and colonial efforts.

This means that dynamics deriving from the rules of reproduction of a set of social property relations (or, to put it differently, the “laws of motion” of a mode of exploitative production) within a given state (or several states) can transform the logic of international relations – and the logic of colonisation/imperialism – in a given historical period.  Conversely, it also means that the effects on international relations are always “filtered” by the social property relations and balances of power between and within classes in a given society.

Whether or not slave labour exploited in colonies contributed to the development of capitalism in different European states depends on the dialectics between international dynamics and the social property relations in place within given countries. European colonial ventures followed distinct logics. The English colonial Empire was the product of the dynamics of agrarian capitalism, which fuelled rapid population growth and thus settler colonialism aimed at reproducing capitalist property tenure abroad, while also creating a mass domestic market serving as an outlet for exotic goods like coffee, tobacco and sugar. Rapid industrialisation subsequently fuelled cotton production in the colonies. While the exploitation of these resources did not cause the emergence of capitalism in England, it did greatly contribute to its development, just like the industrial revolution of the metropolitan economy also stimulated the rise of cotton production in the American South. Colonial planters benefited from metropolitan demand, and profits derived from slave labour were reinvested “productively” in England were capitalist social property relations compelled firms to maximise profits, increase productivity, and develop productive forces to stay afloat.[fn]Blackburn, Robin, 2010 [1997], The Making of New World Slavery: From the Baroque to the Modern, Verso, 1997 ; Post, Charles, 2017, « Slavery and the New History of Capitalism », Vol. 1 (1). [/fn]

The colonial empires of Spain, Portugal, Holland and France, however, were variations of a continuity of a feudal-absolutist logic of expansion.[fn]Wood, Ellen Meiksins, 2003, The Empire of Capital, Verso. [/fn] Monarchs sponsored colonial ventures to secure economic resources they could not amass at home thus projecting on the Atlantic world (and beyond) the international political-military competition that persisted among the non-capitalist ruling classes of the European continent.[fn]Post 2017, p. 181. [/fn] Much of the trade and colonisation was undertaken by state-sanctioned merchant companies that enjoyed monopolies over slave trade and other imports and exports. As a rule, the wealth violently extracted from colonies was spent on feudal-absolutist pursuits, mostly on war, empire building and the conspicuous consumption of ruling classes, not as capitalist investments.

The colonisation of the English Caribbean and North America was undertaken by “new merchants”, as opposed “company merchants”.[fn]Brenner, Robert, 2003, Merchants and Revolution, Verso. [/fn] Because merchants could seize land from planters, the latter were market dependent and subjected to competitive imperatives. The French colonisation of Caribbean islands was actually also largely assumed by independent entrepreneur that partially escaped royal monopolies. Yet, laws forbade the seizure of the planters’ land and slaves to cover debts and competitive constraints remained absent in this case.[fn]Blackburn 2010, p. 444-445. [/fn] Consequently, while French planters violently extracted great wealth exploiting slave labour in Saint-Domingue, Martinique and Guadeloupe their enterprises do not appear to have been capitalist.

In any case, it is clear that the great wealth extracted by French planters committing atrocities in Caribbean colonies did not contribute to capitalist industrialisation in France. France did not have a mass consumer market, and French Caribbean sugar plantations and mills produced the finest white sugar, which was for the most part re-exported by French merchants as luxury products on European markets, where it was consumed by members of upper classes. There was no price competition, and profits were largely canalised toward the conspicuous consumption of notables.

A substantial portion of French economic growth over the eighteenth century was due to rising foreign trade, which quadrupled from 1716 to 1788, in good part due to the development Atlantic commerce, especially with Saint-Domingue. This trade, however, scarcely contributed to industrial modernisation, and involved mainly foodstuffs. France mostly traded wheat and wine with its Antillean colonies in exchange for sugar and coffee, 60 to 80 percent of which was re-exported.

Colonial trade did propel the swift development of proto-industrial enclaves around port cities such as Bordeaux and Nantes, but France’s external and domestic economies remained very poorly integrated and only a very limited portion of commercial capital engaged in colonial ventures was rechannelled as investments into the metropolitan economy.[fn]Tarrade, Jean 1972, Le commerce colonial de la France à la fin de l’Ancien Régime: l’évolution du régime de l’exclusif de 1763 à 1789, Paris: Presses universitaires de France. [/fn] The percentage of manufactured goods in total French exports scarcely altered across the eighteenth century whereas the percentage of manufacturing import rose significantly. Meanwhile, Britain mainly imported raw materials and the rising productivity of its industrial sector allowed for rising manufacturing exports.[fn]Jones, P. M. 1995, Reform and Revolution in France. The Politics of Transition, 1774–1791, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 99-100. [/fn] Silvia Marzagalli explains that “colonial imports only gave modest stimulus to the French economy as a whole, in contrast to the British economy characterized by the importance of exporting manufactures. The growth of French overseas trade, with its strong colonial component, did not on the whole benefit the rest of the French economy, and was a sort of “bubble” depending on special conditions laid down for a time by the French state”.[fn]Marzagalli, Silvia 2012, ‘Commerce’, in The Oxford Handbook of the Ancien Régime, edited by William Doyle, Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 262. [/fn] The loss of Saint-Domingue and British hegemony over the Atlantic from the early 1790s led to the collapse of France’s trade with its colonies and of much of the industrial activities that depended on it, and the overwhelming superiority of British trade with the Americas continued during the nineteenth century.

As summarised by Crouzet, the expansion of the French economy over the eighteenth century – during which the development of its slave colonies reached its apex – “took place in a framework that, in its organisational aspects and in terms of methods, remained very much traditional […] On the eve of the Revolution, the French economy was not fundamentally different than what it had been under Louis XIV: it only produced more.”[fn]Crouzet, François 1966, ‘Angleterre et France au XVIIIe siècle : essai d’analyse comparée de deux croissances économiques’, Annales. Économies, Sociétés, Civilisations, 21 (2): 254–91, p. 271-272 (my translation). [/fn]

During the Second Empire, as I explained earlier, the French industrial sector began a capitalist transformation. This transition began just before the rapid growth and consolidation of much of the French colonial empire in Africa and Indochina. Protected colonial markets like the Algerian market, where colonisation began in 1830 and was completed by the end of the 1850s, actually served for a while as a rampart against international competition – and thus against the constraints of capitalist restructuring – for French industrial firms, even after the signature of commercial treaties from 1860.

Having said this, it is also crucial to underline that, during the last third of the nineteenth century, the emergence of capitalism in France transformed the nature of its colonial endeavours, as has been shown by works such as Martin J. Murray’s on capitalist development in French Indochina from the 1870s.[fn]Murray, Martin J. 1980, The Development of Capitalism in Colonial Indochina (1870-1940), University of California Press. [/fn] Murray exposes the way in which French capitalist firms, supported by the colonial administration, engaged in efforts of “outward expansion of the capitalist production and circulation processes”.[fn]Murray 1980, p. 5. [/fn] These efforts led to differentiated patterns of development in different regions of French Indochina, and lead to processes of “primitive accumulation” at the initiative of French capital, which put in place rubber plantations exploiting dispossessed wage-labour in Cochinchina and South Annam. The aim of metropolitan capitalist enterprises was to extract natural resources out of the colonies while “organizing the capitalist labor process in such a manner that unit costs remained sufficiently lower than the prices which could be obtained on the world market, thereby guaranteeing at least normal rates of proft”.[fn]Murray 1980, p. 256. [/fn] The dynamics of market competition and of labour subsumption that had taken root in the metropolitan France were now operating within colonies.

We need to rethink the history of the French colonial Empire that was consolidated around the turn of the twentieth century in a way that will allow us to assess the impact of the transition to industrial capitalism on colonising processes and to reconsider the impact of these processes on French capitalist development into the twentieth century.