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The Stages in the Social History of Capitalism   By: (1862-1935)

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In the pages that follow I wish only to develop a hypothesis. Perhaps after having read them, the reader will find the evidence insufficient. I do not hesitate to recognize that the scarcity of special studies bearing upon my subject, at least for the period since the end of the Middle Ages, is of a nature to discourage more than one cautious spirit. But, on the one hand, I am convinced that every effort at synthesis, however premature it may seem, cannot fail to react usefully on investigations, provided one offers it in all frankness for what it is. And, on the other hand, the kind reception which the ideas here presented received at the International Congress of Historical Studies held at London last April, and the desire which has been expressed to me by scholars of widely differing tendencies to see them in print, have induced me to publish them. Various objections which have been expressed to me, as well as my own subsequent reflections, have caused me to revise and complete on certain points my London address. In the essential features, however, nothing has been changed.

A word first of all to indicate clearly the point of view which characterizes the study. I shall not enter into the question of the formation of capital itself, that is, of the sum total of the goods employed by their possessor to produce more goods at a profit. It is the capitalist alone, the holder of capital, who will hold our attention. My purpose is simply to characterize, for the various epochs of economic history, the nature of this capitalist and to search for his origin. I have observed, in surveying this history from the beginning of the Middle Ages to our own times, a very interesting phenomenon to which, so it seems to me, attention has not yet been sufficiently called. I believe that, for each period into which our economic history may be divided, there is a distinct and separate class of capitalists. In other words, the group of capitalists of a given epoch does not spring from the capitalist group of the preceding epoch. At every change in economic organization we find a breach of continuity. It is as if the capitalists who have up to that time been active, recognize that they are incapable of adapting, themselves to conditions which are evoked by needs hitherto unknown and which call for methods hitherto unemployed. They withdraw from the struggle and become an aristocracy, which if it again plays a part in the course of affairs, does so in a passive manner only, assuming the rĂ´le of silent partners. In their place arise new men, courageous and enterprising, who boldly permit themselves to be driven by the wind actually blowing and who know how to trim their sails to take advantage of it, until the day comes when, its direction changing and disconcerting their manoeuvres, they in their turn pause and are distanced by new craft having fresh forces and new directions. In short, the permanence throughout the centuries of a capitalist class, the result of a continuous development and changing itself to suit changing circumstances, is not to be affirmed. On the contrary, there are as many classes of capitalists as there are epochs in economic history. That history does not present itself to the eye of the observer under the guise of an inclined plane; it resembles rather a staircase, every step of which rises abruptly above that which precedes it. We do not find ourselves in the presence of a gentle and regular ascent, but of a series of lifts.

In order to establish the validity of these generalizations it is of course needful to control them by the observation of facts, and the longer the period of time covered the more convincing will the observations be. The economic history of antiquity is still too little known, and its relations to the ages which follow have escaped us too completely, for us to take our point of departure there; but the beginning of the Middle Ages gives us access to a body of material sufficient for our purpose... Continue reading book >>

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