Capitalism in Statu Nascendi: Comparative Analysis of Existing Theories

Grigory Suvorov, a second-year student / International Law faculty

Abstract: The global shift to capitalistic mode of production that modern nations are experiencing requires its deeper exploration; of paramount importance is the question of its genesis, the knowledge of which will help to penetrate in its essence, assess its effectiveness in comparison with other modes of production and social systems that humanity has been acquainted with. In the article, the basic theories of the genesis of capitalism are compared, namely the classical Marxist concept, the theory of close relation between capitalist way of life and protestant ideology (Weber), the concept of Jewish origin of capitalist relations (Sombart), and the reconciliatory theory proposed by Febvre.

Keywords: capitalism, Reformation, mode of production, historiosophy.


The essence of capitalism as a specific mode of production and, more generally, a specific social system, has been an object of numerous pieces of research throughout the last three centuries. Representing different, sometimes even totally opposing views on the issue, the various theories were usually unanimous in the multidisciplinary character of the problem; that is, the research in this field cannot be confined to the economic aspect only. Studying the genesis of capitalism requires the analysis of geographical and cultural conditions of the areas in which this social system, or at least its prototypes, arose.


Perhaps the ‘title’ of the most well-known concept of capitalism and its genesis may be assigned to the Marxist theory; at least it is true about Russia, where, as it is known, the historiosophical scheme introduced by Marx and his adherents was predominant in all the Soviet historiography, known as “historical materialism”. According to this concept, the whole history of mankind may be regarded as a chain of consecutive five stages, called “socio-economic formations”, each of which encompasses a specific mode of production and a social system corresponding to it, with capitalism being the last-but-one in this scheme, preceded by feudalism. Initially basing on Hegelian dialectics (although fully adapting it to materialistic worldview) and being quite easy for understanding, this scheme was undermined by later studies and cannot be accepted even due to simply logical objections. Not being the main object of this very study, these arguments are essential for defining the place of capitalism in history. First of all, the ancient legal documents such as the famous Code of Hammurabi show that even in the Ancient East, which Marx defined as the “Asian mode of production”, a kind of feeble exclusion from the notorious “pyatichlenka”, different socioeconomic patterns coexisted and did not represent a consecutive chain in their development. Articles 102–107 of the Code of Hammurabi are no other than a primitive example of a loan agreement and a contract of agency, aimed at regulating the free exchange of goods, one of the features of capitalistic mode of production. The ancient document also included examples of feudal and slaveholding modes, which served as the predecessors of capitalism in Marxist scheme. An important conclusion arising by itself from the aforementioned facts is that it was very early when capitalist relations first appeared. The Ancient West, namely Greece and Rome, may constitute the second argument in favor of the thesis given above and against the whole Marxist historiosophy. For instance, the whole system of Roman private law, so thoroughly elaborated and thus being so unique in those ancient times, especially one of its branches, the contract law, was obviously aimed at ensuring free exchange of goods and forming market economy. Slaves constituting the main workforce, the opinion still widespread in historic doctrine (especially in Russian one), is no more than a myth, as it seems axiomatic that free labor is much more productive than forced one; moreover, from ancient legal texts of Rome it may be derived that in every household slaves used to be in the position similar to that of children, in patria potestate, and were mainly used for some kinds of simple household job. At least, this thesis is true for the early times of ancient Rome as well as its heyday; subsequent shift towards the extended use of slave labor led to social turmoil, with the War of Spartacus being the most notorious example, but this shift lasted only for the period of the apogee of Roman expansion, after which the number of slaves was becoming less and less significant. To sum all these facts up, we should adhere to the thesis first proposed by Max Weber, stating that in those ancient times two unlikely types of capitalism, the Western one and the Eastern one, existed (from our point of view, it would be more justifiable to refer to them as “protocapitalist” systems), with the enhanced role of the state in the economy being the distinctive feature of the Eastern type (for example, in Babylon even the merchants, called dam-kar, were a kind of state officials, whose services were of benefit both to the government and to private citizens).

However, while refuting the general place of capitalism in history assigned to it my Marx and his followers, the afore-listed objections do not fully reject all the provisions of Marxist concept without exception. It is first of all necessary to point out that the protocapitalist world of the ancient West was severely devastated and in the end replaced by an unusually type of coexistence during the Middle Ages, being more precise, during the epoch of feudalism. It was not a solid “formation”: by contrast, in those times the so-called “world village” structure coexisted with the “world city” one , to use L. Vasiliev’s terminology[1]; that is, feudal mode of production based on natural economy and natural or labor rent, shared the expanses of Europe with medieval cities where capitalist elements remained. The question is: what was the root cause of the shift towards the solely capitalistic structure and the developed capitalist system that we live in nowadays? In Marxist concept, what proved to be the conditio sine qua non for the genesis of capitalism was the so-called “initial capital accumulation” triggered by the Great Discoveries and subsequent pillaging of primitive societies of Africa, America and Asia. The core of this process, however, was the bourgeois agrarian revolution, which, one the one hand, led to the mass expropriation of peasants’ land and, on the other hand, involved the transformation of feudal property into “pure private property, which has cast off all semblance of a communal institution and has shut out the state from any influence on the development of property”[2]. Among other preconditions of the shift to capitalism, Marxists name the becoming of “mercantile feudalism" of the late Middle Ages. In other words, material factors are dominant in this concept and capitalism is put in a par with avarice. In opposition to this, Max Weber in his famous work, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, claims that this constant thirst for profit has nothing to do with capitalism; by contrast, austerity, rationalism and “calculating spirit”, forming the epicenter of Protestantism, are the distinct features of capitalist mode of production and way of life. Serving some abstract duty (‘Beruf’) becomes the main mission of a Man, a mission which, in contrast to that in Catholicism, is fully secular. As far as the main contradictions between these two archetypal concepts of the genesis of capitalism are concerned, it is a typical case of contradiction between materialism and idealism, which is yet to be solved in the science of history.

Of utmost originality is the concept proposed by Werner Sombart, who considered capitalism to be a product of Jewish morality, with the aforementioned “spirit” lying in the very Judaism religion, but in his concept this spirit is more about craving for lucre and endless accumulation of wealth rather than serving a kind of duty. It is clear that the task of solving the whole problem in favor of one, or even none of the theories appears to be practically impossible for the time being and requires further studying of historical material; however, it is not beyond our power to make some simply logical assumptions, basing on today’s terrific phase of capitalism. At first glance it may seem that the only impulse governing human behavior in the world of capitalism is the aforementioned thirst for profit, an observation bringing us back to Marx and Sombart. However, a closer look at the modern capitalist machine reveals the system that grows and fattens at the expense of the relentless toil of a human being and is actually alienated from him and constitutes a kind of his antagonist instead of bringing him benefit; such system, in fact, derives from the Protestant ideology which did not regard the profit as the end in itself, but as an instrument for reaching the soul salvation by serving the above-described abstract secular duty and thus serving the God.


With all that said, it is still doubtful whether the Reformation was the only antecedent of the modern capitalist system, or the product of already emerging contradictions that only triggered their further flare-up; anyway, it seems more reasonable to forbear from putting these two milestones of human history into rigid interdependence and to regard the religious contention just as one of the numerous factors, as Lucien Febvre does in his reconciliatory theory of capitalism and its genesis. However, not being able to acknowledge the absolute correctness of one single concept, we have sufficient grounds for making a conclusion that capitalist relations cannot be confined to a specific period in history; by contrast, they are of non-temporal nature and find various manifestations in different civilizations; however, the modern phase of capitalism, which can be referred to as “transnational monopolism’, would have never become possible in the conditions which accompanied ancient protocapitalist mode; the only thing that actually made it possible was the Industrial Revolution.


  1. Febvre L. (1953). Combats pour l'histoire [Battles for History]. Paris: Armand Colin.
  2. Jones A. (1956). Slavery in the Ancient World. Economic History Review, 2d ser., 9, 191—194.
  3. King, L. W. (2008), The Avalon Project: Code of Hammurabi. [Online] Available: (February 4, 2018)
  4. Markwick, R. D. (2001). Rewriting History in Soviet Russia: The Politics of Revisionist Historiography, 1956–1974. Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan.
  5. Marx K., Engels F. (2010). Collected works. Lawrence & Wishart. Vol. 5.
  6. Nureev R. M. (2011). Genesis kapitalizma: rol’ institutov, blagopriyatnykh dlya razvitiya predprinimatel’stva [The genesis of capitalism: the role of institutions, favorable for the development of entrepreneurship]. Terra Economicus, Vol. 9, (4) 123–136.
  7. Orlin, L. L. (2007). Life and Thought in the Ancient Near East. The University of Michigan Press.
  8. Sombart, W. (1911). The Jews and Modern Capitalism. Kitchener: Batoche Books.
  9. Weber, M. (1998). The Agrarian Sociology of Ancient Civilizations. New York: Verso Books.
  10. Weber, M. (2001). The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. London: Routledge Classics.

[1] Vasiliev, L. S. (2015). Vseobshchaya istoriya [General history] (2nd ed.). Moskva: KDU. Vol. 2, P. 42.

[2] Marx K., Engels F. (2010). Collected works. Lawrence & Wishart. Vol. 5, P. 89–90.