Social Scientist. v 23, no. 266-68 (July-Sept 1995) p. 15.


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IRFAN HABIB

Capitalism in History

Today as the twentieth century comes to close, with the collapse of socialism in Eastern Europe and the passing away of the Soviet Union, the belief has become widespread that capitalism is the only possible present and future system of economic and social organisation. Even theories of 'mixed* or 'welfare* economies, or of development under state-guidance and protection, which had held the ground in so much of the Third World till the other day, are regarded in influential circles as obsolete and unacceptable. 'Globalisation*, rather than 'independence', is the slogan most often issuing from statesmen's lips;

and firm revolutionaries are having to make hopefully temporary truces with indigenous and foreign capital. There is danger, then, that to historians too capitalism may begin to seem so much the ordinary business of economic life that in respect to it at least. History may be deemed to have met its end. Some of us are already tempted to turn to the varied historical fashions now available in western intellectual arsenals, from the marginalist to the post-modern, and to forget the past debates about classes and exploitation.

For this reason alone, I should like to urge that this occasion of capitalism's seemingly ultimate triumph is the most opportune to attempt a fresh scrutiny of its historical credentials, and to ask once again many previously asked questions, in the light of the growing amount of evidence at our disposal and the possible benefits of hindsight.

The first question must relate to the origins and attainment of dominance by capitalism, especially in England, the first industrial nation. Owing to Marx's listing of the successive modes of production in his Preface to the Critique of Political Economy (1859),1 it came to be

'•Centre of Advanced Study in History, Aligarh Muslim University, Aligarh.

—Revised version of Address Presented to the Paschim Banga Itihas Samsad, Calcutta, 5

November 1995.

Social Scientist, Vol. 23 Nos. 7-9, July-September 1995



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