Transition From Feudalism to Capitalism
Discuss the debate that can be related to decline of feudalism or in the rise of capitalism....
TRANSITION FROM FEUDALISM TO CAPITALISM Discuss the debate that can be related to decline of feudalism or in the rise of capitalism. One of the most lively academic debates in recent times relate to the question of what led to the decline of feudalism and the emergence of capitalist mode of production that led to the creation of the modern world. This is commonly called the ‘transition debate’. The decline of feudalism and origins of capitalism have been studied for a long period of time and yet not one entirely valid study has been able to present consistent findings of this transition. It is the outcome of divergent explanations offered on the nature of feudal relationship and the moving forces responsible for its decline and the connection this decline had with the birth of capitalism.
DEBATE ON THE TRANSITION FROM FEUDALISM TO CAPITALISM The debate on transition from feudalism to capitalism was mainly about 2 points: Whether the extension of external trade dissolved the feudal mode of production – ‘the exchange relations’ perspective Whether the feudal mode broke down as a result of an inner contradiction in the feudal relations of production, i.e. the intensification of the extraction of surplus by the nobility, and its expenditure on unproductive activities like war and luxury consumption – ‘property relations’ perspective The three schools of thought regarding the rise of capitalism and the decline feudalism were based on the Market Theory, the Marxists, and the Demography.
REASONS FOR THE DEBATE: The theoretical ambivalence in Karl Marx’s account of transition from feudalism to capitalism.
The variety of ways in which scholars have used the terms ‘feudalism’ and ‘capitalism’. Whether ‘true’ capitalism began with the coming of the industrial revolution in England in the 2nd half of the 18th century or with the maturity of merchant capitalism during the 16th century, are some issues that have been raised in the course of the transition debate.
FEUDALISM Feudalism as a form of political, economic and social system dominated Europe from around 9th – 14th century A.D. Specifically, it means a social system of rights and duties based on land tenures and personal relationships, in which land is held in ‘fief’ by vassals from lord. Broadly, it means a form of society or stage of civilization that flourishes, especially in a closed agrarian economy, and has certain general characteristics besides the mere presence of lords, vassals, and fief. Thus, the socio-economic political system that developed in the medieval period, first in Western Europe and later in other parts of Europe and the rest of the world, is called ‘feudalism’.
CAPITALISM Capitalism is an economic system based preponderantly on the private ownership, use of capital for the production and exchange of goods and services with the aim of earning a profit.
THE MARXIST THEORY There is no single Marxist theory on the transition from feudalism to capitalism. The Marxist historians have some fundamental differences over the concept of feudalism and capitalism and on the causes and the nature of transition from one mode of production to another. Marx used the term ‘feudalism’ to describe a whole social order whose principal feature was domination of the rest of the society, mainly peasants, by a military landowning aristocracy. The essence of feudal mode of production in the
Marxist sense is the exploitative relationship between landowners and subordinate peasants. He described capitalism as a ‘mode of production’ of the material wealth of society, and believed that the social and political institutions, the ideas and achievements of any society are ultimately derived from its ‘mode of production’. He saw the change from feudal to a capital society in the change from a primary agrarian society of petty producers to a society producing commodities for exchange in the market. Karl Marx provides two alternative routes to capitalism: He emphasises the corrosive effect of mercantile activity, the expansion of market and the growth of cities on feudal systems. He suggested that mercantile capitalism within an autonomous urban sphere provided the initial thrust towards capitalism. He focuses on the producer and the process by which the producer becomes mercantile capitalist. For Marx, this was the real revolutionary path towards capitalism. Marx lays stress on social relations of production. He suggests that in Western Europe, capitalism does not emerge before the 16th century and its industrial form not until the late 18th century. According to him, industrial capitalism depends on three factors: Private ownership of the means of production The rise of the bourgeois class The existence of wage labour These formed the basis of production and profit accumulation in the long run. Thus, Marx’s explanation of the emergence of capitalism is primarily concerned with the establishment of the structural preconditions rather than with the detailed mechanism that created these preconditions.
INNER-CONTRADICTION MODEL Maurice Dobb provides the first major explanation for the decline of feudalism representing the classical Marxist approach. Dobb defines feudalism as a ‘system under which economic status and authority were associated with landtenure, and the direct producer was under obligation based on law or customary right to devote a certain quota of his labour or his produce to the benefits of his feudal superior’. Feudalism here consisted of social relations between feudal
lords and peasants. Feudal lords ruled over peasants and their lands and degraded any attempt of economical decisions taken by them even when upper class peasants had the ability to grow economically. Controlled peasants called ‘serfs’ utilized their small lands with produce and labor work and were required to allocate a part of their labor value and produce to the feudal lords; this was considered a petty mode of production in a socio-economic viewpoint of feudalism. He argued that the decline of feudalism was the result of inner contradiction within the feudal mode of production. This explanation is generally described as the ‘inner-contradiction model’. For Dobb, there are 2 chief elements related to the transition from feudalism to capitalism: A system of production resting on serf-labour A system of production based on Hired wage-labour Dobb begins to address decline of feudalism with emphasizing the reasoning to be rise in trade and merchant capital that destroyed the feudal system. It is argued that trade and merchant capital did not directly bring change to the feudal economic system; as the development of trade was closely related to the growth of division of labour, and that division of labour depended on rise of productivity of labour. The emergence of productivity of labour was brought about by the development of social forces of production which was structured by class relations of the economic system. Thus, trade and merchant capital was shaped by the feudal class relations. Though very little emphasis was placed on the role of feudal class relations and its connection to trade, by Dobb, he does somewhat discuss the linkage between the two. Brenner analyses Dobbs view by stating ‘with development of trade the growth of new needs would induce the landlords to attempt to increase output and thus to rationalize their estate’. With increasing needs created by trade and money economy it was believed that extra-economical pressure was imposed by feudal superiors on peasants when they had limited peasant production forces, thus, this led to the transformation of feudalism to capitalism. Dobb also raises the issue of bourgeois revolution. According to him, it was brought about by the emergence of an urban setting; a commercial-industrial development. He considering ‘lord-peasant class relations and the outcome of lord-peasant class conflict’ was important to understand the growth of towns in the feudal society that led to the rise of commercial-industrial advancement. During the period of the transition, development of towns in feudal societies were due to increased demand for weapons and luxury products occurring from feudal class relations and ‘the lack of demand for agriculture means of production’. This was also the reason for growth of trade which was developed by the rise of interest in exchanging peasant-produced food for luxury goods.
Dobb's analysis on transition of feudalism to capitalism does at some point contradict itself, however it gives a vast in-depth study to understand the matter better and imposes relatively valid points. In conclusion, according to Dobb, rise of trade and merchant capital was the core motive for decline of feudalism; this commercial transformation of the economy was caused by inefficient feudal mode of production that entailed problematic social class relations between lords and peasants. He also states that declining agricultural productivity and rising demand for commodity production led to rise of capitalism where free wage labour and money-rent capitalist economic system was established.
MARKET-CENTRIC EXPLANATION Paul Sweezy adopts a market-centric approach called the ‘market’ or the ‘commercial model’. He objects to Dobb’s identification of feudalism with serfdom as interchangeable terms. The ‘exchange relations’ perspective of Sweezy defines capitalism as a system of production for profit through market exchange that depends on an international trade-based division of labour. He argues that since feudal society was a system of production for use, there was existed no internal dynamic that would stimulate long term growth and expansion, leave alone the capability of transforming into capitalism. According to him, the rise of exchange economy that led to monetization of relations between feudal lords and the peasant mass somewhat signalled the dissolution of feudalism. He finds Dobb’s concept of feudalism defective and he contends that some serfdom can exist in systems that are not feudal. He believes that even the most primitive economy also requires a certain amount of trade. On what came after feudalism in western Europe, Sweezy’s answer is that the period of 200 hundred odd years between the end of feudalism and the beginning of capitalism was the period of the ‘pre-capitalist commodity production’. He suggested that it was the growth of commodity production that first undermined feudalism and later prepared the grounds for success of capitalism. According to Pirenne, trade or ‘grand trade’ who was different to the petty local trade occupied the crucial position. Feudalism rose in Western Europe when the trade and therefore urban civilization of the classical period declined as a result of the rupture of the main trade routes across the Mediterranean, because of the Muslims who occupied the controlling points in the sea during the 17 th and 18th centuries. With the restoration of these strategic points by Crusades from the 11th century onwards, trade revived, and feudalism declined. Thus, Pirenne
implied that feudalism, trade and urbanization was alien to each other and visualised ‘grand trade’ as external to feudalism. Dobb accepted the compatibility of trade with feudalism, and accepted international trade as an integral part of feudal life, supplying the demands for luxury of the feudal lords. Brenner has stressed property relations and rejected both the characterization of capitalism in terms of a trade based division of labour and the emphasis on urban merchant capital as the dynamic for capitalist expansion.
DEMOGRAPHIC MODEL The decline of feudalism and the rise of capitalism are placed by some writers on demographic factors. This view is led by scholars like H.J. Habbakuk, M.M. Postan, Guy Bois and Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie. They suggest that major shifts in demographic patterns caused the disintegration of the feudal economy. This interpretation is termed as the Malthusian model or the ‘demographic model’. Postan and Habbakuk are among the first to stress on the role of population in the long term changes in the economic structures. Ladurie and Postan used the data from the church records to explain the long term growth, and the decline of the population in the Middle Ages and after. They have drawn attention to nonhuman factors like climate change and plague which along with social factors like the age of marriage and economic incentives to have large or small families influence the demographic cycle. Historians emphasize the growing urbanization to be crucial link in the decline of feudalism. The role of the town in the decline of feudalism has been overstated, since the towns till the 13th century could hardly absorb 10% of the population. According to Anderson, changes crucial to transition were found in the rise of Absolutism – a feudal state, which was a fundamental departure from the feudal political structure. Throughout this period of transition to capitalism, the landed monopoly was maintained by Absolutism, whereby the landed classes could continue to extract rent from peasant production. The decline of the political structure of feudalism did not imply the complete destruction of feudalism. Paul Sweezy saw the Verlags system or the ‘putting out system’, in which large merchants of the town employed craftsmen scattered in domestic workshops in
the villages or suburbs as the most significant point from which process of transition to the matured factory system of the Industrial Revolution started.
BRENNER’S VIEWS ON TRANSITION Brenner criticizes both the demographic model as well as the trade-centred approach. The main thrust of Brenner’s argument placed the development of class structure and state power and its effects at the centre of analysis. According to Brenner, the two fundamental problems regarding the transition related to: The decline versus persistence of serfdom and its effects The emergence and predominance of secure small peasant property versus the rise of landlord-large tenant farmer relations on the land Brenner believed class struggle to be the cause for the decline of feudalism and the rise of capitalism. He concluded that a successful struggle by peasants to protect the integrity of the tenancy of their holdings led to a sort of historical regression, since small scale production by its very nature, is incapable of technological innovation and that it was the proto-capitalist landowners and well-to-do yeomen who lay the basis for a full-fledged capitalist agriculture. He rejected the interpretations to the differential social development of advanced Western and backward Eastern Europe after 1450. According to him, the demographic explanation i.e. that in Western Europe, the population collapse during the 14th century, is seen as being responsible or placing serf labour in a far stronger bargaining position with the feudal lords than hitherto resulting in challenge and erosion of serfdom and contributing to the rise of capitalism. The class-structure, according to Brenner, had three layers— the state or the monarchy at the top, the gentry and feudal landlords at the middle and the peasants and serfs at the lowest base. In the 14th and 15th centuries the perpetual class conflict between the second and third social groups resulted in the triumph of the peasantry and serfdom came to an end. In England, however, since the monarchy was dependent on the gentry for taxes, it could not protect the peasantry against the oppression of the gentry and the feudal lords. As a result, the peasantry were ultimately again suppressed by feudalism, leading to their deprivation of land which were subsequently enclosed by the landlords. The successful enclosure movement in England laid the foundations of agrarian capitalism in the 16th century and this facilitated the process of her early industrialization. In France, however, the monarchy was directly dependent upon the peasants for taxes. So the landlords could not enclose the lands successfully as the peasants resisted the move vehemently and the monarchy could not afford to impose it upon them against their will. As a result, agrarian
capitalism could not develop in France. It was all the more delayed in Eastern Europe where monarchy was extremely weak, feudal lords were powerful and consequently feudalism continued in its strongest form. Hilton’s transition debate centres on class conflicts between lords and serfs in relation to the feudal crisis of the 14th century Europe. According to him, labour rent was not an essential element in the feudal relations of production, and was merely one form of an enforced transfer of surplus. He emphasised both the pressure of the land of the peasants as well as the efforts of the peasant to retain for themselves as much of the surplus as possible. He emphasised peasant ‘class consciousnesses’ and the development of the ideology of ‘freedom’. Brenner rejected the interpretations to the differential social development of advanced Western and backward Eastern Europe after 1450. According to him, the demographic explanation i.e. that in Western Europe, the population collapse during the 14th century, is seen as being responsible or placing serf labour in a far stronger bargaining position with the feudal lords than hitherto resulting in challenge and erosion of serfdom and contributing to the rise of capitalism.