Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Wed Feb 7 11:32:13 MST 2001

Rodney Hilton's "The Transition from Feudalism to Capitalism" was published
by Verso in 1976 just around the time that the Brenner debate had become a
hot topic. Hilton's book, a collection of articles dating from the
"Dobb-Sweezy" debate of the early 1950s, might have actually been prompted
by the latter Brenner debate even though he is never mentioned in Hilton's

As Brenner openly acknowledged at the time, his views were based on Maurice
Dobb's. Brenner's antagonists were scholars associated with Ferdinand
Braudel's "Annales" journal such as Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, who questioned
whether class relations in the British countryside of the late middle ages
were markedly different from the rest of Europe, a key claim of both
Brenner and Dobb.

In the Dobb-Sweezy debate you have Paul Sweezy, the American editor of
Monthly Review, pitted against Marxist historians identified with the
British Communist Party. The focus is not so much on comparisons between
British agrarian class relations and those of the rest of Europe, but on
the question of whether capitalism arose in the city or in the countryside.

Sweezy believed that feudalism was a more or less static system and that
capitalism had to have been the product of forces external to the system,
specifically renewed East-West trade in the waning of the middle ages. In
contrast to the "natural economy" of the feudal estate, which produced for
use rather than exchange, the re-introduction of trade--especially in the
coastal towns--hastened the use of money and the production of commodities.
In this, Sweezy was particularly indebted to Henri Pirenne whose studies of
the middle ages were extremely influential at the time.

According to Hilton, Pirenne's findings--even at the time Sweezy was citing
them--were being discredited by recent scholarship. What remains
problematic--for me, at least--is that Hilton's dismissal of Pirenne is
based on subsequent evidence that urban centers of trade existed long
before the revival of trade at the end of the middle ages. This does not
seem to invalidate Sweezy's argument as much as it does call for a much
broader time-frame in weighing the importance of the towns in the emergence
of capitalism.

More to the point, and what never seems adequately addressed by the
anti-Sweezy side in the debate, is the exact economic and social nature of
the town itself, which appears somewhat of a mystery. If feudalism is based
on a set of class relations between lord and serf, what exactly is the
nature of class relations in the towns of the middle ages where
tribute--either in the form of crops or in money rent--did not apply. Were
towns pockets of freedom, where the marketplace was allowed to develop, or
were they--as Dobb and Hilton argued--typified by feudal relations as well?

Some other interesting questions emerge from the Dobb-Sweezy debate as
well. To a much larger extent than in the Brenner debate, the positions of
the Dobb side were much more identified with the need to demarcate "stages"
in history, at which point feudalism becomes capitalism or--by
implication-- when capitalism becomes socialism. One has no doubt that
Dobb, Eric Hobsbawm and Christopher Hill (there are rebuttals to Sweezy
from the latter two in Hilton's book) believed that the USSR was socialist,
since this was a deeply felt conviction of the Communist movement in 1950,
a time of its greatest influence and authority. If a society can not be
capitalist and socialist at the same time, then perhaps one might feel the
need to look back in history and look for an analogous boundary between
feudalism and capitalism. In all of these intellectual endeavors, obviously
we are dealing with the Kautskyist baggage re-introduced into Marxism by
the Communist Parties.

Unlike the CP intellectuals, the Trotskyists had no problem arguing that
the Soviet Union was neither capitalist or socialist, but merely a society
in transition between the two stages. Unfortunately for the general health
of Marxism, the Trotskyists did not have much of an impact on the scholarly
left, so we do not have any idea of what a more dialectically informed
analysis of the emergence of capitalism out of feudalism would have looked
like from those quarters. In the early 1950s, when the Dobb-Sweezy debate
was raging, Trotskyist intellectuals were too busy writing low-level
propaganda pieces for the party press, mostly foaming-at-the-mouth attacks
on the evil Stalinists. It would take about 10 years for the movement to
have an impact on scholarly circles, in Perry Anderson's historiography in

Sweezy was grappling with the problem of transition in his "Science and
Society" replies to his critics. One thing he argued, which exercised them
to no end, was that the period from 1500 to 1700 was marked by a type of
dual power in which the old feudal ruling class and the emerging
bourgeoisie both co-existed peacefully and contended bitterly. This tension
was only resolved with the victory of the Cromwell forces in 1640.

Christopher Hill finds this terribly troubling, a "logical absurdity" in
fact. He writes, "[S]tate power has never…been shared by 'several' would-be
ruling classes." In an appeal to authority, Hill cites Soviet historian Z.
Mosina who wrote in 1940 that "The view of the absolute monarchy as a
feudal landowners' state of the nobility has, as it were, been assimilated
by all Soviet historians." One can only speculate on what might have
happened to a dissenting Soviet historian in 1940. In their replies to
Sweezy, Dobb, Hobsbawm and Hill continually appeal to Soviet
historiographic authority, something I suppose that made sense given all of
their political backgrounds. To somebody like myself, it seems rather foolish.

Over the next few months I plan to report on some newish books that deal
with the question of the uniqueness of British agriculture from a class
relations/productivity standpoint. For those put off by scholarly minutiae,
I urge you to delete those messages unread.

Louis Proyect
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