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Cambridge Journal of Economics 1978, 2, 121-140

Dobb on the transition from

feudalism to capitalism

Robert Brenner*

After some three decades Maurice Dobb's Studies in the Development of Capitalism (1946)
continues to be a starting point for discussion of European economic development. It
does so because it remains a powerful statement of the proposition that the problem of
economic development must be approached historically, that any theory of economic
development must be constructed in historically specific terms. Dobb thus follows Marx
in rejecting any attempt to grasp economic transformations in terms of what might be
called transhistorical economic laws based for example on the postulates of orthodox
economic theory. It is the burden of his position that economic development, the growth
of labour productivity and of per capita output, must be comprehended in terms of the
limits and possibilities opened up by historically developed systems of social-productive
relations specific to a given epoch, that the key therefore to the rise of new patterns of
economic evolution is to be found in the emergence of new social relations of production.
The Marxist idea of the mode of production thus provides the point of departure for
Dobb's analysis. It is perhaps his central contribution that through developing the mode
of production conception in relation to the long-term trends of the European feudal
economy, he is able to begin to lay bare its inherent developmental tendencies or 'laws
of motion'. Dobb argues that the formative impact of feudal surplus extraction relations
characterised by extra-economic compulsion by feudal lords, in relationship to the
potentialities and limits of its peasant forces of production, determined a distinctive
pattern of economic evolution. In this way, he provides a basis in both method and
historical analysis for surpassing the unilineal view of development, hitherto widespread
among Marxists, in which the transition to capitalism is conceived as the gestation of an
embryonic self-developing mode of production, alongside and external to a feudal
agricultural mode—an approach characteristically bound up with techno-functionalist
premises. In this classic conception, a trading bourgeoisie develops within the interstices
of an essentially immobile feudal agrarian society on the foundations of technically
dynamic productive forces. The needs of new, self-propelling productive forces impel
the construction of new, more suitable (capitalist) class relations, and bring about the
destruction of outmoded (feudal) ones. In contrast, Dobb is able in the first place to
provide a powerful critique of the notion that economic development took place through
the progressive and dissolving effects of trade and merchant capital upon feudal social-
productive relations, originating from outside it, by showing the way in which class
relations themselves structured a distinctively feudal and non-capitalist development of

• Department of History, Univeraity of California, Los Angeles.

0309-166X/78/0601-0121 $02.00/0 ©1978 Academic Press Inc. (London) Limited
122 R. Brenner
the peasant and also artisan productive forces, even in connection with the growth of
exchange. Secondly, Dobb is able to offer on this ground the essential elements of a
theory of feudal economic development, and especially of feudal crisis of production—to
begin to understand feudalism in terms of its own internal contradictions and conflicts,
not excluding but incorporating the growth of trade.
On the other hand, to provide a theory of feudal economic development and crisis, as
Dobb does, is not in itself to render a full account of the transition to capitalism. The
feudal crisis—rooted in declining agricultural productivity and the population drop-off
which was its ultimate result—posed a powerful threat to feudal class relations, the
dominance of the feudal lords. But it could not in itself determine a subsequent evolution.
It remains therefore to explain the responses to crisis—the different evolutions of feudal
class relations and class conflict through which feudal surplus extraction relations were
either maintained in something like their original form, restructured in order to pre-
serve the hegemony of the feudal ruling class, or gave way to new social-productive
relations. Paradoxically, Dobb does not analyse the development out of feudal crisis in
terms of the internal contradictions and class conflicts which he himself delineated:
most especially between the development of petty peasant production and feudal
surplus extraction relations, between peasants and lords. It would appear to be the logic
of Dobb's argument to account for the transition by means of explaining how petty
production was 'freed' from feudal fetters and how it evolved toward capitalism. In this
way, we could understand, in the first place, the dissolution of the feudal social system
of production, where production could and did remain governed by the consumption
needs of the ruling lordly affinities, as well as the (conflicting) subsistence needs of the
peasant families (even in connection with the growth of exchange), because both lords
and peasants retained direct (non-market) access to the means of their survival (the lords
through their landed estates and access by force to the peasants' subsistence, the
peasants through their subsistence plots). Correlatively, we could comprehend the
emergence of a capitalist system in which the direct producers are obliged to produce
for the market, to systematically cheapen their products in order to compete, and to
accumulate capital on the basis of wage labour and growing investment in the means of
production, or go out of business—precisely because they have been divorced from
property in their means of subsistence (as well as direct, extra-economic controls over
labour power). Such an account would appear to require first an analysis of the manner
in which the fetters imposed on petty production by feudal surplus extraction via extra
economic compulsion were broken. It would further require a discussion of the way in
which the petty producers were separated from (possession of) their means of subsistence.
By bringing out the conflictual processes, the class conflicts, behind these transformations,
the decline of feudalism and the rise of 'generalised commodity production' based on
free wage labour which characterises capitalist production might begin to be system-
atically interpreted.
Yet, in the end, Dobb tends to fall back toward the older conception of direct transition
via the rise of the bourgeoisie, external to feudalism. He ends up by explaining not only
the rise of capitalism but also the overthrow of feudalism by the emergence of a new class
of industrial and agricultural capitalists alongside the still feudal order during the early
modern period. Dobb argues this way in the first place, despite his own tendency to
equate feudalism with serfdom and the overwhelming evidence that serfdom was dead
well before 1500 in England (the area he is studying) at a point at which capitalist
social-productive relations were in the earliest stages of development. If serfdom equals
Transition from feudalism to capitalism 123
feudalism, how did capitalism determine its downfall and furthermore what sort of
society took its place? Dobb leaves the entire question of the decline of serfdom and its
implications for subsequent development curiously unanswered, or at best ambiguously
On the other hand, Dobb offers little argument to demonstrate the maintenance of
feudal class relations, presumably in altered form, in the long period between the fall of
serfdom and the anti-feudal revolution of 1640. Once the lords had lost their power to
control the peasants' mobility and to impose arbitrary exactions upon them, in what
way did they preserve feudal relations of surplus extraction ? Dobb sees the new bourgeois
class as 'growing out of production itself: a class of free petty producers, peasants and
artisans, gives rise, within the interstices of a still-feudal society, to a class of agricultural
and industrial capitalists which establishes its hegemony in the bourgeois revolution. In
this context, Dobb gives the impression that the process of differentiation out of petty
production, especially among the peasantry, is more straightforward than it is. Corre-
latively, he understates the pivotal role played by English landlords in short-circuiting
and undercutting small peasant production, so as to provide the conditions for capitalist
development by their commercial tenants. A powerful transformation of the countryside
in a capitalist direction appears to have taken place in late medieval and early modern
England in connection with the landlord class. The question which Dobb must answer,
therefore, is how rural social relations fettered agrarian economic development in this
era so as to provoke the movement toward bourgeois revolution; and indeed, where one
is to locate a rural feudal class, especially a ruling one, in 1640.

Feudalism and trade

It is obvious that economic development historically has taken place largely through
the growth of the division of labour in connection with the development of trade.
Given the 'original' existence of roughly self contained divisions of labour at the
level of the family, or the community, or more or less localised and isolated societies
(even large ones), it is unlikely that the world division of labour by region and pro-
ductive task, encompassing all products, especially the means of subsistence, could have
occurred in any other way. (For it seems there was little possibility of accomplishing the
same result through some sort of politically operated coordinated development of the
division of labour, which seems to be the only alternative.) Nevertheless, to say this is
not at all the same thing as saying that the development of commerce has been responsible
for economic development. For if the growth of the division of labour by region and by
productive task was inconceivable apart from the development of trade, this process
depended, in turn, upon the growth of the productivity of labour. But rising productivity
is premised upon a development of the social forces of production—and this develop-
ment of the social productive forces could not be directly determined by trade, because
it was itself structured by class relations not directly changeable in terms of commercial
Dobb develops the foregoing argument with respect to feudal society by showing how
the economic effects of trade and of merchant capital were themselves shaped by feudal
class relations. His discussion, constructed to a large extent on the basis of Marx's
analysis in Capital (especially vol. I l l , ch. XX), has provided the indispensable foun-
dation for much of the most important subsequent work on the impact of trade on non-
capitalist societies (see, e.g., Anderson, 1974; Laclau, 1971; Genovese, 1961). Those
124 R. Brenner
who have linked the emergence of capitalism more or less directly with the growth of
the market have generally dealt with class relationships in two ways: either explicitly or
implicitly, they have seen them as subject to transformation in accordance with the
needs of the developing productive forces and/or they have reduced them to contractual
relationships of exchange. Thus, with regard to feudalism, the exponents of this approach,
both Marxist and non-Marxist, have tended to argue that with the development of trade
(determined autonomously, 'from the outside'), the growth of new needs would induce
the landlords to attempt to increase output and thus to rationalise their estates. This
would ultimately lead to the replacement of serf labour by more efficient forms of
production using free labour—free tenantry and ultimately wage labour. Correlatively,
they have argued that this process took place through the commutation of labour service
for money rents (see, e.g., Sweezy, 1950, pp. 44-45). Dobb's reply was straightforward.
Why should the lords free the serfs as a method of increasing rent ? Why not simply use
the available controls over the peasantry in order to extract larger rents in whatever
form (money, kind, or labour) ? Moreover, Dobb said, the mere fact of commutation
could in no way be taken to express the transformation away from serf toward free
labour precisely because it involved merely an exchange of equivalents, a change in the
form of payment. The peasants simply paid their rent in a different manner, but their
social relationship to the lord, the strength of the lord's domination, was in no way
necessarily reduced (Dobb, 1946, pp. 38ff).
Thus, Dobb drew the fundamental conclusion: 'In past discussions of the decline of
feudalism, the assumption that production for the market necessarily implies production
on the basis of wage labour seems too often to have slipped into the argument unawares'
(Dobb, 1946, p. 42). In other words, it has been implicitly assumed that with the rise
of trade, feudal productive units begin to act like and become essentially capitalist
productive units, so that improvement is to be expected and the emergence of free labour
and wage labour is merely a formality, a matter of time. But this is to ignore the precisely
non-capitalist character of feudal social-property relations. The development of com-
merce may well induce a tendency within the ruling class to try to increase surplus: yet,
precisely because under feudalism free labour does not prevail since the direct producers
are merged with their means of production (peasant possession) and subject to the direct
domination of the lords, surplus maximisation will tend to take place through methods
of squeezing the direct producers, rather than through increasing their productivity.
Thus, to the extent that forms of co-operative labour were achievable on the demesne,
there was little possibility of making them the basis for real advances in the productivity
of labour. For the serf labourers had little reason to work carefully with advanced
implements and techniques, since they had direct access to their means of subsistence
and worked for the lord only because they were forced to do so. At the same time, on
the peasants' own plots co-operative labour was difficult to develop. Peasants who wished
to accumulate in response to rising trading opportunities had difficulties in collecting
land and labour in the face of feudal restrictions on land and labour mobility. At the
same time, there was a strong tendency on the part of the peasantry as a whole to try to
hold onto their plots as the basis of their survival and thus to refuse to sell them to rural
accumulators unless they had to. The peasants tended to direct their production to
ensuring all their immediate subsistence needs (marketing only surpluses), and this
naturally set up a strong barrier to commercial specialisation and ultimately to the
transformation of production—a barrier which was reinforced by peasant communities
which tended to regulate production so as to maintain and protect the subsistence pro-
Transition from feudalism to capitalism 125
ducers. Finally, even if technical advances were implemented on some units, giving them
a productive advantage on the market, such advances did not need to be adopted by
all producers throughout the system. This was because the lords and peasants were not
capitalists, but had direct access to their means of subsistence; so they did not have to
produce competitively on the market in order to survive. In sum, because the very structure
of the system tended to make squeezing a profitable method of increasing surplus and to
make increases in labour productivity a difficult road to this end, and because in any
case a failure to maximise profits did not determine the failure and supercession of the
system's functioning units, the rise of production for the market tended to intensify
feudal social-productive relations, but did not directly dissolve them. As Marx concluded,
trade 'facilitates the production of surplus designed for exchange, in order to increase
the enjoyments, or the wealth of the producers (here meant are owners of the products)':
yet, at the same time, exchange was 'incapable by itself of promoting and explaining the
transition from one mode to another' (Marx, 1894, pp. 325-327).

The roots of feudal crisis

Dobb's refusal to view trade as an 'external' source of dynamism within a feudal society
conceived as essentially static leads him directly to an analysis of the feudal 'laws of
motion' in terms of the extraction of a surplus from a servile class of peasant producers
with direct access to their means of subsistence through the exertion of force by a feudal
nobility. Dobb understands feudal class relations as tending to fetter and undermine the
peasant social-productive forces on which they are constructed. Thus, a long-term
tendency to productivity and ultimately population crisis arose, he argued, from the
'inefficiency of feudalism as a mode of production, coupled with the growing needs of
the ruling class for revenue' (Dobb, 1946, p. 42). Since the publication of Dobb's work,
major advances in the historiography of the European agrarian economy make it possible
to offer additional support for his thesis (see Duby, 1968; Duby, 1974; Postan, 1966; and,
for the best recent Marxist synthesis, Anderson, 1974A).
Thus, it is clear that medieval agriculture, especially basic food production, faced
technical problems which were built into the organisation of production on the basis of
small peasant plots, in which capital investment was difficult. In particular, fundamental
difficulties in animal production meant a lack of fertiliser as well as ploughing potential,
which led to the debilitating requirements that much of the land be left idle every year
as fallow and that a good proportion of it be used as pasture or waste to support animals.
The tendency in this situation to respond to productivity difficulties by extending arable
cultivation into land formerly reserved for animals only exacerbated a trend toward
declining yields (Postan, 1966). To break out of this vicious cycle, given the historically
developed technology, would have required a total break with the old system: in
particular, the installation of 'alternate' or 'convertible' husbandry, which meant the
abolition of the pasture/arable separation—the laying down of the merged fields for
several years at a time with artificial soil-enhancing crops which simultaneously could
provide fodder for supporting animals, then the ploughing up of these fields for several
years of arable production. These were the basic elements of what would later constitute
the agricultural revolution. It needs to to be emphasised that these revolutionary tech-
niques were available through much of the medieval period, and were actually applied
in a few places. But since they required the consolidation of holdings, the introduction of
126 R. Brenner
high quality labour, as well as major capital investments and the use of co-operatively
organised labour, they were exceedingly difficult to implement, given in the first place
production by small peasants and secondly the structure of feudal relations of surplus
extraction. As already noted, attempts to implement such advances by the peasants
would run up against feudal restrictions upon the movement of peasant labour and
upon the transfer of peasant land, as wel] as the reluctance of the peasant possessors
themselves to part with their land and their concern to use it above all to ensure directly
their subsistence (rather than to specialise). These problems were sharply exacerbated,
moreover, by the direct removal of a large part of the potentially accumulable surplus
from the peasant producers by the feudal lords in the form of feudal rent. On the other
hand, the lords themselves tended not to reinvest their surpluses in production because
of the difficulties of organising any sort of technically advanced production on the de-
mesnes due to the system of forced labour. The long-term result was a failure to innovate,
leading to a tendency toward exhaustion of the means of production, especially soil
exhaustion, and ultimately of the labour force itself. (See Brenner, 1976, and sources
cited there.)
Because, as emphasised, the lords' surplus extraction relations with the peasants made
it so difficult for them to increase their income by increasing the productivity of labour,
they were largely obliged to do so by means of intensified surplus-extracting pressure
on the direct producers—and, since the latter was obviously of limited efficacy, by
extending the area of land and number of men at their disposal. Given, then, the
existence of a landlord class whose members had to equip themselves militarily merely
to make sure of their surplus vis-a-ois the direct producers, as well as the long-term
trend toward declining productivity, there was an immanent tendency to expansion
which expressed itself in the great colonisation movement which characterised the
medieval economy, and especially in chronic warfare. Just as force was a condition of
the existence of the feudal ruling class vis-i-vis the peasantry, warfare became the basis
of their continuing survival and development (Duby, 1974; Anderson, 1974A).
War, of course, depended upon amassing men, who in turn had to be fed and equipped
with weapons. Moreover, to attract and make coherent a military following, the lord's
household had to become a focus of lavish display and conspicuous consumption. In
consequence, an increasing part of peasant labour was directed toward production to
support military men and the artisans who produced their weaponry and luxury goods.
This was a turn toward unproductive labour, which was intensified by the increasing
military needs which grew out of the escalation in size and complexity of armies built
into the warfare system. In Dobb's words, 'While exaction and pillage diminished pro-
ductive powers, the demand that the producers were required to meet were augmented'
(Dobb, 1946, p. 45). In this context, trade grew up to facilitate the development of a
circuit of production involving the exchange of peasant-produced food extracted by land-
lords for artisan-produced military or luxury goods; it therefore tended only to speed up
the tendency to a crisis in productivity. Thus, insofar as feudal class relations can be said
to have dominated the medieval European economy, they generated their own long-term
developmental tendencies toward retrogression. These were only intensified by the
circulation of goods whose production grew up largely in response to internally
generated feudal needs. By the 14th century, through almost all of Europe, the exhaus-
tion of productive forces had become manifest in the halt in the upward climb of
population, in a long series of trans-European harvest failures and famines, and ultimately
a significant demographic fall-off which was aggravated by the plagues (Postan, 1966).
Transition from feudalism to capita Hum 127
The fall of serfdom
The late medieval crisis of production and population posed in the sharpest terms the
contradictions built into the development of peasant productive forces governed by
feudal class relations. By reducing the number of peasants, it directly threatened
seigneurial incomes. Even more critically, by opening up masses of untenanted land,
it threatened landlord control over peasants and therefore the class relations of serfdom
itself. In this situation, unless the landlords went on the offensive to ensure their rents
through force, the peasants might be able to take advantage of the plethora of land and
scarcity of labour in order to achieve the abolition of the extra-economic controls of
serfdom on their mobility so as to bargain for a reduction of rents; to win the end of
arbitrary exactions (fixed payments); and perhaps even to gain their own property in
the land.
Dobb poses the problem of the medieval crisis in the foregoing terms. Yet he does not
draw the logical conclusion: on the one hand, that what was at stake were the funda-
mental surplus extraction relations which underpinned the ruling class's dominance;
on the other hand, that in the last analysis, the resolution of the crisis through the re-
strengthening in one form or another of feudal class relations or their dissolution would
be decided in terms of the class conflict between lords and peasants, the forms of their
class power and their relative strength.
At first, Dobb actually appears to be saying that it was the feudal crisis itself which
determined the fall of serfdom. He argues that feudalism's inability to develop the pro-
ductive forces in the face of the landlords' growing need for revenue 'was primarily
responsible for [feudalism's] decline; since this need for additional revenue promoted
an increase in the pressure on the producer to a point where this pressure became
literally unendurable' (Dobb, 1946, p. 42). The 'pressure to obtain a larger surplus'
was 'disastrous, since in the end it led to an exhaustion, or actual disappearance of the
labour-force by which the system was nourished' (Dobb, 1946, p. 43). In these formu-
lations the crisis appears to be dictating its own solution: the supercession of a productive
system which can no longer develop the productive forces. Yet this hardly seems
reasonable. For the mere collapse of population could not determine the replacement of
the feudal system by different, more productive class relations. Indeed, disastrous man-
power losses would bring the ratio of men to land back down into close alignment (given
the existing productive forces), thereby opening the way to a repetition of the old destruc-
tive cycle—if feudal relations remained intact or were strengthened. This appears to be
what occurred in Eastern Europe: here the upshot of the late medieval economic crisis
was a strengthening of class relations through the rise of serfdom, which merely set in
motion a whole new epoch of retrogressive development. Correlatively, in France where
entrenched peasant possessors were increasingly subjected to the centralised surplus
extraction of the absolutist state, the ultimate outcome was a new 'general crisis' of the
economy in the 17th century.
Dobb does appear, at another point, to shift away from the foregoing position by
placing at the centre of his analysis of feudal decline the seigneurial reaction which
developed to a greater or lesser extent, with more or less success, through most of Europe
in response to the threat posed to the system by the productivity-population crisis
(Dobb, 1946, pp. 50ff.). Dobb asks what were the different conditions which could
explain the ability of the lords in some regions to reinforce the system of feudal rent
exaction by directly controlling the peasants, whereas in others they were unable to
prevent the supercession of serfdom by the rise of contractual relations between lord and
128 R. Brenner
peasant, or even the rise of peasant property ? He reasonably suggests that attention in
this regard should be focused especially on the military resources of the nobility, the
strength and character of the medieval state (especially 'the extent to which the royal
power exerted its influence to strengthen seigneurial authority or welcomed the oppor-
tunity to weaken the position of rival sections of the nobility'), and finally the sources of
strength of peasant resistance itself. Surprisingly, however, Dobb ends up by denying the
fruitfulness of this line of inquiry. 'But while they may have been contributory, political
factors of this kind can hardly be regarded as sufficient to account for the differences in
the course of events in various parts of Europe . . . All the indications suggest that in
deciding the outcome economic factors must have exercised the outstanding influence' (Dobb,
1946, p. 53, emphasis added).
It is difficult to know what to make of Dobb's counter-position here of 'economic' to
'political', when what appears to be at issue are decisive class struggles determining the
maintenance of feudal class relations or their transformation. For was not the essence of
feudalism, as Dobb defines it, the encasement of economic-productive activities within a
determining structure of extra-economic relations of surplus extraction directly by
force? It is of course true that the financial situation of the landlords must have been a
significant determinant of their ability to launch a seigneurial reaction against the
peasantry. But, in turn, the lords' economic potential vis-a-vis the peasantry, their in-
come, was hardly separable from their ability to control and exploit serf labour, i.e. their
class power-—yet, of course this was exactly what was at issue. It is therefore especially
puzzling that Dobb's conclusion concerning the economic factors responsible for deter-
mining different outcomes of the seigneurial reaction is that: 'the fundamental con-
sideration must have been the abundance or scarcity, the cheapness or dearness of hired
labour, in determining whether or not the lord was willing to commute labour services'
(Dobb, 1946, p. 54). Dobb here quite reasonably asserts that the lords would have been
more likely to commute labour services for money rents if there was plenty of cheap
labour available. For in this case, by commuting they could, on the one hand, extract,
in the form of money or kind, rents from the customary tenants of the same value (hours'
worth) as what they had formerly received from them in direct labour services on the
demesne. On the other hand, they could now receive an additional surplus by turning
over the demesne to cultivation on the basis of the cheap and easily exploitable wage
labour. (Analogous considerations would govern the lords' decision to commute in order
to lease the demesne.) Yet such reasoning seems very much beside the point. As noted,
Dobb himself makes it exceedingly clear that commutation (which merely involved a
change in the form of feudal rent, with no corresponding alteration in landlord-peasant
relations of domination and servitude) could in no way be equated with peasant
emancipation. Yet, of course, it was precisely peasant emancipation, indeed the entire
system of surplus extraction, which was at stake in the late medieval crisis of feudalism.
Given the scarcity of labour and thus the pressure toward high wages (and low rents)
which prevailed in the later medieval period, the lords naturally did not want to com-
mute, but rather to intensify, demesne cultivation on the basis of serf labour. The
question was whether or not they could enforce this preference against a peasantry
which undoubtedly preferred not merely temporary commutation, but freedom from
seigneurial controls and arbitrary exactions, and full property in the land.
Dobb's ultimate 'economic' argument that the availability and cost of hired labour
determined the evolution out of die late medieval feudal crisis carries with it the
implication that the lords were able to dictate the outcome according to their needs—
Transition from feudalism to capitalism 129
deciding to tighten up vis-A-vis the peasants where labour was scarce, the opposite where
it was plentiful. Adopting such a perspective, however, would make it essentially impos-
sible to understand how serfdom could ever have been overcome. For it is difficult to
conceive of any circumstances in this period when lords would voluntarily have given up
serfdom, that is the option and right to keep the peasants on their land, as well as to make
arbitrary exactions, even if they did not always choose to use them. At the same time, the
fact is that the attempt to maintain or increase controls over the peasantry was a wide-
spread response of the landlords to feudal crisis throughout Europe, precisely because
labour had everywhere become scarce. Yet the results were exceedingly various. In Eastern
Europe, controls over the peasants were strengthened. In much of Western Europe, a
significant section of the peasantry not only got freedom, but won virtual freehold rights
to much of the land (although they were, in general, correspondingly re-subjected to a
re-organised aristocracy through the construction of the absolutist state) (cf. Anderson,
1974B). In England, serfdom collapsed,! yet the landlords maintained control over the
land. To account for the foregoing divergences would require an account of the differ-
ential evolutions of lord-peasant class relations which lay behind the differential out-
comes of class conflict in the different European regions. Thus, to bring to fruition
Dobb's conceptual approach would seem to necessitate the sort of enquiry which Dobb
began, but did not carry through, in his foreshortened discussion of the seigneurial
reaction: into the sources of class solidarity and power of the peasantry, especially in
their village communities, and of the lords, especially in their military organisation and
above all their state.
It is, indeed, in its relationship with the evolution of the fundamental lord-peasant
class rel ations, and the outcome of lord-peasant class conflict, that the pivotal question
of the impact of commercial-industrial development, of the growth of towns, upon
feudal society—its 'dissolving effect'—must be assessed (Dobb, 1946, p. 70 and ff.).
In the first place, the development of the towns was not 'external' to feudal society. The
character of town production was largely shaped by the system of needs given by the
feudal class organisation of production: on the one hand, the demand for weaponry and
luxury goods production, arising out of lord-peasant and intra-lord relations; on the
other hand, the lack of demand for agricultural means of production and for means of
consumption for the peasant labour force, stemming from the inability of the lords or
peasants to invest in agricultural production and the connected inability of the peasants
to hold onto much of the surplus. Furthermore, the general potential of urban develop-
ment was strictly limited by the feudal character of agricultural production, which, by
restricting the possibilities for increases in agricultural productivity, restricted the size
of the towns. Beyond a certain point, therefore, urban commercial-industrial develop-
ment was predicated upon the transformation of feudal class relations to make possible
agricultural advance. Since, as noted, trade in itself could not directly dissolve feudal
class relations, such a dissolving effect was possible only indirectly as a result of the impact
of the social productive relations through which urban commercial-industrial

f At certain points Dobb does not seem to want to admit this. He comments that 'the century of scarce
labour and of dear labour' after 1350 witnessed 'attempts to reimpose the old obligations' (i.e. labour
services), whereai there began 'a renewed tendency to commutation in the middle of the 15th century,
when the gaps in the population had been sufficientlyfilledfor some fall in wages'—as if the social relations
between lord and peasant remained essentially unaltered through this period (and beyond), and only the
form of paymentj had changed (money vs. labour). The implication is that serfdom—in its essential content
if not in form—continued into the early modern period. Thus Dobb quotes Lipson approvingly to the effect
that 'Personal serfdom survived the decay of economic serfdom' (Dobb, 1946, pp. 57, 65).
130 R. Brenner
development took place. The manner and degree in which urban social productive
relations were, in fact, antagonistic to the maintenance of feudal relations in the
countryside is what needs to be analysed.
In this regard, it is naturally quite significant that feudal industrial production grew
up in an urban setting and did not take place via serf labour (if industry had developed
on the basis of manorial serfs, or town artisanal slaves, its implications for the develop-
ment of the feudal order would certainly have been quite different). Because urban pro-
duction was organised largely on the basis of artisanal production and property (free
producers with the means of production, but without direct access to the means of sub-
sistence), the towns have been presumed to be, almost by definition, subversive of
feudalism: on the one hand, by providing a haven for runaway peasants, thus under-
mining serfdom indirectly; on the other hand, by nourishing social classes which would
necessarily in the course of their development range themselves against the domination
of the feudal classes. Yet neither of these destructive mechanisms can be assumed, for
their operation was actually dependent upon the existence of very specific patterns of
urban social-productive development.
In the first place, a large number of medieval towns were originally established and
controlled by the nobility to meet their needs. On this basis, they can hardly be assumed
to have offered the peasants their freedom (see, e.g. Duby, 1974, Hibbert, 1953; Hilton,
1966, pp. 188ff.; Jones, 1966, pp. 402-407). It is true that in many cases the towns
did win corporate status or de facto independence, often after struggles against the
nobility. Even so, to the extent that urban production was dominated by the direct
artisan producers, the real economic opportunities (and therefore the real openings to
the peasant) would have tended to be correspondingly limited, especially as an effect of
guild restrictions on entry into industrial pursuits. Then again, where urban social
development, especially urban social conflict, issued in the predominance of the merchant
patriciates and their rule over production, the towns did tend to welcome rural migrants
as a source of cheap labour for putting out, or even for urban manufactories. A pattern of
urban corrosion of rural feudal controls does, indeed, appear to have obtained in the
hinterlands of the great medieval manufacturing centres of Flanders and Italy. These
urban conglomerations were able to capture and concentrate the demand for manu-
factures of vast areas of feudal Europe, and thus to offer massive productive opportunities
for rural migrants. Yet, even on the basis of these important cases, it is not clear that it
can be concluded that the development of medieval cities was able to determine the
supercession of feudal class structure, in this way making possible further agricultural
and thereby urban development. Thus, even in Flanders and Italy, it does not seem as
if the rural areas which witnessed the decline of feudal restrictions under the force of the
magnet of urban growth were large enough to make possible an economic break-
through. They could not adequately supply the urban areas with which they were
associated. As a result, the Flemish and Italian towns appear to have had to continue
to depend on agricultural imports from relatively distant regions which were still feudal.
In sum, since urban industrial centres do not appear to have been able to sufficiently
corrode the feudal class structure of agriculture through their attractive force on the
peasant populations, their growth appears to have remained, in the last analysis, subject
to its limitations (see, e.g. Jones, 1966; Nicholas, 1971; Nicholas, 1976).
On the other hand, as Dobb points out, the urban merchants who might have bene-
fitted indirectly from the weakening of feudal controls were unlikely to directly oppose
the feudal order: indeed, the feudal aristocracy constituted their major clientele.
Transition from feudalism to capitalism 131
Following Marx's analysis (Marx, 1894, pp. 329-331), Dobb shows that the surplus
accruing to the merchants from trade under feudalism arose from the disparity in the
relative use values of given products in different areas, which made it possible for
merchants to profit by taking advantage of the resulting differences in relative prices.
This potential for profit-making was inherently unstable, since there was a tendency for
other traders to enter the field to take advantage of the price disparity and eventually
to abolish it. In response, the merchants would move to protect their trading profits by
trying to control the trade by extra-economic means. This inevitably meant turning to
the support of politically powerful elements for grants of monopoly—which required
forging an alliance with the feudal ruling class and its state. Merchant profits, in the long
run, tended to become politically based. Thus, far from subverting the feudal order, the
merchants very often became its bulwark (Dobb, 1946, pp. 87-90). Indeed, it is difficult
to find urban patriciates who directly confronted the feudal class structure, let alone
allied with rebelling peasants, especially in the later medieval period of feudal crisis.
In contrast, the urban artisanate appears to have been led to oppose the feudal regime,
for precisely the reasons the merchants supported it. They opposed the merchant-noble
alliance in order to break the merchant patriciates' political control over the towns,
which was generally accompanied by merchant monopolies of trade and limitation on
the direct producers' organised power in the guilds. On the other hand, the artisans'
concern to control the labour supply could lead them away from directly supporting
peasant demands for freedom, since peasant freedom would have meant peasant entry
into the urban labour force. Thus, an artisan-peasant alliance against the feudal order
cannot be assumed to have prevailed, despite their common interest in opposing the
dominant classes. Indeed, there is some reason to suspect that the really significant
examples of artisan-peasant alliance occurred only after the fall of serfdom (see Brenner,
1976): especially in those places where the aristocracy had reconstructed its power
(against a stubbornly entrenched peasantry) on the basis of the absolutist state. The
classic case is, of course, the French Revolution. To be sure, the dissolving effect of the
towns remains an open question (cf. Anderson, 1974A; Merrington, 1975). Nevertheless,
whatever the extent of the artisan-peasant alliance, or of the urban opportunities for
peasant flight, their significance is to be found, as Dobb made clear, in their impact upon
the fundamental class conflicts in the countryside, which determined the divergent
outcomes of late medieval seigneurial reaction.

The Bourgeois Revolution

For Dobb, the decisive breakthrough in the transition from feudalism to capitalism
occurred in the English Revolution of 1640, the Bourgeois Revolution. It is in this con-
text that Dobb argues, first of all, for the continuing predominance of feudal class
relations in England through the early modern period, and the rule of the feudal
aristocracy up to 1640. At the same time, he says, this period was highlighted by the
emergence of a new class of industrial and agricultural capitalists from the ranks of the
direct producers. In the end, the parasitic fetters imposed by feudalism and the absolutist
state upon the development of capitalist production were the underlying cause of the
bourgeois revolution, which during the 1640s established the socio-political basis for
relatively untrammelled economic development.
This classical interpretation is, however, difficult to square with Dobb's general
framework for feudal development. In an article he published later (1962), that frame-
132 R. Brenner

work is presented perhaps even more sharply and succinctly than in Studies. Thus:
The basic social relation [of feudalism] rested on die extraction of the surplus product of [die]
petty mode ofproduction by die feudal ruling class—an exploitation relationship diat was buttressed
by various meuiods of 'extra-economic compulsion' . . . It follows immediately from uiis diat die
basic conflict must have been between die direct producers and dieir feudal overlords who made
exactions . . . by dint of feudal right and feudal power. This conflict, when it broke into open
antagonism expressed itself in peasant revolt. . . This was die crucial class struggle under feudalism,
and not any direct clash of urban bourgeois elements (traders) widi feudal lords . . . it is upon
this revolt among the petty producers diat we must fix our attention in seeking to explain die dissolution
and decline of feudal exploitation (p. 285).
Now, Dobb initially defined feudalism as 'virtually identical with what we generally
mean by serfdom: an obligation laid on the producers by force . . . to fulfill certain
economic demands of an overlord' (Dobb, 1946, p. 35). In this respect feudalism was
dead by the 15th century, as peasant resistance and flight, especially in the wake of the
later medieval population decline, had brought about the general collapse of the lords'
rights to tallage the peasantry at will, to extract labour services, and to control peasant
mobility, marriage, and land transfers (cf. Hilton, 1969). To clarify his conception of
bourgeois development external to and against feudalism, Dobb is thus required to
explain in what sense England was still feudal in the period leading up to 1640—in what
way there was maintained a ruling class which based itself on surplus extraction by
extra-economic compulsion from a class of petty producers.f
This problem may be insurmountable, at least from Dobb's perspective, when it is
further understood that beginning from the period of later medieval feudal crisis, from
the 15th century onward, England experienced continuous, if slow, development of
capitalist social-productive relations in the countryside under the aegis of the greater landed
classes.X Thus, in England, the landlords were unable to respond to feudal crisis by

f Dobb's interpretation appears to be strongly ambivalent, if not self-contradictory, as other writers have
remarked (see Sweezy, pp. 46—52; Takahashi, 1952, pp. 83—86). Dobb says at one point that'the disinte-
gration of the feudal mode of production had already reached an advanced stage before the capitalist
mode of production had developed, and this disintegration did not proceed in any close association with
the growth of the new mode of production' (Dobb, 1946, p. 20). Such a statement at least raises questions
as to the sort of social order and state which were overturned in the bourgeois revolution. Dobb, further-
more, offers in various places a great deal of discussion of the specific complex processes of social and
economic development in a capitalist direction which took place in early modern England, and which
made themselves felt in particular through all layers of rural society. Nevertheless, he does not, in my view,
integrate his highly nuanced analyses of these processes with his general view of the bourgeois revolution
against feudalism in 1640 (in my opinion, because they do not easily mesh). In any case, Dobb's bourgeois
revolution thesis is presented rather schematically, so that certain class-economic developments which he
contends prepared the way for political conflict are not always easy to grasp, and indeed, on occasion,
seem to be dealt with by Dobb in different (and more convincing) ways elsewhere in the book in a different
context (see, e.g., 'the really revolutionary way' to capitalist development).
£ Dobb's arguments that basically feudal relationships were maintained on the land through most of the
early modern period are not strong (Dobb, 1946, pp. 20-21, 65-66). Contra Dobb, there is, in fact, little
evidence of the maintenance of villeinage in the period (Hilton, 1969, pp. 55—57). Furthermore, the con-
tinuing formal existence of copyhold tenure is not, as Dobb appears to think, a sign of the maintenance of
feudal relationships between lord and peasant in this period; for by this time the social and economic
content of copyhold had evolved fundamentally. Copyholders were either essentially freeholders or in
effect holders of terminable economic leases (Tawney, 1912, esp. pp. 309-310; Kerridge, 1969, pp. 37-40).
Similarly, the restrictions in law on labour mobility which originated in feudal times and continued in
force into the early modern period cannot be taken as proof of the continuity of feudal relationships, as
Dobb asserts. As Dobb himself points out in a different context, these laws merely reflected a desire to
ensure a labour supply and to keep down wages on the part of rural employer! who were by this time for
the most part capitalists (Dobb, 1946, pp. 231-234). These legal restrictions were maintained even into the
18th century. In Tawney's famous words, quoted by Dobb, in the 16th century, 'Villeinage ceases, the
Poor Law begins'.
Transition from feudalism to capitalism 133
re-installing serfdom, as did the aristocrats of East Elbian Europe. Nor was there a
development such as took place in France, where feudalism could perhaps be said to
have continued in an altered form through the early modern period (Anderson, 1974B).
There, not onlyfreedom,but to a significant degree landed property, had been conquered
by the peasantry at various points during the medieval period. Nevertheless, against
these peasant gains, the French aristocracy, coming out of feudal crisis, was able to make
use of a rebuilt system of surplus extraction based on extra-economic compulsion,
especially through the construction of the absolutist state. Through the absolutist state
the peasants' surplus was directly and forcefully extracted, especially by taxation,
largely for the benefit of the aristocracy. In contrast to both the French and Eastern
European aristocracies, however, the lords in England responded to the peasants'
successes of the late medieval period by shortcircuiting the peasants' drive for full landed
property, by consolidating and extending their own control over the land, providing the
conditions for the introduction of agricultural capitalism on their estates (Tawney,
The lords' initial response to population collapse was an attempt to increase arbitrary
exactions and to control the peasants. But this was unsuccessful, and, with the collapse
of serfdom, the English lords had little choice but to enter into new forms of relationship
with their tenants characterised by contract. Indeed, the peasants' success in freeing
themselves from landlord controls had allowed them to take advantage of the very high
ratio between land and labour from the later 14th century to establish low rents; and
they even began to claim that their rents (dues) were permanently fixed. Had they been
able to win this demand the ensuing inflation might have made them essentially owners
of the land (as it did in much of France). However, the landlords not only retained their
property, but moved to increase it: in the long run, they maintained hold of their
already substantial demesnes; they took over lands left empty in the late medieval
population decline; they eliminated customary tenants who had not established heritable
rights to land; they got rid of small, inefficient leaseholders. These steps were necessary
to make sure they could adjust rents in accord with market demand (Hilton, 1969).
At first, with the rise in the price of labour which followed the failure to impose
controls on labour mobility in response to population decline, the lords' best option
appears to have been to convert to labour-saving sheep farming. Thus, perhaps the first
major step toward capitalist social productive relations took place in the 15th century,
through the enclosure of the demesnes and vacant peasant plots, for the purposes of
turning from arable to pasture production—a process which often took place through
the leasing of the land to a large commercial tenant, usually recruited from the ranks of
the upper peasantry. With the growth of population from the late 15th century, as well
as the continuing development of textile production for both the foreign and home
markets, the growing demand for food and declining wage costs determined a reverse
tendency back to arable production. Arable production could not, however, develop
through the old feudal social-productive relations—the lords could not reinserf the
peasants—but through the gradual construction of large farms on the basis of bringing
in large commercial tenants. This process did not take place smoothly or directly, for
the peasants would not easily relinquish their lands. Indeed, peasant revolt assumed
serious proportions in the first half of the 16th century. Still, it did not succeed in stem-
ming the tide. By 1640, the English landlords as a whole, led by the aristocracy, presided
over and benefitted from the three-tiered system of social relations which has been
classically identified with capitalist agriculture (see Stone, 1965, for aristocratic success
134 R. Brenner
with rationalisation and improvement). The system of landlord and capitalist tenant
helped make possible economies of scale by the use of new techniques requiring capital
investment and co-operation on the basis of wage labour. Indeed, it seems clear now that
the processes associated with the 'agricultural revolution' were under way from the later
16th century. In this context, the contradiction between landed aristocracy and capitalist
development is by no means necessary (for the foregoing, see Brenner, 1976, and the
sources cited there).
Now, Dobb's view that English landlords, as well as their merchant allies, tended to
block the development of capitalism, led him to posit the 'birth of a capitalist class from
the ranks of production itself as indispensable to economic advance in the early modern
period. Thus, developing a suggestion of Marx, he argues for the predominance in early
modern England of 'the really revolutionary way' to capitalist development, in which
the decisive steps toward capitalist social-productive relations are taken by artisan and
farmer petty owners, who hire wage labour and bring in new techniques, thus them-
selves becoming capitalists (rather than by merchants and landlords entering production
and transforming it in a capitalist direction). It was thus, for Dobb, the artisans and
yeomen now-become-capitalists who made the bourgeois revolution against landlords
and merchants who stood against development! (Dobb, 1946, pp. 123ff).
Now it is unquestionably true that large yeoman farmers, emerging from the ranks of
medieval freeholders and successful customary tenants, led the way in the development
of capitalism in early modern England, cultivating on a large scale, with improved
techniques, on the basis of wage labour. In part, they did so by taking over on lease the
large consolidated farms which had been built up by the landlords. In part, they did so
by building up their own farms through purchase (or lease) from their neighbours. It
also seems undeniable that some artisan small masters were ultimately among the leaders
in the development of capitalist industry, transforming the methods of production and
hiring workers at a wage. Yet the question is: what significance should these processes
be given in relationship to the transition to capitalism and bourgeois revolution?
Underlying Dobb's analysis at this point, there appears to be the assumption that
peasant production, once freed from the controls of serfdom, will evolve more or less
automatically in the direction of capitalism. Under the impact of the market, larger
petty producers will accumulate surpluses; their size will give them technical advantages
over smaller plots; they will ultimately out-compete the smaller units on the market.
The outcome is a bit-by-bit takeover by the larger producers from the smaller ones, the
elevation of the larger producers into the ranks of rural capitalists and the depression
of the smaller ones into the ranks of the wage labourers. In short, the rise and adoption
of new technologies appears to determine the transformation of the class structure from
petty production to capitalism in the countryside, as a result of the economies of scale
enjoyed by the larger producers (as well, of course, as the economic advantages built
into their superior financial positions) (Dobb, 1946, p. 125). Nevertheless, to assume
such a progression is to beg the central question. For it is to assume that there already
exist social-productive relations in which the petty producers are deprived of the means
of subsistence, so that they must sell on the market and thus productively compete in
order to survive. It is only with the establishment of such an economic system that it is
t Sec Dobb's thesis that 'the kind of transition to which Marx was referring["the really revolutionary
way" from petty production to capitalism] was already in process in England in the second half of the
sixteenth century; and . . . by the accession of Charles I certain significant changes in the mode of pro-
duction had already taken place: a circumstance peculiarly relevant to political events in seventeenth
century England, which bear all the marks of the classic bourgeois revolution' (Dobb, 1946, p. 123).
Transition from feudalism to capitalism 135
reasonable to expect that, with the development of exchange, the producers will push
to cheapen their products, that they will accumulate on the basis of wage labour and
investment in improved techniques, and that the classical process of social differentiation
will therefore ensue. It is precisely the emergence of such a system which therefore needs
to be explained.
Thus, in the first place, to the extent that there exist peasant producers who are also
petty owners producing their own subsistence on their own property, there is no neces-
sary or direct tendency to accumulation and differentiation (such as exists under
capitalism). Petty peasant producers, even relatively large ones, can and did orient their
production simply to the maintenance of their productive units (see Marx, 1867,
pp. 766-770; Marx, 1894, pp. 804-807; Chayanov, 1966). They might produce and
market a surplus, but they could still orient these processes to subsistence and to greater
consumption, in other words to simple reproduction rather than any drive toward en-
larged reproduction. Secondly, the society of peasant proprietor subsistence producers,
where it actually exists, can provide a formidable barrier to those peasants who do wish
to accumulate property and means of production. If they maintain enough land and
resources, the mass of peasants cannot easily be forced to sell out. Indeed, they may
accept a serious depression in the level of their subsistence in order to retain their holdings.
At the same time, community controls over production may render accumulation of
property past a certain point economically useless, because it cannot provide the basis
for technical changes, due to the community's insistence on traditional techniques bound
up with the village-wide subsistence economy (Bloch, 1931).
In fact, in France, through much of the later medieval and early modern period, the
countryside was largely dominated by peasants who were effective owners. This owner-
ship had been secured by peasant resistance at various points in the medieval period,
sometimes quite early on (see, e.g. Fossier, 1968; Fourquin, 1964). Much of this peasantry
was able to hold onto the land throughout the entire epoch, even in the face of a rapidly
growing market. They were undoubtedly more successful in doing so during the 15th
century than later on, despite the significant development of trade at this time. This was
because the thinning out of population following the demographic collapse of the 14th
century had left them with relatively large plots, and thus with much more secure sub-
sistence bases. On the other hand, even where they eventually did lose their land to rural
accumulators in the early modern period, the main underlying mechanisms do not
appear to have been directly economic—i.e. market competition by economically
superior producers—but 'extra-economic': population growth leading to subdivision
which pushed their plots below the size necessary to produce subsistence; the weight of
taxation which made their plots inadequate for re-productionj (Jacquart, 1974; Saint
Jacob, 1961).
In contrast, it appears that in England peasant producers were less able to resist the
direct processes of rural accumulation through economic competition. This was because
they had been unable to establish their proprietorship over much of the land. As mere
tenants, the small peasant producers often did not have assured rights in their means of
subsistence; they were indeed subject to supercession by more efficient large producers,
f The tendency to sub-division of holdings among peasants had the effect in the long term of making
easier the undermining of peasant proprietorship, but this did not necessarily mean a direct transition to
typically capitalist production relations. Rather, rural accumulators were encouraged to forego improve-
ment and the reorganisation of the labour process, and to farm using the mass of cheap rural labour power
which arose from the remaining surrounding mini-holdings, whose possessors required wage work to make
ends meet (Jacquart, 1974; see also below, p. 138).
136 R. Brenner
their lands taken in by landlords who re-leased it to commercial tenants. Without
property in their means of subsistence the peasants did experience a significant tendency
to differentiation directly under the impact of the market. But what therefore must
be explained is precisely the processes which lay behind this original separation of the
peasantsfromthe means of their reproduction, which made them vulnerable to productive
competition; it cannot be assumed. This is the question of the 'so-called primitive
accumulation', and of the class conflicts which lay behind it.f
If the freeing of petty production from the fetters of serfdom cannot directly determine
a subsequent evolution to capitalism, it may also be doubted if the landlords and
merchants constituted as powerful a barrier to this transition as Dobb appears to argue.
Thus, while asserting the central economic role of the independent peasantry and
artisanate, Dobb seems to be contending that where landlords and merchants controlled
the conditions of production, they would try to 'deteriorate the condition of the direct
producers . . . and absorb their surplus labour on the basis of the old mode of production'
(Dobb, 1946, p. 123, quoting Marx), rather than transform the social and technical
character of production in a capitalist direction. The landlord would tend to try to
increase his income simply by squeezing his peasant tenants, taking advantage of their
demand for land to increase rents by directly depressing their level of subsistence, rather
than attempting to profit by facilitating their farming on a larger scale on an improved
basis (using wage labour). Correlatively, the merchant putter out would tend to attempt
to increase his profits by cutting payments to the direct producers, by increasing the
price of their raw materials supplies and cutting the payments to them for their products
(or, if he owned the means of production, their wage). In both instances, therefore, the
landlord and merchant would constitute mere parasites on petty production, squeezing
out its surplus. This would prevent the petty producers from developing production
and ultimately transforming themselves into capitalists. It was only where petty pro-
ducers had full access to the means of production and their surplus, where they were full
independent owner operators, that they could have the potential to bring in new tech-
niques, ultimately requiring co-operative production, and thus to become capitalist
employers of wage labour in the process of transforming the nature of production.
It is doubtful, however, if distinct paths of development (or non-development) can
in this way be so directly associated with these two distinct types of owners (owner-
operator yeomen and artisans versus landlords with tenants and merchants with domestic
producers). Rather, it seems that the economic evolution associated with both types was
determined by the broader socio-economic environment in which they were to be found,
bound up in turn with the overall structure of class relations. It needs to be remembered,
first of all, that by the 16th century the landlords had been largely deprived of those
extra-economic controls, characteristic of serfdom, which would naturally have led them
to squeeze their tenants on the basis of the old methods of production. On the other hand,
yeoman farmers who had access to a cheap labour force or were confronted with a heavy
demand for land (for example, from a mass of small peasants) might as readily choose to
increase their income through 'labour squeezing' techniques as would landlords; farming
t Dobb does not, of course, neglect the 'so-called primitive accumulation of capital', nor the role of the
landlords in this process, in creating the social conditions for economic development. He also provides an
extended discussion of the problem of the differentiation of the peasantry and the mechanisms whereby it
takes place (Dobb, 1946, pp. 124-126, and especially 225-226, 250-254). However, these analyses appear
largely in the context of an excellent account of the 'Growth of the proletariat' (ch. 6) and are not linked
back to the problem of transition, and of the bourgeois revolution (in ch. 4 on "The rise of industrial
Transition from feudalism to capitalism 137
on the basis of labour-intensive methods or renting out their land at high rates. Similarly,
master artisans with some accumulated capital would be perhaps as likely as merchants
to employ their funds to extend putting out operations rather than invest in advanced
means of production usingfixedcapital, if payments to labour were low—and especially
if they could enmesh the direct producers in positions of debt/dependence so as to be
able to assume monopoly positions toward them (vis-d-vis raw material supplies and
product marketing).| In either case, it is not easy to see why the response of the yeoman
or artisan would differ substantially from that of the landlord or merchant. What would
appear to be determinant for all of them would be the broader economic conditions in
which they were operating. All might equally choose labour squeezing methods so long
as, and to the extent that, these were more profitable than introducing improvements.
Thus, as Dobb himself points out, all through the early modern period, ready access
to cheap labour throughout the countryside encouraged industrial entrepreneurs of all
types to stick to labour squeezing methods—domestic putting out in industry. The
transition to the factory system and the introduction of radical new techniques had to
await the industrial revolution of the 18th century. Large numbers of rural producers of
various types wished to take up industrial work as a by-employment, especially in the
off-season, particularly to ensure their subsistence and their ability to hold onto their
plots (Thirsk, 1961; Mendels, 1972). Since these producers had secured at least part of
their subsistence through agriculture, they did not have to receive their full subsistence
from their industrial work. Consequently, they could and did sell their labour power
very cheaply, below its cost of reproduction. Naturally, organisers of production would
try to take advantage of this source of labour power so long as this was possible (Dobb,
1946, pp. 230-231). It was only when the costs involved in expanding rural putting out
began to rise—as a result of the geographic spread of the rural industry, because of the
loss of raw materials stolen by the domestic producers, and because of the difficulties in
disciplining the labour force—that putters-out began to turn to factory production.
This transition appears to have come about on a large scale only with the enormous
build-up of demand which emanated from the new world in the latter part of the 18th
century, and put intolerable pressures on the old domestic mode. It was of course
immensely speeded up by the rapid availability of new inventions which allowed for
dramatic cutting of costs (Landes, 1969, pp. 53-60).
Correlatively, there may have been some tendency to use rural wage pressures and
demand for land, during the early modern period, to profit via squeezing rather than
agricultural innovation—although we perhaps do not yet know enough about the
character of the rural labour force to fully evaluate this. Still, as noted, this tendency
was not necessarily less prevalent among accumulating owner-operator yeomen than
among the landlords. In any case, the advantages to be gained from improvement in
this period must have been quite large, substantially outweighing those to be gained
merely from squeezing. For a major theme of the recent economic historiography of the
period is the transformation of agricultural production which took place (see, e.g.

•f Dobb is certainly right to argue that those merchants who had established trading monopolies, especially
if guaranteed by the state, would tend to leave production as it was, since they could now assure themselves
of profits from the sphere of exchange alone. As Dobb emphasises, the great overseas merchants of the
chartered companies were quite conservative on both political and economic matters in this period: they
were not, it seems, innovators in production and tended to be royalists or neutrals in the revolution from
1640 (see Brenner, 1973). Still, as Dobb also points out, since most of the internal trade was controlled by
merchants who were not overseas traders and had no monopolies, these factors cannot be assumed to have
played the determining role in structuring the development of industry (Dobb, 1946, pp. 126-127 and ff.).
138 R. Brenner
Kerridge, 1967; Jones, 1967; Thirsk, 1967). Innovations were made on both farms
owned by yeomen and farms owned by landlords and cultivated by large tenants. The
relevant point of course, in the present context, is not only that tendencies toward
improvement seem to have operated on the farms of both yeoman farmers and landlords,
but that these were not by any means necessarily antagonistic classes. Yeoman farmers
often took over the landlords' large farms and entered into a co-operative relationship
that was advantageous to both parties, and which resulted in agricultural advance. Thus
the landlord could get a larger and more secure rent from a yeoman capitalist tenant
farming for the market on the basis of improved techniques than from small tenants who
were basically subsistence producers. On the other hand, the yeoman capitalist farmer
could not be induced to take over as a tenant unless he was guaranteed a good part of the
returns to any investment he would make; and during the early modern period new
forms of leasehold were developed to make sure of this. Indeed, it was so much to the
landlords' advantage to have capitalist farmers on their land that they often took over
some of the important capital improvements, such as enclosure or the construction of
buildings, in order to ensure the success of the farm and thus the rent (in this case, of
course, the landlord could add to his rent an additional return from this capital invest-
ment) (Kerridge, 1969, p. 46; Jones, 1965).
In sum, it is difficult to locate a predominant landed feudal class in England in 1640,
so that it is difficult to find at that point powerful class-structured constraints to capitalist
development in the English countryside. Indeed, what appears to have distinguished
the English economy from those on the continent in the early modern period is the
growing connection of all the powerful agrarian elements with capitalist development.
In England, as noted, the lords could not profit from re-enserfing the peasants, as was
done in Eastern Europe. On the other hand, neither English lords nor yeoman farmers
could look to the profitable adoption of the rent-squeezing methods that were generally
taken up by these groups in France in this period vis-i-vis their tenants and wage
labourers, apparently because they did not have access to the mass of semi-peasants/
semi-proletarians which populated the French countryside. In France, the relative
success of the peasantry in gaining hold of the land during the medieval period led to
the subdivisions of holding consequent upon demographic growth from the late 15th
century and pushed much of the rural population below subsistence during the early
modern period. In the face of the heavy demand for land and for work at a wage from
the sub-subsistence peasantry, French landowners and capitalist tenants naturally found
it profitable either to rent their lands at high rates or to hire cheap labour on the basis
of labour-intensive techniques (Brenner, 1976, pp. 74-75, n. I l l ; Dobb, 1946, pp.
239-240). In contrast, the English landlords and tenant farmers (as well as yeomen
owner-operators) were led to attempt to profit through improvement on the basis of
wage labour—and to a large degree they succeeded. The rise of improving English
farming on a capitalist basis tended to dissolve the ancient antagonism between industrial
and agricultural development which had been built into feudal-peasant class relations,
with its barriers to the growth of agricultural productivity. Indeed, it fuelled industrial
development through cheaper food and rising rural demand.
Capitalism in early modern England thus grew up, to a large degree, within a land-
lord structure—a structure which had been formed out of the fall of serfdom and the
gradual undermining of peasant possession of the land. It seems therefore neither
necessary nor correct to follow Dobb in viewing capitalism as growing up alongside,
external to, or in contradiction with a still feudal landed structure in pre-revolutionary
Transition from feudalism to capitalism 139

Englandf (sec, e.g. Dobb, 1946, pp. 20-21). For the same reason, more analysis is
required than Dobb supplies to explain in what sense the monarchical state remained
feudal. J For there is little in England of the massive state support—via church, court,
and army offices—of a crisis-ridden aristocracy such as developed in later medieval and
early modern France, nor of the emergence of a system of taxation of the peasantry to
finance the overarching absolutist apparatus. Indeed, it is in light of the widespread
connection with capitalism throughout all levels of the landlord class, made possible by
the shortcircuiting of peasant property, that we can perhaps begin to understand the
success of the English aristocracy in overcoming economic crisis in the early modern
period, and similarly the failure of the monarchy's absolutist offensive, bound up with its
inability to develop a sufficient financial base, especially on the land (taxing peasants).
Broad sections of the landlord class backed Parliament in both 1640 and 1642: the anti-
feudal tendencies of this class were perhaps not the least important factor in determining
the long-term success of revolution in 17th-century England, in the face of quite
opposite tendencies in much of the continent during the same period.

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