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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 socialproductive 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


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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 preserve 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 systematically 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


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 treated. 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. Correlatively, 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 productive 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 development 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 growth. 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 foundation for much of the most important subsequent work on the impact of trade on noncapitalist societies (see, e.g., Anderson, 1974; Laclau, 1971; Genovese, 1961). Those


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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 commerce 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


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 techniques 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


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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 demesnes 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 productive 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 landlords 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 exhaustion 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


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 fundamental 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 restrengthening 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 productive 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 formulations 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 manpower 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 destructive 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


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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 opportunity 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 income, 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 determining different outcomes of the seigneurial reaction is that: 'the fundamental consideration 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 commute, 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


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 impossible 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 widespread 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 differential evolutions of lord-peasant class relations which lay behind the differential outcomes 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 development 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 development 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).


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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 development of the feudal order would certainly have been quite different). Because urban production 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 subsistence), 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 undermining 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 manufactures 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 breakthrough. 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 benefitted 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


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 context 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-


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 disintegration 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, furthermore, 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 continuing 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


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, 1912). 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 stemming 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


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 themselves 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 production 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


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 necessary 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 enlarged 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 ownership 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 subsistence 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 improvement 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).


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 producers 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 techniques, 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 (owneroperator 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 capital').

Transition from feudalism to capitalism


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.
• Dobb is certainly right to argue that those merchants who had established trading monopolies, especially f 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.).


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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 investment) (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 landlord 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


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 antifeudal 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. Bibliography Anderson, P. 1974A. Passages From Antiquity to Feudalism, London, New Left Books Anderson, P. 1974B. Lineages of the Absolutist State, London, New Left Books Bloch, M. 1973. French Rural History, Berkeley, University of California Press Brenner, R. 1973. The Civil War politics of London's merchant community, Past and Present, no. 58 Brenner, R. 1976. Agrarian class structure and economic development in pre-industrial Europe, Past and Present, no. 70 Brenner, R. The origins of capitalism. A critique of neo-Smithian Marxism, New Left Review, no. 104 Chayanov, A. V. 1966. The Theory of the Peasant Economy, Homewood, Illinois, Irwin Dobb, M. 1946. Studies in the Development of Capitalism, New York, International (1963) Dobb, M. 1962. From feudalism to capitalism, in The Transition From Feudalism to Capitalism, London, New Left Books (1976) Duby, G. 1968. Rural Economy and Country Life in the Medieval West, Columbia, South Carolina, University of South Carolina Press Duby, G. 1974. The Early Growth of the European Economy. Warriors and Peasants From the Seventh to the Twelfth Century, London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson Fossier, R. 1968. La Terre et les hommes en Picardie jusqu' a lafindu XHIe siicle, Louvain-Paris, Nauwalerts Fourquin, G. 1964. Les Campagnes de la region Parisienne a lafindu mqyen age, Paris, PUF Genovese, E. 1961. The Political Economy of Slavery, New York, Vintage (1967) Hibbert, A. B. 1953. The origins of the medieval town patriciate, Past and Present, no. 3 Hilton, R. H. 1966. A Medieval Society, London, Wiley Hilton, R. H. 1969. The Decline of Serfdom, London, Macmillan Jacquart, J. 1974. Sociiti et vie rurale das le sud de la region parisienne du milieux du XVIe siicle au milieu du XVIIe siicle, Paris, Armand Colin t Dobb himself comments that 'By the time of the civil war . . . investment of capital in land-purchase, and to a lesser extent actual capitalist farming, had already progressed sufficiently to leave little change in the agrarian regime that the improving landlord or progressive fanner urgently desired' (Dobb, 1946, pp. 171-172). X This is not to say that a 'bourgeois revolution' interpretation is necessarily ruled out. The anticapitalist effects of Caroline fiscal policies (e.g. industrial monopolies, prerogative taxes), the monarchy's alliance with the leading strata of city financiers and monopoly merchants, and the close connexion with the church hierarchy might perhaps be viewed from such a vantage point. But a full working out of such a view, which would have to focus, it would seem, around an analysis of the absolutist state, has yet to be satisfactorily presented.


R. Brenner

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