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THE RISE OF THE MODERN WEST

THE TRANSITION DEBATE


BY ANANYA

Roll number: 1245 Course: B.A. (H) History

Essay on the debate between Maurice Dobb and Paul Sweezy on the reasons which led to the transition from feudalism to capitalism.
One of the most controversial debates in recent times is that on the question of what led to the decline of the feudal mode of production and the emergence of the capitalism that contributed to creation of the world as we know it today. This is commonly known as the Transition Debate. This academic controversy prevails not only between the Marxist and the nonMarxist scholars, but also among the Marxist historians. One of the most popular among all the viewpoints is the contradicting theories of Maurice Dobb and that of Paul Sweezy. The feud started with the publication of Dobbs work Studies in the Development of Capitalism after the end of the Second World War. Paul Sweezy contradicted this thesis. This debate drew the attention of many scholars, both Marxist and non-Marxist, who either contributed to the debate or gave their own interpretations.

Many scholars, like Dobb, base their theories on works of Karl Marx and Frederich Engels. Their chief interest remained in the study of capitalism. However they wrote very briefly on the transition between feudalism and capitalism. Marx stated in his works two paths to capitalism. One was when producers became capitalists by accumulating capital and taking to trade. Secondly, capitalism emerged from the mercantile class. The second path, according to Marx, was the real revolutionary way which led to capitalism. Marx, as we can see, lays stress on social relations of production. According to him, commoditized labour was the only source of the capitalists surplus value.

The first major explanation as to the factors leading to the decline of the feudal mode of production was given by Maurice Dobb. His view was supported and further elaborated by several scholars such as Rodney

Hilton, Boris Porchnev, Christopher Hill, Kohachiro Takahashi and many others. Dobb states two chief factors for transition from feudalism to capitalism. First, the system of production resting on serf-labour and second, based on hired wage labour. These, according to him, constitute two different phases of transition. In reply to the question as to what actually caused the disintegration of feudalism, he says that it an only be explained in relation to the rise of wage labour under the bourgeois method of production.

Disagreeing with historian Henri Pirenne, who dates beginning of capitalism to the 12th century C.E., Dobb says that capitalism did not necessarily begin with the appearance of large scale trading and the appearance of the mercantile class. He locates its beginning to the latter half of the 16th century and the early part of the 17th century when capitalism became increasingly included in production. This development took place either when capitalist and wage earners relationship matured or in the developed form of subordination of domestic handicraft makers to capitalism through the so-called putting-out system.

Dobb calls feudalism a self-sufficient economy. Trade and money, however were not totally absent but instead says that it just occupied a smaller place in the economy. According to him, feudalism was a system where status is associated with land tenure and where the producer is obliged to provide labour to the lord. This system, he claims, was almost identical to serfdom. Dobbs theory states that the systems survival depended on the internal relationships in the feudal mode of production. Insufficiency of this mode of production to satisfy the demands of the ruling class led to the decay of feudalism. According to Takahashi, serfdom was the existence form of labour of peasant and the landlord.

The beginning of the crisis is evident in the 14th and the 15th century which provoked the fall in feudal income. The size of the demesne land of the

landlords began to shrink. Dobb says that the need for additional revenue placed increased pressure on the producers and gradually reached a point where it became unendurable. This economic misery led to mass immigrations among serfs. The response to this crisis varied in different parts of Europe. Eric Hobsbawm supports Dobbs thesis. He further goes on to say that transition from feudalism to capitalism is an uneven process. The crisis involved most advanced section of bourgeois development within feudalism (as said by Hilton). The definite victory of capitalism was reflected through Industrial, American and French Revolution. Rodney Hilton agrees with Dobb that growth and decline of feudalism is a result of internal factors. The main factor, according to him, was feudal rent. Feudalism consisted of the tendency of the exploiting class to extract maximum rent from the labour which conflicted with the necessary means of social growth (that was as a result of contradictions among the exploiting class). Therefore, member increased feudal rent to improve their positions and which in turn led to struggle for power and land control. These factors led to the feudal crisis.

Paul Sweezy was another scholar who contributed extensively to the Transition Debate. He, along with Immanuel Wallerstein, brought out the role of markets in the transition from feudalism to capitalism. Sweezys work acted as a direct criticism to Dobbs work. He defined capitalism as a system of production for profit through market exchange that depends on an internal trade-based division of labour. According to him, a selfsufficient feudal mode of production cannot consist of simulating factors that could lead to long term growth or even for that matter, transform into capitalism. The rise of exchange economy led to monetization of relations between the feudal lord and peasant. This contributed to the decay of feudalism.

Sweezy says that Dobb failed to explain the charge-resistant character of the Western feudalism or contemplate effects of trade on feudalism. He

also questions Dobbs hypothesis on growth in the size of nobility. However, he agrees with Dobb that mass immigration of serfs was an important cause for the feudal crisis. He is of the opinion that there must have been a certain amount of trade as it is likely to be a necessity in the economy. He gave instances of a peddling system. This, according to him, must have led to emergence of localized trading centers. The very existence of an exchange value was a massive economic force to transform the attitude of the producers who turned to business. The expansion of commerce provoked demands for new products and also opened up more opportunities for the population on the countryside. This led to the breaking up of the present mode of production.

Therefore, according to Sweezy, capitalism emerged through forces such as trade and the international division of labour, which are seen as external to feudalism. This thesis is not only opposed by Dobb, but also Takahashi and Hilton. Dobb accepts that feudal economy was extremely stable and inert but it also had a tendency within to change. He also defends his definition of feudalism and maintains that feudalism and serfdom are similar to each other.

The basic difference between Sweezy and Dobb is on the question of existence of trade and urban centers in the feudal system. Dobb reasserted that trade influenced the economy in such a way that it accentuated the internal conflict within the old system of production and the growth of towns was internal to feudal system. He also rejected Sweezys argument that there was a relationship between decline of feudalism and the nearness of centers of trade. Dobb says that the system of production on which Sweezy is dependent focuses more on the sphere of exchange than with the relations of production and ignores the transition from coercive extraction of surplus labour by estate owners to the use of free, hired labour.

Critics of Sweezy also raise a question on his view that the monetization of feudal relations signaled the dissolution of feudalism. The patterns of rent forms varied enormously and did not follow a linear trend. John Martin believes that money rent coexisted with labour rents as far back as the 10th century in some parts of Europe. Takahashi rejects Sweezys thesis, saying that the contradiction between feudalism and capitalism is not the same as the contradiction between systems of production for use and system of production for the market but between feudal land property (serfdom) and an industrial capital (wage-labour system). The fundamental processes, therefore, of transition from feudalism to capitalism are the change in the social form of existence of labour power consisting in the separation of the means of production from the direct producers. Hence, according to Takahashi, the main cause for the disintegration of feudalism is not only trade or market.

Immaneul Wallerstein also contributes to this debate. He too, like Sweezy, stresses on the changing character of market structure. Sweezy, however, has based his work on Henri Pirennes theory that emphasized the importance of growth and trade in everyday commodities unlike the trade in luxury goods under feudalism, leading to the division of labour in the market centers. Therefore, the decline of feudalism, according to both scholars, is caused by the dynamics of expanding exchange relations, acting outside the feudal mode of production. Wallerstein, in his work Origins of the Modern World System defines capitalism differently saying that it was a world system based on international division of labour and a universal market exchange relations. He divides capitalism into three main components the core (the most developed region), the periphery (the most exploited), and the semi-periphery (exploited by the core and exploiter of the periphery). He dates the emergence of capitalism to the 16th century and calls Spain and Portugal as the first capitalist state who soon lost their core status and slipped into semi-peripheral status. According to him, the true core status was achieved by Netherlands, England and Northern France. This argument is criticized by many scholars. Many say

that he completely ignored the internal dynamics of a society. His main criticism is that his work undermines the extent to which trade and commercial expansion is compatible with feudalism. Wallersteins work has been supported by scholars like Janet Abu-Loghod, Andre Gunder, Frank and Ekholm.

Apart from the already discussed arguments, another significant viewpoint us that of Perry Anderson. Like Dobb and Hilton, he also believes that changes in social relations preceded the development of productive force in the emergence of capitalism. But he does not assign a simple evolutionary theory of change within feudalism based on class struggle based on feudal crisis. The primary element, according to him, in the emergence of capitalism was the incorporation of Roman law into the feudal system. This helped the process of centralization and brought about a fundamental transformation in feudal property relationship. The juridical traditions played an important role in the transition.

A non-Marxist explanation is based on the role of demographic factor in the decline of feudalism. This view is led by scholars like H.J. Habakkuk, M.M. Postan, and Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie. This interpretation is termed as the Malthusian model or the Demographic model. Another Marxist scholar, Robert Brenner, gave his own interpretation of the transition. His explanation resembles that of Dobbs but he considers the nature of classrelations to be of paramount importance in the transition towards capitalism.

As we can see, there are many different interpretations on the causes of the transition from feudalism to capitalism. All the above explanations assign different reasons for the decline of feudalism and have their strength as well as weaknesses in their arguments. These scholars have different views over the concept of feudalism and capitalism and on the causes and nature

of transition from one mode of production to another. No single theory can be attributed to the transition.