The Transition from Feudalism to Capitalism: the Dobb - Sweezy Debate
I've been promising some content here of a very different type than what I've posted so far. So here goes.
Recently I read the main documents in the Dobb-Sweezy debate on the transition from feudalism to capitalism. I wanted to open up discussion here on this if anyone is interested. From a Marxist perspective it's important to understand how feudalism fell, and the nature of the transition from feudalism to capitalism, in order to gain some potential insight into how capitalism will fall and what some of the important questions are in the transition from capitalism to socialism.
The main documents in the debate that I read are Maurice Dobb's The Decline of Feudalism and the Growth of Towns in Studies in the Development of Capitalism (1946), and Paul Sweezy's Critique of Dobb in The Transition from Feudalism to Capitalism, ed. R.H. Hilton (1976). Then there is Dobb's A Reply and A Further Comment and Sweezy's A Rejoinder, which are also in The Transition from Feudalism to Capitalism.
In this debate a main point of contention is between Dobb's attempt to demonstrate that capitalism emerged from contradictions internal to feudalism itself; while Sweezy more takes the position that capitalism developed independently of feudalism and overtook it as an external force because of its dynamism in contrast to feudalism's stagnancy. They also debate over what exactly defines feudalism. Dobb says that feudalism is essentially defined by the existence of serfdom. Sweezy says this definition is inadequate and that it may apply to Western European feudalism but shouldn't be generalized beyond that, as he accuses Dobb of doing.
Sweezy also raises the point that serfdom was ended in England in the 1500s, but feudalism didn't end until 1644-1645 - so how can Dobb explain that and how does he characterize that period in between. They disagree about how to characterize the period of the 1500's and 1600's in Western Europe, during the transition from feudalism to capitalism. Sweezy calls that period pre-capitalist commodity production. Dobb defines it as feudalism in an advanced state of dissolution.
Of course there is more to both of their arguments than this over-simplified summary, and I may have even unintentionally mischaracterized their positions in this quick recap. But I think this gets at some of the biggest points of contention between them. They both claim to be analyzing this history from a Marxist perspective, but come to different conclusions about the transition from feudalism to capitalism.
While reading these essays, I thought that both made some good points and at times I found myself convinced by things both of them said. But as someone who has studied Mao Zedong's essay On Contradiction a great deal, I found myself being pulled toward Dobb's argument that capitalism developed from contradictions internal to feudualism. It is a key point of Marxist philosophy (of dialectical and historical materialism), which Mao explains brilliantly in On Contradiction, that the primary basis of contradiction is internal.
In On Contradiction, Mao writes:
As opposed to the metaphysical world outlook, the world outlook of materialist dialectics holds that in order to understand the development of a thing we should study it internally and in its relations with other things; in other words, the development of things should be seen as their internal and necessary self-movement, while each thing in its movement is interrelated with and interacts on the things around it. The fundamental cause of the development of a thing is not external but internal; it lies in the contradictoriness within the thing. There is internal contradiction in every single thing, hence its motion and development. Contradictoriness within a thing is the fundamental cause of its development, while its interrelations and interactions with other things are secondary causes. Thus materialist dialectics effectively combats the theory of external causes, or of an external motive force, advanced by metaphysical mechanical materialism and vulgar evolutionism. It is evident that purely external causes can only give rise to mechanical motion, that is, to changes in scale or quantity, but cannot explain why things differ qualitatively in thousands of ways and why one thing changes into another.
Mao also writes:
Changes in society are due chiefly to the development of the internal contradictions in society, that is, the contradiction between the productive forces and the relations of production, the contradiction between classes and the contradiction between the old and the new; it is the development of these contradictions that pushes society forward and gives the impetus for the supersession of the old society by the new. Does materialist dialectics exdude external causes? Not at all. It holds that external causes are the condition of change and internal causes are the basis of change, and that external causes become operative through internal causes. In a suitable temperature an egg changes into a chicken, but no temperature can change a stone into a chicken, because each has a different basis.
From those quotes one could guess where Mao would weigh in, at least on the specific question of whether capitalism developed from contradictions internal to feudalism or whether capitalism emerged outside of feudalism.
Also of interest to this discussion, a website called Resistance mp3s has some mp3's of a debate on Feudalism and a Transition to Capitalism between Robert Brenner and Chris Harman. (the debate is on a site run by supporters of the British Socialist Workers Party, a Trot group - I think the mp3s are from an event sponsored by them).
Does anyone who's read this stuff or studied it want to chime in? Who do you think is more correct, Dobb or Sweezy? or do both of their arguments have serious contradictions? Any other thoughts on the transition from feudalism to capitalism?