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?

What is "feudalism"?

I have never read anything of the Dobb/Sweezy debate, so I can't comment directly on that. But just from reading this, it seems like Sweezy is more correct: capitalism has a dynamic of its own, and overtook earlier systems because of that dynamism.

As I said, I am not familiar with the specifics of this debate, so I wonder: to what extent does either one define what "feudalism" really is. I think it is a mistake to see the existence of any kind of "world system" prior to the rise of capitalism and the European conquest of the world that brought it about. There were trading networks and all kinds of cultural interaction throughout the "Old World" (and in the Americas) prior to Columbus, but it was capitalism that began to forge a real worldwide system.

Capitalism overcame all kinds of pre-capitalist societies -- and for long periods of time, it actually existed alongside such social forms. European serfdom was just one form of pre-capitalist society. There was also Chinese mandarin bureaucratic society, Ottoman and other Islamic societies, etc. Forms of landownership and structures of power were different from place to place, and those differences were arguably as important as the similarities. You can call all of those previous societies "feudalism" as a shorthand, but the point is that they were all pre-capitalist.

No matter how we analyze previous societies, though, it is impossible to discuss the rise of capitalism without discussing the specifics of the Western European conquest of the world, which had concomitant political forms (absolutism, crown companies, finally the nation-state, etc.) and was based on the widespread use of military force both to subjugate recalcitrant peoples and to fight rival colonialisms. Later, the white colonies of Europe (USA, Australia, etc.), Germany and Japan also got in on the action. But the point is that colonialism/imperialism/racism are inseparable from the history of actually-existing capitalism.

John Lacny
Tell no lies, claim no easy victories

I think John's on the right track.

I agree that "feudalism" is not a general category in terms of modes of production. This actually gets at what's probably the main Eurocentric bias in Marxism as it was originally developed. Classical Marxists, Trots, etc., have this view that a mode of production arises within the previous one when the contradictions have evolved such that the old stage has reached the limit of its development, so the new one springs forth out of places where the previous system was most advanced.

So this view contains the highly Eurocentric belief that Europe was the center of the precapitalist world. In reality, of course, the history of Europe was largely one of unstable statelets, warring city-states and the like, whereas much of the rest of the world--in Asia, Africa, Latin America, etc.--featured large, far-reaching empires that lasted for hundreds of years.

The reality is that capitalism developed in Europe because it was on the periphery of the precapitalist world, not at the center. The instability, turmoil, sharp contradictions of feudal Europe created interstices in the system that allowed new economic forms and new proto-classes based on them to sprout up. This is how qualitative change happens in all complex systems--in the peripheral areas/boundaries/transitions between stable domains. For example, in biological systems, speciation is known to occur most frequently in the boundaries between biomes, in disturbed ecosystems, etc.

This is a first-order insight, in my opinion, and one which flows largely from the thinking of Samir Amin in particular. This, of course, is why Maoism and other related "Third-World" Marxisms are essential--they are rooted in the experiences of the actual vast majority of the people in the world and are a lot less subject to many of the biases and distortions of Eurocentric forms of Marxism. (IMO, the same reasoning, of course, is a large part of the basis for our belief that the Third World is also the main locus of socialist revolution, rather than the imperialist metropoles.)

What Amin says is that constructs like "Oriental despotism," which were put forward to explain why feudalism didn't look like the pre-capitalist stage elsewhere in the world, are a complete crock. In fact, feudalism is in fact a weak and underdeveloped example of the broader mode of production he terms "tributary societies"--i.e., the main mechanism of accumulation was that of tribute, in various particular forms.

Going back to LS's original questions, it sound to me like neither Sweezy nor Dobb is completely right, but that Sweezy (unsurprisingly to me) is more on the right track. I agree with you a bit in that I wouldn't characterize the "internal"/"external" formulation quite like he did, but then I think even trying to reduce it to one of those two words is oversimplification to the point of invalidity.

One thing, among many, to

One thing, among many, to keep in mind is that the central feature of 'world systems' is not that any one system be 'global' in scope/reach, but that each 'system' is its own world. In other words, there is no assumption, at least in Wallerstein and others that any pre-capitalist 'world system' was global, but only that a 'world' was created in which the political economic relations were confined territorially limited, e.g. European Feudalism, was one of many 'world systems'.
Another point to keep in mind is that the European and mechanistic bias that pervades much (classical and modern) Marxism ignores the fundamental relations of so-called 'primitive accumulation'. Why would Marx spend so much time on the subject of resource extraction, especially in the new world and the colonial empires, if Capitalism 'began' only in England. The problem here, it seems is methodological, assuming England as a unit of analysis independent from its socio-historic context.
The architecture of prices, and price manipulation manifested in the capitalization formula that businesses and capitalists use today is just as important in the development of capitalism as are enclosures in England. This process, discounting future earnings in to contemporary prices, begun in the fairs and 'free-trade zones' of Medieval Europe, is believed in with more vigour and passion than any religion, cult or ideology the world has probably ever known.
I am not an expert on the Sweezy-Dobb, or the Brenner-Wood debates, but if we want to look for the 'origins' of capitalist social relations, the analysis needs to be broader than the 'internal' history of England/Europe and take seriously the long history of capital, interest, capitalization, credit, as social institutions and their development. The English Royalty and Aristocracy could not have funded their expensive political expansion without borrowing heavily from the lenders in Italy and the Low Countries, as well as kicking serfs from their land.
The point of a materialist understanding of history is understand social relations in their totality, not in their Anglo-Euro manifestations.

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