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Jonathan Lindsell, Trinity College 25/04/2011 Can Marx's theory of history be used to develop a satisfactory account of the transition from feudalism to capitalism?
Karl Marx is one of the nineteenth century's most important, influential and infamous thinkers. His theories have created an eponymous strand of historical thought and interpretation, based on observations of economic change. Marx's theory rests on three ideas: the Mode of Production, the Forces/Means of Production, and the Social Relations of Production. The Mode of Production (MOP) encapsulates society's structure - its laws, customs, cultures, religions and state model, because all of these contribute to determining a state's economic organisation, whether it be classical, feudal or capitalist. The Forces of Production are "anything required to make articles of utility", i.e. resources, raw materials, tools, fuels, technologies and labour1. The Social Relations of Production are the relationships between those who own the forces of production, and those who must work for them to survive, the providers of labour. This creates the fundamental opposition in Marxist history, the competition between the exploiter class and the exploited class for the surplus (labour, product, profit etc), a perpetual class war that he believed could only end when the proletariat overthrew the bourgeoisie and inherited the world. However, such a titanic event was not to happen in the period studied. Using this Marxist framework it is possible to construct an account of the transition from entirely feudal economies such as those of Europe in the twelfth century, to early capitalist economies like those of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Marx himself gave one account of the transition, but in the trend of historiography, experts preferred to attribute the rise of capitalism to demographic and market arguments. However in 1976 Robert Brenner created a debate in his name with an essay criticising prevailing demographic accounts and putting forward a developed argument based on Marx's, which again saw class relations as the primary factor, with malthusianisms only affecting the time and place of the change. Since both sides of the argument have notable merit, this essay shall attempt to outline each and create a synthesis hypothesis for the development of the economy from feudalism to capitalism. In 'Capital's description of primitive accumulation, Marx explains his theory of economic development, which has to take place before the capitalist model of surplus creating capital, which can be reinvested to create a superior surplus ad infinitum. He claims "the economic structure of capitalist societies has grown out of the economic structure of feudal society. The dissolution of the latter set free the elements of the former"2. The proletariat had to be free of the land to be employable in industry, but by leaving the soil he was often left without any means of productions, or the "guarantees of existence afforded by the old feudal arrangements"3. In England, serfdom was gone by the fifteenth century, their agricultural role now fulfilled by proto-capitalist free peasant proprietors. The sixteenth century outlawing of retainers created a larger, free proletariat who were hurled on the labour market, at the very same time landlords were appropriating land for enclosure and sheep-walks, having finally realised that these were more profitable than small subdivided tenant holdings. Similarly Henry VIII's dissolution of the monasteries evicted its inmates, who became part of the proletariat, and Church land was sold to capitalist farmers who drove out the previous tenants. The post-restoration Stewarts had abolished feudal tenure and state obligations in favour of universal taxation, whilst the Glorious Revolution 1
Modelling the Middle Ages, John Hatcher and Mark Bailey, p. 69 Capital, Karl Marx, p. 363 3 Ibid, p.365 2
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