Origins of capitalism

The origins of capitalism and its emergence from feudalism has been studied for a long period of time and yet not one entirely valid study has been able to present consistent findings of this transition. However, this paper will focus on discussing Maurice Dobb and his analysis of transition from feudalism to capitalism, Paul Sweezy's debate against Dobbs theoretical findings and Brenner's analysis on importance of class structure in Britain compared to rest of the Europe in the emergence of capitalism.

The subject of feudalism as a mode of production was presented by Karl Marx, however, Maurice Dobb, a Marxist, subsequently followed the study and analysed the historical basis of feudalism from a socio-economic perspective. Dobb's analysis on feudalism tends to be used as the basis for many other historians interested in understanding feudalism, thus, this analysis is from his standpoint. Dobb defines Feudalism as a 'system under which economic status and authority were associated with land-tenure, and the direct producer (who was himself the holder of some land) was under obligation based on law or customary right to devote a certain quota of his labour or his produce to the benefits of his feudal superior' (1967). Feudalism here consisted of social relations between feudal lords and peasants. Feudal lords ruled over peasants and their lands and degraded any attempt of economical decisions taken by them even when upper class peasants had the ability to grow economically. Controlled peasants called 'serfs' utilized their small lands with produce and labor work and were required to allocate a part of their labor value and produce to the feudal lords; this was considered a petty mode of production in a socio-economic viewpoint of feudalism.

Dobb on transformation of feudalism to capitalism

Dobb begins to address decline of feudalism with emphasizing the reasoning to be rise in trade and merchant capital that destroyed the feudal system. It is argued that trade and merchant capital did not directly bring change to the feudal economic system; as the development of trade was closely related to the growth of division of labour, and that division of labour depended on rise of productivity of labour. The emergence of productivity of labour was brought about by the development of social forces of production which was structured by class relations of the economic system. Thus, trade and merchant capital was shaped by the feudal class relations. 'It was assumed that with the rise of trade, feudal productive units begun to act like and become essentially capitalist and wage labour is merely a formality, a matter of time' (Brenner, 1978).

Though very little emphasis was placed on the role of feudal class relations and its connection to trade, by Dobb, he does somewhat discuss the linkage between the two. Brenner analyses Dobbs view by stating 'with development of trade the growth of new needs would induce the landlords to attempt to increase output and thus to rationalize their estate' (1978). With increasing needs created by trade and money economy it was believed that extra-economical pressure was imposed by feudal superiors on peasants when they had limited peasant production forces, thus, this led to the transformation of feudalism to capitalism.

Dobb also arises the issue of bourgeois revolution that according to him was brought about by the emergence of an urban setting; a commercial-industrial development. According to Dobb considering 'lord-peasant class relations, and the outcome of lord-peasant class conflict' (Dobb 1946) were important to understand the growth of towns in the feudal society that led to the rise of commercial-industrial advancement. During the period of the transition, development of towns in feudal societies were due to increased demand for weaponry and luxury products occurring from feudal class relations and 'the lack of demand for agriculture means of production' (Brenner, 1978). This was also the reason for growth of trade which was developed by the rise of interest in exchanging peasant-produced food for luxury goods.

Dobb's analysis on transition of feudalism to capitalism does at some point contradict itself, however it gives a vast in-depth study to understand the matter better and imposes relatively valid points. In conclusion, according to Dobb, rise of trade and merchant capital was the core motive for decline of feudalism; this commercial transformation of the economy was caused by inefficient feudal mode of production that entailed problematic social class relations between lords and peasants. He also states that declining agricultural productivity and rising demand for commodity production led to rise of capitalism where free wage labour and money-rent capitalist economic system was established.

Sweezy's Debate

Sweezy's interpretation of arising capitalism was from an 'economical' perspective, whereas compared to Dobb which had more of a socio-economical viewpoint. Sweezy, an American Marxist, contradicted his position when stating himself a part of Marxian as his interpretation lacked understanding Marxian economic development, thus this brought about the debate by an extreme Marxist, Maurice Dobb.

Instead of looking into the matter of capitalism from different states, Sweezy placed importance on prolonged world market that aroused from colonization of the America. He believed it was the growth of demand in the market that developed capitalistic economy. This notion of market growth was rejected by Dobb arguing that growth of market could have resulted in various manners, such as, in the eastern Europe rising demand for grains resulted in highly exploiting feudalism in the early modern period, developing a 'second feudalism'.

Dobb and Sweezy both, emerging from Marxism, defined feudalism and its importance in a contrary manner. Dobb's explanation the transition of the capitalistic economy was entirely based on the origins of it being feudalism, he believed that it was the outcome of an inefficient social class relation between lords and peasants, and the mode of production forces under these classes. Whereas, Sweezy argued that feudal lords did not have a role in he formation of capitalism as this money-economy took place in an urban market sector (YEAR). He believed feudalism did not fetter development of capitalism. For him, the description of feudalism was 'as production for use and capitalism as production for the market' (M. C. Howard and J. E. King, 1990). Sweezy argues on Dobb's view on power of feudal lords and significance of social class restricting the emergence of capitalism as being not as lucrative as it is to understand the matter of production for the market.

Sweezy's act of ignoring and overlooking on bourgeois revolution also aroused arguments by Dobb, as lacking consideration of this period of time, resulted in giving an oversimplified interpretation.

At many stages Sweezy tend to argue on Dobb's interpretation of transition to capitalism, however, Dobb's analysis, regardless of his self contradiction, was given greater appreciation than the analysis presented by Sweezy. Historians have supported Sweezy's explanation and debatable points, nevertheless, his arguments have aroused more critical issues.

M. C. Howard and J. E. King (1990) highlights limitations of Sweezy's interpretation by stating 'He is unable to explain why markets and cities were more developed in Italy and in northwestern Europe than in the eastern and peripheral regions of the continent, except by referring to the earlier development of markets in those regions. Nor, if existing markets are the main predictor of future capitalist development, can Sweezy explain how the once backward market sector of England overtook the older mercantile cities in the seventeenth century' (1990).

Brenner's Debate

Being inspired by understanding the transition to capitalism, by various historians, such as Maurice Dobb, Robert Brenner highlights the significance of agriculture industry in the late transition period when bourgeois revolution was approaching with its market development and impact of division of labour that highly influenced the decline of feudalism (...). This section of the paper discusses Brenner's scrutiny on the importance of class structure in development of capitalism. A comparative approach is taken to discuss the understanding of class relationships amongst the core industry, agriculture, in England and France (the most discussed region in Brenner's study). The class structure here is referred to as agrarian class structures to identify its importance of dividing peasantry class in farming and to distinguish it from other industrial groups where class relationships were not as influential (1976).

According to Brenner, agriculture capitalism emerged when peasantry farmers were classified in three social groups, wealthy farmers, who were considered landlords; middle range, being tenant farmers; and poor peasants being 'wage labourers' (Brenner 1976 ).

Brenner argues that these class structures were not beneficial elsewhere in Europe; France, he specifies. 'Thus, his argument creates suspicions as it lacks understanding the grounds of French economic revolution' .

To support his view on implying class structures in England and not in France, he states 'English lords and yeoman farmers could not look to profitable adopting to rent squeezing methods that were generally taken up these groups in France in this period' .

Brenner's analysis on utilizing formation of agrarian class structures in England proved to be more beneficial than in France was for various reasons. Firstly, the failure of English peasantry that was caused by inefficiency in the social relations in the feudal mode of production led to structuring classes of the English peasantry in the development of agricultural economy (Brenner 1976).

How was class structures applied in England?

In application of this classes structure in England, Brenner views large-scale farms as an

  • In brenners view England was considered a large-scale farms, and these large farms resulted in agricultural breakthrough (L. A. Clarkson 1971).
  • poor peasants=wage labourer: it was difficult for them to survive in the economy as they were not capable for boosting their growth in the agrarian culture. They didn't have a choice but to offer labor services in the fields in order to survive (J. Cornwall 1954).
  • middle range: were tenants. Began the merchant-capital economy, using wage-labour systems. Important in boosting the transformation from feudal to capitalism. They used fixed rents, and were in position to capitalize on the demand for land and rising rents. LARGEST GROUPS IN THE DEVELOPMENT OF CLASS STRUCTURES.
  • wealthy: landlords: as the lands were increasing in capital value, only villagers with resources, and above-average acres, could take advantage of vacant holdings.

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