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Marx already indicated in Capital (vol. 1, p.
325), though very briefly, that
"Peasant agriculture on a small scale, and the
carrying on of independent handicrafts, which
together form the basis of the feudal mode of pro-
duction, and after its dissolution continue side by
side with the capitalist mode, also form the economic
foundation of the classical communities at their
best, after the primitive form of ownership of land
in common had disappeared, and before slavery had
seized production in earnest."
If we follow up this thought of Marx's in the
light of modern knowledge, the slave societies of
Greece and Rome appear more and more as
exceptional excrescences, a temporary complica-
tion and distortion of basically feudal relations
due to specific historical conditions.
Engels' observation that slavery accompanies
all other forms of exploitation (with, of course,
varying degrees of attenuation) will then be seen
as very significant for the analysis of historical
processes. Today it is abundantly clear that
capitalism does not exclude slavery: not only have
we seen it practised in its most revolting form in
Hitler Germany, in essence it is the basis of the
colonial system, and, in the period of rising
capitalism, "the turning of Africa into a warren
for the commercial hunting of blackskins" was
one of the "chief momenta of primitive accumula-
tion" (Capital, vol. 1, p. 775).
Slavery in Africa
These considerations will be found of most par-
ticular importance for the destruction of the
imperialist myth of "primitive" Africa which
stands so prominently in the way of our recogni-
tion of the fundamental significance of the African
question for the world advance to socialism. I
would like to pay tribute here to those writers on
African subjects who have helped to destroy part
of that myth. In particular, Basil Davidson in his
latest book Mother Africa has effectively disposed
of the illusion that the slave trade was conducted
exclusively by white men who pounced on the
unsuspecting "savages" to take them away. In
fact, as the sources clearly reveal (e.g. the failure
of Master lohn Hawkins to make a business out
of this sort of proceedings), the slaves had to be
purchased by way of regular commerce from the
African merchants. Slave raiding by whites on the
continent itself was the rare exception, not the
rule, and slaves procured in this way, being "con-
traband", were difficult to dispose of.
This throws quite a difl^erent light on the state
of development of African society and the sig-
nificance of slavery in Africa at different times.
For the ancient period, all we can say with cer-
tainty is that slaves were among the exports from
tropical Africa both overland and overseas some
2,000 to 3,000 years ago. We do not know how
intermittent the trade was, or how deeply it pene-
trated into the interior in that distant past, much
less have we any basis for asserting that there
existed a full-blown sysiciu of slave society com-
parable to Greece or Rome.
Although there are indications that the slave
trade continued alongside the trade in commodi-
ties into the early capitalist era, it seems only in
the latter period, when the demand for slaves for
the capitalist plantations of America became
insistent, that slaves were exported in truly vast
numbers. This could not but affect social and
economic conditions in Africa. From the 17th
century onward our sources show that slaves
formed at all events a considerable proportion of
the labour forces, in handicrafts as well as in
agriculture, but mainly in porterage. In some
African states all subjects of a king were auto-
matically regarded as his slaves. Payment of
tribute was often demanded in the form of slaves.
The "production" of slaves for sale became a
regular industry and put a .sharp brake on the
development of home industries in favour of over-
seas imports.
Nevertheless, we will seek in vain here for any
but superficial parallels with ancient Greece or
Rome. The crucial point is that the trade was
organised for the capitalist world market, that, to
quote Marx again, it "signalled the rosy dawn of
the era of capitalist production". Failure to recog-
nise this has been responsible for a great deal of
misconception about Africa, and it is high time
that we approach the study of this problem in the
spirit of Marx, and resist attempts to reduce
Marxism to a dead letter.
From Feudalism to Capitalism
Eric Hobsbawm
F the various stages of historical develop-
ment listed by Marx in the Preface to The
Critique of Political Economy the
"Asiatic, ancient, the feudal and the modern
bourgeois" modes of production, the feudal and
the capitalist have been accepted without serious
question, while the existence, or the universality
of the other two has been queried or denied.
On the other hand the problem of the transi-
tion from feudalism to capitalism has probably
given rise to more Marxist discussion than any
other connected with the periodisation of world
history. Thus in the 1950's there took place the
well-lcnown international discussion on this point
by Paul Sweezy, Maurice Dobb, H. K. Takahashi,
Christopher Hill and Rodney Hilton (supplemen-
ted by interventions from the late Georges
Lefebvre, A Soboul and Giuliano Procacci).i. In
the same decade there occurred a lively, but in-
conclusive, discussion on the "fundamental law of
feudalism" in the USSR, i.e., on the mechanism
which necessarily leads feudalism to be replaced
by capitalism, as the historic tendency of capital
accumulation, in Marx' s analysis, leads capitalism
to its doom.2 There are no doubt other such dis-
cussions, particularly in Asian countries, of which
1 am unfortunately ignorant.
The object of this note is not to provide yet
another answer to the questions raised by the
transition from feudalism to capitalism, but to fit
it into the more general discussion of the stages
of social development, which Marxism Today has
re-opened. This can perhaps best be done by put-
ting forward a few propositions for discussion.
(1) The first concerns the universality of feudal-
ism. As Joan Simon stated in Marxism Today,
June 1962, summarising the recent one-day debate
on the subject organised by the journal and the
History Group of the Communist Party, the
general drift of Marxist discussion in recent
decades has tended to widen the scope of "feudal-
ism" at the expense of social forms previously
classified as primitive-communal, Asiatic, etc.
"In practice this means that 'feudalism', hav-
ing become a sort of residuary legatee, now
stretches over a vast expansefrom primitive
societies up to the triumph of capitalism, which
in some countries is in this century, and from
China to West Africa, perhaps even to Mexico."
(Marxism Today 1962, p. 184.)
Without necessarily agreeing that the present
wide scope of "feudalism" is entirely justified, it
is clear that it is an extremely widespread social
formation. It is true that the precise form of
feudahsm varies considerably. The closest parallel
to the fully developed European version is no
doubt that found in Japanthe similarities are
very strikingwhereas in other areas the parallel-
ism is rather less close, and in yet others feudal
1 The Transition from Feudalism to Capitalism; A
Symposium, Fore Publications n.d.; La Pensee Jan.-
Feb. 1956: Une discussion historique. Du
feodalisme au capitalisme.
2 So far as I know this discussion has not been
made available in English, and it appears not to
be reflected in the recent Fundamentals of
elements are merely part of a rather differently
constituted society.
(2) Now it seems clear that under these circum-
stances it is very doubtful whether we can speak
of a universal tendency of feudalism to develop
into capitalism. In fact, of course, it did so only
in one region of the world, namely western Europe
and part of the Mediterranean area. There is
room for argument about whether in certain other
areas (e.g., Japan and parts of India) such an
evolution would eventually have been completed,
by purely internal forces, had not their historic
development been interrupted by the intrusion of
western capitalism and imperialist powers. We may
also debate how far the tendencies towards capi-
talism had gone in such areas. (In the case of
Japan it may be that the answer to the first ques-
tion is "yes" and the answer to the second "very
far", but this is a subject on which the non-expert
must hesitate to express an opinion). It may also
be argued that the tendencies towards such
development were present everywhere, though its
pace was sometimes so slow as to be negligible.
Certainly no Marxist will deny that the forces
which made for economic development in Europe
operated everywhere, though not necessarily with
the same results in difl'erent social and historical
circumstances. But there is no getting round the
fact that the transition from feudalism is, on a
world scale, a case of highly uneven development.
The triumph of capitalism occurred fully in one
and only one part of the world, and this region
in turn transformed the rest. Consequently we
have to explain primarily the special reasons whicir
caused this to happen in the Mediterranean-
European region and not elsewhere.
(3) This does not mean that the problem is to
be solved in purely European terms. On the con-
trary, it is evident that at various crucial stages
the relations between Europe and the rest of the
world were decisive. Broadly speaking, Europe was
for most of its history a region of barbarism on
the extreme western margin of the zone of civilisa-
tion, which extended from China in the East
through southern Asia to the Near and Middle
East. (Japan occupies a similar marginal position
at the east of this area, though much closer to
the centres of civilisation). At the very outset of
European history (as Gordon Childe showed) the
economic interrelations with the Near East were
important. This is also true at the outset of
European feudal history, when the new barbarian
(though potentially much more progressive)
economy established itself on the ruins of the
ancient Greco-Roman empires, and its most
advanced centres lay along the final stages of the
pipe-line of East-West trade through the Medi-
terranean (Italy, the Rhine valley). It is even more
obvious at the outset of European capitalism,
when the conquest or colonial exploitation of
America, Asia, Africaand parts of Eastern
Europemade possible the primary accumulation
of capital in the area in whicji it finally broke
through to victory.
(4) This area comprises parts (but not by any
means all) of mediterranean, central and western
Europe. Thanks to archaeological and historical
work, mainly since 1939, we are now in a position
to establish the main stages of its economic
development. They are:
(A) a period of relapse, following the break-up
of the west-Roman empire followed by the gradual
evolution of a feudal economy and perhaps a
recession in the lOth century A.D. ("The dark
(B) A period of extremely widespread and rapid
economic development from about 1000 A.D. to
the early 14th century (the "high middle ages")
which form the peak of feudalism. This period
saw a marked growth of population, agricultural
and manufacturing production and trade, the
virtual revival of cities, a great outburst of culture,
and a striking expansion of the western feudal
economy in the form of "crusades" against the
.Moslems, emigration, colonisation and the setting
up of trading-posts abroad.
(C) A major "feudal crisis" in the 14lh and 15th
centuries, marked by a collapse of large-scale
feudal agriculture, of manufactures and inter-
national trade, by population decline, attempted
social revolution and ideological crisis.
(D) A renewal period of expansion from the
mid-15th to the mid-17th century marked for the
first time by signs of a major break in the basis
and superstructure of feudal society (the Reforma-
tion, the elements of bourgeois revolution in the
Netherlands) and the first clear break-out of the
European traders and conquerors into America
and the Indian Ocean. This is the period which
Marx regarded as marking the beginning of the
capitalist era (Capital, I, Dona Torr edn., p.739).
(E) Another period of crisis, adjustment or set-
back, the "seventeenth century crisis" coincides
with the first clear break-through of bourgeois
society, the English Revolution. It is followed by a
renewed and increasingly general period of
economic expansion which culminates in
(F) The definite triumph of capitalist society in
the virtually simultaneous Industrial Revolution
in Britain, the American Revolution and the
French Revolution, all occurring in the last
quarter of the 18th century.
The economic development of eastern Europe
is somewhat different. Perhaps roughly comparable
in periods (A) and (B), a break occurs with the
conquest of large areas by Asian peoples (Mon-
gols, Turks), and during period (D) and (E) parts
of it are subordinated as semi-colonies to the
developing western capitalist area, and undergo
a process of re-feudalisation.
(5) The transition from feudalism to capitalism
is therefore a long and by no means uniform pro-
cess. It covers at least five of our six phases. The
discussion of this transition has turned largely on
the character of the centuries between the first
clear signs of breakdown of feudalism (period (C),
the "feudal crisis"^ in the i4th century) and the
definitive triumph of capitalism at the end of the
18th century. Each of these phases contains strong
elements of capitalist developmente.g.. in period
(B) the striking rise of the Italian and Flemish
textile manufactures, which collapsed during the
feudal crisis. On the other hand nobody has
seriously maintained that capitalism prevailed
before the 16th century or that feudalism prevailed
after the late 18th. However, nobody can doubt
that for all or most of the last 1000 years before
1800 ec(inomic evolution consistently took place
in the same direction. Not everywhere, and not
at the same time. There were areas which relapsed,
after leading the field (e.g., in Italy). There were
areas which altered the direction of their evolution
for a lime. Again, not uniformly. Each major
crisis saw formerly "leading" countries drop back,
overtaken by formerly backward but potentially
more progressive ones, like England. But there
can be no serious doubt that each phase in its way
advanced the victory of capitalism, even those
which superficially appear as periods of economic
(6) If this is so, it is certainly probable that there
exists a fundamental contradiction in this par-
ticular form of feudal society which drives it ever
forward towards the victory of capitalism. The
nature of this contradiction has not yet been .satis-
factorily clarified. On the other hand it is also
clear that the forces which resist such a develop-
ment, though weaker, are far from negligible. For
the transition from feudalism to capitalism is
not a simple process by which the capitalist ele-
ments within feudalism are strengthened until they
are strong enough to burst out of the feudal shell.
What we see time and again (as in the 14th and
5 This crisis first attracted serious attention in the
I930's. Marxist discussions of it occur in M. Dobb,
Studies in die Development of Capitalism (1946),
R. H. Hilton in Annales E.S.C. 1951, 23-50 (in
French), F. Graus, 'J'he first crisis of feudalism (in
German and Czech. 1953, 1955), M. Malowist (in
Polish) 1953, 19.54 and E. A. Ko.sminsky. Feudal
rent in England U'ast and Present, 7, 1955).
probably the 17th centuries) is that a crisis of
feudalism also involves the most advanced sections
of bourgeois development within it, and therefore
produces an apparent setbaclc. Progress no doubt
goes on or resumes elsewhere, in hitherto more
backward areas, such as England. But the interest-
ing thing about the 14th century crisis (for
instance) is not only the collapse of large-scale
feudal demesne agriculture, but also that of the
Italian and Flemish textile industries, with their
capitalist employers and proletarian wage-workers
and an organisation which has almost got to the
verge of industrialisation. England advances; but
the much greater Italy and Flanders never recover
and temporarily total industrial production there-
fore diminishes. Naturally such a long period in
which the forces of capitalism are rising, but time
and again fail to burst out of the feudal integu-
ment, or are even involved in the feudal crisis, is
difficult to describe in static terms. Much of the
unsatisfactory nature of Marxist discussion about
the period between the first general crisis of
feudalism and the much later unquestioned vic-
tory of capitalism, reflects this difficulty.
(7) How far does this picture of a progressive
replacement of feudalism by capitalism apply to
regions outside the "heartland" of capitalist
development? Only to a very small extent. There
are admittedly certain signs of comparable
development under the impetus of the develop-
ment of the world market after the 16th century,
perhaps in the encouragement of textile manu-
factutes in India. But these are more than offset
by the opposite tendency, namely that which
turned the other areas that came into contact with
and under the influence of the European powers
into dependent economies and colonies of the west.
In fact, large parts of the Americas were turned
into slave economies to serve the needs of
European capitalism, and large parts of Africa
were pushed back economically through the slave-
trade; large areas of eastern Europe were turned
into neo-feudal economies for similar reasons. And
even the temporary and slight stimulus to the
development of commercial farming and manu-
factures which the rise of European capitalism
may have provided here and there, was stopped
short by the deliberate de-industrialisation of the
colonies and semi-colonies as soon as they looked
like competing with home production or even (as
in India) attempted to supply their own market
instead of relying on imports from Britain. The
net effect of the rise of European capitalism was
therefore to intensify uneven development, and
to divide the world ever more sharply into two
sectors: the "developed" and the "under-
developed" countries, in other words the exploit-
ing and the exploited. The triumph of capitalism
at the end of the 18th century put the .seal on this
development. Capitalism, while no doubt provid-
ing the historic conditions for economic trans-
formation everywhere, in fact made it more diffi-
cult than before for the countries which did not
belong to the original nucleus of capitalist develop-
ment or its immediate neighbours. The Soviet
Revolution of 1917 alone provided the means and
the model for genuine world-wide economic
growth and balanced development of all peoples.
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