transition from feudalism to capitalism

transition from feudalism to capitalism

the process in Western Europe between the 15th and 18th centuries by which feudal society was succeeded by capitalist society. The term is most often associated with Marxist approaches but a distinctive Weberian approach can also be identified.

Marxists disagree about the decisive factors involved in the process. MARX identified two main factors: the emergence of autonomous craft manufacturing in the feudal towns around which capital developed; and the growth of overseas trade, particularly with the emergence of trade with the Americas in the 16th century and the emergence of merchant capital. The development was limited while labourers were tied to the land either as SERFS or independent PEASANTS. In England the enclosures movement forced the peasantry off the land, thus providing a labour supply for the towns and wage-labour on the land. Other European countries were slower in developing this ‘free’ labour force. Marx also spoke of the feudal aristocracy being replaced by the new BOURGEOISIE, but more recent analyses have shown that this is an oversimplification, especially in England where sections of the aristocracy became capitalist landlords and later became involved in industrial capitalism. Subsequent Marxist debates have centred around whether the growth of trade, the transformation of the labour force, or class conflict within FEUDALISM were the most important aspects of this process. (See Hilton (ed.), 1976, and Aston and Philipin (eds.), 1985, for two collections of key debates.)

The Weberian approach lays great emphasis upon the political changes in Western European feudalism, drawing on WEBER's observation that the key contradiction was between the attempts at centralization by the monarchy, and the local and regional powers invested in the feudal lords. Part of that contradiction was also expressed in the growth of towns as administrative and trading centres. Further, WEBER's thesis on the role of the PROTESTANT ETHIC introduces the role of beliefs in explaining social and economic change largely missing from the Marxist debate. However, Weber, in emphasizing such socioeconomic changes as the growth of trade, and transformations of labour force, should not be contrasted in any simplistic fashion with Marx.

This proviso is reflected in the appearance of recent works which examine the process drawing on both analytical traditions. Thus Perry ANDERSON (1974a & b) develops a Marxist approach which relies heavily on Weberian insights into the political contradictions and the role of the Christian Church, and Michael MANN (1986) provides an analysis drawing widely on both. See also CAPITALISM, SOCIAL CHANGE.

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