An extract from Jonathan's White's Making Our Own History, on the debates surrounding the transition from feudalism to capitalism pioneered by Maurice Dobb, Rodney Hilton and Christopher Hill among others. The first post on British Marxist  historians can be seen here.

Perhaps the first seminal work addressed by the Communist Party Historians' Group, aside from Morton’s People’s History, was Maurice Dobb’s Studies in the Development of Capitalism. Dobb was a Cambridge economist who was deeply involved in practical and intellectual party work in the 1930s and 40s, recruiting key party intellectuals like James Klugmann and John Cornford and helping establish Communist organisation in Cambridge. HIs Studies in the Development of Capitalism was an attempt to analyse the existing state of knowledge about economic history through a Marxist understanding of the transition to capitalism. He drew on the work of Soviet and Western scholars alike and produced a distinctive and powerful interpretation that stressed the way in which contradictions within the feudal and then the capitalist mode of production, drove the actions of classes and generated social change. The influence of Dobb’s Studies was immense. It shaped the early work of the Group and also occasioned a still-influential debate with US Marxist Paul Sweezy over what exactly produced the transition to capitalism.


The interpretation developed by Dobb and refined by the medievalist Rodney Hilton argued that feudalism declined, through a complex dialectical interplay of its changing capacity to unleash productive forces and the unstable class struggle at its heart.  Feudalism was relatively dynamic as a mode of production, they argued, because it enabled peasants to directly farm their land in return for the payment of feudal dues in the form of labour services or rents in kind or money.

This relative dynamism also rested on a particular class relationship at its heart which over time destabilised it as a mode and laid the basis for the development of capitalism within the feudal mode. The struggle over feudal rent gave peasants an incentive to increase the productivity or scale of their land, or to resist feudal exactions to enable the retention of any surplus. Landlords similarly had an incentive to increase the exaction of surplus from peasants or add to their domains. Feudalism therefore brought more land under cultivation and initiated a class struggle which could concentrate larger estates by driving smaller peasants off the land, or could result in the consolidation of a middle layer of peasant holdings. As simple commodity production (as distinct from capitalist commodity production) grew with the extension and improvement of cultivation, market development interacted dynamically with this struggle, providing bigger incentives for both classes to fight over feudal rents.

The resolution of some of these class struggles in the favour of peasants in the 14th century enabled the growth of a prosperous middle layer of peasants who became the yeomen and lesser gentry of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, promoting capitalist economic relations in the countryside and hiring wage labourers to work their estates. Far from being a static or ‘natural’ economy, the feudal mode of production depicted by Dobb and Hilton was dynamic, based on a contradictory internal relationship which enabled development of productive forces and new relations of production, up to a point, whereupon the continued existence of feudal rents began to act as a fetter on the growing wealth and accumulation of a section of the peasantry morphing into an agrarian bourgeoisie.

This had consequences for the grip of the feudal nobility on state power, as Hilton argued, for ‘the economic basis of those who still held the commanding position in the state was being undermined, in spite of desperate attempts (as by absolute monarchs) to use their control of the state to maintain state power’. (p.117). This, Hilton argued, was the growing contradiction that gave rise to the the English Revolution.

Hilton refined but never abandoned this essential view of the forces at work in the dissolution of the feudal mode of production. As late as 1985, he produced a sophisticated discussion of the specific forces and relations of production of the European feudal mode and the way in which these produced a specific class struggle over feudal rents, pitching non-economic coercion by feudal landlords against peasant communities’ assertion of customary rights. In England, the resolution of this struggle during the 14th century on terms which relatively favoured the peasantry, in the context of a local land:labour ratio that enabled enhanced agricultural productivity unleashed the possibility of accumulation by a layer of the peasantry who became agrarian capitalists by the 16th and 17th centuries.

The English Revolution, of course occupied a central position in the work of the Historians Group. Its earliest work was aimed at understanding it as a bourgeois political revolution and the question continued to occupy the Section dealing with the Sixteenth and Seventeenth centuries. After a prolonged discussion in early 1948, and under Dona Torr’s guidance, the 16th and 17th century Section agreed the following statement:

‘The English Revolution of 1640-49 fulfilled the function of every bourgeois revolution: it swept away the main barriers to capitalist development. It produced remarkable creative developments in science, philosophy and the arts: the Royal Society and Newton, Hobbes and Locke, Milton, Bunyan, Defoe, Vanbrugh and Wren. It made possible the agrarian and industrial revolution. The England born in 1649, for all its bourgeois limitations had most powerful influence in world history: it showed the away to the American Revolution of 1776 and with it to the great French Revolution of 1789.’

In essence, the argument was that Charles I’s attempt to impose something resembling the absolutist state and its corresponding Church structure on the basis of the emergent capitalist social relations of the English countryside, towns and cities, generated a broad coalition of groups of an emergent bourgeoisie around the assertion of political and religious liberties. Charles’s defeat enabled the embedding of these liberties and the passage of a series of vital reforms that overthrew the last vestiges of feudal political and economic power, the sum total of which amounted to the passage of political power to England’s emergent bourgeoisie and as such a bourgeois revolution that not even the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660 could unwind.

CHRISTOPHER HILLChristopher Hill (pictured), who played a leading role in the discussions that produced this statement, maintained a version of this throughout his academic career. Constantly attacked by historians who demanded that any bourgeois revolution must be able to demonstrate a self-conscious bourgeois class brandishing collectively agreed manifestos, Hill countered that this was to fundamentally misunderstand the nature of revolutions and, especially, bourgeois revolutions. Bourgeois revolutions were not carried out by self-conscious classes who set out consciously to transform society but by groups of bourgeoises who sought to establish greater freedom for bourgeois property relations to prosper.

The revolution he argued, came about because more and more sections of propertied society became frustrated with a government that was not prepared to pursue an aggressive commercial policy overseas, could not agree to abolish wardship and feudal tenures on the land, was unprepared to consult parliament over its taxation policies and which appeared tyrannical in relation to the forms of protestant ideology through which large sections of propertied Englishmen organised their experience. The revolution resettled the state’s power on a basis where these forces were given new freedom and ‘the first political revolution’ enabled governments to focus single-mindedly on economic growth.

Hill also produced quite brilliant work on the ideological aspects of England’s bourgeois revolution, sensitively analysing the way in which groups of propertied English men and women in the seventeenth century found forms of puritan Protestantism, with its stress on inner authority and religion of the heart, helpful in enabling them to challenge the authority of Church and King, rooting the particular inflections of puritan reforming ideology in the particular experience as different propertied groups. The revolution also worked to transform these ideological reflections, he showed, creating material, political, social and economic conditions that led historical agents to rework their ideological inheritance, fashioning secular bourgeois ideologies of political economy and mechanistic materialism out of religious matter.

One final example. Maurice Dobb’s Studies in the Development of Capitalism had provided a framework not just for understanding the transition to capitalism but also the subsequent development of the capitalist mode of production, using Marxist ideas about the emergence of a monopoly phase during the late nineteenth century and into the twentieth. This, he argued, altered the patterns and rhythms of capitalist accumulation and also altered the composition of the working class.

The immense body of work produced by Eric Hobsbawm, with its grand sweep across the nineteenth and twentieth centuries demonstrates a consistent empirical and synthetic engagement with the way in which the development of the capitalist mode of production in Britain and Europe composed and recomposed the working class and how this was expressed in changing and developing rhythms and forms of class mobilisation. In Industry and Empire and his trilogy of Ages covering the period from 1789 to 1914, Hobsbawm established distinct phases of capitalist development within European social formations, from the laissez-faire phase in which Britain was able to benefit from its early break out to industrialisation to an early phase of monopolisation, in which the basis of capital and industry changed and in which Britain’s early imperial and financial advantages became fetters on monopolisation and industrial development and she began to lose competitive advantage. With each of these phases, the composition of the British working class changed, producing distinctive forms of resistance and mobilisation, from the rural collective bargaining by riot of the agrarian proletariat in the Captain Swing rising, to the politicised class mobilisation of the 1840s expressed in the form of Chartism, to the sectional class collaboration of the developing labour aristocracy from the 1860s and 70s and then the re-emergence of class mobilisations and their intersection with socialist politics during the Great Depression from the 1880s. During these mobilisations, the precise ideology of British workers was forged by them in conditions that existed independently of their will.

The emergence of labour organisations at a time of British world supremacy stamped sections of the labour movement with a material attachment to the benefits of empire or at least the vibrancy of British capitalism which only added to the forces creating a spontaneous orientation to reformism in emerging capitalist economies in Europe. It also meant that the labour movement emerged within an ideological milieu in which liberal laissez faire ideas were dominant and this coloured even the emergence of a revolutionary tradition in the British labour movement.


DISCOUNTS: There are discounts of up to 40% on purchases of 3 or more titles from this collection or of any combination of Praxis Press titles.

NEWSLETTER: Don't forget to sign up for our newsletter at the bottom of the page for details of forthcoming titles and special discounts.

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published