Chris Harman


Mutual destruction

(January 1993)

From Socialist Review, No.160, January 1993, p.29.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The medieval machine
Jean Gimpel
Pimlico £10

Classical Marxism has always held that different modes of production – ancient slave societies, oriental despotism, feudalism and capitalism – corresponded to different levels of development of the ways of creating wealth or what Marx called the forces of production.

It is a view that has come under attack from two quarters in recent years – from the new school of historical sociologists influenced by Ernest Gellner and from the school of political Marxism associated with Bob Brenner and Ellen Wood.

Their views of social development differ. But they base themselves on a common assertion – that the forces of production did not develop significantly within precapitalist societies, and so could not explain the internal development of such societies.

Gimpel, the author of this book, is not a Marxist. He has a view of historical development much cruder than either Brenner or Gellner, basing himself on the view of history as a cyclical process involving the automatic rise and fall of civilisations. Yet in this work he provides a valuable service for those of us who have tried to defend the classical Marxist view – he provides irrefutable proof of massive developments in the forces of production under feudalism.

From the 10th to the 14th century there were enormous advances in the production of crops, tapping sources of energy, the extraction of metals, the construction and use of machinery, the design and erection of buildings.

By the 14th century human effort was producing a vast array of things unknown not merely to ninth century Europe, but also to the Roman and Hellenic empires at their peak – the compass, the cannon, the great medieval cathedrals and castles, the windmill, the use of the horse in ploughing, three field rotation in farming, the making of paper.

Many of these innovations were borrowed from more advanced civilisations outside Europe, but for three centuries the social relations of feudalism allowed them to be applied productively in a way that did not occur elsewhere.

What is more, these centuries also saw enormous advances in human knowledge. Though nominally working within the confines of Catholic theology, thinkers like Peter Abelard and Roger Bacon attempted to use insights obtained from Greek and Arabic sources to understand empirical reality through reason.

Most of this progress came to an abrupt end in the 14th century. An enormous crisis convulsed feudal Europe. Terrible famine was followed by the onslaught of bubonic plague, the Black Death. Two centuries of relative peace were followed by a century of endless war. Bitter revolts and civil wars broke out in Flanders, northern Italy, Paris and southern England. By the end of the century the population had been halved.

Most innovation stopped – although the next century was to see the all-important invention of printing and continued perfection of military technology. There were even cases of complete regression, with the knowledge of techniques dying out, so that clocks made in the 14th century could not be repaired 200 years later. And in the universities and monasteries the pursuit of rational knowledge was replaced by mysticism as the church hierarchy stamped out dissident thought so thoroughly that Renaissance thinkers of the late 15th century were often unaware of advances made 200 years before.

Gimpel sees all this as exemplifying an overriding cyclical view of history. But there is a much easier way to understand it. Feudalism could permit the advance of the forces of production up to a certain point, but no further. Then the whole of society entered into crisis. Unfortunately, the immense class struggles that accompanied this crisis did not lead to a new class, based upon new ways of organising production, achieving a great revolutionary victory and reshaping society in its own image – although there were moments when this seemed nearly possible.

Feudalism dragged on for another two centuries, expanding its scope to encompass whole new areas of Eastern Europe and Latin America, before once again experiencing immense crisis and revolutionary convulsions. And even that was not the end of the miserable story. Those convulsions led to a revolutionary breakthrough only in Britain and the Netherlands, but to defeat and regression in Germany, Bohemia and Italy, and to stagnation in France. Half a millennium had to elapse between the first feudal crisis and the definitive triumph of capitalism.

That, of course, is the account of social development outlined by Marx amd Engels in the German Ideology, the Communist Manifesto, the Preface to the Critique of Political Economy and Socialism Scientific and Utopian. Despite his own confusions, Gimpel’s book is a valuable tool for those of us who want to defend that account.

Last updated on 18 June 2010