Chris Harman


Chris Wickham, Feudalism
and Forces of Production


First published on Chris Harman’s Back Pages, 27 March 2009.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

These are comments Chris Wickham asked me to provide early in 2008 on a draft of his of his article “Productive forces and the economic logic of the feudal mode of production”. The final version of the article appeared in Historical Materialism 16.2. Extracts from his draft are in bold.

(1) Your article starts by stressing how little development of the forces of production under feudalism:

“I also want to put an intellectual, a historical, case for their analytical marginality, at least in the feudal mode of production, at least in certain specific forms of the feudal mode of production”.

“It seems to me, it is at the empirical level that the causative importance of the development of the productive forces is most problematic in any study of past societies, above all in any study of feudalism.”

But later on you do show significant development in medieval Europe. Just to give a few examples:

“The heavy plough steadily expanded in early medieval north-western Europe, in terrains suitable for its use, across the early middle ages, but we do not have enough evidence for that process to allow us to provide causes for it. The same is true of water-mills, which spread across Europe from the Mediterranean in the same period, extending already by the seventh century even to Ireland, and becoming standard in the England of Domesday Book, by which time they were generalised in the European countryside as a whole.”

“An even more extreme absence of evidence surrounds the spread of irrigation in southern Europe, particularly in the lands under Arab rule, eighth- to thirteenth-century southern Spain and ninth- to eleventh-century Sicily. This must have been the single most dramatic productive advance in the whole of medieval agrarian history.”

“The development of intensive manuring needs to be added; so does a slow improvement in metal tools.”

“By the thirteenth century, whole regions were beginning to export agricultural products systematically, wine from much of central and western France, wool from England, timber from central Germany and southern Norway, stockfish from northern Norway, and so on.”

“For England, Richard Britnell and Chris Dyer, both influenced by Marxism, have, among others, argued for a considerable commercial development in the central and later middle ages, and for productive investment by all social classes, not least the peasantry (e.g. in barns for better storage, and horses for ploughing), with an eye to the market; wage labour seems now to have been the mainstay of, some say a third, some say nearly half, of the population of England (and more in some areas), from as early as 1300, although not rising from that level until at least the sixteenth century. For Europe as a whole, Larry Epstein has generalised from work of this kind in a more explicitly Marxist direction, stressing technological innovation during the same period, although he sees its wide generalisation across Europe as having been held back by transaction costs, and also stressing the growth of rural proto-industrialisation in many places, a topic which has received considerable attention in recent years. These historians do not underestimate the development of the productive forces, that is to say (though they do not use the terminology), but they also see feudal social relations as entirely able to absorb such developments: ‘up to a point feudalism thrived on trade’, in Epstein’s phrase.”

“this network of changes, all of which show a development in the productive forces – there is no doubt of that”.

The point is that there was development, and cumulative development. It was very slow, there could be setbacks, sometimes regression, but development nevertheless took place. If you generalise from the feudalism in the traditional sense (which we both reject) of being confined to western Europe to a mode than existed through much of Eurasia-Africa from the ending of “corporate kin societies” (or whatever people want to call them) to the rise of capitalism, there was clearly quite considerable development, even if it took millennia to take place. (I started off my research for my People’s History assuming stagnation in what I then thought of the “Asiatic modes” in ancient Egypt and even China, and was stunned to discover how wrong I was – e.g. the introduction of new irrigation techniques in Egypt, the horse, iron etc.; in China the spread of rice cultivation in the Yangtse valley in the first millennium, the use of the wheelbarrow, improved planting techniques, plus all the advances in craft industrial techniques, shipping etc.).

I stress these points because it was one of the things that led me to sharp disagreements with the position held by Bob Brenner and others who hold the “political Marxist” approach like Ellen Wood. Their starting point is stagnation of near-stagnation (see e.g. the transcript of the debate between Bob and me at the joint ISJ-HM day school three years ago (

From my point of view, recognising the importance enables one to understand how feudalism itself was transformed, to what you call a” high-level equilibrium system” – and not just in western Europe. Again, my researches (and my ability to visit ancient cities, museums and ruins in places like India and China since airfares got a lot cheaper ) how close were the levels of technology and agriculture were in different parts of Eurasia and northern Africa until at least the 17th century. For me there seems to be some connection between this and considerable similarities within the ruling classes etc. (Although I would add, there was uneven and sometimes non-linear development – e.g. Chinese society under the Sung and the Abbasid middle east were clearly very different from contemporary Europe – but then they were in different way technologically ahead of Europe).

(2) You are quite right to say that:

“the way techniques and the labour process, on the one hand, interact with exploitation and resistance, on the other, is dependent on the economic logic of specific modes

and to spell out some of the characteristic features of feudalism, e.g.:

“under feudalism, it is producers (normally peasant families, sometimes small artisans) who control the labour process, and surplus is extracted from them in an entirely open way, however much it is justified by local ideologies.”

I have two quibbles with your assertion:

“this peasant dominance of the production process had a negative effect on technological change, for peasants were averse to risk and therefore resistant to innovation; any productive development that required cooperation beyond the family was unlikely, except for a few advances at the level of the village,”

First, not all advances in the forces of production involve major changes, greater complexity etc. It seems to me that through human history people have both made ad hoc changes that they could see would immediately make their workload less or improve their living standards: it is difficult otherwise to see how what you call “peasant societies” or “primitive communist societies” ever were able to adapt as they spread out into new ecological niches; and we know from fairly recent history that hunter-gatherers have, for instance, moved from using stone to using bits of metal they have come across to improve their tools. Alongside this, must be added the way in which crop yields, for instance, would have improved by peasants selecting seeds from the most productive plants etc.

Second, much more important, the argument only applies when the peasantry is a homogenous class. When there is a degree of polarisation within the peasantry, a minority can discover the benefits of innovation. This is important because it is one of the points Dyer makes in looking at 13th and 14th century England.

So it is a wild overstatement to say:

“it would only be when the peasant dominance of production was uprooted that technological advance would begin.”

Although, you could say, with Marx, that beyond a certain point the old relations of production became a “fetter” on further advance (although not necessarily of further advances, since right across Eurasia non-capitalist peasants and landowners adopted and adapted the new crops from the Americas – sweet potatoes in China, chilli in India, potatoes in northern Europe)

(3) You are quite right to stress that trade and technological advance was not automatically strangled by feudalism. It could even be argued that at times it encouraged the very slow development of productive forces that took place (this was one of my disagreement with Brenner in the first article I wrote critical of his position 19 years ago. (The Transition from Feudalism to Capitalism, ISJ 45, winter 1989). To that degree the mode of production was responsible for advances in the relations of production (which, is what would be expected by someone who started from Marx’s famous passage in the Preface to the Critique of Political Economy, since according to that feudalism could not have developed in the first place had it not at some point have been associated with advances in production).

In my view, one of the mistakes of the Sweezy position in the original Transition debate in the early 1950s was to see the growth of trade as external to feudalism. Everywhere there was a development of new productive methods (however slowly that occurred) there was the growth of trade, of trading cities, of merchant classes etc. (not just in the old world, but in the New World, e.g. among the Maya, in the valley of Mexico, on the northern coast of the Andean region).

I agree with you and Epstein, “up to a point, feudalism thrived on trade”;

But you carry the argument too far when you write:

“none of these developments in the productive forces were, even in theory, likely to come into contradiction with feudal relations of production. Not only were they arguably generated by the latter, but they fitted a feudal economic system perfectly.”

To say that certain advances of production were compatible with feudalism is not the same as to deny that at certain points in history the superstructures of feudal society could have a devastating effect on the productive forces.

The impact of the ruling classes on production could be very destructive – the waste through war, the impact of overexploitation of the peasantry in reducing labour and land productivity etc. “The superstructure” at particular points in history could be very damaging the productive base (e.g. the decline of the Mesopotamian economy in the latter part of the Abassid period, with the decline in soil fertility, neglect of irrigation channels etc.).

Hence the double approach merchant classes always took to the old landed ruling classes. On the one hand, they accepted many of their values and tried to gain entry to them. You are quite right to write:

“the move away from workshop ownership and back to landowning among the urban élites [in Italy] of the fifteenth century and onwards, when landowning seemed safer, more remunerative, more prestigious, resulting in the end of Italian commercial supremacy in nearly every field. Similarly, early modern rural proto-industry was not the origin of full industrialisation anywhere, and most of it faded back into the landscape again as its entrepreneurs refeudalised themselves”

But that is not quite the same as your prior assertion that:

“The wage-labour in the big Italian urban cloth workshops of the thirteenth to fifteenth centuries, although fully capitalist in its relations of production, obeyed a wider feudal economic logic.”

In fact, it followed a logic different to that of extra-economic coercion to get a surplus from peasant labour, even if those who benefited from this found their interests could in the end be pursued by reverting to feudal forms of exploitation.

This then raises the question of what they would do when they did not find it so easy to revert to feudal forms of exploitation, or when their efforts could be better advanced by continuing in a capitalist direction.

The history of merchant classes within societies dominated by agrarian ruling classes was certainly not always a peaceful one. There are numerous examples of feudal ruling class suddenly turning against merchants or money lenders, since with sudden civil wars, the execution of high-ranking merchants, etc. etc. Merchants might usually have wanted to gain positions of prestige in the old society, but had to take actions to defend their interests against it rulers if necessary. In the same way, those whose wealth came from control of craft production sought to take action that would protect them against pillage, destructive wars etc.

And even short of this, they had interests in operating within the overall feudal structure so as to shift its parameters in a direction more favourable to themselves. They were not just a presence within feudalism, but a force for change within it. And the more they were associated with developing forces of production, the more they could be such a force. This does not mean they were always such a force, but they were sometimes. So different merchant groups did, for instance, seek to ally themselves with some feudal interests against others to develop state structures that would protect and advance their interests (the whole question of absolutism, merchant capitalism, mercantilism etc.).

Your “high equilibrium system” was not just a product of the logic of feudalism, but of the rise of trade, of merchants, of handicraft production, of technological change in the towns, of new agricultural techniques within feudalism which reshaped it. That is why I referred to it in my Peoples History as “market feudalism”

(4) We agree that rapid, compulsive, advance in the means of production was not possible without the establishment of capitalism, with the large scale expropriation of land from the peasants

But that leaves open the question as to a social force (the first elements of a new class, a monarchical state prepared to pursue their interests to some extent) come into being.

You back Brenner’s position.

“My preference for Brenner’s view that the transition was set in motion by a change in the relations of production.”

The trouble is this is a circular argument. What set the transition in motion? Why the “change in the relations of production.” What were the new relations of production? Why, capitalist relations of production!!! So the transition to production occurring on the basis of capitalist relations could not happen until capitalist relations had arisen.

Brenner tried to explain this in terms of the outcome of the intense class struggles of the 14th and early 15th century. But he does not provide any historical explanation as to why that outcome was possible.

This is where I think it is necessary to bring the forces of production back in. In the minimal terms, without the long drawn out development of them, however slow, capitalist relations could not have established themselves. It was this which made possible your “high equilibrium system” in which merchant forces certainly, and it think also forces based on proto-capitalist forms of production, played a much greater role than under earlier versions of feudalism (except possibly in the Sung China and just maybe in the early Abbasid empire). When these “high equilibrium systems” entered into new phases of crisis there then existed the possibility of some of those affected by the crisis as seeing a much fuller development in a capitalist direction as offering a way forward.

Here I would add two things. The “high equilibrium systems” were ones where the equilibrium was temporary (often only lasting only a century or two) – witness the religious wars in France and Germany, the Dutch revolt, the 30 years war, the English civil war, the collapse of the Ming Empire, the decay of the Moghul empire after Aurangzeb at the end of the C17). And what happened then was not automatic. It depended on historical actors emerging who somehow half grasped that the move towards capitalism was an alternative (the for me is the significance of the “middling” men supporting Cromwell or Brenner merchant outsiders in the English revolution; or of the “men on the make” who made up the rank and file of the Jacobins in the French revolution).

By my reading of Dyer’s work (I attach a review I did for HM about three years ago which they are about to publish) makes me suspect that elements beginning to look to capitalist forms of production played a role leading to the spread of leasing of land and wage labour in the aftermath of the revolts associated with the crisis of the 14th century. He points to a layer of better off peasants emerging even in the 13th century who were interested in innovative productive methods. And we know from studies of the English peasants revolt that some of the leaders were in fact better off peasants who briefly formed connections with some of the better off urban layer (in opposition to the mercantile elite). (there were also signs of this in the early phases of the Reformation in Germany, up the point of the defeat of peasants in the Peasant War). This was a layer in the both the countryside and the towns who had an interest in fighting against the feudal ruling class, not in order to overthrow it, but in order to come to the sort of compromise embodied in the leasing of land to kulaks employing wage labour.

(5) A more general point. Modes of production are not fixed structures, but contain contradictions which led to transformation.

One of the many problems with the formulations of the Althusserian school 40 odd years ago was that it presented each mode of production as a fixed combination of different elements. This then led it to tend to see each mode of production as sealed off from the one before and after. I used to describe this as cutting history up into pieces and then wondering how the pieces connected with each other. My reason for liking Marx’s notion of the forces and relations coexisting but exerting pressure on each other, and the continually changing outcome in turn pressurising and being pressurised by the superstructure is that it sees each mode of production as transitory (although capable of going back as well as forward), giving rise to elements that can create a new mode.

There is a particular danger with non capitalist modes of production of assuming they have the same sort of totalising (I am tempted to write totalitarian) logic as capitalism. One if its peculiar features is that its logic of accumulation and commodification tends to shape everything within it. It does not seem to me to true in the same way of feudalism.

Feudalism, if it is identified in your (in my view correct) way, lasts an enormous span of human history. At each concrete point trying to understand why things worked as they did involves looking concretely at the tensions between the development of the forces of production and the wider social structure (or for that matter, lack of tensions on the (rare) occasions when the relations of production and the weight of the superstructure prevent such development). Although things may seem static for centuries are a time, they are not over millennia. That means that outcomes to great social crises are possible late in feudal history that were not possible earlier – and it’s also means that the elements capable of advance towards a different, capitalist, way of producing are more powerful. Feudalism involves as an element intrinsic to it slow advances in the forces of production and with that trade, towns and some limited developments in production that operate according to a different logic to feudal production. Only be seeing this, can we have an explanation for the rise of capitalism that is neither circular nor dependent on some arbitrary deus ex machina explanation of the emergence of capitalism in the midst of what was still a feudal world.

Last updated on 12 December 2019