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Neil Faulkner

Crusade and jihad in the medieval Middle East

(Winter 2006)

From International Socialism 2 : 109, Winter 2006.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Website.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Bush explains he is engaged in a ‘crusade’ for freedom. Osama bin Laden calls for a ‘jihad’ against the new crusaders. Saddam Hussein portrayed himself as a latter-day Saladin. Maybe Blair thinks he is Richard the Lionheart.

The debate about the Iraq war echoes with references to the conflict eight centuries ago between Christian Crusaders from Western Europe and the Islamic people of the Middle East. These echoes raise questions for socialists. How accurate is the traditional image of the Crusaders as chivalrous knights inspired by piety? Is there something inevitable and eternal about conflict between ‘the West’ and ‘the Orient’? To what degree can the conflicts of the medieval past inform our understanding of the present and provide a guide to action for the future?

Our answers must depend on an analysis of Western feudalism, the Early Islamic states, and the dynamics of the conflict between the two in the 11th to 13th centuries. We must start, though, by clearing away some of the confusion caused by the concept of ‘imperialism’ when making comparisons between capitalist and pre-capitalist societies.

Imperialism past and present

The classic Marxist accounts of capitalist imperialism are, of course, Lenin’s Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism and Bukharin’s Imperialism and World Economy. Central to their argument is the idea that modern imperialism grows out of the competitive accumulation of capital. Competition leads to the centralisation and concentration of capital – big corporations and giant factories come to dominate the economy. The increasing scale of production transfers competition onto an international stage. Continuing profitability and accumulation now depend on global sourcing and sales, and the state acquires a central role in capitalist competition, its arms spending and wars designed to advance the interests of its own capitalists at the expense of rivals. Economic competition between blocs of capital and geopolitical competition between states fuse, producing such titanic confrontations as the First World War, the Second World War and the Cold War. [1]

None of this applies to ancient or medieval ‘imperialism’. If I continue to use the word, I do so only because it is too well embedded in the literature to be ditched – and there is, in any case, no obvious alternative. But we must be clear that the term ‘imperialism’ in pre-capitalist societies implies nothing more than the use of military force by strong states to dominate weaker ones and exploit their resources. The dynamics of this process are radically different from those of capitalist imperialism.

In contrast to the dynamism of capitalist economic development, the normal condition of the pre-capitalist economy was technological ‘stagnation’. Change was the exception, not the rule. Occasional bursts of innovation (spread over decades or centuries) would be followed by much longer periods of stability (lasting for centuries or millennia). For example, a new agrarian system based on the heavy plough, animal manure, large open fields and water mills developed in the ‘champion’ landscapes of central England in the Late Anglo-Saxon period (c. AD 850 to 1066) lasted for about 500 years – only with the ‘enclosures’ of the 16th century and later was it substantially altered. [2] The medieval economy, in short, was essentially stable and self-reproducing [3], and the agrarian system centred on the medieval village achieved a finely balanced equilibrium, where the regulation and conservatism of rural life were a matter, therefore, not of ‘backwardness’ but of survival. [4]

Change was not driven by the normal working of the system – not, that is, by direct economic competition rooted in the very circumstances of production. It was driven by occasional crises, by exceptional events, by something untoward disrupting traditional cycles of agrarian production and commercial exchange. Economic change (‘progress’) was abnormal. Economically driven accumulation, as opposed to simple reproduction, was minimal or non-existent. People were often no more productive than their ancestors centuries before.

Yet pre-capitalist societies were driven by competition. The ancient and medieval worlds were divided into rival polities that were frequently at war. No pre-capitalist ruling class could afford to be complacent about military preparedness if it wished to hold onto its property and power. Indeed, in the absence of increases in the productivity of labour, the principal mechanism available to any ruling class wishing to increase surplus appropriation – and therefore military capacity – was warfare.

The extent of their territories and conquests, and the numbers and quality of armed men these could support, underlay the power of rival states. Because of this, states were involved in a fiercely contested geopolitical struggle to accumulate military capacity. [5] And if war was the principal method for increasing surplus appropriation, the state was necessarily the principal agent of this process. Through the state, rival ruling classes grew rich and increased their power at one another’s expense. A stable global economy with fixed output made the struggle for surplus a zero-sum game – one ruler’s gain was necessarily another’s loss. Thus the history of pre-capitalist class societies was dominated by the state, war-making and an eternal geopolitical struggle for empire.

I have attempted elsewhere to apply these ideas to the analysis of the Roman Empire. [6] Rome represents an extreme example of what I have called ‘ancient military imperialism’ – a system of robbery with violence, in which war, by yielding great hauls of booty (not least slaves), transferred surplus from defeated enemies into the hands of the Roman imperial elite, increasing their war-making capacity yet further, thereby creating the basis for further aggressive wars. What follows here is, in essence, an attempt to understand Western feudalism, the Early Islamic states and the Crusades in a similar way.

The dynamic of Western feudalism

The 9th and 10th centuries AD were a period of particular geopolitical instability in Europe, the Mediterranean and the Middle East. Kings were overthrown and civil wars raged. Towns disappeared. Long-distance trade declined. Viking, Magyar and Saracen raiders plagued the coasts. The most effective response to the crisis emerged in Western Europe, perhaps because, as Chris Harman has suggested, ‘the very backwardness of Europe allowed it to leapfrog over the great empires’. [7] Without the dead weight of powerful vested interests and a great state superstructure, the way was open to forge a radically new social, political and military order. Medieval rulers took control of the land and parcelled it out to their supporters in return for military service so as to crush domestic rebels, defend borders against raiders and beat back the armies of rival kings. They created a hierarchy of greater and lesser lords, of barons and knights, bound together by personal ties of homage and fealty. In essence, they created an immensely strong body of armed men by rooting the state in private landlordism.

The Duchy of Normandy, a state created by 10th century Viking settlers, was an extreme example of the new feudal order. [8] Power was highly centralised. The ruler was the legal owner of all land, and it was his appointees, often his kinsmen, who held the great estates. These men remained his vassals, his tenants in chief, liable to be cast down as easily as they had been raised up if they earned their master’s disfavour. Under them, land was further subdivided into fiefs able to support a knight, each fief being an estate with income sufficient to free a man from the need to labour, to allow him to devote himself full time to war and training for war, and to provide him with the horses, chain-mail armour and weaponry of a heavy cavalryman. Here was the core of the Norman state – several thousand armoured horseman, organised in lordly retinues, bound by ties of personal loyalty and dependence, and rooted in the control and wealth of landed estates.

By linking landholding and military service, feudalism forged a tight bond between the state and the ruling class. It also ensured that the agrarian base of the system was carefully tended, since the maintenance of rank came to depend partly on the good management of estates.

But there were dangers. The system was inherently unstable. State power was directly related to the numbers of fiefs and knights controlled by the ruler, intensifying the struggle between rival polities for control over land. Moreover, to avoid fiefs being subdivided and becoming non-viable (i.e. unable to support a knight), the rule of primogeniture prevailed, whereby the eldest son inherited the entire estate. Younger sons therefore had to fight for their place in the world. Denied an inheritance and threatened with loss of rank, they had to survive through mercenary service or by winning a new fiefdom for themselves. This was true of knights, nobles and princes – all ranks of the feudal aristocracy produced younger sons able to maintain rank only through the application of military force.

Opportunities were numerous. Civil and foreign wars were frequent. Competition for land and power kept the feudal aristocracy divided. On the one hand, the princes needed more land, fiefs and knights to pursue their struggles with rival states. On the other, the younger sons of the warrior caste sought pay, booty and estates to maintain themselves. The dynamic of feudal imperialism was therefore double-edged. To prevent the feudal elite from tearing itself apart in fratricidal slaughter, the princes tried to export the violence inherent in the system, and at the same time turn it to their own advantage in wars of foreign conquest. It was this bloody logic that powered the Crusades. When Pope Urban II launched the First Crusade at the Council of Clermont on 27 November 1095, he was clear about the military anarchy threatening Western Christendom:

Let those ... who are accustomed to wantonly wage private war against the faithful march upon the infidels in a war which should be begun now and be finished in victory. Let those who have long been robbers now be soldiers of Christ. Let those who once fought against brothers and relatives now rightfully fight against the barbarians. Let those who have been hirelings for a few pieces of silver now attain an eternal reward. [9]

The consolidation of Western feudalism in its heartlands came to depend on massacre and mayhem abroad. The feudal host was not a weapon that could be sheathed. Violence was inherent in the system – something for which the peoples of medieval Europe and the Middle East paid a heavy price.

By the mid-11th century the Norman state, having achieved a high degree of unity and coherence, became aggressively expansionist. [10] Under Duke William (later William the Conqueror), the colonisation of Lower Normandy was completed, several territories were seized on the southern frontier, and overlordship was sought over neighbouring states. Meantime, freelance Norman adventurers had seized control of Southern Italy (1053) and Sicily (1072) after arriving in the early 11th century to take service as mercenaries. Before these conquests were complete, Anglo-Saxon England had fallen to another force of Norman adventurers, this one led by Duke William himself (1066–70). It was followed by attacks on Ireland, Wales and Scotland and, in England, by the wholesale dispossession of the Anglo-Saxon aristocracy, among whom only five landholders of any substance survived by the time of the famous Domesday survey in 1087.

Feudal violence was contradictory. It was, of course, essential to the survival of the feudal states – the warrior host defended the homeland, conquered new territory and maintained internal order. But the violence had a dynamic of its own and the potential to blow the feudal order apart. Pressure-valves were needed to extrude surplus violence. This was the genesis of the Crusades.

The limits of Early Islamic civilisation

In the century after AD 630 Arab armies swept across the Middle East, North Africa and Spain to create a vast new empire ruled by Umayyad caliphs based in Damascus. They were inspired by Islam, a radical new synthesis of the Judaeo-Christian religious beliefs long established in the Western Arabian mercantile cities of Mecca and Medina. Transcending traditional conflicts, Islam bound together desert tribes and urban merchants in a powerful alliance which erupted out of Arabia after the Prophet Mohammed’s death in 632. To the north Egypt, Syria, Iraq and Egypt lay under the control of the Byzantine and Sassanid empires, both gravely weakened by a war raging between them from 603 to 628.

The burden of military accumulation had been eroding the socioeconomic foundations of the ancient empires since at least the 3rd century AD. Now it became crippling. The Arabs, widely welcomed by local populations ravaged by taxation, labour service and military insecurity, quickly broke through.

The Arab rulers and their warrior retinues found themselves the inheritors of rich civilisations, not only those of Syria and Iraq, but also those of Egypt, Tunisia, Spain, Sicily and elsewhere. The achievements of these civilisations were eagerly appropriated, and the Arab world soon boasted rich irrigation agriculture, sophisticated urban crafts, a dynamic banking system, and a strong tradition of scholarship, literature and art. The West was, indeed, by comparison, living in ‘the Dark Ages’.

At first, the vast area the Arabs had conquered remained, at least formally, a single geopolitical entity under the Umayyad caliphs of Damascus (661–750). But the geography of the new Arab world contained several natural economic units in which separate ruling classes with interests of their own quickly developed. [11] Distance limited the effectiveness of Umayyad rule. How could armies in Damascus expect to control Baghdad, Cairo, Tunis and Fez? Nor was this the only problem. The Umayyads represented the Arab warrior aristocracy who had carried out the first Islamic conquests and then been settled in the ancient imperial cities of Syria. Their rule was increasingly resented by other sections of the population, many of them more recent converts to Islam in the cities of the wider Arab-dominated world. The result, as Chris Harman has explained, was the Abbasid revolution:

Previously the empire had been run by an exclusively Arab military aristocracy, whose origins lay in war and conquest for tribute. Under the Abbasids, Islam became a genuinely universal religion in which Arab and non-Arab believers were increasingly treated the same and in which ethnic origins were not central. [12]

In the Abbasid revolution, rebels from Iran led by a descendant of the Prophet raised an army, overthrew the Umayyad caliphate, established a new dynasty, and laid down a wider and more secure base for continued Arab rule. But there were limits to the achievement. Society was centred on towns in which power was vested in an elite composed of officials, merchants, and Islamic scholars and clerics. These communities, largely self-sufficient and independent, were preoccupied with agriculture, trade, and the maintenance of peace and good order. A wide gap separated them from the Abbasid caliphs, who were threatened by the secession of outlying parts of their empire, by coups launched by disaffected factions within the ruling class, and by revolt from below, whether of religious sectarians opposed to worldly corruption, or of sections of the exploited rural masses. [13]

The Early Islamic state thus acquired an existence over and above society, becoming a mechanism of military accumulation designed principally to perpetuate the rule of the reigning dynasty. The Umayyads had already separated themselves from civil society by building great palaces and appropriating the luxuries of Byzantine and Sassanid civilisation. The Abbasids took this much further.

The independence of the Abbasid state from civil society was symbolised by the new Islamic palace-city of Samarra, built on the Tigris 120 kilometres upstream from Baghdad during the 9th century. [14] Sprawling along 35 kilometres of riverbank, it was larger than Imperial Rome at its peak, and was dominated by monumental mosques and huge palace complexes. The Abbasid caliph al-Mutasim, founder of Samarra, built himself a palace in 836–42 that was larger than Louis XIV’s Versailles. Even so, his Abbasid successors built new ones – al-Mutawakkil a second in about 849–59, and al-Mutamid a third in 878–82.

In the century between the reign of Harun al-Rashid (786–809) and the accession of al-Mutadid (892), the Abbasid caliphs went from fabulous wealth to bankruptcy ... an important one of the ingredients in the recipe for disaster must have been the creation of Samarra, aptly described as ‘an act of folly on a vast scale’. [15]

But there was more to Samarra than a ruler’s folly. The caliphs may well have been corrupted by ‘worldliness’. Greed and self-indulgence are characteristic of ruling classes throughout history. Great monuments are also, however, a way of expressing power – their size and magnificence are designed to impress, to intimidate, to make others feel puny. Samarra was important also in being a new centre of power, distant from Baghdad, thus freeing the Abbasid caliphs from political subordination to the urban elite. Equally, they sought to free themselves from military dependence on the old tribal host, building instead armies of mercenaries, mainly Turks, who were barracked in special quarters at Samarra.

In contrast to Western feudalism, where landholding and military service were inextricably linked, and rulers and nobles were bound together by strong ties of allegiance and dependence, the Islamic states were tributary. The court and the army were sustained by taxes, especially those levied on the non-Muslim subject population. Because of this, the states were weak – despite palaces and mercenaries. The tribes and towns generated strong local identities and ideologies. Islam generated a powerful overarching allegiance throughout the Arab world. But the activities of the central state evoked no comparable feelings, since the power of the caliphs lacked any firm anchors in society. Consequently, the state was unstable – a prey to coups, civil wars and secessionist revolts.

The unity of the Arab world was shattered during the 9th and 10th centuries. The Abbasid caliph of Baghdad faced a rival Fatimid caliph in Cairo, an Umayyad one at Cordoba, and numerous independent and semi-independent minor rulers elsewhere. Conflicts between and within these polities increased the cost of state power, drained national treasuries, and further weakened the rulers. During the 11th century the Abbasid caliphate effectively collapsed. The caliph’s Seljuk Turkish mercenaries seized power for themselves. It was a measure of the state’s lack of social roots that its political authority could be usurped by its own mercenaries. There was little enthusiasm for any of the ruling regimes among the population at large, hammered by taxes to pay for palaces, mercenaries and dynastic warfare. The region, moreover, remained a mosaic of minorities, so that political stress was easily transformed into resistance based on ethnic and religious difference. [16] When Urban II called forth the First Crusade in 1095, the Middle East was wide open to attack.

The first crisis of the Crusades, 1096–99

The 200-year history of the Crusades [17] hinged on two major crises – one creating the Crusader states, and the other, a century later, breaking their power and condemning them to eventual liquidation.

The first was initiated by Pope Urban’s appeal in November 1095. The church was a vast feudal corporation with estates spread across the whole of Western Europe, which it maintained and enlarged in competition with secular feudal princes. Anything, therefore, that enhanced the political clout of the church – such as the wave of religious zeal and activity unleashed by the First Crusade – was an advantage. Also, like other feudal potentates, the bishops were keen to preserve peace at home by exporting the surplus violence of the warrior caste.

But the response to Urban’s appeal exceeded all expectations. Four armies quickly formed: in southern France under Raymond of Toulouse; in northern France, Lorraine, and Germany under Godfrey of Bouillon; in the Paris region and Champagne under Hugh of Vermandois; and among the Normans of Southern Italy and Sicily under Bohemond of Taranto. Each host comprised several hundred knights and some thousands of spearmen and archers. They broke into northern Syria late in 1097, captured Antioch in June 1098, and then Jerusalem itself the following year.

Everywhere, even on the evidence of their own historians, there was massacre, destruction and robbery. Men, women and children were put to the sword as they fled in terror through the streets of captured cities. Prisoners were routinely decapitated. Mosques and synagogues were ransacked. Carts were filled with plunder.

After the capture of Jerusalem many Crusaders, who had joined as warrior-pilgrims in search of adventure and booty, returned home. Others, however, remained, forming the ruling classes of the four small Crusader states that had been won – the County of Edessa, the Principality of Antioch, the County of Tripoli, and the Kingdom of Jerusalem.

It was the weakness of the Islamic empires that had allowed these states to be formed, and they rested on the weakest of foundations. Feudal heavy cavalry gave tactical dominance on the battlefield, but the Crusaders were politically isolated and strategically over-extended. A mere 500 knights defended the Principality of Antioch. The Crusaders built scores of massive castles to compensate. Impregnable to assault, the castles dominated the countryside around them, providing shelter, protection and supplies to small bodies of armed men who would, when necessary, sally forth to assert their power. The Crusaders were a tiny minority in a sea of potentially hostile humanity.

The rate of exploitation was ratcheted up. Muslims now paid the poll tax previously restricted to non-Muslims. There was also heavy taxation on landholdings. Castles were built by conscripted peasants. Rent collection was organised as a military operation. Many of the Crusaders, especially on the frontiers, were true robber-barons, supplementing their incomes by attacking pilgrims, caravans and settlements. Built on conquered land and ruled by small military elites, the Crusader states could survive only through terror and super-exploitation. Only in this way could they obtain the supplies, mercenaries and fortifications essential to their survival.

But the bitterness engendered took time to find focus and organisation. The Islamic world had been taken by surprise. It had been struck suddenly by a blitzkrieg of feudal violence. The Islamic ruling class was paralysed by political disunity and military weakness. Many sought opportunistic alliances with the Crusaders. Others hoped to live and let live. Few risked active resistance. For a full generation, until 1128, the Crusaders retained the upper hand.

The second crisis of the Crusades, 1185–92

Live and let live was not a long-term option for most Islamic rulers. The Crusader states were colonial settlements based on military power. The Crusaders remained aggressive and predatory neighbours, with continuing robbery and annexations. The Crusader threat to Aleppo in northern Syria forced its ruler into alliance with Mosul in northern Iraq, and by 1144 the city of Edessa had been recaptured and the first of the four Crusader states destroyed.

The Second Crusade of 1146–48 was a direct response to this Islamic counter-offensive, but it ended disastrously, shattering the myth of Crusader invincibility and laying the ground for a more powerful upsurge of Islamic resistance. Damascus and southern Syria were united into the new Islamic state, while the Crusader Principality of Antioch was reduced to a small coastal enclave around the capital city. Equally important, the new state’s ruler, Nureddin, a pious man, called openly for a jihad against the Crusaders.

Religion was the language in which men and women discussed their world and how to change it in the pre-capitalist, pre-Enlightenment societies of the 12th century. At one level, Nureddin was one of a number of ruling class leaders, Christian and Muslim, engaged in a struggle for power between rival states. But at another level, he was the leader of an anti-imperialist insurgency. Bolder than his rivals and willing to ride the tiger of popular revolt to advance his cause, he raised the slogan of religious war as a means to mobilise the Muslim masses against their foreign overlords. Nureddin was not only building a new Islamic superstate, he was also leading a popular insurrection to drive the invaders into the sea. These two aims were complementary. Both were a response to the problem posed by the Crusader states. Both contributed to its solution:

Nureddin, who was also a religious zealot, viewed the jihad as both ideology and policy. The ideology emphasised three basic points: the depth of the gulf separating Franks [Crusaders] and Muslims; a protest against the indifference of their contemporaries to that fact; and a call to holy war ... Nureddin elaborated the idea of the jihad into a complete theory, sketching out a precise political path, and put in place an extensive apparatus to ensure its spread. He emphasised the special sanctity of Jerusalem and the Holy Land, and the need to re-establish the political unity of the Islamic Near East as the preliminary phase to driving out the Franks ... This became the basis of an important popular movement. [18]

The struggle against feudal imperialism in the 12th century Middle East thus followed a logic dictated by the nature of the state, society and ideology in the Early Islamic world.

It was not Nureddin, however, but Saladin who led the jihad to victory, adopting the policy of jihad and taking the offensive against the Crusaders. Building his base among Muslims in this way, he was, by 1183, after Nureddin’s death, able to win control of the whole of Syria. The stage was thus set for the climactic confrontation between Crusade and jihad. Saladin’s conquests between 1185 and 1189, culminating in the recapture of Jerusalem, changed the map of the Middle East as comprehensively as had the First Crusade 100 years before.

The decisive battle was fought at Hattin in Galilee on 4 July 1187. It symbolised the whole struggle. Saladin had assembled the greatest Muslim army ever to have faced the Crusaders – 30,000 men, including heavy cavalry, swarms of light horse archers, and thousands of jihadist volunteers. By falling back before their advance and plaguing their column with mounted archery, Saladin drew the Crusaders, in the ferocious July heat, through a landscape in which the wells had run dry. Only when men and horses were dying of thirst did he engage, blocking the route to the water of Lake Tiberias, and preparing to stand his ground. The dry scrub around the Crusaders was set alight to worsen their agonies. They launched a series of heavy cavalry charges – their traditional tactics – but this time they were too weak, too heavily outnumbered, to break through against confident and determined opponents. At the end of the day, the survivors surrendered. The entire army of the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem had been destroyed.

As Crusader fortresses and cities fell, there was nothing to compare with the wholesale massacres at Antioch and Jerusalem during the First Crusade – there was no general massacre. Of the prisoners taken at Hattin, only one notorious robber-baron was executed (by Saladin himself), along with the Templar and Hospitaller knights, warrior-monks who had waged a war of bigotry and genocide. The difference was not due to Saladin’s greater sense of ‘honour’ – though the Middle Eastern ruling classes were undoubtedly in general more civilised than the invaders. It was really the difference between the imperialism of a hated minority and the resistance of a popular movement.

The Crusaders never recovered. The Third Crusade of 1189–92 was mounted in response to Hattin and the fall of Jerusalem. But under King Richard I of England – a boorish and brutal man under whose leadership the usual carnage and pillage prevailed – the campaign eventually reached stalemate. Carefully marshalled, the feudal host retained its tactical supremacy, and Saladin kept his more lightly equipped forces at a distance. But the Crusaders’ strategic weakness remained, and Richard, convinced Jerusalem could not be held, abandoned the attempt to recapture it. Imperialism may pack a harder punch, but against a national insurgency it cannot make its conquests secure, and ultimately defends only the ground on which its soldiers stand.

Even so, the Crusaders clung to a strip of territory along the coast, where they remained ensconced in fortresses which could be supplied and reinforced by sea. Indeed, hemmed in by hostility, these Crusader toeholds were unable to endure without external support, and their existence, and dependence, helped keep alive Crusader ideology in Western Europe through much of the 13th century. Later Crusades, however, were often diverted by easy pickings and commercial advantages elsewhere. The Fourth Crusade (1202–04), for example, ended with massacre and pillage in the streets of Christian Constantinople. (There were another four, but they proved increasingly ineffective in bringing succour to the remnants of Crusader power on the Levantine coast.)

If it took a century to reduce all the Crusader fortresses (the last fell only in 1291), we must explain this in terms of Islamic weakness. Saladin’s revolution had been a limited one. His empire had collapsed after his death in 1193. His dynasty, and with it the union of Syria and Egypt, endured until the mid-13th century. But this Ayyubid regime was undermined by the perennial problems of Early Islamic states, their lack of firm rooting in civil society and consequent instability, and preoccupation with domestic security and survival. The Ayyubid response was to create armies of Mamluk slave-soldiers. But these, like the Turkish mercenaries of the Abbasids before them, eventually revolted against their masters and ruled in their own right. It was an Egyptian-based Mamluk regime that successfully defended the Muslim Middle East against Mongol invaders from Central Asia in 1260, and then, when the Mongols threatened again and the Crusaders, desperate as ever, sought an alliance with them, liquidated the last of the Crusader strongholds on the coast.

Some conclusions

(1) In pre-capitalist societies, long periods of stability in technology and the productivity of labour meant that the use of state power in aggressive war was an essential mechanism by which the more successful ruling classes seized surpluses at the expense of their rivals. The intensity of geopolitical competition required such surpluses to be used mainly for military accumulation.

(2) The relative independence of the state in relation to civil society meant, however, that ruling regimes often lacked strong roots. Instability was a notable feature of Early Islamic states, in which rulers elevated themselves above the tribes and the towns which were the key elements in the new Arab-dominated social order, and invested surpluses in palaces, monumental architecture, mercenaries, and dynastic warfare.

(3) Western feudalism was a partial exception to this general rule. By linking landholding and military service (in contrast to the Early Islamic system of tribute and mercenaries), the state and the ruling class formed a cohesive bloc. Princes, nobles and knights were tightly bound together by ties of allegiance and dependence based on shared interests. A specific and highly effective military system was embedded within this social order – one based on small elite groups of armoured shock cavalry able to dominate battlefields, and a landscape dotted with heavily defensible castles able to dominate territory.

(4) The limits of Western feudalism were exposed in the Crusades. Knights and castles were expensive. Super-exploitation was therefore necessary to sustain them. The bitterness this caused could be contained by fear of feudal violence as long as opposition remained fragmented. Norman feudalism survived in England after the conquest of 1066–70 because no general resistance movement developed. The Middle Eastern jihad, on the other hand, enabled Zengi, Nureddin and Saladin to build an Islamic superstate, mobilise the Muslim masses, and begin the destruction of the Crusader states. It was limited, however, by the class outlook and factional conflicts of the Islamic leaders – such that it took 150 years to complete the liquidation of the Crusader states.

(5) Altogether the Crusades lasted for almost exactly 200 years. In that time the Crusader states had contributed nothing – their rulers were simply brutal exploiters who ruled by force and fear. In this they reflected the inherently violent and restless character of Western feudalism. The rulers of the West, in effect, exported the surplus violence generated by the feudal system to the Middle East, in order to stabilise the political order at home. The closing of this pressure-valve led to a marked increase in feudal warfare inside Europe. [19]


1. A good summary and defence of the classic Marxist theory is provided by C. Harman, Analysing Imperialism, International Socialism 2 : 99 (Summer 2003), pp. 3–25.

2. The British evidence for the medieval agrarian economy has been much studied and discussed. Important recent contributions are C. Lewis, P. Mitchell-Fox and C. Dyer, Village, Hamlet and Field: Changing Medieval Settlements in Central England (Macclesfield 2001), and T. Williamson, Shaping Medieval Landscapes: Settlement, Society and Environment (Macclesfield 2003).

3. The term ‘stable’ is better than ‘stagnant’. The latter implies something deficient and abnormal. Worse, it implies a teleological and determinist view of history, in which technological progress and a raising of the productivity of labour are regarded as the norm. I think Chris Harman sometimes makes this mistake when discussing pre-capitalist societies in his A People’s History of the World (London 1999).

4. This point is made by Chris Dyer of Leicester University: C. Dyer, Making a Living in the Middle Ages: the People of Britain, 850–1520 (London 2003), pp. 23–24.

5. The terms ‘political accumulation’ and ‘political capital’ have been widely used by Marxists writing about pre-capitalist societies. These terms are a trifle abstract. The truth is always concrete. Political power depends upon military capacity. It was really the means of making war that were being accumulated.

6. N. Faulkner, The Decline and Fall of Roman Britain (Stroud 2000), and Empire of the Eagles: The Rise and Fall of Ancient Rome, 753 BC to AD 476 (forthcoming).

7. C. Harman, A People’s History of the World (London 1999), p. 141.

8. R. Allen Brown, The Normans (London 1984), pp. 19–48.

9. Quoted in G. Tate, The Crusades and the Holy Land (London 1991), p. 131.

10. R. Allen Brown, as above.

11. A. Hourani, A History of the Arab Peoples (London 1991), pp. 81–97.

12. C. Harman, A People’s History, as above, p. 129.

13. A. Hourani, as above, pp. 32–43.

14. R. Hodges and D. Whitehouse, Mohammed, Charlemagne and the Origins of Europe (London 1983), pp. 151–157.

15. As above, p. 156.

16. A. Hourani, as above, pp. 96–97, 172–188.

17. The classic narrative of the Crusades is S. Runciman, A History of the Crusades (3 vols., London 1965). In the tradition of much British historiography, it is a solid account of events but weak on analysis.

18. G. Tate, as above, pp. 88–89.

19. The English monarchy, for example, was almost continually at war – at home, against the Welsh and the Scots, and against the French – from 1263 until 1485. War was a normal condition for a feudal polity.

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