Feudalism was a mode of production dominant in Europe between the 7th and 15th centuries and in various other regions in different time periods. The feudal mode of production is characterized by the dominance of agrarian production by the peasants whose surplus labour was exploited by feudal lords in the form of rents, labour duties, taxes, and other payments. The feudal production relations constituted what Perry Anderson calls "an organic unity of economy and polity" in the form of parcellised sovereignties, meaning that the feudal lords as private owners enjoyed their own land and other means of production as well as their own armies, courts, and laws. European Feudalism tightly connected the state and ruling class by linking land ownership with military service.
In England, however, starting from the 16th century, a process began to emerge which Marx examines in Capital volume one under the name of primitive accumulation. The exact reasons are still disputed among Marxist historians (see the Dobb-Sweezy debate and the Brenner debate), but eventually the feudal production relations in the English countryside gave way to capitalist production relations by the gradual expropriation of the peasants from land, which in turn transformed the English towns by the inflow of the expropriated peasants who were now the proletarians compelled to sell their labour power as a commodity on a large scale. This two-fold transformation of the production relations in the countryside and the towns gave rise to capitalism. Modern land rents and rents generally, are a residue of feudalism.
Feudalism in Asia was often combined with slave relations, and feudal lords relied on patriarchal clans to exploit the peasants. Merchant guilds developed in Asia in the ninth century, earlier than in Europe. Chinese productive forces and culture developed greatly under feudalism and surpassed Europe with the invention of the compass, gunpowder, and paper.
Elements of feudalism existed in the coloni of the late Roman Empire, who worked the land of large landowners and had to pay parts of their harvest to them. Unlike slaves, the coloni had some of their own land. Slavery ended when Germanic, Celtic, and Slavic barbarians overthrew the Roman Empire. The conquering peoples had a declining communal society and frequently redistributed land, but their leaders had large private holdings. They divided the farmland of the Roman Empire into separate holdings and created an independent peasantry, but wealthier families gradually acquired power over the community. Military leaders of the conquering clans became kings and formed a new state to preserve the interests of the large landowners. They gave land to their supporters in exchange for military service and also gave large plots of land to the church.
From the sixth through tenth centuries, peasants became more reliant on lords and depended on their protection from wars and bandits. To avoid dividing estates into smaller and smaller parts, the oldest son inherited all land in their family.
Slavic tribes in Eastern Europe fought against the Romans starting in the third century. Eastern Slavs lived in village communes with publicly owned meadows, forests, and ponds but private farmland. Tribal elders seized and privatized the land, and the early patriarchal slave system developed into feudalism without a full slave period and after the full establishment of feudalism in Western Europe. The church was the largest feudal landowner, and the monarchy began appointing officials as feudal lords in the 15th century, allowing them to exploit the serfs in exchange for military service. Until 1581, peasants were allowed to move from one lord to another. The Tsarist government abolished serfdom in 1861, leading landlords to seize two-thirds of peasant land.
Peasants initially created crafts such as clothing by themselves, but craftsmen later emerged to serve their whole village. As craftsmen became more productive, they could provide for more than one village and formed new towns around castles, usually near water. Like the peasants, craftsmen were under the authority of feudal lords and had to pay rent. Spinning wheels and ribbon looms became widespread in the 16th and 17th centuries.
Feudal societies used iron tools more extensively than slave societies, and crafts became more specialized. Improve furnaces fully melted iron instead of only heating it enough to make it malleable, and blast furnaces were invented in the 15th century.
Towns eventually obtained the right to create their own courts, currency, and taxes. Craftsmen and escaped former serfs united into guilds, which initially strengthened the development of crafts but later restricted the development of the productive forces. They restricted journeymen and apprentices from becoming masters and kept them in a state of wage-labour.
In addition to craft guilds, merchants created merchant guilds to protect themselves from feudal lords and struggle with outside competition.
Two major classes existed in feudal society: the nobility and the serfs. Nobles became part of their class by birth, and were able to amass generational wealth by exploiting the surplus labour of the serfs. Nobles were granted land by the monarch and in exchange agreed to participate in their wars and obey their orders. The people that lived on this land would also become the lord's property. Feudal lords could not kill their serfs, but they could sell them to other lords. Lower feudal lords had to pay tribute to more powerful barons while still exploiting their own peasants, and the king was the most powerful of all the lords.
In exchange for using the lord's land, serfs had to surrender part of their harvest or provide free labour to the lord. Unlike slaves, serfs owned some of their own tools and had some interest in working. Peasants also had to pay taxes to the state and local authorities and give 10% of their harvest to the church in some countries.
Three forms of rent existed under feudalism:
- Labour-rent required serfs to work a certain portion of the week on their lord's estate and the rest of the week on their own land. This form of rent was most common in early feudalism and clearly distinguished necessary and surplus labour.
- Rent-in-kind, also known as quitrent, required serfs to specific quantities of grain or livestock to the lord on a regular basis.
- Money-rent, which became widespread at the end of feudalism and beginning of capitalist relations, required payments from serfs in money.
Money-rent replaced the other forms of rent as feudal lords sought to buy luxury goods from town craftsmen. Though rents are still with us today as a hold-over from feudal society, their feudal properties have disappeared, sublimating into the aforementioned wage-labour.
Rise of capitalism
Emergence of the bourgeoisie
At the end of feudalism, the majority of commodity producers became impoverished while a small group became rich. The growth of production led to a national market that feudal lords tried to restrict with taxes. Kings and non-noble landowners ended the dominance of the feudal lords and created a centralized state. Master craftsmen became the first capitalists, evading guild restrictions on working hours and turning their apprentices as well as poorer masters into wage-workers.
Merchant capital broke down the feudal economy and provided loans to traders in exchange for low prices. Workers became completely dependent on capitalists for tools and raw materials. Between the 16th and 18th centuries, factories spread throughout Europe and divided labour between workers.
Enclosure of common land
Beginning in the late 15th century, feudal lords seized land from peasants in England and converted it into pastures for sheep. They enclosed peasant lands and destroyed their homes with support from the state. Peasants became homeless beggars, whom the state fiercely targeted; King Henry Tudor of England executed 72,000 of them.
Christopher Columbus sailed to America in 1492 and Vasco da Gama discovered a sea route to India in 1498 by going around Africa. Colonialism provided wealth to begin capitalism through the enslavement of Africans in America and the establishment of Dutch, French, and English trade companies in Asia.
- Perry Anderson, Lineages of the Absolutist State (London: Verso, 1974), p. 19, quoted in Ellen Meiksins Wood, The Origin of Capitalism: A Longer View (London: Verso, 2017), p. 44.
- Neil Faulkner (2013). A Marxist History of the World: From Neanderthals to Neoliberals: 'European Feudalism' (pp. 80–81). Pluto Press.
- Karl Marx. Das Kapital, vol. I.
- Economics Institute of the Academy of Sciences of the U.S.S.R (1954). Political Economy: 'The Feudal Mode of Production'. London: Lawrence & Wishart.