Transition to Capitalism: Theoretical Issues

  • John E. Martin
Part of the Studies in Historical Sociology book series (SHS)


In Chapter 3, I raised certain issues pertaining to theories of transition from feudalism to capitalism. I considered this process only in terms of problems arising from neglect of the role of class struggle, rather than confronting head-on questions posed by the ernergence of capitalism. At the time I merely observed that the dominant Marxist response has been to introduce capitalism as an untheorised external agent. Traditionally, Marxists have analysed the transition from feudalism to capitalism as a linear succession, making no analytic distinction between mode of production and social formation as concepts. This view of transition generated auto-effective conceptions of change, either in the form of internal dissolution (Dobb) or external dissolution (Sweezy), in which a theoretical linearity corresponds to a linear chronology in history. In linear conceptions of transition the role of capitalism remains untheorised, as I have shown. This inherent theoretical uncertainty and ambiguity is reflected in Dobb’s and Sweezy’s writings. Dobb is unable to integrate his otherwise excellent studies of elements of capitalism into his analysis of transition.1 For him, merchant capita1 was parasitic upon and integrated within feudalism, its existence was predicated upon feudal extraction of surplus and rested upon the institution of feudal monopolies over trade. Similarly, petty-commodity production was a ‘subordinate element’ in feudalism, even in the period of interregnum – the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Feudal monopolistic contro1 in the form of guilds was implemented over craft production, while in the agrarian sphere petty-commodity production was directly assimilated into the feudal system by the exertion of feudal power.


Social Formation Class Struggle Absolutist State Class Alliance Agrarian Policy 
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© John E. Martin 1986

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  • John E. Martin

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