Decadence of capitalism (iii): Ascent and decline in previous modes of production

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"In broad outline, the Asiatic, ancient, feudal and modern bourgeois modes of production may be designated as epochs marking progress in the economic development of society".[1]

This brief passage, spanning virtually the whole of written history, could give rise to several books worth of interpretation. For our purposes, we will look at two aspects: the general question of historical progress, and the features of ascendancy and decadence in social formations prior to capitalism.

Is there any progress?

We have noted that one of the effects of the catastrophes of the 20th century has been a general scepticism about the idea of progress, a notion which had seemed much more self-evident in the 19th century. This has led some ‘radical' souls to conclude that the marxist vision of historical progress is itself just one of these 19th century ideologies which serve as an apology for capitalist exploitation. Although often presenting themselves as new, such criticisms often dredge up the rather worn arguments of Bakunin and the anarchists, who demanded that revolution be possible at any time, and accused the marxists of being vulgar reformists for arguing that the epoch of revolution had not yet dawned, requiring the working class to organise itself in the long term for the defence of its living conditions inside the existing social order. The anti-progressivists sometimes begin as ‘marxist' critics of the notion that capitalism is decadent today, insisting that very little has changed in the life of capital since the days Marx was writing about it, except perhaps on a purely quantitative level - bigger economy, bigger crises, bigger wars. But the more consistent ones quickly get rid of the whole burden of historical materialism altogether, insisting that communism could have come about in any previous epoch of history. Indeed the most consistent of all are the primitivists who argue that there has been no progress in history at all since the emergence of civilisation, and indeed since the discovery of agriculture which made it possible: all this is seen as a terrible wrong turn given that the happiest epoch of human life was the nomadic hunter-gatherer stage. Such currents can only logically anticipate with yearning the final collapse of civilisation and the culling of humanity so that a return to hunting and gathering could once again be practicable for the few survivors.

Marx was certainly ‘rigid' about the idea that it was capitalism alone which had paved the way for the overcoming of social antagonisms and the creation of a society which allowed humanity to develop to the full. As he goes on to say in the Preface: "The bourgeois mode of production is the last antagonistic form of the social process of production - antagonistic not in the sense of individual antagonism but of an antagonism that emanates from the individuals' social conditions of existence - but the productive forces developing within bourgeois society create also the material conditions for a solution of this antagonism".

Capitalism was for the first time creating the preconditions for a world communist society: by unifying the entire globe around its system of production; by revolutionising the instruments of production to the point where a society of abundance was finally possible; and by giving birth to a class whose own emancipation could only come through the emancipation of the whole of humanity - the proletariat, the first exploited class in history to contain the seeds of a new society within itself. For Marx it was inconceivable that mankind could have overleaped this stage in history and given rise to a durable, global communist society in the epochs of despotism, slavery or serfdom.

But capitalism did not appear out of nowhere: the succession of modes of production prior to capitalism had in turn paved the way for it, and in this sense the whole development of these antagonistic, i.e class-divided, social systems had represented a progressive movement in human history, resulting at last in the material possibility of a classless world community. There is thus no basis for reclaiming the heritage of Marx and simultaneously rejecting the notion of progress as bourgeois.

However, there is indeed a bourgeois version of progress, and, opposed to it, a marxist one.

To begin with, whereas the bourgeoisie tended to see all history leading inexorably towards the triumph of democratic capitalism, an upward, linear march in which all previous societies were in all respects inferior to the present order of things, marxism affirmed the dialectical character of the historical movement. In fact, the very notion of ascent and decline of modes of production means that there can be regressions as well as advances in the historical process. In Anti-Duhring, talking about Fourier and his anticipation of historical materialism, Engels draws attention to the link between the dialectical view of history and the notion of ascent and decline: "Fourier is at his greatest in his conception of the history of society (...) Fourier, as we see, uses the dialectic method in the same masterly way as his contemporary, Hegel. Using these same dialectics, he argues against the talk about illimitable human perfectibility, that every historical phase has its period of ascent and also its period of descent, and he applies this observation to the future of the whole human race" ("Socialism: utopian and scientific").

What Engels is saying here is that there is nothing automatic about the process of historical evolution. Like the process of natural evolution itself, "human perfectibility" is not programmed in advanced. As we will see, there can in fact be social dead-ends, analogous to the dinosaurs - societies which not only decline, but disappear utterly, giving rise to nothing new from within themselves.

Furthermore, even when progress does take place, it generally has a profoundly contradictory character. The destruction of artisan production, in which the producer is still capable of gaining satisfaction both from the process of production and the end product of it, and its replacement by the factory system with its mind-numbing routines, is a clear case in point. But Engels explains this most forcefully when describing the transition from primitive communism to class society. In Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State, having shown both the immense strengths and inherent limitations of tribal life, Engels comes to the following conclusions about how we should view the advent of civilisation:

"The power of this primitive community had to be broken, and it was broken. But it was broken by influences which from the very start appear as a degradation, a fall from the simple moral greatness of the old gentile society. The lowest interests - base greed, brutal appetites, sordid avarice, selfish robbery of the common wealth - inaugurate the new, civilized, class society. It is by the vilest means - theft, violence, fraud, treason - that the old classless gentile society is undermined and overthrown. And the new society itself, during all the two and a half thousand years of its existence, has never been anything else but the development of the small minority at the expense of the great exploited and oppressed majority; today it is so more than ever before".

This dialectical view is also directed towards the future communist society, which in Marx's beautiful passage in the 1844 Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, is described as "a return of man to himself, but a return become conscious and accomplished with all the wealth of previous development". In the same way, the communism of the future is seen as a rebirth, on a higher level, of the communism of the past. Engels thus concludes his book on the origins of the state with an eloquent phrase taken from the anthropologist Lewis Morgan, anticipating a communism that "will be a revival, in a higher form, of the liberty, equality and fraternity of the ancient gentes".

But with all these qualifications, it is evident from the Preface that the notion of progress, of "progressive epochs", is fundamental to marxist thought. In the grandiose vision of marxism, beginning (at least!) from the emergence of mankind, to the appearance of class society, to the development of capitalism, and to the great leap into the realm of freedom that awaits us in the future, "the world is not to be comprehended as a complex of readymade things, but as a complex of processes, in which the things apparently stable no less than their mind images in our heads, the concepts, go through an uninterrupted change of coming into being and passing away, in which, in spite of all seeming accidentally and of all temporary retrogression, a progressive development asserts itself in the end" (Engels, Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy). Seen from this distance, as it were, it becomes evident that there is a real process of development: at the level of man's capacity to transform nature through the development of more sophisticated tools; at the level of mankind's subjective understanding of himself and the world around him; and thus, at the level of man's capacity to release his slumbering powers and live a life in accord with his deepest needs.

The succession of modes of production

Primitive communism to class society

When Marx provides a "broad outline" of the principal modes of production which have succeeded each other in history, it is by no means meant to be exhaustive. To begin with it only mentions "antagonistic" social forms, i.e the main forms of class society, and does not mention the various forms of non-exploiting society which preceded them. Furthermore, the study of pre-capitalist social forms in Marx's day was in its infancy, so that it was simply not possible to provide an inclusive list of all hitherto existing societies. Indeed, even in the state of present-day historical knowledge, this task remains extremely difficult to complete. In the long period between the dissolution of the original primitive communist social relations, which had their clearest shape among the nomadic hunters of the palaeolithic, and the fully formed class societies which make up the historical civilisations, there were numerous intermediate and transitional forms, as well as forms that simply ended in a historical dead-end, but our knowledge of them remains very limited[2].

The non-inclusion of primitive communist and pre-class societies in the Preface does not at all mean that Marx did not consider it important to study them, on the contrary. From the very beginning, the founders of the historical materialist method recognised that human history begins not with private property, but with communal property: "The first form of ownership is tribal [Stammeigentum] ownership. It corresponds to the undeveloped stage of production, at which a people lives by hunting and fishing, by the rearing of beasts or, in the highest stage, agriculture. In the latter case it presupposes a great mass of uncultivated stretches of land. The division of labour is at this stage still very elementary and is confined to a further extension of the natural division of labour existing in the family (The German Ideology, written in 1847).

When these insights were confirmed by later research - notably the work of Lewis Henry Morgan on the tribes of North America - Marx was extremely enthusiastic, and indeed spent a large part of his later years delving into the problem of primitive social relations, specifically in relation to the questions posed to him by the revolutionary movement in Russia (see the chapter ‘Past and future communism' in our book Communism is not a nice idea but a material necessity). For Marx, Engels and also Rosa Luxemburg, who wrote extensively about this in her Introduction to Political Economy (1907), the discovery that the original forms of human relations were based not on egoism and competition but on solidarity and cooperation, and that centuries and even millennia after the advent of class society there was still a profound and persistent attachment to communal social forms, particularly among the oppressed and exploited classes, was for them a ringing confirmation of the communist outlook and a powerful weapon against the mystifications of the bourgeoisie, for whom the lust for power and property are inherent in human nature.

In Engels' Origins of the Family Private Property and the State, in Marx's Ethnographic Notebooks and Luxemburg's Introduction to Political Economy there is thus a profound respect for the courage, morality and artistic creativity of the "savage" and "barbarian" peoples. But there is no idealisation of these societies. The communism practised in the earliest forms of human society was not engendered by the idea of equality, but out of necessity. It was the only possible form of social organisation in conditions where man's productive capacities had not yet given rise to a sufficient social surplus to support a privileged elite, a ruling class.

Primitive communist relations in all probability emerged with the development of mankind, a species whose capacity to transform his environment to satisfy his material needs marked him off as distinct from all other inhabitants of the animal kingdom. They allowed human beings to become the dominant species on the planet. But if we can generalise from what we know of the most archaic form of primitive communism, found among the Aborigines of Australia, the forms of appropriation of the social product, being entirely collective[3], also held back the development of individual productivity, with the result that the productive forces remained virtually unchanged for millennia. In any case, changing material and environmental conditions, such as the increase in population, at some point made the extreme collectivism of the first forms of human society increasingly untenable, an obstacle to the development of techniques of production (such as pastoralism and agriculture) that could feed larger populations or populations now living in changed social and environmental conditions[4].

As Marx notes "the history of the decline of primitive communities has yet to be written. All we have so far are some rather meagre outlines...(but) the causes of their decline stem from economic facts which prevented them from passing a certain stage of development" (First draft of letter to Vera Zasulich, 1881). The passing of primitive communism and the rise of class divisions does not escape the general rules outlined in the Preface: the relations that human beings created to satisfy their needs become increasingly unable to fulfil their original function, and are therefore plunged into a fundamental crisis, with the result that the communities they sustain either disappear altogether or replace the old relations with new ones better able to develop the productivity of human labour. We have already seen that Engels insisted that, at a certain historical moment, "The power of this primitive community had to be broken, and it was broken". Why? Because "Man was bounded by his tribe, both in relation to strangers from outside the tribe and to himself; the tribe, the gens, and their institutions were sacred and inviolable, a higher power established by nature, to which the individual subjected himself unconditionally in feeling, thought, and action. However impressive the people of this epoch appear to us, they are completely undifferentiated from one another; as Marx says, they are still attached to the navel string of the primitive community".

In the light of anthropological evidence we may well contest Engels' affirmation that the people of tribal societies are so entirely lacking in individuality. But the insight behind this passage remains valid: that in number of key moments and key regions, the old communal methods and relations proved became a fetter on development, and, however contradictory it may seem, the gradual rise of individual property, class exploitation, and a new phase in man's self-alienation, all became "factors of development".

The ‘Asiatic' mode of production

The term ‘Asiatic mode of production' is controversial. Engels unfortunately omits to include the concept in his seminal work on the rise of class society, Origins of the Family, even though Marx's work already contained numerous references to it. Later on, Engels' error was compounded by the Stalinists who virtually outlawed the concept altogether, advancing a very mechanistic and linear view of history as everywhere moving through phases of primitive communism, slavery, feudalism, and capitalism. This schema had distinct advantages for the Stalinist bureaucracy: on the one hand, long after the bourgeois revolution had passed from the agenda of world history, it enabled them to discern the rise of a progressive bourgeoisie in countries like India and China once they had been baptised ‘feudal'; and on the other, it allowed them to avoid embarrassing criticisms of their own form of state despotism, since in the concept of Asiatic despotism, the state, and not a class of individual property owners, directly ensures the exploitation of labour power: the parallels with Stalinist state capitalism are evident.

However, more serious researchers, such as Perry Anderson in an appendix to his book Lineages of the Absolutist State argues that Marx's characterisation of Indian and other contemporary societies as forms of a definite ‘Asiatic mode' was based on faulty information and that the concept has in any case been made so general as to lack any precise meaning.

Certainly, the epithet ‘Asiatic' is confusing in itself. To a greater or lesser extent, all the first forms of class society took on the forms analysed by Marx under this heading, whether in Sumeria, Egypt, India, China, or in more remote regions such as Central and South America, Africa and the Pacific. It is founded on the village community inherited from the epoch prior to the emergence of the state. The state power, often personified by a priestly caste, is based on the surplus product drawn from the village communities in the form of tribute, or, in the case of major construction projects (irrigation, temples, etc) of obligatory labour dues (the ‘corvee'). Slavery may exist but it is not the dominant form of labour. We would argue that while these societies displayed many significant differences, they are united at the level which is most crucial in the classification of an "antagonistic" mode of production: the social relations through which surplus labour is extracted from the exploited class

When we turn to examining the phenomenon of decadence in these social forms, there are, as with ‘primitive' societies, a number of specific characteristics, in that these societies seem to display an extraordinary stability and rarely if ever ‘evolved' into a new mode of production without being battered from the outside. It would however be a mistake to see Asiatic society as lacking in history. There is a vast difference between the first despotic forms that emerged in Hawaii or South America, which are much closer to their original tribal roots, and the gigantic empires that developed in India or China, which gave rise to extremely sophisticated cultural forms.

Nevertheless the underlying characteristic - the centrality of the village community - remains, and provides the key to the ‘unchanging' nature of these societies.

"Those small and extremely ancient Indian communities, some of which have continued down to this day, are based on possession in common of the land, on the blending of agriculture and handicrafts, and on an unalterable division of labour, which serves, whenever a new community is started, as a plan and scheme ready cut and dried. Occupying areas of from 100 up to several thousand acres, each forms a compact whole producing all it requires. The chief part of the products is destined for direct use by the community itself, and does not take the form of a commodity. Hence, production here is independent of that division of labour brought about, in Indian society as a whole, by means of the exchange of commodities. It is the surplus alone that becomes a commodity; and a portion of even that, not until it has reached the hands of the State, into whose hands from time immemorial a certain quantity of these products has found its way in the shape of rent in kind.... The simplicity of the organisation for production in these self-sufficing communities that constantly reproduce themselves in the same form, and when accidentally destroyed, spring up again on the spot and with the same name-this simplicity supplies the key to the secret of the unchangeableness of Asiatic societies, an unchangeableness in such striking contrast with the constant dissolution and refounding of Asiatic States, and the never-ceasing changes of dynasty. The structure of the economical elements of society remains untouched by the storm-clouds of the political sky". [5]

In this mode of production, the barriers to the development of commodity production were far stronger than in ancient Rome or feudalism, and this is certainly the reason why in regions where it dominated, capitalism appears not as an outgrowth of the old system but as a foreign invader. It is equally noticeable that the only ‘eastern' society which to some extent developed its own independent capitalism was Japan, where a feudal system was already in place.

Thus in this social form, the conflict between the relations of production and the evolution of the productive forces often appears as stagnation rather than decline, since while dynasties rose and fell, consuming themselves in incessant internal conflicts, and crushing society under the weight of vast, unproductive, ‘Pharaonic' state projects, still the fundamental social structure remained; and if new relations of production did not emerge, then strictly speaking periods of decline in this mode of production do not actually constitute epochs of social revolution. This is quite consistent with Marx's overall method, which does not posit a unilinear or predetermined path of evolution for all forms of society, and certainly envisages the possibility of societies reaching a dead-end from which no further evolution is possible. We should also recall that some of the more isolated expressions of this mode of production collapsed completely, often because they reached the limits to growth in a particular ecological milieu. This seems to have been the case with the Mayan culture, which destroyed its own agricultural base through excessive deforestation. In this case, there was even a deliberate ‘regression' on the part of a large part of the population, who abandoned the cities and returned to hunting and gathering, even though a memory of the old Mayan calendars and traditions was still assiduously preserved. Other cultures, such as the one on Easter Island, seem to have disappeared entirely, in all probability through irresolvable class conflict, violence and starvation.

Slavery and feudalism

Marx and Engels never denied that their familiarity with the primitive and Asiatic social formations was extremely limited by the state of contemporary knowledge. They were much more confident in writing about ‘ancient' society (ie the slave societies of Greece and Rome) and European feudalism. Indeed, the study of these societies played a significant role in the elaboration of their theory of history, since they provided very clear examples of the dynamic process through which one mode of production succeeded another. This was evident in Marx's early writings (The German Ideology) where he locates the rise of feudalism precisely in the conditions brought about by the decline of Rome

"The third form of ownership is feudal or estate property. If antiquity started out from the town and its little territory, the Middle Ages started out from the country. This different starting-point was determined by the sparseness of the population at that time, which was scattered over a large area and which received no large increase from the conquerors. In contrast to Greece and Rome, feudal development at the outset, therefore, extends over a much wider territory, prepared by the Roman conquests and the spread of agriculture at first associated with it. The last centuries of the declining Roman Empire and its conquest by the barbarians destroyed a number of productive forces; agriculture had declined, industry had decayed for want of a market, trade had died out or been violently suspended, the rural and urban population had decreased. From these conditions and the mode of organisation of the conquest determined by them, feudal property developed under the influence of the Germanic military constitution. Like tribal and communal ownership, it is based again on a community; but the directly producing class standing over against it is not, as in the case of the ancient community, the slaves, but the enserfed small peasantry".

The very term decadence frequently evokes images of the later Roman empire - of orgies and emperors drunk with power, of gladiatorial combats witnessed by huge crowds baying for blood. Such pictures certainly tend to focus on the ‘superstructural' elements of Roman society but they do reflect a reality unfolding at the very foundations of the slave system; and thus revolutionaries like Engels and Rosa Luxemburg felt justified in pointing to the decline of Rome as a kind of portent of what lay in store for humanity if the proletariat did not succeed in overthrowing capitalism: "the collapse of all civilization as in ancient Rome, depopulation, desolation, degeneration - a great cemetery" (Junius Pamphlet).

Ancient slave society was a far more dynamic social formation than the Asiatic mode, even if the latter did make its own contribution to the rise of ancient Greek culture and thus to the slave mode of production in general (Egypt in particular being looked up to as a venerable repository of wisdom). This dynamism flowed to a large extent from the fact that, as the contemporary saying had it, "everything is for sale in Rome": the commodity form had advanced to the point where the old agrarian communities were more and more a fond memory of a lost golden age, and a mass of human beings had themselves become commodities to be bought and sold in the slave markets. Production by large armies of slaves, even when there remained large areas of the economy where productive work was still carried out by small peasants or artisans, more and more assumed a key role in the central foci of the ancient economy - the great landed estates, public works, and the mines. This great ‘invention' of the ancient world was, for a considerable period of time, a formidable ‘form of development', allowing the free citizens to be organised into mighty armies which, by conquering new lands for the empire, added fresh supplies of slave labour. But by the same token there clearly came a point at which slavery was transformed into a definite fetter on further development. Its inherently unproductive nature lay in the fact that it gave the producer absolutely no incentive to give the best of his productive capacities, nor the slave-owner any incentive to invest in developing better techniques of production, since a supply of fresh slaves was always a cheaper option. Hence the extraordinary gap between the philosophical/scientific advances made by the class of thinkers whose leisure was founded on a platform held up by slaves, and the extremely limited practical application of the theoretical or technical advances that were made. This was the case, for example, with the water-mill, which played such a crucial role in the development of feudal agriculture. It was actually invented in Palestine at the turn of the first century AD, but its use was never generalised throughout the Empire. At a certain point, therefore, the incapacity of the slave mode of production to radically augment the productivity of labour made it increasingly impossible to maintain the vast armies required to fuel it. Rome overreached itself, caught into an insoluble contradiction that expressed itself in all the familiar features of its decline.

In Passages from Antiquity to Feudalism, the historian Perry Anderson enumerates some of economic, political and military expressions of this clogging up of Roman society's productive force by the slave relation in the early 3rd century: "by mid century, there was a complete collapse of the silver coinage, while by the end of the century, corn prices had rocketed to levels 200 times over their rates in the early Principiate. Political stability degenerated apace with monetary stability. In the chaotic fifty years from 235 to 284, there were no less than 20 Emperors, eighteen of whom died violent deaths, one a captive abroad, the other a victim of the plague - all fates expressive of the times. Civil wars and usurpations were virtually uninterrupted, from Maximus Thrax to Diocletian. They were compounded by a devastating sequence of foreign invasions and attacks along the frontiers, stabbing deep into the interior (...) Domestic political turmoil and foreign invasions soon brought successive epidemics in their train, weakening and reducing the populations of the Empire, already diminished by the destruction of war. Lands were deserted, and supply shortages in agrarian output developed. The tax system disintegrated with the depreciation of the currency, and fiscal dues reverted to deliveries in kind. City construction came to an abrupt halt, archeologically attested throughout the Empire; in some regions, urban centres withered and contracted" (p 83-84).

Anderson goes on to show how, in response to this profound crisis, the Roman state power, based fundamentally upon a reorganised and expanded army, swelled to vast proportions and achieved a certain stabilisation that lasted up to a hundred years. But since "the swelling of the state was accompanied by a shrinkage of the economy...." (p 92), this revival merely paved the way to what he calls "the final crisis of Antiquity", imposing the necessity to progressively abandon the slave relation. An equally key factor in the demise of the slave mode of production was the generalisation of revolts by slaves and other exploited and oppressed classes throughout the Empire in the 5th century AD (such as the so-called ‘Bacuadae' uprisings), which took place on a far wider scale than the Spartacus rebellion of the first century - although the latter is justly remembered for its incredible audacity and the profound yearning for a better world which inspired it.

The decadence of Rome thus corresponded precisely to the formula of Marx, and took on a clearly catastrophic character. Despite recent efforts of bourgeois historians to present it as a gradual and imperceptible process, it manifested itself as a devastating crisis of under-production in which society was less and less able to produce the basic necessities of life - a veritable regression in the productive forces, in which numerous areas of knowledge and technique were effectively buried and lost for centuries. This was not a one-way slide - as we have noted the great crisis of the third century was followed by a relative revival that was not ended until the final wave of barbarian invasions - but it was inexorable.

The collapse of the Roman system was the precondition for the emergence of new relations of production as a major stratum of landowners took the revolutionary step of eliminating slave labour in favour of the colonus system - the forerunner of feudal serfdom, in which the producer, while being directly compelled to work for the landowning class, is also given his own plot of land to cultivate. The second ingredient of feudalism, mentioned by Marx in the passage from The German Ideology, was the barbarian, ‘Germanic' element, combining the emerging hierarchy of a warrior aristocracy with the remnants of communal ownership, which was stubbornly maintained by the peasantry. A long period of transition ensued, in which slave relations had not yet entirely disappeared and the feudal system gradually asserted itself, reaching its true ascent only in the first centuries of the new millennium. And while as we have noted in various areas (urbanisation, the relative independence of art and philosophical thought from religion, medicine, etc) the rise of feudal society represented a marked regression with regard to the achievements of Antiquity, the new social relations gave both lord and serf a direct interest in increasing the yield of their share of the land and permitted the generalisation of a number of important technical advances in agriculture: the iron plough and the iron harness that allowed it to be horse-drawn, the water mill, the three field system of crop rotation, etc. The new mode of production thus permitted a revival of the cities and a new flourishing of culture, expressed most graphically in the great cathedrals and universities that emerged in the 12th and 13th centuries.

But like the slave system before it, feudalism also began to reach its ‘external' limits:

"Within the next hundred years (of the 13th century), a massive general crisis struck the whole continent...The deepest determinant of this general crisis probably lay...in a ‘seizure' of the mechanisms of reproduction of the system at a barrier point of its ultimate capacities. In particular, it seems clear that the basic motor of rural reclamation, which had driven the whole feudal economy forwards for three centuries, eventually over-reached the objective limits of both terrain and social structure. Population continued to grow while yields fell on the marginal lands still available for conversion at the existing levels of technique, and soil deteriorated through haste or misuse. The last reserves of newly reclaimed land were usually of poor quality, wet or thin soil that was more difficult to farm, and on which inferior crops such as oats were sown. The oldest lands under plough were, on the other hand, liable to age and decline from the very antiquity of their cultivation...." (Anderson, p 197).

As the expansion of feudal agrarian economy came up against these barriers, disastrous consequences ensued in the life of society: crop failure, famines, collapse of grain prices combined with soaring prices of goods produced in the urban centres:

"This contradictory process affected the noble class drastically, for its mode of life had become ever more dependent on the luxury goods produced in the towns...while demesne cultivation and servile dues from its estates yielded progressively decreasing incomes. The result was a decline in seigneurial revenues, which in turn unleashed an unprecedented wave of warfare as knights everywhere tried to recoup their fortunes with plunder. In Germany and Italy, this quest for booty in a time of dearth produced the phenomenon of unorganised and anarchic banditry by individual lords...In France, above all, the Hundred years' War - a murderous combination of civil war between the Capetian and Burgundian houses and an international struggle between England and France, also involving Flanders and the Iberian powers - plunged the richest country in Europe into unparalleled disorder and misery. In England, the epilogue of final continental defeat in France was baronial gangsterism of the Wars of the Roses...To complete a panorama of desolation, this structural crisis was over-determined by a conjunctural catastrophe: the invasion of the Black Death from Asia in 1348".

The Black Death, wiping out up to a third of the European population, hastened the final demise of serfdom. It brought about a chronic shortage of labour in the countryside, forcing the noble class to shift from traditional feudal labour dues to the payment of wages; but at the same time the nobility tried to hold the clock back by imposing draconian restrictions on wages and the movement of labourers, a Europe-wide tendency classically codified in the Statute of Labourers decreed in England immediately after the Black Death. The further result of this noble reaction was to provoke widespread class struggle, again most famously given shape by the huge Peasants' Revolt in England in 1381. But there were comparable uprisings all over Europe during this period (the French ‘Jacquerie', labourers' revolts in Flanders, the rebellion of the Ciompi in Florence, and so on).

As in the decline of ancient Rome, the mounting contradictions of the feudal system at the economic level thus had their repercussions at the level of politics (wars, social revolts) and in the relationship between man and nature; and all of these elements in turn accelerated and deepened the general crisis. As in Rome, the general decline of feudalism was the result of a crisis of underproduction, the inability of the old social relations to allow the production of the basic necessities of daily existence. It is important to note that although the slow emergence of commodity relations in the towns acted as a dissolving factor on feudal bonds, and were further accelerated by the effects of the general crisis (wars, famines, the Black Death), the new social relations could not really take wing until the old system had entered into a state of self-contradiction which resulted in a grave decline in the forces of production:

"One of the most important conclusions yielded by an examination of the great crash of European feudalism is that - contrary to widely received beliefs among Marxists - the characteristic ‘figure' of a crisis in a mode of production is not one in which vigorous (economic) forces of production burst triumphantly through retrograde (social) relations of production, and promptly establish a higher productivity and society on their ruins. On the contrary, the forces of production typically tend to stall and recede within the existent relations of production; these must then first be radically changed and reordered before new forces of production can be created and combined for a globally new mode of production. In other words, the relations of production generally change prior to the forces of production in an epoch of transition, and not vice versa" (p 204). As with the decline of Rome, a period of regression in the old system was a precondition for the flourishing of a new mode of production.

Again, as in the period of Roman decadence, the ruling class sought to preserve its tottering system by increasingly artificial means. The passing of savage laws to control the mobility of labour and the tendency of rural labourers to escape to the towns, the attempt to rein in the centrifugal tendencies of the aristocracy through the centralisation of monarchical power, the use of the Inquisition to impose a rigid ideological control over all expressions of heretical and dissident thought, the debasing of the coinage to ‘solve' the problem of royal indebtedness... all these trends represented the attempt of a dying system to postpone its final demise, but they could not prevent it. Indeed, to a large extent, the very means used to preserve the old system were transformed into bridgeheads of the new system: this was the case, for example, with the centralising monarchies of Tudor England, who were in great part creating the necessary conditions for the emergence of the modern capitalist nation state

Much more clearly than in the decadence of Rome, the epoch of feudal decline was also an epoch of social revolution in the sense that that a genuinely new and revolutionary class came out of its entrails, a class with a world outlook that challenged the old ideologies and institutions, and a mode of economy that found the feudal relation an intolerable obstacle to its expansion. The bourgeois revolution made its triumphant entry onto the stage of history in England in the 1640s, even if had to wait over a century and a half before its subsequent and even more spectacular victories in France in the 1790s. This long time-frame was a possibility for the bourgeois revolution because it is the crowning political point of a long process of economic and social development inside the shell of the old system, and because it followed different rhythms in different nations.

The transformation of ideological forms

"In studying such transformations it is always necessary to distinguish between the material transformation of the economic conditions of production, which can be determined with the precision of natural science, and the legal, political, religious, artistic or philosophic - in short, ideological forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out".

All class societies are maintained by a combination of outright repression and the ideological control exerted by the ruling class through its numerous institutions: family, religion, education, and so on. Ideologies are never a purely passive reflection of the economic base, but contain their own dynamic which at certain moments can actively impact on the underlying social relations. In affirming the materialist conception of history, Marx was obliged to "distinguish" between the "material transformation of the economic conditions" and the "ideological forms in which men become conscious of this conflict" because hitherto the prevailing approach to history had been to emphasise the latter at the expense of the former.

When analysing the ideological transformations that take place in an epoch of social revolution, it is important to remember that while they are ultimately determined by the economic conditions of production, this does not happen in a rigid and mechanical way, not least because such a period is never one of pure descent or debasement, but is marked by an increasing clash between contradictory social forces. It is characteristic of such epochs that the old ruling ideology, corresponding less and less to a changing social reality, tends to decompose and give way to new world-outlooks which can serve to actively inspire and mobilise the social classes opposed to the old order. In the process of decomposing, the old ideologies - religious, philosophical, artistic - frequently succumb to pessimism, nihilism, and an obsession with death, while the ideologies of rising or rebellious classes are more often optimistic, life-affirming, looking forward to the dawn of a world radically transformed.

To take one example: in the dynamic period of the slave system, philosophy tended, within the limits of the day, to express mankind's efforts to "know thyself" in Socrates immortal phrase - to grasp the real dynamic of nature and society through rational thought, without the intermediary of the divine. In its period of descent, philosophy itself tended to retreat into the justification of despair or of irrationality, as in Neoplatonism and its links to the numerous mystery cults that flourished in the later Empire.

This tendency cannot be grasped in a one-sided manner however: in periods of decadence the old religions and philosophies were also confronted with the rise of new revolutionary classes or the rebellion of the exploited, and these generally also took on a religious form. Thus, in ancient Rome, the Christian religion, though certainly influenced by the eastern mystery cults, began as a protest movement of the dispossessed against the dominant order, and later, as an established power in its own right, provided a framework for the preservation of many of the cultural acquisitions of the ancient world. This dialectic between the old order and the new was a feature of ideological transformations during the decline of feudalism as well. On the one hand:

"The period of stagnation saw the rise of mysticism in all its forms. The intellectual form with the ‘Treatise on the Art of Dying', and above all, ‘The Imitation of Jesus Christ'. The emotional form with the great expressions of popular piety exacerbated by the influence of the uncontrolled elements of the mendicant clergy: the ‘flagellants' wandered the countryside, lacerating their bodies with whips in village squares in order to strike at human sensibility and call Christians to repent. These manifestations gave rise to imagery of often dubious taste, as with the fountains of blood that symbolised the redeemer. Very rapidly the movement lurched towards hysteria and the ecclesiastical hierarchy had to intervene against the troublemakers, in order to prevent their preaching from increasing the number of vagabonds (...) Macabre art developed... the sacred text most favored by the more thoughtful minds was the Apocalypse." (J. Favier, From Marco Polo to Christopher Columbus, p152f).

On the other hand, the demise of feudalism also saw the rise of the bourgeoisie and its world view, expressing itself in the magnificent flowering of art and science in the period of the Renaissance. And even mystical and millenarian movements like the Anabaptists were, as Engels pointed out, often intimately linked to the communist aspirations of the exploited classes. Such movements could not yet provide a historically viable alternative to the old system of exploitation, and their millenarian dreams were more often fixated on a primitive past than a more advanced future, but they nevertheless played a key role in the processes bringing about the destruction of the decaying mediaeval hierarchy.

In a decadent epoch, the general cultural decline is never absolute: at the artistic level, for example, the stagnation of the old schools can also be countered by new forms which above all express a human protest against an increasingly inhuman order. The same can be said at the level of morality. If morality is ultimately an expression of the social nature of mankind, and if periods of decadence are expressions of the break-down of social relations, then they will tend to be characterised by a concomitant break-down in morality, a tendency towards the collapse of basic human ties and the triumph of the anti-social impulses. The perversion and prostitution of sexual desire, the flourishing of casual murder, robbery and fraud, and above all the suspension of the moral order in warfare become the order of the day. But again, this should not be seen in a rigid and mechanical way, in which periods of ascent are marked by superior human behaviour and periods of decline by a sudden plunge into wickedness and depravity. The undermining and shattering of old moral certainties can equally express the rise of a new system of exploitation, in comparison to which the old order may seem comparatively benign, as noted in the Communist Manifesto with regard to the rise of capitalism:

"The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his ‘natural superiors', and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous ‘cash payment'. It has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervour, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation. It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom - Free Trade".

And yet, such is the understanding of Hegel's ‘Cunning of Reason' in the thinking of Marx and Engels that they were able to recognise that this moral ‘decline', this commodification of the world, was in fact a force for progress which was helping to sweep away the static feudal order that lay behind it and pave the way for the genuinely human moral order that lay in front of it.


[1] Preface to A contribution to the critique of political economy.

[2] For example, the settled and already quite hierarchical hunting societies which were able to hold extensive food stocks, the various semi-communist forms of agrarian production, the ‘tributary empires' formed by semi-barbarian pastoralists like the Huns and the Mongols, etc

[3] Among the Australian tribes when the traditional way of life was still in force, the hunter who brought in the game kept nothing for himself, but immediately handed over the product to the community in the shape of certain complex kinship structures. According to the work of the anthropologist Alain Testart, Le Communisme Primitif, 1985, the term primitive communism should only be applied to the Australians, which he sees as the last remnant of a social relationship which had probably been general during the palaeolithic period. This is a matter for debate. Certainly even among the nomadic hunter-gatherer peoples, there are wide differences in the way that the social product is distributed, even though all of them give priority to the maintenance of the community, and as Chris Knight points out in his Blood Relations, Menstruation and the Origins of Culture, 1991, what he calls the ‘own-kill rule' (ie prescribed limits on what the hunter may consume of his kill) is extremely widespread among hunting peoples.

[4] It must of course be borne in mind that the dissolution of primitive social relations was not a one-off event but followed very different rhythms in different parts of the globe; it is a process spanning millennia and it is only now reaching its last tragic chapters in the remotest regions of the globe, such as the Amazon and Borneo.

[5] Capital, 1, Part IV, Chapter XIV