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Feudalism is a socio-economic system, generally associated with predominantly small-scale production, whose agriculture was based on traditional patterns of land-ownership and territory, in which the rights and duties of every member of society is defined by traditional inheritance and kinship relations. Socialism: Utopian and Scientific has this to say about it:

In feudalism, means of production are adapted for individual use; hence primitive, ungainly, petty, dwarfed in action. Production for immediate consumption, either of the producer himself or his feudal lord. Only where an excess of production over this consumption occurs is such excess offered for sale, enters into exchange. Production of commodities, therefore, only in its infancy. But already it contains within itself, in embryo, anarchy in the production of society at large.[1]

Distinguishing characteristics[edit]

Feudal society differs from tribal society in being a class society, in which quite different and unequal rights and duties are enjoyed by different families, according to land rights, wealth and social status inherited from previous generations. It is also different from slave society in that every class in feudal society has rights and is regarded as human, however lowly, whereas slaves have no rights at all and are treated as property rather than as people. This is not to say that slavery could not exist in feudal society, but it cannot be the principal mode of production. The feudal serf is the main producer, and has inalienable rights to his land and well-defined political rights; the king likewise is not a law unto himself like the ancient despot of slave civilizations, but must act in accordance with law, and his nobles likewise have very specific duties both as his subjects and towards their own subjects. Feudal society further differs from capitalism because bourgeois society operates outside the constraints imposed by traditional rights and ethics, being governed only by what can make a profit, by the market.

Feudal society existed across all of Asia, in Central and South America and parts of Africa at the time the European colonialists arrived, and was on the verge of developing in North America. Feudal society took on different forms in every country in which it arose, reflecting the specific features of each culture. Being the immediate precursor to capitalism, feudal society has left its traces on modern society to this day.

Most notably, the bourgeois family is a remnant of the feudal family (though to an extent it is also a remnant of tribal society), so long as within the family a traditional division of labour holds, enforced by oaths sworn before a higher authority, rather than being an exchange of services governed by a prenuptial contract or on payment of wages. On the other hand, in very many countries, such as Britain, the constitutional monarchy continues to exist as a kind of legitimating authority, as if the election of a head of state by popular mandate cannot provide the same level of authority as kingly descent.

The development of the state in bourgeois society differs from the nature of the state in feudal society. In feudal society, the lowliest serf who is kept in poverty tilling his little strip of land and forced to bring in the harvest for the local noble, give a tenth of his product to the Church and pay taxes to keep the Royal court in luxury is nevertheless seen as part of the state. The state does not present itself as a force standing above society, but rather, it is identical with society. That the state is a system of violence for maintaining the conditions of exploitation remains the case, but it achieves that task quite differently.

The religious conceptions of feudal society differ from those of bourgeois society, too. The ancient despot of slave society was held to be a demigod, but the king of feudal society is not himself a god, but more likely God’s representative on Earth. The exact conception varies from one society to another, but in general feudal society is a hierarchy. Individualism is unknown and every member of that hierarchy has personality and an ethical code only by and through that hierarchy, receiving the knowledge and the blessing of God only through that same hierarchy. The doctrine of Papal infallibility and the reading of the Mass in Latin are classic expressions of the feudal religious conception. To the Protestants, the Christian expression of bourgeois society, every person has their own, independent access to a personal God, and consequently, the first demand of the Reformation was the translation of the Word of God into the language of the local people.

The form of exploitation in feudal society differs from that of bourgeois society. The peasant knew exactly what proportion of his labor went to maintaining the superstructure of feudal society because a definite portion of his labor and/or produce was taken from him for this purpose. Contrariwise, the wage laborer is exploited without knowing it, for it appears that she is paid for every working hour.

Forces of production[edit]

Generally speaking, feudal society is the mode of production most suited to small-scale agricultural forces of production. Slave society flourished in the tilling of large estates where overseers could control the work of large numbers of slaves. In order to take advantage of the benefits of small-scale farming, the laborers had to be given rights in their land, since an insupportable number of overseers would be required to govern their work. Initially, in the British Isles, it was the introduction of sheep and cattle grazing which began to undermine the foundations of feudal society, because the demand for labor was small and large tracts of land were required on which to run herds. This led to the Enclosures in which vast numbers of Scottish and English peasants were brutally and illegally evicted from their land to make way for sheep. The landless paupers created by the enclosures wandered the land without any possible means of living and throughout Georgian times these people were hounded from pillar to post as vagrants, but ultimately they provided the propertyless laborers who would work in the factories of the Industrial Revolution and give rise to the modern proletariat.

Transition into capitalism[edit]

Just as was the case with tribal society, it was also the growth in trade and commerce and the presence of large numbers of people and the accumulation of capital outside the scope of feudal society, which served to undermine feudalism. The growth of wage labor and commodity production, and the accumulation of large masses of capital, while the feudal monarchs slid into debt, created the conditions for the English Revolution of 1640, the French Revolution of 1789 which broke the resistance of feudalism to the rise of the bourgeoisie and opened the way to free trade and the rule of money.

Further reading[edit]


Marxists Internet Archive Encyclopedia
This page was originally adapted from an MIA Encyclopedia entry written by Brian Baggins and/or Andy Blunden.

It is subject to CC BY-SA 2.0.