Karl Marx identified feudalism as the mode of production coming between slavery and capitalism, characterized by the antagonistic class relationship between landlords and peasants, and by a low level of technology, essentially still at the manual and simple tool stage. In feudalism surplus value is extracted from the peasants by the landlords in the form of feudal rent. In drawing the broad differences between feudalism and capitalism Marx writes, “The handmill gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam mill, society with the industrial capitalist.” What he means by this is that when technology is at the level of the handmill, or in other words at a relatively simple nonmechanized level, then the typical relation of production is that of lord and serf. The lords own the land and the serfs work on it to produce food and other essentials. Tied to the land and bound to serve their lord, the serfs’ freedom of movement is severely restricted. As for the small number of skilled workers, a system of guilds serves to organize them and to limit competition between them. On this economic base rests a superstructure that includes an authoritarian, hierarchical political structure headed by a monarch with vast and often arbitrary powers. This political and social structure is supported by religious, moral and social ideas that all serve to legitimize it. In the sphere of religion the clergy preach the divine right of kings and acceptance of one’s lot in the here and now with a promise of better things to come in the afterlife as a reward for such acquiescence. The dominant moral ideas and social attitudes espouse obedience, loyalty, deference and social immobility, all of which again serve to sanction and bolster the existing political, social and economic system.
   Marx sketches the transition from feudal society to capitalist society. The key factor in this transition is technological development and specifically the advent of steam power and mechanization. This is a radical change in the forces of production, which leads to a transformation of the relations of production and the superstructure. For steam power and machinery to be used efficiently it is no use having serfs tied to the land and spread out over the countryside. What is needed instead is a concentration of laborers in towns to work in the factories that use the new machines. The new machines and factories require laborers who are free to move to the towns, and free to become workers in factories. The feudal relations of production, principally the relationship between lord and serf, become redundant, particularly as they hold back the development and utilization of the new technology. The new productive forces cannot operate efficiently and develop to their full potential while feudal relations of production still prevail. The conflict between the old relations of production and the new forces of production can only last so long before a revolutionary change in society takes place, and feudal relations are replaced by the more appropriate capitalist relations of production; instead of serfs there are workers, and instead of lords there are capitalists. This in turn requires a change in the political and legal institutions, and in the religious, moral and social attitudes of society. Hence, political power and influence begin to swing to the newly born class of industrialists which is rapidly becoming the wealthiest class in society. The monarchy and aristocracy, with their economic power on the wane, find themselves engaged in a political struggle with this new class of capitalists, a struggle that they are historically destined to lose. Parliamentary democracy supersedes absolute monarchy; kings lose their power and sometimes their heads too. New constitutions and laws are made by the new ruling class. New political ideas concerning the rule of law, liberty of the individual, freedom of conscience, freedom of contract, the free market and competition emerge and gradually come to dominate society. In religion the clergy no longer insists on the divine right of kings, but preaches Puritanism and a work ethic in keeping with the virtues most useful to the new ruling class and society. For Marx, feudalism serves to highlight that modes of production, including capitalism, are historically specific and neither natural nor eternal.

Historical dictionary of Marxism. . 2014.

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