By Harbans Mukhia
I HAVE been following the very interesting debate on the question of feudalism in Pakistan in the pages of Dawn. I think one among several problems with the notion of feudalism is that it was conceptualised long after its demise in Western Europe and in the wake of the rise of its adversary, i.e. capitalism. It was thus constituted not in its own terms but as the ‘other’ of capitalism. It thus became a residual category — inclusive of everything that capitalism was supposedly not.
If capitalism was progressive and rational, feudalism was backward-looking and marked by superstition. If capitalism was driven by ceaseless technological and economic dynamism, feudalism was stagnant. If capitalism was based upon wage labour, which was a purely economic form of coercion, feudalism was fundamentally characterised by non-economic or extra-economic coercion. Combined with the post-Enlightenment derision of the Middle Ages as the Dark Ages, marked by superstition, subservience, stagnation etc. etc., feudalism thus came to be a term of extensive, indeed comprehensive, abuse.
History, however, does not quite substantiate this derision. Economically and technologically it was a period of enormous dynamism. Indeed, the great historian of France, Marc Bloch, in his landmark work, Feudal Society, divided the period into the first and the second feudal ages and observed that even as the society lived by a consciousness of changelessness, so profound and pervasive was change that if an inhabitant of one feudal age were to visit the other, he would not have been able to recognise it.
Technology of agricultural production had evolved, greatly improving the productivity of land and labour; the three-field system had by and large replaced the two-field system; agricultural production itself had expanded to the arable vast forests in eastern Europe; new and better food crops were now being cultivated. Population had grown rapidly, releasing peasants, who were characteristically tied to the land, into an emerging mobile labour market; and so forth.
Indeed, later European historians of the second half of the 20th century had even become wary of using the term ‘feudalism’ for the medieval society, for it appeared to them to be far too tightly structured. And I speak of frontline historians such as Georges Duby, Jacques Le Goff and Aaron Gurevich, among many others.
Culturally too, the European Middle Ages gave us some of the immortal works of art whether in architecture, or painting, music or poetry. The same can be said of the Middle Ages everywhere: India, China, Japan, the Arab-Muslim world. But then, the period was also one of enormous exploitation, repression and subordination of one or another section of society by those who had command over the resources, something again true of all ages, including our own.
But the image of feudalism as the repository of all that was oppressive, regressive, superstitious, has survived. One can read all these abuses and much more in some recent writings. It is this image that is mobilised in an attempt to rise to the rational modernity, which notion too is given to us by post-Enlightenment Europe, just as the notion of feudalism was. That is the problem: we are trapped in a discourse that is not of our making, whichever way we might turn.
The terms of debate are really not of our own creation, as it were. And clearly these are all heavily loaded terms, each carrying a baggage even as they appear to us as merely descriptive of an ‘objective’ situation.
We are thus faced with a situation of austere academic analysis of feudalism leading us in one direction and the need for its mobilisation for political agitation into another.
Can we find a compatible space between the two? I think it involves much harder work especially on the part of academics than the easy way out of falling back upon a convenient and familiar term. It is important to recognise that the classic Marxist definition of capitalism as ‘generalised commodity production where labour is a commodity’ marks its idealised, purest form, its ultimate goal; prior to arriving at that purest form, capitalism can combine all kinds of not only pre-capitalist labour uses, but virtually any kind of social structure.
The cotton farmers of the South in the US in the 19th century were no less capitalist because they were employing slave labour on their farms. Japan is among the frontline capitalist economies of the world today, next only to the US, but in terms of its social structure, especially its subjection of women, it is way behind many of even the developing countries; and the ‘feudal’ value of loyalty is still a strong tie that binds many of the employees to their companies even for generations. All of these do not contravene its character as a capitalist economy and society.
It is therefore important to seek to understand each scenario in concrete terms before we take the easy resort to carry bag categories.
Harbans Mukhia was professor of medieval history at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.