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Rodney Hilton, Marxism and the transition from feudalism to capitalism

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An eminent medievalist and one of the most influential of the small band of Marxist historians working in the UK before 1968, Rodney Hilton’s work on the development of the English feudal system into industrial capitalism was, despite its renown, ultimately mistaken. The problems with Hilton’s account were largely inherited from Maurice Dobb, whose interpretation of Marxist theory led him to exaggerate the role of class struggle to the exclusion of other factors. These assumptions about the importance of class struggle in the transition from feudalism to capitalism were carried over from Dobb’s early work to the work of Hilton and the Marxist historians who followed him. Dobb’s account was predicated upon the inevitable failure of feudalism – an assumption that failed to explain the preceding five-hundred years of success and expansion. This paper looks at how Dobb’s revised understanding of the role of markets in socialist economies subsequently filtered through to Hilton’s reassessment of markets under feudalism, identifies the flaws in the analysis Dobb offered, and traces how these assumptions were carried through to the work of Hilton, before finally offering an alternate diagnosis of the “feudal crises” of the Marxist canon in terms of technical innovation.”

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