How Marxists View the Middle Ages

Class societies didn’t begin with capitalism: the ancient and medieval worlds had their own systems of exploitation. Marxist historians have set out to explain how those systems worked — and what their eventual demise tells us about what might lie ahead.

Woodcut on enamel depicting agricultural work, ca. 1160. (DEA / G. Dagli Orti / De Agostini via Getty Images)

As students of history, Karl Marx and those who followed in his wake primarily concerned themselves with the rise of capitalism, its spread throughout the world, and the ways in which it might be ended. But they also tried to explain the development of pre-capitalist societies in the light of Marx’s historical materialism and its basic concepts. In doing so, they hoped to identify the conditions that enabled class societies to take shape before their inner contradictions precipitated their collapse.

The framework those scholars developed was highly influential and stimulated important historical research, but it contained some fundamental flaws. In recent decades, historians working in the Marxist tradition have identified those flaws and proposed alternative ways of understanding the ancient and medieval worlds.

Their creative revisions of Marxist theory have made it possible to look at these fascinating historical periods on their own terms, instead of presenting them as mere antechambers to the rise of capitalism. The latter approach had the paradoxical effect, for Marxists, of making it seem as if capitalism was a natural phase of social development.

In this article, I will discuss the traditional Marxist view of the pre-capitalist world and the flaws it contained. I will then give a short account of the alternative perspectives developed by three of the most important contemporary Marxist historians: Chris Wickham, John Haldon, and Jairus Banaji.

Marx and the Middle Ages

Marx’s chief interest in past societies stemmed from his need to establish a general mechanism for all processes of social transformation, which would help to explain both the advent of capitalism and its predictable descent into crisis. He depicted history as a progression of stages from antiquity through feudalism to capitalism and thence to socialism.

For Marx, the transition from one stage to another came about through changes in the mode of production, arising from transformations in technology and other factors, and through the struggle between the social classes formed by each mode (masters and slaves, landlords and serfs, bourgeoisie and proletariat).

In short, Marx characterized particular epochs of history (primitive communal, ancient, feudal) or particular sets of economic relationships (which he occasionally described using different terms, such as “Germanic,” “Slavonic,” or “Asiatic”) as modes of production. However, his writings on these questions are unclear, and much of the subsequent Marxist literature reflects his uncertainties and ambiguity.

British historian Perry Anderson published a seminal work, Passages from Antiquity to Feudalism, in 1974. It was the most systematic attempt to examine the historical phases that preceded capitalism and to integrate them into the general corpus of Marxist theory. Anderson closely followed Marx’s historical sequence of European history. However, he argued that the “real mechanism” that accounted for the rise and fall of classical antiquity was not class struggle per se, but rather the developing contradiction between “forces and relations of production.”

In classical antiquity (a period stretching from 500 BCE to 500 CE), two forms of economic organization coexisted. Anderson labeled these forms as the slave mode of production and the “distended and deformed primitive modes of production.” Anderson saw these modes as the manifestations of two opposing political forces, the ancient empires (especially the Roman Empire from 200 BC to 200 CE) and the societies living at the margins of these political entities (the nomadic tribes or the “Germanic” peoples):

The catastrophic collision of these two dissolving anterior modes of production — primitive and ancient — eventually produced the feudal order which spread through medieval Europe.

There was a gap between the end of classical antiquity and the fully fledged serfdom which characterized the feudal mode of the late Middle Ages. Anderson introduced the concept of a hybrid form of labor organization, the late Roman colonate, to account for the six centuries or so between the decomposition of ancient slavery and the emergence of medieval serfdom.

When he finally turned his attention to the homeland of feudalism and serfdom, Anderson distinguished between the trajectories of Western and Eastern Europe. In the western half of the continent, there had been a deep process of socioeconomic disintegration and mutation of the feudal structures by the early fifteenth century. In the eastern half, on the other hand, feudalism had reached the starting point of West European feudal societies but then froze at that point without going on to repeat the experience of their middle or late development.

The Limits of Traditional Marxism

Anderson’s Passages constitutes the boldest attempt to create a Marxist grand narrative of world history. It stands out for its undeniable clarity of expression and comprehensive coverage. However, Anderson’s greatest merit lay precisely in having exposed the limits of Marx’s universal sequence of historical development. This schema was misleading in two main respects.

Firstly, it presented Europe as being the forerunner of a developmental pathway for the whole of world history. This meant assigning a universal “evolutionary” significance to the passage from antiquity to feudalism and thence to capitalism. According to Marx’s schema, if the rest (or “the Rest”) of the world did not produce feudalism, we should see this as an exception to the rule Europe supposedly exemplified.

In fact, historians have since convincingly demonstrated that feudalism can be found in a wider range of non-European societies than was previously argued. They have also shown that regimes all over Eurasia, including the so-called Asiatic despotisms of India, China, and other regions, had common roots in the Bronze Age and its urban revolution. In both the East and West, such regimes were variants of a system that we could call tributary.

If mercantile wealth and monetary exchange were the solvents of Western feudalism, the same must have been true for the regimes in the rest of Eurasia. Merchant communities were cosmopolitan. In every place where they sought to achieve prestige as well as cultural influence, they had very similar organizational forms and faced similar difficulties.

The Marxist schema also misleads in a second way. It depicts historical transitions as if they were characterized by successive, clearly demarcated modes of surplus appropriation, progressing from slavery in the ancient world to serfdom in the Middle Ages and wage labor in capitalist societies.

In reality, the ways in which the possessing classes extracted a surplus from the direct producers were much more volatile and contingent than this model suggests. We cannot find evidence to support this traditional picture if we move from abstract models to a detailed interrogation of ancient and medieval sources on the ground.

For example, the conception of slavery as the economic basis of ancient societies is simply wrong. Slave labor, especially in agriculture, played a secondary role in the ancient world, outside of limited geographical areas and short periods of time (such as that of the late Roman republic and early empire, 200 BCE to 100 CE).

On the other hand, rural slavery continued to be an economic phenomenon in medieval Europe and the Near East. Its forms varied from the ubiquitous slave-tenancy of the Mediterranean region to the rare, though extreme, plantation slavery of tenth-century Iraq or thirteen-century Iran.

It is equally erroneous to suppose that there is a necessary association between serfdom and the feudal system. Feudal systems existed outside of Western Europe as well as inside it, and serfdom was not the defining social structure in every such society — India and China were significant exceptions, for instance.

Finally, wage labor is not unique to capitalist societies, having been common in the ancient and medieval worlds as well. On the other hand, we can find many examples of slavery and indentured labor being deployed under capitalism, from the giant plantations of pre-revolutionary Haiti or the southern United States to the savage exploitation of migrant workers in the Gulf monarchies today.

Chris Wickham and the Other Transition

Recognizing the limits of the traditional Marxist schema, historians have set out to forge new interpretive frameworks that can help us understand the social relations of pre-capitalist societies. Three contemporary Marxist scholars have made an especially important contribution to our revised understanding of world history before the advent of capitalism.

The first I will discuss is Chris Wickham, a medieval historian of Europe and the Mediterranean. Wickham began to question the dogmatic Marxist approach to history in a seminal 1984 article, “The Other Transition: From the Ancient World to Feudalism.” More recently, he has written one of the most influential books on the transition from antiquity to the Middle Ages, Framing the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean, 400–800 (2005).

In his work, Wickham rejects the simplistic idea of a dichotomy between slavery and serfdom that marks the passage from ancient to medieval worlds. He offers instead a different polarization between two modes of production that he respectively calls “ancient” or “tributary” and “feudal.” In the first, power was concentrated strongly in the hands of a ruling elite situated at the top of the power system; in the second, power was largely held by local overlords, with fragile rule at the top.

Historical formations of the “ancient” or “tributary” kind include the Roman, Byzantine, Abbasid, and Carolingian empires. The ruling elites at the apex of these systems were strong because they controlled at least two crucial institutional devices.

Firstly, they supervised a strategic element in the production process: the collection and management of standardized information. That supervisory role allowed them to create aggregate statistics about property, income, demography, and productivity in the territories they ruled. These forms of information literacy made the state’s tributary mission successful.

Secondly, the ruling elites controlled a strategic element of coercion, namely, a standing army equipped with superior military capability. Thanks to this coercive authority, rulers were able to deploy their own tribute-gatherers without the need for assistance from those who exercised power at the local level. They were able to loosen the grip of local overlords over resources and hence over the primary producers of economic surplus, rendering these overlords dependent on revenues channeled to them by the ruling elite.

Tributary Economics and Peasant Modes

These political structures ultimately depended on their capacity to extract sufficient revenues from the agricultural population to fund their centralized machinery of power (a court, a bureaucracy, and a salaried army). The collection and distribution of tribute also had two important collateral effects on the economy.

First of all, it compelled peasants to produce a larger agrarian surplus (and sometimes manufactured goods, too) in order to pay state levies. Secondly, it drove merchants to profit from the long-distance trade routes that were established for the transfer of state revenues. The breakdown of the tributary empires then precipitated the end of economic integration. In the aftermath, economies became localized, or in Wickham’s terminology, they became “feudal.”

In contrast, the defining characteristics of feudal societies were the primacy of “the politics of land” and the decentralization of the means of coercion in the hands of local landholding elites. The crucial factor in the exercise of power in such political formations was the direct ownership and control of land. The king or local magnate would be the most powerful figure in a given territory because they possessed the largest landholdings and exercised close control over the people living there, rather than because of their formal state role or institutional offices.

Such societies developed in Europe after Rome’s fall, in Asia after the collapse of the Abbasid and Tang states, or in Africa after the decline of Aksum or the Ghana empire. The absence of systematic taxation prevented rulers from exercising direct control over land. Control over land and rents thus became the chief source of wealth and power for all the kings, aristocrats, and lords.

Within these broad parameters of feudal society, it was possible (but not inevitable) that a political and social order would develop like the one imposed in areas of post-Carolingian Europe, based on serfdom in the strict sense of the term. The institution of the fief, as a form of conditional landed property granted by a lord to his vassals, involved jurisdiction over a dependent peasantry.

There can be multiple intermediary configurations between these two modes. Wickham adds to them a third default option, which he calls the “peasant mode of production.”  This refers to the various forms of peasant economy that can be found when landlords or the state do not appropriate surplus in a systematic way. We can find many examples of such communities, from the seventh-century Italian Apennines and medieval Iceland to upland Southeast Asia in modern times.

John Haldon and the Tributary Mode

John Haldon is a sophisticated scholar of the Byzantine Empire who is also interested in the comparative analysis of the Ottoman and Mughal empires. Like Chris Wickham, Haldon was a student of Rodney Hilton, one of the founding fathers of the British tradition of Marxist historiography that developed from the early 1950s. While figures such as Eric Hobsbawm, Christopher Hill, George Rudé, and E. P. Thompson concentrated on the modern or early modern periods of European history, Hilton spent his scholarly life researching medieval Europe, notably the peasant revolts he explored in his 1973 book Bond Men Made Free.

Haldon offers a somewhat different perspective from Wickham on modes of production when he discusses the transition from the ancient world to the Middle Ages. He argues that beneath the appearance of rupture, there was an essential continuity between these two historical periods. For Haldon, they were both defined by a single, dominant mode: the tributary mode.

In his theoretical masterpiece, The State and Tributary Mode of Production (1993), Haldon employs the concept of a tribute-paying mode. The Egyptian Marxist scholar Samir Amin originally conceived of this mode to replace the confusing, unpopular, and largely abandoned concept of an “Asiatic” mode, which Marx had discussed in his own work. However, Haldon’s use of the tributary mode owes more to the overarching formulation of Eric Wolf in his 1982 work Europe and the People Without History.

Haldon argues that in both modes, tributary and feudal, the essential process of surplus appropriation is the same. So is the economic relationship between producers and the means of production, however that relationship may be defined in juridical terms. Peasants were the economic base of the tributary world, whether the capstone of the power structure was a dominant nomadic elite, a group of feudal lords, or a state.

What does vary between the tributary and feudal modes is the degree of control exercised over the community by the ruling class. This has an impact on the rate of exploitation, but it does not affect the essential nature of how the surplus is appropriated.

Varieties of Tribute

However, it would wrong for us to view Haldon’s tributary mode as a single historical period or era spanning well over a millennium. If we understood it in this sense, his conception would not really help us in thinking about state formation or political power as it was concretely expressed through fiscal structures and conflicts among elites, or between elites and central powers, for example. It is too broad a framework for tracking the gradual shifts and transformations in the substructures of state and society. Nor would it be of much assistance in thinking about economic relationships.

This is not what Haldon intended this interpretative framework to be used for. He has deployed the terms “tributary mode” or “tributary production relations” to replace the terminology of feudal, nomadic, or peasant modes. This would allow us to restrict the use of terms such as “feudal,” “nomadic,” or “peasant,” to specific social formations.

While those formations are all based on tributary relations of production, particular historical circumstances and juridical relationships distinguish them from one another. This does not mean that each historical configuration is a mode of production in its own right.

Historical societies based upon the tributary mode may tend toward centralization or fragmentation. They may also oscillate between these two poles, or vary in the ways that tribute is gathered, circulated, and distributed.

Jairus Banaji and Commercial Capitalism

Although Chris Wickham and John Haldon disagree about what we can define as a mode of production, they both share a principal aim: to understand how different kinds of ruling elite subjugated the peasants over whom they ruled, and how they went on to deploy the surplus they managed to extract from the producing population.

As concepts, the tributary and feudal modes point to key social relationships through which the political authority in a given territory extracted and distributed surpluses. However, we must also recognize that a portion of these surpluses was neither consumed directly by the producers nor distributed after being extracted by means of tribute. In almost every case, some part of the surplus was channeled into circulation and exchange.

The field of circulation is Jairus Banaji’s focus. Born in India, Banaji is a historian of the medieval Mediterranean and Middle East who is also concerned with the long history of capitalism. His key reference points in the Marxist galaxy differ from those of Wickham and Haldon: Banaji draws upon the work of two Russian scholars from the early twentieth century, the historian Mikhail Pokrovsky and the economist Yevgeni Preobrazhensky.

In his 2020 work A Brief History of Commercial Capitalism, Banaji makes a theoretical distinction between what Marx called the “capitalist mode of production,” a revolutionary new social order that has only existed in the last two centuries or so, and “capitalism” in a more general sense. The latter term can also describe the commercial capitalism which existed in certain regions from the twelfth to the eighteenth centuries.

On the basis of this distinction, Banaji argues against the orthodox Marxist view. According to that view, mercantile wealth does not constitute “capital” in the way that Marx understood the term, so long as that wealth remains external to the process of production. It is separated from what Marx called the real subsumption of labor to capital, merely skimming off the products of the primary producers and making profits by selling them.

Merchants and Production

Banaji finds a different perspective in the work of Marx himself, who wrote in the third volume of Capital that a producer may become a merchant and a capitalist, or “alternatively . . . the merchant may take control of the production himself.” Marx saw the second of these two possible trajectories as a less progressive form of the transition to capitalism, because it would leave the “mode of production” — that is, the labor process — unaltered.

Commercial capital connected the world of production and the sphere of circulation in various ways and at different times. Its long history encompassed international money markets, putting-out networks, the vertical integration of agricultural production, and plantation businesses. Banaji identifies seeds of commercial capitalism as far back as late antiquity and the early years of Islam, although he notes that it is impossible to trace those origins precisely, as is the case for any epochal change.

Merchants of the tenth-century Islamic world organized themselves into commercial partnerships, financed voyages, transported goods, and owned or controlled shipping all over the Mediterranean, the Middle East, and the Indian Ocean. In eleventh-century Song China, there was steady growth of capitalist activities in mining and iron production, as well as a great increase in foreign trade and the growth of a money market.

Capitalist groups who dominated the economies of the Italian mercantile towns performed various roles. In Florence, they organized household producers into putting-out networks; in Bologna, they invested in the production of new manufacturing designs; while in Genoa or Venice, they financed and managed trade through bills of exchange and merchant banks.

The productive base for most of the produce trades was peasant family labor. Its formal subsumption into commercial capital through the channels of circulation described above involved the appropriation of vast amounts of unpaid family labor to the benefit of merchant capitalists. Banaji’s model of commercial capitalism is one of combined development, rather than a linear succession between different modes of production.

Denaturalizing Capitalism

The models developed by Wickham and Haldon show that the crucial factor is not whether we identify one, two, or three modes of production, or call a particular mode tributary or feudal. We should measure the utility of a concept by its capacity to illuminate the historical configurations of social changes.

Societies develop from interactions among people, whether real or imputed. The concept of “mode of production” is meant to reveal the political and economic relationships that condition and constrain such interactions.

In societies based on the tributary/feudal mode, surpluses are collected by elites, but they are also transferred and exchanged through the transactions of commercial intermediaries. Banaji’s work sets out to examine the circumstances in which merchants gave impetus to commercial expansion, and the times when the power of other social groups curtailed or bolstered them.

The differences between these schools of thought are significant, as they reflect diversity in human histories. Depending on time and circumstance, as Marx wrote, the producer might become a merchant and the merchant a producer. When one of these alternatives materialized, capital expansion began to take shape.

However, such expansion unfolded along different paths, ranging from transformations in agrarian relationships to changes in the mercantile domain. The role played by the state could be decisive in this process. It might function as the motor of an economy that harnessed the expansion of capital, as in the case of the tax system’s overarching role in the late Roman empire. It might also be a catalyst for the transformation of commercial capitalism into a capitalist mode of production: the late nineteenth century saw the rapid emergence of national economies driven more by large-scale industry and “big business” than by trade per se.

In the long historical time span between these two examples, there were many different trajectories of capital expansion. The varieties of commercially organized capitalism that existed before the nineteenth century were diverse in their forms of production and extremely versatile in the ways that they linked capital to political authority, from Muslim states and Chinese kingdoms to the transatlantic Iberian empires.

The strength of the Marxist currents that I have described lies precisely in their acknowledgement of this variety. It also lies in their ability to think of historical transitions as a much richer and more complex set of trajectories than the conventional idea of a passage from one mode of production to another would suggest.

By developing a social analysis of material structures and historical processes, they have forged a set of basic concepts that reject a unilinear view of history as the progressive unfolding of stages, and the unremitting Eurocentrism associated with that view. Above all, they refute the idea that capitalism represents the inescapable fulfillment of history’s predestined course.