The transition from the feudal organization of society to the earliest forms of capitalism happened in periods differing from country to country.
The earliest phase appears to be in North Italy, according to Cambridge political philosopher and historian Quentin Skinner, this development was noticed in the 12th century by German bishop Otto of Friesing.
Who recorded the growth of town life, the loyalty of landed nobility to town authorities, and the emergence of republicanism and belief in civic liberty In Scotland, during the 18th century, crofters were dispossessed of the land to which they were bonded and which allowed them to be self-sufficient.
The Lairds confiscated the land which was the property of the clan. Between 1773-4, 1500 people emigrated from the county of Sutherland to Colonial America. Later in the 18th century, others were both driven from the land and forbidden to emigrate. In Sutherland, between 1814- 20, the remaining 15,000 inhabitants, about 3000 families were systematically hunted and rooted out.
Their villages were pulled down and burnt, and their fields turned into pasturage. It was reported that “British soldiers enforced this eviction, and came to blows with the inhabitant.
One old woman was burnt to death in the flames of the hut, which she refused to leave. Thus this fine lady appropriated 794,000 acres (3,210 km2) of land that had from time immemorial belonged to the clan.
In the year 1835, 15,000 Scottish crofters were already replaced by 131,000 sheep. A similar disruptive transition took place in England, Germany, Poland and India, though mercantilism was the dominant economic system for many nations as they transitioned from a fully ‘state’ operated feudal system to capitalism.
For Paul Virilio, the transition from feudalism to capitalism was driven not primarily by the politics of wealth and production techniques but by the mechanics of war. Virilio argues that the traditional feudal fortified city disappeared because of the increasing sophistication of weapons and possibilities for warfare.
The significance of commercial capitalism and its role in the transition becomes all the more striking in the transition debate, which ensued among scholars and historians. Two stages of the debate can be identified.
(1) The Dobby-Sweezy controversy turned mainly on what would be the correct Marxist explanatton of the transition from feudalism to capitajism in the light of European experience.
(2) The second stage of the debate is less bound by such limitations. Robert Brenner’s critiques of the ‘demographic model’, supported by Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie of the Annales School, Michael Postan and Habakuk of the Liberal School and Marxist Guy Bois, the ‘commercialisation model’ of Pirenne, Sweezy, ‘the falling rent rate’ of Perry Anderson, Rodney Hilton and ‘World System’ model of Immanuel Wallerstein, are not only rich in fresh insights and developments of Marxist analysis, but also utilize a mass of new and meaningful evidence on agrarian history, industrial and commercial evolution and demographic changes.
The debate was mainly about two points – whether the exchange relations or external trade demolished the feudal mode of production; or whether inner contradictions like exploitation of the peasant. By the nobility and unproductive use of economic surplus like expenditure on war and luxury were responsible for the break-down of feudalism.
There was a long time-gap between the decline of feudalism in Western Europe during the 14th century and the beginning of the capitalist period in the second half of the 16th century at the earliest.
Sweezy does not agree with Dobb’s characterisation of the intervening period as feudal. Rather he considers it as a traditional form in which the predominant elements were neither feudal nor capitalist.
According to Dobb, feudalism had its own dynamic phase (10th-12lh centuries) of expanding production based on the extension of cultivation, some technical improvements and extraction of surplus and its use in unproductive ways.
Dobb indicated how the economic effects of trade and merchant capital were themselves shaped by feudal class relations and rather reinforced feudal obligations. Further, merchant or commercial capital is not directly involved in production and hence its source of profit lies in the ability to turn the terms and conditions of trade against petty producers in agriculture and industry.