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Game of Thrones or Game of Class Struggle? Revisiting the Demise of Feudalism and the Dobb-Sweezy Debate

Lambert, Thomas (2019): Game of Thrones or Game of Class Struggle? Revisiting the Demise of Feudalism and the Dobb-Sweezy Debate.


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In 1947, the Marxist economist Maurice Dobb published a book that attempted to outline and explain how the feudalistic economic system of medieval times gave way to capitalism. Dobb’s Studies in the Development of Capitalism (1947) started a debate among economists and historians over the following decades that has continued until this day. One of his most prominent and earliest critics was Paul M. Sweezy who, although he commended Dobb on raising the question of why feudalism gave way to capitalism, disagreed with Dobb’s conclusions on why the transition from feudalism to capitalism occurred. In general, Dobb thought that feudalism went into decline and was replaced by capitalism because of endogenous causes rooted in the class struggles between serfs and noblemen. Sweezy and others, on the other hand, thought that the factors which led to the decline of feudalism and rise of capitalism were exogenous, and these factors included the development and growth of international trade, production for markets and money, the growth and importance of cities, and the need for European monarchies to finance their wars and overseas empires. Other economists and historians, both mainstream and Marxian, also joined the debate, and a long list of articles and books have been generated on the “transition debate” since the late 1940s. In doing research for this paper, no statistical work on the Dobb-Sweezy debate and its competing hypotheses was found, and so this paper attempts to do some empirical testing of these hypotheses using data from England from the middle ages up to the late nineteenth century. The findings of this note are informative in trying to better understand the transition and provide some food for thought on how capitalism may change in the future.

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