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New Left Review I/147, September-October 1984

Rodney Hilton

Feudalism in Europe: Problems for Historical Materialists

I must first state the nature of the problems with which I am concerned in this paper. As one who accepts the basic principles of historical materialism, I am nevertheless not so much concerned with debates located purely within its theoretical constructs as with the explanation of the actual historical process. It is hardly necessary to emphasize that the correct understanding of the motive forces of history is a vital pre-condition for the shaping of the future by human agency. The Marxist concept of the mode of production and, within the mode, of the relations of production, is crucial here. We begin with the knowledge that in class societies, ruling classes exist through the exploitation of the ruled; but that is not enough. We must also know the changing contours of class, and what it is which determines these changes. This implies that we must be aware of the specific, not merely the general characteristics of the society which we are examining. It would be impossible to understand a specific society in history without understanding the nature of the predominant mode of production within it, but the precise developmental process of the society considered will be determined by specific features in it—including superstructural features—as well as by the dynamic of the mode. [*] I wish to thank John Haldon, Christopher McLennan for their comments. This paper was first presented at the Marx convegno sponsored by the Republic of San Marino last year.

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Rodney Hilton, ‘Feudalism in Europe: Problems for Historical Materialists’, NLR I/147: £3

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