An English version of Witold Kula’s book has been long overdue.footnote1 Although its Italian translation has been available for some time, the book has not been as well known to western readers as it deserves. Such glimpses of its contents as have been vouchsafed to some European scholars by word of mouth and by reflections in Kula’s other writings have been very few and slight. They have, however, been sufficiently revealing to build up for the book an advance reputation which the present publication fully bears out. Its range of topics and erudition are not as wide as those of Kula’s earlier Problemy i metody historii gospodarczei, but it deserves to be received as the most intelligent as well as the most independent of all the treatises on the economy and the history of feudalism now available to readers.

At first sight the value of Kula’s study, like that of all studies of East European history, may appear to be restricted by its territorial and chronological limits. Feudalism in Poland emerged at least 400 years later than in the West and reached its highest point of development at the time when much of western Europe was undergoing an industrial revolution. Nevertheless, the study of Polish feudalism as presented by Kula raises fundamental problems of historical development irrespective of their place and time, and thereby exemplifies what Toynbee calls the ‘philosophical contemporaneity’ of events not contemporaneous in strict chronology.

Nor will western readers, however non-Marxist, be put off by Kula’s avowed Marxism. Kula is, of course, a Marxist with a difference, utterly undogmatic and ready to diverge from established orthodoxy whenever facts and logic demand it. He does not distort or try to explain away those features of Polish feudalism which do not happen to fit into the Marxist matrix. Yet his divergences are not of the arbitrary kind in which so many neo-Marxists are apt to indulge. Unlike most of the latter, he does not father his notions, however novel, on one of the several Marxes now current: the young Marx, the latter-day Marx, or Marx as he never was. They are presented and, I hope, will be accepted as Marxist by virtue of their consistency with the main principles of Marxist doctrine and not by virtue of their literal descent from the Master’s texts.

Kula’s conception of feudalism rests on the twin pillars of natural economy and manorial régime. The economy was natural in that its output was almost wholly agricultural and that its product entered into consumption, or was used in payment, directly, i.e. without passing through the intermediate stage of purchase and sale. Its régime was manorial in the sense that economic activities and relations within it were wholly determined by the needs of the landlord’s estate and dominated by his monopoly of land and his power of compulsion over his servile tenants.

Thus reduced, Kula’s model corresponds closely to what both Marxists and non-Marxists in the West consider to be the hallmarks of the feudal order. Where Kula’s model appears to depart from convention is at the points at which the twin pillars of feudalism link with the actual operations of the economy—the employment of its resources, its outputs, its control of social relations and, above all, its responses to changes of external conditions. At each of these points Polish feudalism appeared to display characteristics uniquely its own. Of these characteristics, the first and foremost was the lord’s exclusive reliance on the forced labour services of his tenants and consequently the absence of hired labour from employment. With land presumably abundant, the volume of production was totally dependent on supplies of self labour. Hence the second characteristic of Polish feudalism: the curbs the lords imposed on the size and income of peasant holdings. The holdings had to be just, but only just, sufficient to secure the physical survival of peasant bodies, but not large enough to absorb the labour potential of the peasant family. Hence also the remarkable disparity between the nominal rates of wages and the labour costs of manorial enterprise. So infinitesimally small were the uses of hired labour that its market values could be completely disregarded, and manorial agriculture could be run with what under commercial conditions would have turned out to be heavy losses. What made it possible for that economy to function and to yield very high profits were the zero costs of peasant labour. A further feature of the system was its stagnating productivity. With manorial outputs limited by the supply of serfs, and with peasant outputs circumscribed by manorial restrictions, there was little inducement for the peasant or the landlord to engage in what Kula describes as ‘investment’, but which should in fact be considered as a better use of resources. The outputs, though static in the long run, could of course fluctuate with harvests or in response to wars and other calamities. Marketable surpluses, being residues after consumption, could fluctuate even more widely than total output, and prices reacted to fluctuations of supply even more sharply than they would have done in a commercialized economy.

As we shall see presently, this combination of secondary and wholly Polish characteristics of Kula’s feudalism differentiated it very sharply from the Marxist model and from the feudal system as it actually functioned in the West. Where, however, Polish feudalism diverged most was in its dependence on foreign trade and its links with foreign markets. From the end of the fifteenth century to the end of the eighteenth, a large and growing proportion of demesne outputs went to the West, and the entire economy of the large estate became entangled with international markets. Yet the entanglement did little to detach the economy, as Marx would have expected it to do, and as it in fact did in the West, from its feudal modes of production. The exporting landlords continued to depend, perhaps more than ever, on the forced labour of their tenants, and were even more determined to keep down the scale of peasant units of cultivation. The stimulus which exports gave to the profitability of latifundia may also have favoured a concentration of agricultural ownership and management—a counterpart of the mergers of our own age—at the expense of smaller estates. Yet neither the profits of the great and growing latifundia nor the inflow of purchasing power they generated did anything to promote the growth of urban manufactures and trades. The purchasing power of the magnates went to swell the demand for costly foreign goods, and hardly spilled over into indigenous industries and trades. Some of the great landlords, the Radziwills, the Potocki’s, the Czartoryski’s, used their immense resources of money and labour to set up industrial establishments, including large textile manufactures. But the establishments were mere components of manorial latifundia. They were dependent on serf labour, and exercised monopoly powers over their outlets, which were largely confined to the areas dominated by their owners’ estates. In this way foreign trade and manorial manufactories merely reinforced the self-sufficiency of the Polish estate. The feudal system in Poland was thus able to tame and to harness to its own purposes the very forces which are supposed to have brought the system down in the West.

The ability to benefit from foreign trade and at the same time to resist its dissolving action was only one, albeit the strongest, of the system’s immunities from ‘external’ influences. The manorial economy does not appear to have been much affected by demographic changes, even though population may have been increasing somewhat in the later centuries. Nor was it greatly affected by what appears to have been a Ricardian tendency for agricultural outputs to decline. Even the price revolution of the sixteenth century did not appear to impair the profitability or the stability of the latifundia.