Given the generosity of ‘Closure Theory and Medieval England’, Scott Waugh’s review of my English Society in the Later Middle Ages, it may seem churlish to quarrel with some of his specific comments.footnote1 Many of the criticisms which he makes of my work are extremely valid but I was less happy with his general characterization of the relationship between the Weberian ‘closure theory’ used in my book and Marxist social theory. Since this is the issue raised in Waugh’s review which is perhaps of most interest to readers of this journal, I will offer a brief reply to his comments.
Following the neo-Weberian social theory developed by Runciman and by Parkin,footnote2 my book attempted to analyze medieval English society in terms of its specific social ‘systacts’ (categories of persons who, by virtue of their roles, share a common endowment or lack of economic, coercive or ideological power) and the relations of social exclusion (the process by which a group obtains a privileged position for itself through the creation of a group of inferiors) and social usur-pation (the attempt by the inferiors to bite into the privileges of their social superiors) which existed between them. As Scott Waugh points out,footnote3 my aims in analyzing later medieval English society were to establish the particular systacts created by the historically specific forms of social exclusion to be found in late medieval England; to assess the extent of the usurpationary
The problem here is that, far from advocating that Marxist class analysis be abandoned, Part I of English Society is actually devoted to an account of medieval society in which class relations are defined in terms of the Marxist typology developed by G.A. Cohen.footnote7 Far from seeking to abandon Marxism, my book explicitly claimed that Marx’s approach to class relations ‘can be subsumed into closure theory’.footnote8 It then goes on to offer an explicit defence of Robert Brenner’s Marxist critique of population-based accounts of late medieval social change and of his claim that demographic change acquired its significance for socio-economic development ‘only in connection with specific, historically developed systems of social-property relations and given balances of class forces’.footnote9 Thus, whilst I accept Professor Waugh’s extremely perceptive comment that my analysis tends, in general, to focus attention on conflict between social groups, ‘begging the question of how groups achieve internal coherence’,footnote10 this focus actually flowed from an acceptance of Marx and Engels’s claim that members of any particular social group are often ‘on hostile terms with each other as competitors’—a point which Waugh accepts for the nobilityfootnote11—and that they ‘form a class only insofar as they have to carry on a common battle against another class’.footnote12 Indeed, it might be noted that a Marxist analysis of the kind which I offered in Part I of English Society, in which classes are defined in terms of their relationship to society’s productive forces and to the product of social labour, might not be entirely compatible with Professor Waugh’s own claim that it was ‘military experience’, with its ‘emphasis on valour and martial ability’, which ‘decisively set apart’ the medieval English nobility and gentry from other social groups.footnote13
Thus, rather than seeking to abandon Marxist analysis in general, I sought instead to offer some specific criticisms of it. Firstly, I queried whether Marxist analysis gained anything by retaining the notion of ‘surplus labour’ or of ‘exploitation’ as objectively existing, and even measurable, social phenomena rather than as subjective value-judgements.footnote14 Despite Professor Waugh’s claims, the passage which he quoted did not ask whether the Marxist concept of feudal relations of production told us anything ‘which we did not know already’ about medieval social relationsfootnote15 but, more specifically, questioned whether the concepts of exploitation and surplus labour added anything to our analysis.footnote16
Secondly, whilst agreeing with the ‘dilute’ formulation of Brenner’s Marxist claims for the indispensability of class structure and class conflict in explaining pre-industrial socio-economic development, I objected, on the basis of a pluralist account of causation drawn from the philosophy of J.S. Mill, to the earlier, ‘stronger’ formulation of Brenner’s claims which asserted the primacy of class and which even questioned whether the non-class factor of demographic change could be ‘treated as a “cause”’ in explaining the divergent social evolutions experienced in different parts of late medieval Europe.footnote17 I argued that whilst Brenner’s brilliant account of pre-industrial social change was explicitly formulated in terms of Marxist claims for the primacy of society’s class relations and the conflicts to which they gave rise, Brenner’s own analysis involved a form of explanatory pluralism familiar from non-Marxist historiography.footnote18 Why an account of historical causation based on Mill’s rejection of the hierarchies of causation or causal asymmetries which classically gave Marxism its distinctiveness as a theory of society and of historyfootnote19 should be seen as ‘simply Marxist analysis in different clothing’footnote20 is not entirely clear.
Thirdly, I rejected traditional Marxist accounts of medieval society which characterized lord-peasant relations as necessarily constituted by extra-economic coercion.footnote21 I certainly welcome Scott Waugh’s
My fourth main criticism of Marxism was that its concentration on class relations could lead to a neglect of non-class forms of social inequality to which Part II of English Society was devoted. My point was that Marxist historical analyses tend either to downplay non-class forms of social inequality or to add them to the analysis ad hoc, thus lapsing, in practice, into a form of sociological pluralism. It is thus rather paradoxical that Waugh should praise English Society for including ‘lengthy explanations of the place of women and the Jews in medieval society’.footnote26 After all, it is difficult to see how the social disabilities experienced by medieval women on the basis of their gender or by Jews on the basis of their religion can be made sense of in terms of a traditional Marxist class-analysis with its emphasis on the social groups which are grounded in the production process. In fact, when seen in terms of their property rights and their relationship to the means of production, Jews—or women—were divided by class even though their social situation meant that they shared a common exclusion, on non-class grounds, from specific forms of wealth, status and power. It is here that we have the answer to Waugh’s question about what closure theory ‘explains about society and social change that cannot be discovered using Marxist analysis’.footnote27 It is precisely because social inequality cannot simply be equated with or reduced to class inequality that, whilst it most certainly does not have to be abandoned, Marxist analysis has to be supplemented with closure theory, an approach whose explicit starting-point is the claim that racial, religious, ethnic and sexual divisions ‘have a reality sui generis’, a reality not reducible to causes arising from society’s mode of production.footnote28