Conjunctures, Transitional

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Conjunctures, Transitional


In Marxian theory, the term transitional conjunctures refers to a bounded geographical space over a discrete temporal interval within which a revolutionary transformation in class processes occurs. There is general agreement about five class processes based on the particular arrangement by which workers are organized to perform surplus labor: slave, feudal, capitalist, ancient (petty commodity production or self-employment), and communist. A capitalist society is one in which the capitalist class process prevails. A transitional conjuncture occurs when there is a switch of prevalence from one class process to another within a social formation. The holy grail of Marxian economic history has been the dynamics by which transitional conjunctures occurred in the period roughly from the fifteenth to the seventeenth centuries within the geographic space known as western Europe, resulting in a switch from the prevalence of feudal class processes to the prevalence of capitalist class processes.

One of the most influential hypotheses was that the transition from feudalism to capitalism was triggered by the rise of commodity production. Some Marxian theorists, such as Paul Sweezy (1976), assumed that monetized trade led inevitably to the dissolution of feudal relations of production and the rise of capitalist labor power markets. Maurice Dobb (1964) countered this argument by pointing out that serfs producing goods for a monetized market could still be bound in a feudal relationship. The lords could simply extract surplus value in money form, rather than in kind or in direct labor services. Dobb argued that the dissolution of feudal relations was, instead, the result of an economic and demographic crisis triggered by feudal appropriators extracting too large a surplus from the direct producers. The lords took so much surplus value that the serfs were unable to meet the subsistence needs of their families. These conditions resulted in a decline in population and a critical shortage of labor. According to Dobb, it was these conditions that triggered transitional conjunctures in most, if not all, European social formations.

Historian Perry Anderson argued that money exchange and commodity production did not signal a transition to capitalism, but were often precursors to more centralized versions of feudalism, under absolutist states. Another historian, Robert Brenner, analyzed the classic transitional conjuncture in England and argued that the lords implemented this transition as a profit-maximizing choice, not out of crisis. Based on historical evidence, Brenner reached an essentially postmodernist conclusion that transitional conjunctures varied among the societies of western Europe. Immanuel Wallerstein (1979), on the other hand, rejected the notion of multiple transitional conjunctures in favor of a singular world transition wherein hegemonic capitalism rose to incorporate all modes of production. Stephen Resnick and Richard Wolff (1979), returning to a Marxian class analytical framework grounded in the microeconomics of surplus labor performance and appropriation, argued that transitional conjunctures were not the result of a narrow subset of social factors, whether economic or political, but were, instead, the consequence of the entire matrix of social and environmental factors present in a social formation prior to the transition. For Resnick and Wolff, transitional conjunctures were the overdetermined result of the displacement of multiple conditions for the prevalence of one class process by multiple conditions in favor of the prevalence of an alternative class process.

SEE ALSO Feudal Mode of Production; Feudalism


Anderson, Perry. 1977. Passages from Antiquity to Feudalism. London: NLB.

Anderson, Perry. 1979. Lineages of the Absolutist State. London: Verso.

Brenner, Robert. 1978. Dobb on the Transition from Feudalism to Capitalism. Cambridge Journal of Economics 1978 (2): 121140.

Dobb, Maurice. 1964. Studies in the Development of Capitalism. Rev. ed. New York: International Publishers.

Resnick, Stephen, and Richard Wolff. 1979. The Theory of Transitional Conjunctures and the Transition from Feudalism to Capitalism. Review of Radical Political Economy 11: 322.

Sweezy, Paul, et al. 1976. The Transition from Feudalism to Capitalism. London: Verso.

Wallerstein, Immanuel. 1979. The Capitalist World Economy: Essays. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Satyananda J. Gabriel