The End of the Old Order in Rural Europe
Among scholars on the continent of Europe the transition from “feudalism” (a term commonly used in this connection even by writers who are not Marxists) to “bourgeois society” has long been a major preoccupation. Put more precisely—for the word feudalism has been used to describe many different forms of social relations—this transition was one from what the French call a “société d’ordres” and the Germans a “Standegesellschaft” to the kind of society that became the predominant type in Europe in the nineteenth century and is usually described as capitalist or bourgeois. Jerome Blum, a professor of history at Princeton, accepts these categories but gives them more readily intelligible names. He calls the société d’ordres the society of orders (although he has misgivings about anglicizing these foreign technical terms). For “capitalist” or “bourgeois” society he substitutes “modern society,” although the society to which he applies this description can hardly be said to be modern any longer.
One of the principal characteristics of the “society of orders” was the division of the population into orders or estates each with its special rights and duties defined and enforceable in law. Capitalist or bourgeois society by contrast is a society in which groups are distinguished one from another not by their legal rights but by differences arising from socio-economic circumstances of which the law takes no cognizance. Professor Blum, following Max Weber, sees these differences as being primarily the consequence of different degrees of wealth. “Modern society,” he says, “is a class society. Those with comparable incomes form a class with a common way of life.”
Judged by this criterion a “feudal” order or estate was not a class, nor was it one in the Marxist sense of the term, according to which classes are groups of people united by common relations to the means of production. For within any given estate there were great differences in material circumstances—which in the estate of nobility could vary from destitution at one end of the scale to vast wealth at the other. Nor did the members of any given estate necessarily fulfill any particular role in the processes of production. Nobles, for example, were not necessarily landowners—in Prussia in 1800 the landless nobles outnumbered those with land by three to one; bourgeois in France in the eighteenth century owned as much land as did the nobility; in the nascent industries of mining and metallurgy there were noble entrepreneurs in many countries who showed a highly developed business sense.
Orders or estates, in fact, at least in that stage of their evolution with which Professor Blum is concerned, were merely legal categories. They were a relic of past ages when it could plausibly be maintained that the nobles fought, the clergy prayed, and the rest of the population provided them with the means of doing so. When these conditions had ceased to exist the estates remained a testimony to the belief, which persisted until the French Revolution, and in some countries …