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absolutism


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A state-form typical of societies in the process of transition from feudalism to capitalism and in which power is concentrated in the person of a monarch, who has at his or her disposal a centralized administrative apparatus. Viewed thus, the label has been applied to a wide variety of states, ranging from that of the 16th-century English Tudors to that of 19th-century Meiji Japan. This definition is, however, not uncontroversial: the label has also been applied to Tsarist Russia, where the transition was from feudalism to communism, and some would deny that Japan was ever a feudal society in anything other than the loosest sense. A useful overview can be found in Perry Anderson's Lineages of the Absolute State (1974).

There has also been great controversy about the role that such states played in the transition to capitalism. Many historians have seen the absolutist state as a midwife of capitalism, an interpretation illustrated by the preference of some for the term ‘enlightened despotism’ rather than the (somewhat derogatory) alternative ‘absolutism’. (Others, however, have used this term to describe the influence of Enlightenment rationalism on absolutism in Prussia, Austria, and so forth, rather than the relationship of absolutism to capitalism.) By comparison, Marxists have (at least until relatively recently) tended to see it as creating obstacles to the development of capitalism. The problem that both parties to this dispute have had to address is the variability in the historical outcomes. Within continental Europe, for example, the rise of absolutist states appears to have been associated with both a rapid transition to capitalism in the West, and an intensification of feudal domination in the East.

For Max Weber (General Economic History, 1919–20) and for non-Marxist scholars more generally, the explanation of the progressive role played by the absolutist or ‘rational state’ may be found in the immense contribution that these regimes made to the increasing predictability of action within their territorial boundaries, as they bureaucratized their own administrations, introduced elements of the rule of law, monopolized the legitimate use of force, and used this force to enforce their jurisdiction throughout society. Weber's response to the divergent outcomes of absolutism in Eastern and Western Europe was to portray what happened in the East as a delay rather than a regression, and to explain it as the result of the state's lack of allies in the wider society, which in turn reflected the more general economic and cultural backwardness of these societies.

The response of Marxists (such as Maurice Dobb, Eric Hobsbawm, and Perry Anderson) to this line of argument, has been to suggest that it owes more to the tendency amongst non-Marxists to accord a priori analytical privilege to the political realm, than it does to sound historical research. Given that the absolute monarchs and their most powerful supporters were always representatives of the feudal nobility, so Marxists have argued, it is the short-lived absolutisms of Western Europe (and especially of England and Holland) that require explanation, rather than the long-lasting ones of the East. The explanation that they provide revolves around the bold and controversial claim that the majority of continental states experienced a prolonged economic crisis during the 16th century, a crisis from which England and Holland were spared. The result was that in every society except those two, the feudal nobility was able to crush or constrain its capitalist rivals. For this reason, it was possible for the bourgeois classes of England and Holland to gain an early advantage over their potential competitors, an advantage which they enhanced still further by overturning their absolute monarchies in relatively short order. Putting to one side the many empirical objections that this thesis has encountered, it is important to note that it rests upon an analytical privileging of the economic realm that is arguably no more justified than the privileging of the political realm to which its proponents have rightly objected. Perhaps the most successful exception to both strictures is A. Lublinskaya's, French Absolutism: The Crucial Phase, 1620–1629 (1968).

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Subjects: Sociology.


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