Book Summary: “Lineages of the Absolutist State” by Perry Anderson

Title: Lineages of the Absolutist State
Author: Perry Anderson
Scope: 3 stars
Readability: 3 stars
My personal rating: 5 stars
See more on my book rating system.

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Topic of Book

Anderson overviews the rise of the modern state in Europe between 1400 and 1800. He focuses on Spain, France, England, Italy, Sweden, Prussia, Austria, Poland and Russia.

If you would like to learn more about how states have evolved over time, read my book From Poverty to Progress: How Humans Invented Progress, and How We Can Keep It Going.

My Comments

While the use of Marxist terminology can be tiring at times, Anderson gives the best overview of how centralized extractive states arose in Europe.

I believe that the growth of centralized extractive states is one of the most important trends in early modern Europe. This trend seriously endangered progress by centralizing power and extracting the food surplus from the peasantry. Fortunately, this trend was countered by the development of Commercial societies in Northern Italy, Netherlands and England, who had far more inclusive states. These Commercial societies created progress.

Key Take-aways

  • A critical trend in early modern European history was the growth of centralized states.
  • These states:
    • Taxed the peasantry to build a stronger military.
    • Used this military to conquer more lands to raise more tax revenues.
    • Integrated the feudal nobility into the monarchy’s bureaucracy and military, so that they were not independent threats to the monarchy.
    • Compensated the nobility for this loss of independence by maintaining a docile peasantry and exempting the nobility from taxation.
  • This process started in Spain in the late 15th Century and then spread throughout most of Europe.
  • Any monarchy that failed to consolidate a similar state risked subjugation by those monarchs who did.

Important Quotes from Book

 “Absolutism was essentially just this: a redeployed and recharged apparatus of feudal domination, designed to clamp the peasant masses back into their traditional social position – despite and against the gains they had won by the widespread commutation of dues”

“it can be argued that war was possibly the most rational and rapid single mode of expansion of surplus extraction available for any given ruling class … The Absolutist States reflect this archaic rationality in their inmost structure. They were machines built overwhelmingly for the battlefield… The virtual permanence of international armed conflict is one the hallmarks of the whole climate Absolutism.

the Renaissance bureaucracy was treated as a saleable property to private individuals… Thus the prevalent mode of integration of the feudal nobility into the Absolutist State in the West took the form of acquisition of ‘offices’.

the Absolutist State, also, and above all, taxed the poor. The economic transition from labor dues to money rents in the West was accompanied by the emergence of royal taxes levies for war… The seigneurial class was in proactive everywhere effectively exempt from direct taxation.”


The rise of Habsburg Spain was not merely one episode within a set of concurrent and equivalent experiences of State-construction in Western Europe: it was also an auxiliary determinant of the whole set as such… monarchies of the age. Its international pressure acted as a special overdetermination of the national patterns elsewhere in the continent, because of the disproportionate wealth and power at its command: the historical concentration of these assets in the Spanish State could not but affect the overall shape and direction of the emergent State-system of the West.

No other major Absolutist State in Western Europe was to be so finally noble in character, or so inimical to bourgeois development. The very fortune of its early control of the mines of America, with their primitive but lucrative economy of extraction, disinclined it to promote the growth of manufactures or foster the spread of mercantile enterprise within its European empire. Instead, it bore down with a massive weight on the most active commercial communities of the continent, even while threatening every other landed aristocracy in a cycle of inter-aristocratic wars that lasted for a hundred and fifty years. Spanish power stifled the urban vitality of North Italy, and crushed the flourishing towns of half the Low Countries – the two most advanced zones of the European economy at the turn of the 16th century.

Castile was a land with an aristocracy of enormous estates and powerful military orders; it also had a considerable number of towns, although, significantly, not yet a fixed capital. The Castilian nobility had seized vast quantities of agrarian property from the monarchy during the civil wars of the later Middle Ages; 2-3 per cent of the population now controlled some 97 per cent of the soil. More than half of this, in turn, was owned by a few magnate families who towered over the numerous hidalgo gentry.

Catalonia, on the other hand, had traditionally been the centre of a mercantile empire in the Mediterranean: Barcelona was the largest city in mediaeval Spain, and its urban patriciate the richest commercial class of the region. Catalan prosperity, however, had suffered grievously during the long feudal depression.

A methodical programme for its administrative reorganization was thus set in train by the two monarchs. The military orders were decapitated and their vast lands and incomes annexed. Baronial castles were demolished, marcher lords ousted, and private wars banned. The municipal autonomy of the towns was broken by the planting of official corregidores to administer them; royal justice was reinforced and extended. Control of ecclesiastical benefices was captured for the State, detaching the local Church apparatus from the reach of the Papacy.

Far from creating a unified kingdom, their Catholic Majesties failed even to establish a single currency, let alone a common tax or legal system within their realms. The Inquisition – a unique creation in Europe at the time – should be seen in this context: it was the one unitary ‘Spanish’ institution in the peninsula, an overwrought ideological apparatus compensating for the actual administrative division and dispersal of the State.

The crushing of the comunero rebellion effectively eliminated the last vestiges of a contractual constitution in Castile, and doomed the Cortes – for which the comuneros had demanded regular tri-annual sessions – to nullity henceforward. More significant, however, was the fact that the Spanish monarchy’s most fundamental victory over corporate resistance to royal absolutism in Castile – indeed its only actual armed contest with any opposition in that realm – was the military defeat of the towns, rather than nobles.

The discovery of the Potosi mines now enormously increased the flow of colonial bullion to Seville. The supply of huge quantities of silver from the Americas henceforward became a decisive ‘facility’ of the Spanish State, in both senses of the word. For it provided Hispanic Absolutism with a plentiful and permanent extraordinary income that was wholly outside the conventional ambit of State revenues in Europe. This meant that Absolutism in Spain could for a long time continue to dispense with the slow fiscal and administrative unification which was a precondition of Absolutism elsewhere: the stubborn recalcitrance of Aragon was compensated by the limitless compliance of Peru. The colonies, in other words, could act as a structural substitute for provinces.

Finally, in 1643, the French army ended the supremacy of the tercios at Rocroi. Military intervention by Bourbon France had proved a very different matter from the Valois contests of the previous century; it was the new nature and weight of French Absolutism which was now to encompass the downfall of Spanish imperial power in Europe.


France presents an evolution very distinct from the Hispanic pattern. Absolutism there enjoyed no such early advantages as in Spain, in the form of a lucrative overseas empire. Nor, on the other hand, was it confronted with the permanent structural problems of fusing disparate kingdoms at home, with radically contrasted political and cultural legacies. The Capetian monarchy, as we have seen, had slowly extended its suzerain rights outwards from its original base in the Ile de France, in a gradual movement of concentric unification during the Middle Ages, until they reached from Flanders to the Mediterranean. It never had to contend with another territorial realm within France of comparable feudal rank: there was only one kingship in the Gallic lands.

The history of the construction of French Absolutism was to be that of a ‘convulsive’ progression towards a centralized monarchical State, repeatedly interrupted by relapses into provincial disintegration and anarchy, followed by an intensified reaction towards concentration of royal power, until finally an extremely hard and stable structure was achieved. The three great breakdowns of political order were, of course, the Hundred Years’ War in the 15th century, the Religious Wars in the 16th century, and the Fronde in the 17th century. The transition from the mediaeval to the Absolute monarchy was each time first arrested, and then accelerated by these crises, whose ultimate outcome was to create a cult of royal authority in the epoch of Louis XIV with no equal anywhere else in Western Europe.

The most important institutional development of the reign was the introduction of the paulette in 1604: sale of offices in the state apparatus, which had existed for over a century, was stabilized by Paulet’s device

Henceforward, the bureaucracy and judiciary was to pullulate with the largest single volume of venal transactions in Europe. France became the classical land of sale of offices, as an ever-growing number of sinecures and prebends were created by the monarchy for revenue purposes. By 1620-4, the traffic in these provided some 38 per cent of royal revenues.  Tax-farms, furthermore, were now regularly auctioned to large financiers, whose collecting systems might tap up to two-thirds of fiscal receipts on their way to the State. The steeply rising costs of foreign and domestic policy in the new international conjuncture of the Thirty Years’ War, moreover, were such that the monarchy had constantly to resort to forced loans at high interest rates from the syndicates of its own tax farmers.

Above all, Richelieu effectively created the intendant system. The Intendants de Justice, de Police et de Finances were functionaries dispatched with omnibus powers into the provinces, at first on temporary and ad hoc missions, who later became permanent commissioners of the central government throughout France. Appointed directly by the monarchy, their offices were revocable and non-purchasable.

The international effect was decisive. France settled the fate of Germany and destroyed the ascendancy of Spain. The Treaty of Westphalia, four years after the historic French victory at Rocroi, extended the frontiers of the French monarchy from the Meuse to the Rhine. The new structures of French Absolutism were thus baptised in the fire of European war. French success in the anti-Spanish struggle, in effect, coincided with domestic consolidation of the dual bureaucratic complex that made up the early Bourbon State.

The military emergencies of the conflict facilitated the imposition of intendency in invaded or threatened zones: its huge financial expense at the same time necessitated unprecedented sale of offices and yielded spectacular fortunes for banking syndicates. The real costs of the war were borne by the poor, among whom it wrought social havoc. The fiscal pressures of war-time Absolutism provoked a constant groundswell of desperate revolts by the urban and rural masses throughout these decades.

The new sovereign assumed personal command of the whole state apparatus in 1661. Once royal authority and executive capacity were reunited in a single ruler, the full political potential of French Absolutism was rapidly realized. The Parlements were silenced, their claim to present remonstrances before registering royal edicts annulled (1673). The other sovereign courts were reduced to obedience. The provincial Estates could no longer dispute and bargain over taxes: precise fiscal demands were dictated by the monarchy, which they

were compelled to accept. The municipal autonomy of the bonnes yilles was bridled, as mayoralties were domesticated and military garrisons were installed in them. Governorships were granted for three years only, and their holders frequently obliged to reside with the court, rendering them merely honorific. Command of fortified towns in frontier regions was carefully rotated. The higher nobility was forced to reside at Versailles once the new palace complex was completed (1682) and divorced from effective lordship over its territorial domains.

The degree of economic exploitation guaranteed by French Absolutism can be judged by the recent calculation that throughout the 17th century, the nobility – 2 per cent of the population – appropriated 20-30 per cent of the total national income. The central machinery of royal power was thus now concentrated, rationalized and enlarged without serious aristocratic resistance.

A permanent police force was created to keep order and repress riots in Paris (1667), which was ultimately extended throughout France (1698-9). The Army was enormously increased in size during the reign, rising from some 30-50,000 to 300,000 by its end. Regular pay, drill and uniforms were introduced by Le Tellier and Louvois; military weaponry and fortifications were modernized by Vauban. The growth of this military apparatus meant the final disarming of the provincial nobility, and the capacity to strike down popular rebellions with dispatch and efficacy.

French Absolutism achieved its institutional apotheosis in the last decades of the 17th century. The State structure and concordant ruling culture perfected in the reign of Louis XIV was to become the model for much of the rest of the nobility in Europe: Spain, Portugal, Piedmont and Prussia were only the most direct later examples of its influence. But the political rayonnement of Versailles was not an end in itself: the organizational accomplishments of Bourbon Absolutism were designed in the conception of Louis XIV to serve a specific purpose – the superior goal of military expansion. The first decade of the reign, from 1661 to 1672, was essentially one of internal preparation for external adventures ahead. Administratively, economically and culturally these were the most effulgent years of Louis XIV’s rule; nearly all its most lasting work dated from them.

Royal demesne lands were systematically recovered.

The net revenues of the monarchy doubled from 1661 to 1671, and a budgetary surplus was regularly achieved. Meanwhile, an ambitious mercantilist programme to accelerate manufacturing and commercial growth in France, and colonial expansion overseas, was launched: royal subventions founded new industries (cloth, glass, tapestry, iron-ware),- chartered companies were created to exploit the trade of the East and West Indies, shipyards were heavily subsidised, and finally an extremely protectionist tariff system imposed. It was this very mercantilism, however, which led directly to the decision to invade Holland in 1672, with the intention of suppressing the competition of its trade – which had proved easily superior to French commerce – by incorporating the United Provinces into the French domains.

The reason, of course, lay in the acceleration of a time distinct from that of Absolutism altogether, in the Maritime countries – Holland and England… Louis XIV’s ultimate defeat was not due to his numerous strategic mistakes, but to the alteration in the relative position of France within the European political system attendant on the advent of the English Revolutions of 1640 and 1688.  It was the economic rise of English capitalism and the political consolidation of its State in the later 17th century which ‘overtook’ French Absolutism, even in the epoch of the latter’s own ascent. The real victors of the War of the Spanish Succession were the merchants and bankers of London: a world-wide British imperialism was ushered in by it.

The aristocratic class as a whole retained a rigorous late feudal statute: it was a legally defined order of some 250,000 persons, which was exempt from the bulk of taxation and enjoyed a monopoly of the highest echelons of the bureaucracy, judiciary, clergy and army.

After Louis XIV, little further rationalization of the polity occurred: no uniform customs tariff, tax-system, legal code or local administration was ever created.

Successive attempts to levy new taxes, puncturing the fiscal immunity of the aristocracy, were resisted or sabotaged in the Parlements and provincial Estates, by refusal to register edicts or presentation of indignant remonstrances. The objective contradictions of Absolutism here unfolded in their plainest form. The monarchy sought to tax the wealth of the nobility, while the nobility demanded controls on the policies of the monarchy: the aristocracy, in effect, refused to alienate its economic privileges without gaining political rights over the conduct of the royal State.


In the Middle Ages, the feudal monarchy of England was generally far more powerful than that of France. The Norman and Angevin dynasties created a royal State unrivalled in its authority and efficacy throughout Western Europe.

The early administrative centralization of Norman feudalism, dictated both by the original military conquest and the modest size of the country, had generated – as we have seen – an unusually small and regionally unified noble class, without semi-independent territorial potentates comparable to those of the Continent. Towns, following Anglo-Saxon traditions, were part of the royal demesne from the outset, and hence enjoyed commercial privileges without the political autonomy of continental communes: they were never numerous or strong enough in the mediaeval epoch to challenge this subordinate status. Nor did ecclesiastical lords ever gain large, consolidated seigneurial enclaves. The mediaeval monarchy in England was thus spared the respective dangers to unitary government that confronted feudal rulers in France, Italy or Germany. The result was a concurrent centralization, both of royal power, and of noble representation, within the total mediaeval polity.

Personal power of the monarch was soon by the same token followed by precocious collective institutions of the feudal ruling class, of a uniquely unitary character – Parliaments.

A second comparable feature of English feudalism was the unusual fusion between monarchy and nobility at the local judicial and administrative level.

The royal demesne was greatly enlarged by resumption of lands, whose yield to the monarchy quadrupled during the reign; feudal incidents and customs duties were likewise maximally exploited. By the end of Henry VII’s rule, total royal revenues had nearly trebled, and there was a reserve of between one and two million pounds in treasure.

For the Reformation Parliaments not only greatly increased the patronage and authority of the monarchy by transferring control of the whole ecclesiastical apparatus of the Church to it… More significantly still, monasteries were dissolved and their vast landed wealth expropriated by the State.

Nevertheless, the new Tudor monarchy operated within one fundamental limitation, which set it apart from its equivalents abroad: it lacked a substantial military apparatus.

The result was that at the critical juncture of the transition towards a ‘new monarchy’ in England, it was neither necessary nor possible for the Tudor State to build up a military machine comparable to that of French or Spanish Absolutism.

Nor were they without fundamental results in England itself. Henry VIII’s last major act, his alliance with the Empire and attack on France in 1543, was to have fateful consequences for the whole ulterior destiny of the English monarchy… but also started to unload on the market the huge fund of agrarian property it had just acquired from the monasteries – amounting to perhaps a quarter of the land of the realm…. By the time peace was finally restored, the great bulk England of this vast windfall was lost; and with it, the one great chance of English Absolutism to build up a firm economic base independent of parliamentary taxation. This transfer of assets not only weakened the State in the long-run: it also greatly strengthened the gentry who formed the main purchasers of these lands, and whose numbers and wealth henceforward steadily grew. One of the drabbest and most inconsequential foreign wars in English history thus had momentous, if still hidden consequences on the domestic balance of forces within English society.

The idiosyncrasies of the English landowning class in the epoch of Absolutism were thus to be historically interlocked: it was unusually civilian in background, commercial in occupation and commoner in rank. The correlate of this class was a State that had a small bureaucracy, a limited fiscality, and no permanent army. The inherent tendency of the Tudor monarchy was, as we have seen, strikingly homologous to that of its continental opposites (down to the personality parallels, often noted between Henry VII-Louis XI-Ferdinand II and Henry VIII-Francis I-Maximilian I): but the limits of its development were set by the character of the nobility that surrounded it.

Although higher per unit, the total costs of naval construction and maintenance were far below those of a standing army: in the last decades of Elizabeth’s reign, the ratio of expenditure was 1 : 3 on them. Yet the yields throughout the next centuries were to be far higher: the British colonial empire was to be the sum of them.

The triadic system of landlord, farmer and agricultural labourer – future archetype of the English countryside – was already emergent in the richer parts of rural England. At the same time, an unprecedented concentration of trade and manufactures had occurred in London, some seven to eight times larger in the reign of Charles I than that of Henry VIII, making it the most dominant capital city of any country in Europe by the 1630’s. By the end of the century, England would already form something like a single internal market. Agrarian and mercantile capitalism had thus registered more rapid advances than in any other nation except the Netherlands, and major swathes of the English aristocracy itself – peerage and gentry – had successfully adapted to it… Because there was no need for a large permanent army, the tax-level in England had remained remarkably low: perhaps a third to a quarter of that in France in the early 17th century. Little of this fell on the rural masses, while the parish poor received a prudential charity from public funds.


The parallels between the urban flowering of classical Antiquity and the Italian Renaissance were striking enough. Both were originally the product of autonomous city-republics, composed of municipally-conscious citizens. Both were dominated at the outset by nobles, and in both the majority of the early citizenry owned landed property in the rural territory surrounding the city. Both were, of course, intense centres of commodity exchange. The same sea provided the main commercial routes of each. Both exacted military service from their citizens, cavalry or infantry according to property qualifications. Even some of the political singularites of the Greek poleis had their close counterpart in the Italian communes: the very high proportion of citizens who held temporary office in the State, or the use of sortition for selecting magistrates.  All these shared characteristics appeared to form a kind of partial super-imposition of one historical form on the other. In reality, of course, the whole socio- economic natures of the Ancient and Renaissance city-states were profoundly different. Mediaeval towns were, as we have seen, urban enclaves within the feudal mode of production, structurally permitted by its parcellization of sovereignty; they essentially existed in dynamic tension with the countryside, where ancient cities were largely an emblematic resumption  of it.

The entire economic orientation of the two urban civilizations was thus in key respects antipodal. While both represented advanced focal points of commodity exchange, Italian towns were fundamentally centres of urban production, whose internal organization was based on craft guilds, while Ancient cities had always been primarily centres of consumption.

Above all, the completely distinct bases of slave and feudal modes of production were evident in the diametrically opposite relations between town and country in each. The cities of the classical world formed an integral civic and economic unity with their rural milieu. The municipia included indistinctly both the urban centre and its agrarian periphery, and juridical citizenship was common to both. Slave labour linked the productive system of each, and there was no specifically urban economic policy as such: the town essentially functioned simply as a consumer agglomeration for agrarian produce and landed rents. The Italian cities, by contrast, were sharply separated from their countryside: the rural contado was typically a subject territory, whose inhabitants had no rights of citizenship in the polity.

The ultimate upshot of the Ancient and Renaissance city-states, in fact, reveals perhaps more than anything else in their history the deep gulf between them. The municipal republics of the classical epoch could give birth to universal empires, without any basic break in their social continuity, because territorial expansionism was a natural prolongation of their agrarian and military bent. The countryside was always the incontestable axis of their existence: they were therefore in principle perfectly adapted to ever greater annexations of it, their economic growth resting on the successful conduct of war, which had always been a central civic purpose. Military conquest thus proved a comparatively straightforward gangway from republican to imperial states, and the latter could come to seem something like a predestined terminus. The Renaissance cities, on the other hand, were always fundamentally towns at variance with the countryside.


The prospect of a strong [Danish] foreign monarchy imposing itself on Sweden rallied the local aristocracy and sections of the independent peasantry behind a usurper noble, Gustavus Vasa, who rose against Danish dominion and established his own rule over the country three years later, with the aid of Lubeck – Hanseatic enemy and rival of Denmark. Gustavus, once installed in power, promptly and ruthlessly proceeded to lay the bases of a stable monarchical State in Sweden. His first, and decisive, move was to set in train the expropriation of the Church, under the timely banner of the Reformation.

The reign of Gustavus Adolphus was thus ushered in by a constitutional compact carefully designed to prevent any repetition of the tyrannies of his father. In fact, Gustavus Adolphus showed no inclination to revert to a crude royal autocracy. His rule, on the contrary, witnessed reconciliation and integration of the monarchy and nobility: the State apparatus ceased to be a rudimentary dynastic patrimony, as the aristocracy collectively enlisted in the modern and powerful administration and army now constructed in Sweden.

The central peculiarity of the Swedish social formation on the eve of the Vasa epoch was the markedly incomplete feudalization of the relations of production in the rural economy. A small-holder peasantry of a pre-feudal type still occupied half the cultivated land in the early 16th century.

Nevertheless, the extreme backwardness of the whole economy was at first glance its most striking characteristic in any comparative perspective. Less than half the soil was suitable for arable cultivation. Barley was overwhelmingly the main grain crop. Demesne consolidation was very limited – as late as the mid 17th century, only some 8 per cent of farms were manorial units.  Moreover, the unique extent of petty production in the villages meant that the index of commercialization in agriculture was probably the lowest anywhere in

the continent. A natural economy prevailed over vast areas of the country, to such an extent that as late as the 1570’s, a mere 6 per cent of royal revenues – taxes and rents – were paid in cash, while most state officials were equally remunerated in kind….

Swedish towns were few and feeble, most of them German-founded and settled; foreign trade was virtually a monopoly of Hanseatic merchants.

The centralization of royal power in the 16th and 17th centuries was not a response to the crisis of serfdom and the disintegration of a manorial system by commodity exchange and social differentiation in the villages. Nor did it obliquely reflect the growth of local mercantile capital and an urban economy. Its initial impulse was transmitted from without; it was the threat of a rigorous Danish overlordship that mobilized the Swedish nobility behind Gustavus I, and it was Lubeck capital that financed his war effort against Christian II…

The typical Western constellation in the early modern epoch was an aristocratic Absolutism raised above the social foundations of a non-servile peasantry and ascendant towns; the typical Eastern constellation was an aristocratic Absolutism erected over the foundations of a servile peasantry and subjugated towns. Swedish Absolutism, by contrast, was built on a base that was unique, because – for historical reasons outlined earlier – it combined free peasants and nugatory towns.

In the overwhelmingly rural societies of the time, the first term of the peculiar Swedish constellation, a personally free peasantry, was ‘dominant’, and ensured the fundamental convergence of Swedish history, from its very different point of departure, with that of Western and not Eastern Europe… For the nobility, while in one sense much less absolutely paramount in the countryside than its counterparts elsewhere in Western Europe, was also much less objectively constricted by the presence of an urban bourgeoisie. There was little chance of any wholesale reversal of the position of the peasantry.

The Riksdag was politically unique in its inclusion of a separate peasant estate within its four-curia system: there was no parallel to this in any other major country in Europe. On the other hand, the Riksdag in general, and the peasant delegates to it above all, formed a curiously passive body throughout this epoch.

Another, complementary reflection of the same basic social situation underlying the docility of the Estates was to be found in the Army. For precisely because of the existence of an independent peasantry, the Swedish State could afford a conscript army alone in Renaissance Europe.

In Sweden, however, there was one crucial enclave of commodity production, whose disproportionate profits compensated for the subnormal commercialization of agriculture, and provided the fortunes of the Vasa state in its phase of outward expansion. This was the mineral wealth of the iron and copper deposits of the Bergslagen.

Swedish copper and iron ore can thus be compared with Spanish silver and gold in their impact on the local Absolutism. Both allowed the combination of a powerful and aggressive State with a social formation without either great agrarian wealth or mercantile dynamism: Sweden was, of course, far more bereft of these than Spain.

Absolutism in the East

It has been seen how the great crisis which struck the European economies in the 14th and 15th centuries produced a violent manorial reaction east of the Elbe. The seigneurial repression unleashed against the peasants increased in intensity throughout the 16th century. The political result, in Prussia and Russia, was an Absolutism of the East, coeval with that of the West yet basically different in lineage. The Absolutist State in the West was the redeployed political apparatus of a feudal class which had accepted the commutation of dues. It was a compensation for the disappearance of serfdom, in the context of an increasingly urban economy which it did not completely control and to which it had to adapt.

The Absolutist State in the East, by contrast, was the repressive machine of a feudal class that had just erased the traditional communal freedoms of the poor. It was a device for the consolidation of serfdom, in a landscape scoured of autonomous urban life or resistance. The manorial reaction in the East meant that a new world had to be implanted from above, by main force. The dose of violence pumped into social relations was correspondingly far greater. The Absolutist State in the East never lost the signs of this original experience.

This is not to say, however, that the impact of Western on Eastern Europe was not determinant for the state structures which emerged there. For transnational interaction within feudalism was typically always first at the political, not the economic level, precisely because it was a mode of production founded on extra-economic coercion: conquest, not commerce, was its primary form of expansion. The uneven development of feudalism within Europe thus found its most characteristic and direct expression, not in balances of trade, but in balances of arms, between the respective regions of the continent. In other words, the main mediation between East and West in these centuries was military. It was the international pressure of Western Absolutism, the political apparatus of a more powerful feudal aristocracy, ruling more advanced societies, which obliged the Eastern nobility to adopt an equivalently centralized state machine, to survive. For otherwise the superior military force of the reorganized and magnified Absolutist armies would inevitably take its toll in the normal medium of inter-feudal competition: war. The very modernization of troops and tactics brought about by the ‘military revolution’ in the West after 1560 rendered aggression into the vast spaces of the East more feasible than ever before, and the dangers of invasion correspondingly greater for the local aristocracies there.

It was thus from the relatively primitive North that the attack came. Sweden most recent and surprising of all the Western Absolutisms, a new country with a very limited population and rudimentary economy – proved to be the Hammer of the East. Its impact on Prussia, Poland and Russia in the ninety years from 1630 to 1720 bears comparison with that of Spain in Western Europe in an earlier age, although it has never received the same study. Yet it was one of the greatest cycles of military expansion in the history of European Absolutism.

The Austrian State had been turned back from Germany by Swedish expansion; the Polish State disjointed altogether; the Prussian and Russian States, by contrast, withstood and repelled it, acquiring their developed form in the course of the contest.

An initial concordance is striking. The decisive juridical and economic consolidation of serfdom in Prussia, Russia and Bohemia occurred during precisely the same decades in which the political foundations of the Absolutist State were firmly laid. This double development – institutionalization of serfdom and inauguration of Absolutism – was in all three cases closely and clearly linked in the history of the social formation concerned.

Thus in all three regions, the consolidation of landlord control over the peasantry, and discrimination against the towns, was tied to a sharp increase in the prerogatives of the monarchy and was succeeded by a disappearance of the estates system.

The demographic down-turn of this epoch thus created, or aggravated, a constant shortage of rural labour for demesne cultivation.

There was, moreover, a permanent regional background to this phenomenon: the endemic problem for Eastern feudalism of the land – labour ratio – the existence of too few peasants scattered over too vast spaces.

The first objective of the landlord class was thus everywhere, not so much as in the West to fix the level of dues to be paid by the peasant, as to arrest the mobility of the villager and bind him to the estates. Conversely, over huge areas of Eastern Europe, the most typical and effective form of class struggle waged by the peasantry was simply flight – collective desertion of the land for uninhabited and uncharted spaces beyond.

The mission of Absolutism was everywhere to convert juridical theory into economic practice. A ruthlessly centralized and unitary repressive apparatus was an objective necessity for the surveillance and suppression of widespread rural mobility in times of economic depression; no mere network of individual landlord jurisdictions, no matter how despotic, could be wholly adequate to cope with the problem. The domestic policing functions necessary for the second serfdom in the East were in this respect more exigent than those needed for the first serfdom in the West: the result was to render possible an Absolutist State in advance of the relations of production on which it was founded, contemporary with that of the West in the transition beyond serfdom.

Poland, again, was the apparent exception to the logic of this process. But just as externally it paid the penalty of the Swedish Deluge for not producing an Absolutism, so internally the price of its failure was the greatest peasant insurrection of the epoch – the ordeal of the Ukrainian Revolution of 1648, which cost it a third of its territory and dealt szlachta morale and prowess a blow from which it never fully recovered… For it was a rebellion set off by relatively privileged ‘cossacks’ in the Dnieper region, who were in origin fugitive Russian or Ruthenian peasants, or Circassian highlanders, who had settled in the vast borderlands between Poland, Russia and the Tartar Khanate of the Crimea. In these no man’s lands, they had come to adopt a semi-nomadic, equestrian mode of life similar to that of the Tartars against whom they customarily fought.

Peasant mobility had thus given birth in the Pontic grasslands to a sociological phenomenon virtually unknown in the West at the time – commoner rural masses capable of fielding organized armies against a feudal aristocracy.

All these popular revolts originated in the indeterminate borderlands of Russian territory: Galicia, Belorussia, Ukraine, Astrakhan, Siberia.

For there the power of the central state dwindled and shifting masses of free-booters, adventurers and fugitives mixed with settled serfs and noble estates: the four largest rebellions were allied by armed Cossack elements, who provided the military experience and organization which made them so dangerous to the feudal class. Significantly, it was with the final closure of the Ukrainian and Siberian frontiers in the late 18th century, after Potemkin’s colonization schemes were completed, that the Russian peasantry was finally beaten into sullen quiescence.

The ascent of the Absolutist State in the 17th century ultimately answered to social fear: its politico-military apparatus of coercion was the guarantee of the stability of serfdom. There was thus an internal order to Absolutism in the East that complemented its external determination: the function of the centralized State was to defend the class position of the feudal nobility against both its rivals abroad and its peasants at home. The organization and discipline of the one and the fluidity and contumacy of the other dictated a quickened political unity. The Absolutist State was thus reduplicated beyond the Elbe, to become a general European phenomenon.

What were the specific traits of the Eastern variant of this fortified feudal machine? Two basic and inter-related peculiarities may be singled out. Firstly, the influence of war in its structure was even more preponderant than in the West, and took unprecedented forms.

Prussia represents perhaps the extreme limit reached by the militarization of the genesis of this State. Functional focus on war here effectively reduced the nascent State apparatus to a by-product of the military machine of the ruling class. The Absolutism of the Great Elector of Brandenburg was, as we have seen, born amidst.

The rationality and necessity of a ‘superabsolutism’ for the feudal class in the East received in this final denouement a symmetrical demonstration, from the example of its absence. The manorial reaction of the Prussian and Russian nobles was completed by a perfected Absolutism. Their Polish homologues, after no less ferocious a subjection of the peasantry, failed to generate one. By thus jealously preserving the individual rights of every squireen against every other, and all against any dynasty, the Polish gentry committed collective suicide. Their pathological fear of a central state power institutionalized a nobiliary anarchy. The result was predictable: Poland was wiped off the map by its neighbours, who demonstrated on the battle-field the higher necessity of the Absolutist State.

Uniquely, urban residents were often serfs… Undiluted feudal principles were to govern the construction of the State machine. The device of a service nobility was in many respects the Eastern correlate of sale of offices in the West. The Prussian junker class was incorporated directly into the War Commissariat and its financial and tax services, by recruitment to the State.


The new and young Elector, Frederick William I, who had been educated in Holland, came into his patrimony under normal conditions for the first time with the conclusion of the peace. Two indelible lessons had been learnt by the experience of the decades of foreign occupation: the urgent need to build an army capable of withstanding Swedish imperial expansion in the Baltic and – complementarily – the administrative example of coercive Swedish tax-collection in Brandenburg and East Prussia, in defiance of the protests of the local Estates. The immediate preoccupation of the Elector was thus to secure a stable financial basis with which to create a permanent military apparatus for the defense and integration of his realms…

The famous Recess of 1653, which consecrated the beginnings of the social pact between the Elector and the aristocracy which was to provide the lasting foundation of Prussian Absolutism. The Estates refused to grant a general excise tax, but voted a subsidy of half a million thalers over six years for the establishment of an army, which was to become the nucleus of the future bureaucratic State.

Thus far, the evolution of Brandenburger Absolutism followed an administrative path very similar to that of earlier Western monarchies. The onset of the war of 1672-8 marked an abrupt and decisive departure from it.  For the Generalkriegskommissariat now started to commandeer virtually the whole machinery of the State itself.

The Generalkriegskommissar himself was now in practice at once Chief of the General Staff, Minister for War and Minister for Finance. The Privy Council was dwarfed by this huge growth. The officialdom of the Commissariat was recruited on a unitary, inter-provincial basis, and was used as the major bludgeon of the dynasty against local particularism or resistant assemblies. The Generalkriegskommissariat was not, however, in any sense a weapon against the aristocracy itself. On the contrary, its top echelons were staffed with leading nobles, both at central and provincial levels: commoners were concentrated in the comparatively lowly department for urban tax-collection.

The prime function of the whole tentacular apparatus of the Commissariat, of course, was to ensure the maintenance and expansion of the armed forces of the Hohenzollern State.

At the outset, a single basic line of division can be drawn through the Reich, separating its Western from its Eastern regions. Western Germany was by and large thickly sprinkled with towns. From the High Middle Ages onwards, the Rhineland was one of the most flourishing commercial zones in Europe, lying across the trade-routes between the two urban civilizations of Flanders and Italy, and profiting from the longest natural waterway used in the continent. In the Centre and North, the Hanseatic League dominated the North Sea and Baltic economies.

The growth of the urban economy in Germany, however, suddenly tailed off at mid-century.

But from the mid-15th century onwards, the competitive shipping of Holland and Zeeland – better designed and equipped – had broken the monopolistic grip of the Hanseatic ports in Northern waters.

The great expansion of Netherlands naval and manufacturing power in the later 16th and early 17th centuries thus progressively compressed or thwarted the Rhenish economy upstream from it, since Dutch capital commanded its outlets to the sea. The oldest cities of the Rhineland consequently tended to shrink into a routine conservatism, their archaic guild-systems stifling any adjustment to new circumstances.

The South-Western towns, on the other hand, had a stronger manufacturing foundation and their well-being survived longer. But with ~ the enormous expansion of international overseas trade from the epoch of the Discoveries onwards, their inland position became a critical economic handicap; while compensation along the Danube was blocked by the Turks.

The most notable feature of the Grundherrschaft agriculture in South-Eastern Germany was the economic protuberance of the Church, which owned no less than 56 per cent of all peasant farms by the mid-18th century, compared with a mere 24 per cent controlled by the aristocracy and 13 per cent by the dynasty.

The same pattern – ‘small noble estates, small towns and small peasants’ – which offered very little resistance to the emergence of a ducal Absolutism, also infused it with very little impetus.

There was no manorial reaction in the late mediaeval or early modern epoch comparable to that of Prussia: the power of the Saxon nobility was not great enough to reduce the peasantry to serfdom, given the weight of the towns in the social formation. Seigneurial demesnes were larger than in Bavaria, partly because clerical lands were much less significant. But the basic trend in the countryside was towards free tenant farming, with commutation of labour services for cash rents – in other words, the milder regime of the Grundherrschaft. The aristocracy did not achieve complete fiscal immunity (its allodial possessions were subject to tax) and was unable to secure the legal closure of noble property to commoner purchase. It was well represented in the Estates system, however, which became increasingly stable and influential in the course of the 16th century. On the other hand, the towns were also vigorously present in the Landtage, although they had to bear the brunt of the excise on alcohol.

The Wettin dynasty was able, in this socio-economic context, to amass wealth and force without any direct attack on the Estates or considerable development of bureaucratic government. It had never relinquished higher judicial prerogatives, and controlled a large independent income from its mining rights.

It is now possible to see why Brandenburg was to be picked out so singularly for dominance in Germany. There was a progressive elimination of alternatives. The Absolutist State was everywhere in Europe fundamentally a political apparatus of aristocratic rule: the social power of the nobility was the central spring of its existence. Within the fragmented arena of the post-mediaeval Reich, only those regions which possessed an economically strong and stable landowning class were likely ever to achieve a diplomatic or military leadership of Germany: for they alone could generate an Absolutism capable of equalizing with the greater European monarchies. Western Germany was thus cancelled out from the start, because of the density of its urban civilization. Bavaria possessed no towns of any undue importance, and did develop an early Absolutism under the sign of the Counter-Reformation: but its nobility was too weak, its clergy too endowed, its peasantry too free, to found a dynamic princedom. Saxony contained a more spacious aristocracy, but its cities were also much stronger, and its peasantry no more servile. By 1740, both States had passed their peak. In Prussia, by contrast, the Junker class maintained an iron serfdom on its estates, and a vigilant tutelage over the towns: seigneurial power achieved its purest expression in the Hohenzollern lands, the remotest outposts of German settlement in the East.

It was the internal nature of the Prussian social formation which explains its sudden overshadowing of all other German States in the epoch of the Enlightenment, and ultimate presidency over the unification of Germany. This rise was overdetermined by the complex historical totality of the Reich as a whole, which prevented the emergence of a Western-type Absolutism in the Rhineland, fragmented the territory of the Empire into some 2,000 political units, and extruded the House of Austria towards its non-Germanic borderlands. The key external force affecting the respective fates of Prussia and Austria within Germany was not Poland, but Sweden. For it was Swedish power which destroyed the chance of a Habsburg unification of the Empire in the Thirty Years’ War, and Swedish proximity which was the main foreign threat acting as a centripetal pressure on the construction of the Hohenzollern State – whose compulsion Bavaria and Saxony, the other East German principalities, never experienced to the same extent.

For above all, the Prussian aristocracy was peculiar among major European nobilities in that it did not have a very wide spectrum of fortunes within it.

Two important consequences followed for the character of the junker class. On the one hand, it was socially less divided than many other European aristocracies: it formed, on the whole, a cohesive bloc of like-minded middling landowners, without undue regional divergences. On the other, it meant that the average junker tended to exercise a direct function in the organization of production, when not engaged in service duties. In other words, he was very often the real, and not merely nominal, manager of his estates.

The victories of Frederick II in the War of the Austrian Succession, long prepared by the work of his predecessors, were the strategic turning-point in the European career of Prussian Absolutism, making it for the first time a triumphant power in Germany. Berlin, in fact, had scored simultaneously against Munich, Dresden and Vienna.

But the real secret of Prussian resilience was the burnished efficacy of its Absolutism: the State structure that had been scheduled for rapid and complete destruction by Kaunitz proved far more capable of withstanding the enormous economic and logistic strains of the war than the rambling empires arrayed against it in the East.

The purposes of Frederick II’s foreign policy, meanwhile, were complemented by the work of his domestic rule. The top ranks of the bureaucracy and army were consciously aristocratized by the monarchy. The judiciary was reformed by Von Cocceji, and venality largely eliminated from the legal system. The economy was fostered by official programmes for both agriculture and industry. Rural drainage, land settlement and transport improvements were organized. State manufactures were founded, shipping and mining promoted, and textile industries developed. The first systematic ‘populationist’ policies in Europe were pursued, with immigrant recruitment centres abroad. Frederick II was also responsible for one audacious innovation of Prussian Absolutism, destined to have far-reaching consequences in the next century, if largely a paper measure when first decreed: the institution of compulsory primary education for the whole male population, with the Generallandschulreglement of 1763.

 The Allies awarded it Rhine-Westphalia at the other end of Germany – much against the will of the court in Berlin. With this act, they shifted the whole historical axis of the Prussian State. Designed by Austria and Britain to check its territorial consolidation in East-Central Germany… The actual consequences of the settlement were expected by none of the parties to it. The new Hohenzollern possessions contained a population larger than that of all the old provinces put together- 5,500,000 in the West to 5,000,000 in the East. At one stroke, the demographic weight of Prussia doubled to more than 10,000,000: Bavaria, the next largest German state, had only 3,700,000. Moreover, Rhine-Westphalia was one of the most advanced regions of Western Germany. The peasantry still paid customary dues and the landowners enjoyed special hunting and other rights; but small-holder agriculture was deeply entrenched and the noble class were generally absentee landlords, not their own estate managers as in Prussia. The new provinces contained in addition a large number of flourishing towns, with long traditions of municipal autonomy, commercial exchange and manufacturing activities. Much more important even than this, of course, was the fact that because of its mineral resources – as yet unexploited – the region was destined to become the most colossal industrial zone in Europe. The military acquisitions of the feudal Prussian State thus came to incorporate the natural heartland of German capitalism.

Firstly, within the East itself, Hardenberg’s agrarian reform of 1816 led to a rapid and imposing advance of the whole corn economy. By freeing the land market, the reform progressively sieved out incapable and endebted junkers from the countryside. Correspondingly, the number of bourgeois investors in land increased, a stratum of prosperous peasant farmers or Grosshauern emerged, and there was a marked rationalization of agrarian management: by 1855, 4; per cent of the Rittergiiter in the six Eastern provinces had non-aristocratic owners.

The junker aristocracy thus achieved a successful cumulative conversion to capitalist agriculture, while still exploiting every patrimonial privilege it could keep.

At the same time, however, the fundamental course of German unification was being set by the tempestuous industrial growth of the Ruhr, within the Western provinces of Prussia itself. The Rhenish bourgeoisie whose fortunes were founded on the new manufacturing and mining economy in the West were a much more politically ambitious and outspoken group than the obedient Ostelbian townsmen. It was their spokesmen – Mevissen, Camphausen, Hansemann and others – who organized and led German liberalism and fought for the granting of a bourgeois constitution with a responsible assembly in Prussia during this period. Their programme meant, in fact, the end of Hohenzollern Absolutism, and naturally aroused the obdurate hostility of the junker ruling class in the East.


The aristocracy which controlled these powers was notably unlike its neighbours in composition. For the web of clan kinship, sure sign of a pre-feudal social structure, had survived in the relatively backward and amorphous society of early mediaeval Poland much later than anywhere else, to affect the whole contours of the feudal nobility, as it eventually emerged in a period without any articulated vassal hierarchy… The result was to create a relatively numerous noble class, comprising perhaps some 700,000 persons or 7-8 per cent of the population in the 16th century. Within this class, there were no titles of rank distinguishing one grade of lordship

from another. But this juridical equality within the nobility – which had no equivalent elsewhere in early modern Europe – was accompanied by an economic inequality which also had no parallel elsewhere at the time. For a great mass of the szlachta –  perhaps more than half their number – owned tiny holdings of 10 to 20 acres, often no larger than those of an average peasant… Another large section of the gentry were petty squires with small estates, owning no more than a village or two. Yet side by side within nominally the same nobility, existed some of the largest territorial magnates in Europe, with colossal latifundia, mainly situated in the Lithuanian or Ukrainian East of the country.

During the 16th century, nevertheless, the szlachta  as a whole probably benefited more than any other group in Eastern Europe from the price revolution… Poland was by contrast the largest and wealthiest power in the East. The bulk of the Baltic prosperity fell to it, in the most prosperous epoch of the grain trade. The cultural brilliance of the Polish Renaissance, the background of Copernicus, was one result. Politically, however, it is difficult not to suspect that the early and abundant good fortune of the szlachta  in a sense paralysed their capacity for constructive centralization in a later age.

Strategically, moreover, the Polish Commonwealth of the 16th century confronted no major military threat.

There was thus no urgent necessity for a centralized royal State, to build up a large military machine against external enemies. The huge size of Poland, and the traditional valour of the szlachta as a heavy feudal cavalry, seemed to guarantee the geographical safety of the possessing class.

By the terms of the Henrician Articles, the non-hereditary character of the monarchy was expressly reconfirmed. The monarch himself was deprived of virtually any substantive powers in the government of the realm. He could not dismiss the civil or military officials in his administration, or enlarge the minuscule army – 3,000 men – at his disposal. The consent of the Sejm, henceforth to be convened every two years, was necessary for any political or fiscal decision of importance. Contravention of these restrictions legalized rebellion against the monarch.  In other words, Poland became in all but name a nobiliary republic, with a royal figure-head. No native Polish dynasty was ever to preside over the kingdom again: French, Hungarian, Swedish and Saxon rulers were deliberately preferred by the landowning class to ensure the weakness of the central State.

The stage was now set for the spectacular breakdown of the country in the reign of the last Vasa king, John Casimir. In 1648, the Ukrainian Cossacks revolted under Khmelnitsky, and a peasant jacquerie against the Polish landlord class spread in their wake… Warsaw and Cracow rapidly fell to Swedish and Prussian troops, while the Lithuanian magnates hastened to defect to Charles X, and John Casimir fled to an Austrian refuge.

Geographical losses amounted to a fifth of Polish territory. But the economic, social and political effects of these disastrous years were much graver. The Swedish armies which had swept the country had left it ravaged and depopulated from end to end: the rich Vistula valley was worst hit of all. The population of Poland dropped by a third between 1650 and 1675, while grain exports through Danzig fell by over 80 per cent between 1618 and 1691. Cereal output collapsed in many regions because of the devastation and demographic decline; yields never recovered. There was a contraction of cultivated area, and many szlachta were ruined. The economic crisis after the war accelerated the concentration of land, in conditions where the great magnates alone had the resources to reorganize production and many smaller estates were up for sale.

The great divide in the history and prosperity of the noble class did not rally it to the creation of a central state that could have withstood further external attacks: it plunged, on the contrary, into a suicidal fuite en avant.  From the mid-17th century onwards, the anarchic logic of the Polish polity achieved a kind of institutional paroxysm with the rule of parliamentary unanimity – the famous liberum veto.  A single negative vote could henceforward dissolve the Sejm and paralyse the State… The landowning class, which had long rendered the executive virtually impotent, thus now neutralized the legislature as well. The eclipse of royal authority was henceforward complemented by the disintegration of representative government.

In practice, chaos was only avoided by the enhanced dominance within the nobility of the great Eastern magnates.

But the feudal State it produced provided a singular clarification of the reasons why Absolutism was the natural and normal form of noble class power after the late Middle Ages. For in effect, once the integrated chain of mediate sovereignties which constituted the mediaeval political system was dissolved, the nobility had no natural spring of unification. The aristocracy was customarily divided into a vertical hierarchy of ranks, which were in structural contradiction with any horizontal distribution of representation, such as was later to characterize bourgeois political systems.

An external principle of unity was therefore imperative to weld it together: the function of Absolutism was precisely to impose a rigorous formal order on it from without. Hence the possibility of the constant conflicts between Absolutist rulers and their aristocracies, which, as we have seen, occurred all over Europe. These tensions were inscribed in the very nature of the solidary relationship between the two, since no immanent mediation of interests was practicable within the noble class. Absolutism could only govern ‘for’ the aristocracy by remaining ‘above’ it. In Poland alone, the paradoxical size of the szlachta  and formal absence of any titles within it, produced a self-destructive caricature of a representative system proper, within the gentry. The incompatibility of the two was bizarrely demonstrated by the liberum veto.  For within such a system, there was no reason why any individual noble should forego his sovereignty.


The peculiarity, and interest, of the Swiss revolt is that it coalesced two social elements within the complex inventory of European feudalism not found anywhere else together in similar union: mountains and towns. This was, also, the secret of its unique success in a century where everywhere else peasant insurrections were defeated.

From the very outset of the Middle Ages, as we have seen, the feudal mode of production always had a very uneven topographical spread: it never penetrated the uplands to the extent to which it conquered the plains and the marshes. Mountainous regions all over Western Europe

represented remote fastnesses of small peasant property, allodial or communal, whose rocky and exiguous soil offered relatively little attraction for manorialism. The Swiss Alps, the highest range in the continent, were naturally a foremost example of this pattern. They also, however, lay across one of the main overland commercial routes of mediaeval Europe, between the two densely urbanized zones of Southern Germany and Northern Italy. Their valleys were thus also settled with local trading towns, taking advantage of a strategic situation among the high passes. The Swiss cantonalism of the 14th century was the product of the conflux of these forces.

By the turn of the 17th century, the House of Austria had registered moderate gains in its State-construction; but the political unity of its

possessions was still very tenuous. Dynastic rule was on a different legal footing in each of them, and no common institutions apart from the War Council linked them together. The Austrian lands themselves were only first declared indivisible in 1602. The Imperial aspirations of Habsburg rulers were no substitute for practical integration of the territories owing allegiance to them: Hungary lay outside the Reich  anyway, so there was not even an inclusive relationship between the realm of the Empire and the lands of the Emperor. Moreover, in the later half of the 16th century, latent opposition in the various aristocratic Estates in the Habsburg domains had been given a new and sharp edge by the advent of the Reformation. For while the dynasty remained a pillar of the Roman Church and Tridentine orthodoxy, the majority of the nobility in every one of its constituent lands went over to Protestantism. First the bulk of the Czech landowning class, long habituated to local heresy, became Lutheran, then the Magyar gentry adopted Calvinism, and finally the Austrian aristocracy itself, in the heartland of Habsburg power, was won to the Reformed religion.

The military reconquest of Bohemia had been accompanied by the political proscription of the bulk of the old seigneurial class, and the economic expropriation of its estates. Over half the manors in Bohemia were confiscated after 1620; this vast agrarian booty was distributed to a new, motley aristocracy of fortune, expatriate captains and emigrant bravos of the Counter-Reformation. No more than a fifth or an eighth of the nobility in the later 17th century was Old German or Old Czech in origin.

Landed property by the same stroke underwent a notable concentration: lords and clergy controlled nearly three-quarters of all land, while the share of the former small gentry tumbled from one-third to one-tenth. The lot of the peasantry correspondingly worsened.

Already tied to the soil and thinned by the war, it was now loaded with increased labour services… after 1648 the new, cosmopolitan nobility in practice achieved fiscal immunity, shifting virtually the whole tax burden downwards onto their serfs. This transfer naturally smoothed the course of deliberations between monarchy and aristocracy in the Estates: henceforward the dynasty merely requested lump sums from the Estates, leaving them to fix and collect the taxes to meet its demands. Fiscal pressures could easily be augmented under this system.

More vitally still, a permanent army of some 50,000 – 10 infantry and 9 cavalry regiments – was created for the first time in 1650, in the aftermath of Westphalia: the conduct of the Austrian and Bohemian Estates was henceforward inevitably tempered by the presence of this weapon. At the same time, Habsburg Absolutism achieved a unique cultural and ideological feat: Bohemia, Austria and Hungary – the three constitutive zones of its rule – were all progressively folded back into the Church of Rome.

Protestantism had been repressed in Styria in the 1590’s; the Reformed religions were banned in Lower Austria

Yet the peak of Austrian power, suddenly reached, was soon passed. No other European Absolutism had quite such a brief phase of military confidence and initiative. Begun in 1683, it was over by 1718, with the short capture of Belgrade and the Peace of Passarowitz. Thereafter Austria can virtually be said never to have won a war with a rival state again.

Habsburg reliance on the clergy in internal political affairs thus had its price: no matter how astute, priests could never be functionally equivalent to officiers or pomeshchiki  as building-blocks of Absolutism. Vienna was not to become a metropolitan centre of sale of offices, or of a service nobility; its hallmarks remained a malleable clericalism and a jumbled administration.

In the Habsburg domains, however, there was no single seigneurial class, but a number of territorially distinct landowning groups. It was this lack of a unified aristocracy which told on the whole fighting capacity of the Habsburg State.

The crushing of the Bohemian Estates during the Thirty Years’ War, on the other hand, gave Habsburg Absolutism its most basic political success; the substantial and fertile Czech lands now lay unequivocally within its grasp. No rebellious nobility in Europe met such a summary fate as the Bohemian aristocracy: after its downfall, a new landowning class, owing everything to the dynasty, was planted on its estates. The history of European Absolutism reveals no comparable episode. Yet there was still a revealing peculiarity in the Habsburg settlement of Bohemia. The new nobility created there by it was not principally composed of houses from the Austrian bulwark of the dynasty; apart from a few Catholic Czech families, it was imported from abroad… a symptom of weakness in the long-run.

Nevertheless, whatever the limitations of the landowning classes in each sector, the consolidation of imperial power in both the Austrian and Bohemian units of the Habsburg domains by the mid-17th century seemed to create the premises for a more homogeneous, centralized Absolutism. It was to be Hungary which proved the insurmountable obstacle to a unitary royal state. If an analogy were to be made between he two Habsburg Empires, centred in Madrid and Vienna, in which Austria might be compared to Castile and Bohemia to Andalusia, Hungary was a sort of Eastern Aragon.

The Austrian Absolutism was profoundly shaken by loss of Bohemia to Prussia and defeat in the Seven Years’ War.

The new Emperor [Joseph II] broke spectacularly with the Austrian tradition of suffuse official clericalism. Religious toleration was proclaimed, church lands were dissolved, monasteries cut down, church services regulated, and universities taken over by the State. An advanced penal code was introduced, the law courts reformed and censorship abolished. Secular education was vigorously promoted by the State, until by the end of the reign perhaps one out of every three children was in elementary school. Modernized curricula were designed to produce better trained engineers and functionaries. The civil service was professionalized, and its ranks organized on a merit basis, while secret surveillance of it was ensured by a network of police agents modelled on the Prussian system. Taxation ceased to be administered by the Estates, and was henceforward collected directly by the monarchy. Fiscal burdens were steadily increased. Annual sessions of the Estates were suppressed: the Landtage now only assembled at the summons of the dynasty. Conscription was inaugurated, and the army expanded to some 300,000 troops. Tariffs were relentlessly raised to assure command of the domestic market, while at the same time urban guilds and corporations were struck down to further free competition within the Empire. The transport system was improved. These steps were radical but not yet outside the range of the conventional moves of Absolutist States in the Age of the Enlightenment. The Josephine programme, however, did not stop at this. In a series of decrees unique in the history of Absolutist Monarchy, serfdom was formally abolished in 1781 –  after serious peasant risings in Bohemia during the previous decade – and all subjects were guaranteed the right of free choice in their marriage, migration, work, occupation, and property. Peasants were given security of tenure where they did not possess it, and nobles forbidden to acquire peasant plots. Finally, all labour services were abolished for peasants on ‘rustical’ land (i.e. villein plots) paying two florins or more a year in taxes, fiscal rates were equalized, and official norms for the distribution of the gross agricultural output of these tenants were decreed – 12’2 per cent for the State in taxes, 17’8 per cent for the lords and clergy in rents and tithes, and 70 per cent to be retained by the peasant himself. Although very partial in its coverage -little more than one-fifth of the Bohemian peasantry was affected by it – this last measure threatened drastic changes in social relations in the countryside, and struck directly at vital economic interests of the landowning nobility throughout the Empire. The proportion of the agrarian product at the disposal of the direct producer was generally about 30 per cent at the time – the new law would double this, by the same stroke all but halving the surplus extracted by the feudal class. Aristocratic outcry was vociferous and universal, backed by widespread obstruction and evasion.

The Prussian State was dragged reluctantly but inexorably towards the West as the 19th century wore on, with the industrialization of the Ruhr and the capitalist development of the Rhineland. The Austrian State in the same epoch shifted in the opposite direction, towards the East, with the growing ascendancy of Hungary and its last-ditch landlordism.


We now come to the last, and most durable Absolutism in Europe. Tsarism in Russia outlived all its precursors and contemporaries, to become the only Absolutist State in the continent to survive intact into the 20th century.

Ivan Ill’s conquest of Novgorod in 1478 allowed the nascent ducal state to expropriate large tracts of land and settle a new gentry on them, which henceforward formed the military service class of Muscovy.

His rule did mark three critical accomplishments for the future of Russian Absolutism. Tartar power in the East was broken by the liberation of Kazan in 1556, and the annexation of the Khanate of Astrakhan – lifting a secular incubus from the growth of the Muscovite state and society. This signal victory had been preceded by the development of two crucial innovations in the Russian military system – the massive use of heavy artillery and mining charges against fortification (decisive in reducing Kazan), and the formation of the first permanent infantry of strettsy musketeers: both of major import for the prospects of foreign expansion. Meanwhile, the pomest’ e  system was generalized on a new scale, which lastingly shifted the balance of power between the boyars and tsar. The oprichnina  confiscations for the first time made conditional tenures the dominant form of landholding in Russia,. while votchina  estates were simultaneously made liable for service themselves, and the growth of monastic domains was checked. This change was reflected in the diminished role of the Boyar Duma during Ivan IV’s reign.

Ivan IV now granted the pomeshchik  class the right to determine the level of rents extracted from the peasantry on their lands, and to collect these themselves – thereby making them for the first time masters over the labour-force on their estates.  At the same time ,  the administrative and tax system was modernized… Together, these military, economic and administrative measures tended to strengthen very considerably the political power of the central Tsarist State.

The service gentry, however, refused to adapt to the contemporary forms of warfare and join these Western-style regiments, which were first used in the unsuccessful Smolensk War with Poland (1632-4). Thereafter, a widening divergence developed between the nominal service role of the pomeshchik class and the actual structure and composition of the Russian armed forces, which came more and more to consist of professional regiments of new-style infantry and cavalry, rather than seasonal levies of mounted gentry. The whole military rationale of the latter was increasingly threatened from the 1630’s onwards, its traditional performance becoming obsolete and redundant. At the same time, there was constant boyar-gentry friction within the landed class as a whole over the disposal of the rural labour-force. For although the Russian peasantry was now legally bound to the soil, flights were still widespread amidst the immense and primitive expanse of the country.

The tension between boyars and squires over the anti-fugitive laws was one of the leit-motifs of the epoch.

The Zemsky Sobor now drew up the comprehensive legal code that was to be the social charter of Russian Absolutism. The Sobornoe Ulozhenie  of 1649 definitively codified and promulgated the serfdom of the peasantry, which was henceforward bound irreversibly to the soil.

Both votchina  and pomest’ e  lands were declared hereditary, and sale or purchase of the latter was banned: all estates were henceforward liable for military service. Towns were subjected to tighter controls.

The State machine erected over these new social foundations was above all, of course, the monumental work of Peter I.

The traditional duality between boyar and gentry sections of the landowning class was recast by the creation of a new and comprehensive ranking system, and the universalization of the service principle, which yoked both nobles and squires back into a single political framework.

Independent magnate power was ruthlessly suppressed; the Boyar Duma was eliminated, and succeeded by an appointed Senate. The gentry were reincorporated into a modernized army and administration, of which they once again made up the central personnel.

The votehina and pomest’ e were united into a single pattern of hereditary landownership, and the nobility soldered to the State by universal service obligations, from the age of 14 onwards, in the army and bureaucracy… serfs were henceforward bound to the person of their lord rather than to the land which they tilled and could thus be sold… ‘state serfs’… The Patriarchate was abolished, and the Church firmly subordinated to the State by the new office of the Holy Synod, whose highest official was a secular functionary.

A new, occidentalized capital was built at St Petersburg….

The budget was quadrupled, largely with resources from a new soul tax on serfs. Average peasant taxes quintupled from 1700 to 1707-8.

The bulk of this greatly enlarged State revenue – two-thirds to four-fifths – was devoted to the construction of a professional army and modern navy: the two over-riding goals of the whole Petrine programme, to which all other measures were subordinated. For all the reorganization and repression exercised by Peter I, haphazard corruption and peculation were endemic: one guess is that perhaps only a third of tax revenues actually reached the State.

Catherine II proved to be the most ideologically conscious ruler of Russia and the most amply generous to her class. Aspiring to a European reputation for political Enlightenment, she promulgated a new educational system, secularized church lands, and promoted a mercantilist development of the Russian economy. The currency was stabilized, the iron industry expanded, and the volume of foreign trade increased. The two great landmarks of Catherine II’s reign, however, were the extension of organized serf agriculture to the whole of the Ukraine, and the promulgation of the Charter of the Nobility. The condition of the first was the destruction of the Tartar Khanate of the Crimea.

Much more important in the short-run, however, were the consequences of this Southern advance for Russian agriculture. The final elimination of the Tartar Khanate permitted the organized settlement and reclamation of the vast Ukrainian steppes, large tracts of which were now for the first time converted into arable tillage and planted with a stable, sedentary peasant population on large estates. Managed by Potemkin, the agrarian colonization of the Ukraine represented probably the largest single geographical clearance in the history of European feudal agriculture. No technical progress in the rural economy was registered by this great territorial advance, however: it was a purely extensive gain. Socially, it subjugated the once free or semi-free inhabitants of the border regions to the condition of the central peasantry, increasing the total serf population of Russia steeply.

During Catherine II’s reign, the volume of money rents paid by serfs increased in some cases up to five times over; any upper limit on the extraction of labour services was rejected by the government; huge numbers of State peasants were handed over to leading nobles for intensified private exploitation.

The Charter of the Nobility granted by the Empress in 1785 completed the long journey of the peasantry into servitude. By it, Catherine II guaranteed the aristocracy all its privileges, released it from compulsory duties, and ensured it total jurisdictional control of its rural labour force: devolution of a measure of provincial administration smoothly transferred local functions to the gentry. The typical parabola of ascendant Absolutism was now complete. The monarchy had risen in concord with the gentry in the 16th century (Ivan IV); they had at times clashed violently in the 17th century, amidst magnate predominance, complex shifts and dislocations within the State, and social turbulence outside it (Michael I); the monarchy had achieved an implacable autocracy by the early 18th century (Peter I); nobility and monarchy thereafter regained a reciprocal serenity and harmony (Catherine II).

The State itself owned land with 20,000,000 serfs on it – two-fifths of the peasant population of Russia. It was thus directly the most colossal feudal proprietor in the country. The Army was built on random conscription of serfs, with the hereditary nobility dominating its command structure, in accordance with its rank. The Grand Dukes occupied the General Inspectorates of the Army and the War Council: down to and into the First World War, the Commanders-in-Chief were the cousins or uncles of the Tsar. The Church was a subdivision of the State, subordinated to a bureaucratic department (the Holy Synod) whose head – the Senior Procurator – was a civil official designated by the Tsar … Priests were treated as functionaries… The educational system was controlled by the State, and Rectors and Professors of Universities were by mid-century appointed directly by the Tsar and his Ministers. The vast, proliferating bureaucracy was integrated at the top only by the person of the Autocrat, and the corridor rule of his private chancellery  – there were Ministers, but no Cabinet, three competing swarms of police, and generalized peculation.

Institutionally, moreover, the State was in certain decisive respects far more powerful than any Western Absolutism had ever been, because it survived into the epoch of European industrialization, and therefore was able to import the most advanced technology in the world and appropriate it to itself. For the State had relinquished its grip on agriculture by the sale of its lands, only to entrench itself securely in industry. It had traditionally owned the mines and metallurgical works in the Urals. It now financed and built most of the new railway system, which accounted for the second largest budgetary outlay – after the armed forces. Public contracts dominated Russian industry generally – two-thirds of engineering output was taken by the State. Tariffs were extremely high (4 times German or French levels and 2 times US levels), so that local capital depended critically on State supervision and protection. The Ministry of Finance manipulated the State Bank’s loaning policy to private entrepreneurs, and established general ascendancy over them with its large gold reserves. The Absolutist State in Russia was thus the major engine of rapid industrialization from above. In the laissez-faire capitalist epoch of 1900, its swollen economic role had no comparison in the developed West. Combined and uneven development thus produced in Russia a colossal State apparatus, covering and suffocating the whole society beneath the level of the ruling-class. It was a State that had integrated feudal hierarchy bodily into the bureaucracy, incorporated the Church and education, and supervised industry, while spawning a gargantuan army and police-system.

If you would like to learn more about how states have evolved over time, read my book From Poverty to Progress: How Humans Invented Progress, and How We Can Keep It Going.

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