George C. Comninel
Comninel Home Page
POLS 3020
Utopia, Power and

POLS 3025
A Century of Revolution

POLS 4030
Classical Political Theory
POLS 4090
Classical Marxist Theory
  Recommended Bibliography
POLS 6030 / SPT 6101
Theory and Practice
of the State in Historical Perspective
(Not taught in 2017/18)

Recommended Bibliography
Main Politics Website
POLS 6030 / SPT 6101 6.0A (Y)

The Theory and Practice of the State in Historical Perspective

2016/2017 - Not taught in 2017/18
Professor George C. Comninel 
Office Hours: Wednesday 1:00-2:30 and by appointment
Phone: 416-2100 x88832 or 416-736-5265
N833 Ross Bldg.

This seminar is about the history and transformation of the Western state in the course of changing social and economic contexts, between Graeco-Roman antiquity and modern capitalism. This examination of historical contexts of state and society forms the basis for a critical interrogation of classic and contemporary approaches to historical social theory and theories of the state, as well as paradigmatic conceptions of the nature of the state informing the classics of Western political thought.

A central theme of the course is the historical specificity of capitalism and its distinctive political forms. One of our main objectives will be to define that specificity in relation to other forms of state and society, as well as to identify the specific historical processes that gave rise to capitalism. This means challenging a variety of influential theories of the state and its development, conventional conceptions of the relation between the "economic" and the "political", and prevailing theories of history, both Marxist and non-Marxist, which tend to mask the specificity of capitalism and the very particular conditions of its development. With special emphasis on the problem of "transitions" – from antiquity to feudalism, from feudalism to capitalism, and from early capitalism to its industrial form – we shall focus on differences between European states – notably England, France and Italy – and divergences in their historical paths.

The course is conceived primarily as a seminar for the discussion of common readings and the problems arising from them.  You will be expected to do the required reading, to participate in seminar discussions, and each term to give one seminar presentation and write one essay of approximately 5000-7000 words. Presentations, which should last from 20 to 30 minutes, will be expected to draw upon several recommended readings for the week (in addition to those required) to survey the literature, explore a debate, and/or advance an argument in relation to the theme and/or assigned readings. It is helpful to provide an outline of the presentation to the seminar, and perhaps to suggest points for discussion. The presentation generally provides a basis for the term essay, but you may instead pursue a different topic arising from the course that interests you. 

The presentations, and other seminar participation, compose 40% of the final grade. The essays are each worth 30%. The Fall term essay is due at the first class in January, and the Winter essay is due May 1.  Please plan your work accordingly.


The required readings will be drawn from the following list of books and articles. 
Where appropriate, the books have been ordered for the York bookstore. Several of the readings may be accessed from this course website.

Perry Anderson
Passages from Antiquity to Feudalism
Perry Anderson Lineages of the Absolutist State
Aristotle Politics
Army in Council The Putney Debates
Aston & Philpin, eds. The Brenner Debate
Robert Brenner
"On the Origins of Capitalist Development: a Critique of
Neo-Smithian Marxism", New Left Review #104
Robert Brenner "Postscript", in Merchants and Revolution
George Comninel Rethinking the French Revolution
George Comninel “English Feudalism and the Origins of Capitalism”, in
                Journal of Peasant Studies, 27(4)
George Comninel “Marx’s Context”, in History of Political Thought, 21(3)
Morton Fried The Evolution of Political Society
G.W.F. Hegel The Philosophy of Right
Rodney Hilton, ed. (sic)
The Transition from Feudalism to Capitalism
Thomas Hobbes Leviathan (Parts I & II)
AHM Jones
"The Economic Basis of the Athenian Democracy",
Past and Present #1
John Locke Second Treatise of Government
Niccolo Machiavelli The Prince; The Discourses
Karl Marx Various selections (noted below)
Karl Polanyi "Aristotle Discovers the Economy", in Trade and Market
                 in the Early Empires
E.P. Thompson Customs in Common
Max Weber Selections in Translation
Ellen M. Wood Citizens to Lords
Ellen M. Wood Democracy Against Capitalism
Ellen M. Wood Empire of Capital
Ellen M. Wood Liberty and Property
Ellen M. Wood The Origin of Capitalism: A Longer View
Michael Zmolek Rethinking the Industrial Revolution

A schedule of topics and specific weekly reading assignments follows.  Students lacking a solid background in Western European history are strongly advised to keep up with the readings, and may benefit from consulting various of the more general works listed in the recommended bibliography.  Political science students should be familiar with Aristotle, Machiavelli, Hobbes and Locke, and will presumably be reading to refresh their memory. (No particular editions are required.)  Those not familiar with these texts are advised to plan for the extra time required for preparation.  Assignments are given by author and/or short title from the above list.



Themes: historical social theory; "progress" and historical stages; cities and markets; the nature of the state; the specificity of capitalism; the "political" and the "economic"; historical materialism vs. technological determinism; classes; "modes of production".

Sept 14    Introduction and Overview

Sept 21    Marx: "Preface" to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy; “Bourgeois and
                 Proletarians”, from Communist Manifesto; “Labour Rent”; Hobsbawm, "Introduction" to                         Marx,   Pre-Capitalist Economic Formations; Brenner, NLR #104

Sept 28    Weber, Chs 1-3, 6-9, 15-18

Oct 5        Wood:  Democracy Against Capitalism; Origin of Capitalism, 11-33


Themes:  democracy and class power; slavery and the "slave mode of production";  ruling class struggles and the Roman Empire; the municipal system; the transition from antiquity to feudalism; the specificity of feudalism.

Oct 12     Fried, Evolution of Political Society OR Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs and Steel

Oct 19    Anderson, Passages, 1-103; Jones, "Athenian Democracy"

Oct 26    Wood, Citizens to Lords, 1-163

Nov 2     Aristotle, Politics (Books 1-5, Bk 7, Ch 1-10); Polanyi, "Aristotle Discovers the Economy"


Themes: the nature of feudalism; debates on the transition from feudalism to capitalism; absolutism: a stage between feudalism and capitalism?; the Western city; the Italian city-state; "bourgeois society" vs. capitalism; agrarian capitalism; the English revolution; the Levellers and Locke; England vs. France; historical divergences and traditions of political thought; "bourgeois revolution".

Nov 9      Anderson, Passages, 107-209; Wood, Citizens to Lords, 164-236
Nov 16    Transition from Feudalism to Capitalism

Nov 23    Anderson, Lineages, 15-59, 85-172; Wood, Liberty and Property, 1-55

Nov 30    Machiavelli: The Prince and The Discourses


Jan 11      Brenner Debate, “Intro”, chs 1, 5, 6, 7 and 10

Jan 18      Comninel, “English Feudalism and the Origins of Capitalism”; Wood, Origin, 1-10, 34-146

Jan 25      Comninel, Rethinking, 53-120, 179-207; Wood, Liberty and Property, 147-209

Feb 1       Brenner, “Postscript”; Zmolek, Rethinking the Industrial Revolution, 105-163;
                 Wood, Liberty and Property, 211-317; The Putney Debates

Feb 8       Hobbes, Leviathan, (Parts I & II; Part IV, Ch.  47; Conclusion);  Locke, Second Treatise


Themes:  capitalism vs. "industrial society"; the "formal" vs. the "real" subjection of labour to capital; capitalism, liberalism, and the capitalist form of state; Hegel and the "modern" state"; radical democracy and the critique of political economy; political economy and the critique of historical materialism; capitalism, the state, and history.
Feb 15     Zmolek, Rethinking the Industrial Revolution, 1-104, 165-400


Mar 1      Zmolek, Rethinking the Industrial Revolution, 401-839
Mar 8      Thompson, "Patricians and Plebs", “Time, Work-Discipline and Industrial Capitalism”, and   
                "Custom, Law and Common Right", in Customs
Mar 15     Wood, Origin of Capitalism, 147-198; Empire of Capital

Mar 22     Hegel, Philosophy of Right

Mar 29    Marx:  Critique of Hegel's Doctrine of the State (aka, Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s
               Philosophy of Right); “On The Jewish Question”; "Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's
                Philosophy of Right: Introduction"; Comninel, “Marx’s Context”

Apr 1      Marx:  Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844; Communist Manifesto, “Proletarians
               and Communists”;  The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte