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Bourgeois Revolutions: On the Road to Salvation for all Mankind

Feature Article by Neil Davidson, December 2004

This year's Isaac Deutscher memorial lecture was given by Neil Davidson. He took up the controversial issue of the role played by bourgeois revolutions in the formation of the modern world.

I owe at least two debts to Isaac Deutscher. One is that, for non-academics like me, he provided a model of how to write politically engaged but scholarly historical work. The other is more relevant to the theme of my lecture: his writings on the bourgeois revolutions.

'Bourgeois revolution' is perhaps the Marxist concept which has come under the most severe attack in recent years. Since the 1950s anti-Marxist 'revisionists' have set about demonstrating that the events we traditionally call by this name - the Dutch Revolt, the English Civil War, the American War of Independence, the French Revolution and so on - were nothing of the sort. Instead, revisionists claim, these conflicts were just what they appeared to be: in other words, expressions of inter-elite competition, religious difference or regional autonomy. At any rate, they were not conflicts between an urban capitalist bourgeoisie and a rural feudal aristocracy, as Marxists supposedly believed.

Revolution from above and below

Revisionism in this form is, happily, reaching the end of its shelf life. More serious, however, has been an increasing tendency for Marxists, and anti-capitalist radicals more generally, themselves to deny the role that bourgeois revolutions - or perhaps I should call them the Events Formerly Known as Bourgeois Revolutions - have played in the establishment of the capitalist system. This denial comes in several different forms. Indeed, the reasons given in the work of very different writers such as Arno Mayer, Immanuel Wallerstein and Robert Brenner are noticeably incompatible with each other, but their overall effect has been to foster a climate of scepticism. Against this, Isaac Deutscher's work demonstrates that the notion attacked by both sets of revisionists is a caricature of the real Marxist position. Essentially, Deutscher makes two points.

First, in his biography of Stalin - which was published in 1949, before the first revisionist works appeared - Deutscher noted that bourgeois revolutions can be conducted from above as well as from below. This could take place in two ways. On the one hand, a state founded by revolution from below could spread the revolution by military conquest, like the New Model Army in Scotland during the 1650s or the French revolutionary armies in the Italian peninsula during the 1790s. On the other hand - and this really applies only after the French Revolution - a section of the old ruling classes themselves could restructure the state and economy, often in order to compete militarily with those states that had already made the transition. This suggests a second point, which Deutscher made explicit in The Unfinished Revolution (1967). The bourgeois revolutions are bourgeois not because they are led by the bourgeoisie, but because they make possible the development of bourgeois society on the basis of the capitalist mode of production. In other words, it is the outcome which is important, not the process or the personnel.

These positions were shared by other figures in the Trotskyist movement, like Max Shachtman and Tony Cliff, who in other respects were among Deutscher's most severe critics. Their agreement is less surprising than it might at first seem, for his position was not in any sense innovatory. On the contrary, over this issue at least, Deutscher was simply upholding the classical Marxist position. Take Marx and Engels' writings on the English Civil War and the Great French Revolution. These are not entirely consistent, but the main thrust of their view in both cases was that the bourgeoisie, far from leading the revolutionary process, had to be pushed forward by classes below it in the social structure. Engels later argued that the completion of the German Revolution during the 1860s came from the opposite end of the class structure: Bismarck and a section of the Prussian Junkers-that is, the great feudal landowners. George Lukács extended this analysis to Central and Eastern Europe as a whole in his great work History and Class Consciousness (1923). Writing in his Fascist jail during the 1930s, Antonio Gramsci argued that the Italian Risorgimento of the 1850s and 1860s was similarly a form of 'passive revolution' from above. Before the First World War Lenin argued that the era of bourgeois revolution in Russia had started with the tsarist agrarian reforms of 1861 and would only be completed by the working class. It should be obvious, therefore, that the classical tradition is not committed to a version of bourgeois revolution in which a fully conscious bourgeois class announce the abolition of feudalism, execute the king and proclaim the republic to the thunderous acclaim of the assembly or its local equivalent.

This is not to say that that the bourgeoisie have never been revolutionary on their own behalf. On the contrary, in certain situations - the Dutch Revolt, the early stages of the French Revolution, Scotland after 1746 and, above all, the American Civil War, they clearly have been. But it is not necessary that they should behave in this way. Where then did the caricature of bourgeois revolution come from, if not classical Marxist thought? I think there are two sources.

One is the work of the liberal bourgeois historians of the first half of the 19th century: for example Thomas Macaulay writing on 1688 in Britain or François Guizot writing on 1789 in France. The vision of the heroic, conquering bourgeois essentially derives from these sources. There were national peculiarities, of course - the British were noticeably less enthusiastic about revolutionary violence than the French, hence the emphasis on 1688 rather than 1649, but the similarities were obvious enough.

Contrary to what is claimed by writers like George Comninel, Marx did not simply adopt this position. In fact, his admiration for the bourgeoisie, as expressed in The Communist Manifesto, was far more for its economic and intellectual achievements than its boldness in mounting the barricades.

The other source, and this may not come entirely as a surprise, is Stalinism. In the early 1920s the Communist International - still a revolutionary organisation at this point, of course - adopted the term 'bourgeois-democratic', for those revolutions in the colonial or semi-colonial world where socialism was not immediately on the agenda, but in which democratic rights were a necessary prerequisite for the organisation of movements for socialist and national liberation. This was a serious strategy at the time, as not even Trotsky believed that permanent revolution was on the cards outside Russia at this stage.

As the Communist International degenerated along with the Russian Revolution which gave it birth, however, the concept began to shift from one which advocated allying with bourgeois (or even pre-bourgeois) forces only where they were genuinely involved in fighting imperialism, to a stages theory in which support had to be given to the supposedly 'revolutionary' bourgeoisie as a matter of course in line with Stalin's foreign policy. This was disastrous enough politically, most of all in the Chinese Revolution of the late 1920s, but it also affected how history was written. From the onset of the period of the Popular Front in 1935, there was effectively a fusion of Stalinist and liberal bourgeois notions of historical development.

Rethinking capitalism

One consequence was the notion of a 'bourgeois democratic' revolution being read back into history and applied to England, France, and the other countries where bourgeois revolutions had been identified. The main problem is that, although a minority of the bourgeois revolutions involved episodes of democracy, none resulted in the establishment of permanent representative institutions, and most did not involve popular insurgencies of any sort. Indeed, the 'revolutions from above' in Germany, Italy, Japan, etc, were conducted, at least in part, precisely to pre-empt popular revolt. Nor was this the only distortion.

The Stalinist model established a checklist of 'tasks' borrowed from the French Revolution – i.e. democracy, the agrarian question, national unification - which had to be ticked off before the bourgeois revolution could be declared complete. If these were really taken seriously, then the Japanese Revolution was incomplete until the agrarian reforms imposed by the US occupiers after 1945, the American Revolution itself was unfinished until the black civil rights legislation of the mid-1960s and the Scottish Revolution has presumably still to be consummated in the absence of an independent Scottish state.

The absurdity of such notions should be obvious. There are still important democratic issues unresolved in most countries in the world, but they have nothing to do with the consolidation of capitalism. In fact, the only real goal which bourgeois revolutions can have is the establishment of independent centres of capital accumulation. (In the case of Scotland, this independent centre of capital accumulation was called Britain.)

One reaction to the Stalinoid celebration of the bourgeois revolution has been the attempt by people on the left to find more revolutionary forces with which contemporary radicals can identify. Hence, in an English context, the attempts to diminish the role of Oliver Cromwell in favour of the Levellers and of the Levellers in favour of the Diggers, and so on. (The latter two groups, which are often spoken of together, were of course completely different in ideology, class composition, size of membership and virtually every other respect.) This seems to me to be both completely mistaken and completely unnecessary. In Discovering the Scottish Revolution I argue that we have to distinguish between two different sets of historical actor in the bourgeois revolutions.

One set consists of our socialist predecessors - that is, those who looked towards collectivist solutions which were unachievable in their own time, like the Diggers in England or the Conspiracy of Equals in France. The other set consists of our bourgeois equivalents - that is, those who actually carried the only revolutions possible at the time, which were, whatever their formal goals, to establish the dominance of capital. Clearly, our attitude to these groups is very different. But since one aspect of bourgeois revolutions is to establish the most successful system of exploitation ever seen, it is scarcely surprising that the people who carried them through should, like Cromwell, leave a complex and contradictory legacy.

Finally, we have to ask why so many Marxists are anxious to dismiss the bourgeois revolutions, these events which did so much to shape the contemporary world. There is probably no single answer to this question, but one appears to be an unwillingness to credit capitalism and, by extension, the bourgeoisie, with any positive contribution to human development. Understandable though this position is, given the horrors for which capitalism continues to be responsible, Marxists must nevertheless reject it. Without capitalism, we would have no possibility of developing the forces of production to the extent that will enable the whole of the world's population to enjoy what is currently denied most of them - a fully human life.

In fact, without capitalism there would be no 'us' - in the sense of a working class - to seriously consider accomplishing such a goal in the first place. What seems to me to be completely implausible is the view that if only capitalism had not come into existence we could all be living in a happy hobbit-land of free peasants and independent small producers. In fact, the world would probably have been divided between endlessly warring absolutist and tributary states without even the possibility of escape that capitalism provides.

I want, however, to end on a note which recognises the fact that the bourgeoisie, in the hour of their greatness, did more for the possibility of human liberation than simply provide the material basis for future socialist development. I think here of the universalism of Enlightenment thought at its best. In the context of my own country, the thinkers of the Scottish bourgeoisie were engaged in changing their world, not merely interpreting it - The Wealth of Nations is a programme for transforming Scottish society as much as it is a history of the world economy. But what Smith and his colleagues wanted - 'commercial society', in their terminology - was not the same as the capitalist society they eventually helped bring into being.

Lukács once wrote of the Enlightenment hope that 'democratic bourgeois freedom and the supremacy of economics would one day lead to the salvation of all mankind'. As we know only too well, it did not. I think that the more perceptive of the Scottish Enlightenment thinkers - Smith himself, Adam Ferguson, John Millar - were aware of this and that awareness is responsible for their studied ambiguity towards 'actually existing capitalism' as it emerged towards the end of the 18th century. To paraphrase William Morris, the thing that they fought for turned out to be not what they meant, and other people have since had to fight for what they meant under another name.

We in the movements against globalisation and imperialist war are those 'other people'. But what we fight for is not to accomplish outstanding 'goals of the bourgeois revolution' in the sense I have already rejected, but those universal principles of freedom and justice which the bourgeois revolutions brought onto the historical agenda but, for all their epochal significance, were unable to achieve.


The full version of Neil's lecture will be published in Historical Materialism during 2005, which will include a discussion on the origins of and transition to capitalism. Neil was awarded the Isaac Deutscher memorial prize for his book Discovering the Scottish Revolution, 1692-1746 (Pluto £19.99), available from Bookmarks.

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