The revolutionary bourgeoisie
On the great social transformations that made our world.
At the start of his magisterial How Revolutionary Were the Bourgeois Revolutions?, Neil Davidson peers a little more deeply into what is now the abiding image (pictured above) of the French Revolution, albeit its second act: the overthrow of the restored Bourbon monarchy in July 1830.
At first glance, of course, it is the Romanticism of Eugène Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People that strikes the viewer, with the revolution’s great cause transfigured as the Roman goddess, Libertas (she was later to become the symbol of the French Republic, Marianne). In Liberty, Delacroix captures that immense sense of political progress, of emancipation, of freedom so typical of the revolutions we now associate with the bourgeoisie’s coming to power against the forces of feudalism and later absolutism. But who is she leading? Or rather, who is fighting on her behalf? And that’s where the painting’s meaning become ambiguous, because aside from the top-hatted and cravated man to her left, the heroes of the revolution are unmistakably plebeian. They are not bourgeois. The cause of liberty has become theirs, not the bourgeoisie’s. At the moment of its greatness, then, writes Davidson, the bourgeoisie is already retreating from view.
Why was this? Why, as Davidson puts it, was the bourgeoisie so ‘ambivalent toward the revolutions that bear its name’? What role did the people, in their various guises, play? And how radical, in both a social and political sense, were these revolutions? Davidson, a lecturer in the school of political and social science at the University of Glasgow, spoke to the spiked review on these questions and more. His thoughts are recorded below.
On the concept of bourgeois revolution
The French socialist, Louis Blanc, came up with the concept of bourgeois revolution in 1839, but it was Marx and Engels who properly theorised it. In short, it is a political and social process that creates a state conducive to capital accumulation. That’s why it’s ‘bourgeois’ – it’s establishing the conditions for capitalism to develop, unimpeded by any pre-capitalist forms, particularly state forms: feudal, absolutist, tributary states, and so on.
The reason why the concept is important is partly historical. Many critics of the concept, particularly the ‘revisionist’ historians of the English and French revolutions, deny that they have anything to do with capitalism. It’s a critique that is shared by some people on the left, particularly political Marxists in the Robert Brenner tradition. So the concept is important, purely as a matter of historical record, to establish when capitalism came into existence, and how it did so through these historical upheavals.
I also think it’s important to certain debates on the left about past popular movements, especially those we seek to relate to as our ancestors. Some argue that for bourgeois revolutions to be considered part of some left-wing tradition, they really have to be driven from below, by the popular masses. And I don’t see that as a valid argument, because it leads to the claim that if a society hasn’t had that type of popular upheaval, then it hasn’t had a ‘real’ bourgeois revolution. And if so, that means certain socio-political ‘tasks’ still need to be carried out. Which I think is politically dangerous, because it means calling for outcomes appropriate for an era before mass working-class movements to be carried out in a contemporary setting.
And finally, it’s important in terms of contemporary politics. I take the view that the Stalinist regimes weren’t communist or socialist, but were in fact the contemporary equivalents of the bourgeois revolutions. This certainly affects how one views 20th-century Communism.
On the English Revolution
It was the second bourgeois revolution, after the Dutch Revolt (1567-1648). Interestingly, the English Revolution (1640-1660) takes place in a setting where capitalism is quite well developed, as it was also in the Netherlands. The absolutist state form was the problem, the last obstacle to unimpeded capitalism.
Yet you also have this intense radicalisation during the Civil War period of the 1640s, with, first, the Levellers and then, much more radically, the Diggers. (Although it is important to point out that the Diggers were a very small group. The Levellers had tens of thousands of members; the Diggers had about 300.) It was clearly a central event in the 17th century, although I don’t think England’s bourgeois revolution was really consolidated until 1688 and the Glorious Revolution, albeit on a fairly conservative basis.
Once you think not just of England, but of Britain, too, the bourgeois revolution is only really resolved in the middle of the 18th century, when Scottish feudalism is finally destroyed after the defeat of the Jacobite rebellion of 1745-46. That’s quite late on. But until the situation in Scotland was resolved, England wasn’t safe, for example, from a French invasion, and therefore from the rolling back of some of the gains that had been made. So I date the safety of capitalism as a system from the middle of the 18th century. The Jacobite Revolt and British victory in the Seven Years’ War are the events that consolidate the bourgeois revolution in Britain. And the English Revolution was the most radical moment in that revolutionary process.
On James Harrington’s revolutionary idea
Although Francis Bacon (1561-1626) had some intimations, it’s the political philosopher and republican James Harrington (1611-1677) who is the first to really conceive of revolution as a transformative process, rather than simply a cyclical one. The concept of the cycle of the constitutions, from monarchy, aristocracy, democracy through to oligarchy, which persisted in political thought, from Aristotle all the way to Machiavelli, conceived of revolutions as an entirely circular process that eventually returns to the initial regime. Harrington broke decisively with that view. He didn’t see revolutions as just a new set of political actors playing the same age-old roles. He recognised that there were new classes coming into existence in England, and that’s why you had this revolutionary situation. It wasn’t just because there was opposition between the king and the nobles or the gentry; it was also because the gentry were reconstituting themselves on a different economic basis. This was a tremendously radical thing to have understood.
Locke takes a step back from that. He presents 1688 as a cyclical moment, a return to a starting point. And I think it’s a deliberately conservative ideological move, as is the rubbishing of Harrington by most of the people who followed Locke, precisely because they saw Harrington’s views as being dangerous in the wrong hands.
Harrington is, then, the first thinker of social revolution – that a revolution is a socially transformative rather than cyclical process. This idea is only really picked up and developed during the 18th century in Scotland – by John Millar, Sir James Steuart and, to a certain extent, David Hume. It’s then further developed by French thinkers like Antoine Barnarve in the run-up to, and during, the French Revolution.
There were far fewer thinkers willing to take on this idea of transformation than you might think. It’s not until 1815 that it really starts to be developed and taken seriously, often with very little reference to Harrington.
On the French Revolution
The French Revolution is the one in which all the elements of the bourgeois revolution come together. In particular it features mass, popular involvement, which, of course, is why many people rightly think of it as so important.
Although there obviously was a popular element to the English Revolution, particularly with the Levellers and the army, in the French Revolution it is far more accentuated and radicalised beyond the objectives of the bourgeoisie. This is why the most interesting thinkers who thought about the French Revolution as a social revolution (Barnave, Condorcet and so on) are actually on the right of the French revolutionary movement. They see how far the revolution is going beyond the limits of what they want, but at the same time, they recognise that if the Jacobins, the Enrages and so on had not pushed so far, the revolution would have been lost.
It’s a paradox that Marx and Engels later pick up – that, in a sense, the revolutionary movement has got to look beyond bourgeois goals in order to preserve the state the bourgeois want, which is why, in France, the revolution starts to wind down with Thermidor, as the bourgeois try to regain control of the situation. And, like Oliver Cromwell in England, Napoleon plays the role of the consolidator, pushing the revolution back, but also pushing it outwards, into the rest of Europe, much as Cromwell pushed the English Revolution back and outwards, into Ireland and Scotland.
So, in the French Revolution, there is this mass, popular explosion, an intense, increasing radicalisation, which in some sense is where the idea of permanent revolution comes from. And then, from the top down, consolidation, which pushes the revolution back and outwards, to other countries on the basis of arms, and the imposition of the French legal code. It was a colossal event. Everyone at the time understood this, including reactionaries and conservatives. The world wouldn’t go back to being what it was. Even those who were terrified by the French Revolution had to adapt to the world it had made.
It is interesting that with the collapse of Napoleon and the Bourbon restoration in 1815, the liberal historians of the era – Francois Guizot and so on – actually drew parallels between the French and English revolutions, in order to say to English critics: ‘You’ve been through the same process.’ Of all the bourgeois revolutions these were the two that were the most similar, which is odd given you think of the Perry Anderson-Tom Nairn thesis, in which England is portrayed as a provincial backwater compared to France. In fact, the English Revolution is the one that is closest in formal terms to the French Revolution.
On the people
It’s notable that in response to Harrington’s calls for liberty to be granted to ‘the people’ during the English Revolution, then republican Henry Stubbe countered, ‘It is necessary to know who the people are’. Stubbe’s comment was well aimed, because ‘the people’ is an incredibly mutable concept – it can be stretched or narrowed depending on who you want to include, particularly in terms of the vote. Of course, in England the concept of the people, and who ought to vote, was always very narrow. It wasn’t really expanded during the revolution, when the people, and voters, were limited to those who owned property. Even the Levellers, who were the most democratic section of the English revolutionaries, didn’t want to extend the vote to wage labourers, because they were concerned wage labourers were too in thrall to their masters. Hence they only wanted to allow the vote to those who were their own masters, who were independent producers, small farmers and so on. So even a group as radical as the Levellers narrowed ‘the people’ down to those who had property.
In France, the idea of the people was much more expansive, and tied into notions of nationhood. One French aristocrat famously said the French nation consisted of 10,000 noble families, and everyone else was outside the nation. The French revolutionaries responded by saying that the nation is the mass of the people, and that includes almost everybody, except for counter-revolutionaries. So ‘the people’ was defined much more politically during the French Revolution. It was no longer just about property; it was now about who supports the revolution, which was identified with the national interest. And outside the people, the nation, are the counterrevolutionaries: the peasants who revolted against the revolutionary regime, avowed monarchists, and so on. So this idea of the people is bringing in modern notions of who belongs to the nation. These ideas had started to emerge during the American Revolution, but it is in France that they achieve their first proper formulation.
On the bourgeoisie’s retreat from revolution
There are three things that are involved here. First, as capitalism begins to spread, even into countries that are still formally absolutist monarchies, such as Prussia, it becomes possible for the bourgeoisie to enjoy more economic freedom, so that diminishes its revolutionary zeal as a class.
Second, the experience of the French Revolution terrified members of the bourgeoisie. They witnessed the Terror, and had no desire to unleash the kind of forces that might result in something similar happening again. That doesn’t mean they turned their backs entirely on social transformation – in 1848, for example, there were revolutions across Europe in which the bourgeoisie played significant roles. But it is clear that during the 19th century, the kind of attitudes once expressed by Robespierre and Cromwell are much more moderated. It is as if the bourgeoisie is not prepared to take the kind of action necessary to overthrow pre-capitalist regimes, because they’re terrified of what it might stir up from below.
And third, it’s not just radicalism that worries the bourgeoisie. They’re also concerned about reaction from below. Remember the experience of Spain in 1808-09, or Naples in the 1790s, when peasants, and the lumpenproletariat in some of the cities, actually side with the church and king against the bourgeoisie and the liberals. So, the bourgeoisie is caught between two fears: a fear of the radicalism of the masses, and a fear of the reaction of the masses. It don’t trust them in either sense, so this really confines the bourgeois sphere of action, and leads, as it did in Germany in 1848, to an inability to push the revolution through to its necessary conclusion – for which Marx, of course, lambasts them.
On Marx and Engels and the revolutionary bourgeoisie
Almost no radical in the early to mid-19th century thought there had been a social revolution of any sort at any point in history, including the French Revolution. So if you read Bronterre O’Brien (1805-1864) in Britain, or Alexander Herzen (1812-1870) in Russia, or Giuseppe Mazzini (1805-1872) in Italy, they all argue that the social revolution is still to come, and it will be socialist. (Thomas Paine is quite unusual on the left in thinking that the French Revolution was an absolutely different, socially transformative kind of event.) So Marx and Engels start off from this position. They were theorising the social revolution as a socialist revolution, one which would sweep away classes and the state and so on.
They then started to work their revolutionary theory backwards in time, and thought that if the working class has to come to power through a socialist revolution, surely the bourgeoisie has had to do this, too. So they retro-fitted a concept of revolution to the upheavals in the Netherlands, in England, in France, and so on. It can’t be the same kind of revolution as the one to come, because the bourgeoisie is a minority class, which has to rely on the forces below it to achieve its goals.
Marx and Engels face a practical problem, because bourgeois revolution is still to happen in Germany. A lot of Marx’s attacks on the cowardice and feebleness of the German bourgeoisie is an attempt to galvanise it into doing something comparable to their French predecessors. But the bourgeoisie’s fear of the masses after the French Revolution makes a full-blown social revolution an unappetising prospect. So Marx, at this point, in 1848-49, comes to the point of saying that it looks like the working class is going to have to do a revolution for the bourgeoisie, because they’re too socially cowardly to do it themselves. And this of course results in the first formulation of the idea of permanent revolution in Marx’s address to the Communist League of 1850, where he says that we can’t rely on either the bourgeoisie or the petty bourgeoisie, or that amorphous group, the democracy, to carry out a revolution – it has to be the working class.
But the working class was much too small to carry out a revolution, so Marx drops the idea of permanent revolution, as does Engels, in the early 1850s. From this point on, a lot of their work becomes quite coded, particularly Engels’ book on the German peasant revolt of 1525, in which he writes of the problems of a class coming to power if it’s not ready for it, because the level of development is only compatible with the rule of another class – by which he means the bourgeoisie. So after a period of revolutionary optimism in 1848-49, Marx and Engels begin to understand that it is going to be a longer process of capitalism establishing itself before the working classes would be in a position to take power.
What they hadn’t expected was that there would be sections of the old ruling class who would actually push through the revolutions in Germany, Italy and Japan in the 1860s in particular. Engels is the first person to recognise this in relation to Germany, where he makes a strong argument for Bismarck being a revolutionary force for the bourgeois regime masquerading as a force for the German Empire.
On the abdication of the bourgeoisie
The bourgeoisie do gradually get political power, but, as actual capitalists, they have a problem. Because while the capitalists are united against the working class, they’re famously divided among themselves. Adam Smith makes this point very early on, when he says that the last people you want to run a state are capitalists, or merchants and so on, because they only think about their own particular interests. They don’t think about the greater interests of the system or of society as a whole. So you have to have someone running the state who’s actually capable of adopting the general perspective, which in Europe – even in Britain – was a role that fell to the old aristocracy. As Joseph Schumpeter says, ‘The bourgeoisie needs a master’. And this, I think, is what he has in mind: some section of the old ruling class has to rule because they can at least take a kind of overview of what’s necessary for the system, in a way that capitalists can’t do. Much later on, social democratic parties and professional civil servants take on this role of running the system according to the broader interests of capital.
This problem of a ruling class that can’t rule has long been recognised. Capitalists, as a class, then, have been quite happy for others to govern, as long as they do so in their interests. Obviously the bourgeoisie is more than just capitalists, consisting at the centre of a hardcore of economic capitalists – landowners, industrialists, bankers – and an ideological core – journalists, clergymen, sections of the military and the civil service – which belong to the same class, but aren’t directly involved in economic activity. And it’s usually this latter section, which, firstly, is involved in the political activity of the bourgeois revolutions, and, secondly, actually run the system when it isn’t run by sections of the old ruling class.
Think of the 1847 Factory Act in Britain, which Marx writes about in Capital. The British parliament doesn’t consist of the greatest collection of geniuses on the planet, Marx notes, but its members are more intelligent than the actual factory owners who wanted to carry on working people to death in appalling conditions. That is clearly not in the interests of the system that sustains the factory owners. So parliament had to make a decision against the interests of the factory owners in order to do something to help the system as a whole. That’s a good example of the way in which the people running British capitalism have to be able to distinguish between the interests of the whole and the interests of actual, individual capitalists – in this case, factory owners. And that is generally true of all Europe, certainly by the 1870s, 1880s. Even in Germany, where, by this point, Bismarck, along with the Prussian junkers, effectively run the state in the interests of the capitalist system.
Marx and Engels on the bourgeoisie and political progress
They tended to see liberal values – free speech and so on – as values that could be picked up by the working-class movement. These were things that were valuable in themselves, and that the workers should fight for, not least because the bourgeoisie itself wouldn’t fight for them. The bourgeoisie kept mouthing these slogans about rights and democracy, attempting to mobilise people behind these principles, but they had no intention of actually extending them to those they were mobilising. So the target here was bourgeois hypocrisy, which at points in Marx’s work can topple into what sounds like a denunciation of liberal values as irrelevant or meaningless. He is not really saying that, of course. He’s attacking the way in which the bourgeoisie mouths liberal ideals as slogans with no intention of actually realising them.
Marx argues that a lot of the freedoms the bourgeoisie claims for itself – liberty, democracy and rights and so on – can only be realised through a socialist revolution. So Marx’s position is double-edged. When reading him, you have to be clear about his targets. He’s not arguing against democracy, for example, especially given what he said about the Paris Commune and the importance of direct democracy; he’s arguing against those who espouse democracy while betraying it in practice.
Bourgeois revolutions in the 20th century
If you think of a bourgeois revolution as a process that establishes a capitalist state and the conditions for the accumulation of capital, then, clearly, by the end of the 19th century, most states in the world hadn’t achieved that.
The most revolutionary decade or so in world history is between 1859 and 1871, which included revolutions in Italy, Germany, Japan, Canada; stirrings in Latin America; and the American Civil War – which is possibly the only bourgeois revolution in which the actual industrial bourgeoisie is leading the revolutionary side, which makes it quite unique in many ways. That all happens in an incredibly compressed period of time, so there is clearly something significant happening in which the capitalist state form is consolidating itself.
But in what was the colonial or semi-colonial world, and throughout large swathes of Eastern Europe, you hadn’t had anything approaching a bourgeois revolution during the 19th century. The Turkish Revolution, for example, doesn’t happen until in and around the First World War, and that took the form that was to become quite typical in the Third World, with the military, through the Young Turks, installing the new regime.
The struggles against imperialism and colonialism constitute the main form of bourgeois revolution in the 20th century. The irony being that in a lot of these cases, the leaderships were posturing as Marxists and communists and so on, but in reality were often radical nationalists, wanting to industrialise their nations, expel foreign imperialists, and carry out these essentially bourgeois tasks. The key here is what Stalin did in Russia, after 1928, with the Five Year Plans and ‘revolution from above’ more generally, which becomes the model for these revolutions. So in effect, the Stalinist model of industrialisation and national liberation is picked up, and presented as communism.
Logically, if we can accept that the Japanese Samurai or the Italian or German landed classes could carry out bourgeois revolutions, then there’s no reason why the middle-class intellectuals that belong to Stalinist organisations can’t also carry out bourgeois revolutions. You just have to have a clear idea of what is socialist and what isn’t. On that note, a monstrous state bureaucracy determining socio-economic life isn’t my vision of socialism. Rather, it is a form of state capitalism. Take the Chinese case. The way in which China has managed to move from state capitalism to something closer to the private, multinational model of neoliberal capitalism indicates the trajectory they were on from the beginning.
Of course, there other forms of revolution that could have taken place during the 20th century. In China in the 1920s, you certainly had glimmers of something different, and again in what became North Vietnam at the end of the Second World War. In both those countries, you had large working-class movements. But they were all suppressed. And so the form of the revolutions which did take place was different, involving, by and large, militarised ex-peasants, being led by middle-class intellectuals – with the working class nowhere to be seen. This is one of the jokes of these supposedly socialist revolutions – they refute Marx by discarding the working class as the agent of socialist revolution. So, given the non-working-class form of the 20th-century revolutions, above all their lack of democracy, it is not a surprise that the results look very different from what you might have expected of a socialist revolution.
The state-capitalist form ceases to be a model of development by the late 1970s, and from this point on the anti-colonial revolutions, and those in the global South more generally, move towards the emerging neoliberal model – Nicaragua, Iran, Zimbabwe. This tendency is unsurprisingly strongest in those completed after the fall of Stalinism, such as in South Africa.
On the radicalism of the bourgeois revolutions
It’s important to remember, of course, that most of the great democratic achievements are the achievements of the working class, and the oppressed, not the bourgeoisie. That’s why it is not the case that democracy went hand in hand with the bourgeois revolutions. It was very, very restricted. Democracy is really something that happens much later, and we shouldn’t let the bourgeoisie take the credit for it, especially when it’s been the struggle of the majority, well into the 20th century, which has often achieved democracy in most places.
But the bourgeois revolutions are radical in the sense that they introduce a completely new mode of production, which is capitalism. And that is a startling new development in world history, because it is different from all other modes in terms of transformative potential – although genuine socialism will obviously be more radical still.
Then there’s the actual political radicalism within bourgeois revolutions, from which we can draw sustenance now, in terms of mass participation and democratisation and so on. There is no doubt, then, that there are radical episodes in bourgeois revolutions, but those belong mostly to the earlier cases – the Netherlands, England, France.
So what is genuinely transferrable from those earlier revolutions to present-day contexts, in terms, say, of democracy? First, it is important not to create ‘the people’s story’, where – in an English context — one goes back from the Suffragettes to the Chartists to the Levellers, the Peasant Revolt of 1381, Magna Carta, or whatever. I really oppose that type of storytelling. Rather, you’ve got to try to separate out what are the radical, bourgeois and petit-bourgeois movements, and what are the genuine forerunners of the communist movements, say the Diggers or the Conspiracy of the Equals. And that is a task of historical excavation, and of making distinctions, rather than just collapsing it all into a roll-call of the great radical moments of the past.
Neil Davidson is a lecturer in sociology at the University of Glasgow. He is the author of several books, including Discovering the Scottish Revolution, 1692-1746 (2003); and How Revolutionary Were the Bourgeois Revolutions?, (2012).
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