Origins of the Bourgeois State

Lou Paulsen wwchi at
Thu Oct 26 22:55:59 MDT 2000

This debate around the Brenner thesis is utterly daunting.  (Or 'was', I
should say, since the Brenner debate has been formally closed since I began
this note :-)  )

My own notions are somewhat oblique to the axis along which the debate seems
to have been raging.  Everyone is arguing about the origins of 'capitalism'.
There was some side discussion about what it MEANS to be talking about this:
are we talking about the origin of commercial capitalism, the origin of
industrial capitalism, or the 'capitalist economy' defined as an economy in
which industrial capitalism predominates, or what?

I shall now proceed to antagonize everyone by suggesting that this isn't
necessarily the important question.  To me, the interesting question is the
origin of the bourgeois STATE.  A while ago I read an interesting volume on
the history of Italy which had a lot of interesting things to say about
class struggle in northern Italian cities in the period from, say, 1200 to
1500.  It seemed clear from what was being discussed that there were
governments of independent cities during the 14th and 15th centuries which
really have to be thought of as bourgeois governments.  They were bourgeois
in the sense that they were based on the power of the merchants and the
guilds, rather than on the feudal structure or on the rural landowning
nobility.  They did things like banishing the noble families from the
cities, and saying they couldn't serve on juries.  They were conducting a
conscious post-revolutionary class struggle to suppress the nobility.  This,
despite the fact that you didn't have industrial capitalism yet, much less
anything like a capitalist economy in the countryside.

The counterrevolution overwhelmed them all by 1500.  One problem that they
had was the matter of how to control their agricultural hinterlands.  When
they brought them within the boundaries of the city-states, they brought the
nobility in too.  Some of the nobility obtained rights of citizenship in the
cities, and proceeded to subvert, etc.  Ultimately they just crushed the
political power of the merchants and guilds.

According to a population map of Europe, Northern Italy was one of the most
densely populated areas of western Europe in 1500.  The other one was the
Netherlands.  The first surviving bourgeois state of western Europe was the
United Provinces (the rebellious northern half of the Spanish Netherlands).
For much of the 1600's they were in the vanguard of the bourgeois revolution
in Europe.  They invented the joint stock company and the stock exchange.
They were the most successful shippers, traders, and bankers of their time.
They achieved national survival during the 30 years' war.  They established
trading centers in North American and exploited Native American labor
through the fur trade.  They also occupied parts of Brazil for a time, and
acquired colonies in South America and the East and West Indies.  They were
unquestionably a bourgeois state, but industrial capitalism STILL hadn't
come into existence yet.   UNLESS, that is, you are willing to consider
shipping as an industry, and sailors as proletarians, which actually has a
lot of appeal to me.

It is not the least bit coincidental that when James II was dethroned by
Parliament in 1688, his replacement was the bourgeois-king William of Orange
(of the Netherlands).  Within 40 years, all the financial innovations of the
Netherlands had been imported to England, and capitalist power was firmly
established.  But was there industrial capitalism even yet?  I'm not at all

My point is that the most interesting and most important part of this
portion of world history is not so much the changing modes of land tenure in
England, France, or Spain, and, no, I don't believe that such changes drove
the engine of history forward.   I would argue that, in the epoch of the
bourgeois revolution in Europe, JUST AS in the epoch of the world socialist
revolution, it is the revolutions and the political struggles for power
which are the important milestones.  I don't believe that it's the case that
"capitalism" was originated and then later created "capitalist governments."
It's more the other way around.  First, there were the urban commercial
capitalists, traders, bankers, shippers, exploiters of the colonies, and
craftspeople.  Second, the capitalists obtained state power.  Third,
capitalist relations were adapted to all forms of productive activity,
including labor and land tenure.

(This does not exclude or conflict with slavery, btw, in my opinion.  I
believe the idea that the "slave system" was a more primitive "stage" than
"feudalism" is very difficult to defend on the basis of the historical
record. Most actual societies which have relied on slave labor for a
significant portion of production have been at the threshold of capitalism
or even beyond the threshold, and I include ancient Athens and Rome in this
calculation.  The precondition for large-scale slavery, in general terms, is
the ability to wage aggression/wars of conquest over long distances, and
this presupposes a high productive and technical capacity.)

(Of course once this process had started it forced monarchs to adapt, so in
some places capitalist relations made advances even in countries which did
yet not have fully capitalist government.  I'm thinking of France under
Louis XIV for instance.)

My justification for discussing this at all is that I think this all really
DOES have some bearing on the problems of today, in this sense:  I think
there are some general things that can be said about "global class
revolutions," which is to say that there are parallels between the struggle
of the bourgeoisie for power in Europe in the years 1250-1917 and the
struggle of the working class for power on a world scale in the years 1917-?
, and, hence, lessons to be learned about today's struggle for global
transformation by studying the previous one.

This also recasts some of the other questions about how western Europe
happened to become such a dangerously aggressive region.  The question has
been often raised by Eurocentric historians: why didn't China (Japan, India,
the Arab world, some other place) "develop industry", considering that in
terms of culture, technology, and commerce, they seem to have gotten about
to where England did.  The key question, however, might be: "why didn't they
have bourgeois revolutions?  Or how is it that the Netherlands, and then
England, actually did have them?"

I wonder if the contribution of Mexican and Bolivian gold and Antiguan sugar
may not only lie in their purely economic effects, but also, first, in that
they enriched bankers and merchants and thus gave them the wherewithal to
fight for political power (and later, in that they provided the capital
whereby the domestic economy could be transformed).  In the absence of
special circumstances, bourgeois revolutions seem to have been as hard to
accomplish as proletarian revolutions are today.

Lou Paulsen

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