Marx and Engels on bourgeois revolution

Richard Fidler rfidler at
Mon Apr 1 14:31:24 MST 2002

Like Anthony, I was puzzled by the recent exchanges between Edward George
and Louis Proyect (Marx on Jacobins, and Marx and Antihumanism). Inspired by
Anthony's critique of same, here are a few notes and comments based largely
on what Marx and Engels actually wrote on the matter.

Both Ed and Lou seem to agree that, as Ed puts it, "there is not in Marx a
systematic treatment of the phenomenon" of bourgeois revolution. But perhaps
instead of looking for a "systematic treatment" we should try to understand
the _evolution_ in the thinking of Marx (and Engels) on this matter. Here, I
would recommend, for a useful overview and detailed description, volume 2 of
Hal Draper's "Karl Marx's Theory of Revolution", in particular chapters 7
(The Bourgeoisie and Bourgeois Revolution) and 10 (Bourgeois and Proletarian
Revolution: Balance Sheet).

Draper, by the way, makes an important point on terminology at the outset:
"Marx usually used bourgeoisie and capitalist class interchangeably, without
a definite distinction. It would be useful to make a terminological
demarcation, with capitalist narrowly reserved for the strictly economic
relationship of exploitation, and bourgeois for the broader and more varied
social relationships that cluster around the capitalist class. In this sense
the bourgeoisie would be viewed as a social penumbra around the hard core of
capitalists proper, shading out into the diverse social elements who
function as servitors or hangers-on of capital without themselves owning
capital. I suggest this distinction not because it was followed by Marx but
to alert the reader to the need for interpreting different cases from their
context. -- Marx often used middle class for bourgeoisie...."

Ellen Meiksins Wood, in her extended critique of the Nairn-Anderson thesis,
The Pristine Culture of Capitalism (Verso, 1991) makes much the same point,
as I understand her.

I think Anthony has adequately explained how the failure to see this
distinction impacts on much of what Ed writes about the so-called "classic"
Marxist model.

On the evolution of Marx's view, Draper notes that "Marx, along with many
other revolutionaries of the day, started out in 1843 with a rejection of
the bourgeoisie's revolutionary potentiality." (p. 170) This view was
amended somewhat during the 1840s but was essentially reaffirmed in the wake
of the 1848 Revolution. The most extravagant praises of the bourgeoisie as a
revolutionary class are found in the Communist Manifesto, published during
this interim period, on the very eve of that revolution. And even the
Manifesto, as Ed notes, is quite circumspect on the role of the German
bourgeoisie: The Communists, it says, "fight with the bourgeoisie whenever
it acts in a revolutionary way".

In analyzing why the bourgeoisie did not do its "damned duty" in 1848
(Engels), Draper argues that "the most basic consideration is that Marx and
Engels found they were wrong in their original belief that the direct
capture of state power was the only road for the bourgeoisie to the
modernization and industrialization of the economy." The alternative was
alliance with other, more conservative class forces (as with sections of the
nobility in the French revolution, or even the Crown in England) or
Bonapartism, revolution from above - as opposed to revolution from below in
association with the Democracy. In fact it was fear of the latter that drove
the bourgeoisie to the right.

(On the term "the Democracy", Draper writes in part: "'The Democracy' was
not the label of a set of ideas, but of a movement of the people, of the
broad masses (in whatever sense, including vague ones). In fact, _the
Democracy_, as used by the left in the nineteenth century, was very like
another vague term popular in the twentieth, _the Masses_. A Democrat
(capitalized or not) was one of the supporters of or participants in this
movement, whatever their views on democracy in today's sense. The Democracy
often appeared as a capitalized noun, especially in the Chartist press, but
there was no consistency, and we may expect that one meaning shades into the
other, depending on context.")

Draper's analysis of the political conclusions Marx and Engels drew from
this experience focuses on the development of and evolution in what he terms
their scenario of "permanent revolution". The "original scenario" had the
bourgeoisie making an alliance with the Democracy to overthrow the old
ruling classes. Then, at the end of 1848, Marx shifted his thinking: while
still hoping that a relatively progressive section of the bourgeoisie would
go along with a regime based on this broad bloc of classes, as a lesser evil
to absolutist counterrevolution, he moved quickly toward a second scenario:
"since the bourgeoisie refuses to take political power, the Democracy must
strive to capture political power directly for itself." (Draper, p. 238) The
perspective, however, is still one of accelerating "bourgeois" (i.e.
capitalist) economic development (modernization and industrialization) "to
the point where the next stage - proletarian power - goes onto the order of
the day.

"The bourgeois-democratic stage is to be telescoped under a political power
which is not that of the bourgeoisie itself. (Looking ahead, we can see an
analogy: under Bonapartism the bourgeois stage is also going to be carried
out under a political power which is not that of the bourgeoisie itself)."

By April 1848, however, Marx "no longer believed that the leading elements
of the Democracy could make a revolution any more than could the bourgeoisie
proper.... Marx set down a new thesis: direct counterposition of
_proletarian_ revolution to absolutism." (Draper, p. 247)

In the second paragraph of Wage Labour and Capital, Marx writes:

"The June struggle in Paris, the fall of  Vienna, the tragicomedy of
Berlin's November 1848, the desperate exertions of Poland, Italy and
Hungary, the starving of Ireland into submission --- these were the chief
factors which characterized the European class struggle between bourgeoisie
and working class and by means of which we proved that every revolutionary
upheaval, however remote from the class struggle its goal may appear to be,
must fail until the revolutionary working class is victorious, that every
social reform remains a utopia until the proletarian revolution and the
feudalistic counterrevolution measure swords in a _world war_."

By "world war" Marx meant essentially a European-wide war, analogous with
Napoleon's wars. In The Holy Family (1844), Marx had written that Napoleon
"executed the Terror by substituting permanent war for permanent
revolution", the latter phrase referring to the French revolution as a
whole. Draper writes: "The historical significance of the Napoleonic wars
was that they spread the bourgeois revolution to other parts of Europe, that
is, they made the revolution 'permanent' (ongoing) on an international scale
even while limiting the revolution at home."

(This, BTW, addresses Ed's concern that "far from inaugurating the
undisputed triumph of the  bourgeoisie and the capitalist mode of
production, what ensued in France was  a backward and inefficient economic
structure based on small-scale  proprietary holdings, internationally
laggard and unable to keep up with  those countries which did indeed
experience surging growth of large-scale  capitalist industry over the
course of the nineteenth century, for example  Germany and Britain...." That
is, while the revolution in France was defeated, it did indirectly give a
mighty boost to revolution elsewhere. This international dimension, too, was
an essential element in Marx's developing concept of permanent revolution.)

In Chapter 10 of this volume, Draper draws the "balance sheet" on how Marx
and Engels viewed "bourgeois and proletarian revolution". He notes that in
the immediate post-1848 period, Marx wrote three major works, all permeated
with their ultimate view of permanent revolution: The Class Struggles in
France 1848-1850, Revolution and Counterrevolution in Germany, and the
Address of the Central Committee to the Communist League of March 1850. The
last of these contains the most systematic and generalized summing up of the
lessons of 1848-49. A key theme is the need for the independence of the
proletariat and its party, so as "not to be exploited and taken in tow again
by the bourgeoisie as in 1848". Marx also projects that the coming
revolution will go through a phase in which the petty-bourgeois Democracy
will temporarily grasp the ascendancy as the revolution shifts leftward. It
is worth citing Draper at some length on this:

"The most striking element in the Address is a new realization about this
perspective. It concerns the view taken of the petty-bourgeois Democracy
(now calling itself the Social-Democracy). During the revolution Marx had
slowly and quite reluctantly come to the conclusion that this Democracy was
impotent as a friend of the revolution. Now the experience of the period has
convinced him of a more far-reaching proposition: when this petty-bourgeois
Democracy comes to power, it will not merely be a feeble friend --- it will
be the most dangerous enemy of the social revolution.

"The Address recalls that in 1848 it was the liberal bourgeoisie that unmade
the revolution -

'And the role, this so treacherous role which the German liberal bourgeois
played in 1848 against the people, will in the impending revolution be taken
over by the Democratic petty-bourgeois, who at present occupy the same
position in the opposition as the liberal bourgeois before 1848. This party,
the Democratic party, which is far more dangerous to the workers than the
previous liberal one, consists of three elements . . .' [Marx]

"These three elements [Draper continues] include 'the most advanced sections
of the big bourgeoisie' which still want to overthrow absolutism, as well as
the various (left or right) elements of the petty-bourgeoisie. These
coalesced elements, which now 'call themselves Republicans or Reds, just as
the republican petty-bourgeois in France now call themselves socialists,'
are, in phrases if not in deeds, united against the main body of the

"Marx makes clear that 'the petty-bourgeois Democratic party' is
petty-bourgeois as defined by its politics, but that its class composition
is naturally much more heterogeneous, including other social strata that
subordinate themselves to the petty-bourgeois character of the movement.
'The petty-bourgeois Democratic party in Germany is very powerful; it
comprises not only the great majority of the bourgeois inhabitants of the
towns, the small people in industry and trade and the guild masters; it
numbers among its followers also the peasants and the rural proletariat,
insofar as the latter has not yet found a support in the independent urban
proletariat.' [Marx]

"What defines this coalition as petty-bourgeois, scientifically speaking, is
the way in which the boundaries of its political program coincide with the
boundaries of the social interests and outlook of the petty-bourgeoisie as a
class, its demands being oriented toward 'a change in social conditions by
means of which existing society will he made as tolerable and comfortable as
possible for them.'...

"The central question of revolutionary strategy that the Address works out
is this: how to prepare the independent working-class forces, before as well
as during the expected ascendancy of the petty-bourgeois Democracy, for the
critical showdown with this final enemy of the revolution. The Address
sought to spell out a battle plan against the expected enemy; or, as Marx
wrote a year later, it was 'a plan of war against the Democracy.'

"The Address advises:

'The relation of the revolutionary workers' party to the petty-bourgeois
Democracy is this: it marches together with the latter against the camp
which it aims at overthrowing [bourgeoisie-cum-absolutism] ; it opposes the
Democrats in everything whereby they seek to consolidate their position in
their own interests.' [Marx]

"But, warns Marx, the proletarian camp must not limit itself to the
political terrain of the Democracy.

'[The demands of the Democracy] can in no wise suffice for the party of the
proletariat. While the Democratic petty-bourgeois wish to bring the
revolution to a conclusion as quickly as possible, and with the achievement,
at most, of the above demands, it is our interest and our task to make the
revolution permanent, until . . .' [Marx]

"'Permanent until' introduces the equivalent of a definition:

'. . . until all more or less possessing classes have been forced out of
their position of dominance, until the proletariat has conquered state
power, and the association of proletarians, not only in one country but in
all the dominant countries of the world, has advanced so far that
competition among the proletarians of these countries has ceased and that at
least the decisive productive forces are concentrated in the hands of the
proletarians.' [Marx]

"This passage [Draper concludes] can be taken as a classic statement of
Marx's developed view of the permanent revolution, including its
international component." (pp. 261-63)

And Draper adds:  "It was primarily on the experience of the 1848-1849
revolutionary period that Marx founded a view that henceforth was to be a
basic component of his theory of revolution. This was his view of the
incapacity of the latter-day bourgeoisie to emulate the English of the
seventeenth century and the French and American bourgeoisies of the
eighteenth century by making its own revolution, the bourgeois-democratic
revolution against absolutism." (p. 266)

The relevance of the above to the debate on the nature of the coming Russian
revolution in early 20th century Russia should be obvious to most
subscribers to this list. In this regard, Lenin's formula of the democratic
dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry and Trotsky's theory of
permanent revolution (a phrase he borrowed from Marx) were not inconsistent
with this analysis of class forces. While Lenin's formula was algebraic,
leaving the actual degree to which the proletariat could proceed to
implement its program an open question dependent above all on the degree of
development of the European socialist revolution, Trotsky's thesis was no
less algebraic and probably less useful in that, while it focused on the
potential for the socialist development of the Russian revolution, it paid
insufficient attention to the immediate task of forging an alliance of the
plebeian democracy, and in particular to the agrarian question.

Anthony cited the critique of Guizot's analysis by both Marx and Engels as
evidence that both men shared a common assessment, at least in 1850, of the
British and French revolutions. The Guizot critique, BTW, effectively
addresses Lou's claim (March 23) that "Marx's [overall understanding of the
transition from feudalism to capitalism] accepts the premise of a
revolutionary bourgeoisie in terms borrowed lock, stock and barrel from
bourgeois ideologists like Francois Guizot."

But did Engels (as Ed argued) later shift toward an account of the "classic"
bourgeois revolutions that "anticipates to a great degree the outlines of
the 'schema'" of an independent revolutionary bourgeoisie that willingly
fights for ascendancy over the feudal aristocracy? To say the least, Ed's
evidence is not compelling: an 1886 essay on Ludwig Feuerbach that seems to
compare the English revolution unfavourably with France's. I confess it is
not clear to me how Ed sees this text as contributing to the "classic"
thesis he attributes to Stalinist historians and fellow-travellers.

A clearer indication of Engels's final view on the English and French
revolutions is a text he wrote six years later, the "Special Introduction to
the English Edition of 1892" of Socialism: Utopian and Scientific. Here we
find a comparison of the English and French revolutions that emphasizes
their differences while also analyzing what both revolutions, each in their
own way, illustrated of the limitations of the bourgeoisie (broadly defined)
as a revolutionary class. Thus, "... had it not been for that [British]
yeomanry and for the _plebian_ element in the towns, the bourgeoisie alone
would never have fought the matter out to the bitter end, and would never
have brought Charles I to the scaffold. In order to secure even those
conquests of the bourgeoisie that were ripe for gathering at the time, the
revolution had to be carried considerably further - exactly as in 1793 in
France and 1848 in Germany. This seems, in fact, to be one of the laws of
evolution of bourgeois society."

Engels goes on to note that in England this "excess of revolutionary
activity" was followed by "the inevitable reaction":

"The new starting-point was a compromise between the rising middle-class and
the ex-feudal landowners. The latter, though called, as now, the
aristocracy, had been long since on the way which led them to become what
Louis Philippe in France became at a much later period, 'the first bourgeois
of the kingdom.' Fortunately for England, the old feudal barons had killed
one another during the Wars of the Roses. Their successors, though mostly
scions of the old families, had been so much out of the direct line of
descent that they constituted quite a new body, with habits and tendencies
far more bourgeois than feudal. They fully understood the value of money,
and at once began to increase their rents by turning hundreds of small
farmers out and replacing them by sheep. Henry VIII, while squandering the
Church lands, created fresh bourgeois landlords by wholesale; the
innumerable confiscations of estates, regranted to absolute or relative
upstarts, and continued during the whole of the seventeenth century, had the
same result. Consequently, ever since Henry VII, the English 'aristocracy,'
far from counteracting the development of industrial production, had, on the
contrary, sought to indirectly profit thereby; and there had always been a
section of the great landowners willing, from economical or political
reasons, to co-operate with the leading men of the financial and industrial
bourgeoisie. The compromise of 1689 was, therefore, easily accomplished. The
political spoils of 'pelf and place' were left to the great landowning
families, provided the economic interests of the financial, manufacturing
and commercial middleclass were sufficiently attended to. And these economic
interests were at that time powerful enough to determine the general policy
of the nation. There might be squabbles about matters of detail, but, on the
whole, the aristocratic oligarchy knew too well that its own economic
prosperity was irretrievably bound up with that of the industrial and
commercial middle-class.

"From that time, the bourgeoisie was a humble, but still a recognized
component of the ruling classes of England. With the rest of them, it had a
common interest in keeping in subjection the great working mass of the
nation. ..."

The French revolution, Engels notes, was the first to be fought out to the
destruction of the aristocracy and the complete triumph of the bourgeoisie.
Even then, this "triumph" was not the sole work of the bourgeoisie itself.
As Engels puts it in Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, "The 'have-nothing'
masses of Paris, during the Reign of Terror, were able for a moment to gain
the mastery, and thus to lead the bourgeois revolution to victory in spite
of the bourgeoisie themselves." But back to the "special introduction" of

"In England the continuity of pre-revolutionary and post-revolutionary
institutions, and the compromise between landlords and capitalists, found
its expression in the continuity of judicial precedents and in the religious
preservation of the feudal forms of the law. In France the Revolution
constituted a complete breach with the traditions of the past; it cleared
out the very last vestiges of feudalism, and created in the Code Civil a
masterly adaptation of the old Roman law--- that almost perfect expression
of the juridical relations corresponding to the economic stage called by
Marx the production of commodities--- to modern capitalistic conditions; so
masterly that this French revolutionary code still serves as a model for
reforms of the law of property in all other countries, not excepting

The French revolution, Engels continues, gave the British bourgeoisie "a
splendid opportunity, with the help of the Continental monarchies, to
destroy French maritime commerce, to annex French colonies, and to crush the
last French pretensions to maritime rivalry." Meanwhile, in England there
was initiated an industrial revolution, which completely shifted the centre
of gravity of economy power.

"The wealth of the bourgeoisie increased considerably faster than that of
the landed aristocracy. Within the bourgeoisie itself, the financial
aristocracy, the bankers, etc., were more and more pushed into the
background by the manufacturers. The compromise of 1689, even after the
gradual changes it had undergone in favour of the bourgeoisie, no longer
corresponded to the relative position of the parties to it. The character of
these parties, too, had changed; the bourgeoisie of 1830 was very different
from that of the preceding century. The political power still left to the
aristocracy, and used by them to resist the pretensions of the new
industrial bourgeoisie, became incompatible with the new economic interests.
A fresh struggle with the aristocracy was necessary; it could end only in a
victory of the new economic power. First, the Reform Act was pushed through,
in spite of all resistance, under the impulse of the French Revolution of
1830. It gave to the bourgeoisie a recognized and powerful place in
Parliament. Then the Repeal of the Corn Laws, which settled, once for all,
the supremacy of the bourgeoisie, and especially of its most active portion,
the manufacturers, over the landed aristocracy. This was the greatest
victory of the bourgeoisie; it was, however, also the last it gained in its
own exclusive interest. Whatever triumphs it obtained later on, it had to
share with a new social power, first its ally, but soon its rival.

"The industrial revolution had created a class of large manufacturing
capitalists, but also a class --- and a far more numerous one --- of
manufactoring workpeople. This class gradually increased in numbers, in
proportion as the industrial revolution seized upon one branch of
manufacture after another, and in the same proportion it increased in power.
This power it proved as early as 1824, by forcing a reluctant Parliament to
repeal the acts forbidding combinations of workmen. During the Reform
agitation, the workingmen constituted the Radical wing of the Reform party;
the Act of 1832 having excluded them from the suffrage, they formulated
their demands in the People's Charter, and constituted themselves, in
opposition to the great bourgeois Anti-Corn Law party; into an independent
party, the Chartists, the first working-men's party of modern times.

"Then came the Continental revolutions of February and March 1848, in which
the working people played such a prominent part, and, at least in Paris, put
forward demands which were certainly inadmissible from the point of view of
capitalist society. And then came the general reaction. First the defeat of
the Chartists on the 10th April, 1848, then the crushing of  the Paris
workingmen's insurrection in June of the same year, then the disasters of
1849 in Italy, Hungary, South Germany, and at last the victory of Louis
Bonaparte over Paris, 2nd December, 1851. For a time, at least, the bugbear
of working-class pretensions was put down, but at what cost!"

And Engels sums up:

"It seems a law of historical development that the bourgeoisie can in no
European country get hold of political power --- at least for any length of
time --- in the same exclusive way in which the feudal aristocracy kept hold
of it during the Middle Ages. Even in France, where feudalism was completely
extinguished, the bourgeoisie, as a whole, has held full possession of the
Government for very short periods only. During Louis Philippe's reign,
1830-48, a very small portion of the bourgeoisie ruled the kingdom; by far
the larger part were excluded from the suffrage by the high qualification.
Under the second Republic, 1848-51, the whole bourgeoisie ruled, but for
three years only; their incapacity brought on the second Empire. It is only
now, in the third Republic, that the bourgeoisie as a whole have kept
possession of the helm for more than twenty years; and they are already
showing lively signs of decadence. A durable reign of the bourgeoisie has
been possible only in countries like America, where feudalism was unknown,
and society at the very beginning started from a bourgeois basis. And even
in France and America, the successors of the bourgeoisie, the working
people, are already knocking at the door."

This hardly sounds like the "classical Marxist model of bourgeois
revolution" as defined by Ed. I think it is safe to say that neither Marx
nor Engels can be accurately cited as authority for the popular frontism
that characterized the later Stalinist caricature of the revolutionary or
(more accurately) "progressive" bourgeoisie.

Richard Fidler

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