More on Bourgeois Revolution (Part 1) By Way of a Reply to Anthony and Richard

Ed George edgeorge at
Sun Apr 7 03:56:13 MDT 2002

Both Anthony and Richard have written thought-provoking responses to my
posts on the bourgeois revolution, for which I am grateful. It is not
possible to reply to al the issues raised in one post but I will deal
with some of them here and the others as time permits.

But at the outset I would like to resummarise my basic argument.

* The Marxist 'theory' of bourgeois revolution, which suggests a clear
fight for mastery over social forms between the bourgeoisie and nobility
as social classes is wrong. No event commonly designated a 'bourgeois
revolution' - be it the war of independence in the Low Countries, the
English Civil War, the French Revolution, the American War of
Independence, the Italian Risorgimento, the Meiji Restoration, the
Unification of Germany - has conformed to this pattern

* The Marxist interpretation of the French Revolution - commonly called
the 'social interpretation' - on which the Marxist model of bourgeois
revolution was based is also wrong.

* The consequences of the above are a generalised discrediting of
Marxism as a theory of history, and an historical misestimation of the
historical role of the bourgeoisie, the former of general and clear
importance, the latter with serious consequences for the way in which
revolutionaries in the present map out their perspective for the future.

Let me also say what I am NOT saying:

* That there is no such thing as a bourgeois revolution.

* That the French revolution was not a bourgeois revolution.

* That Engels was responsible for Stalinism.

Just so we're clear.


To begin with, I want to explain why I think that all this is so
important; I will deal with some of the concrete points of disagreement
below. But to answer Anthony's initial question: 'where is this boy
George going? What's his point?' Well, the boy George (I rather like
this moniker) is working under the general conviction that a good part
of what has passed itself off as Marxism up to now is no such thing, and
that a fundamental re-explanation and re-statement of the fundamentals
of Marxist theory is necessary. In particular, what is dragging Marxism
through the mud is the pervasive influence of Stalinism; and that, under
the influence of the semi-religious conceptions of
Stalinist-manufactured 'dialectical materialism', in the vulgarisation
of Marxist concepts, both the Stalinist bureaucracies of the Soviet
Union and the 'people's democracies' and those who operated under their
political and ideological influence world-wide borrowed heavily from the
mechanical and crude innovations developed under the auspices of the
Second international - and justified this vulgarisation through recourse
to higher authority, through a systematic misreading of the texts of
classical Marxism and a fundamental distortion of their basic ideas. In
this respect we can draw a line of continuity that runs from Plekhanov
and Kautsky right up to Soboul, Hill and Hobsbawm in the near present, a
continuity characterised by a vulgarised materialist conception of
history, a national-'Marxist' interpretation of historical processes,
and a dogmatic schematism of the prospects for future historical

I appreciate that all this sounds rather outlandish and iconoclastic; so
be it, but I want to make it clear that I do not condescend, to use
Anthony's words, 'to help all of us poor believers in 
schema to advance to a new, better, understanding of history': I'm just
telling it as I see it. I've spent twenty years - all my adult
politically conscious life - as a part of the Trotskyist movement and
have been forced to the conclusion - like many others on this list -
that its manifest failures have to be down to something deeper than this
or that tactical error or the weight of difficult objective conditions.
There is something more fundamental at fault here, and I am moved to try
to understand what has gone, and is going, wrong.

The concept of the bourgeois revolution is particularly important in
this respect, for more than one reason. In the development of what came
to be called the 'social interpretation' of the French Revolution
Marxism came to enjoy near hegemony within mainstream historiography -
something it has been unable to do in any other field. And it was on
this terrain that Marxist or Marxist-inspired historiography has been
most discredited: as I tried to point out in my original posts, which I
will try to reinforce below, the 'revisionist' argument has in this
arena decisively won out, and Marxist interventions stand opposed as
dogmatic and crude attempts to squeeze concrete historical reality into
a schematic framework which is unable to explain what happened and why.
Marxists have some responsibility to address this state of affairs.

But this question is not simply one of dry historiography. The
'programmatic points' which I 'tacked on' (unsuccessfully in Anthony's
opinion - mea culpa for failing to explain myself adequately) I raised
because a conception of what the bourgeois revolution actually is - and
consequent judgements on the nature of the bourgeoisie and its
historical role - have played a significant role in discussions of
revolutionary strategy in a number of European countries. An assessment
of the nature of the bourgeois revolution inevitably has a political
character in the here and now.

Some examples.

In the 1960s a series of highly influential articles by Perry Anderson
and Tom Nairn in the journal New Left Review [Tom Nairn, 'The British
Political Elite' and Perry Anderson, 'Origins of the Present Crisis',
New Left Review 23 (January-February 1964);  Tom Nairn, 'The English
Working Class', New Left Review 24 (March-April 1964) and 'The Anatomy
of the Labour Party', New Left Review 27 and 28 (September-October and
November-December 1964); Perry Anderson 'Components of the National
Culture' New Left Review 50 (July-August 1968); and Tom Nairn, 'The
Fateful Meridian', New Left Review 60 (March-April 1970)] - articles
which were to stamp their mark on discussion of the fundamental contours
of English/British history for a generation of Marxists - postulated
that the particular pattern of British capitalist development was in
good part explicable by the fact that in the seventeenth century England
experienced a bourgeois revolution which was, by virtue of its
prematurity (both temporal and ideological), sui generis. It was argued
that the modern English-British state and society had acquired at birth
something of a pre-modern, non-bourgeois character, the effects of which
were to find their continuing expression in the distinctive economic and
political make-up of British society.

The argument suggested that the English bourgeois revolution differed in
essential respects from an (implicit and unexplained but evidently based
on the Marxist interpretation of the French Revolution) norm that
obtained or occurred elsewhere.  As Anderson argued in 'Origins of the
Present Crisis': 'England had the first, most mediated and least pure
bourgeois revolution of any major European country.' For Anderson, if
the English Civil War and Glorious Revolution constituted a 'bourgeois
revolution', it was a bourgeois revolution only by 'proxy', since at its
heart was a conflict not between antagonistic social classes,
'bourgeois' and 'feudal', but between different segments of the same -
rural and land-owning - class.  Thus, although from the standpoint of a
'capitalist revolution' the English Revolution could be judged in its
results to have been 'supremely successful', at the same time 'it left
almost the entire [pre-revolutionary] social structure intact.' This
interpretation was accorded a central explanatory significance as one of
'the fundamental moments of modern English history.' [Anderson,
'Origins', 28-30]

The raison d'être of the essay was indicated by its title:  the
anachronistic social structure bequeathed by the peculiar experience of
seventeenth-century revolution was held to be responsible for the
increasingly evident crisis of 1960s British capitalism.  Anderson
concluded it with the view that 'the unfinished work of 1640 [
] must be
taken up where it was left off.' ['Origins', 53]

But the logic of the analysis of the English Revolution drawn up by
Anderson and Nairn leads to a clear conclusion in the sphere of
politics.  If it is argued that the English bourgeois revolution is in
some sense 'incomplete', and that, as a consequence, the British state
is in need of 'modernisation' in this sense, then the 'completion' of
the bourgeois revolution - the 'modernisation' of the state - can be
presented as a task to be accomplished under modern capitalism by a
present-day 'modernising' bourgeoisie:  the way is opened for a
progressive political project that is not even social democratic, but
liberal-bourgeois. And it is indeed clear that the more mature Anderson 
was more than receptive to such a project, as the attention he paid in
his later work to the ideas produced by the circle of intellectuals
around the old Eurocommunist journal Marxism Today, and to Charter 88,
makes clear. 

Anderson and Nairn openly acknowledged their theoretical debt to Antonio
Gramsci, whose work was, at this point, largely unavailable in English. 
This debt is itself significant for Gramsci was, as Anderson
acknowledges, the first European Marxist writer to attempt to seek an
explanation for his own capitalist society's particular national
features in the form of its bourgeois revolution in general and its
deviation from a normal model (in Gramsci's case, explicitly that of the
French Revolution) in particular.  For Gramsci, it was the failure of
the nineteenth-century Italian bourgeois liberals to foment an alliance
with the peasantry on the basis of a thorough-going agrarian reform that
lay at the heart of what he perceived as the 'failure' of the
Risorgimento, a failure which manifested itself in the weakness of
liberal bourgeois political culture in Italy and the fragility of the
modern Italian state.  Gramsci developed a conception of the
Risorgimento as a 'passive revolution' in which the moderate liberals
had come to find a compromise with the existing 'feudal' order, the
price of which being a deep-seated rupture between Italian civil society
and the Italian state.  The ensuing instability of Italian liberal
politics and the congenital political debility of the Italian
bourgeoisie formed the historical seat for the subsequent emergence of
fascism.  And at the heart of Gramsci's analysis was the presence of the
paradigmatic experience of France.  'It is clear that to oppose the
moderates effectively, the Party of Action had to tie itself to the
rural, particularly the southern masses, to be "Jacobin,"'[Excerpt from
Il Risorgimento, quoted in S. J. Woolf, The Italian Risorgimento (London
and Harlow, 1969), 101-2].  His fundamental critique of the Action Party
was precisely that it was not 'Jacobin'. Thus for Gramsci what was
decisive was the inability of the revolutionary-democrats (the Action
Party) to create a bourgeois 'hegemony' in the process of Italian
unification of a different character to that which was ultimately
imposed by Cavour's Moderates; and, for Gramsci, the consequence of this
failure was that the modern Italian state inherited a repressive,
backward and undemocratic character at birth.  

In Germany, the 1960s saw a celebrated historiographical debate -
subsequently known as the 'Fischer Controversy' - which centred around
(if not explicitly by name then certainly implicitly by concept) the
historical significance of the pattern of bourgeois revolution in
Germany.  The debate was initially focused on a disagreement as to the
nature of the German state's aims in the First World War.  In 1961,
Fritz Fischer published his Griff nach der Weltmacht, [Published in
English as Germany's Aims in the First World War (London, 1967):
critical is  Fischer's view that the Germans - whose Kaiserreich
'occupied a position of special importance in the history of nations' -
were 'the only people who did not create their state from below by
invoking the forces of democracy against the old ruling groups, but
"accepted it gratefully" at the hands of those groups in a defensive
struggle against democracy.' (ibid., 3)] in which he argued - contrary
to the accepted historical wisdom in Germany at the time - that
Germany's war aims in 1914 were consciously both aggressive and
annexationist right from the outset.  Fischer's argument challenged the
then currently-accepted historiographical wisdom in Germany, which had
held that despite the contemporary existence of annexationist elements
within the military structure, and the existence of pan-German extremism
within Germany before 1914, Germany had not in fact been bent on
aggression and that she had, in 1914, been forced to fight a 'defensive'
war.  What was fundamental to what was at stake in Fischer's
interpretation was a challenge to the assumptions of the then existing
historiographical interpretation of Nazism, which had hitherto been
viewed as an exceptional period in German history. [Jürgen Kocka noted
that late nineteenth and early twentieth-century German historians liked
to lay stress on what were seen as the positive specificities of the
'German way'.  'The non-parliamentary character of the German
"constitutional monarchy" was seen as an asset, not as a liability.  One
was proud to have a strong statist tradition, a powerful and efficient
civil service, a long history of reform from above - instead of
revolution, laissez-faire and party government.' ('German History Before
Hitler:  The Debate about the German Sonderweg', Journal of Contemporary
History 23.1 (January 1988), 3)]  The logic of Fischer's argument ran
counter-posed to these assumptions; his conclusions regarding German
foreign policy in 1914 suggested a place for Nazism within a chain of
already-existing historical continuity, conclusions which were developed
even more explicitly by others, for example by Hans-Ulrich Wehler:

'[Bismarckian] social imperialism served to defend the traditional
social and power structures of the Prusso-German state, and to shield
them from the turbulent effects of industrialisation as well as from the
movements towards parliamentarisation and democratisation. [...] If one
pursues [...] the social imperialist opposition to the emancipation
process in German industrial history - then one will be able to trace a
line linking Bismarck, Miquel, Bülow and Tirpitz to the extreme social
imperialism of the National Socialist variety, which once again sought
to block domestic progress by breaking out first towards the Ostland,
and then overseas [...].' [Hans-Ulrich Wehler, 'Bismarck's Imperialism
1862-1890', Past and Present 48 (August 1970), 154]

In this vein, in his The German Empire 1871-1918 Wehler could argue that
the 'central theme' of the history of the nineteenth-century Kaiserreich
('a unique creation among the nation states of Europe') was the way in
which 'in a largely traditional society, only partially adapted
institutionally between 1866 and 1871 and still ruled over by
pre-industrial elites, the most advanced Western technology forced
itself through with unprecedented speed and accelerated social change.'
[The German Empire 1871-1918 (Leamington Spa, 1985), 9]  This argument
was cited in support of the view that German history in the twentieth
century could be in good measure explained by the fact that Germany
failed in the nineteenth century to experience a 'bourgeois revolution'
of the type undergone by her western neighbours:  'Germany modernised
without experiencing a successful social or political revolution. [...]
The Junker oligarchy remained extremely powerful nationally and almost
omnipotent in the local politics of rural Prussia.  Attempts to rest
power away from them by the commercial and professional classes failed
in 1848 and again in 1862.' [Kenneth D. Barkin, 'Germany's Path to
Industrial Maturity', in D. K. Buse (ed.) Aspects of Imperial Germany
(Sudbury, Ontario, 1973), 29]

(Incidentally, it is worth noting that Engels' final judgement of the
German unification (written in 1887-88) seems definitive: 'Bismarck
recognised the German civil war for what it was, namely a revolution,
and he was willing to carry out that revolution with revolutionary
methods. And he did.' ['The Role of Force in History', MECW, vol. 26
(1990), 381])

In both these cases - of Italy and Germany - the location of the roots
of fascism in a structural historical defect of absent or abnormal
bourgeois revolution clearly has the practical consequence of shifting
the focus of the development of fascism - and, more importantly, of
preventing it - away from the field of conjunctural political action to
that of historical inevitability and fatalism.  There is a sense that
those peoples who end up with fascism have done so because,
historically, they 'deserve' it; while those who have a prouder, nobler
and altogether more 'normal' historical tradition of enlightened
liberalism need not fear the possibility. [See, for example, atypical in
Anglo-American German historiography only for its crassness, A. J. P.
Taylor's The Course of German History (London, 1988) - one of the best
known 'popular' English language histories of Germany - whose central
premise is summed up in the statement that 'it was no more a mistake for
the German people to end up with Hitler that it is an accident when a
river flows into the sea.' (vii)]

In the case of Spain, in the 1960s, Eric Hobsbawm commented that what
had marked contemporary Spanish politics and society was the failure to
engender 'an essentially capitalist economic development, a bourgeois
parliamentary system, and a culture and intellectual development of the
familiar western kind.' [Eric Hobsbawm, 'The Spanish Background', New
Left Review 40 (November-December 1966), 85-6.  This is a view typical
amongst the Spanish Marxists of the 1970s:  see Juan Pablo Fusi, España:
la evolución de la identidad nacional (Madrid, 2000), 39-40]  These
historical functions, seen in the classical model as the prerogative of
a liberal bourgeoisie, by failing to materialise were responsible for
the chronic weakness of Spanish liberalism and the consequent congenital
instability of the institutional political system.  Others have taken up
the theme.  Paul Heywood argued, somewhat more explicitly, that

'fundamental in the development of the Spanish state was the lack of a
bourgeois-democratic revolution from below in which the structures of
the ancien régime were broken.  Unlike in [...] France, there was no
establishment during the nineteenth century of a relatively democratic
polity able to adjust to and absorb new social forces.' [Marxism and the
Failure of Organised Socialism in Spain, 1879-1936 (Cambridge, 1990),

Here, the notion that there had not been a 'proper' bourgeois revolution
along the lines of the classical Marxist interpretation of the French
Revolution had informed the whole policy of the Spanish left both its
Socialist and Communist wings from the period of the Second Republic
practically up to the present day, a policy which based itself on the
following misconceptions:

'First, bourgeois revolution was identified exclusively with industrial
capitalism [...]; second, latifundism and caciquismo were identified
with feudalism, leading to the denial that the 1876 Constitution could
have been liberal; third, Spanish socio-political development was
consistently and inappropriately compared with the French model [of

But, of course, in the 1930s for example,

'there was no numerically significant or politically powerful dynamic
bourgeoisie in the Second Republic pressing for progressive social
change.  Instead, the Socialists were confronted by a landed oligarchy
which, far from being a politically bankrupt feudal remnant, organised
quickly and effectively as a reactionary conservative bloc in order to
impede as far as possible the moderate reforms of the
Republican-Socialist government.' [Marxism and the Failure of Organised
Socialism, 114-5]

Even under the Franco régime, the Spanish Communist Party was to cling
to this kind of conception:  right up to the end of the dictatorship the
Communist Party held that the Franco regime only represented the
interests of the big banks and the landowners, and that the defeat of
Franco, which right through from the latter half of the 1950s was seen
as imminent, supposed the beginning of 'an antifeudal and antimonopolist
democratic revolution' which would take on a series of measures such as
the nationalisation of the banks and of large-scale industry, land
reform, an anti-US foreign policy, etc. The clear strategic corollary of
this view was the need to foment an alliance with the 'antifeudal and
antimonopolist' sections of the bourgeoisie in order to realise a
transition to a bourgeois republic, a line pursued by the Communists
right up to and during the transición of the 1970s.  Needless to say,
the Spanish bourgeoisie was in fact not at all keen on the idea of a
republic, nor the prospect of nationalisation of industry and an anti-US
foreign policy, a state of affairs however which did little to dampen
the Communist Party's spirits in pursuing a line of a rectification of
the absent bourgeois revolution. 

So for reasons other than historiographical 'accuracy' - the
consequences that it has on the contours of revolutionary perspectives
in the present - the way that the concept of the bourgeois revolution
has been handled by Marxists appears to me important.

PLEASE clip all extraneous text before replying to a message.

More information about the Marxism mailing list