More on Bourgeois Revolution (Part 3) By Way of a Reply to Anthony and Richard

Ed George edgeorge at
Sun Apr 7 03:56:38 MDT 2002


Does all this mean that the French revolution was not  bourgeois
revolution? Of course not. As Anthony asks rhetorically: 'By the end of
the 19th century France was one of the five or six most powerful
capitalist imperialist powers in the world. Could France have gotten
there without the revolution?' Clearly not. But the obvious question
poses itself that if the French revolution is - as the classical model
puts it - not just 'a' bourgeois revolution, but the bourgeois
revolution, the classical and pristine model of bourgeois revolution,
why could France only be among the top imperialist powers of the world
and not be the imperialist power? Why is it, if the feudal social
structure is such a fetter to the rising 'revolutionary bourgeoisie' and
its mode of production, that the country in which feudal institutions
were most thoroughly swept away could fare so indifferently against
countries in which they were not? This is, incidentally, where Napoleon
fits in. Anthony places 'France's laggard position in relation to
Prussia [...] and Great Britain' as a consequence of  'the defeat of the
revolution in war, and nothing to do with the inherent strengths or
weaknesses of the revolution in advancing capitalism.' But you can't
separate the two factors in this last sentence. The real question is why
did France emerge defeated from the Napoleonic wars: why could
revolutionary, bourgeois France not emerge victorious over reactionary,
backward European absolutism? And the key factor here was Britain: the
overwhelmingly superior British military and naval superiority was
always going to tip the military balance against Napoleon, and this
quite simply due to the social superiority that derived from an English
bourgeois revolution over a century earlier that was incomparably more
successful in promoting capitalist social relations than the
seventeenth-century French example was.

Thus it is necessary to ask why this was the case? What happened in
England that was so much more propitious to capitalist development
compared to France? The simple answer is that in France the revolution
had been simply too radical: it is for this reason that Napoleon himself
had seen it necessary to, in Draper's words, limit the revolution at
home even while attempting to extend it abroad. For in Britain what had
happened was that feudal institutions had not been swept away as they
had been in France, and the fact that they had been in France was what
was going to retard social development and limit the opportunities for
capitalist development. For if we want to develop a model of the most
efficacious circumstances for bourgeois development - a model bourgeois
revolution so to speak - then it is one that allows the previous growing
over of feudal social relations in to capitalist ones to proceed
unimpeded in a favourable legal and political framework.

In this sense it is useful to re-examine one aspect of the 'revisionist'
interpretation. Central to the conceptions of Denis Richet and François
Furet was what they called the dérapage, the 'skidding off course' of
the revolution, as represented by the popular radicalisation of 1791-2 -
from the flight to Varennes to the insurrection of August 1792 which
overthrew the monarchy and which opened the door to the Jacobin
dictatorship of 1793-4. For Furet and Richet, the dérapage precisely
represented the collapse of the liberal compromise with the monarchy
encapsulated in the constitution of 1791. [François Furet and Denis
Richet, La Révolution française (Verviers, 1979), 126] Why should this
have had such a deleterious effect on bourgeois development in France?
To answer this I want to re-present the 'model' of bourgeois revolution
that I offered in my original post, and situate it within the general
transition from feudalism to capitalism on a European scale.

As capitalist economic relations develop from the fourteenth century
within the western-European feudal nexus, the consequent strengthening
of the economic power and the weakening of the political power of the
land-owning elites leads to the separation out of a series of putatively
national political structures - embryonic national states - in a series
of key European feudal polities.  This process is the one commonly
designated 'Absolutism'.  Although this development results from the
proceeding 'commodification' of feudal (economic) social relations, the
Absolutist states remain based on the political (military and juridical)
and social (economic) needs of the land-owning elite.  But precisely
because capitalist relations of (production and) trade develop 'in the
interstices of' feudal ones it would be perverse to conceive of emergent
capitalism as developing out of a process autonomous to the feudal
social structure.  In fact, capitalist relations emerge and evolve out
of feudal ones - in the instances of land and investment - and happily
co-exist with them in the instances of production and trade.  What does
not occur in any thorough-going sense at this stage is the
crystallisation out of a distinct 'bourgeoisie' - defined fundamentally
by its economic activity - with interests distinct from those of an
equally clearly delimited feudal aristocracy; neither does there emerge
a capitalist economic structure fundamentally antagonistic to an
already-existing feudal one.  Rather, what it is evident is a single
economic structure - in which capitalist economic relations develop more
or less harmoniously alongside feudal ones - and a single economic elite
with combined and numerous economic interests and activities, both of
which obtain over a continental rather than a national scale.  Actual
bourgeois revolutions, I would suggest, as a consequence do not arise at
root from an antagonism between social classes, but from an antagonism
between on the one hand the legal and political structures of the state
and on the other the economic and political character of broader
society:  between a political and juridical structure founded on the
exigencies of feudal privilege and a socio-economic structure
increasingly influenced by capitalistic usury, unmediated ownership of
land and proto-industrial forms of production.  Conjunctural crises -
war, military defeat, religious conflict, state bankruptcy - precipitate
generalised unrest in which the most forward-looking sections of the
socio-economic elite and those layers of the plebeian mass most
unencumbered by feudal ideology (usually the 'professional' classes in
the cities) mobilise against the worst excesses of feudal privilege and
absolutist despotism, the former impelled by the desire to exert greater
control over the state structure - historically speaking of relatively
recent vintage - from which they feel excluded, the latter by the desire
- bred from city and professional life - for greater and more 'rational'
egalitarianism, or, simply, and with desperation, impelled by the
ravages of war, disease, and hunger.


There is more that I would like to say in relation to Marx and Engels'
conceptions, and how this relates to the debate on the Russian
revolution, but I have gone on far enough for now.

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