Reply to Domhnall

Ed George edgeorge at
Thu Apr 11 09:20:55 MDT 2002

Domhnall writes: 'Perhaps I am misinterpreting [Ellen Meiskins Wood's]
quote and your general argument, but it appears that it would be
entirely possible, and correct, to note that the Capitalists were a
subset of the Bourgeoisie and that we would be able to identify the
revolutionary bourgeois as belonging to the non-capitalist bourgeoisie
(based on a "concrete" historical justification i.e. through fact).
Indeed, I think that you would agree (pending agreement on the
definitions). As such, we could note that the revolution was clearly
bourgeois but come no further in determining whether it was

What I am saying is what does this mean if you define 'bourgeois' and
'capitalist' as different things? The bourgeois revolutions were so
labelled so as to say that they were in one sense or another capitalist:
that they either put the bourgeoisie - i.e. the capitalist class - into
political (or social) power or that they in some fundamental sense made
possible or facilitated the development of capitalist social relations.
And on this definition the French revolution was interpreted as the
classic, pristine model of bourgeois revolution. The problem comes when
you look for the 'revolutionary bourgeoisie' because when you do you
don't find capitalists properly speaking. So an attempt is made to
define 'bourgeoisie' in some other way. I find this, whatever merits it
may have, not Marxist. Social class is defined for Marxism by objective
social position within the structure of economic relations. So I am
going to say that the 'capitalist class' and the 'bourgeoisie' are the
same thing. Now, as I pointed out before, the line between the
bourgeoisie, the petty-bourgeoisie and other hangers-on is often rather
blurred, and the bourgeoisie properly so-called will operate within a
social milieu which may be defined by culture, customs, habits, income,
ideology, religion and a whole host of other things in varying
combinations. But at the heart of this, historically speaking, is a
class that is defined by its position in the economic structure. If you
want to use 'bourgeoisie' to refer to the milieu and 'capitalist class'
to refer to the class properly speaking, then that is a terminological
device which maybe is of value. But the danger is when you do what
Meiskins Wood seems to be doing and start to say that these two things
are in fact distinct. For in the former model the bourgeoisie is defined
by its relation to the capitalist class, in turn defined by its
socio-economic position; in the latter, what defines the bourgeoisie?
You have to introduce elements such as politics, culture, income, and
all the rest of it. There is nothing inherently wrong with this
procedure but you have to be aware that what you will then be talking
about is not a class (call it a layer, call it a stratum, call it a
group, or whatever you will) and that calling it the bourgeoisie
necessarily clouds this fact. And it is unanimously agreed by both
partisans of the concept of bourgeois revolution (of which I am one) and
by its begrudgers that the label bourgeois revolution is an attempt to
define the bourgeois revolution's class character: it is this, in fact,
that moves the partisans of the concept to be so and it is the biggest
stick that its detractor wield against it. So while the actual
composition of what we could call - and forgive me for coming over all
Althussarian for a moment - the 'social formation' is nothing if not
complex we have to be wary of the terminology being used to effect a
theoretical slippage, which is what looks to me like what has been done

What is a bourgeois revolution then? I am sympathetic to the  view that
I summarised in an earlier post that contends that these revolutions
were bourgeois not by virtue of their leadership cadre (which was, in
the sense that I have tried to outline it above, neither capitalist nor
bourgeois) but by virtue of their objective effects on the future course
of capitalist development. My criticism of this approach was that it
failed to address the problem of why it should be the case that
bourgeois revolutions are not led by a class conscious revolutionary
bourgeoisie. I also raised the objection that if it is indeed the case
that bourgeois revolutions are so due to their historical consequences
then why is the classic model of France the classic when model when
capitalist development in France turned out to be relatively
unimpressive (and I emphasis the word 'relatively')?

Nevertheless, the procedure is a sound one, even if it is need of
refining. In fact, defining a bourgeois revolution as bourgeois on the
basis of its effects on the development of capitalist relations appears
to me to be the only possible grounds for such a definition.

But can I stop for a moment and digress a little with regard to the word
'revolution'? In one of Anthony's earlier posts he offered us the
following definition: 'Revolutions, in the sense that Marx talked about,
involve mobilisations of masses of people. When they are victorious,
they result in the destruction or transformation of state structures.'
This is reminiscent of a definition that Perry Anderson once came up
with: 'Revolution is a term with a precise meaning: the political
overthrow from below of one state order, and its replacement by
another.' [Perry Anderson, 'Modernity and Revolution', New Left Review
144 (March-April 1984), 112.] I find both of these definitions a little
impressionistic, and, in the sense that it is necessary to have present
'mobilisations of masses' and/or 'political overthrow from below'
potentially dogmatic. For my part I am going to offer a definition of a
revolution as the replacement of one ruling class by another: that the
former ruling class is overthrown by another (normally subaltern) one.
But here it is necessary to make a very pertinent and important
distinction between the ruling class at the level of the economic
structure of society and the ruling class at the level of the state,
i.e. of the superstructure: this is a necessary distinction as much for
the bourgeois revolution as it is for the proletarian one, moreover. The
significance of the distinction with regard to the bourgeois revolution
is that it is possible - as is widely acknowledged - for the bourgeoisie
(or for capitalist relations of production) to gain a significant or
even predominant position within the economic structure without the
state necessarily being 'bourgeois'. It is significant for the
proletarian revolution in the sense that the opposite is true: the
proletariat is unable to gain a social position of strength in the
economic structure (i.e. it is unable to place itself in a position of
control over economic relations) before it wins political power (i.e.
before it seizes control of the state apparatus and qualitatively
transforms it - effectively 'smashing' it - for its own purposes). This
latter point is something of rather profound importance for Marxists,
but I am going to resist developing this tangent here.

As I pointed out - if parenthetically - in an earlier post, when we talk
about the bourgeois revolution we are really talking about two distinct
if related developments (which the classical Marxist interpretation -
and this is its biggest failure - collapses into a single process): the
continental (and later global) development of capitalist relations, and
national bourgeois revolutions; or, to put it another way, the
transition form feudalism to capitalism and the revolutionary overturns
that the former requires. Both of these overturns - social and political
- are 'revolutionary' in the sense they involve fundamental an
qualitative class transformations; only the latter is 'revolutionary' in
the sense that Anthony (and Anderson) choose to define the word.

What happens in a bourgeois revolution is aptly described in Marx's 1859

'From forms of development of the productive forces these [economic]
relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social
revolution. The changes in the economic foundation lead sooner or later
to the transformation of the whole immense superstructure.'

It is extremely important for our purposes here to note that Marx does
not say that when the economic infrastructure begins to fetter the
growth of the productive forces that then there is a social revolution
but that 'then begins an ERA of social revolution.'

It is also interesting to note that the word 'revolution' in English
has, as it has evolved, encompassed a number of nuanced and, if related,
then not always identical meanings. [On the evolution of the meaning of
the word in English, see the entry in Raymond Williams, Keywords
(Glasgow, 1976), 226-230] It is only relatively recently that it has
acquired the modern connotation of a turbulent and tumultuous upheaval
(especially of a political character). One of the antonyms of
'revolution' in this modern sense is, of course, 'evolution'; yet before
this, the word simply designated a circular movement, and, later, a
turning-over, a turning upside down, or a simple reversal of authority
or predominance. So although 'social revolution' suggests - because of
our familiarity with the modern usage of the word - a short-term and
violent process, there is no real reason to suppose this to be the case
in this instance. It is, in fact, often forgotten that the account of
historical materialism laid out in the 'Preface', as Harry Braverman
reminds us, is concerned primarily with the progress of history at the
long-term, epochal, level: 'The treatment of the interplay between the
forces and relations of production occupied Marx in almost all his
historical writing, and while there is no question that he gave primacy
to the forces of production in the long sweep of history, the idea that
this primacy could be used in a formulistic way on a day-to-day basis
could never have entered his mind.' Labour and Monopoly Capitalism: The
Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century (New York and London,
1974), 19-20]

So I would argue that the 'era of social revolution' that Marx is
talking about is the long term, epochal transition from the feudal mode
of production to the capitalist one, a process that occurred on a
continental scale and which was drawn out for centuries. It is the
process by which the bourgeoisie replaces the feudal nobility as the
ruling class within the economic structure, a process which occurs as
the economic structure is transformed. What we are talking about here
when we refer the 'bourgeois revolution' is a different process, the one
Marx refers to in the sentence: 'the changes in the economic foundation
lead sooner or later to the transformation of the whole immense
superstructure', a process which is not subsequent to the former social
transformation but which occurs only once it is well underway: the
revolution in the Low Countries, the English Civil War and subsequent
constitutional settlement, the French Revolution, the Risorgimento, the
Meiji Restoration, the Unification of Germany - these events are but
(national) examples of the transformation of the superstructure (and I
am going to follow Gerry Cohen here - even though I don't think that
Louis is his greatest fan - and choose to read 'state' for
'superstructure': see his Karl Marx's Theory of History: A Defence
(Princeton, 1978)[1]) necessitated by the gradual transformation of the
economic structure on a continental scale (a process I described in an
earlier post as an 'organic socio-economic process [of] a "growing over"
of feudalism into capitalism on a European scale'). This is why I
defined bourgeois revolutions as not arising '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.' In the terminology of the Preface, bourgeois
revolutions arise from the conflict between economic infrastructure and
politico-legal superstructure.

(Parenthetically, in a debate in the academic journal Past and Present
(which the British Communist Party's Historians' Group played a
significant role in launching) in the 1950s following an article by
Hobsbawm on what he called 'The General Crisis of the Seventeenth
Century' - which he posed in the context of the transition from
feudalism to capitalism - Hugh Trevor-Roper, writing specifically on the
English civil war, counterposed to a model of 'bourgeois revolution' the
model of an antagonism between 'Court' and 'country'. Now, Trevor-Roper
was an arch reactionary Conservative historian, but this conception,
written in 1959, in a debate which anticipates many of the arguments of
'Marxists' and 'revisionists' of later years, has it seems to me a good
kernel of truth to it if we can transpose Trevor-Roper's vocabulary from
arcaneness to Marxism.[2])

Thus I would argue that the French revolution, by these standards, was
both bourgeois and capitalist - and that these two words have
fundamentally the same sense for Marxists. One of my central criticisms
of the classical model is that - by collapsing the social transformation
into the political transformation - it measures the class character of
the revolution by the wrong standard, and, in order to sustain its
thesis, either has to stretch Marxism such that it strains its very
conceptual categories, or disregards a good deal of empirical evidence
[in the sense that Soboul asks us to 'go beyond the superficial aspect
of political and institutional history', The French Revolution (London,
1974, 10-11)], or both.

Which brings us on to Domhnall's remark that 'a rejection of the
idealised "Marxist" understanding of the French Revolution can lead
(almost inexorably) towards the other extremes i.e. rejection of
dialectical materialism as a mechanism to understand and effect
history.' Which is indeed exactly what has happened. But what we have to
understand here is that the 'dialectical materialism' on offer is not
the theories of Marx and Engels but a vulgarised conception of these
theories emanating from Stalinism. The truth is that Stalinist
ideologies and practices never remained hermetically sealed within the
governmental apparatuses of the former 'people's democracies' and within
the Communist Parties but rather tainted a good deal of ostensible
non-Stalinist thinking and practice to a greater or lesser degree. And
nowhere is the phenomenon of Stalinist baggage more evident than in the
field of Marxist historiography.

It was on this terrain that the Marxists of the 1960's 'new left' began
to cut their teeth: operating within the context of a new climate of
critique of Stalinist method and ideology opened up the process of
'de-Stalinisation', in good part the writers of the new left focused
their attention on history, and, in part, on Marxist historical method.
Yet their very revulsion at the grotesque vulgarity of the treatment of
the classical Marxist historical tools at the hands of Stalinist or
Stalinist-inspired historiography led, sooner or later, either to a
rejection of Marxism itself, or to a rejection of key concepts of
historical materialism - the base-superstructure analogy, for example,
or the core concept of determinism, or teleology - concepts which are
nowadays, as a consequence, generally regarded as useless from the point
of view of meaningful historical enquiry. The baby was thrown out with
the bathwater.

The consequence of all this is that practically every would-be 'Marxist'
working in the field of historiography today either disavows Marxism in
its entirety or forlornly attempts to use a Marxism gutted of its key
scientific concepts, which is to say attempts to use a Marxism that is
not really Marxism at all. The tarnished Marxism of the Stalinist
historians, which we all accepted as good coin, discredited and
demoralised all when - inevitably, with hindsight - it failed.

Finally, as regards Domhnall's doubts as to whether it is possible 'to
find the something fundamental which has lead to the failure of
Revolutionary Socialists to seize power or to grow beyond small sects',
well, I suppose this is a matter of opinion. The question I wanted to
address, and which for me urgently needs answering, is this: if
capitalism continues to demonstrate its manifest incapacity to fulfil
global humanity's most basic physical and emotional needs, then why does
the revolutionary left stand so prostrate and crisis-ridden and
seemingly increasingly so?

You can blame this apparent paralysis on deleterious objective
conditions; and it is indeed true that Trotsky once remarked, explaining
the weakness of the forces of the nascent International in the late
1930s, that losses are inevitable when one tries to navigate against the
current: some ships will inevitably go down, because the current is too
strong. Yet this is not the explanation for our present situation.
'Objective forces' are not sufficient reason for our current debility.
In the last twenty years we haven't lost the odd boat or two, we lost
practically the whole fleet, and what remains afloat is rudderless and
lost, unsure not only of where it is going but also of where exactly it
is. It hasn't just been the strength of the current. Faulty helmsmanship
and defective navigation equipment would seem to have played their part
in our weakness too.

This is not to say that there have not been strong negative objective
forces at play. But the revolutionary left can grow out of defeat, if it
relies on the power if its ideas and theory to explain convincingly what
is going on. The Left Opposition was able to attract people-people of
the highest intellectual order to itself in the 1930s, in the 'midnight
of the century' of the great Stalinist purges and the rise of
continental-wide fascism, that is to say, in conditions far worse than
the ones we face today. As the young Ernest Mandel was able to note:

'Why did the most gifted European intellectuals choose a movement which
could promise them neither success nor glory nor honours nor even a
minimum of material comfort? [...] A movement capable of attracting such
men solely by the powers of its ideas and the purity of his ideals [...]
is a movement that cannot die, because in it lies everything that is
noble in humankind.' [ ]

That the Left Opposition and early International were able to do this
was precisely due to the power of its ideas, precisely because of its
ability to explain the terrible scenery confronting it and point to a
way out. Simply, since it is patently obvious that this is exactly what
we have not been able to do, the question needs to be: why not?
'Stalinist baggage' is obviously not the whole answer; but from where
I'm sitting, it's a good part of it.


[1] But Marx himself did also say:

'It is in each case the direct relationship of the owners of the
conditions of production - a relationship whose particular form
naturally corresponds always to a certain level of development of the
type and manner of labour, and hence to its social productive power - in
which we find the innermost secret, the hidden basis of the entire
social edifice, and hence also the political form of the relationship of
sovereignty and dependence, in short, the specific form of the state in
each case.'

Capital, vol. 3 (Harmondsworth, 1981), 927.

[2] This debate has been compiled in Trevor Aston (ed) Crisis in Europe
1560-1660 (London, 1965). Trevor-Roper's comments are on pages 93-95 of
this volume.

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