More on bourgeois revolutions

Richard Fidler rfidler at
Sun Apr 28 06:15:33 MDT 2002

When Edward George initiated an exchange on this list on "bourgeois
revolutions", questioning the usefulness of the concept and suggesting it
had more to do with a mechanical concept of historical progress than it did
with reality, Jurriaan Bendien referred us to a publication of the
International Institute for Research and Education: "The Bourgeois
Revolutions", by Robert Lochhead. I recently purchased a copy from the
Institute, and I recommend this study highly to any comrade interested in
the pursuing the topic.

This study by Lochhead, a Swiss Marxist, discusses in detail the revolution
in theLow Countries 1566-1648 and the English revolution of 1640-1660 in the
context of a general discussion of the Marxist literature on the question.
The booklet also contains a useful chronology, maps, and extracts from
Engels, Christopher Hill, Guizot and Voltaire, as well as an extensive
bibliography and suggests for further reading. Well worth obtaining, from
the IIRE at

The following is excerpted from the final chapter, which is entitled "Have
Bourgeois Revolutions Existed?"

                            * * *

Moving Beyond the Standard Schema

It seems as if a standard schema of the bourgeois revolution gained
acceptance around the time of the Second International. It was derived from
an oversimplified interpretation of the French revolution which was
proclaimed "normal." This standard schema incorporated elements particular
to the French revolution alone as well as images drawn from the 19th and
20th century battles between the proletariat and bourgeoisie.

Thus the sans-culottes of 1793 were sometimes anachronistically perceived as
modern proletarians. [see note below] Likewise, in Eduard Bernstein's
otherwise remarkable study of the English revolution (1899), the Levellers
are assimilated to precursors of the labor movement and Cromwell is
presented as the conscious leader of the bourgeoisie, an interpretation
which could not withstand criticism, but to which Trotsky quite naturally
deferred, in 1925, in his exciting evocation of the English revolution in
Whither Britain?

George Rudé's studies of revolutionary crowds (see bibliography) have
demonstrated that, while proletarians (factory workers, the unemployed and
day laborers) constituted a steadily rising portion of the urban population
as it evolved from the 16th to the 19th century, their mobilizations did not
acquire distinctive _political_ characteristics, separate from those of the
entire plebe of which they were only one component, until the 1790s insofar
as England is concerned, and the 1830s insofar as the European continent is
concerned; this was true notwithstanding the fact that they did struggle for
their own economic and trade interests (in strikes for instance) much

The "standard schema" had a checkered career. It should be recognized that
it was sometimes expressed in variants not lacking in subtlety and solid
empirical foundations. But its life received a ten-fold extension thanks to
the long intellectual hegemony of the French Communist Party on the
historiography of the French revolution. (It is legitimate here to ask why
French CP historians did not take advantage of this hegemony to translate
Christopher Hill's and George Rudé's books into French during the 1950s and
1960s, although both were Communist historians at the time and most of their
work is still unavailable to the French-speaking public today!)

The interpretative model which guided the writing of this notebook is
derived from Engels's approach in The Peasant War in Germany and Christopher
Hill's works, informed in a fashion by Leon Trotsky's theory of permanent
revolution, whose originality is, at least in part, precisely based on
Marx's interpretation of the German revolution of 1848-1849.

The thesis argued here is that this model is more resistant to the
"academic" objections cited earlier.

Interpretations of contemporary social and political struggles in capitalist
countries based exclusively on the struggle of the two fundamental classes,
the bourgeoisie and proletariat, are already a frightful simplification,
even though the population is indeed composed of a majority of wage earners
facing a minority of capitalists. But Ancient Regime society was infinitely
more complex and its social and political struggles focused on multiple
poles that can be ignored only at great cost. Time after time, absolutism
played the plebeians off against the nobility or bourgeoisie, or the
bourgeoisie off against the nobility; time after time the nobility played
the plebeians off against absolutism allied to the bourgeoisie, etc, etc,
and each time on the basis of the very concrete material interests of each
one of the actors of this class struggle. Moreover, any serious analysis
should reintegrate an actor too often forgotten - albeit quite familiar to
Marx and Engels --- namely the nobiliary constitutionalist movement,
sometimes even nobiliary republicanism, not to be confused with the
insubordination of the nobility to absolutism. During several centuries of
European feudal society, this nobiliary movement played on several occasions
the role of complex ally-but-competitor of the anti-absolutist movement of
the bourgeoisie.

The stakes in the concept of bourgeois revolution

The question arises then of why revolutionary Marxists should obstinately
defend the very concept of "bourgeois revolution." Why should they persevere
in attributing a similar underlying phenomenon to such different
revolutions? Why not be content with studying the way in which the oppressed
tried to find the path to their emancipation through a maze of favorable or
unfavorable constellations of forces, in constant flux through time and
Because it is characteristic of a scientific approach to seek the recurrence
of a small number of simple factors beneath the infinite variety of
appearances; because the scientific stake is to explain the transition from
the social and political structure of European countries in the Middle Ages,
the relative homogeneity of which is denied by no one, to the social and
political structure of the same countries in the 19th and 20th centuries,
the homogeneity of which is not denied either. A comparative approach
reveals that in each of these countries, this transition was interrupted by
an event, a great upheaval, a break: precisely the revolutions discussed
here. These revolutions broke out in the various countries at different
stages of their evolution; they took forms characteristic of the
particularities of each country and the international constellation of
forces at the time; the various contending social, political and cultural
programs were formulated in the language of the time, which for centuries
was the language of religion, then in the 18th century, the secular language
of the Enlightenment... These very different revolutions nevertheless
displayed quite a few common mechanisms which are precisely what needs to be

The comparative approach also reveals the example of countries which never
reached, or only reached belatedly, through tortuous paths, the situation of
a "modern" capitalist country with its "bourgeois" democracy: Russia and
Spain are cases in point. The best argument for the concept of bourgeois
revolutions lies in the study of those which failed or aborted, or
half-failed, and of the lasting consequences this had on the economic and
social structure of the country: Germany between 1848 and 1919, Spain
between 1808 and 1939, and the Italian Mezzogiorno from 1860 until today.

What Marxists ought to defend in the concept of "bourgeois revolutions" is
their function as midwives of modern capitalist society and therefore their
usefulness in clarifying the historical mechanisms which, through nine
centuries, produced the type of social formation in which we live today in
imperialist countries.

The bourgeois revolutions were not wanted by a "revolutionary class" or
revolutionary party. It is characteristic of revolutions that they break out
to the surprise of their participants. All revolutions were triggered by
contingent mechanisms. As Trotsky explained in his History of the Russian
Revolution, if Alexander III had not died prematurely, if Russia had not
lost the war of 1905 against Japan, if Germany and France had reconciled
once again in summer 1914, there would have been no Russian revolution in
1917. But no fuse can detonate a bomb with no explosives. A society goes
into revolutionary crisis because the Ancient Regime has run out of
elasticity and compensatory mechanisms with which to resist the stress of
accumulated contradictions. In the mid-16th century in the Low Countries as
well as in the early 17th century in England and the late 18th century in
France, or the 1840s in Germany, the Ancient Regime had become overburdened
with contradictions it could no longer digest. The explosive matter was
precisely the expansion of bourgeois society inside a feudal and absolutist
social, political, juridical, cultural and religious order established in
ancient times to solve other problems.

The revolution was "bourgeois" in the first place for that reason.

The bourgeoisie was certainly not the class that
"stood-at-the-head-of-the-oppressed-nation." Any characterization of the
bourgeoisie as revolutionary under the Ancient Regime ought to be severely
qualified. As for the designation of a particular more genuinely
revolutionary layer inside its ranks, this remains an unresolved question of
the Marxist interpretation. The role of the bourgeoisie is better described
as reformist. What a decisive majority of it had come to wish was for
limited adjustments: a certain form of constitutional monarchy, careers open
to talent rather than reserved for the well-born, free enterprise, more
rational laws and state institutions, a broader franchise perhaps, though
still narrowly property-based. This majority was overtaken by the peasant
and plebeian explosion which it had neither wanted nor led. In the ensuing
storm, it had to improvise, like everyone else.

But once the popular beast was subdued, the bourgeoisie quite naturally
became the ruling class because of its wealth and place in the economy.
Nothing could return to the way it had been before the storm. The absolutist
edifice, previously only cracked, now lay in ruins, and the nobility had
lost a tremendous amount. The market economy could spread through all the
breaches opened in the collapsed old order and the bourgeoisie was the
obvious class to profit from it, for all sorts of very simple economic
reasons that can be summarized as the power of money. The nobility did hold
on to some handsome remains, of course, through its reconciliation with the
bourgeoisie in the united front of the property owners against the
plebeians. But the future for the old nobles who had survived was not as
feudal lords but as large capitalist landowners.

This was the second reason why the revolution was bourgeois.

The third reason is that it was precisely this initial reformism of the
bourgeoisie, timid though it was, that made the difference with the scores
of plebeian insurrections rapidly drowned in blood under the Ancient Regime.
The triggering event in all these revolutions included a peasant or plebeian
mobilization which only succeeded in loosening the grip of the absolutist
state because bourgeois reformism (and/or nobiliary reformism!) took the
relay from it and was prepared, for a moment and to a certain extent, to
play the popular card to wrest concessions from the king.

Finally, the concept of bourgeois revolution is useful to suggest that
although the plebeian democratic movement was defeated each time, these
revolutions are not simply a melancholic succession of heroic rising of the
people, always crushed by the bad people, as recounted by certain Anarchist

They were stages in a concrete advance. As explained in The Communist
Manifesto, they opened the road to the transformation of the majority of the
population into wage earners, and thereby created the first social class in
history that had a chance of some day abolishing private property and social
inequality; they opened the road to "bourgeois" democracy, to human rights
and individual freedom; they eventually created better conditions for the
struggle of the exploited and oppressed against their exploiters and

The old classical schema of "bourgeois revolution" can still be recognized
in this revised formulation. It will have served a purpose as an initial
overly crude approximation of a multifarious reality.

The bourgeois revolutions then, as a category of revolutions representing a
violent and creative break in the evolution from the feudal Ancient Regime
to the present capitalist and parliamentary New Regime of Europe, did indeed
exist. The standard schema of the "bourgeoisie
standing-at-the-head-of-the-oppressed-nation" must therefore be revised and
give way to a more differentiated interpretative model. Nevertheless, like
all approximations, this classical schema performed an explanatory role in
the attempt to describe the functional - not random -  character of these
revolutions which recurred in one country after another.

Long Duration and Political History

It is fashionable these days to use the research of the historians of the
long duration to demonstrate the futility of the ambitions of the
revolutionaries of yesteryear and downplay the impact of political action
yesterday and today. Why waste one's energy for a revolution that is
powerless against demography, ecology, geography and thousand-year old
cultural traditions? And so the history of revolutions is rewritten in this
light, erasing the decisive moments when conscious collective action tipped
the balance, and erecting in their place the slow evolution of mentalities.
The social history of the long duration, itself a by-product of the history
of economic trends, of everyday life, of the social relations of the mass of
the people, of their mentalities, has brought a salutary corrective to the
history of saints and martyrs, kings and queens, generals and presidents,
assassins and great battles, still taught not so long ago.

This is the place to recall that a work which played such an important role
in the founding of the Annales school as Lucien Febvre's Philip II and
Franche-Comté, published in 1912, is not only a study of the economic,
social and moral life of Franche-Comté in the 16th century. It is also a
study of the impact of the revolution of the Low Countries in a province
administratively linked to them, and the description of the political
struggles which in the space of a few years modernized the institutions of
absolutism in that province.

The enduring realities and slow evolution of the material and moral life of
a society bring their full weight to bear, and seem to dilute the struggles
of social classes and layers, the polemics of parties, in their immense
inertia. But the dilution is only apparent. Tensions accumulate slowly in a
system which resists and seems at first sight only barely affected by them.
But the elasticity of the social body has a limit, and when that limit is
reached, the system locks and comes to a breaking point: social struggles
broaden in a sudden paroxysm in which the entire organization of society is
debated and challenged by contending parties - this is a revolution. It
cannot escape the ponderous burden of material and moral facts, of course,
as all is not possible. But for a brief moment of a few years, a struggle
for power is played out, the outcome of which is not predetermined. A small
number of different outcomes are possible; there will be winners and losers
and they are not known in advance. For this brief moment, the intensity of
the mobilization of the crowd, their greater or lesser perception of a goal
more or less intelligently formulated, their collective or individual
courage, a few more regiments, better guns; one or two more effective
leaders, the support of an ally, a ruse, can make all the difference. The
outcome of the struggle, in turn, will create new material and moral
realities, that will last and weigh down over long periods, and new
institutions and mentalities that will mix their permanent reality to more
ancient realities.

In the English revolution of 1640-1660, the peasants were defeated; in the
French revolution of 1789-1815, the peasants were victorious. The English
and French agrarian systems were launched on two divergent trajectories with
all their consequences on the mentality and economic development of the
country down to this day: on the one hand the universe of the French peasant
smallholders, of a peasantry which owned small parcels and remained numerous
up until the most recent period. On the other hand, the universe of the
great English landed estates, at once aristocratic and entrepreneurial,
whose mark is still visible in the English landscape today.

In the English revolution of 1640-1660, the insurgent plebeians could be
crushed only by restoring the king, saving medieval forms and apparently
renouncing all the ideals and transformations of the revolution. In the
French revolution, the property owners consolidated their power through
Napoleon's regime, with its many institutional creations and systematic
spirit borrowed from the Jacobins.

The forms of these two bourgeois states, the English and the French, left a
lasting mark up to our time; along their divergent paths, different
institutions, traditions and mentalities were shaped: on the one hand, in
England, a pompous and hypocritical parliamentary monarchy, state
institutions formed out of improvised bits and pieces over centuries, the
mix of the medieval and the modern; on the other, in France, the Napoleonic
... or Gaullist... or Jacobin... state, as people are wont to call it, with
its systematic institutions and impressive technocratic bureaucracy on which
a rather authoritarian parliamentary republic relies.

The particularities of the labor movements of the two countries also carry
the imprint of this divergent history. In England, a labor movement based on
a broad trade-union movement formed early in the 19th century but one which
has inherited very little from the democratic movement of a revolution
already quite ancient by that time; a labor movement which combines massive
struggles for economic demands with the docile fascination of the broad
popular masses with the monarchy. In France, a labor movement which
inherited directly, only thirty years after the French revolution, the
political formulas of the sans-culottes and Robespierrists; a labor movement
in which politics preceded and still overshadow the trade-union aspect; a
labor movement which shares with the French bourgeoisie a certain Jacobin
tradition allying infatuation with the systematic spirit of states and
socially heterogeneous but verbally extremist political mobilizations.

This reminder of the classic comparison of England and France suggests the
need for a balance between the social history of the long duration and the
political history of revolutions, a balance in which the study of bourgeois
revolutions is an unavoidable stage in the effort to understand the present.

Guérin does not always avoid this assimilation of sansculottes and
proletarians when he describes the "plebeians" in his otherwise remarkable
study of thè conflict between the popular movement and the Robespierrist
Jacobins (Daniel Guirin, Les Luttes de classes sous la Première république:
bourgeoiset bras-nus, Gallimard, Paris 1973). [Lou cited an English
translation of this work published by Monthly Review Press, in an earlier

[end of Lochhead excerpt]

Richard Fidler

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