Bourgeois revolution?

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Mon Jul 28 09:36:03 MDT 2003

Nation Magazine, August 4, 2003 issue

The Bourgeois Revolutionary
by Robin Blackburn

Books reviewed:
Benjamin Franklin: An American Life
by Walter Isaacson

Benjamin Franklin
by Edmund S. Morgan


Isaacson's larger argument that Franklin was the protagonist of a 
distinctively middle-class transformation takes its cue from Gordon 
Wood, in particular his book The Radicalism of the American Revolution 
(1991). While leftists will have an important demurrer to enter at some 
of the claims made, many will recognize the old Marxist notion of the 
"bourgeois democratic revolution," alive and kicking notwithstanding the 
toil of sundry historical revisionists. In fact, it is difficult to make 
overall sense of much modern history if one discards this concept. Such 
major recent books as Robert Brenner's Merchants and Revolution, John 
Markoff's The Abolition of Feudalism and even, in a different way, 
Francis Fukuyama's The End of History and the Last Man all fall into 
place only if we see in them the moving spirit of bourgeois revolution. 
Since Marx himself borrowed the concept (from Guizot, the Orleanist 
statesman and historian, and Abbé Sieyès, the revolutionary of 1789, who 
insisted that the future belonged to the "Third Estate"), leftists 
cannot really complain that it has been reappropriated by partisans of 

The problem with the concept is that bourgeois revolutions were more 
hybrid and flawed than the theory allowed. It wasn't just that many 
bourgeois lacked the courage of the revolutionaries. It was also that 
the early, burgeoning capitalist order was deeply indebted to practices, 
such as slaveholding and Indian removal, that were not at all liberal or 

Franklin in his later life became a critic of slavery, but Morgan, 
author of the classic American Slavery, American Freedom, registers 
better than Isaacson both Franklin's racial assumptions and the mildness 
of his opposition to slavery. Thus Isaacson cites antislavery remarks 
made by Franklin in letters to Benjamin Rush and Anthony Benezet without 
noting that he was not exactly breaking new ground by chiming in with 
the well-known views of these two early abolitionists. Nevertheless, by 
the late 1780s, Franklin did have a keen sense that a revived slavery 
would compromise the future of the young Republic.



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