[Marxism] Re: Bourgeois revolutions not led by the bourgeoisie?

Ed George edgeorge at usuarios.retecal.es
Fri Oct 28 14:01:42 MDT 2005


We’ve been here before:

*****

Another approach to the problem runs like this. Conceding the 
revisionist argument that the bourgeois revolutions themselves do not in 
fact represent the political 'overthrow of feudalism' by the 
revolutionary bourgeoisie, some have adopted the procedure of 
designating as the 'bourgeois revolution' that very socio-economic 
process whereby the rising capitalist class does in fact supersede 
feudal social relations. Thus, Gareth Stedman Jones:

'The triumph of the bourgeoisie should be seen as the global victory of 
a particular form of property relations and a particular form of control 
over the means of production, rather than as the conscious triumph of a 
class subject which possessed a distinct and coherent view of the 
world.' [Gareth Stedman Jones, 'Society and Politics at the Beginning of 
the World Economy', Cambridge Journal of Economics 1 (1977)]

And, even more explicitly, in his contribution to a seminal intervention 
into the field of modern German history, David Blackbourn remarked that:

'If we do retain this term [i.e. the bourgeois revolution], it makes 
more sense (and not just in the German case) to apply it rather 
differently. We should direct our attention to long-term processes 
rather than short-term events, to quiet changes in economy and society 
rather than dramatic public episodes, to the effects of actions rather 
than the intentions of actors. Before the present century at least, the 
bourgeoisie characteristically became the dominant class in European 
countries [...] through means other than the heroic purposive conquest 
of power. Its real strength and power were rooted in the capitalist mode 
of production and articulated through dominance in civil society. This, 
rather than one specific state form, is what deserves the label 
bourgeois revolution [...].' [David Blackbourn and Geoff Eley, The 
Peculiarities of German History: Bourgeois Society and Politics in 
Nineteenth-Century Germany (Oxford and New York, 1984), 175.]

Again, it is necessary to find fault with this approach. In the first 
place, if we account for the revolutionary transformation of the 
socio-economic structure in this way, we still have the problem of 
theoretically categorising the distinct political upheavals which 
generally appear to accompany the overall process. But there is a more 
serious objection that needs to be made. For while it is indeed 
necessary to situate the political upheavals designated as 'bourgeois 
revolutions' within the overall socio-economic transition from feudalism 
to capitalism, we cannot lose sight of the fact that while the former 
have taken a specifically national form - in that the object of the 
insurgents in each case was the structures of the (proto-national, 
Absolutist) state, the latter process was not only supranational but 
intercontinental in scale. If the political process of bourgeois 
revolution is collapsed into the socio-economic process of transition, 
this transnational dimension of the latter is lost sight of and the 
globally developing capitalist mode of production is viewed as the sum 
of a series of 'national economies': a classical, ubiquitous even, error 
of social-democratic and Stalinist variations on Marxism.

The third approach appears on the face of it more convincing at first 
sight: that which - again conceding the revisionist argument that, 
whoever was in fact in the leadership of the bourgeois revolution, it 
was certainly not a class conscious, revolutionary, capitalist 
'bourgeoisie' - contends that these revolutions were bourgeois not by 
virtue of their leadership cadre, but by virtue of their objective 
effects on the future course of capitalist development. Thus, for 
example, in his George Macaulay Trevelyan lectures delivered at 
Cambridge University in 1967 (concerning post-revolutionary Soviet 
historical development), Isaac Deutscher:

'The traditional view [of the bourgeois revolution], widely accepted by 
Marxists and non-Marxists alike, is that in such revolutions, in Western 
Europe, the bourgeoisie played the leading part, stood at the head of 
the insurgent people, and seized power. [...] It seems to me that this 
conception, to whatever authorities it may be attributed, is schematic 
and historically unreal. From it one may well arrive at the conclusion 
that bourgeois revolution is almost a myth, and that it has hardly ever 
occurred, even in the West. Capitalist entrepreneurs, merchants and 
bankers were not conspicuous among the leaders of the Puritans or the 
commanders of the Ironsides, in the Jacobin Club or at the head of the 
crowds that stormed the Bastille or invaded the Tuileries. Nor did they 
seize the reins of government during the revolution or for a long time 
afterwards, either in England or in France. Here and there the upheavals 
ended in military dictatorship. Yet the bourgeois character of these 
revolutions will not appear at all mythical, if we approach them with a 
broader criterion and view their general impact on society. Their most 
substantial and enduring achievement was to sweep away the political and 
social institutions that had hindered the growth of bourgeois property 
and of the social relationships that went with it. [...] Bourgeois 
revolution creates the conditions in which bourgeois property can 
flourish. In this, rather than in the different alignments during the 
struggle, lies its differentia specifica.' [Isaac Deutscher, The 
Unfinished Revolution: Russia 1917-1967 (Oxford, 1967), 21-22]

Or, more recently, as Alex Callinicos of the British Socialist Workers' 
Party has argued:

'The revisionist claim is [...] damaging to classical Marxism only on 
condition that we conceive bourgeois revolutions as necessarily the 
result of the self conscious action of the capitalist class. [...] 
Responding to the revisionist attacks requires a shift in focus. 
Bourgeois revolutions must be understood, not as revolutions consciously 
made by capitalists, but as revolutions which promote capitalism. The 
emphasis should shift from the class which makes a bourgeois revolution 
to the effects of such a revolution-to the class which benefits from it. 
More specifically, a bourgeois revolution is a political 
transformation-a change in state power, which is the precondition for 
large scale capital accumulation and the establishment of the 
bourgeoisie as the dominant class. This definition requires, then, a 
political change with certain effects. It says nothing about the social 
forces which carry through the transformation.' ['Bourgeois Revolutions 
and Historical Materialism', International Socialism 43 (June 1989), 
122, 124.]

But this is again wrong. First, if, as seems the case, the bourgeois 
revolutions are not led by a class conscious revolutionary bourgeoisie - 
not occasionally, but, it appears, always - our duty is to ask why. The 
approach suggested by Deutscher and Callinicos does not attempt this: it 
accepts the seemingly remarkable phenomenon of fundamental political 
upheavals, on the face of it supposedly beneficial to capitalism, led by 
non-bourgeois forces as unworthy of further explanation. Yet the search 
for an explanation for this is absolutely central to any interpretation 
of the mechanisms and structure of the bourgeois revolution, if such are 
to be found. In the second place, one has to question the definition of 
bourgeois revolution as 'revolutions which promote capitalism'. In the 
cases of England/Britain and Germany this indeed appears incontestable; 
in the case of France, however - and remember that France is the seat of 
the classical model, the paradigm case - the efficacy for future 
capitalist development of the modern type of the bourgeois revolution is 
indeed questionable: for the bulk of the nineteenth century, capitalist 
development in France remained very much the poor relation of what was 
occurring in Germany and Britain (and later the United States) - hardly 
what one would have expected of such a shining beacon of 
bourgeois-revolutionary upheaval, even if it is so characterised solely 
on grounds of objective consequences rather than social composition of 
leadership cadre.

*****

Full: <http://archives.econ.utah.edu/archives/marxism/2002/msg05591.htm>




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