[Marxism] Neil Davidson, bourgeois revolutions and the transition to capitalism

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sat Oct 29 13:52:32 MDT 2005

This is a response to Neil Davidson’s “How Revolutionary Were the Bourgeois 
Revolutions?” that appears in the current issue of Historical Materialism. 
A Marxmail subscriber forwarded me the article. For this I am grateful. I 
am also cc’ing Sebastien Budgen, another Marxmail subscriber and HM editor, 
in the hope that he will allow me to put Davidson's article on the Marxmail 
website so that others may read this very interesting contribution to the 
“transition debate.”

Davidson’s chief goal is to refute the analysis put forward by George 
Comninel in “Rethinking the French Revolution.” Comninel basically puts the 
“revisionist” findings of Francois Furet et al into a Marxist context. When 
Furet, a former member of the French CP, found little evidence of a 
“revolutionary bourgeoisie,” he provoked his former comrades into mounting 
a heated counter-attack.

My own affinities with Comninel’s analysis are on display in my writings on 
the American Civil War which were mainly intended to refute Charles Post’s 
attempt to see it as a vindication of the Brenner thesis. In his eyes, the 
overthrow of the slavocracy was necessitated by the same sort of 
ineluctable economic forces that led to agrarian capitalism in Great 
Britain in the late middle ages. Oddly enough, the question of a “bourgeois 
revolution” hardly figures at all in Brennerite literature. For them, the 
most important thing is superceding “extra-market” forces such paying 
tribute to the lord or corvée obligations, a system of unpaid labor on 
medieval estates, etc. As long as the economic aspects of feudalism have 
been liquidated, the question of a “bourgeois revolution” seems almost 

Although Brenner himself has never really addressed Comninel’s analysis, 
his co-thinker Ellen Meiksins Wood considers it as a useful indicator of 
France’s supposed failure to overcome “extra-market” forces necessary for 
making the transition to capitalism. When a wing of the gentry revolted 
against the King in 1789, this might reflect the fact that bourgeois 
property relations had not matured sufficiently. To put it bluntly, Wood 
believes that capitalism could only be found in England in this period. I 
should add that Wood was Comninel’s professor, for what that’s worth.

In the course of taking up challenges to the notion of a bourgeois 
revolution, Davidson considers a couple that are the dialectical opposites 
of each other, namely the “world systems” perspective of Immanuel 
Wallerstein and the Brenner thesis itself. With respect to Wallerstein, 
Davidson puts it this way:

Wallerstein thinks that bourgeois revolutions are no longer necessary, 
but his position is also more extreme in that he thinks they have never 
been necessary. Wallerstein regards the feudal states of the sixteenth 
century, like the nominally socialist states of the twentieth, as 
inherently capitalist through their participation in the world economy. 
Bourgeois revolutions are, therefore, not irrelevant because they failed to 
completely overthrow the feudal landed classes, but because, long before 
these revolutions took place, the lords had already transformed themselves 
into capitalist landowners.”

In distinction to Wallerstein, Brenner sees ‘social-property relations’ as 
the key determinant, rather than participation in a world economy on the 
basis of trade or commerce. Despite the fact that the two scholars are 
often seen as opposite sides of the coin, Davidson sees some affinities:

“So distinctive are these relations that, rather than encompassing the 
entire world by the sixteenth century, as capitalism does for Wallerstein, 
they were still restricted to a handful of territories even a hundred years 
later. Where Wallerstein is broad, Brenner is narrow. But there are also 
similarities. Like Wallerstein, Brenner treats bourgeois revolution as 
irrelevant and does so for essentially the same reasons, namely that 
capitalist development – albeit confined to a very limited number of 
countries --occurred prior to and independently of the events which are 
usually described in this way.”

After recapitulating the Brenner thesis, for which Davidson states his 
preference vis-à-vis Wallerstein, he raises an interesting objection that I 
have not heard before:

“In effect, members of the Brenner school do not seem to recognise that 
there is an abstract model in Capital. Brenner himself apart, they think 
that England was the only site of endogenous capitalist development and 
therefore assume that Marx takes English development as a model for the 
origin of capitalism because, in effect, it was the only example he had. 
Now, I do not dispute that England was the country where capitalism 
developed to the greatest extent. It was for this reason that Marx made it 
the basis of his analysis, in the same way that he always took the most 
developed form of any phenomena as the basis of his analysis. But, in his 
mature work, Marx repeatedly states that capitalist development took place 
beyond England in space and before England in time.”

When Davidson presented sections in the Grundrisse to members of the 
Brenner school, including Wood, that stated that “capitalist development 
took place beyond England in space and before England in time,” they would 
“pretend that they mean something else.” For his part, George Comninel 
issued “disapprovingly admonitions about Marx’s failure to understand his 
own theory.” Davidson expresses some bemusement over the gaps in the 
Brenner thesis:

“I understand how the Brenner school accounts for the establishment of 
capitalism in the English countryside. I also understand how the Brenner 
school accounts for the spread of capitalism beyond Britain. I do not 
understand how capitalist social-property relations spread from the English 
countryside to the rest of England. Nor, for that matter, how the same 
process took place in Holland or Catalonia, the other areas where Brenner 
himself thinks that capitalism existed.”

For Davidson, the answer is recognizing that for Marx, the transition to 
capitalism was as much an urban phenomenon as it was agrarian: “Urban 
labour itself had created means of production for which the guilds became 
just as confining as were the old relations of landownership to an improved 
agriculture, which was in part itself a consequence of the larger market 
for agricultural products in the cities etc.” (Grundrisse, p. 508)

Another interesting insight from Davidson is that Brenner’s conception of 
capitalism is shared by an odd bedfellow:

“For the members of the Brenner school, capitalism is defined by the 
existence of what they call market compulsion – the removal of the means of 
production and subsistence from the direct producers, so that they are 
forced to rely on the market to survive. There is, of course, a venerable 
tradition of thought which defines capitalism solely in market terms, but 
it is not Marxism, it is the Austrian economic school whose leading 
representatives were Ludwig von Mises and Frederick von Hayek.”

This is something I have noticed myself, but not exactly on this basis. If 
capitalism is defined as resting on market compulsion, then vast areas of 
obvious capitalist exploitation are invalidated according to this narrow 
approach. For example, apartheid South Africa would be ruled out with its 
pass system, etc. So would Nazi Germany which involved slave labor on a 
grand scale. Of course, the libertarian would agree that such societies are 
not capitalist. Von Mises and von Hayek both regarded Nazi Germany and 
Communist Russia as noncapitalist since both societies involved statist 
control of the economy, etc. Needless to say, this is a superficial 
analysis but one that was pervasive in the academy.

Davidson also has some pointed observations on Wood’s explicit statement of 
a theme that is implicit throughout Brenner’s writings, namely that 
capitalism in England emerged in the countryside prior to the historical 
formation of capital-wage labor social relations. If a system of tenant 
farming could in and of itself be the key launching pad for capitalist 
property relations, how then was surplus value produced? He writes:

“If capitalism is based on a particular form of exploitation, on the 
extraction of surplus-value from the direct producers through wage-labour, 
then I fail to see how capitalism can exist in the absence of 
wage-labourers. Where does surplus-value come from in a model which 
contains only capitalist landlords and capitalist farmers? Surplus-value 
may be realised through market transactions, but it can scarcely be 
produced by them.”

Once one establishes that the transition to capitalism in England was a 
function of inexorable economic processes in the countryside quite early on 
(the 1400s at least), then the bourgeois revolution becomes trivial, if not 
irrelevant. Brenner wrote:

“First, there really is no transition to accomplish: since the model starts 
with bourgeois society in the towns, foresees its evolution as taking place 
via bourgeois mechanisms, and has feudalism transform itself in consequence 
of its exposure to trade, the problem of how one type of society is 
transformed into another is simply assumed away and never posed. Second, 
since bourgeois society self-develops and dissolves feudalism, the 
bourgeois revolution can hardly play a necessary role.”

According to Davidson, Brenner’s magnum opus “Merchants and Revolution” is 
basically an attempt to demonstrate that feudal relations had been wiped 
out by 1640 so the notion of a Great Revolution is besides the point.

Davidson’s article concludes with a discussion of English history in the 
17th century intended to show that Brenner’s dismissal of the need to 
effect a social revolution is based on minimizing class conflict between 
the forces led by Cromwell and the gentry.

Although I find Davidson’s arguments extremely convincing, they share with 
fellow SWP member Chris Harman a certain element of Eurocentrism. The 
parameters of the discussion take place within Europe and do not attempt to 
address the challenge put forward by Jim Blaut. While I understand 
Davidson’s need to reclaim the legacy of the bourgeois revolution as a key 
element in transcending the Ancien Regime in anticipation for the 
proletarian revolution of the future, this does not quite fully address the 
class dynamics that were at play in the early stages of modern capitalist 

In order to grasp the full dimensions of the struggle, it is necessary to 
take account of other *non-European* actors who had an independent 
political and social identity. CLR James’s “Black Jacobins” is essential 
reading for understanding the full complexity of 1789. Taking Davidson’s 
challenge to Comninel on its own terms, we are still unable to explain why 
bourgeois forces in the French Revolution would have been hostile to the 
abolition of slavery, an obvious precapitalist social institution.

Chapter Twelve of James’s history is titled “The Bourgeoisie Prepares to 
Restore Slavery.” It begins:

“Toussaint was perfectly right in his suspicions. What is the regime under 
which the colonies have most prospered, asked Bonaparte, and on being told 
the ancien regime he decided to restore it, slavery and Mulatto 
discrimination. Bonaparte hated black people. The revolution had appointed 
that brave and brilliant Mulatto, General Dumas,1 Commander-in-Chief of one 
of its armies, but Bonaparte detested him for his colour, and persecuted 
him. Yet Bonaparte was no colonist, and his anti-Negro bias was far from 
influencing his major policies. He wanted profits for his supporters, and 
the clamorous colonists found in him a ready ear. The bourgeoisie of the 
maritime towns wanted the fabulous profits of the old days. The passionate 
desire to free all humanity which had called for Negro freedom in the great 
days of the revolution now huddled in the slums of Paris and Marseilles, 
exhausted by its great efforts and terrorised by Bonaparte's bayonets and 
Fouche's police. But the abolition of slavery was one of the proudest 
memories of the revolution; and, much more important, the San Domingo 
blacks had an army and leaders trained to fight in the European manner. 
These were no savage tribesmen with spears, against whom European soldiers 
armed with rifles could win undying glory.”

Ultimately, the concept of a “bourgeois revolution” has very little 
relevance outside of Europe if it means the promotion of free wage labor as 
a universal standard. The development of capitalism outside of Europe in 
fact was facilitated through the imposition of one form or another of 
“extra-economic” coercion, ranging from slavery to debt peonage.

Despite Comninel’s affinity for the Brenner thesis, there is one aspect of 
his “revisionism” that carries a lot of weight for me and for others with a 
focus on the Black Jacobins of history. By demonstrating the affinity that 
the gentry had with the rising bourgeoisie, Comninel’s reading has the 
merit of being able to explain why Bonaparte sought the reinstitution of 
slavery, despite all the freedom-loving rhetoric of 1789. Whatever was 
revolutionary about the French Revolution could be traced to the 
intervention of the ‘sans culottes’ who were hostile to the possessing 
classes, either bourgeois or aristocratic.

The simple fact is that Marx never wrote that much about 1789. His focus 
was always on the class struggles in France that he was able to observe in 
his own lifetime. In this arena, the bourgeoisie was hardly revolutionary. 
His ultimate statement on this class that was always anxious to betray its 
own stated historic goals was “The Eighteenth Brumaire,” a work focused on 
the nephew of the Emperor who had sought to re-impose slavery on the Haitians.

About this bourgeoisie, Karl Marx wrote:

“The French bourgeoisie had long ago found the solution to Napoleon's 
dilemma: ‘In fifty years Europe will be republican or Cossack.’ It solved 
it in the ‘Cossack republic.’ No Circe using black magic has distorted that 
work of art, the bourgeois republic, into a monstrous shape. That republic 
has lost nothing but the semblance of respectability. Present-day France 
was already contained in the parliamentary republic. It required only a 
bayonet thrust for the bubble to burst and the monster to leap forth before 
our eyes.”

I would suggest that the term ‘Cossack Republic’ goes a long way in 
explaining the contradictory aspects of the capitalist system than 
monocausal explanations rooted in “bourgeois revolutions” or Brennerite 
“social property relations.” As a world system based on commodity 
production, capitalist social relations will adopt a variety of forms based 
on the exigencies of local conditions. Where labor is plentiful, the system 
will allow workers to compete in the marketplace against each other to 
drive down wages. Where it is not plentiful and where propertyless people 
have the opportunity to sustain themselves through hunting, fishing, 
gardening, etc., capitalism will round them up and make them the private 
property of the state or its dominant classes. In the historical evolution 
of the capitalist system, Europe was a site for the former type of 
exploitation; Latin America, Africa and Asia the latter. But as Wallerstein 
pointed out--whatever his mistakes on other important questions--this was a 
world system.

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