‘How Revolutionary Were the Bourgeois Revolutions?’ reviewed by Tony Mckenna

How Revolutionary Were the Bourgeois Revolutions?

Haymarket Books, Chicago, 2012. 813pp., $32 pb
ISBN 9781608460670

Reviewed by Tony McKenna

About the reviewer

Tony is a novelist and philosopher, author of Art, Literature and Culture from a Marxist …


What is a bourgeois revolution? To answer that question Neil Davidson begins by looking at the concept of revolution more broadly. ‘Revolution’ – from the Latin ‘to turn’ – originally suggested rotation and was applied to the movement of the celestial bodies. Davidson notes that the political concept of ‘revolution’ emerged marked with these etymological origins for it involved ‘the assumption that society would remain essentially immobile beneath any changes of regime’ (9). In the ancient world, therefore, revolutions were comprehended as cyclical events which tended to return societies to a set of original and fundamental conditions – usually Monarchy, Aristocracy or Democracy – restoring these, in most cases, from their corruptions (Tyranny, Oligarchy and Anarchy).

But the modern age induces a radical reconfiguring of the concept of revolution. As capitalist forms and relations become more pronounced, as the Dutch and then English revolutions took place facilitating them, such changes were crystallised in the intellectual milieu of the epoch – namely enlightenment – with two central consequences. First, the concept of revolution more and more took on its modern meaning – i.e., that of a fundamental change or transition. Second, and relatedly, the naturalistic cycle, the almost Nietzschean recurrence – in which everything changes so that everything can remain the same – was increasingly displaced by a model of progressive social evolution or historicism. Adam Smith, for instance, postulated a four stage theory of historical development – ‘first, the Age of Hunters; second, the Age of Shepherds, third, the Age of Agriculture; and fourth, the Age of Commerce.’ (Cited 43) It should be added, of course, that Smith simultaneously produced his own form of social naturalism; ‘the Age of Commerce’ aka capital, was, to him, an intrinsic part of all of the previous stages – it was only at the end of the process that its development was fully actualised, and the authentic human nature (a capitalist one) realised therein.

But once a theory of history which involved a progression of stages or epochs was propounded, the onus inevitably fell on the thinkers of the enlightenment to locate the mechanisms which drove this development. So Montesquieu, for instance, began to look for the conditions which gave rise to particular modes of subsistence and which themselves were expressed though specific political forms. Davidson points out that Montesquieu ultimately arrived at a crude form of environmental determinism; the set of social relations which establishes a Spirit of the Laws is a direct product of the ‘different meteorological and topographical conditions’ (39) that obtain. Nevertheless we can see in this the first stirrings of a theory which seeks to analyse forms of consciousness through the prism of social-historical being – even though the latter is comprehended according to a causal interaction with the natural world unmediated by social difference and class exploitation.

The notion expressed by Scottish enlightenment thinkers that ‘history had proceeded through a succession of stages’ (114) would eventually be amalgamated with the work of French liberals who – drawing on the earlier work of British philosopher James Harrington and his followers – went on to emphasis the role of property forms as a basis for the specific character of distinct social epochs. Now we can see the embryonic form of historical materialism as it begins to attain outline and definition, before its eventual concretisation in the work of Marx and Engels who would go on to emphasise the moment of revolutionary transformation as the means by which one period was elided into the next.

But revolutions themselves are inherently paradoxical processes. Not least bourgeois revolutions which are beset with contradictions – including the fact that many take place without the active participation of the bourgeoisie. The Meiji Restoration of Japan, for instance, was accomplished by feudal forces, and the same can be said for the unification of Germany under Bismarck – himself a representative of the Junker class. Not to mention the revolution of 1692-1746 which took place in Davidson’s homeland of Scotland, once more achieved under the direction of feudal lords. The confusion which all this creates is further compounded by the fact that Marxists have sometimes distinguished between the category of ‘bourgeois’ and ‘capitalist’ while in other places treating them as virtually synonymous.

The leadership of the Jacobin component of the French revolution tended to include lawyers like Robespierre or professional intellectuals: politicians or playwrights – people whose social status would typically be construed as bourgeois. At the same time there was a dearth of figures who were involved in the immediate economic processes of production and exchange – industrialists, for instance, or investors. Capitalist or proto-capitalist elements were either in a minority (as in the English and Dutch revolutions) or missing entirely from the leadership of the major revolutions of the period – perhaps with the exception of the Northern bourgeoisie of the United States where the industrialists had a strong presence during the civil war and reconstruction. How to explain this notable absence?

Davidson does so by adducing a dialectical relation between the bourgeoisie and the capitalists. He builds on Hal Draper, who suggested that the bourgeoisie should be understood as ‘a social penumbra’ (cited 557) gathered around a capitalist core – an outcrop of diverse elements which, while not directly involved in the extraction of surplus value, are nevertheless financed by capital and facilitate its appearance in the social field. In our own period, and with regard to this, we might consider the tawdry Harvard economists who, pre 2007, wrote treatises on the need for deregulation in the financial sector while simultaneously receiving substantial cheques from firms like Goldman-Sachs for their analytical ‘wisdom’.

But Davidson develops this dialectically in the context of the revolutionary moment. The ‘non-economic’ bourgeoisie, as he terms them, were essential to capitalist revolutionary transformation precisely because of their (relative) distance from capitalist production. Capitalists, themselves subject to the voracious imperatives of competition, are as a ‘hostile band of warring brothers’. (564) The non-economic bourgeoisie are capable of providing a universalising impulse which can carry the revolutionary moment forward and transcend the fragmentation of directly economic particularism (Davidson’s formulation here has a distinctly Hegelian flavour).

But how does that explain those ‘bourgeois’ revolutions in which, not only have the capitalists been non-participants but also the non-economic bourgeoisie? The Meiji Restoration, for example, which succeeded in reinstating the emperor; or the Junkers during German unification. Many critics have argued that such revolutions are by nature non-bourgeois. But this is not Davidson’s position. Davidson argues that ‘bourgeois revolutions can be achieved without the guidance of bourgeois ideology or the bourgeoisie achieving direct power.’ (58) The fundamental issue for him, and I believe he is absolutely correct in this, ‘is the extent to which the revolution … contributed to capitalist development’ (58), the degree to which the revolutionary event (and process) helps facilitate emergent bourgeois property relations and (as Davidson correctly insists) the developing forms of class exploitation which undergird these (production, not property, must be the ultimate criterion in any historical ontology of labour).

But the ‘consequentialist’ approach brings with it a new set of controversies. Ellen Meiksins Wood, whose writings should engage any serious Marxist, argues that the French Revolution was bourgeois in as much as its principle agents ‘were the bourgeoisie, an urban class of merchants and industrialists’ (Wood 1995, 148). But, she suggests, the revolution was not conducive to the development of capitalist relations (which according to most political Marxists didn’t exist in the French countryside). In the French case, she argues, the economic developments which were unleashed by the revolutionary processes ultimately resulted in a ‘dead end’ (ibid., 166), in contradistinction to the English example, of course, where an agrarian capitalism had developed and would eventually yield the industrial revolution.

I suspect that Davidson is closer to some elements of Wood’s position here than his sometimes scathing tone toward her might suggest. He would, I am sure, appreciate her emphasis on the fact that a development of trade and industry does, by itself, provide a poor means of identifying capitalist social development. Davidson also goes some way in conceding a point made by the political Marxists more generally – that the French revolution actually resulted in a retardation of development. The key difference is that Davidson regards any economic slack as a short term consequence of the immediate upheavals a revolutionary situation – which so often fissures into civil war and a concomitant loss of life (and labour and/or labour power) – is liable to produce.

But Davidson is in disagreement with the political Marxists on a more profound level. He points out that Marx himself did not believe capitalist relations developed first in the English countryside (although they achieved the most pronounced form there), but rather in the Northern city states of Italy, ‘where capitalist production developed earliest, the dissolution of serfdom, took place earlier than elsewhere.’ (cited 158) Davidson tends to argue that the development of capitalism shouldn’t be restricted in the manner of Wood – i.e., to a single place and time (fourteenth century England) where capitalist relations break out as a result of a unique but essentially linear and isolated development. Rather, Davidson contends, one must recognise multiple-points of origin which involve transitional forms: forms in which the productive activities of an individual often involved a combination of waged labour and subsistence agriculture (for instance) and consequently resist any neat categorisation – not to mention a broader stratification in the forms of exploitation of producers ‘nationwide’ – and the reciprocal interaction of all these factors and forces on a transnational scale. Davidson, therefore, describes the basis of the French revolution in the following terms:

The alignment of the joint crises of capitalism, feudalism and the absolutist state suggest the transitional, combined nature of the French economy, but also that the transition had reached the point where it would be increasingly difficult for the process to continue without radical political change. (587)

Like with so much else in this book, when I came across this passage, I found myself in whole-hearted agreement. But it nevertheless presents yet another problem. What about those places which underwent a ‘bourgeois’ revolution but which had experienced only very limited and insubstantial traces of capitalist development? Japan, at the time of the Meiji Restoration, is possibly the most striking example of this. And here Davidson deploys what is one of his key theoretical tools – Trotsky’s theory of uneven and combined development. Davidson provides an exhaustive analysis of the theory’s development from its origins in Trotsky’s engagement with Parvus in 1904-5 to other thinkers in the Marxist vein who had or would reach similar conclusions independently – like Marx and the early Kautsky (albeit embryonically) and the later Lenin. One of the book’s many successes is to reveal the sheer brilliance of Trotsky’s theory, and demonstrate what a valuable aid it provides in comprehending developments from the purview of the totality. The Meiji restoration, for instance, occurred when a combination of feudal lords and their Samurai enforcers attacked the Shogun government and replaced it with a modern central state based on universal taxation. They set up new industries and opened the country to foreign capital. Why did these quasi-feudal lords behave in such an un-feudal fashion? They were compelled to act thusly ‘in a context where capitalist laws of motion were much stronger across the world economy as a whole’ (509). At this point the epoch of capitalism had entered an irreversible phase, and the local lords realised – having been witness to the abject subjugation of China at the hands of England in both Opium Wars – that their own privileges depended on their ability to modernise.

Davidson uses the example of the Meiji restoration as a means of exploring a revolution which operates from the top down, which does not, by and large, pull the masses into its vortex, but which nevertheless affects a qualitative transformation of the mode of production (a social revolution rather than a political one). Davidson cites this as an example of what Gramsci termed ‘passive revolution’ and goes on to show how the Gramscian concept can only be fully understood in the light of the process of uneven and combined development (though he qualifies this somewhat in the case of the Meiji Restoration). Davidson also provides detailed accounts of the way the process of uneven and combined development worked in Russia and China. In both cases an archaic political structure sustained industrial and agrarian reforms under the pressures of a global capitalism; this resulted in the creation of a concentrated working-class radicalised to the sharpest degree – precisely a result of the backward nature of the political state which had called it into being.

Indeed Davidson shows how uneven and combined development merges with another of Trotsky’s famous political frameworks, permanent revolution. Because the bourgeoisie is so reticent and underdeveloped in those countries where it emerges later in the historical day so to say, it is incapable of carrying out its own revolutionary tasks – land reforms, the destruction of feudal privilege, creation of political democracy (though the latter was usually part of a protracted process); and so those requirements pass across to the revolutionary proletariat on a national scale (to be sustained internationally) – hence the revolution becomes permanent. Davidson provides a sharp and incisive analysis of the use of the concept of permanent revolution (including its ‘deflected’ variant employed by Tony Cliff) in the modern context.

It is, in fact, another one of Cliff’s concepts – ‘state capitalism’ – which proves more problematic when Davidson deploys it as he does here, in an uncritical fashion. Davidson shows convincingly both how the proletarian revolution has similarities with the bourgeois revolution (thus one can grow into the other) but also how it is more fundamental (there is no class beneath the proletariat to exploit; in taking power, it remains productive rather than exploitative, and in so doing abolishes the class relation more generally). Davidson’s sense of this is absolutely vital and allows him correctly to critique those Marxists who have fetishized property relations at the expense of production – seeing in Cuba or China, for instance, examples of ‘degenerated workers states’.

But the ‘state capitalism’ thesis presents problems of its own. In another section of the book Davidson criticises the tendency, advocated by John Haldon among others, to see the tributary and feudal modes of production as essentially the same because both involve the extraction of a surplus product from a mainly peasant population, albeit through the taxation of a centralised administration on the one hand, and rent extractions achieved by different feudal lords in a multiplicity of sovereignties on the other. Such an interpretation ‘restricts the mode of production solely to relations of exploitation’ (543) with the consequence that, to phrase it in the Hegelian idiom, the many is dissolved in the one; all pre-capitalist forms become in essence abstractly identical. But as apposite as this observation is, I couldn’t help but feel that the theory of ‘state capitalism’ achieves something similar – the extraction of surplus value taking place in a fragmented manner among many individual capitalists (where the law of value prevails within national limits) and the extraction of a surplus product from a working class on the part of a centralised state – the two phenomena are, by ‘state capitalism’, rendered qualitatively the same.

And Davidson’s understanding of Lukács is, at points, highly sketchy. These are, however, secondary considerations. Davidson exhibits a dazzling ability to synthesise, to pull in a bewildering array of secondary source material and all manner of eclectic cultural and political references into a continuous stream of unadulterated dialectical exhibition. This is, quite simply, the finest book of its kind. 

1 April 2013


  • Wood, Ellen Meiksins 1995 Democracy Against Capitalism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

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