George Comninel on stages

Most of us probably assume that the following passage from the Communist Manifesto reflects some special new insight from Marx and Engels:

"The bourgeoisie has disclosed how it came to pass that the brutal display of vigor in the Middle Ages, which reactionaries so much admire, found its fitting complement in the most slothful indolence. It has been the first to show what man's activity can bring about. It has accomplished wonders far surpassing Egyptian pyramids, Roman aqueducts, and Gothic cathedrals; it has conducted expeditions that put in the shade all former exoduses of nations and crusades."

In the chapter "Bourgeois Revolution: A Liberal Concept" (Rethinking the French Revolution, Verso, 1987), George Comninel argues that nothing could be further from the truth. Marx and Engels were simply repeating what liberal historians had been saying all along. The notion of a "bourgeois revolution" was commonplace in France (Thierry, Mignet, Guizot) as well as England (David Hume).

Thierry, for example, wrote, "One could say that the rallying cry of the two armies were, on one side, idleness and power, and on the other, industry and liberty: because the idlers, those who wanted no other occupation in life than pleasure without pains, of whichever caste, enlisted with the royalist troops, to defend interests conforming to their own; whereas those families from the caste of the former conquerors that had been won over to industry joined the party of the commons."

The notion that the French Revolution was the outcome of a protracted struggle over conflicting property relations is not an innovation either. Three decades prior to the Communist Manifesto, Guizot wrote, "In order to understand political institutions, we must study the various strata existing in society and their mutual relationships. In order to understand these various social strata, we must know the nature and the relations of landed property."

Engels openly acknowledged the debt to the liberals in an 1894 letter to H. Starkenberg:

"While Marx discovered the materialist conception of history, Thierry, Mignet, Guizot and all the English historians up to 1850 are evidence that it was being striven for, and the discovery of the same conception by Morgan proves that the time was ripe for it and that it simply *had* to be discovered."

Marx said the same thing more or less in a famous letter to Joseph Weydemeyer:

"And now as to myself, no credit is due to me for discovering the existence of classes in modern society or the struggle between them. Long before me bourgeois historians had described the historical development of the class struggle and bourgeois economists the economic anatomy of the classes."

Even on the question of materialist conception of history, there is evidence that the bourgeois liberals had a similar approach. An important chapter of Plekhanov's "In Defense of Materialism" deals with the subject of materialism in bourgeois historians such as Guizot.

I suspect that most of us are more familiar with Marx's debt to bourgeois economists such as Ricardo, but the connection to bourgeois historians deserves wider familiarity, as is clearly Comninel's goal. There are important political consequences as well, some that might possibly explain Marxism's failure to adequately theorize capitalism's onslaught against precapitalist formations such as the American Indian tribes.

What Marxism and bourgeois liberal historians share is a notion of "stages" of history based on contending modes of production. Common to many of Marx's predecessors was a 4-stage theory that begins with hunting and which gives rise the subsequent stages of pasturage, agriculture and commerce. They also believed that different sets of institutions related to law and government, customs and morals were connected to the various stages. So the base/superstructure model is not particularly Marxist.

Lord Kames, one such subscriber to the theory, wrote in 1758:

"The life of a fisher or hunter is averse to society, except among the members of simple families. The shepherd life promotes larger societies, if that can be called a society, which hath scarce any other than a local connection. But the true spirit of society, which consists in mutual benefits, and in making the industry of individuals profitable to others as well as themselves, was not known till agriculture was invented. Agriculture requires the aid of many other arts. The carpenter, the blacksmith, the mason, and other artificiers, contribute to it. This circumstance connects individuals in an intimate society of mutual support, which again compacts them within a narrow space."

Who can not make the connection between this statement and the war against the American Indian? The life of a fisher or hunter is averse to society. A higher stage comes in the form of agriculture, which compacts all these admirable, industrious tradesmen in a "narrow space." Obviously, anybody who stands in the way of such compacting progress has to be eliminated.

Comninel's verdict on the "stages" theory is worth repeating verbatim:

"The four stages theory is liberal ideology in classic form. Situated in Lockean materialism; taking 'utility'--or the pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of pain--as a social principle; presuming that human arts develop in response to necessity; seeing progress in individual capacities as more significant than the disruption of the social whole: the four stages theory could be carried so far as to become the very embodiment of Pangloss's world unfolding as it must, in this best of all possible worlds."

While Marx integrated the theory of the bourgeois revolution into an all-encompassing political system that transcended it, there are still traces of the undigested muck that rise to the surface from time to time. The Communist Manifesto gives open expression to it, as does volume one of Capital. It took him an entire lifetime to digest this theory and put it in its proper place, as nothing but a specific event that capped off historical developments in specific European countries. In his letters to the Russian populists, he made it crystal-clear that the "stagist" approach was not something that he endorsed. Proof of this was his clarion call to prevent capitalist development in the Russian countryside at all costs. The zemstvos would provide the basis for socialism; waiting for an urban proletariat to develop was Plekhanov's "contribution." Unfortunately, the "productivist" and "stagist" model of Marxism with its bourgeois liberal roots lingers to this day. The only explanation is that bourgeois power is so enormous as to cloud the thinking of those who struggle to overthrow it. Working class militancy is what's required, not cheer-leading for a "revolutionary" bourgeoisie that never really existed.

Louis Proyect