Neil Davidson, bourgeois revolutions and the transition to capitalism


Posted to on October 29, 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 incidental.


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 society.


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.