Neil Davidson on the bourgeois revolution


Posted to on February 18, 2006


Although my cash outlay for individual copies and/or subscriptions to leftist print journals has slowed to a trickle, I did make an exception for the 2005, Vol 13., Issue 4 of "Historical Materialism". There you'll find the second part of Neil Davidson's "How Revolutionary Were the Bourgeois Revolutions" (a reply to part one is at:, a symposium on the ineffable John Holloway, and a survey on books about Trotskyism by Ian Birchall. This post takes up Davidson's article. I plan to write about the other two as time permits.


Just a word or two about HM. I don't really know much about the origins of the journal, but Sebastian Budgen--a rather inscrutable figure--appears to be one of the prime movers. Budgen is subbed to Marxmail and a number of other mailing lists, where he surfaces once or twice a year to announce the latest HM. He is also the acquisitions editor for Verso Books. In an article he wrote for the British Socialist Worker newspaper last December, he was identified as a member of the Trotskyist LCR in France for what that's worth.


Although I think it is unfortunate that the HM articles can only be read in print, they are definitely worth tracking down at your local research or university library. Some are relevant to folks like us, who have discussed the topics covered in the above-mentioned three articles in the past. Others are typical academic affairs such as a discussion of the relative merits of Adorno and Habermas (yawn).


Despite my mixed feelings about the value of print publications in the Internet epoch, I do understand the need for such journals as a publishing outlet for Marxist professors. With all of the pressure being mounted by the rightwing nowadays, any help in keeping these decent souls employed is obviously beneficial.


Before turning to Neil Davidson's article, I'd like to provide a little bit of background. There are two important questions that tend to overlap in Marxist research. The first involves the transition from feudalism to capitalism. This has been under debate since Paul Sweezy and Maurice Dobb went at each other in the pages of Science and Society in the 1950s. In an article commemorating Sweezy in the ISO magazine, Phil Gasper summed up the differences this way: "Dobb maintained that the breakdown of feudalism was due to internal factors, while Sweezy emphasized the growth of trade, overseas expansion, and the creation of colonies. Both positions were one-sided, but Sweezy’s view had the merit of identifying capitalism as an international system in which more powerful countries attempt to dominate weaker ones economically and militarily."


The debate reemerged in the 1970s as Robert Brenner would take up where Dobb left off. Brenner argued that capitalism originated in Great Britain in the late middle ages as landlords began to sublease plots to commercial farmers rather than accepting tribute as was the case under feudalism. The introduction of market relations had a rippling effect, ultimately leading to the industrial revolution, space travel and cell phones. Two of the major critics of this analysis were Jim Blaut, who was subbed to Marxmail until his death, and Immanuel Wallerstein, who is even more one-sided than Paul Sweezy. I regard myself as a minor critic, although both Brenner and his co-thinker Ellen Meiksins Wood have responded to things that I have written--against their better judgment, I'm sure.


The related question revolves around whether there was a "bourgeois revolution", at least in the sense understood by Marxist historians influenced to one degree or another by stagist conceptions. Until reading Davidson's very convincing article, I tended to agree with George Comninel, a Socialist Register editor, who argued that such a thing did not exist. As I will point out, Davidson's article resolves this contradiction on a higher level. (Long live dialectics!)


There is no necessary link between the positions one holds on the two questions. For example, Wood is a ferocious defender of the Brenner thesis but agrees with Comninel's analysis of the French revolution. I have written tens of thousands of words in opposition to Brenner, but agreed with Wood that Comninel was right (until now that is.) Meanwhile, some of the most vociferous defenders of Maurice Dobb against Sweezy are recognized as major exponents of the "revolutionary bourgeoisie" thesis, especially E.J. Hobsbawm.


While Davidson part one was primarily concerned with the "transition debate," the second part hones in on the question of bourgeois revolutions. The most insightful observation is found in the middle of the article where Davidson distinguishes between two forms of the class struggle. In one case, exploitation is involved: "Slave-owners extract surplus from slaves, feudal lords and tributary bureaucrats do the same to peasants, and capitalists do the same to the workers."


In the second case, the rival classes confront each other as oppressed and oppressor, rather than exploited and exploiter, since no surplus extraction is involved. The best example is feudal aristocrats making things difficult for a nascent bourgeoisie.


(Although I am persuaded of the general validity of Davidson's point, it seems that a more useful term than "oppressed" is needed, especially in light of the general amity that existed between sections of the landed gentry and the bourgeoisie in the years preceding the French revolution. It is also hard to think of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson as "oppressed," given their complaints against King George which seemed rather in line with today's multimillionaires bleating about tax hikes.)


Davidson starts off by trying to establish Marx and Engels's attitude toward the notion of a revolutionary bourgeoisie. He makes the essential point that the Communist Manifesto, despite its rather rapturous description of the modernizing capabilities of the capitalist class, says very little about its political role in leading revolutions against feudalism.


When Marx described the role of the bourgeoisie in the German revolution of 1848 --as opposed to the French revolution of 60 years earlier-- he was unimpressed. He took note of a vacillating bourgeoisie more willing to confront the aroused working class than its ostensible feudal enemies. If and when revolutions took place, they tended to be "from above" and bypassed the masses that were at center stage in 1789.


These distinctions were not lost on Lenin who saw Russia at a crossroads around the turn of the century. The revolution might unfold like France's in 1789 and like the American civil war--a result of a thoroughgoing and plebian assault on the old order--or it would look more like the Junkers "revolution from above" that consolidated the rule of the bourgeoisie while retaining many aspects of the feudal era. The abolition of serfdom in Russia was an example of how the exploiting classes in Russia would connive to maintain the status quo while giving the appearance of attacking it. In the 1907 article "The Agrarian Question and the Forces of the Revolution," Lenin wrote:


"All Social-Democrats are convinced that, in its social and economic content, the present revolution is a bourgeois revolution. This means that it is proceeding on the basis of capitalist production relations, and will inevitably result in a further development of those same production relations. To put it more simply, the entire economy of society will still remain under the domination of the market, of money, even when there is the broadest freedom and the peasants have won a. complete victory in their struggle for the land. The struggle for land and freedom is a struggle for the conditions of existence of bourgeois society, for the rule of capital will remain in the most democratic republic, irrespective of how the transfer of 'all the land to the people' is effected.


"Such a view may seem strange to anyone unfamiliar with Marx’s theory. Yet it is not hard to see that it is the correct view­one need but recall the great French Revolution and its outcome, the history of the 'free lands' in America, and so on."


You'll note, by the way, that Lenin refers to a "bourgeois revolution" above, and not to a "bourgeois-democratic revolution." This is a key point for Davidson. Since the conflation of bourgeois and democratic is so widespread in Marxist discourse, it is necessary to explain how it came into existence, especially given its absence in the writings of both Lenin and Trotsky.


In a survey of theories of bourgeois revolution, Davidson identifies a tendency in the late 19th century to search for historical antecedents in the struggle against capitalism--a native radical tradition so to speak. This led to a search for a unifying theme in which "the people" were eternal actors against entrenched interests. That theme became democracy. As Davidson puts it:


"It became important to identify struggles that could be retrospectively endorsed and assimilated into a narrative of democratic advance, the closing episode of which had opened with the formation of the labour movement. In most cases, the radical traditions were directly inherited from left liberalism, particularly in those countries - above all Britain, but also France - where Marxism was initially weakest and where liberal connections with labour were political and organisational as well as ideological. In effect, these traditions tended to become a populist alternative narrative to what one early radical liberal historian, John Richard Green, called 'drum and trumpet' histories."


While this sort of thing was innocent enough in the late 1800s, it took a more destructive character during the rise of Stalinism which required the concept of a "bourgeois-democratic" revolution to buttress its class-collaborationist approach to politics, especially in the 3rd world where feudalism supposedly still prevailed.


The most interesting findings in Davidson's article revolve around aspects of Isaac Deutscher's scholarship that were not known to me, and to most Marxists interested in these questions, I suspect.


In Deutscher's biography of Stalin, he writes:


"Napoleon, the tamer of Jacobinism at home, carried the revolution into foreign lands, to Italy, to the Rhineland, and to Poland, where he abolished serfdom, completely or in part, and where his code destroyed many of the feudal privileges. 'Malgre lui-meme', he executed parts of the political testament of Jacobinism. More paradoxically, the Conservative Junker, Bismarck, performed a similar function when he freed Germany from many survivals of feudalism which encumbered her bourgeois development. The second generation after the French Revolution witnessed an even stranger spectacle, when the Russian Tsar himself abolished serfdom in Russia and Poland, a deed of which not so long before only 'Jacobins' had dreamt. The feudal order had been too moribund to survive; but outside France the popular forces arrayed against it were too weak to overthrow it 'from below'; and so it was swept away 'from above'."


In Deutscher's last book "The Unfinished Revolution," he writes:


"The traditional view [of the bourgeois revolution], widely accepted by Marxists and non-Marxists alike, is that in such revolutions, in Western Europe, the bourgeois played the leading part, stood at the head of the insurgent people, and seized power. This view underlies many controversies among historians; the recent exchanges, for example, between Professor Hugh Trevor-Roper and Mr Christopher Hill on whether the Cromwellian revolution was or was not bourgeois in character. It seems to me that this conception, to whatever authorities it may be attributed, is schematic and 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 nor for a long time afterwards, either in England or in France. The lower middle classes, the urban poor, the plebeians and sans culottes made up the big insurgent battalions. The leaders were mostly 'gentlemen farmers' in England and lawyers, doctors, journalists and other intellectuals 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 social and political institutions that had hindered the growth of bourgeois property and of the social relationships that went with it. When the Puritans denied the Crown the right of arbitrary taxation, when Cromwell secured for English shipowners a monopolistic position in England's trading with foreign countries, and when the Jacobins abolished feudal prerogatives and privileges and, they created, often unknowingly, the conditions in which manufacturers, merchants, and bankers were bound to gain economic predominance, and, in the long run, social and even political supremacy. Bourgeois revolution creates the conditions in which bourgeois property can flourish. In this, rather than in the particular alignments of the struggle, lies its differentia specified."


If Davidson concurs with Deutscher's analysis of the bourgeois revolution, there can be no doubt that he would disagree with his views on the socialist revolution. Deutscher took at his starting point the analysis put forward by Trotsky in "The Revolution Betrayed" and pushed it even further. For Deutscher, Stalin has a lot in common with Napoleon. If Napoleon "carried the revolution into foreign lands," wasn't it obvious that Stalin did so as well by imposing state ownership and a planned economy on Eastern Europe at the point of a bayonet? If bourgeois revolution can be imposed from "above", why can't socialism--at least if it is understood in terms of abolishing capitalist property relations?


As a member of the British SWP, this would go against 'state capitalist' doctrine. Socialism, as opposed to all modes of production that preceded it, can only be the product of a "revolution from below", in which the proletariat is the first exploited class in history to "make a revolution on its own behalf."


Using this yardstick, Davidson and his co-thinkers would dismiss every social transformation since 1917 as simply a change from one form of exploitation to another. It is not just a question of the Red Army imposing bureaucratic state ownership after WWII. The July 26th movement is also the head of an alien exploiting class imposing its will on the Cuban working class.


It is truly sad to see intellectuals associated with the British SWP being able to understand and explain the dialectical contradictions of the bourgeois revolution, but collapsing into idealistic formulae when it comes to the Cuban revolution. It is understandable that a Marxist current would feel the need to reject the Soviet and Eastern European examples in the 1950s and 60s, but it singularly perplexing to see this analytical model used as a procrustean bed for Cuban society. The only way it can work, of course, is to approach Cuba indirectly through the prism of Cubanologist literature as party hack Mike Gonzalez does. His writings on Cuban society are a mélange of anti-Communist books and articles, ranging from Carmela Mesa-Lago to Theodore Draper.


The British SWP also draws upon the dubious wisdom of Sam Farber, a Cuban-American, to help understand the state capitalist dungeon 90 miles offshore. Yet Farber's writings on the USSR are dismissed by Davidson's comrade John Rees as a kind of left Kremlinology in his "In Defense of October." One has to scratch one's head at this. From the standpoint of Cliff-thought, how can somebody be a trusted authority on Cuban despotism while simultaneously being soft on Robert Conquest? Maybe we should pass the hat around and buy a ticket to Havana for Alex Callinicos. One certainly gets the sense that no party higher-up has ever visited the place.


Now I can understand why the British SWP would continue to adhere to these views. How in the world can you admit that what you have been saying for nearly the past 50 years might be wrong? Unfortunately, that is the state that "Marxism-Leninism" has evolved into since the 1920s. It becomes impossible to admit you are wrong since that would undermine one's authority as the living heirs of Marx and Engels. Perhaps it is necessary to remind ourselves what Marx said to Ruge in 1843: "If we have no business with the construction of the future or with organizing it for all time, there can still be no doubt about the task confronting us at present: the ruthless criticism of the existing order, ruthless in that it will shrink neither from its own discoveries, nor from conflict with the powers that be."


If that existing order does not include small Marxist groups, then what difference is there between our movement and organized religion?