What’s the Deal with Bourgeois Revolutions, Again?
In a forthcoming post, I hope to write some thoughts down about the question of when (and why) leftists in the US stopped using the word “bourgeois.” Along the way, I have felt the need to remind myself about the Marxist tradition of thinking about the category of “bourgeois revolution.” In its most cliched articulation, “bourgeois revolution” is the name given to the idea that historical progress (and, in particular, the passage from ancien régime to the modern capitalist state) depends upon a single event: the emergence of a fully conscious bourgeoisie, who announce the abolition of feudalism (and, by extension, herald the arrival of capitalism), execute the king, and then proclaim the republic to the thunderous applause of Parliament . Thrashing around my bookcases, I found myself unsatisfied with my sources on the subject. I was happy, therefore, to discover “How Revolutionary Were the Bourgeois Revolutions?” a long and excellent essay on the history and current status of “bourgeois revolution” in Marxist historiography by Neil Davidson (based on his 2003 Deutscher Prize lecture), published in the journal Historical Materialism.
Having spent my youth reading guitar magazines, I was unfamiliar with the term “bourgeois revolution” until my first day of an undergraduate class on Classical Marxist Theory. The professor, a sweet and soft-spoken man who would be played by Robbie Coltrane in a film adaptation of this blog post, anxiously addressed the assembled undergraduates– a motley assortment of youthful activist types, liberally peppered with engineering students and cheerleaders burning through general education requirements––and declared: “I know this might disturb some of you, but… I don’t believe there is any such thing as a ‘bourgeois revolution.'” (Long stretch of silence). None of my classmates (including me) had even the foggiest notion of what the hell he was talking about.
This asymmetry between a professor’s passionate intellectual commitments and the apathy of his or her students is, of course, a normal feature of the university experience. What’s interesting about this anecdote, however, is that at many earlier moments in the twentieth century, a group of students drawn to a class on Marx might well have been familiar with debates surrounding “bourgeois revolution”: they may even have been duly shocked by a statement such as my professor’s declaration of heterodoxy on the matter.
In the middle decades of the 20th century, students in the orbit of the Communist Party might have known the Stalinist line on “bourgeois revolution,” as it applied to the Russian Revolution and the nations of the global South within the Soviet sphere of influence; Trotskyists would have been fluent in “bourgeois revolution” talk in their consideration of when and why the revolution was betrayed and in their engagement with Trotsky’s notion of “permanent revolution”; non-sectarian Leftists might have known the term from the widely read works of Georges Lefebvre and Christopher Hill, or from the literature on Third World revolutionary movements.
After 1989, so the cliché goes, things changed. Marxists in the 1990s were on the watch for any sign of “vulgarity’ in their Marxism, weeding out remaining strains of teleology, determinism, stagism that lurked within historical materialism (thank goodness). Inevitably, “bourgeois revolution” came up for debate, and some Marxologists (many of whom were aligned with the American Marxist historian Robert Brenner), discovered that the origins of “bourgeois revolution” were to be found in the writings of reactionary bourgeois historians like Francois Guizot. They decided, therefore, that the term was a placeholder in Marx’s thought, not an original contribution to a theory of historical development.
We might ask, however, whether it is more than a coincidence that the rejection of “bourgeois revolution” happened at exactly the same moment that leftists across the political spectrum excised the term “bourgeois” from their vocabularies. At the end of Davidson’s essay, he suggests that there may well have been such a convergence. “I suspect,” Davidson writes, “an increasing unwillingness to credit historical capitalism, and by extension, the bourgeoisie, with any positive contribution to human development.” (Davidson 2, 47). Davidson reads the temperature of the current moment correctly. In light of this growing consensus regarding the historical uselessness of the bourgeoisie within contemporary anti-capitalist thought, it is surprising–if not occasionally shocking–to recall that such a perspective runs against the grain of most left-wing thinking for most of the 20th century. “Bourgeois revolution” was the banner under which left-wing confidence in the historical usefulness of the bourgeoisie flew.
Against the current agreement on the irrelevance of “bourgeois revolution,” Davidson argues that the concept remains useful for Marxist historians. He reminds us that the idea of “bourgeois revolution” once gave leftists hope that revolutions do, in fact, sometimes happen. It also underlined the hypocrisy of bourgeois hysteria regarding left-wing revolutionary desires: “it allows us to expose the hypocrisy of a bourgeoisie which itself came to power by revolutionary means, but which now seeks to deny the same means to the working class” .
While Davidson wishes to preserve a certain rendering of “bourgeois revolution,” he concedes the point that the historical experience most commonly denoted by the term never, in fact, took place. The bourgeoisie who were allegedly the agents of revolution were not a dynamic, “rising” bloc; they were often indistinguishable from their putative enemies, the aristocratic representatives of the old feudal order; they did not act as leaders or instigators of revolutionary violence; and they often failed to seize the reins of power in the aftermath of uprisings .
Critiques of “bourgeois revolution” have taken a variety of forms. One school, associated with the European historian Arno Mayer, insists that the landed ruling classes (the folks supposedly displaced by “bourgeois revolutions”) remained in power until the mid-20th century (in some cases, as in Spain and Portugal, until the mid-1970s). Another school has taken issue with “event”-focused history more generally, looking at long, sometimes glacially paced, processes of development as the real story of historical development. A third school, linked with Immanuel Wallerstein and “Capitalist World Systems” theory, denies that capitalism needed ever pass through the turnstiles of “bourgeois revolutions” in the first place. After all, capitalism got going well before the first “bourgeois revolution” (either the rise of anti-Spanish forces in the Dutch Republic in the late 16th century, or the English Revolution of 1640), and a vigorous world commodity trade began under the auspices of decidedly pre-bourgeois forces. Finally, a fourth school, linked to the revisions of Robert Brenner, questions whether, logically speaking, the theory of “bourgeois revolution” makes any sense, since it presupposes, rather than explains, the development of an autonomous and militant bourgeoisie. Brenner and his allies point also to the awkward fact that the clearest example of the “bourgeois revolution,” its ideal type, was the French Revolution, and that was not really a “bourgeois revolution” at all. Most damningly, once the dust settled, post-Napoleonic France still wasn’t a capitalist state, and wouldn’t become one for decades .
As Davidson notes, it is really only the Brenner school that has posed a potentially fatal challenge to “bourgeois revolution.” Other critiques either stretch the temporal frame so widely that the “revolution” metaphor becomes dysfunctional, or disagree so profoundly on what is meant by “capitalism” that to carry on the debate would be to get caught up in language games. For Brenner (and especially for those influenced by his work, like Ellen Meiksins Wood) the silliness of “bourgeois revolution”-centric historiography derives from its failure to correctly identify the class who actually oversaw and profited the most from the transition from feudalism to capitalism: farm-owners and agrarians in the 17th and 18th century English countryside, history’s first authentic capitalists. “Bourgeois revolution” calls to mind cities, cafes, global trade, pompous orators in wigs and tights, harpsichords and fortepianos chirping away in the background. The transition to capitalism, Brenner and Wood wish us to understand, was the story of farms, crop rotation, men in floppy hats and dirty boots, set to the sound of braying sheep (do sheep bray? or bleat? let’s say bleat) and scratchy fiddles.
Brenner’s challenge to the “bourgeois revolution” is less fatal than it initially appears, however. For what he argues against is not really “bourgeois revolution” as a broad and internally contested conceptual framework, but rather against a very narrow (and extremely problematic) articulation of the concept in Stalinist vulgarizations: as a stage in a mechanically determined sequence leading to socialism.
How else might “bourgeois revolution” be conceived? Davidson emphasizes that there is a long tradition, stretching back to Adam Smith and the Scottish Enlightenment, conceiving of anti-absolutist revolutions as the necessary preconditions for the emergence of bourgeois culture and “commercial society”: in other words, “bourgeois revolutions” ushered in the rule of the bourgeoisie, but were not the products of bourgeois self-activity. The effect of these revolutions was the rearrangement of property relations and the redefinition, in the direction of liberalism, of the role and function of the state. It seems that without these revolutions (which drew on, but also sought to contain, the passions of the poor), states would have remained more or less feudal, or more or less absolutist.
This understanding was more or less what Marx had in mind when he wrote about “bourgeois revolutions.” Germany, for example, awaited a revolution that would bring about English-style capitalism, but nowhere did Marx suggest that the German bourgeoisie would be the agents of such a change. After all, as Davidson notes, even in Marx’s most pronounced tribute to the transformative power of the bourgeoisie, the opening passages of The Communist Manifesto, the concept of “bourgeois revolution” is conspicuously absent. The bourgeoisie were indeed radically transforming the world, but not by going to the mattresses .
After Marx’s death, “bourgeois revolution” became an increasingly central theme in Marxist literature. Lenin and Trotsky both wrestled with the concept, and applied it to the questions surrounding the meaning of 1905 and 1917. The latter’s theory of “permanent revolution” can only really be properly understood against the background of debates regarding the universality of “bourgeois revolution” as a precondition for the arrival of socialism .
During the period of the Second International, Davidson writes, most national labor movements converged on notions of “bourgeois revolution.” It was at this moment that the now standard understanding of “bourgeois revolution” was concretized: the story of the bourgeoisie as the leading actors in the struggle to supplant the feudal lords, affiliating with lower classes via a shared demand for “democracy. Having failed to establish full democracy, the bourgeoisie would cede the status of lead actor to the working class, who would win meaningful victories for democracy and thereby open up the road to socialism .
With the rise of Stalinism, the theory of “bourgeois revolution” became, like so much else under Stalinism, mechanical and catechistic. From the Popular Front period onward, “bourgeois revolution” was reduced to a “checklist of tasks” (the achievement of formal liberal rights, extension of the franchise, legal reforms, etc.), derived from a blinkered reading of the French Revolution, that all developing nations were required to achieve. Such a framework worked seamlessly, of course, with the changing rationalizations justifying Soviet support for various nationalist struggles and political projects that seemed in most ways to be diametrically at odds with socialist values .
 Neil Davidson, “How Revolutionary Were the Bourgeois Revolutions? (cont’d),” Historical Materialism, Vol. 13:4 (3-54), 2005, p. 20.
 Neil Davidson, “How Revolutionary Were the Bourgeois Revolutions?” Historical Materialism, Vol. 13:3 (3-33), 2005, p. 4.
 Ibid., p. 5.
 Ibid. p. 7-9.
 Davidson, “How Revolutionary Were the Bourgeois Revolutions? (cont’d),” p. 11.
 Davidson, “How Revolutionary Were the Bourgeois Revolutions? (cont’d),” p. 17.
 Ibid., 24.
 Ibid., 26.