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 [1]. 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” [2].

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 [3].

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 [4].

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 [5].


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 [6].

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 [7].

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 [8].

 What Davidson elegantly leads the reader to understand, then, is that contemporary Marxists who take on “bourgeois revolution”–like my beloved professor–are actually arguing against a watered-down Stalinist perversion of what might be, under other circumstances, a perfectly useful notion. Although Davidson does not push this point, it has often seemed to me a shame that so much energy needs to be expended on debunking “vulgar Marxism” when “vulgar Marxism” all but debunks itself. In the works of Brenner and Wood, the desire to shift capitalism’s “primal scene” from the continental metropolis to the English countryside– a move largely motivated, I think, by the urge to deliver the coup de grâce to the idea of “bourgeois revolution”–antipathy to a bourgeois-centric history of capitalism introduces as many distortions as it clears up. Most importantly, it sidelines questions of emergent mentalités and makes it more or less impossible for historians to treat racism, slavery, and colonialism–and the connections of these phenomena with the rise of capitalist finance– as anything more than footnotes to the history of capitalism. With this emphasis, Marx himself surely would have disagreed (not that it really matters). If we want to properly understand the strange and unlikely story of the rise of capitalism–a system that would never have been endorsed by the vast majority of people who suffered through its first several centuries, had they been given the option to maintain the pre-capitalist status quo–we need to attend to that weird tribe of European white people, the bourgeoisie.

[1] Neil Davidson, “How Revolutionary Were the Bourgeois Revolutions? (cont’d),” Historical Materialism, Vol. 13:4 (3-54), 2005, p.  20.

[2] Neil Davidson, “How Revolutionary Were the Bourgeois Revolutions?” Historical Materialism, Vol. 13:3 (3-33), 2005, p. 4.

[3] Ibid., p. 5.

[4] Ibid. p. 7-9.

[5] Davidson, “How Revolutionary Were the Bourgeois Revolutions? (cont’d),” p. 11.

[6] Davidson, “How Revolutionary Were the Bourgeois Revolutions? (cont’d),” p. 17.

[7] Ibid., 24.

[8] Ibid., 26.

2 Comments on “What’s the Deal with Bourgeois Revolutions, Again?

  1. Interesting post. I don’t have a horse in the battle over the term “bourgeois revolution”, but your arguments make sense. I will say that, as far as understanding capitalism and its development, I favor Wallerstein’s approach. I had previously, prior to reading much Marx at all, read EM Wood’s Origin of Capitalism, finding it quite helpful, but something nagged at me, and it’s because of what you say in your final paragraph: issues like racism, slavery, colonialism become difficult to deal with in that narrow Brenner-ite view. Their very focus on something called a “capitalist state” seems incoherent to me, and I had trouble with it. Until reading Arrighi and Wallerstein… now it all hangs together better for me. And once I did read Marx, at least volume one of Capital, and realized he’s responding to idealistic/utopian claims/visions of the political economists… I get the sense that Marx would have been more world-systems than the Marxists (again, not that it matters)

    • Yes, I think you are absolutely right. I know folks in the Black Studies/Critical Race world who have had some nasty arguments with Wood about the fact that Africa figures nowhere in her history of capitalism, and that such a history of capitalism is, at least at one profound level, “intellectually racist.” I don’t see how one can disagree with this assessment. But Wood wasn’t particularly happy, as you might imagine, about the accusation.

      So much of Wood’s argument depends upon the phrase: “only in capitalism…” It’s an appealing formulation, but it’s actually a bit vacuous, and pragmatically speaking, not especially meaningful. If the appeal is to moral suasion, why would the embedded exploitation of the contractual relationship be more of a spur to revolutionary action than the history of racism, brutality, violence, etc. that is also part of capitalism’s history? Doesn’t make much sense. There’s no question that Brenner’s a total genius, but I also think that the problem he sets for himself–how does capitalism emerge endogenously within the soil of post-feudalism– allows for more than one answer. When we read about the rapid increase in domestic cruelty in the first centuries of British capitalism, whether rack-renting, or implementing brutal laws against poaching and fence-breaking, or the treatment of the poor in workhouses, aren’t we really asking: how did this particular virus of, at best, indifference, or, at worst, sadism, spread so rapidly among England’s elites? Cedric Robinson, almost alone, points to the Crusades and the English adventures in Ireland as crucial preparations for both the slave trade and the class violence of the transitional period. Racism, then–or however we want to define that species of Manichaean fantasizing about the other in order to justify and rationalize their reduction to the instrumental means of personal enrichment– would not be epiphenomenal, but constitutive of capitalism. If that’s true, then the story of “bourgeois revolution” becomes pertinent again, at the level of culture/sensibility/affect. (Which works for me, cuz I suck at math!)

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