Models of revolution

Mike Macnair reviews Henry Heller's 'The bourgeois revolution in France 1789-1815' Bergahn Books, 2006, pp172, £20.13; and, David Parker's (ed) 'Ideology, absolutism and the English revolution: debates of the British communist historians, 1940-1956' Lawrence and Wishart, 2008, pp285, £18.99

These two books are - in different ways - approaches to the bourgeois character of two great revolutions: the British in the 17th century and the French in the late 18th and early 19th. These parts of history, thanks to the ‘national curriculum’, have not been commonly taught in schools for decades. So a very oversimplified summary of the political course of events may be helpful in grasping what the books are about.

It is also necessary to discuss, in an equally oversimplified way, the books’ intellectual contexts. The result will be rather seriously long for a book review, and will be in two parts: but will hopefully encourage readers to read the books. Henry Heller sees the French revolution as directly relevant to the present problem of proletarian revolution. This is in any direct sense false; but indirectly the theoretical historical problem of the character of the revolutions is sharply relevant to modern working class politics.


In 1637 the Stuart government’s attempt to impose an English-style prayer-book on the Scots kirk led to a riot in Edinburgh - often said to have been triggered when market trader Jenny Geddes threw her stool at the officiating minister at a service in St Giles’ cathedral. The protests against the new prayer-book snowballed into a Scots Presbyterian revolution against the regime, and a Scots invasion of northern England (secretly supported by some English ‘puritan’ oppositionists) - the ‘bishops’ wars’. The attempt to defeat the Scots by force broke king Charles I’s financial ability to rule without parliamentary taxation. Meanwhile, in the Battle of the Downs in 1639 the fleet of the Dutch Protestant republic smashed that of the Spanish Catholic monarchy in violation of English territorial waters, contemptuously shrugging off an English squadron that looked on helplessly. This was an English military humiliation, as well as a catastrophic defeat of the Spanish.

The ‘short parliament’ of April-May 1640 failed to solve the fiscal crisis, and neither did fresh elections: the ‘long parliament’, beginning in November 1640, demanded so much that in 1642 the king resorted to civil war.

The two civil wars of 1642-46 and 1648 ended with the defeat of the king’s armies, and in 1649 the trial and execution of the king, proclamation of the Commonwealth, or English Republic, and abolition of the House of Lords. To win the wars, however, the parliament and the ‘puritans’ had to call into action the lower orders: beginning with mass mobilisations in London from 1638 on, and sharply moved forward with the creation of the ‘New Model Army’ in 1645, which broke with gentry-raised and gentry-controlled units in favour of a more organised army, based directly on ideological commitment. The result was the beginning of the independent, politico-religious self-expression of these lower orders; Levellers, Diggers, Ranters and so on; and, in the later 1650s, Quakers.

The leftwards dynamic of the army was arrested by the forcible suppression of the Levellers in 1649, but the elites - gentry and merchant patricians in the towns - wanted more ‘restoration of order’. The 1650s saw a military coup by leading general Oliver Cromwell and his associates, who tried various methods to govern the country - and, after Cromwell’s death, a brief restoration of the republic.

The civil wars produced a new and more effective army and navy, backed by a new and more effective tax and finance regime. Both the republic and the Cromwellian regime displayed aggressive exploitation of these resources: the Commonwealth conquered Ireland (1649) and Scotland (1650-51) and fought a naval war with the Dutch Republic (1652-54), and the Cromwellian regime fought a war with Spain (1655-59) both in the Caribbean, where the English seized Jamaica, at sea, and (in alliance with France) in what is now Belgium.

In 1660 the monarchy was restored, but with two fundamental changes. First, the principal non-parliamentary sources of royal revenue - the king’s feudal rights over gentry landowners and the right of ‘purveyance’ or compulsory purchase of goods for royal use - had been abolished by the Commonwealth. They stayed abolished and were replaced by a parliamentary excise tax. Second, the ‘prerogative’ courts of star chamber and high commission and the ability of the privy council to act as a court within mainland Britain had been abolished in 1641 before the outbreak of civil war. They stayed abolished, and the remaining ‘courts of equity’ (the chancery and similar courts) became subject to appeals to the House of Lords. The effect was to take away the principle that the king, as ‘fountain of justice’, could set up new courts to overrule the existing courts.

Charles II’s brother, James II, set out to create toleration of Catholics and a right to appoint them to the army and the universities (this was the road to suppression of Protestantism, which had previously been taken in Poland, France and some other continental states). To do the job he was also driven to reassert the old idea that the king was above the law and could create new courts. When James’s queen became pregnant (and gave birth to a son in June 1688), James’s Protestant opponents called in the Stadtholder William of Orange and the Dutch army, and raised a new revolution against James to back the invasion.

James’s rapid capitulation and exile made 1688 appear - falsely - a ‘peaceful’ and ‘top-down’ revolution: besides substantial mass mobilisations in England, there was full-scale civil war in Scotland and a Catholic revolution in Ireland, requiring a full-scale Anglo-Dutch invasion to suppress it.

But, though there was no civil war in England in 1688, the consequences were profound. The state was restructured into constitutional forms which to a considerable extent it retains to this day. England now became a major player in a European war. And to fund this war the Bank of England and the London money markets were invented, imitating the Netherlands. The period after 1689 saw an explosive growth of capitalist enterprises of all sorts.

Britain now rapidly surpassed the Netherlands as a global power. Just over 100 years separate the revolutions of 1688 and 1789; for 40 of those years Britain and France were at war. Four times between 1689 and 1763 Britain and its allies fought and defeated absolutist France in global wars. In the 1763 treaty ending the Seven Years War, the French were finally driven to expel the Stuart exile government from France, completely abandoning the aim of restoring the Stuarts in England. Finally, in 1776 the outbreak of the American revolution or war of independence (1776-83) allowed a little more French success. The result, however, was the creation of another republic in the US - and by the late 1780s the effective bankruptcy of the French state.


With bankruptcy the only alternative, the government of the French Bourbon king, Louis XVI, in 1788 called for a meeting of the estates-general, which had not met since 1614, with the aim of obtaining agreement to a plan to impose taxes on the nobility and clergy, who were tax-exempt.

When the estates-general met in May 1789, the situation rapidly ran out of the royal government’s control. The Third Estate asserted its own character - as the only elected estate - as representative of France as a whole, calling itself successively the ‘Commons’ (imitating Britain), the ‘National Assembly’, and finally the ‘Constituent Assembly’. The king’s decision to form a new government hostile to this assembly triggered more action: a Paris prison, the Bastille, was seized by mass action; in the countryside, peasant uprisings began to drive out the nobility and overthrow their feudal claims. The assembly formally abolished feudal rights and adopted a ‘Declaration of the rights of man and citizen’. A mass demonstration, reinforced by the ‘National Guard’ militia forced the king and his family to move to Paris, crippling attempts to mount a military resistance. Church property was nationalised.

In June 1791 the king attempted to flee to army supporters at Varennes, but was caught and brought back to Paris. In response, the king of Prussia and emperor of Austria asserted their willingness to take action to “to place the king of France in a position to establish, with the most absolute freedom, the foundations of a monarchical form of government”. The Prussians invaded France in July 1792. The war began with French defeats. In response, a Paris insurrection purged the assembly of its right wing, and Louis XVI was arrested. On September 20 the Prussians were defeated at the battle of Valmy. The next day a newly elected convention declared the abolition of the monarchy and the creation of a republic. Louis was put on trial in December and executed in January 1793.

The execution of the king triggered further wars of intervention, interval revolts in the west (the Vendée) and south, and a further radicalisation of the regime. The ‘extreme’ Jacobin party made a coup against the ‘moderate’ Girondins and proceeded to very extensive mass mobilisation, terrorism against internal opponents and war-centralisation of the economy. By the end of 1793, it became clear that the French revolutionary armies were able to stand off both external enemies and internal revolts, and in the first half of 1794 they had further successes. In July 1794 the Girondins made a counter-coup against the Jacobins - ‘Thermidor’ - and turned the weapon of terror against them.

The French armies were able from 1794 to go on the offensive, conquering the Netherlands and invading Spain in 1795; forcing Spain and Prussia out of the war; successfully invading both the Rhineland and Italy in 1796; and forcing Austria out of the war in 1797. Meanwhile, the convention constitution was replaced by the openly oligarchic directory (1795). This in turn gave way in 1799 to a coup by the successful general, Napoleon Bonaparte, who set himself up as ‘first consul’ and from 1804 emperor.

War with Britain in effect continued until 1813, with a brief interlude in 1802-03. The British constructed a series of European coalitions against the French, all of which were defeated, with Napoleon’s empire spreading further and further across Europe. Finally, Napoleon overreached by invading Russia in 1812, leading to the disastrous retreat from Moscow. The ‘sixth coalition’ was then able to defeat the French armies, and restore the Bourbon monarchy - twice, since in the ‘hundred days’ in 1815, Napoleon was restored until he was defeated at Waterloo.

But as with the English restoration in 1660, the French restoration left the king as a partially limited monarch: there was a constitution and a representative assembly with limited powers, and the revolution’s changes in government, armed forces, taxation and the legal system were left intact. In the revolution of 1830, the Bourbon monarchy was replaced by a more clearly constitutional regime, the Orléanist or ‘July’ monarchy of Louis Philippe. This in turn fell in 1848 to a short-lived Second Republic - overthrown in 1851 by a coup by its own president, Louis Bonaparte, who created the Second Empire (1851-71). In spite of Marx’s characterisations in The class struggles in France and The eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, there is no real retrospective doubt that the Second Empire, though politically dictatorial, was a fully capitalist regime. Indeed, there is little real doubt that the Orléanist monarchy was already a bourgeois regime.

Marxism and the revolutions

There are striking similarities between the overall political patterns of the English and French revolutions.

The financial bankruptcy of the old regime leads to a government appeal to a representative institution to supply taxes. The representatives demand reform, initially starting with quite conservative ideas. The attempts of the monarchy to take back control result on the contrary in increasing radicalisation. The need of the opponents of the monarchy to fight a civil or international war produces broad mobilisation, extreme radicalisation and transformation both of the military and of the basis of taxation. There is a reaction of the possessing classes back from this radicalisation, issuing in oligarchy and military dictatorship. Military-fiscal transformation spills over into external aggressive war. There is internally or externally enforced restoration of the monarchy with more limited powers. Finally, this period of monarchist restoration is itself overthrown and followed by capitalist constitutionalism. Some of these similarities were already noticed at the time of the French Revolution.

Marx and Engels in 1850 reviewed a pamphlet, titled Why did the English revolution succeed?, by the former Orléanist prime minister, François Guizot, who drew the comparison from a bourgeois standpoint.

They comment: “M Guizot does not think it worth mentioning that the struggle against Louis XIV was simply a war of competition aimed at the destruction of French naval power and commerce; nor does he mention the rule of the finance bourgeoisie through the establishment of the Bank of England under William III, nor the introduction of the public debt, which then received its first sanction, nor that the manufacturing bourgeoisie received a new impetus by the consistent application of a system of protective tariffs.”

Marx and Engels further note: “M Guizot finds it superfluous to mention that the subjection of the crown to parliament meant subjection to the rule of a class. Nor does he think it necessary to deal with the fact that this class won the necessary power in order finally to make the crown its servant. According to him, the whole struggle between Charles I and parliament was merely over purely political privileges. Not a word is said about why the parliament, and the class represented in it, needed these privileges. Nor does Guizot talk about Charles I’s interference with free competition, which made England’s commerce and industry increasingly impossible; nor about the dependence on parliament into which Charles I, in his continuous need for money, fell the more deeply, the more he tried to defy it.”

And: “The English class of great landowners, allied with the bourgeoisie - which, incidentally, had already developed under Henry VIII - did not find itself in opposition, as did the French feudal landowners in 1789, but rather in complete harmony with the vital requirements of the bourgeoisie. In fact, their lands were not feudal, but bourgeois property. On the one hand, they were able to provide the industrial bourgeoisie with the manpower necessary for manufacturing, and on the other they were able to develop agriculture to the standards consonant with industry and commerce. Thus their common interests with the bourgeoisie, thus their alliance with it.”[1]

In this article is found the core of an understanding of the English revolutions of the 17th century, which was also present in Karl Kautsky’s ‘Revolutions, past and present’ (1906),[2] in Trotsky’s Where is Britain going? (1926),[3] and thence in AL Morton’s A people’s history of England (1938) (though, of course, neither Kautsky nor Trotsky is cited by Morton) and in the Communist Party historians, whose early internal discussions are collected by Parker.

There was another and simultaneous strand of Marxist interpretation, which looked to the early plebeian movements and utopian communists of the English revolutionary period as precursors of the modern socialist movement, beginning with Marx in 1847: “The first manifestation of a truly active communist party is contained within the bourgeois revolution, at the moment when the constitutional monarchy is eliminated. The most consistent republicans - in England the Levellers, in France Babeuf, Buonarroti, etc - were the first to proclaim these ‘social questions’.”[4] Similar treatments can be found in Engels’ Socialism: utopian and scientific; in Eduard Bernstein’s Cromwell and communism (1895),[5] in EB Pashukanis’s ‘Revolutionary elements in the history of the English state and law’ (1927)[6] and in CLR James’ ‘Cromwell and the Levellers’ in 1949,[7] and so on.

More generally, however, Marxists treated the French Revolution as the archetype of the bourgeois revolution - and, indeed, as the archetype of revolution in general. From Marx’s interpretation of the early stages of the French Revolution came the slogan of ‘permanent revolution’;[8] and the Bolsheviks repeatedly compared themselves with the Jacobins and worried and argued about ‘Thermidor’ and ‘Bonapartism’ as affecting their own revolution.[9]

The idea of the French Revolution as the archetype of the bourgeois revolution is the underlying ground of the concept of failed or imperfect bourgeois revolutions, as applied by Marx and Engels to Germany in 1848; and from there to the rival conceptions of ‘uninterrupted’ and ‘permanent’ revolution developed in Russia and applied to the world outside western Europe by Stalinists, Maoists and Trotskyists.

Finally these conceptions reacted back to the point at which Britain, extraordinarily, could be claimed to have had an ‘imperfect bourgeois revolution’: whether this idea was to justify pursuit of popular frontism in the form of hoping for the aid of ‘anti-monopoly capital’ to bring in ‘advanced democratic capitalism’ in the British road to socialism; or in the form of tailing the nationalists, of Tom Nairn’s ‘break-up of Britain’.

Bourgeois histories

‘Mainstream’ or academic history in the 19th century by and large shared the understanding of Marx and the Marxists that the English and French revolutions were bourgeois revolutions - or, to avoid the obnoxious language of class, that they were revolutions which ended feudalism and brought in economic, political and religious freedom. Opponents of this view were mainly opponents of the results of the revolutions: Catholic writers, and ‘legitimists’ nostalgic for the Bourbon monarchy, ‘Jacobites’ nostalgic for the Stuart regime.

The Paris Commune of 1870, and - more sharply - the Russian October revolution in 1917, changed this pattern fundamentally. On the one hand, the regimes of western Europe made major concessions to the proletariat, especially moves towards universal suffrage and steps towards welfarism. On the other, it was generally understood that under extended suffrage, the state had to intervene through the academy and the school to defend itself against the possibility of the emancipated lower orders not deferring to their ‘betters’.[10]

There was extended, deliberate promotion of the ‘gradualism’ argued by Britain’s Fabians, Eduard Bernstein in Germany and similar trends. The idea of revolution as such became the object of furious polemics; but also of ‘denaturing’, so that, for example, Karl Kautsky’s The labour revolution (1925) - at least as translated in Allen and Unwin - proposes social transformation without any political revolution at all. In Britain, Herbert Butterfield’s The Whig interpretation of history (London 1931) became a ‘foundation book’,[11] so that any British academic historian in the last 60 years is obliged to give at least token nods against the danger of ‘Whig history’. Going along with these general polemics went radical denial of the character of either the English or the French revolutions as really involving economic, social or class transformation.

Meanwhile, there have been plenty of other transitions to capitalism: and at first sight not all of these involved political revolutions. Certainly, not all these revolutions took ‘English’ or ‘French’ forms. Take, for instance, late 19th century Germany: pretty probably to be interpreted as capitalist, unless we are to accept Arno Mayer’s Persistence of the old regime (New York 1981); but if there was a revolution, it was largely ‘from above’.

1989-91 has changed the terms of debate once again. On the one hand, the fall of the USSR has re-enabled liberal denunciation of socialism, communism and the idea of working class rule as merely and necessarily utopian. This polemic holds as strongly against Fabianism as against Marxism; and not even the great crash of 2008 has sufficed to dislodge it from mainstream political and economic thought. On the other hand the ‘velvet revolution’ in Czechoslovakia in 1989 has rehabilitated the idea of revolution as a way to achieve ... capitalism. There has been a succession of attempts to reproduce the phenomenon: ‘colour revolutions’.

In this context, the economic and social revolutionary character of the English and French revolutions has been reasserted. On the Marxist side, Ellen Meiksins Wood’s The pristine culture of capitalism (London 1991) asserted that the English revolution was more bourgeois than the French. From academic history, Hilton L Root’s The fountain of privilege (Berkeley 1994) argued for a radical difference between 18th century England and France before the revolution from a neoclassical economic perspective; Tim Harris’s Revolution (London 2006) has asserted the revolutionary character of 1688, and Steve Pincus’s 1688: the first modern revolution (New Haven 2009) carries the argument to a more systematic level. Paul R Hanson’s Contesting the French revolution (Oxford 2009), while making the necessary token anathemas against Marxist “economic determinism”, agrees that the French revolution had social grounds (chapter 2) and that the social layer that gained most from it could be called a bourgeoisie (p196). The character of the events as social revolutions, not just political upheavals, is back on the historians’ agenda.


Heller’s book uses this opportunity, together with a mass of recent detailed academic research on French economic and social history down to and during the revolution, to try to place the ‘classic Marxist’ account of the revolution back on the agenda. It is not a detailed narrative history of the revolution. Nor is it a book which attempts to engage the issues which either the forms of the bourgeois revolutions themselves or the ‘mainstream’ critiques of the ‘classic Marxist’ account pose for Marxist theory of the transition from feudalism to capitalism, of the nature of the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie or of the state and revolution.

Rather what is on offer is an empirical polemic against the ‘revisionist’ interpretation of the French revolution as not a bourgeois revolution. Heller’s summary in the introduction of the line he is arguing is simple. The pre-1789 ancien régime was feudal, but with capitalism growing up within its interstices (p3). 18th century France saw an expansion of capitalist trade and agriculture - upsetting the traditional life of the peasantry and also producing a significant proletariat. An economic crisis at the end of the 18th century “proved to be the spark that set off a revolution”. Then “The overall expansion of the role of profit in the economy and growth in the numbers, wealth and confidence of the bourgeoisie made it possible for this class to take political advantage of popular upheaval in order to wrest control of the state from the dominant classes of the ancien régime ... The legal, cultural and institutional changes set in place during this period set the stage for the further development of a capitalist economy and society in the 19th century” (p1).

In chapter 1, ‘Questioning revisionism’, Heller points out that - as I have said above - the idea that the French revolution was a bourgeois revolution did not originate in Marx (pp10-11), but also that Marx saw the revolution as the prototype of the future proletarian revolution (p11). But first Anglo-Saxon, and more recently French, historians, have mounted a series of attacks on the theory: French capitalists lacked class-consciousness and were integrated with the nobility (pp13-15); the revolution was really a process of centralising state formation (p15); the liberal revolution was good, but the Jacobin phase totalitarian (pp15-16); the redistribution of the land blocked capitalist development (p16); the revolution was really the product of a rootless intelligentsia (pp16-18); there was no significant capitalism in 18th century France (pp21-22).

The main body of the book defends this general line against the objections and alternatives offered in the ‘revisionist’ accounts discussed in chapter 1. Heller spends two chapters (2 and 3) discussing what he identifies as a rise of capitalism and of wage labour in the 18th century French economy. The following chapters discuss (4) the revolutionary crisis, (5) the economy in the revolution down to 1799, (6) the directory and (7) the Napoleonic era.

By and large (though not completely) the empirical polemic works. The book is well worth reading as a lively critique of the various revisionist attempts to deny the class character of the French Revolution, and a summary of (some of) the relevant evidence.

However, there are two striking omissions in Heller’s account. The first is the absence of immediate state context - state insolvency - of the revolutionary crisis, which is explained rather by a deepening economic crisis, leading to a mass movement. Flowing from this absence of the crisis of the state as such is the absence also of the geopolitical context: that is, the repeated defeats of absolutist France at the hands of bourgeois-parliamentarist Britain and the European coalitions assembled by the Anglo-Dutch alliance in the 1690s-1700s and by the British in the 1740s and again in 1756-63; and the costs of the illusory French ‘victory’ of 1783, both as trigger for state insolvency and as providing in the US an immediate model of revolution not tied directly to Protestantism, as the Dutch and English revolutions had been.

The second omission is smaller: a single, but significant absence. David Parker, the editor of the second book under review, is also the author of a major Marxist treatment of the French ancien régime and its decline and fall, Class and state in ancien régime France (London 1996). Parker’s reading of the French economy in the 18th century is sharply different from Heller’s, since, where Heller sees interstitial capitalist development, Parker sees agricultural regression and sharply limited industrial and commercial growth, both resulting from the persistence of statised forms of feudal relations of exploitation. Also, unlike Heller, Parker does integrate into his account the financial strains imposed on the French monarchy by geopolitical confrontation with capitalist Britain.

Outside this book, Heller’s general political commitments - as far as they can be found from some superficial web-surfing - look broadly ‘official communist’. In 2006 he published a ‘popular history’ account of the cold war, with Monthly Review Press: from the blurb and reviews, the book largely charges the cold war to US imperialism’s strategy for containing other, national, revolutions.[12] True enough, but representative, without more, of a political alignment. His 2009 review in Monthly Review of Vijay Prashad’s The darker nations: a people’s history of the third world (2008) charges Prashad with “failure to engage sufficiently with the two communist giants [the USSR and China]” and “dismissive treatment of revolutionary Cuba”.[13]

Revisionist (in his own terms, ‘post-revisionist’) author William Doyle argues in a review of Heller’s book that, like the legitimist advocates of Bourbon restoration in 19th century France, Heller “has learnt nothing and forgotten nothing”.[14] In some respects this is wrong, but in two ‘official communist’ respects it is true. The first is that Heller’s interpretation of the French Revolution writes out the geopolitical confrontation with England, because Heller wants to suppose that the bourgeois revolution was a national process rather than an international one with national phases or aspects. After all, the French revolution is to be the prototype of the proletarian revolution (p11); and this, too, is to be a matter of national roads to socialism growing out of national contradictions.

The second respect in which Heller “has learnt nothing and forgotten nothing” is related. It is, of course, true that Marx and Engels in the 1840s saw the French Revolution as the prototype of the proletarian revolution. By the period of the First International, and still more by the beginning of the Second, this line had shifted. It is notorious on the left that Engels’ 1895 introduction to The class struggles in France was toned down to make him appear to be a reformist. It is nonetheless true that even in the non-toned down version, Engels rejects explicitly the idea of making a principle out of the forms and figures of 1789 - barricade struggles and so on. And at the end of the introduction he offers a very different model of the future revolution: the sacking of the pagan Roman emperor’s palace by mutinous troops allegedly influenced by Christianity. Universal military training and service, in this model, is to work alongside universal suffrage to subvert the capitalists’ control of the armed forces.[15] The army is to be infiltrated by socialist ideas and broken up by its internal contradictions: as, in the event, happened in Russia in the course of 1917.

Engels’ imagination of the proletarian revolution may, of course, be as problematic as the earlier image of the proletarian revolution as a better French Revolution. That is not the point. It is that clinging to the image of the French Revolution as a national revolution triggered by internal contradictions and economic crisis, and of the French Revolution as a model for the proletarian revolution, makes it harder for us to think proletarian revolution in the 21st century.



  8. RB Day, D Gaido (eds) Witnesses to permanent revolution Amsterdam 2009, pp1-2.
  9. Analogies between Bolsheviks and Jacobins began from the Menshevik camp in 1903-04 and the analogy was embraced by Lenin in One step forward, two steps back: A few other examples: JV Stalin, ‘The international character of the October revolution’ (1927):; C Rakovsky The ‘professional dangers’ of power (1928):; Trotsky, ‘The workers’ state, Thermidor and Bonapartism’ (1935):
  10. Eg in relation to English literature, C Baldick The social mission of English criticism 1848-1932 Oxford 1983.
  11. Though its own author effectively abandoned its arguments in his later career: see Oxford dictionary of national biography.
  12. H Heller The cold war and the new imperialism: a global hisory, 1945-2005 New York 2006.