Against the state, not just the ruling class

Mike Macnair completes his examination of the lessons of bourgeois revolution


This is the second part of my review of Henry Heller’s The bourgeois revolution in France and David Parker’s Ideology, absolutism and the English revolution.[1]

In the first part[2] I gave schematic outline narratives of the political events of the English and French revolutions, of Marxist readings of these revolutions, of the way in which the Marxist claim that these were social revolutions became - especially after 1917 - the object of furious pro-bourgeois academic polemics; and of the fact that after 1989-91, with neoliberalism in the ascendancy, revolution to bring in capitalism has once again become a positive for pro-bourgeois academics, so that the resistance to seeing the English and French revolutions as social revolutions has massively weakened.

This provided the context for my review of Henry Heller’s attempt to reassert a ‘traditional Marxist’ interpretation of the French Revolution. In spite of its strengths, I argued that Heller’s book remains trapped by the ‘official communist’ conception of national autonomy and purely ‘national roads’ to revolution; and also by an ‘early Marxist’ and Bolshevik use of the French Revolution as the essential model not only of a bourgeois revolution, but also of a proletarian revolution.

Communist Party historians

The same points are relevant to David Parker’s collection of the internal discussions of the British Communist Party Historians Group in the 1940s-50s: these, too, are texts framed by the deep assumptions of ‘national roads to socialism’ and other aspects of ‘official communism’.

Some of the texts, indeed, are considerably more self-consciously Stalinist than Heller’s arguments. Thus it is striking to read Christopher Hill polemicising against posthumously condemned Soviet historian, MN Pokrovsky, on the ground that “Pokrovsky, by ante-dating the bourgeois revolution, in fact played into the hands of Trotskyism” (p134);[3] or Brian Pearce, later to become a Trotskyist, quoting Stalin’s History of the CPSU (Short Course) as an authority on the range of possible modes of production recognised by Marxism (p99).

But Ideology, absolutism and the English revolution is a very much more theoretical book than The bourgeois revolution in France and asks more interesting questions. It is, as already indicated, a collection of the internal discussion documents and stenographic minutes of meetings of the early modern section of the British Communist Party Historians Group in the 1940s-50s. The Historians Group was a remarkable constellation of people later to be stars of the British academic history profession. Maurice Dobb, Christopher Hill, Rodney Hilton, Eric Hobsbawm, VG Kiernan and George Rudé are only a selection of the best known names among them: Parker’s appendix 4 provides biographical information on many more, not all equally prominent, but often equally intellectually productive.[4] The book provides a partial record of debates within the early modern section. As a result, we see this group of historians debating, in explicitly Marxist terms, issues most of them continued to grapple with - in less clearly Marxist terms - throughout their subsequent careers.

It would be a mistake to suppose that this is merely an accident of history - that the old CPGB, then at its height (with above 50,000 members in 1942-43[5]) happened to collect a bunch of historical stars, who then ‘naturally’ rose to academic eminence. The point is the opposite. Contrary to modern far-left orthodoxy, a party does not exist to fight for a systematic theoretical position (‘Cliff state capitalism’, ‘permanent revolution’, etc) but to fight for a concrete political programme. But the existence of a real party, as opposed to a sect founded on a theoretical dogma, facilitates theoretical education and theoretical production, by bringing together people with common concerns and common basic ideas, but also substantial differences. Both theoretical education and theoretical production work by dialectic in its old sense: that is, through the confrontation of different positions, forcing the debaters to elaborate and defend their ideas, and those who participate to ‘raise their own game’ in order to intervene.

Stalinist theory was (and is) a corrupted form of Marxist theory. As theory it was mutilated by police interventions in the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and its satellite parties and in the Soviet and satellite-state universities in defence of the narrow sectional interests of the state and party bureaucracies. Both theoretical claims and simple facts were arbitrarily altered to suit the immediate political and ideological projects of the ruling clique. But Stalinised ‘Marxism’ nonetheless constantly made theoretical appeals to the writings of Marx and Engels. And, though the ‘classical Marxist’ authors of the Second International were off limits and Bolsheviks who had fallen into disfavour even more so, the ‘classical Marxist’ tradition could to some extent be accessed through Lenin’s contribution to these debates.

Hence, debating the application of Marxism (even in its Stalinised form) to British history forced the participants in the History Group’s discussions to ask real and fundamental questions, and to think and argue considerably more rigorously than their Liberal, Tory and Christian-socialist contemporaries. Parker quotes Hill as describing the discussions as “the most stimulating intellectual experience I have ever had” (p9). These debates thus stand at the root of the participants’ remarkable subsequent intellectual productivity.

They also provide a standing rebuke both to the banal dogmatism of much of the intellectual production of the Socialist Workers Party, Socialist Party (England and Wales), the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain, and many smaller groups, and to the cacophony of occasionally valuable, but invariably talking past each other, character of the theoretical interventions of both individual members of groups outside their party framework, and various ‘independent’ Marxist theorists. We need a party not just for immediate political action, but also to do theoretical education and production effectively.

I do not mean by any of this to endorse in an unqualified way the actual arguments of the debates reported in Ideology, absolutism ... ; nor those of the participants in their subsequent work. More on this below. Moreover, it would almost certainly have been more educational if the open debate in Labour Monthly in 1940-41 had continued or been restarted, rather than the participants debating purely internally in the Historians Group in 1946-50, with public debate re-emerging only in a non-party forum after the foundation of the left academic history journal Past and Present in 1952.

The starting point

Parker provides an extremely useful introduction to the documents. He reviews issues of methodology and the ‘empiricism’ of the group, making the point that their use of Marx was mainly dependent on the schematic outline of historical materialism in Marx’s Preface to the Contribution to the critique of political economy and on Engels’ correspondence in the 1890s which had been translated by Historians Group member Dona Torr; they were less concerned with working out the general theory of historical materialism as a framework than with confirming or correcting Marx’s and Engels’ specific historical claims.

In this context, he passes some comment on the later critics of the communist historians as a school (pp9-26). He also provides linking material in relation to the documents and comments on the subsequent evolution of the academic historiography of the issues they addressed (pp26-47), dealing separately with the question of the relations of production in agriculture (pp47-53) and concluding with a brief retrospect (pp53-60).

The immediate trigger of the discussions reported in Ideology, absolutism ... was the question of a revision of Morton’s A people’s history of England (1938). But also involved was a brief public controversy, caused by the publication in 1940 of Hill’s The English revolution 1640. Hill argued up-front for an analysis of 1640 as a bourgeois revolution directly analogous to France 1789. This argument was the subject of a sharp critique by German exile communist Jurgen Kuchynski in the party’s journal Labour Monthly. Kuchynski argued that Tudor England was already capitalist - Parker quotes him as saying that Queen Elizabeth I was “the most prominent capitalist in capitalist bourgeois society” (p32) and 1640 a response to an attempted feudal counterrevolution. Kuchynski was then attacked as a reformist gradualist in Labour Monthly contributions by Torr and Douglas Garman. The party’s ‘leading intellectual’ R Palme Dutt drafted a fence-sitting summary of the debate, plainly intended for publication, which is the first document in the book - but did not, in the end, publish it (p33). Hill’s 1947 ‘Theses on absolutism’ (document 2) were markedly influenced by the earlier debate: in particular, characterising the Tudor and Stuart monarchy as ‘absolutist’ was in a sense a way of dodging Kuchynski’s objections to Hill’s earlier characterisation of 16th and early 17th century English state and society as still feudal.

Behind this debate lies - immediately - the Pokrovsky ‘debate’ in the Soviet historical profession in 1929-31, in which Pokrovsky was attacked for postulating a distinct period of ‘merchant capitalism’. Hill and Pearce produced a summary of the Pokrovsky ‘debate’ as an intervention in the discussion (document 3) and a translation of a report of a 1940 discussion of the issue in the Russian Academy of Sciences (document 4).

Behind the Pokrovsky debate in turn is the fact that Marx and Engels at various points gave very different dates for the appearance of capitalism. These range from the medieval Italian city-states to the 16th century reformation and the enclosures of Tudor England, to the revolutions (as in the 1850 review of Guizot, quoted in the first part of this review), to something closer to the ‘industrial revolution’ of later 18th to early 19th century Britain (or even, in the Afterword to the second German edition of Capital Vol 1, to the revolutions of 1830 and the 1832 Reform Act). Indeed, they also wrote of 18th-19th century English politics as involving a compromise between the bourgeoisie and the aristocracy.

These variations, in turn, raise issues about how Marx’s and Engels’ specific historical comments relate to (a) the outline sketches of historical materialism in The German ideology and Preface to the Contribution to the critique of political economy,in the Anti-Dühring, and in Engels’ correspondence in the 1890s; and (b) the account of capitalism in Capital, Vols 1-3 (and perhaps Marx’s other economic manuscripts published after his death).

As to the first issue, the problem of dating the rise of capitalism requires either(i) a mode of production intermediate between feudalism and capitalism (‘petty commodity production’, or Pokrovsky’s ‘merchant capitalism’, or something else), or(ii) a very large degree of interpenetration of modes of production in historical social formations. The second option does not fit well with the broad schematic outlines of The German ideology, Preface to the Contribution to the critique of political economy and Anti-Dühring, unless the dialectical interpenetration of opposites is to be analysed as interpenetration of past and not-past on the largest possible scale. In this case, moreover, the result can quite properly be said to pose the question of ‘reformist gradualism’ versus ‘revolutionary politics’. I do not think it actually supports ‘reformist gradualism’, because of the role of the state (see below) but this political question is legitimately involved.

As to the second issue, the reason for the attack on Pokrovsky probably lies buried in the Kremlin archives - or perhaps irretrievably in Stalin’s head. Given the period - contemporaneous with the ‘left turn’ and forced collectivisation - it is reasonable in part to suppose that the explicit claim that Pokrovsky underestimated the progressive role of the state and the possibilities of ‘class struggle’ voluntarism (quoted in document 3, pp81-82) was a genuine element of the motive. In addition, though Pokrovsky was aligned with the Stalin faction, the logic of his theory was - as Boris Kagarlitsky has shown by developing it - radically inconsistent with the idea of socialism in a single country. By way of corroboration, the Nazi, Klaus Mehnert, had some evidence for his claim that Stalin wanted to get rid of Pokrovsky’s school textbook on Russian history because it was too classical-Marxist and hence insufficiently nationalist.[6]

But the pretexts for the attack on Pokrovsky were primarily alleged inconsistencies with Marx’s discussion of the separation of the labourer from the land in Capital Vol 1, chapters 27-29, and of the history and role of ‘merchant capital’ in Capital Vol 3, chapter 20. As with historical materialism, this issue is again one of pure and impure forms. Marx was explicit in the Preface to the first German edition of Capital Vol 1 that he used English examples because:

“The physicist either observes physical phenomena where they occur in their most typical form and most free from disturbing influence or, wherever possible, he makes experiments under conditions that assure the occurrence of the phenomenon in its normality. I have to examine the capitalist mode of production, and the conditions of production and exchange corresponding to that mode. Up to the present time, their classic ground is England ... Intrinsically, it is not a question of the higher or lower degree of development of the social antagonisms that result from the natural laws of capitalist production. It is a question of these laws themselves, of these tendencies working with iron necessity towards inevitable results. The country that is more developed industrially only shows, to the less developed, the image of its own future.”[7]

In reality, of course, this project of abstracting to the pure logic of capital broke down in the course of the writing of Capital Vol 1. The second half of the book is heavily historical and displays the historical development of capitalism. The drafts which became Capital Vol 2 and 3, which originally antedated the completion of Capital Vol 1, and are both (mainly) more abstractly addressed to ‘pure forms’, were left unfinished. Instead - after the period of intense political activity round the First International and the Paris Commune, and work on the French (1872) and second German (1873) editions of Capital Vol 1 - Marx turned his research attention to attempts to address dialectical logic through mathematical problems, to the ‘historical materialism’ problems of the ethnographical evidence for pre-class society and the historical evidence for pre-capitalist property relations.[8]

More on these issues, too, below. For the present enough has been said to show that the debates reported in Ideology, absolutism ... revolved around issues which were current before and remain live for Marxists today.


Documents 18-26 concern ‘ideology’ - or more particularly the relationship of the bourgeois revolution to (a) religion, and in particular Protestantism and its Calvinist sub-form; and (b) the ‘scientific revolution’ and the secularisation of political thought after 1660, with contributions from Hill (documents 18, 21 and (with Clark) 22, Stephen Mason (documents 19 and 20), Kiernan (23), Roy Pascal (25), Mervyn James (26) and another set of minutes of oral discussion (24).

Parker presumably placed the issue of ideology first in the title of the book and in the introduction because, as he says, the section “endeavoured to deploy the base-superstructure model in a non-mechanistic non-reductive fashion” and “this aspiration was probably better fulfilled in the series of discussions on ideology than in the prior discussion of the state ...” (p26).

I have followed him in discussing it first, but for the opposite reason. The concept of ideology is very often deeply muddled in Marxist arguments, primarily due to the assumption that there is a single ideology apt to a particular class, rather than - I think more likely - a mass of competing ideological fashions, thrown up as a sort of spume on the surface of the waves of class and political struggles, at the most superficial possible level.

On the other hand, it is also in my personal opinion quite severely problematic to treat religion simply as ‘ideology’ or as a variant of ideology. This is not only for the reason discussed in Jack Conrad’s Fantastic reality[9] - that religion is more a way of interpreting the world than just a form of class apologetics - but also because religious redistributive institutions fail to be considered as part of the material division of labour - ie, the base - and clerisies in feudalism are direct extractors of the social surplus product in parallel with, not within, the military landlord class.

The papers and discussion on ideology in the book seem to me to be interesting but unfruitful precisely for these reasons. On the one hand, the participants themselves recognised in the course of the discussion that the immediate connections between classes and ideas they began by seeking were schematic. On the other, the failure to integrate the role of clerisies into the definitions of feudalism offered in the absolutism discussion (below) meant that the significance of the Protestant reformation as connected to the rise of capitalism by beinga change in the mode of extraction of the social surplus product was missed. (In the French Revolution this job was done by secularisation, and by state seizure and sale of church property, and in the Japanese ‘Meiji restoration’ by seizing the lands of Buddhist monasteries and sects and creating directly state-controlled Shinto institutions.[10])


Ideology may have been more interesting to Parker as a practising early modern historian; the state and absolutism are more politically interesting. The debate on absolutism is (largely) contained in documents 1-17.[11] Parker observes (pp 33-47, 56-58) that this debate was quite seriously confused, starting with Hill’s initial claim that the Tudor and Stuart regime was properly to be called ‘absolutist’, which is utterly opposed to modern views of the Tudor regime. It is certainly true that it is a confused debate.

Kiernan offered counter-theses to Hill’s (document 5) on lines not far distant from Kuchynski. These are a brilliant and suggestive sketch of an interpretation of the transition from feudalism to capitalism in England, but were open to severe political attack on the grounds (1) that they violate the dogma that the state must be the state of a single class; (2) that they violated the condemnation of Pokrovsky; and (3) that by downplaying the historical significance of 1640 they opened the way to the Whig and Tory interpretations of a (uniquely English) prolonged, gradual, constitutional development.

Pearce and Hilton offered critiques of Kiernan’s definition of feudalism, which they argued failed to focus sufficiently on the mode of extraction of the surplus from the primary producers; a return to this focus would make visible feudal relations of exploitation continuing into the 16th and perhaps the 17th centuries (documents 6 and 7). Kiernan, presumably responding to the condemnation of Pokrovsky, defended an interpenetration of merchant capital and other forms of capital (document 8) and this was criticised by Dobb on the basis of the line of his Studies in the development of capitalism (London 1946) - that merchant capital did not tend to overthrow feudalism. Document 9 is a restatement by Kiernan of his position on the Tudor state, and document 10 another attempt by Hilton to define feudalism.

Documents 12-14 are the protocols of the oral discussions. These largely repeated what was in the oral documents, but also showed a fairly strong majority for (broadly) Hill’s line. In his summing up in the third discussion Hill emphasised the deviationist modern political implications he saw in Kiernan’s argument: it was a stages theory which lost sight of the fact that there had to be a decisive moment of transfer of political power from one class to another; it was dependent on Pokrovsky, who ‘played into the hands of Trotskyism’; it promoted English exceptionalism and gradualism.

Under this battering, Kiernan at the end of the third meeting withdrew his theses - but afterwards wrote a ‘postscript’ (document 15) which maintained quite a lot of his specific points as caveats to Hill’s line. An ‘official line’ asserting the orthodoxy of Hill’s line, and condemning deviations, etc (without directly naming Kiernan or his supporters), was then published in July 1948 in Communist Review (document 16).

But Kiernan’s objections had not wholly disappeared from view. Document 17 is a text by Dobb on the early 17th century economy, which is quite cautious both about the persistence of feudal relations of production (largely eliminated) and about the role of merchant capital (composed of several distinct strata with different economic characteristics).

‘Merchant capital’

The questions of the role of ‘merchant capital’ and of agrarian relations in this discussion fed into the Dobb-Sweezy debate on the transition to capitalism, started by American communist economists’ criticisms of Dobb’s Studies, and which continues to this day in the form of the ‘Brenner debate’.[12]

I have discussed the ‘merchant capital’ issue in the second part of my review of Kagarlitsky’s Empire of the periphery,[13] and will repeat here only two basic points in that discussion. The first is that Marx’s comments on merchant capital in Capital Vol 3, chapter 20 are in fact self-contradictory (not in a dialectical sense), with the result that the orthodox Stalinist critique of Pokrovsky was unsound, and that Kiernan’s notes on the point are preferable to Dobb’s response.

The second is that, once we recognise that late medieval shipping capital transformed use values by transporting goods in bulk, employing free labour in ship construction, as sailors and on the docks, the idea of isolated national transitions from feudalism to capitalism, or isolated national bourgeois revolutions, breaks down. The medieval Italian city-states, thrown up by small-scale bourgeois (in the old sense of urban) revolutions against feudal rule, created a capitalist bulk-goods transit trade as well as financial structures to back this trade and their states.

Their imitators elsewhere in Europe failed to achieve full sovereignty, and many of the Italian city-states degenerated back to feudalised state forms (signoria) through internal coups.The feudal monarchies intervened in the city organisations through state legal controls (and the occasional use of force) to subordinate them to the state, and intervened in shipping and manufacture by creating royal-sponsored monopoly organisations serving to ‘divide and rule’ and to make the relevant capitalists dependent on the king for their privileges.

But both the bulk-goods transit trade and Italian technical innovations in warfare tended to undermine feudalism as a system of production and exploitation, to monetise the European economy and to force (feudal) state centralisation for the effective conduct of war.

Protestantism, combined with resistance to feudal state centralisation, in the late 16th century produced the Dutch revolution. The Dutch republic rapidly became an imperialist capitalist state (centred on shipping) and operating on a world scale (with colonies in Java and South Africa and an attempt to take over Brazil, and ‘factories’ ranging from what is now New York, through India, to Japan). The Dutch republic then played an important part - as role-model, as rival and finally in 1688 as direct military intervenor - in the English Revolution.

1689-1714 saw the new English bourgeois state replace the Netherlands as the capitalist military ‘lead state’ and equally global imperialist operator, with the Netherlands afterwards (like Britain today) playing the role of a subordinated financial centre. The image of British parliamentarism, prosperity and so on, and Britain’s victories in global wars with France, finally wrecked the French monarchy and created the conditions for the French revolution.

The process is a prolonged transition from feudalism to capitalism, and an interrupted one; but overall it is an international process, not purely national. And the decisive steps in this international process involve revolutions: the forcible overthrow and reconstruction of states.

Absolutism revisited

Parker’s critique of the discussion centres on the issue of ‘Tudor absolutism’ as a misconceived starting point because Tudor England was not ‘absolutist’. This is not quite so clear. The problem is, at least in part, that the category of ‘absolutism’ is severely confused in Marx’s and Engels’ discussions of the transition from feudalism to capitalism and in subsequent Marxist (and other) uses of the term. Under some readings, absolutism is an early stage of capitalism, or at least of capitalist impact on feudalism, and this is reflected in some of the arguments in Ideology, absolutism ... But Parker himself debunks this view - at least for French absolutism - in his Class and state in early modern France (London 1996), arguing that the French absolutist state was, precisely, a state which endeavoured to preserve feudal aristocratic and clerical rights and dominance.

‘Absolutism’ is in origin - as ‘absolute monarchy’ is in its use by early modern writers - a legal-theoretical doctrine which holds that in any legal system there is a sovereign who is both the creator of the law and not bound by the law - princeps legibus solutus in the Latin tag. This doctrine is, in fact, medieval in origin, having been created between the 12th and the 14th century out of a combination of late Roman imperial legal sources with the Christian theology of miracles (god’s ‘absolute’ power overriding his ‘regulated’ power).[14]

The doctrine was already present in 15th century England, when it was used to justify the creation by the king of new courts using new forms of procedure, the ‘equity’ and ‘prerogative’ courts, which had powers derived from the king’s ‘absolute power’ to override the decisions of the existing courts and their ‘due process’. It became much more used in heavy-duty legal and political argument towards the end of the 16th century and in the early 17th - which is also, in fact, the same period in which the French state was remodelled as ‘absolutist’ in its juridical theory and began to rely heavily on the creation of new courts and new offices.[15]

These comments are at some distance from the conventional Marxist historical usage of ‘absolutism’. This refers not to the legal doctrine, but to the creation of professional military forces (at the expense of the individual military capabilities of the feudal nobility drawing on their followers), a centralised judicial system and salaried civil state bureaucracy. It was this model of ‘absolutism’ which was read by Pokrovsky as the political regime of ‘merchant capitalism’ - and by many Marxist and non-Marxist authors (including some comments from Marx and Engels) as the political regime under which capitalism developed.

The problem is that - as Parker, among others, demonstrates - very little of this model of ‘absolutism’ was present in the archetype absolutist state, ancien régime France. A professional army existed, but its officer corps remained dominated by the aristocracy, and the offices in the ‘bureaucracy’ were jurisdictions which the king sold to individuals, on which they expected to profit from fees - an arrangement which, though monetised, is far closer to the offices granted out by medieval kings than to a modern state bureaucracy. Jurisdiction, far from being centralised, became increasingly plural and complex, as new courts with overlapping jurisdictions were created and offices in them sold, while old courts remained in being. The litigant depended primarily on contacts close to the king to provide personal favours, making planning investment for long-term profit - except by buying offices - difficult.[16] Though French royal taxation pressed enormously heavily on the lower classes, it actually realised a much lower share of the social surplus product than 17th century Dutch taxation or English taxation after 1689.[17]

Once we see this French shape, the Tudor and early Stuart regime looks markedly less different from French absolutism, precisely because French absolutism looks less ‘modern’. There is a basic difference: no standing army in England. But no ability in Tudor England either of the great lords to win military victory against the crown by mobilising their retainers, unlike the 15th century. That is the lesson of the 1537 ‘Pilgrimage of Grace’ and the 1569 rebellion of the northern earls. The opposite was true in the late 16th century French wars of religion: the great nobles could defeat the central state. And, as Parker showed in his The making of French absolutism (London 1983) the Huguenot (Protestant) cause in France ultimately failed because of its dependence on the Protestant nobles, and the Protestant nobles’ commitment to the monarchical state. Conversely, the Dutch Republic did maintain a large standing army - but did not, in order to do so, create a centralised bureaucracy.[18] The model of absolutism in terms of monopoly of violence has little descriptive and less analytical or predictive power.

In contrast, juridical absolutism - personal monarchy as the principle shaping the state order - had real effects on the economy. This is apparent both from Parker’s treatment and from the evidence discussed in Root’s Northite institutionalist The fountain of privilege (Los Angeles 1994). Conversely, the overthrow of personal absolutism and the creation of a ‘rule of law’ regime which could give ‘credible commitments’ that tax income was mortgaged in the first place to payment of state debt, facilitated an enormously rapid flowering of shipping, financial and manufacturing capital - successively in the Netherlands from the 1590s; in England first from the 1650s and more rapidly and completely from 1689; and in France from the 1790s.[19]

State forms

It seems, then, that the theoretical mistake of the Historians Group in the debate on absolutism was to fail to see that the class nature of the state is given by the structural forms of organisation of the state - by the constitutional order. These forms subordinate it to a class.

It does not matter that that class and the social relations of production of which it is bearer are emergent rather than absolutely dominant when they create the new state, as was true of the bourgeoisie in the Netherlands in the late 16th century, Britain in the 17th or France in the late 18th. Nor does it matter if that class and the social relations of production of which it is the bearer has declined to the point that it is hard work to find evidence of them as anything more than parasites associated with the state - as was true of the feudal landlord class and the clerisy in the Netherlands in the late 16th century, or Britain in the 17th. France in the late 18th century is a little different, but still within the same framework: the state had successfully preserved both aristocracy and clerisy as very prominent features of French society, but they were so fragile that they were swept away in a few months.

The structural forms of the state tying it to a class can survive, for prolonged periods, the decline of the class that gave birth to this state. The state will then hold back economic and social development (and military capability) in order to preserve ornamental parasitic remnants of the class that gave it birth, and of the social relations of production of which this class was bearer. This is not just true of feudalism (European absolutism and Tokugawa Japan), but also of pre-feudal societies, as in the later Roman and Byzantine empires, and more spectacularly in the endless reconstructions in China of state forms originally constructed in the Ch’in dynasty as a system of exploitation through state penal slavery.

The result is that social revolution is revolution against state forms; not, primarily or in the first instance, against the old exploiting class and the classical forms of the social relations of production, of which this class was bearer. This class and these social relations of production have (usually) already been massively undermined by gradual decline, and turned into parasites on the state. Overthrowing the state forms therefore leads them (mostly; some relics usually remain) to fold up like a house of cards. And it opens the way for a quantum leap forward in the development of the new relations of production.

This is as true of capitalism today as it was of previous class societies. The corporation is a statised form of capitalism; capital is increasingly dependent on state subventions (not just bank bail-outs, but privatised monopolies, ‘private finance initiatives’ and all the rest of the crap). And the decline of the legitimacy of capitalism, and the desire to avoid tax (like senatorial aristocrats in late Rome or French nobles and clerics) results today in the capitalists calling themselves employees and their distributions of profits to themselves ‘executive compensation’, ‘salaries’ and ‘bonuses’.

Conversely, as the French Huguenots failed because of their dependence on friendly nobles who in turn were loyal to the monarchical state, so the workers’ movement is at present paralysed because it has adopted for its own organisations the model of the capitalist state: the independent executive (trade union, Labour, SWP, etc bureaucracy), state secrets and raison d’état (the ‘confidentiality’ of the bureaucracy); and ‘rule of law’ parliamentarism (that the ranks cannot directly sack their representatives, but only pass resolutions through increasingly stage-managed conferences).

At this point we can see that if the Historians Group had gone down the path of inquiry into the structural forms of the late-feudal absolutist state, they would have committed a heresy against Stalinism far more serious than Kiernan’s ‘Pokrovsky-ism’. Because if we see the state as tied to a class by structural forms, not by the social or economic dominance of that class, it at once becomes apparent that the USSR was neither socialist nor, after its very early years, a dictatorship of the proletariat or proletarian state.

We thus come back to the question of the influence of ‘official communist’ conceptions on the Historians Group, with which I began this second part of the review. We also return to the linkages between the theoretical historical question of the bourgeois revolutions and the question of the proletarian revolution. The points at issue are simple. First, the bourgeoisie acts and has always acted on an international scale. In order to take power away from the bourgeoisie it will be necessary to overthrow its international state system.

Second, the fact that the transition from feudalism to capitalism was prolonged, interrupted and in some respects ‘gradual’ does not in the least support ‘gradualism’ or Fabianism in politics. The state forms tie the state to the old ruling class. The state therefore intervenes in the economy to promote relics of the old ruling class and artificial forms of the old economic order. It intervenes in the organisations of the rising class to tie these organisations to the old state forms. By doing so it can paralyse them and prolong its own life and that of the ornamental-parasitic form of the old ruling class attached to it.

These state activities can lead to what Marx and Engels called “the mutual ruin of the contending classes” (Communist manifesto). Or they can hold back social change for extremely long periods. The overthrow of the state and creation of new state forms, in contrast, can “set free the elements of the new society with which the old collapsing ... society itself is pregnant” (Civil war in France), leading to a rapid leap forward in social development.

The choice is clear.



  1. Henry Heller The bourgeois revolution in France 1789-1815 Bergahn Books, 2006, pp172, £20.13; David Parker (ed) Ideology, absolutism and the English revolution: debates of the British communist historians 1940-1956 Lawrence and Wishart, 2008, pp285, £18.99.
  2. ‘Models of revolution’ Weekly Worker June 3.
  3. On Pokrovsky see also my two-part review of Boris Kagarlitsky’s Empire of the periphery: Weekly Worker April 2, 9 2009.
  4. One of the participants Parker was unable to trace, G de N Clark, 1922-1972, has an obituary in (1972) Industrial Law Journal 3-4. He moved from history teaching in the early 1950s to legal practice as a paralegal in workplace accidents, qualified as a lawyer, and went on to law teaching at University College London from 1964; as a legal academic he was a major mover in the Industrial Law Society. Besides extensive writing in the field of labour law, he co-authored with William Cornish Law and society in England 1750-1950, published 17 years after his death (London 1989), which was the first book to attempt a systematic socio-economic analysis of the legal developments in its period and has become a standard reference point used by general historians of the period for ‘law and society’ issues; though Cornish wrote the bulk of the text as it appeared, in his preface he says that the analytical scheme of the book was the product of joint work with Clark.
  5. A Thorpe, ‘The membership of the Communist Party of Great Britain 1920-1945’, (2000) 43 Historical Journal 777-800, table 1 at p781.
  6. K Mehnert Stalin versus Marx Frankfurt 1941 (translated EW Dickes, London 1952). Mehnert, of course, thought Stalin was right to reject Marxism on this front.
  8. Already in 1876 - Engels to Marx, May 28 1876:
  9. JC Publications and November Publications, 2007.
  10. SM Garon, ‘State and religion in imperial Japan’ (1986) 12 Journal of Japanese Studies 273-302 at p277 cites M Collcutt, ‘Buddhism: the threat of eradication’ in MB Jansen, G Rozman (eds) Japan in transition: from Tokugawa to Meiji (Princeton 1986), pp143-67.
  11. In a small weakness in production of the book, the running-head ‘Ideology’ begins at document 17, which is the last of the documents of the absolutism debate printed; it is headed with a repeat of the chapter head ‘Absolutism’ and there is no chapter head ‘Ideology’, which should appear between documents 17 and 18.
  12. R Hilton (ed) The transition from feudalism to capitalism (London 1976) collects essays from the Dobb-Sweezy debate; TH Aston, CHE Philpin (eds) The Brenner debate (Cambridge 1985) essays up to that date from the Brenner debate; perhaps most recently, P Hoppenbrouwers (ed) Peasants into farmers? (Turnhout 2001).
  13. Weekly Worker April 9 2009.
  14. K Pennington The Prince and the law 1200-1600 Los Angeles 1993.
  15. M Macnair, ‘Equity and conscience’ (2007) 27 Oxford Journal of Legal Studies 659-681, at 660-61, 667-69, has short summaries of the connection, and a quick overview of comparable developments elsewhere in Europe; more detail on the English legal politics of the new courts in A Cromartie The constitutionalist revolution Cambridge 2006, chapters 1, 2, 7, 8; C Brooks Law, politics and society in early modern England Cambridge 2008, chapters 1, 2, 6, 7. On France, to Parker’s book add MP Breen Law, city and king New York 2007.
  16. MP Breen Law, city and king New York 2007, note 11; HL Root The fountain of privilege Los Angeles 1994.
  17. For the French/English comparison, see Parker cited above; for the Dutch, MC ‘t Hart The making of a bourgeois state Manchester 1993.
  18. MC ‘t Hart The making of a bourgeois state Manchester 1993, n13.
  19. Netherlands: J de Vries, A van der Woude The first modern economy Cambridge 1997; England: S Pincus 1688: the first modern revolution Yale 2009; France: Heller examined in the first part of this review.