Victory of Dutch bourgeois revolution: 'Banquet of the crossbowmen's guild' (1648) by Bartholomeus van der Helst

Pulling the handbrake

How revolutionary were the bourgeois revolutions? Neil Davidson spoke to Communist University about the lessons for today

Bourgeois revolution is now a historical concept, but there are three reasons why the study of it, along with particular examples, are important.

One relates to those ideologues who pretend that capitalism just came into existence as a natural development. That it simply emerged as an economic system and that revolutions are unrelated political events. It is important for socialists to show that this is not true; that in fact capitalism was established through revolution, through the destruction of the old states and the creation of new ones.

The second reason concerns the historical meaning of those revolutions. When the Tea Party was emerging it referenced back to 1776 - a revolutionary moment in American history, which it was trying to claim as feeding into a contemporary rightwing agenda. In Britain, 1649, the civil war and the execution of the king is a bit too radical, so the ‘glorious revolution’ of 1688, because of its supposed peacefulness and smooth transition, is held up as a preferred alternative. Even when people accept that revolutions have taken place, there is a struggle over their significance in today’s world.

The third reason is that some supporters of the capitalist system have tried to claim the term ‘bourgeois revolution’ back from the left. Norman Stone wrote that Thatcher was completing Oliver Cromwell’s job by ‘modernising Britain’ in a capitalist direction. Christopher Hitchens claimed that by invading Iraq America was going to introduce the bourgeois revolution into the Middle East. These were ex-leftists taking over our vocabulary and using it to justify what imperialist states are doing in various parts of the world.

However, there are two problems for the left in getting to grips with the notion of bourgeois revolution.

Firstly, there is the notion of the ‘bourgeois democratic revolution’. This is one of the most misleading concepts. The term was not used in 1848 and only emerged in debates in Russia leading up to 1905. Everyone (except Trotsky) wrongly thought that the coming revolution in Russia would be bourgeois - to be followed by a period of capitalist development until such time as socialism was on the agenda. But there would also be a separate democratic revolution that would establish parliamentary democracy and allow the working class to take part in political life.

But under Stalinism this ‘bourgeois democratic’ notion became a cast-iron category - bourgeois revolutions in the past were now categorised as bourgeois democratic. And, of course, it was a stage that countries had to go through to get to the point where socialism was a possibility. In the 1920s Chinese communists were told that they were at the bourgeois-democratic stage and should not attempt to take power, as in Russia in 1917.

This Stalinist foreign policy meant holding back revolutionary movements - as in 1930s Spain, for example. But the concept of ‘bourgeois democratic revolution’ also got read back into history, so that this was what was supposed to have happened in France in 1789 or England in 1640, for example. But the trouble is, there are not many revolutions that conform to this kind of model. The French revolution especially was an exceptional event in European history. There are hardly any others like it.

Perry Anderson and Tom Nairn, although not Stalinists, partly borrowed from this notion. They argued in the ‘Nairn-Anderson thesis’that England had not undergone a proper bourgeois democratic revolution. This is bizarre. Of all the revolutions that have happened, the English was the one that was structurally nearest to the French. No other matches up to the French in terms of the masses’ involvement, the dynamic shifts, the move leftwards, the radical nature of the destruction of the monarchy, its territorial expansion and all the rest. However, bourgeois revolutions do not have to be democratic.

The second problem with the notion of bourgeois revolutions is the assumption they are carried out by capitalists - not the bourgeoisie, but an actual capitalist class. There is a revisionist tendency, starting in the 1950s and 60s, where usually rightwing historians would point out that the French and English revolutions were not actually carried out by industrialists, bankers, merchants and so on. Therefore, they cannot have been anything to do with capitalism.

This is a sleight of hand. The bourgeoisie is bigger than capitalists alone. But this revisionism was picked up by leftwing thinkers as well - Marxists like Robert Brenner and his school, Ellen Meiksins Wood, George Comninel and various others. In essence they said those revolutions were nothing to do with capitalism. There was a way in which capitalism developed - in England particularly, and that spread around the world - but those revolutions had nothing to do with this.

In response let me make a couple of distinctions.

The first is between political revolution and social revolution. In the 1790s Tom Paine said that all previous revolutions had been purely political events - but the French was the only revolution that achieved something completely new in how it rearranged power and the state. But after him most people rejected even that. If you read standard works of people on the left from the 1820s and 30s they all say there has not yet been a social revolution - all revolutions up till then had been purely political. Effectively all that revolutions had done was to perfect the state, keeping class relations in place - the state had not been destroyed. That was still to come: the social revolution will be the socialist revolution.

This is the argument that Marx and Engels inherited in the 1840s. If you read their early works they talk about the social revolution still to come. It is not true that they derived the notion of bourgeois revolution from reading French historians of the restoration period - that is a legend of political Marxism. In fact they arrived at their notion of revolution through their engagement with Hegel. Eventually, they saw the working class as the agent for transforming the world. What they did then was to read back the discovery of the proletarian revolution to the bourgeoisie itself.

Their argument, in about 1844-45, goes something like this. If the working class is going to make a revolution and create a new world, then the bourgeoisie must have done that themselves to transform feudalism into capitalism. That did not mean that they thought the bourgeoisie made the revolution in the same way the working class will. In a sense they created the category of bourgeois revolution by retrofitting it from their notion of proletarian revolution.

Notions of political and social revolutions are important. Political revolution changes the nature of the political regime, not society. There have been hundreds of revolutions of this sort. 1848 in France, for example, was that kind of revolution. Social revolution though is extraordinarily rare and I can identify three types: the revolution from slavery to feudalism in a small part of southern and western Europe around the 4th and 5th century; the bourgeois revolutions; and the socialist revolution. These are social revolutions that transform entire systems and entire societies.

So the bourgeois revolution was a type of social revolution, transforming the entire feudal world - which does not mean every single country has to go through its own bourgeois revolution.

That is the first distinction I want to make: political and social. The second is between class struggle within a system and class struggle that can transform a system. Slaves fighting against slave masters, peasants fighting against feudal lords - these are struggles that take place within slavery and feudalism: they do not have the intent or capacity of transforming society.

Peasants cannot provide the basis of a new system - we know of huge peasant risings throughout history, but they have never resulted in a new system. Likewise slaves - even a successful slave revolt essentially meant escape rather than transformation. All Spartacus and his army wanted to do was get the hell out of Italy and back to where they had originally come from. There cannot be a new mode of production based on slaves any more than one based on peasants. So these were struggles within a system and generated by it, but they do not have the possibility of transforming it.

But with the bourgeoisie it was different. An alternative system of capitalism developed within feudalism. The bourgeoisie is, of course, a minority class, but under feudalism it was also an oppressed class as well as an exploiting class. It had the possibility of expanding the productive forces and transforming the world. It is clear that only the bourgeoisie and the working class had and have this potential to create a different kind of world.

We judge bourgeois revolutions by their consequences, their outcomes. It is the end result that matters, not the process and there are different ways to a capitalist state. This is where the ‘bourgeois democratic’ notion is completely wrong: it assumes a particular thing - democracy - which is not necessary.

Stalin was very fond of box-ticking: you’re a nation if you have geographical unity, a common language, etc. They might be significant in particular cases, but it is the end result that matters: the destruction of a feudal state and the creation of a new form - one that is actually geared towards the reproduction of capital and capitalist relations. That is what a bourgeois revolution is and, as we have seen, it takes different forms.


So what were the preconditions for bourgeois revolutions? There are five, which follow on from and build on each other.

The first is a crisis of feudalism. That feudalism had reached the limits of its expansion - not just territorially, but in terms of the productive forces. There is some controversy about exactly when this happened and it varied from place to place. You can see that by the time the Black Death arrives in the middle of the 14th century feudalism had reached its limits. This seems to be the starting point for the possibility of bourgeois revolutions.

Secondly, there must also be an actual alternative and in reality the capitalism emerging from the feudal system provided such an alternative. The elements that go into capitalism - merchants, trading, markets, wage labour etc - have existed throughout history. But under capitalism these are brought together into a dynamic new system. They are pooled into a relationship based on wage labour and on competitive accumulation.

It is a fallacy to reduce capitalism to markets. We have to be a bit more serious about this. Developing the productive forces is as much a human activity, an act of human agency, as the class struggle. The productive forces do not develop by themselves: people have to develop them. That means people have to do things that will change the world in which they operate.

Think about it. You are a peasant - endless toil for yourself and your family. You want to reduce that by having more efficient means of ploughing, or of manuring, so you hire people to do some of the work for you. You get more technical means of growing more crops. This allows you to sell more on the market, which allows you to hire more people to labour. You can see all sorts of reasons people would want to do this and have the possibility of doing it in certain conditions, so it is not the case that there is some kind of mechanistic way in which the productive forces develop. People consciously turned to what we now see as capitalist ways of organising economic activity - they were better than being a serf.

Thirdly, some things happen accidentally or contingently. Think about the great wars fought in absolutist states in the 14th and 15th centuries - you need armour, cannons and ships and it takes hundreds of workers to produce them. So, as a by-product of the need for better production, new economic relationships are formed that provide the basis of, or feed into, a new system.

In other words, the possibility of capitalist alternatives emerged out of feudal crisis. And then the existing state was a negative factor - controlling and holding back. In most parts of the world there were extraordinarily powerful states - what people used to call ‘Asiatic’(although that is not a very useful term: we now refer to the tributary mode of production and tributary states - in China, Mughal India, the Ottoman and South American empires). These are a particular kind of state, run by a bureaucracy, in which land is not owned by private landowners, by and large, or by lords. The lords tended to function as a layer of bureaucrats given special powers by the empire, by the crown. These states were much more powerful and cohesive than the states that tended to arise in Europe. In supposedly centralised states, in England for instance, there was much more localised power.

Marx talks about the interstices of the system - capitalism developing in the gaps within the feudal system. He is partly thinking about this not as a geographical thing - feudal power was nothing like as total as the tributary power of the east. And this is one of the reasons why capitalism develops in the west: ie, the west’s backwardness. The great empires of China or Mughal India had been much more developed than Western Europe for centuries. But, because they were so developed, there was no inbuilt process that might have led to capitalism, as was the case in Western Europe - especially the Netherlands and England, where the first revolutions began to happen.

The fourth precondition is the bourgeoisie itself as a revolutionary class: a class that sees itself as an alternative to the old feudal world. Now here we have to make a distinction between capitalists and the bourgeoisie in a wider sense. I think the best discussion of this is by the American Marxist, Hal Draper. In the second volume of Karl Marx’s theory of revolution hetalks about imagining the capitalist class as a series of concentric circles. In the middle is the actual capitalist class - bankers, industrialists and capitalist landowners, etc, who are at the heart of the system. But around are other parts of the bourgeoisie - people who do not necessarily exploit workers directly, but whose income is derived from the exploitation of the working class: journalists, soldiers, priests, ideologues ... These people become the outer core of the bourgeois class and are usually far more numerous than the actual capitalists. They are extremely important.

In this context it is worth mentioning a myth about Lenin - that he said the working class needed leadership from outside in order to become class-conscious, organise and so on. Various people, such as Draper and Lars T Lih, have pointed out that this is not true. Rather, Lenin said that revolutionary consciousness did not emerge automatically from the process of working in factories and so on: it had to come from outside the real experience of the workers and their situation. They would develop a form of consciousness in that situation, but not necessarily a revolutionary consciousness. However, that does not mean that middle class intellectuals need to tell workers how to organise. It means that something outside the daily experience of the class is needed - some scientific way of looking at the world.

Nevertheless, when it comes to the bourgeoisie, in some ways it is true that it needed leadership that was not tied up with the daily competition between different capitalists: people who took a broader view, precisely because they were not directly involved with the economic processes of capitalism. If you think about the bourgeoisie in the French revolution, what were they? Journalists, lawyers, etc, rather than capitalists.

EP Thompson has a great line about this: industrialists and bankers are not renowned for rushing to the barricades with bandoliers on their shoulders. Correct! They are usually somewhere else! Revolutions are violent upheavals, in which property gets damaged, so you do not go there unless you are really desperate - or you get someone else to do it for you, which was usually the case with the bourgeoisie.

So this ‘non-economic bourgeoisie’ - let us call it that for convenience - has advantages because its components are not in competition with each other. This is the thing about capitalists - they can never be completely united against the working class. As Adam Smith says in The wealth of nations, capitalists do not make for good governments, because they only pursue their own interests. They may not even think about the broader interests of their own system, because they are too busy competing with one another. In many respects Adam Smith was a sensible guy.

But it is not only about the state: it is also about political leadership. Because lawyers, journalists and so on are not competing with each other in that way, they are capable of taking a broader view on what needs to be done. Crucially, they are capable of transgressing property rights if necessary. Think about Year Two of the French revolution. Some of the laws that are passed are truly damaging, or at least restricting, in terms of capital. But they were necessary to win the struggle against the counterrevolutionary armies, defeat internal plotting, etc. So on a temporary basis the leaders of the revolution were prepared to transgress property rights in a way that actual capitalists would not.

This ‘non-economic bourgeoisie’ is also closer as a group to the petty bourgeois masses. It shares more their style of life, and is able to give them leadership in a way that rich and very rich capitalists could not. Why would you listen to some capitalist who is exploiting people and has amassed huge wealth? But someone like Robespierre was able to speak to these masses and mobilise them.

Fifthly, we need ideologies of transformation to give people the courage or motivation to take on the absolutist state. There is a great passage in The eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte where Marx talks about how people making bourgeois revolutions always look back to someone before them as the model to follow: Cromwell looked back to the Old Testament; leaders of the French revolution looked back to the Roman and classical worlds; in 1848 they looked back to 1789. This is what partly distinguishes bourgeois from socialist revolutions.


Let us now consider the actual revolutions themselves. The two earliest bourgeois revolutions are in the Netherlands from 1567 onwards and in England from 1640 - unsurprisingly, in the states where capitalist production was most developed (I insist that the Netherlands was a highly developed capitalist state, as opposed to some political Marxists, who claim it was not). In both cases, initially anyway, it was a radicalised form of Calvinism that provided the ideology for the revolutionary movement.

In the Netherlands there were some merchants involved in the leadership of the movement. But a lot of it was driven from below by the petty bourgeoisie. Calvinism was an iconoclastic ideology that attacked Catholicism and its symbols - not just the absolutist state, but a foreign one: the Spanish Hapsburg state, which ruled the Netherlands. So it was a struggle against external absolutism, whereas in England the absolutism was native.

Because capitalism was so advanced in the Netherlands and England, the destruction of the existing state removed the final barrier to capitalism’s free development. It did not matter what the reasons were for acting against the existing state, even if they were intensely religious; together with the monarchy, it was smashed, allowing the possibility for a new system to emerge. Attempts to roll things back by Charles II and then James II were ultimately unsuccessful. 1688 was the final stopper - the final nail tap that finished off the possibility of absolutist revival in England (although not yet in Scotland at this point).

This is usually seen as decisive in English terms and it was, but not in global terms. At that point the Netherlands economy had gone into a decline, so England was the only substantial capitalist state in the world in 1688, although its empire had not yet expanded to the point where it dominated everything. The Italian city-states that started the transition to capitalism were smashed in the 14th century by the local feudal lords and by the Spanish Hapsburgs, while in Bohemia the beginnings of an agricultural capitalism were destroyed at the Battle of White Mountain in 1620. Feudal absolutists had done pretty well in seeing off the capitalist threat in all these places over 500 years.

Until the middle of the 18th century there was no guarantee that capitalism was going to emerge as a world system. We have to be clear about this: it was not inevitable, but depended on political events. The turning point was about 1759, when two things happened.

First, Scotland - the counterrevolutionary heartland in the British Isles, which held the possibility of a kind of absolutist resurgence, based on the Stuart monarchy supported by France - was finally smashed after the battle of Culloden. Scottish feudalism was then abolished legally - it was the only place in Europe, apart from France, where this was actually written into law. Abolition of people’s right to hold weapons, of certain kinds of feudal tenure and so on was wiped out in Scotland. The counterrevolutionary threat was destroyed.

Then the Seven Years War from 1756 to 1763 saw the final triumph of Britain over France in Canada, in the West Indies, in India and in West Africa. This meant that the global system would be based on what Britain had done rather than on the French empire. The Seven Years War is not usually seen as a decisive moment, but I think it was: it set the seal on what had happened up to that point and meant that a capitalist world was now inevitable. How each country got there was different, but from that point it was clearly beginning to happen. Even if you look at France through the defeats of the 1750s and 60s, you can see the monarchy beginning to allow elements of capitalism to develop. France was the most advanced feudal state at the time; this had to happen if it was to compete with Britain.

The French revolution was an exceptional event. Like the Netherlands and like England it was a mass event, particularly in Paris and the large cities (that was also true of the English revolution and London). But in France capitalism was less developed than in the Netherlands or England. That allowed radicalism to flourish because there was not an already entrenched set of capitalist relations: the feeling in France was ‘We want to be like Britain’. In some cases that was also true of lowland Scotland after 1760: ‘Why are we bound by this feudal system that was overthrown 100 years ago in England?’

So there was a conscious attempt to imitate - but, of course, attempts to imitate rarely end up in the way intended and it was somewhat different in France. The French Revolution was the highest point of popular involvement in a bourgeois revolution, but for that reason it also acted as an awful warning about what can happen if things get out of control. This was particularly clear during the revolutions of 1848. Everyone, including Marx and Engels, expected that 1848 was going to be the moment when 1789 would be reproduced - especially in Germany and other parts of Europe - but that did not happen, not least because the bourgeoisie itself was quite cowardly.

Marx showered abuse on the German bourgeoisie for its cowardice and miserable backwardness, partly because he was trying to goad it into action. But there is a political reason why it did not imitate the French bourgeoisie: it had seen what happened during the French Terror. The French bourgeoisie feared the radicalism of the masses, but something else too: it also feared the backwardness of the masses. Think about events in Naples or in Spain, where sections of the peasantry lined up with the monarchy against the liberals and radicals - supported, of course, by the British.

So this fear of both the radicalism of the masses and their reactionary nature - which meant they might line up with the old ruling class - paralysed the bourgeoisie to the extent that it was unwilling to push the revolutionary movement to the necessary stage of actually overthrowing the various monarchs, particularly in Germany.

What happened instead was extraordinary. Otto Von Bismarck - not a member of the bourgeoisie, but of the landed nobility - was one of the Prussian Junkers who put down the revolution of 1848-49. He knew that if there was going to be a revolution it would have to be made by the bourgeoisie, rather than risk what might happen if it was driven by the working class. Against the wishes of some of his own class, most of whom were not as far-sighted, Bismarck pushed through a bourgeois revolution, in wars against Austria, Denmark and France (which led incidentally to the Paris Commune - that was not in the plan!), and Germany emerged from it all as a coherent power.

Something similar happened in Italy, and in Japan with the Meiji restoration, with sections of the old ruling classes pushing through a bourgeois revolution. That meant it was done in a conservative, undemocratic way and usually retained all the paraphernalia of empire, just as in Germany.

But that is not so different from Britain. Towards the end of the 19th century the monarchy in Britain took on its current role, becoming the great bloated thing that is supposed to be such a significant national institution - quite similar to the creation of the German emperor.

Scotland after 1746 was a forerunner of that process. There was a top-down revolution, in which the political aspect is dealt with and then the system was transformed to one dominated by capitalism. Something similar also happened in Canada, where under the auspices of the British colonial regime a new state was created. And in America too - but here it was different because there was an actual capitalist class waging a struggle against the pre-capitalist regime of the Confederacy. And again things went further than was originally intended: Abraham Lincoln went into the war not in order to free the slaves, but to maintain the union. But by the end of the war not only had he adopted abolition as a goal: he had black troops fighting against the Confederacy. In the struggle to crush the south, the USA is probably the last moment when what you might call the popular element of the bourgeois revolution surfaced.

Theoretically the bourgeois revolutions should have come to an end as a possible political outcome on October 25 1917, when Lenin said at the congress of soviets: “We shall now begin to construct the socialist order.” From that point on it should have been socialism that was on the agenda. But, as we know, that did not happen - Stalinism played an extraordinary role in driving the counterrevolution in Russia, which was achieved by the late 1920s. Elsewhere, however, it played a different role - in some places in enacting what are essentially political revolutions, as I defined them earlier on: for example, in eastern Europe. State capitalism by Russian tanks.

But Stalinism was a revolutionary force as well - in China above all, and in Vietnam, Yugoslavia and Albania. All had Stalinist parties that made revolutions. But these revolutions were effectively the modern version of the bourgeois revolution - state capitalism. But that is a debate - depending on whether you think state capitalism exists or not. If you do, it seems logical to conclude that, if Bismarck can create capitalist states top-down, then there is no reason why Stalinist bureaucrats cannot do the same thing on a nationalist basis.

However, that process reached its climax in the mid-1970s. Think of the destruction of the Portuguese empire in Africa: Guinea Bissau, Mozambique and Angola; also the destruction of the old regimes in Indochina and the overthrow of Haile Selassie’s Ethiopian empire - all of this between1973 and 1975. So this is the absolute high point: the final destruction of the old.

Marx once said that revolutions are locomotives of history. He was challenged on that by Walter Benjamin, who disputed the analogy. A revolution is not a locomotive, in his view: a socialist revolution is more like somebody pulling the handbrake to stop the train going off the edge of a cliff.

In a way that is a nice metaphor. Bourgeois revolutions were indeed locomotives of history, but the socialist revolution will be us pulling the handbrake - in order hopefully to create a new society.