Bourgeois revolutions and breaking national myths

Neil Davidson, a member of the Socialist Worker platform in the SSP, systematically takes apart what commonly passes for Scottish history. This is an edited version of the opening he gave to this year's Communist University

If you ask socialists when the Scottish revolution occurred, most will ask, ‘What revolution?’ It is not one of those which make up the great canon of revolutions. That is why, in my book, Discovering the Scottish revolution 1692-1746, and other writings, I try to conceptualise the period of Scottish history that could be described as the bourgeois revolution.

I shall begin with a few definitions. If you leave aside nonsense like the ‘internet revolution’ and such like, there are two types of revolution which make any sense for socialists and political writers generally. The first type is political revolution: a new regime is imposed, but does not fundamentally change the socioeconomic nature of the society. I can think of at least half a dozen such revolutions in Scottish history between the reformation of 1559 and the ‘glorious revolution’ of 1688-89. Though bloody and violent, and often involving popular elements, they did not fundamentally change the nature of Scottish society.

Much rarer, and much more important, are social revolutions. These revolutions do not just change the regime, but smash and totally recast the state, as a prelude to socioeconomic change. We only know of two kinds. One is the socialist revolution, which, alas, has not happened yet, but which we saw the beginnings of in Russia 1917 and in the Paris Commune, and in some other revolutionary movements of the last century. The second type are bourgeois revolutions. Revolutions that actually ended or completed the destruction of feudalism or absolutism, and allowed bourgeois states, the new bourgeois world, to come into existence.

How do we define bourgeois revolutions? I think there is a misconception about what a bourgeois revolution actually is, which is derived from a model based on the French Revolution, and to a certain extent on the English civil war and the English Revolution. According to this misconception, there is a very conscious movement which beheads the king, proclaims the republic, starts abolishing all the great estates and creates a national identity for the country beneath it. Clearly this is a caricature even of the French Revolution and most countries do not have anything like that experience of the transition to capitalism.

We have to look instead at the bourgeois revolution as a series of political events, strung out over quite a long period of time, decades perhaps, which result in the creation of capitalism. They are revolutions for capitalism rather than being revolutions carried out by capitalists.

Most bourgeois revolutions fall into two main camps, in different historical periods. The first one includes the Dutch revolt, the English civil war, the American revolution and the French revolution. These are largely carried out by the petty bourgeoisie - small, independent producers and radicalised sections of the periphery of the capitalist class: a struggle from below by and large.

The second wave, most of which is concentrated in the 1860s, is much more common: top-down revolutions, carried out by a faction of the old feudal ruling class, which has seen which way the wind is blowing and realises that if it wants to carry on as a ruling class it is going to have to change the basis of exploitation. We saw this in Prussia, in the creation of a unified Germany, in Italy, in Spain, in Japan and also in America with the American civil war (one of the few revolutions actually conducted by an industrial bourgeoisie, incidentally, against the southern slaveholders).

Eric Hobsbawm has said that essentially there was no Scottish revolution, but there was a sort of functional equivalent, represented by a struggle between two different forms of society: the tribal highland clans and the advanced capitalism of the lowlands. That is plausible, but wrong. For one thing, the highlands and lowlands were not actually as different as Hobsbawm and many others have made out. And there was no such thing as tribalism, since the clan was in no sense a tribal formation.

Secondly, the main counterrevolutionary movement in Scotland, and indeed in Britain as a whole after 1680, the Jacobites were not based in the highlands. Although there was some support there, most came from the northern lowlands. For instance, Aberdeenshire was a hotbed of reaction throughout the 17th and 18th centuries.

Finally, if it is the class struggle that creates capitalism, then obviously the key thing is the highland clearances. But the highland clearances happened much later. The clearances do not really start until about 1815, when Scotland was already at the pinnacle of capitalist development, so that cannot be the decisive thing.

Others say that the Scottish revolution happened at the same time as in England with the struggles of 1612, 1637, throughout the 1660s, and then 1688-1690. There is a more sophisticated version which concedes that maybe those events were not significant in themselves, but through the union of 1707 the Scots essentially inherited everything the English had done - a structural assimilation in which the Scots got all the benefits of what happened in England without having to fight for it.

Again, this seems plausible, but here too there are problems. For a start, Scotland was not remotely capitalist in 1660, 1689 or 1707, or indeed until well into the 18th century. So it takes some explaining why events which were supposed to transform Scotland in fact did not do so. Secondly, the Jacobites - who in 1715 and 1745 threatened to overturn the British state - had a social base for their counterrevolution, which surely would not have been there if things were really going so swimmingly for capitalism.

Bourgeois revolutions require three things. Firstly, a crisis of feudalism - productive forces can no longer develop sufficiently, causing massive problems. Secondly, there has to be a capitalist solution. There were crises of feudalism since the 10th century, but obviously they did not result in capitalism. Thirdly, there has to be a social force which is capable of implementing a solution.

What were the social forces in Scotland at the beginning of the 1690s? First of all I should say something about the ‘glorious revolution’ of 1688 to 1689. This event is usually completely misunderstood in a Scottish context. In England, it is fair to say that the ‘glorious revolution’ was the final stage in the bourgeois revolution. It ensured that absolutism was smashed forever as an internal force.

This was not true in Scotland, where the forces that carried out the revolution were completely different. In England it was the agricultural and mercantile bourgeoisie wanting to establish their constitutional rights, their religious views, their right to accumulate capital and so on. In Scotland it was the old feudal lords who carried out the ‘glorious revolution’. Obviously their interests were not the same as those of the English bourgeoisie. They were fighting absolutism from the right, if you like, from a more backward position - absolutism was threatening to centralise: to take away feudal powers and remove the local dominions of the feudal lords.

By the beginning of 1691, that political revolutionary process had ended and the old ruling class was back in power. William ruled not just the Irish colony, but two countries at the opposite ends of European development. One of the most backward countries, Scotland (you would need to go as far as Poland to find a country as backward at this stage), and England, the most developed. That was a totally untenable situation for the English state.

Class forces

Within Scotland itself there were three broad class forces involved. There was a reactionary section consisting of some of the highland clans - people who thought that the new regime would stop them from using blackmail and rustling cattle, which is how they made their living. These clans looked to return the Stuart dynasty. There was also the episcopalian clergy. They had been kicked out, in some cases by popular revolt - particularly in the south west of the country, where in 1689 there had been major uprisings in villages and some big towns. The episcopalians were the most committed to the return of the Stuarts and to the counterrevolution generally - for the very good material reason that it was the only way they could get back their position of social power. They were sustained in part as private tutors for the Jacobites lords. These two forces made up the reactionary section.

In the middle were the conservative feudal lords and landowners (who were often the same people). A ruling class which drew their wealth from rents. They also had extra-economic power, which had two bases.

One was a military form of tenancy, not just in the highlands, but also in the north east lowlands: tenure was given to peasants on the basis that they would fight for the lord. There was nowhere else in Europe where such an arrangement still existed except Poland. Everywhere else, that sort of power had been sucked up by the absolutist state.

Secondly, all the lords had local jurisdiction - or heritable jurisdiction, as it was called. This gave them the power to try and sentence people within their own courts. There were only four crimes they could not try - the four pleas of the crown, such as treason. There is a record of someone tried for stealing and drowned by order of one of these courts in 1789. There is nowhere else in western or central Europe where this would have happened so late in history, on the basis of a judgement by an individual in his own local court.

Allied to them were the conservative merchant groups along the east coast, who were trading with Holland and the Baltic states using monopolies granted by the crown. They were merchant capitalists existing within the feudal system, and they were wedded to supporting the old system. These people could, I suppose, have been encouraged to look for some new way of organising production, a capitalist way, had anyone been able to give them a lead, but of course there was no one at that point going in that direction.

Against them was ranged the progressive wing of Scottish society, the social forces who were opposed to the way things were. Again, there was a jumble of different kinds of people and classes. In the south west there were independent yeoman farmers who owned their own land. They were not tenants, but they were still subject to the heritable jurisdiction of the lord in whose territory they happened to be based. Then on the west coast were the new merchants, who were trading with America and the Caribbean in tobacco and sugar and later became involved in the slave trade. Alongside them were Church of Scotland ministers, the presbyterians, who wanted to get rid of the episcopalians altogether and therefore wanted to push state power in places where it did not have any basis. There were also lawyers, a very important bourgeois group, who were deeply opposed to the local legal powers of the lords and were trying to set up a rational, centralised legal system.

Finally, and extremely importantly, there were the British officer corps. The army contained many who saw the possibility of a more rational set-up - one that was not based on feudal levies or absolutist mercenary troops, but on money and talent, as opposed to whether or not you belonged to the nobility.

The crisis of feudalism, which came in the 1690s, had three elements. First, a collapse of trade by about 50%. Partly this was brought on by the war between Britain and France, the first of many. France was one of Scotland’s main trading partners, but by the time the war ended in 1697, new trade routes that did not involve Scotland had been found.

But that was not the worst of it. The really catastrophic factor was the huge subsistence crisis from 1695 onwards, which hit the whole of Europe - Finland, for example, lost a third of its population. The only two countries that were not affected were England and the united Netherlands, the two that had changed to capitalist agriculture. Scotland lost between five and 15 percent of its population - somewhere between 50,000 and 150,000 people died of starvation between 1695 and 1699. A huge number, but in a feudal society where physical labour-power is the main means of production it was a disaster. People were still paying off debts acquired during this time 20 years later.

The third factor was the famous attempt to set up a colony at Darien in the Panamanian isthmus. The original idea was simply to open up a trading company, but it became a colony, partly under the pressure of the crisis at home, and partly because of the attempt to leap in developmental terms over the backwardness up to the level of England. The English, needless to say, were opposed to it, because it was going to be a rival to their own recently founded major capitalist concern, the East India Company.

This colony was set up in the middle of the area which the Spanish at least nominally controlled, and they were none too pleased about the Scots coming in and doing to them what they had done to the Mexicans and Incas a hundred years earlier. Additionally the Scots were presbyterians, which made it even more painful for the Spanish to contemplate.

However, the decisive problem was that neither the Scottish state nor civil society was capable of running this kind of enterprise. The level of planning, given that everything was staked on this venture, was catastrophically low. They used granite from Aberdeen to construct buildings in the middle of a swamp. Supplies were erratic and inappropriate and the thing was a disaster from the start.

The failure of this enterprise cost a couple of thousand lives and ate up between a third and a half of the entire national capital, which could otherwise have been used to invest in agricultural improvement, for example. Money was wasted that could have been spent on developing production. What this pointed to for many was that Scotland as an independent state was no longer tenable, and that they would be forced to choose, as the Scots have always been forced to choose, between England and France.

England or France

So let me say something about England and France. I said earlier that 1688-89 was the last phase of the English revolution. That is true if you look at England in isolation from the rest of the world. However, if you think of the possibility of external counterrevolution, then it was not. Right on until the 1750s there was a massive inter-systemic conflict between capitalist, constitutional England, on the one hand, and absolutist, feudal France, on the other, which was fought out across the world. Of course, this struggle affected Scotland as well. The English establishment - both the Tories and the Whigs - saw it as a potential back door for France, the great enemy. Their solution was to impose the House of Hanover, which was going to succeed William’s sister-in-law Anne in 1715, in Scotland as well.

The Nairn-Anderson thesis identifies the allegedly unfulfilled nature of the English bourgeoisie, but I have always thought that their inviting back George Hanover was a splendid piece of bourgeois bravado. He was 57th in line to the throne and could not actually speak English. Asking him to be king was a demonstration that they did not care a hoot about the hereditary principle. He was essentially hired to be monarch - a gesture of the triumphalism of the English bourgeoisie. They imposed this on the Scots as well.

By 1706 the majority of the Scottish ruling class had opted for an incorporating union with England. That union was deeply and bitterly opposed by the popular masses in Scotland. Once it became known that the treaty existed and was going to be passed by the old Scottish parliament, there was an enormous eruption, which consisted of mass petitions, in some cases signed by peasants who had usually never done anything to disagree with their lords and masters before. There were public burnings of the treaty and riots in Glasgow and Edinburgh.

Two major factors were behind this resistance. At this time, the church was the only democratic institution of any sort in Scotland. Parliament was a joke. It consisted of the nobility and two self-selected groups of burgesses and lesser landlords, who elected each other, so it was not a democratic institution at all. One person in a thousand had the vote. The church was the institution that organised welfare and what social services there were. Its elders and ministers were elected, so it was an institution with some level of popular participation. Even though the Scottish church was a mainstay of repression and witch-burning, on some level it did function as an institution where people could be involved and it was vitally important to protect it. After the riot in Glasgow, in the space of precisely three days a law was passed protecting forever the Scottish church from anything imposed by England, such as episcopalianism and bishops.

The second point of concern was taxation - increasing excise charges, the levies on salt, beer and other essentials. Again, the massive riots produced huge wrangling in parliament and reforms were brought in reversing the increases. The fact is that they were withdrawn for years as the result of the insurgency.

However, it did not go any further than that and, once these changes were made, the resistance to the union began to die down. There was an important reason for this. The only way that the Scots could have stopped the union was through an armed insurrection and everybody knew that France would have invaded in support. Either Scotland would have become a colony of absolutist, catholic France or the English would have invaded in response - they would either have conquered Scotland or turned it into something like Ireland. What was not going to happen was some sort of Scottish independent republic in 1707. I think people knew that and consciously pulled back.

Why did the ruling class go for union? The first thing to be said is that it was not a bourgeois deal. Despite what EP Thompson and CPGB historians used to argue about the union representing the linking up of the two bourgeoisies, the bourgeoisie opposed the treaty. It was the feudal lords who wanted it and it was they who voted most strongly for it in parliament. The reason is that the English essentially guaranteed their feudal rights. The most important part of the treaty is section 21, which says that all the heritable jurisdictions and all the associated powers of the lords will be preserved in perpetuity, regardless of anything else included in the treaty.

In effect the lords were to be allowed to continue exploiting the peasants in the same way, provided they did not bother the English. This of course is a technique that the British later perfected in India. It meant that no major social transformations were implemented: the old feudal ruling class were allowed to carry on, as long as they did what they were told.

However, the fact of the union did actually mean that the transition to capitalism began to gather pace, even though the English had no real intention of carrying it out in any systematic way. People saw how English agriculture was accruing great wealth to its owners. Merchants on the west coast began to feed money into agriculture.

The feudal lords essentially had three choices. If they were rich and powerful enough, they could actually transform themselves into capitalist landlords. Or they could simply attempt to exploit the peasants harder - screw more out of them by upping their rent. But there is a limit to how far this can be taken. The third option was to stage a counterrevolutionary rising and try to turn the clock back - to return things in Scotland, and perhaps in England as well, to the way they had been. They could hope to do that because they still had the powers, the military tenures, etc, which the English had left in place.

It is interesting to ask why the English allowed them to retain these privileges. There are two reasons. One is that it was not just the supporters of the Stuarts who had feudal dominions. For example, Argyle was a supporter of the regime and the union - he had huge estates and drew great feudal rents from them. The second reason was the impotence of the state. In at least half of Scotland - the highlands and also large parts of the north - the state simply had no authority, no real power. It needed the local lords just to act as a general law and order machine, because there was nothing else to put in their place.

From 1707 until 1746, then, there was essentially a system of dual power in Scotland. There was a bourgeois state centred in London, with some vague outpost in Edinburgh trying to run things, and the local power bases of the feudal lords and their domains. This situation could not be sustained: it was untenable. It led to attempts by the more crisis-ridden lords to militarily turn the situation around. One of them, after he was captured at Culloden, said in his prison cell before he was beheaded: “My Lord, for the two kings [that is, James and George] and their right, I care not a farthing. But I was starving. And by god, if Mohammed had set up a standard in the highlands I would have been a good muslim for bread, and stuck close to the Jacobite party, for I must eat.” This gives some indication of the actual motives of the lords in supporting the counterrevolutionary movement.

The ’45

They rebelled on two major occasions: one was 1715, a stand-off that did not really resolve anything fundamentally. The other was 1745, the last British civil war, which resulted in the breaking of the powers of the lords forever, at least in terms of their ability to challenge the British state.

In April 1745, Charles Edward Stuart, the grandson of James II, arrived in the western isles and gathered around him several thousand troops, mostly brought out under feudal levies. He fought a number of insubstantial battles and soon had the whole country before him. The reason for this is that in the preceding years Scotland, although still carrying out vigorous imperialist military operations abroad on behalf of the British empire, was essentially demilitarising, at least in the lowlands. So this was a feudal army marching into an increasingly bourgeois society, which was not armed to resist it.

The Jacobites moved into England. They knew they had to take London, but they got as far as Derby, as most people know, and then they turned back. The reason for this is quite interesting. They had been joined by only 300 people in England, and they had not been reinforced by the French, which is what Charles had said would happen. The French navy had been trying to get to Britain, but the British navy, the most powerful in the world, had totally immobilised them.

The high command of Charles’s army believed that, if they returned to Scotland, at least they would be able to defend themselves in the highlands. This was a big mistake. Instead the British army - and it was a British army incidentally: at least a third of it was composed of Scots - went into the highlands in pursuit of the Jacobites. They were eventually forced to fight, at Culloden, on April 16 1746. It was the first time that a Jacobite band of any description had come face to face with the military revolution that was a product of the early 18th century. And they were destroyed by it.

I will not repeat the details of the battle, but the end result was 50 Hanoverian troops and 2,000 Jacobites dead. What is more, the slaughter did not just stop on the battlefield: it went on for weeks afterwards, as people - some who had nothing to do with the fighting actually - were shot, bludgeoned or starved to death. No prisoners were taken unless they were French, because the French were regarded as civilised rather than savages. A major ideological drive was led, not by the English, but by the lowland Scots, to make sure that the blame was shifted onto the highlands. Although in reality the Jacobite movement was not really a highland movement at all, the highlands were made to carry the can.

The terror went on for several months, but more important was the legislation that followed: the Tenures Abolition Act, which did away, finally, with the possibility of military tenure; the Heritable Jurisdictions Act, the most important change, which abolished the local power of the lords; and the Disarming Act, which forbade the carrying of weapons. That was the end of feudalism in Scotland and indeed in Britain. It was quite consciously done for that reason. The Scottish enlightenment figures of the time are quite explicit.

Two things followed. One was the transformation of agriculture, which was absolutely central to the development of Scottish capitalism. And, linked to that, here for the first time a bourgeoisie was consciously transforming society. The power of the feudal lords had been broken. They had been killed, or jailed, or had themselves decided to become capitalists. So there was no trouble coming from them. The working class did not exist yet, so the bourgeoisie did not have to worry, as later bourgeoisies would, about things going too far. Essentially they could do what they liked. And what they proceeded to do, over the period of the next 40 years or so, was to abolish all the remains of feudalism. Labour rent, rent in kind, all the things which could hold back capitalist development were done away with. Adam Smith and others theorised this.

In 1805 Walter Scott, wrote glowingly about the years since 1745: “There is no European nation which in the course of half a century or a little more has undergone so complete a change as this kingdom of Scotland. The effects of the insurrection of 1745 were the destruction of the patriarchal power of the highland chiefs, the abolition of the heritable jurisdictions and the lowland nobility and baronies. The total eradication of the Jacobite party commenced this innovation. The gradual influx of wealth and extension of commerce have since united to render the present people of Scotland a class of beings as different from their grandfathers as the existing English are from Queen Elizabeth’s time.”

In this astonishing passage, what Scott is saying is that Scotland has done in 50 years what it took 250 years for the English to do. And it is true. All the statistical indices show a massive upward curve in economic development in absolutely everything - linen production, coal production, tobacco production and most of all in agriculture and agricultural rent accrued to the capitalist ruling classes.

Here was an example of what Trotsky was later to call uneven and combined development, where a backward country takes on board the achievements of a more advanced one and uses them to leap over several developmental stages at once. This is certainly what the agrarian capitalist classes did.


As you may know, there was a certain controversy in Scottish Socialist Voice when my book came out. It was not so much over the book itself as over the review. Two essential criticisms were made. First, that somehow what I described was not a proper revolution because it was not a revolution from below. But why should bourgeois revolutions be revolutions from below? Very few of them have been. Since the actual objective of a bourgeois revolution is to establish capitalist society, a society which is greatly unequal and which, as Marx says, comes into the world dripping with blood from head to toe, I do not see any reason why we should expect it to happen from below. It happened that way in France and to a certain extent in England, but in most places it has not happened like that.

The other argument, slightly more serious, is that the horrors which happened in the highlands - not just after Culloden but during the clearances and so on - were so unspeakable that it is impossible to see the whole process as progressive in any sense (I think the clearances are a red herring, because they actually took place much later). But again this is the case with all bourgeois revolutions. You cannot neatly separate the good from the bad. You have to take the bourgeois revolution as a whole and understand how the nature of the social forces bringing it about means we can never fully endorse it or incorporate it into our tradition in an uncomplicated way.

As a result of the bourgeois revolution - somewhere about 1815 - Scotland achieved the same level of development as England. And that meant that, when the working class appeared in its own right, it happened in both countries simultaneously. The Scottish case was slightly different because more pressurised circumstances resulted in more militancy in the early days.

But for all intents and purposes there is one British working class and it emerged in 1820. This is what annoys my critics, because it means it is unlikely that there is going to be another Scottish revolution separate from one in Britain as a whole, because both classes - the bourgeoisie and the working class - came into being at a definite historic moment, and they were one throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.

Neil Davidson  Discovering the Scottish revolution 1692-1746 Pluto Press, £19.98.

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