France 1798: a classic bourgeois revolution

Review: How liberal were the bourgeois revolutions?

Marc Mulholland reviews: Neil Davidson, 'How revolutionary were the bourgeois revolutions?', Haymarket Books, 2012, pp840, £22.99

I have already reviewed Neil Davidson’s book for Reviews in History.1 It may seem rather cheeky, therefore, to take a second bite. This tremendously knowledgeable work - which should find a home with anyone interested in modern history - is deserving of wide acknowledgement, however.

Here I would like to briefly comment on an observation left a little underdeveloped in my original review. As one online reader justifiably complains, my rejoinder to Davidson that liberal constitutionalism is “rooted in the real conditions of commercial civil society” was unsatisfyingly cryptic.2 I was perhaps somewhat clearer in a previous article in the Weekly Worker.3 But now I would like to clarify a bit more.

Davidson’s position is that bourgeois revolution is not defined by bourgeois participation or by ideology; only by consequences. He writes:

The theory of bourgeois revolution is not … about the origins and development of capitalism as a socioeconomic system, but the removal of backward-looking threats to its continued existence and the overthrow of restrictions to its further expansion. The source of these threats and restrictions has, historically, been the pre-capitalist state, whether estates-monarchy, absolutist or tributary in nature (p420).

However, when Davidson writes - at length and with considerable penetration - about the greatest theorists produced by the immediacy and aftermath of the English civil wars and the French Revolution, he treats them as historical ancestors of Marx. Perhaps it is better to take them as debating the politics actually produced by these revolutions, politics rooted in the real conditions of commercial civil society.

Davidson begins by looking at Thomas Hobbes, who argued that the state should be freed from the influence of the fractious nobility and churchmen. Samuel Harrington, Davidson says, founded the concept of social revolution based upon class struggle (though surely Aristotle is a more likely contender). The 18th-century Scottish enlightenment thinkers - Adam Smith, David Hume, Samuel Ferguson, James Steuart - proposed a stadial (or stages) view of history based upon modes of subsistence: first came hunting and gathering, then pastoralism and nomadism, followed by agriculture, finally arriving at ‘commercial society’. Antoine Barnave explained the French Revolution as political laws catching up with the social impact of the rise of commerce.

Such men, for Davidson, were bourgeois thinkers seeking to show “why their class was entitled to take power through revolutionary violence” (p3). They were developing a “proto-theory of bourgeois revolution”, with Harrington, Steuart and Barnave singled out as coming closest to Marx’s insight (p102).

This evaluation seems problematic to me. With the exception of Harrington, whose work was not published until long after his death, these writers were developing ideas that met with a receptive public. As such, they should be understood as being of their own time, not simply anticipating Marx. They were popular because they were acknowledged as the masters of an era understanding itself.

They did not suggest that the bourgeoisie should “take power”. Their argument was that the old ‘feudal’ aristocracy or the absolutist state used coercive authority to live off rents, tithes, taxes and booty. The trading and industrious middle classes, in contrast, lived by commerce. David Hume celebrated farmers, tradesmen and craftsmen as “the best and firmest basis of public liberty” because,

These submit not to slavery, like the peasants, from poverty and meanness of spirit; and having no hopes of tyrannising over others, like the barons, they are not tempted, for the sake of that gratification, to submit to the tyranny of their sovereign. They covet equal laws, which may secure their property, and preserve them from monarchical, as well as aristocratical, tyranny.4 With the spread of such a bourgeoisie, the modern state could be emancipated from reliance on the fractious nobility, yet constrained by its reliance on trade. Once taxes depend upon “the consequences and effects of commerce”, said James Steuart, the effect is a “revolution in the political state”.5

The point coming into focus for these thinkers, from Hobbes onwards, is that the bourgeoisie is uniquely free of the temptation to seize upon state power. All it requires is sufficient liberty from the state to prosper. As liberal thought developed, these liberties were typically categorised as:

This was the view, more or less, of Marx and Engels. As Marx put it,

The bourgeoisie had to claim its share of political power, if only by reason of its material interests … the bourgeoisie had also the ambition to secure for itself a political status in keeping with its social status. To attain this aim it had to be able freely to debate its own interests and views and the actions of the government. It called this ‘freedom of the press’. The bourgeoisie had to be able to enter freely into associations. It called this the ‘right of free association’. As the necessary consequence of free competition, it had likewise to demand religious liberty and so on.6

One should note Marx’s points here: first, the bourgeoisie required only a share of political government, not a monopoly; second, bourgeois attachment to liberties arose from material class interests. This latter is quite at odds with Davidson’s repeated insistence that talk of bourgeois liberties was nothing other than ‘false consciousness’ or a ploy to gull the masses.7

It is true that Marx and Engels grew more sceptical as time went on about bourgeois commitment to liberty, especially as a worker movement developed that might use such liberties to its own advantage. Still, in 1865 Engels said of the bourgeoisie that,

as distinct from the old estates, distinguished by birth, it must proclaim human rights; as distinct from the guilds, it must proclaim freedom of trade and industry; as distinct from the tutelage of the bureaucracy, it must proclaim freedom and self-government.8

This indeed was the view of the generation or two after Marx, during the era of the socialist Second International, as Davidson himself notes, a little coyly (p188). Davidson is not happy that socialists saw liberty as constitutive of the ‘bourgeois revolution’ and as something still to be fought for - with the bourgeoisie where possible, alone where required. He notes that Karl Kautsky favoured democracy, “but his was a very particular form of democracy: namely the representative form practised in the developed capitalist states of the west”.9

But if this was a mistake Engels was equally in error. As he wrote to Paul Lafargue in (democratic, republican) France in 1894, “A republic … is the ready-made political form for the future rule of the proletariat. You [in France] have the advantage of us that it is already in being …”10 The lesson Marx and Engels had taken from the Paris Commune was not that there was anything fundamentally wrong with representative democracy as such. What in their eyes made revolution was not the abolition of parliament, but rather a workers’ government and the smashing of the reactionary “bureaucratic-military machine”.11 This referred to those anti-democratic officers, civil servants, judiciary and police who in Europe opposed and imperilled any advance towards popular democracy until 1944 at least (Egypt presents a nice current illustration of the truth that an entrenched “bureaucratic-military machine” is no safe and pliable tool for revolutionaries).

Mature Leninism consciously declared that Marx and the Second International were outdated. Lenin argued that in the global core the bourgeoisie were no longer a restraint on state power. As a class it was entirely bound up with state-monopoly capitalism and imperialism. Parliamentarianism, thus, was historically exhausted and must be superseded by ‘soviets’ operating under the supervision (to use a euphemism) of the vanguard party. The progressive emancipatory drive that had characterised the era of bourgeois revolutions was exhausted. Trotsky went further still in arguing (by the 1930s) that even in the colonial and ex-colonial world the bourgeoisie were no longer progressive, and that proletarian dictatorship was the only way to escape pre-capitalist social and political forms.

It was not altogether true even in the inter-war period that the bourgeoisie was on a one-way shuttle to illiberalism, but there was enough evidence to give the argument credibility. Since 1945, it is no longer tenable. What we might call ‘bourgeois liberalism’ survives and prospers, now as almost never before. The view that a commercial society with a strong middle class secures constitutional stability, spreads bourgeois values, squeezes out rent-seeking activities and preserves essential liberties has taken some knocks in the great recession. But it is still clearly the reigning common sense.

It seems fairly straightforward to me to define revolutions as being more or less ‘bourgeois’ insofar as they are influenced by an ideology that seeks to establish the state upon the steady platform of an industrious middle class in a commercial society, whilst constraining state absolutism, sidelining the aristocratic estates and keeping the masses in check. To qualify, I would suggest, revolutionaries need not be bourgeois themselves, but they need to have such a goal in view. Of course, without an existing and active commercial society generated by capitalist activity, either existing domestically or clearly evident as a model in a competing nation, such views cannot even be entertained.

The politics of bourgeois constitutionalism are perhaps mistily present in the English Civil War, certainly evident in the Glorious Revolution and the American Civil War, well understood by the French Revolution, and quite pervasive throughout the 19th century. The ‘revolutions from above’, most famously in Germany, fine-tuned just such a constitutionalism within a commercial and bourgeois context without entirely surrendering the power and prerogatives of the traditional elites.

For Davidson, however, ‘bourgeois revolutions’ cannot be recognised as those promoting a certain political mode. This is not surprising, as he defines every communist coup, putsch or uprising between the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 and the Derg coup against the Ethiopian emperor, Haile Selassie, in 1974 as ‘bourgeois revolutions’. Davidson observes that “false consciousness had been a characteristic of almost all previous bourgeois revolutions, but the level of cognitive dissonance here was of a quite different order” (p619). Well, that is putting it mildly. Whatever the merits there might be in describing the former communist states as ‘state-capitalist’ - and I cannot see very many - it makes a dog’s dinner of any concept of bourgeois revolution. Davidson is, in effect, left with a purely negative definition: it destroys pre-capitalist formations and is not socialism. But bourgeois revolution had a positive programme: a state and a civil society mutually dependent, but autonomous. Such was not the Stalinist experience.


1. M Mulholland, ‘How revolutionary were the bourgeois revolutions?’: www.history.ac.uk/reviews/review/1420.

2. Comment by ‘Breviosity’: http://breviosity.wordpress.com/2013/05/29/from-bourgeois-revolution-to-combined-and-uneven-development/#comments.

3. M Mulholland, ‘Revolutionary road: a bourgeois sagaWeekly Worker November 15 2012.

4. D Hume, ‘Of refinement of arts’ (1742): www.econlib.org/library/LFBooks/Hume/hmMPL25.html. Quoted on p42.

5. J Steuart An inquiry into the principles of political economy (1767): www.marxists.org/reference/subject/economics/steuart/book1.htm. Quoted on p52.

6. K Marx, ‘The bourgeoisie and the counterrevolution’ (1848): www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1848/12/10.htm.

7. pp145, 329, 510, 591, 619.

8. F Engels The Prussian military question and the German Workers’ Party (1865): www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1865/02/12.htm.

9. Quoted in GP Steenson After Marx, before Lenin: Marxism and working class parties in Europe, 1884-1914 Pittsburgh 1991, p238.

10. Ibid p39.

11. Marx to Dr Kugelmann (1871): www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1871/letters/71_04_12.htm.