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How Revolutionary Were the Bourgeois Revolutions?
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 8 October 2012
Neil Davidson takes us on a journey starting with Delacroix's `Liberty Leading the People' and Goya's `What Courage' that ends with David Hume's memorial in a cemetery in Edinburgh. In between we take a tour via the ins and outs of history and historiography pertaining to the concept of `bourgeois revolution' or, how the world became capitalist, and the revolutionary processes by which this occurred and the identity of the revolutionaries along the way.

If Marxist historiography, Historical Materialism, can't explain this transition and can't defend its interpretation then it falls. And so, this massive book is a defence of Historical Materialism and of the Classical Marxist tradition that best articulates Historical Materialism.

To say that the defence succeeds would be an understatement for this magnificent work not only defends but counter-attacks in style. I don't want to be too gushing, but the dialectical method is a rapier in the hands of Davidson, cutting opponents down when needed, spearing insights that he can use in his analysis and, when needed, a precise scalpel to dissect argument, theory and evidence. This year's Deutscher Prize surely awaits.

The book is divided into four parts. Part One explores the idea of `bourgeois revolution' as it existed before Marx in the ideas of the Reformation and the Enlightenment. This was the most novel area for me as Davidson excavates the history of the study and concept of `social revolution' incorporating its slow emergence with the likes of Machiavelli and it's sprouting with the English Revolution and the works of Hobbes, Locke and, especially, of Harrington. This to be followed by the French Physiocats and the Scottish Historical School. Onward again to the American and French Revolutions and how some participants of the time understood the concepts of the ways in which society is organised for production and how society evolves and how this evolution produces tensions within society which lead to conflict, revolution and the overthrow of old classes by new ones. This section finishes with a reaction, starting in Britain, against this way of viewing society, politics and history. The reaction against social history, thus, predates Marx.

Part Two deals with Marx and Engels, with the classical Marxist interpretation of bourgeois revolution and how, in fact, Marx and Engels did not directly address the issue in a systematic fashion. Davidson describes how two main traditions emerged from within Marxism - that of a somewhat mechanical Orthodoxy and a more genuine Classical tradition. The Orthodox, eventually expressed in the suffocating fog of Stalinism, being the tradition seen, especially by critics of Marxism, as being representative.

Part Three deals with the attack on the very concept of bourgeois revolution, the revisionist charge that they simply didn't happen. This leads to the real meat of the book, where Davidson explores the Marxist response to the critique where some Marxists concede that the revisionist point is well made, that the bourgeois revolutions either didn't happen or had no relationship to the emergence of capitalism. Others responded critically to the challenge to reconstruct the concept. Both traditions, however, brought real insight. Davidson comes down on the side of the `consequentialists' - a bourgeois revolution is judged as such by its consequences.....on whether it enabled the accumulation of capital irrespective of the social force or political actors that enable it. There is also a valuable discussion on the concepts of revolution from above and revolution from below.

Davidson's real contribution comes in Part Four. Here, he draws the previous three parts together into a new synthesis that breaks ground in terms of understanding modes of production, class struggle and revolution and how the three interact with one another and then offers a new interpretation of the bourgeois revolution as a series of national transformations.

It's a stunning achievement. It deserves to be the last word on the subject and it will be decades, at least, before anyone makes any dent in it. Marxists will certainly discuss it and, one hopes, non-Marxists will give it the respect it deserves although, one suspects, they will simply ignore it and there will be sectarian sniping due to Davidson's membership of the SWP.

Do I have any criticisms? Well, the text format screws up on occasion but that's the publisher's fault. Davidson argues against the idea that Stalin's counter-revolution can also be seen as a bourgeois revolution. Now admittedly this idea isn't widely held but it's something that I think is tenable and I don't think that Davidson sinks it because I don't think that Russia was ever truly an independent centre of capital accumulation - the consequence of a bourgeois revolution - before Stalin's first Five Year Plan.

I think, as well, that Davidson's focus upon Europe and America, though this is far from exclusive, may leave him open to charges of Euro-Centrism. I think he could have spent longer on examining state structures and property relations in China, India and the Ottoman Empire but I, for one, am happy with his analysis in terms of how it fits into the theoretical framework that he constructs. Davidson could have examined Mohammed Ali's seeming attempt at 'revolution from above' in nineteenth century Egypt that was stymied by the imperialist powers as an earlier attempt by a non-European state to 'catch up' and institute a bourgeois revolution from above.

Anyway, people who are serious about political economy and historical materialism will be talking about this book for years. And anyone who wants to critically engage with Marxist historiography has to tackle this work to be taken seriously.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on 21 August 2012
The idea of the "bourgeois revolution" is at the same time essential to Marxism, and yet radically under-analysed. Since the breakthrough works of Hilton, Hill, Thompson and Hobsbawm, most of them published more than 40 years ago, there has been no serious new work on the theory, until now. Problems left over by the older generation (eg if every country needs a bourgeois revolution to make the transition from feudalism to capitalism, what has happened to the 195 or so countries in the world which there is no obvious candidate for this revolution?) have been left hanging unanswered. This huge book reboots the theory, showing how Marx and Engels' idea emerged from contemporary observers' explanations of 1649 and 1789, re-analysing the link between the process and outcome of bourgeois revolution, and showing how the political revolutions of our time emerge from, and go beyond, the bourgeois revolutions of the past.
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4 of 6 people found the following review helpful
Neil Davidson's How revolutionary were the Bourgeois Revolutions is a welcome addition to a very small number of books that deal with the veritable minefield that is the study of these revolutions. Whether you agree or not with his politics or historical partisanship his latest book is extremely impressive but also extremely flawed.

The book is the product of decades reading and research. He puts to good use his archival expertise on 18th-century Scotland, The subject matter is complex but the book is written with a simple clarity without lowering academic standards. The book deserves to be put on university book lists in the future. It remains to be seen if this will happen.

The concept of the bourgeois revolution is perhaps one of the most contentious subjects in modern day historiography. For well over thirty years large numbers of revisionist historians have sought to downplay or even eliminate the fact that these revolutions ever took place. Bourgeois revolution' is a term that a lot of historians and politicians would like to bury under a lot of dead dogs. In this context it is to the popular History Today magazine's credit that its February issue will contain a lead article called Don't Mention the Civil War. Why is Britain Embarrassed by its Revolutionary Past?

One such sceptic is academic researcher Chris Thompson who says "the prolific use of terms like `bourgeoisie', `feudal' and `modern' aristocracy, `proletariat' and `non-bourgeois strata of the middle class' invites comparison with the debates of the Communist Party of Great Britain's historians' group in the late-1940s and early-1950s recently edited by David Parker. Antique concepts like the claim that a class of urban capitalists were developing in the sixteenth century with feudalism or that these people were held to be socially inferior and were excluded from power by Absolute States are given vigorous exercise. `Bourgeois' revolutions inevitably occurred and, in their outcomes, promoted capitalism. There is also an undertow of historiographical controversy: Callinicos's protest against the revisionist historians of the 1970s is linked to an attack on `Political Marxists' like Robert Brenner and Ellen Meiksins Wood for their assistance in undermining a more authentically Socialist interpretation".

It is perhaps a concession to these historians that Davidson's book title tilts towards an accommodation with this prevalent view that these revolutions were not that revolutionary. Having said that Neil Davidson's new book is an important and welcome contribution to the debate.

Davidson is a political historian who incorporates his politics into his historiography. He is a leading member of the Socialist Workers Party which broke from orthodox Marxism in the early 1940's.

Davidson's Philosophical Conceptions or world view is moulded to a significant degree by the Socialist Workers Party's troika of theories that were a departure from classical Marxism. The Deflected Permanent Revolution, the Permanent Arms Economy and lastly the theory of State Capitalism.

Both the first and the last of these theories are the most relevant to our subject and Davidson's adoption of these two theories underpin his understanding of the bourgeois revolutions. A fact that Davidson himself recognizes in his preface when he says that how one defines the bourgeois revolution and capitalism in general defines you view of the proletarian revolution.

In this instance a correct understanding of say the first proletarian revolution the 1917 Bolshevik revolution is a prerequisite for an understanding of proceeding and contemporary revolutions. Unfortunately Davidson's understanding of the 1917 proletarian revolution is not one of an orthodox Marxist.

His agreement with the theory of the USSR being State Capitalist has it's origins from a one Bruno Rizzi who in his book The Bureaucratization of the World: said "In the USSR, in our view, it is the bureaucrats who are the owners, for it is they who hold power in their hands. It is they who manage the economy, just as was normal with the bourgeoisie. It is they who take the profits, just as do all exploiting classes, who fix wages and prices. I repeat--it is the bureaucrats. The workers count for nothing in the governing of society. What is more, they receive no share in the surplus value... The reality is that collective property is not in the hands of the proletariat; but in the hands of a new class: a class which, in the USSR, is already an accomplished fact, whereas in the totalitarian states this class is still in the process of formation" .

The Russian Marxist Leon Trotsky who was acutely aware of this belief that the USSR was "state capitalist," or some other form of exploitative society rejected this theory and did not attach great significance to it.

According to D North "In the state capitalist "theory," the categories of Marxian political economy were abandoned and replaced with an unscientific descriptive terminology. It was a theory in which the element of economic necessity was replaced entirely with an extreme form of political subjectivism". Again according to North "at the heart of the Rizzi positions was the repudiation of the Marxist appraisal of the revolutionary role of the working class.
To highlight his claim North quoted Trotsky "All the various types of disillusioned and frightened representatives of pseudo-Marxism proceed... from the assumption that the bankruptcy of the leadership only "reflects" the incapacity of the proletariat to fulfil its revolutionary mission. Not all our opponents express this thought clearly, but all of them--ultra-lefts, centrists, anarchists, not to mention Stalinists and social-democrats--shift the responsibility for the defeats from themselves to the shoulders of the proletariat. None of them indicate under precisely what conditions the proletariat will be capable of accomplishing the socialist overturn. If we grant as true that the cause of the defeats is rooted in the social qualities of the proletariat itself, then the position of modern society will have to be acknowledged as hopeless.
How does Davidson's agreement with the theory of State Capitalism colour his attitude towards the bourgeois revolutions. Well a constant theme of his book is the underestimation of the role subjective i.e. political and social consciousness plays in revolutions runs through the entire book.
The SWP' s rejection of the revolutionary nature of the working class which is implicit in the theory of State capitalism leads them into all sorts of alliances with forces hostile to socialism such the Labour party, trade unions and even the Stalinist of all shapes and sizes.
So what Is Davidson's conception of bourgeois revolution? Despite the book being 0ver 800 pages long it is little difficult to get a coherent picture of Davidson's theory of the bourgeois revolution. He does state on page 420:

"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 development. The source of these threats and restrictions has, historically, been the pre-capitalist state, whether estates-monarchy, absolutist, or tributary in nature".

An again from his book "In no bourgeois revolution did the revolutionaries ever seek to rally popular forces by proclaiming their intention to establish a new form of exploitative society ... but did so by variously raising demands for religious freedom, representative democracy, national independence, and, ultimately, socialist reconstruction ...(p. 510)

Davidson's point that is not necessary for there to be a bourgeoisie that is active in the revolution for that revolution to be bourgeois while being true I think his thinking on this matter is a little formal and tends to see historical processes as fixed rather than fluid categories. There is a tendency in Davidson's thinking to lean towards the vulgar. As the Russian Marxist Leon Trotsky noted

"Vulgar thought operates with such concepts as capitalism, morals, freedom, workers' state, etc as fixed abstractions, presuming that capitalism is equal to capitalism. Morals are equal to morals, etc. Dialectical thinking analyses all things and phenomena in their continuous change, while determining in the material conditions of those changes that critical limit beyond which `A' ceases to be `A', a workers' state ceases to be a workers' state. The fundamental flaw of vulgar thought lies in the fact that it wishes to content itself with motionless imprints of a reality which consists of eternal motion. Dialectical thinking gives to concepts, by means of closer approximations, corrections, concretisation, a richness of content and flexibility; I would even say "a succulence" which to a certain extent brings them closer to living phenomena. Not capitalism in general, but a given capitalism at a given stage of development. Not a workers' state in general, but a given workers' state in a backward country in an imperialist encirclement, etc. Dialectical thinking is related to vulgar in the same way that a motion picture is related to a still photograph.

A classical Marxist view is that social classes are not fixed concepts or as one writer put it "exist in a single, positivist forms across centuries ". The bourgeois has existed in different forms as a class over time and has mutated according to how capitalism itself has developed Davidson's downplaying the study of socio economic forces diminishes ones understanding of the development of capitalism and its bourgeois revolutions.

While is perfectly natural to concentrate on key players in the bourgeois revolutions the downplaying of other social and political figures tends to lead Davidson in dismissing elements that made the bourgeois revolution more than just an objective occurrence. As one writer said "Davidson's concentration on the analysis of key thinkers as such tends to downplay the extent to which revolution was a social and conceptual reality; that is to say, the analysis tends to emphasise the conservative aspects of leading thinkers' ideas against the revolutionary context from which they emerged".

Take for instance the English revolution. In his book Milton and The English Revolution, Faber and Faber Christopher Hill makes reference to a `third culture' that was separate from the Royalist and Puritan world views of the seventeenth century. In his The English Bible and the Seventeenth Century Revolution (London, 1993), pp436-437. he states that "The historian should not stay on the surface of events; his or her interest should not be limited to State Papers, Acts and Ordinances, decisions of judges and local magistrates... He or she should listen--carefully and critically--to ballads, plays, pamphlets, newspapers, every source that can help him or her to get the feel of how people lived and in what ways their sensitivity differed from ours... The historian must listen to alchemists and astrologers no less than to bishops, to demands of London crowds; and he or she must try to understand the motivation of rioters, whether they are labelled anti-Catholic or anti-enclosure rioters or simply food rioters".

A more detailed examination of forces such as the Levellers in the English revolution for instance would have given the book a much more balanced and nuance understanding of that revolution. In his essay Revolutionary Elements in the History of the English State and Law Evgeny Pashukanis (1927) expands this point up saying "The democratic movement of the Levellers; could be victorious only in connection with a peasant war, i.e. with the same "communist and anarchist" movements whose weakness in England was the basic cause of the preservation of all possible feudal remnants. The socio-political ideals of the Levellers by no means were a utopia from the point of view, say, of comparing them with the level of development of productive forces at that time; but they could only serve as the basis of a state and social order beyond the ocean where there was no basic impediment, where there was no class in whose interest it was to preserve as many feudal privileges as possible. Therefore, the task of truly materialist Marxist research must be to explain by which classes and by which methods the struggle was conducted. Mere references to the inevitable course of historical development are entirely insufficient.

Another aspect that colours Davidson's understanding of the bourgeois revolution is his use of the SWP's theory of The Deflected Permanent Revolution. The most important aspect in the development of Marx's concept of permanent revolution was the experience of the 1848 revolutions.

Marx correctly stated that the bourgeoisie could not be trusted with the future development of humanity and that responsibity had passed to the revolutionary working class "hence the new era was one of permanent revolution". For decades Socialists have approached the experiences and lessons of 1848 in order to understand their own revolutions. The greatest being the theoreticians of the Russian Social Democratic Party.

Davidson's approach as regards the deflected permanent revolution is similar to the State capitalist theory. It is not in the realm of this review to examine the SWP's approach sufficed to say that again this theory sees the working class reformist and non revolutionary. "The theory supplants non-revolutionary petty-bourgeois intellectuals and other bourgeois forces that presided over a "deflected permanent revolution", consolidating state capitalist formations in one country after another".

In his introduction Davidson believes that the 1949 Chinese revolution was a bourgeois revolution which led to a state capitalist formation. Again to repeat Davidson's words "how one defines the bourgeois revolution and capitalism impacts in fundamental ways on how one defines proletarian revolution and socialism". My main problem with the book is that because Davidson is wrong in his analysis of modern day revolutions how do we trust his evaluation of the Bourgeois revolution.

This point aside the book does provide us with very useful reference point for a study of the bourgeois revolutions. Readers should acquaint themselves with a through study of Davidson's and the SWP's positions of defected permanent revolution and state capitalism and their critics within the classical Marxist movement. With these stipulations I would recommend a wide readership of this book.


1. Bruno Rizzi The Bureaucratization of the World .

2. Report to the Second National Congress of the Socialist Equality Party By David North 27 November 2012

3. In Defence of Marxism, (London: 1966), Leon Trotsky

4. Revolutionary Elements in the History of the English State and Law Evgeny Pashukanis (1927)

5. The ABC of Materialist Dialectics' by Leon Trotsky (December 1939).

6. The Revolutions of 1848 and the Historical Foundations of Marxist Strategy
By David North 16 August 2013

7. A Comment on Alex Calinicos Review- Chris Thompson- [...]

Further Reading

1. [...] May 15, 2013

2. Discovering the Scottish Revolution, 1692-1746, London: Pluto Press, 2003.

3. The Origins of Scottish Nationhood, London: Pluto Press, 2000.
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