Was there a "bourgeois revolution"?

Actually, the "revolutionary bourgeoisie" is something of a myth. George Comninel's book on the French Revolution makes clear that the primary actors against the crown were elements of the court itself, not the bourgeoisie.

Furthermore, the American revolution can only be called a social revolution in a highly qualified sense. Staughton Lynd's study of class dynamics of New York state in the American revolution make a convincing case that the colonial bourgeoisie resisted social transformation.

With respect to the English revolution, it is fairly clear that Marx never viewed it as a model for the classic bourgeois-democratic revolution. The grip of the old regime was never really broken as demonstrated by the House of Lords, the Crown, etc.

Part of the problem is that the "stages" concept remains deeply rooted in Marxist doctrine, which predated Marx actually. 18th century social science had the same sort of schema as can be found in Engels's "Origins of the Family." It does not hold up well at all.

--Louis Proyect


Concerning the recent debate between Lou and Justin over whether thinkers like Descartes or Locke should be regarded as Enlightenment thinkers I would respond that even though Descartes, Locke (and Lord Bacon, Galileo, Spinoza, and Newton) lived prior to (or at the very least did their important work before the eighteenth century their work was essential for the Enlightenment. In fact to a very large degree much of the work of the eighteenth century philosophes was devoted to either popularizing the work of these earlier thinkers or of extending and elaborating their work. Thus much 18th century French philosophy including the work of materialists like La Mettrie, Helvetius, and Diderot was built directly on Cartesian philosophy. Voltaire on the other hand introduced to France the empiricist philosophy of Locke and he wrote popularizations of Newton's physics. Many of the criticisms of organized religion that were propagated by Voltaire and his friends owed much to Spinoza's critiques of Judaism and Christianity as well as to the writings of Pierre Bayle. Also no understanding of Enlightenment thought can be complete without examining the impact that Newtonian science had on virtually all the philosophes. The success of Newton's physics with its laws of motion and its law of gravity in explaining the motions of the planets made a very deep impression on most 18th century thinkers. As a consequence Newtonian physics was seen as the paradigm of a successful science and workers in many other disciplines attempted to reconstruct them on the Newtonian model. This is especially apparent in the social sciences particularly political economy.

Also I think that Jim Heartfield is correct in arguing that there is no inconsistency in viewing Enlightenment philosophy as serving the interests of the bourgeoisie and viewing it as promoting the development of scientific reason since at that time the bourgeoisie was still a progressive class. Marx himself was a critic of the Enlightenment but one who criticized it in the interest of furthering the Enlightenment project.

Concerning the question of the role of monarchy in the transition from feudalism to capitalism it seems apparent that the rise of absolute monarchies in the 16th and 17th centuries was built upon the formation of alliances between the monarchs (the Tudors in England, the Bourbons in France) and the rising bourgeoisie. In France this alliance continued well into the 18th century which is why the French Revolution could start at the court. As you may remember the original objective in the French Revolution was to create a constitutional monarchy on the English model. It was only after it became apparent that Louis XI and Marie Antoinette were refusing to play ball that the Revolution opted for republicanism. Absolute monarchy is a transitional political form during the period of transition from rule by the feudal aristocracy to rule of the bourgeoisie. When the bourgeoisie is in a position in which it can rule in its own stead it will either seek to reduce the monarch to a figurehead as in Britain or when that is not possible it will opt for republicanism.

--Jim Farmelant


The problem with Comninel's approach is that it sets up a straw man of revolution as absolute transformation, and then goes on to show how the real events do not match that ideal. But who ever held the ideal but George Comninel?

Marx and Engels were at pains to explain how the bourgeois class grew within the womb of feudal society, that landed property was becoming capitalised, that the bourgeois revolution [as opposed to the socialist] was strictly political and not social in character, that absolutism prefigured the bourgeois republic. The point is that the political revolutions of 1649, 1776 and 1789 served to give a political form to social conditions that were already ripe - the development of a bourgeoisie within the womb of feudal society.

To minimise the conflict between emerging bourgeoisie and the old society as if it were merely a conflict within the elite is an error, which owes more to Charles and Mary Beard's vulgarly Economic Analysis of the Declaration of Independence than it does to Marxism. It is an error that makes a mockery of the very real conflict that gripped the great mass of ordinary people, for whom it was far from a matter of no consequence whether the reaction won out or liberty did. The great mass of people saw that there were very real differences between servitude and freedom, even if that freedom was limited to the freedom of the wage contract.

Perhaps from the Ivory tower of the millenium it is possible to laugh sarcastically at the foolishness of people who thought that overthrowing the aristocracy was a good idea, or storming the Bastille was the right thing to do, or freeing America from English rule, or executing the King of England. But at the time those conflicts were real enough and dictated the difference between a backward and obscurantist reaction and an era of real advance in particular the emergence of the working class, humanity's best hope.

To see two thousand years of unremitting class struggle is to fail to see the wood for the trees. That struggle had a determinate content at each given moment. History is specific. The form in which the surplus is appropriated is not a matter of no importance, but the real differentia specifica of the history of class struggles. And finally, it should be remembered that Marx's preferred outcome was not to institutionalise class struggle but to bring it to an end, through the victory of the working class, a class that owes its existence to the bourgeoisie's revolutionisation of social relations. -- Jim heartfield

I think Louis' argument is a bit forced here. Did a revolution take place in 1789? Is the Pope catholic? The French revolution is the historical event that gave meaning to the idea of revolution. When Marx talked of revolution he drew upon the experience of the French revolution to make sense of his political goals. The working class revolutions of the Commune and 1917 drew upon the model of the French revolution, not as a debate of historical typology, but as a real inspiration that put the possibilities of social revolution into view.

Of course it is true that in proposing a _social revolution_ the working class revolutionaries were putting a new content into the goal of revolution. Hence Marx indicated that working class revolution would differ considerably from bourgeois revolution. Unlike bourgeois society, Marx says, socialism does not grow within the womb of the old society, except as a socialist movement. Consequently political revolution was sufficient for a bourgeoisie who had already started to organise production on capitalist lines and only sought to bring legal and political organisation into line. By contrast, the workers' revolution would have to be a social revolution. Much rested on this distinction, but the very possibility of posing the question of social revolution arose from the historical fact of the political revolutions of 1649, 1776 and 1789.

What Louis then goes on to do is to distill the essence of the social revolution as a set of axioms against which he tests the political revolution of 1789. Not surprisingly 1789 falls short of this strict test. But this is idealism gone mad. The very idea of a revolution comes from 1789 - if it is possible to imagine a more thorough-going social transformation it is because we have the privilege of living in the wake of Saint-Just, Robespierre and the Jacobins.

-- Jim Heartfield


This is what the 'Holy Scripture' says:

'The revolutions of 1648 and 1789 were not English and French revolutions, they were revolutions of a European type. They did not represent the victory of a particular class of society over the old political order, they proclaimed the political order of the New European society. The bourgeoisie was victorious in these revolutions, but the victory of the bourgeoisie was at the same time the victory of a new social order, the victory of bourgeois ownership over feudal ownership, of nationality over provincialism, of competition over the guild, of the division of land over primogeniture, of the rule of the over the domination of the owner by the land, of enlightenment over superstition, of the family over the family name, of industry over heroic idleness, of bourgeois law over medieval privileges.' Marx, Collected Works, Vol IV, p161

Now Louis would argue that Marx was merely repeating bourgeois historiography on the revolutions, and in a sense he was, since Marx is clearly a child of the revolutions, a student of Hegel and a champion of enlightenment values, albeit in a critical reworking.

However, Marx, I would say, would be right to identify with the rise of the bourgeoisie in its progressive phase. His dialectical transformation of the ideal of political revolution into social revolution does not cancel out the advances of 1648 and 1789, but carries them on to a higher level.

More to the point is that the historians that Louis is referring to articulate the historiography of the bourgeoisie in its decline, at the stage at which it wishes to renege on its own revolutionary past and seek refuge instead in the myth of longevity and gradualism. This was the point that Trotsky made in Where is Britain Going?:

The French bourgeoisie, having falsified the revolution, adopted it and, changing it into small coinage, put it into daily circulation. The British bourgeoisie has erased the very memory of teh seventeenth century revolution by dissolving its past into gradualness. The advanced British workers will have to rediscover the English revolution and find within its ecclesiastical shell the mighty struggle of social forces. Cromwell was in no case a pioneer of labour. But in the seventeenth century drama the British proletariat can find great precedents for revolutionary action.'

Historians of the right have long argued against the idea that these were bourgeois revolutions. Hugh Trevor-Roper (who 'authenticated' the Hitler diaries) challenged Hobsbawm's claim that the crisis of the 17th century repreented 'the last phase of the general transition from a feudal to a capitalist society' arguing instead that it was 'a crisis in the relations between society and the state' (both essays in T Ashton Crisis in Europe, 1560-1660, London 1965). The historical revisionists in the 1970s led by Conrad (now Lord) Russell attacked the Marxist interpretation of the English revolution put forward by Christopher Hill and others, arguing that this was largely a parochial conflict within the ruling elites. Historical revisionism in Ireland working on a similar model downgraded the national revolution there: see for example Austen Morgan's book on James Connolly

The historians campaign against Marxist interpretations of the French Revolution was inaugurated by the British historian Arthur Cobban in 1955 (The Social Interpretation of the French Revolution, Cambridge). It was Cobban who outlined the basic thesis argued by Comninel - that there was no basic dividing line between the nobility and the bourgeoisie. Cobban perversely interprets the use of seigneurial rights to extract an onerous tribute from the peasantry as modern property rights, and the revolution of the peasants as a feudal reaction led by 'the declining class of officers and lawyers and other professional men, and not the businessmen of commerce and industy'. Cobban takes his thesis to its absurd conclusion that 'the revolution was to an important extent one against and not for the rising forces of capitalism.'

A less extreme version of Cobban's thesis was adopted by Francois Furet and Denis Richet in 1965 in which they argued that the compromise between the monarchy and the bourgeoisie was thrown off course by the speed of events and the Jacobin dictatorship represented 'le deparage de la revolution' (La Revolution Francaise).

The Comninel thesis, then, represents an adoption of a conservative desire to minimise the revolutionary origins of capitalist society. That desire arises from a desire to undermine the legitimacy of revolutionary movements today. The former Conservative premier Margaret Thatcher was voluble in advancing the thesis that the French revolution was a terrible mistake during the anniversary in 1989, telling an incredulous Jonathan Dimbelby that liberty was born not in 1789, but by King John at Runnymede in the Magna Carta, June 15, 1215.

As to Louis' specific challenge, it is simply misplaced. Of course there was some interpenetration of feudal and bourgeois classes in the period running up to 1789, with the capitalisation of land etc. That indeed was the basis of absolutism, as the monarchy, to meet its war-debts to the money-lenders, gradually transformed feudal privileges into cash, acting as a catalyst for the development of capitalism. However, the legal and political structures of feudal society were a barrier to the development of capitalism. They cramped the emerging market in a network of obligation and privilege, and introduced a degree of arbitrariness in law that made trade uncertain, the equal recognition of trading partners was frustrated by formalised inequality, and the court was a far less trustworthy instrument than a constituent assembly for pursuing bourgeois interests. To fully establish its rule the capitalist class needed a formal legal code (throughout continental Europe the Code Napoleon was its basis), the abolition of feudal privileges and the establishment of a constituent assembly. That was the political revolution. To say that social relations remained unchanged is to misunderstand what was taking place - the political order was being reshaped to allow the full development of capitalist social relations. Without it France would have remained a stunted and backward society, as Germany was until its unification.

Louis' last point:

"This is some 'norm,' if the exception proves the rule. Was there ever a guillotine in Norway?"

is equally mysterious. Only Louis ever argued that the actual historical revolutions constituted an absolute norm which all bourgeois societies must pass through. The issue under discussion was what did happen in France (and by implication America and England). If you want to discuss what happened in Norway, I fear I have to decline that invitation. I just do not see why the failure of Norway to follow the pattern of events in France means that there was not a revolution in France. Indeed I do not really understand how anyone can say that there was not a revolution in France in 1789, anymore than you could say 'this is not the planet Earth' or 'this is not the year 1998'.

-- Jim heartfield 


Actually, the transition from feudalism to capitalism in Europe took place everywhere without revolutions. There was never a single bourgeois revolution after 1789, leaving aside the question of whether that was really what it was, but Europe became home to bourgeois democracies universally. Not a single bourgeois revolution. Nary a one.

The feudal landed gentry simply became agrarian capitalists. I can illustrate this clearly with Peru, a country whose history I just got finished studying in some detail. The social structures of the Spanish colonizers was feudal but evolved into capitalist property relations in the 20th century as export cash crops such as cotton and rice were introduced. The nobility of Peru became bourgeoisified without a single bullet being fired. No revolution was necessary for modern capitalist property relations to be introduced.

The problem with Marxist analysis of precapitalist social relations is that they have tended to be quite fuzzy on the nature of the conflict between bourgeosie and nobility. Are they based on exploitation? Jim refers to onerous tax laws. This is not quite what I had in mind when I referred to laws that prevented capitalist economic development. What I had in mind were laws that banned the production and sale of commodities, ie., private property. In actuality, private property for commodity production and landed estates can co-exist quite comfortably. This, indeed, is the socio-economic reality of Latin America over the past 150 years and it is hell for peasants and workers.

Jim keeps referring to the "conservative" implication of Comninel's arguments. I don't see it this way at all. All I am doing is taking the insights of Marx's writings on the German revolution which assailed the counter-revolutionary nature of the bourgeoisie, and Trotsky's theory of the permanent revolution, and projecting into an earlier time-frame. The bourgeoisie was not a revolutionary class in Russia 1917, nor was it in Germany in 1848. Nor was it in France in 1789. It is a counter-revolutionary class and will always find itself on the opposite side of the barricades from workers and peasants.

--Louis Proyect


For Marx and Engels the continuing dominance in Prussia and later in newly unified Germany of the Junkers was in large part due to the rise of the proletariat as a political force in Germany. Engels noted in his *Origin of the Family* that "...periods occur in which the warring classes balance each other so nearly that the state power, as ostensible mediator, acquire for the moment, a certain degree of independence of both..." Engels interpreted the rule of Bismarck in Germany as one such example. According to Engels "here, capitalists and workers are balanced against each and equally cheated for the benefit of the impoverished Prussian cabbage junkers." By implication the reason why Germany failed to experience a bourgeois revolution was that the emergence of an industrial working class frightened the bourgeoisie back into the arms of the Prussian aristocrats. This fact was behind the failure of the revolutionary uprisings of 1848. The timidity displayed by the bourgeoisie during these uprisings was due to the fact that as much as the bourgeoisie despised the aristocrats and monarchs they had come to fear the workers even more. This is why after 1848 not only Germany but Europe generally saw no more serious attempts at launching bourgeois revolutions.

--Jim Farmelant


Jim Farmelant notes that in Bismarckian Germany, according to Engels "here, capitalists and workers are balanced against each and equally cheated for the benefit of the impoverished Prussian cabbage junkers." But surely the capitalists were not cheated "equally" with the workers--they did quite well as a class. And neither Marx nor Engels seem to have thought that Germany had failed to make the transition to a fully capitalist economy , a "modern bourgeois society, with its corresponding economic conditions of existence, and the political constitution adapted thereto..." (in the words of the Manifesto). This would also seem to be true of all other European countries where modern capitalist economic relations came into operation without a "bourgeois revolution" or even any real violence of any sort.

Louis Proyect suggests the reason for this, writing that " I am convinced that Germany illustrates the tendency of the bourgeoisie to block with the 'feudalists.' The reason I put feudalists in quotes, by the way, is that the titled landlords were completely integrated into the capitalist mode of production in agriculture." He then goes on to note the "breakthrough of Lenin's party, to make common cause between the worker and the peasant. Traditionally, Marxists had assigned the peasant to the ranks of bourgeois reaction, but Lenin had become convinced that the Russian peasant could be won to the side of socialism. " Which leads me to ask the question, "Was Lenin Marxist?" Or perhaps, ( the traditional Marxist assignment of the peasants to the reaction having been based on the fact that nowhere in western Europe did the peasants show any sign of interest in a Marxist version of socialism) "Is Marxism only applicable to western Europe?"

--Ian Noyidde


Thanks, Louis for the invitation, so here are a few more thoughts:

Knowing little about either Dutch or South American history, I begin with England, generally accepted as the country which first had a "bourgeois revolution", although there may be some dispute as to whether the important events were the Civil War of 1642-9 or the so-called "Glorious Revolution" of 1688. I am sure most Marxists would agree that the Civil War can be regarded as the scene of the major social revolution, but in neither period was there a "peasant revolt" or any initiation from any social stratum that could be termed a proletariat.

Now the Civil War was Parliament versus the Crown, initially over taxation, and also on the religious question of whether to accept "the Divine Right of Kings", and most of the contemporary writings are written in religious terminology (cf Gerard Winstanley: "When Adam and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?").

How were the classes involved? I would suggest that the support for Parliament came from the yeomen and squirearchy (lower nobility) of the eastern and southern counties, the richest and most economically advanced part of the country - in Norfolk ALL the towns with the exception of King's Lynn and almost all the landowners supported Parliament. John Hampden, who instigated the refusal to pay taxes was a wealthy landowner; Oliver Cromwell, son of a landowner, and Thomas Fairfax, Commander-in-Chief of the Parliamentary Army was a Baron, i.e. a noble.

The Royalists' support came from the West country and the North - the economically backward, pastoral areas - and again included not only the nobility but also most of the landowners in those areas.

The rank and file of both armies were recruited from the agricultural labourers of the landowners and the town poor, but Cromwell's army was based on the supposition, that proved to be true, that armies fight best when they "know what they are fighting for, and love what they know" and "agitators" (political commissars?) were one of the important features of the New Model Army.

The rank-and-file of the New Model Army took the "propaganda" to their hearts and at the Putney debates, which took place after the first part of the Civil War was won by Parliament and a compromise with the king looked possible, the argument was between rank-and-file Levellers, demanding all land in common, and the "Grandee" commanders (proto-bourgeoisie) insisting [as they still do!] - that "democracy" meant control by Members of Parliament and the "middling men".

After completion of the war and execution of the king, the armies were demobilised, leaving the Leveller leaders bereft of an organised following and the Grandees were left in tight control throughout the Commonwealth - and then compromised with royalty in 1660 - but (finally in 1688) with a king and nobility essentially completely dependent on Parliament, representing the non-noble rich (bourgeoisie in the French terminology).

There had been numerous peasant revolts before the Civil War. notably in 1381 and Kett's Rebellion in 1549 - and undoubtedly the rural labourers (proto-proletariat) were crucial in winning the Civil War and their representatives took major part in the debates of the time - but AFTER the civil war had been instigated by the (generally rich) members and supporters of Parliament. So, in my opinion, the Civil War was a revolt of the bourgeoisie, not the commoners - and its result, over the next century was a bourgeois revolution, leading to what conventional historians call the Industrial Revolution of the 18th/19th centuries.

[Interesting how the word revolution is used both to refer to major social, economic and technical changes and for a violent uprising against the "powers-that-be". (also cf. Albert Camus' distinction between "le révolutionaire" and "l'homme revolté" in his novel "L'Etranger") ]

The French Revolution, on the other hand, is always taken to have started with a violent uprising - the "storming of the Bastille" and certainly the poor of Paris seem to have immediately taken a major part in events - not simply been politicised after they were recruited into an army organised by the bourgeoisie - but the final outcome of the period 1789-1815 bears a striking resemblance to the outcome of the English period 1642-1660 (or 1688).

In both cases the outcome was that the common people remained subject to what amounts to a "democratic dictatorship of the bourgeoisie" - and which groups or classes actually started the insurrection is important historical detail but does not alter the fact that both events transferred power from nobility to the bourgeois - and so are bourgeois revolutions.

I have read nothing of Souboul or Lefevbre (though I have recently read Charles Rhis, La Commune de Paris 1871 - sa structure et ses doctrines, Paris, éditions du Seuil, 1973), but do not really think my opinions above would be violently disagreed by Hobsbawm, who like me has had some 55 years activity in the labour movement and as a Marxist - though I am a scientist and only an amateur in history, so give my signature below:

--E.C. Apling