Comment on bourgeois revolutions

Issue: 140

Donny Gluckstein

In International Socialism 137 Alex Callinicos mixes deserved praise of Neil Davidson’s How Revolutionary Were the Bourgeois Revolutions? with some qualifications. While agreeing wholeheartedly with both Alex’s praise and reservations, there is perhaps something more which could be added.

If we are indeed to learn “how revolutionary” the bourgeois revolutions were it cannot be done only through what Neil calls “essentially an exercise in the history of ideas”.1 Operating at a high level of abstraction Neil deftly employs key categories—political and social revolution, transition from one mode of production to another, permanent revolution and deflected permanent revolution—but does not give a sense of the upheavals on the ground with which to judge “how revolutionary” the bourgeois revolutions actually were. One has the sensation of eavesdropping on swimmers at a pool side discussing the temperature of the water. The only way to find out is to plunge in. The most revolutionary episode of any bourgeois revolution was surely the storming of the Bastille. Perhaps I missed it in the 812 pages, but it is only mentioned in passing (without detail) a couple of times. This is an excellent answer to the question: “How revolutionary were the bourgeoisie in the bourgeois revolutions?” The title would be less catchy but a more accurate description of the contents.

Though not the aim,2 without grounding the history of ideas in a close study of the events they deal with, the impression is unintentionally given that one idea leads to the next, or that the ideas can be properly understood as independent entities. The strength of an idea (and in this case that idea is a description of a social or political process) depends on how closely it reflects or explains reality rather than how it compares with other ideas.

A prominent place in Neil’s argument is given to the exceptionalism of the English and French revolutions. There is, for example, an entire section devoted to “The Uniqueness of the French Revolution”. There are two senses in which Neil is right to argue that the French Revolution was unique. Firstly, all historical events are unique. History never repeats itself (even if it appears as tragedy and turns into farce). Secondly, and this is especially true of the French Revolution, the very radicalism it showed ensured that ruling class (or would-be ruling class) forces who came afterwards did their utmost to avoid a repeat. Neil makes an important point here—that subsequent bourgeois revolutions were “passive” or “revolutions from above”, or “deflected permanent revolutions”. He calls the connection between the early bourgeois revolutions and the very different processes that came later (spreading capitalism across the world) consequentialism. So the various national processes whereby capitalism triumphed around the globe were a consequence of unique early bourgeois revolutions without being a copy of these.

In making this point Neil rightly directs his fire at the Stalinist model of bourgeois revolution in which “democracy became the most important of a checklist of ‘tasks’ borrowed from the French Revolution—the others were the agrarian question and national unification—which had to be ticked off before the bourgeois revolution could be declared complete”.3 It is true that democracy is certainly not a prerequisite for the success of capitalism as a system. Indeed, it is often a threat to such a system, as was shown in the phenomenon of Bonapartism (which Neil strangely overlooks). Through the figure of Napoleon, “barrack and bivouac, saber and musket, mustache and uniform…hit upon the idea of saving society once and for all by proclaiming their own regime as the highest and freeing civil society completely from the trouble of governing itself?”4 Emphasising the uniqueness of the English and above all the French revolutions can serve to show, as Neil does so well, the cowardly nature of the bourgeoisie and the passive way capitalist society spread. However, there are two important caveats.

Firstly, the assumption that the French Revolution was unique, that bourgeois revolution has no “tasks” and no inherent fixed pattern can be taken too far. It suggests that what happened between 1789 and 1794 (regarding democracy in particular) was arbitrary, and that passive revolutions or revolutions from above simply achieved the same result by a different route. If we treat bourgeois revolution as an abstract category rather than a real event this can appear to be the case. However, the French Revolution expressed in extreme form an important feature of bourgeois society in general. The existence of numerous independent capitals competing in the market does not dictate that the capitalist state must be parliamentary democratic (certainly in the sense of universal suffrage), but it is the case that a flexible, non-hereditary and changing personnel at government level can sometimes reflect the changing demands of the system better than a rigid dictatorship.

Equally, the technological complexity of capitalist production requires a level of motivation that is not best achieved through coercion of labour (such as with slavery), but through apparent freedom and democracy, however illusory that may be. The character of capitalist relations of production is different from previous forms and carries its own logic. Marx shows this in Capital:

For the conversion of his money into capital, therefore, the owner of money must meet in the market with the free labourer, free in the double sense, that as a free man he can dispose of his labour-power as his own commodity, and that on the other hand he has no other commodity for sale, is short of everything necessary for the realisation of his labour-power.5

As Neil demonstrates in relation to the American Civil War, there is often an association between capitalism and, in however distorted a form, a certain conception of freedom.

There is, of course, a counter-tendency that operates. The fact of capitalist exploitation and the brutal reality it imposes on people’s lives means that capitalism often requires state intervention and may destroy parliamentary democracy and abolish personal freedom (as, for example, under fascism). While Neil’s account captures the second element of the equation, his lack of emphasis on the struggle from below (or quarantining it as “unique”) misses out on what truly made bourgeois revolutions revolutionary, both in relation to the feudal societies they displaced and to the autocratic features of bourgeois society that would develop after the classic revolutions had occurred.

So the consequentialist argument should not just be applied to changes in the mode of production or the accumulation of capital. It extends to the continuing ideological impact of the early bourgeois revolutions, which are continually replenished and reinvigorated through new struggles (whether successful or not), and through the operation of market relations themselves. The 14 July 1789 storming of the Bastille in Paris was, by definition, unique, but it shines through time and space well after the supernova that gave it birth was extinguished.

There are other consequences to Neil’s approach. He does not explore the specific nature of bourgeois freedom and bourgeois democracy in any depth. In relationship to previous times these were, and in the many instances of dictatorship today still are, revolutionary. This, along with the powerful arguments Callinicos presents, is a reason for the continued relevance of the concept of permanent revolution, something which Neil rejects.

Disregarding bourgeois freedom and democracy means there is no discussion of the difference between that and the sort of freedom and democracy socialists struggle for. The bourgeois revolutions were revolutionary because people fought for freedom and rights. In a market society this meant the freedom of the individual, and the legal rights of the competing economic atom. (This is something brought out very powerfully in Spielberg’s Lincoln.) And the continuing importance of such ideas should therefore not be underestimated.

In the mass upheavals following and accompanying the fall of the Berlin Wall, in the struggles to end apartheid, and today in the Arab revolts, the same demands for freedom and democracy are heard as in the streets of Paris in the 1790s. Even in Britain, one of the oldest capitalist countries, such notions reappear in the shape of petty bourgeois individualism, which opposes the exploitative and undemocratic face of capitalism. Despite this strength, there is also a weakness. For the same slogans, when taken up by the working class, are significantly different in content. The working class is a collective class. It can only win its freedom, its rights and its control of society as a collective. When the two forms clash, petty bourgeois individualism, for all its apparent radicalism, may run counter to collective, democratic decision-making such as occurs within a trade union or revolutionary party.

The legacy of the bourgeois revolutions was well illustrated by John Stuart Mill. Born in 1806 he was an articulate and “progressive” 19th century liberal who was the first MP to advocate the right to vote for women. But in his famous essay On Liberty he railed against “the tyranny of the majority…when society is itself the tyrant—society collectively, over the separate individuals who compose it”.6 Starting from a bourgeois individualist view of freedom he saw “restrictions on trade, or on production for purposes of trade” as “an evil”.7 Contrast this with trade union action. A workers’ picket line in a strike represents the collective will of a group of workers in their struggle against the boss. It is directed not only against the boss but also against the right of an individual to exercise freedom to go to her or his employment. To reject the picket line as “the tyranny of the majority” or an “evil” actually means the continuing tyranny of a tiny number of capitalists.

Despite its vast sweep and bold approach, by confining itself to a history of ideas Neil’s book misses out on perhaps what is the most truly revolutionary (but contradictory) element of the bourgeois revolutions. Neil is right to say that capitalism is the dominant system everywhere today. Yet alongside the dictatorship of capital, the power of bourgeois revolutionary ideology continues, except that it is manifested in the context of a more developed working class. There is therefore a contradiction between these two conceptions of progress. Here the continuing relevance of the theory of permanent revolution becomes clear. Where freedom and democracy can be transmuted by collective struggle they become the dialectical opposite of their original form, and the objective of socialist revolution.


1: Davidson, 2012, pxviii.

2: Davidson, 2012. See, for example, Neil’s discussion of Lenin’s ideas on p202.

3: Davidson, 2012, p271.

4: Marx, 1852.

5: Marx, 1867, p118.

6: Mill, p129.

7: Mill, p227.


Davidson, Neil, 2012. How Revolutionary Were the Bourgeois Revolutions? (Haymarket).

Marx, Karl, 1852, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon,

Marx, Karl, 1867, Capital, volume 1,

Mill, J S, 1969 [1863], Utilitarianism; On Liberty; Essays on Bentham (Collins).