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Neil Davidson on rethinking bourgeois revolution

May 15, 2013

The most contentious debate at the Historical Materialism New York 2013 conference last month took place over a topic that might seem familiar and well digested: “How Revolutionary Were the Bourgeois Revolutions?” Neil Davidson, author of the recent book by that name, squared off with Jeff Goodwin and Charlie Post (audio file here). I missed the New York event but attended a launch of Neil’s book in Toronto May 3, where he presented the substance of his New York talk.

Davidson bookIn Neil’s view, the Marxist conception of bourgeois revolution, sketched out in Marx’s writings, hardened into a rigid orthodoxy in the pre-1914 Second International and under Stalinism. By this interpretation, history consists of a succession of stages, each ending when new and rising class overturns the old rulers.

Such is the bourgeois revolution, in which the “bourgeois-democratic tasks” of agrarian reform, establishment of democracy, and national unification are, by this view, carried out under bourgeois leadership. Since these historic gains remained unachieved in most of the world in the twentieth century, the task before working people in these countries, according to Social Democratic/Stalinist theory, was to achieve a bourgeois and not a socialist revolution.

As Davidson demonstrates, this conception is a poor fit for the facts of capitalist history. By these criteria, the rise of capitalism was marked by – at the most – only four bourgeois revolutions, in the Netherlands, Britain, France, and the United States. Even in these instances, the applicability of the classic model can be challenged on many key points.


In response, Davidson offers an alternative definition of a bourgeois revolution, which focuses not on the way it is carried out but on its outcome. He calls this approach “consequentialism.” A bourgeois revolution is characterized, he says, by the establishment of a state dedicated to the maximizing capitalist profit in its territory. By this criterion, there can be no doubt that bourgeois revolutions took place in Germany and Japan in the 1800s, even though the process was mainly “from above,” and the role of a bourgeois class was subordinate in the first case and, initially, almost absent in the second.

Davidson holds that similar overturns also took place in the twentieth century in China and other countries of the colonial and semi-colonial world, with quite a different alignment of class forces. He didn’t mention the Russian revolution of 1917, but surely it also belongs in this category, even though it went beyond the limits of a bourgeois overturn.

However, outcome cannot be completely dissociated from process and agency. The capitalist rulers must gain effective control of national territory; they must remove precapitalist obstacles to a market economy; they must gain effective control over the state.  In fact, elements of this interconnection are evident in at least #4 and $5 of the five preconditions for bourgeois revolution enumerated by Davidson:

  1. Crisis of the preceding feudal society.
  2. Viability of a capitalist alternative.
  3. Inability of the existing state to block the development of capitalist relations.
  4. Presence of a bourgeois class, including a peripheral circle of lawyers, writers, clerics, and the like.
  5. Existence of an ideological foundation for destroying the absolutist state.

Strengths of the stress on outcome

Although Davidson’s focus on outcome may be somewhat one-sided, it succeeds in embracing the full spectrum of paths through which capitalist states have been created. Moreover, there is a great advantage in Davidson’s approach. It frees the “tasks” of bourgeois revolution – land reform, democracy, national sovereignty, etc. – from the terminological shackles of the adjective “bourgeois.” That term that can seem to imply that these tasks are not so important (not “working-class” in character) or even that they can be dispensed with when workers’ power, real or imagined, is established, as actually happened under Stalinist rule. These tasks are democratic goals, benefiting all the exploited, dispossessed, and oppressed at every stage of their liberation struggle.

Davidson’s compact presentation also omitted mention of the Bolshevik alternative to the reformist/Stalinist conception of bourgeois revolution, a topic which he has examined elsewhere. (See, for example, “From Deflected Permanent Revolution to the Law of Uneven and Combined Development”) The Bolshevik strategy projected that the bourgeois revolution would be carried through to victory under workers’ leadership, as an initial stage leading toward a transition to socialism. After the Russian revolution of 1917, this concept was adopted by the Communist International.

Applying this approach, it is possible to recognize that the current Egyptian revolution, for example, was initially democratic in character, while affirming that, as it advances, it will need to adopt socialist goals.

Davidson’s method is strong in encompassing diverse manifestations of bourgeois revolution, impelled by a startling variety of class forces. In terms of outcome, however, he stresses that the result has been uniform. Virtually every state today, he says, meets the criterion of seeking to maximize national capitalist profits.

This seems an exaggeration. In some countries, the state has no effective presence on a national level (Somalia, for example); in others, it is utilized by imperialism to siphon the bulk of the economic surplus into the hands of foreign capitalists. Among the world’s weaker and poorer countries, even states that meet the criterion of seeking profits for national capitalist class are subject to varying degrees of domination and pillage by imperialist capital. Davidson’s use of a single criterion to define bourgeois revolution could thus obscure distinctions in present-day states that are significant in shaping working-class strategy.

Outcome vs. agency in revolution

At several points in Davidson’s presentation, I was confronted with the persistent barriers to understanding among Marxists posed by the issue of “state capitalism.” I come from a Marxist tradition, sometimes termed “orthodox Trotskyism,” which holds that even after the triumph of Stalinism, the Soviet Union remained a workers’ state, even though working-class agency — workers’ directing role in the revolution and the Soviet state and economy — had been largely suppressed. So, to take only one example, I regard Cuba today as a workers’ state. Working-class agency, revolutionary process, and institutional outcome all play a role in determining such a state’s character.

Neil Davidson represents a Marxist tradition that holds that the suppression of workers’ democracy in the Soviet Union signified the fall of the workers’ state and its replacement by state capitalism, a social system also found in Cuba and elsewhere.

Paradoxically, Davidson seems to focus on outcome alone in defining a capitalist state and on agency alone in defining a workers’ state.

Granted, the transition to socialism is unique in character because it is not driven by an automatic economic process; it is dependent on conscious direction and democratic governance. But even so, such an absolute dichotomy between these two types of revolutions seems exaggerated.

Davidson’s theory of bourgeois revolution, closely examined, does not exclude the relevance of agency. I find it hard to see how a full exposition of the nature of socialist revolution can exclude the relevance of institutional outcome.

If the “agency/outcome” polarity can be eased in this manner, this would create a terrain for fruitful discussion among those on opposite sides of the “state capitalism” issue.


The concepts presented in Neil Davidson’s New York and Toronto talks are developed more fully – and without the inaccuracies inevitable in this brief summary – in his new book, “How Revolutionary Were the Bourgeois Revolutions,” available for $32 from Haymarket Books.

Other books by Neil Davidson:

  • Discovering the Scottish Revolution, 1692-1746,  London: Pluto Press, 2003.
  • The origins of Scottish nationhood, London: Pluto Press, 2000.

From → Marxism, Theory

  1. Henry Lowi permalink

    The “agency / outcome” analysis is helpful. I believe it was anticipated by Lenin in a work that is widely under-used and often distorted. Lenin did not “concede” the future democratic revolution to bourgeois “agency”. Rather, the governmental slogan was “revolutionary-democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry”.
    Lenin’s 1905 book “Two Tactics of Social Democracy in the Democratic Revolution” was the guide to Bolshevik policy through April 1917. It is still valuable today.
    Thus, it is not quite accurate when you write, above: “The Bolshevik strategy projected that the bourgeois revolution would be carried through to victory under workers’ leadership, as an initial stage leading toward a transition to socialism. After the Russian revolution of 1917, this concept was adopted by the Communist International.” That was the April Theses, a Bolshevik strategic development that fine-tuned the previous “algebraic” formula, and that was quickly recognized as the “permanent revolution” associated with Trotsky. .
    “Two Tactics” is wrongly neglected in countries that still have largely incomplete democratic tasks: political liberty, national unification, democratic government. In Syria, today, as in other Arab countries, Marxists are popularizing the following strategic approach quoted from “Two Tactics”:
    “At the head of the whole of the people, and particularly of the peasantry—for complete freedom, for a consistent democratic revolution, for a republic! At the head of all the toilers and the exploited—for Socialism! Such must in practice be the policy of the revolutionary proletariat, such is the class slogan which must permeate and determine the solution of every tactical problem, every practical step of the workers’ party during the revolution.”

    • Pham Binh permalink

      Two Tactics is neglected. One sign of this neglect is the entirely false notion that it applied only until April 1917. Lenin argued correctly that his views throughout 1917 were guided by the basic precepts of Two Tactics. And the Comintern never adopted permanent revolution but a version of Two Tactics applied to colonial and semi-colonial countries.

  2. John Sharkey permalink

    Do you mean the HM NY 2013 conference ;) J

    Date: Thu, 16 May 2013 03:10:42 +0000 To:

  3. Pham Binh permalink

    Consequentialism is very a poor way of understanding bourgeois-democratic revolutoons because it skips or “forgets” the struggle that takes place to get to the capitalist consequence, which is really the entire essence of what revolution is! Moving the goalposts in this way makes a proper Marxist understanding of democratic revolutions impossible and makes Marxism look less credible as a rigorous theory that can plausibly explain them because instead of addressing questions and difficult issues it simply evades them.

    Even worse, Davidson’s 5-point list excludes the living bourgeois-democratic revolutions known as the Arab Spring!

    You’re right to point to the outcome/agency dilemma created by Davidson’s consequential approach. However, I think the root of the dilemma is not in the (anti-Marxist) theory of “state capitalism” of Cliff/Dunayevskaya but in the Cliff tradition’s attempt to cram the Chinese revolution of 1949 and Cuban revolution of 1959 into some variant of Trotsky’s “permanent revolution” known as “deflected permanent revolution.” And that problem comes from Trotskyism’s general ignorance of the Bolshevik, Leninist (no quotation marks) strategy for Russia, something you are absolutely right to bring up.

    There are a lot more issues to be untangled in this messy discussion but this is a solid start.

  4. “The most contentious debate at the Historical Materialism New York 1913 conference…” I knew you were old, John, but not that old.

  5. I wasn’t there but…

    In England there certainly was a bourgeois revolution, but it took the form of a process over 200 years punctuated with revolutionary moments. The Wars of the Roses in the latter 15th century were the death knell of feudalism. Bourgeois historians are reduced to saying the wars were merely a dynastic fight, but it was one that physically weakened the old aristocracy and led to a struggle between absolutism (which triumphed for a while in France) encapsulated in the Tudors and Stuarts and the bourgeoisie, underpinned by important shifts in economics . Then there was the civil war in the 1640s and the final culmination in the invasion and victory of King William and the bourgeoisie in the 1690s. This final phase introduced a stock exchange, the Bank of England, a constitutional monarchy and the supremacy of the City of London, institutions that still dominate today.

    Along the way the final outcome was challenged by populist, mass politics, infused with religion, but nonetheless contention of the final goals all the same.

    The ideology of how revolutions are expressed changes over the years but it seems that popular rebellions against the status quo today have a mass character and within them contending ideologies about modernity and the political and economic order of society, except with the existence of globalisation and a world capitalist order they are crammed within a few years – which should be no surprise.

  6. Dimitris Fasfalis permalink

    Interesting article and topic but consequentialism seems in my view problematic to gain a from-below understanding of what is called “bourgeois revolutions”. I must say that I did not read the author’s book and only listened to the first 20 min of his presentation in NY, but John’s article raises many issues.

    First of all, consequentialism reduces these revolutions to the new order established by the new ruling strata afterwards. But in the midst of these events, a wide range of possibilities existed. A perspective that retrospectively emphasizes the outcome of complex, decades-long and country- if not continent-wide processes, thus seems to miss the alternative paths or scenarios that can be seen at each one of these revolutions’ turning points. Consequentialism therefore falls in the trap of a teleological view of history. This is why permanent revolution seems to me a more relevant concept to understand all revolutions since their character has always been a matter of struggle and debate even while they were ongoing.

    To the question “how revolutionary were the bourgeois revolutions?” we should unequivocally answer “so revolutionary that we have trouble to imagine it…” Men make their own history but under circumstances that are handed down to them by each generation… therefore the outcome of all revolutions is decided by the ongoing struggles.

    Moreover, a flaw in the orthodox view of bourgeois revolutions, such as Kautsky’s or French historian A. Soboul, or in the consequentialist remaking of the concept (N. Davidson), is that it helps entertain a narrative of the modern world whose core is the triumph of the bourgeoisie and its culture. In this long drawn-out process, from the 12th to the 20th century, the “bourgeoisie” or the middle classes have suffered many defeats and even its “victories” – such as in the Italian merchant republics – have often degenerated into something else. Etienne Marcel’s revolt in Paris in 1358 offers another such example.

    Such an account of modern revolutions has been initially thought of and written by moderate liberal historians during the Restauration period, such as A. Thiers, F. Guizot, A. Thierry and F. MIgnet, to provide a foundation to their political outlook and programme. Marxists afterwards used the term bourgeois revolution to point out the need to go beyond the bourgeois limits of these attemps to emancipate men, towards socialism.

    Bourgeois revolutions of the past – especially the French revolution – offered a point of comparison as to better understand ongoing debates about revolutionary strategy and class struggle. Trotsky’s insistent references to the French revolution in his History of the Russian Revolution offers such an example of that type of use of the concept.

    But, what we need most of all today, coming out of the 20th century and its ruins, is to learn anew what the politics of the oppressed and exploited can be through the study of revolutions in general. The politics from below that one sees in the downfall of the Bastille is much more useful for us today than knowing that this was a bourgeois revolution.

    At last, a permanent revolution approach, from below, to these revolutions offers the possibility to explain the contradictory tendencies within these processes. Traditionnaly, we view capitalism and liberal democracy as two aspects of the same transition to some form of bourgeois society. In fact, liberal democracy has in the European continent been in most cases gained through mass class struggles by the popular layers, against the aristocracy and the upper middle classes whose political influence stopped conveying any pressure when property and the rule of law had been obtained. Thinking of 1789/1830/1848 as a cycle of bourgeois revolutions thus hinders one’s understanding more than it helps it develop.

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