Book Review: Neil Davidson, “How Revolutionary Were the Bourgeois Revolutions?”

There are books which are of such kind that upon reading them, one immediately knows one is dealing with a future classic. Such a book is Neil Davidson’s How Revolutionary Were The Bourgeois Revolutions?. A sprawling, immensely erudite, and deeply impressive work spanning a good 650 pages of text, this work is a great exercise in Marxist historiography. It deals, as the title suggests, with the famous question of ‘bourgeois revolution’: what it is, when it does and does not apply, how it has been used, and what its political implications may be. The better part of the book is taken up with discussing the concept in the history of the historical discipline, both among Marxists and the mainstream, and with discussing the core examples that have served as ‘ideal types’ for bourgeois revolution: the French Revolution, the English Civil War and Glorious Revolution, the Dutch Revolt (which we call the ‘Eighty Years’ War’), and finally the American Civil War. Davidson has an almost unprecedented grasp of the immense amount of writing on the subject, from the reflections immediately after the French Revolution onwards to current-day historiography, and this book is invaluable alone for the overview it provides on the subject of how the concept of bourgeois revolution has been used and abused in history-writing during that span of time.

But there is more to it. The book is also an intervention in Marxist political and historical debate, and clearly intended as such. In discussing the bourgeois revolution and its uses, Davidson (often rather obliquely) makes a number of essential suggestions as to its use and purpose, and connects these with Trotskyist thought and historical interpretation. The book is so rich in insights and reflections that one can no doubt draw various lessons and conclusions from it. In my reading, in any case, Davidson’s core contribution is to emphasize the significance of the distinction between two types of ‘bourgeois revolution’, and by extension, revolution generally: social revolution and political revolution. As Davidson sees it, the former involves the latter, but is not limited to it. Where political revolution involves some major change in the composition and policy of the ruling class or government in a society, with the attendant shift in the political ‘color’ of the country and the dominant group(s) in it, it operates still within the confines of a particular system of social relations. Social revolution, however, is a revolution which involves not just a political shift, but an overthrow of previously existing social relations and a decisive shift, or at least a serious attempt at transformation, into new ones.

The purpose in Marx and Engels of the idea of bourgeois revolution, as Neil Davidson describes it, is therefore precisely to understand it as a social revolution, not as a political one. Davidson persuasively argues this, and sticks to it himself throughout the work for the purposes of his own political-historical intervention. This leads to the second important conclusion of the book, namely that bourgeois revolution does not equal a revolution made by the bourgeoisie, and in fact the active, conscious leadership of the bourgeoisie as a distinct class is neither sufficient nor necessary for the achievement of bourgeois revolution. This is a major strand in How Revolutionary Were The Bourgeois Revolutions?, and to some extent can be seen as answering the question posed in the title. Davidson expends tremendous effort and space to arguing with many historians, radical and liberal, on this issue, and to my mind makes plausible and perhaps even convincing the proposition that the idea of bourgeois revolution as a social revolution from precapitalist formations to a fully-fledged and self-sustaining capitalism can only be practically useful and understandable if it does not necessarily involve bourgeois leadership.

In fact, as he rightly points out, in Marx and Engels themselves as well as in liberal commentaries from the 19th century one can find the realization that the bourgeoisie, whatever its historical ‘purpose’ may have been thought to be, was in practice much more often conservative or even outright reactionary than it was revolutionary. Much of Marx and Engels’ works in the third quarter of the 19th century deal with their growing frustration over the fact that whenever faced with the choice of a revolution with participation of working class and peasant elements or accepting the overlordship of a military-landlordist aristocracy, the really existing bourgeoisies systematically chose the latter. Later history, a Davidson shows, has shown much the same pattern, and the bourgeois revolutions in other countries have more often than not taken the more gradual and politically retrograde form of adaptation to capitalist conditions while maintaining the political forms of precapitalist autocracy and hierarchical inequality.

This leads to Neil Davidson’s third major concern: the concept of ‘permanent revolution’, most generally associated with Trotsky, although found in other writers as well (including Marx and Engels). Here, Davidson more closely hews to the Trotskyist political line, in particular that of the so-called ‘International Socialist tradition’, i.e. those Trotskyists inclined to not take Trotsky’s own historical and political judgements as decisive for their analysis, but who otherwise share the more general assumptions and presuppositions characterizing Trotskyism as a political mode of interpretation. For Davidson, the central point is to contrast permanent revolution as an idea with the notion of ‘stageism’, which he consistently and somewhat unfairly associates with Trotskyism’s eternal bogeyman opponent, the ‘Stalinist’ tradition. Now to my mind the whole idea of a ‘Stalinist tradition’ with an identifiable political and historical ideology which lies at the root of all the errors of socialist practice in the 20th century is a complete fiction, simply a mirror of Trotskyism itself in which it sees its own dark reflection. I do not think one can meaningfully analyze 20th century Marxism’s successes and failures along the axis of the Trotsky/Stalin dichotomy, regardless of how popular and influential this mode of thought has been; and for that reason, the second half of this book deserves as much criticism as the first half deserves my praise.

Nonetheless, Davidson does have some interesting things to say about permanent revolution. Most importantly, he establishes the idea that for Marx and Engels, and much of Marxist thought of the Second International generation, the idea of bourgeois revolution came to mean the development of capitalism as a precondition for the possibility of socialist revolution, by whatever means either was achieved in political terms. Davidson rightly notes, as have Kevin B. Anderson, Lawrence Krader and many others, that Marx and Engels shifted their own views on the meaning of this ‘precondition’ over time. In the 1840s and early 1850s they maintained that, despite awareness of the horrendous costs, the development of capitalism in every country and the disappearance of ‘non-historic nations’ was a historically progressive development because it constituted a step towards socialism. This Jacob’s ladder model of reaching to socialism in a linear way was soon abandoned, however, notwithstanding the persistence even up to this day of ‘critiques’ of Marxism based on the assumption that all of Marx and Engels’ thought follows this idea.

As Davidson notes, and this is a crucial point to his argument, the later conception required capitalism to come to dominance as prerequisite for socialism (because of its development of productivity, technology, and its own ‘revolutionary’ characteristics), but is quite ambiguous on the question whether this is a necessary ‘stage’ for each country or more subtly a requirement operating at the level of what one would now call the world-system. In the latter case, and Davidson makes it plausible that this is the better reading, there is no inherent requirement for each country to follow the same processes of bourgeois revolution and consolidation as long as capitalism has already become the dominant mode of production in the world. And indeed, one may well say that after the victory of the Union in the American Civil War and the colonization of Africa in the 1880s, this state of affairs was undeniably achieved; making the perspective for the requirements of socialist revolution very different after the fact.

This is where permanent revolution plays its role in Neil Davidson’s argument. He suggests effectively that ‘Stalinism’ misled Marxists into thinking that the older, linear stages model was a necessity for each and every country, despite (and Davidson gives much useful evidence on this) the reality of bourgeois revolution being already achieved in almost all countries – either through political revolution, often in fact imposed by modernizing segments of the precapitalist ruling class (as in Italy, Germany, and Japan, the future roots of fascism) or by gradual development enforced by the subjugation to the capitalist global logic, as with Latin America, or through the process of colonialism, as in much of Asia and Africa. (Here one would have liked Davidson to make room for the specific settler form of bourgeois revolution and imposition of capitalism, but the significance of the settler dynamic in places like the US, Australia, and Israel eludes him.)

For Trotsky, on the other hand, the concept of ‘permanent revolution’ suggested that with global capitalist rule already a reality – however deep and pervasive the feudal holdovers in specific places – the fulfilment of the bourgeois revolution as a political revolution could only be achieved by the revolutionary working class, which would then move directly forward into socialism (hence the ‘permanent’ aspect). He quite generalized this to all cases of non-metropolitan countries: “In backward nations, such immediate tasks have a democratic character: the national liberation from imperialist subjugation and the agrarian revolution, as in China; the agrarian revolution and the liberation of the oppressed nationalities, as in Russia. We see the same thing at present in Spain, even though in a different combination… But after the working class has seized power, the democratic tasks of the proletarian regime inevitably grow over into socialist tasks.” (Cited on p. 305.)

Davidson spends some time discussing the vicissitudes of this understanding of bourgeois revolution, as a process rather than an event, and the ways in which it has been watered down or led to confusion. Being unable to understand it as a process but with a specific historical delineation in time and political meaning, many have abandoned the idea altogether, or have gone over into calling neoliberalism a ‘permanent revolution’ and the like. Davidson rightly opposes such confusion of terms. But he himself suggests a change in the term from Trotsky’s use is necessary, or rather, that we must rethink the purpose of the term. For Davidson, the stage of bourgeois revolution is now over, as the dominance of capitalist social relations is certain and the system has achieved, as it were, its autogestion in every part of the globe. This raises the question then whether it makes sense to talk of permanent revolution, as any revolutionary movement from such a situation onward would imply a direct, socialist revolution, or else constitute ‘merely’ a political revolution changing the ruling class constellation and its organization of capitalism. In the latter case, no real social revolution would be either intended or possible at all, whereas in the former case, there is no real question of ‘permanence’. In this, he actually argues against much of contemporary Trotskyist political thought, which tends to read permanent revolutions into every political upheaval, whether the election of Morales or the Arab Spring, by arguing that such movements can only consummate themselves (to use Davidson’s term) by moving to socialism. Davidson is right to note that however devoutly to be wished, such consummation is not necessary, and the assumption questionable.

But here is also where my criticism comes in. For Davidson, developments such as Stalin’s rule in the USSR, the Maoist revolution in China, and more or less every left-nationalist or politically revolutionary movement in the Third World (not least in Vietnam and Cuba) are ‘merely’ examples of political revolution either consummating (as in the former case) the bourgeois revolution, or achieving it (as in his reading of China). Here Davidson is at his most uselessly Trotskyist: not only are all these movements and revolts seen through the sole prism of an artificial concept, namely the idea that they were not ‘led by the revolutionary working class’ and therefore not ‘really socialist’, but they are also explicitly politically rejected on this basis as attempts at revolution, however unsuccessful, beyond the bourgeois. Indeed, Davidson is willing to acknowledge that subjectively Mao, Ho, e tutti quanti did not see themselves as fulfilling any bourgeois project whatever, but he does not consider this of decisive importance: does not Marx say that one should not take people at their word when it comes to their historical role?

In this characteristic Trotskyist hackneyed view of history, all the subtleties of the analysis of bourgeois revolution suddenly disappear. Davidson spends 600+ pages describing rightly how bourgeois revolution can be a meaningful concept and an identifiable process whether or not it takes the form of a preconceived ‘ideal type’, even whether or not it is actually led and consciously acted out primarily by bourgeois class forces, but takes its color and meaning from the material historical necessities that propel it forward (certainly identifiable after capitalism has established itself in a few major countries and in the technological sphere). But no such subtleties are permitted the socialist revolution: this must take the form precisely of nothing other than a conscious, organized social revolution, constituted by the working class as a class conscious group and led by it, and achieving nothing short of the full social revolution towards the ‘society of associated producers’, perhaps even waving a red flag and storming the palaces: else it is not ‘real socialist revolution’, but merely an appendix to the history of capitalism. This will not do, and does not convince. In fact, the Trotskyists would do well to learn from Lenin himself, who responded to those who dismissed the Easter Rising in Ireland as ‘merely’ left-nationalist as follows: “So one army lines up in one place and says, “We are for socialism,” and another, somewhere else and says, “We are for imperialism,” and that will be a social revolution! Only those who hold such a ridiculously pedantic view would vilify the Irish rebellion by calling it a ‘putsch.’ Whoever expects a “pure” social revolution will never live to see it. Such a person pays lip service to revolution without understanding what revolution is….”(1)

How then to explain the ‘failures’, in a certain sense, of the socialist movements of the 20th century? I do not think that the Trotskyist-Davidson approach, to explain this by defeating the socialist credentials of all movements after 1917, is convincing. But an explanation is nonetheless owed. The great and fundamental mistake of the Trotskyist reading of history underlying Davidson’s vision is its fundamental concession to idealism. In the Trotskyist view, ultimately the origins of the failures of 20th century Marxism rest in a conceptual error: either the error of ‘stageism’, leading to the much-maligned popular front policy and the idea that potential revolutions were suppressed in the name of the bourgeois revolution, which Davidson’s book serves as a polemic for; or the error of ‘socialism in one country’, the putative abandonment of the goal of international revolution and the subordination of all revolutionary activity to the national, chauvinist interests of the USSR as a nation-state.

I do not think either of these critiques are without merit in the history of 20th century socialism. Indeed, too often Communist Parties have presented themselves simply as ‘nationalists for another country’, making them isolated and strategically weak and inflexible despite their support vastly outnumbering that of any other Marxist group. The ease of the destruction of communism in countries like Iraq, Iran, and Indonesia owes much to this. Stageism, too, has sometimes been simply an excuse to adopt a wait-and-see attitude and to relegate revolution purely to rhetorical statements, combining revolutionary talk with practice that is social-democratic at best. Davidson makes much of the case of the South African Communist Party within the ANC in this, as well as Garcia Linera in Bolivia, and these criticisms are not unjustified. But they are not fundamental. ‘Socialism in one country’ was simply a consideration of the reality of things after the defeat of the German, Italian, and English revolutionary waves in the late 1910s and early 1920s; one was faced with the options of either going it alone, or giving up entirely, and the Soviets cannot be blamed for choosing the former. Trotsky himself quite sensibly for this reason always maintained the importance of defending the USSR as a project, whatever its limitations. So too the stageism and the conservatism of official Communism: much of this was a response to Cold War conditions, preferring a certain strong stability without success to a chance of success and a chance of world war and utter defeat.

But however charitably or uncharitably one reads the motivations of the actors involved, what one cannot consistently do is make these motivations into the defining cause of the failures of 20th century Marxism, while at the same time ignoring entirely the socialist motivations of various revolutionary movements in the name of historical materialist causality, as Davidson and many Trotskyists do. I would submit that a more thoroughgoingly causal analysis is required, one that does not give up on the relevance of political and historical interpretation in shaping action, but one that recognizes the causal significance of global, macro-level economic historical forces as superceding the causal power of the motives of individuals and leaders in all cases, whether China or the USSR. Indeed, I have myself written on the errors in the self-conception of the Soviet economic policy, in two respects: its flaw in promoting working class rule as a substitute for the abolition of class society, and its flaw in developing the productive forces in a programme of ‘socialist accumulation’ without a clear plan or ability to make the final ‘shift’ to production for use in association, a shift which never came and whose absence doomed the communism of the USSR and its satellites to blatant incoherence.

But I must insist that these are not merely conceptual mistakes. Contrary to Davidson and most Trotskyist historiography, and also contrary to other re-imaginings of Marxist history such as those of the fans of Makhno, of Kronstadt, or even Platypus, I do not believe that there is much room for ‘what ifs’, nor that alternative histories of the 20th century will get us far in understanding its structural determinants. When every single case of revolution, whether subjectively imagined as political or social, that originates in the ideas of Marxism and the left takes on the same form, this is not a question of failed leadership or incorrect strategy. When we properly historicize, 20th century Marxism itself must be subject to the same historical materialist forces as any other ideology or self-conception, no less than liberalism. One of Marxism’s great strengths has always been its reflectiveness, its ability to comprehend – unlike other ideologies – its own origins and social base. What we see then, in my view, is that 20th century Marxism in its popular forms has taken the role of a developmental Marxism. It is part and parcel of a wider political economy of the 20th century centered around the consummation, to adopt that term, of the globalizing power of capitalism, and the promise of the development of the productive forces it contains.

This, the ethos and politics of development, is the central category of 20th century political history, and it has been the dominant economic pattern of ‘really existing socialism’, but also of various anti-communist left nationalisms (e.g. pan-Arabism), of Marshall Plan and World Bank liberalism, and even during those periods that countries were ruled by figures of the outermost right. After WWII in particular, when capitalism entered the only boom period it has ever known and the globalisation of the Edwardian age was surpassed by the true world market and world culture of today, every country has been forced by the logic of capitalist accumulation and nation-state competition to develop the productive forces. But also, every revolutionary movement and leadership has recognized the fundamental reality, emphasized by Marx and Engels throughout the development of the idea of bourgeois revolution, that the development of the productive forces is inherently the development of the preconditions of socialism. This was the point where the pressures of the logic of capital and the pressures of the logic of the immanent socialism have overlapped, and it is therefore no surprise, seen from this vantage point, that this point of synthesis has been the strongest driving force throughout the century and still is today.

It will therefore not do to dismiss events like the Soviet central planning programme or the Maoist revolutions (and there really were multiple) as merely consummations of bourgeois rule, or to judge them by an arbitrary, Archimedean standpoint outside history as insufficiently corresponding to the ‘self-emancipation of the working class’. This does not mean that we should not learn the political lessons from this, and not seek to overcome the dichotomy between socialist revolution and developmentalism: we have no reason to doubt Marx and Engels’ judgement that the combination of both is the prerequisite for abolishing class society and freeing our life’s time from necessary labor. But it does behoove us to understand the achievements of the Marxist form of developmentalism as its most emancipatory and most developed form, however limited by its ‘standing on one leg’, and I must therefore dissent from the political judgements implied in the idealism of Davidson’s Trotskyist reading of the past century. Even such ideas as the self-emancipation of the working class, and indeed all of Marxism itself, are subject to the forces historical materialism identifies, and if anything the failure of 20th century Marxism is a great victory for historical materialism as method. It is a pity that, despite the tremendous value and erudition of this book, Davidson has not seen this.




A generally good overview, from what I can tell, though I’ve long found the entire idea of “Eurocentrism” rather dubious to begin with.

However, I find your use of the term “imperialism” rather loose and anachronistic. Marx and Engels did not endorse imperialism during the 1840s and 1850s because imperialism as a stage within capitalism had not yet been properly constituted. Imperialism was not really recognized as distinctly emerging from a dynamic within capitalism until the liberal J.A. Hobson (no relation to the author you discuss) first identified it in 1902. Even then, he and all the other major Marxist theoreticians of imperialism saw it as only really dating from the Panic of 1873, rising slowly at first, taking general hold in the 1880s with the consolidation of monopoly capitalism in industry and finance capital in banking, and then exploding with the scramble for Africa. This might seem a minor point, but I find that the Marxist theory of “imperialism” is almost constantly abused. Not least by Marxists.

I find that an odd interpretation, and I wonder what your sources are on that? It’s true the word ‘imperialism’ in Marx & Engels’ works tends to appear only as the French Empire system, not in the sense we know it today. But that is a mere question of terminology. For example, Capital Vol. I, Chapter 33 is an extensive theoretical discussion of the drive towards and nature of colonialism, and that amounts to the same thing for our purposes – and published in 1867. I also reject monopoly capital theory, but that’s another story.

Matthijs, two things:

(1) Davidson clearly describes the events of 1949 in China as a social revolution, just not a “socialist” one.

(2) It strikes me that you want to have your cake and eat it when trying to untangle the issues of what ideas of revolution were in revolutionaries’ heads and the material conditions and forces which made up revolutionary processes. So for you the “Marxist” ideas in Mao’s head mean we cannot dismiss China as merely a particular form of bourgeois revolution. Yet you attack the notion that — when ideas like “socialism in one country” become central to Marxist doctrine in some movement — this can explain why those movements didn’t carry out Davidson’s “narrow” view of socialist revolution.

You may not accept Davidson’s view (“nothing other than a conscious, organized social revolution, constituted by the working class as a class conscious group and led by it, and achieving nothing short of the full social revolution towards the ‘society of associated producers’ “) of the kind of movement needed to usher in a revolutionary break towards a Communist mode of production. But by leaving vague what social change such a mode of production would need to be based on, you actually dodge needing to have any serious view about what strategy revolutionaries should pursue. The use of the Easter Rising counter-example is especially mistaken because Lenin never suggested that in Ireland itself there was socialist revolution going on in 1916, but that national liberation struggles in the colonial countries could create rupture in the imperialist order that could accelerate that revolutionary process more generally.

I think this is most problematic when you talk of “developmental” Marxism, because it becomes difficult to see what differentiates Cuba from South Korea, or China from Japan in the arc of the 20th century — apart from the ideas in the heads of the respective countries’ rulers. I would argue that by approaching it this way for the “Marxist” regimes you favour, you analytically divorce the forces of production from the relations of production, and thereby rob Marxist understanding of society of social content.

1): Yes, that is true. But I am making a different argument here. Perhaps I should spell this out more clearly: I am not particularly committed one way or the other to whether Mao’s revolution was a mostly bourgeois or mostly socialist revolution. What I *am* however committed to, and that is a subtly different argument, is that *if* one thinks that the Russian Revolution was a socialist revolution, then the Chinese one was too. However, I’m perfectly open to the idea of considering them both to be a form of bourgeois revolution consummating, as it were, its most advanced possible form as a kind of state capitalism to prepare the way for socialism.
2) And this is where my idea of developmentalism as the central drive of the 20th century comes in. To me, this is precisely the historical materialist force that generates the ‘passive’ bourgeois revolution Davidson rightly registers in most countries with the development of global capitalism. It makes perfect sense that the most advanced social revolutions in this period should be the consummation of the possibilities afforded by this period, opening the door to socialism without fully entering it, as it were – not too unlike the Paris Commune in that regard. In fact, I think my view here is a much more consistent application both of historical materialism and perhaps also of the idea of permanent revolution than Davidson’s is.

I’m not sure I understand your last point. Surely the ‘developmentalism’ I talk about is something that operates in the sphere of the relations of production, making them such that they need for their own sake to develop the forces of production? Isn’t that the orthodox view of what capitalism does, what gives it a historically unique dynamic?

As for the Easter Rising, I get that. Don’t you think though this idea of ‘rupture’ is really undertheorized? What would this rupture be? What would it do? How would it work? For me, the core point is that one cannot use Lenin as a yardstick to say that this or that rupture ‘doesn’t count’ because it has the wrong subject of history or whatever.

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