Edited transcript of a talk at Marxism 87.
From Socialist Review, No.105, January 1988, pp.17-20.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
WHAT IS a bourgeois revolution? In the most general sense it is the replacement of a pre-capitalist regime of some sort followed by a social transformation – legal forms and so on – which clears the ground for the development of capitalism. In the most general possible sense it clears the ground for industrialisation and the creation of a modern type of economy of one sort or another.
If you read the classic Marxist texts, that’s not what comes across. Why not? Because, of course, the classical Marxist view of bourgeois revolutions was very heavily coloured by the example of the great French Revolution.
The very terminology which appears in the Marxist literature – Thermidor, Bonapartism, Brumaire and so on – is all derived from the great revolution. This of course is not surprising. After all it was an event of world historical importance. Intelligent contemporaries had no doubt about it at the time.
Let’s look at one or two of the features of this revolution. First of all it was not simply a bourgeois revolution in the very general sense which I’ve used above. It was a revolution in which the actual bourgeoisie played a leading role.
I don’t mean that bankers were found rushing to the barricades. Nevertheless at each stage – the estates general, the constituent assembly, the National Assembly, the conventions, as a matter of fact beyond that, the Thermidor – the operational leadership was in the hands, typically, of the bourgeois classes.
It is important to understand that the French Revolution was a bourgeois revolution both in the general sense but also in the much more specific sense. A failure to understand its peculiarities in this respect has led to all sorts of difficulties.
In France Bonaparte and, after his overthrow, the restored Bourbon, Louis XVIII, ruled what was essentially a bourgeois regime. It was a bourgeois regime if we think in terms of the central definition. The legal and institutional framework had been created for the development of capitalism.
The Code Napoleon, the legal contracts, the land transfers – everything that had taken place in terms of the property transformation – was preserved under the Bourbons.
It is true that the Bourbon interest wanted these things reversed. That’s one of the reasons why there was a revolution again in 1830. However, the French bourgeoisie itself could not be said to be the ruling class in a formal political sense until the Third Republic in 1871. Nevertheless the bourgeoisie played a central role. It was at that time a revolutionary class.
There are two similar examples to the French, but they have important differences – the United States and England. In the American example the bourgeois revolution gave rise to a form of government in which the representatives of the bourgeoisie directly rule. That is very exceptional.
In England between 1640 and 1689 it could not be said that the bourgeoisie led the revolution in quite the French sense. It is true the bourgeoisie was a revolutionary class. It certainly supported the revolution. The two greatest cities in England, London on the one hand and Bristol on the other, were, throughout, resolutely anti-royalist. The defeat of the Royalist attempt to take over London at Turnhain Green in 1642 was achieved essentially under bourgeois leadership.
But that was the last time. From then on we see the centrally important role of sections of the gentry.
Later on the unlikely figure of William of Orange appeared at the head of the bourgeois revolution of 1688 and the defeat of the reaction. That same man’s portrait (on his horse with his sword at the Boyne) is painted on the end of terraced houses in Belfast. In 1688 he actually represented the revolutionary forces.
But the bourgeoisie did not rule. What emerged under the Williamite regime was the domination of the country by a quite narrow oligarchy of great Whig land owners – big land owners (most of the small land owners were Tories). But this regime was nevertheless a bourgeois regime as E.P. Thompson, arguing against some of the stupidities of early New Left Review people, said:
What are these people? They are the capitalists, not on the basis of some general theory – look at their account books. This is commercial production for the market. What is their central aim? It’s the accumulation of capital. How do they reckon a person’s worth-by the length of his lineage? By his title? Not at all. How much a year does his estate yield? This is the criterion.
Marx had no doubt that the English revolution was a bourgeois revolution. There are formal analogies with the French model but it was very different.
There are other variants; starting before and partly contemporary with the first part of the English bourgeois revolution was the Eighty Years War – the struggle for the independence of the Netherlands. This was a bourgeois revolution in content if not in form.
In 1580 before the war there was a feudal regime. What emerged when the treaty was finally signed in 1648 was a bourgeois republic, in this case ruled by an oligarchy of rich merchants, money lenders and soon. Nevertheless, if you look at the form of the struggle, it was a military struggle fought formally in religious terms against Spain.
Then we have the peculiar case of Switzerland, where in reality the destruction of the feudal ruling class had already occurred by the end of the 14th century. Out of a largely peasant society a bourgeois regime developed, dominated by the oligarchy of Berne and Zurich. Again that does not follow the classic French model.
NOW why talk about all these things? Simply and solely to look at what happened since, and above all its impact on Marxist theory post Marx. But before we get to post Marx there was 1848. In 1848 Marx and Engels participated in the revolution in Germany. They said, quite specifically, that the German bourgeoisie would never produce its Cromwell or its Robespierre. Why not?
Their explanation was one that became essentially true later on, although it was not really true at the time.
They had seen the impotence of the German bourgeoisie. Revolution in Berlin had overthrown the regime, but what came out of it was the Frankfurt talking shop, the so-called Federal Parliament.
These were the people for whom Marx coined the phrase “parliamentary cretinism”. While they were debating the refinements of the constitution, the King of Prussia and the Austrian emperor were re-establishing their armed forces.
Marx said that their stupidity had not so much personal as social roots. They feared to finish off the reaction because they feared the class that was growing up underneath them-the proletariat. And the proletariat was very small at the time.
Marx drew an important conclusion from this. He saw from his experience that simply pushing for reforms (i.e. trying to do what the Mensheviks did between February and October 1917) would not work.
Engels agreed. He wrote that what was needed was a second version of the peasant uprising (at the beginning of the 16th cenairy). A massive rising on the land, a jacquerie, in reality a bloodbath, was necessary – not in the cities but to break the back of the armies of the reaction who were basically conscript peasants.
But this did not alter the fundamental notion that the norm was France and 1848 was an exception.
WE come now to the subsequent events. The victory of the reactionaries in 1849 appeared to restore the old regimes – but only in form. In truth bourgeois revolutions took place, but they were highly atypical. The most important case was the German one. There the bourgeois revolution took place under the auspices of the Prussian monarchy, specifically under Prince Otto von Bismarck. The essence of the transformation was carried out from the top, not by the bourgeoisie, but by people who came themselves from a most reactionary caste.
They looked at the way the world was changing. They mastered the state machine and became integrated with it.
They realised that in order to compete with the French and English it was necessary to industrialise and so it was necessary to encourage the bourgeoisie.
As a matter of fact in the early years of the transformation, the bourgeoisie, so far as it existed as a political force (the National Liberal Party), was anti-government. This too was a bourgeois revolution and it was about as far from Marat and Robespierre as you can get in political terms.
Even more spectacular, because the leap from the past to the present was over a much bigger gap, was the Meiji restoration in Japan. Under the pressure of American, British and Russian imperialism sections of a truly feudal layer utilising the state machine broke the power of their own class and transformed the economy.
How could they possibly do this? Isn’t this contrary to the whole notion of the class struggle and historical materialism? No, because, as Engels said, there are some people who use historical materialism as an excuse for not studying history.
They were able to do it basically because first there was a substantial bourgeoisie, which was incapable of political initiative but was eminently capable of supporting and financing them.
Secondly, for purely military reasons, they partially liberated the peasantry. They saw what was happening to China – they saw how the imperialist powers were parcelling it up. You didn’t have to be a genius to see it, but a feudal idiot not to see it. They realised that it was China today, Japan tomorrow.
The privileges of the Samurai caste had to be destroyed. They alone had been allowed to bear arms. A peasant army (which involved a partial transformation of relationships on the land) had to be created. The Samurai used to shave their heads and have a topknot at the back. The new regime made it a criminal offence to wear the topknot. This was a bourgeois revolution carried out at breakneck speed. Again it was highly atypical.
UP to now I haven’t touched on the role of the working class. What was Marx’s attitude on the question? Was the process of permanent revolution already in operation in the pre-20th century revolutionary struggles?
It is of course true that in 1793, in order, as Marx put it, to safeguard the gains of the bourgeois revolution, it was necessary for a short period to go beyond the limits of a strictly bourgeois revolution. The tenor of the Jacobin regime, under the pressure of the sans culottes, to some extent, went beyond the limits for a short time. Then there was the reaction and the Thermidor.
Some people, well meaning but essentially incapable of serious historical thinking, such as Guerin and various of his English imitators, think this is permanent revolution frustrated. They see the sans culottes as representing a band of heroic brothers leading the working class.
Actually, the truth is they did not lead the working class in the modern sense at all. The state of class relations was such that whatever came out of it the bourgeoisie was going to rule – although not necessarily directly.
Although Marx used phrases like “Revolution in permanence” it’s just not true that he developed permanent revolution as a theory in the sense that Trotsky later used it. That was impossible in the circumstances of that time. What he did develop was the view that actually the regimes could only be overthrown by the working class and the working class cannot do it except on the basis of mass peasant support.
There are just two qualifications that I have to make to that. Marx and Engels were the last men to become prisoners of rigid schemes or formulae even if they were their own.
Shortly before Marx died in 1883, he was pressed by the Russian Narodniks about the possibility of avoiding the capitalist stage of development in Russia. Pre-capitalist forms on the land were then still prevalent although quickly being eroded. Marx said that if there was first a revolution in Europe then it was a possibility.
Then there was Engels’ writing to Kautsky after Marx’s death. Kautsky was a pedant. He demanded detailed answers to all sorts of questions about the future which of course no one can answer. Questions such as: what about India? what about Egypt? what about Algeria? Will they repeat our course of development?
In substance Engels said that two things were clear. First, Europe and North America were decisive.
Some people stupidly call that Eurocentrism. Engels was in no sense convinced of the inherent superiority of Europeans. But where actually did the new industrialised society, the higher productivity of labour, exist in 1882 when he wrote that letter? It existed mainly in Europe (parts of Europe, not all Europe by any means) and along the eastern seaboard of the United States. Essentially that was it.
His second point was that: “One thing is certain, the victorious proletariat cannot force any blessings of any kind on these [non- European] people without undermining the basis of its own rule.” Socialist revolution on the bayonets of a red army was excluded. Not because of abstract morality. It’s not the moral argument but the fact that the inherent nature of a workers’ state is incompatible with an expansionist militarist policy.
BUT if Marx and Engels were not likely to be prisoners of rigid formulae the vast majority of their “followers” in the Second International were. They failed to see the changing nature of the class struggle in altered material circumstances By 1900 modern industry had developed on a large scale, not only in central Europe but also significantly in much more backward countries. There was a sizeable industrial proletariat in Russia although it was a small fraction of the population. When Marx talked about the proletariat in the Rhineland in 1847-8 it was a peanut by comparison.
All the disputes in the Russian Social Democratic Party between the Mensheviks, the Bolsheviks and Trotsky centred around the question of the political incapacity of the bourgeoisie.
Lenin’s position essentially was that the bourgeoisie would not fight. The Liberals were cowards, and they were cowards for social not personal reasons.
Hence his perspective that the bourgeois revolution must be carried out by the working class in alliance with the peasantry. No significant body of Marxists doubted in the first decade of this century that the coming revolution in Russia must be a bourgeois revolution.
Trotsky was right in arguing that Lenin’s specific solution to the problem was a horse that would not run. The so called “democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry” foundered as it was bound to founder on the political incapacity of the peasantry as a class (not as individual peasants). That meant they could not become an active partner in the revolutionary process.
The Social Revolutionary Party, which, insofar as any party could be said to represent the peasantry, was overwhelmingly its representative, tailed the Mensheviks who were incomparably weaker in numbers. Therefore they tailed the bourgeoisie.
Far from leading the peasant jacquerie they finished up supporting first of all Prince Lvov, then Kerensky, and then, in the case of many of their individuals, the various white armies directed against peasant interests.
Therefore Trotsky’s solution was: the proletariat must take power and spread the revolution. The internationalist perspective was a matter of life and death and immediate survival for a country like Russia.
Trotsky only wrote the final form of his theory of permanent revolution quite late, in 1927, in a polemic with one of his ex-collaborators, Karl Radek.
Trotsky generalised the theory to include the anti-colonial struggle. He wrote that it was impossible for India to achieve independence without a proletarian revolution. The Indian National Congress could not take power.
In a general sense he was correct since the Indian bourgeoisie was incapable of conducting a serious struggle for power against British imperialism. What he didn’t allow for was that British imperialism would be in such a parlous state by 1948 that it was willing to compromise with the Indian bourgeoisie rather than face a major upheaval.
TROTSKY was right to say that the bourgeoisie was incompetent. But what happens if the working class too is incapacitated? Here we have the whole problem of Stalinism. Insofar as there were revolutionary working class leaderships in the countries of what is now called the Third World – and there were in a number of important countries – these parties were Stalinist parties, or became Stalinist parties. They didn’t start out as Stalinist parties in every case although many of them did.
They were under the influence of the directing centre in Moscow. For its own reasons-basically a desire to reach an accommodation with various imperialist powers against various others-Moscow was as determined as the local bourgeoisie that struggles should be controlled, in fact, if an insurrection was attempted they made sure that it would not succeed. The whole perspective of the first four revolutionary Congresses of the Comintern – namely the international spread of workers’ revolution – was abandoned.
The most spectacular case of Stalinism was China. The Chinese working class was capable of heroic struggle. It was misled and defeated in the twenties. At that time the real base of the Communist Party was the working class. Of the 30,000 members it had in 1926 more than 90 percent were proletarian.
After 1930 there were hardly any industrial workers in the party at all. Mao’s forces suffered a military defeat in 1934 after which began the Long March to the north west. It was one of the most backward, the most primitive, the most remote areas of China – so much so that the government institutions of Chiang Kai-shek had never even been established there.
The Chiang Kai-shek regime was utterly corrupt, utterly incapable of preventing the Japanese invasion and of even formally unifying both parts of China which it nominally controlled. It was a collection of warlord gangsters.
Hence by purely military means it was easily defeated. That doesn’t mean there was a great deal of fighting. Whole divisions came over to the Maoists and so you had ex-Kuomintang generals suddenly appearing as Comrade X.
What was the role of the working class and the peasantry in the course of the revolution? Passive support in both cases. There were no great peasant risings in 1949 when Mao conquered China. The peasants welcomed the new regime. They would have welcomed any new regime which could establish a modicum of order and put down banditry.
As for the workers, numerically the Chinese working class was not what it had been in the twenties. The country had gone backwards economically.
How did Mao take the capital, Beijing? Basically he knew the garrison wouldn’t fight. They issued orders: “No disorder”, “No strikes”, “Kuomintang and police personnel will remain at their posts and operate under the People’s Liberation Army.” That didn’t just happen in the case of Beijing but in other cities as well.
The official Chinese Communist Party description of the regime was that it was a new democracy which rested on the Bloc of Four Classes – the national bourgeoisie, the intelligentsia, the workers and the peasants. Now the workers appear in this as a vestigial tribute to the fact that these people once thought they were Marxists.
That’s not to say that therefore nothing had changed. There was established, for the first time in over a century, an effective national government in a country which embraced a fifth of the world’s population. The institutional obstacles to industrialisation were destroyed.
NOW our perspective – Marx’s perspective, Trotsky’s perspective, Lenin’s perspective – is that the working class leads, pulling the peasants behind it. The working class struggle needs a revolutionary party of the working class. Suppose that’s absent? The alternative is what happened in China or what the New People’s Army is trying to do in the Philippines today.
You have to have a world perspective. If it is the case that on a world scale the working class does not appear as an alternative, then, for example, it is absolutely inevitable that large numbers of people will think Nicaragua is God’s gift to socialism. Unless people are rooted on the one hand in the Marxist tradition and on the other in actual working class struggle, it is inevitable that these ideas predominate.
We call them technically petit bourgeois ideas. It is not a matter of abuse, of the subjective intentions of the leaders of this or that movement, but of the maximum possibilities of those movements. That is clearing away the institutional obstacles to industrialisation and the creation of a proletariat – essentially the creation of capitalist relations. In that sense their content is that of bourgeois revolutions. Nothing else is possible on a national basis, nothing else is possible on the basis of a peasant army, or a guerrilla struggle.
Last updated on 8.11.2003