Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History


Marxism and the Great French Revolution, International Socialism, no.43, Special Issue, June 1989, pp214, £2.50

Although we do not usually review magazines in this section, the one under consideration here in fact amounts to a considerable book, and is well worth more than a passing mention. It is made up of three extended essays, one by Paul McGarr, who gives us an overview which extends beyond a mere narrative to take in class questions, one by Alex Callinicos which discusses the various attacks upon and defences of the traditional Marxist class analysis, and a final piece by John Rees attempting to understand the development of Hegel’s thought against the background of 1789-1815. Apart from Peter Taaffe’s good basic book and a thoughtful essay in Permanent Revolution no.8, it represents the only effort by the Trotskyists in Britain to rise to the theoretical problems posed by the French Revolution, which Marxists have always believed was the classic model of a bourgeois revolution.

Paul McGarr’s contribution is so compact that it can be recommended to anyone whose prior knowledge is less than encyclopedic. Apart from at the end, where Callinicos feels obliged to advertise Cliff’s ersatz theory of ‘deflected permanent revolution’, most of the arguments for and against a class analysis appear to be taken in, even if enough is not made of the fact that the bourgeoisie already has strong influence within a feudal society, and therefore does not need any high degree of class consciousness to be able to organise for complete power, as opposed to the working class, which not only needs this but a fully developed theory of social relations and historical understanding to be able to gain control of society. The last contribution is interesting but one-sided, but as it is meant to look at Hegel’s thought through the prism of the French events, the writer cannot be blamed. But some indication should have been given to first time readers that there is far more to Hegel than that.

Nonetheless, the whole makes up a valuable contribution, if only to take the British Trotskyist movement out of its parochial concerns and remind it that it is meant to be the heir of all previous revolutionary traditions.

Al Richardson

Updated by ETOL: 10.7.2003