Neil Davidson on rethinking bourgeois revolution
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.
In 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:
- Crisis of the preceding feudal society.
- Viability of a capitalist alternative.
- Inability of the existing state to block the development of capitalist relations.
- Presence of a bourgeois class, including a peripheral circle of lawyers, writers, clerics, and the like.
- 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.