The dynamics of revolution

Issue: 137
Posted: 9 January 13

Alex Callinicos

A review of Neil Davidson, How Revolutionary Were the Bourgeois Revolutions? (Haymarket, 2012), £22.99

This is a book in the grand style. This is true physically—getting on for 700 pages of text, 70 of notes and nearly another 70 of bibliography, and beautifully produced (an achievement at a time when the book as a material object is meant to be obsolescent: both author and publisher are to be congratulated). But it is a grand work also in intellectual and historical scope. In addressing the question set by his title, Neil Davidson effortlessly displays analytical intelligence and erudition rare among historians of any persuasion. And the reader put off by the sheer size of the book will be reassured by Neil’s easy, fluent style, plentifully interlarded with humour. If there were any doubts about Neil’s calibre as a Marxist historian after his two books on Scottish history (which looms large in this work as well—no one could come away from it without knowing it was written by a Scot), and his numerous articles, these have now been removed.

Revolutions for capital

So what is the problem that Neil is addressing? Though, as he shows, the idea of bourgeois revolution takes shape during the English Revolution of the 17th century and particularly in the 18th century Enlightenment in Scotland and France, it receives definitive formulation by Marx and Engels during the years surrounding the revolutions of 1848. Thus, writing in December 1848, Marx contemptuously contrasted the timid Prussian bourgeoisie of his day with its more revolutionary predecessors:

The March revolution in Prussia should not be confused either with the English revolution of 1648 or with the French one of 1789.

In 1648 the bourgeoisie was allied with the modern aristocracy against the monarchy, the feudal aristocracy and the established church.

In 1789 the bourgeoisie was allied with the people against the monarchy, the aristocracy and the established church.

The revolution of 1789 (at least in Europe) had as its prototype only the revolution of 1648; that for the revolution of 1648 only the revolt of the Netherlands against Spain. Both revolutions were a century ahead of their prototypes not only in time but also in content.

In both revolutions the bourgeoisie was the class that really headed the movement. The proletariat and the non-bourgeois strata of the middle class had either not yet any interests separate from those of the bourgeoisie or they did not yet constitute independent classes or class sub-divisions… The revolutions of 1648 and 1789 were not English and French revolutions; they were revolutions of a European type. They did not represent the victory of a particular class of society over the old political order; they proclaimed the political order of the new European society. The bourgeoisie was victorious in these revolutions, but the victory of the bourgeoisie was at that time the victory of a new social order, the victory of bourgeois ownership over feudal ownership, of nationality over provincialism, of competition over the guild, of division of the land over primogeniture, of the rule of the landowner over the domination of the owner by the land, of enlightenment over superstition, of the family over the family name, of industry over heroic idleness, of bourgeois law over mediaeval privileges.1

The bourgeois revolutions were thus the political transformations that established the domination of capitalism. Marx formulated this concept to make sense of his own time, but also as part of the process of developing his theory of history, which in the immediately preceding years crystallised in The German Ideology and The Poverty of Philosophy. Neil rightly says: “The Marxist theory of history required a concept of bourgeois revolution,” but, strangely, he doesn’t stop to explain why.2 In my view, there are two reasons. First, the idea of bourgeois revolution was theoretically needed to conceptualise the relationship between the long drawn out economic transition from the feudal to the capitalist mode of production and the much more dramatic and concentrated political transformations that created the modern state system. Secondly, since these transformations were continuing in Marx’s and Engels’s own time, the concept was also politically needed to differentiate what they regarded to be still bourgeois revolts against the aristocratic old regime that continued to dominate 19th century Europe from the socialist revolutions that the emerging capitalist system was beginning to make possible. Neil quotes an excellent passage where Georg Lukács makes this second point:

One of Marx’s greatest theoretical achievements was to distinguish clearly between bourgeois and proletarian revolution. This distinction was of the utmost practical and tactical importance in view of the immature self-delusions of his contemporaries, for it offered the only methodological instrument for recognising the genuinely proletarian revolutionary elements within the general revolutionary movements of the time.3

So the concept of bourgeois revolution was needed as both a theoretical and a political tool. Yet, beginning with 1848, the bourgeoisie ceased to play the heroic role Marx had attributed to its English and French predecessors.4 This reality provoked rich and complex debates, thoroughly reviewed by Neil, among Russian Marxists at the beginning of the 20th century. The most important single result was Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution: he argued that the uneven and combined development of the world capitalist economy tends to create in “backward” societies islands of advanced industrial capitalism from which militant workers’ movements can emerge. Fear of their workers and dependence on foreign capital make the bourgeoisie of these countries even more cautious in confronting the old regime. But the fusion of advanced and backward also means that struggles for democratic demands, which don’t in principle threaten the existence of capitalism, can merge under workers’ leadership with the struggle for socialism and the bourgeois revolution “grow over” into proletarian revolution, as indeed happened in Russia in 1917.

The consolidation of Stalinist “orthodoxy” in the 1920s and 1930s was based, of course, on the rejection of Trotsky’s theory, which he first generalised beyond Russia in the course of the debates within the Communist International over the Chinese Revolution of 1925-7.5 The Stalinist alternative involved insisting on a sharp separation between what now tended to be thought of as “bourgeois-democratic” revolutions and socialist revolutions: these represented distinct stages of the struggle, and during the first the working class should ally itself to the “progressive” bourgeoisie. This was a version of what the Mensheviks had advocated within the Russian revolutionary movement before 1917 (Lenin and the Bolsheviks had a more complex position that, while rejecting Trotsky’s theory, insisted the proletariat could lead the peasantry and petty bourgeoisie in a bourgeois revolution from below that would set the stage for a more or less rapid shift to the struggle for workers’ power). The conception of bourgeois revolution implied by the Stalinist strategy drew on themes that had already emerged in the “orthodox Marxism” of the Second International before 1914, where history also tended to be understood as evolving through clear distinct stages. Elaborated in some cases by high-calibre left wing historians such as Georges Lefebvre and Christopher Hill, this view is summarised by Neil thus:

From the 16th century, a class of urban capitalists began to develop within European feudalism, gradually laying the economic foundations of a new form of society. Despite their growing economic weight, these capitalists were consigned to a position of social inferiority by a rural class of feudal landowners and excluded from political power by the absolutist states… In order to release capitalism from its feudal restrictions, the absolutist states needed to be overthrown; but since the capitalist class was still only a minority of the population…it had to lead a coalition of classes to accomplish the revolution.6

After the Second World War this conception of bourgeois revolution came under sustained intellectual attack from what came to be known as “revisionism”. Mainstream historians such as Alfred Cobban, François Furet, and Conrad Russell launched themselves at the “social interpretation” of the English and French Revolutions. The effect was, in the academic world, thoroughly to discredit the very idea of bourgeois revolution. As Neil puts it:

By the end of the 20th century then, the pre-existing orthodoxy had been replaced by a new consensus that can be summarised as follows: prior to the so-called bourgeois revolutions, the bourgeoisie was not “rising” and may even have been indistinguishable from the feudal lords; during the so-called bourgeois revolutions [the bourgeoisie] was not in the vanguard of the movement and may even have been on the opposite side; after them, the bourgeoisie was not in power and may even have been further removed from control of the state than it had previously been; above all, these revolutions had nothing at all to do with either the emergence or the consolidation of capitalism… Instead, revisionists claimed, these revolutions—if indeed they could be called revolutions—were just what they appeared to be, and what participants said they were: expressions of inter-elite competition for office, differences over religious belief and observance, or movements in defence of regional autonomy.7

That the orthodox conception of the bourgeois revolution should come under attack is not particularly surprising, both because of the analytical and empirical problems it involved, and also in the light of the Cold War context in which the revisionist assault was mounted. What is a bit more unexpected is the way in which a Marxist current has in the last couple of decades joined in on the attack. This is the school of Political Marxists who take inspiration from Bob Brenner’s interpretation of the transition from feudalism to capitalism. Ellen Meiksins Wood, in many respects the intellectual leader of Political Marxism, has defended an extremely narrow conception of capitalism which in effect requires that it originate in the kind of agrarian capitalism that emerged in 17th and 18th century England.8 Following Brenner’s cue, Political Marxists have also taken aim at the idea of bourgeois revolution. George Comninel, in what may be the worst book by a contemporary Marxist, elaborates the standard revisionist interpretation of the French Revolution as a conflict within the ruling class with the claim (supported by a travesty of Marx’s theory of history) that capitalism did not exist in 18th century France.9 Wood offers a more general critique:

The concept of bourgeois revolution is confusing for several reasons. Was a revolution necessary to bring about capitalism, or simply to facilitate the development of an already existing capitalism? Was it a cause or an effect of capitalism? Although much has been claimed for the bourgeois revolution as the critical moment in the transition to capitalism, no conception of bourgeois revolution exists in which the revolution explains the emergence of capitalism.10

Rethinking bourgeois revolution

Wood’s argument is unimpressive, conflating as it does two different registers—the epochal transitions from one mode of production to another and the political transformations that secured the dominance of the new economic system. Marx never invoked the concept of bourgeois revolution to explain the emergence of capitalism: he uses a much wider canvass to account for this complex process in part 8 of Capital, volume I. But this doesn’t mean that all was well with the orthodox theory of bourgeois revolution. Conceptually, it suffered from an ambiguity between agency and outcome: is what makes a revolution bourgeois that it is led by representatives of the bourgeoisie or that it promotes the development of capitalism? Proponents of the orthodox theory essentially replied: both. But from the 1960s onwards a number of writers—for
example, Trotsky’s biographer Isaac Deutscher, the intellectual historian Gareth Stedman Jones (before he became a post-Marxist), Christopher Hill in his later work, and the historians of modern Germany David Blackbourn and Geoff Eley—initiated a rethinking of the theory that insisted it was the outcome of a revolution that determined whether or not it could be called bourgeois. Perry Anderson expressed this reversal of perspective most sharply: “these transformations [the bourgeois revolutions] could never have been the linear project of a single class subject. Here the exception was the rule—every one was a bastard birth”.11

Neil is kind enough to say that an article of mine published in this journal in 1989 represents “the strongest and most comprehensive” statement of this approach, dubbed “consequentialism” by the Political Marxist Benno Teschke. 12 So I hope I will be forgiven for quoting myself:

Bourgeois revolutions must be understood, not as revolutions consciously made by capitalists, but as revolutions which promote capitalism. The emphasis must shift from the class which makes a bourgeois revolution to the effects of such a revolution—to the class which benefits from it. More specifically, a bourgeois revolution is a political transformation—a change in state power, which is the precondition for large-scale capital accumulation and the establishment of the bourgeoisie as the dominant class. This definition requires, then, a political change with certain effects. It says nothing about the social forces which carry through the transformation.13

On the basis of this re-conceptualisation, I distinguished three types of bourgeois revolution. First, the “classical” bourgeois revolutions—above all England 1640 and France 1789—where authentically bourgeois forces, however intermingled with the old regime, did lead broad coalitions of small producers of town and country in movements to smash the absolutist state and replace it with political forms much more congenial to the development of capitalism.14 Secondly, the bourgeois revolutions “from above” that, against the background of a world economy being reshaped by industrial capitalism, transformed the 19th century state system. In Germany, Italy and Japan sections of the rural landed class presided over processes of gradual transformation of the existing state (involving in the first two cases interstate wars of unification, in the third civil war) into a form promoting capital accumulation: Gramsci dubbed this process “passive revolution”, which limited popular participation or excluded it altogether.15 The American Civil War represented a slightly different version of the same type, where the Northern-dominated federal government under Abraham Lincoln used methods of total war and increasingly relied on the slaves’ rejection of their masters to break the secession of the South and forge a centralised state that mightily accelerated the development of industrial capitalism in the US. Third, the very different case analysed by Tony Cliff of “deflected permanent revolution”: in the 20th century colonial and semi-colonial world, sections of the intelligentsia filled the vacuum left by the failure of the working class to constitute itself as a revolutionary political subject and broke the foreign hold in order to constitute a new state capitalist order—for example, China 1949, Egypt 1952, Cuba 1959.16

In essence, Neil’s book is a restatement, extension, but also interrogation of this “consequentialist” conception of bourgeois revolution. Painting on a much larger canvas than any previous study, he is able to explore a much wider range of issues in much greater depth. There are many treasures in this book. Thus Neil is splendidly sarcastic about the revisionists’ shift in social sympathies:

It transpired that it was not only, as Edward Thompson thought, “the poor stockinger, the Luddite cropper, the ‘obsolete’ handloom weaver, the ‘utopian’ artisan, and even the deluded follower of Joanna Southcott” who needed to be rescued from “the enormous condescension of posterity”. So too did the rich tax farmer, the conspiratorial Royal exile, the former mistress of the Queen’s bedchamber, the misunderstood grain speculator, the former San Dominican slave-owner, and many more besides.17

Neil also offers many insights such as the following on why, among the leaderships of the 19th century revolutions from above, the Lincoln administration was alone in risking radical measures reminiscent of Cromwell and Robespierre:

The fact that revolutionary violence could be directed outward to a now effectively external enemy, through the mechanism of disciplined state power, meant that a far greater degree of radicalism could be attempted than if the struggle had been a purely internal one conducted, as it were, by civilians. In other words, the Northern bourgeoisie were ultimately prepared to embrace the logic of total war rather than face defeat, even if this meant the emancipation of the slaves and harnessing the freedmen against their former masters as part of the Union’s military apparatus.18

So How Revolutionary Were the Bourgeois Revolutions? represents a formidable addition to the intellectual armoury of historical materialism. But—yes, there is a but—the book suffers from serious weaknesses. These can be placed in three categories. The first is that there are quite a lot of minor factual errors and somewhat more serious conceptual anomalies.19 These are, perhaps, to be expected in a work of this scope. Secondly, there are a series of problems that arise from the form of the book and that are expressed in its length. Neil describes the book as “essentially an exercise in the history of ideas”. 20 Thus he traces the genealogy of the idea of bourgeois revolution, and then its development, rejection and reformulation. Consequently, the truth (so to speak) emerges towards the end of the book with the development of “consequentialism” and Neil’s own overview in the concluding Part Four, “The Specificity of the Bourgeois Revolution”. The reader is therefore left to glean the unifying argument from the unfolding intellectual history. This is, of course, how things are supposed to work in the Hegelian dialectic: “absolute knowing” only emerges at the end of The Phenomenology of Spirit. But for someone relatively new to the terrain, the journey would be arduous. It is a pity that Neil didn’t start off the book with a clear statement of his overall argument to serve as a guide. (Hegel tended to disparage such expedients as cheating, but his prefaces and introductions often contain the best statements of his philosophy.)

The book’s form as an intellectual history also means that there is no compact narrative or analysis of the bourgeois revolutions themselves. Discussions of particular problems or episodes there are aplenty, but they are dispersed through the book. Sometimes this leads to repetition: thus Neil makes the point I quoted about the American Civil War twice.21 But it can also mean that important questions are sometimes not pursued. So Neil says more or less in passing that “the [American] War of Independence involved a political revolution against British rule that neither achieved nor consolidated any change in social relations”.22 This contrasts with the view of the Political Marxist Charlie Post who (as Neil points out), in contradiction to the teaching of Ellen Wood, argues that “the American Revolution and Civil War can, at best, be viewed as bourgeois revolutions because they helped to secure the political and juridical conditions for the development of capitalism in the US”.23 Post’s argument is part of a rich and in many ways persuasive interpretation of American history; Neil may nevertheless be right, but, since he offers no developed analysis of the Revolution of 1776, we are left with no way of judging this.

The focus of his argument is further blurred by an ambiguity in the book’s title: How Revolutionary Were the Bourgeois Revolutions? This invites us to reflect on the nature of revolution in general, as well as that of bourgeois revolutions. To some extent this is unavoidable. As Lukács stresses, the distinction between bourgeois and socialist revolutions is politically crucial. To quote myself again:

Bourgeois revolutions are characterised by a disjunction of agency and outcome. A variety of different social and political forces—independent gentry, Jacobin lawyers, Junker and samurai bureaucrats, even “Marxist-Leninists”—can carry through political transformations which radically improve the prospects for capitalist development. No such disjunction characterises socialist revolutions. “All previous historical movements were movements of minorities,” writes Marx… “The proletarian movement is the self conscious, independent movement of the immense majority.” 24

But Neil’s exploration of the general topic of revolution extends much more broadly than this. The very first chapter concerns the early modern transformation of the concept of revolution from a cyclical movement to a progressive transformation. More general reflections recur throughout the book. Thus Neil devotes a long and crucial chapter on classical Marxism between 1924 and 1940 to three figures: “Trotsky the exile, Gramsci the prisoner, Benjamin the wanderer”.25 The inclusion of Trotsky and Gramsci needs little justification, since these are the years when they respectively generalised the theory of permanent revolution and developed the idea of passive revolution. But—although Neil provides some excellent reasons for placing Walter Benjamin in the camp of classical Marxism, rather than, as is usual, treating him as a Western Marxist—his rather brief and uneven reflections on Benjamin’s thinking about progress and tradition don’t seem to add anything to the discussion of bourgeois revolution.

Digression is, however, deep in the very weft of the book. Sometimes this seems to function almost like Tristram Shandy, where one association sparks off another. So a discussion of the absolutist state, which Neil argues (rightly in my view) is the form of feudal state that tends to prevail in the transition to capitalism, leads to quite an extensive discussion of the tributary mode of production, where peasants are exploited by a state independent of the landowning class: there’s a connection between the two topics, but dealing with one doesn’t demand discussing the other.26 Beyond a certain point it is probably churlish to complain about this and other, apparently less motivated digressions. Neil likes to explore issues in a leisurely fashion, pursuing arguments by introducing complications and seizing what sometimes seem like rather random opportunities for broader reflections. He writes so well and intelligently that the journey is an enjoyable one (in Abe Lincoln’s words, “people who like this sort of thing will find this the sort of thing they like,” as I do). But the result is a book of extended ruminations, not a focused theoretical or historical analysis.

This is not, of course, to say that Neil offers no arguments. Indeed, the third area of weakness concerns where he seeks to extend the “consequentialist” conception of bourgeois revolution. The problem is partly the tendency sometimes to overcomplicate as noted above. Thus he raises two rather pettifogging objections to my version of this conception. The first is that I argue that a bourgeois revolution, like revolutions more generally are (in the words of Perry Anderson), is “an episode of convulsive political transformation, compressed in time and concentrated in target, that has a determinate beginning—when the old state apparatus is still intact—and a finite end when that apparatus is decisively broken and a new one erected in its stead”.27 Neil objects that in the case of passive revolutions (including that in his native Scotland in the mid-18th century) “the establishment of unified states was the result of more or less prolonged periods in which revolution equalled the cumulative effect of conventional military operations supported by juridical enactments—a ‘process’, in other words”.28 This is true enough, but hardly to the point. The context in which I quoted from Anderson was one where I was concerned to insist on the necessity to secure the domination of capitalism through a transformation of the state irreducible to the more long drawn out and gradual socio-economic processes through which capitalist production relations spread. And, sure, passive revolutions are processes, not instantaneous events. But then so too are all revolutions, as we have had occasion to remind ourselves since January 2011. Certainly the process of passive revolutions takes a different form from those of both “classical” bourgeois revolutions and socialist revolutions: it is indeed the point of the distinctions I drew to establish this.

Secondly, there is the “greater…problem…that the vast majority of nation states in the world—now amounting to nearly 200—have not experienced ‘convulsions’ even of those associated with the revolutions from above”.29 Indeed not, but I don’t recall suggesting that they would have to. One of the great strengths of the “consequentialist” rethinking of the idea of bourgeois revolution is that it situates these upheavals in the context of the development of global capitalism. As I put it, “one of the most important general propositions about bourgeois revolutions is their cumulative impact. Each revolution alters the terms for its successors”.30 Competitive pressure from the powerful capitalist state forged by the English Revolution helped to create the crisis of Bourbon absolutism that precipitated the French Revolution. The onset of industrial capitalism that these transformations made possible in turn encouraged the subversions of the old regime from within represented particularly by German unification and the Meiji restoration in Japan. But, beyond a certain point, the global domination of capitalism created so powerful a constraining context for other states that they underwent a gradual process of adapting their economic, political and social structures to those of the leading bourgeois states. Neil himself writes:

by the middle decades of the 19th century and the formation of the capitalist world economy, bourgeois revolution was no longer essential for either the initiation or the consolidation of capitalist development, provided it was formally independent of external control. Under these conditions a prolonged process of adaptive reform, perhaps punctuated by a succession of political revolutions, could achieve the same result that had previously required a social revolution.31

Farewell to permanent revolution?

Indeed so: but this is a supplementation to, rather than, as he suggests, the resolution of a “difficulty” in the consequentialist approach. Much more problematic is Neil’s critique of the theory of permanent revolution, first developed in the pages of this journal—a critique that, while acknowledging the theory’s historical importance (he calls it “one of the boldest innovations in historical materialism since the death of Marx himself”), asserts that it is now obsolete.32 His argument involves two basic moves. The first is the distinction between political and social revolutions. This is implicit, as Neil shows, in Marx’s and Engels’s writings, and is stated clearly by Trotsky: “History has known…not only social revolutions, which substituted the bourgeois for the feudal regime, but also political revolutions which, without destroying the economic foundations of society, swept out an old ruling upper crust (1830 and 1848 in France, February 1917 in Russia, etc)”.33

Political revolutions thus represent changes in state power that remain within the boundaries of the existing mode of production. Social revolution, however, facilitates a change in mode of production. As Hal Draper suggests, the concept “is most clearly used for a political revolution that expresses a social-revolutionising drive towards the transference of state power to a new class. It is a ‘political revolution with a social soul’, in Marx’s earlier (1844) formulation”.34 I found Neil’s most extended discussion of political and social revolution very hard to follow. He rightly objects to a third category introduced by Draper of “societal revolution” because it is used to refer to the “transition from one mode of production to another”, which, as I have already argued, it is necessary to keep distinct from political transformations with “a social-revolutionising drive” such as bourgeois revolutions. But then he goes on to write: “Only three epochal processes fall into the category of social revolution. At one extreme is the transition from slavery to feudalism. At another extreme is the socialist revolution…which, if achieved, will begin the transition from capitalism to socialism. Between those two extremes lie the bourgeois revolutions”.35 There are two puzzles here. First, a page after differentiating social revolutions from transitions between modes of production, he includes in his list…a transition between modes of production. Neil’s discussion of the end of classical antiquity focuses on the change in mode of production without any consideration of the political transformations meticulously studied by Chris Wickham in Framing the Early Middle Ages. Secondly, why so few social revolutions? When Neil writes that the transition from slavery to feudalism is “the first direct passage in history from one exploitative mode of production to another” one is inclined to ask: what about the shift from tributary palace bureaucracies to city states based on heavy citizen infantry and increasingly reliant on slavery in Greece during the early centuries of the first millennium BC, or the formation of the Chinese empire a few centuries later?36 No doubt others could add more to this list of candidates.

Confusing though it is, Neil’s discussion of social and political revolutions is a necessary prelude to the second stage of his argument, namely to restrict the scope of the theory of permanent revolution. Trotskyists, he suggests, seeking the “consolations of familiarity”, are inclined to discover the dynamic of permanent revolution at work in cases where all that is normally on the agenda is a political revolution, ie some more or less forced reorganisation of capitalist state power.37 Neil shows that Trotsky, when generalising his theory, applied it to two distinct but overlapping cases. First, the Russian original, where, despite the powerful processes of capitalist development at work, the state remained feudal-absolutist, and, as well as situations like it, those where “colonial regimes that had constrained local capitalist development to meet the economic requirements of the metropolitan power”: here bourgeois revolution was still on the agenda.38 Secondly, cases (for example, interwar Spain) where the state had become capitalist, but, as a result of uneven and combined development, major democratic demands remained unfulfilled, creating the potential for a “growing over” of struggles around these demands into socialist revolution. Neil thinks that this extension of the concept to cases where bourgeois revolution is no longer on the agenda was a mistake and should not be followed.39

Orthodox Trotskyists have sometimes tried to collapse the two cases together by arguing that the process of permanent revolution is incomplete until the “tasks” of the bourgeois revolution—usually listed as national independence, agrarian reform and democracy—are completely fulfilled. I argued 30 years ago that this kind of defensive manoeuvre, which relies on a normative model of the bourgeois revolution typically based on France, should be rejected: “Surely it is more sensible, rather than to invoke the metaphysical conception of a ‘complete and genuine solution’, to judge a bourgeois revolution by the degree to which it succeeds in establishing an autonomous centre of capital accumulation, even if it fails to democratise the political order or to eliminate feudal social relations?”40 The alternative—to deny that India and Brazil, for example, are today capitalist states because of the numerous flaws in their social and political structures—would seem as ridiculous as the hype that now portrays them as superpowers. But what leverage then has permanent revolution in a world where bourgeois revolutions have been more or less relegated to the past? (Neil argues their era ended in 1974, when the Ethiopian Revolution overthrew the last absolutist regime: strangely he ignores the case of the Palestinians, denied a state and elementary rights of movement and residence by Israeli settler colonialism.)41

Neil uses a number of arguments for the conclusion that “permanent revolution, and consequently deflected permanent revolution, are now historical concepts”.42 None are very persuasive. Thus he says that the theory of permanent revolution is not needed as the basis of a critique of Stalinist stages strategy because (a) “no Stalinist organisation…ever genuinely intended the revolution to pass through a ‘democratic’ stage of any sort” and (b) since 1989-91 and the collapse of bureaucratic state capitalism, “the basis for the entire strategy of stages has been removed”.43 This represents a remarkable approach to the critique of ideology, relying as it does on the idea that we can ignore theories if we think their exponents are fibbing and what they propose isn’t feasible. One wonders why Marx bothered with Theories of Surplus Value, since he thought none of the political economists’ social schemes could be realised and denounced many of them as scoundrels. Stages strategy was never practicable (that was the point of Trotsky’s critique), but that doesn’t mean that as an ideology it can’t still exercise a hold because of the social needs it serves. Thus one of the interesting things about South African politics after the Marikana massacre is the divisions the massacre has opened up within the ruling Congress alliance, where both sides invoke the “national democratic revolution”, whether to defend or criticise the ANC government.44

Neil also accuses Trotsky of “stretching the concept of permanent revolution until it was virtually synonymous with that of socialist revolution as such”.45 The philosopher of science Imre Lakatos has shown that “concept-stretching”—extending a concept to cover cases it wasn’t originally intended for—can be a source of scientific innovation.46 Sometimes the result of concept-stretching can be incoherence: I’ve tried to show that this happened to the idea of passive revolution even in Gramsci’s hands.47 But I don’t think the same is true of Trotsky’s extension of his theory. What it does is to address a range of situations where the process of uneven and combined development builds into the structure of the local capitalism restrictions on democracy that become a major social fracture and a source of mass struggles. A not quite historical example would be apartheid South Africa, where the state had been capitalist since the “revolution from above” following the British conquest of the Afrikaner republics at the beginning of the 20th century, but the particular forms of capital accumulation centred on mining were embedded in structures of systematic racial oppression (the migrant labour system, influx control, the exclusion of Africans from citizenship).48 The result was that the cycle of struggles centred on the black urban working class that began with the Durban strikes of 1973 and the Soweto rising of 1976 had the potential to develop in a socialist direction. Another example is contemporary Egypt, a state—unquestionably capitalist since the 1952 revolution—presided over by an autocratic military regime that in recent decades, in close alliance with US imperialism, launched a neoliberal restructuring that threatened many of the socio-economic reforms introduced under Nasser. The revolution unleashed in January 2011 started with political demands centred on the Mubarak dictatorship but has constantly spilled over into social and economic issues.

To detect the presence of the dynamic of permanent revolution in cases such as these is not merely to assert the universal truth that socialist revolution represents the solution to every society’s problems. It is to recognise the peculiar fluidity of political and social struggles that uneven and combined development induces in some but not all situations. One index of the presence of this dynamic is the centrality of democratic demands. Recent British mass movements—against the war in Iraq, student fees and austerity—have all raised democratic demands, often against police repression and state surveillance, but these have not been at their centre. Compare Egypt, where the focus of the Revolution moved from removing the remnants of the Mubarak regime to a struggle against the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. Democratic demands here have a unifying character absent in the British case.

Neil complains that the “new meaning of permanent revolution…misrepresents the nature of contemporary revolutions by assuming that socialism is their normal or expected outcome”.49 But this is an assertion unsupported by evidence. My own response to the outbreak of the Arab revolutions placed them within the perspective of permanent revolution, but stressed that what had happened so far were political revolutions and that there was nothing inevitable about their developing into social revolutions.50 As my old friend Colin Sparks liked to stress back in the 1970s, the theory of permanent revolution is a theory of alternatives: it outlines possibilities, not necessities. There seems no reason to abandon the theory understood in this way. Neil’s unwillingness to see the potential for permanent revolution that may be present in political upheavals in capitalist states sometimes leads to some strange choices: thus he virtually ignores the Mexican Revolution of 1910-20, one of the greatest upheavals of the 20th century and the subject of a major study by the Trotskyist historian Adolfo Gilly, apparently on the grounds that the Mexican state was already capitalist, and devotes more space to colonial Canada’s mid-19th century reorganisations.51 More generally this failure and the associated insistence on sharply distinguishing political from social revolutions mean that he misses what Draper calls “the modern tendency for political revolution, however narrowly initiated, to waken the elements of social revolution from dormancy or to raise them to new levels”.52

Neil, while dumping permanent revolution, remains enthusiastic about its “theoretical underpinning…the ‘law’ of uneven and combined development”, which he describes as “perhaps the most important [discovery] in 20th-century Marxism”.53 He is indeed a prominent contributor to the explosion in discussion of the concept of uneven and combined development among Marxists in recent years, and has kept his head, when some have seemed to lose theirs, on this subject at least. Uneven and combined development is undeniably a crucial concept in Marxist theory, and one that can be legitimately detached from its original context in the theory of permanent revolution (I’ve done this myself). 54 But there is an undoubted danger that the concept can be transformed into an ahistorical abstraction that is dogmatically invoked to explain everything. This is not how Neil uses it in his own historical work, but, by removing its political moorings in the theory of permanent revolution, he can unintentionally reinforce this unwelcome tendency. In his concluding remarks to Part Four he underlines the destabilising potential of uneven and combined development, but fails to notice that this makes it hard to counterpose social and political revolutions as starkly as he does.

I have spent quite a large part of this review criticising what Neil says about permanent revolution. But—although this doesn’t necessarily misrepresent the substance of his book (a large part is devoted to the development and difficulties of the theory of permanent revolution)—this shouldn’t be allowed to obscure my admiration for the grandeur of his achievement. How Revolutionary Were the Bourgeois Revolutions? has altered the landscape of historical materialism, and, even if some of us find parts of the terrain Neil explores a little boggy, this doesn’t diminish our enjoyment as we wander around it.


1: Marx, 1977, pp160-161.

2: Davidson, 2012, p117.

3: Lukács, 1970, pp47-48; Davidson, 2012, p240.

4: Neil argues that the passage from “The Bourgeoisie and the Counter-Revolution” quoted above is sometimes translated in a way that presents Marx as “holding a more positive view of the bourgeoisie that he in fact did”: Davidson, 2012, p717 n205. But the translation I have used suffers less from this defect: in any case, the whole construction of the passage is to compare the Prussian bourgeoisie unfavourably with the English and French, which implies that the latter showed greater revolutionary vigour.

5: See my discussions of the development of the theory of permanent revolution in Callinicos, 1982, pp98-102, and Callinicos, 1990, pp6-11. Geras, 1975, is a superb account of the Marxist debates before 1917 about the nature of the Russian Revolution.

6: Davidson, 2012, pp264-265; see also pp254-256.

7: Davidson, 2012, p366.

8: For example, Wood, 2002. Brenner’s key essays on the transition are published, along with critical responses, in Aston and Philpin, 1985. Harman, 1989, is a powerful critique of Brenner; my own view of the debate will be found in Callinicos, 2009, chapter 3.

9: Comninel, 1987, criticised in Callinicos, 1989, pp141-151 and 161-164. See Brenner, 1989, for his take on bourgeois revolution. Neil’s book originated in his Deutscher Prize Lecture; because the prize was awarded jointly to him and a Political Marxist, Benno Teschke, the lecture was organised as a debate: see Davidson, 2005, and Teschke, 2005. Shamefully, the balance was tilted against Neil by Comninel being added as a third speaker.

10: Wood, 2002, pp118-119, quoted in Davidson, 2012, p420.

11: Anderson, 1992, p113. This important essay, though written in 1976, was only published in 1992, so I was unable to discuss it in my 1989 article, summarised below. Surprisingly, Neil pays little attention to it.

12: Davidson, 2012, p481; Teschke, 2005, p6.

13: Callinicos, 1989, p124. This article, written as part of a special issue to mark the bicentenary of the French Revolution, was a subject of some controversy on the International Socialism editorial board-partly because of its great length, partly because of the relative sympathy it expressed for Brenner’s interpretation of the transition. It was edited, efficiently but robustly, by Lindsey German, which may help explain the somewhat jerky quality of the prose. But, for reasons that Neil discusses, the actual conception of bourgeois revolution I put forward was not controversial. It had been much more economically stated by Duncan Hallas a year or so earlier-Hallas, 1988.

14: I didn’t discuss the 16th century Dutch revolt in any depth, in part because I mistakenly believed that the early-modern northern Netherlands were not a capitalist society: but see now Brandon, 2007. Ironically, Brenner himself has uncovered the vanguard role of a specific group of capitalists, the so-called “new merchants” in the English Revolution: see Brenner, 1993, and Callinicos, 1994. As Anderson comments, “here, if ever, were indeed revolutionary bourgeois”-Anderson, 2005, p251.

15: See more generally on passive revolution Callinicos, 2010.

16: Cliff, 1963. Neil muddies the waters somewhat by asking how cases of deflected permanent revolution fit into the distinction between bourgeois revolutions from above and below-Davidson, 2012, p478. The answer is that they don’t-they represent a different type of bourgeois revolution from either of the other two.

17: Davidson, 2012, pp361-362.

18: Davidson, 2012, pp615-616. As Neil also notes, “the peculiarities of American development meant that it was here…that the bourgeoisie made its last stand as a revolutionary class.” Davidson, 2012, p168.

19: Examples of minor factual errors: the Yellow Shirt movement against Thaksin Shinawatra was in Thailand, not Indonesia (Davidson, 2012, pxvi); Neil presumably meant that Arab astronomical (rather than astrological) practices revived during the Renaissance (p12); Charles I was James II’s father, not his uncle (p104); Bismarck was appointed minister president, not state chancellor, of Prussia in 1862 (p162); was the Chinese peasantry really “a section of the rural bourgeoisie”? (p256); it was James Klugmann who reflected on Communist Party cultural policy in the 1930s, not Jack Klugman once of Quincy fame (p266); as Neil correctly acknowledges later in the book, Hayek did not believe capitalism corresponds to human nature (p334); Conrad Russell no longer sits in the House of Lords, or indeed anywhere else, because he is dead (365); slaves and peasants don’t produce surplus value (p496); does “Egypt 2011-?” belong in a list of “failed socialist revolutions’? (p499); the author of The Imaginary Institution of Society was Cornelius, not Carlos, Castoriadis (p521); British Upper Canada was not “Ottawa”, but large parts of what is now the province of Ontario (p617); on numerous occasions, perhaps symptomatically of Neil’s Scottish grounding, Jacobinism is rendered as “Jacobitism”.

The most serious theoretical mistake not pertinent to the overall argument: Neil claims that Marx uses the expression “formal subsumption of labour” to characterise cases where, “during the transition to capitalism, small independent producers…could carry on production in their traditional manner, but on behalf of the usurer or merchant, even though the latter pair may play no direct role in organising the labour process”-Davidson, 2012, p576. In fact Marx argues that the formal subsumption of labour under capital presupposes the capital-wage-labour relationship, rather than preceding it. Here:

“the worker confronts the capitalist, who possesses money, as the proprietor of his own person and therefore of his own labour capacity, and as the seller of the temporary use of the latter…the objective conditions of his labour (raw material, instruments of labour and therefore also means of subsistence during labour) belong, completely or at least in part, not to him but to the buyer and consumer of his labour, therefore themselves confront him as capital. The more completely these conditions of labour confront him as the property of another, the more completely is the relation of capital and wage labour present formally, hence the more complete the formal subsumption of labour under capital.”

“As yet there is no difference in the mode of production itself. The labour process continues exactly as it did before-from the technological point of view-only as a labour process now subordinated to capital”-Marx, 1994, p95.

The real subsumption of labour involves, not the introduction of wage labour, but the continual technological transformation of this hitherto unchanged labour process that we see in successive industrial revolutions. Marx considers the kind of case Neil discusses as an example of transitional “forms in which the capital-relation does not yet exist formally, i.e. under which labour is already exploited by capital before the latter has developed into the form of productive capital and labour itself has taken on the form of wage labour”-Marx, 1994, p117. In a potentially related mistake, Neil offers Political Marxists a huge hostage to fortune when he endorses Marcel van der Linden’s proposal to submerge wage workers in the much broader category of “subaltern workers” (pp415-416; compare van der Linden, 2008).
20: Davidson, 2012, pxviii.

21: Thus see Davidson, 2012, p169.

22: Davidson, 2012, p59.

23: Post, 2011, p426. In the following sentence Post absurdly says that the American Revolution was led by “a non-capitalist merchant class”. What exactly is a non-capitalist merchant-one who isn’t interested in profit? Has such a being ever existed? Marx, of course, argued that “trading capital…is older than the capitalist mode of production, and is in fact the oldest historical mode in which capital has an independent existence”-Marx, 1981, p442.

24: Callinicos, 1989, p160.

25: Davidson, 2012, p275.

26: Davidson, 2012, pp539-551. Incidentally, Neil generally appears to agree with Jairus Banaji and me that the tributary mode is a distinct precapitalist economic system different from feudalism: see Banaji, 2010, pp15-40, and Callinicos, 2009, pp116-124. But there is an anomalous passage where he says that in “the great tributary empires…the state acted as a collective feudal overlord”-Davidson, 2012, p422. This seems closer to the views of Chris Harman and Chris Wickham, for whom tributary social formations are a sub-type of the feudal mode: see Harman, 2004, and Wickham, 2005.

27: Anderson, 1984, p112, quoted in Callinicos, 1989, p126.

28: Davidson, 2012, p482. On Scotland, see Davidson, 2010a.

29: Davidson, 2012, p482.

30: Callinicos, 1989, p141; see also Callinicos, 2009, pp123-136, which incorporates and greatly develops this part of the argument of my 1989 article. Teschke is therefore quite wrong to pontificate about “the absence of the international in Marxist attempts to retain the notion of ‘bourgeois revolution’”-2005, p9.

31: Davidson, 2012, p609. Neil here endorses a very similar argument by Joseph Choonara-Choonara, 2011, p181. Neil, picking up on a comparison drawn by Rosa Luxemburg, seems also to suggest that colonial conquests of “tribal societies” can be seen as cases of bourgeois revolution-Davidson, 2012, pp607-608. But, since these didn’t necessarily involve the transformation of the state, it seems better to follow Marx in treating them as, at most, examples of primitive accumulation-the creation of the conditions of capital accumulation through the dispossession of the direct producers. This view is indeed shared by Luxemburg, who portrays imperialism as involving a continuous process of primitive accumulation as the “natural economies” of the precapitalist periphery are forcibly subordinated to capital and destroyed-Luxemburg, 1971, chapters 26-32.

32: Davidson, 2012, p223. See Davidson, 2010b, which develops many of the themes explored more extensively in this book, and, in reply, Choonara, 2011.

33: Trotsky, 1972, p288.

34: Draper, 1978, p19.

35: Davidson, 2012, pp493, 494-495.

36: Davidson, 2012, p497. Neil also, at least in his presentation, confuses what logicians call type and token. Even if for the purposes of argument we accept there have only been three kinds of social revolution, there may have been more than one instance of each kind. There have, for example, been many cases of the general category of bourgeois revolution.

37: Davidson, 2012, p622.

38: Davidson, 2012, p620.

39: Davidson, 2012, pp284-308, in some respects the theoretical core of the book.

40: Callinicos, 1982, p110, criticising Löwy, 1981. See also Neil’s discussion of somewhat similar criticisms of orthodox Trotskyism by Perry Anderson: Davidson, 2012, p454.

41: Davidson, 2012, p621.

42: Davidson, 2012, p627. Given the changed structure of global capitalism, Neil is probably right that fully-fledged cases of deflected permanent revolution are now unlikely. That does not mean that I completely agree with what he says on this topic but, to spare the afflicted reader, I shall not say anything further about this here.

43: Davidson, 2012, p623.

44: Thus compare the excellent statement by the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa ( with an appalling speech by Blade Nzimande, general secretary of the South African Communist Party ( Neil’s entirely justified loathing of Stalinism leads him sometimes to be a bit cavalier with the nuances of Communist Party ideology and strategy: thus he telescopes the positions taken by the Spanish CP during the first half of the 1930s, omitting the impact of Popular Front policy-Davidson, 2012, pp259-260.

45: Davidson, 2012, p307.

46: Lakatos, 1976.

47: Callinicos, 2010.

48: On the formation of the South African state see especially Yudelman, 1984, Keegan, 1986, and Krikler, 1993.

49: Davidson, 2012, p626. How “new” is this meaning, given that it was formulated by Trotsky during the interwar years?

50: Callinicos, 2011.

51: Davidson, 2012, pp609-610, 616-618; compare Gilly, 1983.

52: Draper, 1978, p20.

53: Davidson, 2012, p224. Early in his lengthy discussion of uneven and combined development, Neil says that Trotsky discovered the concept “between Chiang Kai-shek’s coup in Shanghai in April 1927 and the completion of the first volume of The History of the Russian Revolution, the preface to which is dated 14 November 1930, where the term appears for the first time”-Davidson, 2012, p286. But, even though the expression “uneven and combined development” occurs relatively late, the concept is present in what Louis Althusser would call a “practical state” much earlier. I think Neil is partly led to this very restrictive interpretation because, in the debates on uneven and combined development, he has argued that “it takes account of the internal effects of uneven development.” (Davidson, 2010b, p184; interestingly this sentence doesn’t reappear in Neil’s book.) This means that, perversely, he tends to subsume the combined development of capitalism at the global level under uneven development, even though Trotsky, during his polemics against the doctrine of socialism in one country in 1928, talks about “two fundamental tendencies” of capitalist development, uneven and (what he does not yet call) combined development-Trotsky, 1970, p20. But in any case, Trotsky already gives a brilliant account of the “internal effects” of uneven and combined development in Tsarist Russia in the opening chapters of 1905, written in 1908-9 and revised for the 1922 Russian edition, foreshadowing the more developed analysis in The History of the Russian Revolution.

54: Callinicos, 2009, chapter 2. See also Callinicos and Rosenberg, 2008, and, for some of the wider literature, Dunn and Radice, 2006, and Anievas, 2010.


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