Monday, March 13, 2023

Neil Davidson - How Revolutionary were the Bourgeois Revolutions

There is no doubt that Neil Davidson's How Revolutionary were the Bourgeois Revolutions is a piece of remarkable scholarly work, and demonstrates the enormous breadth of the late author's knowledge. It is perhaps one of the most impressive works by a Marxist within a crowded field of study. The question of Bourgeois Revolutions has been hotly debated on the left, within Marxism and with other approaches to history. Davidson's work is both a study of the subject and a study of the histography of bourgeois revolutions.

The importance to Marxists of the concept of bourgeois revolution is two fold. Firstly, for Marx and Engels, the transition to capitalism, from pre-capitalist societies (most importantly feudalism in Western Europe) offered insights into the revolutionary transtition from capitalism to socialism. More importantly though, the process offered insights into the development of capitalism itself, which helped illuminate its own inner workings and the role of the capitalist class itself. Marx and Engels were keenly interested inthis class, whose machinations in 1848 held back the revolutionary movement in Germany and elsewhere, unlike their predecessors in France and, to a lesser extent, England. Davidson notes that "the Marxist theory of history required a concept of bourgeois revolution; but one did not lie readily at hand". 

The concept of bourgeois revolution also mattered because it destroyed the idea that capitalism was natural and eternal, rather it showed that capitalism had to be fought for by a class with interests in its development. As Marx and Engels said, "when the economists say that present-day relations - the relations of bourgeois production - are natural, they imply that these are the relations in which wealth is created and productive forces developed in conformity with the laws of nature". The existence of a bourgeois revolution proved the opposite.

Davidson's book then is a defence of the concept, at the same time as a demonstration that the definition of a bourgeois revolution is extremely difficult. Drawing parallels between evenst in England in the 1640s and France in the 1790s is one thing. But trying to include the American Civil War, the Germany Revolution of 1848/9, and the Russian Revolution of February 1917 make such a definition difficult indeed. The granting of a general definition becomes even harder when exploring the arrival of capitalism in countries like Japan for instance.

Davidson argues his point well, but, it is hard to sometimes work out precisely what his point is. In part this is a problem caused by the huge amount of information within the book. Davidson is fond of quoting extensively from other writers and historians, and while usefully illustrating his point (and demonstrating the author's incredibly extensive knowledge of the material) it obscures more than illuminates. A bigger problem comes from Davidson's failure to describe historical events themselves in any detail. He assumes a general awareness of the English and French Revolutions, which is fair enough in a book that is not aimed at people reading their first work about Marx. But he also assumes knowledge about every other transition - from China to Japan. Crucially, and most perplexing to me, he fails to illustrate the examples of revolution with well, accounts of revolution. The storming of the Bastille is surely a crucial revolutionary moment of the French Revolution. Yet it gets no mention. Bizarrely this 800 off page book on bourgeois revolution feels at times like it contains little actual revolution.

Davidson would no doubt defend this by arguing that the revolutionary transition is the actually transformation from one society to another, and this is, of course, correct. But the extent of the bourgeoise's revolutionary nature surely lies, in part, in what they did and didn't do. What they oversaw, encouraged and what they didn't. 

That said there are two parts of the book that are exemplary. The first of these are the chapters on Marx and Engels and what they actually said. Davidson gets too the heart of this and draws out their developing ideas brilliantly. If you only read one part of this massive book, make it this section. The other part of the book that is really good was the chapter on "preconditions for an era of bourgeois revolution" which successfully laid out, using a multitude of examples, the way that capitalist relations begin to develop and lay the basis for revolution. The importance of this lies, as Davidson says, "where and when capitalism shifted from the periphery to the center of economic life was in very large part dependent on the nature of the pre-capitalist state". It is this ambiguity of route and timing of the transition that makes the subject so extensive. Davidson gives a sense of this when he writes:

In most societies where the economy was transitional from precapitalist modes of production to the capitalist mode, states remained under the control of the precapitalist ruling class, although they adapted to the new conditions, most typically in the emergence of absolutism: society became increasingly opposed to the state. As we have seen, these tension were resolved either by a direct external challenge tot he state from the new social classes created by capitalism or, in order to avoid this outcome while enabling the ability to compete in geopolitical terms, by internal pressure from sections of the existing ruling class who themselves undertook the process of transforming the state - or some combination of these two paths, with one predominating.

On the same page he also emphasises that we have to "reject the assumption that all immediately precapitalist states have to map tidily and conveniently onto our categories of tributary, feudal estates  or feudal absolutist monarchy." Rather, Davidson points out, Marxism gives us the tools to be able to understand the transition to capitalism in the various forms that it took place without falling into a one size fits all model.

Davidson's book is epic in scope and detailed in argument. It is not an easy read, and in places I would accuse the author of indulgence. Perhaps this is unfair of me - after all Davidson writes from a Marxist tradition that I would generally agree with - and it is brilliant to see thinkers like Leon Trotsky, Tony Cliff and Chris Harman being acknowledged for their insights instead of the endless stream of Marxist academics usually held up as authorities. But upon finishing the book I was struck by the difficulties in summarising what Davidson was actually arguing, and as such I felt the book failed in answering adequately the answer the author set out to address.

Related Reviews

Perry - Marxism and History
Harman - Marxism and History
Callinicos - Making History

No comments: