Friday, 15 February 2013

Comments on Alex Callinicos’s review of Neil Davidson, How Revolutionary Were the Bourgeois Revolutions?

These are some observations made by Chris Thompson on Alex Callinicos’s review of Neil Davidson, How Revolutionary Were the Bourgeois Revolutions? For some reason the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) did not post these comments on their website.  

Calinicos's review can be viewed at In the near future I shall review Davidson’s book for my own blog.

 This review offers a clear expression of the ever-widening gulf between modern academic research and writing on the events of the 1640s in the British Isles and an approach based on a Marxist, indeed Trotskyite, analysis.

 The prolific use of terms like ‘bourgeoisie’, ‘feudal’ and ‘modern’ aristocracy, ‘proletariat’ and ‘non-bourgeois strata of the middle class’ invites comparison with the debates of the Communist Party of Great Britain’s historians’ group in the late-1940s and early-1950s recently edited by David Parker. Antique concepts like the claim that a class of urban capitalists were developing in the sixteenth century with feudalism or that these people were held to be socially inferior and were excluded from power by Absolute States are given vigorous exercise.

‘Bourgeois’ revolutions inevitably occurred and, in their outcomes, promoted capitalism. There is also an undertow of historiographical controversy: Callinicos’s protest against the revisionist historians of the 1970s is linked to an attack on ‘Political Marxists’ like Robert Brenner and Ellen Meiksins Wood for their assistance in undermining a more authentically Socialist interpretation.

It is easy to see where the origins of this interpretation can be found. Neil Davidson and Alex Callinicos have recognised that, between 1500 and 1800, the basis for a new form of society was laid down. As a matter of Marxist theology, they believe that the transition to capitalism could not have been achieved peacefully but required a violent break-through, in other words, a ‘bourgeois revolution’. It was logical, therefore, to assume that such ‘bourgeois revolutions’ could be identified in the revolt of the Low Countries against Spanish rule in the latter part of the sixteenth-century and in the violent Puritan Revolution of the 1640s in England.

The motive force for these and later such revolutions was that of a productive bourgeoisie hampered by the protective system of absolute monarchs and a feudal aristocracy. Only in England, where the bourgeoisie was better developed and represented in Parliament, was capitalism able to triumph. A new form of economic organisation was established and industrial capitalism was subsequently able to transform the world.

The profound problems with such arguments and assumptions were obvious six or seven decades ago. It is straightforward enough to claim that economic changes occurred in England in the course of the seventeenth-century and that the country’s economy was more advanced in 1700 than in 1600. But is has never been shown that these changes precipitated the English Revolution or that the economy of 1700 would have been more backward had the English Revolution not occurred. The Revolution itself was undoubtedly immensely costly in human and animal lives, in demographic terms and in the destruction of property. That it forwarded the development of capitalism remains unproven.

There is absolutely no evidence whatsoever that the bourgeoisie headed the 1648 revolution despite Callinicos’s pleadings or that the bourgeoisie was allied to the ‘modern aristocracy’ – who were they? – against the monarchy, the feudal aristocracy and the established – in fact, disestablished – Church at that time. The idea of the existence, real or potential, of a non-bourgeois strata of the middle class or of an embryonic proletariat is completely anachronistic.
There was no victory of bourgeois ownership over feudal ownership, no evidence of the abandonment of primogeniture, of competition over the guilds, etc. 

The new economy, the new historiography, the new philosophy and the new science of the post-Restoration period was as much the work of former Royalists as of former Parliamentarians. None of this was stifled by the return of the King, the House of Lords and the Church of England. Tories and Whigs alike contributed to the defenestration of James II in 1688-89 and to the emergence of Britain as a major military and naval power.

The political and religious lessons of the Interregnum had been learnt: there was to be no return to such chaos. In 1640, political and religious fissures could be found across all ranks of English society but they were not based on class or on the rise of a bourgeoisie or on the opposition of a reactionary monarchy or aristocracy or church. After 1660, there was a deep-seated determination never to let such divisions lead to Civil Wars again: slowly, the constitutional machinery to accommodate political and religious differences was put in place.

But these changes have yet to be shown to have been due to the rise of the bourgeoisie or of capitalism. It has, indeed, yet to be shown that there was a ‘bourgeois revolution’ at all. That is why it cannot be found in the works of early modern historians and why the assumptions of Callinicos and Davidson are fallacious and unconvincing.