The Debate on the Bourgeois Revolution Revisited

Recently, some French historians have called for an end to the discussion of the causes and meaning of the French Revolution, declaring it to be ‘terminated’. But an occurrence that raises such fundamental philosophical and moral questions can never end. For the dispute is not only over what has happened in the past but also over what may happen in the future.

The object of the notes below is to argue the following:

  • That the traditional Marxist conception of bourgeois revolution is­ – with serious consequences for both Marxists and Marxism – fundamentally flawed.
  • That, this notwithstanding, Marxism retains its validity as a tool of historical enquiry. The problem is not that Marxism itself is ‘wrong’ but that it has been consistently misunderstood and misapplied by generations of Marxists, not least in the field of historiography.
  • That the debate on the origin and nature of the bourgeois revolutions is no mere scholastic obscurantism but rather has, on a number of different levels, a practical and increasingly urgent relevance.

The classical Marxist model, developed with regard to the eighteenth-century French Revolution, painted a picture of bourgeois revolution as a result of a clash between, on the one hand, an ascendant capitalist bourgeoisie (drawing behind it the plebeian masses) attempting to free itself from the strictures of an over-arching feudal order, and, on the other, a reactionary feudal aristocracy intent on maintaining a controlling position in political and economic life.The ensuing struggle, political in form, focusing on control of the apparatus of the state, was rooted in an antagonism between two different forms of socio-economic structure, represented by antagonistic social classes:he revolution was social in content, bilateral in terms of protagonists, and ‘national’ in geographical extent. Its result was the inauguration of a new social order based on the predominance of the capitalist mode of production and the social and political ascendancy of the bourgeoisie.

This model of bourgeois revolution, articulated over the course of the middle third of the twentieth century by historians with strong ideological and/or organisational links with the Communist Parties, enjoyed a great deal of acceptance within mainstream historiography. But the onslaught of the so-called ‘revisionist’ interpretations of the French Revolution over the course of the 1960s and 70s which the Marxist model inevitably produced left the latter in a state of disrepute. And in this respect it is necessary to say that on practically every point the revisionists have been proved right over the Marxists.

More (pdf(: 215KB): The debate on the bourgeois revolution revisited


5 thoughts on “The Debate on the Bourgeois Revolution Revisited

  1. ‘The norm cannot be a ‘norm’ if what is typical is deviation’. Why not ? Surely value which finds its necessary form of expression in exchange value (prices) as deviations from itself is such a “norm”. Thus abnormal “bourgeois revolutions” can also be the necessary form of appearance of the confrontation and sublation of the feudal state by forces which develop nascent capital into the world system we know and love.

  2. Hi Scott.

    No; ‘the norm cannot be a “norm” if what is typical is deviation’ is really my own fancy way of saying that the ‘norm’ as presented in the literature is wrong (rather than being a profound epistemological statement). I argue that actual bourgeois revolutions have tended (did tend) to deviate from this norm in the same way, which is what leads me to argue for a different model (and the requisite political consequences of this). What you call ‘abnormal “bourgeois revolutions”’ are in fact not ‘abnormal’ if one adopts a norm that is more consonant on *both* the actual bourgeois revolutionary experience *and* the social circumstances in which bourgeois revolutions took place.

    I would also say that the value-price metaphor here is inappropriate: prices do not deviate from values as deviations from a ‘norm’ but through how value manifests *as* price in exchange in conditions of competitive capitalist production.

    I would also be wary of introducing notions of ‘necessary form of appearance’ in historical *description* (as opposed to the logical development of categories). I think that the conflation of historical development and logical categorisation is a problem in Marxism, and makes itself felt with particularly detrimental effects in the way that how Marx develops his argument in Capital is understood (cf. the theorisation of ‘simple commodity production’ as an *actually-existing* mode of production). Applying the concepts of the logical development of categories to actual historical processes results, insofar as it conflates epistemology with ontology, in an over-Hegelianised interpretation of history; it was this way of looking at *history*, in my opinion, that Marx was ditching when he was turning Hegel ‘right side up again’, to ‘discover the rational kernel within the mystical shell’.

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