Neil Davidson, *How Revolutionary Were the Bourgeois Revolutions?*

The gist
Davidson’s answer is: bourgeois revolutions were bourgeois in outcome, boosting the rise of capitalism, not in agency, and that’s how they were revolutionary.

The book is mostly a very detailed history and discussion of ideas about bourgeois revolution; partly a defence of consequentialism (the outcome, not agency point); partly a collection of digressions on many related but often arcane points of Marxism. And it is massive: 833 pages of eye-straining small type.

bourgeois revolutions davidson

The positive
The writing is clear and comprehensible, which is more than could be said of some Marxist works. It is comprehensive: just about everything any Marxist has written about the subject seems to be here.

The coverage is unrepentantly “Eurocentric” — the revolutions that matter began with the Dutch, English, American, French and then other Europeans, before spreading out to Japan and eventually other non-European nations. The Haitian revolt, for instance, which to the multiculturalism-minded is of massive significance, is barely mentioned. This version of Marxism at least has not crumbled before the onslaught of anti-Eurocentrism.

The negative
It goes into far too much arcane detail on obscure points of Marxist exegesis and theory. (I had to skip and skim many sections to get to the end.)

It proposes no theory of the causes or courses of revolutions. In effect, it tacitly concedes this to the non-Marxist theories of revolution. (But, in a sectarian way, the ideas of the leading non-Marxists such as Jack Goldstone or others are largely ignored).

It does not ponder why the West was the pioneer not just of (bourgeois) revolutions but of almost every other kind of revolution, whether scientific, industrial, democratic or any other.

The consequentialist concept of bourgeois revolution is in the end not convincing. Modern revolutions have had many consequences: sometimes boosting capitalism, sometimes not, but also boosting variously the nation-state, bureaucracy, autocracy, democracy, communism, independence, empire and so on.

There is no empirical narrative or analysis of the bourgeois revolutions themselves. I grew tired of the concept and wanted to learn more about the actual events.

Some supposed bourgeois revolutions are highly questionable. Davidson claims that Russia 1917 and China 1949 were bourgeois revolutions because they led to state capitalism (orthodoxy for his International Socialists), also that Canadian confederation was a bourgeois revolution.

The whole idea that it is worth devoting so much attention to the idea of bourgeois revolution is misguided. Bourgeois revolutions are assumed to be important because they supposedly provide the key to explaining the rise and triumph of capitalism. (Maybe too they are supposed to offer lessons about proletarian revolution, though Davidson does not dwell on this.) But I think other things better explain capitalism’s rise, such as the general success of capitalist societies.

The judgment
Impressive, but only recommended for people who really like this sort of thing.

Neil Davidson, How Revolutionary Were the Bourgeois Revolutions? (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2012) pp. xxi + 812.

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1 Comment

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One response to “Neil Davidson, *How Revolutionary Were the Bourgeois Revolutions?*

  1. Pingback: From Bourgeois Revolution to Combined and Uneven Development | Breviosity

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