From Bourgeois Revolution to Combined and Uneven Development

If the term “bourgeois revolution” has any good meaning, it is probably best seen as the series of liberal constitutionalist advances beginning in 17th century Netherlands and England, continuing through the 19th century, reversed in the epoch of the two world wars, but later resuming, and in some ways continuing into the 21st century. The trouble is, it wasn’t always the bourgeoisie who generated these reforms and revolutions.

Marc Mulholland has an excellent review of Neil Davidson’s account (my earlier brief take here).

Davidson’s most substantial diversion from the classical interpretation of ‘bourgeois revolution’ is to empty it of its specific political content.

For Davidson, all that’s need for something to be a bourgeois revolution is to promote capitalism. Declarations of rights, or liberty, or democracy is all so much blather and false consciousness.

Even the Communists promoted capitalism.

Davidson – not very convincingly – sees all communist seizures of power (except Russia 1917) as instances of bourgeois revolution. The last bourgeois revolutions, therefore, were in 1973–5: the Communist ‘Derg’ coup in Ethiopia, US defeat in Indochina, and decolonisation of the Portuguese Empire (p. 621).

This surely stretches the concept of bourgeois revolution far beyond breaking point. Such ideologically disparate movements cannot be grouped in this way.

The mechanism?—Uneven and Combined Development.

Davidson wishes to demonstrate that ‘combined and uneven’ development helps to account for the various paths to ‘bourgeois revolution’. A ‘backward’ country with a weak middle class might well seek to destroy the remnants of feudalism – guild restrictions, usury laws, a recalcitrant peasantry attached to micro-farms, aristocratic privileges, and so on – in order to catch up with geo-political rivals. The result is state-driven revolutions from above more often than from below. The first such example, Davidson argues, is the transformation of Scottish society from above in the 18th-century. In like form, socialism can begin to push beyond capitalism even in countries where the proletariat is numerically weak, as in Russia 1917.

Basically, this theory amounts to the claim that once integrated into an international division of labour, a national economy is likely to comingle reservoirs of rural backwardness with cutting-edge industries. In a ‘backward’ country seeking to ‘catch-up’ with great power rivals, the state forces the pace of defence-related industries at break-neck speed. Consumer spending is suppressed and the peasantry burdened with taxes. Politically and socially, therefore, we can expect to see a wracked traditionalism cheek-to-jowl with hyper-modernity. Any notion of stately ‘stages of modernisation’ becomes inapplicable.

A nice summation of the idea.

I don’t see the use of the “combined and uneven development” notion. Of course the underlying idea is basically true: external pressures leads catch-up states to modernize in an uneven fashion. But Trotskyism does not seem to me to add anything of value to understanding this phenomenon. In fact I would say it is just a special case of group selection: inter-group competition promotes up-scaling. That is one of the main (perhaps the main) mechanisms of social evolution. Trostkyism has managed (serendipitously) to catch a glimpse of the truth, but still cannot grasp the whole story.




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5 responses to “From Bourgeois Revolution to Combined and Uneven Development

  1. I think there is quite a bit in the idea of Combined and Uneven Development (I might be biased, I drew on the idea in my Cambridge Review article published last August). But I’m pretty sceptical of the attempt to use C&UD to resuscitate the idea that every upheaval that eventually results in capitalism is a ‘bourgeois revolution’. Seems like a way to bring back older Marxist stagisms through the back door. The Barrington Moore Jr. approach of class-based analysis of social transformations has a lot going for it, and there have clearly been bourgeois revolutions, but there are also clear cases of transitions to capitalism without any major role played by the bourgeoisie. Along similar lines, I read an article by John Sidel recently arguing that the presence or absence of a bourgeoisie in SE Asian nations has affected their individual routes towards democracy:

    • On C&UD, do please post on the topic and enlighten me a bit. What are its good points?
      You’ll probably like Mulholland’s book “Bourgeois Liberty and the Politics of Fear”. I’d call it sophisticated, historical class analysis, which I think is your kind of thing.

      • Something has come up that a) means I don’t have time to write a worthwhile post on C&UD b) by complete coincidence gives me an additional reason to think before I write on this issue for the next few weeks. But I do plan to take up your challenge and write a blog post. Meanwhile, the topic of C&UD came up very briefly at howl at pluto a while back:
        The Mullholland book sounds fascinating, covering areas of importance in both political theory and historical sociology.

  2. LFC

    I’ve glanced through the linked Mulholland review. What he says about liberal constitutionalism toward the end (“rooted in the real conditions of commercial civil society”) is unsatisfyingly cryptic. Too bad he didn’t elaborate — but I guess he thought the review was already long enough. I think his formulation may end up reducing ideology to economics almost as much as the ‘cruder’ Marxist formulation that he says he doesn’t like. However, this is just a tentative impression.

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