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.