The notion of bourgeois revolution—the idea that capitalist development has been intimately linked to the seizure and transformation of the state by rising class forces—has been fiercely contested over the past half-century. The political stakes in interpreting the cycle of events that opens with the Dutch Revolt and English Civil War, and continues with the American and French Revolutions, the Italian Risorgimento, German Unification, the Meiji Restoration and the American Civil War, are correspondingly high. Neil Davidson’s How Revolutionary Were the Bourgeois Revolutions? is a lively and engagingly written survey of this vast historiographical, theoretical and political terrain. Davidson sets out to provide an intellectual history of the concept, from the first intimations of a ‘social interpretation’ of the English Civil War—James Harrington’s analysis in The Commonwealth of Oceana (1656)—to its elaboration in the Marxian tradition and subsequent revisionist and counter-revisionist challenges. But he also offers a running criticism of the ideas he surveys, and in the 150-page conclusion proposes his own reconstruction of the concept, framed in terms of the general dynamics of transition from one mode of production to another.

Davidson is an erudite Scot, the author of Origins of Scottish Nationhood (2000) and Discovering the Scottish Revolution, 1692–1746 (2003), which aimed to establish ‘the hitherto unidentified bourgeois revolution’ north of the border. He was also, until its implosion in late 2013, a member of the British swp, a Trotskyist group whose distinguishing feature was the claim, contra Trotsky, that from 1928 onward Soviet Russia should be regarded as a capitalist country; and that subsequent communist revolutions—China, Vietnam, Cuba and so forth—similarly cleared the way for state capitalism. As Davidson frankly states at the outset, the motivation for the present book is, first, to show that these twentieth-century revolutions were indeed, contrary to appearance and self-perception, bourgeois ones. Secondly, he aims to show that the success of the bourgeois revolutions demonstrates the viability of the insurrectionary road for those who wish to see capitalism replaced by socialism. Like their ‘bourgeois equivalents’, revolutionary Marxists today face objective conditions—the forces of production, which for Davidson play an independent propulsive role in historical development—that are ripe for transition to a new form of society. The circumstances in which he first sketched out his views on the bourgeois revolution supplied a third motive: this was a 2004 Deutscher Prize debate, in which Davidson defended the concept against Benno Teschke, who argued along broadly the same lines as Robert Brenner that it had no basis in historical reality. The construction of How Revolutionary? is thus dogmatically driven: to prove a set of convictions held prior to investigation of the historical evidence, rather than using that evidence to test a preliminary hypothesis. This leads to a misshapen structure, long stretches of which have little to do with the subject in hand; but it does not deprive the whole of an impressive energy and ambition. As ever, a flawed ideology need not be an impediment to fresh or original lines of thought or research, and may even be a stimulus to them.

How Revolutionary? is, as Davidson puts it, ‘an exercise in the history of ideas’, offering a four-part genealogy of thinking on the concept, rather than a fresh analysis of the historical events themselves. The tone is set by an opening meditation on Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People. The first section, tracking the pre-history of the concept, identifies a classical idea of revolution, from Aristotle to Machiavelli, as a purely political, cyclical process, in which the rise and fall of successive regimes—democratic, monarchical, oligarchical—leaves underlying economic relations unchanged. The class struggles of seventeenth-century England provided the basis for a new ‘social interpretation’ of revolution, first articulated by Harrington, who claimed that the balance of power depended on that of property. The transfer of freeholds to ‘the yeomanry, or middle people’ had left them ‘much unlinked from dependence upon their lords’, with concomitant political effects: ‘Natural revolution happeneth from within, or by commerce, as when a government is erected upon a balance, that for example of a nobility or a clergy, through the decay of their estates comes to another balance, which alteration in the root of property leaves all into confusion, or produces a new branch of government according to the kind or nature of the root.’

In Scotland where, Davidson argues, feudal relations persisted despite the Union until the defeat of the Jacobite lords at Culloden in 1746, the intellectuals of a nascent bourgeoisie were offered a unique opportunity to theorize a capitalist ‘revolution from above’ in the absence of a proletarian threat ‘from below’; whence Smith’s conceptualization of the four modes of subsistence, the ages of hunting, pasturage, agriculture and commerce. But Davidson singles out Smith’s precursor, the ex-Jacobite James Steuart, whose Inquiry into the Principles of Political Economy (1767) discussed the ‘violent convulsions’ by which ‘a wealthy populace has broken their chains to pieces, and overthrown the very foundations of the feudal system’ in England, while imposing new conditions upon those over whom the lords had ruled: ‘That revolution must then mark the purging of the lands of superfluous mouths, forcing those to quit their mother earth, in order to retire to towns and villages, where they may usefully swell the numbers of free hands and apply to industry.’ Smith, Hume and Steuart were familiar to Antoine Barnave, the Jacobin-turned-Royalist whose 1792 ‘Introduction to the French Revolution’, written in jail as he awaited the guillotine, further advanced the idea of a movement from economic to social to political change:

Once the [mechanical] arts and commerce have succeeded in penetrating the people and creating a new means of wealth in support of the productive classes, a revolution in political laws is prepared. Just as the possession of land gave rise to the aristocracy, industrial property increases the power of the people: they acquire their liberty, they multiply, they begin to influence affairs.

Thus, Davidson argues, a proto-theory of bourgeois revolution had been in the making for nearly two hundred years before the term was coined by Louis Blanc and the followers of Saint-Simon in the late 1830s. Yet just at this moment, when ‘the proletariat emerged as a wholly distinct class in society’—with the July Revolution in France and the struggle over the Reform Bill in England—‘the bourgeoisie began to abandon its self-identity as a revolutionary class.’ Indeed, ‘the more securely embedded the capitalist system became’, the more bourgeois thinkers retreated from social concepts of revolution; Macaulay was typical in describing them as struggles over ‘liberty’, or the achievement of constitutional government, rather than ‘property’, or the unshackling of a new economic order. The exception, Davidson suggests, was Tocqueville, who famously described the period of 1789 to 1830 as ‘a struggle to the death between the Ancien Régime, its traditions, memories, hopes and men, as represented by the aristocracy, and the New France, led by the middle class.’ How Revolutionary? ascribes Tocqueville’s independence of mind to his aristocratic background, with the ‘zeal of a convert’ for ideas that were alien to his class.

With the entrance of Marx and Engels in the 1840s, Davidson arrives at the nub of his argument with the so-called ‘political Marxists’: Teschke, Charles Post, Ellen Meiksins Wood, George Comninel and (though he has eschewed the term) Robert Brenner. As Davidson summarizes their position: Marx and Engels initially arrived at the concept of bourgeois revolution by combining a Smithian account of the rise of capitalism within feudal society with the French liberal historians’ class-struggle model of revolution, to explain how the bourgeoisie could overcome the absolutist obstacles to its ascendancy. From the late 1850s, however, the mature Marx’s concept of modes of production allowed him to identify the transformation of England’s existing ruling class into one that depended on a new, capitalist form of exploitation; the events that Marx and Engels called bourgeois revolutions were irrelevant to this process, the concept serving merely ‘to bolster the undeserved reputation of the bourgeoisie as the vanguard of social progress against feudalism’, while obscuring the reality that the subordinate classes were subject to more intense exploitation than ever. Brenner, Davidson suggests, thinks that Marx simply dropped the concept after drafting the Grundrisse in 1857–58; Comninel that, regrettably, he retained it.