The October Revolution of 1917 sent shockwaves around the world, creating something once considered unthinkable by bourgeois ideologues: a workers’ state. It appeared that capitalism was finally beginning to unravel, not only in Russia but across the globe. Despite the defeat of revolutionary upsurges elsewhere and the subsequent degeneration of the Soviet republic under the weight of Stalinist bureaucracy, the legacy of Red October still stands as the most advanced example to date of proletarian revolution – the necessary step to propel humanity forward to communism. Understanding the historical significance of the Russian Revolution requires placing it within the arc of human material progress and the revolutionary moments that punctuate its path.
Much like “fascism” and “socialism,” the word “revolution” is often widely misused. Politicians and political analysts frequently identify even relatively minor governmental changes as “revolutions.” In the 2016 U.S. presidential election, Bernie Sanders called for a “political revolution against the billionaire class,” by which he meant electing himself to administer the state apparatus of American imperialism and raise taxes on the rich. Somewhat more plausibly, but nevertheless incorrectly, many observers referred to the Egyptian and Tunisian uprisings of the 2011 “Arab Spring” as revolutions. Worse, others labeled the reactionary-initiated (and imperialist-backed) wars in Libya and Syria as “revolutions.”
While the misapplication of the term is often the result of misunderstanding, it has political significance, particularly when used by people who call themselves Marxists. One of the worst contemporary offenders, and a useful example of this kind of distortion, is Alan Woods, leader of the International Marxist Tendency (IMT) who signed on as an unpaid publicist for Venezuela’s “Bolivarian Revolution” in the late 1990s and 2000s. Reflecting their political adaptation to the non-proletarian forces represented by Hugo Chavez, the IMT wrote that “Chavez sees the need to ‘deepen’ the revolution.… He feels that he cannot make this state machine do what he wants. The only road is therefore to break this machine and build a new one based on the workers” (marxist.com, 9 January 2007). But Woods’s notion of “breaking” the state machine overseen by Chavez boiled down to proposing a parliamentary road to socialism:
“It would have been quite possible for the President to introduce an Enabling Act in the National Assembly to nationalize the land, the banks and the key industries under workers’ control and management. This would have broken the power of the Venezuelan oligarchy. Moreover, this could have been done quite legally by the democratically elected parliament, since in a democracy the elected representatives of the people are supposed to be sovereign.”
— marxist.com, 11 January 2007
Those who reject the notion that the Bolivarian experience was a “revolution” are branded by the IMT as “sectarians” wishing to “sit on the sidelines.” These insults are intended to veil the real significance of the misuse of the term – the IMT’s adaptation to the Venezuelan government. Kamenev and Stalin at least waited for the emergence of a genuine revolutionary situation following the February Revolution before they gave critical support to a bourgeois government; Woods pretended a revolution had emerged in order to engage in a worse capitulation, becoming an adviser to “Comrade Chavez” himself.
Using Trotskyist phraseology, Woods degrades the Marxist concept of revolution – as countless revisionists before him have done – first by equating it with the notion of revolutionary crisis (a revolutionary or pre-revolutionary situation in which the old regime has at least partially broken down as the masses begin to create their own rival governing institutions) and then by elevating intra-ruling class conflicts or non-revolutionary mass mobilizations to the level of revolutionary crisis. These elisions are smuggled in via the vague concept of “revolutionary process,” which essentially translates into the reformist idea that the oppressed gradually gain more influence and assume power through the unfolding of historical logic. The IMT is only one example in a long history of revisionist currents emerging out of the Trotskyist tradition that routinely invoke the notion of an “objective revolutionary process” to justify political capitulation to non-revolutionary forces.
In attempting to lend the concept of revolution-as-process some Marxist orthodoxy, revisionists often cite the following passage from Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution:
“The most indubitable feature of a revolution is the direct interference of the masses in historical events. In ordinary times the state, be it monarchical or democratic, elevates itself above the nation, and history is made by specialists in that line of business – kings, ministers, bureaucrats, parliamentarians, journalists. But at those crucial moments when the old order becomes no longer endurable to the masses, they break over the barriers excluding them from the political arena, sweep aside their traditional representatives, and create by their own interference the initial groundwork for a new régime. Whether this is good or bad we leave to the judgement of moralists. We ourselves will take the facts as they are given by the objective course of development. The history of a revolution is for us first of all a history of the forcible entrance of the masses into the realm of rulership over their own destiny.”
The “direct interference of the masses in historical events” is quite obviously a defining feature of revolution, but mass demonstrations and strikes on their own by no means represent workers assuming “rulership over their own destiny.” Lenin, Trotsky and other Marxists did occasionally use the term revolution to indicate a pre-revolutionary crisis, e.g., during the period of dual-power instability following the February Revolution in Russia. Yet even there it is evident they did not view the socialist revolution as a self-unfolding objective process – all their efforts were aimed at preparing a “second revolution,” i.e., a time-limited event marking a qualitative turning point. The notion of a revolutionary crisis or pre-revolutionary situation as the precondition for an actual revolution is briefly outlined by Lenin in Left-Wing Communism, An Infantile Disorder:
“The fundamental law of revolution, which has been confirmed by all revolutions and especially by all three Russian revolutions in the twentieth century, is as follows: for a revolution to take place it is not enough for the exploited and oppressed masses to realise the impossibility of living in the old way, and demand changes; for a revolution to take place it is essential that the exploiters should not be able to live and rule in the old way. It is only when the ‘lower classes’ do not want to live in the old way and the ‘upper classes’ cannot carry on in the old way that the revolution can triumph. This truth can be expressed in other words: revolution is impossible without a nation-wide crisis (affecting both the exploited and the exploiters). It follows that, for a revolution to take place, it is essential, first, that a majority of the workers (or at least a majority of the class-conscious, thinking, and politically active workers) should fully realise that revolution is necessary, and that they should be prepared to die for it; second, that the ruling classes should be going through a governmental crisis, which draws even the most backward masses into politics (symptomatic of any genuine revolution is a rapid, tenfold and even hundredfold increase in the size of the working and oppressed masses – hitherto apathetic – who are capable of waging the political struggle), weakens the government, and makes it possible for the revolutionaries to rapidly overthrow it.”
Contrary to revisionist misapplications, a revolutionary situation may or may not result in a revolution, defined as the act by an oppressed class of overthrowing and replacing the state power of the old ruling class. To clarify the scope of the significance of the Russian Revolution requires an examination of the historical evolution of the meaning of revolution from the perspective of Marx’s materialist conception of human development.
In his 1859 Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, Marx argued:
“In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness.… At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or – this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms – with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution. The changes in the economic foundation lead sooner or later to the transformation of the whole immense superstructure.”
A mode of production comprises “material forces of production” (human capacities to transform nature) and a particular set of social “relations of production,” an economic foundation out of which more-or-less corresponding forms of consciousness and legal and political ideas grow. The basic driving force of human development is the push to enhance labor productivity. Under both feudalism and capitalism, the relations of production at first accelerated but then retarded the growth of productive forces. This is the underlying dynamic of the transition from an increasingly obsolescent mode of production to a higher one – a process marked by various ideological (political, religious, cultural) forms through which the participants in the class struggle come to understand their position within it. The state, which can be directly implicated in material production or stand “above” it, is in either case a key component of the “economic” social relations of production. Struggles to redress the contradictions of a mode of production in the period of its historic decline (the “era of social revolution”) occur not only in the realm of production but also in the “political sphere” surrounding the state.
Marx argued that social revolution involves not only the transfer of state power from one class to another but also the transition from one mode of production to another. He observed that new social relations capable of developing the productive forces beyond those permitted by the old relations emerge in embryo within the old decaying mode of production before becoming dominant: “Mankind thus inevitably sets itself only such tasks as it is able to solve, since closer examination will always show that the problem itself arises only when the material conditions for its solution are already present or at least in the course of formation.” From the standpoint of the historical development of the productive forces, the types of mode of production humanity has evolved vary in their capacity to “mark progress”:
“In broad outline, the Asiatic, ancient, feudal and modern bourgeois modes of production may be designated as epochs marking progress in the economic development of society. The bourgeois mode of production is the last antagonistic form of the social process of production – antagonistic not in the sense of individual antagonism but of an antagonism that emanates from the individuals’ social conditions of existence – but the productive forces developing within bourgeois society create also the material conditions for a solution of this antagonism. The prehistory of human society accordingly closes with this social formation.”
Marx is not suggesting that each society must ascend through a definite hierarchy of “stages” of development. Indeed, he considered the displacement of feudalism by the bourgeois mode of production to be of unique significance precisely because it created the preconditions for generalized material security, thereby opening the way for humanity to return – at a vastly higher level of labor productivity – to a classless social order.
In evolutionary biology, the model advanced by Stephen Jay Gould (see Punctuated Equilibrium, 2007) argues that the evolution of species is marked by long periods of relative stasis sharply interrupted by brief moments of rapid change. Marx’s view of human social evolution is somewhat similar, with social revolutions “punctuating” a long and uneven arc of the development of the productive forces. A mode of production exhausts its historical role when the forces of production stagnate, stymied by the contradictions of a social system that once promoted their development.
Critics of Marx have dismissed the materialist conception of history, and the role played by social revolution within it, as “teleological” (i.e., moving inevitably toward a defined end-point). Insofar as Marx’s materialist conception posits a “goal,” it is the attainment of material security for humanity as a whole via the progressive overcoming of hostile natural and social forces – a common-sense purpose implicit in any attempt to produce the material conditions of life, whether this involves making a fire, building a plough or manufacturing superconductors. This should by no means be identified with capitalism’s calamitous disregard for and destruction of the natural environment. The communist mode of production will need to engender harmony between humanity and non-human nature to the greatest extent possible, but it will at the same time rely on humanity’s ability to consciously control the natural environment to a degree far greater than is possible in class-divided society.
Every class-antagonistic mode of production is dominated by people whose relationship to the means of production affords them the opportunity to extract surplus labor (in different forms) from the mass of the population, those whose laboring activity, along with the natural environment, provides the wealth of the whole of society. This is why social revolution is both the transition from one mode of production to a higher one and the supplanting of an old ruling class by a new ruling class whose material interests, and therefore ideology, correspond to the ascendant relations of production. The only class whose interests correspond with the future classless, communist mode of production is the wage-earning proletariat. The transition from the bourgeois to the communist mode of production will be far more convulsive, albeit over a shorter period of time, than the historically protracted transition to capitalism – yet there is no way for humanity to avoid an “era of social revolution” on the road to communism.
The process by which a new ruling class seizes control over the interconnected levers of economic, social and political power was not always marked by “revolution” in the restricted political sense of the term, i.e., a sudden change of governmental power. For example, the feudal aristocracy that reigned for centuries in Western Europe did not obtain power via a revolution. Following the collapse of the Roman Empire and the breakdown of the ancient slave mode of production, a new system of direct surplus appropriation in agriculture slowly evolved, in which landlords fused direct economic exploitation with political-repressive authority. Eventually, in what we call the “modern” era, the scattered pockets of manorial and princely power were gathered together as overarching state formations possessing absolute authority.
In pre-modern times, “revolution” had a narrow meaning. In Ancient Greece, for instance, Plato, Aristotle and other philosophers understood revolution to mean the transition from one type of government to another in the city states that dotted the coastlines of the Mediterranean, rotating between democracies, tyrannies, aristocracies and oligarchies. These modifications to the constitutional order, although brought about by conflict between different classes or factions, did not follow a longer historical trend. By the late Middle Ages, the idea of revolution had come to mean something close to a “cycle” or a “circle” of regime change, in the same sense that Copernicus described the way in which the “revolution” of the Earth around the sun makes winter turn into spring, spring into summer, summer into autumn and autumn back into winter.
It was during the transition from feudalism to capitalism that the word “revolution” started to lose the connotation it had acquired in antiquity as a cycle and instead began to signify a profound societal transformation. In 1791, the English-American revolutionary Tom Paine marveled at the impact of the French Revolution:
“What we formerly call revolutions were little more than a change of persons, or an alteration of local circumstances. They rose and fell like things of course, and had nothing in their existence or fate that could influence them beyond the spor [sic] that produced them. But what we now see in the world … are a renovation of the natural order of things, a system of principles as universal as truth and the existence of man, and combining moral with political happiness and natural prosperity.”
—cited in Stan Taylor, Social Science and Revolutions
Restoring humanity to a state of “natural right” may have been seen by Paine as returning to a previous (imagined) point in human history but, more significantly, it was also revolutionary in the sense of effecting profound social and political change.
In the Middle Ages, revolutions had a narrow political character because they occurred in peasant-based societies that were geographically limited and economically fragmented. It was the emergence of capitalism, straining against the bounds of feudal parochialism, that created the possibility of “social revolution” in the manner described by Marx in the 1859 Preface. In his 1902 work, The Social Revolution, Karl Kautsky explains the co-development of modern revolution and capitalist modernity in Europe:
“the capitalist method of production created the modern State, made an end to the political independence of communities and at the same time their economic independence ceased, each became part of a whole, and lost its special rights and special peculiarities. All were reduced to the same level, all were given the same laws, the same taxes, same courts, and were made subject to the same government…”
“The influence of governmental power upon the social life was now something wholly different from what it was through antiquity or the Middle Ages. Every important political change in a great modern State influences at once with a single stroke and in the profoundest manner an enormous social sphere. The conquest of political power by a previously subject class must, on this account, from now on, have wholly different social results than previously.”
Kautsky explains that, in contrast to reform, modern revolution is defined by “the conquest of political power by a new class”:
“Measures which seek to adjust the juridical and political superstructure of society, to changed economic conditions, are reforms if they proceed from the class which is the political and economic ruler of society. They are reforms whether they are given freely or secured by the pressure of the subject class, or conquered through the power of circumstances. On the contrary, those measures are the results of revolution if they proceed from the class which has been economically and politically oppressed and who have now captured political power and who must in their own interest more or less rapidly transform the political and juridical superstructure and create new forms of social co-operation.”
Revolution was essential in the displacement of the remnants of feudalism by nascent capitalism in Western Europe, just as it is the necessary condition for the replacement of capitalism with the communist mode of production. There are two distinct forms of modern revolution that emerged in historical succession on the basis of the development of capitalism: bourgeois and proletarian revolution.
Rudimentary capitalism developed from within Western European feudalism during the late Middle Ages. The large states that had arisen had a contradictory relationship with the emergent mode of production, even in its early “mercantilist” phase. While encouraging its development in some respects, the state powers of late feudalism restricted capitalism’s growth in others. Some of the old landed aristocracy sought to embrace the new economic system that was taking shape and the political and philosophical ideas loosely associated with it, yet there existed a basic, underlying contradiction between the commitments of the feudal state and aristocracy on the one hand, and those of the capitalist class on the other. The wage-earning proletariat was in most areas very small, and working people did not yet have a distinct class position independent from that of their masters.
As a propertied class, the bourgeoisie is by its nature conservative. In moments of crisis during late feudalism, however, the bourgeoisie sometimes found that it was compelled to lead revolutionary assaults on the existing structures of power, due either to conflicts with the monarchy or aristocracy or to upsurges from below by radicalized plebeian and petty-bourgeois layers in the countryside and towns. In recent decades, some historians have disputed the claim that these revolutions were “bourgeois,” since they were not characterized by the direct participation of most capitalists, who were outnumbered by intellectuals and even joined by dissident aristocrats, and they seldom involved the articulation of a clear capitalist program. Yet the revolutions of the early modern era were bourgeois in the sense that they removed important fetters to capitalist development and effected a transfer of power into the hands of the bourgeoisie, despite its limited consciousness of its historic role.
The first significant bourgeois revolution was the Dutch Rebellion against the Spanish Hapsburg monarchy, which resulted in the establishment of a bourgeois republic in 1588 and rapid capitalist development in the Netherlands. It took another half century before the next bourgeois revolutionary episode in Europe opened in England, the other European country in which capitalist relations were most advanced.
Growing tensions between the monarchy (representing the interests of the feudal aristocracy) and the rising capitalist class emerged in the early years of the 17th century. In 1640, King Charles I was forced to ask for funds from the newly-elected Parliament, in which the representatives of the bourgeoisie were dominant. As tensions mounted over the next two years, and the king failed to meet the demands of the bourgeoisie, civil war erupted between Crown and Parliament. It soon became apparent that the big bourgeoisie was too conservative to wage an effective struggle against the king and so power began to shift to the middle and lower bourgeoisie, represented by Oliver Cromwell and his Independents. Commanding a “New Model Army” comprising soldiers from the lower orders of society, Cromwell defeated the king’s forces once in 1646 and, after a brief renewal of civil war, again in 1649. The power structure of the old order was crushed.
Fed up with the vacillation of the so-called Long Parliament, Cromwell’s army dispersed it, leaving in its place the more radical Rump Parliament, which tried and then executed Charles for treason. On 19 May 1649, the Rump Parliament declared England to be a Commonwealth (a republic), with legislative power vested in parliament and executive power in the Council of State. Four years later Cromwell’s forces dispersed the Rump Parliament and made Cromwell the “Lord Protector” of the Commonwealth, which now also included Scotland and Ireland, forcibly retained under English rule. This system remained in place until the monarchy was restored under Charles II in 1660.
Although the participants in the revolution mainly viewed their struggle as a religious one, its socio-economic content is summed up well by British historian Christopher Hill in The English Revolution 1640:
“the English Revolution of 1640-60 was a great social movement like the French Revolution of 1789. The state power protecting an old order that was essentially feudal was violently overthrown, power passed into the hands of a new class, and so the freer development of capitalism was made possible. The Civil War was a class war, in which the despotism of Charles I was defended by the reactionary forces of the established Church and conservative landlords. Parliament beat the King because it could appeal to the enthusiastic support of the trading and industrial classes in town and countryside, to the yeomen and progressive gentry, and to wider masses of the population whenever they were able by free discussion to understand what the struggle was really about.”
England continued to experience intense political conflict, including the so-called “Glorious Revolution” of 1688 that saw Dutch prince William of Orange placed on the English throne, but the old feudal order was dead. The country had adopted the regime that would carry it through the industrial revolution and into the era of mass enfranchisement: a conservative parliamentary monarchy controlled by an ascendant capitalist class sharing power with an increasingly bourgeoisified aristocracy.
Although England itself had already undergone a bourgeois revolution, in the following century its colonial domination of America replicated feudal-like constraints on national capitalist development in the colonies. In A People’s History of the United States, Howard Zinn relates:
“Each harsher measure of British control – the Proclamation of 1763 not allowing colonists to settle beyond the Appalachians, the Stamp Tax, the Townshend taxes, including the one on tea, the stationing of troops and the Boston Massacre, the closing of the port of Boston and the dissolution of the Massachusetts legislature – escalated colonial rebellion to the point of revolution. The colonists had responded with the Stamp Act Congress, the Sons of Liberty, the Committees of Correspondence, the Boston Tea Party, and finally, in 1774, the setting up of a Continental Congress – an illegal body, forerunner of a future independent government. It was after the military clash at Lexington and Concord in April 1775, between colonial Minutemen and British troops, that the Continental Congress decided on separation. They organized a small committee to draw up the Declaration of Independence, which Thomas Jefferson wrote. It was adopted by the Congress on July 2, and officially proclaimed July 4, 1776.”
The revolution was made possible through the convergence of two overlapping sectors of society: discontented “Patriot” elites (wealthy, American-born merchants, manufacturers and capitalist landowners) who enjoyed no representation in the British parliament and were even sometimes excluded from local power institutions; and “middling” elements (urban petty-bourgeois lawyers, craftsmen, mechanics and small merchants) who had joined poor laborers in sometimes radical movements aimed against both British and local American rulers.
Although deeply marred by defense of black slavery (as well as the exclusion of women and the subordination of poor white men), the American Revolution took a radical turn as the requirements of a “war of independence” from British colonialism asserted themselves. Inspired by the anti-feudal ideals of the Enlightenment, the American revolutionaries proclaimed that “all men are born equal” and established a republic in which the enfranchisement of wealthy male property owners secured the privileges of the rising indigenous capitalist class.
American Trotskyist George Novak observed:
“The independence movement originated and was forced forward by the clash of interests between the colonists and the system of British domination. But its rate of development depended upon the interaction of the different social forces within the Patriot camp. The impetus for action came from the demands of the masses and the initiative from the leaders who best expressed them. But between the masses below and the British on top stood the merchants and planters who wanted to confine the struggle within safe boundaries.
“The Continental Congress became the central stage upon which the drama of independence was enacted. This Congress was constituted exclusively of representatives drawn from the upper classes: lawyers, doctors, merchants, planters, large landowners. The wealthiest men in the colonies, Washington, Carroli, Hancock, were there. The common people were not directly represented by men of their condition and choice, although the most radical spokesmen for the merchants and planters like Sam Adams and Patrick Henry leaned upon them for support.”
— “The Movement for American Independence,” Fourth International, Vol.11, No.4, July-August 1950
The American Revolution did not mark a shift from feudalism to the bourgeois mode of production, which was already dominant in the Thirteen Colonies. Yet it was a bourgeois revolution in the sense that it consolidated and transferred power to an indigenous capitalist class independent from foreign colonial domination – and did so through the creation of a new state power resting on the armed local population. In the course of the War of Independence, large landowners loyal to the Crown had their property expropriated, and the new regime generated an impetus for rapid capitalist development, eventually making the United States the wealthiest and most powerful country in history. The political ideals of the revolution, although extremely limited when translated into practice, generated popular conceptions of democracy and republicanism to which even conservative leaders were forced to pay tribute – for instance, in a Bill of Rights that guaranteed freedom of speech and other important advances.
The French monarchy had allied with the Americans in their war of independence against England, France’s rival in Europe, and in its quest for colonies, leaving King Louis XVI heavily indebted and forced to raise taxes. Bristling over proposals to make them pay more, aristocrats demanded the convocation of the “Estates General,” a consultative body that had not met since 1614. This set the stage for a rift between the monarchy and the aristocracy that helped to ignite a revolution that would see them both swept off the stage of history.
The Estates General consisted of three “orders”: the First Estate was the Catholic clergy, the Second Estate was the nobility and everyone else was the Third Estate. Each grouping was supposed to get equal representation, despite the fact that the first two estates accounted for less than two percent of the population. Eventually it was agreed that the representation of the Third Estate would be doubled. In the century and a half since the last meeting of the Estates General, France had become a very different country. Most significantly, a new propertied class had grown within the Third Estate: the bourgeoisie.
Civil unrest grew in the lead-up to the convocation of the Estates General on 1 May 1789. The local elections of the (mostly bourgeois) representatives of the Third Estate often coincided with the public drafting of cahiers de doléances – lists of grievances of the people against the existing order. A political leadership of sorts emerged from within the Third Estate and among dissident clergy and aristocrats who expressly broke with their orders to throw in their lot with the bourgeoisie – figures like the Abbé Sieyès, whose pamphlet “What is the Third Estate?” helped define the initial political ideology of the revolution.
The opening of the Estates General in Versailles (the courtly town near Paris) was chaotic, as no agreement could be reached on whether each order would recognize the representation of the others. On 10 June, after weeks of stalemate, the representatives of the Third Estate – following a proposal put forward by Sieyès – invited the representatives of the other two orders to join them. The Third Estate, now including some parish priests but no nobles, declared itself to be the National Assembly, i.e., to represent “the nation” in its deliberations with the monarchy, which was to retain the power to approve the decisions of the National Assembly.
The king responded by locking the National Assembly out of its building, but the representatives simply found a nearby tennis court, where they swore an oath not to disperse until a constitution was written. Louis threatened to dissolve the Assembly if it did not obey his commands, but he soon capitulated, and most clergy and nobles joined the National Assembly on the terms of the bourgeoisie, which had effectively asserted its dominance over the old orders within the broad structures of the ancien régime. The body became known as the Constituent Assembly, tasked with drawing up the basic laws of a new constitutional system.
Although stretching the framework of the old regime to the breaking point, the creation of the Constituent Assembly did not itself mark a revolutionary point-of-no-return: the king and the aristocracy were merely biding their time as they prepared to attack, and the bourgeoisie was too timid to go any further on its own. It was the intervention of the Parisian masses – small shopkeepers, laborers, artisans and other lower layers of society – that proved decisive. On 11 July, Louis dismissed his finance minister, Jacques Necker, who had been instrumental in doubling the representation of the Third Estate. When news of Necker’s dismissal reached the people of Paris the following day, the masses understood that the king was preparing for counterrevolution. In The French Revolution: From its Origins to 1793, French historian Georges Lefebvre writes:
“A defensive reaction followed immediately. Barricades arose in the streets, and gunsmiths’ stores were wiped clean. The electors appointed a permanent committee and set up a militia. To arm their forces, they took 32,000 guns from the Invalides on the morning of July 14. In search of more, they went to the Bastille.”
The masses that gathered outside the old prison were aided by bourgeois National Guard reinforcements sent by City Hall. They seized the Bastille and killed its governor, as revolutionary “electors” took control of the city. While the military significance of the fall of the Bastille was limited, the victory of the people on 14 July shattered the resistance of the old regime. The king found himself with no reliable armed force to retake the city and was compelled to come to Paris three days later and don the tricolor “cockade,” the new symbol of the revolutionary National Guard. Power across the country swiftly fell into the hands of the bourgeoisie, as Lefebvre explains:
“When news came of the fall of the Bastille and of the king’s visit to Paris – an event celebrated in some places – the bourgeoisie took heart and laid hands on the instruments of control in almost every area. The ‘municipal revolution’, as it is known, was in most cases a peaceable one: the municipal councils of the Old Regime took on notables or stepped down for the electors. Very often they had to create, or permit the formation of, a permanent committee. It was charged initially with organization of the National Guard, but gradually absorbed the whole administrative apparatus.”
A peasant revolt quickly swept the country, sometimes threatening bourgeois agrarian interests but essentially aimed at destroying feudal relations in the countryside. The old order was dead; a new order, still lacking formalization, had been born. On 4 August 1789, the National Assembly passed a raft of laws explicitly intended to “destroy the feudal regime in its entirety,” which were quickly written up into a “Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen,” heavily influenced by its American counterpart. In October 1789, the royal family was forced to take up residence in Paris under pressure from plebeian (and mainly female) protesters.
Events over the next few years took an increasingly radical turn, as the king – backed by the military forces of foreign feudal powers – conspired to overturn the revolution. The French Republic was declared in September 1792 and Louis executed as a traitor to the nation in January 1793. The revolution had profoundly altered the political, economic and cultural structures of France.
Led by Maximilien Robespierre, the radical Jacobins – backed by even more radical plebeian layers in Paris (the sans culottes) – took power and, pushing the bourgeois revolution to its limits, instituted a “Reign of Terror” to destroy counterrevolutionary forces. Within a year, however, on 9 Thermidor Year II (27 July 1794) in the new revolutionary calendar, the Guillotine had taken the head of Robespierre himself, as the political counterrevolution began. On 18 Brumaire Year VIII (9 November 1799), General Napoleon Bonaparte seized power in a coup d’état to become First Consul (later, Emperor) of France, but he took over a country that had irreversibly shifted to the bourgeois mode of production.
The Dutch Rebellion, the English Revolution and especially the French Revolution were pivotal moments in the historical ascendency of the bourgeoisie. As Marx observed in “The Bourgeoisie and the Counter-Revolution” in 1848, they represented successively decisive transformations of European society:
“The model for the revolution of 1789 (at least in Europe) was only the revolution of 1648; that for the revolution of 1648 only the revolt of the Netherlands against Spain. Both revolutions were a century ahead of their model not only in time but also in substance.
“In both revolutions the bourgeoisie was the class that really headed the movement. The proletariat and the non-bourgeois strata of the middle class had either not yet evolved interests which were different from those of the bourgeoisie or they did not yet constitute independent classes or class divisions. Therefore, where they opposed the bourgeoisie, as they did in France in 1793 and 1794, they fought only for the attainment of the aims of the bourgeoisie, albeit in a non-bourgeois manner. The entire French terrorism was just a plebeian way of dealing with the enemies of the bourgeoisie, absolutism, feudalism and philistinism.
“The revolutions of 1648 and 1789 were not English and French revolutions, they were revolutions in the European fashion. They did not represent the victory of a particular social class over the old political system; they proclaimed the political system of the new European society. The bourgeoisie was victorious in these revolutions, but the victory of the bourgeoisie was at that time the victory of a new social order, the victory of bourgeois ownership over feudal ownership, of nationality over provincialism, of competition over the guild, of partitioning [of the land] over primogeniture, of the rule of the landowner over the domination of the owner by the land, of enlightenment over superstition, of the family over the family name, of industry over heroic idleness, of bourgeois law over medieval privileges. The revolution of 1648 was the victory of the seventeenth century over the sixteenth century; the revolution of 1789 was the victory of the eighteenth century over the seventeenth. These revolutions reflected the needs of the world at that time rather than the needs of those parts of the world where they occurred, that is, England and France.”
If the French Revolution can be seen as the “model” bourgeois revolution, it was also, paradoxically, its apogee. However, capitalism would not enjoy the sort of relative stability that had marked feudalism for centuries. The coming period – spanning from 1815 to the last quarter of the 19th century – would be marked first by the partial or whole political disenfranchisement of the bourgeoisie and then by revolutionary crises stemming from the social upheaval of a rapidly expanding industrial capitalism. Yet while the “era of social revolution” may have closed for the bourgeoisie, it had not yet opened for the proletariat. It would not be until the Russian Revolution that this transitional period – what may be viewed as the heyday of capitalism – had run its course and a new era of social revolution began.
Next: Part III: The Rise of Proletarian Revolution