Lenin on the bourgeois revolutions

Contra the “Leninists”

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Image: Jacques Louis-David,
The Tennis Court Oath (1793)

Introduction: Against leftist senility

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I am posting this here because of the widespread incredulity witnessed recently on the part of self-declared “Marxists” toward the historical legacy of the bourgeois revolutions. This is, I contend, the flipside to the tendency of leftists to claim all manner of backwater populists like
Chavez or Allende — their tendency to disclaim truly revolutionary figures who come out of the bourgeois tradition, Jacobins like Jefferson or Danton and radical Republicans like Lincoln. Since they’ve had so few notable political leaders and organizers in recent decades, leftists have lionized sheepish socialists and reformists of all sorts while denigrating the accomplishments of bourgeois revolutionaries. Engels, addressing a crowd gathered in 1845 to mark the “festival of nations,” commemorated the protagonists of the great bourgeois revolutions, adding that “[i]f that mighty epoch, these iron characters, did not still tower over our mercenary world, then humanity must indeed despair.”

Needless to say, this goes double in a time such as ours. Despite the admirable efforts of historians like Neil Davidson, whose recent book How Revolutionary Were the Bourgeois Revolutions? takes explicit aim at such blatant revisionism, neo-Stalinist academics like Domenico Losurdo insist that the category of “bourgeois revolution”

is at once too narrow and too broad. As regards the first aspect, it is difficult to subsume under the category of bourgeois revolution the Glorious Revolution and the parliamentary revolt that preceded the upheavals that began in France in 1789, not to mention the struggles against monarchical absolutism, explicitly led by the liberal nobility, which developed in Switzerland and other countries. On the other hand, the category of bourgeois revolution is too broad: it subsumes both the American Revolution that sealed the advent of a racial state and the French Revolution and the San Domingo Revolution, which involved complete emancipation of black slaves. (Liberalism: A Counter-History, pg. 321)

In an interview I conducted with him over a year ago, the Italian theorist expanded on this point with reference to bourgeois revolutions, faulting Marx himself. “I criticize Marx because he treats the bourgeois revolutions one-dimensionally, as an expression of political emancipation,” he told me. “I don’t accept this one-sided definition of political emancipation, because it implied the continuation and worsening of slavery…We have numerous U.S. historians who consider the American Revolution to be, in fact, a counter-revolution. The opinion of Marx in this case is one-sided.” (Losurdo conveniently forgets it was Engels — the “late” Engels of Anti-Dühring, no less, not a piece juvenilia penned by a supposedly “young” Marx — who maintained: “What the American Revolution had begun the French Revolution completed”).

But this view is hardly limited to conservative latter-day Stalinists like Losurdo. At the opposite end of the leftist political spectrum, Marxist autonomists like Asad Haider and Salar Mohandesi of Viewpoint echoed this sentiment by dismissing the bourgeois revolutions as tawdry instances of “colonialist universalism.” In an article they wrote for Jacobin, “Is there a Future for Socialism?”, they write: “[W]e’re pleased to enter into an exchange with Jacobin, whose logo recalls that we live in the world made by Toussaint L’Ouverture and the Black Jacobins. The reverberations of their confrontation with the colonialist universalism of the so-called ‘bourgeois revolutions’ would be felt throughout the 19th century.” Even colorless centrists like Alexander Locascio — translator of Michael Henrich and member of the German party Die Linke (or “the DDR’s AARP,” as one left communist memorably put it) — will castigate anyone who observes the anniversary of Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence as perversely “celebrating …the founding of a colonial-settler state.” Here he is merely repeating the well-worn charge first formulated by Losurdo in his essay on “Lenin and Herrenvolk Democracy” published in Lenin Reloaded, a collection edited by Sebastian Budgen, Stathis Kouvelakis, and Slavoj Žižek. Putatively Trotskyist authors have begun subscribing to this interpretation as well. In a post meant to hype the release of the Lenin Reloaded collection, the popular Cliffite blogger Richard Seymour, who usually knows better, wrote that

among my favourites is the article by Domenico Losurdo on “Lenin and Herrenvolk Democracy” — Losurdo is, if you ask me, the best critic of capitalist ideology writing today. Here, he engages with the difference between Lenin and Tocqueville — between the Russian revolution and the American one, that is. Lenin…won the respect of and provided the example for anticolonialists across the planet. Woodrow Wilson, a racial fundamentalist and Protestant fanatic, would try to be his equal in appealing to the colonised, but failed because he was himself a supporter of colonialism and Aryan supremacism.

Seymour is not alone among the Cliffites in entertaining this argument against the revolutionary character of the bourgeois revolutions. Later, the ISO’s main theoretical organ, the International Socialist Review, ran a short summary of this argument by Losurdo himself. “The tangle of liberty and slavery was already an intellectual challenge in the aftermath of the American Revolution,” Losurdo correctly notes in his piece. From his, however, he leaps to a far more tendentious conclusion: “Following the suggestion of several distinguished US historians and sociologists, we should speak of a ‘Herrenvolk democracy,’ a democracy that applied exclusively to the ‘master race.’ Only in this way are we able to understand the tangle of liberty and slavery that has characterized US society and the history of liberalism.” To his credit, Seymour would eventually distance himself from Losurdo’s account of liberalism and the bourgeois revolutions. More acutely, his comrade across the pond, his comrade Joe Cleffie observed in a review of Losurdo’s Liberalism book that its “wrongheaded critique of Marx may be a result of the author’s own background in Stalinist politics in the Italian Communist Party.”

Likewise, Marx even leapt to the defense of the “glorious” bourgeois revolution of England in 1688, along with some bourgeois philosophers and politicians whom leftists like Losurdo and Seymour like to anachronistically write off as reactionaries. Seymour, following Losurdo’s cue on the Kriegsideologie of liberalism, thus wrote in his Liberal Defense of Murder of one great bourgeois theorist: “John Locke, who devised the principles that would underpin the British polity and property relations following the ‘Glorious Revolution’ in 1688, also formulated the principles justifying the British empire as it colonized parts of the Atlantic coast of the Americas and the Caribbean islands, and was a member of the Board of Trade and Plantations for some of that time” (The Liberal Defense of Murder, pg. 24). Compare with Losurdo’s article: “[Locke] had a hand in drafting the [state] constitutional provision according to which ‘every freeman of Carolina shall have absolute power and authority over his Negro slaves, of what opinion or religion soever’…[T]he English philosopher…had sound investments in the slave trade: he was a shareholder in the Royal African Company.” Ironically it was reactionary liberals like François Guizot, not revolutionary socialists, who after 1848 sought to contest the revolutionary bona fides of figures like Locke. “The French Revolution was imported to France from no other country than England,” Marx wrote in a damning 1850 review of Guizot’s History of the French Revolution. “Its father was Locke, and in Shaftesbury and Bolingbroke it had already achieved that ingenious form which later found such a brilliant development in France. We thus arrive at the strange conclusion that the same free-thinking philosophy which, according to M. Guizot, wrecked the French Revolution, was one of the most essential products of the…English Revolution.”

The following excerpt from Lenin should make clear the Marxist stance toward bourgeois revolution, and dispel the erroneous notions regarding his “stagism.” Perhaps Lenin was wrong here; just because he said something does not make it so. Still, for those who consider Lenin a foundational figure and a guide to their own politics, his argument should at least be taken seriously and grappled with — not just conveniently swept under the rug. This lets anti-Leninists like Locascio off the hook, and maybe even libertarian communists like Mohandesi and Haider (though the former was refreshingly charitable to Il’ich in a 2012 paper on “The Actuality of the Revolution”), but should pose difficulties to soi-disant “Leninists” like Losurdo and Seymour. If Lenin was wrong, it is incumbent upon them to demonstrate why. Until then, here’s what he had to say on the matter:

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Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin, 1897

From Two Tactics of Social-Democracy in the Democratic Revolution (1906)

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The new-Iskraists thoroughly misunderstand the meaning and significance of the category: bourgeois revolution. Through their arguments there constantly runs the idea that a bourgeois revolution is a revolution which can be advantageous only to the bourgeoisie. And yet nothing is more erroneous than such an idea. A bourgeois revolution is a revolution which does not go beyond the limits of the bourgeois, i.e., capitalist, social and economic system. A bourgeois revolution expresses the need for the development of capitalism, and far from destroying the foundations of capitalism, it does the opposite, it broadens and deepens them. This revolution therefore expresses the interests not only of the working class, but of the entire bourgeoisie as well. Since the rule of the bourgeoisie over the working class is inevitable under capitalism, it is quite correct to say that a bourgeois revolution expresses the interests not so much of the proletariat as of the bourgeoisie. But it is entirely absurd to think that a bourgeois revolution does not express the interests of the proletariat at all. This absurd idea boils down either to the hoary Narodnik theory that a bourgeois revolution runs counter to the interests of the proletariat, and that therefore we do not need bourgeois political liberty; or to anarchism, which rejects all participation of the proletariat in bourgeois politics, in a bourgeois revolution and in bourgeois parliamentarism. From the standpoint of theory, this idea disregards the elementary propositions of Marxism concerning the inevitability of capitalist development where commodity production exists. Marxism teaches that a society which is based on commodity production, and which has commercial intercourse with civilized capitalist nations, at a certain stage of its development, itself, inevitably takes the road of capitalism. Marxism has irrevocably broken with the ravings of the Narodniks and the anarchists to the effect that Russia, for instance, can avoid capitalist development, jump out of capitalism, or skip over it and proceed along some path other than the path of the class struggle on the basis and within the framework of this same capitalism.

All these principles of Marxism have been proved and explained over and over again in minute detail in general and with regard to Russia in particular. And from these principles it follows that the idea of seeking salvation for the working class in anything save the further development of capitalism is reactionary. In countries like Russia, the working class suffers not so much from capitalism as from the insufficient development of capitalism. The working class suffers not so much from capitalism as from the insufficient development of capitalism. The working class is therefore decidedly interested in the broadest, freest and most rapid development of capitalism. The removal of all the remnants of the old order which are hampering the broad, free and rapid development of capitalism is of decided advantage to the working class. The bourgeois revolution is precisely a revolution that most resolutely sweeps away the survivals of the past, the remnants of serfdom (which include not only autocracy but monarchy as well) and most fully guarantees the broadest, freest and most rapid development of capitalism.

That is why a bourgeois revolution is in the highest degree advantageous to the proletariat. A bourgeois revolution is absolutely necessary in the interests of the proletariat. The more complete and determined, the more consistent the bourgeois revolution, the more assured will be the proletarian struggle against the bourgeoisie for Socialism. Only those who are ignorant of the rudiments of scientific Socialism can regard this conclusion as new or strange, paradoxical. And from this conclusion, among other things, follows the thesis that, in a certain sense, a bourgeois revolution is more advantageous to the proletariat than to the bourgeoisie. This thesis is unquestionably correct in the following sense: it is to the advantage of the bourgeoisie to rely on certain remnants of the past as against the proletariat, for instance, on the monarchy, the standing army, etc. It is to the advantage of the bourgeoisie if the bourgeois revolution does not too resolutely sweep away all the remnants of the past, but leaves some of them, i.e., if this revolution is not fully consistent, if it is not complete and if it is not determined and relentless. Social-Democrats often express this idea somewhat differently by stating that the bourgeoisie betrays its own self, that the bourgeoisie betrays the cause of liberty, that the bourgeoisie is incapable of being consistently democratic. It is of greater advantage to the bourgeoisie if the necessary changes in the direction of bourgeois democracy take place more slowly, more gradually, more cautiously, less resolutely, by means of reforms and not by means of revolution; if these changes spare the “venerable” institutions of serfdom (such as the monarchy) as much as possible; if these changes develop as little as possible the independent revolutionary activity, initiative and energy of the common people, i.e., the peasantry and especially the workers, for otherwise it will be easier for the workers, as the French say, “to hitch the rifle from one shoulder to the other,” i.e., to turn against the bourgeoisie the guns which the bourgeois revolution will place in their hands, the liberty which the revolution will bring, the democratic institutions which will spring up on the ground that is cleared of serfdom.

On the other hand, it is more advantageous for the working class if the necessary changes in the direction of bourgeois democracy take place by way of revolution and not by way of reform; for the way of reform is the way of delay, of procrastination, of the painfully slow decomposition of the putrid parts of the national organism. It is the proletariat and the peasantry that suffer first of all and most of all from their putrefaction. The revolutionary way is the way of quick amputation, which is the least painful to the proletariat, the way of the direct removal of the decomposing parts, the way of fewest concessions to and least consideration for the monarchy and the disgusting, vile, rotten, and contaminating institutions which go with it.

16 thoughts on “Lenin on the bourgeois revolutions

  1. This is really fascinating Ross. What Lenin says here is, indeed, so obviously consistent with the Marxist theory of the development of socialism and communism, that it is almost inconceivable that so many would have gotten it so wrong for so long. I see a very similar tendency in the Left’s frankly tepid and sometimes hostile response to the revolutions in Egypt, Libya, and Syria. There seems to be this sense that dictators and despots and crackpot tyrants pimping half-baked versions of state socialism are preferable to democratic capitalism. Even when the rebels are composed of large swaths of Leftists and liberal progressives, the mainstream Left still shits all over them, and goes out of its way to discredit and undermine them. The left does not want revolution anymore; instead it sates itself on pointless anti-Americanism. Thanks for the post and the much needed history lesson.

    • Spot on!

      “There seems to be this sense that dictators and despots and crackpot tyrants pimping half-baked versions of state socialism are preferable to democratic capitalism.”

      Sure, because these are “deformed workers’ states” which, compared to bourgeois-democratic capitalism, are progressive and superior from the point of the view of the proletariat. Nevermind repression, lack of freedom, and the right to strike!

      Really this post speaks to the utterly anti-Marxist refusal to deal with or even countenance the contradictions inherent in bourgeois and bourgeois-democratic revolutions among so-called Marxists. So instead of embracing the Arab Spring’s democratic revolutions as they actually exist and trying to advance the interests of the proletariat within them, these “Marxists” criticize them for failing to be proletarian revolutions and one-sidedly emphasize their shortcomings to disqualify them from being the vaunted label of being “really revolutionary” using all manner of political pre-texts: ‘pro imperialism,’ ‘sectarianism,’ ‘Islamism’, ‘too much armed struggle, not enough soviets.’ Richard Seymour’s sophistry in this regard is unmatched.

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  3. I think there is a problem with this analysis. And that is that there is a danger that by asserting the one, revolutionary and entirely progressive necessary side of the great bourgeois revolutions (no greater historic revolutionary lions than Cromwell and Robespierre) we may ignore that history has moved on and what was the dialectically opposite, reactionary and oppressive sides of these revolutions (Haiti), even then, has now become the norm for all revolutions that the bourgeoisie of their small siblings, the petit bourgeoisie, might aspire to lead. The comments on this in regard to Chávez et al are entirely correct. But it was the young Lenin who wrote that piece in 1906, and, whilst giving no concessions to the likes of Althusser on the young Marx and epistemological breaks, it was the Lenin whose had been educated in his Marxism by Kautsky and Plekhanov. In particular he had not yet developed his dialectical understand of revolution in the epoch of Imperialism and continued to defend the Democratic Dictatorship of the Proletariat and Peasantry and rejected Trotsky’s Permanent Revolution. Although during the 1905 revolutionary upsurge he came very close to it, as Marcel Liebman points out in his Leninism under Lenin, and the April Theses was the practical application of Permanent Revolution, even if Lenin never acknowledged it as such.

    I point to this danger because today there is much nonsense talked today of revolutions in the Arab Spring. Political idiots like the IMT’s Alan Wood could hail a reactionary populist uprising of 17 million against Morsi in Egypt as a revolution and then be left with the awful task of explaining how a “revolution” could produce such terrible counter-revolutionary results. I was also taken in this consideration by how my former comrades in the WRP News Line could come to the same conclusion “the revolution forced the army to overthrow Morsi” and in the same Marxist Review magazine explain how that great revolution leader, Ayatollah Khomeini had accomplished such wonders in Iran.

    Our point is that acknowledging the great bourgeois revolutions of the past and learning the lessons for today must involving the elementary skill of distinguishing between revolution and counterrevolution today. Juan Peron, Khomeini and General Abdul Fattah al-Sisi were and are populist counterrevolutionaries who had a big following in the poor and oppressed, but bigger following in the declassed middle classes. But counter-revolutionaries there were. Significantly the political forces you pick out not only seek to mechanically elevate the secondary and oppressive sides of the great bourgeois revolutions of the past as their essence but they do it in order to justify supporting bourgeois populist reaction today.

    It is revolution in general that the likes of Gilbert Achcar, Alan Wood, Seymour and the Cifiiites in general, to mention but a few, are shitting on. And they do that so they can shit on the socialist revolution which MUST be anti-Imperialist in all semi-colonial countries. No exception which Achcar tried to claim for Libya and now Syria and everywhere else. Social Imperialism today comes dressed in democratic sheep’s clothing hiding the Imperialist wolf. And who else will ceded to the working class via Miliband and the TU bureaucracy that increase in living standards so urgently needed? The dialectic today is that it was the defeat of the war aims of western imperialism, albeit temporarily, in the House of Commons self-interested seat-saving vote that rallied the working class to begin to fight for its own interests domestically that posed the probability of getting Miliband elected in 2015.

  4. Lenin’s tricky here and different from Trotsky on permanent revolution, namely that proletarian socialism is necessary to accomplish the tasks of the bourgeois revolution in the epoch of capitalist decay. This is not only true of so called backward countries but also for democracy in the advanced capitalist countries too! — Not to say Lenin would differ on the latter — too much can be made of their differences which are less pronounced when considering their agreement on the perspective of world revolution.

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  6. The similar situation created a split in Turkey, in 2010 constitutional referendum. Some leftist groups- like Trotskyist party(DSİP) or Marxist magazine Birikim- supported AKP-ruled party. They argued that these reforms should be evaluated as bourgeois revolutions against bureaucracy. They formulated this not enough but yes! They were seeming right theoretical but latter developments are terrible for left in Turkey. Referendum won yes votes, %58 against %42. Then, ruled party attempted to establish its authoritarian state. Where did some leftist groups mistake? Perhaps, we can find an answer from Lenin:
    ”If these changes develop as little as possible the independent revolutionary activity, initiative and energy of the common people, i.e., the peasantry and especially the workers, for otherwise it will be easier for the workers, as the French say, “to hitch the rifle from one shoulder to the other,” i.e., to turn against the bourgeoisie the guns which the bourgeois revolution will place in their hands, the liberty which the revolution will bring, the democratic institutions which will spring up on the ground that is cleared of serfdom.”

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