The theories of Permanent Revolution and Deflected Permanent Revolution remain of central importance despite the doubts expressed in Neil Davidson’s How Revolutionary Were the Bourgeois Revolutions?
Neil Davidson, How Revolutionary Were the Bourgeois Revolutions? (Haymarket 2012), xxi, 812pp.
The history of revolution matters. It is not only that the English and French Revolutions, for example, brought about the current capitalist social order. More, those and other revolutions remain a demonstration that it was possible to overthrow a ruling class, and to transform society permanently. The process of the English Revolution itself produced the modern understanding of the word ‘revolution’, where beforehand it had denoted only a cyclical change. Yet, the heirs of these bourgeois revolutions have long since been concerned to deny their very importance, precisely in order to contain any possible demands for further revolutionary change. This is the irony of the bourgeois revolution; that it opens a door that this new ruling class itself is desperate to shut.
The very concept of revolution has consequently been under attack for pretty much as long as the idea has existed in its modern form. Since the 1970s in particular, many tendencies of revisionist history effectively have sought to eliminate the notion of revolution as a significant force in the development of society. It is always possible, particularly in the ‘empiricist’ tradition of Anglophone history, to find that revolutions changed very little, and that in fact continuity was the order of the day over any period of tumultuous upheavals. This procedure can reduce revolution to an unfortunate, and probably counter-productive, belch in social development. Revolutions can also be tidied away by showing that they were not really about major social transformation, but were really conflicts over now obscure points of religion, for example, that did not have any lasting legacy.
Apart from the empirical debates, two particular conceptual issues come out of these controversies. Firstly, there is the relationship of intention and results; are revolutions not really revolutions if the actors involved did not know what they were doing in advance? It might seem obvious that it is not necessary for social revolutions to be understood beforehand in the intentions of historical actors, for such events to arise out of class struggles and deep social contradictions. Nonetheless, overtly or not, this issue has been important to many supposed refutations of the Marxist understanding of history and revolution.
A second issue concerns definitions of revolution and social change: what constitutes a revolution? If social change happens necessarily over an extended period of time, then how are revolutionary events to be understood within the overall longer social transformation? Here the answer to entirely predictable empirical findings of ‘continuity’ is to insist upon the non-gradual and non-linear processes by which society develops. The ‘continuity’ argument pre-supposes a very simplistic notion of social change in which there are certain changes of quantity, such as in the amount of exchange in the market, or in the production of certain commodities, but where no real change in quality is allowed. Underneath many arguments about continuity lie assumptions about the economics and human behaviour that preclude the perception of a new system emerging. Perceiving this kind of qualitative change within the totality of social movement is crucial to a dialectical understanding of history.
Ideas and Experiences of Revolution in History
The experience of revolution does not only change definite social-economic structures in society, it necessarily entails transformations in social understanding, such as in the idea of revolution itself. The history of conceptual change in notions of revolution gives Neil Davidson an organising principle for his ambitious attempt to encompass the entirety of debates about bourgeois revolutions. To an extent, the early sections of this book are a straightforward intellectual history of political concepts up to Marx. Nonetheless, there are no narrow limits placed on the analysis here. Davidson might have been forgiven if he had started with some observations on the cyclical understanding of social conflict in the ancient Greek polis and then skipped straight to the discussion of key seventeenth century figures such as Harrington, Hobbes and Milton, whose ideas were directly affected by the events of the English Revolution.
The concern here is however to be thorough, and so there are interesting comments on medieval thought as well, including the perennially fascinating thirteenth-century ascetic Joachim of Fiore whose mystical theory of the stages of history unintentionally inspired radical millenarian movements in the late middle ages (pp.10-11). As Davidson points out, ‘cyclical’ thinking based on Classical literature became dominant once more during the Renaissance, and until the 1640s in Britain in particular. Yet, there is a trick missing here, in that rather more ‘advanced’ understandings of ‘revolution’ can be detected among heretical and millennial currents deep into the medieval period. These resurface periodically and most abundantly during the English Revolution, but their emergence has a long social if not intellectual prehistory.
Christopher Hill referred to a ‘third culture’ distinct from the Royalist and Puritan world views of the seventeenth century (see for example the analysis in Milton and The English Revolution, Faber and Faber, 1977), in which a concept of this-worldly social revolution might be said to be immanent. In contrast to this view, Davidson’s concentration on the analysis of key thinkers as such tends to downplay the extent to which revolution was a social and conceptual reality; that is to say, the analysis tends to emphasise the conservative aspects of leading thinkers’ ideas against the revolutionary context from which they emerged. To an extent this is a matter of nuance, and Davidson’s account is fascinating, but the very encyclopaedic ambition of the book affects the balance of arguments, conceding more to the perspective of revisionist views than might have been intended.
Davidson’s first seven chapters concern the key writers who discussed the nature of revolution between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries, with a following section of another seven chapters on Marx and Engels and their followers all the way through to figures such as Trotsky, Lukács and Walter Benjamin. Inevitably this takes in a huge range of controversies along the way, and so the argument slips between analyses of each thinker’s conceptual apparatus, to the actual history of revolutions, and back again, through various debates sparked by revisionist challenges, or controversies between Marxists. This effort at completeness gets in the way of a focused development of a clear, overall thesis, though certain tendencies of thought become gradually firmer in the course of the book. The final two sections, mainly examining post-war schools of historical and political analysis, become an overview of debates between Marxists, and a consideration of the revisionist attacks on the very notion of revolution in history. Without a doubt, this thorough programme makes the book an immensely useful reference for a whole range of Marxist historical debate, and for the serious student, this will be a very helpful orientation point.
There are some particularly large scale controversies that reappear at a number of points throughout the book that do act to thread the book together thematically. One is the attack on Marxist history coming from various revisionists of the 1970s and later. Davidson is sharp at pointing out many of the flaws of their approach, remarking sardonically at one point that ‘it is always educative for Marxists to be told what they think’ (p.107), highlighting how a reductive caricature of Marxism is most often used to critique the arguments put forward by much more sophisticated writers.
Not entirely separate from this theme is Davidson’s consistent critique of the ‘Brennerist’ school of history, whose major move is to separate the birth and emergence of capitalism from the bourgeois revolution itself. The damage this separation does to the Marxist theory of history is quite considerable, since it tends to consign social revolution to the margins of history. Davidson himself puts to question the extent to which a bourgeoisie existed and was conscious of its actions in revolutionary periods, but the interpretation of Brenner and his followers abandon that problem altogether in the face of revisionist critique.
Davidson is quite scathing of some of the attempts to re-interpret Marx and the Marxist tradition by Robert Brenner’s followers. Arguments of Ellen Meiskins Wood, and even more, Georges Comninel, come in for trenchant appraisal (see pp. 155-6 for example). This is important, and well argued, but the polemic is scattered across many different chapters. Another significant, but more accessible, critique of the Brennerist line can be found in Henry Heller’s recent The Birth of Capitalism. It is a fair way through before Davidson clarifies what appears to be his main concern about Brenner’s view of history, saying that if his school is right then we ‘are solely dependent on the outcome of the voluntarist clash of class wills’ (p.398). This is certainly the case, although the presence of any specific class struggle often seems elusive in Brennerist accounts. Equally, however, there is the opposite danger that the intervention of conscious social forces is downplayed.
Social and Political Revolution
In the course of elaborating the conceptual history of revolution, Davidson draws an increasingly hard distinction between political and social revolutions, effectively designating the latter the only really revolutionary events. These must also be the key moment in the transition from one mode of production to another. Questions of definition are thus explored in relation to one revolution or another; for example the American War of Independence is examined, and found wanting, over whether it can be considered a genuine social revolution (pp.56-9). Davidson does not adopt definitive positions in many of these discussions, but the impression left is that most revolutions have been found to be less definitely revolutionary than the Marxist tradition might have supposed.
Partly, this is to do with the theorists of the bourgeoisie, which Davidson discusses, being themselves ambivalent about revolutionary processes, which from the English Revolution onwards, were obviously full of danger for any aspiring ruling class. If the question of property is raised in the context of a mass mobilisation against an old ruling class, then anti-capitalist criticisms are bound to appear on the agenda. This is part of the contradictory nature of bourgeois revolution. On the eighteenth-century American revolution for example, it seems odd to counter pose the possibility that it was a bourgeois revolution with the fact that popular insurgencies connected to it were significantly anti-capitalist (p.56). Of necessity, there would be a number of poles of social conflict involved in the elites of the American colonies asserting the rule of national capital against imperial rule.
There is no conundrum in a bourgeois revolution against an imperial rule exercised by a capitalist nation; in the American case it was necessary precisely in order to establish an independent centre of capital accumulation. Only a schematic approach to history can make this a problem, rather than an example of the historical specificity of any particular revolution. Also, as Davidson points out, the anti-capitalist elements involved in the American Revolution could be contained largely within issues of the franchise. Even as early as the English Revolution, the question of democracy accompanied the revolution, and was a destabilising force from the point of view of the leading bourgeois forces. Democracy may be an eventual product of bourgeois revolution, but itself highlights the social contradictions of the process.
The point that democracy is contradictory rather than being simply a characteristic of bourgeois rule is missing here. Davidson, in many instances, turns the poles of political and social revolution into dichotomous categories, rather than tools of dialectical analysis. The political and social aspects of revolutions are always in flux, and interpenetrate each other at the very moments they appear to be separate. To treat them as categories of static definition is to miss the socially fluid possibilities inherent in any revolution. The demand that the great ‘social’ revolutions are the absolute moment for a change in the mode of production is applied too rigidly, and begs a discussion of the nature of modes of production. Did slavery in America really represent an alternative to capitalism, or was it always a form of exploitation entirely predicated upon wider capitalist relations? Davidson is not able to adequately explore this question, but it needs to be answered if Davidson’s definition of what constitutes a real ‘social’ revolution is to be sustained.
Treating the terms social and political revolution, or indeed, bourgeois, democratic and socialist revolutions, as static terms that require categorical definition automatically produces problems when applied to historical cases. Categories will never fit; they slip too easily into being ideal, pure cases which actual history can never fulfil. It makes no sense to analyse the Dutch, English, American, and French revolutions separately as if they should exhibit the same essential characteristics. They are each moments in the development of both capitalism and the bourgeoisie, and thereby they must necessarily exhibit sharp differences. This is because each bourgeois revolution, to a large measure, was dependent for its nature on the outcome of the previous one. The impact of the bourgeois revolutions, even as early as that of the Dutch, was never restricted to that one nation, but always had international implications. Davidson is naturally aware of this as a fact, but never quite integrates it as a historical process into the agenda of his analysis.
This is perhaps why the case against the revisionists appears to cede too much ground at points. Davidson argues that it is not necessary for there to be a bourgeoisie that is active in the revolution for that revolution to be bourgeois. If we dispose of simple reductive views about the relationship between intention and outcome, the only problem is the historical nature of class. Revisionist scholarship is very resistant to seeing a historical class in any other but fixed terms: if the bourgeoisie has a particular core definition, such as ‘factory-owner’, then it is easy to discover that the bourgeoisie did not have anything much to do with any revolution. The case against the Marxist interpretation of history is complete and impregnable at that point. Yet this (and other less literal positions) is obviously an inadequate definition, since social classes are not in fact static entities that exist in a single, positivist form across centuries. A bourgeois class has existed in various changing forms over time, and has mutated according to how capitalism itself has developed and restructured social relations.
The ‘bourgeoisie’ before 1640 in England was very different from how it appeared a century later, as the Industrial Revolution began to get underway, but this social transformation was only possible because of the revolutionary struggles that established the sway of capital over the whole society. The forces that drove the Parliamentary side in the English Revolution can be clearly connected to the development of capital-driven, market-based social relations in the most developed parts of England. Thus the bourgeoisie, understood in a dialectical sense, was certainly in existence in 1640, and played a real role in that revolution.
A strong defence of a non-reductive Marxist interpretation of the English Revolution was provided by Brian Manning in his The English People and The English Revolution, but Davidson does not seem to give it much weight (pp.367-8), also swiftly passing by Henry Heller’s reassessment of the role of a bourgeoisie in the French Revolution (Davidson was much more positive about Heller’s work in an earlier article; ISJ 113, pp.159-75). Both Manning’s history of class struggle from below and Heller’s analysis give non-reductive accounts that expose the weakness of the revisionist caricature of Marxism as well as its own myopic view of history.
As capitalism developed internationally, and as old regimes decayed, both the nature of the developing bourgeoisie changed in each country, and the overall character and impact of the social relations of production were transformed. The context for bourgeois revolution was significantly different in each case as a result of the last. Yet Davidson appears very often to be analysing each revolution in isolation, and measuring it against an abstract, ideal bourgeois revolution. The exercise, while full of interest as it goes along, is methodologically problematic. Implicit in the title of the book is the notion that perhaps the bourgeois revolutions were not as revolutionary as all that. Yet this really boils down to the necessity for the bourgeoisie to both effect a revolution and then bring it to a close. One vital addition Marx made to the already existing theory of revolution of his time was to find that the bourgeoisie had only opened the era of revolution, and as a class it would be unable to conclude that era. The age of permanent revolution had arrived.
Davidson worries at the relevance of the concept of permanent revolution, it seems perhaps because for him the transition to bourgeois rule was in fact mostly, even normally, achieved not by a revolutionary transformation from below, but by a ‘revolution from above’. If the latter is the norm, then the concept of permanent revolution always had a limited utility, as its relevance was mainly to Russia, and perhaps China. Davidson’s questioning of the status of bourgeois revolutions is not purely academic; it is connected to the validity of the claim that the age of bourgeois revolution will directly open up the possibility of socialist revolution.
Central to the emergence of Marx’s concept of permanent revolution was the experience of the 1848 revolutions, where the bourgeoisie largely turned against revolution, fearing more the demands and activity of the workers below them than the princes and aristocrats above them. Classically it is in Germany and Italy that the revolutions failed to sweep away the old political order, and the unification of both countries was left to later actions ‘from above’ from the late 1850s to the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1. For Marx, briefly, the lesson right after 1848 was that the baton of revolution and human progress had been passed onto the proletariat; hence the new era was one of permanent revolution.
A well worn argument here is that the Italian and German unifications represent cases of ‘revolutions from above’. A failure of the bourgeoisie to fulfil its revolutionary role means that the task is taken up by other social forces, most ironically in these cases by the ex-feudal state and aristocracy transforming itself into the elite of modern capitalist regimes. Davidson argues in fact that this fashion of revolution has proved to be the norm of ‘bourgeois revolution’; that transformation normally happens from above, and the bourgeoisie strictly speaking does not often carry out a popular struggle to transform the mode of production of a society (pp.443, 468-70, 586). The chronology of this is noted; the revolutions from above happen after a certain moment in world history (during the eighteenth century) where the ‘global dominance of the capitalist system’ passed the point of no return (p.586).
The French Revolution is then singled out as unique in its revolutionary nature, being the only successful bourgeois revolution ‘from below’ to take place after this tipping point for the capitalist system. On one level this is true enough to the facts, although the argument does depend on excluding the American War of Independence from consideration, which is problematic at least. Yet the real dynamic of bourgeois revolution seems to be missing here. The bourgeoisie, after the French Revolution, began to draw back from revolution in the face of the rise of the working class. The real tipping point in terms of revolution is not some putative moment in the eighteenth century, but the defeated revolutions of 1848. In Germany, middle class liberals, as Engels argued, were more afraid of working class agitation than they were of the aristocracy they were supposedly trying to overthrow (Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Germany). The result was defeat for the liberal revolution. After this point in history, it is indeed the case that certain ‘tasks’ of the bourgeois revolution were likely to be driven forward by non-bourgeois forces, not only in Russia, but also in other major revolutionary episodes like the Mexican revolution that began in 1910. Yet it was bourgeois liberalism that was inhibited, not capitalist development itself.
The Japanese ‘revolution from above’, the Meiji Restoration, is often added to Germany and Italy as an instance where the transition to capitalism is accomplished without a revolution as such. This could add further substance to the notion that the transition to capitalism is generally an anti-revolutionary event. While it is possible to exaggerate how ‘unrevolutionary’ all these episodes actually were, the main problem lies in taking them out of their context in the development of capitalism in Europe and the world in general.
The classical bourgeois revolutions were in fact the crucial events; the French Revolution produced a wave of French campaigns, including Napoleon’s, which really were, in part, a revolutionary re-shaping of Europe. Feudalism was swept away across most of Europe, and not without popular support, particularly early on. The restored regimes of 1815 could not turn the clock all the way back. The French Revolution was an event experienced by Western Europe as a whole, not just France. It would be possible to attempt to class the French invasions as ‘revolutions from above’, but from a certain angle, all revolutions are in part from ‘above’ as well as from ‘below’. Parliamentary forces in England, for example, had to invade less ‘progressive’ areas of the country. At that point it would be possible to start arguing that the English Revolution too was some sort of revolution from above, but then the stage has been reached when the category has been drained of useful meaning.
In actual fact then, the dominant history of bourgeois revolution is of revolution from below, until that point where the development of capitalism meant that a social force existed with the potential to exploit a revolutionary moment for anti-capitalist goals. That point was reached in the revolutions of 1848. By this point also capitalism was well on its way to dissolving the old structures of class societies outside Europe. The impact of maturing capitalism on the wider world, and resistance to imperialism at various levels, introduces entirely new dynamics, which all but rule out further ‘classical’ bourgeois revolutions. The question then became how far the struggle against imperialism would lead to the establishment of alternative centres of capital independent of the imperial core, or whether the struggle would be able to destroy imperialism and capitalism altogether. It is thus that Marx’s concept of permanent revolution, born of 1848, needed the elaboration that Trotsky gave it in the wake of the acceleration of nineteenth-century capitalist imperialism.
One key aspect of the theory is the conclusion that it would be up to the working class to achieve many of the possible positive gains of bourgeois revolution, democracy for example, since the bourgeoisie of a country like Russia would be more likely to support an existing state for fear of the radicalism a revolution would produce. World capitalism, by this point, was creating bourgeoisies in less developed nations that were largely dependent on imperial capital, and so were counter-revolutionary forces in their own societies. Capitalism was now acting to preserve and incorporate rather than undermine old forms of rule and exploitation outside the original centres of capitalist development. Meanwhile, class struggles acted both against the old and the new in a country like Russia. The mutually re-enforcing interconnections between the different sources of class conflict could be, and were, explosive.
Thus Davidson rightly emphasises that Trotsky’s permanent revolution was firmly bound up with the analysis of ‘combined and uneven development’. However, he offers a few surprising judgements which seem to marginalise the concept. Firstly Davidson claims that the crucial aspects of Trotsky’s theory developed late in his writings (p.225). Yet many passages from Results and Prospects (1906) clearly reveal already the great potential of ‘combined and uneven development’ in explaining the possibilities for revolution in less developed societies at that stage of world capitalist development (see chapter 1, The Peculiarities of Russian Historical Development.
Part of Davidson’s case here is that Trotsky, in downplaying permanent revolution later during the internal struggle with Stalin, was not dissimulating but revealing his true position (pp.252-3), and that his earlier analysis was meant to be confined to the Russian case. This seems to be an oddly myopic reading of the original text, whatever may be said about Trotsky’s position shortly before his final expulsion from Russia by Stalin (the long quotation from Trotsky on p.253 reads more naturally as a tactical defence of the concept of permanent revolution than a disavowal of its contemporary relevance). However, the underlying reason for all this discussion appears to be that the ‘absence of any further discussion of “revolution from above” [on Trotsky’s part] is mitigated by the fact that Trotsky was at this point focused almost entirely on Russia and did not consider the wider implications of this version of permanent revolution’. The implication should have been that ‘there might be another route to bourgeois revolution than through the agency of the working class’ (p.224).
Trotsky wrote in Results and Prospects that: ‘History does not repeat itself. However much one may compare the Russian Revolution with the Great French Revolution, the former cannot be transformed into the latter. The 19th Century has not passed in vain’. Davidson’s analysis is oddly lacking in awareness of this dimension. Revolutions ‘from above’ were made possible and necessary through the international impact of previous revolutions, and were carried out precisely in order to avoid more revolutionary change. This does not make them typical at any point, just a possible alternative to revolution when the latter is still an immanent possibility.
When Davidson argues that ‘permanent revolution’ cannot apply to ‘advanced capitalist states’, as this would detach it from the lessons of combined and uneven development, it appears that a problem has been created by the terms of analysis itself (p.307). The capitalist system exists as a totality, but Davidson seems to be falling back into a stageist conceptualisation of the problem where each nation has its own individual path through capitalist development, so that the forms of development in subordinated parts of the world do not directly affect the imperial centres. This stageist conceptualisation seems to be at the root of the otherwise unnecessary worrying over the differences and overlaps between bourgeois, democratic and socialist revolutions (pp.307-8). Rather than being only stages or categories, these terms are descriptive of the balance of class forces at different points in the development of various revolutions.
Deflected Permanent Revolution
The argument becomes strained when it reaches the discussion of Tony Cliff’s theory of ‘deflected permanent revolution’, which Davidson attempts to assimilate to his inflated category of bourgeois ‘revolutions from above’. The ‘deflected’ revolutions of the post-war period in some cases can be interpreted as clearing away remnants of pre-capitalist political and social relations. However, more central to their meaning was the impulse to throw off imperial domination in order to achieve independent industrial development in any given combination of state capitalist and orthodox capitalist forms. If the era of bourgeois revolution is now closed, as it appears to be in Davidson’s view, then the whole period of revolution as such closes: ‘Permanent revolution and, consequently, deflected permanent revolution may now be historical concepts’ (p.627). The assimilation of Cliff’s theory thus needs to be seen in the context of Davidson’s underlying misgivings about the importance of revolution in history.
Yet, the concept of deflected permanent revolution cannot be assimilated to a characterisation of ‘revolution from above’ as the twentieth-century route to modernity, without doing considerable violence to the experience of the events concerned. For example it seems simply crass to argue that these revolutions are rarely seen as bourgeois because (referring to the use of socialist vocabulary) ‘an extraordinary form of collective false consciousness had arisen, first in Russia itself, then spreading to the colonial and semi-colonial world’ (p.619). In any case, the intrusions of imperialism had forced transitions in modes of production in different ways across most of the world by this point, so the issue was the extent to which various nations would remain under the full domination of imperialist capital, or be able to establish their own independent alternatives. That is a vastly complicated story that is not much explained by the notion of bourgeois revolution from above.
Conversely, ‘deflected permanent revolution’ is not a categorical explanation but a tool of analysis. It asks the question, what groups are able to organise and lead popular discontent, in order to seize state power and to establish some degree of autonomy from dominant centres of capital? To object that the term can cover both social and political revolutions, as Davidson defines the Chinese and Cuban revolutions respectively (p.464), is therefore to miss the point. It is questionable whether the Chinese Communist Party victory in 1949 itself represented a social revolution, since the process surely began in the revolution of 1911 at least. Nonetheless, what is certainly common between the revolutions in China and Cuba is that they were highly conscious attempts to rid themselves of destructive, comprador bourgeoisies and dependence on imperialist centres. In neither case was the urban working class able to exercise any leadership in the revolution. This was also crucial in determining the nature of the break from western imperialism, but in itself the revolutions are not well characterised as ‘revolutions from above’ labouring under an extraordinary false consciousness.
If the events analysed through the concept of deflected permanent revolution were simply bourgeois revolutions, then that stage of history is completed by the transition to capitalism under various forms of state capitalism in Eurasia and Africa. However, this is only sustainable as an analysis if the contradictory impact of capitalism across the world is ignored. Capitalism creates a situation of permanent revolution because it is unable to sustain stable social forms, particularly in subordinated parts of its world system. Capital must disrupt and destabilise as it reproduces itself, destroying existing structures as it seeks to expand; it does this everywhere, even if the worst effects tend to be felt in the so-called periphery. Thus there is no reason now to assume that ‘deflected permanent revolution’ has run its course, and that its lessons are not still relevant. Every time an existing political regime becomes unstable, the question of political and social revolution will arise once again, and the social revolution will either be deflected once again, or a working class breakthrough may occur.
Indeed, it would seem that in the wake of the great economic crisis since 2008, the lessons of permanent revolution, and Cliff’s extension of it, are as important as ever. Cracks had already appeared in the neoliberal phase of capitalism, with South America in increasing defiance of those norms to a more or less radical extent. Now with the Arab revolutions, a whole range of old regimes have come under popular attack; the foremost question was and remains which social forces could seize the initiative and find a new path out of this crisis of capitalism. The issue has been whether the working class in the Arab states, most particularly Egypt, can succeed in establishing its leadership of the revolutionary situation, or whether the initiative will once again be deflected into the hands of other social elements who will reach, eventually, some sort of accommodation with a shifting but still capitalist world order. The record of past revolutions in all parts of the world is of the utmost use at this point, but they need to be understood within their own contexts, and in terms of the worldwide totality of capitalist development, in all its contradictions, if they are to be grasped adequately.
At the end of the book, Davidson advises revolutionaries simply that organisation and the Party is necessary if we are to hope that anything will change (p.629). It is hardly possible to disagree with this, but whatever his intentions, the course of Davidson’s arguments in this book undermine the sense that revolutionaries are acting with the flow, at least, of historical possibility tending with us rather than against us. Despite the arguments against revisionism here, the case that social revolution is a historically limited phenomenon is actually strengthened by the discussion. There is no question that this is a learned and immensely useful survey on the literature of revolution, but for a focused analysis of bourgeois revolution its net is almost too wide for real clarity to emerge.
Despite Davidson’s attempts at complete coverage of all possible aspects of analysis, the ‘bourgeois revolution’ frequently becomes unmoored from its own historical development. Consequently, the wrong questions are asked, particularly of revolutionary events that post-date the ‘classic’ period of bourgeois revolution, when there was no clear opponent to threaten the victory of capital. The presence of a threat to capitalist rule is the very significance of permanent revolution. The threat is quite real as stable regimes for the rule of capital have been the exception rather than the rule in subordinated parts of the global system, where authoritarian states, or worse, are particularly likely to be the norm. Political revolutions, ‘bourgeois’ revolutions, will therefore keep happening, as they regularly have done since 1945. Yet the result, unless the political revolution transforms into the social, will be the return of the problems and conflicts at the root of revolution in the first place. The contradictions of capitalism and imperialism have not gone away, and so neither will permanent revolution. This is the dynamic underpinning the events of the Arab Spring. Far from ‘deflected permanent revolution’ being irrelevant, its lessons are quite sharply relevant here.
As the last thirty years of neoliberal governments in western economies has shown, capital has a constant need to restructure society in order to feed its own expanding reproduction and surmount its contradictions. These processes lead to social confrontations throughout the world, in areas deemed developed and underdeveloped alike. Capitalism causes disruption and transformation as a normal course of its development and reproduction, and so cannot avoid laying the ground for revolutionary events. Revolution is therefore a permanent aspect of capitalist society, whether a post-revolutionary bourgeoisie likes it or not.
Dominic Alexander is a member of Counterfire, for which he is the book review editor. He is a longstanding activist in north London. He is a historian whose work includes the book Saints and Animals in the Middle Ages (2008), a social history of medieval wonder tales, and articles on London’s first revolutionary, William Longbeard, and the revolt of 1196, in Viator 48:3 (2017), and Science and Society 84:3 (July 2020). He is also the author of the Counterfire book, The Limits of Keynesianism (2018).
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