Democracy and state: Revolutionary road - a bourgeois saga

Marc Mulholland examines the complex interrelationship between democracy, class struggles and the state

Revolutionary bourgeoisie

Prince Klemens Metternich, chief minister of the Austrian empire, in 1832 dolefully observed: “There is only one serious matter in Europe … and that is revolution … social revolution which attacks the foundations of society.”1

He was reflecting on the great revolution of France in 1789, the decades of war and turmoil that followed, and a series of outbreaks in 1820 and 1830. But he was also dreading a coming cataclysm. In 1848, indeed, Europe was swept by revolutions. France, Germany, Italy, Austria and Hungary - all saw governments toppled or forced to cower before the insurgent crowd. A correspondent for the Illustrated London News was unsurprised. For many years, he remarked, it was anticipated that “Europe would be roused into commotion, wherever there was a country that had not settled, after some fashion or other, the great question of the right of the middle classes to a share in their own government”.2

It is worthwhile here to notice that our Illustrated News correspondent did not expect the “middle classes” to take over government entirely; they only wished for a share. This opinion was not his personal eccentricity. It had long been acknowledged that capitalists, in particular, were ill-suited to governing directly. They were so deeply involved in the cut and thrust of the competitive market that they lacked that broadness of vision generally acknowledged to be necessary for conducting affairs of state. Adam Smith, who had written in the 18th century, is recognised as the great apostle of the free market and the constitutional state; and indeed he was. Still, Smith was very far from believing that capitalists as such should dominate the state. He had disparaged “the mean rapacity, the monopolising spirit of merchants and manufacturers, who neither are nor ought to be the rulers of mankind”.3

For liberals, however, what made the bourgeoisie uniquely progressive was that it did not seek exclusive control over the state, precisely because it made its money through business and commerce, not through manipulating powers of governance. François Guizot wrote that,


The middle classes have their faults, their illusions, their share in lacking foresight and in showing obstinacy, vanity and egoism; and it is easy to point them out. But it is slanderous to attribute to these imperfections a significance they do not have … The modern bourgeoisie does not deny its history at all. It is in the name of all and for the profit of all that it has conquered the rights which it possesses and has established the principles which prevail in our social order. It does not exercise or claim any class rule, any exclusive privilege.4


Guizot, it is true, was thrown out as king Louis Philippe’s leading minister in the French revolution of February 1848. Still, his view that the commercial middle classes were a secure base of constitutional government because they did not wish to seize the state directly was a liberal commonplace. It had been learnt from England. In 1853, a Liberal German, Georg Gottfried Gervinus, wrote enthusiastically of England’s ‘glorious revolution’ of 1688 as a model for the inevitable compromise by which the aristocrat-dominated state would, in its own interest, come to recognise and protect the interests of the middle classes:


The nobles conceded to the commons the right to their transferable property; the industry of the middle class was fostered by the state, and their power in the lower house was increased. They well knew how indispensable their right of taxation and their credit made them, and felt their importance and political influence secure.5

Modus vivendi

From the civil wars of the 1640s to the glorious revolution, Britain had achieved a modus vivendi between monarchical state and parliamentarianism. With little forethought, it stumbled upon a model of government that encouraged unprecedented private capital accumulation, whilst releasing new fiscal resources for government use. Parliament dominated by property-owners would vote supply (taxes) to government. In return, government would permit parliament to pass legislation favourable to the commercial interests of those represented in parliament. As this increased taxable income, everyone was happy!

Admittedly, deference to parliament limited the government’s room for manoeuvre, but, as Britain was protected by the Channel and its navy, it could afford a process of domestic consultation and consensus-building. Moreover, as taxes rolled in, and the government’s credit rating soared, Britain’s international power, on the compound interest principle, soared. Britain could have its cake and eat it too. Britain in the 18th century was a great military and imperial power largely because of the fiscal resources it could deploy and the buoyancy of its economy.

The French crown had wished to emulate Britain by emancipating commercial development without losing its executive freedom of action. Its attempts at reform showed the inherent risks, however. From the end of the 1780s a chain reaction was set off, the crown lost control and politicians attempted to reconstitute the nation as a bourgeois civil society through revolutionary means. Napoleon’s military despotism eventually subverted this republic, and France - only half-reformed - found itself outspent by Britain in a long-drawn-out war.

After the Napoleonic wars concluded in 1815, Britain and to a lesser extent America were widely recognised in Europe as being highly successful in their combination of free market and strong state, but the applicability of their constitutional models, having emerged adventitiously and behind natural defences, was not considered to be easily exportable. The governments of Europe feared that attempts to introduce limited constitutionalism would only unleash revolution. They preferred fiscally straitened executive states and sluggish economic growth to the risks of revolutionary transformation. With dynastic warfare, the ‘sport of kings’, now considered too risky, a reactionary peace settled on post-Napoleonic Europe.

Nonetheless, revolutions did break out in 1848, and the weaknesses of the executive states were evident in their quick collapse. Liberal revolutionaries, however, were not anxious to drive the advantage home for fear of escalating social upheaval. The 1848 revolutions failed. They did so mostly because the officer class of the great peasant-based armies of the old order did not fall apart and, after the first shock of urban insurrections, they were able to reassert control. A secondary factor, however, was the unwillingness of the middle classes to rouse the ‘mob’. In France, indeed, the liberal republican soldiery brutally suppressed the working classes of east Paris in the notorious June Days. The ancien régime states retained their repressive capacity intact, and were able to drive back revolution. They emerged little inhibited by constitutionalism and newly free of dependence upon church and aristocracy.

In the decades after 1848 the old fear of revolution that had hobbled the conservative states of Europe since 1815 faded away. 1848 seemed to prove that revolution was a busted flush, and that the middle classes were now unwilling to hazard turmoil and defeat. This left ‘neo-absolutist’ states free to introduce commercialising reform without fear of being confronted by an escalating spiral of popular demands. Commercialism and industrialisation strengthened the middle classes, which remained nonetheless politically chastened and timid. Bold politicians developed a new military adventurousness. Benso di Cavour of Piedmont combined constitutionalism, traditional dynastic militarism and revolutionary nationalism to force the unification of Italy from 1859. Otto von Bismarck of Prussia similarly united Germany by a revolution from above. His military means, furthermore, highlighted the game-changing significance of the Prussian model of a mass standing army.

This loss of initiative by the liberal bourgeoisie unnerved progressives. As early as 1869, the anarchist, Mikhail Bakunin, was arguing that the bourgeoisie had entirely capitulated to the over-mighty state:


There was a time when the bourgeoisie ... exclusively constitute[ed] the historical class … [The 18th century] was the finest hour of this class …. Such was the case before the great revolution of 1793; such was still the case, although to a much lesser degree, before the revolutions of 1830 and 1848 … The paralysis did not arrive until later, after 1848, when the bourgeoisie, terrified by the results of its earlier efforts, consciously placed itself behind the times, and when, to preserve its possessions, it renounced all thought and will, submitted itself to the protection of the military, and gave itself over, body and soul, to the most complete reaction.6


Marx and Engels were rather more circumspect. To be sure, in the 1850s and 1860s, faced with Napoleon III’s dictatorship in France and Bismarck’s success, they concluded that the bourgeoisie, in some countries at least, preferred a strong-arm state to the risk of revolution. But this unwillingness to confront the state was born of fear, and against the bourgeoisie’s better instincts: “the middle classes shrink back again under the protecting batteries of the hated despotism. This is the secret of the standing armies of Europe, which otherwise would be incomprehensible to the future historian.”7

Generally, however, Marx and Engels were optimistic that capitalist development required parliamentary constitutionalism, and that no great state could indefinitely afford to forgo the competitive advantages that would be afforded by conceding civil and political liberties. The key to controlling the excesses of the state was representative assemblies. Assemblies typically elected by propertied tax-payers granted the state financial resources, on condition that they were spent in a manner calculated to pursue the acquisition of personal wealth.

In the early 19th century the state lacked a coercive apparatus capable of levying tax income by force on a regular and predictable basis. Only the consent of the bourgeoisie could ensure state solvency. Even international loans were unlikely to be forthcoming in the absence of guaranteed tax revenues to service national debt. As Engels put it in 1865, “this is where the strength of the bourgeoisie lies: that if the government gets into financial difficulties - which sooner or later it is bound to do - it is itself obliged to turn to the bourgeoisie for money”.8 The bourgeois revolution, for Marx and Engels, took the form of constitutionalism: the subordination of the state to the interests of commercial society. As Marx observed, “cheap government” was the “catchword of bourgeois revolutions”.9

Marx and Engels admitted, however, that the new conservatism of the Bismarck type had managed to square the circle of bourgeois civil society and the authoritarian state. In a letter they wrote to The Daily News in 1878, they criticised Bismarck’s recent anti-socialist legislation as yet another manoeuvre to scare the bourgeois parties into ceding authoritarian powers to the state - “the solution, long since elaborated by Prince Bismarck, of the paradox problem [of] how to endow the German government with all the financial resources of a modern state, while, at the same time, reimposing upon the German people the ancient political regime scattered to pieces by the hurricane of 1848.”10 Still, they remained fairly sure that state authoritarianism was in long-term decline. Marx, characteristically enough, dismissed Bismarck’s political nous in an interview for the Chicago Tribune the following year:


[Louis] Napoleon was considered a genius until he fell; then he was called a fool. Bismarck will follow in his wake. He began by building up a despotism under the plea of unification. His course has been plain to all. The last move [the anti-socialist laws] is but an attempted imitation of a coup d’etat; but it will fail. … He needs money, and the state needs it. Under a sham constitution he has taxed the people for his military and unification plans until he can tax them no longer, and now he seeks to do it with no constitution at all. For the purpose of levying as he chooses, he has raised the ghost of socialism, and has done everything in his power to create [provoke] an émeute [uprising] … So far no émeute has occurred, and he stands today confounded at the situation and the ridicule of all statesmen.11


By this point, Marx had more or less ceased to be active politically. But through the 1880s and 1890s, as Gary Steenson has documented, Engels was insistent in his advice to socialists that the direction of travel remained towards increasingly democratic parliamentarianism, that the bourgeoisie was still in favour of increased civil and political liberty, and that socialists would be able to build socialism through the democratic republic.12 (It would have to be a democratic republic with a completely purged and democratised state apparatus, however. This, for Marx and Engels, had been the negative lesson of 1848 and the positive lesson of the 1871 Paris Commune).


Still, things were changing. Prussian-style standing armies, expensively maintained, became standard across Europe from 1870 (excluding Britain, protected by the Royal Navy). This meant that the state threatened to cut itself loose from civil society. ‘Militarism’ developed as an ideological system, worshipful of pomp and hierarchy, which tended to undermine libertarian sentiments in mass society. Large capitalist corporations relied far more on powerful, often protectionist states than had capitalists in the mid-19th century age of smaller firms in vigorous competition. Capitalism as such was increasingly supportive of militarism, where previously it had tended to undermine it. With the improvement of international credit facilities, as a consequence of rapid international economic growth, authoritarian regimes were becoming less dependent upon constitutionalist concessions to secure their fiscal base (tsarist Russia being a striking example). The upper end of the bourgeoisie became more aristocratic, the aristocracy more bourgeois. Both were closely entwined with the state bureaucracy. Imperialism was the fad.

As liberalism declined, electoral socialist parties developed strongly in the 1880s and 1890s. A problem for socialists, much under-appreciated in the literature on the Second International, was the question of how obdurate authoritarian state power might be overthrown or overawed, given the failure to overthrow such regimes in 1848, and the strengthening of their repressive and ideological power since. The German ‘revisionist’, Eduard Bernstein, approached this problem by arguing that the bourgeoisie was still basically liberal and progressive, and socialists should therefore cooperate with them. The Marxist ‘centre’ agreed that such cooperation was worthwhile (so long as it did not dilute the class basis of the socialist movement), but they were far less optimistic about the strength and tenacity of the bourgeois liberalism. On the left, there was a growing belief that the bourgeoisie no longer had a stake in liberalism. Said Rosa Luxemburg:


Democratic institutions - and this is of the greatest significance - have completely exhausted their function as aids in the development of bourgeois society.


Economic integration and market functions could proceed without democracy. The state, with a much developed and autonomous bureaucracy, no longer had the same need of parliamentarianism as a means of gaining consensus for taxation. Post-1848 reform from above had succeeded in transforming “the entire political and administrative state machinery from a feudal or semi-feudal mechanism to a capitalist mechanism.”


While this transformation has been historically inseparable from the development of democracy, it has been realised today to such an extent that the purely democratic ‘ingredients’ of society, such as universal suffrage and the republican state form, may be suppressed without having the administration, the state finances or the military organisation find it necessary to return to the forms they had before the March [1848] revolution.13


The most significant transformation, I would suggest, had been the generalising of the Prussian military structure across Europe. This model - a professional core combined with the mass training (and indoctrination) of young men to be mobilised in event of war - meant that the state was not falling back before commercial civil society, but growing in size and tax reach, and it was entangling more than ever with the middle classes and its capitalist suppliers.

Socialists, however, were more inclined to divine a transition from individualistic capitalism through ‘state-monopoly capitalism’ to ‘imperialism’. They were increasingly of the opinion that a structural change in capitalism since circa 1870 has weakened bourgeois affiliation to liberalism and strengthened anti-democratic militarism. Rudolf Hilferding put together these arguments in his 1910 Finance capital, which took the measure of what had changed since Marx’s Capital in 1867. He wrote:


Finance capital signifies the unification of capital. The previously separate spheres of industrial, commercial and bank capital are now brought under the common direction of high finance, in which the masters of industry and of the banks are united in a close personal association. The basis of this association is the elimination of free competition among individual capitalists by the large, monopolistic combines. This naturally involves at the same time a change in the relation of the capitalist class to state power.14


Hilferding argued that common share ownership had integrated capitalists, the traditional elites, the state bureaucracy and sections of the professional, ‘new’ middle class. This combined ‘possessing class’ was further welded together by the common threat of the working class.15

Revolutionary class

As the bourgeoisie seemed to be less and less oppositional to authoritarian state power, socialists began to wonder whether the working class might not take the lead in the struggle for civil and political liberties. Trotsky, in the light of the 1905 revolution in Russia, went furthest. In his theory of the permanent revolution, he held that the bourgeoisie had retired from the vanguard of the fight against feudalism and foreign domination. They preferred collaboration with reaction because they feared that a bold revolutionary strategy would unleash an uncontrollable movement of the working class. In the era of the French Revolution, the revolutionary bourgeoisie had led the entire nation against the ancien régime, confident that no allied class of peasants or artisans could outflank them. Capitalism, however, had generated a proletariat that had the capacity to challenge the middle classes for political hegemony.

Trotsky argued that the bourgeoisie had become incapable of resolute revolutionary action even in their own interests. The proletariat would have to take the lead in democratic revolution. This gave them a potentially commanding role even in underdeveloped nations. But, Trotsky argued, the proletariat would not stop at the limits of democratic revolution: in their own class interests they would push on to the socialist phase. If they were successful in this, a ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ would likely grow directly out of a democratic revolution, not in the constitutionalist heartland of capitalism, but on its authoritarian periphery. Socialist governments would, in Trotsky’s opinion, prove incapable of consolidating unless the revolution spread to ‘mature’ capitalist economies. The conquest of state power by the socialist working class in a backward country such as Russia would, by lighting a beacon, enormously increase the likelihood of international revolution.

The great war which broke out in 1914 certainly strengthened the link between big business and the state, tending to diminish the role of parliamentary constitutionalism. Lenin concluded from this - and here I want to emphasise what a break this was from Marxist orthodoxy - that the bourgeoisie had entirely lost any progressive potential. The bourgeoisie, Lenin insisted, had completely broken from democratic constitutionalism. This was a fundamental change:


The period between 1789 and 1871 was one of progressive capitalism when the overthrow of feudalism and absolutism, and liberation from the foreign yoke, were on history’s agenda.16


But in the age of imperialism distinctions between ‘progressive’ and ‘reactionary’ bourgeoisies, at least in the imperialist (ie, advanced capitalist) world, had become redundant: “a comparison of, say, the republican American bourgeoisie with the monarchist Japanese or German bourgeoisie shows that the most pronounced political distinction diminishes to an extreme degree in the epoch of imperialism”.17


For Lenin, the bourgeoisie were now antithetical to any kind of constitutionalism, or civil and political liberty. ‘Bourgeois liberty’ had become a contradiction in terms, and the fate of all capitalist countries was inevitable and the same: anti-working class dictatorship.

In 1917, as we know, the Bolsheviks successfully argued that the state apparatus had to be entirely displaced by workers’ councils (soviets). Even if these did not last long as genuinely autonomous proletarian bodies, Bolshevik one-party rule and the bloody class war that wracked Russia was profoundly shocking to international bourgeois opinion: “The mass flight from Russia of members of the old aristocracy and middle classes,” wrote Raymond J Sontag, a devoutly religious American professor, “made an inedible impression”:


To the men of property in the west, these were exactly the men and their helpless families who by birth, education and enterprise were capable of giving leadership to the Russian people, but who, under the terror of Soviet ‘democratic centralism’, were forced to flee to escape extermination.18


The ‘red spectre’ had come to life for the middle classes.

In a neo-con experiment of its day, the post-war Treaty of Versailles awkwardly attempted to erect liberal democracy as the new standard. This was not a capitulation to the working class. Rather, it assumed that the patriotism so conspicuous in the conflagration of the war could be put to good use as a legitimising ideology for nation-states. Class antagonisms would be overcome by national solidarity and social inequality accepted by the electorate. Immediately, however, this Wilsonian schema plunged into crisis, destabilised by the Bolshevik revolution. The new eastern states succumbed to dictatorship, as did Italy and then Germany. Democracy seemed like a bad bet in the inter-war years.

As the war came to a conclusion, workers’ councils formed spontaneously, particularly in those countries on the losing side. Motivation was complex, but primarily they were defensive institutions to protect against ‘reaction’. ‘Reactionaries’ referred to those virulently anti-democratic personnel still ensconced in the armed forces, police, civil service, judiciary, management of industry and agriculture, and much of academia. In truth, the entire state apparatus and most institutions of civil society were riddled with men disgusted by democracy and the licence it gave the insurgent working class. Russia showed how weak constitutionalism could be before a red onslaught.

Social democrats favoured the maintenance of parliamentary constitutionalism, Communists favoured the smashing of the power of the state and oligarchy. In between, the ‘centrists’ wavered. Germany was a key battleground. Here the reactionary oligarchy was left intact by the 1918 revolution. Social democrats had a more immediate fear of a communist-provoked civil war. The government made a fatal mistake in leaving the old guard in place. As Karl Liebknecht of the Spartacists complained,


Had the government abolished the authority of army officers, had it removed the generals from their posts, then these men would not openly hatch counterrevolutionary plots today ... the government has reinstated bureaucratic power and done everything to protect the capitalists’ safes by disarming the proletariat and arming the bourgeoisie.19


Still, the old guard did not have it all its own way (and Weimar democracy survived until the 1930s). The trauma of war and revolution had done much to politically discredit traditional elites. They could not, by their own efforts, re-establish untrammelled authority over the democracy. They lacked the confidence, for fear of losing control of the state apparatus, to wage civil war. But democracy itself, the plaything of political parties based upon sectional and class interests, was discredited in the eyes of many. It seemed a system productive only of anarchy, playing to the gallery, and opportunism. Many were disgusted by the disorder and factionalism of parliamentary constitutionalism.


Fascist movements, violently anti-Marxist and energised by ultra-nationalism, mobilised these masses. Fascism preached the re-establishment of an organic ethno-national unity, but had contempt for the degenerate elites. Fascism could take on the socialist and communist movements in their own arena of street politics. It artfully deployed electoral and mass-propaganda techniques, in a manner completely alien to the aristocratic remnants of the ancien régime. But fascists played the democratic game with the aim of atomising the socio-political components of democracy. As such, they were attractive allies for the army commanders, landowners and industrialists who struggled to restore the hegemony of class society.

If the traditional elites could bridle fascism, as with the Falange and Franco, then fine for them. A reasonable simulacrum of ancien régime autocracy could stabilise (if only, for central and eastern Europe, to be swept away by World War II). However, fascist movements were attractive allies for the elites precisely because they independently enjoyed formidable power bases of activists and supporters. Though they needed elite acquiescence to acquire state power, they could potentially turn on the elites thereafter. Then fascist leaders would be without restraint, civil society crushed and helpless before them. Full rein could be given to their messianic fantasies. This perhaps was only definitively the case in Nazi Germany. The fruits of unleashed Nazism, however, were barbaric beyond all expectation.

The communists, in a funk of fear, turned to popular frontism - implicitly repudiating Lenin’s anathema on the bourgeoisie, they rediscovered progressive potential amongst at least some of the middle class. Communist courting, however, seduced few bourgeois. If anything, it only convinced erstwhile liberals that democracy was ill-equipped to resist communist subversion.

World War II did, however, root out the reactionary ‘permanent state’ that had crippled democracy from 1918. No longer were reactionaries able to present themselves as anti-red patriots: this time most had collaborated with the German invaders and their allies. They did not escape a reckoning. Because the Allies had demanded unconditional surrender rather than a 1918-style armistice, they entirely smashed German militarism, and occupied most of Europe. This permitted a far more thorough restructuring of the state apparatus than had been conceivable after the great war. The outcome was a massive revolutionary reordering in continental Europe from about 1944 to 1946. It took the form of popular, resistance-led persecutions, as well as a more ordered series of trials, vettings and demotions, overseen by liberation governments. Said Simone de Beauvoir: “Vengeance is pointless, but certain men did not have a place in the world we sought to construct.”20

Post-war ‘free world’

The defeat of the Axis powers showed up the limitations of traditional, hierarchical, authoritarian militarism, and revealed the potential of the US model of industrial mobilisation behind a citizen army which retained considerable elements of the civilian ethos. Post-war, the United States was the exemplar of the successful ‘bourgeois civil society’, in which, it was thought, middle class status was accessible to all.

Democracy, constitutionalism and free markets had cohered in the ‘consumer society’. This ‘high consumerism’, moreover, now spread to western Europe. Cartelised, militarised capitalism was forcibly restructured in Germany and Japan, in an unconscious commendation of the critique of ‘monopoly capitalism’, as argued by the socialists of the Second International. Fearing a resurgent bourgeois civil society supported by US ‘imperialism’, the Stalinist regimes of the eastern bloc liquidated capitalism and petty bourgeois production.

However, so-called ‘modernisation theorists’ in America were of the mind that less developed nations would be unwise to take premature risks with democracy. They continued to believe that democracy and early-stages economic development were close to incompatible. The masses would be easy prey for class-warrior demagogues. Communist ‘subversion’ was an ever-present fear. America, thus, found itself supporting the repression of democratic popular movements in the ‘third world’ if their success was seen as likely to advantage communist opponents of the ‘free world’. Credible deterrence, it was felt, required an aggressive, highly militarised response to insurgencies against its allies, no matter how despotic these allies might be.

The most glaring demonstration of US unwillingness, or inability, to favour emancipation in the developing world was apparent in Vietnam, where the US waged a bloody counter-insurgency war in support of a tin-pot dictatorship. As the cold war geared up, moreover, America had for the first time developed a peacetime army of global standing. Vietnam was drastic proof of the deleterious impact of this ‘military-industrial complex’, but it warped American society too. The cold war from 1947 had allowed not a few collaborators or fascist eminences to remain in post, or creep back in (often as expert advisors to an emergent Nato, as they had fought the Red Army on the eastern front). Many felt - and with considerable justification - that behind the west’s democratic structures, darkly authoritarian attitudes hung on in the recesses of the gerontocracy that clung to positions in the police, army, judiciary, universities and so on.

The new left and ‘youth’ rebellion of the 1960s rose against this neo-militarism, and did much to root out the last redoubts of anti-democratic instinct. But, while 1968 demoralised the right, it also pointed a way ahead for consumerist society that would revive the revolutionary potential of bourgeois civil society. Robert Speck, assistant national secretary of the American Students for a Democratic Society, and editor of New Left News, in 1968 told an interviewer:


One of the things I’ve noticed is that both the new left and the new right, or whatever it is, have very much the same attitude to the institutions of state. They break down [as] attitudes of property rights, as compared to human rights. And there’re a helluva lot of people who can go either way in that. They can either assume that property is king or that mankind is king.21


This was prescient. As the new left travelled down the road of ‘human rights’ (abandoning a class analysis in due course), the new right asserted the rights of private property against the state. The 1970s proved to be a key decade. As the state grew over-burdened and fiscal crises developed, the middle classes increasingly rejected the warfare-welfare state as it had developed after 1945. With the reactionary state in full meltdown, socialist radicalism as a response amongst workers declined. Democracy seemed secure, and elites no longer required threats to keep them in check. The bourgeoisie in response grew less fearful of the labour movement, and more impatient with its sectional demands. The anti-dictatorship transitions of Greece, Spain and Portugal saw the middle classes positively favouring liberal constitutionalism - partly because the socialist challenge had diminished, partly because they saw consumerist democracy as now having the potential to tame self-seeking trade unionism.

The collapse of communism in the 1980s was forced not so much by an incipient domestic bourgeois civil society in those countries where it had state power as by state-elite demoralisation and their willingness to adopt the successful model of western capitalism. Still, those of the ‘intelligentsia’ - managers, scientists, academics - had long looked enviously at the incomes of their western counterparts. They believed that a free market in skills would convert them into rich bourgeois, and no longer would they have to defer to the interests of a smokestack industrial working class.

The attempt to create a bourgeois civil society in the ex-communist countries involved considerable hardship and, as ever, the newly-minted bourgeoisie preferred cooperation with the state bureaucracy to taking it over directly. The demise of the ‘red menace’, moreover, meant that constitutionalism could be more or less imposed as a condition for loans on developing countries by the International Monetary Fund, in a striking reassertion of the link between fiscal credibility, parliamentarianism and protection of private productive property.

By the 1990s, the ‘opportunity state’ had at least rhetorically displaced the ‘welfare and warfare’ state. For some on the right, however, this triumph threatened another bout of bourgeois ennui. A new, revolutionary-democratic militarism seemed just the thing to restore purpose and pride to an otherwise rather shabby bourgeois order, characterised by excesses of wealth at the top and stagnant growth in wealth for the majority. Neo-conservatism resisted this sapping of bourgeois vitality, and celebrated American military superiority as a tool for promoting worldwide, free-market, democratic revolution. After the 9/11 attacks, export of bourgeois revolution on the point of US and allied bayonets became a reality for the Middle East. In a blaze of hubris in the early 21st century, neo-conservatives openly lauded the new era of revolution.

They were not the first revolutionaries to be disillusioned .


1. Quoted in JT Talmon Romanticism and revolt: Europe 1815- 1848 London 1967, p9.

2. Quoted in J Laver The age of optimism: manners and morals, 1848-1914 London 1966, p18.

3. A Smith Wealth of nations (1776):

4. F Guizot Mémoires pour servir à l’histoire de mon temps (1872), excerpted in EK Bramsted and KJ Melhuish (eds) Western liberalism: a history in documents from Locke to Croce London 1978, p336.

5. BGG Gervinus Lessons of past times: an introduction to the history of the 19th century London 1853, p59.

6. M Bakunin, ‘To the comrades of the International Workingmen’s Association of Locle and Chaux-de-Fonds’:

7. K Marx, ‘Revolution in Spain’ (1856):

8. F Engels, ‘The Prussian military question and the German workers’ party’ (1865):

9. K Marx Civil war in France: the third address (1871):

10. K Marx and F Engels, ‘To the editor of The Daily News’:

11. Interview with Karl Marx (1879):

12. GP Steenson After Marx, before Lenin: Marxism and socialist working class parties in Europe, 1884-1914 Pittsburgh 1991, chapter 1.

13. R Luxemburg Reform or revolution (1900):

14 . R Hilferding Finance capital:

15. A Brewer Marxist theories of imperialism: a critical survey London 1980, 2nd edition), p105.

16. VI Lenin Opportunism and the collapse of the international (1916):

17. VI Lenin Imperialism: the highest stage of capitalism (1916):

18. RJ Sontag A broken world: 1919-1939 New York 1971, p37.

19. G Kuhn (ed and trans) All power to the councils! A documentary history of the German revolution of 1918-1919 Oakland 2012, p107.

20. T Judt Post-war: a history of Europe since 1945 London 2005, p41.

21. Speck interviewed in J Finn Protest: pacifism and politics New York 1968, p324.

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