My name is Marc Mulholland. I am a Fellow (lecturer and tutor) in the History Faculty of Oxford University. My College is St Catherine's. I come from Ireland.

This is a blog relating to my book published in 2012 by Oxford University Press, Bourgeois Liberty and the Politics of Fear: From Absolutism to Neo-Conservativism.
Now on sale here and here. If you want 20 per cent off the price, I can arrange that! Send me a message or leave a comment, and I'll tell you how.

The thesis my book is examining was rather pithily summarised by Leon Trotsky in 1939: "Wherever the proletariat appeared as an independent force, the bourgeoisie shifted to the camp of the counter-revolution. The bolder the struggle of the masses, the quicker the reactionary transformation of liberalism." [Context is here]

However, my book isn't a defence of Trotskyism, or indeed any particular ideology. It's a study of an idea that took shape in Left, Right, and Centre variations.

This blog has tid-bits not included in the book, and other thoughts that occur.

You can see book details at the
OUP website.

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Georges Sorel and Two Types of Revolution

Georges Sorel had an interesting criticism of Marx's schema of social revolution. Here it is (1903 Preface to Edwin Seligman's Economic Interpretation of History [1903]; in French - apologies for my attempts at translation).

Marx had argued that as productive forces develop they press up against the integument of out-dated social and political relations, which is widely perceived as a constraint. At some point, the integument is burst asunder.

Marx, Sorel argues, based this model upon the French Revolution. (And on this revolution only; the model didn't apply to the transition from the Ancient World to feudalism, for example). It applied pretty well to France in the 1780s: clearly archaic tax and commercial codes constrained commercial relations; they simply "hindered and had no useful role in the production". Indeed (as I've noted) the French Revolution had initial support from many outside commerce, properly so-called, because all propertied classes at least could clearly see an advantage in clearing away the limits to growth.

Productive forces under capitalism, Sorel insisted, were not 'fettered' in the same way as they had been under 'feudal' social relations. There is no foreseeable end to the capacity for economic growth under capitalism. Rather, productive forces are subject to a boom-bust business cycle. They endure periodic collapse, followed at some point by renewed dynamism, but no indefinite stagnation for want of reform of social relations.

A proletarian revolution, moreover, would "exclude industrial leaders and deliver the productive forces to a [working] class without managerial experience". Revolution could not, at least in the short to medium term, emancipate productive forces.

The French Revolution in substance only required swift and fairly painless abolition of irksome remnants of 'feudalism' - famously swept away over one  night on 4 August 1789. The proletarian revolution requires a much more fundamental, protracted, and experimental transformation under the most un-propitious circumstances: "it is frightening to think of the huge quantitative difference between these two things Marx found so similar!"

One can imagine such thoughts would strike a chord with Syriza in Greece. A revolutionary crisis is not a good time to make a revolution. And who replaces the bourgeoisie?

The experience of communism seems to bear out much of Sorel's critique. Revolution in 1917 took place during conjunctural crisis - not just economic, to be sure - and the new regime was duly wracked by its unfolding. The Bolsheviks soon found that they relied upon ex-bourgeois and Tsarist experts to keep the economy running. In the long run, they trained up a new bureaucratic elite (killing much of the old) but there never clearly emerged a proletarian civil society able to rationalise the command economy. Whether a proletarian civil society can regulate a state and economy in a manner analogous to bourgeois civil society must be considered an open question.


  1. LateAgitations25 July 2012 at 02:41

    'And who replaces the bourgeoisie?' The terms 'bourgeoisie'and 'proletariat' strike me as unhelpful and anachronistic demarcators of social relations in present times. The relations of the globalised 'super-rich' to capital, the law, the nation-state, government, taxation etc. seem qualitatively different from those obtaining in the case of small business owners, academics, provincial lawyers, doctors etc.The basic social relations of these differs only in degree (quantity of money earned)from those of bus-drivers, factory workers etc.

  2. You might be right. On the other hand, worth considering this ...

  3. And on the third hand, "small business owners, academics, provincial lawyers, doctors etc" aren't really what's meant by "the bourgeoisie", is it? Though obviously interpretations of the term differ widely.

  4. LateAgitations31 July 2012 at 09:05

    I think I read something else that Marc wrote, in which his usage of 'the bourgeoisie' was more or less equivalent to this 'middle-class' category I roughly demarcate. Certainly, the CIF article to which he has referred me here, sees workers of this variety as being 'the new ruling class'(and thus, presumably, 'the bourgeoisie'). The same article also seems to collapse 'the working poor' into the category of what I guess used to be called 'the lumpen proletariat' or underclass. Who 'the proletariat' are, is not entirely clear. One way or another, though, I think the old Marxist categories are now a bit too slippery to be of much use for thinking with. And I don't think we can sort out the tangle by just identifying 'the bourgeoisie' with whomsoever we judge to have been 'to blame' for the economic crisis, and 'the proletariat' with those poor craturs who are suffering its effects the most.

  5. Thanks Late Agitations.

    The way I use bourgeoisie is as basically equivalent to the 'meritocracy', those who benefit from a free labour market because they have relatively scarce skill-sets. This was pretty much the sense of the term before Marx started using it (it was popularized in 1820s France, and certainly wasn't limited to top-hatted industrialists). The 'bourgeoisie' aren't the same as the '1 percent', or plutocracy, who allegedly control the world (they don't, I think, though they certainly have more clout than they used to).

    Proletariat I use as wage-earners without exceptional marketable skills; again it's a pre-Marx term.

    'Middle class' as it stands is pretty much hopeless as a term to think with, unfortunately, because it has come to mean the middle third of any country by wealth distribution. It's not a serious sociological category. For this reason, 'bourgeois' is helpful, and far from simply the property of crusty old Marxists (cf. Deidre McCloskey's books on 'Bourgeois Dignity' etc. - she's a million miles from Marxism). Proletariat is more loaded. I often use it because it had more trans-national currency, historically. And I'm doubtful about denying the virtue of honest 'work' to doctors, shopkeepers, peasants, entrepeneurs etc.

    In the book, I don't really stick my neck out to blame the eco. crisis on anyone, myself, economics not being my bag. Naturally I've got my prejudices!

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