Talking about the (Bourgeois) Revolution

AHA Session 247
Saturday, January 6, 2018: 3:30 PM-5:00 PM
Columbia 7 (Washington Hilton, Terrace Level)
Alexander Anievas, University of Connecticut at Storrs
Tithi Bhattacharya, Purdue University
Geoff Eley, University of Michigan
Sandra Halperin, Royal Holloway, University of London
Andrew Zimmerman, George Washington University

Session Abstract

The concept of ‘bourgeois revolution,’ like many other social scientific categories, appears to have disappeared from the discipline of history, rendered obsolete by the various ‘turns’ that have marked the development of the methodology of our discipline in recent years. It is the contention of this panel that all of these turns have in fact put us in a position to return to the category of bourgeois revolution, and perhaps to other social scientific categories as well.

The term bourgeois revolution, both in certain types of Marxism and in liberal modernization theory, referred to a revolution in which a national bourgeoisie took power from a national aristocracy and carried out a number of tasks, regarded either as desirable in themselves (for liberals) or desirable as a waystation on the path to socialism (for Marxists). These included, above all, the introduction of representative democracy. Germany history had long served as a kind of negative test case for this model, so long as its bourgeois revolution could be considered a failure. When panelist Geoff Eley, along with other scholars, showed that German history resulted from its own bourgeois revolution, he not only undermined this connection of bourgeois class rule and liberal democracy, but also opened the way for scholars to think freshly about bourgeois revolution. Postcolonial theorists like Dipesh Chakrabarty enabled scholars to highlight the Eurocentric nature of social scientific categories like bourgeois revolution, which had previously limited their applicability. Yet, for whatever reason, these twin challenges to the concept of bourgeois revolution, and to Eurocentric modernization theory more broadly, seem to have prompted most historians to run from these more deeply historicized categories rather than pursue new possibilities for analysis that Eley, Chakrabarty, and others opened with their critiques.

The four papers on this roundtable propose to return to the category of bourgeois revolution, precisely by building on the various turns that had perhaps seemed to undermine the category. How might we best understand the relationship between the dynamics of capitalist economic development and the salience of particular liberal-constitutional political forms and associated systems of the rule of law? Does a theory of bourgeois class formation help us in answering that question? Does the dominance of capitalism in society presuppose a politics of revolutionary transformation? Is the concept of “bourgeois revolution“ helpful in understanding such a break?

See more of: AHA Sessions