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Books: How Revolutionary Were The Bourgeois Revolutions?

A classy analysis of the bourgeois revolutionary era

How Revolutionary Were The Bourgeois Revolutions?

by Neil Davidson

(Haymarket, £22.99)

This book by Neil Davidson is an impressive undertaking. As its preface states, an individual's definition of bourgeois revolution impacts in fundamental ways on how proletarian revolution and socialism is defined.

But while the concept of the "bourgeois revolution" is a vital underpinning of Marxist thought and historiography, the idea has been analysed to a lesser extent than might be expected. This discrepancy may be due to the monumental and groundbreaking nature of previous books by Christopher Hill, EP Thompson and Eric Hobsbawm and the authority asserted by these works over the decades since their publication may have given the impression that little remains to be said on the matter.

Yet Davidson's new book on the theory of the bourgeois revolution, its historical development and its future possibilities, both continues the magisterial tradition of these previous major works and provides a corrective to much consequent conservative and liberal historiography.

Although How Revolutionary Were The Bourgeois Revolutions? describes itself as essentially an exercise in the history of ideas, it recognises that this history is inseparable from the background of momentous events against which the idea developed.

The majority of the book is devoted to a comprehensive overview of the concept of "bourgeois revolution," its emergence as an idea in Reformation and Enlightenment thought and its subsequent development and use in Marxist and non-Marxist historiography.

Davidson deals with both the classical Marxist interpretation of bourgeois revolution and with revisionist assertions that they did not in fact occur.

In the concluding section, the author attempts to synthesise his previous themes and arguments into a new and alternative reading of the bourgeois revolution as a series of national transformations and a global process which has relevance for contemporary and future radical struggles.

Perhaps the most obvious criticism of Davidson's stylish and erudite work would be its concentration on Europe and America for "ideal types" of bourgeois revolution - from France, England, Holland or the civil war which brought the US into existence.

This predictable focus leaves the book's arguments vulnerable to accusations of Eurocentricism and more rewarding attention could have been paid to other parts of the developing world, past and present.

Even so, the book is a valuable contribution to Marxist historiography. Written with wit and lucidity it makes an engaging, thought-provoking and enjoyable read.

RHIAN E JONES

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