Bourgeois Revolution

The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Bourgeois Revolution


a social revolution whose main task is the destruction of the feudal system or its vestiges, the establishment of the rule of the bourgeoisie, and the creation of a bourgeois state; in dependent and colonial countries the bourgeois revolution also aims at the attainment of national independence. At a certain stage a bourgeois revolution is historically necessary and progressive, as it expresses the needs of society’s development.

The considerable diversity in the class forces taking part in a bourgeois revolution, the problems solved, and the methods of struggle is caused by the specific circumstances in an individual country and above all by the transformations that have taken place in society over the centuries. In the epoch of rising capitalism, the bourgeois revolutions (the English in the 17th century and the French and American in the 18th century) broke the shackles of the feudal system and cleared the path for capitalism. The bourgeois revolutions of that epoch established the economic and political rule of the bourgeoisie. In the period of the general crisis of capitalism, bourgeois revolutions do not clear the path for capitalism as much as they rock the world system of imperialism.

The most frequent cause of bourgeois revolution is a conflict between the new productive forces that develop within the womb of the feudal system and feudal productive relations (or their vestiges and survivals), as well as feudal institutions; however, this conflict is often masked by political and ideological contradictions. But even in cases of a bourgeois revolution caused by foreign oppression or the desire to unify the country, the pressing need to eliminate the feudal system or its vestiges plays a decisive role.

With the development of capitalism, especially since it has entered the imperialist stage, another conflict arises in addition to the aforementioned—namely, the conflict between the interests of the independent development of the national economy (especially in colonial and dependent countries) and the rule of foreign capital. This conflict gives rise to the anti-imperialist struggle, which usually merges with the antifeudal struggle.

The tasks that a particular bourgeois revolution is called upon to solve derive from the objective factors that have caused it. In the majority of bourgeois revolutions the chief task is the solution of the agrarian question (for example, the Great French Revolution and the Revolution of 1905-07 in Russia). In others the primary tasks are those of attaining national independence (for example, in the Dutch Revolution of the 16th century and the American Revolution of the 18th century), national unification of the country (in Germany and Italy in the mid-19th century), or national liberation from imperialist oppression (in the countries of Asia, Africa, and Latin America in the 20th century). Political tasks are always important too—the destruction of the feudal monarchy, the establishment of a bourgeois republic, and the democratization of the social system.

Once the objective conditions of a bourgeois revolution exist, the ripeness of the subjective factor—that is, the factor of the social forces capable of solving its tasks—becomes decisive. A bourgeois revolution is not a single act. Most revolutions have lasted for months, if not years, and have passed in their development through a series of stages linked to changes in the relationship and deployment of the class forces participating in them.

In the early bourgeois revolutions and several revolutions of the 19th century the forces in motion were the bourgeoisie, the peasants oppressed by feudalism, the artisans, and the emerging working class. The bourgeoisie, which at that time played a revolutionary role, was the guide and leader of the popular masses. The bourgeoisie fought against feudal property, but as it itself was composed of property owners, it did not dare to abolish private ownership of land anywhere (although this measure would have met the needs of bourgeois progress). In the early bourgeois revolutions the most revolutionary forces were the toiling lower classes of the countryside and the cities. Bourgeois revolutions achieved their greatest successes when these groups seized the initiative.

With the development of capitalism and the formation of the proletariat as a class, the bourgeoisie progressively loses its revolutionary character. The first independent action of the French proletariat in June 1848 drove the bourgeoisie to betray the cause of the revolution. V. I. Lenin, following K. Marx, noted a trait that had become characteristic, namely “that the bourgeoisie strives to put an end to the bourgeois revolution halfway from its destination, when freedom has been only half won, by a deal with the old authorities and the landlords. This striving is grounded in the class interests of the bourgeoisie” (Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 15, p. 206). Since the proletariat could not yet become the leader of the revolution and the peasantry vacillated, the European revolutions of the mid-19th century ended in defeat.

In the epoch of imperialism the bourgeoisie in the more or less developed capitalist countries becomes counterrevolutionary out of fear of the proletariat, which threatens its rule. Having ceased to be a moving force, it continues to fight for hegemony, attempting to turn the revolution onto the path of reforms. But now the proletariat, which has grown numerically and ideologically and is organized into an independent political party, is able to become the guide and leader of the revolution.

In colonial and dependent countries the national bourgeoisie can still play a progressive and even a revolutionary role, even in the epoch of imperialism, especially if a struggle against foreign imperialism is under way. But the most revolutionary force is the working people—the more or less numerous proletariat and the peasantry, which constitute the bulk of the population. The depth and thoroughness of the social and democratic transformations of society depend on the ability of the working class to achieve hegemony at decisive moments and to establish an alliance with the peasantry and with other progressive forces.

The scope and type of a bourgeois revolution depend primarily on the level of activity of the masses of people who take part in it. If the bourgeoisie succeeds in preventing the unfolding of the toiling people’s struggle for their own economic and political demands and isolates them from taking part in the solution of political questions, the bourgeois revolution is more or less a surface revolution, and its chief tasks are implemented incompletely through compromises. Examples of such revolutions are the revolutions of 1908 in Turkey and of 1910 in Portugal.

Lenin, following Marx and Engels, applied the term “popular” or “bourgeois democratic revolution” to the bourgeois revolutions in which “the mass of the people, their majority, the very lowest social groups, crushed by oppression and exploitation, rose independently and stamped on the entire course of the revolution the imprint of their own demands, of their attempts to build in their own way a new society in place of the old society that was being destroyed” (ibid., vol. 33, p. 39). Such types of action are exemplified by the actions of the yeomanry (peasantry) and the plebeian elements of the cities that led to the proclamation of the republic (1649) and by the demands of the Diggers during the English bourgeois revolution of the 17th century. In the Great French Revolution the peasant and plebeian masses played a decisive role in all its phases, but the action of Babeuf was the first attempt of the proletariat to implement its own class demands. In the bourgeois democratic revolutions of the period of imperialism (the Revolution of 1905-07 in Russia and the bourgeois democratic February Revolution of 1917) the creative revolutionary power of the people gave rise to the Soviet of Workers’ and Peasants’ Deputies.

Different classes and groups use different methods and forms of struggle in bourgeois revolutions. Thus, the liberal bourgeoisie has most frequent recourse to the methods of ideological and parliamentary struggle; the officers, to military plots; and the peasantry, to antifeudal uprisings with seizures of noble domains, the partition of land, and so forth. The methods of struggle characteristic of the proletariat are strikes, demonstrations, barricade fights, and armed rebellion. For example, Lenin characterized the Revolution of 1905-07 in Russia as a proletarian revolution in its methods of struggle. However, the forms and methods of struggle depend not only on the revolutionary forces, but also on the actions of the ruling classes, which are usually the first to use violence and thus unleash civil wars.

The chief question of any revolution is the question of power. A bourgeois revolution, inasmuch as it is called upon to ensure the free development of the capitalist system, usually ends in the transfer of power from the nobility to the bourgeoisie. But the bourgeois democratic revolution carried out under the leadership of the proletariat may lead to the establishment of a revolutionary democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry. In evaluating the results and the historical significance of any given bourgeois revolution, one must consider its indirect as well as its direct results. The social and economic gains of a bourgeois revolution are more stable than the political gains. A bourgeois revolution has often been followed by the restoration of the overthrown dynasty, but the capitalist system that asserted itself in the course of the revolution has triumphed (for example, the English Revolution of the 17th century and the French Revolution of the late 18th century).

There are revolutions in which the revolutionary forces prove inadequate at solving the tasks confronting a bourgeois revolution, and the revolution is completely or partially defeated (for example, the bourgeois revolution of 1848-49 in Germany and the bourgeois revolution of 1905-07 in Russia). In such cases the tasks that are objectively on the historical agenda are solved slowly and painfully, and vestiges of the Middle Ages are preserved. These vestiges give especially reactionary traits to the capitalist system. Lenin called the “completion” of a bourgeois revolution in the broad sense of the term “the consummation of the entire cycle of bourgeois revolutions” (ibid., vol. 19, p. 247)—that is, a fully crystallized capitalist development of the country.

Marx and Engels, considering the experience of the European revolutions of 1848-49, posed the question of the uninterrupted (permanent) revolution that passes consecutively from the solution of bourgeois democratic tasks to the solution of socialist tasks. Developing these ideas, Lenin formulated the theory of the transformation of the bourgeois democratic revolution into the socialist revolution. The condition for such a transformation is the leadership of the proletariat in the bourgeois democratic revolution. This theory was proved correct by the transformation of the bourgeois democratic February Revolution of 1917, as well as by the transformation of antifascist, anti-imperialist democratic revolutions after World War II, into socialist revolutions.

In the present epoch the preservation of feudal vestiges in a number of countries and especially the strengthening of reactionary antidemocratic tendencies create a fertile ground for new common democratic movements and revolutions directed primarily against the oppression of the capitalist monopolies. Common democratic tasks may also be solved in the course of socialist revolutions.


Marx, K. “Klassovaia bor’ba vo Frantsii s 1848 po 1850 g.” In K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 7.
Marx, K. “Vosemnadtsatoe briumera Lui Bonaparta.” Ibid., vol. 8.
Engels, F. “Revoliutsiia i kontrrevoliutsiia v Germanii.” Ibid.
Lenin, V. I. “Dve taktiki sotsial-demokratii v demokraticheskoi revoliutsii.” In Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 11.
Lenin, V. I. “Doklad ob Ob’edinitel’noms’ezde RSDRP.” Ibid., vol. 13.
Lenin, V. I. “Doklad o revoliutsii 1905 goda.” Ibid., vol. 30.
Lenin, V. I. “O zadachakh proletariata v dannoi revoliutsii.” Ibid., vol. 31.
Lenin, V. I. “Gosudarstvo i revoliutsiia.” Ibid., vol. 33.
Lenin, V. I. “Sed’mois’ezd RKP(b) 6-8 marta 1918 g.” Ibid., vol. 36.
Lenin, V. I. “Proletarskaia revoliutsiia i renegat Kautskii.” Ibid., vol. 37.
Programma KPSS (Priniata XXII s’ezdom KPSS). Moscow, 1967.
Kelle, V., and M. Koval’zon. Kurs istoricheskogo materializma, [2nd ed.] Moscow, 1969.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
References in classic literature ?
Capitalism was adjudged by the sociologists of the time to be the culmination of bourgeois rule, the ripened fruit of the bourgeois revolution. And we of to-day can but applaud that judgment.
Just as the first Reformation reflected the encounter between the Catholic church and the bourgeois revolution, so the second reflects that between the church and proletarian revolution, on the one continent where the oppressed masses as a whole are Catholic.
On the other side, he rejects the notion that they represented an antifeudal force at work in medieval society and that they engendered capitalism or a bourgeois revolution. Hilton is acutely aware of the internal social and political changes in the English and French towns during the Middle Ages, resulting in the emergence in the fourteenth century of mercantile elites in the leadership role of English towns and of royal officials and lawyers in French towns.
Readers familiar with David Blackbourn's influential essay in The Peculiarities of German History (1984) may be somewhat surprised at how few of the contributions to this volume investigate those areas of social life which he singled out as the key arenas of the "silent bourgeois revolution," namely the law, voluntary associations, and a new kind of public sphere.
Those interested in the debate over the origin of English capitalism and who search for a bourgeois revolution will find monarchs and their officials sometimes acting economically rational but always within the context and limitations of the period.
It is a product of the bourgeois revolution, but like bourgeois democracy it reaches out beyond the needs and desires of its owners to become an embarrassment and sometimes an adversary, without ever shaking off the stigmata of its origin.
There is, for example, no clarifying discussion of what is meant by a "bourgeois revolution." If is signifies only the successful installation of a legal, constitutional and ideological framework that promotes capitalism, then it can clearly take on very different national forms.
The second section explores a theme that has aroused similar, if less focused, controversy among early American historians--whether the American Revolution was, in fact, a bourgeois revolution. Kulikoff restates the view that the Philadelphia convention marked a victory for the ruling class and created a national government with power to construct a legal and political structure friendly to capitalist development.
Freedom of thought, of speech, of assembly, the rule of law -perestroika, in a sense, is also Russia's unaccomplished bourgeois revolution. And we are right to hail this development.
One of the clearest examples of a bourgeois revolution, the conflict arose because of differences in capitalist and slave modes of production.
Many explanations of national identity, observes Confino, focus on the apparent failures of the German nation (its inability to produce a bourgeois revolution, for example).
We are simply watching the beginning of a vast upheaval in Eastern Europe: A bourgeois revolution in institutions combined with a still uncertain economic reform, in countries where the bulk of private property had been eliminated.