Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 2095

How did capitalism come into being?

This article is over 16 years, 3 months old
In the first part of our new series Jamie Allinson looks at how modern states emerged across the world
Issue 2095

Revolution, we are usually led to believe, is either impossible or undesirable. Yet the capitalist world in which we live today was brought about by revolution.

The world before this revolution – a process lasting from the 17th to the 20th centuries – was very different to our own. Most people lived in small rural communities.

Their lives were very hard but they did not have to sell their labour to a boss. Instead they were forced to give some of their crops to landlords or taxmen.

Nation states, with their defined borders, standing armies, and unified markets did not exist.

These societies were transformed by force to create the modern system of competition, wage labour and nation states.

We call such transformations “bourgeois revolutions” after the class of market-oriented landlords, merchants, manufacturers and their associates that led the first such revolutions – those of the Netherlands and England in the 17th century and France in the 18th.

Most of the world did not experience bourgeois revolutions of this kind. The conditions for capitalism were created in many of the world’s most powerful states by revolutions from above.

Bourgeois revolutions, then, are political transformations that create the conditions for capitalism. They are not necessarily carried out by capitalists themselves.

In England and France peasants and independent craft workers participated in mass movements, led by the more determined bourgeois elements, that overthrew the existing state to the benefit of the bourgeoisie.

These movements were held together by radical politics such as that of the Jacobins in France. They created unified national markets and did away with the remaining obstacles to capitalism.

Revolutions from above were different. An existing non-bourgeois ruling class – or a part of it – used the state to assist the creation of unified capitalist classes.

Such revolutions emerged from what Leon Trotsky called the “uneven and combined” nature of capitalist development.

Once bourgeois revolutions had created the conditions for capitalism in England and France, the ruling classes of other states had to adapt in order to compete.

They did so in a situation in which their native bourgeoisie was often weak and afraid of the threat posed to their interests by the working class emerging under capitalism.

Such bourgeoisies neither wanted nor needed radical popular movements to remove the old order.

The example of Karl Marx’s native Germany helps explain this point. At the time of the 1789 French Revolution, Germany was a patchwork of monarchical states. The most powerful of these, Prussia, was dominated by big landowners known as Junkers.

By 1871 the Junker Otto von Bismarck – rather than any member of the bourgeoisie – headed a unified German state that had defeated France in war and became the most important capitalist power in Europe.

To understand this we must look at the Europe- wide revolutions of 1848. Revolutionaries controlled the major German cities, a parliament was called in Frankfurt and liberals expected a united German state to emerge.


However, at the crucial moment the bourgeoisie faltered. Instead of confronting the monarchs, they offered to make the Prussian king emperor of Germany.

He refused this crown “disgraced by the stink of revolution” and sent his army south instead.

The businessmen and lawyers of the Frankfurt parliament were frightened of mobilising the potential of a revolutionary working class – workers’ risings had already happened in Germany in 1846 and French revolutionaries in 1848 had proclaimed a “social republic”.

Marx, then editor of a liberal newspaper, wrote, “The German bourgeoisie developed so sluggishly, so timidly and slowly that at the moment when it menacingly confronted feudalism and absolutism, it saw menacingly confronting it the proletariat [working class] and all sections of the middle class whose interests and ideas were related to the proletariat.”

Marx understood that there was no German bourgeois revolution because the German bourgeoisie could see its own future adversary in the workers’ risings and revolutions in Paris.

Yet the obstacles to a united German capitalist state remained. These obstacles were overcome by Bismarck’s revolution from above – the subject of next week’s column.

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