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National and democratic tasks of the bourgeois revolution

Marxist Dictionary

Basic milestones enabling the development of national capital and the consolidation of its dominance through a national state of its own.

The most important of these is the achievement of the unity of the national market that enables the bourgeoisie to engage in mass production. This implies the abolition of the legal obstacles to the commodification of social relations (conversion of land and labor power into merchandise), of the obstacles to trade (internal customs, language barriers, etc.) and the replacement of feudal state structures based on lordly rights and privileges by a state apparatus centered on the defense of the interests of national capital both within and outside its borders.

The “democratic” dimension of national tasks

In carrying out its revolutionary, national tasks, the bourgeoisie needs to constitute the nation, to lead the social whole against the hitherto dominant classes and state. Where, in addition to an autonomous peasantry, there was a petty bourgeoisie and an incipient proletariat, it included concessions to these classes in its program by offering them legal possibilities of representation in the state and self-organization for their interests. These programmatic elements which form part of what the bourgeoisie needs in order to be able to constitute a nation are what are known as “democratic tasks of the bourgeois revolution”. They will be taken up later by the petty bourgeoisie in its always unsuccessful attempts to reinvent the nation from the people, i.e., its attempt to lead the non-exploiting classes as a whole in their own resistance to the consequences of capitalist concentration.

Did the proletariat have “national” or “democratic” tasks?

The proletariat, during the period of rising capitalism, supported the rise of the bourgeoisie to leadership as a phase of its own extension and development as a world class. But as early as 1847, on the eve of the ’48 revolution, the communists warned the workers of the danger of believing that the tasks of the bourgeoisie were their own, or of having illusions about the content of the concessions wrenched from the bourgeoisie that it was called upon to become a new ruling class:

In Germany the decisive struggle between the bourgeoisie and the absolutist monarchy still lies ahead. But since the Communists cannot count on a decisive struggle with the bourgeoisie before it comes to power, it is in the interests of the Communists to help it to conquer domination as soon as possible, in order to overthrow it in turn as soon as possible. Therefore, in the struggle of the liberal bourgeoisie against [absolutist] governments, the Communists must always be on the side of the former, while being careful to avoid the self-deception of the bourgeoisie and not relying on the seductive claims of the latter about the beneficial consequences which, according to it, the victory of the bourgeoisie will bring to the proletariat. The only advantages that the victory of the bourgeoisie will bring to the communists will be: 1) various concessions that will alleviate for the communists the defense, discussion and propagation of their principles and, therefore, ease the cohesion of the proletariat in an organized class, closely united and ready to fight, and 2) the assurance that the day when absolutist governments fall, the time will come for the struggle between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. From that day on, the policy of the party of communists will be the same here as in the countries where the bourgeoisie already dominates.

Frederick Engels. Principles of Communism, 1847