Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 3, 2020

Neil Davidson (1957-2020): an appreciation

Filed under: obituary — louisproyect @ 7:15 pm

Neil Davidson

I just learned that Neil Davidson has died after a year-long battle with brain cancer. At the bottom of this post, I am including the words of his wife Cathy that Sebastian Budgen forwarded to FB. Neil was a long-time member of the SWP in England who seems to have affiliated with a network of people who had left the party in the aftermath of the rape crisis. Known as RS21 (Revolutionary Socialism in the 21st Century), they have an announcement on his death and a pending obituary that I am sure will fill in the details on his life and political career.

Davidson was a FB friend. I knew him hardly at all except for a couple of email exchanges in the past 15 years or so related to his scholarly expertise in matters that were of great interest to me. Davidson is the author of the 840-page “How Revolutionary Were the Bourgeois Revolutions?”, a book that I have never read from cover to cover but have consulted dozens of times over the years. I am not familiar with all his work but I would describe this as a magnum opus that goes to the heart of major debates within Marxism since the 1970s.

The book is an attempt to refute the arguments of a group of people around Robert Brenner, who became known as “political Marxists”. Their core belief rests on two premises. First, that capitalism originated in the British countryside in the mid-1400s and as a contingent outcome of a class struggle that put lease farming in control of the countryside. They reject out of hand that slavery and colonialism were key to the origins of capitalism.

Additionally, they argued that there is no such thing as a “bourgeois revolution”. Much of this rests on the scholarship of French revisionist historians such as François Furet, who was a member of the Communist Party when young. He came to the conclusion in the 1970s that the French bourgeoisie was not a revolutionary class in 1789 and that the assault on the monarchy was led by disaffected aristocrats.

I first came across Davidson’s ideas on the bourgeois revolution in an HM article written in 2005 with the same title as the book he was working on. While he would become much sharper in his debates with Brenner and his acolytes over the years, the article was an opening salvo. He wrote:

In effect, members of the Brenner school do not seem to recognise that there is an abstract model in Capital. Brenner himself apart, they think that England was the only site of endogenous capitalist development and therefore assume that Marx takes English development as a model for the origin of capitalism because, in effect, it was the only example he had. Now, I do not dispute that England was the country where capitalism developed to the greatest extent. It was for this reason that Marx made it the basis of his analysis, in the same way that he always took the most developed form of any phenomena as the basis of his analysis. But, in his mature work, Marx repeatedly states that capitalist development took place beyond England in space and before England in time.

When Davidson presented sections in the Grundrisse to members of the Brenner school, including Wood, that stated that “capitalist development took place beyond England in space and before England in time,” they would “pretend that they mean something else.” For his part, PMer George Comninel issued “disapprovingly admonitions about Marx’s failure to understand his own theory.” Davidson expresses some bemusement over the gaps in the Brenner thesis:

I understand how the Brenner school accounts for the establishment of capitalism in the English countryside. I also understand how the Brenner school accounts for the spread of capitalism beyond Britain. I do not understand how capitalist social-property relations spread from the English countryside to the rest of England. Nor, for that matter, how the same process took place in Holland or Catalonia, the other areas where Brenner himself thinks that capitalism existed.

For Davidson, the answer is recognizing that for Marx, the transition to capitalism was as much an urban phenomenon as it was agrarian: “Urban labour itself had created means of production for which the guilds became just as confining as were the old relations of landownership to an improved agriculture, which was in part itself a consequence of the larger market for agricultural products in the cities etc.” (Grundrisse, p. 508)

Another interesting insight from Davidson is that Brenner’s conception of capitalism is shared by an odd bedfellow:

For the members of the Brenner school, capitalism is defined by the existence of what they call market compulsion ­ the removal of the means of production and subsistence from the direct producers, so that they are forced to rely on the market to survive. There is, of course, a venerable tradition of thought which defines capitalism solely in market terms, but it is not Marxism, it is the Austrian economic school whose leading representatives were Ludwig von Mises and Frederick von Hayek.

That was something I had noticed myself, but not exactly on this basis. If capitalism is defined as resting on market compulsion, then vast areas of obvious capitalist exploitation are invalidated according to this narrow approach. For example, apartheid South Africa would be ruled out with its pass system, etc. So would Nazi Germany which involved slave labor on a grand scale. Of course, the libertarian would agree that such societies are not capitalist. Von Mises and von Hayek both regarded Nazi Germany and Communist Russia as noncapitalist since both societies involved statist control of the economy, etc. Needless to say, this is a superficial analysis but one that was pervasive in the academy.

Davidson also has some pointed observations on Wood’s explicit statement of a theme that is implicit throughout Brenner’s writings, namely that capitalism in England emerged in the countryside prior to the historical formation of capital-wage labor social relations. If a system of tenant farming could in and of itself be the key launching pad for capitalist property relations, how then was surplus value produced? He wrote:

If capitalism is based on a particular form of exploitation, on the extraction of surplus-value from the direct producers through wage-labour, then I fail to see how capitalism can exist in the absence of wage-labourers. Where does surplus-value come from in a model which contains only capitalist landlords and capitalist farmers? Surplus-value may be realised through market transactions, but it can scarcely be produced by them.

Once one establishes that the transition to capitalism in England was a function of inexorable economic processes in the countryside quite early on (the 1400s at least), then the bourgeois revolution becomes trivial, if not irrelevant. Brenner wrote:

First, there really is no transition to accomplish: since the model starts with bourgeois society in the towns, foresees its evolution as taking place via bourgeois mechanisms, and has feudalism transform itself in consequence of its exposure to trade, the problem of how one type of society is transformed into another is simply assumed away and never posed. Second, since bourgeois society self-develops and dissolves feudalism, the bourgeois revolution can hardly play a necessary role.

According to Davidson, Brenner’s magnum opus “Merchants and Revolution” is basically an attempt to demonstrate that feudal relations had been wiped out by 1640 so the notion of a Great Revolution is besides the point. Davidson’s article concludes with a discussion of English history in the 17th century intended to show that Brenner’s dismissal of the need to effect a social revolution is based on minimizing class conflict between the forces led by Cromwell and the gentry.

Davidson wasn’t finished with the PMers. He wrote a second part for HM that year, which really captured my political imagination. Like Jim Blaut, Davidson became a crucial resource in trying to understand and refute Robert Brenner and his followers. In the first article Davidson focused on the peculiar analysis of capitalism originating from tenant farming. In his follow-up, he honed in on the question of whether there was such a thing as a bourgeois revolution.

Davidson starts off by trying to establish Marx and Engels’s attitude toward the notion of a revolutionary bourgeoisie. He makes the essential point that the Communist Manifesto, despite its rather rapturous description of the modernizing capabilities of the capitalist class, says very little about its political role in leading revolutions against feudalism.

When Marx described the role of the bourgeoisie in the German revolution of 1848 –as opposed to the French revolution of 60 years earlier– he was unimpressed. He took note of a vacillating bourgeoisie more willing to confront the aroused working class than its ostensible feudal enemies. If and when revolutions took place, they tended to be “from above” and bypassed the masses that were at center stage in 1789.

These distinctions were not lost on Lenin who saw Russia at a crossroads around the turn of the century. The revolution might unfold like France’s in 1789 and like the American civil war–a result of a thoroughgoing and plebian assault on the old order–or it would look more like the Junkers “revolution from above” that consolidated the rule of the bourgeoisie while retaining many aspects of the feudal era. The abolition of serfdom in Russia was an example of how the exploiting classes in Russia would connive to maintain the status quo while giving the appearance of attacking it. In the 1907 article “The Agrarian Question and the Forces of the Revolution,” Lenin wrote:

All Social-Democrats are convinced that, in its social and economic content, the present revolution is a bourgeois revolution. This means that it is proceeding on the basis of capitalist production relations, and will inevitably result in a further development of those same production relations. To put it more simply, the entire economy of society will still remain under the domination of the market, of money, even when there is the broadest freedom and the peasants have won a. complete victory in their struggle for the land. The struggle for land and freedom is a struggle for the conditions of existence of bourgeois society, for the rule of capital will remain in the most democratic republic, irrespective of how the transfer of ‘all the land to the people’ is effected.

Such a view may seem strange to anyone unfamiliar with Marx’s theory. Yet it is not hard to see that it is the correct view—one need but recall the great French Revolution and its outcome, the history of the ‘free lands’ in America, and so on.

You’ll note, by the way, that Lenin refers to a “bourgeois revolution” above, and not to a “bourgeois-democratic revolution.” This is a key point for Davidson. Since the conflation of bourgeois and democratic is so widespread in Marxist discourse, it is necessary to explain how it came into existence, especially given its absence in the writings of both Lenin and Trotsky.

In a survey of theories of bourgeois revolution, Davidson identifies a tendency in the late 19th century to search for historical antecedents in the struggle against capitalism–a native radical tradition so to speak. This led to a search for a unifying theme in which “the people” were eternal actors against entrenched interests. That theme became democracy. As Davidson puts it:

It became important to identify struggles that could be retrospectively endorsed and assimilated into a narrative of democratic advance, the closing episode of which had opened with the formation of the labour movement. In most cases, the radical traditions were directly inherited from left liberalism, particularly in those countries – above all Britain, but also France – where Marxism was initially weakest and where liberal connections with labour were political and organisational as well as ideological. In effect, these traditions tended to become a populist alternative narrative to what one early radical liberal historian, John Richard Green, called ‘drum and trumpet’ histories.

While this sort of thing was innocent enough in the late 1800s, it took a more destructive character during the rise of Stalinism which required the concept of a “bourgeois-democratic” revolution to buttress its class-collaborationist approach to politics, especially in the 3rd world where feudalism supposedly still prevailed.

It should be obvious from what I have written that my affinity for Neil Davidson was heavily focused on questions that first came to mind after coming into contact with Jim Blaut, who shared Davidson’s disdain for Political Marxism.

I hope that you will consult the RS21 article linked above that has a list of his most important works that can be read online. Davidson was a major voice in Marxism who tried to keep up with political developments even when cancer had slowed him down.

Like Erik Olin Wright, Davidson shared his clinical experiences dealing with cancer with his readers, trying to stay on an even keel. Like Wright, he was upbeat and politically engaged until the very end. Also, like Wright, he was an academic who never threw his credentials around. As an SWP member, he was committed to the socialist revolution—a stance that will become more and more popular as capitalism enters its own death throes.

(Posted on FB by Sebastian Budgen)

Neil Davidson – one of the kindest, most thoughtful, least pompous and one of the most brilliant comrades we will ever know – has left us, far, far two early. HM Books will, in due course, be publishing two of his new books and the journal will be making available his articles. A really terrible loss for us all.

From his partner Cathy:

Dear All – as you can see, this is to convey the sad news that Neil died this morning, peacefully here at home with me, eight months after his diagnosis with brain cancer.

We have been wonderfully supported during this last phase of his illness by our local District Nurses and West Lothian care teams, backed up by our GP practice, Marie Curie palliative care experts and others, all selflessly working on despite the pandemic.

Neil’s funeral will be in Aberdeen so that his family can attend and of course, current restrictions mean this can only be a small private event. I know that many of you will want, as will I, to have a much fuller commemoration and celebration of Neil’s life and exceptional achievements at a later date, and if possible when we can get together in person – I’ll be happy to hear any ideas for that in due course. I do find myself in possession of a library still overflowing with books – and also red wine… So perhaps some redistribution of all that might feature in forthcoming plans!

My sister Helen came down from her home in Shetland just before the lockdown and remains an invaluable support and comfort – she will be staying here for the duration of the restrictions in any case, so I am not alone. Springtime in the garden is a great solace too.

The many expressions of kindness, concern, support and appreciation for Neil that have come in over recent months were very gratefully received and I managed to convey most of your messages to Neil, which meant a lot to both of us. We may borrow some of the fine words used by some of you in what we put together to be said at his funeral and I know that will be very helpful to his family too.

There is no need at all to reply to this e-mail. I have tried to send it to as many of Neil’s (and my) friends and contacts as I have addresses for, but you may wish to pass it on to others I haven’t reached. If you do wish to be in touch with me, e-mail or post is fine – but I’m sure you will understand if I am not responding to much correspondence meantime. Also, I would appreciate no phone calls/texts and no flowers etc. sent here at the moment. Thanks.

Let’s remember the good times and keep working for better yet to come, as Neil would have wanted and did so much to inspire.

With best wishes to you all and hope you are keeping safe.



1 Comment »

  1. Neil was an outstanding comrade. Louis has outlined his contribution to Marxist theory but he was also a socialist and trade union activist.
    I worked with him in the UCU union in Strathclyde Uni in Glasgow when he was president and I was vice-pres. We had ousted an incompetent right wing leadership and under Neil, managed to stop the kowtowing to management while delivering real gains. He was that rare breed of revolutionary who combined pragmatism and principle.
    I also worked with him in the left wing of the Scottish pro-independence movement. He was willing to work with a wide range of people but never bowed to a nationalist approach to the question, always arguing for independence on an internationalist basis.
    He was also a great friend, with a dry sense of humour and a good drinking buddy. Despite his clear positions he was never sectarian. For example the last time I met him, he commented in relation to Political Marxists such as Robert Brenner and Charlie Post, that while he thought their theoretical positions on historical questions were untenable, he held their positions on current politics to be sound.

    I once spent a long sunny day with Neil and another comrade walking the length of Manhattan island, doing our own socialist tour, ending with a drinking session somewhere in Greenwich Village, I think! I raise a glass to his memory and to his shining example as a revolutionary.

    Comment by Colm B — May 5, 2020 @ 7:01 pm

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