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In memoriam: Neil Davidson, 9 October 1957 – 3 May 2020

Jamie Allinson remembers Marxist historian, Neil Davidson, author of the groundbreaking How Revolutionary Were the Bourgeois Revolutions? who died May 3, 2020.

6 May 2020

In memoriam: Neil Davidson, 9 October 1957 – 3 May 2020

With the death of historian, sociologist and socialist militant Neil Davidson, the Marxist Left has endured a profound loss both internationally and in his native Scotland. A working-class autodidact of a rare kind, and undoubtedly the foremost intellectual of his generation on the Scottish radical Left. Neil’s contributions ranged far, from the historical and conceptual status of bourgeois revolutions, the relationship between nation-states and capital, and the uneven and combined development of modernism, amongst others. His early death, at the age of 62, is a loss the Scottish and international Left can ill afford.

Neil was born in 1957 in Aberdeen to Dougie Davidson, a radiographer, and Margaret, a secretary. The family history embodied that process of capitalist transition about which Neil would later write, as the region was one of the last in the British Isles to lose its peasantry: Neil’s grandfather was a farm servant in the Donside village of Monymusk who migrated to Aberdeen to become a mechanic. Neil recalled family holidays spent with an aunt who remained a shepherdess on the same estate. Neil, his parents, and his sister Shona shared a two-bedroom flat with no indoor toilet. The late fruits of post-war social democracy came to the Davidsons in 1967 in the form of a council house with its own garden, inside plumbing and a bedroom each –‘paradise’, in Neil’s words.

Such conditions, and the profound if late-coming impact of the reforms of 1945 upon them, were not unusual in the Scotland of the time. At Aberdeen Grammar School in the early 1970s a melange of influences–Orwell, popular music, the événements of 1968, and the New Musical Express­– opened ‘a whole new world… about Stalinism, the nature of the USSR, literary Modernism, the study of popular culture.’ In 1976 a punk-inflected Neil encountered the International Socialists, then on the cusp of transformation into the Socialist Workers’ Party, through Rock Against Racism and the Anti-Nazi League, organising transport from far-flung Aberdeen to carnivals held by the latter in London.

The IS position on state capitalism ‘made perfect sense’ to Neil, setting ‘on a scientific basis’ conclusions to which he already been moving. He remained an active member, albeit a thrawnly independent one, of the SWP until the 2013-14 split in that organisation over the allegation of rape against a senior member. Neil had already pursued a long fight inside the party both to democratize its structures and bring its political perspectives more into line with the reality of the UK in the early twentieth century. Only once it was clear that this battle was irretrievably lost did Neil form, with others, the new groups ‘RS21’ and ‘International Socialists Scotland.’

It was in and through his activity on the organised socialist Left that Neil began his serious engagement with Marxist theory, especially during a spell in London in the early 1980s. Rising at 5 am simply to read the Marxist classics, Neil developed the extraordinary work ethic that characterised the rest of his life: all the more remarkable given that ‘there was never any question’ of his going to university and until his fifties all his reading and writing was done on the evenings and weekends while he worked as a civil servant until 2008. Neil often joked about prefacing his works of Marxist theory with the sentence: ‘a state manager writes.’ The story goes that Alex Salmond, upon being advised to read Origins of Scottish Nationhood and Discovering the Scottish Revolution, was amazed to discover that the policy advisor to his permanent secretary was a Marxist. Neil did gain a degree from the Open University in 1992, refusing to wear the academic gown at his graduation ceremony on the grounds that it was a preposterous archaism. He returned, however, as a tutor for the OU fondly remembered by students and colleagues alike.

Neil’s breadth of erudition–the sweep of learning so diligently acquired and so lightly-worn–was humbling. His main achievements were threefold: the reinstatement of Marxism into Scottish historiography; expanding from this work, his robust defence and development of the concepts of uneven and combined development and bourgeois revolution; and his role as a public intellectual of the radical Left in the Scottish independence movement.

The Scotland of the early 1990s in which Neil began work was a politically drear place, caught between the decadent dregs of Tory unionism and an especially mawkish national-popular consciousness still reeling from the Thatcherite assault. Neil was animated by the question: ‘why had Scottish nationalism been so weak when Scottish national consciousness was so strong?’ Two seminal works, The Origins of Scottish Nationhood and Discovering the Scottish Revolution – the latter awarded both the Isaac and Tamara Deutscher memorial prize and the Saltire Society’s Andrew Fletcher of Saltoun award –provided the answer. Scotland, Neil showed, should be seen neither as the appendage of a greater British history nor the bearer of an unbroken national consciousness reaching back to the sacred memory of William Wallace. Rather the country was one of the first to experience the ‘uneven and combined development’ of capitalism and a ‘revolution from above’ in the late 18th century.

From the Scottish starting point, Neil turned his focus to the categories of nation-state, revolution and uneven and combined development that he had deployed to understand that experience. Academic appointments at first the university of Strathclyde (2008) and then Glasgow (2013) allowed Neil to unleash his formidable productivity, publishing nearly one hundred academic articles and political interventions as well as four collections of essays and his 2012 magnum opus How Revolutionary were the Bourgeois Revolutions?

The latter work, in which Neil comprehensively argued for the reinstatement of the concept of the ‘bourgeois revolutions’ for the understanding of global modernity. In so doing he advanced two controversial but interlinked theses. First, addressing the ‘transition’ debate Neil argued against the ‘Brenner thesis’ that saw capitalist social relations arise as a largely unintended consequence of the actions of feudal lords and peasants. By contrast, Neil reinstated the idea that conscious development of the productive forces was both a possible, and historically visible, response by both urban and agrarian classes to the crisis of late feudalism.

Second, Neil argued that bourgeois revolutions in their original form represented the ‘removal of backward-looking threats’ to capitalism thus established. Later examples of the phenomenon, including that in Scotland, however represented instances of Neil’s ‘consequentialist’ argument: typically ‘revolutions from above’, they were conducted by a particular fraction of the ruling class aspiring to create ‘independent centres of capital accumulation’. Even the national liberation states of the latter twentieth century, garlanded with red flags and portraits of Lenin, served the same purpose.

The link between capitalist transition and a consequentialist account of bourgeois revolution was provided by uneven and combined development. The revitalization of this concept and the debate it provoked is inconceivable without Neil’s contribution. Neil hewed to a strict interpretation of the concept: uneven development may be a historical universal but combined development was limited to the internal effects of uneven capitalist development. As he remarked in essays on China, however, uneven and combined development could just as well operate to unite different epochs of capitalist production as well as modes of production. Neil’s revitalisation of the concept–and his debates with Justin Rosenberg with whom he pursued a typically sharp but comradely intellectual engagement–spurred an entire generation of scholarship, much of it in fruitful disagreement with him.

Neil’s work was translated in Spanish, Portuguese and Mandarin and he was a frequent fixture at conferences in Europe, North America and Brazil. Attendees were treated to Neil’s frequently extemporaneous but powerfully lucid interventions, delivered in characteristic Doric brogue.

Neil’s third, and perhaps most widely-felt, impact lay in Scottish politics with the foundation of the Radical Independence Campaign in 2012 and its influence on the independence referendum of two years later. Neil himself played an active role in the campaign and formed something of an intellectual leading light within it. He influenced many young activists who steered the campaign beyond a narrow nationalist agenda, reaching into working class communities where it developed a radical dynamism: the effects of which Neil later analysed in his analysis of the referendum for NLR –still the best on the subject.

It is no exaggeration to say that without Neil’s influence the 2014 referendum campaign might have been very different. Neil inspired younger working-class activists to take up intellectual work and became a mentor to many of them with a generosity of spirit all too rare on the academic Left. Participation in the independence campaign implied no concessions to nationalism, and especially not to the pernicious myth that paints its Scottish variant as more ‘progressive.’ Neil’s collaborative work on racism and neoliberalism in modern Scotland provided invaluable resources to put paid to such pabulum.

Neil never severed his intellectual work from the class struggle. An active trade unionist all his working life, first in NALGO and then the PCS and UCU, he continued to take on casework and organisational duties even as his global renown spread. His colleagues trusted him, and managers feared him. No finer testimony can be given of a militant.

Throughout all this Neil maintained a devoted partnership with his beloved Cathy, whom he had met first when they both worked for the Scottish Office. Generous hosts at their home Cauther Ha’, Neil often entertained guests with his dry wit while Cathy led them through the handsome garden. Having moved to West Lothian, Neil resembled somewhat the improving-scholar gentlemen he had once written about: Davidson of West Calder. Like Marx, who said ‘nothing human is foreign to me’– although given Neil’s fondness for the cosmic horror of HP Lovecraft, one might say ‘nothing inhuman either’ – Neil pursued cultural interests of extraordinary breadth. A teenage punk, he was passionate about music, dancing, theatre and the arts, visiting the Edinburgh Fringe each year. He seemed to read novels at the same pace as others read newspapers and was as at home discussing TS Eliot as David Bowie, Bob Dylan, Blondie or the heyday of 1980s hip-hop.

Neil’s last outing on the intellectual stage was a fitting achievement: a major international conference on uneven and combined development held at Glasgow in September 2019 at which Neil debated the famous historian Robert Brenner. At that very time Neil was suffering from the brain tumour that would take his life. Rushed to hospital, he initially responded well to treatment but in the end the diagnosis was too grave. He died eight months later. It is Cathy and Neil’s family who will feel his untimely loss most keenly but a worldwide network of friends, comrades, students and admirers are also left bereft–as is the cause of a more just and humane world, in which he never wavered.

Filed under: history, marxism, neil-davidson, scotland