Neil Davidson was a path-breaking Marxist historian and theorist and tireless fighter for socialism. He was a contributor to many socialist initiatives in Scotland and was a founding editorial board member for Conter. In coming weeks, we will publish several articles examining his enormous contribution to our understanding of the world and our commitment to change it. Raymond Morell, his long time comrade and friend, writes this overview of his work. This article was first published at RS21.
Neil Davidson was a socialist militant and a highly innovative Marxist historian and sociologist. He was at the peak of his intellectual power and the foremost Scottish intellectual of his generation when he died on Sunday 3 May 2020. His untimely death at the age of 62 is a cruel blow to his family, friends and comrades. This obituary will touch on the most important elements of his work but cannot cover all his achievements. Indeed, much more will be written about Neil’s vast and important contribution to the revolutionary tradition.
Neil was born in Aberdeen on 9 October 1957 to Margaret and Dougie. His grandparents belonged to a generation which was perhaps the last direct link with a rural Scotland in the farming communities of Aberdeenshire. This way of life came to an end around the time of the First World War in a process recorded in Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s A Scots Quair trilogy (1932-4). Although his grandparents moved to Aberdeen, they never lost their cultural identification with the countryside.
Neil, his parents, and his sister Shona came from a modest working-class background and shared a small flat with no indoor toilet. Neil would fondly recall how in 1967 his family moved to a council house, with an inside toilet, his own bedroom and a garden. He began employment as a clerk in the Grampian Health Board, before taking a role in the Civil Service. After a short period in London, he started work for the Scottish Office, rising to become policy advisor to the First Minister, Alex Salmond in the Scottish Government.
Political and workplace activist
Neil discovered radical politics via the Trotskyism of the International Socialist tradition, which he first encountered in 1976 as a punk through the Rock Against Racism carnivals and the Anti-Nazi League. He joined the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) in 1978.
Neil is best known for his tremendous intellectual contribution. However, he was not simply an academic; he understood the relationship of theory with practice. Neil helped organise many significant political events. For example, in April 1999, he organised an anti-war meeting in Edinburgh with about 100 attending to hear speakers from the SWP, the Scottish Socialist Party, the Labour Party, and the Kurdish Workers Party alongside a Serbian opponent of Milošević. This success convinced Neil and others to launch the Edinburgh Campaign Against War in Europe (ECAWE). The group met weekly, leafleted, fly-posted, picketed pro-war politicians, sought affiliation at trade union branches and mobilised for demonstrations, one of which was addressed by Nicola Sturgeon, who was then a newly elected member of the first Scottish parliament.
The ECAWE organised throughout the six week bombing campaign, launching a conference against NATO’s war in the Balkans that was attended by 170 people. This modest campaign was successful in its own terms, but it also helped lay the basis for building the great anti-war movement in Edinburgh and beyond three years later with the hugely successful Stop the War Coalition. While Neil was helping organise the ECAWE mobilisations, he was also negotiating with Pluto for the publication of his first book, The Origins of Scottish Nationhood (2000).
Neil studied several Open University (OU) courses in the 1980s, with Popular Culture and States and Societies amongst them. He gained a degree from the OU in 1992 but refused to wear the robes at the presentation, regarding them as a medieval artefact. He left the Civil Service in 2006 to take up his first academic post at the University of Strathclyde having worked, previously, as an associate lecturer at the OU for more than a decade, and the Workers Educational Association where he designed and delivered a course called ‘The British Labour Movement, 1789-1979’.
Neil was a committed and passionate union rep throughout his career first with NALGO, then the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) and finally the University and College Union (UCU). Neil took his share of casework and often took pleasure in defending members – he was feared by line managers. University management were disturbed by Neil’s obvious antipathy towards their neoliberal practices. One professor remarked of Neil at a job interview, ‘he’s clearly the most intellectually weighty candidate but there’s no way that he will jump through the hoops’. It wasn’t Neil’s Marxism that was at issue, so much as the fact that he lived and embodied his politics alongside his dedication to serious scholarship and nourishing critical understanding. Neil was driven by his revolutionary politics and a genuine commitment to social justice which meant far to him more than any personal advancement.
As a young man, Neil rose before dawn each morning to study Marxist classics. He wrote prolifically throughout his political life. He insisted that Marxism needs to be undogmatic and principled and that it should look reality in the face. He read widely and drew on a vast range of material as he developed his intellectual work.
The Scottish Revolution and Uneven and Combined Development
Neil had set about the study of how Marxism should theorise nationalism and Scottish history at a time when neither subject was treated seriously in Marxist circles. While working as a full-time civil servant, for what is now the Scottish Government in Edinburgh, a part-time tutor for the Open University, activist with the PCS and member of the SWP, Neil wrote and published, The Origins of Scottish Nationhood (2000) and Discovering the Scottish Revolution (2003).
The Origins of Scottish Nationhood exploded several nationalist myths about Scotland and advanced the argument that national consciousness was an outcome of the revolution and not a concept stretching back to William Wallace. Origins cleared the ground for an even more ambitious study of the bourgeois revolution in Scotland, Discovering the Scottish Revolution 1692-1746, which was deservedly awarded the prestigious Deutscher Memorial Prize and the Saltire Society’s Andrew Fletcher of Saltoun Award. The revisionist wisdom of the closing decades of the twentieth century was that revolutions were not historic turning points but irruptions of popular violence by irrational mobs or struggles for supremacy between rival elites. In Discovering the Scottish Revolution, Neil was able to demonstrate that the cumulative effect of events in Scotland between 1692 and 1746 was not only to transfer social and economic power from one class to another, but also to transform a relatively backward feudal economy into one of the centres of emergent capitalism. Scotland was among the first nations to experience this transformation. He established that, contrary to claims made by many nationalists, Scotland was in no sense an imperial dependency of England. Indeed, some Scots were at the forefront of imposing British imperialism across the globe, not least in Ireland. Georg Lukács once wrote that ‘the facts’ in any historical case were only comprehensible through their ‘integration into the totality’. Neil’s work was neither a history from above, nor a history from below, but a history which aspired to represent the totality of the revolutionary epoch in Scottish history.
Neil identified the processes that had occurred in Scotland as an early example of what Antonio Gramsci termed ‘passive revolution’. This concept was used to contrast the form taken by the Italian Risorgimento and comparable ‘revolutions from above’ with that of the French Revolution, where the main dynamic had come ‘from below’. The key era of passive revolution in Gramsci’s framework lies between 1859 and 1871. However, from the closing decades of the 17th century, Neil identified how a different set of circumstances had already led to a comparable revolution in Scotland. Neil’s prolonged engagement with the bourgeois revolution as a world-historical process culminated in his magisterial study, How Revolutionary Were the Bourgeois Revolutions? (2012) which has changed our understanding of the revolutionary process. He was able to show how the capitalist system became established through a series of social and political revolutions and not as an automatic result of the expansion of trade and commerce. He argued that since the capitalist system was the outcome of such revolutions, rather than a consequence of ‘human nature’, and this meant it could be fought against and defeated.
Latterly Neil was instrumental in restoring the concept of Uneven and Combined Development (UCD) as a productive topic at the centre of Marxist theory. The link between capitalist transition and his account of the Scottish revolution was provided by UCD. It was fitting that Neil’s last outing on the intellectual stage was a major international conference on Uneven and Combined Development that he organised in Glasgow in September 2019.
Neil’s approach to Marxism was creative. He rejected stifling orthodoxies. Beyond Lenin and Trotsky, he was also influenced by some of the most creative Marxists: Benjamin, Gramsci, Lukács and Luxemburg. For Neil, the interplay between the subjective and objective elements of the struggle was a complex matter. There was not one single direction of development, one single course of evolution, but several, affording a multiplicity of possible outcomes to each situation. The dialectical concept of objective possibility, whose outcome depended upon innumerable subjective factors as well as unforeseeable events, meant that there was no inevitability and that triumph or defeat were not predetermined in any given situation. Neil understood that it was this recognition of the open character of social history that gives revolutionary praxis its decisive place.
Scotland and the British state
Neil used his grounding in the local and specific to help him understand the global and the general. He sought to understand the characteristic features of the global system in the ways they affected Scotland. For example, the Scottish experience informed his approach to the national question. One source of crisis for the British state is, of course, Scottish independence. While the anti-war movements united all the serious sections of the left, the Scottish independence referendum divided them. The majority of Labour Party members and those of the fragmented Stalinist groups opposed independence, with many on the radical and wider left opposed to the breakup of the British state on the grounds that this would destroy the unity of the working class and trap Scottish workers within a nationalist ideology. Participation in the independence campaign allowed no concessions to nationalism. Neil’s work on racism and neoliberalism in modern Scotland punctured complacent ideas about a ‘progressive’ and apparently non-racist civic Scottish nationalism.
Neil’s participation in the referendum was amongst his most politically engaged periods and was one of the most exciting and transformative moments in his life as a political activist. He was a founding member of the Radical Independence Campaign in 2012, which brought together resistance against austerity with claims for self-determination, helping the campaign to reach into Labour-voting working-class areas. Consequently, the Scottish referendum saw the emergence of a powerful social movement for independence that was so unexpected it induced panic among the British ruling class. The political landscape has since been transformed in Scotland meaning it’s likely that the union will be challenged again. It’s no exaggeration to say that without Neil’s influence the 2014 referendum might have been a very different kind of campaign. Neil provided his own analysis of the campaign shortly after the result in the New Left Review.
Neil understood that the goals of right-wing social movements are not always in the interests of capital or the ruling class. While they are typically nationalist movements that aim to divide working-class people using racist ideas and arguments, it is not the case that the left should automatically take opposing positions to those supported by the right. The most recently contentious example was the demand for British withdrawal from the European Union (EU). While the left was divided, Neil took a consistent independent internationalist position as he refused to make apologies for either the EU or British nationalism. He understood that withdrawal from the EU would provoke a crisis for the British nation-state on a scale that is relatively rare in its history, which is why he argued that the left should support it.
No fixed lessons
The four volumes of Neil’s collected essays illustrate his encyclopaedic knowledge of apparently disparate subjects. The first volume’s title, Holding Fast to an Image of the Past (2014), is borrowed from Walter Benjamin’s ‘On the Concept of History’ (1940). He uses the term not as Benjamin did – to describe how revolutionaries can unwittingly become ‘tools of the ruling class’. Neil instead was highlighting a problem that has limited much of the revolutionary left. In periods where the political landscape has changed in significant ways, there is often a refusal to recognise new developments as groups hold on to previous and outdated ways of thinking and working. Here he focused on how much of the radical left had come to assume that tradition is fixed, providing a set of ‘lessons’ applicable in any situation, no matter how inappropriate. In doing so, he argued, they handed opportunities to our opponents and victory to our enemies by mistaking ‘what is to be done’ for ‘what was done’. His argument was that we need new thinking to develop appropriate solutions to help us deal with the novel problems we face today.
Neil was clear for some time that there cannot be a single model of revolutionary organisation with an eternally valid form and leadership. Neil and his allies believed that the structures of the SWP were archaic and inappropriate for helping us deal with the political problems we faced. When the SWP experienced its first crisis in 2008-09 over the misapplication of the united front tactic, Neil sought to bring these disagreements to the fore, and the leadership set up a commission to review the party’s democratic structures. Unfortunately, little had changed by the time the second crisis erupted in 2012-13. A large minority left the SWP following a badly handled inquiry into allegations of rape and sexual harassment by a leading member of the party that had reignited the unresolved issues from the previous crisis. Neil and many comrades who left regrouped in Revolutionary Socialism in the 21st Century (rs21) and the International Socialists Scotland.
Developing working class intellectuals
Neil’s work has been translated into Spanish, Portuguese and Chinese. He published in a wide range of academic and political publications, including this website, Red Wedge and Historical Materialism. Although he worked on many projects simultaneously, he gave up his time to inspire younger working-class activists to take up intellectual work, becoming a mentor to many with a generosity of spirit that’s unfortunately all too rare today on the left. Neil was latterly involved with some of these comrades in setting up the Scottish radical left group CONTER.
Neil believed that political work should be as rigorous as the best academic work and that academic work should be as accessible as the best political writing. He had an unparalleled ability to convey complex arguments in a way that helped people to make sense of the world. It would be easy to be intimidated by someone with his intellectual capacity, but Neil always made his peers feel at ease. Neil was unpretentious, without a trace of arrogance. He was a wonderful mentor, both kind and supportive. He was generous toward comrades and students, treating them as his equals, and was always on the side of those bruised by the system with its structures of inequality.
Although Neil was a political animal, he was also a very sociable creature and full of life. He stands in a long tradition of Trotskyist intellectuals who were deeply interested in both high and popular culture. He was passionate about music, theatre, film, literature and the arts. Each year, he would take a week off work to visit the Edinburgh Fringe Festival with his partner Cathy. He was obsessed with popular music. Although scathing about certain genres, he loved to dance to 1970s disco music. Neil accepted only the first two Roxy Music albums into his personal canon and categorically refused to accept that the third album was any good. He could hold his own in any conversation about David Bowie, Bob Dylan, Debbie Harry or 1980s hip hop. He loved horror and detective novels. His cultural breadth was immense. Neil enjoyed good food, wine, and conversation. He took this very seriously and would often insist that you join him for the full three courses and the customary two bottles of red wine. Having a starter was non-negotiable.
Neil and Cathy were generous hosts, often having guests stay over for a meal with breakfast which could be followed by a visit to Neil’s extensive library and a stroll in their wonderful garden where Cathy grows a lot of their own vegetables. At New Year, they often held an impromptu party with stovies, booze and music.
Neil was self-taught and one of the foremost Scottish public intellectuals of his generation. Had it not been for his unwavering commitment to revolutionary socialism, he would surely have been offered earlier and greater recognition. His contribution puts him alongside the great historians E.P. Thompson, Christopher Hill and Eric Hobsbawm. Some of his work can be found on the Marxists.org website and his page at Glasgow University. His loss to the British and international left is immeasurable.
He is survived by his partner Cathy Watkins, his mother Margaret and sister Shona.