Revolution through the ages

We Cannot Escape History brings together a collection of essays by Neil Davidson that cover a dizzying array of topics, spanning several thousand years and three continents. Loosely grouped around the theme of “states and revolutions,” they both review current debates on precapitalist society and the nature of bourgeois revolutions, while at the same time critically reexamining some central theories of the classical Marxist tradition. The result is as thought provoking as it is ambitious.

Two early essays focus on debates concerning the transition from ancient civilizations to feudalism in Europe. The first is a response to a classic article by Chris Harman, “The Rise of Capitalism,” concerning debates about how to characterize the wide variety of precapitalist societies outside of feudal Europe. The second is a commentary on Chris Wickham’s massive study of ancient class societies, Framing the Early Middle Ages

In these essays, Davidson explores the concepts of modes of production and how they should be defined and divided. He highlights Wickham’s distinctive arguments about the transition between ancient and feudal societies. He notes that while the Marxist analysis can

help us understand the material forces that drove the breakup of ancient societies and their transitions to feudalism, it is not a simple mapping backward of the transition from feudalism to capitalism (let alone from capitalism to socialism).

The longest section of the book is a series of essays that chart the nature and historical development of the bourgeois revolution, including a reprint of Davidson’s essay, “How Revolutionary Were the Bourgeois Revolutions?” which formed the basis of his magisterial book by the same name. That essay follows how the concept of revolution (and later, specifically bourgeois revolution) evolved from the early Enlightenment through to the thinkers of the classical Marxist tradition. Davidson defends the view that the bourgeois revolutions should be judged less by which class led them or what their intended effects were, but rather by their outcomes, in their reconstruction of the state in such a way as to clear the path for capitalist accumulation. It is also a conception, Davidson shows, that prior to the distortions of Stalinism, was favored by Marx, Engels, and most of the revolutionary thinkers who followed them.

This conception of the bourgeois revolution allows Davidson to respond to the criticisms of both revisionists who argue that the great revolutions in England and France had little direct connection to the emergence of capitalism, and Political Marxists, who see the emergence of capitalism in England in the seventeenth century as the contingent result of the particular outcome of class struggle in that country. It also allows for an explanation of the wide range of ways through which capitalism emerged around the world—from popular revolutions, to what Davidson calls “passive revolutions,” to highly controlled “revolutions from above.” Succeeding essays expand on the definition, charting the spread of bourgeois revolutions across Europe: in Scotland, France, the American Civil War, and finally the 1919 revolution in Germany, which (along with the Russian Revolution of 1917) signaled the point of transition from the great revolutions of the bourgeoisie to the revolutions of the proletariat.

The final section concerns the nature of revolution in the global south, by first reexamining Trotsky’s arguments concerning combined and uneven development and permanent revolution, and a  number of conclusions that flow from them. The most important, and most convincing, argument of Davidson’s is that combined and uneven development is a consistent feature of capitalism, but that does not mean that it can simply be affixed as a label to the entire underdeveloped world without further analysis. “Uneven and combined development is a consequence of the world economy,” writes Davidson, “but it is played out within the component parts of the states system: the territorial confines of these states are where the specific combinations take place.” 

The question for Marxists (as it was for Trotsky) is the particular ways in which capitalism combined with other class formations and state structures to form unique and particular societies, each with its distinct balance of class forces. Thus, the conclusions of revolutionary strategy will necessary differ from country to country. Trotsky’s strategy of permanent revolution made sense for Russia, China, and other countries that represented a particular blend of modern capitalism and backwardness, but less so in countries where capitalism was either less developed or in countries that were able to “break through” into the ranks of industrialized nations (Scotland and nineteenth-century Prussia).

His second conclusion, that the theory of permanent revolution is no longer relevant, is probably more controversial (it has been the subject of debate in earlier issues of this journal). It is true that the theory pertains to a particular conjuncture in history. As Davidson notes, the era of incomplete bourgeois revolutions is over; capitalist relations dominate in every corner of the globe. However, that doesn’t mean that (if understood in its proper context) it isn’t applicable to situations facing contemporary Marxists. In much of the world the working class remains a minority and strategic considerations of how to position the working class at the center of a broader revolutionary movement of oppressed peoples and exploited classes remains a central question. 

Davidson would likely argue that in ignoring the historical specificity of permanent revolution, this simply folds the theory into the broader work of Marxists on the relation of the working class to other exploited classes in the process of revolution. However, we should be able to recognize the historic specificity of Trotsky’s writings, while also recognizing that they advance and rise to a higher level in earlier scattered and incomplete lines of thinking within the classical tradition, just as the particular historic context of the origins of the united front doesn’t prevent us from acknowledging that the theory further developed preexisting questions about how Marxists should organize within broader nonsocialist or nonrevolutionary movements, or that while recognizing the difference between then and now, there aren’t still important lessons to be learned from the theory.

Finally, Davidson revisits the impact of his conclusions about permanent revolution on the work of Tony Cliff and his theory of deflected permanent revolution. Cliff developed the theory as a means of explaining why a whole series of post–World War II revolutions (most notably in China and Cuba, but also in Vietnam and across post-colonial Africa) didn’t follow Trotsky’s course of a minority working class leading the broader masses in a struggle for socialism. For Cliff, the absence of a revolutionary party (or in many cases the fact that those parties were distorted by the legacy of Stalinism) meant that the working class was effectively disarmed and the revolutions were “deflected” toward a variant of state capitalism. 

But, Davidson argues convincingly, if permanent revolution was always meant to apply to a much narrower subset of countries that found themselves in a particular combination of capitalist development and backwardness, then a separate theory is not necessary for the failure of other countries to develop revolutions that followed the lines of those in Russia or China (1927). The revolutions in Cuba, China (1949), and a host of anticolonial revolutions can simply be seen as part of a much longer tradition of political revolutions that changed the composition of the ruling class, while leaving their position within the world capitalist system changed, but not fundamentally transformed.

Some of these debates may seem like hairsplitting. Readers could be excused for asking themselves if this list of topics seems far from the more immediate questions of inequality, war, and oppression that face us with more immediate challenges. Are debates about the role of waterworks in ancient civilizations all that important? One possible answer to this is that Marxism aims to be more than a list of positions or a theory of how capitalism can be overthrown; it aims to be a theory of how human labor and the ways in which we construct our societies to organize that labor drives all of human history. 

Marx and Engels themselves were just as intent on understanding the rise of class society as they were understanding the revolutionary struggles that would lead to its overthrow. As Chris Wickham notes, “We understand the world better by doing so, so that we can change it.” But Davidson also seems to have a more immediate goal in mind: that Marxism must continually move forward if it is to remain relevant. Quoting the words of a much younger Alex Callinicos defending himself against criticisms of “unorthodox” thinking from members of the British Socialist Workers Party (SWP) leadership: “We cannot simply ‘return’ to the classics. . . . Classical Marxism is not a monolith, a seamless robe. Its gaps, aporias, too-hasty answers created the space in which vulgar Marxism emerged. . . . Classical Marxism requires conceptual development as well as application in concrete analyses and embodiment in revolutionary organization.”

Spurred on by the stagnation and collapse of the British SWP, the organization that Davidson was a member of for thirty years, Davidson seems to be pushing toward a reappraisal of the classical tradition and the International Socialist Tendency’s tradition in particular. In this volume, he seems to be looking at the edges of Marxism, both geographically and in time, to challenge Marxists to think more dynamically about how to apply Marxism to the world around us, believing that by doing this we can only strengthen the core ideas of classical Marxism.

Taken together, with all its (sometimes not so small) digressions into hydraulic societies, rural Scottish history, and seventeenth-century intellectual thought, what Davidson is really concerned with is better understanding the unique challenges that face the struggle toward and accomplishment of a successful socialist revolution. Unfortunately, with the exception of the October Revolution in Russia, the successful revolutionary transformations we have as examples are quite distinct from a workers’ revolution: the distant transition from ancient civilization to feudalism, the range of bourgeois revolutions that brought into being the modern capitalist world, and the numerous political revolutions of the twentieth century that involved the participation, but not the leadership, of the working class. By better understanding the dynamics of those transitions, and perhaps more importantly, by pushing forward a Marxist tradition that is dynamic in its understanding of them, we can bring into relief the challenges of the transitions we hope to achieve: that of the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism.

Issue #96

Spring 2015

Race, surveillance, and empire

Issue contents

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