Critical openness, 
imaginative commitment

This collection of essays originally published between 1999 and 2013 is held together by the conviction that the tradition of revolutionary socialism from below is most powerfully affirmed when it remains critically open to the contributions of writers who don’t entirely or obviously belong to it. For Neil Davidson, a “danger” faced by revolutionary socialists today comes from “assuming that the tradition is fixed and immutable, providing a set of ‘lessons’ applicable in any situation” and “mistaking what is to be done for what was done.” 

Davidson makes a compelling case for reaching beyond Marx and Engels, Lenin and Trotsky, Luxemburg and Gramsci—not by assuming that we’ve learned all there is to learn from them, but by deepening our understanding of the current relevance of their arguments through assessments of “the work of . . . important thinkers on the political left” who stand outside, or adjacent to, revolutionary Marxism. 

Seven of the essays first appeared in International Socialism. Overlapping these are seven essays that have important Scottish connections, especially concerning questions of national identity and self-determination and the uneven transition from feudalism to capitalism. What Davidson has to say about such questions is particularly interesting in the aftermath of the defeated independence referendum in Scotland this past August.

The main title of Davidson’s book comes from a passage in Walter Benjamin’s essay “On the Concept of History,” a passage that (in English translation) begins, “Historical materialism wishes to hold fast to that image of the past which unexpectedly appears to the historical subject in a moment of danger.” Davidson focuses on “the notion that in a crisis we may learn from aspects of tradition that had been ignored, overlooked, or expunged but that have now acquired a hitherto unanticipated significance.” 

For Benjamin himself, writing shortly before his death in 1940, the “danger” was “the way in which social democracy first colluded in the face of imperialist war and then, along with Stalinism, capitulated in the face of Fascism.” The challenge faced by the Left today is different, according to Davidson: it’s less that of capitulating to the ruling class in a moment of profound crisis than of trying to sustain itself on versions of its own political origins that are at times too fixed and inward-looking. Benjamin writes of the need “to wrest tradition from the conformism that is working to overwhelm it.” 

The extent to which such “conformism” is an urgent problem at the present moment will be a matter for debate: revolutionary socialists in the US are already reaching out and engaging seriously with the politics of intersectionality, for example, and with radical currents of environmental activism. Davidson’s book doesn’t address such developments directly. But it does exemplify a kind of dynamic theoretical and practical reassessment of “classical” Marxism that is in keeping with important and encouraging recent initiatives. 

Davidson’s 2009 essay “Walter Benjamin and the Classical Marxist Tradition” stands at the methodological center of this collection. Like Gramsci, Benjamin was literally persecuted to death by the Fascists. Like him, too, he has been widely appropriated by academic critics eager to accommodate Benjamin’s brilliant cultural analysis by disconnecting it from revolutionary politics. But unlike Gramsci, who was constantly in the thick of political struggle when he founded and led the Italian Communist Party in the years following the Bolshevik Revolution, Benjamin was primarily a writer, a philosopher, and cultural critic whose style is often difficult, subtle, allusive, “literary.” 

Responding to a review by former British SWP member Chris Nineham that is largely dismissive of Benjamin’s contribution to revolutionary Marxism, Davidson acknowledges that Benjamin was in many respects a “classical ‘man of letters.’” But he distances Benjamin from the “Western Marxism” and “Frankfurt School” categories into which he is usually placed. “Unlike all Western Marxists,” Davidson argues, “Benjamin never adapted to social democracy, Stalinism, or any variation of socialism from above, nor did he lapse into political pessimism or despair.” 

Benjamin retained to the end his belief in the possibility of socialist revolution on the basis of working-class self-activity. His final substantial work before his suicide, “On the Concept of History” and its preparatory notes, are the greatest theoretical affirmation, in the face of inconceivable adversity, of the actuality of the revolution in the entire Marxist canon. 

This is in many ways a remarkable claim, and there will be those—even among Benjamin’s serious political admirers, like myself—who will disagree that his final essay is “the greatest theoretical affirmation . . . of the actuality of the revolution” (my italics). 

Still, Davidson makes a brilliant case for the way in which political potential and historical uncertainty are seen by Benjamin to coexist in a dialectical tension that is deeply connected to Marx’s own writing about the history of revolution. “In the context of socialist politics,” Davidson argues, “we do not and cannot know which aspects of our tradition or history more widely will be of most use to us in coming struggles.” The distinctively “’Benjaminian’ contribution to socialist politics,” he concludes, may be the call “for socialists to make the necessary leaps of the imagination to see what parts of the tradition are genuinely relevant to our current situation.” 

Davidson’s rethinking of Benjamin’s status within the tradition of revolutionary Marxism finds echoes, not surprisingly, in his 2010 essay, first published in Scottish Labor History, called “Antonio Gramsci’s Reception in Scotland.” Those inclined to assume from this title that they are being invited to think about Gramsci from a limited nationalist perspective are in for a surprise. Davidson does show how “Gramsci’s thought has been applied to distinctively Scottish issues and dilemmas, rather than, as in Britain as a whole or other parts of the English-speaking world, to general problems of hegemony or revolutionary organization.” 

But the “distinctively Scottish issues and dilemmas” involve questions of self-determination that resonate in many unevenly developed areas in the world where resistance to colonial capitalism has expressed itself in nationalist and separatist terms. Debates within the Scottish Left about Gramsci’s distinction between “organic” and “traditional intellectuals” are pertinent to debates elsewhere about the Left’s ability to challenge ruling-class ideology and develop a “counter-hegemonic” current of thinking and self-identity. 

Crucially, Gramsci’s strongest advocates in Scotland have recognized that “whatever his innovations, Gramsci remained a Leninist throughout the composition of the prison notebooks and to the end of his life.” Gramsci continues to enable many on the Scottish left to see “that the difference between Scotland and the other nations of the United Kingdom is political, not cultural.” As to “whether elements of the Scottish Left will be capable of Gramsci’s revolutionary Marxism, for both historical analysis and socialist strategy,” this remains “an open question.”

The longest essay in Holding Fast to an Image of the Past—fifty-four pages—is devoted to the Scottish philosopher Alisdair MacIntyre. MacIntyre’s best-known books, particularly After Virtue and others published in the 1980s and 1990s, made him, Davidson says, “perhaps the most discussed intellectual in the West.” Many readers didn’t—and still don’t—realize that from the mid-1950s into the 1970s, MacIntyre “wrote from a Marxist perspective” and “belonged to a number of Marxist organizations including the Socialist Labour League (SLL) and the International Socialists (IS)” (and was, in fact, an editor of International Socialism until 1968). 

His first book, Marxism: an Interpretation (1953), written when he was a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain, shows him accepting the then dominant view of “an unbroken succession from Marx and Engels to Lenin and from Lenin to Stalin” and indicates virtually no knowledge at all of Trotsky. But by the late 1950s when he joined the SLL, MacIntyre’s Marxism began to reflect an increasingly intensive reading of Trotsky. In the years that followed, as he moved toward and eventually joined the IS, he became part of an activist cadre: speaking often at public meetings, selling papers, writing regularly for party publications, and weighing in influentially on questions of revolutionary organization. 

As early as 1960 he was putting the case for party organization and discipline in powerful terms:

The saying that freedom is the knowledge of necessity does not mean that a merely passive and theoretical knowledge can liberate us. The knowledge which liberates is that which enables us to change our social relations. And this knowledge, knowledge which Marxism puts at our disposal, is not a private possession, something which the individual can get out of books and then keep for himself; it is rather a continually growing consciousness, which can only be the work of a group bound together by a common politics and educational discipline.

MacIntyre went on during his years in the IS to write out of a deepening understanding of and commitment to Trotsky’s Marxism. 

He came to believe, however, that there was an elitist and therefore non-Marxist element in Lenin’s politics—and that the actually existing working class was incapable of realizing its revolutionary potential. By 1965 he was moving away from the IS and closer to a group calling itself “Solidarity” that was pessimistic about working-class revolution and rejected Marx’s theory of capitalist crisis. The formal break came, ironically, in 1968, a year in which revolutionary politics moved dramatically back onto the global agenda. 

By the early 1970s MacIntyre was accepting a series of academic positions in the United States and, in his writing, increasingly dedicating himself to the project of bending the best resources of the Marxist tradition in the direction of a pessimistic defeatism. He re-embraced Christianity, this time Roman Catholicism. And while his philosophical work on the historical origins of moral concepts was critically enabled by Marx, he had come to the political view that “Marxism is not just an inadequate, but a largely inept, instrument for social analysis.” 

Davidson finds in MacIntyre’s troubling story an important lesson—not about just holding fast to an image of the past, but about holding on to “the emancipatory heart” of the Marxist tradition as we look for and bring to the test of practice resources within Marxism that we may not even have known were there.

If the MacIntyre chapter points to what socialists can learn from someone who abandoned Marxism altogether, the chapters on Isaac Deutscher and Eric Hobsbawm locate what’s valuable in writers who remained committed to versions of Marxism with which Davidson fundamentally disagrees. “Of all the great Marxist historians,” Davidson says, “[Deutscher] was unusual, perhaps unique, in making biography his primary mode of expression.” 

Through close analysis of passages from Deutscher’s extraordinary three-volume biography of Trotsky, Davidson shows that even the vivid accounts of worker insurgency in 1905 and 1917 reveal a pessimism about the political power of the working class, indicative of a sharp difference between the biographer and his subject. This difference is related to Deutscher’s determination, after the outbreak of World War II, to remain apart from active participation in political organization. His claim to uphold the tradition of “Classical Marxism” against the “Vulgar Marxism” of Stalin and Mao was based on a kind of revolutionary defeatism that in the end actually kept him from making a complete break with Stalinism. As Davidson puts it, writing of the 1950s and early 60s when the Trotsky trilogy was published: “The Deutscher who resisted Stalinism gave us what is most valuable [in the trilogy]; the Deutscher who capitulated gave us those aspects most redolent of that epoch of defeat.” 

The historian Eric Hobsbawm, who died at age 95 in 2012, was situated on the other side of the Trotsky/Stalin divide from Isaac Deutscher. In a postscript to “Eric Hobsbawm’s Unanswered Question,” first published shortly before Hobsbawm’s death in the Economic and Political Weekly, Davidson comes to this conclusion: 

Hobsbawm himself always argued that his historiography was inseparable from his Marxism and, indeed, only made possible by it. . . . For those of us on the anti-Stalinist left Hobsbawm’s orthodox Communism meant that his political judgments—his extraordinarily narrow conception of the working-class, for example, or his belief that nationalism could be harnessed for progressive ends—had to be treated with deep suspicion; but much of his historical writing has to be afforded a great deal more respect. 

“Relatively little of his serious historical output,” Davidson goes on to say “is irredeemably tainted by the political tradition to which he belonged.” 

“Tainted,” but not “irredeemably”: the distinction is relevant to the “Unanswered Question” of Davidson’s title. This piece is a review of Hobsbawm’s “uneven, infuriating, and sporadically brilliant book,” How to Change the World: Tales of Marx and Marxism (2011). Davidson turns Hobsbawm’s title into the “Unanswered Question” of his own title—and answers it by calling for “a resumption of the revolutionary project” that Hobsbawm abandoned long ago when he accepted the Stalinist counterrevolution and resigned himself to Popular Front politics as the best the Left had to offer. So by all means read Hobsbawm’s great essay on “Pre-capitalist Economic Formations” included in How to Change the World, Davidson suggests, but don’t be taken in by the book’s introductory invitation that “We should . . . reject the idea that there is a sharp difference between a ‘correct’ and an ‘incorrect’ Marxism.” 

In another context, blurring the distinction between “correct” and “incorrect” reading and application could sound postmodernist. Davidson takes on the blurring or attempted fusion of postmodernism and historical materialism in his review of a revised edition of Benedict Anderson’s influential Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Rise and Spread of Nationalism, published by Verso in 2006. Anderson himself characterizes his book as an attempt “to combine a kind of historical materialism with what later on came to be called discourse analysis. Marxist modernism married to post-modernism.” 

For Davidson it is “the postmodernist aspects of the work that have proved the most influential, all too often at the expense of Anderson’s Marxism.” Davidson acknowledges that while Marx and Engels laid down the basic principles of an enduring socialist understanding of nationalism, they did so “without any real explanation of the emergence or nature of nations.” Anderson contributes significantly to our understanding of the “nation” as, among other things, a “form of consciousness.” While this has been taken by some to mean that nations are nothing but forms of consciousness, Anderson himself argues that specific national identities “are only available because of a determinate (although certainly not determined) historical process.” 

Where Anderson’s account falters, Davidson argues, is in “the contingent role it allocates to capitalist development.” Showing how Anderson’s insights can be “integrated into a more consistently materialist framework,” Davidson argues that “national consciousness took as many centuries to become the dominant form of consciousness as the capitalist mode of production did to become the dominant mode of production, and it did so as a consequence of that.” Thus the “capitalist nation-state became a permanent feature of the international state system only toward the end of the hundred years between the end of the English [“Glorious”] Revolution in 1688 and the beginning of the French Revolution in 1789.” 

From this period going forward, the “capitalist system generates nationalism as a necessary everyday condition of its continued existence.” Davidson concludes by rebuking Anderson and Tom Nairn, the Scottish political theorist whose work on nationalism he shrewdly assesses in Chapter 1 of this collection, for their forlorn belief that nationalist conflict is the inevitable future of humanity. Davidson draws on Benjamin again in denying that either nationalism or capitalism necessarily defines our future. Believing that they do isn’t political realism; it’s political capitulation. 

One very visible and influential writer on the left these days who would not appear to be vulnerable to the charge of capitulating to global capitalism is Naomi Klein. Davidson’s chapter called “Shock and Awe: Naomi Klein’s Interpretation of Neoliberalism” begins by emphasizing the strengths of Klein’s No Logo, published a few months after the 1999 demonstrations against the World Trade Organization in Seattle, and especially of The Shock Doctrine, which appeared a year before the full onset of the Great Recession in 2008. “Whatever problems there are with Klein’s work,” he writes, she “is on the side of those who have suffered from and are fighting back against capitalism.” 

Davidson admires Klein’s effort to link the global “War on Terror” following the 9/11 attacks and the neoliberal war on working-class living standards of the last fifteen years. The main problem he identifies in Klein’s work is not that of failing to distinguish neoliberalism from capitalism itself (which may take Keynesian or social democratic forms, for instance), but of leaving open the possibility that the capitalist system might one day be made fair and equitable as Davidson puts it, “that ‘another capitalism is possible’ shorn of the inhumanity of neoliberalism.” 

This difficulty, he goes on to show, is connected to limitations in the very metaphor of “shock” as Klein deploys it. The current period of neoliberal ascendancy has certainly exploited both war and “natural” disasters by enforcing its own shock tactics. But Davidson believes that in representing “neoliberalism as the manifestation of the inner logic of corporate capitalism,” Klein tends to treat all geopolitical events as “either consciously undertaken or opportunistically manipulated to impose neoliberalism,” an approach that depends on too simple and unvarying a link “between economics and politics.” 

Prior to the global recession of the mid-1970s, capitalist politicians looked to government intervention and the welfare state rather than to neoliberal “shock” tactics to cope with or stave off instability in the system. Davidson’s fundamental criticism is that for Klein, economic crisis “barely features” in her analysis “unless as something consciously created by ruling classes to change economic structures to their advantage.” This leads her to restrict her sense of positive political alternatives “mainly . . . to small-scale attempts as post-disaster ‘community reconstruction,’” rather than to imagine building an organized anti-capitalist Left confident in its ability to explain the underlying causes of systemic crisis and strong enough to take on capitalism in all its political forms. 

Davidson’s last chapter turns to—and not just back to—Adam Smith, a move that some readers of a book subtitled “Explorations in the Marxist Tradition” may find surprising. But Marx’s own engagement with Smith’s contributions to political economy was intense and serious, so why shouldn’t ours be? Davidson shows that despite the widespread and usually superficial celebration of The Wealth of Nations these days by proponents of “free market” entrepreneurship, Smith’s vision of capitalist economic life has little in common with that of current neoliberal cheerleaders. For one thing, Smith’s version of the labor theory of value was a positive resource for the working-class movement in its earliest decades—particularly for the Chartists in Britain—before the interventions of Marx and Engels in the 1840s. 

This is why Marx “spent over a decade in his prolonged engagement with Smith’s thought and in many respects proved himself to be his forebear’s most faithful reader.” The Wealth of Nations was soon coopted by the bosses, of course, and the notorious “invisible hand” of the market all but wiped away Smith’s account of the ways in which labor is the ultimate source of all wealth. Marx’s reading of Smith was certainly critical, particularly concerning Smith’s failure “to acknowledge the necessity of ‘primitive’ accumulation for capital.” 

But Davidson argues for a more accurate understanding of Smith’s ideas than what is usually on offer, from the Left as well as from the Right (“the socialist left often ascribe extreme positions to Smith that are even less plausible than those of the neoliberal right”). Ultimately, however, Davidson believes that Smith’s relevance today depends on “precisely the extent to which it demonstrates the vast difference between his vision” of “commercial society” (Smith never uses the word “capitalism”) and “our reality.” Davidson concludes with a compact assessment of the development of capitalism from 1776—when The Wealth of Nations was published and the American Declaration of Independence was signed—up to the present moment. This conclusion makes good on the book’s sustained call for a revolutionary Marxism that is open, principled, and committed, and that applies the methods of historical materialism to everything—including itself. 

Issue #84

June 2012

The struggle against The New Jim Crow

An interview with Michelle Alexander
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