Transcending convention

Neil Davidson: October 9 1957-May 3 2020

The death was announced on May 3 of Neil Davidson, perhaps the greatest historical sociologist of contemporary Scotland. It is a cliché of obituaries to write, ‘He will be greatly missed’, but in this case we are describing a thinker of exemplary scope, learning and eloquence, who is truly irreplaceable.

I first met Neil at a conference in Glasgow on neoliberalism, when he was still teaching at Strathclyde University. I noticed his openness and willingness to work with others to undertake publications that would start to register the momentous shift from a Keynesian-influenced, mixed-economy capitalism to the financialised capitalism and neoliberalism of today. From this conference he, Patricia McCafferty and David Miller produced Neoliberal Scotland: class and society in a stateless nation (2010). The conference impressed on me that I should read more of his writing, so I started with his books on Scottish history, which seemed to me refreshingly different from anything else I had read in that area. He had written many of his initial publications on the history of Scotland - including its agrarian history - and deservedly won the Deutscher Prize for Discovering the Scottish revolution (2003).

It was a pleasure to be at his presentation to staff when he had been shortlisted for a lectureship in sociology, in the University of Glasgow. Neil spoke with great fluency and passion about his plans for future research - and what plans! In the few years after his appointment he went on to publish more books than many academics and writers do in a lifetime. Reflecting subsequently on the appointment, I thought that he should have been immediately upgraded to a professorship. But at least Glasgow got him, whilst it had notoriously failed to appoint Christopher Hill to one of the history departments, when he applied for a post in the late 1950s ...

Neil had already shown himself to be an effective teacher. He had been given an award for teaching at Strathclyde, being appreciated particularly by working class students, but by no means by them alone. In Glasgow, he proved also to be a highly collegial member of staff - giving seminar papers to the department and, more unusually, to the economics students’ Real World Economics Society, which they had set up after the financial crisis, as an alternative to the mainstream economics of the Adam Smith Society. He launched his latest books as each one appeared, opening himself up to criticism by getting discussants to appraise his work, sometimes critically, and responding brilliantly, off the cuff.

He organised a postgraduate conference on class and co-organised another on racism in Scotland; he participated in the Centre (now Network) for Socialist Theory and Movements and on the University and College Union local committee. I have also been at Historical Materialism conferences in London, where Neil gave papers: indeed, in 2018, as many as three in a single conference! The recent Uneven and Combined Development Conference at Glasgow University, which he organised single-handed in 2019, was a tour de force, with lectures given by the foremost international scholars in this area, such as Robert Brenner, Justin Rosenberg, Hillel Ticktin and Charles Post. It was tragic that Neil was struck down by his illness before he could deliver his keynote paper.

Neil had a background which is still all too unusual for an academic. He was brought up by working class parents, and by grandparents who had been crofters near Aberdeen. After leaving school, he went briefly to live in London, then returned to Scotland for an administrative job - indeed he was wittily acerbic, when one of his critics remarked that he should have known of a particular strand of thought about bourgeois revolutions which was first introduced by Perry Anderson at a Cambridge talk in 1976. He responded: “Unless you were lucky enough to attend that presentation - and sadly I was working in my first post-secondary school job as a clerk with the Grampian Health Board in Aberdeen at the time - you would not have had access to Anderson’s thoughts on the subject until it appeared in print in 1992.”

Neil then passed a civil service exam to become a researcher for the Scottish Executive, educating himself further with a degree from the Open University. This early formation never left him - he retained a strong Aberdonian accent and liked occasionally to use Scots vocabulary: thus, in his most recent, erudite book, he comments on his critics’ incompatible views: “This, in Scottish terms, is a ‘guddle’.”

Revolutionary theory

He went on from the civil service to be one of the most exciting thinkers of our time - his monumental 2012 book How revolutionary were the bourgeois revolutions? being an exhilarating analysis of the theory and practice of revolution - from Harrington, Marx, Luxemburg and Benjamin to Trotsky and dissident followers - and encompassing in his analysis the English, French, American and Russian revolutions. His main thesis in that book is that bourgeois revolutions from below ceased after the American Revolution and subsequent civil war, because the dominant classes were too frightened of these events turning into proletarian revolutions, as happened in Russia. So instead societies like Germany (under Bismarck), Italy (via the Risorgimento) and Japan (Meiji restoration) introduced capitalism as an economic and social system from above, in what Gramsci calls a “passive revolution”. He evaluates whether insurrectionary events were bourgeois revolutions or not by whether they introduced capitalism, through what he terms a “consequentialist analysis”.

This book has evoked full-length critical articles, to which he recently replied in the journal, Historical Materialism (2019): we shall perhaps come to call it ‘The Davidson Debate’, just as we speak now of ‘The Brenner Debate’. I do not agree with everything he wrote, particularly on the Stalinist counterrevolution as “state capitalist” or on political Marxism (Brenner, Post et al). But in this and subsequent books, such as Holding fast to an image of the past (2013), We cannot escape history (2014) and Nation-states (2015), he went on to defend and develop his distinctive historical vision. I wrote when Holding fast came out that it was “illuminating, authoritative and sometimes very funny …This new collection fruitfully combines wide-ranging erudition with vivid vignettes.” Indeed, this might be said of all his works.

Neil, as many will know, was a long-term member of the Socialist Workers Party, familiar with many of its leading and Scottish members. After the SWP went through two highly-divisive crises in recent years, he left, as did many other members. He went on to join Revolutionary Socialism in the 21st Century (RS21). He was also a strong supporter of Rise (Respect, Independence, Socialism, Environmentalism) - the organisational offspring of the Radical Independence campaign, as well as of Lexit. In these respects it should be pointed out that he became perhaps the most thoughtful interpreter of the Scottish referendum voting patterns in 2014, publishing in New Left Review a memorable analysis of the relation between radical independence votes and deindustrialisation, class and gender (A Scottish watershed, 2014).

As I reflect on his contribution, I see him as having been one of our major Scottish - and British - public intellectuals. He has written extensively on the major issues of our time. Had he not got a degree late, and had he been less of a dissident voice, he would surely have been offered earlier and greater recognition. For Neil’s published work has a scope and a capacity to transcend conventional disciplinary boundaries without - in general - ever being simplistic. This is truly rare. Given his capacity to blend theory and empirical research, I would go so far as to put him in the great traditions of historians, along with Marc Bloch, Pierre Broué, EP Thompson, Christopher Hill and Eric Hobsbawm.

Neil was also remarkable for his generosity of spirit and his good humour - perhaps in part because he was so well sustained by his partner, Cathie Watkins. Despite his formidable work routine, he made time for others, not least for his postgraduate students, all of whom were devoted to him. We have lost a modest man but one who had developed extraordinary abilities.

Bridget Fowler

University of Glasgow