Note from the LeftEast editors: this interview is published in cooperation with the Ukrainian journal Спільне/Commons: Journal of Social Criticism. Questions were asked by Yuriy Dergunov. They were sent on February 28 and replies were received on May 2, 2014.
Neil Davidson is a Scottish historian and sociologist, a lecturer at the School of Social and Political Sciences, University of Glasgow. His areas of research include theories of revolution and development since the Enlightenment, nationalism and ethnicity, the relationship between capitalist economy and the nation-state, neoliberalism, and right-wing social movements; he is also interested in the Scottish aspect of all these themes. Davidson is the author of The Origins of Scottish Nationhood (2000), Discovering the Scottish Revolution (2003; for which he was awarded the Deutscher Memorial Prize for the best Marxist book in English), How Revolutionary Were the Bourgeois Revolutions? (2012), and a collection of essays on Marxist thinkers, Holding Fast to an Image of the Past (2014). Recently he had completed a major study on the relationship between neoliberal transformation of global capitalism and the change in class and ethnic consciousness, and now prepares for publication two books – What Was Neoliberalism? and Violating All the Laws of History: Combined Development, Nation-States and Neoliberal Capitalism.
How can you describe the overthrow of Yanukovych’s regime in Ukraine in terms of historical materialist social theory?
The revolutionary process in Ukraine isn’t over yet, and in a sense how we define revolutions depends on their ultimate outcomes, but the notion of ‘political revolution’ seems to be the most accurate way to describe the likely short-term outcome. By this I mean a revolution which doesn’t fundamentally change the nature of society, the mode of production. In other words, it isn’t a ‘social revolution’, but one which does change the personnel and perhaps the actual nature of the regime. Another way of looking at it would to say that political revolutions occur within the state rather than transforming the state. This is not to denigrate the courage or creativity of the masses in Maidan or in similar revolutions – some of the greatest events of the 20th century like the Mexican or Iranian revolutions were political in this sense: its an argument about outcomes, about consequences, not processes.
Is it similar in this respect to other upheavals in the course of Arab spring that resulted in regime changes?
Very much: both in the sense of having the potential to become social(ist) revolutions and the way in which – for the moment at least – they were resolved as political revolutions. And political revolution ha’s been the best outcome, of course, as in the case of Tunisia; in the case of Egypt there’s been an actual counter-revolution. In both cases (i.e. Ukraine and the Arab Spring) the difficulty has been the weakness of socialism as as an organising principle, as as a set of ideas, and as a goal – although you obviously know this far better than me. Right though until the 1980s, any revolutionary movement was almost automatically “of the left” in some respects – even in Eastern Europe, where the various revolutionary movements, above all in Hungary in 1956, but also in Poland, were mainly striving for some sort of genuine socialism. The absence of this as a virtual default position is a serious weakness and simply pointing to the fact that the working class is numerically bigger than ever before in history is not an adequate response. Socialist consciousness is not automatically produced simply by the fact of exploitation; that only makes it possible. The active intervention of organised socialists is also required.
Is the notion of bourgeois-democratic revolution relevant to categorize political revolutions of that kind (and was it ever relevant)?
I am very suspicious of this notion. It made some sense before the Russian Revolution to conceive of it as being both a bourgeois revolution (albeit one which would have to be carried out by the working class in alliance with the peasantry) and democratic (in the sense that it would establish a parliamentary regime on the Western European model). This conception did not survive the revolution of October 1917 which, as Trotsky predicted in his theory of permanent revolution, involved the proletariat coming to power and moving straight onto the construction of a worker’s state under council, not parliamentary democracy. Following the crushing of the Russian Revolution by the emergent bureaucracy – which had occurred by 1928 at the latest – the notion of the bourgeois-democratic revolution was used by the Stalinist regime and its ideologues to consciously mislead in two ways. One, in relation to history, was to argue that every bourgeois revolution should also be ‘democratic’ – if they were not, then the so-called ‘tasks’ of the bourgeois revolution had still to be accomplished. (see my answer to question 5 below for more on “tasks”.) Now, democracy is obviously desirable, not least because it enhances the working class’s ability to organise and take part in political life, but it has nothing necessarily to do with the bourgeois revolution. The other misleading way in which the notion was used involved working-class struggle, at least until very recently. Here, it was the idea that every revolution outside of the advanced West had to go through a ‘bourgeois-democratic’ stage, then an indeterminate period of capitalist development under bourgeois parliamentary rule before socialism was on the agenda. This either had the effect of undermining potential socialist revolutions from within (as in Spain in 1936) or was simply a cover for Stalinist attempts to establish themselves in power (as in China in 1949). The historical importance of the theory of permanent revolution is that posed an alternative to this. Now, of course, the majority of former communists no longer believe that there is a socialist ‘stage’ beyond capitalism, and all that is possible is to make it more ‘democratic’.
How does the proper designation of these events matter for the political strategy of anticapitalist left in respective countries?
It matters because revolutionaries have to know what outcomes are possible and consequently what they are arguing and organising for. The era of the bourgeois revolutions is over – October 1917 showed that even where a pre-capitalist state existed, it was possible to begin the process of overthrowing it and moving towards socialism without any “bourgeois” stage whatsoever. However, the defeat of the Russian Revolution and the poisonous effects of Stalinism on the working class meant that a similar process was never successfully accomplished anywhere else. The so-called “communist” revolutions were in fact the contemporary form of the bourgeois revolutions, leading to the establishment of the state capitalist regimes which fell in Easter Europe and the USSR between 1989 and 1993. Its important to understand this because if we use the term “socialist revolution” and people think that we mean to recreate the Stalinist regimes then they are unlikely to be persuaded of the need for it. I am not arguing, of course, that fighting for objectives less than complete social revolution is valueless – that would be ultra-left stupidity. In situations where the state is run by dictatorships, or where rights are restricted in some way then revolutionaries have to fight respectively for for the overthrow of the regime or for reforms. But the point is that they do so while aiming for the greater social transformation. As the example of Egypt shows, if you don’t consciously aim for a c social revolution who can’t even be able to guarantee the survival of a political one.
What is the actual meaning of the notion of bourgeois revolution in Marxist tradition? What were the main trends in its theorizing? Does this notion survived the revisionist challenge from outside and inside Marxism?
The notion of a bourgeois revolution, although not the actual term, pre-existed Marxism. It can be found first in the work of the English republican James Harrington in the 1650s, then in that of the Scot Sir James Steuart in 1760s, then in that of French revolutionary Antione Barnave in the 1790s; the actual term was coined by Louis Blanc in 1839. Interestingly, my own research suggests that Marx and Engels did not derive the concept from these sources, but from their development of the notion of a social revolution during their engagement with Hegel during the mid-1840s. Much of the confusion surrounding the concept stems from the way in which a particular version of bourgeois revolution became the orthodoxy within Social Democracy after 1889 and – especially – in Stalinism after 1928. This version essentially took the French Revolution, and to a lesser extent, the English, as models and tended to treat the bourgeois revolutions as involving a set of ‘tasks’ which had to be accomplished by the masses under the leadership of a class-conscious bourgeoisie.. These tasks were usually taken to be agrarian reform, national unification and, of course, our old friend, democracy. (See my comments on the political implication of this in answer 4) above.) Revisionists were able to point out, not only that most countries not undergone anything like the English/French experience – including many which, like Germany, were obviously highly industrialised capitalist states – but also that even the English and French experiences were much more complex and ambiguous than most Stalinist accounts suggested. Revisionists were mainly anti-Marxists, of course, but a further flanking attack came from more radical sources, namely the world-systems theory associated with Wallerstein on the one hand and the Political Marxism associated with Brenner on the other. Although these theories have quite different and indeed antithetical positions on the origins and nature of capitalism, both argue that the events we tend to think of as bourgeois revolutions were simply political revolutions and the really significant process was the prior development of capitalist relations of production (for the former) or of property (for the latter). Any defensible theory of bourgeois revolution therefore has to able to explain what events as different as the 16th century Dutch Revolt against the Spanish Empire, the 19th century Unification of Germany, and the 20th century Egyptian Revolution (of 1952) have in common. The answer, I think, can only be found by looking at their outcomes – in other words, the establishment of a nation-state dedicated to the accumulation of capital, regardless of whether any other so-called tasks were accomplished or not. This position can be found in the writings of the classical Marxism – Engels on Germany, Gramsci on Italy, Lenin on Russia, Lukacs more generally – but was elaborated more recently (often without reference to the Classical Marxist tradition) in the work of Isaac Deutscher. Christopher Hill’s later work on England (from around 1974), Geoff Eley’s writings on Germany, Alex Callinicos’ more general reflections, and my own work on Scotland and in How Revolutionary Were the Bourgeois Revolutions?’
What is the meaning of the notion of uneven and combined development that you actively refer to in some of your recent theoretical studies? Is the notion of U&CD relevant to Ukrainian situation or in a wider Eastern European context? If so, how does U&CD connected to the ongoing and prospective social change in these countries?
Before uneven and combined development there was uneven development. This encompasses a number of different phenomena but the key one is the idea of “the advantages of backwardness”, or how developing adopt the developed forms of technology, technique, military hardware, etc, rather than going through all the steps of development undergone by their more advanced predecessors. There is nothing particularly Marxist or even socialist about this – the process was first noticed by Leibniz and Turgot in the 18th century, and by Sir Walter Scott and the Russian Populists in the 19th, and by figures as diverse as Hilferding, Gramsci and Veblen in the early 20th. Trotsky added the notion of “combination”. The ‘proto’ law of uneven and combined development was originally intended by Trotsky to explain the conditions of possibility for the strategy of permanent revolution in Tsarist Russia, as set out in works written during and immediately after the 1905 Revolution like Results and Prospects and 1905. From 1930, when uneven and combined development emerged as an actual concept with a name, as opposed to a series of insightful but inchoate observations, Trotsky began to identity the same process in states even more backward than Russia had been, and hence also the possibility of permanent revolution as an outcome. Essentially it means where industrialisation and urbanisation have irrupted into feudal or tributary society, but that society is unable to complete the transition to capitalist modernity, hence their “combined” – and socially explosive – character, fusing “the archaic and the modern”. Most accounts of uneven and combined development follow the main focus of Trotsky’s thought and assume that, after the fall of the great tributary empires at the end of the First World War, it was applicable mainly to those areas of the world which have been successively described as colonial and semi-colonial, the Third World, and the Global South. Yet, in my view, it is possible to understand UCD not simply as a process confined to backward or underdeveloped areas within the structured inequalities of imperialism, but as one generated universally by the intrusion of capitalist modernity in the form of industrialisation and urbanisation. On this reading, all states which have undergone the impact of modern factories and cities will have experienced uneven and combined development to some degree. The difference between Germany or Japan on the one hand, and Turkey or China on the other, was that the former gone through the process of uneven and combined development and emerged as great industrial powers before imperialism began to fix the long-term parameters of the advanced and the backward. Uneven and combined development therefore does not indicate an absolute spatial distinction between West and East or between North and South; but rather a difference in degree, in which the experience of the former may have to be subject to historical excavation rather than sociological investigation. Uneven and combined development is therefore not necessarily an effect of capitalist industrialisation and urbanisation impacting on pre-capitalist society, but of their impact on any hitherto stable agrarian societies, even if they had previously been subject to capitalist laws of motion. For this reason the concept is as relevant to contemporary developments in China as it was during the 1920s. Whether it is applicable in countries like Ukraine is a question which you would be in a better position to answer than me – I suspect not, since industrialisation took place during the Stalinist era; but revolutions can be caused for reasons other than UCD, otherwise those of us in Europe, where it is largely a historical phenomenon, would be facing a very bleak future.
Recently there had been a substantial rise in the popular support to far right in some Eastern European countries (and in Ukraine in particular). Does this trend fits some global pattern? What are the connections of neoliberal globalization and the rise of far right?
There has been a global revival of of both fascist and non-fascist far-right parties, from England through to India. In part, this is a right-wing reaction to neoliberal globalisation, and particularly to “social” neoliberalism – which has the original economic agenda but is – in relation to the middle classes at least – also committed to opposing racism, and various forms of oppression. Against this, the new right stands for the defence of the nation and the “native” populations against the supposedly destructive influence of immigration, whether as a result of population movements within the EU or more widely. This form of right-wing populism plays on popular discontent, social collapse and alienation from political elites by blaming both the migrants themselves (this kind of racism is of course usually the dominant element in a whole mix of deeply socially conservative or reactionary positions) and the “establishments” which have supposedly allowed the foreigners in to pollute the purity of the national body. The crisis of 2007/8 gave more credibility to their claims. As long as the left does not convince the working class people of the real reasons for their problems these partioes will find an audience. This is why it is absolutely fatal, a crime against socialism, for politicians on the left to make the slightest concessions to the anti-migrant, anti-Islamic propaganda of the far right in the scramble for votes. All this does is give far-right arguments legitimacy. Instead the left should rely on mass mobilisations, especially involving the populations who are being persecuted and victimised, in order to expose the far-right and give people the confidence to oppose them. One of the reasons why the UK has a relatively small far-right compared to France, is because of the successful social movement organised by the Anti Nazi League/Rock Against Racism in the late 1970s and early 1980s. It is important to distinguish between the fascist and non-fascist far-right, as the tactics required will be different: in British terms, anti-racists would physically stop the fascist British national Party from marching or demonstrating, but would not apply this tactic to the far-right but non-fascist UKIP, although we obviously do demonstrate against them.
How do far right political parties and movements relate to structural interests of capital? How can far right capacity for popular political mobilization be explained?
Classical fascism performed two services for German and Italian capital between the wars: crushing an already weakened working class and launching an imperial expansionist drive to conquer new territory. The contemporary relevance of this experience is limited in both respects: the working class is not currently combative enough to inspire fear in the bourgeoisie, and the states in which the fascist far-right is closest to achieving power–above all, in Greece–are not imperialist powers capable of attempting continental domination in the way that were Germany or even Italy. The point is that in the contemporary situation all that may remain are those aspects of the far-right program which are irrational for capital, particularly in its current neoliberal manifestation. For example, the imperial nationalism unleashed by the British Conservatives before 1997 in relation to “Europe,” was not because the EU was in any sense hostile to neoliberalism – it is a machine for implementing it, as Ukranians may soon discover to their cost – but rather as an ideological diversion from the failure of neoliberalism to transform the fortunes of British capital. But the nationalism invoked for this purpose now places a major obstacle for British politicians and state managers who want to pursue a strategy of greater European integration, however rational such a strategy might be from their perspective. The key beneficiary of the anti-European hysteria has been the far-right UKIP and its success has in turn emboldened the right within the Conservative Party, even though the policies associated with both are incoherent. No large-scale British capitalist wants to leave the EU, they want to renegotiate the Treaty, but they may end up with a referendum which actually leads to British withdrawal. A similar tale could be told of the Tea Party and its influence over the Republican party in the USA. But although certain aspects of far-right politics are counter-productive in relation to the needs of capital, it does not follow that the increased chaos consequent on the implementation of these policies would necessarily be of benefit, even indirectly, to the left. Defense of the system is always the principle objective of the bourgeoisie, even at the expense of temporary system malfunction. In a situation where economic desperation was leading to mounting disorder, far-right parties would be brought into play to direct attention from the real source of social anguish onto already-identified scapegoats, no matter what price they exacted in terms of policy terms.
What are the other significant impacts of neoliberalism on ethnic and class identities?
The ideology of neoliberalism claims that it is ‘ethnic-blind’, that markets don’t discriminate (except in relation to wealth and power, of course). This may be true for the 1%, or the upper levels of the New Middle Class (the top 15%), but for almost everybody else, neoliberalism has heightened ethnic tensions in three ways. First, in the competition for sharply decreasing government funds, petitioning for support on an ethnic basis becomes an alternative to struggle; broadly, if you can claim that your ‘ethnicity’ has been treated worse, or is more disadvantaged, then you should have access to state funding, particularly at the local level: this of course encourages people to see themselves as primarily belonging to an ethnicity. Second, neoliberalism greatly increasing levels of social fragmentation, so that – in the absence of strong class consciousness – clinging to some kind of ethnic identity, however recently invented, may provide the only social cohesion available in the face of the naked marketization of human relationships. (And this, of course, also feeds the far-right.) Third, neliberal regimes in the West play a triple game: formally supporting multiculturalism (at least in the UK and USA – France is slightly different); tacitly encouraging immigration to lower wage levels; while simultaneously denouncing migrants as job and/or benefit-stealing parasites – denounciations which are of course amplified by the far-right, as I discussed earlier. Neoliberalism has not necessarily weakened class consciousness, but has weakened working-class representation in the utter capitulation of social democracy and the sharo fall in trade union membership. This obviously has effects, most of all in making it very difficult for highly exploited and pressurised working-class people to see the possibility of any alternative way of organising society. Of all the important things that the left does – fighting oppression, establishing solidarity, building parties and trade unions – perhaps the most important, or the thing that should run through them all, is the need to reaffirm the socialist alternative to the current crisis, that – as the slogan from 1999 has it – another world is possible.