Neil Davidson

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By RAQUEL VARELA*

Lecture in honor of the Scottish historian

1.

It is an honor to be here, in this tribute to Neil Davidson. We are at a very special moment, in the fight against the genocide in Gaza. Last year, on November 11th, we had the opportunity to be at that wonderful demonstration in London, alongside 800 people, of all ages, from religious backgrounds, atheists, and from different parties and unions. It was inspiring. And that has a lot to do with what we are doing here today, in this tribute to Neil Davidson.

You probably all know him as a brilliant Marxist, socialist, militant and organizer historian. He was also a deeply erudite writer: in his books he tries to analyze, in an honest way, the hypotheses to explain capitalism, and the transformation of societies towards socialism (or not). The way he writes is that of an intellectual committed to making debates understandable to a wide audience.

Neil Davidson handled not only classical social history very well, but also its relations with the arts, culture, etc. He draws enormous inspiration from classical Marxism, from Marx and Engels, from Trotsky, from Rosa Luxemburg, from Gramsci, I will also highlight Walter Benjamin and Lukács. He belongs to that group of Marxist and socialist intellectuals who try to understand and explain society as a whole and in a non-dogmatic way.

2.

I want to tell you today about a book that was published in Portuguese in Brazil, where Neil Davidson gave a course on uneven and combined development, which resulted in the edition that I bring you here today. Luís Renato Martins brought together Neil's reflections in a collection called Uneven and Combined Development: Modernity, Modernism and Permanent Revolution. Ricardo Antunes wrote the preface to the book, Roberto della Santa, my husband and intellectual partner, introduced me to this book.

The theory of uneven and combined development was developed by the first generation of Marxists. They always dealt with the issue of different developments between countries, and how socialists would deal with this. Trotsky, concerned about the Russian situation, highlighted the issue of combined development. Not just uneven development, but combined development. The main idea, if I may be very simple, perhaps too simple, was that countries that were not as developed as the central capitalist countries would not need to go through the same stages of development as the central capitalist countries to reach a certain stage where socialist revolution would be possible. So, the main idea is that the world market and capitalism brought elements that were extremely developed in the most peripheral countries to backward countries.

I can give you a concrete example of the relationship between Portugal, where I come from, and England. Portugal has always been a semi-peripheral country, a kind of protectorate of Great Britain when it comes to the economy. The transition to capitalism in Portugal is an English product – banks, investment, machines and knowledge from England. David Ricardo's famous theory – of comparative advantages – was developed based on the unequal exchange between Portugal and England regarding trade in cloth/textiles and wine.

The idea was that Portugal would specialize in exporting wine because it makes it cheaper, and in exchange they would buy textiles from England. This theory of comparative advantage is an imperialist theory, it has no economic rationality beyond the profitability of central countries, and it has the most terrible consequences: 40 million people today go hungry in Brazil, which is the largest exporter of soybeans that feed meat. consumed in central countries. The land is not producing what people need, it is producing what is most profitable (profitable) for the investors who dominate the world market.
But what about the advantages of delay…? Portugal in 1870 began the organization of the working classes, influenced by the Paris Commune, and with Portuguese worker leaders who passed through Paris, as we remember in our book Brief History of Portugal (Bertrand). They lived and experienced, directly or through influence, the revolutions of 1830 and 1848, the founding of the First International in 1864 and then the Paris Commune. Thus, in Portugal, which was an extremely backward country, with the majority of the rural population working as peasants, more than 80 percent of the population at the time was illiterate.

The blue-collar, artisanal and urban workers were immediately inspired by the Paris Commune and created a branch of the First International, the Workers' Fraternity, which had a huge impact on the organization of workers, and contributed to Portugal becoming one of the main countries of the late of the 19th century in the field of revolutionary syndicalism, along with France, Spain, and also the USA.

There are examples that are better known worldwide and that Neil Davidson develops – it is the example of Russia, which from the State's point of view was one of the backward countries, it was the most “eastern” empire in Europe. It is very interesting to say this now because it seems that Russia no longer belongs to Europe, from the point of view of the European Union and NATO, which is obviously very ridiculous from all points of view, be it geographical, political or any other. But it was clear, at the time, that Russia was and is part of Europe, but it had a kind of eastern state. A brutal tsarist repressive state.

At the same time, it had one of the most concentrated and developed proletariats in the world, with industrial production highly concentrated in Saint Petersburg, Moscow and the Ural region. So how did all this combine to make the first social revolution after the Paris Commune that successfully seized power in 1917? The dialectic of how advanced and backward facts, distinct qualities, combine in a country will be used by Neil Davidson to lead us to a contemporary analytical hypothesis of the revolution, with emphasis on the role of the Chinese proletariat. How can we think today about uneven and combined development? And especially when it comes to one country: what's going on in China and how can China help us understand whether this makes sense or not? These are the essential questions in his book.

Let's say that Neil Davidson debates with different hypotheses of uneven and combined development and highlights the idea that the question of uneven and combined development is not a specific or characteristic method of analysis of modernity (and there is a debate in the book about the question of whether we could equate modernity and capitalism – in your opinion, no).

When there are still parts of pre-capitalism in capitalism, when there are forms of delayed development within the most advanced societies, we find open contradictions that allow a socialist revolution, which does not directly depend on uneven and combined development – ​​this is a condition for analysis. The socialist revolution depends above all on subjective factors of the organization of the working class, the quality of the leadership, etc.

3.

Thus, his observations on China are extremely interesting, where he argues that, firstly, China has the largest proletariat in the world and has experienced a dramatic and drastic transformation of peasants into workers in the process of migration from the countryside to the city and to the factories. The second note is the forms of resistance of these workers. Thus, inspired by many contemporary works on social conflict in China, he underlines the level of working class struggles in China.

I remember something that happened after his tragic death, he wasn't here to experience, that during the last confinement in China, and last Christmas, Foxcon workers went on a weeklong self-organized strike, and protests, hundreds of thousands, held end the confinement imposed during Covid 19 for three years. They realized that they were confined because there was a huge demand for iPhones on the world market, and the confinement was an excuse to force them to stay in the factory and work day and night, night and day. There was a revolt at Foxconn, which spread to other factories in China, and these Bonapartist measures – which were allegedly used as a public health measure – but were in fact being used to suppress worker organizing in China, fell apart.

The Chinese government was forced to end confinement restrictions, and this all started in a massive strike organized mainly by precarious workers. Therefore, these were not Foxconn's permanent workers, but the workers who were recruited to meet the high demands of selling Christmas iPhones. This is just an example. After that, the Chinese government never again used confinements to prohibit strikes or force workers to stay in factories.
This is just one example of how the resistance movement in China can reach enormous levels that we don't even know about. Between 2008 and 2010, China was the country in the world with the most strikes and, after these strikes, wages increased by around 25 percent. This had an impact on European and Western countries, because all the labor restructuring in the 1970s, and especially after the defeat of the miners' strike and other strikes in Europe in the 1980s, was based on the idea that the supply of goods that reproducing the working classes would be done with extremely cheap workers from China.

So, the clothes that the working class wears in Europe, the kitchen utensils or even the simple domestic washing machine, all these types of things that are the consumption of the working classes – because the working classes consume these goods, no more, the working classes spend most of their money on housing, food and these types of products essential to the reproduction of the workforce. It is clear that the price of these goods increased in Europe as wages rose in China, which contributed to the pauperization of the working classes in Europe.

Just to show how the socialization of global production that exists today, which has the enormous contradiction of the private appropriation of this socialization, causes all workers in the world to become entangled in a certain way. Entanglement is a good word, it's as if what happens in China has an impact here immediately, what happens here has an impact on China. We live in a world where just-in-time production and relocation have made companies, in principle, very strong – because they can exploit migration and refugees to reduce wages – but at the same time it has enormous potential, if the working class to organize globally, are what I call the “frank points of strong capitalism”. Only in appearance is it strong, its moribund state is not only reflected in wars, but in the fragility of its production chains and the strength of the world's workers, in power (depending of course on its capacity for international organization and coordination).

4.

A few years ago there was a strike in Brazil that stopped production in part of the automobile industry in the USA, because there was a small part of the chain that was built in Brazil; and nowadays, in fact, this is happening all over the world and the biggest problem, of course, is that there is no working class organization capable of organizing this. In fact, there are workers' organizations and trade unions that have enormous power, but they are highly bureaucratic unions, and they use their organization to do charity, to provide all kinds of assistance, but not to organize workers around the world in meaning of the fight. So the problem is not just that we don't have organization, today's unions like the ITF, which is the International Transport Workers' Federation, could very easily do this at any time.

I was once involved in a dockers' strike where dockers in Denmark, among others, blocked the containers loaded with precarious work in Lisbon and that was enough for the Portuguese workers to win the strike, just because of a blockade in Denmark and other countries in Europe – just two hours of lockdown. Therefore, the potentialities are enormous, which is why it is so important to study inequalities in combined development, not just because of the difference between countries, but because of the relationship between countries. And Neil Davidson did this in his life of study and activism.

I will also highlight the last observation about China made by Neil, which opens up the possibility of a revolutionary situation in China – it is the level of state repression. So, on the one hand we have a huge proletariat, on the other we have very important struggles and on the other we have enormous repression. We have a State that basically represses workers. In these contradictions, Neil sees, once again not a dogmatic conclusion, concrete possibilities for a social revolution.

I also want to say something that I consider very important, something that I find fascinating. Neil Davidson, in his study of bourgeois revolutions, argues that the counter-revolutions in Russia (with Stalin) and China completed what the bourgeois revolutions could not, the transition to capitalism.
Almost lastly, I want to highlight the following. The notion of uneven and combined development that is mentioned most often takes a linear approach to uneven and combined development that says: look, the backward countries may have the more developed tools of the advanced countries to make the revolution. It's always in a positive way.

I want to highlight the negative side, which is the fact that it was not just the defeat of the German Revolution that made it possible for Stalin to gain power. When Stalin came to power, the backwardness of the Soviet Union also had an impact on Western countries. So normally we stress how important the defeat of the German Revolution was to the defeat of socialism and the Bolsheviks in Russia, and we forget not only how delay can get the better of development, we forget that sometimes history plays a big game with us.

The most developed countries also suffer from backwardness: the impact of Stalinism on communist parties and workers' organization in the most developed countries was devastating. The movement wasn't just a movement toward development, it was a movement toward regression, and I think that's something we should explore more when we think about societies today. Neil Davidson's contribution is absolutely essential and is incredibly lively and undogmatic.

5.

I will end as follows, rescuing the best of our Left Opposition tradition (shouldn't we all be united today, in open debate, without agreements, but under this Left Opposition banner?). The notion of permanent revolution, it is not just the democratic revolution that turns into a social revolution, it is the national revolution that turns into an international revolution, and it is – this third dimension has been largely forgotten – a total revolution in the way of life.

Trotsky was very faithful to the idea that socialism is not just about changing production or property, it is about changing an entire way of life. And I think that where Neil Davidson is inspired by Rosa Luxemburg, by György Lukács and by Antonio Gramsci, he is also bringing the best tradition of Trotsky's more critical Marxism or revolutionary Marxism, which is when we talk about revolution, we talk about the whole transformation of the human race, including our subjectivity.

*Raquel Varela She is a professor of history at the Faculty of Social and Human Sciences at Universidade Nova de Lisboa. She is the author, among other books, of Brief history of Europe (Bertrand). [https://amzn.to/3I1EOFs]


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