The final event at the Lighthouse Bookshop 2023 Edinburgh Radical Bookfair was the Neil Davidson Lecture, presented by Raquel Valera, on Neil’s contribution to our understanding of the theory of uneven and combined development and revolution.
Neil Davidson (1957-2020) was a Scottish historian and sociologist. In The Origins of Scottish Nationhood and Discovering the Scottish Revolution he showed Scotland to have been one the first countries to experience the ‘uneven and combined development’ of capitalism and a ‘revolution from above’ in the late 18th century.
Neil’s tragically early death has left behind a great intellectual and political legacy. He was a member of rs21 and played a prominent role in the Radical Independence Campaign. His writing was published by rs21, Haymarket, Verso, Bella Caledonia, Jacobin, New Left Review, Scottish Left Review, Radical Philosophy and Salvage.
The Neil Davidson library project is working with Lighthouse to ensure that the more than 10,000 books and other resources in his library are made accessible to activists and scholars in Edinburgh, Scotland and internationally.
The lecture was given by Raquel Varela, a labour historian, researcher and Professor at New University of Lisbon. She is also president of the International Association of Strikes and Social Conflicts and co-editor of its journal. She is the author of A People’s History of the Portuguese Revolution, A People’s History of Europe From World War I to Today and a number of other works on social movements and labour struggles.
The lecture transcript is presented in a lightly edited format. In the video, the full lecture and subsequent discussion is introduced by Raymond Morrell a UNITE shop steward and long-time friend and comrade of Neil’s.
It’s lovely to be here, especially at this homage to Neil. We are in a very special moment in the struggle against the genocide in Gaza. Yesterday we had the chance to be at that wonderful demonstration in London. It was impressive to see so many people of all ages, religious and non-religious backgrounds and different parties and unions. It was inspiring, and this has a lot to do what we are doing today at this homage to Neil. Probably all of you know him as a brilliant Marxist historian, a socialist, an activist, militant and an organiser. He was also profoundly erudite: in his books, he tries to deal, in an incredibly honest way, with hypotheses to explain capitalism and the transformation of societies towards socialism or not, but also the way he writes is not this impossible academic writing. Instead, he writes as an intellectual committed to making himself and the debates understandable to a large public.
Neil managed very well not just classical social history but its relations with arts, with culture etcetera. He takes huge inspiration from classical Marxism, from Marx and Engels, Trotsky, Rosa Luxemburg, Gramsci, I shall underline as well from Walter Benjamin, from Lukacs. So, he belongs to this group of intellectual Marxists and socialists that tries to deal with the society as a whole in a non-dogmatic way.
I want to speak about a book that was published in Portuguese because, in Brazil, Neil gave a course and wrote a group of articles on uneven and combined development. Luís Renato Martins and Ricardo Antunes, the very important Brazilian sociologist who wrote the preface to the book, put together a collection called Desenvolvimento Desigual e Combinado: Modernidade, modernismo e revolução permanente, a Brazilian Portuguese translation of essays on Uneven and Combined Development and Modernism. I will try to give you something of this book today.
So, the theory of uneven and combined development was developed by the first generation of Marxists. They always dealt with the question of different developments among the countries and how socialists would deal with this. Trotsky, concerned by the Russian situation, underlined the question of combined development. Not just uneven development but combined development. The main idea, if I may make it very simple, maybe too simple, was that countries that were not as developed as the core countries of capitalism would not need to go through the same stages of development as the core capitalist countries to reach a stage – though I don’t even like the word stage, not even Trotsky of course – where socialist revolution would be possible. So, the main idea is that the world market and the capitalism bring to backward countries extremely developed elements.
I can give you a concrete example concerning the relation between Portugal, where I come from, and England. Portugal has always been a kind of semi-peripheral country, a kind of a protectorate of Britain concerning economics. Everything in Portugal was built with investment banks and machines from Britain to Portugal. The famous theory of David Ricardo was made-up on the unequal exchange between Portugal and England concerning the commerce of trade and wine. The idea was that Portugal would be specialised in exporting wine because they do it cheaper, and in exchange they would buy textiles from England. This theory of comparative advantage has been developed, it’s an imperialist theory, it has no economic rationality apart from the profitability of the core countries, but still today makes the most terrible consequences. If you go to Brazil, I think 40 million people are now in hunger in Brazil, as far as I remember, and it’s the biggest exporter of soya towards other countries. So, the land is not producing what people need, it’s producing what is more profitable in the world market.
If you think of coffee, or in Ethiopia if you think of tea or whatever, this is the main explanation. But Portugal in 1870 had started the organisation of the working classes influenced by the Paris Commune, because the Portuguese workers leaders were in Paris. They have lived and experienced, either directly or by influence, the revolutions in 1830 and 1848, the foundation of the First International in 1864 and then the Paris Commune. So, in Portugal, which was an extremely backward country with the majority of the population in the countryside working as peasants, more than 80 percent of the population at the time was illiterate. They immediately were inspired by the Paris Commune and created a branch of the First International, which had a huge impact on workers organisation, and it became one of the main countries in the late 19th century of revolutionary syndicalism, together with France, with Spain, also a little bit in the US.
So, this is an example, but of course the examples that are most well-known and that Neil develops is the example of Russia, which from the point of view of the state was one of the backward countries, it was the most oriental empire in Europe. It’s very interesting to say it now because it seems that Russia doesn’t belong to Europe anymore, which is of course very ridiculous from every point of view, either geographic political or whatever. But it was clear at the time that Russia was part of Europe but had a kind of oriental state. A brutal tsarist repressive state. At the same time, it had one of the most concentrated and developed proletariats of the world, and it was the fifth or the sixth as far as I remember concerning industrial production, but highly concentrated in Saint Petersburg, Moscow and the Ural area. So how all this is combined to bring the first revolution after the Paris Commune that successfully takes the power, the first social revolution. The dialectic of how advanced and backward facts, qualities are combined in one country – Neil picks up this analysis to bring us to a contemporary hypothesis of the revolution and he goes to China. So, his remarks are how can we think about uneven and combined development nowadays? And especially concerning one country: What’s going on in China and how can China help us to understand if this makes sense or not.
Let’s say that Neil debates with different hypotheses of uneven and combined development and he underlines the idea that the question of uneven and combined developed is not a specific method of analysis or characteristic of modernity, of capitalism (and there is a debate over the question of if we can equate modernity and capitalism – in his opinion, no). But going back to China, going back to the uneven and combined development, he defends that uneven and combined development is a characteristic of the societies prior to capitalism but his main analysis is focused on in this book, of course I’m picking up one book, one analysis, but Neil has written immensely on many things and also of course on the national question and on national revolution in Scotland, on the bourgeois revolutions and the question of transition of capitalism from feudalism to capitalism.
So, he says that uneven and combined development is something that makes sense to know nowadays, to debate nowadays, because where there is still a peasantry, uneven and combined development theory makes sense. When there are still parts of pre-capitalism in capitalism, where there are forms of backward development within the most advanced society we find the contradictions open that allowed a socialist revolution, which does not depend on uneven and combined development directly, this is a condition of analysis, it depends above all on subjective factors on the organisation of the working class, on the leadership etcetera.
So, his remarks on China are extremely interesting where he defends that, first of all, China has the biggest proletariat in the world and has experienced a dramatic and drastic transformation of peasants into workers in the process of migration from countryside to the city and to the factories. So, this is the first note on China to be analysed.
The second is the forms of resistance of these workers. So, inspired by many works, he underlines the level of struggles of the working class in China. Now, something that unfortunately took place after his tragic death, he was not here to experience that during the last lockdown in China, and the last Christmas, the Foxconn workers that are hundreds of thousands, sometimes can reach over a million workers, were locked down because of COVID. They realised they were locked down because there was a high demand for iPhones in the world market, and the lockdown was an excuse to oblige them to stay in the factory and work night and day, night and day. There was an uprising in Foxconn, which spread to other factories in China, and there were these Bonapartist measures which allegedly were used as a public health measure, but they were being used to repress workers organisation in China, and there was a building where people died because they were locked down and there was a fire they could not go out. This led the Chinese government to end the lockdown restrictions, and all this started in a massive wildcat strike organised mainly by precarious workers. So, this was not the permanent workers at Foxconn, but the workers that were recruited to meet the high demands of Christmas iPhones selling. This is just one example, and after that the Chinese government never used lockdowns to forbid strikes or oblige workers to say in the factories.
This shows just one example of how the movement of resistance in China can reach huge levels that we don’t even know. In 2008 or 2010 China was the country in the whole world with more strikes, and after this strikes the wages rose 25 percent. This had an impact in the European and Western countries, because all the labour restructuring in the 70s, and especially after the defeat of the miner’s strike and other strikes in Europe in the 80s, was based on the idea that the supply of the goods that reproduce the working classes would be made using extremely cheap workers from China. So, the clothes the working class uses in Europe, the tools for the kitchen or even the domestic washing machine all these kind of things that are the consumption of the working classes, because the working classes don’t buy high cars or whatever, the working classes spend the majority of their money in housing, food and in these kind of products that are essential to the reproduction of the workforce. Of course, this has increased, which has led to pauperization of the working classes in Europe. Just to show how the socialisation of production worldwide that exists today which has the huge contradiction of the private appropriation of this socialisation, makes all the workers in the world entangled in a way. Entanglement is a good word, it’s like what happens in China has impact here immediately, what happens here has impact in China. We live in a world where just-in-time production and relocation have made the companies in principle very a strong because they can exploit migration and refugees to cut wages, but at the same time it has a huge potential, if the working class organises worldwide.
Some years ago there was a strike in the US, there was a strike in Brazil that has stopped the production of the full automobile industry in US, because there was a little piece of the chain that was just built in Brazil; and nowadays in fact this is happening all around the world and the biggest problem of course is that there is no organisation of the working class capable of organising this, especially among unions. In fact, there are workers organisation and union organisation which has huge power, but they are highly bureaucratic unions, and they use their organisation to do charity, to do all kinds of assistance, but not to organise the workers worldwide in the sense of struggle. So, the problem is not just that we don’t have organisation, the unions nowadays like ITF, which is the International Transport workers Federation, could do this very easily at any moment.
I was once involved in a dockers strike where the dockers in Denmark blockaded the containers loaded by precarious work in Lisbon and this was just enough for the Portuguese workers to win their strike, just because of a blockade in Denmark. So the hypotheses are huge, that’s why it’s so important to study uneven in combined development, not just because of the difference between the countries but the relation between the countries which I think Neil brings as well. I shall underline the last remark as well on China that Neil makes which opens the possibility of a revolutionary situation in China is the level of state repression. So, in one way we have a huge proletariat on the other way we have very important struggles and on the other way we have a huge repression. We have a state that basically represses the workers. In these contradictions, Neil sees possibilities, again it is not a dogmatic conclusion, it opens possibilities.
I want to also say something which I think is very important, one thing which I find fascinating is that Neil in the study on the bourgeois revolutions, is that somehow the counter revolutions in Russia and in China have finished what the bourgeois revolutions could not. So, they function not as the revolutionary moment but the counter revolutionary moment, mainly the Soviet Union after the Stalinisation in 28 and China after 78. What they do is they finish the nation state’s modernity towards commodification of the entire society, so it’s how history goes in a way that was not expected. And the other notion of uneven and combined development which I think is so important is that sometimes there is a kind of linear approach to uneven and combined development that says, look the backward countries can have the most developed tools of the forward countries in order to make the revolution; and so, it looks a little bit optimistic. It’s always in a positive way.
I want to underline the negative way, which is that it was not just the the defeat of the German Revolution which made it possible for Stalin to win power. When Stalin came to power, the backwardness of the Soviet Union also had an impact in the Western countries. So usually, we underline how important was the defeat of the German Revolution to the defeat of socialism and the Bolsheviks in Russia, and we forget not just how the backwardness can have the best of the development, we forget that sometimes history plays a lot with us. The most developed countries also breath the backwardness. The impact of Stalinism in the communist parties and in the workers organisation in the most developed countries was devastating. The movement was not just a movement towards development it was a movement towards regression, and that I think is something we should explore more when we think on societies today and I think that Neil Davidson’s contribution is absolutely essential and is incredibly vivid and non-dogmatic and so much focused on something very important.
I’ll finish here. The notion of permanent revolution, it’s not the democratic revolution that turns into social revolution, it’s not the national revolution that turns into international revolution, it’s a total revolution in the way of life, and Trotsky was very faithful to the idea that socialism is not just about changing production or property it’s about changing an entire mode and way of life. And I think where Neil is inspired by Rosa Luxemburg by Lukacs by Gramsci, he is also bringing the best tradition of Trotsky’s more critical Marxism or revolutionary Marxism, which is when you speak about revolution, you speak about the entire transformation of humans including in our subjectivity.