Continuing the discussion

Issue: 142

Alex Callinicos

The issues raised by Neil Davidson’s grand work on bourgeois revolutions are not merely of historical interest, but are of the first importance to the contemporary revolutionary left. For the time being, it seems best to leave the debate to stand with Neil’s reply to Donny Gluckstein and myself. This note is in no sense a reply to Neil’s substantive arguments—though it is perhaps worth saying that the issue of democracy mooted by Neil towards the end of his article is of much greater significance than has been so far reflected in the debate. There is much more to be said about the relationship between democracy and bourgeois revolutions. But that will have to wait for another time.

Neil mildly protests at my itemising in my original review the numerous sloppy mistakes that mar his book. Some readers will no doubt sympathise, but any guilt I might have about this is mitigated by the way Neil finishes on a cheap shot. He claims that the critical response to his views on permanent revolution is symptomatic of a broader intellectual conservatism in the Socialist Workers Party, whose stance he sums up thus: “Once there was a need for theoretical innovation to understand a changing world, but apparently now there is no longer any, even though the world has not ceased changing.” And, in what he may have thought was a shrewd debating point, he cites in support some remarks I made during some quite heated debates about Marxist philosophy back in the early 1980s. Particularly since Neil’s comment must be seen against the background of the intense internal struggles within the SWP that led—most regrettably—to him resigning his membership, it cannot go without a response.

I’m grateful to Neil for quoting a passage from my book Is There a Future for Marxism? (1982) that concludes: “Classical Marxism requires conceptual development as well as application in concrete analyses and embodiment in revolutionary organisation.” I still believe this. What got me into hot water in the early 1980s was my willingness to pursue Marxist philosophy in dialogue with different varieties of Western Marxism (most controversially the version developed by Louis Althusser). I remain quite unrepentant about this, and indeed in my most recent philosophical book, The Resources of Critique (2006), I widened the dialogue to include forms of post-Marxism (for example, the philosophy of Alain Badiou) as well as more mainstream egalitarian liberalism. Despite the rebuke this earned me from the then editor of this journal, my much missed friend Chris Harman, I look forward to future opportunities for heresy.

More generally, it is slightly self-aggrandising of Neil to treat disagreement with him as evidence of the view that “there is no longer any…need for theoretical innovation”. His work on bourgeois revolutions in general and on permanent revolution in particular is important, but contestable. The area where it is especially contestable—the future of revolution in the Global South—happens to be politically very important. Getting this right matters. So Neil can’t, because, rightly or wrongly, he thinks himself to be innovating here, claim a free pass from criticism.

This journal remains as committed as it was at its foundation in 1960 to looking hard at the world where we find ourselves. We confront many tough questions, particularly about the contours of class and struggle in contemporary capitalism, but also about other issues, notably the nature of the different forms of oppression and their relationship to class exploitation. As recent issues of International Socialism have shown, we are grappling with them. Having contributed himself to some of these debates, Neil has decided not to continue this journey with us. That’s a pity. Let’s hope our paths will cross again some time in the future.