Revolutions between theory and history: a response to Alex Callinicos and Donny Gluckstein

Issue: 142

Neil Davidson

Any author who attempts to reappraise a fundamental concept in historical materialism, in this case bourgeois revolution, can at the very least expect their work to receive close scrutiny from fellow Marxists. If, more specifically, that author is prepared to express doubt about the continued relevance of the most original aspect of Leon Trotsky’s Marxism, the related concept of permanent revolution, then this scrutiny is likely to be tinged with suspicion, at least from those who trace their political lineage back to the Left Opposition and the Fourth International. And if they are further prepared to extend these doubts to an important revision of Trotsky which has been central to the politics of the Socialist Workers Party and its predecessors, namely deflected permanent revolution, then suspicion is likely to be coloured with outright hostility, at least from others who stand in the International Socialist tradition. Since I was foolish enough to attempt all three risk-bearing endeavours in How Revolutionary Were the Bourgeois Revolutions? (HRWTBR) it is scarcely an occasion for surprise, let alone for complaint, to find the book subject to criticism by Alex Callinicos and Donny Gluckstein in previous issues of this journal.1

Indeed, authors should only complain about reviews on three grounds. One is when the reviewer has not actually read the book.2 In socialist publications this usually happens because the reviewer already “knows” what the author’s position is on the basis of their party or factional affiliation and therefore need not waste time with what they have actually written, except perhaps for the purposes of extracting a few choice quotes to demonstrate the author’s unprincipled abandonment of Leninism or whatever. Another is where an author has criticised a particular position supported by the reviewer, but the latter, instead of responding to these criticisms, merely repeats the original position with added emphasis. Another still—of which I have some recent experience—is where reviewers deliberately misrepresent what authors have written, often by ascribing to them views which are easier or more convenient to criticise than the positions they actually hold, which is a splendid strategy for taking the difficulty out of political debate, but also for rendering it completely valueless. Happily, although I expected nothing less, neither Alex nor Donny has committed any of these sins against the conduct of intellectual debate. Although I think that in some respects they have misunderstood what I was attempting to do, their objections largely correspond to real theoretical disagreements. In this reply I will address the issues raised by Alex in the same order as they appear in his review, referring to Donny’s subsequent comments where appropriate.

Before turning to these matters, however, I will comment on the factual and theoretical errors which Alex has identified and listed in a footnote.3 Alex was not alone in spotting a number of factual errors in the book; so too did a number of other comrades, although they were courteous enough to communicate these to me in private rather than listing them in a public forum. Most were due to lapses of attention on my part, of the sort which tend to occur in the early hours of the morning with the end of yet another deadline extension looming. Most books contain mistakes and a book of this size will almost inevitably contain a higher than average number—a problem exacerbated by my publisher’s understandable desire to have the book in print for sale at the ISO’s Socialism 2012 event in the US and the SWP’s Marxism 2012, which meant the time allowed for proofing was shorter than usual. And since Haymarket’s blameless proofreaders are, like the vast majority these days, non-specialists who tend to check for punctuation, layout and sense rather than factual accuracy, authorial lapses of the latter type often stand uncorrected.

Nevertheless, irritating though the contents of Alex’s catalogue of shame have been to readers, and embarrassing though they are to me and Haymarket, I’m not convinced that they deserve even a footnote. I am, after all, quite aware that the CPGB’s official historian did not spend his twilight years acting as a coroner in a US prime-time TV drama—although I am undoubtedly impressed that someone of Alex’s mandarin demeanour is actually aware of the existence of Quincy; nor does mistyping James Klugman’s first name invalidate my views on the influence of the Popular Front on British Marxist historiography. In academic reviewing this type of point-scoring is done partly to show off, but mainly to cast doubt on the arguments of the person being reviewed, the logic being: if he can’t even get Cornelius Castoriadis’s name right, how seriously can we take his views on the transition to capitalism? Realising this, most academic journals now ask contributing reviewers not to list mistakes unless they reveal a degree of ignorance that brings the integrity of the work into question. This is one of the few areas in which we might sensibly follow them, since these mistakes and others will be corrected in the forthcoming re-edition of HRWTBR without altering its content.

Alex occupies more solid ground in relation to what he calls my “most serious theoretical mistake not pertinent to the main argument”, concerning Karl Marx’s distinction between the formal and real subsumption of labour in Capital.4 He is correct to point out that I wrongly elide Marx’s distinction between those forms transitional to wage labour and the formal subsumption of labour. The latter involves integration into the wage-labour-capital relationship, after which real subsumption follows when competition between industrial capitals begins to drive successive technological transformations. Now, Alex’s authority with respect to Capital is clearly far greater than mine, but there is more at stake here than correctly ascribing Marx’s categories to different stages in the development of the labour process.

Marx’s tripartite distinction between a) transitional forms of labour, b) formal subsumption of labour and c) real subsumption of labour is valid in terms of the abstract model of capitalism described in Capital. Marx might also have reasonably assumed that transitional forms, including the various forms of unfree labour, would in due course be transformed into wage labour subject first to formal then real subsumption. The American Civil War was, after all, the backdrop to the composition of Capital and Northern victory both abolished slavery and seemed to foreshadow a more general end to unfree labour on a global scale.5 Unfortunately, forms of unfree labour, far from being legacies or anomalies, have proved to be extraordinarily resilient in the subsequent history of capitalism. Is noting this, as Alex says, offering Political Marxism “a huge hostage to fortune”? Quite the contrary: it is simply to acknowledge that, although wage labour—ie where the direct producers are subject to market compulsion rather than physical coercion—is part of what defines capitalism, to argue that capitalism can only exist where every direct producer is “free” in this sense is to be subject to a formalism that can lead to quite absurd conclusions—such as George Comninel’s assertion that capitalism only became the dominant mode of production in France in 1959. Rather free labour acts as a kind of norm, beyond which there are many gradations of formal freedom, but all subject to what Jairus Banaji calls “capitalist laws of motion”.6

This has nothing to do with endorsing “Marcel van der Linden’s proposal to submerge wage workers in the much broader category of ‘subaltern workers’”.7 It is true that I cite an article by Van der Linden and Amin, along with others by Engerman and Banaji in my discussion about wage labour.8 But the former piece does not mention “subaltern workers”, a term which Van der Linden began to use much later in a book which, contrary to what Alex implies, I do not cite and had not actually read when I completed HRWTBR.9 The concept of the subaltern worker is in any case both wrong and unnecessary. On the one hand there are actual wage labourers subject to varying degrees of unfreedom. On the other there are direct producers, subject to capitalist laws of motion, who are not necessarily wage labourers at all. As Banaji writes in relation to the latter group: “The argument is not that all sharecroppers, labour-tenants and bonded labourers are wage-workers, but that these ‘forms’ may reflect the subsumption of labour into capital in ways where the ‘sale’ of labour-power for wages is mediated and possibly disguised in more complex arrangements”.10 Here Alex has allowed his polemical zeal (and his antipathy towards Van der Linden’s work) to ascribe views to me which I do not hold.

Subject and Structure

In different ways both Alex and Donny express the wish that I had written a different book from the one they are actually discussing. Alex writes: “The book’s form as an intellectual history…means that there is no compact narrative or analysis of the bourgeois revolutions themselves. Discussions of particular problems or episodes there are aplenty, but they are dispersed through the book”.11 Donny similarly complains that I do “not give a sense of the upheavals on the ground with which to judge ‘how revolutionary’ the bourgeois revolutions actually were. One has the sensation of eavesdropping on swimmers at a pool side discussing the temperature of the water. The only way to find out is to plunge in”.12 It is possible that Donny’s expectations may have been shaped too much by the title rather than by what I actually intended to do. It might therefore be useful to begin by explaining my original conception of the book.

The plan involved a tripartite structure. Part one was to have traced the development of the theory of bourgeois revolution, including the emergence of the distinct theory of proletarian revolution, against the backdrop of the actual history which the different versions of these theories were intended to explain or influence. Part two was to have synthesised this discussion to present a general theory of revolution, distinguishing first between political and social revolutions and then different types of social revolution (“feudal”, bourgeois and socialist), before establishing the preconditions for the era of bourgeois revolution and the outcomes which would allow us to say when both individual instances of bourgeois revolution and “the” bourgeois revolution as a whole had been consummated. Part three was to have revisited the historical trajectory overviewed in part one, but now foregrounding the actual events themselves. In other words, this third part would have been the history of the bourgeois revolution that both my critics would have preferred me to have written.

In the end, this plan was simply impossible to achieve as a single project. Leaving aside the likely response of my long-suffering publisher had I actually submitted a work of the envisaged size, sticking to my original conception would have meant the book languishing unfinished even now. Horrifying although this may be for those concerned with global deforestation, I do eventually intend to write the history of the bourgeois revolutions, but this was not the occasion. Once it became apparent that the main focus would have to be on the history of the theory, I revised the proposed structure and what remains of the final part is now concentrated, in very broad outline, in chapter 22.13 The results raise two questions.

The first is whether it is possible adequately to account for theoretical developments without previously or simultaneously writing the history of the period in which they emerge. Donny thinks not, writing that, “without grounding the history of ideas in a close study of the events they deal with, the impression is unintentionally given that one idea leads to the next, or that the ideas can be properly understood as independent entities. The strength of an idea (and in this case that idea is a description of a social or political process) depends on how closely it reflects or explains reality rather than how it compares with other ideas”.14 Now there is a historical school which does attempt to discuss ideas in terms of how “one…leads to the next”; it is the so-called Cambridge School whose chief representatives are J G A Pocock and Quentin Skinner.15 However, despite its many achievements in delineating the history of ideas—some of which I draw on in HRWTBR—I do not identify with this school, since it is methodologically incompatible with historical materialism.

Donny is obviously right that ideas cannot be understood in isolation from their social context, but it is necessary to retain a sense of proportion here. One way of looking at HRWTBR is as an account of political thought since Machiavelli, refracted through the prism of the concept of revolution. To say that I needed to write the history of the world since the Reformation in order to make sense of it is to set a standard virtually impossible of accomplishment—the concept of total history reduced to the point of absurdity—or else it merely means establishing a series of vulgar one to one correspondences between events and the ideas they are supposed to have inspired, like the legendary apple falling on Newton’s head and inspiring the concept of gravity. But theoretical positions are rarely traceable back to individual moments; Lenin’s change of position as to the nature of the Russian Revolution in April 1917 is one of the rare occasions where we can follow this happening in some detail, as I attempt to show in HRWTBR.16

The second question is whether I have actually written a decontextualised history of ideas, as Alex and Donny claim. In fact, even within the more restricted final scope of the work, I would never have attempted anything so alien to our tradition. At every point, including the discussion of Lenin in 1917 mentioned in the previous paragraph, I try to show how social change enabled certain theoretical positions which had hitherto been literally “unthinkable” to emerge. The book begins by establishing how aspects of the development of capitalism enabled revolution in general to be understood as a progressive rather than cyclical process. It then shows how a specific theory (or proto-theory) of bourgeois revolution was formulated as the result of certain conjunctures within this context, not in the Netherlands, where capitalism first developed on a “national” basis, but in England, which followed it. The determining factor here is that the struggle against absolutism in the former was directed against an external enemy (the Spanish Hapsburg Empire), while in the latter it was directed against one which had its basis in internal social relations (the absolutist regime of the Stuarts), thus allowing the nature of the contending classes to be more clearly understood, initially by Harrington.17 And so the book goes on. What I have tried to do is establish the mediations between historical process, direct experience and theoretical production on a basis which can be defended. A detailed history of the bourgeois revolutions is no doubt still required; but it is not a prerequisite for understanding how they have been theorised.

In addition to my subject matter, Alex also has objections to the structure of the book, describing HRWTBR as “a book of extended ruminations, not a focused theoretical or historical analysis”.18 But while I am, of course, delighted to be compared to that great proto-modernist Lawrence Sterne, I think this is one of the occasions where Alex has misunderstood my method, which is not—OK, not primarily—one of digression. One of my two starting points was the need to respond to the Political Marxist dismissal of the concept of bourgeois revolution, not only as an attempt to theorise a supposedly non-existent process, but as an alien, liberal materialist intrusion into Marxism. What I was attempting to demonstrate was that the concept was in fact absolutely central to the entire structure of historical materialism. This centrality can, however, only be demonstrated by showing the linkages between the concept and other constitutive elements of that tradition. In some cases they are the wider processes and institutions for whose transformation the bourgeois revolutions were essential, particularly the transition from feudalism to capitalism and the construction of territorially-bounded states capable of acting as centres of competitive accumulation. But in other cases its centrality is because of the need for a comparator, a standpoint from which to comprehend other great transformations either fixed in the distant past or possible in a still-uncertain future. This includes in relation to such issues as the long-term shifts in the balance between base and superstructure, between social revolution and economic transition, between conscious agency and unintended consequences, and between the different structural capacities of oppressed and exploited classes. Let me take two examples, both raised by Alex at different points in his review.

In the first, as a specific example of my supposed propensity for discursiveness, Alex cites my discussion of the absolutist state, which, he claims, “leads to quite an extensive discussion of the tributary mode of production, where peasants are exploited by a state independent of the landowning class: there’s a connection between the two topics, but dealing with one doesn’t demand discussing the other”.19 Actually, it does. In order to explain why capitalism initially became dominant in parts of Western Europe, one also has to explain why it did not do so anywhere else, even though it certainly existed at various times in parts of the—in many respects, more advanced—Ottoman, Mughal and Chinese Empires. This is not simply an attempt to minimise the inevitable accusations of “Eurocentrism” with which anyone daring to point out the priority of Western capitalism tends to be confronted these days, but to make a point about states that I consider of central importance. The emergence of a capitalist world system was dependent on a number of conditions of possibility, one of which was the absence of a state with the centralised bureaucratic power of the tributary empires. The connection with absolutist states is that I regard their creation as an attempt, not necessarily conscious, to establish some of the characteristics of the tributary states in a European context, above all the subordination of the emergent capitalist class as bankers and bureaucrats for a regime which had centralised the individual powers of the lords. The extent to which the various absolutist regimes were successful in doing so depended on how far capitalist development had reached: too far to be halted in the Netherlands and England; far less so in France and, above all, in Russia, where the revolutions were consequently delayed until later historical periods.20 The subject of the tributary state is scarcely a digression, then.

In the second and far more general example Alex writes that my title “invites us to reflect on the nature of revolution in general, as well as that of bourgeois revolutions”. He acknowledges that: “To some extent this is unavoidable”, because of the need to distinguish between bourgeois and proletarian revolutions, but my “exploration of the general topic of revolution extends much more broadly than this. The very first chapter concerns the early modern transformation of the concept of revolution from a cyclical movement to a progressive transformation. More general reflections recur throughout the book”.21 The reasons for this are quite simple. First, in order to define bourgeois revolution as a specific category you need to have previously defined revolution as a general one. Indeed, from James Harrington in the 1640s to Francois Guizot in the 1820s, the ideas of a social revolution and what came to be called bourgeois revolution were inevitably coterminous, since any other kind of social revolution was as yet unimaginable. It was only when the possibility—however distant—of one based on the working class became visible that the notion of a specifically bourgeois revolution could even be named, as it was by Louis Blanc in 1839.22

Second, with the exception of the Russian Revolution and a handful of even shorter-lived socialist successes, mainly in individual cities—Paris in 1871, Barcelona in 1936-7, Budapest in 1956—the only successful modern social revolutions have been bourgeois revolutions, even though they may have been disguised in “communist colouration”. To point this out is not to succumb to the myth of congenital proletarian incapacity spread by Georges Bataille and his current followers, in which every revolution is bourgeois because socialist revolution is simply impossible.23 It is, however, to understand that the structures, organisations, agencies and ideologies of the bourgeois revolutions have an enormous significance for us, if only because they can alert us to how different our own must be, if we are to emulate the success of the bourgeoisie as a revolutionary class.


Alex and I broadly agree about the need for a consequentialist definition of bourgeois revolution—unsurprisingly since, as I am happy to acknowledge once again, his own discussion in this journal was very influential on my own views. What I have tried to do in HRWTBR was not only to elaborate the position, but also to establish its intellectual lineage from Frederick Engels’s writings on German Unification onwards. I have some minor issues with Alex’s original presentation of the argument, namely his use of Perry Anderson’s “moment of convulsive transformation” formula to describe bourgeois revolution and the related fact that most capitalist states have not undergone anything which could remotely be described in this way. Alex describes these as “pettifogging” objections.24 They are certainly not decisive objections, but neither are they negligible. My reluctance to follow his reliance on Anderson, leaving aside the fact that the latter is describing socialist not bourgeois revolution, is less about the length of a process as opposed to an event, as with the nature of the process. I can see where this “moment” was in relation to, say, the Japanese Meiji Restoration of 1868, but not in relation to Italian or German unification. These largely military-diplomatic struggles centred on Piedmont and Prussia respectively, but when were their prior “moments” of revolution? There appears rather to have been a prolonged process of internal reform, starting in the German Lands during the Napoleonic Wars and intensifying after 1848-9, followed by episodes of externalised violence in order to create an expanded territorial nation-state. My point was really that while the German “moment”—understood as a period of decisive change in the nature of the state rather than one of specific duration—can certainly be confined to the years between 1862 and 1871, there must have been a prior and much more extended moment in the history of Prussia’s own state which enabled it to play the role of unifier in the first place. This in turn suggests that, in the areas immediately adjacent to Revolutionary France at least, the process of “accelerated reform” actually started much earlier in the 19th century than is usually supposed. It is true that Alex doesn’t claim that every nation-state had to undergo a bourgeois revolution: he doesn’t say anything about the subject at all. Here I was simply trying to fill in a gap in the argument: I certainly wasn’t trying to manufacture an artificial difference between us in order to distinguish my own position from his.

Donny’s conception of “consequentialism”, however, is markedly different from both Alex’s and mine. Donny claims that I call:

The connection between the early bourgeois revolutions and the very different processes that came later (spreading capitalism across the world) consequentialism. So the various national processes whereby capitalism triumphed around the globe were a consequence of unique early bourgeois revolutions without being a copy of these…the consequentialist argument should not just be applied to changes in the mode of production or the accumulation of capital. It extends to the continuing ideological impact of the early bourgeois revolutions, which are continually replenished and reinvigorated through new struggles (whether successful or not), and through the operation of market relations themselves.25

I’ll return to why Donny wants to emphasise “the continuing ideological impact of the early bourgeois revolutions” below, but it is important to understand that the definition offered in the first half of this quote is not what I, at any rate, understand by consequentialism.

The term was originally one associated with moral philosophy, and for that reason not perhaps the happiest to use in this context, although it flows more readily off the tongue that “outcome-ism”, which might nevertheless be more exact. Either way it does not refer to the way that “the various national processes whereby capitalism triumphed around the globe were a consequence of unique early bourgeois revolutions”. It refers instead to the way in which individual bourgeois revolutions, early or late, can be identified, not by the structural forms which they took, nor by the social forces which brought them about, but by their consequences, their outcomes. Decisive among these consequences is the transformation of the state into one which—depending on where in the overall cycle a particular bourgeois revolution took place—either initiates or consolidates the period of capitalist dominance. This definition does not commit us to a position which holds that the bourgeoisie have never been a revolutionary class; only that they are not required to be for the theory of bourgeois revolution to be coherent. In fact, I was concerned to defend the historical role of the bourgeoisie where it had played this role, against the endless disparagement of revisionists and Political Marxists alike.

According to Donny I do not “explore the specific nature of bourgeois freedom and bourgeois democracy in any depth. In relationship to previous times these were, and in the many instances of dictatorship today still are, revolutionary”.26 Far from being intrinsic to bourgeois society, representative democracy has largely been introduced by pressure from the working class and extended by pressure from the oppressed. This is one of the few points on which I agree with Political Marxists, in particular Charles Post: far from being integral to capitalism, democracy was in many respects its opponent.27 The authors of an important study of the relationship between capitalism and democracy are therefore right to reject any automatic correspondence between the two: “It was not the capitalist market nor capitalists as the new dominant force, but the contradictions of capitalism that advanced the cause of democracy”:

The relationship between working class strength and democracy may be summarised in the following way: a diachronic analysis within each of the Western European countries reveals that the growth of working class organisational strength led to increased pressure for the introduction of democracy; a synchronic analysis reveals that these pressures led to the development of stable democratic regimes where the working class found allies in other social groups. If the pro-democratic alliance was strong, the bourgeoisie was not able to act to move the country in an authoritarian direction even where it perceived a threat from the working class movement, as it surely did in Norway and Sweden.

These authors conclude that “the optimal configuration of working class organisation for the development of democracy would be one in which the class was well organised, in both unions and a party, but that these organisations were not radical”.28 The reason why democracy is such a relatively recent development is therefore because the bourgeoisie resisted it for as long as possible, particularly where the working class and oppressed groups pressed their claims for suffrage in militant terms—although that same militancy was often what ensured the establishment of democracy.

The ruling classes assumed that if the working classes had the vote, they would surely use it to deprive them, their masters, of their property. Marx and Engels initially thought so too-that is the meaning of the “battle for democracy” referred to in the Manifesto of the Communist Party.29 They were wrong. Both the bourgeoisie and its greatest opponents initially underestimated the way in which capitalism tended to generate a reformist rather than revolutionary consciousness within the working class. It was only after this became apparent during the late 19th century that the attitude of the more intelligent representatives of the former changed from outright opposition to democracy to one of grudging tolerance of it. Even so, actual implementation was rarely achieved without a struggle. Other than where democracy has been imposed as the result of defeat in war—for example in Japan after 1945—national bourgeoisies have only accepted it as a necessary concession to forestall what were, for them, still more dangerous outcomes.

In other words, none of this has very much to do with the influence of the French Revolution. Furthermore, harking back to the bourgeois revolutions as inspiration has positive dangers, not least in depriving the concept of democracy of any class content. More generally, it blurs the distinction between bourgeois and proletarian revolutions by establishing imaginary continuities between them on the basis of a “radical tradition”, the critique of which was my second starting point. Alex questions my inclusion of Walter Benjamin in chapter 14 (on the attempts to maintain the Classical Marxist tradition in the face of Stalinism) on the grounds that the latter did not develop the theory of bourgeois revolution to anything like the extent that Antonio Gramsci or Trotsky did.30 I actually agree that Benjamin’s contribution was of a different and lesser order of magnitude, but he did nevertheless make a contribution which I regard as essential to any integrated Marxist approach to the subject. This is less to do with the theory of bourgeois revolutions as with his challenge to their role as constitutive events in the collective historical memory of the socialist movement, as a pre-Marxist, often pre-socialist notion of “the people’s story” was absorbed by Social Democracy after the establishment of the Second International (which was of course founded on the centenary of the Great French Revolution) and transmitted more or less intact into Stalinism. By counterposing “the tradition of the oppressed” to “the tradition of the victors” (ie the victors in the bourgeois revolutions), Benjamin disrupted the uncritical assumptions about continuities and suggested that we may have to look to other places and times entirely for what may be useful to us, quite separate from the lineage that supposedly flows from Cromwell to Robespierre to Lincoln…to Lenin.

Political and Social Revolution

If there are matters of detail that distinguish my position from that of Alex in relation to consequentialism, there are more serious disagreements over the relationship between political and social revolutions. Alex summarises some of the issues in the following passage:

There are two puzzles here. First, a page after differentiating social revolutions from transitions between modes of production, he includes in his list…a transition between modes of production. Neil’s discussion of the end of classical antiquity focuses on the change in mode of production without any consideration of the political transformations meticulously studied by Chris Wickham in Framing the Early Middle Ages. Secondly, why so few social revolutions? When Neil writes that the transition from slavery to feudalism is “the first direct passage in history from one exploitative mode of production to another” one is inclined to ask: what about the shift from tributary palace bureaucracies to city states based on heavy citizen infantry and increasingly reliant on slavery in Greece during the early centuries of the first millennium BC, or the formation of the Chinese Empire a few centuries later? No doubt others could add more to this list of candidates.31

As far as the number of social revolutions is concerned, I argue (here using Alex’s preferred terminology) that there have been three kinds: “feudal”, bourgeois and socialist. It should be obvious to all but the deliberately obtuse that I think there have been more than three instances of social revolution, since I refer to over a dozen in the course of the book. But the relationship between kinds and instances is different depending on the nature of the former. The transition from slavery to feudalism in Western and South Western Europe occurred across the former Roman Empire in which distinct territorial states were only in the process of formation. It is therefore difficult to identify individual instances since the process involves a centuries-long shifting of borders and jurisdictions across the landmass as a whole, which only takes shape as a coherent state system at the end—the point usually identified as the “feudal revolution” by French Marxists like Guy Bois and Georges Duby. In the bourgeois revolution there are certainly many individual instances, but even here—as suggested in the discussion above—there comes a point, roughly between 1871 and 1918, when the cumulative impact of the successful bourgeois revolutions have brought into being a world system in which individual revolutionary instances are no longer necessary, except in the colonial or semi-colonial world, simply a more or less prolonged process of adaptation. The socialist revolution will be similar, in the sense that it will also involve a number of instances—but almost certainly more, since unlike capitalism, socialism will not have an economic dynamic independent of the nation-states in which it has triumphed, and requires to be consciously established everywhere, although after a certain point we might hope that remaining capitalists will simply give up. These comparisons should give some idea of what I was trying to do in chapter 20 of HRWTBR, namely to identify the main characteristics of the great transition which preceded the bourgeois revolution and the one which might still follow it, in order better to understand the specificity of the bourgeois revolution itself.

Does this mean that I think there were no social revolutions prior to the transition from slavery to feudalism? Not in the terms in which I define social revolution. I take a traditional view that there are only a limited number of pre-capitalist modes of production—slave, tributary and feudal—although small commodity production based on the peasant household is a constant feature in all of them. Social revolutions are the means of accomplishing the transition from a society based on one mode to another. These do not follow each other in succession, as is often assumed from a misreading of Marx’s 1859 “Preface” to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, but emerged, in uneven and staggered ways, from non-class society, a process which took several millennia to accomplish. In other words, slave, tributary and feudal societies are all specific expressions of the general transition to class society. In this process, different societies oscillated from variations of one nascent mode to another, often combining aspects of more than one, until they began to emerge in states where one was clearly dominant in developed form, as in the case of the Chinese tributary state to which Alex refers. Clearly this involved class struggles, even political revolution, but not social revolution. In some places, notably Scandinavia and the British Isles, feudalism was the direct passage out of non-class society, but in the Western Empire it arose as the result of a transition from one fully-fledged exploitative mode to another. This too was accompanied by class struggles, as Wickham has described so vividly.32 But class struggle is normal in class societies. It only leads to social revolution in cases where the exploited or oppressed classes have the structural capacity to achieve it, which is precisely what I deny was the case for slaves and peasants in this period.33

All this has taken us some way back in time from the bourgeois revolutions, but there is a modern context for Alex’s unhappiness about a too-rigid distinction between political and social revolutions:

Neil’s unwillingness to see the potential for permanent revolution that may be present in political upheavals in capitalist states sometimes leads to some strange choices: thus he virtually ignores the Mexican Revolution of 1910-20, one of the greatest upheavals of the 20th century and the subject of a major study by the Trotskyist historian Adolfo Gilly, apparently on the grounds that the Mexican state was already capitalist, and devotes more space to colonial Canada’s mid-19th century reorganisations.34

In fact, I have no doubts at all about the potential for revolution “present in political upheavals in capitalist states”; it is simply that in the current period I don’t think these have anything to do with permanent revolution, at least as I understand the term. I will return to the question of whether this is more than a terminological dispute below. But, as far as my neglect of the Mexican Revolution is concerned—is this really so strange? We have already established that in a book about the theory of bourgeois revolution I do not discuss any revolution in great detail (I devote three paragraphs to Canadian Confederation). Far from being ignorant of Gilly’s work I actually quote his view that the transition to capitalism was completed in Mexico by 1860, so the Mexican Revolution of 1910-20 clearly falls outside my remit.35 It may have had the potential to turn into a socialist revolution—I think this is unlikely, although not impossible—but it was not in any sense a bourgeois revolution, so why would I discuss it in even summary terms?

There is, however, a real problem here: some revolutions that end up as being merely “political” actually involve far greater “social” upheavals, far more mass involvement than successful social revolutions. The Iranian Revolution—a political revolution in my terms—confused many analysts for precisely this reason.36 Egypt is a more immediately relevant case in point. Alex rightly criticises Aijaz Ahmad for:

Preferring the July 1952 military coup that brought Gamal Abdel Nasser to power and enabled him to carry out a state capitalist restructuring of Egypt’s political economy to what he concedes were “two massive popular risings of historically unprecedented scale”.37

But there is a sense in which July 1952 was a decisive instance of social revolution in Egypt, while the process which began with Hosni Mubarak’s resignation on 11 February 2011—from the perspective of revolutionary socialists infinitely more significant—has not yet even achieved the outcome of a political revolution, since the coup of 3 July 2013 restored the military to power.38

Alex quotes Colin Sparks to the effect that permanent revolution is a theory of alternatives.39 True, but surely all revolutions pose a set of alternatives? One outcome, the victory of the working class, has not yet been achieved anywhere, but there are three others, all of which are present in the Arab Spring: outright defeat; “the common ruin of the contending classes” or at any rate partial social collapse; or victory for a new or at any rate different fraction of the existing ruling class (“political revolution”): Bahrain, Libya or Tunisia. There is a sense then in which it is not only the historical bourgeois revolutions that have to be judged by their outcomes, but all modern revolutions.

Democracy and permanent revolution

Inevitably then, we (re)turn to the question of permanent revolution. As I have already discussed this at length in both International Socialism and HRWTBR, and will shortly publish a book on the subject and related issues, I will pass on the opportunity to respond to all of Alex’s comments on my discussion and restrict myself to two points, one concerning ideology and the other uneven and combined development—although, as we shall see, these have a significant degree of overlap.

Leaving aside for the moment the question of whether permanent revolution is relevant where the bourgeois revolution has been accomplished, one of my other arguments for the historical nature of the former is that the strategic position to which it formed the alternative—Stalinist stages theory—has itself been overtaken by history. In other words, the argument revolutionaries now need to make is for socialist revolution as such against a reformism which, even at its most radical in South Africa and Bolivia, no longer talks in terms of socialism as an end goal at all or, if it does, then only as one achievable at such a distance in time that it is effectively unattainable. Alex underplays the contemporary consequences of the collapse of Stalinism and concentrates instead on my historical point concerning the attitude of Stalinists towards their own position. Alex comments that I display:

A remarkable approach to the critique of ideology, relying as it does on the idea that we can ignore theories if we think their exponents are fibbing and what they propose isn’t feasible… Stages strategy was never practicable (that was the point of Trotsky’s critique), but that doesn’t mean that as an ideology it can’t still exercise a hold because of the social needs it serves.40

On reflection, I think my original position was wrong, but not for the reasons that Alex gives. Actually, I don’t think the Stalinists were “fibbing”—they sincerely believed that the stages theory was correct; for example the “democratic stage” in Eastern Europe was supposedly between 1944 and 1949. Furthermore—and contrary to what Trotsky believed—it
was also “practicable”, but from the point of view of establishing state capitalism, not socialism. The problem was that Trotsky regarded the degeneration of the USSR as a historically unique event, and he could not imagine, except as a very tentative hypothesis in his last writings, that similar societies could be created as a conscious project. He was wrong. The Stalinists were perfectly sincere state capitalists, which they—in my view genuinely, for the most part—regarded as socialism. The point, however, is that they quite correctly no longer think state capitalism (“socialism”) is achievable, and consequently have now effectively reverted to a reformism that treats capitalism as the limit of human development. Capitalism may be subject to greater democratisation, but there is no longer any further stage beyond it—and maybe there never was.

What is the relationship of the collapse of Stalinism to uneven and combined development? Alex writes of my attitude towards this subject that:

By removing its political moorings in the theory of permanent revolution, he can unintentionally reinforce this unwelcome tendency [towards ahistorical abstraction]. In his concluding remarks to Part Four he underlines the destabilising potential of uneven and combined development, but fails to notice that this makes it hard to counterpose social and political revolutions as starkly as he does.41

The term “permanent revolution” describes both a possible outcome of a revolutionary situation and a strategic orientation which attempts to make that outcome more likely. For me, it is best understood as the violent intersection of two social facts. On the one hand, a pre-capitalist state, whether absolutist, tributary or colonial (and the latter usually co-existed with or incorporated local pre-capitalist state formations)—in other words, a situation where the fundamental task, the only real task of the bourgeois revolution, has still to be achieved. On the other hand, there is uneven and combined development, where an economy and society combine elements of the most archaic and the most modern forms, not merely in technology, but also in politics, culture and ideology. It was the explosive dynamic caused by the latter running up against the immovable bounds of the former which produced the possibility of permanent revolution. But what happens if one of these social facts is removed? What happens if you still have uneven and combined development, but not the possibility of bourgeois revolution because the latter has been achieved—and in ways Trotsky himself never envisaged? A new situation needs new terms, if only to prevent the assumption that the dynamics at play are the same as in 1906, or even 1963.

Against this, Alex and implicitly Donny argue that it is still possible to use the term because the absence of democracy in large areas of the Global South means that something analogous to the tensions which originally produced permanent revolution still exist. They argue, correctly, that Trotsky himself believed that permanent revolution was a possibility in capitalist states which had not yet achieved all of the supposed “tasks” of the bourgeois revolution, of which democracy was pre-eminent. I think Trotsky was wrong to discuss two distinct situations under a single rubric, but leave that aside; the real question is whether—bearing in mind my earlier comments on the ambiguities of the concept—democracy can play the role required of it:

To detect the presence of the dynamic of permanent revolution in cases such as these is not merely to assert the universal truth that socialist revolution represents the solution to every society’s problems. It is to recognise the peculiar fluidity of political and social struggles that uneven and combined development induces in some but not all situations. One index of the presence of this dynamic is the centrality of democratic demands… Democratic demands [in Egypt] have a unifying character absent in the British case.42

Well, events in Egypt prior to the coup of July would suggest that democratic demands also have the potential to disunify in ways which have badly misdirected the mass movement. The main point, however, is this: pre-capitalist states, at least those which existed in Trotsky’s lifetime and for several decades after his death, were not susceptible to reform, and had either to be overthrown by revolution or destroyed in war. This is not true of contemporary capitalist states, even those in the Global South. However backward they may be in many respects, they have a far greater capacity for absorption and renovation under pressure, which means that revolutions simply about non-specific—but actually bourgeois—”democracy” are far more likely to result in political revolutionary outcomes than was the case in Russia in 1917 or even Ethiopia in 1974. We have already seen this in the Philippines, in Indonesia, in Thailand and in South Africa. We may now be seeing a similar process unfold in Ukraine, where the level of struggle has been extraordinarily high over a prolonged period, but without the slightest suggestion of left wing influence among the demonstrators in Independence Square; if anything, it is the far-right which has provided political leadership.

And so we return to the question of ideology or, more precisely, that of revolutionary socialist politics and how this has been absent from almost all the great struggles of recent decades, although South Africa and Bolivia present partial exceptions (which is also why “old-style” reformism remains relatively strong in those countries). Despite the way in which the International Socialist tradition has been shaped by opposition both to Stalinism and orthodox Trotskyist concessions to it, there was a way in which we failed to understand that its demise, at the moment of neoliberal ascendancy, would not automatically encourage the struggle for genuine liberation but cast doubt in the minds of many of the exploited and oppressed about the possibility of any systemic alternative to capitalism at all. Stalinism was like a drug which both poisoned and preserved the body of its victim, namely the idea of socialism. Across the world it has variously been replaced by any number of populist, Islamist or autonomist alternatives; but the most common has been “democracy”. In other words, the demand for democracy is not necessarily the gateway to revolution, but can remain an end in itself—although a dead end in relation to the problems it is intended to address. But this discussion takes us into contemporary problems of organisation, strategy and consciousness, and far from the era of the bourgeois revolutions.


How serious are the differences to which I have attempted to respond here? It is not clear to me that they involve alternative strategies for revolution in the Global South, although they may involve different conceptions, or at least differences in emphases, about the difficulties revolutionaries there face. The real difference I suspect is less tangible, and more to do with an attitude towards tradition, both the Marxist tradition in general and the IS tradition in particular. Alex himself was once concerned about the possibility of stagnation in both:

We cannot simply “return” to the classics… Classical Marxism is not a monolith, a seamless robe. Its gaps, aporias, too-hasty answers created the space in which vulgar Marxism emerged… Classical Marxism requires conceptual development as well as application in concrete analyses and embodiment in revolutionary organisation.43

This quote is taken from the preface to Alex’s 1982 book, Is There a Future for Marxism? The desire to retain certain concepts come what may is an example of the type of conservatism which I criticised in a recent issue of International Socialism: 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.44 Paradoxically, one of the effects of this kind of conservatism—where every initiative has to be legitimated by reference to a text written in 1906 or a strategy codified in 1921—is that the genuine innovations of the SWP are never recognised as such, because we have to pretend that they are already present in the works of the classical Marxists.

In 1983 Alex responded in the pages of this journal to severe—if almost entirely misplaced—criticism of his book by the then editor, Peter Binns. Alex noted that “the basis on which debates of this nature should be conducted is a common acceptance of the fact that we are all pursuing the same goal of working class self-emancipation, and seeking to clarify the revolutionary Marxism we share, not merely to knock down each other’s positions”. He then went on to express his “great disappointment” at the “entirely negative response” to his book from comrades, which he regarded as symptomatic of a wider problem: “It is especially a danger at a time such as the present that revolutionaries will simply retreat into the stronghold of orthodoxy, pulling up the drawbridge behind them.” Binns, he thought, was guilty of precisely this type of intellectual retreat, of a “defensive attitude, a refusal to admit that Marxism requires anything except reiteration” alien to the IS tradition which, on the contrary, “has been marked by its intellectual daring, its willingness to question the accepted truths. It would be sad, even disastrous if that ceased to be true of us now”.45 Alex and Donny have been far more positive in their responses to my book than the party was to Alex’s in 1982, but I detect some of that same defensiveness. It would be equally sad and tragic if that attitude was to influence our approach to the challenges of the 21st century.


1: Callinicos, 2013a; Gluckstein, 2013.

2: This is more common than readers might suppose. “Having been a reviewer myself”, confessed the late J G Ballard, “I can always tell when somebody has stopped reading the book he’s reviewing”-Ballard, 2012, p95.

3: Callinicos, 2013a, pp135-136, note 19.

4: Davidson, 2012, pp575-577.

5: Anderson, 2010, chapter 3; Davidson 2012, pp164-170.

6: Banaji, 2010a, pp52-65.

7: Callinicos, 2013a, p136, note 19.

8: Davidson, 2012, pp415-416.

9: Van der Linden, 2008, pp336-372.

10: Banaji, 2010b, p145.

11: Callinicos, 2013a, p136.

12: Gluckstein, 2013, p207.

13: Compare the original plan with the actual structure summarised in Davidson, 2013, pxviii.

14: Gluckstein, 2013, pp207-208.

15: See the discussion in Anderson, 1992, pp290-293.

16: Davidson, 2012, pp225-236.

17: Davidson, 2012, pp12-32.

18: Callinicos, 2013a, p138.

19: Callinicos, 2013a, p138. My position on the nature of the tributary mode has changed: I originally regarded it as a variant of the feudal mode, but was subsequently convinced by Banaji and by Alex that the internal relations between the ruling class were sufficiently different from those of feudalism for it to be regarded as a different mode, even though the process of surplus extraction from the peasantry is similar-hence my reference to the tributary state as a collective feudal overlord, a description which I can now see was misleading in this context. Compare Davidson, 2004 and Davidson, 2011, pp86-90, with Davidson, 2012, pp541-545.

20: And of course there were also states-diminutive Scotland in the West, vast Poland in the East-where the feudal lords were simply too powerful to allow the local dynasties to establish absolutism.

21: Callinicos, 2013a, pp137.

22: Davidson, 2012, p117.

23: Bataille, 1991, p279; Wendling, 2003, pp45-46.

24: Callinicos, 2013a, pp138-140.

25: Gluckstein, 2013, pp208, 210.

26: Gluckstein, 2013, p210.

27: See, in relation to the US, Post, 2011.

28: Rueschemeyer, Huber Stephens and Stephens, 1992, pp7, 142-143.

29: Marx and Engels, 1974, p86.

30: Callinicos, 2013a, pp138-139.

31: Callinicos, 2013a, pp141.

32: I discuss Wickham’s analysis of these struggles in Davidson, 2011, pp92-95.

33: Davidson, 2012, pp500-502.

34: Callinicos, 2013a, p145.

35: Davidson, 2012, p610.

36: See, for example, Skocpol, 1994, pp240-243.

37: Callinicos, 2013b, p4.

38: Whether the coup constitutes the counter-revolution is too large a subject to enter into here, but in my view, Hugh Roberts’s interpretation-criticised by Alex in Callinicos,
2013b-is the more realistic position. See Roberts, 2013, p6.

39: Callinicos, 2013a, p145.

40: Callinicos, 2013a, p143.

41: Callinicos, 2013a, p146.

42: Callinicos, 2013a, p144.

43: Callinicos, 1982, p4.

44: Davidson, 2013, pp176-177.

45: Callinicos, 1983, p139. Alex ended his piece by invoking “the words of Oliver Cromwell to the Scottish Estates, ‘I beseech ye in the bowels of Christ to think it possible that ye might be wrong’”-Callinicos, 1983, p140. Since the avoidance of error is a theme of Alex’s review I cannot forebear to point out that Cromwell was actually addressing the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. See Cromwell, 1871, p18.


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