Friday, 31 July 2020

1937-Stalin's Year of Terror-By Vadim Z Rogovin-Mehring Books, 1998- £25

"Material from the Soviet archives which has become available in recent years, as well as the publication of many new memoirs, has helped the author accomplish the tasks set by this book: to investigate the mechanism of the origin and the relentless spread of the Great Terror, and to discover the reasons why this mass terrorist action became not only possible but also so successful".

Vadim Rogovin

"The director is not appealing to reason or criticism. He wants to crush the rights of reason with the massive scale of the frame-up, reinforced with executions."
Leon Trotsky

"Trotsky was a hero of the revolution. He fell when the heroic age was over."

E. H Carr

Vadim Zakharovich Rogovin's 1937: Stalin's Year of Terror was one of a seven-volume study that set out to prove that there "Was An Alternative to Stalinism and that alternative came from Leon Trotsky's Left Opposition.

If there was one figure, Stalin feared the most it was Leon Trotsky and the International Left Opposition. Trotsky without the resources of state power exposed the treachery of the Stalinist bureaucracy and advocated a political revolution to overthrow Stalinism.

Stalin could not defeat Trotsky politically hence the need for the Moscow Trials which according to Rogovin the main goal "was to create the conditions for politically discrediting and physically exterminating the entire communist opposition in order to behead the population, to deprive it for many years of a political avant-garde and therefore of the ability to resist the totalitarian regime. The class struggle in the USSR assumed, essentially, its sharpest form - civil war. This civil war, unlike the civil war of 1918-20, took the specific form of state terror directed at precluding any political activity by the masses".[1] 

In this book, Rogovin cites numerous myths that surround the events of 1937 that were regurgitated over the following decades. In a lecture given in the United States, he says "there were two basic forms. The first could be called the Stalinist school of falsification.

A second school we could call the anti-communist school of falsification. It is quite curious that in many places the explanation of our history coincides when presented both by the Stalinists and by the anti-communists. For instance, one central thesis they agree upon is that Stalin was the natural continuation of Lenin's cause. Earlier there was one slight difference when they said that Stalin was the good continuation of a good cause, the cause of Lenin. Now they say, on the contrary, that Stalin was the wretched continuation of an evil policy by the evil Lenin".[2]

With the development of "glasnost" [openness], Rogovin hoped that these myths would be vanquished. During Glasnost and Perestroika, millions of people in the USSR sought answers to complex historical questions. This led to a sharp increase in sales of mass-circulation newspapers, as well as literary and political journals. It soon became very clear to Rogovin that issues of the Great Terror and Stalinism were far from being clarified but were instead being used by many anti-communists to sully the name of socialism.

As Rogovin points out the origins of many of the so-called new myths were peddled at the time of Khrushchev's 1956 report at the Twentieth Congress of the CPSU. While many communists and socialists thought this action by Khruschev would open up the possibilities of a struggle against the bureaucracy prompting the poet and writer Bertolt Brecht to write  "The liquidation of Stalinism can take place only if the party mobilises the wisdom of the masses on a gigantic scale. Such a mobilisation lies along the road to communism".[3]

Brecht would be disappointed as any figure that was capable of opposing Stalinism had all but been wiped out in the purges. The 1956 speech was not a political break with Stalinism but a mechanism in which to deal with the raging political and economic crisis that washed world Stalinism.

Khrushchev delivered his speech with blood dripping from his hands. He was as Rogovin points out implicated in all the major crimes committed by the Stalinist bureaucracy. Khrushchev said "We must affirm that the party fought a serious fight against the Trotskyists, rightists and bourgeois nationalists and that it disarmed ideologically all the enemies of Leninism. The ideological fight was carried on successfully ... Here Stalin played a positive role."[4]

Rogovin's book, while examining the political implications of the Great Terror also expands on the significant interest shown by many figures who stood aloof from socialist politics. In the novel Doctor Zhivago, Boris Pasternak used his hero to express the following thoughts: "I think that collectivisation was a mistaken and unsuccessful measure, but it was impossible to admit the mistake. In order to hide the failure, it was necessary to use all means of terror to make people forget how to think and to force them to see what did not exist or to prove the opposite of what was obvious. Hence the unbridled cruelty of the Yezhov period, the declaration of a constitution never intended to be applied, and the introduction of elections not based on elective principles." [5]

Rogovin points out that Pasternak's statements bear a significant resemblance to the ideas of Trotsky. Rogovin also points out that" Pasternak's explanation of the tragedy during the "Yezhov period" also displays unmistakable proximity to Lenin's prognoses made in 1921. In referring to the alternatives Soviet Russia faced at that time, Lenin saw two outcomes from the contradictions which had accumulated by then: "ten to twenty years of correct relations with the peasantry and victory is guaranteed on a world scale (even given delays in the proletarian revolutions which are growing).[6]

Rogovin's mention of writers like Pasternak is interesting in that it highlights the gap between people like Pasternak who were non-political but would stand up for a principle against a coterie of Soviet writers led by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn who would not[7]. Solzhenitsyn's work was hardly a bastion of objectivity on the matter of the Great Terror.

His book 'Gulag Archipelago' fails even to mention the main defendants in the Moscow Trials  Leon Trotsky and his son Leon Sedov. He writes next to nothing of the heroic struggle of the Left Opposition against Stalinism. Solzhenitsyn started as a radical critic of Stalinism but ended up being a virulent anti-communist and a Great Russian chauvinist.

He vomited up all the old Stalinist lies that Stalinism was an 'outgrowth' of Bolshevism and was the true face of the Russian revolution. Rogovin's book thoroughly shatters these lies and with it Solzhenitsyn's thesis and reputation.

Rogovin's thoroughness stretches throughout the book. For the general reader, this might make reading a little daunting. The perseverance of the reader is rewarded with a detailed study of what happened after the Russian revolution. The book is hard sometimes going not because of Rogovin's writing which is stunning and lucid but because he does not spare the reader any detail as to what happened to not only the old Bolsheviks but anyone who came into contact with them.

Group shootings with almost daily tens of prisoners sent into the wilderness. According to Rogovin, "they shot not only the Trotskyists themselves, but any members of their families who were with them". He goes on: "When a husband was shot, his imprisoned wife was automatically sent to be shot; with the most significant oppositionists, their children who had reached the age of 12 were also subject to shooting."

The New Stalin School of Falsification.

At the same, this book was translated by Fred Choate on behalf of Mehring books there appeared a new Stalin school of falsification. As Rogovin correctly states: "These ideological operations served the same purpose as the historical falsifications produced by the Stalinist school: to cauterise, deceive, distort and poison the historical memory and social consciousness of the Soviet people."[8]

The release of the book happened to coincide with as one writer puts it with an   "orgy of capitalist propaganda which flooded the post-1989 Russia has for the time being crowded out those voices like Rogovin, demanding a real examination of the Moscow Trials. The bourgeois heirs of the Stalinist bureaucracy that led society to the impasse of the late 1980s cannot carry through this examination. Therefore, in the land of the October revolution and the giants which are produced, the real lessons of these events and its subsequent degeneration along the lines of Stalinism remain unknown by the majority. Trotsky is a slandered figure in modern-day Russia, particularly by the pro-capitalist parvenus who have arisen from the bureaucracy. In their enthusiastic embrace of capitalism, they wish to obliterate all of the real lessons of Stalinism and the heinous purge trials. Rogovin's book provides us with the political ammunition to counter this".

Much of this orgy of Stalinist falsification came from academia and in particular from the pen of Ian Thatcher and Geoffrey Swain. The Marxist writer David North points out "The years since the fall of the USSR have seen the emergence of what can best be described as The Post-Soviet School of Historical Falsification. The principal objective of this school is to discredit Leon Trotsky as a significant historical figure, to deny that he represented an alternative to Stalinism, or that his political legacy contains anything relevant in the present and valuable for the future. Every historian is entitled to his or her viewpoint. But these viewpoints must be grounded in a serious, honest and principled attitude toward the assembling of facts and the presentation of historical evidence. It is this essential quality; however, that is deplorably absent in two new biographies of Leon Trotsky, one by Professor Geoffrey Swain of the University of Glasgow and the other by Professor Ian D. Thatcher of Brunel University in West London. These works have been brought out by large and influential publishing houses. Swain's biography has been published by Longman; Thatcher's by Routledge. Their treatment of the life of Leon Trotsky is without the slightest scholarly merit. Both works make limited use of Trotsky's writings, offering few substantial citations and even ignoring major books, essays and political statements.[9]

After Swain and Thatcher, there came a veritable flood of books that sought to further The Post-Soviet School of Historical Falsification. One particular is worth mentioning is Grover Furr's Stalin Waiting For The Truth!. Furr believes that Stalin committed no crimes; the charges against him are a fabrication. Not a single accusation holds up. On the evidence, according to Furr, Stalin committed no- atrocities. One of Furr's books if you could call them that was entitled "Khrushchev Lied". 

It is hard to know where to start with Furr's unhinged writings. The American professor of Medieval English literature at Montclair State University is an unrepentant Stalinist but the fact that Furr can even get a hearing is down to gentlemen like Swain, Thatcher and Robert Service. Furr is "only a pawn in their game". A terrible price continues to be paid for the falsification of history and the denial of objective truth.

To conclude, it is hoped that people will read Rogovin's work in Russia and throughout the world, not just to honour but to fight for what he believed in. 

[1] 1937-Stalin's Year of Terror-By Vadim Z Rogovin-Mehring Books, 1998(page 145)
[2] lecture given by Professor Vadim Rogovin on February 27 at Michigan State University in East Lansing-
[3]  Inostrannaia literatura [Foreign Literature], no. 4 (1988), p. 170
[4] Murry Weiss-The Vindication Of Trotskyism
[5] 1937: Stalin’s Year of Terror By Vadim Z. Rogovin-Mehring Books-1998
[6] 1937: Stalin’s Year of Terror By Vadim Z. Rogovin-Mehring Books-1998 
[9] A review of two Trotsky biographies, by Geoffrey Swain and Ian Thatcher-

Wednesday, 22 July 2020

Being a Postgraduate and Early Career Researcher then and now

I was a postgraduate researcher and aspiring early career researcher in the 1960s. The context in which I lived and worked was radically different. After the Robbins Report was published in the autumn of 1963, there was a rapid expansion of new universities and the creation of a significant number of history departments across the country.

A cohort of young postgraduates and early career researchers took up posts in these departments. Unfortunately, the sterling crisis of 1967 brought this process of expansion to an abrupt end. It became much more difficult for postgraduates like me in the middle of their research to get one of the few posts being advertised while the new incumbents naturally enough stayed put.

Looking back, there were all sorts of issues that I was not aware of at the time. As an undergraduate, I had been relatively well off: as a postgraduate on c.£500 a year, I was pretty hard up, especially in comparison with those of my contemporaries who had got jobs in external professions. I was also only dimly aware of the importance of patrons in the academic world: I knew that there were historians who disagreed with one another but had only the faintest idea of the competition that existed between them to secure posts for their proteges. Nor was I sensitive to the dangers of criticising established figures.

When I submitted my first article to The Economic History Review in 1972, Lawrence Stone sent me a very short letter telling me in July of that year that publication would do me no good and that he would see to it that I never got a job. Admittedly, publication as such was less important then: a large number of historians then in post had a minimal number of articles or books to their names, a situation that later research assessment exercises made untenable. There was, moreover, very little and sometimes no guidance on how to teach even though I got some experience in my own university, in the nearby polytechnic and in a technical college. Even so, my sense of despair and disappointment at not being able to get an academic job until the late-1980s was, I suspect, just as intense as that experienced by anyone in the last few years. 

But I did not give up. I was lucky enough to be able to keep in touch through my friends and via contacts in the British Museum, the Public Record Office and the libraries of the University of London with the historiography of early modern England and of Europe. I was even able to get some articles published in academic journals and a volume of essays. Eventually, I did get an academic post and have been able to move forward to other roles.

I realise that postgraduates and early career researchers nowadays have had just as tough, perhaps even tougher, a time. Universities have a wide range of choice amongst a plethora of candidates from which to choose. Issues of academic patronage and publication remain vital.  (Avoid my mistakes too.) If I may comment on the problems postgraduates and early career researchers face, it is important for them to take of advantage of all the opportunities that arise in the course of their research.

If a document or set of documents that are of interest crops up, please think about publication (with the necessary permissions of the archive or owner) in an academic or local history journal or, if that is not possible, contact the International Book Numbering Agency and get some of its numbers so that you can publish it yourself. Most universities and colleges have printing shops where written pieces can be printed and bound relatively cheaply.

Secondly, there are the resources of the internet. It is perfectly possible without too much effort to use Facebook or Twitter to tell other interested people about the work you are doing, about the reading you have done, about the contacts you have made. Successful networking on-line as well as at conferences and seminars is vital to keep in touch with one’s peers and prospective colleagues. And then there are weblogs or blogs.

The Many-Headed Monster is a good example of what can be achieved by a group of historians with common interests but there are many other blogs of interest carrying news, reviews, notices of conferences and seminars, etc. I must also add that a significant number of blogs exist that have been composed by independent historians working in other professions but still committed to the subjects they have studied. Here I am thinking of figures like Nick Poyntz or Keith Livesey. It is up to you to exploit the range of available options. 

Above all, make sure you complete your research and get your thesis written. If you can do that and can promote your merits as a scholar in other ways, then a job should be more likely however stiff the competition. 

Chris Thompson

Sunday, 19 July 2020

Obituary: Neil Davidson, October 9 1957 – May 3 2020

'O what a tangled web we weave, when first we practise to deceive.'

Walter Scott

"It might seem that the notion of tradition, unlike kilts and bagpipes, has been around for many centuries. Once more, appearances are deceptive. The term 'tradition' as it is used today is a product of the last 200 years in Europe. Just like the concept of risk, which I talked about in my last lecture, in mediaeval times, there was no generic notion of tradition. There was no call for such a word, precisely because tradition and custom were everywhere".[1]

Anthoney Giddens

Neil Davidson died on May 3, 2020. His death removes from the historical scene a gifted historian and a working-class autodidact that is rarely seen today. Davidson wrote on many subjects, including the historical status of bourgeois revolutions, Scottish politics and history, the relationship between the nation-states and capital and seventeenth-century intellectual thought.  However, as this obituary will show, his historiography was always dominated by his pseudo-left political outlook.

Davidson was born 1957 in Aberdeen. He spent much of his childhood in a largely rural area of Scotland that Davidson would later write about as been the last part of the  British Isles to lose its peasantry. Life was hard for Davidson growing up in a flat with no indoor toilet. Davidson had a tremendous work ethic and dedication to historical study. Davidson regularly rose at 5 am to study Marxist classics without the early luxury of going to university. The majority of his writings were done in the evening and weekends because he held a fulltime civil service job. It was only very late in life did Davidson escape the clutches of his civil service job for a life in academia. He became a senior research fellow at Strathclyde University. In 2013 he became a lecturer in sociology at Glasgow University.

He became radicalised during the early 1970s joining the International Socialists forerunners of the Socialist Workers Party in 1976. When Davidson joined the IS, it had already broken from orthodox Trotskyism, and from 1951 had sustained a systematic attack on the basic tenents of Trotskyism. Its then-leader Tony Cliff repudiated any chance of there being a social revolution in the post-war period. Cliff put forward his thesis that a form of "state capitalism "had taken place in the Soviet Union.

The IS postulated that this was a new form of capitalist exploitation on a world scale. The result of this theory was that it in the words of Chris Marsden it "lent capitalism a new lease on life". He continued "the IS' declaration that the Soviet Union was equivalent to US imperialism and its insistence that the reformist parties and trade union apparatuses represented the interests of the working class enabled it to secure a niche in a layer of the petty bourgeoisie that relied upon the welfare state and the trade unions for their privileges. This layer combined radical rhetoric and pressure on the labour bureaucracies to safeguard wages and public-sector jobs and services with unswerving opposition to any attempt to construct a working-class party independent of the Labour Party".[2]Davidson agreed with IS's position on state capitalism because it made 'made perfect sense'.

Davidson and the "Scottish Revolution"

Davidson produced a significant amount of material on Scottish history and politics. The books Origins of Scottish Nationhood (2000) and Discovering the Scottish Revolution (2003) defined Davidson's attitude to the "Scottish Question". Davidson's main position on Scotland was that it existed as a Scottish state before 1707. However, there was no mass national consciousness. Whether a mass national consciousness developed naturally or was manufactured is a debate that still rages amongst historians. One does not have to agree with Hugh Trevor Roper's politics to see that he had a point when he wrote in his article on the 'invented traditions' of Scotland, that the 'the whole concept of a distinct Highland culture' was a 'retrospective invention'.[3]

It would seem that Davidson spent most of his academic career looking for a Scottish bourgeois revolution. Some would say that it would have been easier to find Lord Lucan. Davidson is correct to point out that some decisive moments point to a significant pathway towards the goal of a Scottish bourgeois revolution. One of these events is the defeat of the last Jacobite revolt in 1746. However, this defeat was attained with the direct intervention of the British state and with the help of the Scottish lowland bourgeoisie. This action finally suppressed the last remnants of Scottish feudalism. It was very much a bourgeois revolution from above with the help of the English bourgeoise. The Scottish bourgeois revolution if you can find one, was, in the end, a pretty tame affair and no way comparable to that of the English bourgeois revolution of the 1640s.

Despite the rise of the Scottish Nation-state being intimately connected to the development of the English bourgeoise numerous Pseudo left commentators and historians have sought to argue differently in that it was an oppressed nation that needed to throw off the yoke of English capitalism.

Scotland, despite Davidson arguing to the contrary, was not an oppressed nation. On the contrary orthodox Marxists have argued it was, in fact, part of an imperialist state. The Psuedo Left revisionists downplay the Scottish ruling elites past crimes which have resulted in the Scottish bourgeoise making vasts amounts of money out of the brutal exploitation of millions the world over.

It could be argued that ever since 1707, workers in Scotland have been oppressed not because of their nationality but because of their class position within capitalist society. As a Socialist Equality Party(SEP) statement points out "The Act of Union in 1707 provided the framework for the development of capitalism and the vast growth of the productive forces. This, in turn, formed the basis for the emergence of the first industrial working class in the world. Since then, working people in England, Scotland and Wales have fought side by side in epic struggles, including the great revolutionary Chartist movement for democracy and equality, the general strike of 1926, the mass strike movement that brought down a Tory government in 1974 and the year-long miners' strike of 1984-85.

The advocacy of Scottish independence is a reactionary response to the bankruptcy of the nation-state system, which no longer corresponds to the global organisation of economic life. In the last century, this fundamental contradiction gave rise to two of the most devastating wars in human history as the leading capitalist powers fought for world hegemony. Today, with the advent of global production, in which every country's economy is integrated into a greater whole dominated by huge transnational corporations and banks, inter-imperialist and national antagonisms have reached a new peak of intensity".[4]

In order to justify his position regarding Scottish independence, Davidson was forced to continue the "invention of Tradition" historiography. I do not believe he falsified his research to fit a political perspective, but it is clear that his positions on Scottish history led him down a reactionary and nationalist road. In the first volume of his collected essays entitled Holding Fast to an Image of the Past (2014) of which the title is taken from Walter Benjamin's 'On the Concept of History' (1940) Davidson warned that revolutionaries could without their knowledge, become 'tools of the ruling class'.

Despite warning against this trait, it would seem that Davidson did exactly what he warned others against. Davidson became a foot soldier for the 2014 "yes" campaign for Scottish independence. He downplayed the reactionary nature of the "Yes" Campaign and ignored completely the significant opposition that existed to the separatist project among Scottish workers. Davidson exposed his political bankruptcy saying at a RIC meeting, "People in this room, people on the left, people out there on picket lines … believe in the unity of the British working class, and they dismiss some of us who argue for independence as useful stooges of the ruling class".[5]

Much of Davidson's work on Scotland was done while he was still a member of the SWP. Davidson held a diametrically opposite line to the SWP who in the early 1970s had a semi orthodox line on Scotland history.

In 1974 they wrote "Scottish nationalism had not played any such progressive role since the 17th century when the idea of Scotland, or at least of the Scottish lowlands, as a nation grew up in opposition to Scottish feudalism. The struggles of the Scottish bourgeoisie against the remnants of feudalism took place more or less simultaneously with similar struggles in England, in the 1640s and 1688, with the movements in one country being intimately bound up with movements in the other.

The Act of Union between the two countries did not represent the suppression of the Scottish bourgeoisie by the English but rather an agreement between the two to exploit the British empire jointly. The Scottish bourgeoisie swung behind support for the Union after a colonial adventure of their own failed. Indeed, it can be argued that the final bourgeois unification of Scotland was only fully achieved with the aid of English arms when the pre-capitalist society of the highlands was destroyed in the aftermath of 1745. The Scottish bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie led no sort of struggle against British imperialism; instead, they mobilised the rest of the population in its support". Suffice to say this is not the SWP's position today.

Davidson on the European Bourgois Revolutions

Despite his differences with the SWP Davidson agreed with the SWP's attack on basic Marxist theory. Davidson agreed with the SWP's revision of Leon Trotsky's theory of Permanent revolution. The Deflected Permanent Revolution was put forward by Tony Cliff in 1963.[6] As the 2011 Historical and International Foundations of the Socialist Equality Party document points out "Cliff was to argue that the Stalinist dictatorship was only the most finished expression of a new stage in the evolution of world capitalism, which was partially expressed by Labour's post-war nationalisations and those conducted by the newly independent colonial regimes. He placed the intelligentsia alongside the Stalinist bureaucracy as the midwife of yet another variety of state capitalism. The industrial working class had "played no role whatsoever" in the Chinese revolution, while in Cuba, "middle-class intellectuals filled the whole arena of struggle". From this, Cliff declared that Trotsky's Theory of Permanent Revolution was wrong because, "While the conservative, cowardly nature of a late-developing bourgeoisie (Trotsky's first point) is an absolute law, the revolutionary character of the young working-class (point 2) is neither absolute nor inevitable… Once the constantly revolutionary nature of the working class, the central pillar of Trotsky's theory, becomes suspect, the whole structure falls to pieces".

Davidson's adoption of the deflected permanent revolution thesis would dominate his work on the European bourgeois revolutions. Davidson's book How revolutionary was the Bourgeois Revolutions is a culmination of all his work on the bourgeois revolutions. The first thing that strikes you about the book despite the excellent cover is the title. Why ask a question that you know the answer to. Any GCE Ordinary Level history student would know that they were very revolutionary.

The book is the product of decades reading and research. Davidson put his archival expertise to good use. The subject matter is complex, but the book is written with simple clarity without lowering the academic standard.

The concept of the bourgeois revolution is perhaps one of the most contentious subjects in modern-day historiography. As the American historian James Oakes points out, there is a tendency in historiography "to erase revolutions from all of human history." The process, he noted, had been going on for decades. First… the English revisionists said there was no English Revolution, and then François Furet came along and said there was no French Revolution. We have historians telling us that the Spanish-American revolutions were really just fought among colonial elites that got out of hand and happened to result in the abolition of slavery".[7] A recent history Today magazine's article called Do not Mention the Civil War. Why is Britain Embarrassed by its Revolutionary Past? Highlights this trend.

The academic researcher Chris Thompson is a prime example of this trend saying  "the prolific use of terms like 'bourgeoisie', 'feudal' and 'modern' aristocracy, 'proletariat' and 'non-bourgeois strata of the middle class' invites comparison with the debates of the Communist Party of Great Britain's historians' group in the late-1940s and early-1950s recently edited by David Parker. Antique concepts like the claim that a class of urban capitalists were developing in the sixteenth century with feudalism or that these people were held to be socially inferior and were excluded from power by the Absolute States are given vigorous exercise. 'Bourgeois' revolutions inevitably occurred and, in their outcomes, promoted capitalism. There is also an undertow of historiographical controversy: Callinicos's protest against the revisionist historians of the 1970s is linked to an attack on 'Political Marxists' like Robert Brenner and Ellen Meiksins Wood for their assistance in undermining a more authentically Socialist interpretation".[8]

It is perhaps a concession to these historians that Davidson's book title tilts towards an accommodation with this prevalent view that these revolutions were not that revolutionary. Davidson is a political historian who incorporates his politics into his historiography. Davidson's Philosophical Conceptions or world view is moulded to a significant degree by the Socialist Workers Party's troika of theories that were a departure from classical Marxism. The Deflected Permanent Revolution, the Permanent Arms Economy and lastly the theory of State Capitalism.

Both the first and the last of these theories are the most relevant to our subject and Davidson's adoption of these two theories underpin his understanding of the bourgeois revolutions.  The fact that Davidson himself recognises in his preface when he says that how one defines the bourgeois revolution and capitalism in general defines, you view of the proletarian revolution.

In this instance, a correct understanding of the early Soviet state is a prerequisite for an understanding of proceeding and contemporary revolutions. Unfortunately, Davidson's position on the early Soviet state is not one of an orthodox Marxist or Trotskyist.

Davidson's and the SWP's agreement with the theory of the USSR being State Capitalist had it is origins in the work of Bruno Rizzi's who wrote in his book The Bureaucratization of the World: "In the USSR, in our view, it is the bureaucrats who are the owners, for it is they who hold power in their hands. It is they who manage the economy, just as was normal with the bourgeoisie. It is they who take the profits, just as do all exploiting classes, who fix wages and prices. I repeat—it is the bureaucrats. The workers count for nothing in the governing of society. What is more, they receive no share in the surplus-value… The reality is that collective property is not in the hands of the proletariat; but in the hands of a new class: a class which, in the USSR, is already an accomplished fact, whereas in the totalitarian states this class is still in the process of formation".

The Russian Marxist Leon Trotsky who was acutely aware of this belief that the USSR was "state capitalist," or some other form of exploitative society rejected this theory and did not attach great significance to it.  According to the Marxist writer David North "the state-capitalist theory, the categories of Marxian political economy were abandoned and replaced with an unscientific descriptive terminology. It was a theory in which the element of economic necessity was replaced entirely with an extreme form of political subjectivism".   Again according to North "at the heart of the Rizzi positions was the repudiation of the Marxist appraisal of the revolutionary role of the working class. 

As Leon Trotsky wrote  "All the various types of disillusioned and frightened representatives of pseudo-Marxism proceed… from the assumption that the bankruptcy of the leadership only "reflects" the incapacity of the proletariat to fulfil its revolutionary mission. Not all our opponents express this thought clearly, but all of them—ultra-lefts, centrists, anarchists, not to mention Stalinists and social-democrats—shift the responsibility for the defeats from themselves to the shoulders of the proletariat. None of them indicates under precisely what conditions the proletariat will be capable of accomplishing the socialist overturn.  If we grant as true that the cause of the defeats is rooted in the social qualities of the proletariat itself, then the position of modern society will have to be acknowledged as hopeless". [9]

How does Davidson's agreement with the theory of State Capitalism colour his attitude towards the bourgeois revolutions? Well, a constant theme of his book is the underestimation of the role political and social consciousness plays in revolutions which runs through the entire book. The SWP's rejection of the revolutionary nature of the working class which is implicit in the theory of State capitalism leads them into all sorts of alliances with forces hostile to socialism such the Labour party, trade unions and even the Stalinists.

So what Is Davidson's conception of the bourgeois revolution? Despite the book being 0ver 800 pages long, it is a little difficult to get a coherent picture of Davidson's theory of the bourgeois revolution. He does state on page 420:  "The theory of bourgeois revolution is not … about the origins and development of capitalism as a socio-economic system but the removal of backwards-looking threats to its continued existence and the overthrow of restrictions to its further development. The source of these threats and restrictions has, historically, been the pre-capitalist state, whether estates-monarchy, absolutist, or tributary in nature. In no bourgeois revolution did the revolutionaries ever seek to rally popular forces by proclaiming their intention to establish a new form of exploitative society but did so by variously raising demands for religious freedom, representative democracy, national independence, and, ultimately, socialist reconstruction".

Davidson's point that is not necessary for there to be a bourgeoisie that is active in the revolution for that revolution to be bourgeois. Davidson, like many in the SWP, tend to downplay the role of consciousness in history bourgeois or otherwise. The other tendency pronounced in the SWP is to see historical processes as fixed rather than fluid categories.

As the Russian Marxist Leon Trotsky noted: "Vulgar thought operates with such concepts as capitalism, morals, freedom, workers' state, etc. as fixed abstractions, presuming that capitalism is equal to capitalism. Morals are equal to morals, etc. Dialectical thinking analyses all things and phenomena in their continuous change, while determining in the material conditions of those changes that critical limit beyond which 'A' ceases to be 'A', a workers' state ceases to be a workers' state. The fundamental flaw of vulgar thought lies in the fact that it wishes to content itself with motionless imprints of a reality which consists of eternal motion.

Dialectical thinking gives to concepts, by means of closer approximations, corrections, concretisation, a richness of content and flexibility; I would even say "a succulence" which to a certain extent brings them closer to living phenomena. Not capitalism in general, but a given capitalism at a given stage of development. Not a workers' state in general, but a given workers' state in a backward country in an imperialist encirclement, etc. Dialectical thinking is related to vulgar in the same way that a motion picture is related to a still photograph".[10] 

As was said above a classical Marxist view is that social classes are not fixed concepts but are fluid. The bourgeois has existed in different forms as a class over time. It has changed according to how capitalism has developed and vice versa. Davidson's downplaying the study of socio-economic forces diminishes one's understanding of the development of capitalism and its bourgeois revolutions. While it is perfectly natural to concentrate on key players in the bourgeois revolutions, however, the downplaying of other social and political figures tend to lead Davidson in dismissing elements that made the bourgeois revolution more than just an objective occurrence. As Dominic Alexander writes "Davidson's concentration on the analysis of key thinkers as such tends to downplay the extent to which revolution was a social and conceptual reality; that is to say, the analysis tends to emphasise the conservative aspects of leading thinkers' ideas against the revolutionary context from which they emerged".[11]

Another aspect that colours Davidson's understanding of the bourgeois revolution is his use of the SWP's theory of The Deflected Permanent Revolution. The most important aspect in the development of Marx's concept of revolution was the experience of the 1848 revolutions.

Marx correctly stated that the bourgeoisie could not be trusted with the future development of humanity and that responsibility had passed to the revolutionary working class "hence the new era was one of permanent revolution". For decades Socialists have approached the experiences and lessons of 1848 in order to understand their revolutions. The greatest being the theoreticians of the Russian Social Democratic Party.

Davidson's approach as regards the deflected permanent revolution is similar to his use of the State capitalist theory. As one writer puts it "The theory supplants non-revolutionary petty-bourgeois intellectuals and other bourgeois forces that presided over a "deflected permanent revolution", consolidating state-capitalist formations in one country after another".

In his introduction, Davidson believes that the 1949 Chinese revolution was a bourgeois revolution which led to a state capitalist formation writing “it could have been the socialist revolution, if the movements of the mid-1920s had succeeded, but ended up instead as the functional equivalent of the bourgeois revolution instead—a lesser but still decisive systemic shift”.[12]

Suffice to say this is not an orthodox Marxist position on the Chinese revolution. It is not possible to go into any great detail the complex nature of the Marxist position on the Chinese Revolution however 955 this paoint was made by the American Socialist Workers Party, which  concluded, based on the discussion in the Fourth International on the buffer states of Eastern Europe, “that China had become a deformed workers’ state. It was a transitional regime. Nationalised property and economic planning had been established, but the new state was deformed at birth, with the working class lacking any political voice or democratic rights. Either China would proceed towards genuine socialism, which required the overthrow of the Maoist bureaucracy at the hands of the working class in a political revolution—as advocated by the Trotskyist movement—or it would relapse back to capitalism”.[13]

To conclude my main problem with the book is that because Davidson is wrong in his analysis of modern-day revolutions, how do we trust his evaluation of the earlier Bourgeois revolutions.

This point aside the book does provide us with a very useful reference point for a study of the bourgeois revolutions. Readers should acquaint themselves with a thorough study of Davidson's and the SWP's positions of defected permanent revolution and state capitalism and their critics within the classical Marxist movement.

In conclusion, despite Davidson leaving the SWP, he took with him all the ideological baggage he accumulated during his membership. The theoretical revisions of Trotskyism, the deflected permanent revolution, State Capitalism, were inculcated into Davidson's work up till his untimely death. Are his books worth reading yes they are, but the reader should be aware that the buzzing bees in Davidson's head are of a Psuedo left character?


[2] Britain's Socialist Workers Party descends into factional warfare-

[3] Whig Tartan: Material Culture and its Use in the Scottish Highlands, 1746–1815

Matthew P. Dziennik-Past & Present, Volume 217, Issue 1, November 2012, Pages 117–147,

[4] Vote “no” in the Scottish referendum—Fight for a socialist Britain-


[6] Deflected Permanent



[9] The USSR in War-(September 1939)-

[10] The ABC of Materialist Dialectics-(December 1939)




Friday, 17 July 2020

On Christopher Hill By Charles James

The number of people whose doctoral research was supervised by Christopher Hill must, I suspect, be diminishing year by year. It is over a decade and a half since he died and longer still since he ceased being active as a historian. His allies, former students and academic proteges are inevitably being culled by mortality too. My own memories of him are mixed: in personal terms, we got on perfectly well over several decades even though I was never sympathetic to his approach to the early modern period or to his political views.

My first encounter with Hill was as an undergraduate when I heard him give a series of lectures in Balliol College’s hall which later found their way into print in his book, Society and Puritanism. His general points were buttressed by copious quotations from late-sixteenth and early to mid-seventeenth century printed sources, most of them pamphlets and sermons. He had a rather off-putting habit of sniffing after every two or three sentences which I found rather disconcerting.

Two and a half years later, I found myself assigned to him as my supervisor for my prospective research. Our initial talk took place in his office as Master of Balliol. He was interested in finding out what my social origins were, what the cost of my watch (which was one of the very first to show dates) had been and to invite me to the Monday evening parties to which his other pupils and girls from St Hilda’s College, where his wife taught, came for drinks. And that was about it. (I gave up on the Monday evening parties after attending one or two because I could not hear myself think due to the noise.)

Later meetings took place in a room where he had a chair held by a chain coming down from the ceiling. He used to sit in this chair swinging slightly from side to side whilst saying nothing. I found this silence disconcerting: it was only a year or two later that I was told that this was an old Oxford technique to encourage students to be forthcoming about their work. It did not work for me.

Much more seriously, Christopher Hill, for all his encyclopaedic knowledge of printed sources, was completely at sea as far as manuscript sources were concerned. I never saw him reading manuscripts in the Bodleian, in the British Museum or the Public Record Office or in any county archive then or in the better part of forty years that followed. Since I was desperately searching for the lost archives of the people I was investigating, his inability to help was a problem I had not anticipated. His comments on my written work were rather perfunctory too, probably because he soon recognised that I was not a follower or potential follower of his Marxist approach in any sense at all. As a potential protégé or candidate for academic jobs, I was without promise from his point of view.

I did see him once or twice after I ceased being a postgraduate – in Malet Street in London and again at The Huntington Library in California. He and his wife were friendly and polite but I got the distinct impression that he had found the changes in the historiography of pre- and post-revolutionary England since the mid-1970s invalid, unacceptable and nonsensical. He had gone on writing as if they had not happened and thereby lost touch with later generations of historians. This was sad but it happens sooner or later to most academic historians. I was pleased to have known him although never convinced by his arguments at any stage.


Wednesday, 15 July 2020

On the Removal of the Oliver Cromwell Statue, Yet Again

"And if a history shall be written of these times and transactions, it will be said, it will not be denied, but that these things that I have spoken are true".

Oliver Cromwell

"Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword as was said three thousand years ago so still it must be said 'the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.' With malice toward none with charity for all with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right let us strive on to finish the work we are in to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan  to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations."

Abraham Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address

The last few weeks have seen the removal of statues in the United States and Britain that were related to the slave trade. While this may seem justifiable for the moment, the indiscriminate nature of the removal of statues are troubling, especially when now statues of revolutionary figures such as George Washington, who led the American Revolution and Abraham Lincoln who led the Civil War that ended slavery are being removed.

The attacking of revolutionary figures has now crossed the Atlantic to Britain with the calls for statues of Oliver Cromwell to be removed. The only thing missing in this reactionary nonsense is the call for the exhuming of his body in order to drag it through the London streets and place his head on a spike above Westminister Hall again.

Any historian or general reader of English history will know that the calling for the statue of Oliver Cromwell to be removed from outside Parliament is a yearly occurrence. Two years ago the Sunday Telegraph ran an article called "Parliament's statue of Cromwell becomes the latest memorial hit by 'rewriting history' row". The article's author Patrick Sawer must have had a slow day in the office because in the article he says a bitter row has broken out between historians. His article was stretching things a bit. The one historian quoted by the newspaper was Jeremy Crick, described as "a social historian" has called for the statue to be pulled down.

His justification for this being Cromwell's anti-religious zeal and comparing Cromwell to the actions of the Taliban. He says "Its banishment would be poetic justice for his Taliban-like destruction of so many of England's cultural and religious artefacts carried out by his fanatical Puritan followers."

It is hard to take Crick seriously. Even a cursory search would find that he has written next to nothing on Cromwell and is hardly a world authority on Cromwell and the English revolution. It would seem that the only thing Crick specialises in is the calling for "unloved statues" to be pulled down.

What makes this year, so very different is that it is a Labour Party member that is calling for it. Lord Adonis who is a Labour Peer and a "Remainer" has called for the statue to be torn down because Cromwell committed  "genocide" in his conquest of Ireland (1649-53).

The peer said: "I think Cromwell's statue should be removed from outside Parliament and put in a museum. Cromwell was a military dictator who ended up abolishing Parliament and committing genocide in Ireland. He has no place outside Parliament - unlike Churchill, who led the successful national and international resistance to Hitler and the Nazi dictatorship."

It must be said that this "debate" while having a strong historical interest is also an expression of how reactionary and right-wing the Labour Party has become. It is also an expression of how large sections of the English bourgeoisie cannot defend or even remember its revolutionary traditions.

The English bourgeoisie has had an ambivalent and contradictory attitude towards Cromwell and for that matter, the English revolution. While paying lip service to the fact that he was the father of Parliamentary democracy albeit with a bit of military dictatorship thrown in, they have always been wary of drawing attention to their revolutionary past. They would prefer that people saw Britain's history as being tranquil. That any change that took place was gradual and progress was peaceful through class compromise without the violent excess of revolution. This illusion is more important in light of today's explosive political and economic situation.

It is perhaps all the more ironic that it is a section of the Tory party that has opposed the removal. As the Ashfield Conservative MP Lee Anderson said: "I walk past the Cromwell statue every single day to work and he is a daily reminder to me of our history, good and bad. I would strongly suggest he stays there and that it should be Lord Adonis who is removed from the House of Lords and put in a museum."Anderson accused Adonis of having "a juvenile, one-dimensional view of history".

Several Irish historians have opposed the removal with Professor Louise Richardson arguing that the statue was of educational value and should be preserved no matter how controversial. She said that it was wrong to pretend that history should be changed because people do not agree with it.

The erasing of revolutionary figures and revolutions for that matter from history has a long pedigree. The most infamous being Joseph Stalin's removal of leading Bolsheviks such as Leon Trotsky from the historical record.

The successful removal of the Cromwell statue would set a dangerous precedent. It would embolden all those inside and outside of academia, especially those who have been involved in a tendency in historiography as Professor James Oakes points out "to erase revolutions from all of human history. First, the English revisionists said there was no English Revolution, and then François Furet came along and said there was no French Revolution. We have historians telling us that the Spanish-American revolutions were really just fought among colonial elites that got out of hand and happened to result in the abolition of slavery".[1]

If Cromwell were alive today, he would be a more than a bit angry towards today's English bourgeoise who owes everything it has to his leadership during the English revolution.

Marxist's, on the other hand, have no ambivalence towards the great bourgeois revolutionary, and workers and youth as the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky said can learn a lot from Cromwell's leadership: " Cromwell built not merely an army but also a party -- his army was to some extent an armed party and herein precisely lay its strength. In 1644 Cromwell's "holy" squadrons won a brilliant victory over the King's horsemen and won the nickname of "Ironsides." It is always useful for a revolution to have iron sides. On this score, British workers can learn much from Cromwell".[2]

To conclude the consistent controversy over this statue does beg the question of why does it keep coming up. Firstly the issue of the English revolution has never been a mere question of studying a past event; it is because many of the significant issues that were discussed and fought for on the battlefield in the 1640s  are still contemporary issues. What do we do with the monarchy, the issue of social inequality addressed by groups such as the Levellers? Until these and many more are resolved, we will keep getting more calls for Cromwell's statue to be removed.