By Neil Davidson
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Scottish Revolution: They Took the High Road

This article is over 20 years, 7 months old
Joint Deutscher Prize winner Neil Davidson looks at the debate provoked by his book.
Issue 280

Whatever disagreements we may have with his interpretation of events, there is no doubt that Isaac Deutscher’s major works are great literary achievements which helped keep alive a critical approach to the Russian Revolution in the darkest days of the Cold War.

Since 1969 – two years after his death – a prize has been awarded in his name. As the citation says, it is ‘for a book which exemplifies the best and most innovative new writing in or about the Marxist tradition’. Despite some ephemeral or over-hyped works having received the prize over the years, the overall list remains remarkably impressive. Works such as Marcel Leibman’s Leninism Under Lenin (1975), Geoffrey de Ste Croix’s The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World (1982), Mike Davis’s City of Quartz (1991) and James Holstun’s Ehud’s Dagger (2001) belong on the bookshelves of every reader of Socialist Review.

I am the second writer in a row from within the International Socialist Tendency to have been awarded the prize – last year it was won by Brian Kelly for Race, Class and Power in the Alabama Coalfields. I am proud to receive this recognition, not merely for myself, but for the entire IS intellectual tradition in which I received my education in Marxist theory and much else besides.

In Discovering the Scottish Revolution I have attempted to add a hitherto unknown bourgeois revolution – the Scottish – to the existing roster of the English Civil War, the American War of Independence, the French Revolution and so on. What makes the Scottish experience so interesting is how different it is from these revolutions, where the impetus came, at least initially, from below. The Scottish case instead prefigures the later ‘revolutions from above’ – the Italian Risorgimento, the German Unification and the Japanese Meiji Restoration – where feudal ruling classes realised that they would have to copy their British and French rivals or be overtaken in military and economic terms.

Between the 1690s and 1740s Scotland was at the epicentre of an intersystemic global conflict between capitalist constitutional England and feudal absolutist France which threatened to undo the settlement of 1688. The union of 1707 was consciously designed to preserve the feudal rights of the Scottish ruling class.

The choices before the feudal landowners narrowed throughout the first half of the 18th century. They could either transform themselves into capitalist landlords (difficult for all but the very wealthy), raise the level of exploitation of their tenants, or attempt to overthrow the British state by counter-revolutionary risings in alliance with France. Only the last option offered the chance of halting, let alone reversing, the northward spread of capitalism. Those who took it formed the social basis of the Jacobite movement.

We need to reconsider not only Scottish history during this period, but also that of England and Britain. We have to stop thinking of 1688 as being the conclusion of the English Revolution – which is only true if England is taken in total isolation from the rest of the world – and start thinking of 1746 as being the real conclusion of the British Revolution instead.

The Scottish Enlightenment systematically theorised the possibility of conscious human intervention to transform the world in a way that would influence both Hegel and Marx. The transformation of Scottish agriculture between 1760 and 1815 – the main practical consequence of Enlightenment thought – compressed into around 60 years what had taken 300 in England. No other nation would ever approach anything like this speed and intensity of development until Russia between 1928 and 1941 – an equally capitalist achievement, of course.

The book has provoked a major controversy within the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP). I have been accused in the letters page of the Voice of being (among other things) a ‘Unionist’ who regards the Highland Clearances as ‘progressive’ and who ignores Scottish popular traditions of struggle. Why this response to a discussion of events over 250 years ago?

Two ideas about Scottish history dominate in the SSP. One is that Scotland is oppressed by England and has been since 1296. The second is that popular movements in Scotland going back to William Wallace have all been linked to the struggle for national independence. There is barely a shred of evidence for these claims. There is, however, plenty of evidence for Scotland’s disproportionately large role in the British Empire and the way in which the British working class always consisted of both Scottish and English workers. The problem for my critics is that the secessionist agenda which they support is severely weakened without its historical underpinning.

A more serious debate has been over the lack of popular involvement in the Scottish Revolution. Some SSP members believe that it is more important to celebrate the religious revolutions from below of the 17th century, which did not transform Scottish society, than the revolution from above which did.

But there is no reason why bourgeois revolutions should be ‘from below’ at all – most of them have not been. The mainly top-down nature of events in Scotland means that they cannot be celebrated by Scottish socialists in the same way as French and English socialists can with at least some aspects of their revolutions. Too bad. We have two centuries of struggle on a global scale from which to construct our traditions and it is in that context that we should see the Scottish contribution.

What Deutscher called ‘Classical Marxism’ sees history as an essentially tragic process in which the tragedy will only be brought to an end by the achievement of socialism. That is the spirit in which I have approached the Scottish Revolution. It is one which I hope that Deutscher, whose own work so powerfully delineated the tragedy of another, quite different revolution, would have appreciated.

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