Aug 24 2004

‘Unionism’, Progress and the Socialist Tradition in Scottish History

Category: Emancipation & Liberation,Issue 08RCN @ 2:43 pm

Neil Davidson, author of Discovering the Scottish Revolution, replies to some of the discussion and debate his book has provoked.

I have been invited by the editors of Emancipation And Liberation to participate in the discussion about Discovering The Scottish Revolution here and in the pages of Scottish Socialist Voice and Frontline.(1) I was initially reluctant to respond, mainly because it is difficult to know where to begin, faced with the mixture of factual ignorance and ideological automatism which informed most contributions. Am I being too hard on comrades? Reader, you be the judge. Here are some of their Lamentable Groans and Complaints.

Contrary to what Dave Douglass writes, I have never claimed to be an ‘expert’ in Scottish history, but I think I can defend my conclusions by reference to the evidence. On the other hand, Dave’s entire knowledge of the Scottish Highlands seems to be derived from one book (Culloden) written by John Prebble over forty years ago. Now this was an important book in its day, but it and Prebble’s other writings have been one the main factors in fixing the image of Highlanders as different from Lowlanders – the Other, as we say nowadays. (An image which, incidentally, Prebble lifted more or less intact from Sir Walter Scott, the Unionist archfiend himself; but Prebble at any rate had no doubt that what happened in the Highlands was willed by British rather than ‘English’ class interests.) At one point in his polemic Dave throws back at me my own reference to a man he claims was a ‘captured clansman’ and a ‘condemned highlander’, forced to fight because of poverty.(2) This character was in fact the Earl of Kilmarnock who, as his title suggests, was a member of the Scottish nobility (‘Earl’) and from the Lowlands (‘Kilmarnock’); and his poverty was of a rather different order than that of the Highlanders who needlessly died attempting to restore his feudal estates.

Kevin Williamson finds his stomach churning at the suggestion that the Jacobite movement might have been connected with absolutism in some way. Well, let’s see. The reason for the existence of the Jacobite movement was the restoration of the Stuart dynasty; the Stuarts were committed to the Divine Right of Kings and to reversing the effects of the two revolutions which had removed them from the thrones of Great Britain (the technical term for this is, ‘counter-revolution’, by the way); they were furthermore aided in this endeavour by the King of France whose own absolutist regime was the model to which they aspired, and whose navy was mobilised to invade Britain on at least 3 occasions with a view to achieving the Stuart Restoration. Yup, it’s a hard one alright.

Joking apart, I assume that Kevin has in mind the notion that the Jacobite revolts were great popular uprisings against the Union which transcended their formal political ideology. Nice try, but this is a theory for which there is no supporting evidence whatsoever. There is, however, quite a lot of evidence for popular resistance to the Jacobites, to the point of armed struggle in Perth and Stirling, although one understands why Kevin, Gerry Cairns, et al, are not particularly interested in this aspect of our ‘hidden history’.(3)

(Incidentally, many comrades endlessly talk about uncovering the hidden history of popular revolt in Scotland, but do nothing to actually uncover it. On the other hand, despite my supposed unionism, I have written a more sustained discussion of the nature and extent of popular resistance to the Treaty of Union than any previous historian – certainly any other Marxist historian.(4))

Which brings us finally to Donald Anderson, who continues to happily revolve in an alternative dimension where desperate vassals forced by violence and hunger to fight for the continuation of their own feudal oppression are miraculously transformed into a liberation army intent on freeing ‘Scotland’ from ‘England’. Whatever disagreements I might have with the positions John Maclean adopted in the last years of his life, he at any rate never stopped basing his politics on a class analysis of society; the members of the Society which bears his name have yet to start.

I could go on, but what would be the point? It is, in short, questionable whether there has been a debate at all. Many comrades, including those mentioned above, evidently felt that they could dispense with the tiresome business of reading my book by basing their comments instead on what someone else had written about it, or by assuming that they already knew what my views were because of my factional affiliation within the SSP. Impressed though I am by the fact that my position on, say, the agrarian class structure of late seventeenth-century Scotland, can be deduced from reading the ‘Where We Stand’ column in Socialist Worker, this approach is scarcely a good advertisement for the culture of debate within the Party. Anyone relying on the letters page of the Voice to inform them about the contents of Discovering The Scottish Revolution would, like the comrade who thought that my position on the Highland Clearances was comparable that of Michael Fry, have been sadly misled. Here, for the record, are my actual views on the Highland Clearances:

Many Scots see the Highland Clearances – rightly, in my opinion – as a historical crime. … Even if the Clearances had been necessary for capitalist development, the solidarity of socialists would still be with the dispossessed peasants rather than with their oppressors… Far from being ‘necessary’ to the development of capitalism, the Highland Clearances were an example of an already triumphant capitalist class whose disregard for human life (and indeed, ‘development’) marked it as having long passed the stage of contributing to social progress. …the successful displacement of the Highlanders should not be seen as inevitable, but as an unnecessary political defeat.(5)

My views on the Treaty of Union have been as misrepresented as those on the Highland Clearances. My conclusions include this passage on the notion of its ‘progressiveness’:

Can this alliance of convenience between the Scottish and English ruling classes therefore be described as ‘progressive’ in any way? For Marxists, this term refers, in the context of the bourgeois revolution, to an event or process which leads either to the development of the productive forces or which heightens the political consciousness and organisation of the bourgeoisie – or indeed the classes below them in feudal society. In neither sense can the Union be said to qualify for such a description. It should be clear that it was, literally, a conservative measure for both the English bourgeoisie and the Scottish nobility. The very most that can be said for it is that, unlike the only realistic alternative, it was not actually reactionary in the sense of throwing society backwards.(6)

And so on. How is it possible that statements of this sort can seriously be presented as meaning that I think either event was ‘progressive’ in some way? Only if you haven’t bothered to read them, I suppose.

I was aware, of course, of the type of criticisms which the book was likely to provoke and tried to deal with them in advance by the remarkable expedient of providing evidence to support my arguments. However, comrades had a strategy for dealing with this – they simply ignored the evidence and repeated at greater volume the very positions which I had criticised in the first place. There seems to be a general unwillingness to empirically test claims and counter-claims, and to rely instead on long-established ideological positions supported by quotes or arguments derived from second or third-hand sources.

Let me make it clear that I am not dismissing contributions because they are not written by professional historians (or ‘experts’). I am not a historian, or indeed any sort of academic myself (I am a civil servant and do part-time tutorial work for the Open University), and I would certainly not recommend that anyone copy the plodding empiricism typical of most Scottish historiography. Nevertheless, unless comrades are prepared to engage with primary sources and to interrogate the historical meaning of concepts which they use (did nation mean the same thing in 1320 as it does today?, what kind of revolution was possible in the seventeenth century?), there cannot be any real debate.

Behind the hysteria and name calling here are, however, four serious issues which deserve further discussion: historical method; what ‘Unionism’ means in Scottish context; the components of the Socialist tradition; and the Marxist definition of progress. In what follows I will specifically refer to Allan Armstrong’s article, since it was virtually the only serious contribution from within the SSP, but in relation to these general issues rather than his detailed historical arguments.(7)

Reducing History to Politics

Questions of historical method may seem rather removed from our goal of transforming the world, but for those of who think that understanding history is necessary to our activity, they are of central importance. Virtually everybody involved in this episode seems to assume that not only are our interpretations of history determined by our current political views, but that it is entirely appropriate that they should be. Allan Armstrong thinks – quite wrongly, as it happens – that I am a ‘left Unionist’ and that my books were written in order to give historical support to this position. As I explain below, they were not. The point here is not that we all have specific positions and cannot step outside of them: I agree that impartial scholarship is not only impossible, but undesirable. Terry Eagleton puts the matter well:

Objectivity does not mean judging from nowhere. On the contrary, you can only know how the situation is if you are in a position to know. Only by standing at a certain angle to reality can it be illuminated for you. The wretched of the earth, for example, are likely to appreciate more of the truth of human history than their masters – not because they are innately more perceptive, but because they can glean from their own everyday experience that history for the vast majority of men and women has been largely a matter of despotic power and fruitless toil. … Only those who know how calamitous things actually are can be sufficiently free of illusion or vested interests to change them. … Objectivity and partisanship are allies, not rivals. What is not conducive to objectivity on this score is the judicious even-handedness of the liberal. It is the liberal who falls for the myth that you can only see things aright if you don’t take sides. It is the industrial chaplain view of reality. The liberal has difficulty with situations in which one side has a good deal more of the truth than the other – which is to say, all the key political situations.(8)

Note that Eagleton’s point is not just that we should be partisan, but that it is precisely partisanship which allows us – or rather demands of us – that we also be objective.

Allan’s approach is simply partisan, and is therefore incapable of assessing whether the Covenanters were actually capable of seizing power – or indeed what it would have meant if they had. This is a consequence of confusing three different things: how socialists intervene in contemporary politics (‘internationalism from below’); how socialists view the struggles of the past (‘the socialist tradition’); and how Marxists analyse history (historical materialism). Confusing the first or second with the third lead to what I call PJWHJ. Everyone knows how this works. We want to demonstrate the necessity for some course of action, say of revolution rather than reform, so we trail through history looking for episodes which confirm this position: Chile in 1970-3, Poland in 1980-1, or whatever. Now this is an important educational activity. It is the standard approach of left-wing newspapers – indeed, of all political newspapers – and in some cases it has risen to very high levels indeed (what else was Tom Paine doing?), but it is not the same as history, although it can lead to some very bad imitation history.

For one thing, with PJWHJ you already know in advance what your conclusions are going to be, and historical investigation must involve at least the possibility that your engagement with the evidence will prove your hypothesis to be wrong. For another, as your political positions change, so will the version of history which you uphold. We only need to think about the way in which the members of the ISM – whose historical views on Scotland (in so far as they had any) were not particularly different from those of the members of the SWP (in so far as we had any). But now you can barely open Frontline without coming across claims about Scottish oppression or Scottish radicalism which the authors would have scoffed at even ten years ago. The politics change first, and the history follows on to justify the change.

This is not the spirit in which I approach writing history. Indeed, my own positions have changed over the years as a result of precisely the process of research and investigation I commend to other comrades above. Donny Gluckstein and I wrote an article about Scotland back in 1990 (a classic example of PJWHJ) in which all the pre-modern sections, for which I was mainly responsible, reproduced positions taken straight from conventional bourgeois histories accounts and given a Marxist gloss(9). Thus, I uncritically accepted that there was some fundamental socioeconomic difference between the Highlands and the Lowlands, that the bourgeois revolution was essentially completed, at least in the Lowlands, by 1688 and that the Union was a deal between the Scottish and English bourgeoisies to exploit the Empire.

I now no longer believe that any of these positions is tenable: the Highlands and Lowlands were in fact quite similar at the socio-economic level, although in cultural-linguistic terms they were perceived to be different on both sides of the Highland Line; the bourgeois revolution – in the sense of the irreversible defeat of feudalism – was not completed until the aftermath of the ’45; the Scottish bourgeoisie were almost uniformly opposed to the Union and the Empire was not an issue in the negotiations. My research also led to the conclusion (which had not previously occurred to me) that Scottish national consciousness did not emerge until the mid-eighteenth-century and was consequently inseparable from Britishness – a position which, as far as I know, nobody else has argued before, not that my critics are aware of this fact.

The point about this is that where arguments are based on evidence it is possible to challenge them with other, superior evidence, which is not the same as exchanging anecdotes derived from secondary or tertiary sources. I claim that the Scottish working class between 1792 and 1820 was fundamentally British in political orientation. Others disagree. Fine.

So we have to find out what workers thought. How? By reading Berrisford Ellis’ and MacGhobain’s The Scottish Insurrection of 1820? I would not recommend this, unless your idea of amusement is spotting the largest number of factual errors possible in the pages of a single book. We have to go to the sources. What songs did workers sing? What images were on their banners? Which slogans did they raise at demonstrations? What resolutions were passed at trade union meetings? What do the autobiographies of the time say? How did the newspapers report events? Are there police reports? Spy reports? Poems?

Then we have to interrogate them more closely. Are the authors of the autobiographies typical or exceptional? Did they change their political positions between the events and writing their accounts? Were the newspapers biased for or against particular courses of action? How do we balance ‘Scots Wha Hae’ against ‘The Dumfries Volunteers’? One banner said ‘Scotland Free or a Desart’ – but did any others? Of course, if you already ‘know’ the answer, then none of this matters.

Finally, why should we assume someone’s views on the history of seventeenth century have any bearing on their political positions in the twenty-first? Angus Calder, whom Allan apparently regards as a Left Unionist on the strength of Revolutionary Empire, agrees with me about the dating of the Scottish nation, but is committed to independence as a principle in a way that I am not(10). This is not because Angus is a ‘Unionist’ as a historian and a ‘nationalist’ as an activist, but because as a historian he has to tell the truth as he finds it – regardless of the political demands which he currently supports. In one of the few sensible letters to the Voice during the entire controversy, Bill Scott – who, to my certain knowledge, is not a member of the SW Platform – pointed out that it was quite possible to agree with my views on the Scottish bourgeoisie revolution while remaining a firm supporter of the demand for an independent socialist Scotland today. I agree. My books are not an attempt to justify a political stance, but to explain why the main classes in Scottish society have behaved in the way they have done. Comrades may wish that they had behaved otherwise, but that is a different issue.


This brings me to the question of so-called ‘Unionism’. What does it mean in a Scottish context? One thing to note is that those who are forever declaiming about ‘Unionism’ appear to know very little about what its classic representatives actually believed. Take, for example, the supposed affinity between ‘Unionism’ and my views on the origin of Scottish nationhood. I once did a debate with Mark Stewart for the John Maclean Society at SSP conference – I think in 2001 – at which the promotional leaflet accused me of holding the ‘Unionist’ view on the post-Union basis of Scottish nationhood, as if this was a commonly held position. This kind of ignorance is incredible. No archival research beyond an afternoon with Sir Walter Scott’s Tales of a Grandfather is required here. One aspect of the Unionist argument is precisely to celebrate the achievement of Robert the Bruce – and in some cases, William Wallace – in maintaining the separate existence of the Scottish nation so that it could supposedly merge with England on equal terms in 1707, rather than on the forced basis imposed on Ireland a century later.

Otherwise it is difficult to explain how there is a bloody great statue of Wallace outside Union Terrace Gardens in Aberdeen which was erected during the late-19th century in part by subscriptions gathered from the unionist bourgeoisie. Most Unionists – Alan Massie is an exception – would find my arguments for the late emergence of Scottish nationhood as unacceptable as comrades in the John Maclean Society evidently do. It is difficult to ideologically combat political opponents if you make no effort to understand their views – their actual views, that is, and not the views you find it convenient to pretend that they hold. There are a number of reasons, however, why the term is meaningless in a Scottish context anyway.

First, the term is obviously meant to evoke parallels with Ireland, but the situations are completely different. In Ireland, Unionism is ideology of a distinct social group, the descendants of the colonial settlers who were marked out from the native population by their religion. This ideology, which only took its final form after the defeat of the Revolution of 1798 and the Union of 1801, is the expression of the relatively privileged position which ‘the Protestant community’ held within Irish – later Northern Irish – society. In the case of the Protestant working class those privileges have been very relative indeed, but no less effective for all that in dividing it from the Catholic working class. In other words, there is a material basis for Ulster Unionism which is linked to the way in which British – since we should not forget the Scottish role in Ulster – has been maintained in Ireland. None of this applies in Scotland. Here, ‘Unionism’ is simply a bogey-word thrown around by people – most of them Scottish or Welsh nationalists of one kind or another – who believe that the British state should be broken up along the lines of its constituent nations. From their perspective presumably everyone who doesn’t vote for one of the parties that support secession must be a ‘Unionist’, but the implications of this are of course that this term must apply to most members of the Scottish and Welsh working classes.

Second, and following on from this, it is completely misleading to keep talking about ‘the Union’ as if it was signed last week. What I have tried to establish in my books is that the British nation exists, in the sense that it is accepted as such by the majorities among all the major social classes, they have British ‘national consciousness’, in other words. Its not a trick, or the result of imperial bribery (for over 200 years!), any more than French or Swedish national consciousness is. To talk about a ‘Union’ state, as Allan Armstrong does, is to remain besotted by constitutional forms instead of focussing on the infinitely more important question of whether a British national consciousness determines the terrain on which the class struggle takes place. To claim that the Union somehow prevented Scotland from developing in a ‘natural’ way, as Alan McCombes increasingly does, is to treat nations as having some kind of real existence, rather than as being the imagined, invented formations appropriate to the capitalist stage of social development that they actually are.

Socialist Tradition

Allan Armstrong is not a nationalist any more than I am a unionist, but what concerns me about his attempt to construct a specifically Scottish ‘socialist tradition’ is that it gives ideological support to the soft nationalism within the SSP leadership(11). What does a socialist tradition mean in general terms, anyway? One answer would be that it is simply the record of working class struggles since the origins of capitalism, but this would be inadequate, since socialists clearly can also learn from, or be inspired by pre-working class struggles. However we cannot simply assimilate pre-working class struggles to our class traditions, for two main reasons.

First, the experience of these all inclusive traditions is that they are almost always conceived in national terms. Now at one level this is unexceptionable and, at the level of May Day platform rhetoric, most socialists who are not irredeemable sectarians have succumbed to it at one time or another. Furthermore, it is obviously the case that socialists who live and are active in a particular country need to know about its history (I would scarcely have written two books and several articles about Scotland if I did not believe that this was the case). But then doubts begin to set in. Why are these lists constructed on a national basis?

The early Atlantic working class was by experience and instinct international in orientation. The point is made very ably by Linebaugh and Rediker in The Many-Headed Hydra but, as they also demonstrate, by the time the class had stabilised and reformism had emerged as a coherent form of ideology and organisation, it increasingly split into narrowly defined national groupings, all with their own ‘traditions’. Thus, in British terms, Labourism and Stalinism both had their variations on ‘the People’s Story’ or ‘Our Story’, stretching from Magna Carta to the Welfare State, or the Peasant’s Revolt to the Miner’s Strike. There was a time when Tony Benn could scarcely appear on TV without intoning a litany involving ‘the Levellers, the Chartists, the Suffragettes’, etc. (I await the Scottish version: ‘From Calgacus to Sheridan’.)

Reformism, whatever the particular variant, always works in a national framework and its heroes and heroines are consequently picked from national history. (In Ireland the republican tradition even attempted to transform Connolly – who can scarcely be excluded from the pantheon – into an Irishman, even to the point where there are claims that he was born there rather than in Edinburgh.) But why should revolutionaries, who must, by definition, be internationalists, be constrained to a national agenda? Allan claims to operate within a framework of ‘internationalism from below’ – yet what we mainly hear about is Scotland. Allan might justify this by saying that the Covenanters were previously ignored, but is not so. Although I would not recommend the experience, a brief consultation of the collected speeches of Ramsay MacDonald and Keir Hardie will reveal just how far their historical memory had saturated the traditions of the Scottish labour movement. The reformist saint Hardie and arch-traitor MacDonald both referred to the Covenanters precisely because they knew that these references would be familiar to their listeners(12). But does the mere fact of their Scottishness necessarily mean that the Covenanters have more significance than the Levellers, that Maclean has more significance than Lenin? I think not in both cases. There have been historical episodes where the Scots have clearly been in advance of the English, notably during the Enlightenment and the General Strike of 1820, but for related reasons these are not events which nationalists are interested in claiming.

It is not just the retreat into nationalism that is a problem here, but what the Covenanters actually stood for. Edward Thompson once famously wrote, of modern attitudes towards English radicalism at the time of the French Revolution, that ‘so great has been the reaction against Whig or Marxist interpretations of history, that some scholars have propagated a ridiculous reversal of historical roles: the persecutors are seen as the forerunners of oppression, and the oppressors as the victims of persecution’(13). We can certainly find attitudes like this in Scottish history. ‘For certainly’, wrote George Ridpath, Church of Scotland Minister and member of the Moderate faction, ‘there never was a set of more barbarous, nonsensical bigots than the bulk of the Covenanters’(14). Against this we clearly have to state that the later Covenanters belonged to the oppressed, not the oppressors, but this does not mean that, in recognition of this fact, we should thereby sanitise their beliefs. Thompson also wrote elsewhere:

It is pointless to complain that the bourgeoisie have not been communitarians, or that the Levellers did not introduce an anarcho-syndicalist society. What we may do, rather, is identify with certain values which past actors upheld, and reject others. We may give our vote for Winstanley and for Swift; we may vote against Walpole and Sir Edwin Chadwick. Our vote will change nothing. Yet in another sense, it may change everything. For we are saying that these values, and not those other values, are the ones which make this history meaningful to us, and that these are the values which we intend to enlarge and sustain in our own present.(15)

But can we uncomplicatedly say that Covenanter ‘values’ are ones we should ‘enlarge and ‘sustain’? Two examples will demonstrate why I think we cannot. One relates to the attitude of conventiclers to other oppressed groups. In the summer of 1684, after months in hiding, Gilbert and Patrick Milroy of Kirkcalla were captured and tortured, although they refused to talk, before being sentenced to having their ears amputated and banished for 10 years to the West Indies. Put in an open prison in Port Royal, Jamaica, they were eventually sold as slaves to one of the colonists. What followed, recounted here from an uncritically admiring early twentieth-century account, tells us something about the contradictions which marked even the most radical elements of the time:

Gilbert Milroy refused to work for his master on the Sabbath, and one day, after his master had ordered him several times, he drew his sword and had well nigh killed him, but afterwards, finding him faithful, conscientious, and diligent, he altered his way, and made him overseer over all his negroes. The blacks hated him for his fidelity to his master and made various attempts to murder him.

These attempts included striking Milroy with a pole and poisoning him, both of which he survived:

Many of the prisoners died in their bondage, but Gilbert lived till the Revolution, and came home safe to his wife and relatives, and was a useful member of the [kirk] Session of Kirkowan.(16)

This is a tragedy, partly for Milroy, but even more so for the blacks over whom he stood, with King James Bible in one hand and a whip in the other. It is difficult to imagine, for example, Thomas Rainsborough being made an overseer of slaves, given the opposition of the Levellers to the entire system(17). It is no defence of Milroy to say that a hundred years later descendants of the Covenanters in America took a different position to slavery – they were clearly in a different social context and had equally clearly broken with their original ideology. In any case, we do not need to go as far as the Caribbean to find examples of their racism. We need only consult the minutes of the famous United Societies meeting at Douglas in 1690 includes references to both the ‘cut-throat Irishes’ (a standard description of the Irish in prose) and ‘the Highlanders (accustomed to rob)’(18). There were reasons for these attitudes, of which the sack of Aberdeen in 1644 is one and the Highland Host of 1678 another, but they were real and they had fatal implications for both the Irish and the Highlanders. (In this, if nothing else, I do agree with Donald Anderson.)

The second concerns their belief system more generally. Take Robert Law, a minister who was excluded in 1662 and became, along with many others, a field preacher. He was a moderate and, on the evidence of his memoirs, much of which is concerned to recount the supernatural fantasies of his time, was as credulous as the majority of his congregation. One entry reads: ‘February 1677. The witches already named were condemned by an assize to die, and be burnt at Paisley the twentieth day of that month.’ Only pages later we learn: ‘June 1677, there was great trouble to them that kept conventicles in and about Glasgow, and throughout the land, by soldiers’(19). The activities of the witches were as real to Law as those of the conventiclers.

I make these points not to judge Milroy or Law by modern standards, but by those of their English contemporaries – contemporaries whom, in other respects, also held beliefs which seem irrational to the modern mind. On the question of opposition to slavery (and not merely opposition to slavery when they were subjected to it) and persecution of witches, the Levellers seem to prefigure the modern world they were partly responsible for bringing into being. At one point during the debates of the Council of Officers at Whitehall in 1648, the discussion turned on whether magistrates should have any power over religious matters. One Leveller, John Wildman, commented: ‘That the magistrate should act to his conscience [might mean that he would] destroy and kill all men that would not come to such a worship as he had. [Accordingly] God hath not given a command to all magistrates to destroy idolatry, for in consequence it would destroy the world.’ Later in the same contribution Wildman speculated on the nature of God:

It is not easy by the light of nature to determine [more than that] there is a God. The sun may be that God. The moon may be that God. To frame a right conception or notion of the First Being, wherein all other things have had their being, is not possible in the light of nature alone. (20)

Wildman was not typical in his deistic views. As Christopher Hill says: ‘The Levellers had no distinctive religious policy, apart from wanting toleration and the abolition of tithes’(21). There is no need to imagine what even the most radical of the Covenanters would have made of these Horrid Blasphemies. These were precisely the reasons why they persisted in denouncing the English left as ‘sectarians’ and ‘schismatics’, even though the latter were their only conceivable allies against the Stuarts.

Allan writes of the Covenanters:

Their fight was not some misguided, backward-looking affair, holding back future progress. It was the cry of humanity, in a world where ‘salvation’, ‘improvement’ or ‘progress’ was nearly always promoted separately from the needs of the people. Resistance to this inhumanity should always be part of our socialist tradition.(22)

Well, the Covenanters were ‘backward-looking’ in the literal sense that after 1649 they wanted to return to the recently-ended halcyon days of the Solemn League and Covenant but, leaving that aside, I defy Allan to find any passage where I describe the Covenanters as ‘backward’ in this pejorative sense. My point is not that they were wrong to fight, but that if we look at the matter historically, and not as if we were retrospectively taking sides in football match, we are forced to conclude that the narrowness of their ideological, geographical and social base meant they were structurally incapable of overthrowing the state. Ultimately, such political radicalism as they possessed was implicit in their demands – in refusing to pay taxes for religious reasons, for example – rather than explicitly contained within their ideology.

We have inherited both sides of the Covenanters. On the one hand, radicalism: in Grey Granite Lewis Grassic Gibbon has Ewan Tavendale say of those ‘funny chaps the Covenanters’ that ‘he had always liked them – the advance guard of the common folk in those days, their God and their Covenant just formulae they hid the social rebellion in’(23). On the other, bigotry: the year after the publication of Grey Granite, Lewis Spence, a founding member of the National Party of Scotland, recalled another aspect of Covenanting ideology during an attack on Glasgow Corporation, the majority of whose members he denounced as ‘pro-Irish and pro-Muscovite’, for being ‘aggressive and offensive to the Scottish minority’ and for deliberately keeping the rates high in order to support the unemployed ‘Irish’ population: ‘Yet with a supineness which ill becomes the seed of the Covenanters, it bows patiently before the ebullient and contemptuous alien’(24). The racist hatred of the Catholic Irish (and Scottish Highlanders) invoked by Lewis Spence is as much a part of the Covenanting inheritance as the disguised social rebellion identified by Ewan Tavendale(25). Allan is aware of this, but what he fails to appreciate, I think, is that we cannot separate out the one from the other, in a completely undialectical way, into a ‘good’ side and a ‘bad’ side; we have to understand the Covenanting movement as a whole, which is why I do not think we can simply embrace it.


This brings us finally to the question of progress. Allan defines it as follows:

Progress must always be measured by its contemporary contribution to human welfare and emancipation, not by the number of acres enclosed, bushels of wheat grown, or by the tonnes of steel produced.(26)

If Allan really intends us to take this literally then I assume that he thinks that it would have been better if we had never moved beyond the stage of picking nuts and berries, and pushing the odd woolly mammoth off a cliff. Because, unfortunately, every increase in the productive powers of mankind to date – including the initial move beyond primitive communism – has only been achieved at the cost of the greater division of labour, and of more complex forms of class society. Marx and Engels were – in my view – quite rightly unflinching in their acceptance of the implications of their theory. Here is a particularly extreme example (which is in fact the source of the comments by Jeffrey Vogel that Allan finds so offensive):

It was slavery that first made possible the division of labour between agriculture and industry on a larger scale, and thereby also Hellenism, the flowering of the ancient world. Without slavery, no Greek state, no Greek art and science, without slavery, no Roman Empire. But without the basis laid by Hellenism and the Roman Empire, also no modern Europe. We should never forget that our whole economic, political and intellectual development presupposes a state of things in which slavery was as necessary as it was universally recognised. In this sense we are entitled to say: Without the slavery of antiquity no modern socialism.

It is very easy to inveigh against slavery and similar things in general terms, and to give vent to high moral indignation at such infamies. Unfortunately all that this conveys is only what everyone knows, namely, that these institutions of antiquity are no longer in accord with our present conditions and our sentiments, which these conditions determine. But it does not tell us one word as to how these institutions arose, why they existed, and what role they played in history. And when we examine these questions, we are compelled to say—however contradictory and heretical it may sound—that the introduction of slavery under the conditions prevailing at that time was a great step forward.(27)

I can imagine the outraged responses to this. How can Engels ignore the struggles of the oppressed in this way? What about Spartacus? (etc., etc.) Actually, even I think that Engels might be exaggerating ever so slightly here, but the core point is essentially sound, and has the great benefit of treating a serious issue seriously.

What is that issue? Leaving aside what happened in antiquity and further back, it is whether socialism is possible without at least some countries going through the experience of capitalism first.

The Marxist answer to this has always been an unqualified negative; indeed, this is one of the ways in which Marxism distinguishes itself from every kind of anarchism, feudal and petty bourgeois socialism, Third-Worldism, and so on. John Saville makes the point with great clarity in a book which deals precisely with the oppression faced by the British working class during the industrial revolution:

Socialists have always recognised capitalism as a system of productive relations that marked a historic stage in the development of the human race. There was a great leap forward in the control of the forces of nature, and for the first time in human history there emerged the technical possibilities of providing everyone in the world with freedom from starvation and an improvement in general standards of living.(28)

If we reject this – and no one has explicitly come out and said that they do, although Dave Douglass comes close – then several alternatives propose themselves. One is what fans of 1970s television advertising might call the Martini argument about the possibilities for socialism: any time, any place, anywhere. Spartacus, John Ball, Gerard Winstanley, the Cameronians – fill in your own favourite hero from the pantheon – all of them stood just as good a chance of achieving socialism as we do. Does anyone actually believe this nonsense? I trust not, but given some of the views that have been expressed in this controversy, I may be too optimistic here.

Another is that it would have been possible to arrive at a non-exploitative, form of capitalism, or rather market economy, which did not involve colonies, slaves, clearances, enclosures or the genocide of indigenous people. What is that song by Roy Orbison I can hear in the background? Oh yes, ‘In Dreams’. The primitive accumulation described by Marx was not some special path, or alternative that could be chosen at will: it was the basis of the system. Equally, the idea that we could have remained independent small commodity producers is fantasy which mistakes Marx’s analytic method for reality. There have never been any such societies. My mistake, there have been two, although neither exactly commend themselves to socialists: the Boer Republic prior to 1902 and the Confederate states of America prior to 1865.

So where does this leave us? In 1898, towards the end of an exhaustive study demonstrating that capitalism was already developing in Russia, Lenin wrote about the progressive role of capitalism: ‘Recognition of the progressiveness of this role is quite compatible…with the full recognition of the negative and dark sides of capitalism, with the full recognition of the profound and all-round social contradictions which are inevitably inherent in capitalism, and which reveal the historically transient character of the economic regime.’ His Narodnik opponents argued that ‘an admission of the historically progressive nature of capitalism means an apology for capitalism’, but Lenin rightly denied this and argued that it was possible to welcome capitalism at the same time as fighting against its effects.(29)

Nowadays, we don’t have to welcome capitalism, its progressive role is long over. But what many comrades seem to find difficult to accept is that capitalism, or its representative class, the bourgeoisie, has ever played a progressive role in the first place. The suffering unleashed by capitalism has been so great, so unendurable, that it is better to pretend that the whole thing could have been avoided. In the absence of any alternative explanation of how we could have got to the point where socialism was materially possible, I don’t think this is remotely tenable. This has nothing to do with ‘Second International Marxism’ or ‘determinism’, which comrades seem to confuse with Historical Materialism per se. At one point in his article, Dave Douglass sneers that ‘Uneven and Combined development seems to have escaped our expert’.(30)

On the contrary, I think that this theory is indispensable for an understanding of history(31). But it only makes sense in the context of an already existing capitalist economy. In other words, somebody has had to go through capitalism first. One of the groups who had to do so was the Scots. And it is partly because of what they endured, and suffered – although others had even worse experiences than the Scots, and often at Scottish hands – that we can contemplate a socialist future in which no-one ever has to endure, or suffer in that way again.

Neil Davidson


  • (1) Joe Hartney, Scots Far from Victims of Imperialism, Scottish Socialist Voice 140, 20 June 2003; letters by Donald Anderson, Jim Carroll, Donnie Fraser, Scot MacCreamhain, Eddie Truman, Kevin Williamson, Scottish Socialist Voice 141, 27 June 2003; letters from Joe Hartney and Keef Tomkinson, Scottish Socialist Voice 142, 4 July 2003; letters from Allan Armstrong, Ken Ferguson, Ken MacLeod and Bill Scott, Scottish Socialist Voice 143, 11 July 2003; J. Jamieson, Review of Discovering the Scottish Revolution, 1692-1746, Frontline 10, August 2003; A. Armstrong, The Cameronians and the Reclaiming of Scotland’s Revolutionary Tradition, Frontline 10, August 2003; A. Armstrong, Beyond Broadswords and Bayonets: Scotlands Revolutionary Tradition, Emancipation and Liberation 5/6, Autumn 2003; D. Douglass, Provocative and Insulting, Emancipation and Liberation 7, Spring 2004, D. Anderson, A Good, if One-Sided Account, Emancipation and Liberation 7, Spring 2004. The article by Douglass is not a response to Discovering, but to a talk by me given at the Communist Party of Great Britain Communist University and published – without my permission or editorial input – as Bourgeois Revolution and Breaking National Myths, Weekly Worker 500, 16 October 2003; the article by Anderson is a response to Armstrong which only pauses to criticise me in passing. The book has also been reviewed – although rather more temperately – in publications outwith those associated with the SSP. See G. Kerevan, Built Upon a Great Golden Myth, The Scotsman, 14 June 2003; P. Davidson, How the Middle Class Conquered Scotland, Scotland On Sunday, 29 June 2003; D. Renton, Scotch Myths Vanish into Scots Mist, Tribune, 11 July 2003; D. Sherry, No Tartan Gloss, Socialist Review 277, September 2003; P. H. Scott, Scots Revolution that Never Was, The Sunday Herald, 23 November 2003; R. Duncan, Review of Discovering The Scottish Revolution, 1692-1746, Scottish Labour History 37, 2003; T Byres, Review of Discovering The Scottish Revolution, 1692-1746 and The Myth Of 1648, Journal Of Agrarian Change, vol. 4, no. 4, October 2004.
  • 2 Douglas, Provocative and Insulting, p. 44.
  • 3 N. Davidson, Discovering The Scottish Revolution, 1692-1746 (London and Sterling, Virginia, 2003), p. 244-8.
  • 4 Davidson, Discovering The Scottish Revolution, 131-58.
  • 5 Ibid, pp. 294, 297, 298.
  • 6 Ibid, p. 170.
  • 7 A forthcoming article in Scottish Labour History will implicitly answer some of Allan’s claims concerning the role of the Cameronians in the Glorious Revolution. This was originally intended as part of the first chapter of Discovering, before I excised all the material prior to 1692 as belonging to a different historical period, which I think both Allan and I regard as that of the failed revolutions from below. See N.Davidson, Popular Insurgency During the Glorious Revolution in Scotland, 1688-1692, Scottish Labour History 38, 2004.
  • 8 T. Eagleton, After Theory (London, 2003), pp. 135-6. See also the comments of one of the greatest and most under-rated Scottish Marxist theoreticians: Both [tragic and dialectical] thought know that one cannot first understand the world and only then act on it. How one understands the world will depend on in part on the decisions implicit in one’s already taken actions. The wager of action is unavoidable. … Not eternity but the future provides a context which gives meaning to individual parts in the present. The future which does this is as yet unmade; we wager on it not as spectators, but as actors pledged to bring it into being. A. MacIntyre, Pascal and Marx: on Lucien Goldmann’s Hidden God, Against The Self Images Of The Age: Essays On Ideology And Philosophy (London, 1971), pp. 84-85.
  • 9 N. Davidson and D Gluckstein, Nationalism and the Class Struggle in Scotland, International Socialism, Second Series, 48, Autumn 1990, 109-118.
  • 10 A. Calder, When Was Scotland?, Scotlands Of The Mind (Edinburgh, 2002).
  • 11 At the debate between me and Allan Armstrong at Socialism 2003 Alan McCombes was quick to say how much he agreed with Allan’s argument.
  • 12 One example: John Duncan, a weaver from Stonehaven and later self-educated botanist, told his biographer how, as a child in the first decade of the 19th century, he had explored the environs of Dunnottar Castle: But in all their long, changeful and fascinating story, what charmed his young imagination most was, not the halls where royalty had rested; not the place where the Scottish Crown, sword and sceptre had lain and whence they had been cleverly borne to the neighbouring church of Kineff; not even the stirring story of Wallace and his gallant capture of the castle when he shook so grandly for Scottish Independence…it was the ‘Whig’s Vault’, on the edge of the cliff, where the Covenanters were immured. …Nothing coloured his whole existence more than the inspiring story of the struggle for Scottish religious freedom, which entered deep into his inner heart in after life, and infused his piety with the uncompromising fire of the old Covenanters. W. Jolly, The Life Of John Duncan, Scotch Weaver And Botanist With Sketches Of His Friends And Notices Of The Times, Second Edition, London, pp. 16-17.
  • 13 E. P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (Revised Edition, Harmondsworth, 1980), p.110.
  • 14 G. Ridpath, Diary of George Ridpath, Minister of Stichell, 1755-1761 edited with notes and introduction by J. B. Paul (Edinburgh, 1922), entry for 8 April 1758, p. 179.
  • 15 E. P. Thompson, The Poverty Of Theory Or An Orrery of Errors, The Poverty Of Theory And Other Essays, p. 234.
  • 16 A. S. Morton, Galloway and the Covenanters (Paisley, 1914), pp. 444-45.
  • 17 P. Linebaugh and M. Rediker, The Many-Headed Hydra (London and New York, 2000), p. 111.
  • 18 M. Shields, Faithful Contendings Displayed edited by J. Howie (Edinburgh, 1780), p. 442. Other references to the Catholic Irish as ‘bloody throat cutters’ and ‘bloody Irishes’ can be found in ibid, pp. 393, 396.
  • 19 R. Law, Memorials, or the Memorable Things that Fell Out Within the Island of Britain from 1638 to 1684 edited by C. K. Sharpe (Edinburgh, 1819), pp. 127, 134.
  • 20 ‘Council of Officers, 14 December 1648’, in Puritanism and Liberty: Being the Army Debates (1647-49) from the Clarke Manuscripts selected and edited with an introduction by A. S. P. Woodhouse and new preface by I. Roots (London, 1986), p. 161
  • 21 C. Hill, The Experience of Defeat (Second Edition, London, Chicago and Melbourne, 1994), p. 28.
  • 22 Armstrong, Beyond Broadswords and Bayonets, p. 44.
  • 23 L. Grassic Gibbon, 1935, Grey Granite (New York, 1935), p. 252.
  • 24 L. Spence, Edinburgh – Scotland – 1936, The Nineteenth Century and After, vol. 120, no. 717, 1936, pp.635-636.
  • 25 Spence also maintains another venerable Covenanting tradition in his contemptuous dismissal of the Highlanders as ‘a people so utterly comatose’ that they would never rebel against their landlords. Ibid, p. 640.
  • 26 Armstrong, Beyond Broadswords and Bayonets, p. 44.
  • 27 F Engels, Anti-Duhring, Collected Works (50 Volumes, London, 1975-2004), p. 168.
  • 28 J. Saville, The Consolidation Of The Capitalist State, 1800-1850 (London and Sterling, Virginia, 1994), p. vii.
  • 29 V. I. Lenin, The Development Of Capitalism In Russia, Collected Works, vol. 3 (Moscow, 1960), p. 596
  • 30 Douglass, Provocative and Insulting, p. 43.
  • 31 See N Davidson, Violating the Laws of History? The Necessity For The Theory Of Uneven And Combined Development (forthcoming).

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