Neil Davidson: 1957–2020
Everyone at Haymarket Books is deeply saddened by the death of Neil Davidson, who passed away on the morning of May 3, 2020. One of the most important Marxist thinkers of his generation, Neil was a true working class intellectual, and a socialist who fought with extraordinary energy for a better world.
Haymarket was privileged to publish a number of Neil's books, How Revolutionary Were the Bourgeois Revolutions?, Nation-States: Consciousness and Competition, Holding Fast to an Image of the Past: Explorations in the Marxist Tradition, We Cannot Escape History: States and Revolutions, and As Radical As Reality Itself: Marxism and Tradition (forthcoming). As a regular speaker at the annual Socialism conference, Neil also gave many talks, which you can listen to here.
Here, we gather a selection of tributes.
“Neil was a classical Marxist in the best senses – always exploring, pushing new boundaries, and deeply committed to activist work in the spirit of internationalism and working-class self-emancipation. He was a kind and generous person, a comrade in the best sense. Let us remember his work and celebrate his life.”
“I lost a friend this morning. The world lost a brilliant mind. I will be mourning before organizing. And looking at pictures of all of us in happier times.”
–Tithi Bhattacharya, author of Feminism for the 99% and editor of Social Reproduction Theory
“Neil was always such a phenomenal and up-close reminder that working-class people can write, think, theorise and explore. We can write things of insight and interest through essays, collections, cultural criticism, historical analysis and huge tomes, in spite of the undemocratic and rigid obstacles this social system institutes so effectively against us.
As well as giving us a litany of work to help us navigate a path towards a possible socialist future, Neil's working-class autodidacticism was also an example of creative intellectual possibility to a generation of socialists raised in neoliberalism's suffocating intellectual environment.
Rest in power Neil, the struggle ain't over yet.”
“When I think about what made Neil special to me, despite our theoretical disagreements, three things stand out. First, we both came from working class families. Never completely comfortable in academic milieus, we both felt that we had to be as good, if not better, intellectuals than our colleagues (and even some comrades) from more privileged backgrounds.
Second, Neil and I shared an uncompromising commitment to the politics of revolutionary socialism from below. We understood that it was only the self-activity and self-organization of the working class, in all of its necessary racial and gender diversity, that could bring about radical and revolutionary change.
Finally, Neil was a mensch – a person of integrity and honor. He had little patience for pomposity, dishonesty or moral evasion. He was honest, but kind, in arguing out differences; ready to acknowledge his political and intellectual debts to others; and more than open to healthy self-deprecation.”
–Charlie Post, author of The American Road to Capitalism.
“Neil Davidson - one of the kindest, most thoughtful, least pompous and one of the most brilliant comrades we will ever know - has left us, far, far two early. HM Books will, in due course, be publishing two of his new books and the journal will be making available his articles. A really terrible loss for us all.”
–Sebastian Budgen, editor at Verso Books and Historical Materialism
“Alexandra Kollontai said that comradeship is a kind of love, and she was right. My memories of Neil's kindness and stridency, the power of his arguments and the warmth of his humour, his tenacious persuasive power and his relentless hard work in the service of political goals, will always stick with me.”
“Whenever I read his work or saw him speak at the annual Historical Materialism conference, I was in awe of his mastery of so much material, which he presented with total ease and unpretentiousness. His historical and theoretical range was incredible. On the few occasions I had email contact with him (the first of which was back when I was a PhD student), he treated me with warmth, generosity and respect. He was the real deal and I'm just terribly sad I'll never get to see him speak again or read the work he would have gone on to write.”
–Dan Hartley, author of The Politics of Style
“Neil Davidson was a wonderful man. He was kind, ferociously intelligent, and taught me a lot about Marxism – in conversations over a lot of whisky, through hearing him speak at conferences and through the amazing volume of work he leaves us. I will miss him.”
“I learned a lot from Neil Davidson. He was also a generous and funny person. I last saw him at the 2018 Historical Materialism conference, where he performed a prodigious historical survey of a few centuries (without notes and somehow also with very good jokes) as part of a panel on revolution, war, and the state in the emergence of capitalism. Condolences to those who were close to him.”
–Jeffrey R Webber, author of The Last Day of Oppression, and the First Day of the Same
“Neil Davidson’s death is crushing. What a cruel loss. I first became aware of Neil some decades ago, at packed meetings. There he’d stand at the mic, without airs, delivering his talk in that earthy Aberdonian mumble, yet we’d be riveted. His mind was so powerful: his rich knowledge of history and Marxist theory, illuminating struggles of the present and what it all means for socialist activism. And always funny too. A charming guy, a wonderful and inspiring comrade.”
–Gareth Dale, author of Karl Polanyi’s Political and Economic Thought
“Neil’s books on Scottish history and How Revolutionary Were the Bourgeois Revolutions were as close as anyone has come in the past 20 years to recreating the breadth of reading and of understanding that used to characterise the best of British Marxism – he was our Hill, our Hobsbawm, our Thompson.
Neil was generous with his time. He broke off a dozen projects of his own to offer encouragement to others just starting on their careers.
He lived his politics with all his heart and soul. I’ll miss you, Neil.”
–David Renton, author of The New Authoritarians
“I only knew Neil for a short time but he had a big impact on me. He was such a fine person.”
–Joe Allen, author of The Package King
“Of all the minds I've met, Neil's was perhaps the most brilliant, with an astonishing grasp of so many subjects. He was the real deal: a true working-class intellectual who added immensely to our understanding of the world, and to our struggles to change it.
He was also, always, extraordinarily kind and generous with his time. In its own way, the degree to which he was so down to earth and unpretentious just increased my awe of him.
It seems like only yesterday, and also an impossibly long time ago, that we talked about the many projects he was working on. Over the course of the next months and years, Haymarket and his other publishers will work to bring those to fruition. He contributed an extraordinary amount, and still had so much left to write.”
–Duncan Thomas, Haymarket staff
“It is with great sadness that we report the death of our comrade, friend, and contributor Neil Davidson. We cannot even begin here to acknowledge the political, intellectual and personal inspiration that Neil gave both to Salvage and the wider Marxist Left. A fuller accounting of his enormous contribution will feature in a forthcoming issue. In the meantime, we honour Neil and give our gratitude for having had him as a comrade and friend by reposting these articles: one, by Neil himself from the very first issue of Salvage, and another, an interview with George Souvlis, that gives a measure of the breadth of Neil’s intellectual and political commitments as well as his profound humanity.”
–Salvage Editorial Collective
“I read everything Neil wrote on neoliberalism and contemporary "populism" and found it all so bracing and so refreshing; I watched him keep alive that writhing spirit of insubordination when he refused to make apologies for the EU or to sugar-coat Brexit nationalism, while most of the left chose one of those two awful sides.
On every page of his there was patience and dedication, the view that the world is complicated and we have to understand it much better and to be much more serious about turning it upside down.
His felt like a mind that wanted to be free, that wanted everyone to be free, and that would not settle for less. I never quite found that anywhere except in socialist politics. And there I found it so often, it overflowed.”
“Neil exhibited not a trace of pretension or arrogance. He was incredibly kind, supportive, and generous toward junior scholars like myself, treating me as his equal.
I can honestly say that, had it not been for Neil, I would not have been able to write the book that I did, and maybe not at all. It's just tragic to me that he died only a few months after it was published. I wish I could have returned his incredible generosity in kind.
Rest in peace, Neil. Thank you for everything.”
–Jason Hannan, author of Ethics Under Capital
“Neil was exceptionally intelligent, but never lorded it over you in political discussions, even when you were bringing a lot less knowledge to the table. He was incredibly open in his approach to debate and always struck me as deeply thoughtful in how he communicated. Even when speaking from a podium, it felt like he was having a conversation with the room, rather than lecturing us from on high.
If we had more Neils in our movement, we'd have more socialists in the country. All my thoughts with those closest to him.”