Remembering Marxist historian Mike Davis

Ingar Solty from the rosa luxemburg stiftung looks back on the US American historian who died yesterday


I just learned that the U.S. American historian Mike Davis died at the age of 76 last night. This is such sad news.

I remember vividly my first encounter with Davis’s work when reading “Prisoners of the American Dream” for the first time. I will never forget the way it blew my mind: how a book could ooze out Marxism from every page (and a page-turner it was…), a Marxism of flesh and blood without the stale academic jargon of yet another repetitive Poulantzasian finger exercise in “the internationalization of the state,” a Marxism that reached your head because it sprang from the real world of social injustices and the brutality of the real instead of ahistorical intellectual endeavors in high places, a Marxism you could feel in your bones weary from routinized, alienating, hard manual labor, a Marxism you could feel in your heart with a mixture of the anxiety of job loss and hazardous workplaces on the one hand but also, on the other hand, the hidden memories of childhood aspirations and the raw and yearning dreams of a better life.

It is this kind of humanist Marxism – rich in history and detail – which, unlike French structuralist abstractionism, could never be said to be in crisis, could never devolve into quite the epistemological opposite it set out to be (a new state-theoretical idealism for instance…), because it has sunk its roots deep into the very fabrique of the world we live in. It is this kind of humanist Marxism which could and will never end up being just a short-lived fashion among self-indulgent thinkers in the academy brought to you by short-lived fashion-oriented publishing houses selling the newest radical chic. Or blindly following the zeitgeist of neoliberal counter-revolution and a neoliberalized higher education system. And in that sense Mike Davis’ writings were also furthest away from the current tradition of selling the author’s biographical story instead of the intellectual rigor and enlightening nature of his or her book.

Davis was not about form but about content. His books didn’t need a sales pitch. Just as carrier pigeons deliver the messages to the farthest reader, they would necessarily find their way to an attentive audience. They could do this because of their truffle nosing abilities concerning yet unwritten and hidden histories (“Late Victorian Holocausts”), concerning the greater world-historical trends resulting, for example, from free trade-induced mass proletarianization around the globe (“Planet of Slums”), and concerning the ways in which capitalism structures, organizes and disorganizes spaces – urban, suburban and rural – and impacts not just how we work but how we live – and where (Davis’ urban social historiography of his hometown Los Angeles).

Mike Davis had the magnificent talent and gift of being able to show how even the smallest unit and microcosm contained the greater totality of the universe. No one could study urban riots in London or Southern Californian wildfires like he did pointing to the economic, social and ecological destructions of capitalism allowing us to see and feel that what appears natural and as natural disasters to be accepted like fate are in fact very un-natural, human-made disasters and the opposite of fate, the result of a specific economic and social system in which very specific rules and logics apply from which very concrete people benefit who also tend to be the ones calling the shots.

Obviously, whenever Davis would write another one of his lucid and poignant new pieces for the Los Angeles Review of Books, New Left Review or other outlets, we would translate it for “Das Argument” or “LuXemburg” and the images he created in his texts stick with me. There is hardly a curriculum, talk or a paper where I don’t reference one of his works. Mike Davis was in the major league of a 21st century Marxism capable of making, to quote Marx himself, “the petrified conditions dance by playing them their own tune” and creating, in a nutshell, a new tune of how things can, should, even must be completely turned around for us to have a future on this planet.

Mike Davis will be sorely missed.

Mike Davis (author and activist): born 10th March 1946, died: 25th October 2022