Imperialism and the Diffusion of Development

Text of the Ansari Memorial Lecture

Mar 15th 2001, Prabhat Patnaik

I am acutely conscious of the great honour that has been bestowed on me in asking me to deliver the Ansari Memorial Lecture this year at the Jamia Millia Islamia. It is an honour as much because of the person being commemorated as because of the list of distinguished speakers who have preceded me in commemorating him. Dr.Ansari was a remarkable figure of the National Movement, whose qualities of head and heart have been brought to light recently through the labours of Professor Mushirul Hasan of this university. These lectures instituted in his memory have, through the care of the organisers, been able to draw some of the finest minds and have deserevedly become an important event in the academic calendar of Delhi. I recall attending one Ansari Memorial lecture, delivered by Professor Irfan Habib and presided over by Professor Nurul Hasan, which was a source of great pleasure and profit for me.

The topic I have chosen today has to do with a basic divide in development economics. On the one side are those who argue that the fetters on the development of the third world come from its integration into the world capitalist system. This does not mean that the internal structures of these economies play no role in arresting their development, but these structures, even though inherited from the past, are so enmeshed into their links with world capitalism, i.e. the internal and external constraints upon their development are so inextricably dialectically related, that distinguishing between them is pointless. Underpinning this totality, shaping this overall dialectic, however, is their link with world capitalism which is the decisive element. As against this position, there are those who argue that capitalism diffuses development, that, if the fruits of this process of diffusion are not reaped in abundance by large segments of the third world, the reason lies in their pre-existing social structure, which is independent and sui generis, having nothing to do with their integration into the world capitalist system. Indeed, on the contrary, such integration can play the role of undermining the pre-existing structures, and hence can usher in development by bending these structures themselves. While some authors of this latter group would contest the proposition that colonialism historically underlay the emergence of the phenomenon of underdevelopment, others would not necessarily contest the issue (or may even concede the point). They would however argue that the contemporary world is very different from what prevailed historically, and that only an "East India Company phobia" can blind us to this fact.
A divide along these lines is present within the Marxist tradition as well. Indeed the classic Marxist texts themselves can be cited in defence of positions on either side of the divide. Thus Marx's remark that "the country that is more developed industrially only shows, to the less developed, the image of its own future" can be, and occasionally has been, cited in defence of a "diffusionist" position. One can, quite justifiably in my view, quarrel with this claim, on the grounds that both the historical context of this remark (made with reference to Germany in relation to England) as well as its theoretical context (referring to "immanent tendecies" of capitalist relations wherever they are introduced rather than to actual growth trajectories), are very different from what this claim supposes. But, in the absence of any discussion of the inequalizing effects of capitalism in the international arena in the main body of Marx's work, a "diffusionist" interpretation of this remark has tended to persist. Likewise, Marx's defence of free trade on the grounds that it would hasten capitalist development and hence accelerate progress towards socialism has tended to obscure the international dichotomies spawned by capitalism. On the other side however there are Marx's numerous remarks on colonialism, his reference to India having "to pay 5 million pounds in tribute for 'good government', interest and dividends of British capital", and his remark about "exploitation" by a "conquering industrial nation", implicit in which is the notion of one nation exploiting another. Indeed, of the three main elements that we can note, following R.P.Dutt, in Marx's writings on India (and hence by implication on the colonial question), namely the destructive role of colonialism, the regenerative role of colonialism, and the necessity of a political transformation whereby the colonial people free themselves from imperialist rule, the last one already presupposes an anti-"diffusionist" position.

One can cite remarks in support of either side of the divide in Lenin's writings too. His statement in Imperialism that "While.. the export of capital may tend to a certain extent to arrest development in the capital-exporting country, it can do so only by expanding and deepening the further development of capitalism throughout the world" can be adduced in support of a "diffusionist" position, of the view that imperialism tends to "equalise" differences. On the other hand however the whole thrust of Imperialism was to show how "Capitalism has grown into a world system of colonial oppression and of the financial strangulation of the overwhelming majority of the population of the world by a handful of 'advanced' countries", to underscore inter alia in other words the fundamental inequalities across countries that imperialism was perpetuating and accentuating.
The element of ambiguity in Marxist writings on the subject derives from an ambiguity with respect to the precise relationship between the two basic types of revolution that Marxism saw on the agenda, namely a socialist revolution in the advanced countries and a democratic revolution in the third world. When the former was prioritised, the implications of anti-"diffusionism" receded into the background, and with it, to an extent, the very recognition of it. On the other hand when the historical focus shifted from the former towards the democratic revolution in the third world, theoretical attention too was given, to a much greater extent, to the existence and implications of international inequalities under capitalism. It is significant that in both Marx and Lenin, the emphasis shifts towards an anti-"diffusionist" stance in the course of their lives as their attention shifts from Europe to the East as the potential theatre of revolution. (Lenin's Imperialism represents that special moment when a synchronisation of both types of revolution in a world conflagration occasioned by the "general crisis of capitalism" appeared to be on the historic agenda). It is also significant that the Marxist theorist who sought to integrate colonialism into the very law of motion of capitalism, Rosa Luxemburg, prioritisd the socialist revolution and accepted a "diffusionist" position; her early death prevented any possibility of disillusionment with the European revolution, and hence of any shift in her position.
A clear anti-"diffusionist" position was articulated for the first time at the Sixth Congress of the Communist International, which argued that despite being integrated into the world capitalist system, the backward economies had not witnessed any significant development of the capitalist mode of production, and of productive forces under the aegis of this mode of production: backward economies' agriculture for instance was characterised as witnessing a "pauperisation", rather than a "proletarianisation", of the peasantry. In Marxist academic circles this position found extensive articulation in Paul Baran's classic work The Political Economy of Gowth which was published in 1957. Paradoxically however precisely when the anti-"diffusionist" position appeared dominant in Marxist, and wider academic, cirlces, its premises were being undermined.

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