Marxism And Eurocentric Diffusionism

By J. M. Blaut, University of Illinois at Chicago, 1999

Chapter in The Political Economy of Imperialism: Critical Appraisals, ed. Ronald Chilcote. Boston: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1999, pp. 127–140.

1. Introduction

The grand old anthem of Marxism, “The Internationale,” begins with these words: “Arise ye prisoners of starvation/Arise ye wretched of the earth…” At the time the song was written, in 1888, Marxists knew very little about the faraway places where most of the wretched of the earth lived and starved. They held firmly to the world-model bequeathed to them by Marx: Historical progress occurs naturally in the European part of the world; the rest of the world receives the fruits of this progress by diffusion. Socialist revolution will take place in the European world and socialism will then spread out to the rest of the world and emancipate all of the wretched of the earth, everywhere.

Today we would label this view “Eurocentric” and “diffusionist,” and it certainly was that. But every European thinker of Marx's time accepted the Eurocentric-diffusionist model of the world's history and geography. And the evidence about the non-European world that was available to Marx consisted mostly of books and documents written by the agents and agencies of diffusionism: newspaper accounts, colonial office documents, books written by colonial officials and missionaries, and the like.1 Marx, moreover, had no reason to question the traditional historical accounts about the determinative role of Europe in all of world history, given his classical German education and his intellectual surroundings. Summing up: Marx questioned all of the unfounded elitist doctrines which he encountered; but he did not, and could not, question such doctrines when they related to places and peoples unknown to him.

But though Marx could not have been expected to reject the Eurocentric-diffusionist model, the same excuse cannot be made for later Marxists. After the turn of the century enough reliable information was circulating in Europe about the nature of non- European societies, and about anti-colonial struggles (notably in India and the Dutch East Indies), to raise questions, if anyone chose to do so, about the naturalness and inevitability of European diffusions into the non-European world. Yet most Marxist

thinkers refused to do so. In the writings of Bernstein, Bauer, Hilferding, Kautsky, and other major thinkers of the period, the European world was still seen as the arena of historical changes, past and future, and non-Europe as the recipient of diffusions from Europe. In this matter they held views not notably different from mainstream European thinkers.

2. Euro-Marxism

By the time of the First World War, a few Marxist thinkers had begun to question the Eurocentric-diffusionist model, or at least major parts of that model. Luxemburg argued that the survival of capitalism depended on wealth brought in from the non-European world; hence non-Europe had an important effect on Europe, as well as the other way around. (”Europe,” in this paper, refers to the continent itself and European-settled regions elsewhere, notably Anglo-America.) Lenin carried the argument considerably farther. Unlike Luxemburg, he maintained that colonies and other dominated regions would carry out successful liberation struggles, and so would stop, and turn back, the diffusion process by which Europeans gained political control and economic dominance of the non-European world.2

Since the First world War, there have been in essence two Marxist schools of thought on the matter of Eurocentric diffusionism. One of these I will call “Euro-Marxism” because it proclaims the centrality of Europe in the past and present, the priority of Europe at all times in historical progress, and the naturalness and desirability of European influence on the non-European world. The opposing school, which can be called non-diffusionist or uniformitarian Marxism, broadly denies these propositions. The difference is not a matter of politics: there have always been communists and evolutionary socialists on both sides of the issue. One school questions the traditional European doctrine of Eurocentric diffusionism; the other upholds it. Most Marxist thinkers in the non-European world—now the Third World—tend to question and reject the doctrine; most Marxists in the European world today are, to one degree or another, Euro-Marxists. Marx himself was not a Euro-Marxist: to be one implies a full awareness of the alternative world-model, and Marx did not have, could not have had, such an awareness. Oe

3. Eurocentric Diffusionism (3)

At this point in the discussion we should pause and examine the doctrine of Eurocentric diffusionism as it has evolved during the past two centuries. Its origins go back to the 16th century, when Europeans began to formulate theories about themselves in relation to the non-Europeans whom they were conquering and exploiting. After the Napoleonic period, when colonialism was intensifying and when Europeans were acquiring significant knowledge about non-Europeans in the regions they had conquered or planned to conquer, the doctrine solidified into a theory, or more properly a world-model. In the 19th century this model was built upon the following grounding propositions: (1) Europe naturally develops and progresses; (2) Non-Europe naturally remains stagnant, traditional; (3) The main reason for Europe's progress is some intellectual or spiritual quality, some sort of rationality, which leads to technological and social invention and innovation; (4) The main reason for non-Europe's non-progress is a lack of this rational quality; (5) A secondary reason for Europe's superiority is its superior environment; (6) The natural way that non-Europe develops is by accepting diffusions from Europe, consisting of new ideas and beliefs, commodities, settlers, and colonial domination; (7) As partial repayment for these gifts, non-Europe naturally provides Europe with raw materials, plantation products, labor, and art objects. Thus: two world sectors, Europe and non-Europe (or core and periphery), and interaction between them consisting of the diffusion outward of civilizing traits and the counter-diffusion of value.

This Eurocentric-diffusionist world-model explained why Europeans were superior to all others and why it was natural and proper for them to conquer and exploit the non-Europeans: in short, it was a rationale for colonialism, and its hegemony in European thought was explainable by the importance of colonialism to Europeans (or at any rate to the European elites). It underlay most grand social theories of the period, theories about Europe's own nature and history as well as that of the rest of the world. World history was European history; to explain any fact of earlier European history, one looked back at prior European history, not at the outside world, since progressive diffusions went outward, not inward, and the non-European world was stagnant, uninventive, and ahistorical. (I call this “tunnel history.”) All European thinkers of the 19th century apparently accepted one or another form of this world-model. Marx could not help doing so, since he had no evidence of the historicity and progressiveness of the non-European world.

This doctrine has not been abandoned in our own time; merely modified and softened. After World War Two it assumed the form of modernization theory. European historical progress is still sui generis. Non-Europe is historical in the sense that parts of it, at certain times, have progressed, have advanced technologically and socially, but more slowly than Europe. All of the great stages in historical development still happened in Europe. Today, the only way that non-European regions can develop is by following the route taken previously by Europe, up to and including capitalism: by accepting modern European diffusions of capital, technology, social values; by integrating their economies with European corporations; and by accepting informal political control. The doctrine of Eurocentric diffusionism is now more important than ever because it must persuade non-Europeans, who now have political independence, that the one, the proper way to progress out of poverty is to accept European diffusions and domination.

4. Ancient Society

I will now describe some of the Eurocentric and diffusionist theories that are important today in Marxism and criticize them. Since this is a short essay, the descriptions and critiques will have to be brief and somewhat schematic. I have discussed some of these theories in other writings and will shamelessly cite these writings where it seems appropriate to do so. Focus will be on Euro-Marxist theories of history and Euro-Marxist theories about modern interactions between Europe and non-Europe.

One of the pillars of traditional Marxism is the notion that history has proceeded through a series of stages, each associated with a particular mode of production. Primitive communism gave way to class society. The first stage in the evolution of class society was slave society or the slave mode of production. Next came feudalism, the feudal mode of production. Next, capitalism, the capitalist mode of production. The future will see a socialized mode of production and the elimination of class society. Marx himself believed, as did other educated Europeans of the mid-19th century, that Greece and Rome were the first true class societies, and were underlain by slave labor. Hence class society arose in Europe. And the origin of class society signalled the origin of evolutionary progress: other pre-class or non-class societies, and presumably the ancient barbaric civilizations, had no tendency to evolve toward modernity. Therefore autonomous social development was seen by Marx as a European innovation. This, of course, is one of the central propositions of Eurocentric diffusionism: autonomous development at the European center; lack of such development in the non-European periphery.

The belief that the Greeks somehow invented progress was widespread in European thought until roughly the mid-20th century. Today we know that other civilizations, contemporary with classical Greece, were also progressive and progressing, and we know that the elevation of Greece to the status of prime mover in history was, in part at least, a product of racism and anti-semitism.4 However, many Euro-Marxists either deny or ignore the new evidence and continue to defend Eurocentric theories on this matter, theories which were accepted by Marx but which modern scholarship has shown to be false. One of these proceeds from the idea that the slave mode of production was the inauguration of class society and class struggle, and then maintains that a slave mode of production only existed in ancient times in Greece and Rome. Another departs from the theory of the so-called Asiatic mode of production and the related theory of Oriental Despotism. A word now on each of the two.

Marxists can reject the theory that Graeco-Roman slavery inaugurated class struggle without abandoning the Marxian proposition that class struggle has been “the,” or even “a,” motor force in history. One might speak (as some Marxists do) of an “ancient” mode of production, and allow both slavery and wage labor (which was abundant in those times) to constitute its exploitative basis. But the idea of a Graeco-Roman slave mode of production as (so to speak) the starting motor of history is still widely held in Euro-Marxism. (See, for instance, Anderson 1974; Padgug 1974; Manfred 1974; de Ste Croix 1981; Godelier 1981; Milonakis 1993-1994.) Yet we know that some combination of slave and wage labor was charac- teristic of many civilizations contemporaneous with classical Greece and Roman, including Han China and Mauryan India (see, e.g., Elvin 1973; Habib 1969). We know, also, that slavery was the most important form of non-peasant labor only under very special circumstances: in both Greece and Rome, the main source of slave labor at all times was the capture of prisoners or the purchase of slaves captured by others (Finley 1981; Woods 1988). This could happen only under conditions of military conquest or a very strong trading economy, both of which were short- lived in the Athenian Empire. It is hard to think of this as a historically consequential mode or system of production in the ancient world: the need to capture or purchase slaves implies that ancient slavery was never in long-term equilibrium; and it implies that ancient slave-based production would have to be explained in terms not of a theory of social evolution within a society but in terms of theories of conquest and external trade. It is also the case that the geographical area in which slave labor was the predominant form of exploitation was quite limited; perhaps slavery in the Athenian Empire had a parallel in highly developed regions of comparable size within the Han Empire. And finally, as Habib (1969) has argued, something like a slave mode of production existed in ancient India but it followed, rather than preceded, a basically feudal mode—inverting the classical Marxist sequence. In any event, the theory that slavery in Mediterranean Europe was the nursery-bed of progress is false and of course Eurocentric.

In Marx's day, the belief that Europe had been uniquely progressive throughout history was tied to the then widely accepted theory of Oriental Despotism. This theory stipulated that non-European civilizations never had known the idea and experience of freedom. These civilizations were innately despotic. The most common explanation was a combination of simple racism and a belief that only Christians can be truly free. Marx (and of course Engels) puzzled over the question why Asian civilizations had not progressed through the normal sequence of historical stages but had remained (as they thought) in an essentially pre-class condition and so stagnated (see Blaut 1993 for a discussion of this matter). They explained this, as did most thinkers of the time, in terms of the despotism that evidently had prevailed in Asia throughout history. But they were not racists, and they sought to explain this despotism in naturalistic terms. They suggested, somewhat tentatively, that the cause lay in the arid climate that (they thought) characterized Asia; thus the need for irrigation (Marx and Engels 1975:75-80). Large irrigation systems would require despotic management for maintaining canals, for allocating water, and so on. These civilizations, then, were characterized by a distinctive Asian mode of production, with pre-class peasant communities and a governing class that managed things despotically but did not exploit: that was not truly a ruling class. Hence no class struggle and little or no progress. But in fact most of Asia is not arid. Irrigation is not important in many of its regions, and, where it is important (as in rice-producing areas) the canal systems usually are local or small-scale affairs. In the case of the large-scale irrigation systems of western Asia, the ones Marx and Engels had in mind, the associated class society is as ancient as it is in Europe, and one can just as well argue that the ruling class forced the development of irrigation systems as the other way around. The theory of an Asiatic mode of production is simply bad historical geography. But it continues to be advanced by many Euro-Marxists (see, e.g., Godelier 1969; Bailey and Llobera 1981; LaCoste 1969; Melotti 1977; also see the 1957 book Oriental Despotism by the ex-Marxist Karl Wittfogel). This theory forms one of the basic foundations of Euro-Marxist history because it seems to support the Eurocentric-diffusionist argument that progress was natural only in Europe.

5. The Rise of Capitalism

For Marx, the slave or ancient mode of production gave way to the feudal mode of production; to feudalism. Marx firmly believed that the feudal mode of production was a strictly European phenomenon (Marx 1972). This is no longer tenable. It is known that several other regions (Japan, China, Turkey, etc.) have been at one time or another feudal societies. Serfdom, the manorial system, and indeed all of the attributes which Marxists consider to be constitutive of the feudal mode of production (or the feudal economy—an alternative concept preferred by some Marxists) are found in many societies of Asia and Africa; some even in precolumbian Mesoamerica (Blaut 1993). Amin (1985) and many others now use a broader concept, the tributary mode of production, which they consider to have been characteristic of many or most medieval societies; European feudalism was simply a regional variant of the tributary form. In spite of the newer evidence, and newer theory, many Eurocentric Marxists still maintain that the feudal mode of production was uniquely European (for Laclau, 1977, it later diffused, quite naturally, to the Americas). (Some of them accept the idea of a tributary mode of production but insist that there were two forms of this mode of production, a progressive European form, anchored in rent and exploitation, and a non-European and non-progressive form, anchored in taxation: see Wickham 1988.) Euro- Marxists use this argument as an underpinning for the Euro-Marxist theory that, since capitalism could only have arisen out of feudalism, and since feudalism was unique to Europe, capitalism could not have arisen elsewhere. This extremely important theory must now claim our attention.

One of the central beliefs of Eurocentric diffusionism is what I have called tunnel history, the assumption that the facts of European history are to be explained in terms of prior facts of European history, with no real attention to causal forces entering Europe from elsewhere. Marx held to this assumption. Until recently, most Marxist historians tended to accept it also, at least with regard to the problem known as “the transition from feudalism to capitalism.” It is fair to say that European Marxists did not know about the significance of colonialism, as a source of accumulation in Europe, as a force leading to internal social change in Europe, and as a conduit for the diffusion into Europe of technology and other factors of change, before the 1960s. Lenin and some of his contemporaries analyzed the significance of colonialism for modern capitalism, but it was only with the work of several non- Europeans, notably James (1936, 1970) and Williams (1944), that the significance of non-Europe in the earlier history of Europe began to be described. After World War Two there was an acceleration of research by historians, Marxist and non-Marxist, European and non-European, into the history of Asia, Africa, and Latin America, and this brought with it new knowledge of the effects that these regions had on Europe after 1492 (Blaut 1993). A very famous debate on the problem of the transition to capitalism took place in the 1950s and early 1960s (Hilton 1976); ironically, none of the participants were really aware at this time of the new evidence from outside of Europe, so the debate was mainly over the question whether the rise of capitalism resulted from primarily rural European forces, or primarily urban and commercial European forces, although several participants (Hobsbawm, Sweezy, Dobb) commented that evidence was beginning to emerge about non-European feudalism and this would perhaps force a rethinking of the transition problem. None of this should be described as Euro-Marxism: it was a matter of lack of available information.

After the mid-1970s, however, so much evidence was available about non-Europe and its significance for the rise of capitalism that any tunnel-historical theory claiming that medieval European society was solely responsible for the rise of capitalism in Europe, and for the later industrial revolution in Europe, should be categorized as Euro-Marxism. Many such theories have been proffered. The most influential one was put forward by Robert Brenner (see Aston and Philpin, eds., 1985, a compilation of Brenner's writings on the subject and various comments by others; also see the critical discussion of Brenner's theory in Blaut 1993, 1994). Brenner theorized about the transition from medieval feudalism to capitalism in some 200 pages of text without once mentioning non-Europe for times prior to the mid-17th century, hence long after the rise of capitalism in his theory. He argued that peasants in England failed in their class struggle with feudal landlords and this led to the rise of a class of large-scale tenant farmers who rented land and hired landless peasants, becoming the first true capitalists. Capitalism thus arose in the English countryside (not in towns, not in other parts of Europe, not in non-Europe.) A crucial aspect of Brenner's theory is the way in which he used it to denounce the views of those who were arguing against Euro-Marxism (notably Sweezy, Wallerstein, and Frank), arguing, that is, that the rise of capitalism was a world-scale process, not a strictly intra- European process. Brenner bluntly stated that the historical insignificance of non-Europe proves that “Third-Worldism” is wrong and Europe, even today, is the center of social change (see Brenner 1977; for a similar deduction see Godelier 1969). Other tunnel- historical theories on this topic have been advanced by other Euro-Marxists, and have been criticized in their turn by Amin (1976, 1988) and others, including the writer (Blaut 1991, 1992, 1993).

Euro-Marxism offers historical theories dealing with dimensions of culture other than the economy, modes of production, and the like, and a word must be said about two of these bodies of theory: the idea of Europeans' unique rationality in history, and Eurocentric theories about nationalism and the national question. The first can be disposed of quite rapidly because it is much less characteristic of Euro-Marxism than it is of conservatie historiog- raphy. In mainstream historical thought, considerable weight is given to the Weberian theory that Europeans possessed, throughout all or much of history, a unique rationality that led to greater inventiveness, innovativeness, progressiveness, etc., than was characteristic of other societies (see, e.g., Jones 1981; Mann 1986; Landes 1998). This view cannot be found in Marx, and it is rare among Marxists today. Brenner advances one form of it, arguing that the birth of capitalism in the late Middle Ages somehow produced a new kind of mentality, one that would generate rapid and continuous technological progress (see Aston and Philpin, eds. 1985; Warren 1980; see Blaut 1994 for a critique). Brenner deduces this from Marx's argument that capitalism must always advance in technology (but Marx was thinking of modern industrial capitalism, not the late medieval rural economy). Other Euro-Marxists who believe that Europeans triumphed in history because they were more rational than non-Europeans include Melotti (1977) and Smith (1992).

6. The National Question

Marxist theoreticians have given a great deal of attention, for rather obvious reasons, to the problem of explaining the formation of nations and nation- h) 0*0*0* istates: the national question (Blaut 1987). There is consensus among both Marxists and mainstream thinkers that the first modern nation-states were Britain and France and their emergence had something to do with the political triumph of capitalism in the 17th and 18th centuries. Since the 1840s Marxists have been preoccupied with the problem of understanding, and deciding how and when to participate in, struggles to form new nation-states. As a result, a number of Marxist theories of nationalism have been formulated,

some of them very similar to conservative theories, others very different. They can be classified into two sets: theories that view national movements as basically independent inventions, although usually associated with the (peaceful or violent) diffusion of capitalism, and theories that view nationalism itself as a European phenomenon that has diffused outward from its original home in northwestern Europe. The classical Marxist view, which mainly concerned the national question in Europe, was, broadly speaking, non-diffusionist or independent- inventionist (see, e.g., Engels 1974). Marx and Engels argued that rising capitalism persuaded local bourgeoisies to struggle (sensibly in some case, not so in others) for a state of their own, and Marx and Engels also had accepted a small bit of the Germanic or Hegelian doctrine that there is a natural tendency in ethnic groups to want to have a state of their own (again either sensibly or otherwise). The important and influential non-diffusionist theory on the national question was formulated by Lenin in the period 1914-23.5 He argued that the great capitalist states oppress ethnic communities within the state (as in Russia), and in colonies, because this is an imperative for accumulation. Not only do local emerging bourgeoisies struggle against this oppression in order to “rise,” but workers and peasants sustain even greater oppression, as well as “super-exploitation” (i.e., exploitation greater than that experienced by workers in the imperial centers). Hence, national movements arise quite naturally, and they are multi-class formations (not just “bourgeois nationalism”). In the case of colonies, they are progressive and—here a major departure from other Marxist theories of the period—they are likely to win their struggles, defeat colonialism, and create new states. This general theory was the first formulation of a center-periphery world model which envisions centripetal as well as centrifugal forces, back and forth struggle, between the two sectors. This world model underlies most modern Marxist and dependency theories about the Third World in relation to Europe.

Stalin put forward a fully diffusionist theory of nationalism in 1913; ironically, his point of departure was Lenin's earlier views, before Lenin had analyzed the dynamics of colonialism and imperialism.

Stalin's 1913 essay, “Marxism and the National Question,” has had immense influence on Marxism down to the present, mostly because its basic thrust is to argue that nationalism is essentially a bourgeois phenomeno and national movements are not, in most cases, progressive and they will not, in general, succeed in forming new states, an argument that has almost always been used by those Marxists who reject nationalism in general or oppose some particular national movement (see Blaut 1987). Stalin's theory starts with the axiom that national movements are simply an aspect of the rise of capitalism; they are progressive only when capitalism is commencing its rise in a particular region; they are not progressive—— are either frivolous or reactionary—in all other circumstances. Capitalism has now fully risen, says Stalin; therefore national movements are not progressive, although (putting forward the Bolshevik position) the right of peoples to struggle for independence must be recognized. This is pure Euro- Marxism. It sees capitalism as a wave diffusion spreading out from Western Europe across the world's landscapes, and nationalism as nothing more than a part of that diffusion;hence as”bourgeois national- ism.”

This basic theory has been elaborated into two quite distinct theories by modern Euro-Marxists. One body of thought is largely consistent with the dominant mainstream view of nationalism (see, e.g., Snyder 1957; Kedourie 1970; Hayes 1960; Anderson 1983). In this view, nationalism is a European idea, essentially the idea of freedom, and this idea diffuses out across the world along with European influence. (Colonialism, which of course is the opposite of freedom, is supposed somehow to instill in colonial peoples the idea of freedom. So colonial liberation movements supposedly do not arise from oppression or exploitation, but rather reflect the arrival by diffusion of an attractive European idea.) Although Marxists in general are reluctant to give the primary causal role in social change to an idea, to pure ideology, this Euro-Marxist theory of nationalism is an important exception. (See Bauer 1907; Davis 1978; Debray 1977; Ehrenreich 1983; Nairn 1977. See Blaut 1987 for a critique.) The second theory, by contrast, rests in the Marxian idea of class struggle, but it asserts (as Stalin did) that nationalism directly reflects the diffusion of capitalism, the struggle of the rising bourgeosie. Hobsbawm (1962:174), for instance, argues that there really was no significant nationalism outside of the European world in the first half of the 19th century because capitalism had not yet truly begun to rise in those regions. Later, the diffusion of capitalism led to the popping up of rising bourgeoisies and hence bourgeois nationalism in place after place. Today, says Hobsbawm, nationalism everywhere is pass ) , an irrational and generally silly survival of a process that was rational only while capitalism was rising (Hobsbawm 1977). Another important advocate of this Euro-Marxist theory is Nigel Harris (1986), who says, in effect: capitalism has fully risen and diffused its fruits across the world; hence there no longer is an excuse for Third World nationalism; indeed, there no longer is a Third World. The all-nationalism-is- bourgeois theory is still very widely held among Euro-Marxists.

7. Colonialism

There is historical continuity in Euro-Marxist thought, from abstract theory about the role of Europe in past social evolution to another kind of abstract theory—and not-so-abstract politics—concerning the role of Europe in the present. We may recall Brenner's argument that, since capitalism arose as an intra-European phenomenon, today Europe, with its “historically developed class structures” (Brenner 1977:91), remains the proper focus of attention. “[The] dynamic of capitalist development [is] in a self-expanding process of capital accumulation by way of innovation in the core” (ibid:29); those who now claim a major role for the periphery, the Third World—he calls this “Third- Worldist ideology” (ibid:92)—are advocating an empty kind of populism: the real dynamism is in the developed capitalist countries (including of course Japan). Godelier (1969:58) argues along basically the same lines: the West displays “the purest forms of class struggle” and “alone has created the conditions for transcending…class organization.” Similar views are held by Brewer (1980), Harris (1968, 1986), Warren (1980), and many other Euro-Marxists. The opposing, non-Eurocentric view of core-periphery interactions, in the present and in the past, has been presented by a number of scholars (both Marxist and non-Marxist), notably Amin (1976), Chilcote (1984), Frank (1984), James (1970), Said (1981), Wallerstein (1974), and Wolf (1982).

The Eurocentric Marxist theories of core- periphery connections, past and present, are similar to various versions of modernization theory, the form of modern Eurocentric diffusionism discussed previously. Both argue that capitalism rose and developed in Europe, without outside help, and that development for the Third World today consists in the diffusion of capitalism outward from Europe. Euro- Marxists differ from conservatives mainly in seeing capitalism as a prelude to socialism; a means, not an end. Some of the basic propositions common to many theories in both groups seem to be the following: (1) European colonialism in the past was not of much significance for the development of Europe and European capitalism. (2) Colonialism did not underdevelop the peripheral regions (leaving aside the 16th-century holocaust in the Americas); it transformed them in various ways, some very painful, but in general it led them (via colonial “tutelage”) toward economic development and modernity. (3) Decolonization was a positive transformation, in a political sense, but the basic relationship between the European core and the newly independent countries of the Third World is, and (for some Euro-Marxists) should be, a continued diffusion of capitalist processes, including modern ideas and institutions and modern technology, as well as an even closer economic linkage between the core and the periphery than prevailed in colonial times. (4) These processes, collectively described as “globalization,” spread modern capitalism to the periphery and thus will erase the economic disparity between the two sectors. (Nigel Harris, 1986, this signals “the end of the Third World”.)

The belief that colonialism in the past was not significant for the development of Europe has been disputed by a number of Marxist and other historians. Galeano and others have argued that the American bullion obtained by Europeans in the 16th century had much to do with the initial rise of capitalism (see Galeano 1972; Amin 1992; Frank 1992) and with the centration of capitalism in Europe (Blaut 1993). A number of historians have argued that colonial processes helped to initiate and sustain the industrial revolution. C. L. R. James (1938, 1970) argued that the slaves of Saint Domingue in the 18th century were no less important than wage workers in Europe in the development of the Atlantic economy and the early industrial revolution. Eric Williams argued that slavery, the slave plantations, and the slave trade mobilized the initial capital for England's industrial revolution (Williams 1944; also see Solow and Engerman 1987). A number of historians have documented the technological diffusions from Asia into Europe during the colonial period (see in particular Needham 1954-1984. Frank (1998) argues that some sort of industrial revolution (or at any rate a continuation of earlier industrial development) would have been centered in modern Asia rather than Europe had it not been for several conjunctural factors. Lenin, as we saw, argued, early in the 20th century, that colonialism sustains capitalism, and were it not for what he called colonial “super-profits” and “super-exploitation,” which among other things improved the lot of European workers, a socialist revolution would already have broken out in Europe.

Euro-Marxists do not dispute the fact that colonialism had something to do with the development of capitalism in Europe but they minimize its significance. We saw that Euro-Marxists tend to explain the initial rise of Europe in terms of preexisting facts and forces within Europe, and this argument extends into the colonial period. For instance, Hobsbawm, in his book on the industrial revolution in Britain, very much underrates the significance of external factors. The industrial revolution “cannot be explained primarily, or to any extent, in terms of outside factors…By the sixteenth century it was fairly obvious that, if industrial revolution occurred anywhere in the world, it would be somewhere within the European economy” (Hobsbawm 1968:35-36; also see Hobsbawm 1962, 1975, and Warren 1980.)

On the question whether colonialism underdeveloped the colonial world, that is, drove colonies backward away from development, most Marxists, including some Euro-Marxists, argue that colonialism was, indeed, retrogressive and decolonization was progressive. But some Euro- Marxists argue the contrary position. They depart from Marx's view that capitalism, although it corrodes local social and economic structures in colonial societies, nevertheless frees them from ancient fetters and so prepares them for socialism. A number of Euro-Marxists (including Brenner, quoted above) maintain that progress toward socialism can only come where, and when, the technological potentials of capitalism have been exhausted; Europe being the most advanced region, Europe must be the center of present and future social evolution. Given this view of the colonial process, a number of Euro- Marxists (e.g., Warren 1980; Hobsbawm 1977, 1990) have questioned whether colonialism was really, on balance, a bad thing for the colonial peoples. In earlier times some Marxists actually applauded colonialism (see Bernstein 1909). In a word: Euro- Marxists tend either to support, or to have mixed feelings about, colonialism, the most catastrophic diffusion process of modern times. The opposite view is taken by most European Marxist scholars and nearly all non-European scholars. Broadly, Africa and Asia were not stagnant prior to colonialism, and most areas were not “backward” and “traditional.” On the eve of colonialism, in 1500, some non-European regions were as developed as Europe (Blaut 1993; Frank 1998). Colonialism truncated development in these regions; it did not bring development as a gift from the colonizers.

8. Imperialism

Marxist theorists, understandably, focus most of their attention on the present-day world, the world in which colonialism has almost disappeared.6 Euro- Marxists merely extend their Eurocentric-diffusionist world model down to the present. One cannot bifurcate modern Marxist thinking into purely diffusionist and completely non-diffusionist schools: there are many intermediate views. For brevity's sake I will contrast the two pure or polar theories: globalization on the one side, imperialism on the other.

Globalization theories tend to depict the landscapes of the Third World as basically or partly precapitalist during and after the colonial period. In recent times, capitalism has overspread these regions, has become “global,” and in doing so has brought beneficial changes to the Third World. The industrial revolution is diffusing outward over the world: Third World countries are becoming industrialized, hence modernized. And living conditions of Third World people are improving: for some Euro-Marxists the gap is closing and a fully globalized world, with no significant disparities between rich and poor countries, is on the horizon (see Warren 1980; Harris 1984; Willoughby 1995). Needless to say, this view is close to that of mainstream scholars, although it has strong roots in early Euro-Marxism (notably in Kautsky's theory of “ultra-imperialism”). There is considerable evidence against it. Genuine industrialization is emerging in very few regions, and these mainly are regions that had a considerable amount of heavy industry in earlier times. Brazil, India, and Mexico are prominent examples. Mexico is a unique case under the impact of NAFTA. Brazil and India have, in quantitative terms, a great deal of industry and a very large labor force engaged in manufacture, but in proportion to their (huge) size they may not be any more industrialized than the average Third World country. In other regions we find a kind of industry that is really marginal to the domestic economy: branch plants of core-area corporations; assembly plants for mainly core-area consumers, typically using mainly core-area raw materials; and the like. This is not integral industrialization, and not a diffusion of the industrial revolution. And the supposed improvement in living standards is largely illusory. Medical advances have indeed diffused and people are living longer. But one may question whether real incomes have increased in the Third World (statistics to that effect being very questionable); in any case, any such increase masks a process of differentiation, with the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer.

The Marxist theory of imperialism postulates a very different world dynamic. Lenin (along with Luxemburg and Bukharin) introduced the basic postulate: the effect of capitalism on colonial and semi-colonial regions —now the Third World—is destructive and parasitic. It does not lead to development: for Lenin, it leads to immiseration and to anti-colonial and anti-capitalist revolution.7 This view, it is safe to say, underlies most radical anti-colonial thought, Marxist and non-Marxist: it is immensely important in the history of political ideas. The question to be asked, however, is whether imperialism, as envisioned by Lenin, is still in existence and still the dominant force in relations between the Third World and the European world. Some Marxists and many other third World radical scholars argue that today, as in the past, the effect of European capitalism on Third World regions is either corrosive and negative or, at best, the cause of a mixture of development and underdevelopment, positive in some regions, negative in others. These scholars argue that capitalism became global quite some time ago, and its effect on most of the formerly colonized regions is still, qualitatively, the same as it was before decolonization, although there are prominent exceptions (such as some oil-rich countries). Globalization, they argue, is neo-colonialism, and its effect will be, as in former times, increasing immiseration and resistance. There is evidence favoring both theories. However, the preponderance of evidence seems (to me) to favor the theory of imperialism, and the globalization theory is so firmly seated in Eurocentric diffusionism that one might question it on these grounds alone.

Many scholars and activists have rejected Marxist theory because of its Eurocentrism. I have tried to show in this essay that the Eurocentrism in Marxist theory can be identified, analyzed, and eliminated. Freed of Eurocentrism, the theory will be more powerful and more useful.


1 Marx also, of course, read a number of books by European scholars and travellers, but these, again, expressed the diffusionist and colonialist view. Shortly before his death, Marx began to read systematically about the non- European world: see Marx's “Ethnological Notebooks,” edited by L. Krader (Marx 1972). Engels's 1884 book, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, moves away from Eurocentrism in significant ways. Wherever I mention “Marx” in this paper, the reader should infer that I mean “Marx and Engels,” except where this is clearly unwarranted in the context. Here I follow a convention that is somewhat unfair to Friedrich Engels.

2 See in particular Luxemburg 1908–1909, 1913; Lenin, 1915a, 1916a, 1916b, 1916c, 1921a, 1921b (a series of short articles that, together, give the outline of his model).

3 The discussion in this section is a summary of chapter 1 in Blaut (1993).

4 See Bernal (1987), Amin (1989), Whitman (1984).

5 See Lenin 1915a, 1915b, 1916c, 1916d, 1921b.

6 A few classical colonies of course remain, the most important one being Puerto Rico.

7 Interestingly, Euro-Marxists interpret Lenin's theory in a very different way, as postulating, in essence, the inexorable diffusion of capitalism across the world. To support this view they cite Lenin's early works, in which he did indeed hold diffusionist views which he later abandoned. Also, they emphasize the argument of Lenin's pamphlet, Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism (1916a), without noticing that this pamphlet, because of censorship, avoided discussion of political and social aspects of imperialism—which, for Lenin, were the crucial questions—and discussed mainly the economics of capitalist expansion. All of this gives us a very distorted view of Lenin's theory of imperialism, making it appear to be basically a restatement of the economic analysis of Hilferding and Kautsky, instead of a fundamentally new theory of the relations between core and periphery. I discuss this matter in “Evaluating Imperialism” (Blaut 1997).


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