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Themes > Analysis
Imperialism and the Diffusion of Development
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

em ergence

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 thei n e q u a l i z i n g effects of

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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 inI m p er i a l i sm 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 ofI m p er i a l i sm 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'sI m p er i a l i sm 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 Marxista ca d e m i c 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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Much of the third world witnessed significantly accelerated growth rates, compared to their own historical experience, in the post-war period which ushered in the era of decolonisation. (I shall not go into the question ofr e l a t i v e rates of growth between the advanced and the third world economies since these aggregate categories conceal crucial differences). This fact per se however did not cast doubts on the veracity of the anti-"diffusionist" position. Since decolonisation had loosened the grip of imperialism on these economies, an acceleration in their growth rates was only to be expected and tended rather to substantiate the anti-"diffusionist" position. To be sure, that position had further argued that these economies, despite the fact of decolonisation, could not achieve any significant improvement in the living condition of the mass of the people as long as they remained within the capitalist orbit. But this claim too appeared vindicated by the experience of notable third world economies like India, which despite accelerated growth continued to be burdened with acute mass poverty, in contrast for instance to China where measures such as radical land redistribution and universal public distribution of certain necessities had ensured a degree of economic security for all. It is the emergence of the so-called "East Asian miracle" that appeared to undermine the anti-"diffusionist" position.

Several aspects of this "miracle" are clearer to us now than they had been at the time. Unlike the initial impression that was sought to be conveyed, namely that their success was a vindication of free market, free trade (laissez faire) policies which had enabled them to achieve spectacular rates of export growth through the sheer competitiveness enforced on them by their exposure to the world market, we now know that their economic regimes were highly protectionist andd i r i g i st e, in fact far more so in many ways than in India despite her plethora of controls and regulations. But even though their growth experience did not establish that thesp o n t a n eo u s operation of capitalism was not inequalising, it did cast doubt on the anti-"diffusionist" position for at least two reasons. The first was the sheer magnitude of growth. The world had seen the Soviet "miracle", but that was traced to an alternative social system. It had seen the post-war Japanese "miracle" but that was treated as an exception, produced under very special circumstances by a sui generis capitalism, in the only major Asian country to have escaped colonialism. East Asia not only produced a "miracle" but did so in countries that had been ravaged by colonialism; its growth rates were far in excess of anything witnessed in any other part of the decolonised world. The second reason lay in the fact that this "miracle" occurred not in the teeth of opposition from imperialism, but under its benign patronage, in countries which were often referred to as "client States" of imperialism. The East Asian experience might not have disproved the tendency towards spontaneous inequalising that occurs internationally under capitalism, but it did strongly suggest that imperialism was capable of consciously accommodating (e.g. through providing market access) growth rates in parts of the third world which were so high as to enable these parts to break out of their third world status altogether. In other words it was capable of consciously engendering "diffusion" of development, unlike what Marxist and other radical development economists had been saying.

The anti-"diffusionist" position lost further credibility when the so-called "miracle" spread to South-East Asia. Economies like Indonesia and Malaysia were large and populous economies, unlike most of the participants in the first round of the "miracle". Being rich in raw materials they had had long and painful histories of colonial exploitation. Their high growth experience did not even have protectionist neo-mercantilist regimes as a pre-requisite. They could not even be "explained away" in terms of being "frontline States" against Communism in imperialist strategy, for by the time their "miracles" occurred the "Communist threat" had receded considerably. And they appeared to contradict the notion that East Asia-type development can be "tolerated" only in some small parts of the third world but cannot be replicated over a wider region.

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