The value of Marx for development studies

In the preface to the first German edition of Das Kapital, we can find Karl Marx making the following statement: “The country that is more developed industrially only shows, to the less developed, the image of its own future” (Marx 2000a, p.453). A first uncritical reading of this statement would clearly suggest that Marx is presenting us here a simple, stagist conception of socio-economic evolution. And indeed, as Wood (1984, p.95) pointed out, much of the criticism of Marxism in recent years has focused on his alleged simple and deterministic conception of history. On such grounds Marxist theory could easily be dismissed as a grand narrative not capable of adequately capturing the contingencies of modern socio-economic development.

Besides the alleged deterministic view of socio-economic evolution that does not go down well with the post-modern mindset, Marxism has also been challenged on the grounds of recent historical events. The last decades have seen important politico-economic changes which have had and continue to have significant repercussion on the academic discussion of Marxist theories. The collapse of ‘real existing socialism’ and the subsequent procession of capitalism around the globe have led to a justified scepticism towards the relevance of the Marxist conception of socio-economic evolution. These historical events seem to undermine one of the basic tenets of Marxism which holds that the development of the productive forces in a given society will inevitably lead to changes in the mode of production. Although a historically unprecedented period of productivity growth has occurred in the OECD countries since the turn of the 19th century, no major change in the mode of production has occurred in these countries. And with the downfall of the Eastern Bloc a transition to socialism seems further away then ever. Moreover, if we consider the spread of capitalism around the globe and the increasing economical divergence between the OECD countries and the rest of the world (Prichett 1997) the theory of the progressiveness of capitalism that is sometimes ascribed to the Marxist conception of socio-economic evolution seems to be seriously challenged.

On the basis of the above mentioned historical events Kiely (1995) identifies an impasse in Marxist inspired development studies. The purpose of this essay then is to assess whether Marxist theory is still capable of providing useful insights for the study of development or if it has reached its expiry date. The scope and format of this essay however, do not allow for a discussion of the totality of Marxist theory and thought. Rather, I shall choose one specific aspect of Marxist theory to demonstrate its relevance for development studies. The subject chosen is, however, one that holds a crucial position in the body of Marx’s work; it is the Marxist conception of socio-economic evolution.

The above quote from the preface to the first German edition of Das Kapital provides the focus for the discussion of Marx’s conception of socio-economic evolution and its relevance for development studies. This then suggests the following structure for this essay. First, in order to judge whether it is justified to ascribe a stagist interpretation of socio-economic evolution to Marx, it is necessary to put the above mentioned quote into the wider context of Marxist thought. This will be done by shortly outlining Marx’s conception of socio-economic evolution drawing on his own writings. Secondly, the influence of Marx’s conception of socio-economic evolution on development studies will be discussed. It will be shown that this influence has found its main materialisation in the discussions about the progressiveness of capitalism. This then, so I hope, will allow me to draw a conclusion assessing the value of Marxist theory for development studies.


Marx’s conception of socio-economic evolution
Marx’s conception of socio-economic evolution must be understood as part of his method of historical materialism. This term, also known as the materialist conception of history, plays a crucial role in Marxism and forms, according to Bottomore (1991), the social scientific core of Marxist thought. The main elements of Marx’s conception of historical materialism can be found in the Preface to his 1859 Critique of Political Economy (Marx 2000) and The German Ideology (Marx 2000b). To put it very crudely it can be said that in these two writings Marx presents a view that it is the socio-economic processes that form the basis of human society and that all other aspects – in Marxist terminology called superstructure – are secondary phenomena. However, as McLellan (2000, p.142) rightly points out, Marx’s strong emphasis on the importance of the socio-economic base for the development of society by no means implies that he was a “simple economic determinist”.

A second crucial element for Marx’s historical materialism is the concept of class and its relevance for an understanding of history. In The Communist Manifesto (Marx 2000c, p.246) Marx and Engels clearly spell out the importance of class when they write: “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.” Within historical materialism class rule and conflict play the important role of forcing economic productivity of a given society beyond the level of subsistence (Bottomore 1991). It is in this sense that Marx writes in The Poverty of Philosophy “No antagonism, no progress” Marx (2000f, p.213).

Another important building block for understanding Marx’s conception of socio-economic evolution is the mode of production. In the Preface to A Critique of Political Economy Marx (2000) elegantly outlines what he understands as mode of production and how different modes of production are linked to various stages in the evolution of human society. A mode of production for Marx is a structure of social relations that is basically defined by two antagonistic classes struggling over the means of production, the only exception being the primitive-communal and the communist mode of production (Brewer 1989). In a passage in the Preface well worth citing in length, Marx describes the interrelationship between modes of production and the developing productive forces which will eventually lead to communism.
“In broad outlines Asiatic, ancient, feudal, and modern bourgeois modes of production can be designated as progressive epochs in the economic formation of society. The bourgeois relations of production are the last antagonistic form of the social process of production – antagonistic not in the sense of individual antagonism, but of one arising from the social conditions of life of the individuals; at the same time the productive forces developing in the womb of bourgeois society create the material conditions for the solution of that antagonism.” (Marx 2000, p.426)

The Preface to A Critique of Political Economy quite clearly suggests a stagist conception of human history where different societies pass through successive progressive stages of development. However, various writers point out that this stagist view of history should be ascribed to the early Marx. McLellan (2000, p.143) points out that the later Marx seems to favour a case-by-case study of development over simple universal pronouncements of the course of history. Also Bottomore (1991) contends that Marx’s modes of production and the stages of history are not to be taken as general laws of history. He points out that Marx in his letter to Mikhailovsky denied that his material conception of history was an “historico-philosophical theory of the general path every people is fated to tread, whatever the historical circumstances in which it finds itself” (Marx 2000d, p.618).

For Marx a change in the mode of production necessarily implies a change in property relations. Of particular interest for Marx is the passage from the feudal mode of production to the capitalist mode of production. In Capital Vol. 1 Marx (1981) identifies ‘primitive accumulation’ as the main process through which capitalist property relations emerged in 16th century England. Marx (1981, p.874-875) describes the process as follows: “So-called primitive accumulation, therefore, is nothing else than the historical process of divorcing the producer from the means of production.” Once the process of ‘primitive accumulation’ and the establishment of capitalist property relations are completed the capitalist mode of production leads, according to Marx, to a rapid development of the forces of production. In The Communist Manifesto Marx expresses his view about the progressive historic function of capitalism when he credits the bourgeoisie with the creation of “more massive and more colossal productive forces than have all preceding generations together” ( Marx 2000c, p.249). Furthermore, Marx identifies the bourgeoisie as a class that is driven around the whole globe by its need for an ever expanding market. It thus creates, in the words of Marx (2000c, p.249) “a world after its own image.”

The above sketches of historical materialism, modes of production, stages of history and capitalist development provide the framework for an understanding of Marx’s statement in the preface to the first German edition of Capital. To repeat once again Marx there states: “The country that is more developed industrially only shows, to the less developed, the image of its own future” (Marx 2000a, p.453). As indicated above, taken out of the context of Marx’s work this statement could easily be interpreted as a stagist version of socio-economic development. Furthermore, this interpretation is supported when we take into consideration that Marx in the same passage of the preface talks of socio-eocnomic laws and tendencies that work “with iron necessity towards inevitable results” (Marx 2000a, p.453). However, it should be noted that Marx might have had a political intention whilst writing the preface. Marx addresses in the preface the German audience and specifically links the experience of England, which was more industrially developed in those times, to that of Germany. By stating that the more developed country shows the less developed an image of his own future he implies for his German readership that the conditions of labour in Germany will deteriorate as they did in England. Patnaik (2006) rightly points out that Marx in many of his writings was very much preoccupied with furthering the prospect of a European Revolution. It is therefore necessary to keep in mind the specific historical context and Marx’s revolutionary intentions when interpreting his work.

It is probably this preoccupation with a European Revolution that explains why Marx has written so little about non-European countries and their development prospects. However, Marx recognized the need to include these countries in his theory of socio-economic evolution and therefore introduced the Asiatic mode of production. This mode of production is a rather stagnant one and does not necessarily lead to higher stages of development, unless it is disrupted by outside influences - for example colonialism. Faced with discussions about the application of his analysis of modes of production and stages of history to the Russian peasantry, Marx makes it clear in his letter to Vera Sassoulitch that his analysis “is expressly limited to the countries of western Europe” (Marx 2000e, p.623).


Is capitalism progressive? Marx’s conception of socio-economic evolution and the study of development
Marx has been and continues to be an inspiration for scholars and writers in development studies. Especially his conception of socio-economic development, its implication for the transition between different modes of production and the impact of capitalism on non-capitalist social structures has stimulated a long debate within the academic community. Much of this debate has focused on the question of the progressiveness of capitalism and related to this on a discussion of imperialism. The following will quickly outline the main discussions in both fields and contrast them with some empirical data.

In the Communist Manifesto Marx clearly ascribes an overwhelming progressive tendency to capitalism in the sense that it massively develops the productive forces of a given society and thus prepares the material basis for passing from capitalism to socialism. The debate on the progressiveness of capitalism is thus one that gets to the core of the Marxist conception of socio-economic evolution. Weeks (1985-86) locates the most important disagreement amongst Marxist scholars over the question whether capitalism in its advanced stage is progressive or not. This question is important for development studies as it necessarily relates to the impact that advanced capitalism is having on the developing world. Weeks (1985-86) proposes an interesting periodization of capitalism’s impact on pre-capitalist societies to assess the progressiveness of capitalism. His periodization consists of three stages that are characterized by different forms of capital exports to the developing world. In the first stage, which is characterized by the export of commodity capital, capitalism is not progressive as it tends to strengthen pre-capitalist social relations. The impact of the second stage, which is characterized by the export of money capital, is contradictory. It is only in the third stage, distinguished by the export of productive capital, that capitalism has a progressive impact on developing countries.

The question of capitalism’s capacity to develop the productive forces of a given society – or in other words the progressiveness of capitalism – is also at the heart of the Marxist inspired debate on imperialism. Brewer (1989) distinguishes two lines of Marxist theory concerning capitalism as a world system. One line, so Brewer, highlights the progressiveness of imperialist capitalism whereas the other line focuses on the exploitative dimensions of imperialist capitalism. The first line of thought is usually associated with Bill Warren (1980) and the second with dependency theories as developed by Andre Gunder Frank and Immanuel Wallerstein. Which line of thought is closer to Marx own thinking is difficult to assess. Marx’s writings on the impact of capitalism on developing countries are few and deal mainly with British colonial rule in India. Marx’s view on questions of imperialism can not be regarded as a clear cut. Indeed, both lines of thought – the theory of progressiveness of capitalism and the dependency theory - can claim the authority of Marx. For example in The Communist Manifesto Marx (2000c, p.249) praises the ability of the bourgeoisie to develop the productive forces of society and at the same time accuses the bourgeoisie of making the East dependent on the West.

Which of the above mentioned interpretations on the progressives of advanced capitalism is more relevant for a contemporary analysis of development is probably more a matter of empirical research than one of the right exegesis of Marx. For the purpose of empirical research the question on the progressiveness of capitalism can be framed in terms of the debate on convergence or divergence of the global economy. Prichett (1997) shows that there has been considerable divergence over the last 150 years in terms of growth rates on a world scale. He identifies a general pattern of convergence between developed economies and a pattern of divergence between developed and developing economies. Weeks (1999) provides a nuanced Marxist reading of this phenomenon using the concepts of primary and secondary uneven development. His analysis implies a long term convergence among developed economies and divergence between developed and undeveloped economies just as Prichett’s (1997) empirical study of growth rates seem to prove.


Conclusion - The value of Marx for development studies
Weeks (1999) shows that Marxist theory combined with empirical studies can still provide powerful insights for the study of development. This gives reason to believe that the impasse in development studies as identified by Kiely (1995) might have been a temporal one and that a more nuanced version of Marxism is making a comeback - at least in the field of academia. Kiely (1995) ascribes the impasse in Marxist inspired development theory as mainly a result of what he calls “orthodox Marxism”. The orthodox version of Marxism, according to Kiely, is one that fetishizes Marxist categories and turns Marxism into a dogma. Three features are characteristic of the orthodox version of Marxism. These are: “first, a unilinear account of history; secondly, an optimistic assessment of the “modernizing influence” of capitalism and colonialism; and thirdly, an assertion that the development of the productive forces is the main agency of history” (Kiely 1995, p.13). It is exactly these features that led Marxist theorizing in development studies into an impasse and Kiely suggests a focus on the Marxist method as opposed to Marxist dogma as a way out of the impasse. Following Kiely, a focus on the Marxist method would reject any stagist interpretation of socio-economic evolution and instead stress the contingent nature of the outcome of historically specific class struggles.

From the above discussion it becomes clear that Marxist theory should not be (ab)used to predict the future development of a given country in a deterministic manner. Two important elements must be highlighted for an understanding of Marx’s famous statement in the preface to the first German edition of Das Kapital cited above in the introduction to this essay. First, the historical-political context in which Marx was writing and his preoccupation with furthering the possibility of a European revolution must be kept in mind. Second, the quote should not be understood as predicting a similar development in different countries, but rather as suggesting that similar mechanism – in particular the class struggle over the means of production – are at work in any given society. This means that we can expect societies with similar class structures – like it has been the case for England and Germany in the 19th century – to proceed along similar path of development. It does however not mean that the outcomes of different class struggles are in any way predetermined or predictable by the use of Marx’s conception of socio-economic evolution.

To conclude we can therefore say that the value of Marxist theory for contemporary development studies should not be sought after in specific Marxist statements or predictions. These statements and predictions, for example about the progressiveness of capitalism, were necessarily bound up with the specific historical context in which Marx was writing. As Lukács (1923) pointed out, “it is not the ‘belief’ in this or that thesis, nor the exegesis of a ‘sacred’ book”, but rather an emphasis on the Marxist method that defines the value of Marx. It is therefore the Marxist method and specifically his focus on class struggle as the key site for the movement of socio-economic evolution that assures the continuing importance of Marx for development studies.


References
Bottomore, T. (ed.) (1991) A Dictionary of Marxist Thought. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.
Brewer, A. (1989) Marxist Theories of Imperialism: A Critical Survey. London: Routledge.
Kiely, R. (1995) Sociology and Development: The Impasse and Beyond. London: UCL Press.
Lukács, G. (1923) History & Class Consciousness. [http://www.marxists.org/archive/lukacs/works/history/orthodox.htm] Accessed 7 November 2006.
Marx, K. (1981) Capital, Vol. 1. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
Marx, K. (2000) Karl Marx: Selected Writings (ed. by D. McLellan). Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp.424-427 (Preface to A Critique of Political Economy)
Marx, K. (2000a) Karl Marx: Selected Writings (ed. by D. McLellan). Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp.453-455 (Capital 1, preface to the first German edition, 1867)
Marx, K. (2000b) Karl Marx: Selected Writings (ed. by D. McLellan). Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp.175-208 (The German Ideology)
Marx, K. (2000c) Karl Marx: Selected Writings (ed. by D. McLellan). Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp.245-272 (The Communist Manifesto)
Marx, K. (2000d) Karl Marx: Selected Writings (ed. by D. McLellan). Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp.617-618 (Letter to Mikhailovsky)
Marx, K. (2000e) Karl Marx: Selected Writings (ed. by D. McLellan). Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp.617-618 (Letter to Vera Sassoulitch)
Marx, K. (2000f) Karl Marx: Selected Writings (ed. by D. McLellan). Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp.631-632 (The Poverty of Philosophy).
McLellan, D. (ed.) (2000) Karl Marx: Selected Writings. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Patnaik, P. (2006) ‘Karl Marx as a Development Economist’, in: Jomo K.S. (ed) The Pioneers of Development Economics: Great Economists on Development. London: Zed Books.
Prichett L. (1997) ‘Divergence, Big Time’, Journal of Economic Perspectives 11 (3) pp.3-17.
Warren, B. (1980) Imperialism: Pioneer of Capitalism. London: Verso.
Weeks, J. (1985-86) ‘Epochs of Capitalism and the Progressiveness of Capital’s Expansion’, Science and Society pp.414-435.
Weeks, J. (1999) The Expansion of Capital and Uneven Development on a World Scale. CDPR Discussion Paper 0999, Centre for Development Policy & Research, School of Oriental and African Studies, London.
Wood, E.M. (1984) ‘Marxism and the Course of History’ New Left Review 147, pp.95-107.

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