Saturday, October 06, 2007

Japan as Heuristic

I do not claim that the Monthly Review school of Marxism was or is right about all things Marxian, but one of the things that it does better than many others is criticism of the nineteenth-century notion that "all nations would inevitably pass" the same "linear set of stages" of development,1 which happens to be the most important thing to get right.

If that is true of development of relations of production and productive forces, moreover, it is even truer of political and cultural development. This point is easy to grasp if you always keep Japan -- which today is secular without having ever struggled for secularism and yet very superstitious all the same, sexually kinky in hilariously mundane ways without being politically progressive or culturally liberal in the least, etc. -- in mind as a point of reference, a useful heuristic. (You might enjoy living there if you are not a leftist.)

"The country that is more developed industrially" does not show, "to the less developed, the image of its own future." Peoples have and will travel different paths to different ends under capitalism. Socialism won't change that either. If the people of Japan ever do socialism, which, alas, is highly unlikely, they won't do it in the same ways that others have.

1 See, for instance, João Aguiar, "Capital and Empire: An Interview with John Bellamy Foster," MRZine, 23 March 2007:
Q. In the Preface to the first German edition of Capital (1867), Marx says: "The country that is more developed industrially only shows, to the less developed, the image of its own future." Can we infer from it that Marx thought the capitalist world-system would become more or less uniform and homogenous, without the major polarization between core and periphery that exists today? Was Marx thinking that what happened in the transition to capitalism in England would happen all over the world, following the exact same steps of economic development?

It is worth remembering the context of this statement in Marx's preface. He was telling his German readers that although the analysis was based directly on Britain, the most advanced capitalist country, it applied to Germany as well. Here he quoted from the Roman poet Horace's Satires (Book I, Satire 1), where Horace, in his critique of the pursuit of riches, says to those who think this critique does not apply to them: "Change the name, and the tale is told of you." Germany, Marx insisted, would follow the same basic developmental course as Britain, reflecting an "iron necessity" of capitalist development.

This passage has frequently been quoted to indicate that Marx thought of capitalism as following one linear set of stages, through which all nations would inevitably pass. Marx, however, did not himself adhere to such a rigid interpretation and pointed in his later writings to uneven and distorted development and alternative paths. The best known of these alternative paths was the Asian mode of production, which, whatever its demerits as a conception, pointed to Marx's departure from any simple linear pattern. From the late 1860s on, he increasingly took into account relations of dependency in the cases of Ireland and India, in particular, learning from resistance movements in those countries. At the end of his life he argued that the next revolution would first take place in Russia, which was still a semi-peripheral power.

Still, the notion "the tale is told of you" clearly dominated most Marxist thinking until the 1950s. By that time it was clear (since the underdeveloped world's share of total industrial output had declined steadily from more than 60 percent in 1830 to something like 7 percent in 1950) that the notion that all countries would develop along the line of the original capitalist powers was false. Fifty years ago in 1957, Paul Baran wrote The Political Economy of Growth which introduced a new Marxist approach to imperialism and development, inspiring the radical dependency and world system traditions. Baran observed that while Marx's notion that the less developed countries would follow the path of the more developed countries had been right for Western Europe and the European settler colonies in North America and Australia, the manner of the imperialist penetration of Latin America, Asia, and Africa had created a different reality: an imperialist system in which the peoples and territories of the periphery were in a seemingly perpetual condition of dependency. Indeed, these conditions could be expected to persist, Baran argued, apart from some break with the imperialist status quo, either on the lines of the Japanese state-led, authoritarian Meiji restoration/revolution (an option now closed to most of the periphery), or socialist revolution (of varying types).

No comments: