The frailties of bourgeois scholarship

James M. Blaut 70671.2032 at
Tue Aug 3 01:05:51 MDT 1999

PART 2 OF 3: Jim Blaut, "Marxism and eurocentric Diffusionism"

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-
     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 h)0*0*0*   iEuropean
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

                   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 h)0*0*0*   idiffusion
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 h)0*0*0*   iin 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 h)0*0*0*   iregions 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
     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 h)0*0*0*   ipeople 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.

More information about the Marxism mailing list