Reply to Sam Gindin

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Mon Dec 24 06:54:34 MST 2001

On Mon, 24 Dec 2001 01:33:29 -0500 (EST), sgindin at wrote:
>In a recent exchange (which I missed) you
>referred to a critique you did of "Colin Leys's
>neo-Kautskyism". I wonder if you were in fact
>referring to my article in SR rather than
>Colin's? Either way,I'd very much like to see
>the article (it was apparently part of a
>response to Brenner). Thanks.

I never would think of you in terms of Kautskyism, nor Panitch for
that matter. I believe that the SR editors are honest socialists for
the most part. Now, Doug Henwood is a different story altogether...

Getting to the matter at hand, 25 years ago when the Brenner thesis
was all the rage, it had a profoundly disorienting effect on the left
academy. As a reaction against MR dependency school theory, it struck
many as a return to "classical Marxism". On the most extreme pole of
this trend, you had Bill Warren arguing that imperialism was
progressive. As one might expect, this sort of argument has been
cropping up again mostly from the right. Supporters of intervention
in Afghanistan and elsewhere speak openly about the need for a new
colonialism. This has had a certain disorienting effect on Doug
Henwood, who preaches the maquila gospel on behalf of the poor
benighted savages of Central Asia, who kill each other presumably
because they lack the funds to rent the latest Madonna video. (Ooops!
did I mentioned Doug Henwood unfavorably twice in this post? Somebody
quickly throw me off Marxmail.)

In any case, my reference to Colin Leys was based on some distinctly
odd notions that he had about the emergence of a Kenyan bourgeoisie.
He wrote this stuff in SR many years ago, when the BeeGees were still
selling records. If he still believes it, you can kick him in the
shin for me. I could never figure out what he believes nowadays about
anything since he maintained a sphinx-like silence on the SR list.
Me, I can never keep my mouth shut because I have the temperament of
a Jewish delicatessen waiter.

Comments on Colin Ley, from an article "The Brenner Thesis as


The Brenner thesis was not only an analysis of how capitalism got
started, it also became a polemic against the "dependency theory"
school that had emerged in the 1960s. Economists on the staff of the
United Nations and visiting professors in third world countries had
become pessimistic about the possibility of development. Some, who
had become radicalized by Cuba and Vietnam, decided that socialist
revolution was the only path forward. Key to their analysis was
Monthly Review author Paul Baran's concept of the "development of
underdevelopment" in the colonial or neocolonial world. Since
"dependency theory" was focused on contradictions between the
imperialist North and the "periphery," it became vulnerable to the
charge that it lacked a sufficient grounding in the kind of class
analysis that was necessary to transform an underdeveloped country.
The reaction against the Monthly Review theorists was posited as a
return to a kind of classical Marxism. Unfortunately, this kind of
Marxism was one that predated the Russian Revolution. Essentially, it
tried to resurrect Marx's famous dictum in Capital that "The
industrially more developed country shows the less developed one
merely an image of its own future."

Since many of the critics of the dependency school occupied the same
social position as their targets, it is not surprising that they
would be in a poor position to conceive of a truly Marxist solution
to development, namely proletarian revolution. A job as a visiting
lecturer at a university or in a United Nations office hardly puts
you in a position to see social contradictions from below, as a trade
union activist or peasant leader would. For these privileged
foreigners, the colonial man and woman of the subordinate classes
becomes a subject for study rather than an independent actor on a par
with their observer.

The most interesting example of this sort of evolution is Colin Leys,
who transformed himself from dependency theorist into critic all
within the span of a year. Written in 1975, "Underdevelopment in
Kenya: the Political Economy of Neo-Colonialism" puts forward views
similar to those found in Samir Amin. Only a year after the
publication of the book, Leys had changed his mind completely and
affiliated himself with critics such as Robert Brenner, Bill Warren
and Ernesto Laclau. What had changed his mind?

Evidently, other students of Kenyan society--also scholars from
outside--had decided that not only was capital accumulation
proceeding apace in the country, but that it predated imperialist
control of the country which had been removed through revolutionary
force in the 1950s. Reading their arguments, Colin Leys did a
self-correction and announced that the local bourgeoisie was not so
decadent and beholden to imperialism after all.

You can find his post-conversion views in a 1978 Socialist Register
article titled "Capital Accumulation, Class Formation and Dependency:
the Significance of the Kenyan Case." To start with, Leys tries to
find some value in the writings of the wretched imperialist apologist
Bill Warren:

"The conclusion which Warren's critics drew. . .was that the
manufacturing growth rates of these countries were not evidence of
'autonomous industrial growth' in the Third World, as Warren
believed. But this is a case of too much zeal. Britain, too, was once
an 'exceptional' case."

After making a place at the table for Bill Warren, Leys then proceeds
to declare on behalf of the Brenner thesis:

"Brenner, correctly in my view, stresses the centrality of the class
relations which [Adam] Smith took as given. On this view, what is
decisive for the development of capitalist production relations is
the prior configuration and character of classes--for instance, the
availability or otherwise of 'free' labour, the respective political
power of non-landed and landed classes affecting the possibility of
capital investment in land, and so on."

All these theoretical declarations are merely a prelude to his main
task, which is to demonstrate the vibrancy of Kenyan capitalism. His
notion of the centrality of class relations is less about identifying
and focusing attention on potential gravediggers of the system, but
on how the system can "develop" under the auspices of the native
ruling class.

He makes much of the transfer of expatriate-owned ranches and coffee
plantations to African owners. "Passenger road transportation was
also in African hands by 1977 as were tour companies, laundries and
dry cleaning, and a rapidly growing share of the hotel and restaurant
sectors." This leads Leys to endorse comments made by an identified
Kenyan state official, "In 15 years, if the political climate of
Kenya and the world economy stay stable, 90% of manufacturing will be
Kenyan owned." In the conclusion to Leys's article, he states, "In
less abstract terms, Kenya appears, from this analysis, as a modest
example of a 'systematical combination of moments' conducive to the
transition to the capitalist mode of production."

The "moments" Leys is referring to are those mentioned by Karl Marx
in the chapter on the genesis of the industrial capitalist in volume
one of Capital. Specifically, they are the different "moments" of
primitive accumulation which are "systematically" combined at the end
of the seventeenth century in England. They include colonial plunder,
slavery, extermination of the American Indian, etc. What this has to
do with Kenyan ownership of laundries, etc., is anybody's guess.
Rather it seems more akin to what Richard Nixon once tried to
promote, namely black capitalism.

Louis Proyect, lnp3 at on 12/24/2001

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