Dependency theory debate in Latin America

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Wed Jun 6 18:43:32 MDT 2001

One of the advantages of working at Columbia University is that it gives me
access to one of the most superb research libraries in the world. As Xxxx
Xxxxxx had recommended Ronald Chilcote's recent books on imperialism, I
checked the card catalog to see what was available. Besides the titles on
imperialism, I noticed something that seemed very relevant to my recent
investigations, namely "Dependency and Marxism: Toward a resolution of the
Debate", edited by Chilcote. These were articles that appeared in the
mid-70s in Latin American Perspectives, a journal that Chilcote edited.
Latin American Perspectives appears to be more scholarly and more Marxist
than NACLA and I will probably take out a subscription if it is still in

>From what I can gather most of the articles in the book are written as
polemics against A.G. Frank, whose replies are not included. Some of the
better known critics include David Barkin, who is based in Mexico and
writes frequently for NACLA, John Weeks, the bumbling professor I brought
to NYC to debate Paul Berman--one of the worst mistakes in my life
considering that Michael Moore was available, and James Petras, the
irascible ultraleft retired sociology professor.

As I have mentioned previously, the two countries in the third world that
never bought into the dependency school were Mexico and India. About India,
I have no explanation. With respect to Mexico, it appears to be the result
of the intellectual hegemony of exiles from Spain, who brought with them
the kind of Kautskyism that had characterized the Comintern of the Popular
Front era.

In any case, there is an article in this collection titled "Dependency
Theory and the Processes of Capitalism and Socialism" by Carlos Johnson, a
professor at the UNAM in Mexico that encapsulates most of the themes in
this anti-dependency trend.

Johnson says that dependency theorists have no explanation for the vigorous
industrial growth in places like Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Mexico City
where "some levels of consumption...far outweigh even those that in some
regions of the United States," thus establishing the claim that development
in Latin America can never take place to be a "myth". Although I doubt that
there is a reply to this specific point in Chilcote's collection, it
appears to me that such cities are typical third world nightmares with
shanties surrounding ultra-luxurious downtowns and a vast informal economy.
They grow like out-of-control tumors, swelled by the influx of landless
peasants. To compare them to the cities of the industrialized North is
invidious, to say the least.

Another important goal of Johnson and others is to establish dependency
theory as "idealist", which means that claims about "core" and "periphery"
are not rooted in a scientific class analysis. Johnson is at least honest
enough to admit that these categories existed in Lenin, but he gives Lenin
permission to use them because the Russian revolutionary was using them in
the context of class relations, as he--a sociology professor--also does.
How generous.

Not only is the dependency analysis "idealist", it is also of the same sort
found in the Narodniks who complained about capitalist backwardness and
inequality between Russia and the West, but who lacked a materialist
perspective to understand the need for proletarian revolution as the
Bolsheviks did. When capitalism progressed throughout Russia, it "ripened"
the objective conditions necessary for socialism. It is only possible for
Johnson to make this claim by omitting any reference to Marx's late
writings on Russia which urged revolution based on peasant communes, whose
success would inspire Western Europe. Contrary to Johnson, once Lenin's
party was victorious in Russia, it tended not to worry too much about
"ripening." It declared that the conditions for socialist revolution were
rotten-ripe all over the world and encouraged the formation of peasant
soviets in the most backward countries, where there was no industry nor a
classic proletariat.

As Johnson puts it, "Contrary to this understanding of social relations,
some dependency theorists argue in favor of socialism and revolution as
though they were mere alternatives to capitalism and not specific products
of class struggle itself." Well, yeah. What's wrong with that? Which group
exemplified this kind of "unscientific" and Narodnik attitude? Johnson
points to the MIR in Chile, which was based "to a large extent on
dependency theses of rejecting alliances with the local bourgeoisies."

There you have it, comrades. This is what riles Carlos Johnson: the MIR
rejected alliances with the local bourgeoisies. I myself will take my stand
with the MIR's of this world.

Louis Proyect
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