More on A.G. Frank

Richard Fidler rfidler at
Sat Jun 9 09:05:49 MDT 2001

Lou Proyect:

>>It would help if we focused on the historical questions, which are of
paramount interest to me. It would help to advance the discussion if you could
tell me if the social system in 17th century Peru and Bolivia was feudal. The
question of what relation graduate students thought of AGF's writings had to
making socialist revolutions in the early 1970s seems less interesting. I did
crazy things myself back then after reading Trotsky, but I wouldn't put the
blame on him. My guess is that most people read AGF the way that Dayne Goodwin
did, just as they read Galeano, Jallee, Amin or Magdoff. It was anti-imperialist
literature plain and simple.<<

Actually, a lot of us read not only A.G. Frank but some of his critics such as
George Novack. Here is a piece by Novack that I posted to the list last
November, which I think is quite relevant to the concerns Néstor raises and
which Lou in my opinion eludes. I think Novack's point about the importance of
incorporating the national and agrarian questions, which are largely inherited
from the colonial period, into the socialist strategy of development is the gist
of what Néstor is arguing.

It is an extract from "Hybrid Socioeconomic Formations and the Permanent
Revolution in Latin America", a chapter in Understanding History (Pathfinder
Press, 1972). It was originally published in the November 16, 1970 issue of
Intercontinental Press.

Novack was replying to questions put to him by some members of the Grupo
Comunista Internacionalista, a Mexican Trostkyist organization.

Endnote numbering is adjusted to correspond to the excerpt.

* * *

Question: Some authors such as Andre Gunder Frank believe that the formula of
uneven and combined development cannot be applied to Latin America since it is
nothing but a Trotskyist schema. What do you think of the interpretation of
Latin American development presented in his work which contraposes the Marxist
method to the Trotskyist law of uneven and combined development?

Answer: The first questions [not reproduced here] focused upon the passage from
a well-developed capitalism to a postcapitalist society. The subject now
concerns the earlier period of transition from precapitalist to capitalist

Despite Frank's contention, there is no opposition between the Marxist method of
approach and the application of the law of uneven and combined development to
the problems involved in this historical process. The two are identical. Indeed,
the complexities of the colonial period cannot be unravelled without resort to
the law of uneven and combined development.

As capitalism spread from its center in maritime Europe to create the world
market, it encountered and penetrated all sorts of precapitalist formations and
relations. These early forms ranged from primitive food collectors through a
gamut of intermediate types of social organization to feudalism.

The forces of capitalism could not immediately wipe out these archaic social
relations, especially in the field of production. Quite the contrary. Just as
the feudal proprietors of Western Europe had made use of slavery and peasant
households along with the dominant serfdom in the rural regions and the
merchants and guildsmen in the towns, so the original emissaries of capitalist
trade and manufacture sought to harness precapitalist institutions and put them
to work for their own profit.

The mercantile elements went so far as to re-create overseas antiquated modes of
production which they had already outgrown at home. The most conspicuous case
was the large-scale implanting of chattel slavery in the New World long after it
had come to play a marginal role in Europe. This mode of production was exported
to the semitropical zones of the New World as the most lucrative and feasible
type of labor for growing such staple crops as sugar, tobacco, rice, indigo,
etc., and for mining precious metals.

However, the slavery introduced into the Americas was not a mere replica of
classical slavery. Although it had the same economic form, it acquired very
different features and functions owing to the circumstances of its birth, the
more advanced epoch in which it grew, and the specific part it played as an
agricultural branch of the expanding capitalist world market. From its origins,
it was a commercialized and bourgeoisified chattel slavery. The slave trade was
itself one of the principal forms of commercial enterprise.

This combined type of slavery was perfected in the Cotton Kingdom of the
Southern United States during the first half of the nineteenth century, and
functioned as the main agricultural appendage of industrial capitalism in the
international social division of labor. In The Poverty of Philosophy, Marx
termed it "the pivot of bourgeois industry."

The fusion of capitalist with precapitalist relations gave rise to an assortment
of combined economic forms and incongruous social formations in the age of
commercial capitalism. In North America, the Indian trappers, who traded skins
and furs with the French, English and Dutch trading companies, were thereby
annexed to the circuit of capital even though they retained their tribal
structure and customs.

Marx mentions in the Introduction to the Critique of Political Economy that the
corporate form which dominates the monopolist stage of capitalism first appeared
in the joint-stock companies that engaged in far-flung colonizing and trading

One of the most bizarre was the Carolina Plantations. This joint-stock company
sought to set up on the Atlantic seaboard a purely feudal society in line with
the blueprint of a constitution drafted by its secretary, the eminent empirical
philosopher John Locke. The charter decreed that landlord-serf relations would
be enforced in perpetuity among the settlers. This experiment turned out to be
more quixotic than empirical. It quickly ran aground because the socioeconomic
conditions in the wilderness, where labor was sparse and land plentiful,
militated against the growth of medieval forms of production.

Slavery flourished, however, in the Southern English colonies, the Caribbean and
Latin America during the colonial era. Feudal and semifeudal relations of
production experienced a more uneven growth. They found the most favorable
seedbed in South America. The colonizing process on that continent was the
result of forces coming from two very disparate levels of development: the
Spanish and Portuguese conquerors, who were passing over from feudal to
bourgeois conditions, and the indigenous population, which preserved the
communal tribal relations of the Stone Age. Their interaction gave rise to a
wide variety of intermediate forms. The question is: What was their
socioeconomic nature?

According to Andre Gunder Frank, they were essentially capitalist. In Capitalism
and Underdevelopment in Latin America, he writes: "Capitalism began to
penetrate, to form, indeed fully to characterize Latin American and Chilean
society as early as the sixteenth century" (emphasis added). This postulate of
his analysis of their development cannot stand up against either the historical
facts or the method of Marxism for the following reasons:

1. In the sixteenth century, capitalism itself was just beginning to take shape
in Western Europe. The industrial revolution, which established the specifically
capitalist mode of production, did not take off until the nineteenth century.
How, then, could backward Latin America have become "fully" capitalist that

2. The chief colonial power, Spain, had itself barely begun to crawl out of
medievalism. The country was still as much feudal as bourgeois. It was ruled by
an absolute monarchy attended by an inquisitorial church, and resembled an
Asiatic despotism more than the progressive royal regimes of the rest of Western
Europe. It rested upon a decadent economy whose relations with the New World did
far more to enrich the more advanced powers beyond the Pyrenees than to
revolutionize its own social structure. "As late as the eighteenth century the
strength of the higher nobility and the pre-eminence of the grandees rested
firmly on their command of land and labor, and four great families reputedly
owned one-third of all the land under cultivation in Spain."[1]

The Spanish merchants served as intermediary agents for the French, English and
Dutch producers and powers. How could the Spaniards and the Portuguese have
instituted forms of economic organization in Latin America superior to their own
in Europe between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries? It is well known that
the economic underdevelopment of Spain in relation to the other great maritime
mercantile nations of Europe was partly attributable to the overdevelopment of
its colonial holdings. This in turn was a considerable factor in perpetuating
backwardness in the possessions it ruled and robbed.

3. Spain and Portugal created economic forms in the New World that had a
combined character. They welded precapitalist relations to exchange relations,
thereby subordinating them to the demands and movements of merchant capital.

During the colonial period, diverse forms of forced rather than free labor
prevailed in the main areas of production such as mining, ranching and
agricultural enterprises. The subjugated native population toiled under serfdom
(the mita), outright slavery, peonage or debt servitude, and sharecropping. Wage
labor cropped up here and there but was exceptional, marginal and stunted. The
encomiendas, which were the principal source of wealth and power, were a feudal,
not a bourgeois form of property and method of production, and the landed
aristocrats who held them were as feudalized as their counterparts on the
Iberian peninsula.

What, from the standpoint of Marxism, are the sources of Andre Gunder Frank's
errors? 1. He fails to see the distinction between the existence of certain
capitalist forms of economic activity, such as money-lending and merchant
capital, and a matured capitalist system of economic relations. The more
primitive and superstructural forms of capital can coexist with precapitalist
conditions before capitalist entrepreneurs take command of the processes of
production. They did in fact coexist from ancient times to the industrial

2. He fixes attention upon the relations prevailing in the sphere of exchange to
the exclusion of the relations of production which, for a historical
materialist, are decisive in determining the nature of an economy and its
corresponding social structure. Commodities can be produced under precapitalist
as well as capitalist and even postcapitalist conditions. Mercantile capital,
viewed in either its domestic or foreign operations, is not identical with the
capitalist system of economic relations. This form of capital antedates the
creation of capitalist production per se and is its precondition. As Marx
explained, the capitalist mode of production acquires its adequate and
appropriate technical basis only with the advent of large-scale factory industry
under the command of industrial capital.

3. He does not understand the role of combined formations in the period of
transition from a precapitalist to a capitalist economy. He thereby misses the
very peculiar character --- the special form of exploitation --- that
characterized the colonial system: the exploiting of precapitalist conditions of
production by the colonial powers for the benefit of the rising capitalist
system. Capitalist exploitation can thus take place before capitalism takes over
the system of production at the base of social life.

When gold, silver, and diamonds were mined by slaves or enforced laborers rather
than wage workers and then brought to market, this was a combined economic
activity from the standpoint of historical evolution. The precious metals
produced by precapitalist methods were converted into commodities, then into
money, and eventually into capital, contributing mightily to the prosperity and
power of the commercial kingdoms on the way to bourgeoisification. But the
weighty role of these commodities in promoting capitalism does not negate the
fact that they originated within precapitalist forms. The cotton grown on the
Southern slave plantations was produced in a noncapitalist manner even though it
was the principal export commodity of the United States before the Civil War and
was tied to the capitalist textile industries of both Old and New England.

4. On the level of Marxist theory and method, Frank does not grasp either the
highly contradictory character of such transitional formations or the dynamics
of their development.[2] The European civilization that was grafted upon the
aboriginal population of Latin America not only produced biological half-breeds
like the mestizo but sociological hybrids that were as much feudal as bourgeois.
The trouble with Frank's theory is that he seeks to rule out hybrids in
economics and sociology.

Frank considers it imperative to "elaborate a unitary dialectical theory of the
process of capitalist development . . . ." Yet he calls into question "the
supposed coexistence of feudalism and capitalism" (Frank, Capitalism and
Underdevelopment in Latin America, p. 268). He insists that one should have
nothing to do with the other, when in historical fact these contrary economic
categories have not only coexisted but have been fused, above all, in the
backward colonial lands.

Frank ignores the dialectical law of the unity or interpenetration of opposites
which, in sociohistorical terms, presupposes the possibility of the coexistence,
at least for a certain time, of feudal and capitalist relations in the evolution
of class societies. In the test case of Chile, they did so coexist in the
encomiendas and mines where the products of forced labor were sold on the
capitalist market The coexistence of precapitaliat with mercantile relations is
still clearer in regard to the sugar plantations of Brazil which were cultivated
by slave labor. At the end of the colonial period, two-fifths of the people in
that country were Black slaves.

Frank's approach to the socioeconomic development of Latin America is highly
oversimplified. It leaves no room for complex historical situations, combined
class relations, and contradictory socioeconomic formations. A scientific
investigator cannot work efficiently without the proper tools. Frank could have
avoided his one-sided conclusions if he had assimilated and learned how to apply
the law of uneven and combined development This theory is one of the most
valuable additions to scientific socialism in the twentieth century and is
indispensable for analyzing transitional periods and formations, especially
those characterizing the colonial world.

Question: Andre Gunder Frank, in our opinion, correctly states that the
historical development of Latin America is complex and cannot be explained by
blueprints. Nonetheless, in his polemic with the Stalinists, he has maintained
that the conquest of America by the European powers was capitalist in its
essence. This view is shared by Luis Vitale in Chile, Alonso Aguilar in Mexico,
and other Marxists. What is your position in this controversy?

Answer: The viewpoint represented by Frank and the others mentioned is prompted
by revolutionary motives and directed against far more erroneous and dangerous

The myth of a purely feudal past is put forward by liberal and pro-imperialist
U. S. scholars in order to defend the path of capitalist development as a
dynamic "democratic alternative" to Latin American stagnation and its
traditional institutions. It is likewise championed by the ideological followers
of the Moscow-oriented Communists to bolster their opportunist conception of a
two-stage revolution in colonial countries in which priority over the mass
struggle for socialism is assigned to a separate and independent democratic
revolution. (Many Maoists likewise share this conception, which is derived from
Menshevism, not Bolshevism.)

This false and pernicious schema enables the reformists and Stalinists to
justify supporting the allegedly "progressive" and "anti-imperialist" wings of
the native bourgeoisies against the reactionary landed interests. In practice,
the policy comes down to subordinating and sacrificing the revolutionary class
struggle for workers' power.

However, praiseworthy political intentions do not excuse crude sociological
analysis and superficial historical insight. One can hardly refute the
reformists and Stalinists by matching their erroneous conception of a purely
feudal society with the mistaken view of a purely capitalist one in defiance of
the historical realities. One view is only a mirror image of the inadequacy of
the other.[3]

Both can be avoided if the law of uneven and combined development is properly
used to clarify the actual course of Latin American socioeconomic development.
More than a theoretical or academic question is at issue. Since the answer
involves serious political and strategical consequences for the revolutionary
vanguard throughout Latin America today, a correct and comprehensive approach to
the problems is essential.

The theory of permanent revolution explains why the belated Latin American
bourgeoisie has been unable to carry through the basic tasks of the democratic
revolution and why the proletariat is the one social and political force that
can complete these tasks as part of the anticapitalist struggle. The two most
important democratic tasks facing the Latin American peoples are the achievement
of genuine liberation from imperialism and agrarian reform. But it will take a
socialist revolution to realize these aims.

Frank's theory cannot explain why the agrarian question, which is one of the
vestiges of feudalism or the slave system, plays so central a role in the
contemporary revolutionary process.

How is it that this requirement of the democratic revolution, which was taken
care of by the bourgeoisie of the United States in its two revolutions, weighs
so heavily upon Latin America? And how is it to be solved? The theory of the
permanent revolution provides the clearest explanation and the most realistic
approach to its solution from the revolutionary Marxist point of view.

In confronting the Stalinists, one ought to examine their position in accordance
with the Marxist method. This requires, among other things, studying its origin.
Not much effort is needed to uncover the fact that the Stalinist theory of
"revolution in two stages" and the possibility of the capitalist class or a
sector of it playing a "progressive role" in such a revolution, did not
originate in Latin America. It is a mere application in Latin America and
elsewhere of a theory advanced by Stalin after the bureaucratic caste had
usurped power in the Soviet Union.

A little further research will reveal, not unexpectedly, that Stalin only
revived a theory that had been thoroughly discussed in the Marxist movement in
Russia in the early part of the century and before. This was the theory of the
Mensheviks, who held that the revolution in Russia would come in two stages, in
the first of which the Russian bourgeoisie would play a leading role.

The debate of the Russian Marxists over this question is highly pertinent to the
current discussion, inasmuch as they were confronted with the problem of making
a revolution in a land where very palpable vestiges of feudalism existed. It is
hardly worthwhile to reexamine that debate from the vantage point of Frank's
theory, but it would seem obvious that Trotsky's contribution of the theory of
permanent revolution would, of course, be rejected out of hand, as would the
basic position of Russian Marxism, including that of Plekhanov and Lenin, since
all of the Russian Marxists, whatever their differences on other questions,
agreed that the tasks historically belonging to the bourgeois democratic
revolution had not yet been achieved in Russia.[4] Against the Marxists, a
Russian revolutionary committed to the equivalent of Frank's theory would have
said that the country was already capitalist and that the question of feudal
vestiges was only diversionary. What was imperative was to discard "the received
dualist view" of "the supposed coexistence of feudalism and capitalism" and "to
elaborate a unitary dialectical theory of the process of capitalist

The Russian prototype of Frank would also be hard put to explain the origin of
the agrarian question, why a thoroughgoing agrarian reform was of paramount
importance, and why Lenin insisted on working out a correct program so as to
assure leadership of the revolution to the proletariat.

Andre Gunder Frank can argue that this is absurd. Naturally, in the case of
Russia he agrees that the Marxists of those days were correct in holding to a
"dualist view," and correct in viewing agrarian reform as a bourgeois-democratic
task that had fallen to the workers to carry out.

However, that ought to lead him logically to admit the following possibility: if
feudal vestiges do exist in Latin America today, this does not stand in the way
of making a successful revolution. In fact, from the standpoint of both theory
and practice, it can facilitate the revolutionary process. The example of the
Russian Revolution proves it.

The reality is that this is the situation. The semifeudal, semibourgeois nature
of Latin American development has created a contradictory state of affairs in
the amalgamation of feudal with capitalist relations that only the conquest of
power by the revolutionary working class, leading all sections of the oppressed,
including the landless and impoverished peasantry, can resolve. Just as the
structure of Latin American society intermingles precapitalist with capitalist
elements in an indissoluble unity, so the solution of its inherited democratic
tasks are [sic] inseparably linked with the socialist tasks of the coming
revolution. This is the gist of the teaching of the permanent revolution. It is
no less Marxist than Trotskyist.

The law of uneven and combined development is indispensable for understanding
the development of Latin America over the past four centuries. It can illuminate
both the earliest stage, when precapitalist were meshed with capitalist
relations, and the present stage, when the tasks of democratization, belonging
historically to the bourgeois epoch, have become an integral part of the
proletarian revolution of the twentieth century.

That is also why Frank's attempt to divide Marxism from Trotskyism and
contrapose one to the other does not hold water. The theoretical formulations of
the Trotskyist movement are not only solidly rooted in scientific socialism but
are the most penetrating expressions of Marxist thought available today.


1. See Url Lanham, Origins of Modern Biology (New York, Columbia University
Press, 1968), pp. 213-15, for a critical examination of Haeckel's theory of
recapitulation that during embryonic development an organism repeats its
evolutionary history. "In no instance is an embryo a replica of the mature form
of any ancestor," writes the author.

1. Cited in Eugene Genovese, The World the Slaveholders Made (New York,
Pantheon, 1969), p. 51. His chapter "The Slave Systems and their European
Antecedents" also contains an interesting criticism of Andre Gunder Frank's

2. See my essay "The Problem of Transitional Formations," reprinted in Key
Problems of the Transition from Capitalism to Socialism, three articles by
Pierre Frank, George Novack, and Ernest Mandel (New York, Pathfinder Press,

3. It is instructive to observe that for the past decade or so a comparable
controversy has been going on in the United States about the nature of the
Southern slave civilization among scholars specializing in this subject.

One school argues that the slave society must be regarded as predominately
capitalist, despite all its other peculiar features, because of the commodity
relations that surrounded and permeated it. The contrary tendency asserts that,
despite its commercial characteristics, the plantation-based society had an
independent foundation and the planters constituted a pure slaveholding class
with a clearly distinctive way of life.

Both views are one-sided, failing to take into account the totality and duality
of the Southern slave system. As I have written elsewhere in an extended
analysis of the dynamics of its development in the nineteenth century: "The
slave economy of the South had a peculiarly combined character. It was
fundamentally an archaic precapitalist mode of production which had become
impregnated with the substance and spirit of bourgeois civilization by its
subordination to the system of industrial capitalism." The Rise and Fall of the
Cotton Kingdom: "The Ultimate Stage of Chattel Slavery in the South." In Studies
in Afro-American History (New York, National Education Department of the
Socialist Workers Party, 1968).

4. A good account of how the Russian Marxists wrestled with this question and
came to divergent political positions that in some instances led to individual
disaster and in others to leadership of a successful revolution is to be found
in Samuel H. Baron, Plekhanov: The Father of Russian Marxism (Stanford,
California, Stanford University Press, 1966). Baron, it should be noted, does
not himself share a Leninist or Trotskyist position.

Richard Fidler
rfidler at

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