[Marxism] Re: State capitalism: some quick replies to Joe and Phil

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Dec 15 07:46:48 MST 2004

Renato P:
>I think that it would still be much more useful to compare Cuba to Costa

Colonial Costa Rica was poor in resources and underpopulated with 
indigenous peoples and Europeans. It was also remote from the colonial 
capital in Guatemala. This created a "modest and rustic life" according to 
bourgeois historian Carlos Monge Alfaro. The yeoman farmer who flourished 
in Costa Rica became a pillar of bourgeois democracy, so the argument goes.

This view is quasi-mythical according to Marxist historians. There was much 
more income discrepancy than formerly known and there was extensive 
military rule. Yet the bourgeois version of Costa Rican history exists as 
an actuality in dialectical tension with the Marxist critique. For example, 
one of the military dictators, Tomas Guardia, who ruled in the 19th 
century, promoted public education and abolished capital punishment.

Costa Rica did have a smaller Indian population than the other Central 
American countries. This meant that colonial rule was less reliant on an 
extensive military apparatus to control the natives who the impudence to 
resist slave labor. A smaller military, therefore, is rooted in the 
peculiarities of Costa Rican history.

Costa Rica received its independence peacefully from Spain in 1821. It had 
to make a decision whether or not to join the Mexican empire. Costa Rican 
conservatives favored this, while bourgeois republicans resisted it. Costa 
Rica did finally join with Mexico, but its relationship was much looser 
than one that was desired by the conservatives.

The conflict between the gentry and the democrats was not resolved however 
and broke out in open violence in 1821, when the democrats took power after 
a brief struggle. They instituted structural reforms such as a sound 
judicial system. Most importantly, they resisted the temptation to build a 
standing army. They instead created a citizen's militia which had "honest 
citizens, peaceful laborers, artisans and workers who devote themselves to 
honestly and constantly to their private tasks...and who have no aspiration 
beyond fulfilling their domestic duties and defending the State when the 
law calls them."

The most important factor in the evolution of Costa Rican society, however, 
was the cultivation of coffee. Costa Rica spearheaded the production of 
this agricultural commodity. What was important about coffee cultivation is 
that required *free* rather than *servile* labor, as well as a market for 
land. Its introduction in Central American in the 1870s to 1890s was 
associated with liberal reforms that broke the back of the church and the 
landed gentry.

Coffee growing is highly capital and labor-intensive. The conditions of 
production are inimical to the semi-feudal relationships that existed in 
colonial Central America. "Free" labor and "free" soil were required in 
exactly the same way as the north required them prior to the American Civil 

A good description of pre-coffee Central America can be found in Robert G. 
William's "States and Social Evolution: Coffee and the Rise of National 
Governments in Central America". Williams is also the author of "Export 
Agriculture and the Crisis in Central America", the book I cited in my post 
on the contradictions of cattle-ranching in Central America. His work is a 
model for Marxist political economists. He says:

"After independence, the Central American landscape was divided into large 
landholdings held by private individuals and by the church, communal lands 
held by Indian communities, municipal lands held by townships, and 'tierras 
baldias', unoccupied lands that were under the official jurisdiction of 
higher-order state institutions. None of these forms, even large 
landholdings in which vast areas were left idle, were naturally conducive 
to a rapid conversion to coffee, and in many places people held strongly to 
their traditional practices regarding land rights. As coffee became more 
profitable, a struggle over land rights began, and public institutions at 
various levels, from the township to the department and, finally, to the 
national state, became involved. The way that state institutions at these 
various levels intervened in the land question differed from time to time 
and place to place, greatly influencing the coffee boom, the turbulence of 
the transition, and the ultimate structures of landholding with coffee."

While Williams focuses on the question of land usage, it is not to hard to 
deduce the other side of the equation. The "liberalizing" coffee 
bourgeoisie needed a proletariat to work its farms. Labor was in short 
supply since much of it was attached to tradtional land holdings. Overthrow 
traditional relationships in the countryside and not only do you "liberate" 
labor, you also free up land for capitalist exploitation. This, of course, 
was the sort of thing that occurred in Scotland and Ireland around the same 
time. Ideologists like John Locke embraced these changes as did liberal 
ideologues in Central America. It is useful to keep in mind that liberalism 
historically doesn't mean Roosevelt's New Deal. It means thoroughgoing and 
consistent support of capitalist property relations in town and 
countryside. Republican values-- democracy, separation of church and 
state--were important, but only as a way of maintaining the free flow of 
labor and land.

full: http://www.columbia.edu/~lnp3/mydocs/state_and_revolution/costa_rica.htm



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