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Modern factories beside straw huts

By Paul D'Amato | May 30, 2003 | Page 9

"THE COUNTRY that is more developed industrially only shows, to the less developed, the image of its own future." Marx wrote this in 1867.

It is true that capitalism has replaced "national exclusion and self-sufficiency" with the "universal interdependence of nations," as Marx wrote elsewhere. But capitalism as a world system did not spread smoothly and evenly.

The idea of the less-developed nation following the path of the more developed "has become less applicable in proportion as capitalist evolution has embraced all countries" wrote Trotsky. "England in her day revealed the future of France, considerably less of Germany, but not in the least of Russia and not of India."

Newcomers to capitalism after Britain did not simply repeat the same gradual stages English economic development went through, but combined and even skipped some. In countries like Russia, more backward forms of economic life combined with the most modern forms, which were simply grafted on top of the old.

Capitalism did not develop in late 19th century Russia gradually out of its own village handicrafts. On the contrary, with the aid of state intervention and an influx of foreign capital, modern factories were built alongside "villages of wood and straw." Peasants were "thrown into the factory cauldron snatched directly from the plow," wrote Trotsky.

A modern example of combined and uneven development comes from China. In Guandong province, 90 percent of the population is engaged in modern production. Yet one-fifth of China's peasants are without electricity.

The uneven character of capitalist development is best understood on a world scale. With the development of a world market came not peaceful exchange but the struggle for "the subjection of the world-embracing economic system to the profit interests of the bourgeoisie of each country."

The world became divided (and re-divided) between a handful of powerful capitalist states, who in turn dominated the majority of weaker states. Some states were able, as capitalist latecomers, to concentrate enough capital to become modern powers in their own right. But others found the price of entry into the world market as anything but producers of cheap raw materials for the more advanced capitalist countries all but impossible.

The imperialist powers shaped, and in some ways stunted, the economies in the less-developed countries by brutally uprooting old economic relations, and in some cases (like India), for a time even retarding economic development. The difficulties continued even after colonial states achieved independence, especially in the smaller states.

Even massive state intervention, combined with efforts to extract as much surplus out of the working classes as possible, in many cases could not raise the necessary capital to sustain significant growth. Attempts to create local industries through state protection created industries whose products could not compete with the economies of scale of the advanced industrial countries. Many states remained dependent on exports of one or two agricultural or mineral exports, caught in a cycle of debt brought on by fluctuations in commodity prices.

Only a handful of poor countries since the Second World War have been able to achieve high rates of growth--for example South Korea--by becoming internationally competitive in a particular niche like electronics, shipbuilding or steel-making. But even where there has been development, for example in China over the past few decades, the development has revealed deep contradictions.

Chinese capitalism is dependent for its success on extremely low wages. It has been unable to absorb the massive unemployment among landless peasants, or the unemployment created by dismantling the protected state industries.

No state can opt out of what is a completely integrated world capitalist system. But neither can we accept imperialism, which subjects the world's working class and poor to increasing immiseration and subjects the weak nations to the brutal heel of the stronger. That is why we must still hold true to Marx's old battle cry: "Workers of the world, unite!"

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