The fallacies of classical Marxism, ideas on imperialism and development

Posted on | oktober 17, 2011 | 1 Comment


Why are studies on colonialism, decolonization, imperialism and development imbibed by Marxism?

Is it because Marxism is viewed as a ubiquitous and benign theory apt to explain all kinds of social injustice, ranging from slavery and poverty to the malfunctioning of colonial institutions and political systems.

Is it possible that Classical Marxism as theory indeed possesses the necessary qualities to underpin theoretical conceptions on social and political developments in developing societies?

The answer is simply, no, because scholarship can never lean on a single paradigm to explain a wide array of issues and problems, unless it aims to base theories on a very narrow conception. Despite this iron-clad rule, scholarship pertaining to explain poverty and social injustice, typically premises theories and explanation on classical Marxism. It is unclear whether said scholarship pertains to express certain social phenomena in dialectical antimonies; between underdevelopment and stagnation and between industrial advancement and social development in Europe (Klak et al). But unwanted Weberian type antimonies, antimonies that criticize and accuse; antimonies grounded on Eurocentrism, keep creeping up in the discourse,cloaking the relevant issues.

Puzzling is the fact that schools of thought, using Classical Marxism seem to overlook that Marx was firmly rooted in Europe, in European intellectualism of the Nineteenth Century. As Jorge Larrain (1989, p. 57) puts it, Marx (and Engels) referred rather contemptuously to certain nationalities and countries (of the Third World). [ Mexicans are lazy, Montenegrins are cattle robbers and they referred to the hereditary stupidity of the Chinese].

Analysis of Marx work reveals that Latin America and the Caribbean, were treated as footnotes, exemplifications of societies lacking rationality and progress (ibid). In fact Friedrich Engels lauded and applauded the annexation of Beautiful California, because the lazy Mexicans would not have known what to do with it. These racist remarks make it hard to phantom why Marxism determined scholarship on Latin America and the Caribbean. Is because of its overt utopian-dystopian quality that seem to complement ideas on colonialism and imperialism that disproportionally affected Latin America and the Caribbean?

The relevance and the actual value of Marxist theory diminishes even further when dealing with issues that fall outside the realm of imperialism and colonialism, issues that directly delve in the innerworkings of the system, of the domestic, the mechanisms that help consolidate democracy.

Classical Marxism is based on three key -antimonies: labor- capital, the worker- employer, proletariat – bourgeoisie, antimonies are closely connected to a specific historical period determined by rapid economic and social transformation that begged for a new epistemology.

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels provided what I qualify the core conception; Luxembourg, Hilferding, Hobson, Bukharin and Lenin continued to theorize, seizing trends and features as they enfolded at the dawning of the new century. Apart from Russia, China, and Cuba, the revolution of the proletariat did not proliferate to the rest of the world. A watered down version of socialism, called social democracy and expressed and aggregated through mass Labor Parties, came to life as credible alternative for liberalism, correlating mass politicization and broadening of the support market at the beginning of the previous century . Socialism as political ideology gave impetus to politicization and civilization (organization of the masses in for example, England, Germany, The Netherlands, France, Italy, Spain) and formed the basis for programs to eradicate poverty, to tackle gender disparities, albeit to empower.

The class-less collective Nirvana-state came crashing down in the early 1990s, fostering a new democratic wave, bringing on new insights on the improbability of classlessness and the fallacies of a state-led economy. The events of 1989, the brutalities of the Sandinistas in Nicaraguara, FMLN in El Salvador, and mass exodus of Cubans during that same historical period , underscored Machiavelli’s stern warning that a Revolution typically does not bring on the expected redistribution of wealth, it merely brings about the redistribution of power, a shift between politicians with a different message and outlook. This cynical but realistic observation debunks existing ideas and notions of for example, critical schools of taught that radical action and grass-root social movement have the proclivity to bring about change and transformation in developing societies.

Laissez-Faire, Imperialism and Disposition of Capital

One of the valuable lessons f history overlooked by theorists on imperialism is that the Twentieth Century gave rise to a new economic reality, a new reality that defied the laissez-faire principles of the Pax Britannica hegemony. The waning of British Rule came as Germany, Swiss and the USA became leading nations in research and development, technological advancements that emerged as direct result of ground-breaking research on the synthesizing of coca leaves. Paul Gootenberg (2008) paints an interesting picture of the coca-cocaine commodities chain, that starts as the coca-leave became shuttled from Peru to Paris, back to avant garde scenes in Hollywood, New York, than to main street USA (who adored the leave and used it massively to self-medicate) and back to Peru. In Peru politicians dreamed of coca as a viable source for economic development and prosperity. Instead Peru became relegated to the tending and the planting of the coca plants, while Europeans reap the fruits of further advancement and knowledge.

Gootenberg (ibid) demonstrated that the disposition of capital, and the ability to tap into networks in the end determined the profitability of the small green leave for the European and American pharmaceutical industry. The same networks and environment turned the coca leave into an illicit matter, after Dutch chemists developed novocaine, or artificial cocaine. Today nobody mentions the fact that the pharmaceutical companies in Europe became corporations by synthesizing coca-cocaine into pasta basica de cocaina. Today all eyes are focused on smuggling, on the war on drugs, and on the pasta basica de cocaina, now being synthesized in make-shift coke-labs throughout the South American continent, to be shipped to Europe and North America. Only a few focus on the fact that coca is an intricate part of Indio culture, that its prohibition of the leave has turned an ancient Indio tradition into an illicit and contrite act on which the USA has waged a massive war (war on drugs). Indeed, one can argue that imperialism in its crudest form is racist and hypocritical, that it marginalizes and seriously impeded economic and political developments in Latin America.

Gootenberg (ibid) belongs to a new generation of scholars who focus on agency, on the system, delving into archives to underpin research instead of focusing on outside factors to explain certain phenomena of the developing world.

Old school scholars still harbor ideas and conceptions grounded on classical Imperialism and Weberian antimonies. A striking example is the Dutch Historian Piet Emmer, who argued during a Colloqium (27 September 2011) that proposals on the expansiveness of imperialism do not rhyme with the empirical reality. According to Emmer, Africa during the early 20th century was not an attractive continent for investors, neither were Latin America and the Caribbean. Fact of the matter is that the networks of capital floated from Northern Europe to Northern America. The rest of the world was either colonized or underdeveloped providing either raw materials or tools for economic and intellectual advancement of the North.

Emmer however forgoes that during that same period, the Belgium King Leopold committed serious crimes against the peoples of the Congo, by ordering the killings of countless workers, in his quest to extract their minerals and other riches.

Emmer also forgoes that the smuggling balata seeds from Manaus by Europeans at the beginning of the 20th century to Malaysia, occurred in an attempt to gain control over the rubber production. Other examples are the thriving diamond industries in Amsterdam and Antwerp, driven by the extraction of diamonds from Africa.

South-South Trade, instead of Non- Alignment?

The works of some Dependencia schools, exemplifying Pinto, Sunkel, Furtado do not focus on external factors to explain economic dependency, instead this school focusses on the domestic. Their stance on stagnant development in Latin America corresponds Linz& Stepan (1996), Diamond (1991) whose focus on democratization as a process to strengthen the system, the bureaucracy, the economic and political arenas, the civil arena and the judicial as intertwining elements that help push transitional societies out of a rut of economic and social stagnation. Unlike Dependistas, the last mentioned established a empirical base to argue the importance of stable government and complementary arena’s as precursor for economic development. The strengthening of the complementary arenas diametrically opposes, electoralism, a conception attenuating to the devotion of governments to the organizing of elections instead of on the strengthening of corresponding institutions. The work of Pinto et al. underscores my earlier assertion that overt focus on classical Marxist theory fosters the flawed idea that developing nations are unique, that universal scholarly theories do not apply. The rethinking of the idea of uniqueness also involves the debunking of normative theoretical conceptions that call for a revolution. The revaluation of scholars such as Pinto, to build new theories on economic development, citizenship, government and trust.


Is it possible to assume that a focus on the strengthening of institutions, ditto government would have strengthened South-South trade, giving rise to networks, realization of surplus value, elements that underpinned North-North economic order? The fallacy of the international community to remedy the current economic and monetary crisis teaches us the importance of strong domestic institutions in the tackling of the crisis. The analogy also applies to earlier attempts to establish South-South economic co-operation, without the grounding of effective domestic governments. Said analogy also nullifies the conception of non-alignment, a conception also grounded on classical theories of Imperialism, thus Marxism. Harkening back to the beginning of this essay, to argue that the imbibing of Marxism did not help advance knowledge to integrate the analyses of colonialism, imperialism and economic stagnation into mainstream scholarship.

AUTHOR: Natascha Adama
E-MAIL: nataliapestova23 [@]


One Response to “The fallacies of classical Marxism, ideas on imperialism and development”

  1. philani
    mei 10th, 2012 @ 11:22

    i research about marxist theory and its relevance to post 1994 political in south africa.

    may yuo please send me all information about marxist theory 1994 in sa

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