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Rediscovering the History of Imperialism: A Reply

See the reply by the Research Unit for Political Economy’s (RUPE’s)

The Research Unit for Political Economy’s (RUPE’s) brief historical account here of the origins of the Marxist theory of imperialism constitutes a crucial corrective to common errors regarding that history. In my article, “The Imperialist World System: Paul Baran’s Political Economy of Growth After Fifty Years” (Monthly Review, May 2007), I began by pointing out that Baran’s book was an outgrowth of classical Marxist thought—the ideas of Marx, Lenin, and Luxemburg. At the same time it represented a sharp departure from the rigid orthodoxy of linear development that had come to characterize so much of socialist (as well as bourgeois) thought—often presented in terms of Horace’s phrase, quoted by Marx, “the tale is told of you.” Baran’s treatment of the imperialist world system was a startling contribution at the time that his book appeared, challenging the conventional assumptions of both the right and an increasingly calcified left.

Yet, as RUPE so clearly demonstrates, Baran’s argument can be seen as having evolved out of earlier critiques of imperialism flowing out of the Russian Revolution, the Comintern, and the Chinese Revolution. Lenin and certain voices in the Comintern in the 1920s articulated many of the same theses that Baran and those within the broad current of dependency theory were to propound in the 1950s and ’60s.1 But these early contributions occurred in relation to what Stavrianos in Global Rift was to call “The First Global Revolutionary Wave” in the opening decades of the twentieth century and prior to “The Second Global Revolutionary Wave” unleashed by the Second World War.2 Developing his ideas in the age of the Cold War, neocolonialism, and the newly minted bourgeois economic development theory, and responding to the Chinese revolution, Baran gave the Marxist critique of imperialism a more mature form. Drawing on insights from early socialist planning, he demonstrated that the key strategic-economic issue was the extent to which a society was able to mobilize its economic surplus (both actual and potential) for its own ends.

RUPE rightly points out that Baran was strongly influenced by Mao’s critique of imperialism—a point that I had overlooked in my article. Thus Baran quoted Mao’s statement that China would have developed into a capitalist society without foreign imperialism. Mao’s understanding of the class-imperial dialectic in China clearly influenced Baran’s treatment of the class dynamic in third world societies.3

The global ideological split in the Cold War years divided the world not simply into two, but rather into three camps through the growth of the nonaligned movement and the original idea of the “Third World.”4 The Second Global Revolutionary Wave gave new concrete meaning to the theory of imperialism. During this period of the fall of colonialism and the rise of neocolonialism, Baran’s far-reaching critique of imperialism stood out, as RUPE observes, in its insistence that any radical project had to be based on an alternative correlation of class forces. Baran’s work thus stripped away imperialism’s new clothes and pointed to the need for an uncompromising revolutionary strategy.

For these reasons I think it is correct to conclude that the thesis that imperialism impeded the development of third world social formations, first introduced in the Comintern period, was articulated most fully in the 1950s, leading to the development of a more coherent Marxist theory of the imperialist world system, particularlyin the work of Baran and a young Samir Amin, who developed similar ideas to those of Baran at about the same time.5

There can be little doubt that a radical rediscovery of the history of imperialism theory is urgently needed today if we are to overcome the enormous difficulties that now confront humanity in an age of renewed imperial assault. In this regard, RUPE’s short account of that history here constitutes an indispensable starting point for further analysis. As Baran wrote, “it was given only to Lenin [among Marx’s early followers] to assimilate fully the essence of the Marxian method. In analyzing imperialism and by grasping the crucial role played in it by the awakening of the peoples inhabiting the colonial, dependent, and underdeveloped countries, he brilliantly applied this method to the reality of the twentieth century. The crisis of Marxism will be overcome by further work in that tradition.”6

1. One early twentieth-century figure whose role in the development of imperialism theory was important (although Baran was apparently unaware of his work) was, as I indicated in my article, the Peruvian Marxist José Carlos Mariátegui, who in the 1920s addressed the distorted development of Peru including its ecological aspects. Mariátegui can be seen as standing in here for a whole host of anti-imperialist Marxist thinkers in the third world in this period. See José Carlos Mariátegui, Seven Interpretive Essays on Peruvian Reality (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1971).
2. L. S. Stavrianos, Global Rift (New York: William Morrow and Co., Inc., 1981).
3. Paul A. Baran, The Political Economy of Growth (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1957), 162.
4. See Vijay Prashad, The Darker Nations (New York: The New Press, 2007).
5. Amin wrote his doctoral dissertation, out of which his great work Accumulation on a World Scale grew, in 1957, the same year that Baran published The Political Economy of Growth. See Samir Amin, “Samir Amin (born 1931),” in Philip Arestis and Malcolm Sawyer, ed. A Biographical Dictionary of Dissenting Economists (Northampton, MA: Edward Elgar, 2000), 1–7; Amin, Accumulation on World Scale (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1974).
6. Paul A. Baran, The Longer View (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1969), 42.