The early Marx has tended to get a good press over recent decades, especially from people who want to draw a sharp distinction between the early Marx (good) and the later Marx (bad). Me, I prefer the very late Marx, especially his stuff on Russia. Oddly enough, this is one of the bits of Marx that official communism has been least keen on. At some point in the 1930s, Soviet theoreticians excised the idea of the Asiatic mode of production from the officially codified Marxism-Leninism, presumably on the grounds that the old man’s description of Asiatic despotism was a bit too close to Uncle Joe’s regime for comfort.
This is actually, believe it or not, still a live issue in China and Vietnam. To this day, the Chinese Communist Party holds occasional conferences aimed at denying that there is any such thing as the Asiatic mode of production. Draw your own conclusions.
Which leads me, in a slightly roundabout way, to Bill Warren’s pathbreaking Imperialism, Pioneer of Capitalism. I’m not going to get into an extended review of the Warren thesis – if you like, you can read a review here. But there are a few interesting points worth flagging up.
What Warren does, and I know I’m grossly simplifying here, is to stress the role of imperialism in spreading capitalism around the globe – as an essentially modernising force, which replaces the backward peasant economy with a more advanced system, but also creates, in the proletariat, its own gravedigger. Marx’s writings on British rule in India are taken as a key reference point here. It’s like an early example of globalisation theory, only argued in Marxist categories.
Some superficial thinkers have taken Warren’s book to be a full-frontal attack on the Leninist concept of imperialism – whether they take that to be positive or negative is another matter entirely. But I’m not sure that’s the case. On the pure economics, although Warren takes issue with Lenin on some points, the two aren’t all that far apart. But Lenin’s critique of imperialism was essentially a political one, and Warren doesn’t really provide a plausible counterblast. What he’s having a go at is nationalist strategies of economic development, and a slightly romantic anti-imperialism that paints a rosy picture of pre-capitalist societies. Neither one has very much to do with Leninism.
Readers of a certain vintage and a certain political background will perhaps have noticed a parallel with The Irish Industrial Revolution. I’m not quite certain about whether and to what extent Warren influenced the thinking of the Workers Party, and I’d certainly be interested to hear more on the subject, but there’s some circumstantial evidence to suggest that there was an influence. While Warren’s book was published posthumously in 1980, the guts of it had been in circulation for quite some years previously. No later than 1976, if memory serves, Henry Patterson was dead chuffed with the Warren hypothesis and was handing out the great man’s writings in pamphlet form. That would also coincide with the Officials’ move away from the CPI perspective of national development behind protectionist barriers, which had come to smack too much of Provonomics.
As time has passed, I’ve come to be more and more sympathetic to the WP theory of the lazy Irish bourgeoisie, and I think the Celtic Tiger proves the point – the Irish state developed because, and only because, of a massive upsurge in inward investment. But things haven’t actually turned out the way the Warren hypothesis, or the WP’s politics, might have suggested. A socialist government, or even a radical bourgeois government like the early de Valera administrations, would have made some efforts to industrialise the country. In fact, the Tiger has capitalised Ireland without industrialising it. Development has come via trade, financial services and generally being a scab on Europe.
And so it is that, at the end of a boom of unprecedented scale and duration, the Irish industrial base could hardly be said to be stronger than it was at the beginning. Arguably it’s actually weaker. It’s a funny old world, all right.