The Warren hypothesis revisited

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.


  1. Starkadder said,

    May 15, 2008 at 5:56 pm

    I didn’t know Henry Patterson was an admirer of Bill Warren’s ideas,
    although I had heard about Warren before. I’m sure he was on the
    right wing of the CPGB-insofar as a Communist Party can have
    a right wing!
    There’s an article on globalisation and imperialism that
    mentions Warren’s ideas here:

  2. tomgriffin said,

    May 15, 2008 at 7:41 pm

    I think Andre Gunder Frank made a persuasive case in ReOrient that the Asiatic mode of production was a piece of 19th Century eurocentrism.

    Indeed, 21st Century eurocentrists still find Marx’s writings on India useful today:

  3. Nathaniel said,

    May 15, 2008 at 8:43 pm

    I think I saw this in the local used bookshop and read only the blurb and assumed a totally different political line – exactly the one he was attacking! I do think his argument and its relations (if you’re summarizing correctly) can easily lead to the Spiked Online worldview, which scares me, but I might like to read a spirited argument for its assumptions.

  4. Renegade Eye said,

    May 15, 2008 at 9:27 pm

    It really is a complicated, sticky point Marxism vs. idiosyncrasies of various cultures. In the US we have been debating for decades if Afro Americans constitute a group that is national.

  5. WorldbyStorm said,

    May 15, 2008 at 10:27 pm

    It is like the IIR analysis (or vice versa), although I’ll presume it’s better written, and less tedious. I wonder though is it possible to re-industrialise in an economy like Ireland at this point in time… which I guess is your point too. It just seems to me that we now have states which actually refuse to engage in any way with that area in preference to the ‘softer’ economic areas of the services/finance. As a side note, entertaining to hear Obama claiming he’d subsidise 5 million new jobs in the US by pouring 150b (or so) into Green industries… Mind you, even that would have been something had the RoI tried it in the past decade.

  6. Tom O'Connor said,

    May 15, 2008 at 11:47 pm

    It may be useful to bear in mind that “imperialism” meant different things to Marx and Lenin. Throughout most of the 19th century, colonial and commercial empires were built by European capitalist powers in pursuit of raw materials and markets.
    As Lenin pointed out in “Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism,” the growth of monopoly and the displacement of industrial by finance capital as the dominant economic force in the advanced capitalist countries led, by the end of the century, to a drive to export capital to the colonies and semi-colonies.
    Whatever good capitalist relations may have done previously in terms of modernization, at this point the role of finance capital in these countries became utterly reactionary, allying itself with “compradour” bourgeoisies as junior partners in exploiting the peasants and workers, maintaining precaptialist socioeconomic relations through repressive political forms.
    As to the Asiatic Mode of Production, check out Perry Anderson’s “Passages from Antiquity to Feudalism.” He makes the case that Marx’s views were based on faulty data

  7. cameron said,

    May 16, 2008 at 7:57 am

    Wasn’t Warren in BICO?

  8. Ken MacLeod said,

    May 16, 2008 at 10:29 am

    I don’t know for sure if Warren was in BICO but he was at least very close to it. He wrote for its publications and the group published at least one of his pamphlets. He had been a member of the CPGB (the real one). He and John Lloyd (now of the FT etc) wrote a cutting critique of the 1977 version of (the then CPGB’s programme) The British Road to Socialism for the BICO journal Problems of Communism.

    Warren and Geoff Roberts (I think) co-authored a Spokesman pamphlet, Advanced Capitalism and Backward Socialism circa 1975. ‘Backward socialsm’ wasn’t a reference to the socialist countries but to the backwardness of the socialist movement in the West. There was an overlap around this time of the CPGB ‘right’ (Bob Purdy et al) and the BICO around the idea of trading off incomes policy for workers’ control in industry, a la the Bullock Report. (For more about this period, see Atholl Books, Bevin Society, Labour and Trade Union Review, more or less passim.)

  9. johng said,

    May 16, 2008 at 2:42 pm

    The question of the ‘asiatic mode’ is still a live question in western marxism as well (see debates on the tributory mode of production etc from wickham to amin), and i don’t really understand why the fact that its still argued about in china and vietnam is considered amusing: after all marxists have to have something to say about world history surely. in general though i think its right that this is a discredited concept the rub being what to replace it with. In terms of Warren this is all just a bit odd. I’ve always seen him as a theoretical forerunner of decency really. The key mistake Marx seems to have made in his writings on India was suppose to that colonial conquest was a pre-condition for the development of forces of production in line with global capitalism: whilst, as it happens, vast numbers of countries were incorperated into global capitalism through imperialism, its very unclear that this was an advantage when compared to countries like Japan or even the Ottoman Empire: indeed in his later writings Marx was to refer to the kinds of agrarian social relations promoted by colonial rule in India as a kind of ‘groteseque parody’ of capitalism. There is a deeper controversy underlying this about whether there were potentialities of capitalist development underlying the specific forms of pre-capitalist social organisation around the world, but in assessing the impact of colonialism as a vehicle for integration into capitalism as opposed to global competition (think Tsarist Russia, Ottoman Empire, parts of South East Asia, Japan etc, etc) its all very much less clear.

    I’m very unsure, for instance, if the British had been driven out of Indian in 1857 (recent scholarship suggesting this was quite a close run thing) Indian capitalism would have been weaker a hundred years later then it actually was. Why presume such a thing and on what basis?

  10. Ken MacLeod said,

    May 16, 2008 at 4:13 pm

    Bill Warren wasn’t a theoretical forerunner of Decency – he was all for independent development in the Third World. His point was that this was taking place. He was for working class movements in the Third World being more independent of the national bourgeoisies than the then Communist orthodoxy advocated, but certainly not in favour of imperialist intervention against nationalist regimes.

    The current successors of BICO (see Labour and Trade Union Review and David Morrison’s website) are among the most trenchant critics of Decency, and are firm opponents of the war. In that respect at least, I salute their indefatigability.

  11. Nathaniel said,

    May 16, 2008 at 5:36 pm

    I salute their indefatigability.

    I really hope the original phrase (along with variations such as the one quoted) lives on in the left until people need to be reminded when it achieved most of its notoriety. Maybe it has even come to the point that Ken MacLeod can reply that, *of course*, he knows about that, but was not even thinking of it when he used the phrase in the above comment.

  12. johng said,

    May 16, 2008 at 6:29 pm

    Interesting Ken. I can remember though, having no doubt distorted versions of Bill’s theses shoved down my throat by enthusiastists for the new political economy in development studies. If Bill’s theses was simply a corrective to the more right wing sections of the communist movement in the developing world his texts were certainly not presented like that to students. quel supris i guess. i’ll have to revisit them.

  13. Ken MacLeod said,

    May 16, 2008 at 9:15 pm

    Nathaniel, I certainly was thinking about the origin of that phrase, for reasons you’ll appreciate if you happen to come across the ex-BICO take on Ba’athist Iraq.

  14. tomgriffin said,

    May 16, 2008 at 11:10 pm

    He and John Lloyd (now of the FT etc) wrote a cutting critique of the 1977 version of (the then CPGB’s programme) The British Road to Socialism for the BICO journal Problems of Communism.

    Was that a BICO journal? I had assumed that the Problems of Communism that Lloyd wrote for was the one put out by the USIA

  15. D.J.P. O'Kane said,

    May 17, 2008 at 4:08 am

    An interesting thread, and one I can’t give the longer reply to I’d like.

    Yesterday I had a tutorial with presentations by two students, one on Zimbabwe since 1980 and the other on the ‘globalisation reduces risk of war’ hypothesis. What I said to the class re: dependency theory is that I see it like this; the world economy is like a football match where the pitch is not level, one team has to play without boots, and the referee and the linesmen are biased. The bootless team still have a chance of putting the ball in the other side’s net, which is how you get those cases of independent third world development (sometimes and in certain specific circumstances) – but the fact that that chance exists doesn’t mean that the unlevel pitch, the biased officials and the bootless condition of one team can be left out of the equation.

  16. johng said,

    May 17, 2008 at 10:20 am

    Well I can remember reading a piece by a gramscian international relations theorist cox which went through the substitution of NPE types for dependency theorists of one kind or another in development organisations, demonstrating that it co-incided largely with the defeat of advocates of a new international order which was concerned to address (in reasonably moderate ways) those questions about football boots and playing fields. It was possible to chart the repopulation of university departments entirely in terms of these institutional shifts as opposed to any intellectual arguments. As a Trot I had my own problems with Dependency theory, but I am not at all convinced that the new arguments proliferated because of the theoretical or even practical failure of the dependista’s (as they came to be called by those wise enough to be concerned about employment opportunities in a brave new world). Reading that article made me come over all Foucaulvian I must say. Chilling.

  17. Ken MacLeod said,

    May 17, 2008 at 1:56 pm

    tomgriffin – I don’t know if Lloyd ever wrote for the USIA journal, but the BICO’s journal really was called Problems of Communism and often featured articles by left intellectuals not associated with BICO (e.g., from memory, David Fernbach, Nigel Harris, and Paul Hindess). The journal is now called Problems of Capitalism and Socialism.

  18. Starkadder said,

    May 17, 2008 at 6:08 pm

    According to the British Library catalogue, the book Ken referred to
    “Advanced Capitalism and Backward Socialism” was writen
    by Warren and Mike Prior for the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation
    in 1975.

    Frank Furedi (of the controversial RCP/Spiked Online group) took
    a similar view to Warren,using Leninist ideas to celebrate the developments
    of capitalism (mainly technology as opposed to economic
    globalisation) as a prerequisite to socialism.
    And as we all know, he and his followers eventually ended up
    celebrating capitalism alone and moving
    to the political right.

    I remember people like Philip Ferguson being very hostile to
    the ideas of Warren, B&ICO and the Workers’ Party, mainly because they felt
    such ideas were justifying the British occupation of Northern Ireland.

  19. Starkadder said,

    May 17, 2008 at 6:33 pm

    There’s an interesting, although unsympathetic, discussion of
    Warren & Furedi’s ideas here:

  20. tomgriffin said,

    May 18, 2008 at 1:11 am

    Ken MacLeod – Thanks, you might have just saved me charging up a blind alley

  21. Starkadder said,

    May 19, 2008 at 6:56 pm

    Tom O’Connor:
    “As to the Asiatic Mode of Production, check out Perry Anderson’s “Passages from Antiquity to Feudalism.” He makes the case that Marx’s views were based on faulty data.”

    On a tangent to that,maybe Marx was guilty of the same Victorian
    stereotyping of Asian culture that was well documented by people like Edward Said and Jonathan D. Spence.

  22. D.J.P. O'Kane said,

    May 20, 2008 at 7:21 am

    He almost certainly was.

    On the other hand, it was a rare Victorian who would have hailed the resistance of the Zulus in southern Africa, as Engels did in his The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (a book which is still worth reading, but only if you remember that it’s over a hundred years out of date).

  23. NollaigO said,

    May 21, 2008 at 5:06 am

    Ken MacLeod, re post 8:

    “..There was an overlap around this time of the CPGB ‘right’ (Bob Purdy et al) and the BICO around the idea of trading off incomes policy for workers’ control in industry..”

    IIRC, the person was Dave Purdy (Purdie?). He is not to be confused with Bob Purdie, the historian. While Bob had left the Trotskyist movement by the mid1970s and is now a supporter of the Scottish Nationalist Party, his political odyssey did not include a sojourn in the CPGB.

  24. Ken MacLeod said,

    May 21, 2008 at 7:57 am

    Dave Purdy, yes. Not Bob. Dave wrote the CP pamphlet ‘The Soviet Union: State Capitalist or Socialist?’ Bob wrote the IMG pamphlet ‘Ireland Unfree’.

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