To rethink development is an essential task if the term is to have any meaning for us at all. As an area of study and as a policy intervention in the global South, it has taken on an absolutist, yet at the same time a somewhat vacuous, character. While the modalities and theories of development proliferate, its overall benign and beneficial nature is simply taken for granted. Even in its radical variants – such as the ‘dependency’ approach – we still see a reproduction (albeit in reverse) of the dominant paradigm. And when it is questioned radically, it is largely through a post or anti-development lens that simply rejects the whole problematic without putting an alternative in place. It is therefore timely to engage in a thorough deconstruction of the development discourse to allow us to rethink its meaning and purpose and to establish whether it can have a meaningful role in the twentyfirst-century. The endless recycling of development discourses – and the much discussed crisis, or impasse, in development theory and practice – calls, in my view, for a ‘back to basics’ approach that will allow us to better understand the nature of the development discourse(s) and its contradictions.
The deconstruction of the development discourse I propose in my new book Rethinking Development: Marxist Perspectives entails critically examining the binary oppositions on which it is based – such as those opposing rural/urban, Western/Oriental, North/South, developed/underdeveloped, etc. – to problematise them and uncover the way in which they were constructed. Following Derrida’s understanding of deconstruction these are not taken as metaphysical oppositions but, rather, a hierarchy or order of subordination. Deconstruction thus calls for a double manoeuvre to allow us to carry out a general displacement of the system. While this is clearly a different approach to the Hegelian thesis, antithesis and synthesis present in much Marxist theorising, Derrida is arguably correct in asserting that deconstruction is a radical extension of Marxism, or at least ‘a certain spirit’ of Marxism. This is a radical programme that is not meant to be purely academic and speculative but one that ‘engages with the world’ as Derrida puts it. From a deconstructionist perspective we cannot thus appeal to a transparent ‘real world’ or simply oppose all ‘ideologies’ with our own pristine scientific perspective, as can happen in some Marxist approaches.
The engagement of Rethinking Development hinges around the various Marxist perspectives regarding development that are often very different and even opposed to one another. This means that we cannot simply critique the ideology of development from the standpoint of a putative Marxist science. Certainly, Marxism’s research agenda since the 1960s has greatly advanced our understanding of economics, history, politics, culture and philosophy. However, in relation to what we call ‘development’ it is necessary to carry out a double deconstruction of both development and Marxist theorising in this domain if we wish to both understand and change the world. Marxism will make a better contribution to this enterprise if it is, at the same time, critically interrogated and not just repeated as holy script.
The Marxist engagements with development that are covered in Rethinking Development – from the changing perspectives of Marx himself to the post-development approaches – show how heterogeneous the Marxist ‘inheritance’ for the present generation actually is. We bring to the fore some of the repressed alternatives – such as the late Marx on Russia or Rosa Luxemburg’s prescient understanding of permanent primitive accumulation – and deconstruct the once previously received truths such as Lenin’s theory of imperialism, often taken to be holy script. In fact, there is no one Marxist theory of development but, rather a cacophony of voices, often in total contradiction with one another. So, following Derrida albeit in a different context, we will find that to make sense of the engagement of the various strands of Marxism with development we need to filter, sift, criticise and sort out the various possible paths that may co-exist within the same Marxist imagination. In other words, we cannot take a single univocal or unified ‘Marxism’ as a privileged lens with which to observe and analyse development. We need to thus engage in a simultaneous deconstruction of development and Marxism if the dialogue between rethinking development from Marxist perspectives is to be fruitful. The Marxist perspectives on development that we explore will thus necessarily be provisional, subject to critical thinking themselves and often liminal, that is existing on borders of the ossified mainstream and on the threshold of something new in the colonial knowledge-power encounter.
In the 1960’s Marxism was a driving force of many national liberation struggles and a new ‘Third World Marxism’ emerged. Emblematic of this new hybrid that broke with Marxism as European thought system was Frantz Fanon who rejected the ‘civilising mission’ of Marxism from a Marxist perspective. For Fanon in The Wretched of the Earth:
when you examine at close quarters the colonial context it is evident that what parcels it out is to begin with the fact of belonging to or not to a given race, a given species….you are rich because you are white, you are white because you are rich. This is why Marxist analysis should always be slightly stretched every time we have to do with the colonial problem.
Fanon ‘stretched’ Marxism beyond its European parameters but also in regards to its absolute priority to the proletariat in countries where the peasantry were the overwhelming majority of the subaltern classes. Above all, Fanon ‘racialised’ capitalist development and thus opened up a whole new area of enquiry.
Could Marxism be ‘stretched’ in this way to accommodate the colonial difference? Third World Marxism always seemed to be characterised by a somewhat vague attachment to Marxism in its classic guise, always mediated by the Soviet textbooks which tended to simplify (to put it mildly) and adopt new formulations about ‘non capitalist’ development etc. to keep Marxism as a frame but only in the most general terms. In more radical interpretations, such as that of Fanon, Marxism was not so much stretched but translated into a very different language where national liberation loomed large, even though Fanon himself was extremely sceptical of the progressive prospects of the post-colonial regimes and, in particular, about the national bourgeoisie.
In the West (soon to become the North) Marxism tended to become a neo-Marxism to match the neo-capitalism that seemed to have overcome the crisis ridden nature of capitalism and the inevitable subjugation of the working class. The ‘golden era’ of capitalism seemed a new steady state with full employment, strong welfare provisions and rising wages. Capitalist planning seemed to do away with the earlier Marxist critique of capitalism as unplanned anarchy. The neo-Marxists (to give them a name) began to focus more on the ‘early Marx’ who wrote about the alienation of labour and the notion of capitalist irrationality through waste. As Anne Philipps notes, it also articulated a new theory of ‘underdevelopment’ (as against inexorable capitalist development) and “by posing a contradiction between capitalism and development it opened up a whole new area for critique of capital and helped to fill the lacuna created by the reconciliation between capital and labour in the advanced counties” (Philipps 1997, 9). Neo-Marxist engagement with development/underdevelopment was thus, to some extent anyway, a response to the perceived futility of classic Marxism in the advanced industrial societies.
In the 1980’s we saw the general ‘crisis of Marxism’ and the emergence of various strands of ‘post-Marxism’. Behind this lay the growing contradictions within ‘actually existing’ socialist countries, the erosion of Marxist-Leninist discipline and the rebelliousness of the ‘children of 1968’. This was part of the broader turn towards ‘postmodernism’ in the social sciences that questioned the empiricist, rational-logical model prevailing hitherto, and also the teleological readings of history in its critique of ‘metanarratives’ such as Marxism. While this is not the place to enter the fray around post-modernism it is relevant for us to discern two distinctive strands in this theoretical-political movement: one is pessimistic and gloomy in its prognosis of ever greater fragmentation and disintegration underpinned by a moral relativism, while the other is one that is more affirmative, hopeful and radical that sees a range of non-capitalist futures for society opening up ‘after’ modernism. A Third World postmodernism would be one variant of that second oppositional postmodernism with its rejection of Western ‘logocentrism’ and its claim to legitimacy by reference to universally truthful propositions.
This approach would also contest ‘essentialism’ and its commitment to explaining the complexity of the real world and social processes through an appeal to a true essence lying at its core, unchanging and ever-present. Capitalist development, rather, needs to be understood in terms of its multiple (and contradictory) determinations which always pushed and pulled it in different directions in a process on continuous change. It is perhaps ironic that Althusser, who was responsible for an overly ‘scientifistic’ reading of Marx in the 1960s, was also, in his posthumous writings a precursor of the contemporary concerns of the new social movements that take Marxism out of the straightjacket of modernism. One of Althusser’s interesting posthumous essays is ‘Marx in his Limits’ (Althusser 2006) that lays the basis for the ‘aleatory materialism’ that replaced his earlier structural Marxism. Aleatory materialism stresses the contingency of the social order: what exists did not, and does not, have to be so. To craft a new society the full range of alternatives that may result from human action and the multiple possibilities for self-determination must be fully understood. There is an “ultimate lack of guarantees” as to the path history may take; history has no pre-ordained end.
Set image illustrator: Anastasya Eliseeva