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International Socialism, Spring 1961


David Breen

Fleshless Profile


From International Socialism (1st series), No. 4, Spring 1961, p. 30.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The Stages of Economic Growth
W. Rostow
Cambridge. 1960. 21s.

A book that sets out to ‘challenge and refute Marxism’ (p.106) cannot afford to ignore its central thesis, that class struggle exists and is the most powerful agent of social change. Rostow does just this, sweeping aside Marx’s complex proposition with a platitude: ‘Man’, he writes, ‘...seeks, not merely economic advantage, but also power, leisure, adventure, continuity of experience and security; he is concerned with his family, the familiar values of his regional and national culture, and a bit of fun down at the local’ (p.149). Of course Man does this and is concerned with that, but he is above all a social being and his position within society determines many of his activities and colours most.

Rostow’s thesis is simple. There is a profile in industrial development which is identical in all cases. Whatever the historic circumstances, a ‘traditional society’ (stage I) must pass through the ‘preconditions for take-off’ (stage 2), ‘take-off (stage 3), the ‘drive to maturity’ (stage 4) to reach the ‘stage of high mass consumption’ (5). At each stage, all societies share a number of basic characteristics the details of which need not occupy us. There is nothing here beyond the commonplace observation that technical change posits changes in social and political arrangements, or that new social and political aims require new economic techniques to underpin them. Rostow goes no further. There’s no attempt at rooting the process of industrialization in history: why in Japan and not Thailand can the power of ‘compound interest’ (accumulation) be invoked in backward countries without replacing the existing ruling class, ie without revolution?

Rostow’s weakness is seen most clearly when he comes to operational analysis. ‘The limitation (on increased agricultural production in backward countries)’ he writes, ‘lies mainly in the size and competence of the pool of technicians willing and able to go into the countryside to demonstrate patiently the advantages of the newer methods’ (p.143). Rubbish. Put as many patient technicians as you like in the field, and unless the peasant is assured a right to the land he tills and its products, or more pointedly, unless he assumes these rights in opposition to the ‘rights’ of landlords and moneylenders, nothing will come of it. We’re back where we started: class struggle is the key to social change. If Rostow’s five stages have any meaning at all, it is simply as a crude history of the relevance of a ruling class to the process of capital accumulation, of its changing function as accumulation proceeds and, despite the author, of its ultimate irrelevance when a society built on consumption rather than accumulation becomes possible.

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