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Ian H. Birchall


(March 1975)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.76, March 1976, pp.38-39.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

India-China: Underdevelopment and Revolution
Nigel Harris
Vikas Publishing House, Delhi, (distributed in Britain by Prentice Hall, 66 Wood Lane, Kernel Hempstead, Herts), £4.50

AS the crisis intensifies, the various sectors of the world interlock ever more closely. African liberation struggles help to detonate workers’ revolt in Portugal; Middle East oil-producers upset the advanced countries’ economic carve-up. To guide us through the impending storm we need a theory; what Lenin wrote sixty years ago will not do, nor will the romantic guerrilla mythology of the sixties, Nigel Harris’s new book – a collection of essays, mainly published earlier in this Journal – is an important contribution to such a theory.

For many years the bitterly poor continents of Asia, Africa and Latin America have been politely described as the ‘developing countries’. It was thus suggested that, poor as they might be now, they would pass through the same development – that is, industrialisation – as Europe over the last two hundred years, and eventually make the big time into Western ‘affluence’. Against this Harris argues, harshly but persuasively, that it isn’t on; taking the two apparently widely differing cases of India and China, he shows that neither private capitalism nor state capitalism can bring off development.

Why? Because there is no such thing as – to quote another fashionable phrase – ‘the Third World’. The backward countries are an integral part of one world – a world dominated by imperialism and the nuclear arms race. Far from the advanced countries being dependent on the backward even for raw materials, there are many cases where the backward countries actually import food. The limits of development are rigidly imposed by the world market, as in the case of Cuba, whose economy became more and more dependent on specialisation in sugar after Castro came to power.

Internally, the failure to develop leads to a vicious circle. Poverty leads to discontent and threat of revolt; hence the need to strengthen the armed forces. But the ever-growing arms budget eats into the slender resources of a poor country and make the poverty worse. In India, Ceylon and China the process is remarkably similar.

Likewise, the failure to develop leads to constant conflict between central and local power. Harris shows the similarity between India and China in this respect too, and uses it to help explain the much misunderstood and misinterpreted ‘Cultural Revolution’.

Harris notes the important differences, historical and economic, between India and China, and he points out that, superficially at least, China offers the more attractive model. It has neither the extremes of wealth nor of poverty so obvious in India. Nonetheless, Harris shows, the effective economic performance is not all that different. To see India and China as variants of the same problem is far more illuminating than the tendency, by friends and foes alike, to see Mao’s China as an action replay of Stalinist Russia.

Economic crisis leads to political crisis, yet in a situation where the solution can only be international, Left and Right alike have given themselves over to nationalism. In India, war against Pakistan served, at least temporarily, to divert popular wrath from Mrs Gandhi. In China, appeals for effort and self-sacrifice, can be seen, behind a veneer of Marxist terminology, to be very like the appeals to the ‘national interest’ we know so well.

For, despite talk of ‘socialism’ and the proletariat’, politics in the underdeveloped world is dominated by the middle class, white-collar workers with a vested interest in the expansion of state power and employment Yet, in China in 1927, there was a real possibility of proletarian revolution. Trotsky’s theory of Permanent Revolution-which, contrary to common misinterpretation, is about available alternatives and not about inevitables-has had negative confirmation. If the proletariat does not take the lead, then capitalist development is still impossible, and the petty-bourgeoisie fill the social vacuum.

Within the nationalist spectrum,, there are many political variants, from parliamentary reformism to rural guerrilla warfare. Yet, as Harris argues, the divergences are not so great as they seem; reformism and guerrilla warfare are two faces of the same coin. Both accept the same nationalist framework; both seek to act on behalf of the masses rather than to mobilise among the masses. This is one of the most controversial theses of Harris’s book, yet it serves to explain many paradoxes of recent politics; for example, the vacillations of Indian Maoism, or how the Che Guevara fan club of 1967 became the Salvador Allende fan club of 1971.

However, one might have wished for a more thorough analysis of trends in guerrilla movements. Harris seems to put the Chilean MIR in the same bag as the Tupamaros or the Naxalites. Yet by 1973 the MIR had developed to very different work among peasants and urban workers. There are valid criticisms to be made of the MIR (see for example Prieto’s The Gorillas are Amongst Us), but they should be specific and concrete ones.

Likewise, the book could have been improved by a fuller account of working-class struggles in India, showing the positive alternative that could emerge. Harris does piece together, from the all too slender evidence, a picture of independent working-class action during the Chinese Cultural Revolution. This is indeed the key question. It was the Budapest workers who drove the first wedge into the Stalinist monolith. Maoism will continue to hypnotise the international left until the Chinese workers move against the regime.

Despite these reservations, the book should be read and ordered for libraries. But there is one further criticism – Harris’s unnecessarily obscure and contorted style. It is hard to know what to make of a sentence like: ‘If capitalism had still possessed the potential to develop the world, the Left might have remained either voices in their own wilderness – swallows without a summer – or charlatans, playing a Left tune but dancing a Right jig.’ Comrade Harris is a Marxist thinker of some talent. It is not outside his capabilities to learn to write English and he owes it to the movement to do so.

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