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Nigel Harris

3 worlds or 2 classes

(January 1980)

From Socialist Review, 19 January-16 February 1980: 1, p.30.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Underdeveloped Europe, Studies in Core-Periphery Relations
Institute of Development Studies, edited by Dudley Seers, Bernard Schaffer and Marja-Liisa Kiljunen
Harvester Press, 1979

That section of the Left popularly known as ‘Third Worldists’ argue that the real divisions in the world are geographical. The ‘first world’ of Europe, North America and Japan constitutes the world’s ruling class, the ‘Third World’, the proletariat and peasantry.

It follows that each segment of First and Third Worlds is socially homogeneous – the poor in the First and the rich in the Third are marginal (and often the poor in the First are seen simply as immigrants, really from the Third World after all). This notion – ‘proletarian’ States versus ‘bourgeois’ States – is a distant descendant of Stalinism, based upon the idea of a ‘proletarian State’ confronting a bourgeois world order. It is quite contrary to the Marxist tradition where proletariat and bourgeoisie confront each other in each segment of space: factory, district or country.

Of course, the idea has a half truth – Europe and the United States are the heartlands of the world bourgeoisie. But they are also the heartlands of the world proletariat as well. In fact, what the Third World argument is about is a conflict within the world ruling class – between the ruling classes of the backward capitalist countries and those of the advanced capitalist countries.

The Third World case is an explicit and extreme form of an assumption held by the ruling classes of the backward countries and by most of those who spend their lives working on these questions in the Economic Development Industry (heavily represented in the aid programmes of advanced capitalist countries, the United Nations, the World Bank and many others.)

The idea surfaces in a number of concepts, for example that of ‘dependency’, so popular among the Latin American intelligentsia. It occurs also in the use of a pair of concepts, ‘core’ and ‘periphery’. This proposes that core economic areas – for example, Europe and the United States – necessarily and invariably reduce all other areas to being peripheral, to supplying tribute. Used carefully, the idea can illumine some of the relationships involved in the spatial concentration of production and population, provided it is not used to make the core seem bourgeois and the periphery proletarian.

Both in the world system and each national part, the process of capital accumulation causes and is enhanced by an enormous centralization of the means of production – in terms of the size of production units, the ownership of those units and in the spatial concentration of modern activity. The processes are very similar, whether they mean concentration of production in the hands of a small group of advanced capitalist States in the world or of one leading region in a country.

This picture has always been true for developed capitalism, and in no way affects the socialist political strategy, Nonetheless, the use of the territorial argument in conditions where the Marxist tradition is weak or non-existent aligns the Left with the interests of the ruling class of the ‘periphery’ against those of the ‘core’.

In such a context, the idea of imperialism degenerates to meaning the relationship between the dominant world capitalists and the relatively backward capitalists, hot the relationship between world capitalism (big and small) and the world working class (now represented in all countries, regardless of the relative degree of economic development). The perspectives of world proletarian revolution disappear into the aspirations for ‘A new world economic order’ (the current United Nations demand), imperialism becomes ‘dependency’.

A group of specialists in problems of national economic development at the Institute of Development Studies (at the University of Sussex), have put together a volume of studies which try to apply the ‘core-periphery’ distinction to the internal relationships in Europe itself.

The contributors fortunately do not take too seriously the ostensible theme of the book, so that a number of the pieces are useful. But the theoretical fuzziness at the heart of the book means ‘core-periphery’ comes to mean anything you want it to mean.

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