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Tom Kemp

A New Ideologist of Capitalism

Rostow’s ‘Non-Communist Manifesto’


From Labour Review, Volume 5, no 2, June-July 1960, pp 45-54, 63-64.
Transcribed & marked up by D. Walters & Paul Flewers for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

WW Rostow, The Stages of Economic Growth , Cambridge University Press, 21s

IT is notorious that, in present-day capitalist society, there is a never-ending quest for a satisfactory ideology to take the place of the discredited dogmas of the past and meet the challenge of Marxism. A terrible intellectual void is discernible among those educated managers, administrators, technicians and publicists who have placed their talents in its keeping for a due share of the good things of life, accompanied by chronic anxiety. The void is filled, in one way or another. From their ranks come many a fluent pen and plausible doctrinaire purveying mysticism for the soul-sick and so on through to sheer cynicism for the hard-headed. But something more is needed than fashionable evangelists and story-writers. There is a demand for some solid explanation of economic and social development which does not challenge the assumptions and values of capitalism. Something comparable, in fact, to the comforting bourgeois doctrines of ‘progress’ which were blown sky-high in the twentieth century. WW Rostow, who has already achieved prominence as an economic historian, [1] now comes forward to provide what purports to be at once a coherent answer to Marxism and a comforting philosophy of history for the adherents of capitalism.

Rostow proclaimed, indeed, that he was going to provide ‘an alternative to the Marxist interpretation of modern history’ and ‘challenge Marxism’. What he said in the lecture halls echoed into the City of London and was given the unusual amplification of publication, in advance of appearance in book form, by the widely-read business organ The Economist with the subtitle A Non-Communist Manifesto . [2] It would thus reach an important stratum of the salaried servants of capitalism whose conviction about the necessity of what is would thus be reinforced. At the same time Rostow’s thesis would be thrown out more widely, to be discussed among, and perhaps to influence, those students and intellectuals especially concerned with economics and the social sciences.

At first sight, then, it might seem surprising that Rostow is so seriously concerned with the refutation of a doctrine which is hardly likely to have made many inroads into the first category of readers. But it is not really so strange. It was at one time generally assumed by the orthodox that The Communist Manifesto had been buried along with all the other economic and historical errors of Marx and Engels. Now, however, much time and energy is devoted to the refutation of Marxism, a testimony to its power and to the failure of its enemies to deal with it intellectually. Once it was enough to pretend that Marxism did not exist; now the challenge can no longer be evaded, but has to be dealt with in deadly earnest. More: other theories, especially theories of history, have to be defined in relation to Marxism, and this is Rostow’s concern. It is not that he is speaking to an audience infected with the virus and is trying to cure them: few could have read much of Marx at first hand. It is simply that Marxism provides a fixed point of reference: it has endured among the changing fads and fashions of the intellectual world and the host of other interpretations which have come and gone. Rostow, by implication, thus pays Marxism an immense tribute. He does not consider any other historical position — there is only his own, and Marx’s. Let us see how he deals with Marx, what his alternative is worth — for The Economist describes it as ‘one of the most stimulating contributions made to economic and political thought since the war’ — and to what practical conclusions it leads.

It cannot be said that as a refuter of Marx Rostow adds much to the long list of his predecessors in the way of distortion and bad faith. One suspects that his study of the works of Marx and Engels has been neither so protracted nor so meticulous as his confident assertions lead one to believe. In any case, his understanding of their meaning is certainly defective. Whenever possible he identifies Marxism with the parody of it which provides the Soviet rulers with an ideology; and ‘communism’ he takes as the Soviet system of today. This leads to some statements which are quite fantastic in terms of classical Marxism. [3] Indeed, his own theories, as we shall see, share with Stalinism a determinism which leaves little room for the creative activities of flesh-and-blood men and women. Frequently he merely trades on his ‘reputation’ and simply employs the method of counter-assertion instead of demolishing the Marxist case: enouncing what he believes without argument or proof. At other times he copies Marx, that is, he makes statements which are basically the same as those which Marx, or Marxists, would make (which may arise from ignorance), or admits ‘broad similarities’ between his system and Marx’s. Indeed, he leaves himself plenty of escape routes; clarity of statement is not one of his virtues, he prefers a certain fuzziness of language and the insertion of an imprecise qualification. Marx, he tells us, was ‘a lonely man, profoundly isolated from his fellows’ — a statement which was simply not biographically true in any sense.

The Stages of Economic Development

There is no doubt, however, that as an anti-Marxist advocate Rostow is a difficult customer. He knows when and what to distort. He also knows (although perhaps again it is ignorance) which parts of the Marxist challenge to ignore. But it is in his own positive alternative that he shows, inadvertently, his evasion of the main questions which Marxists pose in the historical field.

From the beginning of his exposition Rostow is in fact in retreat, or taking evasive action. Returning to the attempt to delineate ‘stages’ of economic development which had been abandoned by the empiricists, Rostow appears to believe that he has found a new criterion which supersedes the Marxist sequence of social formations as found in The Communist Manifesto , Anti-Dühring and elsewhere. But he does not face up to and provide cogent reasons for rejecting the Marxist division. He is content to admit that ‘there are some broad similarities between the Marxist sequence and the stages of growth analysis’ — the description he applies to his own pattern. This pattern is devised independently of social relations, in terms of the level of growth, output per head, that is, a purely quantitative measure.

In the course of his discussion, however, it is soon evident that the ‘broad similarities’, where they exist, merely smuggle back into the picture the key role of the social relations governing production. His own division is as follows:


The traditional society


The transitional society


The ‘take off’


The maturing society


The society of high consumption.

These are the stages through which all societies are supposed to pass. The advanced countries are at present in the fifth stage, the rest of the world in the four previous stages, but most of it already out, or on its way out, of the first.

What is this ‘traditional society’ with low productivity and a slow rate of growth? It is evidently what Marxists know as ‘feudalism’. Rostow himself describes it as a society with ‘a hierarchical social structure with little scope for vertical mobility — with wealth and power concentrated in the hands of those who controlled land rents’, namely the feudal nobility. This was, in fact, the key to this stage. Such a society, indeed, already marked a considerable advance in productivity over more primitive societies. It had a settled agriculture, a complex social structure and a social division of labour which permitted, besides the existence of a luxury-loving ruling hierarchy, a considerable flowering of human culture — all at the expense of the dependent cultivators from whom a surplus was extracted with the help of what Marx called ‘extra-economic coercion’.

In discussing the Marxist view of human development Engels pointed out that:

A surplus of the product of labour over and above the costs of maintenance of the labour, and the formation and enlargement out of this surplus, of social production and a reserve fund, was, and is, the basis of all social, political and intellectual progress. In history, up to the present, this fund has been in the possession of a privileged class, on which also devolved, along with this possession, political supremacy and intellectual leadership. [4]

This is a useful point of reference, not only for dissecting ‘the traditional society’, or feudalism, but for testing Rostow’s subsequent stages of growth. Not just the level of production, or even the rate of growth, but how the surplus was produced and who secured it — these were the fundamental questions, upon which, in the last analysis, the rate of growth and the level of productivity depended . What Rostow does is to define his stages in terms of the dependent variations — output and consumption — and not the determinants, to confuse changes in quantity with changes in quality.

When seeking the main reason for the slow growth of the traditional society Rostow has to admit that the barrier to change was the feudal ruling class itself. Only when the nobility was displaced by what Rostow, to avoid that embarrassing term ‘class’, chooses to call ‘a new leading Élite’, were the barriers to change overcome. [5] The feudal nobility, in effect, scooped up the surplus and put it to non-productive purposes. Only as part of this surplus was acquired by the bourgeoisie did new relations of production, which were eventually to disintegrate the old society, take form. It was the members of this class who directed income into ‘roads and railways, schools and factories, rather than country houses and servants, personal ornaments and temples’. Yes, here were the rational utilitarians who valued men ‘for their individual ability to perform specialised functions’ and were able to enlist science in the widening and transformation of the environment and the methods of production.

The driving force of this class was the rational pursuit of acquisition carried on in particular circumstances in which ‘competition makes the immanent laws of capitalist production to be felt by each individual capitalist, as external coercive laws’. [6] Capitalist relations introduced a new dynamic factor into the economy: the pressure to accumulate in order to invest for the purpose of increasing the scale of production and reducing unit costs. In order to retain and increase their share of the social surplus the bourgeoisie revolutionised the productive forces, thus fulfilling its ‘historical mission’, succinctly described by Marx as ‘the ruthless development in geometrical progression, of the productivity of human labour’. [7] The continued working out of this process right down to the period where the ability of the bourgeoisie to fulfil this mission reaches limits inherent in the system itself, and which sees it swept aside in a significant area of the globe, spans the remainder of Rostow’s stages.

The ‘transitional society’ is none other than the passage from feudalism to capitalism, the remaining stages are, at the most, only one way of dividing up the subsequent history of capitalism. When Rostow speaks of the requirement for growth being a ‘rise in the rate of investment and the stock of capital per head’, he has, in fact, made the whole process a mechanistic one by abstracting from the social relations in which it occurred.

In fact, the process of accumulation involved the extraction of surplus value from a property-less class of wage-earners and its realisation on the market, as it still does in capitalist society. But this takes place in a changing and complex social setting; in Capital , to give precision to his economic concepts and formulations, Marx frequently abstracts from these surrounding conditions. But he makes it plain that he is abstracting and does not confuse reality with his theoretical model (which is more than can be said of many economists today). He was quite explicit that theoretical conclusions had to be tested by close investigation and by practice. The pure capitalist relation between wage labourers and the owners of the means of production has to be inserted in a society which, for example, would contain carry-overs from other systems, remnants of the classes which went with them (the landlords could adapt themselves very well to capitalism). The system also provokes a self-defensive response on the part of the workers which modifies the operation of the laws of the system. [8] Marx stated quite plainly, too, that the same ‘economic base’ may show ‘infinite variations and gradations in its appearance, even though its principal conditions are everywhere the same. This is due to innumerable outside circumstances, natural environment, race peculiarities, outside historical influences and so forth, all of which must be ascertained by careful analysis .’ [9]

Marxism and Determinism

If the economic base could show ‘infinite variations’ all the more so could the ‘superstructure’. To present the Marxist interpretation as a simple economic determinism, as Rostow does, in which the base directly determined the nature of the superstructure or in which men are assumed to follow their own self-interest single-mindedly is simply an inexcusable distortion. Perhaps there are a few formulations which could be taken out of context to support such a view for polemical purposes. It appears that Rostow knows quite well that these did not represent Marx’s view of historical materialism. It is with patronising dishonesty that he permits himself the statement ‘there are a few passages in Marx — and more in Engels — which reveal a perception that human behaviour is affected by motives and objectives which need not be related to or converge with economic self-interest’. [10]

This is presumably a reference to some of the passages in later works and correspondence in which Marx and Engels developed and refined certain of their concepts and dissociated themselves from some of the over-simplifications of their disciples. But nowhere did they assume, except within the terms of abstract economic-model-making, that real human behaviour could be understood as the pursuit of individual self-interest. A fair-minded perusal of Marx’s writings should be sufficient to expose any such interpretation. [11] Of course Marx’s prime intention was not to investigate motives. In Rostow’s account we find an inconsistent assemblage of various theories and assumptions about human behaviour. He wants to dissociate himself from what he wrongly assumes is Marxism by his stress on the fact that capitalists are not only out to make money, but are also inspired by ‘power, adventure, challenge and prestige’. At the same time, the main lines of his theory of development are the outcome of a quasi-automatic process, ‘compound interest’, which hardly appears to require human intervention. Even his sponsors of The Economist cannot refrain from the remark that ‘he may seem to claim to have invented a diabolical law of perpetual historical motion, and embodied it in a steam-roller’. [12]

How can Rostow explain that ‘economic change has social and political effects’, without analysing the material conditions and social and class relations in which men live? He draws rigid lines between the ‘economic’ and the ‘non-economic’. He swamps all references to that central theme of The Communist Manifesto , the class struggle, in his newly-branded ‘stages of growth’. Yet, to take a simple example, the behaviour of businessmen in the twentieth century has an historical, social root and could only become acceptable after a long period of bourgeois dominance. It is quite different from that of a feudal lord or a Chinese mandarin, because the material environment is different, and because of the specific class relations of capitalist society. The very motives other than the search for profits of which Rostow speaks are also the product of bourgeois dominance, and take their special form from the social environment.

‘I paint the capitalist and the landlord in no couleur de rose ’, wrote Marx in the Preface to Capital , ‘here individuals are dealt with only insofar as they are the personifications of economic categories… My standpoint can less than any other make the individual responsible for relations of production whose creature he socially remains.’ [13] The self-expansion of capital, accumulation for accumulation’s sake, is part of the system; as he personifies Capital, a particular set of production relations, the capitalist, as long as he remains such, has to accord with its demands. Rostow asks, as though he had discovered something profoundly important, ‘how can one explain the ardent striving of men [he means capitalists — TK] long after they have made more money than they or their children could conceivably use?’ [14] Yes, instinctively, when he asks what they have done he first answers in terms of making money. But his own reply to the question, given in advance, was that ‘the game of expansion and money-making was rewarding in terms of the full range of human motives’. Precisely the same thing might be said of the gambler or even of the criminal. In fact, the capitalists who go on piling up money do so, on the one hand, because they have come to personify capital as a result of their place in the relations of production; as long as the system is in a phase of expansion and they are in a good line they can do no other. On the other hand, the explanations can run from the none-too-pleasing assumptions of same psychologists (money = excrement) to… Rostow’s own. But, without the laws of capitalism these explanations have no interest because it would be impossible to go on piling up money, anyway!

Of course Marxists do not deny that businessmen are other things besides personifications of the capitalist process of accumulation and exploitation, that they seek all manner of gratifications, create favourable images of themselves and genuinely believe them. Nor do they assume that the only active moulders of history were those directly owning the means of production and operating them in the bourgeois epoch. The bourgeoisie is, and always was, a structured class, not one composed entirely of capitalists. It was bound to ally with others when it gathered strength within the womb of feudalism. It contained, besides industrialists, merchants and financiers, the officials (although not always), the professional men, the literary and scientific intelligentsia, part of the clergy as well as landowners and farmers (some of them). What gave this class its common measure was that it derived its income from the surplus value of those having nothing but their labour power to sell; and with that went, though not automatically, a consciousness of common interests as men of property, of ‘standing’ and ‘respectability’. However, some members of this class were, at the same time, able to attain to a certain autonomy in relation to the economic system and to influence it in one way or another. [15] Some tried to reduce its inhumanity. Others contrived to speed up its development or to guide it into one direction rather than another. Marxists do not overlook this phenomenon and those responsible for it, but they do trace the social roots of what such men do and the impact of their actions. They see them in relation to the position of the whole class and, particularly, of the class struggle; of the nature of the state; of the role of ideology.

This is not the place for a systematic exposition of historical materialism, but sufficient has perhaps been said to expose Rostow’s parody of it. As for his alternative ‘interpretation’, despite his display of specialist virtuosity and his ambitious claims for it, he fails to provide adequate criteria for the distinguishing of his stages — smudging over significant changes and creating distinctions of no more than secondary importance.

To substantiate this judgement in detail would inevitably take up as much space as the original articles so that all that can be offered here is a selection of points. Thus if we return to his second stage, ‘the transitional stage’, we find that, despite himself, he has to mention the changes which the Marxist would highlight, though he buries them in a discussion of results rather than causes. He has to indicate that this is a period in which capital is being accumulated and concentrated in the hands of the bourgeoisie (though he does not use the term), but he does not dwell on the accompanying dispossession and proletarianisation of the direct producers. [16] As Marxists see it, this is the central feature of what is, in fact, the early process of capitalist penetration into industry and agriculture. In the course of this, labour-power itself becomes a commodity in one sector after another, though largely without any technological revolution in the instruments of production; this is the phase of capitalist-organised manufacture. [17] There is, as Rostow says, ‘much variety in the sectors which have played the key role in the take-off process’. By this he means that in one place cotton, in another iron, in another timber took the lead in industrialisation. [18] The decisive point, which has to be ignored to fit in with his scheme, is that those sectors which took the lead and grew rapidly did so primarily because they had become subject to a new dynamic: the laws of capitalist production.

Industrial Capital and the Nation-State

Capitalism was already well established before what Rostow designates as the ‘take off’, the early period of industrialisation, after which ‘economic growth becomes more or less automatic’, could take place. The essential force behind the upsurge of industry was quite simply the massive extension to it of capitalist relations. This acceleration of growth was associated with new and more productive techniques developed in response to the incentives provided by expanding markets and rising profits and the existence of a proletariat. While Rostow keeps this in the background he readily ranges over a wide field to illustrate what might be summed up as the point that no two ‘take offs’ were alike. This is neither surprising nor original.

For Marxists, differences in the timing and tempo of capitalist development on a world historical scale are interpreted not by formal comparison but dialectically. The international nature of capitalism is important to stress, especially because Rostow tends to neglect the necessary links which bound the various capitalist states to the world market. [19] Already the burgeoning of capitalism in Western Europe would not have been possible without the widening horizons of the known world brought about by the opening up of new routes to other continents. The pioneer industrialisation of England was closely bound up with the strategic position of English trade and shipping in overseas markets, including the seizure of colonies. The slave trade and the plunder of India considerably furthered the accumulation of capital, part of which flowed into the new capitalist factories and mills. Certainly the formation of English industrial capitalism was a world process which had its repercussions from Virginia to Calcutta, from China to Peru. English capitalists virtually dragged a world market into being, ground out ‘primitive accumulation’ from the slave trade and the toil of African slaves; they uprooted peasants from the English counties, and subjected the market to their own needs for an entire epoch. Indeed, without the subjection of an expanding world market to its requirements, economic growth in England could not have gone on at a cumulative rate. There is, in fact, nothing automatic about compound interest: it has to come from somewhere; for England at this time her world trade and colonial monopoly had not a little to do with it.

Moreover, once industry was established in one part of the world, other countries were affected by it and could, under certain conditions, take it over and assimilate it into their own economic structures. Consequently no subsequent industrialising process repeated exactly that of the pioneer country where it had taken place, so to speak, organically. Not only were features of the most advanced technology and organisation grafted on to societies which were otherwise ‘backward’, but these countries stood in an entirely different relationship to the world market to that of England at a corresponding stage of development. Not only did the existence of this world market lead to the subjugation of some countries to those of the colonising powers, but those nations newly industrialising took advantage of the possibilities of participation in the world division of labour which it offered. [20] Capitalism in one country could not exist, and competition in the world market was an inevitable extension to the global scene of what happened between capitalists inside each country.

It may be noted here, too, that the countries which industrialised after England frequently did so as part of a more or less conscious effort with assistance from the state. In its time, the state had been closely associated with the rise of capitalism in Britain, but the actual industrialisation which began in the second half of the eighteenth century was carried through primarily by individual entrepreneurs responding to the laws of the market. In Prussia, Russia, Japan and other countries state officials played a prominent or even decisive role in promoting industrialisation. Without the model of England and the existence of the world market their efforts, like those of forerunners in the eighteenth century, would have been doomed to failure. In the nineteenth century it was different: the state could, and did, play an active role. [21] But what it did, even in Japan, was to give an artificial boost to capitalist development, not to create a new and distinct form of economy. This was done in a variety of ways, by sweeping away restrictions on enterprise, granting tariffs and subsidies, encouraging invention, raising capital, even setting up and running key industries — in short, by providing favourable conditions for the development of capitalism.

Rostow talks about the state as though it were always an independent force over and above the social and class structure. Indeed, he goes to extremes in the autonomous role which he grants to political and ideological forces in economic development. He states that: ‘As a matter of historical fact, xenophobic nationalism has been the most important force in the transition from traditional to modern society — vastly more important than the profit motive.’ [22] ‘The historical fact’ is no more than the interpretation of some selected facts by Rostow; the confident assertion is not backed up by sustained argument. There is, indeed, some retreat, when he states that ‘xenophobic nationalism has not, of course, been the only force at work’. It is typical of his method that he never gets down to assessing its precise role. Like the state, xenophobic nationalism seems to hang in the air, to be ‘disembodied’ (to use one of his own terms). Historically nationalism inheres in particular social groups for specific reasons: it does not descend from the skies to refute the materialist conception of history. Nationalism and the nation-state arose in close association with emerging capitalism; their special historical achievement was to create the political form within which the capitalist mode of production became dominant. It is true that there was not always and invariably such an association, nor would it be argued that nationalism was only the expression of the political interests of the bourgeoisie. State-building, especially in its earlier stages, was undertaken by dynastic monarchs in struggle against feudal prerogatives and decentralising elements. Where they failed to link up with a progressive bourgeoisie (for example, Frederick the Great and Joseph II in the eighteenth century) the ‘traditional society’ of Rostow’s terminology remained in being. Capitalists have not invariably been nationalist in their profession; at times they have leaned towards an ostensible cosmopolitanism, as in the Free Trade movement in England in the mid-nineteenth century. Even in the latter case the following of the movement was attracted by material interests, especially the possibility of getting access to foreign markets.

From an abstract ‘rational’ standpoint the material gains from a more effective utilisation of the international division of labour through cooperation would have been greater than the actual contest for the market between states. But capitalism, the bourgeoisie, needed the national state in its struggle against feudalism. As the states-system of the modern world evolved, frontiers, boundaries, customs barriers, national tax, wage and price differences became relevant economic facts. Material interests and nationalism remained closely intertwined, and as capitalism developed its history was marked by wars for the creation of national states and wars between states.

Did these wars have economic roots? What of the Marxist-Leninist theory of imperialism? When Rostow considers these questions we can forecast his response. Wars are the result of faulty ‘choice’, a preference for unproductive political over productive economic objectives. There was, in his estimation, no economic basis for imperialism, which he identifies with political annexations in which the flag followed trade — unnecessarily and irrationally — for reasons of prestige and the pursuit of power. Thus he asserts that: ‘Nothing justified much ado about colonies on strict economic grounds from (say) 1873 to 1914; but the competition went on because colonies were accepted symbols of status.’ Colonies were not acquired only because of an actual or supposed economic value: that is obvious enough from a cursory survey of history. What was characteristic of this period, however, was that powerful forces inside the main capitalist countries were seeking wider and more certain markets, assured supplies of raw materials, new investment fields, as well as strategic positions whose value, if they had any, derived from the international nature of the contest.

The theory of imperialism assumes that capitalism was embodied in nation-states, that a contradiction arose between the development of the productive forces within each state and the extent of its market and resources, and that the drive for colonies represented the search for an escape from this dilemma. That the active participants in and proponents of imperialist expansion responded to other immediate stimuli and that these economic drives were cloaked in the ideological trappings of political nationalism, racialism and the ‘white man’s burden’ was only to be expected. Rostow’s assertion assumes that economic forces as powerful as those generated by modern industry were somehow tamed and kept in tow by the flag-waving and platform rhetoric of politicians and propagandists.

Capitalism of a New Type?

Marxists see the struggles of rival imperialist powers in a shrinking world as the source of the world wars of our century. Rostow finds that ‘as far as they have an economic base… it lies in the contours of the Eurasian arena of power and particularly in the temptations and fears presented to new mature powers by the transitional societies in Eastern Europe and China’. With such high-sounding phrases and vulgarised geopolitics Rostow brushes the problem aside. For him, ‘ambitious nationalism’, ‘the temptations of power’ (to which Germany ‘succumbed’ in 1914), the existence of ‘soft spots’ or the ‘choice’ by ‘mature societies’ of military expansion rather than other alternatives suffice as explanations. Today, it is happily assumed that the United States, Britain and Western Europe have renounced these temptations and policies, while the Russian leaders still maintain their drive for world hegemony.

This division of the world underlies Rostow’s political thinking and we may say that the ‘new’ interpretation of history turns out to be a more sophisticated apology for the policies of the State Department as well as an ideological justification for capitalism. While he has been arguing not with genuine Marxism, but with the rigidly deterministic derivation from it which under Stalin became the ideology of the Russian leadership, so his own system shares many of the shortcomings of the system which he is opposing. This is evident not only in his method — the irreversible ‘steam-rolling process’ going on without human intervention — but also in his view of the world. Just as for Stalin–Khrushchev the world is divided between ‘peace-loving’ and warlike powers, so for Rostow the same division exists, with the signs reversed. America and her allies seek peace, Russia and hers are bent on world domination. Both for Rostow and his Soviet counterparts any initiative or independence by people outside and against the power systems is just unthinkable.

His international policy for the atomic age derives from his simplified basic assumptions. We may use the summary which The Economist makes for him because it brings out quite starkly its true nature. The West, that is, the capitalist states:

… must try to make the choice of attempted world domination so unattractive to the Russians as to be unattainable; it must maintain and reinforce a network of alliances which denies the Russians all the routes to a military breakthrough by military adventures with which they still toy. On the other hand, and here current summit-climbing comes in, the West must make the choice of a high-consumption society… as easy, as natural and as face-saving for Mr Khrushchev as it can. [23]

It is assumed that in some way, namely by the use of nuclear deterrents, the Russians — that is, the Khrushchev leadership — can be made to choose ‘high mass consumption’ instead of military expansion. He speculates about social trends in Russia which make such a shift conceivable. In fact, however, since Rostow sees in Russia the predominance of the political over the economic, and a new technique of power — as well as a formidable example for backward countries seeking to industrialise — the main stress, as The Economist rightly points out, is on military alliances and weapons, which can bring about some alteration in Russian policy . [24]

Rostow does not consider the internal effects of such policies in the Western countries, but he does give some indication of what he thinks are the innermost tendencies in modern capitalist economies. To consider these it is necessary to refer once again to his stages. After industrialisation has got under way, the economy passes through the stage of maturity, when, he admits, ‘it behaves in the most Marxist way’. As growth continues, development is assured into the stage of ‘high consumption’, which again is arbitrarily defined in terms of output per head. The use of this designation makes it possible to conceal the actual vast inequalities in consumption levels within these societies. Consumption is seen through the suburban living of the American middle class, which sets the pace for the world. Some people, of course, lag behind because of their own fault. There is, for example, the European worker who, between the wars, ‘took only slowly to the idea that gadgets, travel and other services a mature economy can afford were really for him’. Such fatuous comments do coexist with other more prescient remarks. He does not disguise the fact, for example, that in the 1930s the American economy after its preceding surge forward, ‘appeared almost to have stabilised itself at a lower level, when World War II, like a sort of deus ex machina, restored full employment’. In fact it has only been kept on an even keel since by further shots in the arm, notably those associated with the spending of the state on armaments. Even Rostow is worried. ‘Unless consumption levels press outwards’, he says, ‘capacity in consumers’ goods industries and those supplying them will be underused and the impulse to invest will be weak.’ In other words, industry must have markets in which goods can be sold at a profit, otherwise the system will come to a halt. The point at which it does so is not determined by the satisfaction of the all-round needs of the masses, even in the advanced countries and these needs are not to be identified with ‘gadgetry’. Prewar American consumption levels were lower than those of today, but a slump came nevertheless; it was not incapacity to consume but inability to pay which provided the barrier.

Of course, consumption under capitalism has risen; there has been a ‘sharing’, though in unequal proportions — determined by the social relations of productions — of increased productive capacity. What capitalism cannot do is to plan the rational use of resources for optimum consumption; it cannot regulate labour time equitably between its members or provide leisure and facilities for the full development of their capacities. It cannot control the effects of a social division of labour in which some men are objects for attaining the ends of others. It is locked in its own categories and subjects men to them whether they will or not. Rostow makes a fantastic identification between ‘high consumption’, US style, and the ‘communism’ about which Marx wrote. According to one of his statements, ‘the societies of the West have… made their way to the brink of communism without succumbing to Marx’s prognosis’. [25] This is a parody of Marx which Rostow has produced by falling dupe to his own interpretation: if consumption goes on growing, won’t ‘communism’ in the sense of abundance, become a reality? But the concern which Rostow feels about the limits to mass consumption, his satisfaction that there exist backlogs of neglect in important investment fields or about the ‘extraordinary and unexpected decision of Americans to have more babies’, [26] shows that the real problem is whether capitalism, as Marxists would say, can go on extracting and realising surplus value on an expanding scale. Since the 1930s this has been possible because one deus ex machina after another has ensured that markets existed for expanding output. Rising consumption was incidental to this and only on a superficial view can define this period of capitalist development.

Rostow puts in the foreground the level of output (identified with consumption) which is perhaps the most important feature distinguishing capitalism today from that which Marx knew and analysed. Otherwise, capitalism is still capitalism and if Rostow had spent any time in examining the relations of production he would have been bound to conclude that in qualitative terms his last three ‘stages’ are indistinguishable. Before he can consume, the worker has to sell his labour power, to work for a boss. While he is at work he is at the boss’ disposal. At the end of the week or month he draws his pay cheque — and if he wishes to draw the next one he has to be at the boss’ disposal at the due time and place at the beginning of the next week or month. As his wage makes up the whole of his means of existence he has no other alternative; or rather, those alternatives are open to only a few workers, say, by trying to secure ‘independence’ by opening a small shop or by turning to crime.

What the worker produces is not his own — nor can he decide the tempo or conditions under which he works. Even the union can only modify these within the limits which the maintenance of the system imposes. For most workers, their labour has been largely severed from interests or a sense of fulfilment. Work has become separated from life and yet deeply involved with it. What counts is what happens when work ends: the night out, the TV show, the annual holiday, though even here ‘work’ accompanies the worker everywhere and he cannot shake off its shadow. But it is here, in ‘leisure’, that ‘real life’ begins: which is in large part nothing more than the necessary rest, recuperation and repose of nerves and bodily tissues without which work would be impossible. If he gets more of it than his father or grandfather this is partly because modern work is more intense, more grinding for body and nervous system. And, even so, it has had to be wrested from the purchasers of labour-power in struggle and not granted through the inexorable processes of ‘high consumption society’.

Real life begins… but ‘real life’ is often far from living up to men’s expectations; and perhaps for women the problem is worse. And so refuge is taken in the various media of escape purveyed as part of the commodity production of capitalism. Output per head includes, of course, the activities of advertising men, the trade in narcotics of the mind and body, the unwanted and useless gadgets bought under the pressure of the latest sales techniques. The system pours out goods which it convinces people that they want, while leaving many needs poorly catered for. Some are able to consume on a fabulous scale while large sections of the populations placed by Rostow in the ‘high consumption’ range have only the bare minimum of house-space and food, not to speak of the other amenities of life.

The Basic Contradiction of Capitalism

Marxists hold that the capitalist system gives birth to its own grave-diggers, the modern working class. Rostow occasionally mentions workers, but he never pauses to consider what they are, what they do, what place they hold in society — he tries to merge them into the general category of consumers (which covers all members of society regardless of class). Here is one of the essential falsities of his picture of modern capitalism. He evades the Marxist challenge by simply ignoring class differences. Yet even in periods of high prosperity with rising consumption levels, even when led politically and in the trade unions by men who accept the fundamentals of the system the working class remains in practice unreconciled to it. The sums which are spent on human relations, industrial psychology and ‘welfare’ by business are a monument to its failure, its failure to exorcise the class struggle, the central theme of The Communist Manifesto . Of one thing we can be sure, as long as capitalism survives the industrial relations experts will never work themselves out of a job. But Rostow says nothing about this. To consider man as a producer would mean examining the social relations of production and employing Marxist criteria which would run counter to those which he adopts. Only by retaining the viewpoint of a consumer can he give his interpretation a semblance of consistency.

Ambitious as his programme is, Rostow fails to provide adequate means for distinguishing his ‘stages’ of economic growth. For all this erudition and pseudo-science he only combines the old bourgeois history, emphasising ideas, desires, sentiments, great men and status symbols as the determining forces, with concessions to economic determinism, and then profusely illustrates his points with all manner of doubtful examples. His major purposes are laid bare in his more directly political statements to which this display of knowledge and academic virtuosity is designed to lend support. He mingles self-complacency with inexplicable doubts and fears; he conforms, in fact he is ultra-conformist on the main issues, but he gives expression to a few private doubts and misgivings. His major fear is the Soviet Union and what the Soviet Union symbolises for him and for US capitalism. He tries to cut the USSR down to size, as it were, by emphasising all those features in its development which resemble those of the United States, whereas it is the differences which are essential, whether considering the history of Russia before the Revolution or Soviet society today.

For example, Rostow gives no reason except ‘reactive nationalism’, or the drive for world hegemony, for supposing that Russia is aggressive, any more than he supplies any evidence for the peaceful orientation of the USA. He fails to see, or evades discussing, the fact that all the fears he expresses about the American economy do not apply to the USSR. With a nationalised and planned economy there is no reason why long-run deceleration of growth curves should give rise to any problem, because resources can be deployed rationally to conform with social needs. Likewise, before this stage is reached, it is possible to make use of automation more fully and without the problems of technological unemployment which arise under capitalism. It is true that because of the particular distortions which have crept into Soviet society the full potentialities of planning have not been realised, but that is quite a different matter.

There is something else which worries Rostow very seriously because it concerns a world challenge to capitalism. As we have seen, he rejects — or misunderstands — the Marxist theory of imperialism. He assumes that ‘colonialism is virtually dead’, which is true, at the most, only in relation to open political control of colonies. Rostow is very worried lest these former colonies and other backward countries should follow the Soviet model, hence like many other publicists, he argues that ‘the West’ should increase aid to them, in order to inoculate them against the ‘disease’. What he omits to point out is that these areas are by no means free of economic imperialism. Nor is there any lack of capital supplied through the big extra-territorial companies, when there is scope for the profitable opening-up of natural resources to meet the demand of the world market. What is lacking is capital for all-round development, and it is this which Rostow wants to see supplied.

States do already supply capital to countries in Asia and Africa because of their sensitivity to the challenge of the USSR, but also for another reason which Rostow does not mention. Foreign aid, in India for example, has been necessary to enable the national bourgeoisie to maintain itself in power; without it the Congress government would have fallen long ago. As it is, the national bourgeoisies in semi-colonial or former colonial countries have had to lean on foreign capitalists externally — or to manoeuvre between them and the Soviet Union — and on the forces of the old social order internally. The main obstacle blocking faster industrialisation is to be found in the social relations of production; the nature of the national bourgeoisie and of its partnership with landed interests inhibits faster development because such essential preliminaries as agrarian reform cannot be carried through. Of course, massive aid from outside can prolong the existence of these regimes, though it cannot dispel the contradictions of the social structure; and it is in the interests of world capitalism that they should be kept in being. But the initiation on the requisite scale of an autonomous process of internal accumulation is beyond the power of the bourgeoisie in these countries. Hence the dilemma which Rostow feels so acutely. [27]

In fact, his theoretical weaknesses and political intentions are here revealed once again. In particular one of his crucial blind spots is preventing him from seeing the prospect clearly. His scheme leaves no room for the intervention of the people as a political force, much less for the clash of classes. Consequently he overlooks the fact that the challenge in Africa and Asia cannot be reduced to the intervention or example of the Soviet Union. Of course this is a factor but, as far as the struggle of social forces in these countries is concerned, the Soviet leadership are only inverted Rostowians. Both overlook the advance of the colonial revolution towards a phase where it challenges the dominance of the bourgeoisie; they fail to consider that this, especially when linked with the resurgence of the working class in the advanced countries, will accelerate the demise of capitalism and topple the bureaucratic leadership in the Russian–Chinese bloc of non-capitalist states.

In the meantime, Rostow helps to adapt the ideology of capitalism to changing times, but still a distance behind the times. His sensitivity to Marxism, although he distorts it and fails to consider part of its case at all, is a significant testimony to its strength. If his attack stimulates Marxists to probe more fully into the kind of problem which he raises, test, and if necessary reformulate their own interpretations, so much the better. Rostow’s work is among the best of its kind from the anti-Marxist camp.


1. Especially with the articles and lectures reprinted as The British Economy in the Nineteenth Century and The Process of Economic Growth . He was also responsible for writing up collective works on China and the Soviet Union in volumes which, while containing useful material, could be described as products of the Cold War.

2. The articles which are the subject of this critique are the author’s abridgement of the lectures which appeared in The Economist for the 15 and 22 August 1959. Judging from the lecture reprinted in The Economic History Review for August 1959, the full version is more nuanced than the articles. The latter do bring out the essence of his thinking more sharply and will clearly exercise the greatest influence, and that justifies them. All quotations, with a few exceptions which are from the Economic History Review article, are, unless otherwise stated, from these articles, but page references have not been given.

3. Thus, ‘communism is a curious form of society appropriate only to the supply side of the growth problem ?., and likely to wither in the age of high consumption ’ my emphasis — TK.. What will take its place? Capitalism, perhaps?

4. F Engels, Anti-Dühring , p 268. This book is, of course, one of the most valuable sources for the understanding of the materialist conception of history.

5. Rostow speaks, for example, of the need for ‘transferring surplus income from those who would waste it in prodigal living to those who will invest it and regularly plough back the profits’. Other people — unidentified — ‘must be prepared to lend their money on long-term’, and so on. Bourgeois ideologists have always been able to criticise the prodigality of the nobility! But where did this money come from? Where did the ‘surplus income’ originate? The classical economists said ‘abstinence’. Weber said from the abstemiousness produced by the protestant ethic. Marx pointed to the process of ‘primitive accumulation’. Rostow just leaves a gap. Later, ‘for growth to become self-sustained, all that is necessary is a rise in the rate of investment and the stock of capital per head’. ‘All that is necessary…’, but this does not explain the source or the process of accumulation…

6. K Marx, Capital , Volume 1, p 603. ‘It compels him to keep constantly extending his capital, in order to preserve it, but extend it he cannot, except by means of progressive accumulation.’

7. K Marx, Capital , Volume 3, p 308. ‘The effort to reduce the cost price to its minimum becomes the strongest lever for the raising of the social productivity of labour, which, however, appears under these conditions as a continual increase of the productive power of capital.’ Also Volume 3, p 1027.

8. There are plenty of references scattered throughout Capital . See also the rich analyses of contemporary developments in The Eighteenth Brumaire , Class Struggles in France and Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Germany (more than one modern historian has burrowed into these and made use of the insights of Marx and Engels with scant or no acknowledgment). For an historical study there is Engels, Peasant War in Germany , recently republished in English (Foreign Languages Publishing House, Moscow). Where, in these works, is it assumed that ‘capitalist societies’ made ‘all their major decisions simply in terms of the free market mechanism and private advantage’ or that ‘political, social (or) economic power neatly followed the fact that property was privately owned’ (a somewhat ambiguous statement — TK) as Rostow asserts?

9. K Marx, Capital , Volume 3, page 919, my emphasis — TK.

10. From the article in Economic History Review , August 1959.

11. Historical materialism seeks to grasp the historical process in its many-sided dialectical totality as the product of flesh and blood men. Instead of assuming some rough equality between so-called ‘factors’ — which are no more than abstract concepts — it sought the ultimate determining forces and did not take men at their own valuation. As Rostow says, ‘The life of most human beings since the beginning of time has been mainly taken up with gaining food, shelter and clothing’: and that is precisely where Marxists begin — though not end — their analyses.

12. An editorial in The Economist , 22 August 1959.

13. K Marx, Capital , Volume 1.

14. Economic History Review , August 1959.

15. This is clearly possible also for members of former ruling classes and for state officials attached, not to the bourgeoisie, but to the dynastic or ‘bonapartist’ state.

16. Like a true inverted Stalinist he passes over the human costs of economic development with only a passing reference: it is only when real wages are rising that ‘workers’ come into the picture.

17. Analysed as a preparatory period for industrialisation by Marx in relation to England and Lenin for Russia, see The Development of Capitalism in Russia (in English, FLPH, Moscow).

18. But, of course, considered on a world scale there had first to be cheap iron, a new source of power (steam) and machines made by machines. The supposed ‘variety’ is spurious unless seen in this perspective.

19. Rostow makes a miracle out of countries like ‘Switzerland, Israel and Hong Kong, which have performed a kind of economic rope trick, climbing into industrialisation with virtually no means of support’. Since he mentions the world market in the previous sentence there was no reason to marvel at this. The economic development of England, Germany, Russia and America were also inseparably connected with the world market, though in different forms. England virtually dragged a world market into existence as a complement to her industrialisation; Japan made use of it.

20. See previous note.

21. Many factors contributed to this. To be noted are the further decay of the old feudal structures through the penetration of commodity dealings and the extension of the market — as, for example, in the decline of serfdom — the corresponding growth of the bourgeoisie and the application of what might be called ‘bourgeois’ techniques to government.

22. His examples are not happily chosen. Thus he claims that ‘in Germany it was certainly a nationalism based on past humiliation and future hope — the Junkers and the men of the East, more than the men of trade and the liberals of the West — that did the job’ (that is, brought a modern society into existence). The case of Germany was interesting and complicated, but this snap judgement is certainly wide of the mark. Marx and Engels followed events in Germany closely and the latter left an unfinished work with the title Force and Economics in the Establishment of the New German Empire (in French in Le rôle de la violence dans l’histoire , Editions Sociales, 1947) which shed a lot of light on the subject and, indeed, fits in with more recent writings. Far from being protagonists of German nationalism or industrialisation the Junkers, as a caste, sought to conserve its privileges in mutual cooperation with the Prussian ruling house. Their revenues fell short of their rising expenditures, despite their transformation into rural capitalists in the eighteenth century. They were constantly on the edge of an abyss from which they were held back only with state aid (members of the caste dominated the bureaucracy), which made it a ‘proletarian nobility’, ‘parasitic’ and ‘doomed to disappear’, in Engels words.

The material means for German industrialisation came from the coal, iron and potash deposits developed with English techniques and foreign capital to begin with and with state aid playing a part. The bourgeoisie was certainly the carrier of the national idea against the Junkers. Their defeat in 1848 and subsequent political impotence left the way clear for a different solution: a revolution ‘from above’ effected by means of a civil war. The leading role was taken by a Junker, it is true, but he owed his success to his ability to act in the sense of the material needs of German industry — safeguarding his class, but not with its active support, except as officers in the army. When Bismarck completed the task of providing the political and legal basis for German capitalism, in deference to the Junkers many feudal vestiges remained, but these held back, rather than promoted economic growth.

The German bourgeoisie was nationalist because its material interests demanded a unified national market. But nationalism, in Germany as elsewhere, attained a certain ‘autonomy’, removed from calculations of direct material interest, let alone individual self-seeking, when it gripped large masses of people. That it continued to be a powerful force, however, can be understood only against the background of the imperialist rivalries which dominated world history from the last nineteenth century. Germany’s late arrival in the world market, like that of Japan, gave her nationalism a strident, and then (with Nazism) a pathological quality. The fact that it was also all-pervading — witness the pro-war stand of the Social Democratic Party in 1914 — does not mean that it was not nurtured by objective, material forces. The links between ‘base’ and ‘superstructure’ are never direct and straightforward; but when their dialectical interplay is studied the material roots can be exposed.

23. The Economist , editorial article, 22 August 1959.

24. This is a euphemistic wav of referring to the heavy social costs of capitalist industrialisation. During this phase of ‘maturity’ society even becomes ‘a bit bored with the miracle of industrialisation’ (what a characterisation! — TK) and throws up a crop of deviant personalities, including, inevitably, our friend Karl Marx. Strange that his influence should have grown, not waned.

25. Economic History Review , August 1959.

26. One wonders whether this was a gift of Providence or was the result of the emphasis on sex in American life.

27. ‘Communism… is a kind of disease that can befall a transitional society if it fails to organise effectively those elements that are prepared to modernise.’ Strangely enough, at this point, he starts using the term ‘capitalism’, since it is the only way in which he can distinguish the economy of ‘the West’ from that of the USSR. Thus ‘Communism’s hope now lies not in crises brought on by a struggle to unload exports, but in the capitalist world’s excessive absorption with domestic markets.’ Which is an incorrect appraisal anyhow.

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