The appearance of systematic barriers to economic advance in the course of capitalist expansion—the ‘development of underdevelopment’—has posed difficult problems for Marxist theory.footnote There has arisen, in response, a strong tendency sharply to revise Marx’s conceptions regarding economic development. In part, this has been a healthy reaction to the Marx of the Manifesto, who envisioned a more or less direct and inevitable process of capitalist expansion: undermining old modes of production, replacing them with capitalist social productive relations and, on this basis, setting off a process of capital accumulation and economic development more or less following the pattern of the original homelands of capitalism. In the famous phrases of the Communist Manifesto: ‘The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. Conservation of the old modes of production in an altered form was, on the contrary, the first condition of existence for all earlier industrial classes. Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty, and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. The bourgeoisie . . . draw all, even the most barbarian nations into civilization. The cheap prices of its commodities are the heavy artillery with which it batters down all Chinese walls . . . It compels all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production; it compels them to introduce what it calls civilization into their midst, to become bourgeois themselves. In a word, it creates a world after its own image.’

Many writers have quite properly pointed out that historical developments since the mid-nineteenth century have tended to belie this ‘optimistic’, ‘progressist’ prognosis, in that the capitalist penetration of the ‘third world’ through trade and capital investment not only has failed to carry with it capitalist economic development, but has erected positive barriers to such development. Yet the question remains, where did Marx err? What was the theoretical basis for his incorrect expectations? As can be seen from the above quotation and many others from the same period,footnote1 Marx was at first quite confident that capitalist economic expansion, through trade and investment, would inevitably bring with it the transformation of pre-capitalist social-productive relations—i.e. class relations—and the establishment of capitalist social-productive relations, a capitalist class structure. It was clearly on the premise that capitalist expansion would lead to the establishment of capitalist social relations of production on the ruins of the old modes, that he could predict world-wide economic development in a capitalist image.

But, suppose capitalist expansion through trade and investment failed to break the old modes of production (a possibility which Marx later envisagedfootnote2); or actually tended to strengthen the old modes, or to erect other non-capitalist systems of social relations of production in place of the old modes? In this case, Marx’s prediction would fall to the ground. For whatever Marx thought about the origins of capitalist social-productive relations, he was quite clear that their establishment was indispensable for the development of the productive forces, i.e. for capitalist economic development. If expansion through trade and investment did not bring with it the transition to capitalist social-productive relations—manifested in the full emergence of labour power as a commodity—there could be no capital accumulation on an extended scale. In consequence, the analysis of capitalist economic development requires an understanding, in the first place, of the manner in which the capitalist social-productive relations underpinning the accumulation of capital on an extended scale originated. In turn, it demands a comprehension of the way in which the various processes of capitalist expansion set off by the accumulation of capital brought about, or were accompanied by, alternatively: 1. the further erection of capitalist class relations; 2. merely the interconnection of capitalist with pre-capitalist forms, and indeed the strengthening of the latter; or 3. the transformation of pre-capitalist class relations, but without their substitution by fully capitalist social-productive relations of free wage labour, in which labour power is a commodity. In every case, it is class relations which clearly become pivotal: the question of their transformation in relationship to economic development.

I shall argue here that the method of an entire line of writers in the Marxist tradition has led them to displace class relations from the centre of their analyses of economic development and underdevelopment. It has been their intention to negate the optimistic model of economic advance derived from Adam Smith, whereby the development of trade and the division of labour unfailingly bring about economic development. Because they have failed, however, to discard the underlying individualistic-mechanist presuppositions of this model, they have ended up by erecting an alternative theory of capitalist development which is, in its central aspects, the mirror image of the ‘progressist’ thesis they wish to surpass. Thus, very much like those they criticize, they conceive of (changing) class relations as emerging more or less directly from the (changing) requirements for the generation of surplus and development of production, under the pressures and opportunities engendered by a growing world market. Only, whereas their opponents tend to see such market-determined processes as setting off, automatically, a dynamic of economic development, they see them as enforcing the rise of economic backwardness. As a result, they fail to take into account either the way in which class structures, once established, will in fact determine the course of economic development or underdevelopment over an entire epoch, or the way in which these class structures themselves emerge: as the outcome of class struggles whose results are incomprehensible in terms merely of market forces. In consequence, they move too quickly from the proposition that capitalism is bound up with, and supportive of, continuing underdevelopment in large parts of the world, to the conclusion not only that the rise of underdevelopment is inherent in the extension of the world division of labour through capitalist expansion, but also that the ‘development of underdevelopment’ is an indispensable condition for capitalist development itself.

It has thus been maintained that the very same mechanisms which set off underdevelopment in the ‘periphery’ are prerequisite to capital accumulation in the ‘core’. Capitalist development cannot take place in the core unless underdevelopment is developed in the periphery, because the very mechanisms which determine underdevelopment are required for capitalist accumulation. In the words of André Gunder Frank, ‘economic development and underdevelopment are the opposite faces of the same coin’. As Frank goes on to explain: ‘Both [development and underdevelopment] are the necessary result and contemporary manifestation of internal contradictions in the world capitalist system . . . economic development and underdevelopment are relational and qualitative, in that each is actually different from, yet caused by its relations with, the other. Yet development and underdevelopment are the same in that they are the product of a single, but dialectically contradictory, economic structure and process of capitalism. Thus they cannot be viewed as the product of supposedly different economic structures or systems . . . One and the same historical process of the expansion and development of capitalism throughout the world has simultaneously generated—and continues to generate—both economic development and structural underdevelopment.’footnote3 Specifically: ‘The metropolis expropriates economic surplus from its satellites and appropriates it for its own economic development. The satellites remain underdeveloped for lack of access to their own surplus and as a consequence of the same polarization and exploitative contradictions which the metropolis introduces and maintains in the satellite’s domestic structure.’footnote4

Obviously such a view of underdevelopment carries with it a view of development, the unitary process which ostensibly brought about both. Frank’s primary focus has in fact been on the roots of underdevelopment, so it has not been essential for him to go into great detail concerning the origins and structure of capitalist development itself. Yet, to clarify his approach, it was necessary to lay out the mainsprings of capitalist development, as well as underdevelopment; accordingly, Frank did not neglect to do this, at least in broad outline. The roots of capitalist evolution, he said, were to be found in the rise of a world ‘commercial network’, developing into a ‘mercantile capitalist system’. Thus ‘a commercial network spread out from Italian cities such as Venice and later Iberian and Northwestern European towns to incorporate the Mediterranean world and sub-Saharan Africa and the adjacent Atlantic Islands in the fifteenth century . . . until the entire face of the globe had been incorporated into a single organic mercantilist or mercantile capitalist, and later also industrial and financial, system, whose metropolitan centre developed in Western Europe and then in North America and whose peripheral satellites underdeveloped on all the remaining continents.’footnote5 With the rise of this system, there was ‘created a whole series of metropolis-satellite relationships, interlinked as in the surplus appropriation chain noted above’. As the ‘core’ end of the chain developed, the ‘peripheral’ end simultaneously underdeveloped.

Frank did not go much further than this in filling out his view of capitalism as a whole, its origins and development. But he was unambiguous in locating the dynamic of capitalist expansion in the rise of a world commercial network, while specifying the roots of both growth and backwardness in the ‘surplus appropriation chain’ which emerged in the expansionary process:footnote6 surplus appropriation by the core from the periphery, and the organization of the satellite’s internal mode of production to serve the needs of the metropolis. In this way, Frank set the stage for ceasing to locate the dynamic of capitalist development in a self-expanding process of capital accumulation by way of innovation in the core itself. Thus, for Frank, the accumulation of capital in the core depends, on the one hand, upon a process of original surplus creation in the periphery and surplus transfer to the core and, on the other hand, upon the imposition of a raw-material-producing, export-dependent economy upon the periphery to fit the productive and consumptive requirements of the core.