We open our series of comparative studies of the advanced capitalist countries in this issue, with Ernest Mandel’s analysis of the development of economy and society in Belgium from industrialization to the present day. The intention of the series is, in the first instance, to help overcome the fixed habit, which is deeply engrained in the Left, of conceiving capitalism as a single, undifferentiated phenomenon, whose universality is equalled only by its anonymity. This habit of thought has vitiated work after work by Labour writers of all persuasionsStrachey, Bevan, Crosland, Crossmanin England; and it has seriously damaged socialist discussion at large. A featureless, composite silhouette of capitalism is customarily created, abstracting indifferently from America and Britain, now and then adding an illustration from West Germany, never stopping to examine the utterly distinct histories of these societies, let alone venturing beyond their arbitrary and provincial limits. In place of this familiar vet unrecognizable archetype, we hope to contribute to a concrete inventory of the extremely wide gamut of societies which comprise the capitalist part of the world today. A respect for the density and irreducibility of the many different historical experiences of capitalist accumulation is a precondition of any serious theory of capitalism as a type of human society. A general model is not denied, but enriched by the diversity of the forms which it integrates. To study the complex and particular destinies of the other advanced industrial societies is not to remove them from the relevant range of our own problems and discussion. It is rather, to deepen our understanding of the fundamental structure of capitalism by exploring all its contingent possibilities, and so, reciprocally, to perceive more clearlyby contrast and similaritythe specific nature of British society today.

Belgium is a practically unknown country in Britain: it is neither major power, nor tourist attraction, at most a fleeting industrial landscape seen from trains speeding towards Germany or Switzerland. The society Mandel describes, with its abbreviated independence, its tentacular trusts, its clerical problem, its bitter linguistic conflicts, is obviously in major respects radically different from our own. But there are also immediate and striking points of comparison. Britain and Belgium shared the privilege and calamity of being the world’s first industrial nations. In both countries, the capitalist economy matured into the distinctive pattern of a transformer imperialismand became blocked there. Today, shorn of their empires, with an ageing physical apparatus and an etiolated human management, British and Belgian industry have been left behind by the younger, rebuilt economies of Western Europe. Severe regional depressionsin the North of England, the South of Belgiumaggravate the situation of both countries. Finally, and perhaps most relevantly of all, Belgium has since 1960 witnessed a sustained attempt by its governing class to implement the now classic measures of neo-capitalist reform: indicative planning, wages policy, subsidized industrial relocation. This experience, which predates by two years the first, timorous gestures by the Conservative government in the same direction, is of direct interest and importance to us here. The Belgian experiment in neo-capitalism has major lessons for the British Left, and Mandel brings these home with force. His essay ends with an analysis of the situation of the Left in the two-sector economy which poses the most urgent domestic problems we face today with exemplary clarity.