As a reflection of the direction of some socialist scholarship away from stagnationist theories of underdevelopment, Bill Warren’s article, Imperialism and Capitalist Industrialization footnote1 addresses an important issue. The ambiguities and lack of theoretical sophistication of such concepts as ‘underdevelopment’ and ‘dependency’ indeed beset current Marxist analyses of the world capitalist system. However, Warren’s recent contribution to this subject, rather than advancing analysis of international political economy, mystifies and misdirects it. Warren’s argument bases itself upon the proposition that some capitalist industrialization in the Third World has been realized and prospects for sustaining this process are indeed quite good. The most significant phenomenon responsible for this, Warren asserts, is the loosening of ties of dependence as national capitalisms develop in the Third World—evening out the distribution of power in the post-war capitalist world economy and promoting autonomous industrialization. Any obstacles to this industrialization process are internal to the Third World countries, no longer residing in imperialist relationships. In fact, according to Warren, ‘imperialism declines as capitalism grows’. That is, the original ‘international system of inequality and exploitation called imperialism’, has ‘created the conditions for the destruction of this system by the spread of capitalist social relations and productive forces throughout the non-capitalist world’.

To substantiate these far-reaching claims, Warren correctly warns the reader that empirical observations will be the burden of his article. Warren’s constitution of his data follow the logic of isolating, and considering in isolation, only an element of a structured whole: international capitalist economy. Indeed, Warren’s method of analysis is to isolate sectors of Third World economy considered apart from the rest of the economy, and from the political and social structure which is produced by, and reproduces, the conditions of ‘enclave growth’. Imperialist-induced fragmentation of the Third World economy is reflected in the author’s fragmented approach to studying ‘capitalist industrialization’.

The implication of Warren’s conclusion, namely, that ‘imperialism declines as capitalism grows’, is certainly, so far as the left is concerned, iconoclastic, and warrants a reply in itself. There is no theoretical justification provided for this step, and this is a serious weakness in Warren’s article. In fact, we find no adequate theoretical formulation of the phenomenon of imperialism and its relation to capitalism. The concepts employed by Warren, such as: ‘independent capitalist industrialization’, ‘national capitalism’, ‘distribution of power’, ‘independence’ and ‘dependence’, constitute a disparate collection of terms, unrelated to a theoretical framework that could inform his particular argument. The absence of a theoretical and conceptual foundation clears the way for complete empiricism—that is, the arrangement of various discrete ‘facts’, disintegrating the specific totality (in this case, world capitalist economy) and redefining it on the basis of arbitrary relationships imposed by the particular selection and presentation of those facts.

Part of our reply to Warren then will constitute an investigation of his theoretical confusion. Moreover, by drawing attention to his conceptual muddle, we can reopen the lines of inquiry, and indicate some directions for analysis of the issue of industrial expansion in the Third World. One result of Warren’s conceptual muddle is some inconsistency surrounding his thesis on capitalist industrialization in the Third World. Although he emphasizes independent (capitalist) industrialization, his essay projects a mixture of hypotheses; the Third World countries are rapidly industrializing, either independently of imperial centres, or because of imperial centres, or despite imperialist domination. In spite of Warren’s occasional suggestions to the contrary, industrial growth in the Third World is clearly not at issue—rather the problem is the character of this industrial growth, and what it expresses about international capitalist development, and the structural contradictions inherent in the process of (worldwide) capital accumulation. Nevertheless, even operating within the terms of Warren’s approach, his evidence cannot be shown to warrant his argument. Before investigating Warren’s construction of evidence, we must first examine his theoretical errors.

Warren’s treatment of imperialism implies that it is a temporary historical phase of capitalist expansion, which is now in decline due to ‘a major upsurge of national capitalisms’. We learn that the ‘historical mission’ of imperialism was to ‘spread the capitalist system and advance the productive forces throughout the world’, and once this process is completed, imperialism is destroyed by its progeny: ‘national capitalisms’. In this view there is universal capitalist expansion, but with the international economy fragmented into a collection of ‘national capitalisms’—thus obscuring the structural-historical process through which capitalism expands in an increasingly integrated world market. Such a view is not one to which Marx, Lenin, Luxemburg and Bukharin would lend their weight (as Warren modestly suggests), particularly as Warren misconceives the forces of destruction inherent in the imperialist system, choosing to identify the ‘gravedigger’ of imperialism as ‘nationalism’, rather than revolutionary struggle.

So, on the one hand, Warren presents us with an undifferentiated notion of ‘the advance of productive forces’, and on the other, he chooses to historicize imperialism as an expendable feature of the capitalist epoch. What is missing is any attempt to assess the process of capital accumulation that bears directly upon the character of the development of productive forces, and gives rise to imperialism as a specific form of this process at the level of international socio-economic relations. Warren points out in a descriptive and confusing aside that ‘the “historical mission” of imperialism is to spread the capitalist system and advance the productive forces throughout the world’. However, a more adequate formulation would consider imperialism as the international expression of capitalism’s historical mission to develop the forces of production, in accordance with the logic of capital accumulation, a process that is by its nature uneven and contradictory.

Warren speaks of imperialism as a ‘system’, without ever attempting an explanation of the origins or mechanisms of this system, other than to assert off handedly that it is one of ‘inequality, domination and exploitation’. Without any clue to the mainsprings of imperialism, we have no way of understanding why imperialism should appear, and then disappear. If there is no theory of imperialism, there can be no comprehension of its historical development such that its contemporary manifestations can be analysed—rather than being spirited away by Warren.