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The Wealth And Poverty Of Nations: Why Some Are So Rich And Some So Poor, by David S. Landes, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1998 650 pp.

reviewed by MC5

David Landes is a retired Harvard professor aiming squarely at an issue we Maoists see underlying what we call the "principal contradiction" between oppressor nations and oppressed nations. He claims to examine the last 1000 years of history and finds that Europe is the main contributor to economic and technological progress, modernity.

Review of reviews

MIM's glee over the publication of this book is also connected to all the ivory tower leading lights willing to go down with Landes' imperialist chauvinist sinking ship. As Reason Magazine's contributing editor Deirdre McCloskey practically admitted in a review of the Landesí book, the field of economic history is dominated by Marxism even in the ivory tower. Rarely do we find anything that the bourgeois economists (and Landes claims to be one) will hoist as their banner and be accountable for.

In the case of this book, we have Nobel Prize winners Robert Solow and Kenneth Arrow in addition to John K. Galbraith lined up to champion Landes' book. In addition we have the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Los Angeles Times singing the praises of Landes. As such, the book is irresistible target practice for us Maoist scientists.

Generally, Landes received favorable but lightweight reviews. We will add a few remaining points of agreement with these reviewers. Landes indeed has launched a very lucid attack on post-modernism and Marxism. Partaking in frequent sentence fragments, Landes clearly indicates a willingness to pay the price for clarity. We agree with him and his reviewers who pointed this out.

However, we find it regrettable the Kirkus Review could only say the book borders on the chauvinist. Landes has long been about as conscious an imperialist chauvinist as there can be.

Third World anecdotes, not systematic evidence

What Landes does say about Third World societies is either stereotypical or ad- hoc. It takes little analytical effort to say that Third World culture must be holding back industrial development, because the Third World is relatively underdeveloped compared with Europe and Amerika. Such becomes a circular argument when the details of Third World society are either unknown or not gathered up in systematic ways.

J. Bradford De Long points out that Landes talks about China being the most scientifically advanced in the earlier part of the millenium but fails to offer a convincing reason for why China lost its edge. Relying on the academic work of others, Landes puts forward that China's Confucian culture vested business and state power in one place and thwarted the efforts of a potential business class to innovate.

In contrast, Marxism does not attempt to explain development by timeless cultural arguments. Marxism refers to modes of production that change over time. We Marxists also do not feel compelled to justify European superiority on the basis of evidence that does not exist.

Landes and many others in the tradition of "cultural" explanations cannot explain why Confucian culture was the most advanced scientifically at one time, because Confucianism is a constant and China's global scientific leadership role has been a variable. Furthermore, since Landes believes that Taiwan, Hong Kong and southern Korea have "made it," he has no explanation there either. They should still be stifling under Confucian mores against profit.

Other reviewers gave Landes credit in the sense that we are "all postmodernists now." He admits that European civilization was inferior to Egyptian and Sumerian civilizations for thousands of years. The reason he gives is that Europeans didn't have the tools to handle Europe's dense forests (p. 19) and today many tropical countries still do not have the tools to deal with their environment. Landes does not tell us whether other societies were ahead in their forest- chopping technology, but he only asks to be accountable for the last 1000 years of history anyway.

Also in the everyone-is-post-modernist-now spirit, Landes trots out a story about a fabulously wealthy African king (p. 73-) without ever explaining the details of how this African king and his culture failed along the criteria that Landes say are necessary for development.

In the case of India, Landes tells us that Hindu religion saw no need to minimize the use of labor.(p. 227) He does not connect that to anything specific in the culture, so it is a fairly circular argument buttressed by ad-hoc arguments, such as that India had no screws.(p. 228) What is more he misses a chance to discuss diversity within Hinduism along the lines of his own concepts of "openness" and "tolerance" of discussion. Instead, what Landes does is explain the trivial with the trivial on an ad hoc basis.

He admits that when it comes to India and its relationship to British imperialism, he found published works lacking. "Almost no written documentation comes down to us from the Indian side."(p. 163) It seems to Landes that even Indian scholars base their books on Western documents.

While Landes bashes the post-modernists, he is simply the twin evil of post- modernism. Landes conducts poor science or pseudo-science in the name of not having to study or know much about Third World society. The post-modernists point to those like Landes and conclude (correctly) that we must study Third World society as part of "diversity." Yet on account of poor science by the likes of Landes, post-modernists reject all science.

Accelerating inequality

"The difference in income per head between the richest industrial nation, say Switzerland, and the poorest nonindustrial country, Mozambique, is about 400 to 1. Two hundred and fifty years ago, this gap between richest and poorest was perhaps 5 to 1, and the difference between Europe and, say, East or South Asia (China or India) was around 1.5 or 2 to 1."(p. xx)

Landes himself raises the fact of accelerating economic inequality, but none of his arguments address that acceleration. He contents himself with pointing out differences, differences that have been more or less constant and hence not useful to explain larger and larger gaps. In fact, the differences Landes notices have gotten smaller over time while the economic gap between imperialists and oppressed nations has gotten larger.

Readers can judge for themselves whether or not Landes' own criteria have become more true or less true in the time that acceleration of inequality took place:

"If I had to single out the critical, distinctively European sources of success, I would emphasize three considerations: (1) the growing autonomy of intellectual inquiry; (2) the development of unity in disunity in the form of a common implicitly adversarial method, that is, the creation of a language of proof recognized, used, and understood across national and cultural boundaries, and (3) the invention of invention, that is, the routinization of research and its diffusion." (p. 201)(italics removed)

In other words, Landes says Europe took up science and engineering and had the openness and freedom to do so. Science led to overall economic leadership, he says.

Readers need to ask themselves if it is not true that more of the world has been exposed to science and even the Anglo view of things than ever before. Yet just as Anglo "openness" and media and demonstrations of science and engineering reach more people more often in faster communication than ever before, the gap between rich and poor continues to widen.

Ironically, Landes does acknowledge the obvious facts of the situation. Science has made the rounds globally now. He derides those who believe China still needs to be cheer-led into science.(p. 349)

Even more telling is some evidence he presents from Africa in 1962: "Without significant exception, all African leaders . . . share the passionate desire to acquire all the good things which western civilization has produced in the two millennia of its history. They want especially to get the tehnological blessings of American civilization, and to do so as quickly as possible.(pp. 499-500) Despite this fact, Africa is where the most countries with negative income growth can be found. Once again, if it is true that scientific method and Anglo influence are global now more than ever, why is the gap between rich and poor expanding if Landes is right?

For us Marxists with the labor theory of value, it is not difficult at all to come up with a theory about an exponential growth rate in one group of countries and stagnation or regression in another group. Quite simply, the surplus-labor of one society contributes to the wealth of another. Even only a few percentage points of the total labor being appropriated from the Third World will explain European growth the same way a savings account grows exponentially in size over decades and centuries.

In addressing similar arguments from the "dependency" school of thought in Latin America, Landes said that even if foreign interference is the real reason for poverty, it would be better to "stow" the theories that were true and concentrate on self-improvement.(p. 328) On the last page of the book, he returns to this theme talking about the need for an optimistic and striving culture and not a pessimistic one.(p. 524)

To the extent that talking about imperialism is an excuse for whining, MIM has to agree with Landes. However, his remark on this in all italics shows an improper understanding of the importance of science. A bleak theory blaming foreign influence of imperialism, if it is true, means that development can only occur by destroying the link to imperialism. In other words, there are practical implications of "science" and they cannot just be "stowed." An accurate view of a problem is necessary before one solves it with the least waste of energy.

Social-democratic view of imperialism

In reply, Landes says that the imperialists already withdrew from the colonies. The reason they leave is that the cost of administration of colonialism became too expensive.(pp. 393,423)

Social-democrats have always differed with Lenin's theory of imperialism. According to the social- democrats, when imperialism becomes too costly, policy changes. Landes accepts that view.

From the Leninist view, the imperialists only withdraw when the cost to them is too great. The imperialists hardly care if the exploited or the oppressed bear the costs of empire. A war may be very expensive, but if the imperialists are not paying the taxes, then they see benefit in that war for colonial plunder.

It is also important to point out in this context that Lenin never said a system had to export capital steadily without crisis to be imperialist. If a society is characterized by export of capital but more capital flows back as accumulation from foreign investments, then that is exactly what we Leninists believe. Lenin's theory of imperialism is a theory of crisis. Certainly there is much capitalism that never reaches the multinational corporate stage, but once it does reach that stage, we Leninists never claimed it would be stable or successful.

Pre-capitalist militarism

Although Landes does discuss the genocide committed against indigenous peoples, he is untroubled by the possibility that militarism might have been the real reason some societies failed or ceased to exist while the Europeans went ahead. Perhaps development has not much to do with protecting private property and quite the contrary many societies more advanced perished on its account already.

The discussion of militarism by Landes is totally lacking. He is irked that some progressive historians treat European military superiority as an accident of history.(p. 89) He knows that all of European progress can be linked to the use of force against Third World peoples, so he goes to great lengths to show that Europe was already more advanced than the Third World and that is why it had military superiority.

His own story on the Chinese undercuts him. The Chinese invented gunpowder; yet they did not plunder the world with the invention. In fact, Landes implies the Chinese didn't really understand their invention and mystified themselves with war as if it "were a display of recipes."(p. 53)

This observation and many similar ones did not stop Landes from saying later that imperialism "is the expression of a deep human drive."(p. 63) A mere 12 pages later, he quoted Columbus on how the natives of North America did not covet property and "they know nothing of killing one another."(p. 75) So much for Landes's "deep human drive" idea.

Landes admits that the white man was baffled by the indigenous people and that contributed to genocide, but Landes seems unwilling to consider the possibility of peoples more restrained than Europeans and also perhaps less restrained in militarism and now gone forever.

On the other hand, Landes also never tallied up all the imperialist military aid from Anglo-Amerikan imperialism to pre-capitalist ruling cliques. Even mentioning the global military aid of U.$. imperialism to repression would have undercut the European tradition he wants to credit for economic progress. Thus, if openness is crucial to development as Landes said, then U.$.-backed military repression throughout the world is a perfect explanation for lack of Third World development.

No Soviet Union treatment

It appears that at least in the case of the Soviet Union, the more Western openness, the slower the economic growth. Economic growth was fantastic under Stalin and has steadily decelerated since his rule. The more capitalism the Soviet Union took up, the worse its economy became. Now in this last bit of Yelstin-era capitalism, the economy has shrunk 40 percent.

The success of Stalin and the failure of Yelstin is something Landes does not even attempt to address. What little he says treats the Soviet Union as one thing from 1917 to 1986.(p. 497) We Maoists say it went state-capitalist after Stalin died in 1953.

Points of unity with Landes

David Landes is an historian who attacks Marxism as "too simple." When he needs to use a little Marxism, he uses it, but in an explanation with several other chains of reasoning as well. David Landes rejects Marxism as too simple essentially because he rejects the discipline of science. That is why he is unable to sustain his own comparisons and analysis throughout the world and the book he wrote.

Thanks to his deliberate eclecticism ("Monocausal explanations will not work." (p. 517)), it is necessary to point out those snippets of work he did that we do agree with. Examples would include his admission of genocide by the white oppressor nation against the indigenous peoples of America and his admission that slavery also killed millions even just in the voyage over. This kind of thing that is impossible for the slightly-read historian to ignore anymore without looking dumb in front of the masses -- Landes is inclined to concede.One of his theses going along with Western Liberalism is that societies with religious restrictions fell behind economically. Landes's message is tolerance of Jews and Protestants. Islam and the Inquisition and other religious intolerance cut into business and technology. According to Landes, religious bigotry is such a problem that Portugal and Spain started out leading the quest for empire in the last several hundred years, but they lost on account of their reactionary religious views.(e.g., pp. 134-5) MIM agrees with Landes on this point. He serves as the memory of the bourgeoisie and we agree that capitalism is superior to pre-capitalist modes of production, so his pointing to pogroms holding back economic development -- we see this as a case of the superstructure holding back the mode of production. Historically the bourgeoisie is correct about its struggles against pre-capitalist societies in which religious authority was higher than business authority.

Landes did not discuss British intolerance of Catholicism. His book is solidly pro-Protestant and he admits to adhering to Max Weber's theses on the Protestant Ethic; (p. 177) although they have been disproved specifically with regard to Protestantism many times since Weber wrote his theses.

Overall amongst religions and cultures, the book is most favorable to the Jews, Anglo-American imperialism and Zionism as contributors to modernity. He notes correctly that the Catholic Church squelched the famous scientist Galileo 400 years ago and is only now getting around to rehabilitating him. (p. 181) For the Germans, he mentions their racial intolerance.(p. 467)

Thus, the typical bourgeois view includes tolerance -- gender, race and religious tolerance. Another important thing is "openness." Japan ordered its people not to travel in the 1600s.(p. 356) Ocean vessels have been put under restriction many times in history. Yet opposing immigration, emigration or foreign travels is just another way inquiry falls down and contention of views is diminished. According to Landes, and we believe he is correct in the transition from pre-capitalist to capitalist, lack of openness will lead to lack of development.Another area we agree with is Landes's attacks on post-modernism in defense of science: "One must reject the implication that outsideness disqualifies; that only Muslims can understand Islam, only blacks understand black history, only a woman understand women's studies, and so on. That way lies separateness and a dialogue of the deaf."(p. 417)

(from MIM Notes 178, Jan. 15, 1999)

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