A fundamental tendency in human societies since the agricultural revolution has been the formation of world-empires and world-economies, with accompanying advances in civilization, on a foundation of conquest. I have called this principle of human social dynamics “the dialectic of domination and development” (see “Dialectic of domination and development” 10/30/2013). Jared Diamond (1999) has maintained that the societies that were able to conquer others were those that, driven by necessity provoked by population growth and environmental factors, had turned earliest to food production, thereby enabling them to maintain fulltime specialists, such as soldiers, state administrators, craftsmen, and priests, who played important roles in wars of conquest (see “What enables conquest?” 8/9/2013; “Food production and conquest” 8/12/2013).
The dialectic of domination and development received advanced expression with the modern nation-state, which is characterized by centralization of political authority and by unity established on the basis of common ethnic identification. Centralization was a significant force in Western Europe from the tenth to the fifteenth centuries, pushed by monarchs and merchants as a consequence of their common interest in overcoming the local power of feudal lords. National ethnic identification took shape in Spain, England and France, as a result of wars of conquest reinforced by natural geographical boundaries. In the case of Spain, it was a matter of reconquest in reaction to the Moorish conquest; whereas England and France had continuous wars with one another. The common ethnic identification of the modern nation-state became a unifying force, replacing religion, which had functioned as the central unifying force in the traditional state. This ultimately gave rise to the differentiation of political leaders from religious leaders, reducing the role of the latter. Common ethnic identification made possible the unifying of peoples of diverse cultural-religious traditions in a territory governed by a single state (see “European feudalism” 8/13/2013; “The modern nation-state” 8/14/2013; Cristóbal 2008).
Modern nation-states were the central actors in the formation of the modern world-system. The modern world-system came into being as a result of the Spanish conquest of America, which, in addition to the factors that had forged the Spanish nation-state, also was aided by the lack of horses and iron and the limited resistance to disease among the indigenous kingdoms and societies of America. The Spanish conquest of America was the foundation for the forced acquisition of gold and silver, which was utilized by Spain to maintain its army and expanding state bureaucracy and to sustain the life-style of the expanding upper and middle classes. The Spanish, however, did not manufacture the goods required for these needs; rather, they purchased necessary manufactured goods from northwestern Europe. Therefore, the Spanish purchase of manufactured goods promoted the economic development of Northwestern Europe, stimulating the modernization of agriculture (including centralization of land and conversion from feudal obligations to rent payments), the conversion of land use from agriculture to pasture, and the expansion of industry. And it caused the peripheralization of Eastern Europe, where landholders converted a decayed feudalism into capitalist agriculture that supplied Western Europe with grains and timber. Thus, during the sixteenth century, a European-centered world-economy took shape, with Western Europe as the core and Spanish America and Eastern Europe as the periphery. The peripheral regions functioned to provide cheap raw materials on a foundation of forced labor to the core and to provide markets for the surplus goods of the core, thus facilitating the economic development of the core and strengthening the nation-states of England and France and their capacity for conquest (see “The origin of the modern world-economy” 8/6/2013; “Modernization of the West” 8/7/2013; “Conquest, gold, and Western development” 8/8/2013; Wallerstein 1974).
During the period of 1750 to 1914, seven Western European nation-states, led by Britain and France, conquered, colonized, and peripheralized vast regions of Africa and Asia, converting them into suppliers of raw materials, on a foundation of forced labor, for the modernizing industries of Western Europe. The conquered regions also functioned to purchase surplus manufactured goods of the core. Thus, by the beginning of the twentieth century, the capitalist world-economy had become global, with Western Europe and the European settler societies of North America as the core, and with the periphery formed by Central America, the Caribbean, Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and Southeast Asia, except for China and Japan; South America (except Bolivia) and Eastern Europe had ascended to semi-peripheral status, having developed limited levels of industry. A world-system characterized by extreme levels of inequality, in which the majority of persons and peoples on the planet were denied the democratic rights proclaimed by the ideology of the world-system, had taken shape (see “New peripheralization, 1750-1850” 8/20/2013; “The world-economy becomes global, 1815-1914” 8/21/2013; Wallerstein 1989; Frank 1979).
At the end of the nineteenth century, the capitalist world-economy entered its imperialist phase. Lenin provided a penetrating description of the characteristics of imperialism. In Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism, published in 1917, Lenin writes that imperialism is characterized by the concentration of industry and banking, so that a small number of large firms dominate industry and banking. The large corporations and banks turn to the investment of capital in the peripheralized zones, where the price of land and labor is low, and profits are high (see “Lenin on imperialism” 9/10/2013). Thus, in the twentieth century, the axis of super-exploitation, in which labor received less compensation than is necessary for life, shifts from the industrial factories of the core to the plantations, haciendas, and mines of the peripheralized zones.
The reaping of high profits during the twentieth century through the super-exploitation of the peripheralized regions made possible concessions by transnational corporations to workers in the core, so that there occurred a significant improvement in the standard of living of core workers, such that their social and economic rights were protected, for the most part, at least prior to the emergence of the terminal structural crisis of the world-system. Concessions to core workers made possible the cooptation of the workers’ movement and its transformation from a revolutionary movement to a reform movement.
Thus, once the capitalist world-economy entered the imperialist phase, the force of the revolution no longer is located in the working-class organizations of the core but in the peripheralized zones. Because the peripheralized zones were historically peripheralized through the conquest and colonization by European nation-states, the revolutions in the periphery have taken an anti-colonial character, consisting of nationalist revolutions that seek national liberation and independence from colonial domination (Arboleya 2008: 4, 10-11, 21-23).
From the period of 1919 to the 1960s, Third World national liberation movements developed a significant challenge to the world structures of colonial domination. The core powers responded to this threat by seeking to coopt the national liberation movements, through a strategy of obtaining the cooperation of the national bourgeoisies in the perpetuation of the core-peripheral relation following a transition to political independence. The overall success of this strategy led to a transition from colonialism to neocolonialism and the consolidation of a neocolonial world-system. With respect to radical national liberation governments in the Third World that could be not coopted, the strategy of the global powers has been to overthrow them and replace them with a moderate and more cooperative government, or failing that, to economically and diplomatically isolate the government, so that its autonomous path will have limited impact on the neocolonial world-system.
Third World national liberation movements have a component of social transformation, involving a class struggle within the colony/neocolony that pits the popular classes against the national bourgeoisie. In most cases, this class struggle takes the form of peasants, agricultural workers, and their allies from other popular sectors in opposition to an estate bourgeoisie or agricultural bourgeoisie. This is rooted in the objective conditions of the peripheralized colony/neocolony. The agricultural elite profits from the trading of its products with transnational corporations, over a base of low-waged labor, and thus it has an objective interest in the preservation of the core-peripheral relation. In opposition to the particular interests of the agricultural elite, the sovereignty of the nation requires the formulation of a national development plan by and in the interests of the popular sectors, on the basis of which the use of land and human labor is decided. This requires that the agricultural bourgeoisie be dislodged from its position of control over the decision-making process.
Thus, within national liberation movements conflict emerges between the interests of the agricultural elite and the interests of the popular sectors. Moderate national liberation movements are those in which the interests of the agricultural elite shape the direction of the movement, and they cooperate with the global powers. But radical national liberation movements are those in which the popular sectors take control. They cannot be coopted by the neocolonial system, and they must be destroyed or marginalized by the global powers.
In the colonies and neocolonies of the world-system, there are particular factors and conditions that shape whether the national liberation movement will emerges as a moderate or radical movement. In the case of Cuba, various factors led to a situation in which its national liberation movement would become radical and indeed would become one of the most advanced revolutionary movements of national liberation, placing it in an epic battle with its neighbor to the North, the hegemonic neocolonial world power. We will be exploring various components of this story in subsequent posts.
Arboleya, Jesús. 2008. La Revolución del Otro Mundo: Un análisis histórico de la Revolución Cubana. La Habana: Editorial de Ciencias Sociales.
Diamond, Jared. 1999. Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. New York: W.W. Norton.
Cristóbal Pérez, Armando. 2008. El Estado-Nación: Su Origen y Construcción. La Habana: Editorial de Ciencias Sociales.
Frank, Andre Gunder. 1979. Dependent Accumulation and Underdevelopment. New York: Monthly Review Press.
Lenin, V.I. 1996. Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism. Introduction by Norman Lewis and James Malone. Chicago: Pluto Press.
Wallerstein, Immanuel. 1974. The Modern World System, Vol. I. New York: Academic Press.
__________. 1989. The Modern World System, Vol. III. New York: Academic Press.