List in the Subcontinent: an interesting presentation at ESHET 2017

War disguised as Commerce came

Britain, carrying sword and flame,

Won an empire, lost her name.

J. Montgomery

I have attended the annual conference of the European Society for the History of Economic Thought  that was held in Anterpen (18-20 May 2015). The conference was extremely lively and diverse, with lots of interesting papers. One of the most inspiring sessions for me has been the Development and Planning session chaired by Gianni Vaggi. Two papers were on India (both by Ph.D. students, Sharmin Kodaiji and Maria Bach). Bach’s contribution, with the title: Extraction disguised as development: Indian political economy’s contribution to the idea of development, 1870-1905, was obviously relevant for the kind of topics discussed in this blog.

bach for post
What did development mean for Indian nationalist economists? Bach’s take.

Bach sketched the foundations of the “early-nationalist” economic school in late 19th-century India, stressing how the school’s three main representatives, namely Ramade, Naroji and Dutt were in search for a new concept of development. According to Bach’s research, they wanted a concept of development that enabled them to distinguish between the kind of “progress” brought to the Subcontinent by the British (extraction disguised as development) and the natural path of rural and industrial development that was needed to reposition India in a more just international division of labour.

I will not discuss Bach’s paper in more detail. It is going to be a chapter of her thesis – if I am not mistaken – and hopefully a chapter of a great book and I will be happy to read it in its definitive version. I only want to stress a few points in her contribution that stimulated my reflections on development in the age of the First Globalization.

There is a striking parallel between the development of a nationalist school of economics in India and the emergence of Russian/Ukrainian Marxism with a nationalist flavour in the 1870s. In both cases, the crucial problem that lay in front of these groups of intellectuals (as such, originating from privileged milieus) was the role of their respective countries in the international division of labour. Both Russia/Ukraine and India had joined global markets centred around the industrial economy of Britain. They were part of a “periphery” of suppliers of agricultural commodities that had been expanding and deepening since the 1850s: Ukraine as a supplier of wheat and flax, India as a supplier of rice and cotton.

But the way the two groups of intellectuals, the Indians and the Ukrainians, perceived the role of their country in the new global economy seem to differ. The Indians, from what I’ve got of Bach’s research, saw the British rule as a disruptive force that brought about the effective de-industrialization of India. The Ukranians and the Russians, instead, recognised the British industrial revolution as the beginning of a new era in the economic life of the world and were eager to measure the effects of global markets on the economy of the Russian empire: was it following the same path as Great Britain or had it entered a different and peculiar path, a Sonderweg of sort?

Alexander Gerschenkron

Alexander Gerschenkron’s Backwardness in historical perspective would seem to provide a fitting framework to discuss the similarities and the differences in the Indian and Russian reactions to the world-wide expansion of global markets. “To cut a long story short,” Gerschenkron’s most famous hypothesis is that in the second half of the 19th century, European countries reacted to a perceived superiority of British industrial economy with different strategies of economic development – the higher the perceived degree of backwardness, the higher the intensity of state intervention needed to start industrial development. As a corollary to this claim, he interpreted the intellectual life of many European countries, and especially Russia, in terms of a rising awareness of each country’s backwardness with respect to Britain and the other industrialised nations of Europe.

In his two controversial reviews of Franco Venturi’s Populismo russo, the Russian-born economic historian argued that at the core of Russian populism lay the idea that late-comers to industrialization, such as Russia, could take a short-cut from a traditional society to a post-capitalist society because, as Chernishevskij claimed:

“History is like a grandmother: it loves the younger grand-children. To the latecomers (tarde venientibus) it gives not the bones ( ossa ) but the marrow of the bones (medullam ossium), while Western Europe had hurt her fingers badly in her attempts to break the bones.”

Russian and Ukranian Marxists of the 1870s, such as Sieber, had a different interpretation of the phenomena they observed in the world economy – they believed that Russia was spontaneously industrialising along similar lines to that of the Western European nations – but they shared with the populists the belief in a hierarchy of development with Britain as the core and the other nations at different stages of economic backwardness. Populists and Marxists alike felt that economic development lay ahead – although they differed on the right path to development – and they had no mythical past to reclaim.

The harbour of Odessa in 1879

The case of India was already a matter of discussion. I have already mentioned (here) Sieber’s review of Kovaleskij’s book on the fate of rural communes. Based on British official documents, Kovalevskij insisted that the colonial government had brought about the artificial end of the rural community in India and wide-spread economic misery in the Sub-continent by failing to maintain the traditional tasks of any Indian government from time immemorial to the British conquest. Judging from Bach’s interpretation of the Indian early nationalists school, the Indian economists would have supported Kovalevskij’s view of an artificial destruction of India’s economy by the British. Since I know very little about Ramade, Naroji and Dutt I can oly speculate – and I hope that Bach’s thesis will prove or disprove my hypothesis – that the idea of an artificial destruction of the Indian economy mirrored their confidence in their own ability to revert the trend toward underdevelopment once the country was granted indepedence.

In order to stop the impoverishment of their nations, according to Bach and Kodaiji, Indian economists turned to Friederich List’s System of National Economy as a toolbox for development strategies. In Russia, a similar strategy of development, inspired by List’s protectionism, was also invoked, among others by Sergej Witte in the last decades of the century – as E. Burina remarked at the same conference. A cross-national study of the reception of List’s ideas would probably reveal a real epidemic of List-eite among intellectual groups in the 1870s and 1880s, following the rapid industrialization of Germany. These groups adopted a voluntaristic take on international division of labour and were convinced they could steer their nation toward a “higher,” more remunerative position in the hierarchy of nations as providers of industrial goods. I believe that Gerschenkron’s old hypothesis still makes sense in order to intepret this intellectual phenomena.

The Russian/Ukranian Marxists I study and the Indian nationalists Bach discussed in Antwerpen, therefore, seem to have had at least one thing in common: they felt the need to react to a situation that saw their country entering (spontaneously or because of colonial conquest) the world market as a supplier of primary commodities for the industrial core. Although, they differed though in their take on their countries’ past and in the future they envisaged for it, both groups faced a world made of cores and peripheries, forerunners and late-comers, and spoker for and from the periphery. I am really grateful to Bach, Kodaiji and the others who attended the session for their presentations and fruitful discussions.


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