The Patnaik-Harvey Debate (Patnaik Wins)

David Harvey (left), Prabhat Patnaik (right)

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The Patnaik-Harvey debate on ‘imperialism’ shows that most Marxism in the Anglo-American tradition is confused. You can download the transcript of the debate between Prabhat Patnaik and David Harvey here.

In that debate, Patnaik quite explicitly advanced an argument that defined ‘imperialism’ as national exploitation, rather than class exploitation. How does ‘imperialism’ manifest itself? In the attempts of the Anglo-American empire to suppress the incomes of the postcolonial world.

Harvey’s only gripe with Patnaik was that Patnaik used the term ‘imperialism’, and the reason he doesn’t like that term is because once upon a time he read a book by Giovanni Arrighi called ‘Geometry of Imperialism’, which was a criticism of Hobson’s theory of ‘imperialism’.

So in other words, Harvey never debated the Patnaiks. He simply concluded that the term ‘imperialism’ had been proven wrong and then complained about the Patnaiks using it. Unlike Harvey, the Patnaiks are not stuck in some Hobsonian straitjacket because they’re Indians, meaning that for them, ‘imperialism’ is not some theory, it was the historic memory of being subjugated by Britain.

The Patnaiks would necessarily reject Hobson’s theory of ‘imperialism’ because Hobson explicitly denied that India was ever drained of its wealth by Britain, making him automatically irrelevant to anyone interested in reality. He then used ‘imperialism’ as a glorified name for ‘capital flight, why? Because he represented British workers angry at Britain for investing abroad rather than at home.

Nothing about this definition of ‘imperialism’ includes national exploitation. Therefore, Harvey is suggesting that the term ‘imperialism’ belongs to Hobson, his long-dead fellow Englishman, rather than to the Patnaiks who are making FAR better use of the term, by connecting it to the experience of 70% of humanity.

For the world of postcolonial Marxism, the definition of ‘imperialism’ was cemented at the Communist International in 1920, when Lenin declared that ‘imperialism’ represented the division of the world into ‘oppressor’ and ‘oppressed’ nations, the latter constituting 70% of the world’s population.

Lenin said that in a speech called the ‘Report of the Commission on the National and Colonial Questions’. An Indian Marxist, MN Roy, served as a member of the Comintern presidium back then, and drafted the supplementary thesis to that report.

None of this matters to Harvey, because for him, the term ‘imperialism’ is owned by someone who most people have forgotten. Regardless of Harvey’s intentions, his refusal to cede the word ‘imperialism’ to the Patnaiks amounts to a refusal to allow Marxists from the country that represented 70% of the British empire to use the term ‘imperialism’ to talk about their experience of empire.

This refusal to cede the term ‘imperialism’ allows the term to serve imperialism. The entire narrative that China is imperialist because it lends money to poor countries, even without threatening them with military force, is entirely consistent with the stupid Hobson definition that failed to capture national exploitation.

Smearing China as ‘imperialist’ is necessary for manufacturing consent for US aggression against China. Perhaps Harvey knows all of this? Perhaps he consciously believes his role is to gatekeep the meaning of the term so the Indians don’t take it, and so the Anglo-American empire can use it against China?

Time to smash the false idols of English-language Marxism and cast out their false prophets. The world of Marxism was always split by the cold-war, with the Marxism of the former empires and their settler-states in one camp, and the Marxism of the former USSR and postcolonial world in the other camp.

This is a struggle for ideological hegemony over a term and the agenda it serves.

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