Socialism and uneven world development

It might be thought that the present uneven development of productive resources throughout the world could be brought into greater balance within capitalism itself. It might be said that as modern productive techniques have been brought into use in one place, there should be no great difficulty in setting these up in other places where they are needed, but under capitalism this question cannot be considered solely as a technical or practical problem. The pace at which productive organisation develops is governed entirely by the operation of capital, and this applies in all parts of the world.

Certainly there is a pressure on productive organisation to develop, but this can only take place within the constraints of the profit system. The economic factors which hold back development include the fact that means of production only come into use as invested capital, therefore capital must be available. This in turn depends upon the market opportunities for invested capital to be operated profitably. Other factors are involved, but without available capital and market capacity, development within capitalism cannot take place.

It was not therefore enough for underdeveloped countries to throw off colonial domination. The ruling elites who replaced colonial power still faced the problem of finding the capital resources for developing their independent states as profitable capitalist enterprises. It is often thought that a state of underdevelopment presents unique economic advantages in that particular opportunities exist for bringing backward economies swiftly into line with the more advanced countries. But their backwardness involves a low market capacity at home, and the ability to take advantage of gaps in the world market tends to rest with the advanced economies which are already the most cost efficient in terms of industrial and manufacturing organisation. It is quite true that multinational corporations can operate their capital in underdeveloped countries, taking advantage of cheaper labour and a timid work force with little experience of trade union organisation. But this does little to realise the class aspirations of the ruling elites who expect to accumulate their own capital from the exploitable populations who are under their direct control. The great concentrations of capital reside in those countries where capital has been accumulated from the exploitation of workers over many generations in an advanced economy.

So the ruling elites in underdeveloped countries have taken out massive loans amounting now to many billions of dollars, but with the deepening world depression and weakening prices of many key export commodities, they now find they face impossible debts. Trade goods such a sugar, coffee, cocoa, cotton, zinc, copper, aluminium, rubber and vegetable oils, have slumped in the world markets and this means that development hopes have been buried under mountains of debt. It also means that many underdeveloped countries are so drained of foreign exchange that they cannot import vital supplies of even such things as books and medical supplies. Development projects have been halted.

Even before the famines of Ethiopia and sub-saharan countries, the warning went out that African countries could find themselves overwhelmed by a natural hazard such as drought if this should happen against the background of economic stagnation.

There is no foreseeable prospect that the great disparities of development may be evened out within capitalism.


The development of capitalism as a world system has included the development of communications of every kind. Even in the 19th century, Karl Marx was aware of the importance of communications in overcoming the problems of distance in the organisation of production:

A relatively thinly populated country, with well developed means of communication, has a denser population than a more numerously populated country, with badly developed means of communication (K Marx, Capital, Vol. I, Allen and Unwin, p.346).

This now includes not only transport such as roads, railways, shipping and air travel, but also a world system of electronic communications which provides for instant world-wide contact between all peoples. For this reason it can be said that we now live in a “global village”. What this means is that socialism would have no difficulty in organising the world as one productive system directly for human needs.

It is likely, however, that when socialism is established some populations could enjoy greater advantages arising from prior development within capitalism. These populations could benefit from developed industry, manufacture, agriculture, energy supply and systems of transport and distribution. Together with this there would already exist health and education services, a highly developed system of administration including planning departments, local services and an accumulation of statistical information which would be immediately useful in the organisation of society directly for needs.

In many parts of the world these useful facilities may not exist.

One of the first priorities of world socialism would be to rapidly expand food production in line with needs. World action would include assistance with any local agriculture that was poorly developed in relation to local needs. Comparing the present position between Africa and Europe, for every 1,000 hectares of arable land in Europe, there exists 60 available tractors and over 6 combine harvesters. In Africa, for the same land area, there are only two tractors and 0.2 combine harvesters. In South America, where food production could be vastly increased through irrigation schemes, of the 108 million hectares of arable and permanent crop land in use only 5.5 per cent is irrigated. Similarly in Africa only 4 per cent is irrigated.

Another problem which would require urgent world action in socialism is the housing problem. Even in Europe the housing problem is bad enough, with many homeless families and chronic urban blight. Throughout the world, particularly in Asian capitals and such cities as Mexico City, millions of people live in the squalor of shanty towns, with no sewage, supplies of clean water or decent services.

Free from all the constraints of capitalist production, people throughout the world would concentrate their energies on solving these problems, taking the necessary initiatives in their own areas. It is likely, however, that the world centres of developed industry and manufacturing would initially need to supply machinery and equipment, installations, storage facilities and technical know-how to the underdeveloped areas, to assist with such projects as housing development and irrigation schemes for food production. As well as this it is likely that there would be an urgent need to set up education and health services, and infrastructures for transport and communications.


As a world system organised directly for human needs socialism cannot be conceived in any exclusive regional context. Concern and action for need would be universal. Notwithstanding any particular advantages which may exist in some regions as a result of capitalism having previously developed the forces of production there, in socialism such advantages would be at the disposal of the whole world community. This is what the socialist object spells out when it speaks of common ownership and democratic control of the means and instruments for producing and distributing wealth by and in the interests of the whole community. The whole community is simply every person on earth.

Even within capitalism, where individual workers in the developed countries are preoccupied with their own problems of getting by as best they can, they show concern for the needs of other people who live in desperate circumstances. This is indicated by the support given to charities such as Oxfam, War on Want, and the surge of response to the starving of Ethiopia through Live Aid. Voluntary medical workers and agricultural experts are willing to devote part of their lives in assisting with urgent problems. Dockers in Southampton who loaded a grain ship for Ethiopia without wages did so simply to help other people in need. This is the spirit of concern and cooperation that socialism would release. It would be organised in a practical and controlled way on the basis of common ownership, democratic control and production solely for needs.

The administrative machinery for such collective world action already exists. An adapted form of the United Nations Organisation could provide an instrument of organisation working through such bodies as the Food and Agricultural Organisation, the World Health Organisation as well as other existing world bodies. Such bodies could co-ordinate the initiatives of world action in dealing with world problems.

Who can doubt that the existing material resources of humanity could be swiftly mobilised for the work of creating decent living conditions for all people? Without the national divisions which now exist as rival capitalist states, without the insane waste of military and the allocation of resources for the forces of destruction, without the constraints of production for profit which now crush the skills and energies of people and their spirit of cooperation, the world community in socialism could immediately get on with the urgent work that has to be done.

The days of national politics are long since ended as a useful framework of political action. The existing reformist parties offer nothing more than a destructive future within a framework of national divisions. The worst prospect is that they will lead humanity into annihilation in a nuclear holocaust [or global warming]. That is the ultimate logic of world capitalism.

Pieter Lawrence,

 World Socialist, Summer 1986.