Following the spirit of the ideas and practical experiences for a communist laboratory, I wanted to post the introduction and the conclusion of a piece I have been writing for a while (and I could not complete, surprise surprise). I have taught great students in development studies for three years in London and we shared a common concern for the necessity to imagine/build/think of alternatives. This was one of many impulses which pushed me to create a communist lab. When I finish the piece, it will be for my students. 

Marxism and Developmental Imagination


An intellectual exercise I do with my students at the beginning of the course Theory and Evidence in Contemporary Development dealing with the problems of social, agricultural and industrial development in the context of neoliberalism starts as follows: We build a hypothetical village in a rural setting in Africa and depict its possible social and political structure. Then I specify the exact terms and conditions of some tentative development projects such as a project of credit for agricultural development guided by banks or an anti-poverty scheme conducted by village administration. I expect my students to develop a critical eye and think about how those projects would fail or, put differently, what would be the obstacles impeding the generation of positive outcomes. To give a concrete example, they are likely to find out how a bank credit scheme would fail to reach small peasants unable to meet the collateral criteria or how the village administration could distribute anti-poverty aid to those households with which it has clientelistic linkeages. We discuss the complexity of class and land structure in order to reach together the first important lesson about the very rationale of the course:  Without proper analysis of actors and social structures in a given setting prior to action, development projects are unlikely to succeed. 

It is a good introduction to the course because students discover the latent knowledge about the strict relation between theory and policy, how a misled picture of reality can indeed lead to the failure of development projects. Yet, while we proceed with our readings and discussions throughout the term, initial excitement cedes its place to increasing frustration. For students realise how much they are expected to criticise and how little they are invited to reflect on and imagine alternatives. This frustration is most intense with the acquintance of Marxist scholars who, especially since the dissolution of Soviet Socialism, avoid providing tangible alternatives. But if Marx did not only want to interpret but also to change the world, why is that paradox?

This paper is about this paradox and its implications for development. The paradox is not inherent to development studies per se, but since the very discipline started as a policy-oriented discipline and remains as such still today, it is important to recognise the necessity to face a problem whose discussion is much delayed for Marxists who stay on the defensive side. The main question is to ask how development studies can be rethought, with the still important Leninist question of what is to be done.

In the first part I give a brief outline of the origin and history of the discipline from the 1950s in order to show the significance of Marxists’ interventions as well as their limits. I try to point out to the importance of ‘critique’ as such. I also underline the meaning of development for the socialist experiences and how the imaginative projects of early socialist experience were repressed and all objectives were tied to the economic and technical rationality of development. Then I discuss the current status of the discipline with a critical eye on the post-developmental discourse which I argue is unable to offer an alternative, not only in terms of engaging with subalterns, poor and working class but also in terms of offering concrete developmental outcomes. In that section I derive from the insights offered by Marxist and critical scholars of development. Finally I focus on politics of development and argue, on the basis of some concrete cases, that successful political mobilisation is a prerequisite for development. Yet, I extend further this argument and endorse the idea that new socialist utopias and struggles should use development projects as organisational tools for political mobilisation as well and should benefit from the metis translated and re-invented by organic intellectuals.


I started this essay with the intellectual exercise I did with my students. While finishing I want to reflect on it again, in the light of the discussion I carried out. My students were right in their complaints and even though providing students with a general critical map and approach to look at things and apply it for policy suggestions as one of my very bright students put it, is a still important, it is far from sufficient. I could, of course tell them that there are never ready made alternatives and questions are sometimes more important than the answers. I already showed, hopefully persuasively, the importance of critique. But if what I discussed in that paper makes some sense, then there is the possibility that we can do better: What if I pose the question of the exercise regarding the rural setting in Africa, this time at the end of the course as follows?: Rather then asking about what can lead to the failure of this project, we could perhaps ask what would be the conditions for its success. Put differently, we could change the negative question into an affirmative challenge and could invite them to think like an architect rather than a social scientist. The good architect is the one who not only imagines a project in the void but works on his project with the existing conditions and material rather than against them. Richard Sennett beautifully makes this point for the practice of craftsman: Not resisting, but working with difficulties might be sometimes the best way to overcome them (Sennett, 2008).

Passionate students could notice that in fact conditions imply a term too static to think about. They would be well-equipped, during the course, with the importance of agency and could re-formulate the question by translating the mathematical equation into another one: What strategies should we develop to make our project successful? If they did have any grasp of class, they could write another question and say: What counter-strategies should we develop, vis-a-vis other actors who can impede our project? Now the question of structure is further problematised as a question of ‘agency’, a term which does not explain everything in the last instance, but which points out to ‘men making their own history under certain conditions’. Students could also remember the simple Gramscian lesson about how successful strategy requires good analysis and could recognise the merit of all the theoretical readings they had to make while enjoying the intellectual satisfaction of reflecting on the question: Now the students are taking the challenge to think complex relations of forces, strategies, counter-strategies, past historical conditions, to evaluate possibilities and limits, used and missed opportunities for future projects. Only now they are invited to use a developmental imagination, to take part in the so much separated worlds of examining social reality and acting upon it. Only now they are invited to take an ethical responsibility of offering a concrete alternative by showing the bravery to face all potential outcomes: A simple but important lesson about politics of development as well as about one’s own life. Perhaps it is high time development scholars became curious and passionate students once again.

Sennett, R. (2008) The Craftsman, Yale University Press