Collective Struggles and Labour-Led Development

A review of The Struggle for Development by Benjamin Selwyn
2017 Polity Press, by Drew Povey

This is an important book that provides an alternative view to what the author calls the Anti-Poverty Consensus. That is the dominant view, propagated by the World Bank/IMF and parroted by most of the world media, that human development can be achieved simply through economic growth.

Ben’s alternative, labour-led development, views society from the perspective of the global labouring class rather than from the perspective of capital accumulation or ‘national development’. It takes the classical Marxist view that the working class are the gravediggers of capitalism and that the success of the global socialist revolution develops organically from the day to day collective struggles of labour against their bosses.

Ben defines the class that through its own endeavours has the potential to liberate itself as follows:
The global labouring class includes unpaid women workers largely responsible for social reproduction in the household, urban/industrial employed workers (‘the working class’ in traditional Marxian terminology), urban and rural unemployed workers, ‘informal’ workers that populate the ever-expanding urban slum lands, many members of the peasantry, and many members of the so-called emerging developing-world middle class.” (page 15).

Ben critiques hard neoliberalism then goes on to expose the holes in the alternative softer, ‘progressive’ capitalism. This still accepts that the prime aim of human development should be economic growth, but to a greater or lesser extent accepts a role for the state in regulating this development. Ben points out the fundamental contradiction arising from this approach that requires “advocacy of labour exploitation and oppression in the name of ameliorating labour’s condition” (page 21).

The Big Lie

Global wealth increased by two thirds in the decade to 2013. But these additional resources were overwhelmingly captured by the world’s wealthiest people. According to Oxfam’s World Inequality Report (2018), since 1980, the poorest half of humanity only gained 12% of this growth, in contrast the richest 1% took over a quarter. As Warren Buffet, one of the richest of these said, “there’s been class warfare going on for the last 20 years, and my class has won” (page 4).

Similarly, the economy of Nigeria tripled in size over the 20 years from 1998, but poverty may have increased and the real value of the minimum wage was cut by around half. The rich got massively richer, but the poor hardly benefited if at all. The number of extremely poor may have reduced over the last two decades, but the number of poor in the world is increasing at a faster rate. Eliminating global poverty, as planned with the Sustainable Development Goals, would actually take at least 200 years even with the high rates of economic growth achieved in the decade to 2008. In contrast, Ben provides evidence that, even in a relatively poor country like Bangladesh, poverty could be eliminated by transferring only three per cent of GDP from the richest to the poorest eighths of the population.

Ben also points out that neoliberalism and the varieties of capital centred development being implemented over the last 30 to 40 years have resulted in “[a]ccumulating resentment among labouring classes [that] represents a social tinderbox, where sparks can detonate mass collective unrest. These revolts can be toxic as well as potentially emancipatory.” (page 18). Whereas the author celebrates collective actions with examples from South Africa, Argentina, South Korea and China, he also acknowledges that this resentment can also be turned against other nationalities, ethnic groups or religions. He gives the example of South Africa in April 2016 when this resentment was directed against migrants from other African countries and re-surfaced earlier this year.

Deepening Exploitation: Capital-Centred Development

Ben equates classical Marxism with the self-emancipation of the working class promoted by Karl Marx. He argues that this approach was distorted after the Stalinist counter-revolution in Russia in the late 1920s and 1930s. This replaced international socialism with the call for building of socialism in one country. Russia was forced to compete, at least militarily, with the US and so Stalin claimed in 1931 that “The pace must not be slackened… On the contrary we must quicken it as much as is within our powers and possibilities… We are fifty or a hundred years behind the advance countries. We must make good this lag in ten years. Either we do it or they crush us.” (page 96).

The millions of deaths under Stalin and Mao, as a consequence of attempts at accelerated industrialisation” did not deter the leaders of newly independent Africa in the 1960s and this formed the basis of ‘African Socialism’ of, for example, Nyerere in Tanzania and Nkrumah in Ghana. This is also the approach currently being adopted by the ANC in South Africa which means they have accepted privatisation, increased university fees and the Marikana Massacre of striking miners as the price that has to be paid for industrialisation and national development.


This is only a short book and so does not provide all the answers, but it does at least provide an overarching strategy, especially for Southern workers, for the popular masses to achieve real development. This is labour-led development where the workers themselves get organised and struggle to increase their own wages and improve the conditions in their own workplaces.

Ben echoes the Communist Manifesto by saying that “Capitalism is an immensely dynamic wealth-generating system. It has established, on a global scale, the basis for a world free from poverty” (page 152). But he also recognises that capitalism “will more certainly wreck the planet, create new forms of mass poverty, and reproduce mega-inequalities than deliver the dream of well-being for all” (page 152).

The book ends with an emphasis on the links between current daily labour struggles and a future socialist society using the words of an organiser of an occupied factory in Argentina: “This [process of factory occupation and recovery] is big, because … what one has regarded as a utopia, has become now necessary and possible … If we could take this … to a regional, country, world level… we would be talking of another world” (page 162).

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