“Development and Underdevelopment in Postwar Europe” (Columbia University) Conference Report

It’s no secret that one of the most booming sub-disciplines in international and global history today is the history of development–the interaction of the rich world with the poor world before (but especially after) empire, in the hopes that poor societies could be “developed” into something better. Works like Michael Latham’s Modernization as Ideology, Nick Cullather’s The Hungry World, and Matthew Connelley’s Fatal Misconception have explored aspects of this story from the lens of U.S. foreign policy, food aid, and population control, respectively, and works on development from non-American perspectives (the Soviet Union or Yugoslavia) or new themes, like smallpox control, seem to be sprouting up every day.

A recent conference hosted by the Heyman Center for the Humanities at Columbia University and organized by Professors Michele Alacevich (Loyola), Sandrine Kott (Geneva), and Mark Mazower (Columbia) sought to shake up the conversation surrounding development. Here follows a short round-up of the conference–summaries of the eight or so papers presented, plus the keynote address delivered by historian Adam Tooze, soon to be a guest himself on the Global History Forum.

Development, noted Alacevich in a short opening speech, typically is thought of as a Cold War phenomenon. Highlighting a quotation by Swedish economist and development guru Gunnar Myrdal, Alacevich noted that this typical intuition about development often comes paired with the twinned assertion that development was primarily a Third World phenomenon. It has to do with India and Indonesia, Egypt and Afghanistan–not with Europe, which, conventional wisdom goes, had to deal with the problem of reconstruction, not development. The goal of the conference was to shake up these assumptions, trying to bring development back into European history not only for the post-war period but also for the early twentieth and even late nineteenth century. Viewing European history in this way, historians of Europe might not only overcome a stagnant category of reconstruction, but also be able to retrace how development qua idea was actually exported from Europe into the Third World around (arguably) the middle of the twentieth century.

Spurred by these remarks, the first group of panelists–Thomas David (Lausanne), Michele Alacevich, and Sandrine Kott, followed by commentator Mark Mazower–were off to the races. David sought to set the intellectual stage for the rest of the conference, noting that in Eastern Europe, “development” had a long history dating back to at least the inter-war period, but probably earlier. In the wake of the failed revolution of 1848, Hungarian nationalist and intellect Lajos Kossuth looked at the backwards state of the Hungarian economy, noting that industrialization (visible in more advanced parts of the Habsburg Empire, like Bohemia) not agriculture (dependent on the “caprice of weather”) was the future.

Later, as intellectuals realized that German or (an even bigger long-term threat) American industrial might threatened their fledgling sectors, economists turned more towards the idea of the “national economy” as a defense from economic globalization. We would do well, noted David, to follow the trajectories of figures like Mihail Manoilescu, an ideologically nimble publicist who served as the Foreign Minister of fascist Romania from 1940-1944. Ideally, such Eastern European figures could be integrated into a group biography of other economists like Ragnar Nurske, Paul Rosenstein-Rodan, and Oskar Lange.

Alacevich’s contribution built upon David’s story of early twentieth century Europe as a laboratory for ideas about development. In his talk, Alacevich focused on the history and post-history of Chatham House’s Reconstruction Committee, a World War II-era body with that British institution devoted to studying the economic history of 1930s Europe, future possibilities for European-American cooperation, and the Nazis’ economic blueprint for Europe. Intellectuals working with the committee held out the hope that Eastern Europe, alone among seriously backwards regions of the planet, could be industrialized in one generation after the war.

But after the Soviets established their hegemony over the East, it was Italy that became the center of attention for intellectuals working with Chatham House. Alacevich went on to demonstrate how, by the late 1940s, southern Italy in particular became the site par excellence for officers of the World Bank, MIT’s Center for International Studies, and other research centers to visit. Given the relative poverty of a place like 21st century India, noted Alacevich, it’s easy to understand how Bombay or Calcutta figured into the research agendas of figures like Walt Rostow. But in reality, many of these figures saw Italy (a NATO partner to come and a strategic bastion against Soviet expansionism in the Mediterranean) as just as crucial of a battleground.

Sandrine Kott elaborated this story with a thread from her ongoing research, showing how international organizations served as nodes of collaboration in the global development conversation. Kott noted how the ILO and other little-known organizations like the UN’s Industrialization and Development Organization (UNIDRO) became rare arenas where Western and Eastern Bloc experts could meet with one another, as well as with the Third World. Poland’s engagement with a Vistula Basin Project furnished opportunities for Polish economists to find training in Western Europe, whereas Czech economists sold themselves as owners of a developmental legacy that could be useful to Asians and Africans. Kott’s was a story not just of exchanges but of the ways in which business history and development history intersect. As she noted, when the ILO conducted technical assistance to Communist Bulgaria in the 1960s, the head of the delegation was a Briton well-connected with British firms that supplied parts to the Bulgarian tourist industry. (Turning things around, Bulgarian computer makers often tried to sell their wares to Soviet ally India.)

A second panel shifted the focus from the point of view of international organizations to specific case studies in Eastern and Southeastern Europe. The panel’s first contributor, Andreas Kakridis (Athens), explored the rise of a developmentalist consensus in postwar Greece. In the wake of World War II, Kakridis demonstrated, Greece was desperately poor: a quarter as wealthy as most Western European countries, and similar to sub-Saharan African standards today. Intellectual debates about possible directions, however, were notably marked by the absence of “development” as an idea. Instead, actors spoke of “viability” as the key concept: since Greece was doomed to remain without industry, the most one could hope for was for the country to become a purveyor of cash crops for the world economy. But, showed Kakridis, with the influx of American Marshall Plan money, and more importantly, ideas, discourse changed. Greek economists started thinking more about industrialization. Harvard-trained Greek economist Andreas Papandreou received money from the Ford Foundation to start a think tank that became a key hub for international ideas about development: the likes of Rosenstein-Rodan, Amartya Sen, and Ted Kennedy all stopped by. By the late 1950s, Greece had been “economized,” as American-trained Greek economists’ students occupied positions in the civil sector, banks, and universities.

Presenting a very different story was Exeter University’s James Mark, who spoke on the role of Hungarian economists in the world of the Cold War. Magyar economists’ views of their own relationship to the Third World solidified, claimed Mark, in the late 1950s, as they forwarded the idea that socialist countries and national liberation movements actually constituted the same general movement in History against imperialism and capitalism. With the founding of an Afro-Asian Research Institute in Budapest in 1963, led by the former Minister of Trade, economists interested in post-colonial economies gained a new institutional base to pursue their research interests. Intellectuals like Janós Bottnar argued that Eastern European and African “backwardness” were actually part and parcel–echoes here of earlier presentations during the conference! As Mark demonstrated, throughout the 1960s, Hungarian economists embarked on a series of cosmopolitan journeys, advising Tanzanians and others to “think across peripheries.” Latin America (but not Cuba) became a site of a special obsession, seen as a possible middle road for market socialism to take hold. Italy, conversely, was the case to be avoided, an example of how market capitalism left agrarian regions brutally under-developed.

However, concluded Mark, by the 1970s, the picture had changed. Hungary’s indebtedness to Western lenders spurred criticisms of the Communist Party’s (expensive) support for national liberation movements in places like Egypt, Vietnam, Ethiopia, and Angola. After an Institute for World Economics was founded in 1973, Hungarian economists increasingly looked outside of the Bloc for inspiration, seeing South Korea as an example of how “semi-peripheral” countries could enter low-wage manufacturing sectors and break into wealthy economies with sterling advertising. Seoul established joint enterprises throughout Hungary, while Hungarian industrial management gurus studied Korean labor discipline practice. While Cuban guest laborers continued to toil in the factories of Hungary on fixed contracts, noted Mark, within the professional community of economists, nothing less than a decisive shift away from “socialist internationalism” and towards the idea of the global economy had taken place.

A third and final panel, composed of Johanna Bockman (George Mason), Simon Goddard (Geneva), and Timothy Nunan (Harvard/Berlin), tackled what discussant Victoria de Grazia described as the “real” other project of development, namely that emanating from the Eastern Bloc and the Soviet Union. Bockman took the opportunity of the conference to unveil some of the initial findings emanating from her new work on the history of the Third World debt crisis through the lens of the Second World.

Specifically, she focused on the experience of socialist economists in UNCTAD, founded in 1964 as a response to perceived structural inequalities in the global economy. From the start, noted Bockman, socialist representatives viewed themselves as fighting nearly the same fight as figures like Raúl Prebisch–the socialist bloc had a long history of fighting blockades from the West, and governments from Berlin to Belgrade were well-acquainted with lobbying for equal trade treatment and no “discrimination based on social systems.” Calls for Third World trading privileges vis-à-vis the rich world were music to the ears of Second World delegations eager to exploit the arena of UNCTAD to secure new export markets. More than this, however, Bockman sought to situate these UNCTAD dialogues into a larger history of socialist economists’ critiques of structural inequality. But, her research suggested, by the late 1970s both Eastern Bloc economies and their UNCTAD partners found themselves massively indebted to Western borrowers, forced to articulate new critiques of the global economy.

In his presentation, Simon Goddard (Geneva) showed how the history of Comecon, the economic organization of the Soviet Bloc, intersected in unexpected ways with the intellectual trajectory of development as an idea. Crucially, noted Goddard, until at least the 1970s, “development” itself was rejected as a bourgeois concept in Comecon’s expert communities. Post-war European Economists saw their countries as being in the position of the NEP-era USSR, not “underdeveloped” on a global scale.

But, continued Goddard, the story of Comecon appears to be largely one of missed opportunities and false steps. By the 1960s, Comecon’s economies , especially Romania and Bulgaria, were trading more and more with Western economies. Attempts to transform the institution into a massive planning organization from Vladivostok to Berlin failed. And throughout the 1960s, ministries across the socialist bloc did not coordinate statistical measures with one another. Perhaps this was one reason why attempts to devise a concept of national wealth other than the West’s “GDP” went nowhere. By the 1970s, Comecon was changing once more, with truly poor countries like Mongolia, Cuba, and Vietnam in, too, but Moscow still abjured formalized distinctions (or preferences) between Comecon members based on their economic state. Interestingly, however, internal rebels to the system like Romania did manage to have themselves re-classified in the United Nations as “developing countries,” thus securing certain aid and trade preferences.

Following upon Goddard’s contribution, in his presentation Timothy Nunan (Harvard/HU Berlin), who is also the Executive Director of the Toynbee Prize Foundation, explored the comparative developmental history of Soviet Central Asia and Afghanistan. While praising the contributions of Goddard and others to an understanding of the Soviet Union’s role in developing post-war Eastern Europe, Nunan argued that scholars need also to understand the USSR as a Eurasian and Asian power with deep avenues of engagement in countries like Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, India, and China. Only by understanding both sides of Soviet engagement, so to speak, can scholars form a holistic period of the Soviet contribution to global development.

Moving on, Nunan showed how Afghanistan’s dynamic Minister of the National Economy, Abdul Majid Zabuli, sought to integrate Afghanistan into the capitalist global economy through reconciliation with the Soviet Union. As the Cold War began, however, Zabuli’s vision of Afghanistan’s role in the world economy became irrelevant, and Afghan élites skillfully navigated the bipolarity of the Cold War to turn the country into a dependency of the Soviet Union (much to the outrage and frustration of Soviet economists in Kabul). More broadly, Nunan pleaded for more attention to Soviet interventions in other Cold War theaters like Ethiopia or Angola to enrich our understanding of Soviet development writ large.

The conference was closed out with a stirring keynote speech by Professor Adam Tooze (Yale). In his remarks, Tooze touched on five major areas: 1) mapping twentieth century modes of economic growth; 2) possible chronologies; 3) ideas, people, and institutions; 4) imaginaries of development; and 5) reflexivity. By his own account, Tooze sought less to address each paper individually than to summon out of the day’s proceedings a number of possible research agendas for future work on development.

Tooze began by noting the sheer diversity of concepts that had come up in the day’s papers. And there were indeed quite a few: planning, development, national economy, Großraumwirtschaft, and “viability,” among others. While individual case studies of, say, Hungary or Afghanistan, clearly have their own specifics, Tooze wondered what one might make of the veritable explosion, around the middle of the twentieth century, of so many concepts about how to manage the national economy.

This naturally led into a second area of analysis, namely that of periodization. Following the lead of Columbia scholar Timothy Mitchell, one could argue for the emergence in the mid-twentieth century of “the economy” as a distinct area of action to be managed by professional technocrats. One could view the problem of economic planning as a problem of planning after wars: many of the conference’s papers focused on either the “postwar” of the 1920s or the “postwar” of the 1950s. Decolonization presented another possible framing device: many of the discussions around development emerged in the wake of the first wave of decolonization, in the 1950s and 1960s, but faced perceived crisis as a more full-throated, aggressive brand of decolonization emerged from Africa in the late 1960s and 1970s.

Alternatively, however, one might question the likes of Mitchell in the first place and instead argue for a “long twentieth century” that begins in the late nineteenth century and runs to sometime in the 1970s. Clearly, noted Tooze, discussions of (variously) “the national economy,” Volkswirtschaft, or (in Russian) narodnoe khoziaĭstvo date back to at least then. In parallel to this, one might frame what appear as problems of twentieth century development in the context of longer battles of land reform, much along the lines of Jo Guildi’s ongoing project on a “long land war” around the world from roughly the 1870s to the 1970s. In short, we ought not to take the post-World War II period as the natural domain for histories of development; we would do well to consider seriously the nineteenth-century roots of what it is we write about.

In his third area of analysis, Tooze noted how a certain “earthiness” was less on display in the day’s proceedings than he expected. A tad too often, presentations focused on expert discourse without exploring how these ideas were translated to the ground. Fortunately, he added, historians of development have models for how to do this: Tooze highlighted Bruno Latour’s The Pasteurization of France as a model of work that connects all of the dots: from French scientists to the public hygiene movement to colonial administrators to the (female) janitors and moppers who performed so much of the day-to-work of making France “clean.” Some aspects of the day’s presentations showed attention to this “hidden materiality of development”: Nunan’s presentation played up the dirt runway upon which Khrushchëv’s airplane landed in Kabul and the German military surplus uniforms that the Afghan Army wore when greeting the Soviet leader–”as if Khrushchëv were being saluted by the Wehrmacht,” joked Tooze.

And yet even as historians of development excel at writing history at a high scale (expertise, ideas, élite institutions), Tooze explained, sometimes they ignore the middle scale. Highlighting the parallels between images from Kakridis’ and Nunan’s presentation–cranes on Marshall Plan stamps and Soviet cranes in Kabul–Tooze conjectured that one could write a quite useful history of development as a history of the crane. Indeed, it was around the 1950s that a small technological revolution in cranes took place, as companies like Switzerland’s Liebherr, Britain’s Coles Crane, or those produced by the Ministry of Construction, Road, and Communal Machine-Building in the USSR (the predecessors of some of which are now produced by Russia’s Avtokran).

Looking at development this way, we might see that Hans Liebherr, for example, had a background in mobile pontoon bridges during the Second World war. Instead of the cliché of “creative destruction,” said Tooze, could not one speak of the “destructive creation” during the Second World War as a necessary condition for post-war global development? Turning our focus to “the ground”–machines, the middle scale, technology–could seem dull at first in comparison to highfalutin ideas, but it may actually furnish big-time methodological reflections that do not offer themselves to the researcher working only in the realm of expertise.

Of course, “the ground” wasn’t the only sphere that mattered for development. In his fourth area of analysis, Tooze discussed what he called the “imaginary of development.” The day’s proceedings had touched a lot on the discourse of experts, but Tooze found himself–looking at the posters of Andreas Kakridis’ and the Kabul apartment buildings of Timothy Nunan’s presentations–fascinated by the local reception of American- and Soviet-vended ideas about the future. What role do the crumbling apartment buildings of the Kabul mikrorayon play today for their inhabitants? How are these ruins of development performed today?

Tooze highlighted the 2012 documentary film The Lebanese Rocket Society as a possible inspiration for how one might conduct such a history. In that film, directors Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige explore the history of the abortive Lebanese rocket program, an informal affair led by physicists Mamohgh Manoughian. The words “rockets” and “Lebanon” today might conjure up images of Hezbollah for some, but those with the patience to soak in the history on offer in the film will see how rocketry–some of which successfully achieved orbit–served a crucial role as a symbol of having made it to modernity for post-colonial Lebanon. Countless other instances of technologies and countries might furnish useful stories, too, needless to say.

This brought Tooze to his final, and most personal, theme, reflexivity. “Why do we write the histories we do,” asked Tooze. Many of the papers presented during the course of the conference were, in effect, histories of technocracy, often gone awry. But Tooze sensed a certain distance in the style of scholarship. This expressed itself in the day’s frequent mentions to get closer to “the ground” or something called “the real world,” perhaps reflections of an anxiety that too much focus on expert discourse could lead to charges of “so what.” It also expressed itself in a certain bashfulness with which the presenters addressed the subject of economics. It’s easy to show how development economists failed in any number of contexts, he pointed out, but might historians also just be suffering from disciplinary envy?

More broadly, Tooze wondered whether the strong focus on academic expertise reflected the condition of researchers in the university today–creatures conditioned by a bureaucratized condition, used to esoteric theoretical debates, but with little connection to the so-called “ground.” Historians of development often write about people who are quite like themselves–economists, academics, experts. Nor is there anything wrong with that, necessarily. But, Tooze remarked, there can be a certain sense of regret one gets as an adviser when sending another bright PhD student off to Geneva to work in the archives of experts there. It’s crucial, he noted, that scholarship not become too self-referential: flipping through the letters of recommendation for Greek or Iranian economists, while we ourselves scrambled for letters of recommendations ourselves for a competitive job market.

Perhaps some soul-searching might be in order. Tooze suggested Luisa Passerini’s history-cum-memoir as one example of how historians might think about their own work. Passerini may be known to readers as a professor of history at Turin, whose work has centered on the oral history of Italian fascism. In her memoir, Autobiography of a Generation, Passerini reflects on her own intellectual formation during the Italian 1968, but also turns the table of her own methodology back on herself, conducting interviews with fellow members of the 1968 movement. She returns to her own journals as well, subjecting them to a historian’s eye. The trick is thus two-fold. What biographical impulses–the desire to understand the generation of one’s country, say–motivate us to write the work that we do? And when we find ourselves subjected to the methodologies we hold dear, how do we respond?

Tooze himself recalled the making of his own first book, Statistics and the German State, noting that he himself sees the book in part as a small act of rebellion against his father, a molecular biologist by training who became a leading science administrator in the United Kingdom and Germany. The book, he explained, was framed to locate the “mongers of scientific knowledge” in a historical context.

That doesn’t detract from the book’s scholarship, of course. But it is incumbent upon historians to reflect critically on where they are coming from (personally and critically) when they write the kind of history they write. We might lay our perspective of critique more plainly on the table (something that Johanna Bockman’s paper did especially well). Instead of tip-toeing around the spectacular failure of mainstream economics, why not embrace a full-throated traditional leftist critique of the field? Why not make a more honest environmental critique? Whatever tack we adopt–and a critical stance is often inescapably embedded in our work–Tooze reminded the day’s participants that we need to continue pursuing the technical knowledge for our work. That might mean more seminars in economics. It might mean more in soil science. Or crane-building. But historians need to take their training seriously if they expect to be taken seriously in public arenas.

Unless, that is, they’re abandoning critique altogether. In closing, Tooze noted that historians of development don’t necessarily have to explicitly offer a critique of other disciplines altogether. We might learn from anthropologists–or from the places we study–and immerse ourselves more fully in the places that came up in the course of the day’s events. We might go to southern Italy, to Greece, to Afghanistan. The question, Tooze suggested, remains whether historians follow the approach of a Bruno LaTour and explicitly critique the social sciences outside of history, or of a Foucault, engaging in deep historical archaeology. That decision remains one that will be made by the current and coming generation of scholars working on development.

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