European liberals reconciled universalism and imperialism by arguing that although all men were not yet equal, they were ruled by universal economic laws and followed a common historical path. The philosophers Jean-Baptiste Say, John Stuart Mill, and Auguste Comte each contended that societies passed through successive stages from savagery through barbarism to finally reach a developed state that resembled industrial Europe. "Whoever knows the political economy of England, or even of Yorkshire," Mill claimed, "knows that of all nations, actual or possible." Comte called the science of human evolution "sociology" and proposed that the highest stage would be a "positive" society governed by science. American scientists similarly concluded that their own society was advanced relative to the surrounding peoples, who might with help "catch up." Lewis H. Morgan, a founder of American anthropology, speculated in 1877 that "American Indian tribes represent, more or less nearly, the history and experience of our own remote ancestors."
From this perspective the United States, as well as Germany—among the youngest of countries—could be seen as the oldest of societies, advanced beyond India or China in the arts of civilization. Seniority implied a duty to instruct and uplift, and a concept of trusteeship was integral to liberal developmentalism. In the latter part of the nineteenth century, German social theorists—George Friedrich List, Karl Marx, and Max Weber—debated the obligations and causes of economic progress. List asserted that the state held the primary developmental role; its true mission was to "furnish the economical education of the nation." Marx authored one of the boldest theoretical statements of the developmental vision, describing the "iron necessity" of historical laws that required the successive destruction of feudalism and bourgeois capitalism to make way for communism. He attacked the liberal developmentalists' assumption of trusteeship, which subordinated colonial subjects and domestic labor and furnished a disguise for exploitation. Marx's and later Lenin's critiques of imperial trusteeship were so appealing to anticolonial insurgents that Cold War–era modernization theorists would conceive their project as an attempt to devise an alternative to communist developmentalism.
Nationalists in the subject states constructed their own visions of modernity, and by the 1920s development was the subject of a global debate among disparate factions of anticolonial modernizers, primitivists, jingoes, and reformers. Two members of the Indian National Congress, Dadabhai Naoroji and Romesh C. Dutt, wielding British statistics and a historical perspective, demolished claims that the Raj acted for India's economic welfare. Dutt (using what would later be called a structuralist or dependency approach) showed that imperial taxes and terms of trade systematically milked India for England's benefit. "When I read Mr. Dutt's economic history of India," Mohandas Gandhi wrote, "I wept…. It ismachinery that has impoverished India." Indian nationalists drew different conclusions as to the proper response. For Gandhi, development was the antithesis of community, and he urged a restoration of a preindustrial village economy. But Jawaharlal Nehru, insisting there was "only oneway traffic in Time," ruled out a return to communalism or Islamic theocracy. He represented a majority of Congress Party members who wanted to build an industrial India by wresting development planning from British control. In China, too, development became a principal rationale for the nationalist struggle. Sun Yat-sen authored an elaborate scheme that promised to cure China's backwardness as well as the global crisis of over-production by using Western technology to dam rivers, build cities, and overlay China with a modern transport grid.
In the United States, "development" came into official use at the beginning of the twentieth century to distinguish the American civilizing mission from European colonial policy, which it resembled. "The Philippines are not ours to exploit," President William McKinley asserted, "but to develop, to civilize, to educate." Woodrow Wilson attested that the Allies were "fighting for the liberty, the self-government, and the undictated development of all peoples." In practice, the line between exploitation and development was porous. Gifts of science and technology facilitated economic and imperial penetration. Commodore Matthew C. Perry had presented the Japanese shogun with machinery and seeds, and by 1900, American agricultural missions, mining surveys, and sanitation experts made frequent stops in Japan and China. Professor Edwin W. Kemmerer circulated through South America in the 1920s modernizing currency and banking systems while opening new ground for U.S. investment. Educational and medical establishments, including the early work of the Rockefeller Foundation, were an extension of Christian evangelical missions.
An evangelical sensibility distinguished the American approach to development from the high-modernist ambitions of European colonizers and Asian nationalists. Early technical missions found their work "was not merely a matter of transferring scientific principles and factual data," Merle Curti observed, "it was more largely a problem of developing attitudes." Rockefeller initiatives in China in the 1920s and 1930s emphasized the transplantation of institutions and ways of thinking. American social science supported a perception of modernity as a kind of conversion experience. John Dewey, who defined American pragmatism in the 1920s and 1930s, conceived of freedom as development, as the realization of latent potential. The anthropologist Robert Red-field, writing in 1930, was the first to use the term "modernization" to describe linked processes of urbanization, literacy, secularization, and familial dismemberment. Although these were all concomitants of economic disruption, Redfield noted that modernization was fundamentally a cognitive, even spiritual event: A peasant, encountering a city for the first time, "develops a correspondingly new organ, a new mind." From the start, American modernization initiatives would measure achievement not by kilowatts or gross national product but by hearts and minds.