21 Aug A Rebel in the Marxist Citadel: Tributes to Samir Amin
A Baobab has Fallen
By Issa Shivji
Samir Amin was an exceptionally humble person. In spite of his huge influence on younger generations, he never treated them patronizingly or with condescension. Samir did not see himself as a leader, teacher or mentor. He treated younger scholars and comrades as his equals, engaging with them and critiquing them where necessary.
It was 1973. My sequel to the first essay ‘Tanzania: The Silent Class Struggle’, called ‘The class struggle continues’ (which later became Class Struggles in Tanzania) was making rounds of comrades ‘underground’ in a mimeograph form. I can’t remember if I sent it to him or somehow he got hold of it. He read it through and took time to send me his comment:
As a young person half his age I was thrilled. It etched on me an everlasting impression. I had known Samir barely for two years. If my memory serves me right, I first met him in a workshop of the African Institute for Economic Development and Planning (IDEP) he had organised in Dar es Salaam. The fascination of listening to Samir and his colleagues was enormous. I had tried to plough through his Accumulation on World Scale but can’t claim to have understood it. Since then Samir remained a friend and a comrade, never failing to invite me although many a time I had to decline. I was among the few on the Nile cruise to celebrate his eightieth birthday. The celebration was a seminar. Every morning we would meet on the deck having read in the cabin the previous night. He was first to come, holding his partner, Isabella’s hand to help her negotiate steps, and last to leave. Isabella then was in frail health.
Samir has been variously described as a scholar, intellectual, all of which he deserves but for me, more than anything else, he was a political person. Working class politics permeated his every pore. Even during the worst of times, he did not shy away from declaring himself a Marxist, openly and proudly. He stood firm, unshakeable when many of his contemporaries and younger scholars sought refuge in mainstream intellectual fashions to become celebrities.
Neither did he covet awards, nor did he seek endorsement of Western universities, (particularly US) and scholarly organizations. But he genuinely appreciated and welcomed invitations from Third World institutions. He was enormously happy when I invited him to the University of Dar es Salaam to deliver the second Nyerere Annual Lecture in 2010. In the citation, I said:
As a militant Marxist scholar, Samir Amin has two outstanding qualities. He has been consistent and passionate throughout his life in the advocacy and defence of human emancipation from the vicious capitalist and imperialist system, regardless of the changing intellectual fashions. On this, he is uncompromising. Second, he has consciously done everything possible and seized every opportunity available to provide space, forum, and a training ground for young African scholars.
I said he was pre-eminently a political person. And now I can add what I couldn’t say then in the citation read from a scholarly podium. Once he had invited two of us to an IDEP workshop in Dakar. We needed to meet a comrade who was in exile then. We hesitatingly asked Samir if he could invite him also so that we could meet him. Without further ado or questions he did it!
The final time I met Samir Amin was last year when he came to Dar es Salaam to give a lecture. With Bashiru Ally, then a young emerging scholar, now the Secretary General of the ruling party, we had tea at my place. Samir was smoking away his cigar, copying the PDFs of his books on a flash drive for us. Samir was not one to respect intellectual property rights!
His intellectual works, scholarly contributions and political interventions have been sufficiently covered in dozens of tributes that are pouring in every day. I will not go over them. I wanted specifically to capture Samir’s attitude and treatment of younger generations, done as a matter of course and without pretense. When I first learnt of Samir’s passing on from Samia Zennadi, our mutual friend from Algeria, I could not find words to express my grief in prose. Spontaneously, the following stanza rolled out to capture the sentiment I have expressed in prose here:
A baobab has fallen
Plants will miss your shade
Shoots will miss your protection
I’ll miss your love and warmth
Yes, comrade, plants will not shrivel, and shoots will not die. They will continue to derive sustenance and inspiration from the baobab for, as Natasha wrote, you live on ‘in our imagination of a more just world and in the fight against oppression.’
Issa Shivji, Dar es Salaam, 19 August 2018
Samir Amin on Centre, Periphery and the World Economy: an appreciation of his original insights
By Peter Lawrence
Samir Amin, already a major figure in the political economy of development, was the author of the first article in the first ever issue of ROAPE, in 1974. As the editorial noted, the article was ‘a summary of his basic model of the workings of the international system as a whole, presented at length in his two recent books’ (the two- volume Accumulation on a World Scale, Monthly Review Press, 1974). The editorial continued:
It provides us with an ideal starting point: a general view of international capitalism, identifying the crucial differences in the dynamic of accumulation at the centre and at the periphery: differences which promote development in the metropoles and inhibit it in Africa. It is our hope that his work, which represents the most significant African contribution to the debate on underdevelopment, will be studied widely and discussed critically.
And so it was. Some of the subsequent issues of ROAPE in the 1970s, as well as books and articles in other journals published in that period endorsed or took issue implicitly or explicitly with his model of accumulation. The idea that a home grown capitalism was developing in African countries contested any view of the world in which Amin’s centre was inhibiting any possibility of, in his phrase, a ‘self-centred system’ in which value is transferred from the periphery to the centre through a process of unequal exchange where returns to labour at the periphery are less than returns to labour at the centre. Cheap labour produces the exports of raw material, both agricultural and mineral, to a centre where the value of labour embodied in the final product is higher. In his overall model, the centre produces the capital goods that produce the consumer goods for their mass markets. The periphery produces export goods which pay for the imports of what are relatively luxury products for a small elite class within the peripheral economies. Even if some of those consumer goods are produced within the peripheral economies, their markets are small and the capital goods needed for that production have to be imported from the centre.
Re-reading the analysis in Amin’s article is a sobering experience: fast forwarding to the present, little has changed. Even if there were countries which tried in some way to break with the system – Nyerere’s Tanzania with its policy of Socialism and Self-reliance, for example – they never broke or were allowed to break with the system of capital accumulation in which profits found their way to the developed economies of what we now term the ‘Global North’. Of course there has been some development of capitalism in Africa but this has not resulted in significant structural changes to economies. They are still largely dependent on the vagaries of world commodity markets, exporting raw materials and importing capital and consumer goods directed to a domestic market of higher income consumers, whose income derives from the high end of commodity trading, financial activities and their servicing, and those with larger farms and estates. Meanwhile large proportions of the African populations languish on or below the poverty line. The self-centred economy described in Amin’s article and books, has as its ‘central determining relationship’ that of the production of capital goods for the production of consumer goods for the mass market. In the periphery on the other hand, that relationship is a ‘peripheral- dependent’ between earning export income in order to consume ‘luxury’ goods. In the capitalist developed countries this system had been achieved in Amin’s approach, by a ‘social contract’ between increasingly monopolised capital and organised labour which allowed for some degree of ‘planning’ to avoid the cyclical fluctuations associated with capitalism before the second world war and especially between the first and second world wars. Amin defines the underlying contradiction of capitalism which causes these fluctuations as one between what the system allows to be produced and what it prevents, in its search for profit, people to consume, but argues that ensuing cyclical fluctuations have been moderated by the ‘social contract’.
However, in analysing the system in this way, Amin rejected the prevailing view in both the capitalist ‘West’ and the socialist ‘East’ the idea that development entailed catching up with the developed capitalist countries. His key insight was to argue that given the way the global system worked, countries such as those of Africa were not going to achieve the status of a developed country by imitating their development trajectory, or by concentrating on their raw material export base and slowly industrialise by importing capital goods. The history of the world was not about followers catching up with leaders but about dominant civilizations being ‘transcended’ by peripheral ones as the former decline and the peripheral overtake them with different social organizations. In this case a socialist self-centred development would eventually transcend moribund capitalism. This required an overall strategy of ‘self-reliance’ but one built up from popular bases ‘becoming aware of reality’ (Amin’s emphasis) and allowed for the increasing domination of a ‘self-centred’ system. Of course the political activity required to achieve this in the face of an active and global imperialism has and continues to be the key issue, and not just in the periphery. As Amin observed:
It is quite appropriate to describe the task of transition thus: transition from the capitalist world system, based on hierarchies of nations, to a world socialist system, which cannot be made up of relatively isolated and autarkic ‘socialist’ nations. Here the true solidarity of the peoples involved in the struggle for reshaping the world comes to the fore, due to the limited prospects for progress in the Third World where the conditions for transcending advanced capitalism express nothing more than the weakness of the forces of socialism at the centre of the system. (ROAPE, 1974:20)
He regarded the China of the Cultural Revolution as addressing this issue and indeed although China developed in a way that Amin may not have foreseen there is some basis for the view that it did first ensure an autocentric development path, only engaging with global capitalism when it was in a strong position to do so. Much has changed in China since 1974, as is the case across the world. We are now possibly in an even less favourable phase of world history. The contradictions of capitalism at the centre are being resolved in ways which inhibit the periphery even further from a socialist self-centred development. In the past four decades we have lived through the triumph and the crisis of neoliberalism, the global financial monopolisation of capital, the colonisation of the State by private capital principally by the privatisation of state assets, and the liberalisation of the labour market with stricter anti-union laws and transnational freedom of movement resulting in the suppression of wages with the consequent increased social inequality and deprivation. Africa economies and the rest of peripheral capitalism have been ruthlessly subject to neoliberal policies which have made them even less able, even if willing, to pursue a self-centred path.
These developments are fundamentally the reaction to the falling profit rates of the 1970s as wages, after pressure from organised labour, took an increasing share of the value of output. Capital’s recovery of value from labour points to the central contradiction of capital that Amin set out in his article: that the only way value can be realised in a mass consumption market is for the masses to have the power to consume. As consumers’ incomes were squeezed under neoliberalism, this contradiction was resolved by increasing credit to consumers which led to the financial crash of 2007/8 and can only lead to another financial crash, which some believe is imminent. Underlying these developments is increased automation, computerization and robotization which reduces the need for physical labour, creates ever cheaper durable consumption goods and leads to a contradiction between technology and the way society is organised, or as Marx would have put it, between the productive forces and the relations of production.
Samir Amin’s later writings (see for example, The Implosion of Capitalism. Samir Amin, 2013) clearly recognised the changes that the world had seen since 1974 outlined above, but his conception of the period since 1974 as a long crisis of capitalism and his advocacy of peripheral countries ‘de-linking’ from the global economy, more fully discussed in John Saul’s contribution and touched on by Ray Bush, do find their origin in his work four decades earlier. It is a mark of the power of his original insights that they are as relevant today as they were then.
Peter Lawrence, Manchester, 19 August 2018
On Samir Amin…and the Importance of “Delinking”
By John S. Saul
I was a friend of the late Samir Amin – we met a number of times in our long and peripatetic lives and never without personal warmth and delight at the shared opportunity to compare and contrast our opinions and to further discuss them. I won’t say we knew each other well, never living in the same town nor even, very often, on the same continent; instead we tended to meet more by chance and then much too briefly. But there were few people whose company I enjoyed more, being a long-time admirer of his wide-ranging insights on the global workings of capital and of their impact on local patterns (not least in Africa) of both cooptation and resistance. Most of all, I admired his sheer ‘stick-to-it-iveness’: open but unbending as to principle, fearless and untiring in his analysis, firm in his spirit of friendship – in sum, a true ‘comrade on the left.’ But I will leave it to others who knew him at first-hand rather better than I did to speak further to such matters. Instead, I have been asked by Leo Zeilig to discuss, in honour of Samir’s memory, the concept of ‘delinking.’ For this is a concept central to Amin’s work
It would be naïve to think that the increased globalization of the capitalist economy can somehow be ignored by advocates of a socialist alternative. Not only is the ‘free’ global market a major point of reference for efforts by global capital (including those of its enforcers like the World Bank and the IMF) to enforce its writ, by force and/or by the seduction of Southern elites. But the over-bearing weight and lure of the global market-place can also have its seductions, as a smorgasbord of sparkling goods on offer and as an apparent source of quick and relatively easy profits and of the inflow of ‘foreign capital’ – albeit capital most often pegged to the production and overseas sale of mineral and other resources and to such limited additional production as meets the consumer needs of resident elites. How, then, to weigh – on some kind of national developmental balance-sheet of left provenance – the attendant costs and benefits of such links? And how best to conceive the new and essential kinds of democratic controls over such linkages that must/should be established? For only with some such controls in place could countries of the Global South expect to be the beneficiaries rather than the victims of global embrace. Without this, there is no intrinsic ‘magic of the market,’ no equal exchange between rich and poor; there is only, with the market left unchecked, the upward redistribution of resources from poor to rich.
And it is precisely here that Samir Amin helped point a way forward, advocating an ever more radical decolonization from central capitalist control, this to be achieved (to cite his dramatic formulation) through an actual and active ‘delinking’ of the economies of the Global South from the Empire of Capital that otherwise holds the South in its sway. For Amin, delinking was best defined as ‘the submission of external relations [to internal requirements], the opposite of the internal adjustment of the peripheries to the demands of the polarizing worldwide expansion of capital’ and it is seen as being ‘the only realistic alternative [since] reform of the [present] world system is utopian.’ For ‘history shows us that it is impossible to “catch up” within the framework of world capitalism’; in fact, ‘only a very long transition’ (with a self-conscious choice for delinking from the world of capitalist globalization as an essential first step) beyond the present situation of global polarization will suffice.
Yet, as Amin readily admits, there is no realistic haven of ‘autarky’ that one can look to, no way of avoiding some involvement in the broader market (as opportunity, though not, he argues, as seduction). What must occur, however, is the substitution of the present political economy of recolonization with an alternative that tilts effectively towards ‘delinking’ as a notional goal – invoking an auto-centric socio-economic alternative that is at once effective, efficient and productive. What would the programme of a national strategy erected on the premise of a strong tilt towards radical delinking from the presently existent and profoundly cancerous global capitalist system look like? The answer to this question could only begin to be found in a new project of genuine socialist planning – established on a national or regional scale – that sought to smash, precisely, the crippling (il)logic of present ‘market limitations’ upon development.
This, in turn, suggests the need for a programme that (following the formulations of the Guyanese economist Clive Thomas) embodies ‘the progressive convergence of the demand structure of the community and the needs of the population’ – this being the very reverse of the market fundamentalist’s global orthodoxy. One could then ground a ‘socialism of expanded reproduction’ – one that refuses the dilemma that has heretofore undermined the promise of the many ‘socialisms’ that have proven prone to falling into the Stalinist trap of ‘violently repressing mass consumption’ in the name of the supposed requirements of accumulation. For, far from accumulation and mass consumption being warring opposites, the premise would now be that accumulation could be driven forward precisely by finding outlets for production in meeting the growing requirements, the needs, of the mass of the population!
An effective industrialization strategy would thus base its ‘expanded reproduction’ – this to be premised, precisely, on ‘delinking’ on the one hand and on the ever increasing in-country exchanges between city and country, between industry and agriculture, with food and raw materials moving to the cities and with consumer goods and producer goods (the latter defined to include centrally such modest items as scythes, iron ploughs, hoes, axes, fertilizers and the like) moving to the countryside on the other. Collective savings geared to investment could then be seen as being drawn essentially, if not exclusively, from an expanding economic pool. Note that such a socialism of expanded reproduction makes the betterment of the people’s lot a short-term rather than a long-term project and thus promises a much sounder basis for an effective (rather than merely rhetorical) alliance of workers, peasants and others and for a democratic road to revolutionary socialism.
It is important to note that this approach is not intended to understate the simultaneous importance of potential South-South relations. Thus linkages such as those foreshadowed in the World Social Forum seek, multi-nationally, to sponsor a redefinition of the workings of the global economy; small wonder, then, that Amin himself devoted much of his later years to political work within the World Social Forum network to help recraft from below a world-wide movement and sensibility designed, if not to ‘overthrow’ capitalism, at least to effectively ‘regulate’ it in the interest of socially responsible and democratic purposes. To make, in short, the ‘globally necessary’ the ‘globally possible’!
Of course, even at the level of the national economy Amin was not proposing the extirpation of any and all market relations. True, the latter were dangerous, especially in terms of the possible generation of class-differentiated societies that they so often encouraged. At the same time his realism –designed to avoid the risks of unduly over-burdening the fledgling progressive states involved (over-burdening, that is, both public enterprise and the mechanisms of planning unduly)-means that the creation and empowerment of national movements capable of countering the logic of capitalism’s embrace, global and national, will be tough work. For – think about it – so strong are the global pressures against it that crafting the political basis necessary to sustain a socio-economic push in a quite opposite direction will not itself (and however ‘nationally necessary’) easily become the ‘nationally possible.’ Small wonder that Amin himself saw the global and national struggles for socialist strategies of delinking from the logic of market-primacy and the taking of the economy beyond global capitalism as being two sides of the same coin.
In sum, if the predominant importance of the kind of planning (democratic and needs-focussed, both globally and locally) is ever to be achieved, it will be planning which ensures that the centre of gravity of the economy remains egalitarian, collectively-premised and popularly-centred and controlled. It could, in this way, be expected to counter-balance the possible costs of any judicious deployment of market mechanisms, for example. Thus, the bottom-line would remain, as Amin emphasized to be necessary, a self-consciousness about societal transition away from market power and entrepreneurial class interest. Put quite simply, this would help ensure that no bourgeoisie, either foreign or domestic, would play a role that could justify any claim it might seek to make to continue to snatch inordinate wealth or superordinate power for itself. In fact, only the exercise of genuine ‘popular power’ could guarantee a politics that might hope to underpin an economic strategy premised on the realization of Samir Amin’s fundamental goal, that of ‘delinking’ from precisely those global-capitalist ‘imperatives’ that cannot but promise the global poor ill. It is time, to repeat, to make, politically, the globally and nationally necessary the globally and nationally possible.
John S. Saul, Toronto, 14 August 2018
A Tribute to Samir by Natasha Shivji
Dear Samir Amin,
I write this as if you were still here amongst us, for an individual such as yourself who has lived for a continent, remains alive well after their death. You will not be lost in histories past, you will not be deemed irrelevant by futures to come, you will stay here in the material present as we struggle for the continent you committed your life to.
As a young lecturer in 2009 I recall desperately looking for books, articles, and ideas to use for teaching in my history classrooms. Ideas produced within the continent, ones that did not simply regurgitate the formulas of the West. My sweet encounter with Global History: A View from the South was all I needed. I read your work alongside Walter Benjamin, writing histories in spaces of contradiction, histories of the oppressed in worlds shaped by the demands and exploits of capital. How are we to struggle to produce ideas on our own terms? I used these methods in my classes; methods that belonged to our history, relevant to our struggles that revolutionaries such as yourself had the audacity to speak of. Producing a framework relevant to our context wasn’t simply a parallel project to the Eurocentric view of the world, but it was in direct opposition to it. A view from the Global South was a history of the oppressed as a weapon against oppression, it did not fashionably sit side-by-side Eurocentrism as an ‘alternative,’ but it was indeed a confrontation with the assumptions of an Africa without history. An affirmation of an Africa that was complex and an Africa that was coerced into capitalistic social relations but found hope in the oppressed.
This was important for the young lecturer making sense of our history to a group of undergraduate students. It was important not to romanticize our futures as alternatives to the West, but not to become so pessimistic as to loose hope in the struggles that lay before us. It was precisely because of our contradictions that we found pockets of resistance everywhere. Class was not merely an imported Marxian term, but a lived history which we saw everywhere on the edges of capital in our world, in our shared history. It made sense to us through your writings.
Soon after, I was elated when I met you at the University of Dar es Salaam campus in the Nkrumah hall in 2010, overflowing with students and a few lecturers who still believed in the importance of ideas. We eagerly listened to the exchanges from the high table adorned with bouquets and colored cloth. Samir Amin, you sat in the audience with your simple cloth bag, attentively listening with the rest of us. The talk was on Pan Africanism, a topic dear to us all as it held the dream of unity, for the continent. The question for all of us was clear: Whose unity? What was the basis of this unity? Our questions were not answered in the hall. In the naiveté of a young person but with the courage that comes with naiveté, I stood up and questioned the cultural unity that was being celebrated by one speaker, the oneness of Africa premised on its cultural heritage and riches. The assumptions of an ‘African’ way of being, an untouched history, stagnant and unresponsive to the exploits of the world, encapsulated by the fragile bubble of culture. I asked, what of the political unity Kwame Nkrumah spoke of? What of the anti-imperialist motive of a Pan African vision and what of a shared history of oppression? Were these not more urgent in constructing our Pan African vision? I sat down, and Samir Amin took the floor in agreement with the young woman who had just spoken before him. I vainly cling on to that memory to this day.
In very few words you reminded us that we did not have the luxury to speak of cultural unities in an unequal world, for we did not share one culture. Pan Africanism ought to be a project of the oppressed of Africa against imperialism and its compradors. Pan Africanism was not merely a celebration of who we were as a people but a forced assertion of our existence in the form of resistance. Pan Africanism must be thought of as a political project from below, as a class project in defense of the peasantry and working people and as an anti-imperialist project birthed from the nationalist movements. Asserting our intellect not merely as cultural artifacts but as political social beings strategizing a revolutionary future. Flowers did not adorn you nor did color cloth!
I started my PhD studies with a proposal of intellectual histories of Islam and Africa as political projects, writing of the tributary mode of production and the destruction of Islamic city-state formations. I was enthralled by the depth of these histories and the immensity of these worlds. However, these worlds brought us to a political present, one where superficial binaries concealed economic contradictions, where the world was polarized between the Orient Muslim and the modern non-Muslim. Who was the oppressed? What did Political Islam come to mean in our world? As I grappled with these questions I met you once again in 2015 at the CODESRIA General Assembly.
Once again, a brightly decorated panel accommodated speakers discussing Political Islam in Africa. Once again you were seated in the audience. This time not so patient with the discourse! You intervened in the discussion showing no sympathy for the advance of Islam on the continent as a political project or an alternative. Political Islam, at best was a cultural project that concealed the class character of our societies, that if given the chance would act as all purely cultural projects have acted historically, reactionary and against the oppressed masses. Political Islam, you emphasized was not a movement of the oppressed, it was an identity that sought a piece of the capitalist pie and at best it was a sigh of the oppressed, quickly coopted by the logic of the forces it sought to oppose.
You live on Samir Amin, your life and your ideas live on – not in dusty bookshelves nor in adorned panel discussions with colored cloth but in our imagination of a more just world and in the fight against oppression.
Natasha Issa Shivji, Dar es Salaam, 13 August 2018
Samir Amin: An appreciation
By Ray Bush
I met Samir Amin only once. I was lucky though as our meeting was spread over three days at a conference and I later interviewed him by telephone for ROAPE. I described him to friends and colleagues, who heard that I had been fortunate enough to spend time with him, as indefatigable – he would stride out ahead of the group to locate the baladi (local) place to eat and places to visit. He was trenchant in his defence of the working class and peasantry, full of energy and ideas and he was engaged with not only theory and concepts but with people and those downtrodden by capitalism. Thus, his energy and appetite for life, which was contagious, led him to understand people’s conditions of existence wherever he was. That was very clear. He was a sympathetic and humorous comrade who clearly drew inspiration for his Marxism from the lessons he was always learning by his engagement with people.
Of course, there was also a steely side, that did not let bullshit pass without critical comment. He chastened a government minister of a city state where our meeting took place and corrected him on his idiocy regarding free trade as a vehicle for promoting development in the Global South. Samir Amin was clear. Since 1970 we have been living in a period of ‘generalised monopoly capitalism’ – where monopoly capital controls everything, all sectors of life which have now reduced to zero the relative autonomy of agriculture and industry to the gains of imperialist monopoly rent. This has intensified and since 1970 there has been a qualitative change in capitalism different from an earlier period of crisis between the 1880s and World War 2.
He was clear that the internal contradictions of capitalism and financialisation were ruinous for the Global South , falling rates of growth in the capitalist centre by more than a half in the period after the 70s drove an intensification of imperialist rent, that capitalism was now largely anonymous, abstract capital in contrast to being more easily identified with the monied families of the early 20th century, needed to be understood in terms of how it is created and its consequences and it also needs to be ruthlessly challenged by the left. But the imperialist triad of the US, EU and Japan manages the world system and dominates in the areas of technology, access to resources, the creation and reproduction of a monetary and financial system of exploitation, dominance of the media and of course the armaments industry.
He saw China as a vehicle for contesting the dominance of the triad, as he said, he was probably the most frequent visitor to most parts of China of anyone on the left and China was crucial in advancing a polycentric world. Amin’s insights from his memorable and persistently important Accumulation on a World Scale need to be set alongside his optimism for moving from global capitalism to global socialism and communism. A vehicle to do that was to advance autocentred development in the South – an initially inward-looking strategy to advance a form of delinking. But delinking did not mean a crude autarky. It was instead to help fashion a sovereign popular project: one that could emerge from new historical blocs to counter the comprador bourgeoisie in Africa that has always benefited from imperialism. The agenda for the left was always to analyse the contradictions of capitalism, to identify what different class interests demanded and to then be clear about developing counter strategies to quash the triad and their cronies in the global South. To do that required what he called independent initiatives that would vary depending on the different socio-historical circumstances and different local experiences. Sadly, we will miss Samir Amin’s insights as to how the exciting prospect of generating sovereign popular projects to challenge imperialism might be developed.
Ray Bush, Leeds, 18 August 2018
Tribute to the Great Master, Comrade and Brother Samir Amin
By Ndongo Samba Sylla
Samir Amin (1931-2018) was one of the thinkers of the Global South who contributed decisively to starting the epistemological break with the Eurocentric discourse that permeates the social sciences and humanities. His passing on August 12 is a huge loss for his family, friends, collaborators and many sympathisers around the world. As much as the Marxist intellectual / Communist militant was exceptional with an uncompromising ethical commitment, Samir was also humble, obliging and generous. It was a privilege to have been able to collaborate with this father figure and ardent fighter for the internationalism of the peoples who always signed his emails with the mention ‘fraternally.’
It seems appropriate to reproduce the substance of the introduction that I brought during his lifetime and in his presence on October 25, 2014 at the University Cheikh Anta Diop of Dakar. That day, Demba Moussa Dembélé, in collaboration with the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, organised a ceremony in honour of Samir Amin that brought together African intellectuals, diplomats, politicians, students, etc. The words I spoke on this occasion which seem to me even more relevant today than ever:
‘Taking advantage of the opportunity given to me here, I will, with much modesty, try to articulate the intellectual scope of our dear Professor and what I have learned from his teachings. You will understand in a certain way that this is a talk of a student who wandered about with ‘Aminian intuitions’ before having been properly invigorated following the discovery and reading of the writings of Samir Amin.
What fascinates us with Samir Amin is to a certain extent his ‘indiscipline.’ Indiscipline in a double sense. First, his thinking goes beyond existing academic divisions. Samir Amin has mobilised in his research knowledge that is relevant to areas such as history, politics, philosophy, anthropology, sociology of culture, sociology of religions, etc. Since his scientific contributions transcend the field of economics, it is reductive, therefore, to call him an ‘economist.’ And all the more so because we know the definition he gives of the ‘economist’, namely a ‘sincere believer convinced of the virtues of liberalism.’
Second, it must be said that Samir Amin occupies a rebel position in the Marxist citadel, an aspect often ignored. His point of view has always been that being a Marxist means starting from Marx, not stopping at Marx. Amin’s problem with many Western Marxists is either that they did not try to go beyond Marx or, if so, they were not able to lucidly appreciate the analytical implications of the intrinsically imperialist nature of historical capitalism. On the intellectual level, writes Amin, ‘historical Marxism and the left in general are poorly equipped to face the challenge of globalisation.’
If Samir Amin is a prolific thinker, it is because he is at first an undisciplined thinker. The original syntheses he produced and the new breath he brought to the theory of development would not be possible without an attitude of epistemological vigilance which consists in refusing the inconsiderate worship of idols, even if they are comforting on a psychological and ideological levels.
What must also be said about Amin is that he is a systematic thinker. By this I mean that he is one of the few intellectuals capable of proposing great theoretical syntheses which start from a careful examination of historical facts, which are based on coherent reasoning from beginning to end, which makes it possible to understand from a new angle the world in which we live and which continues to keep their relevance with the unfolding of historical time. His scientific work is therefore quite the opposite of standard economics theorists who have the license not to discuss the theoretical assumptions of their models, to disregard reality in the construction of their models, to ignore new facts that may refute them and not to scrutinise their analytical implications. Indeed, for standard economics, normal science consists in the enhancement of the ‘epistemology of ignorance’ (to use a concept of the Jamaican-American philosopher Charles Wade Mills).
It is not my purpose to go into the details of Amin’s scientific contributions. I will confine myself to indicating some lessons which seem to me essential.
From his earliest publications, Amin defended the thesis that capitalism should be understood as a global system with specific historical properties. One of them concerns the new relationship it introduces between the economic on the one hand, the political and the ideological on the other. Amin rightly observes that the law of value, the fact that the economy dictates its law in all social spheres, operates only in the capitalist system. In earlier systems, as he emphasises, power commanded wealth. With capitalism, it is wealth that now commands power. This inversion, far from being a violation of the canons of historical materialism, is illustrative of the subtlety of a thought attentive to the qualitative changes that punctuate historical evolution. In insisting on the historical specificity of the law of value, Samir Amin allows us to see, following Marx, that capitalism is accompanied by a form of alienation (commodity fetishism) which differs from the preceding forms of alienation of a religious type. It also protects us from the temptation to apply the laws of capitalism to the historical systems that preceded it. A trap in which most neoclassical economists fall: for example, in the latest book by Thomas Piketty who claims to talk about capitalism, yet there are charts that show the evolution of the global rate of return on capital before and after tax, from Antiquity to the present day!
One of the most important characteristics of the capitalist system, as opposed to the type of historical system that preceded it, and to which Samir Amin gave the name of ‘tributary mode of production,’ is its polarising nature. In other words, capitalism is a system which, far from homogenising the world under the rule of the law of value, creates and magnifies by necessity the economic inequalities between the countries of the centers and those of the peripheries. Indeed, the capitalist system is intrinsically imperialist. Imperialism, says Samir Amin in contradistinction to Lenin, is not the supreme stage of capitalism. Imperialism is inscribed in the DNA of capitalism. Moreover, its processes have evolved historically: from imperialisms in plural – that is competing imperialist powers – we moved to a collective imperialism of the Triad (United States, Europe and Japan). By insisting on the specifics of contemporary imperialism, Samir Amin distanced himself very early from the rather vague and nebulous theories of Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt, authors who defend the idea of an ‘Empire’ without imperialists.
As part of his conceptualisation of historical capitalism, Samir Amin could not help tackling Eurocentrism. As an important aspect of the dominant ideology, Eurocentrism has the function of hiding the true nature of the capitalist system, including its imperialist foundations and the form of alienation it produces, to distort the history of its genesis via its insistence on European exceptionalism, and to mask its polarising character. Through his criticism of Eurocentrism and the culturalist reactions that it provoked, Amin was able to highlight its racist cultural foundations, its ideological nature as well as its scientific limitations.
If Samir Amin offered one of the most penetrating and original critiques of ‘scientific capitalism’ (a humorous phrase I borrow from James Ferguson) he also pointed out what alternative paths can lead the ‘wretched of the earth’ towards the authentic human civilisation that capitalism can only refuse them. At this point, we arrive to the Aminian reflections around ‘delinking’: a concept that does not mean an autarchic retreat but rather ‘a strategic inversion in the vision of internal/external relations, in response to the unavoidable requirements of a self-centered development.’
The ‘delinking’ program is based on the observation that there can be no economic ‘catch-up’ within the capitalist system. For one simple reason: what exacerbates the polarisation between centers and peripheries is the fact that globalisation operates only in two dimensions – capital flows on one side, goods and services flows on the other – and does not concern labour movements. If the peripheral countries, about 80 percent of the world’s population, want to ‘catch up by imitating’ the countries of the centers, they would have to find, according to Amin, five to six new Americas in order to reduce their structural surplus of manpower. To ‘delink’ for the countries of the peripheries thus supposes to break out of the illusion of ‘catching up.’ Indeed, as Samir Amin says, when one realises, by virtue of the law of worldwide value, that the reproduction of the Western ‘model’ is impossible to realise in the global South, then it will be necessary to turn towards alternatives.
Yet, on this point, Samir Amin teaches us that the delinking strategies that were successful yesterday are not necessarily valid today. These must take into account the transformations of the capitalist/imperialist system. In the past, industrialisation could be an acceptable indicator of economic development. Nowadays, this is not necessarily the case because countries have been able to industrialise while remaining peripheral. So, according to Samir Amin, the opposition industrialised countries/non-industrialised countries has now lost its empirical relevance.
The struggle today for the peoples of the peripheries is, according to Amin, to put an end to the ‘five monopolies’ exercised by the Triad, which are the basis of the polarising dynamics characteristic of contemporary capitalism. These include the monopoly of weapons of mass destruction, the monopoly of technologies, the control of financial flows, the monopoly of access to the planet’s natural resources and the monopoly of communications. Tackling these monopolies is obviously not an easy task. For Samir Amin, this requires ‘daring’, a daring that must be translated in the Global North by the emergence of an anti-monopolies front and in the Global South by that of an anti-comprador front. At a stage where, to use his own terms, capitalism has become ‘senile’, ‘abstract’ and even ‘barbaric’ the delinking program implies in particular for the countries of the South to defend family farming, via a more egalitarian distribution of land. Otherwise it is difficult to imagine how these countries could manage in a civilised way their structural excess of manpower. This would figure among the starting points for the long road towards socialism.
I will end by pointing out that Amin is also a man of great generosity. Thanks to his sense of initiative, he has helped to set up high quality research institutes (Enda Tiers Monde, CODESRIA, African Institute for Economic Development and Planning, World Forum for Alternatives, Third World Forum). Through his writings, his interventions and conferences, he has never ceased to give and to highlight the perspective of the Global South and the wretched of the earth. That he is at the moment one of the leading figures of the movement for a globalisation in the service of the peoples is not at all a surprise, considering his extraordinary intellectual itinerary.
Dear Professor, we will certainly never be able to pay tribute to you for the immensity and wealth of the contributions you have made over the last fifty years. But we will try to keep the Aminian tradition ‘hot’, especially with the younger generations. I also hope that the community of radical sympathisers, activists and researchers will soon be able to organise themselves in such a way as to be able to properly honour you. Thank you for your attention.’
Ndongo Samba Sylla, Dakar, August 16 2018
Featured Photograph: Samir Amin being interviewed by the Senegalese press after his presentation on Karl Marx’s Capital for the ‘Economic Saturday’, Dakar 4 February 2017