To be Bravely Critical of Reality: an interview with Tamás Szentes

Tamás Szentes, Professor Emeritus of the Corvinus University of Budapest (the former Karl Marx University), elected full member of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, is ‘one of the grand old men of development economics.’[1] His first celebrated book in English, The Political Economy of Underdevelopment (published first in 1971, republished in nine languages and ten different countries, totalling altogether 16 editions in the first fifteen years of publication) was praised in ROAPE in 1974 as ‘a serious and comprehensive attempt at providing a true political economy of underdevelopment.’ For a while he was one of the contributing editors of ROAPE, and between 1967 and 1971 worked together with ROAPE activists and researchers such as Lionel Cliffe, Peter Lawrence, John Saul, and Issa Shivji, at the University of Dar es Salaam. In an interview for Tamás Gerőcs asks Tamás Szentes about the years he spent in Tanzania, the hope and political possibilities of the period and his extensive contribution to development economics.


Tamás Gerőcs: What was your intellectual or political background before you went to Tanzania? And why to Tanzania? Where did you work before 1967, and did you publish earlier anything related to Africa?

Tamás Szentes: After having graduated at the Karl Marx University of Economic Science, Budapest in 1955, where I wasn’t employed for political reasons, I got a job – thanks to my professor of the history of economic theories, Antal Mátyás – in the Publishing House of Economics and Law, as an editor. My first publication (in 1959) was about the views of David Ricardo, as part of a book, but I wrote quite a lot for myself and a few friends, not publishable, moreover very risky in the early 1950s (such as a study of the real nature of the soviet system in 1951). As a matter of fact, my interest has always focussed on social science theories and social systems – not only from an economic point of view. From my professor Mátyás, who also ran a seminar on the three volumes of Karl Marx’s Capital, I have learnt to approach both historically and critically all theories, even the best ones, as none of them can fully capture reality which is infinitely complex and ever changing. After the Year of Africa, in 1960, when a number of colonies gained independence, my interest turned to such countries, particularly those somehow attempting a pattern of development different from both the capitalist West and the communist East.

Owing not only to this interest but also to the fortunate fact, namely editing the book of a Dean of my university, who helped to secure me a senior lectureship in the Department of International Economic and Political Relations, my new job involved research and teaching on Africa and the Third World. Besides several book-chapters and articles, I authored a monograph on East Africa (in Hungarian), published in 1963. As a result, I was heavily involved in the operation of an Afro-Asian Research Group at the university, and what followed, in that of the Afro-Asian Research Institute of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences that was established in 1963 and renamed as the Institute of World Economics in 1973.

When Professor Knud Eric Svendsen, an appointed head of department for the newly established but not yet operating University College of Dar es Salaam, was mandated by Julius Nyerere to recruit professors in Poland and Hungary, known to be rebels against the Moscow-line, and relatively independent of it, I was one of those recommended to him, and was interviewed. Soon I received an offer and contract for four years to become the Head and Professor of the Economics Department.

As your book in English, namely The Political Economy of Underdevelopment, obviously grew out of your experiences and work in Tanzania, how and to what extent were you empirically or intellectually inspired there to write it?

I must say that the conditions for research as well as the atmosphere both politically and intellectually were excellent at the time at the University of Dar es Salaam. My department as well as the Economic Research Bureau led by Gerry Helleiner, had considerable funds to order books, documents, etc., to make field research, and to contact people involved in political leadership in the country. We also had regular staff seminars to discuss research results and to exchange views. The very fact that in those years, after the Arusha Declaration, Tanzania attracted a number of highly qualified and progressive minded scholars, obviously contributed enormously to the exceptionally good intellectual atmosphere in Dar. While the academic staff itself involved such eminent members, among them not only those already mentioned, but also Arnold Kettle, Robert and Ann Seidman, John Loxley, Leonard Berry, Walter Rodney, Reginald H. Green, Ian Livingstone, G Routh, M. A. Bienefeld, etc., several other internationally well-known scholars came also to participate in conferences, to deliver public lectures. Such as Paul Streeten, Dudley Seers, Samir Amin, Immanuel Wallerstein, René Dumont, Brian van Arkedie, Dharam Ghai, etc. President Julius Nyerere and his aim to develop democratically a genuine type of socialist system of society, different from those in the ‘East’, had obviously gained not only wide-spread interest internationally, but also – among progressive thinkers – a great sympathy.

                                             Tamás J. Szentes with J. Jedrusek at the University of Dar es Salaam

You mean among left-wing people, don’t you?

Mostly but not exclusively. Anyway, nowadays ‘left-wing’ is not an unambiguous term.

But did you belong to the obviously leftist theoretical stream which blames Western capitalism for the underdevelopment of the ‘South’, and explains it by dependence?

Yes, but also no, or not precisely. Prof. Paul Streeten in his articles on the two, opposite theoretical streams of development economics,[2] honoured me in mentioning my name among those eleven scholars (namely Samir Amin, E. A. Brett, F. E. Cardoso, Frantz Fanon, Celso Furtado, Johann Galtung, Keith Griffin, Colin Leys, Ann Seidman and Osvaldo Sunkel) who share the views expressed by André Gunder Frank and also Raul Prebisch, Hans Singer, Gunnar Myrdal, Albert Hirschman and Francois Perroux, rejecting the theory of linear development, to stress the responsibility of the rich developed countries for underdevelopment of the poor. What I have obviously shared, with them, besides the rejection of the concept of linear development and the historical responsibility of the colonial powers, is a very critical evaluation of the prevailing world order as well as the existing social systems both in the West and the East.

However, the views among these scholars were quite different in their details, particularly regarding solutions, if a new world order was required for example, and mine also differed from theirs (even from those of my friends, such as Samir Amin, Gunder Frank, Immanuel Wallerstein or others). Thus, I complemented my critique of the conventional theories of development economics, which appeared in my first book in English, by a critical survey in other books (see Theories of World Capitalist Economy. A critical survey of conventional, reformist and radical views in 1985, and World Economics 1: Comparative Theories and Methods of International and Development Economics in 2002) and each of the different main theoretical streams they seemed to belong to (such as the ‘school of dependencia’, neo-Marxism and ‘new-left’ stream, too).

Does it mean that you denied the dependence of underdeveloped countries, and disagreed with the ‘world-system approach’?

Not at all, but I found it insufficient and one-sided to point to dependence and explain underdevelopment by external factors only, because the latter are interrelated with internal ones, and dependence have different forms, varieties which provide chances for manoeuvring, or even reducing its overall intensity. While world-system approach is necessary, it should not be exclusive, and must not mean that national economies are merely virtual units, or the level of analysis and actions should be limited to the global system.

Taking up this last point, and looking back from today, how much can Tanzania’s modernization and economic transformation under Nyerere be regarded as successful? Did the Nyerere Government have the power to carry them out, or were there any external or internal obstacles that kept the country on a dependent path? Where can we place the ‘Nyerere Years’ or the ‘Arusha Declaration’ in history?

There were considerable achievements in modernization and economic transformation,  albeit not without shortcomings (some of which were discussed in our staff seminars), while Nyerere’s aim to create a kind of socialist system based upon traditional collectivism (like ‘ujamaa’) has obviously failed, for both internal and external reasons.[3] I considered the objective manifested in the Arusha Declaration as one, and perhaps the most sincere and honest, of those similar attempts in the 1960s and 1970s in the Third World, which all failed partly because of the international conditions, forces and effects, and partly due to mistaken policy of the domestic ruling stratum.

At the Dar es Salaam conference organized by ROAPE this year, an interesting debate emerged about whether the regime built by Nyerere was a state-socialist one which sought to break away from the dominance of capitalist powers, or was it a state-capitalist regime, which promoted modernization and the development and integration of a capitalist national economy? We also have similar debates on the left in Eastern Europe: whether 1949-1989 was a state-capitalist or a state-socialist experiment.

I think we have to be careful in making use of the terms ‘state-socialist‘ or ’state-capitalist’ in distinguishing a socio-political or economic system from another one, partly because ‘capitalism’ as such has many different variants, and is permanently changing, while socialism in reality has never and nowhere come into existence yet, and partly because the above terms substantially refer to the role of the state, particularly in development and modernisation. Both terms primarily indicate a transition only, the direction of which may be declared and expressed in ideology, but the outcome of the transition process is necessarily questionable and undetermined.

Over-simplifications go hand in hand with over-generalisations, which characterise ideologies and are to be refrained from in science. Such as the purist perception of capitalism vs. socialism as independent entities contrasting each other in all respects, the transformation of which cannot succeed by gradual reforms. Systems with exclusively and perfectly compatible components exist in pure models of ideologies only, not in social reality. The existing socio-economic systems of all countries of the world (as well as the world itself) incorporate heterogeneous segments, combine mechanisms governed by different rules and reconcile opposite needs or principles.

What is called state-capitalism is a particularly mixed and changeable phenomenon with contradictory elements and tendencies. It may pave the way for the unfolding of capitalism proper (by substituting state accumulation and investments for private ones) or may turn to the so-called state-socialism (by setting limits for private capital and decreasing social inequalities). These two variants have also common features and can easily change over from one to the other.

Socialism-orientation, or state-socialism in underdeveloped countries necessarily face a double task, which are more or less contradictory requirements, namely to catch up with the developed countries (often called ‘modernization’) and to reduce social inequalities by helping the poor and disadvantaged. Such systems, if isolated from and confronting to a hostile capitalist environment, may, almost inevitably, become militarized, dictatorial and bureaucratized (like the soviet one under Stalin), or if they remain open to the outside world, cooperating with dominant forces of foreign capital, can easily be undermined by the latter and their domestic clients, resulting in violent coups d’état or replacement of the leadership. The most typical and frequent oversimplification undoubtedly follows from the divorce of the external and internal factors in the explanation of the rise, defeat or transformation of social systems. It obviously neglects the historical changes in the international conditions of national development, the widening and deepening of global interdependencies.

How and in what sense did your personal experiences in Tanzania and other African countries influenced your views, theoretical orientation and academic career? For what can you be grateful to Africa?

I can thank Africa for a lot. My experiences there have certainly reinforced my deep interest in social science as a whole, beyond economics, and my very views, increasing conviction about the requirement of a historical, critical and dialectically holistic approach to reality. I also made invaluable acquaintances, numerous friends there who also helped my career later on. Thanks to them and also to the success of my book, in the following decades, until almost the end of the century when I stopped travelling abroad, I was regularly invited as an expert in various advisory, expert and steering committees to many different international bodies (such as ILO, UNESCO, IDEP, etc.) and as an invited speaker in many conferences of various international scientific associations and funds (such as the Association of Third World Economists, Lelio Basso International foundation, International Foundation for Development Alternatives, the South Centre, etc.).

                                          Tamás J. Szentes in Dar es Salaam

How did your African experiences effect your teaching and academic activity at home, in Hungary?

Having returned to my university in Budapest I initiated and led an alternative multidisciplinary bloc of courses called ‘Development Studies’ which became so popular among students that we had to limit their number. With a colleague of mine and one of my best students, namely Ferenc Miszlivetz (today Professor and Director of the Institute of Advanced Studies in Kőszeg, Hungary) who actually initiated it, we produced as a semi-samizdat series of readings under the same title which presented the students selected writings of foreign scholars (e.g. Immanuel Wallerstein, Paul Streeten, Arghiri Emmanuel, etc.), otherwise unavailable for them at that time, we included the writings of Samir Amin and Gunder Frank whose works were not publishable because of their anti-soviet stand. After the ‘system-change’ when an English program was established at the university, for several years I had regular courses on development economics, too. Later on, at the Academy, when I was the head of the social science section for two terms, I initiated a permanent committee on international and development economics, which is now the interdisciplinary, ‘International and Development Studies.’ (I am its Honorary President.)

Let us return to the case of the University of Dar es Salaam, where ROAPE held a workshop on radical political and economic transformation, the intellectual birthplace of the review! What innovations, if any, did you suggest or realise there at that time, for example in the teaching program, as compared to that of the other two East-African university colleges? Did you replace the standard Western teaching material by readings of Marxist-Leninist political economy, for example?

As to the teaching of Marxist-Leninist political economy only, while it was expected, particularly by some militant leftist colleagues, I taught the fundamentals of economics in a historical framework embracing all the main theoretical streams (from Mercantilism through Classical, Marxian, and Keynesian theories to neo-classical economics, including also institutionalism), evaluating each of them critically, but also pointing to useful lessons from each. As a matter of fact, I have always rejected any exclusiveness, and while I have always appreciated, and been heavily influenced by the works of Marx, I had been, from the very beginning, critical of such Marxism as represented by ’Marxism-Leninism’, particularly in its Stalinist sense.

What readings did you use and recommend? And were the students able to attain the required knowledge in such a course?

I had to make cyclostyled readings, for which I partly wrote, partly translated some text from the book of Antal Mátyás. Our students, by being exempted from learning some irrelevant details, concepts or models, performed very well in general, that the same external examiner also examining the university colleges of Uganda and Kenya at the same time, noted as a surprise in his report that our students understood the fundamental concepts and methods of economics better than those in the other regional colleges. Anyway, it was my strong conviction that our primary role was in teaching students to think, instead of presenting them ready-made ‘universal’ formulas and mathematical models. In the 1969 international conference on the teaching of economics in African  universities I stressed that ‘one of the greatest mistakes would be to teach only one particular theory…Instead, all important schools in economic theory should be taught. …it is necessary to put the theories into a general historical framework and to explain their origin and interrelations…’

Were you against mathematics as a language of economics?

By no means. Quite the opposite. As another innovation, quite contrary to conventional practice elsewhere, I made compulsory for all those students choosing an economics major to also take mathematics and statistics. In the same conference in 1969 I also stressed that ‘any attempt to diminish the significance and weight of the economic mathematics and statistics in teaching would inevitably lead to a decrease in the quality of the new graduates.’ While I also noted that ‘mathematical formulas, no doubt, have the advantage that it is easier to memorise them, and they give a direct basis for practical calculations.’ Yet I called attention to ‘a tremendous danger in teaching economic principles and concepts by and through mathematical formulas’ because such formulas and models necessarily simplify the economic interrelations, conceal the original presumptions, and give the impression of scientific exactitude.

What was your relationship with the students like? What was the most interesting experience you had as the head of the department of economics?

In the first weeks of teaching I experienced what I had been told beforehand to expect, namely the lack of discipline, manifested in wandering in and out during lectures. To overcome it, I introduced the practice that after having arrived a few minutes before the lecture was due to start, I would stand with my back to the students until the last second, and then turned around to face them, and always interrupted my speech whenever a student came or left the lecture theatre. Surprisingly not only for others but even for myself, very soon the students’ discipline was better than at my home university. Students also helped a lot in my work, particularly their elected representatives who forwarded majority opinion on the teaching program and lecturers when participating in department meetings. This was, by the way, another innovation that time, almost causing a scandal, as student representation was not yet an accepted institutional practice in any university.

After a half century, what would you send as a message to the students or the lecturers of the University of Dar es Salaam, many of whom will certainly read this interview?

I send of course my best wishes to them and their country. If I can suggest anything in general, it follows from my life experiences: Let them be bravely critical of reality, both of society, and politics and let them do their best to improve both.

Tamás Gerőcs is a political economist, currently employed as a Research Fellow at the Institute of World Economics, Hungarian Academy of Sciences.

Featured Photograph: Tamás J. Szentes in Tanzania in 1968


[1] Quoted in The Introduction written by Jomo K. S. and Erik S. Reinert in The Origins of Development Economics, Tulika Books: New Delhi and  ZED Books: London, 2005. P.19.

[2] See ’L’évolution des théories relatives au développement’ Problemes Économiques, No. 1546, 9/1977, and ’Development Economics: the Intellectual Divisions’ Eastern Economic Journal, Vol. XI, No. 3 /1985.

[3] Ujamaa was the name of the concept that formed the basis of Julius Nyerere’s developmental policies in Tanzania after independence. The term means ’familyhood’ refering to the type of socialist development that differed from Soviet-type socialism.


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