Reviewed by Ian Taylor
Samir Amin, who was a leading Marxist analyst of African underdevelopment, capitalism and globalisation, passed away in August 2018. This book, The Long Revolution of the Global South Toward a New Anti-Imperialist International, is the second volume of his memoirs and was published in English in 2019. The book provides fascinating insight into Amin’s take on global events and the role he played in various initiatives to confront the grotesque levels of inequality engendered by global capitalism.
Amin was born in Cairo, Egypt, in 1931 of a Coptic father and a French mother. He received his diploma from Sciences Po in Paris in 1952 and his PhD from the Institut national de la statistique et des études économiques in 1957. Amin returned to Egypt and worked in the planning agency there until 1960 when the regime under Nasser embarked on a harassment campaign against communists. He thus moved to newly-independent Mali, and was attached to Ministry of Planning until 1963. Amin became a professor in 1966, teaching in France but also in Dakar, Senegal. Director of the UN African Institute for Economic Development and Planning for ten years (1970-1980), Amin subsequently directed the African Office of the Third World Forum in Dakar. Amin was to remain in Senegal until his death, becoming a foundational member of the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (CODESRIA), the main radical Pan-African research organisation in the world.
During the 1960s, Amin pioneered the study of underdevelopment in West Africa, critiquing the so-called “Ivory Coast Model” as a framework for growth without development and linking it to French neo-colonialism. Amin also worked on the idea of the “nation” in the context of embryonic capitalism in North Africa. His contribution to a Marxist critique of the global system drew from the wider dependency framework, although Amin disagreed with some of its arguments. Amin showed how capital is accumulated on a world scale through the levels of dominant-dependent ties between the industrialised and underdeveloped world. In a similar vein to Andre Gunder Frank and Immanuel Wallerstein, Amin examined capitalism through the structure of a world system analysis, which gave Amin’s work a broad historical overview of the development of capitalism.
Amin rejected economistic and dogmatic applications of Marxism and sought to analyse the totality of social realities by establishing the relations between economic, political and cultural dynamics. His work was very much within the Monthly Review school of political economy and he frequently published in that journal while the Monthly Review Press published many of the English translations of his work. Amin’s work then followed in the tradition of Paul Baran, Paul Sweezy and Harry Magdoff and the inquiry into monopoly capitalism. The premise of this line of argument is that modern capitalism has a propensity toward overaccumulation due to difficulties in the absorption of surplus; stagnation is the generalised norm while speedy economic growth is rare (the growth of 1945–1975 was the result of the Second World War and could not last); the rise of monopoly capital (which began towards the end of the nineteenth century) effectively removed free competition; while financialization and neoliberalism developed in the 1970s as a response to generalised stagnation.
Samir Amin’s key influence was probably in his theory of worldwide value, which explained the global structure of unequal exchange that divides North and South. Amin argued that the concentration of capital was demonstrated in the rise of international monopoly capital which was ever more mobile once it was freed by the neoliberal counter-revolution. However, the state remained important with host governments advancing “their” corporations when in competition with those from other countries. Equally, constraints on labour mobility prevented the equalisation of wages at a global level. The consequence is unequal exchange where the elasticity in the remunerations between labour in diverse economies is larger than any productivity differences, thereby generating “imperial rent” which is credited to the corporations in the North. A corresponding procedure shapes the exchange of primary commodities from the South.
A dependency on foreign capital investments caused structural distortions of the economies of the African continent. For most of the South, the economic structures which emerged from the colonial period, as a result of the world division of labour, distorted their economies in such a way as to create obstacles to development. Amin in this respect discusses articulated and disarticulated economies. Articulated economies are those that possess multiple sectors interrelated to each other so that development in one sector stimulates development in another sector. This situation characterises developed economies. On the other hand, disarticulated economies refers to underdeveloped nations where economic sectors are not closely interrelated. Hence, development in one sector is unable to stimulate development in the other sector. There exists a structural disarticulation between the structures of production and the structures of consumption. What is produced is not consumed and what is consumed is not produced. Rather, the economies are orientated outwards in a fashion that guarantees dependency and underdevelopment.
This contradiction is at the heart of the international division of labour whereby the core produced high technology, high productivity finished products, while the semi-periphery and periphery only generated low technology, low productivity products, primarily raw materials.
Amin argued that these dynamics amounted to the super-exploitation of labour in the South as labour in the periphery is compensated at a lower rate than its labour power. This arises out of the actuality of an immense (and effectively permanent) global labour reserve positioned in the underdeveloped world. The same labour content is compensated in a different way in the North than in the South, and this is a result of monopoly capital’s globalising tendencies, makes up the core of the contemporary global imperialist order. Equally, the effective lower rate of exploitation of labour in industrialised countries, and a concomitant higher rate of exploitation of labour in the underdeveloped world, amounts to a de facto barrier to any international working class solidarity, analogous to a global labour aristocracy.
As mentioned, the book under review is the second instalment of Amin’s memoirs. The first volume, A Life Looking Forward: Memoirs of an Independent Marxist (London: Zed Books, 2006) dealt mainly with Amin’s early life and the various encounters that he experienced in Cairo and Paris that formulated his intellectual development. That book was much more of an orthodox memoir. Indeed, it was essentially an autobiography. The Long Revolution of The Global South is quite different and is really a collection of Amin’s reflections on various parts of the world and his interpretation and analysis of the political economies in these geographic spaces, albeit always informed by his creative application of Marxism. The book is a restatement of his ideas and contemplations on the state of the world. Although his personal experiences are interwoven throughout, these are often related to a guest position that Amin may have had or a study tour (of which Amin engaged prodigiously). Thus we have chapters on the Arab world, Africa, Asia, Latin America, Eastern Europe, China, Vietnam and Cuba (believed by Amin to be still practising actually existing socialism—although Amin would no doubt flinch from this characterisation). The book also contains Amin’s thoughts on the World Forum for Alternatives and the Social Forums, as well as a reaffirmation of his views on contemporary imperialism and the position of the North vis-à-vis the South. The latter chapter is used by Amin to underline the key importance for socialist energies, namely the defeat of the American mission to militarily dominate the world. Here, Amin argues that this is practised by a deliberate policy of divide and rule in the South and he is quite honest, stating that ‘I felt, and still feel, an unconditional hatred toward the US ruling class. It is the main enemy of all peoples, the most dangerous criminal class of our time’ (353).
For me, the most contentious aspect of the book is his treatment of contemporary China, which Amin held in deep regard. Amin rejects the commonly held viewpoint that China’s post-1949 history can be divided into “Maoist” and “post-Maoist” episodes, arguing instead that there is a continuation of China’s trajectory under the guidance of the Communist Party of China. According to Amin, although there have been significant concessions to capital, the path of socialism has not been discarded by Beijing. Critics who argue that there has been a de facto restoration of capitalism in China post-Mao are denounced by Amin because according to him ‘the question of whether China is capitalist or socialist is poorly formulated because China has actually been involved on an original path since 1950 and maybe even since the Taping Revolution in the nineteenth century’ (344). This is consistent with Amin’s long-held view that the Taiping revolt was the first revolutionary strategy of peoples in the peripheral areas of capitalist imperialism.
However, there are basic contradictions with Amin’s position. Firstly, he states that ‘Because the Chinese project is not capitalist does not mean that it “is” socialist, but only that it opens up the possibility to advance on the long road to socialism’ (346). What does that actually mean? If China is not now capitalist, what is it? And what objective forces exist (and can be empirically shown to exist) that leave open the possibility of an actual return to ‘the long road to socialism’, (Marxism-Leninism, Mao Zedong Thought, Deng Xiaoping Theory, the Theory of Three Represents, the Scientific Outlook on Development and Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era, notwithstanding). Equally, Amin writes that in China, ‘those who are in charge of economic management lean to the right, but those who manage political power remain clear-headed’ in that they ‘do not like the United States’ (340). This seems to grant the bureaucracy a doubtful autonomy and in any case, disliking the United States hardly makes a regime socialist. On modern-day China, Amin dodges the central questions as to the nature of the state and its economic system and how this may or may not be considered socialist.
Nonetheless, aside from Amin’s formulations on China, the book is a fitting tribute to a great scholar, one who will be deeply missed. Indeed, what comes across in the book is a very warm and committed intellectual whose entire life work was dedicated to emancipatory projects globally, but particularly in Africa. Finishing the book in fact reminded me of the character Pavel Korchagin in Nikolai Ostrovsky’s classic, How the Steel Was Tempered. Perhaps there is no better epitaph to Samir Amin’s long life than this: ‘Man’s dearest possession is life, and it is given to him to live but once. He must live so as to feel no torturing regrets for years without purpose, never know the burning shame of a mean and petty past; so live that, dying, he can say: all my life, all my strength were given to the finest cause in all the world – the fight for the Liberation of Mankind’.
6 November 2019