‘The Long Revolution of the Global South Toward a New Anti-Imperialist International’ by Samir Amin reviewed by Ian Taylor

Reviewed by Ian Taylor

About the reviewer

Ian Taylor is Professor in International Relations and African Political Economy at the University …

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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

5 comments

  1. Really good review. Amin made a major contribution to the study of Africa and his loss is a great blow to all progressives.

  2. Now that China has become the main engine of world capitalist production; now that we know about Xinjiang’s “re-education” camps; now that the memory of Tiananmen Square haunts the streets of Hong Kong – to paint China as socialist would be utterly shameful.

    Amin’s life story shows how the pressures of historical place and time can easily bend a capable mind. The dependency-style theories that he and others espoused in the second half of the twentieth century will likely be seen, in retrospect, as the ideological expression, and/or political tool, of the rise of new capitalist powers.

    Meanwhile, misunderstanding this key trend might yet bring the most tragic of consequences; I urge readers to consider the kind of questions raised in books such as:
    https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2015/09/united-states-china-war-thucydides-trap/406756/?utm_source=facebook&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=share&fbclid=IwAR2pVv7Df4RtxCn2Lvc_citLjJPI90tydfBxE5z9SIOldt55y9rMNEGc60w

  3. An excellent review.
    Both the reviewer and the two comments misunderstand
    Samir Amin’s understanding of the the transition from capitalism to socialism. And this error was made by Josef Stalin too. A workers revolution or access to political power does NOT transform a territory overnight into a socialist territory. The territory may cease to be capitalist without immediately becoming socialist. The transition will always be a long-winded historical process. We should not call such territories socialist, even though they are no longer capitalist. Perhaps, we might do well to describe them simple as territories in transition or as ‘transition states’.
    Now, as for China I am not sure that Amin is correct in claiming the China is still a ‘transition state’. This is the claim that the Chinese leadership make. They say that only a state with a well-developed industrial economy can successfully begin the transition to socialism. I am unconvinced. However, the fact is that the competition between China and the North American regime is a central feature of the contemporary world. I also agree with Amin’s assessment of the north American regime. Thus, China and Russia, which is clearly capitalist, are objectively playing a progressive role in world politics. It is important for workers to recognize this.

  4. China and Russia are not playing any progressive role; quite the opposite – they are among the most powerful enforcers of capitalist horror.

    To take now the case of Russia, here’s how the Russian state is currently treating its own working class:
    https://peopleandnature.wordpress.com/2019/11/26/russia-a-new-wave-of-political-repression/

    Internationally, it should suffice to mention the recent bombing by Russian forces of several hospitals – yes, hospitals – in Syria.

  5. Paula,

    You must learn to read more carefully.
    I wrote:
    Thus, China and Russia, which is clearly capitalist, are objectively playing a progressive role in world politics. It is important for workers to recognize this.

    I am very aware that Russia and China are capitalist countries. But in the real world these two countries are involved in routine capitalist competition with the North American capitalist Imperial regime. This has proved useful to the working classes in many countries, despite what both Russia and China intend.

    As for Russia deliberately bombing hospitals you should be more critical when reading the capitalist press. You should always ask “cui bono’, who benefits. There have been many reports of the Syrian government using poisons, in cases where there is no apparent benefit to them. Now, we know that the OPCW is a fraudulent organisation controlled by the North American regime.

    Everybody ‘knows’ that the Russians poisoned the Skripals in Salisbury in England. Except that there is no public evidencethey were poisoned by a nerve agent. At the time, there was an epidemic of Fentamyl poisoning in Salisbury. When the Skripals were taken to hospital they were treated as if they had Fentamyl poisoning. It is simply not credible that experienced doctors who had seen and treated dozens of patients with Fentamyl poisoning should mistake organic phosphate nerve poisons for Fentamyl. The two poisons have exactly opposite mechanisms and effects. Subsequent reports said that a Fentamyl-like drug was found in their blood samples. Yes, the alleged-nerve poison was found too, in a sample taken two weeks after the poisoning, and was reported to be very ‘pure’. This is biological nonsense. But the capitalist press never reports events like this or Syria critically.

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