Reviewed by Bill Bowring
On 3 September 2011 Samir Amin celebrated his 80th birthday. Amin is a consistent and irrepressible exponent of the development of Marxism in his chosen discipline, International Political Economy. His long and fruitful career of intellectual struggle has been marked by a series of publications and re-publications, including the five books under review.
The Pambazuka Press (“pambazuka” is “the dawn” or “to arise” in Kiswahili) is part of Fahamu, Networks for Social Change, a centre of Pan-Africanist publication and activity, which frequently publishes Amin’s work. Pambazuka News is at http://www.pambazuka.org/en/. Amin is also a regular contributor to Monthly Review, based in New York, and founded in 1949 in the teeth of Cold War anti-communism. These publications, all except The Law of Worldwide Value, have been published in a splendid uniform design, and constitute a five-gun revolutionary salute to Amin.
Samir Amin was born in 1931 in Cairo. His father was Egyptian and his mother French; both were medical doctors. He studied in Paris from 1947 to 1957, graduating in political science, statistics and economics. He was for a time a member of the PCF, but distanced himself from Soviet Marxism, moving for a time, like Badiou and others, towards Maoism. But his focus was anti-colonialism. His 1957 thesis was entitled “The structural effects of the international integration of precapitalist economies. A theoretical study of the mechanism which creates so-called underdeveloped economies.” From 1957 to 1960 he was a research officer for the Egyptian government’s Institution for Economic Management in Cairo, and from 1960 to 1963 an adviser to the Ministry of Planning in Bamako, Mali. From 1963 to 1980 he worked in Dakar, Senegal at the UN-created Institut Africain de Développement Économique et de Planification (IDEP). In 1980 he left the IDEP and became a director of the Third World Forum, also in Dakar, where he remains.
The first book under review, The Law of Worldwide Value, was first published in 1978 as The Law of Value and Historical Materialism, and Amin has revised and expanded the text in response to the financial crises which began in 2008. As he explains in the Introduction to the new edition (10), his central question, already explored in his thesis, was “that of the ‘underdevelopment’ of contemporary Asian and African societies”, a problem which has arisen in stark form since Marx’s time. His major contribution, in his view, is the passage from Marx’s law of value to his own “law of globalized value”, based on the hierarchical structuring of the prices of labour power on a global scale around the value of labour-power. The globalization of value constitutes the basis for “imperialist rent”. The enemy, for him, is “the later capitalism of the generalized, financialized, and globalized oligopolies.” His optimism is based on his judgment that “since the invention of capitalism stumbled for centuries before finding the particular form that assured its triumph” then the revolutions of the 20th century in Russia and China and what he terms the Southern awakening in the new nations of Africa and Asia should be seen as “a first wave of the affirmation of the objective necessity of socialism.” (127)
When Eurocentrism first appeared in 1988, it was warmly welcomed by Martin Bernal, author of the three volume work of which the first volume, Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilisation, was published in 1987 to acclaim from Perry Anderson and many others, and to heated controversy. Both referred, Amin critically, to Edward Said’s Orientalism; and Amin has much in common with Immanuel Wallerstein, the first volume of whose The Modern World-System appeared in 1974, and Amin draws from world-system theory. Both Bernal and Amin have rather disappeared from view since then; it could be said that their critique is no longer in fashion. This new edition of Eurocentrism is therefore particularly welcome. In his Preface to the new edition, Amin summarises his work as “a systematic critique of the Eurocentric deformation in the dominant worldview” (9). He is an unrepentant supporter of modernity, which he takes to be “constructed on the principle that human beings, individually and collectively (i.e. societies) make their own history.” (7) He is therefore clear that modernity is now in crisis because of the crisis of globalized capitalism. “Bourgeois ideology, which originally had a universalist ambition, has renounced that ambition and substituted the post-modernist discourse of irreducible ‘cultural specificities’” (7). For Amin, modernity is a still incomplete process.
The third book under review is the new edition of Maldevelopment, first published in French in 1989 and in English in 1990; its republication is also an event. The first edition was a synthesis of Amin’s research during the 1980s, that is, “the first decade of the rising new neo-liberal globalization” (1). The new edition benefits from Amin’s appreciation of David Harvey’s The Limits to Capital, and Amin writes that his reading of the history of really existing capitalism is characterised by “accumulation by dispossession”, Harvey’s “powerful expression” (2). Amin proposes a “long history” of capitalism in three distinct phases: a lengthy preparation lasting 8 centuries from 1000 to 1800; a short period of maturity in the 19th century in which the West assumed domination; and a long “decline” caused by the “awakening of the South” in the 20th century, with signs of a second wave of independent initiatives in the 21st century by peoples and states of the South (3). This text has a particular focus on Africa, and the need to explain why development broke down in Africa. Amin achieves a clear-sighted critique of the movement which started in Bandung in 1955 and culminated in the Non-Aligned Movement, with the roles in the 1960s of the Third World radical leaders – Nasser, Sokarno, Nkrumah, Modibo Keita… This is a key text in the Pan-African project.
The Introduction to the essays collected in Global History clarifies Amin’s relationship to Marx and to the various schools of Marxism. It also recounts how towards the end of the 1960s André Gunder Frank, Giovanni Arrighi, Immanuel Wallerstein and Amin met together in view of the general viewpoint they shared: globalist and radically critical of Eurocentrism. They shared an analysis of “the long crisis which began in the 1970s (and from which the world has not yet extricated itself!), seen as a crisis of capitalist globalisation.” (10).
The final essay in the collection, “Russia in the world system: geography or history?”, first published in 1998, is of particular interest to me. Amin starts with characteristic clarity: “The double collapse of Sovietism as a social project distinct from capitalism and of the USSR (now Russia) as a state calls into question all the theories that have been put forward both regarding the capitalism/socialism conflict and the analysis of the positions and functions of the different countries and regions in the world system.” (176) Amin is (correctly, in my view) adamant that the Russian Empire is not to be confused with the Western imperial project. The Russians did not exploit the work of the Turko-Mongol peoples of the steppe whose conquest began in the 16th century; “it was a political power (Russian) that controlled the spaces occupied by both peoples.” This continued in the USSR, where Russians dominated in politics and culture, but did not exploit the others. Indeed, wealth flowed from Russia to Central Asia and the Caucasus (181). Amin declares himself to be “completely Marxist” in the sense that capital poses a challenge to the whole of humanity: permanent accumulation can only end in certain death for humanity. Therefore, the question posed by the Bolsheviks in 1917 was no form of “Messianism”, but is the “question now posed to the whole of humankind” (183). Amin’s provisional answer draws from a key component of his theoretical outlook, namely that the polarisation of the centres and peripheries is the “immanent result” of capitalist expansion. Capital requires the “tributary” nature of peripheral regions. Therefore, “the revolt of the peoples who are victims of this development (which is necessarily unequal) has to continue as long as capitalism exists.” (184). Russia for Amin is still confronted by the question how to get out of capitalism: “… the immediate step is to deal with the challenge which confronts us all: building up a multipolar world that makes possible, in the different regions that compose it, the maximum development of anti-systemic forces.”(185)
Finally, Ending the Crisis of Capitalism or Ending Capitalism? is a completely new text, published in French in 2009 by Le Temps des Cerises. Fittingly, it is published jointly by Pambazuka Press; by the long-established Pan-African publisher CODESRIA in Dakar, Senegal; and by Books for Change, based in Bangalore, India. Chapter 7, “Being Marxist, being communist, being internationalist” will be of particular interest to readers of this Review. Once again, Amin declares “I am a Marxist”, meaning that Marx is his point of departure; and he insists that to be Marxist necessarily means being a communist (146), because theory must always be linked to practice. And to be a communist means also being an internationalist, since the onus is now on the immense majority of peoples, people of the peripheries, to take responsibility for their future.
There is another section of great interest to me, in Chapter 5, “Peasant and Modern Family Agriculture”. Amin has always strongly advocated the need for “food sovereignty” as against the capitalist seizure of agriculture in the West, and therefore insists on a programme of renewing peasant societies. Land tenure reform is the key. Here Amin returns to Marx’s highly suggestive late correspondence with the Russian Narodniks, including Vera Zasulich (in his letter of March 1881), in which he took very seriously the role of the Russian peasant and the “rural commune”. Marx wrote: “Theoretically speaking, then, the Russian “rural commune” can preserve itself by developing its basis, the common ownership of land, and by eliminating the principle of private property which it also implies; it can become a direct point of departure for the economic system towards which modern society tends; it can turn over a new leaf without beginning by committing suicide; it can gain possession of the fruits with which capitalist production has enriched mankind, without passing through the capitalist regime, a regime which, considered solely from the point of view of its possible duration hardly counts in the life of society.” Amin writes that the developments in Russia following the abolition of serfdom in 1861 were accelerated by the 1905 revolution because Stolypin’s reforms had produced a “claim for ownership” which was finally fulfilled in the radical agrarian reform after the 1917 revolution, producing a great mass of small owners (118). It was no surprise that the peasants fiercely resisted Stalin’s policy of forced collectivisation from 1928; and that what then took place was nothing short of genocide. Soviet agriculture never recovered; and the new Russia’s agriculture is a disaster. Amin analyses the various experiments in land reform in Mali, Sudan, Guinea-Bissau and Burkina Faso, and outlines a programme for the global South, for Africa, Asia and Latin America.
What is splendid in Amin’s writing in all the works under review, and his many other publications, is his lucidity of expression, his clear consistency of approach, and, above all his absolutely unwavering condemnation of the ravages of capital and of bourgeois ideology in all its forms. He is a true internationalist, and an inspiration for that reason. In his own discipline, IPE, he aligns himself intellectually with the late Peter Gowan, as well as with François Morin, Frédéric Lordon, and Elmar Altvater. He can rightly take credit for the fact that in 1974 he and André Gunder Frank, alone, predicted that the logic of capital, “based on a massive delocalisation of ordinary industrial production activities towards the countries of the periphery and the recentralisation of activities in the centres around the monopolies that guaranteed them the control of the delocalised production and enabled them to levy rent on it.” (23) They were absolutely right.
A note of criticism is however in order. Amin for the most part does not reference his writing, which cannot be regarded as scholarly in the usual sense; and it will be recalled that Marx had a wealth of reference, footnotes included. Amin does however reference his own works, often repetitively. Most disappointing, he hardly engages with his intellectual contemporaries, much less with his critics. He mentions Trotskyism, but only to dismiss it; and despite his clear fascination with China’s agrarian policy, he does not really engage with Maoism. The contrast with Badiou’s intense evaluation of his own Maoist past is striking. For this reason Amin’s style, while clear and persuasive, is assertoric in tone and seems at time to reflect a certain intellectual isolation.
These criticisms notwithstanding, Amin remains an essential point of reference, and an inspiration. Republication of his key works is to be welcomed without reservation.
5 February 2012