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August 12th 2018 marks the first anniversary of the death of Samir Amin, a man who, in my view, was the first, and perhaps the most prolific, global organic intellectual in history. He quite literally traversed the seven continents, meeting with local lefts wherever he could find landfall, participating in their discussions, and building from them some of the most influential concepts in late twentieth and early twenty first century theorizing on globalization and international affairs.

In commemoration of the occasion, I’d just like to take readers on a brief sojourn through the broad arc of Amin’s life, highlighting some of his most trenchant theses along the way, and perhaps making a few remarks on where we might go from here in closing.

Then I’ll Change the World

Amin was born, son of a mother who was a distant relative of French revolutionary Jean-Baptiste Douret, and a father who was one in a long line of progressive Coptic intellectuals (as well known in their native Egypt for their poor business acumen, as for their secular and democratic views)He was thus imbibed with all the progressive, humanistic values one might expect. In a particularly poignant reflection, Amin recalls accompanying his mother to a house call in one of the poorer quarters of Port Said, where he grew up, and seeing there a boy rummaging around in the garbage for something to eat. When he asked her why it was so, she immediately replied that ‘it is so because the world is badly made’. ‘Then I’ll change the world’ was his reply. ‘Good, that’s what we need’ (Amin 2006, 1-6).

But, his parents were also full time doctors with busy schedules to keep, and so, much of Amin’s early political education was actually done by his grandfather. They would go on long walks on Thursdays and Saturdays along the Suez Canal, and would sometimes see a ship-full of Italian soldiers chanting ‘Viva Il Duce!’ on their way to Ethiopia, whereupon, Amin’s grandfather would cheekily ask the boy to make a ‘V-sign’ at the fascists, or, if he would like, turn around, lift up one leg, and fart in their direction as loudly as possible; both were appropriate ways to greet fascists! When Amin would inevitably ask what a fascist was after giggles had subsided, another political lesson would commence (Amin 2006, 11).

Not only the people, but also the place Amin grew up in the midst of influenced him. At the French lycée where he studied, history was taught in a particularly open and critical manner, owing to the oppositional position French institutions held in British-controlled Egypt. This imbibed Amin a love of history, and particularly it’s critical potential, that would carry over the rest of his life. Moreover, the daily shouting, and sometimes striking matches he and his comrades had with the sons and daughters of ‘reactionaries’ in the courtyard deepened his political convictions, and exposed him to a curious specificity in himself; unlike most of his friends, he had become aware of the social question before the national one. He was a communist first and an anti-imperialist second. He would settle with his nationalist friends however by drawing an equals sign between imperialism and exploitation, one he would never drop, and one which, in hyper-simplified form, constitutes the core of his soon to be theory of accumulation on a world scale (Amin 2006, 17-24).

A Cultured, Anarchistic Milieu

Amin arrived in France in the fall of 1947, with his sister, on a cargo ship commandeered by his father through one of his myriad connections. Amin was sixteen. He’d never stepped foot out of Egypt, nor scarcely outside his hometown of Port Said. He had however, no trouble finding friends among the Lycée Henri IV’s leftist students. He and his band of brothers would ‘climb the wall’ (in reality, walk straight through the front gate) and attend political meetings (or descend on the occasional jazz club). These incursions were facilitated by Toulice, the liberal headmaster, and in Amin’s view, they provided  ‘the best possible framework for training of real value’; serious, open-minded discussion among intellectuals, workers, housewives, people young and old; like a leftist analogue of similar practices at Oxford and Cambridge.

But relations between Amin and the PCF would sour in years to come. His participation in the anti-imperialist journal Etudiants Anti-Colonialists with the likes of Jacques Verges, garnered him accusations, first of nationalist opportunism, then of left-adventurismwhen the PCF began taking the hard line with respect to the Zhdanov Doctrine. Things came to a head when PCF leader Maurice Thorez chaired a meeting on whose agenda loomed the expulsion of Verges, Amin, and the rest of the Etudiants editorship. Thanks to Verges’ oratorical skills however, Thorez eventually decided against their expulsion, and the ‘cultured, anarchistic’ milieu went out to celebrate.

Amin met his lifelong love and anarchistic muse, Isabelle Eynard, at Sciences Po. She was selling L’Humanite in the courtyard, he was discussing politics with comrades in the lobby. ‘Bonjour, je suis egyptien. Je suis aussi communiste’. ‘Oh, je ne savais pas qu’ils avaient des communistes en Egypte’. And the rest is history as they say.Over triple portions served by Comrade Long at the local Vietnamese restaurant, in the creaking hub of the old banger wheezing up the Dolomites, Amin came to know this brave, just, and free woman, and she came to know the charming and precocious Amin.

Accumulation on a World Scale

Amin needed expend no effort searching for a topic for his dissertation. He was going to interrogate the theory of global convergence undergirding the legitimacy of bourgeois nationalist regimes all across the South. Why was it that Global North and South were diverging despite the centuries-old import of capitalist productive relations from the former to the latter? Classical social theory, even Marx, had predicted that the spread of capitalism to the celestial dynasties of the Orient would imbibe a rapid ‘catch up’ of these societies with the West, but just the opposite had been the norm. What could explain this? (Amin 1994, 42)

Mainstream explanations emphasized cultural specificities of Southern societies, and demographic constraints (the famous ‘overpopulation’ thesis) but Amin was sceptical of both, given his strong grounding in historical materialist thinking. He augured that capitalist productive relations themselves were the problem. Roughly his logic went as follows: capitalism emerged first in western Europe, giving European industry an absolute advantage over Southern industry, relegating the economies of the South to plantation and mining activities. Having been established, this pattern of unequal specialization was deepened by the onset of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall in the North, which drove Northern multinationals to start investing in the South, but of course, they only did so in the profitable plantation and mining sectors. Thus, large labour reserves in the investment-starved unprofitable sectors of the Southern economies pushed down Southern wages, while productivity remained high in the plantation mand mining sectors. Northern MNCs were able to find equally productive labour for less, and their purchase of it constituted a transfer of value from South to North. The dynamics of accumulation on a world scale in other words necessitates the underdevelopment of the South. Capitalism cannot develop the productive forces of the South because the capitalist world-system is polarizing. This augers for socialist leadership of the development process, and the synthesis of the anti-imperialist and socialist struggles (Amin1994, 74-78).

Amin’s dissertation was ‘practically finished’ by 1955, but the nationalization of the Suez Canal forced him to delay it’s final touches until 1957. He defended it June, married Isabelle in August, and was back in Egypt by September, ready to take on a new chapter in his life (Amin 2006, 80-81).

Red Flag over the Nile

Amin went to work for the Mwasasa Iqtisadia, or ‘Economic Institute’, in Nasser’s bureaucracy hoping to shift the regime left, or at least, halt the slide right. His boss was a giant figure on the Egyptian left; Ismail Abdallah. Arrested in the mid fifties for his communist affiliations, he was rehabilitated once Nasser made his hard left geopolitically. Both Abdallah and Amin were keyed-in to the same problem: the rise of cronyism on the boards of the newly nationalized enterprises and newly formed public companies(Amin 2006, 83-84).

In the Mwasasa Amin applied himself to the compilation of in-depth studies of various Egyptian industries, the data from which was used to pressure company boards to act more developmentalisticly. Outside the bureaucracy, Amin, Abdallah, and other comrades – including Isabelle who’d taken a job as a teacher at the French lycée – tried to outflank the incipient state capitalists on the political front, but this effort, sadly would end in calamity. Communist opposition to Syrian-Egyptian unity – one which the communists argued was always unequal – gave Nasser a pretext to smash the party and send partisans like Amin into exile, and others like Abdallah into prison(Amin 2006, 87-92).

The New State Religion is Marxism-Leninism!

Amin spent a brief time working for SEEF, a branch of the French Finance Ministry, before making his way back to the South, this time to Mali’s bureaucracy, on the invitation of leaders of the Union Soudanais whom he’d known from his student days. He left France on the 20th of September 1960, the very day Mali declared Marxism-Leninism the new state religion. Better than neoliberalism or political Islam, as Amin would later write (Amin 2006, 108).

In Mali, things were much the same as in Egypt, but also different. On the one hand, there was the same bureaucratic morass, in particular the deluge of diplomaed young cadre who tried to make up for their political credentialessness with leftist rhetoric turned up to the extremes of reason. On the other, the morass was moving in the other direction: too far to the left, rather than to the right(Amin 2006, 143-145).

Amin tried his best to put his newly acquired tools to use, especially the socio-politically sensitive metric building techniques he developed at SEEF. However, as a foreigner he was increasingly marginalized, and as ‘drift turned into debacle’ he consulted his friends on the left of the Union Soudanais and decided to leave in 1963 (Amin 2006, 149).

Professor of ‘68

After a brief teaching assignment at IDEP ended in Amin’s expulsion for excessively progressive pedagogy, Amin decided to sit the agrégationand become a licenced professor of political economy. He prepared in classic Aminian style: mornings were spent consulting the texts and crafting a lecture later to be given to a small group of friends, discussed, revised, and set aside after dinnertime, when discussion would recline back into more ordinary themes. He passed on the first try(Amin 2006, 159-160).

Able to arrange his teaching schedule to accommodate summers in Dakar, Senegal, where he tried to keep abreast on the struggles of the South, Amin found himself in the curious position of returning to Paris just as May ’68 was getting underway, while his wife, Isabelle, having decided to stay on a while longer in Dakar, was able to report on all the developments concerning its analogue there(Amin 2006, 163-167). He recounts with cheeky relish the temerity of French left-wing intellectuals, who breathed fire into the microphones, so long as riot-police weren’t in the audience. But real changes were made to the French education system Amin admits, the equivalent of which were nowhere to be seen in Senegal, owing, no doubt, to the relative weakness of the student movement there(Amin 2006, 163-167).

The fire of ’68 bled into the pages of political economy the following year, with the publication of Arghiri Emmanuel’sL’echange Inegal, which set off the French debate on unequal exchange. It would be Amin’s intervention in this debate that would gain him notoriety worldwide, as one of the foremost theorists in Marxian political economy. It was not that unequal exchange negated the conflict between classes within nations, as Emmanuel had argued, nor that subnational class conflict remained primary as Charles Bettelheim insisted, but that class conflict had been extended to the world scale. International class blocs, Northern capital and their compradors in the South on the one hand, Southern worker-peasant alliances and the internationalist wing of the Northern worker’s movements on the other, were presently contending for control over the dynamics of accumulation on a world scale(Brolin 2006, 287-300; Amin 1994, 74-78).

Inside the UN Machine

The French debate raged on until well into the late seventies, and Amin continued to participate despite his coterminous responsibilities as head of IDEP. His resignation letter had been found in a UN Briefing file and the criticisms he posed therein were taken well by the authorities. He thus, became top candidate for the directorship of IDEP, and when it was understood that he would continue being critical in that capacity, he accepted the job, thinking he’d last a few months at most. Amin would hold the IDEP directorship for the next ten years (Amin 2006, 198-199). Amin tried to avoid the pitfalls he’d seen in Egypt and Sudan in IDEP. He made open, critical debate the cornerstone of IDEP’s activities on the model of the PCF meetings he’d enjoyed as a teenager in Toulice’s Lycée de Henri IV. First in the ‘academic advisory council’ meetings, then in IDEP’s famous seminar series in the 1970s, these debates engendered a following that put IDEP’s name on the map (Amin 2006, 202).

Amin did much travelling in line with IDEP’s activities, and this put him in contact with leftists in a myriad of countries; Algeria, Brazil, Chile, Afghanistan, Malaysia, Thailand, Mexico, just to name a few. On one trip to Algeria in 1972, IDEP was given permission to use the national assembly building for its seminar and Amin joked that; ‘for once it would be used as a forum for real debate’! (Amin 2019, 71)

But Amin always knew ‘they’d have his hide in the end’. Adebayo Adedeji was appointed director of the ECA (economic commission on Africa) in 1972, and he began systematically dismantling IDEP. By 1980, IDEP had lost its supplementary budget arrangements, Amin had no authority to make new ones, authority over IDEP had been transferred from the UN to the ECA. Back against the wall, Amin resigned. But not without setting up the sister institutions – CODESRIA, EDNA, and the TWF – that would carry on IDEP’s struggle (Amin 2006, 207-210). Amin would meet Adedeji many years later. The ‘greedy young wolf’ had not done well. Forced out of ECA, he had found no posting waiting for him at an analogous UN institution. Adedeji admitted to having replaced Amin with a known incompetent on the orders of the CIA. Any emancipatory initiative, no matter how small, must be crushed. The empire is not given to neglect (Amin 2006, 207-210).

All of History Must be Mobilized

During the 80s, Amin spent most of his time running the Third World Forum. What the forum lacked in funding it made up for in freedom, and this newfound independence was reflected strongly in Amin’s work. Beginning with Class and Nation (1980) Amin delved into historical materialism, leaving the confines of political economy behind. He joined the likes of Andre Gunder Frank, Giovanni Arrighi, and Emmanuel Wallerstein in the ascendant world-systems debates on historical capitalism.

Like many among the world-systems school, he integrated Braudel’s lounge durée into his reading of historical capitalism, but unlike some of the more extreme historicizers – Gunder Frank in particular – Amin sought to preserve the specificity of capitalism in his phaseology of human civilizations. He thus emphasized the qualitative rift contained in the English industrial and French political revolutions, while acknowledging their long-historical antecedents (Amin 1994, 81-92).

He also did much to jettison the ‘European exceptionalism’ of most classical accounts of capitalism’s emergence first in Western Europe, and not elsewhere in the world. Amin argues that a ‘European specificity’ did indeed lead to capitalism’s emergence in Europe, but that this specificity was precisely peripheralized backwardness and the inability to form a tributary state with sufficient capacity to centralize and invest surpluses in irrigation, grain storage, and other staples of the advanced oriental dynasties (Amin 1994, 217-222).

In Eurocentrism(1989) Amin extended his critique to the cultural sphere, where he argued that culturalism constitutes the literary analogue to neoclassical economics in it’s abstraction away from historical and concrete reality, to the realm of transhistoricity, and in particular the imparting of cultural traits a transhistoric developmentalistic quality which they simply do not have at a time when social regulation is done primarily at the economic instance (Amin 1994, 222-223).

Brave New World

The collapse of the Soviet Union engendered much interest in Amin’s critique of Sovietism. It was, as it’s title (Thirty Years Critique) suggests, a long time in the making. Amin use to get lambasted by the Soviet academy for his theorizing on unequal exchange and criticisms of bourgeois nationalism in the third world (Rubenstein et al 1976). But he could retort in equal measure. Amin argues that Sovietism combined depoliticizing autocracy with a rightist response to the economic impasse of Stalinism that guaranteed stagnation in the long run, the increasing use of force to maintain power, and ultimately recompradorization of embattled elites under pressure from without. This was not unlike, indeed it was analogous to, what happened in Nasser’s Egypt, Sukarno’s Indonesia, and so on, despite its longer gestation (Amin 1994, 169-193).

Amin moved quickly to a look towards the future however, and began formulating a social theory of the post-Soviet world. While a long time in the making, Amin eventually came to the conclusion that the collapse of the Soviet Union had ushered in a qualitatively new stage in the evolution of historical capitalism, one marked by ‘generalized monopolies’. The deepening of globalization, Amin argues, has rendered practically all firms in the Global South de-facto subcontractors to Northern multinationals. At the same time, stagnation in the North has deepened to a point where Northern economies are almost completely dependent on imperialist rent. But the conditions for producing and distributing that rent are getting more and more impossible to secure. The peoples of the South are at breaking point in other words, and their repression now requires the increasingly frequent use of foreign military intervention (Amin 2019, 18-25).

The road out of this epochal crisis, in Amin’s view, can only be lain on the realm of political struggle. In the post-Soviet world of unhinged US hegemony, the three postwar systems of social democracy, Soviet socialism, and Southern developmentalism have broken down, and no longer provide the stability requisite for regulation of capitalism’s centrifugal tendencies. Class struggle thus comes to the fore as the determining factor delimiting the dynamics of accumulation on a world scale (Amin 2018).

Towards the Fifth International

Amin’s work in the practical sphere shifted to more organizational matters with the formation of the World Forum for Alternatives (WFA) in 1997. Whereas the TWF had been principally a forum for intellectual debate, the WFA was a space for strategic planning. It made headlines in 1999 with the ‘crashing’ of Davos, and participated actively in the World Social Forum process in the early 2000s (Amin 2019, 365-384).

Amin was principally concerned with building ‘unity in diversity’ among the variegated social movements of the post-Soviet world. The jettisoning of the Leninist party model in its mutated Stalinist form was, Amin argues, historically positive. But the excessive and uncritical adulation of difference hampered the capacity of movements to make real change (Amin 2008).

Moreover, the lack of organizing on the world scale worried Amin. The dynamics of capital accumulation are operant at that level, capital has its cadre operant on the world scale, it’s high time that the left catch up. But the depoliticization of the world social forum warned of a dangerous pitfall; disconnection from the mass organizations can only produce a left version of the Stiglitz report; equally technocratic, almost as apolitical. What is needed is not more forums, what is needed is an international (Amin 2013).

With that Amin penned his ‘last letter’; a call, for an ‘inaugural meeting of the new international of workers and peoples’. It remains to be seen whether his call will be answered, but his brilliant and audacious mind is already with us in the way we think about globalization. Concepts like ‘eurocentrism’, ‘delinking’, and ‘imperialist rent’ have, to differing extents, entered into the collective consciousness(Amin 2018a).

Amin’s Legacy

Those who knew and worked with Amin can surely attest to his legacy better than I. But having studied Amin’s writings closely, allow me to proffer the following points on where I think Amin’s life and work have something to say to the challenges of our time.

Firstly, as alluded to in the introductory section of this paper, I think Amin’s prolific career as a global organic intellectual presents scholars of intellectual history with an astonishingly good opportunity to globalize their discipline. The ‘global turn’ in history generally has been in the air for some time now (Armitage 2014), but few figures can muster both a prolific body of work, and a credible claim to have sourced much of that work directly from conversations, discussions, and debates held across the globe. Amin presents both.

Second, Amin’s ideas themselves have much to say to IR scholars and international political economists about the current conjuncture in world affairs. At a time when protectionism and populism are on the rise, ideas like ‘delinking’, ‘eurocentrism’, and ‘imperialism’ have renewed pertinence, and for the critical among the international scholars, they may go a long way towards the articulation of a left-alternative to quasi-fascist national populism.

Finally, to intellectuals and practitioners alike, Amin’s project of a ‘Fifth International’ seems a worthwhile and necessary one. For if we live in a world-system then how can we not organize on the scale proper to it? If we recognize, moreover, that development across this system is uneven, how can we not but strive for a variegated set, of strategies specific to each part of the world-system, but integrated in their common operation towards the humanistic ends we all aspire to?

I close with a couplet from Amin and one of his foremost interlocutors: ‘The future is bright, but the road torturous’; ‘audacity, audacity, always more audacity!’

Justin Theodra, Development Studies, SOAS, London, UK Email: Jtheodra@uci.edu

 

Notes

  1. The Zhdanov Doctrine was the Soviet analogue of the Truman Doctrine. It split the world into two camps, and implied that third world communist parties ought not strive for power but support the bourgeois nationalist forces in their countries.
  2. Amin would later abandon the theory of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall, for a more historical, demand-side driver of Northern expansionism; rising wages concomitant to the social-democratic compromise between Northern capital and labour.

References

Amin, S. (2008). The World we Wish to See: Revolutionary objectives in the twenty-first century. Monthly Review Press.

Amin, S. (2018a, August 23). Letter of intent for an inaugural meeting of the International of Workers and peoples. Pambazuka.

Amin, S. (2018b). Revolution or Decadence? Thoughts on the Transition between Modes of Production on the Occasion of the Marx Bicentennial. Monthly Review. 70(1).

Amin, S. (2013, February 2013). Are the Social Forum Formulas Adequate to that Effect? Newsclick.

Amin, S. (1994). Re-reading the Postwar Period: An Intellectual Itinerary. Monthly Review Press.

Amin, S. (2006). A Life Looking Forward. Zed Books.

Amin, S. (2019). The Long Revolution of the Global South: Towards a New Anti-Imperialist International. Monthly Review Press.

Brolin, J. (2006). The Bias of the World: A History of Theories of Unequal Exchange from Mercantilismto Ecology. Ph.D. Dissertation, Lund University

Armitage, D. R. (2014). The international turn in intellectual history. In Rethinking Modern European Intellectual History eds. McMahon, D. and Moyn, S. 232-252. Oxford University Press.


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