Samir Amin (1931-2018) – a Great Imperialism Scholar and Anti-imperialist

Samir Amin

12 August marks 5 years since Samir Amin passed away. As the headline says, he was not only a great researcher, but also a tirelessly active anti-imperialist. I want to remember him here by highlighting 10 points from his last article (co-written with Firoze Manji), which has been called his ‘will’. The article has been called so because it is a direct call to establish a ‘transnational alliance of workers and oppressed peoples’.[1]

Before I get that far, I’ll just give a few notes on his biography, emphasizing his work in West Africa, where things are happening these years, most recently with the coup in Niger (essentially anti-French/anti-Western) a few weeks ago.

Samir Amin grew up in Egypt with an Egyptian father and a French mother, both doctors. From the age of 16 to 26, he stayed in France, where he received an academic education (political science and economics). He started his professional career as a planning economist, firstly for the Egyptian government, then for the government of Mali. After that he joined IDEP, a UN institute for economic development and planning in Africa based in Dakar, Senegal, in which he subsequently became director from 1970-80. In 1975, he co-founded the Third World Forum, where he later became director. This forum (also based in Dakar) became an important critical and anti-imperialist debate forum and an international network of research centers.

West Africa

In this way Samir Amin came to work quite a great deal in West Africa and thus gained a very good knowledge of the region (although he also occasionally taught at French universities, and the Third World Forum was for the entire Global South).

I would like to bring a rather long quote from a speech he gave at the Nordic Africa Institute at Uppsala University in 2008. It’s about Europe’s treatment of Africa, using Niger as an example, and it says a lot about Amin’s attitude to ‘democracy’ (in the liberal version). It can also be seen as a comment on what is happening in Niger these weeks, and in general on what is plaguing the region, Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso and others:

“In Europe, democracy has been won in the context of social progress, and that is the same condition for any other people. Instead, we have [in Africa, Fl.] a caricature of democracy and elections in the context of social decline. This kind of democracy is undesirable.

It is the product of the capitalist, imperialist globalization of Africa. The counterpart to this is rhetorical, the so-called ‘aid’.

But let’s take an example. Niger receives the highest level of aid per capita from Europe, and the country is at the highest level of poverty, at the lowest level of social development. Despite this massive aid, the country has not moved one step forward, so the aid is completely ineffective. And when something is not effective at all, I think it’s because it shouldn’t be.

The goal of this aid is not really to develop either, but to corrupt officials and bribe the potential opposition.

And why Niger?

Because Niger is the third largest uranium exporting country in the world. And it happens to be located between Algeria, Libya and Nigeria. If Africans were to gain control of this enormous wealth and use it for themselves and for others, it would be very dangerous, not only politically but also militarily, and that’s the reason for this concentration of so-called aid to Niger.

This means that the challenge for Africa is to create democratization processes – linked to social progress. When I say ‘democratization’, I’m not necessarily advocating the blue-print multi-party system, it’s not necessarily the best democratization process. In the case of Africa, social progress means access to land for all farmers.”[2]

Democracy can be many different things. A military regime in West Africa does not necessarily have to be less democratic than a formal, Western-style democratic regime. A good example is officer Thomas Sankara, who was president of Burkina Faso from 1983 until he was assassinated in 1987. Sankara was a Marxist, anti-imperialist and was very much in favor of direct participation of the people in the country’s development. John Graversgaard has written an article about Sankara, and today, John says, there is a young generation in West Africa that ‘listens to’ Sankara and other anti-imperialists. In fact, Sankara is so popular that even Macron has felt compelled to honor him in a speech (this last point is made in John’s article about him).[3]

Samir Amin also met Thomas Sankara. Sankara invited him to Burkina Faso to hear his opinion on various topics. Samir Amin had a very favorable impression of Sankara, whom he found to be a very good listener. There were various left-wing factions in the country that didn’t agree on everything, and Amin advised accepting the differences of opinion while acting together where possible (in another context, in one of Amin’s autobiographical books[4], he talked about his time as a planning economist for Mali’s left-wing government – yes, Marxist in rhetoric, but gradually acting in a still more incompetent and autocratical way). Samir Amin gives the following example of how Sankara’s government worked:

“The first step was to think in terms of “small projects”, i.e. actions to rapidly improve production conditions in rural communities, as inexpensively as possible, and where the benefits of this improvement accrued solely to the communities concerned. This choice was not motivated by the dubious philosophy of “small is beautiful”, but by both realism (what is immediately possible?) and political sense (it is through operations of this kind that the organization and democratization of rural life can be initiated). What’s more, Sankara had decided – perhaps inspired by the Chinese model – to send civil servants and technicians on training courses at grassroots level, in the villages. The hope was that they would “learn from the masses” (i.e.know their real problems) and “teach the masses” (i.e. put their knowledge as agronomists, veterinarians, doctors, teachers, accountants at their service).” [5]

It remains to be seen whether Niger’s new regime (as well as similar regimes in Mali and Burkina Faso) can live up to this tradition.

Samir Amin’s will

As mentioned in the introduction, I shall highlight 10 points in Amin’s last article in order to relate them to today’s reality.

  1. Some thousand giant corporations and some hundreds of financial institutions, which have formed cartels among themselves, have reduced national and globalized production systems to the status of subcontractors.
    (Quote from the ‘will’)

Amin highlights the extreme centralization in today’s global capitalist society. He has constantly argued that capitalism, ever since its first hesitant beginnings around 1500, has led to polarization: wealth, development and power to one pole (the center), poverty, blocked development and powerlessness to the other (the periphery).

Without using statistics, I think most people can immediately recognize the centralization trend. Everywhere we see large corporations, while small companies are disappearing in many sectors. Amin believed that the trend had reached the point where all companies other than the aforementioned giants are becoming subcontractors, whereas previously you could find large companies with a certain independence, even if they were not monopolies or monopoly-like. He calls the condition: GENERALIZED MONOPOLY CAPITALISM.

In Denmark, we could benefit from mapping the state of Danish capitalism.

  1. Having domesticated the main right-wing and left-wing parties, as well as the unions and organizations of so-called civil society, these oligarchies now also exercise absolute political power.”

“Late contemporary capitalism, which has become a completely closed system, matches all the criteria of totalitarianism, although care is taken not to name it as such.”

(Quotes from the ‘will’)

The common opinion in Denmark would probably be that we are a democracy as opposed to those nasty autocracies. But as it turns out, it’s a ‘democracy’ that Amin doesn’t care much for. Because it’s formal and not real. What’s the point of our being able to vote if politics is adapted to big capitalist companies anyway? ‘The necessary politics’.

Samir Amin launches some harsh accusations against our society in The Global North, also speaking provocatively about a ‘one-party system’. Is he exaggerating? If he’s right, the state of affairs is certainly very far from the mainstream consciousness. We talk a lot about oligarchs (in a derogatory sense) in Russia, and we might even talk about various lobbies in the US, but in Denmark? Kenneth Haar has brilliantly revealed the way big corporations work in the EU[6] – couldn’t we use a similar analysis on the role of corporations in Denmark?

  1. This totalitarianism is still soft but is always ready to resort to extreme violence as soon as the victims – the majority of workers and oppressed peoples – begin to revolt.
    (Quote from the ‘will’)

We know quite a few examples of this from the Global South. The best known one in the Danish public is probably Chile, when the democratically elected Allende’s socialist initiatives could not be accepted, and he was overthrown in a coup supported by the US. A whole host of other examples could be cited where foreign forces come to the ‘aid’ in such situations – part of the imperialist world (dis)order!

There is also an example closer to Denmark. In the 1970s, the Italian Christian Democratic leader Aldo Moro intended to cooperate across the center with the strong communist party PCI. On a visit to the US, he is threatened by Kissinger. His widow (Moro was killed in 1978) reported to a state commission that Kissinger had said to her husband: “Mr. Moro, you must give up your political plan to bring all the forces of your country to work directly together. Either you stop this or you will pay dearly. It is up to you how you will understand this.”[7]  Moro was killed by the Red Brigades after being kidnapped by them and held captive for a couple of months, but there have been indications/strong suspicions that others were somehow involved – if only by preventing his rescue. I don’t think anyone has ever gotten to the bottom of this.

More on military violence in the next section.

  1. “… the historical imperialist powers of the triad [the United States, Western Europe and Japan – Fl.] have set up a system of collective military control over the planet, directed by the United States.”

(Quote from the ‘will’)

A brief summary of Samir Amin’s view of imperialism:

– capitalism creates polarization, not just within the individual country, as

Marx talked about, but on a global scale

– the world is divided into the Global North (the center) and the Global South

(the periphery). There are intermediate forms that we ignore here.

The world looks like this because of colonialism and later neo-colonialism (the

old structures continued)

– The power of the Global North today is based on power over

  1. Natural resources
  2. Technology
  3. The global financial system
  4. The means of communication
  5. Weapons of mass destruction

– giant corporations have the economic power and indirectly also the

political power. But they still need states to deploy the military,

if the periphery or others do not comply.

Where once the imperialist powers were at each other’s throats, the US, Western Europe, and Japan have now come together in the ‘triad’ – under the indisputable leadership of the US.

NATO has become a major military organization that is now deployed across the globe. In addition, the US is building a system of bilateral agreements on bases, so they can dominate other countries even more easily.

Currently, secret negotiations are being held between the US and Denmark on this. This means: Amin’s thesis of ‘collective military control’ is (unfortunately) increasingly confirmed. In my opinion, an important anti-imperialist struggle is the struggle against NATO and against American bases in Denmark.

  1. “Thus, we face major ecological challenges (especially climate change) that capitalism is incapable of solving…”

“However, in our epoch, given the power of ecological and military destruction and the disposition of the powerful to use such powers, the risk, denounced by Karl Marx in his time, is that there is a very real possibility that the fighting will destroy all the camps that oppose each other.”

(Quotes from the ‘will’)

In addition to the suffering of the Global South in the form of poverty, disease, lack of housing etc., capitalism and imperialism also imply these great terminal dangers. Rosa Luxemburg also spoke of ‘socialism or barbarism’, although she could not know anything about the atomic bomb and probably not about the dangers of ecological destruction.

Many have talked about the end of the world without it ever happening, but it doesn’t take much imagination to envisage what a nuclear holocaust would mean. Ecological and climate devastation cannot destroy the planet as quickly, but by now, few people doubt that climate change can have devastating consequences. Again, the South is hit the hardest, but this year in particular, the North has also felt some of the consequences.

When Samir Amin also strikes these doomsday tones, it is precisely to say: Something must be done, an international alliance of workers and oppressed peoples must be formed.

  1. “The peoples of the triad appear to have renounced international anti-imperialist solidarity…”

(Quote from ‘the will’)

Amin is very critical of the left in our part of the world. As previously stated, Amin believes that Western liberal democracy is rather formal and we do not use our supposedly democratic rights to make any significant objections to the prevailing ‘(dis)order’.

In other contexts, however, he has strongly celebrated the 1968 events, for example in his autobiographies, so this is not to say that he generally writes off the left in our part of the world. On the contrary, his idea is that left forces in the South and the North must assist/supplement each other, although he probably expects that the decisive changes will initially come from the South.

So his harsh remarks are a wake-up call to us – are we up to the challenge?

  1. Amin’s article talks about “the subservient media”.

With the world’s overall situation looking so dire, why don’t people see it and why do we have this weak left wing? Well, part of the explanation is probably a (nearly) total consensus that we in our part of the world are the wise and good ones. It’s horrifying how one-sided our newspapers and TV/radio have become. It is constantly taken for granted that the West is right in everything it does – others just need to become just as wise. This is really eurocentrism (a subject that Amin has also written a book about).

In Denmark, we don’t have a single printed socialist newspaper. We have two center-left newspapers, where you can repeatedly be amazed at how West-centric they are in their approach and opinions.

There is a clear task for anti-imperialists to objectively expose examples of this.

  1. “In these circumstances, constructing a transnational alliance of workers and oppressed peoples of the entire world has to be the main objective of the struggle to counteract the spread of contemporary imperialist capitalism.”

“The experience of the worker Internationals should be seriously studied, even if they belong to the past. This should be done, not in order to choose a model among them, but to invent the most suitable form for contemporary conditions.”

(Quotes from the ‘will’)

Samir Amin was always very historically aware in his way of working. This is evident in his written analyses and was the case when he worked on projects ‘in the field’.

Knowing the history of the labor movement, national liberation movements, and other popular movements will be a great help if an international organization like the intended one is to have a future. This also includes knowing both the successes and the pitfalls that previous internationals have experienced.

  1. “The aim should be to establish an alliance that can evolve as an organization and not just a movement.”

(Quote from the ‘will’)

Amin envisions a broad anti-imperialist organization, where there may well (unlike previous internationals) be several representations from a single country. He emphasizes (cf. the previously mentioned advice to Sankara) that “what unites us is more important than what divides us“.

  1. “We shall therefore suggest organizing a meeting with a view to creating the new transnational alliance of workers and oppressed peoples.”

(Quote from the ‘will’).

And Amin’s article[8] ends:

“Comrades, we call on your sense of historical responsibility. This meeting could help identify the conditions for achieving new revolutionary socialist advances (taking stock of the lessons of past revolutions). In the absence of such progress, the world will continue to be ruled by chaos, barbarian practices, and the destruction of the earth.”

A committee has been working to implement this proposal. There have been various difficulties in organizing the meeting in question, which the committee calls a kick-off meeting. Now it looks like it will be held at the end of September 2023 in Rio de Janeiro.

There are (at least) two similar organizations worldwide that have views very similar to those mentioned in this article, namely the International Peoples’ Assembly (IPA – including Vijay Prashad’s ‘Tricontinental’) and Progressive International (PI). John Graversgaard and I have been in contact with the aforementioned committee for a long time, and lately we have also got in contact with the other two organizations.

We have agreed with Demos, a Danish anti-imperialist organization rich in tradition, that we will represent it in this international work.

The three organizations mentioned above have recently held a cooperation meeting, which we are very pleased about. It looks like both IPA and PI will participate in the kick-off meeting.

For those who want to study Samir Amin’s analyses and thoughts, there are numerous opportunities online, including on Monthly Review’s website. He has also written numerous books.

[1] https://monthlyreview.org/2019/07/01/toward-the-formation-of-a-transnational-alliance-of-working-and-oppressed-peoples/

[2] From ”Lande i Syden, foren jer!”, Det ny Clarté 11, August 2009

[3] https://solidaritet.dk/en-revolutionaer-blev-myrdet-men-thomas-sankaras-ideer-kan-ikke-draebes/

[4] Samir Amin: ”A Life Looking Forward – Memoirs of an Independent Marxist”

[5] https://www.thomassankara.net/une-revolution-inachevee-un-temoignage-de-samir-amin/

[6] Kenneth Haar: ”Kapitalens Europa – Lobbyisterne, konkurrencestaten og EU’s voksende demokratiske underskud”

[7] Gert Sørensen: ”Den dobbelte stat – Krønike om magtens hemmeligheder i Italien”, p. 140-41.

[8] All the time I have talked about Amin’s article, even though the article referred to also has Firoze Manji as an author. I have done so because Amin himself has previously written a similar article and because Firoze has not been part of the committee that is trying to follow up on the recommendations (but Firoze has done other important work).

Flemming Larsen is a political commentator

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