Samir Amin

Third World Marxist

Print edition : September 14, 2018

Samir Amin (1931-2018)

Samir Amin (1931-2018) saw himself as one among those shaping a movement for emancipation and egalitarian development across the Third World.

SAMIR AMIN, a leading social thinker, campaigner and activist of and for the South, is no more. Progressive forces, not just in Africa where he was born, and lived and worked for most of his life, but across the underdeveloped world, will miss the presence of a person who was never tired of speaking truth to the apologists and functionaries of imperialism. Besides his energy, charm and deep commitment, what singled Amin out was his ability to connect with intellectuals, activists and movements across the developing world—not just in Africa but across Asia and Latin America. To him, that network was not just one of solidarity among those faced with similar problems, but a movement that needed to be built to confront and transcend a global structure that was responsible for underdevelopment, deprivation and poverty.

Born in 1931 in Cairo, Amin followed a trajectory characteristic of many radical intellectuals from ex-colonial countries by studying and working both in Africa and its coloniser, France. He was in his early teens when the Second World War ended. Britain had ceded power to the United States as global hegemon, and the process of decolonisation that began before the war had gathered momentum. These were the years when anti-colonial sentiments were strong, independent national governments came to power, “delinking” through import substitution was under way in many less developed countries, a “socialist” Soviet Union was an important global influence, and planning was being experimented with even in predominantly market-driven economies.

Like many other radical thinkers, Amin recognised the promise in these trends. So, although a Marxist by persuasion, he joined the many radical intellectuals in the Third World who chose to work with their newly independent governments in the hope that they would follow a path which, while aiming to accelerate productivity and income growth, would distribute the benefits of that growth in ways that would address the underemployment and deprivation that afflicted the majority. He worked with the planning board in Egypt during 1957-60 before he was forced into exile, with the Ministry of Planning in Mali during 1960-63 and then as director of the African Institute for Economic Development and Planning in Dakar, Senegal, for a decade.

These occupational choices reflected the belief that given an appropriately enlightened government and adequate social sanction, trajectories of development that advanced social good could be engineered even within non-socialist economies. But as happened across the Third World, import substitution and planning failed to deliver in Africa. After flirting with egalitarian alternatives, governments compromised with vested interests of various kinds and settled for a path of state-facilitated capitalist development that delivered some growth but transferred much of its benefits to an elite. In time, growth, too, proved unsustainable.

Samir Amin was not one to uncritically accept such an outcome, and was among the communists and radicals who were forced into exile from Egypt by Abdel Nasser. That took him into a career in which he spent much time elsewhere in Africa, leading an intellectual current seeking out alternatives for freedom of the underprivileged from oppression and deprivation. Although his emancipatory project was focussed on Africa and his locational shifts within Africa made him a pan-Africanist in physical and conceptual terms, Amin saw himself as one among those shaping a movement for emancipation from oppression and for egalitarian development across the Third World.

His personal experience, however, did not lead to the conclusion that the problem in underdeveloped countries was just one of exploitative elites and the governments that represented them. He attributed the failure of those governments to their inability to confront the global structures reproducing the inequality and deprivation that had been shaped through capitalist history and under colonialism. In his view, imperialism and the monopolisation of resources, finance and knowledge by the classes that dominated in the developed nations had condemned the “bourgeois” nationalist project to failure. An alternative was required. The emancipation of the Third World depended on its delinking from imperialism, and finally on the overthrow of the latter.

These were not just emotional words and baseless beliefs. Over his career Samir Amin creatively applied the Marxist method to understand what Marx had inadequately investigated in his incomplete life’s work—the mechanisms that ensured that development in the metropolitan centres of capitalism had as its counterpart the underdevelopment of the periphery, making generalised catch-up or convergence under capitalism an impossibility. To unravel those mechanisms, he chose to extract the theory of value from a model of an abstract capitalist economy and apply it to the concrete conditions of accumulation on a world scale. That led to the development-underdevelopment dichotomy.

The Law of Worldwide Value, as one of Amin’s books was titled, was one which took account of the phenomenon of unequal exchange, deriving in the final analysis from the fact that a unit of (otherwise similar) labour power was valued less in the periphery than in the core advanced countries. That is, the surplus extracted from Third World workers emerged not only because they contributed more to the value of the product that they produced than the value of labour power itself, but because similar labour was valued less in the periphery than in the core. When that was taken into account, an explanation of why capitalist accumulation leads to development at the core and underdevelopment in the periphery emerges.

Even those of Leftist persuasion who felt this formulation was not nuanced enough had to accept that this was an idea that was potent, given historical experience and persisting international inequality. The burden of Amin’s argument was that historically evolved exploitative structures continue to reproduce this anomaly. Unless poor countries detached themselves from those structures, or the global system in which those structures were embedded was transcended, the development project within an integrated world economy was doomed to failure.

The ‘Bandung’ spirit

This conceptual understanding of Amin’s translated in practice into an appreciation of the radical strand in nationalist struggles and the non-aligned movement, which he wanted to retrieve. Hence the celebration of the “Bandung spirit”, or the spirit that the Bandung Conference of African and Asian nations held in 1955 in Indonesia was imbued with. In a concept note for the conference to celebrate 60 years of Bandung in 2015, Amin wrote: “The Conference of Bandung declared the will of the Asian and African nations to reconquer their sovereignty and complete their independence through a process of authentic independent consistent development to the benefit of all labouring classes.” He saw Bandung as “the first international meeting of ‘non-European’ (so called ‘coloured’) nations whose rights had been denied by historical colonialism/imperialism of Europe, the U.S. and Japan.” He also saw in the Bandung spirit a willingness of people across the Third World to come together in the struggle against imperialist domination. His political life was geared to strengthening that sentiment and institutionalising it in various ways.

Amin saw the continuation of the radical nationalist project as a process that would lead to emancipation through a 21st-century version of the socialist transformation. This perception marked his Marxist approach as uniquely Third Worldist, and different from the one adopted by many Western Marxists. Amin was an anti-imperialist nationalist and a socialist. Even conceptually, his understanding as an African and a citizen of the Third World dominated that, stemming from his exposure to France and the rest of the developed world.

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