Celebrating his legacy, the author offers a critical analysis of a number of Samir Amin's books.
To start with, I have never read Samir Amin except for articles and interviews that have show up on Monthly Review over the years. That being said, I am fairly well-informed on dependency theory having read some of the classics long before I was on the net, even going back to my days in the Socialist Workers Party when I was always looking for solid, well-written analysis outside the sect’s orbit such as Eduardo Galeano’s Open Veins of Latin America, Pierre Jalee’s The Pillage of the Third World, and Walter Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa.
Probably because I was much closer to Latin America as an amateur Marxist scholar and semi-professional activist, I naturally gravitated toward André Gunder Frank who had the same kind of relationship to Latin America that Amin had to Africa.
Out of curiosity, I took a quick look at Amin’s Unequal Development and was struck by how much his 1976 book made the same points I have been making over the years, albeit crudely.
For example, he refers to petty-commodity production in North America as an intermediate stage between feudalism and capitalism, a point I made in a recent critique of Charles Post. Furthermore, his reference to the role of the New World in facilitating the transition to capitalism is one I have made repeatedly over the years. Not surprisingly, Marx himself made the same points in the chapter on the genesis of the industrial capitalist in Volume 1 of Das Kapital.
After a period of pure and simple plundering of Amerindian treasures, intensive mining enterprises were inaugurated, and had recourse to a tremendous squandering of human resources, as a condition for the profitability of their activity. At the same time a slave-owning mode of production was introduced in order to facilitate production of sugar, indigo, etc., in the Americas. The entire economy of the Americas was to revolve around these areas of development for the benefit of the centre.
The raising of livestock, for example, served the purpose of providing food for the mining areas and those where the slave-run plantations were located. The “triangular trade” that began with the seeking of slaves in Africa fulfilled this essential function: the accumulation of money-capital in the ports of Europe as the result of selling products of the periphery to members of the ruling classes, who were then stimulated to transform themselves from feudalists into agrarian capitalists.
I also happened to borrow his 1989 Monthly Review book Eurocentrism from the Columbia Library since my interest in these questions were piqued by Jim Blaut back in 1997 or so after he showed up on the Marxism list that preceded Marxmail to announce the publication of his Colonizer’s Model of the World, a book that was clearly influenced by Amin. From a quick browse of Eurocentrism, this is a book that I will find time to read before long since it is filled with stunning observations such as this:
“Marxism did indeed advance a new explanation of the genesis of capitalism, which appealed neither to race nor to Christianity but based itself on the concepts of mode of production, base and superstructure, forces of production, and relationships of production. In contrast to bourgeois eclecticism, Marxism gives a central place to the question of universal social dynamics and at the same time proposes a total method that links the different elements of social reality (the material base and the political and ideological).”
However, this double property of Marxist theory, while it gives Marxism its power, also constitutes a threat to its development. With the help of natural laziness, the temptation to find definitive answers to everything in it is great. Critique and enrichment of the theory give way to dogmatics and the analysis of texts. Limited by the knowledge available at his time, Marx developed a series of propositions that could suggest either the generality or the specificity of the succession from Graeco-Roman slavery to feudalism to capitalism.
What was known in the middle of the 19th century about non-European peoples? Not much. And for this reason, Marx was careful about making hasty generalisations. As is well known, he declares that the slavery-feudalism-capitalism succession is peculiar to Europe. And he leaves his manuscripts dealing with the “Asiatic mode of production” in an unsystematic state, showing them to be incomplete reflections. Despite these precautions, Marxism succumbed to the temptation to extrapolate from the European example in order to fashion a universal model.
Therefore, despite Marx’s precautions, Marxism yielded to the influences of the dominant culture and remained in the bosom of Eurocentrism. For a Eurocentric interpretation of Marxism, destroying its universalist scope, is not only a possibility: It exists, and is perhaps even the dominant interpretation. This Eurocentric version of Marxism is notably expressed in the famous thesis of the “Asiatic mode of production” and “the two roads”: the European road, open and leading to capitalism, and the Asian road, which is blocked. It also has a related, inverted expression. In claiming the universality of the succession primitive communism–slavery–feudalism–capitalism–socialism (Stalin’s theory of the five stages), the European model is applied to the entire planet, forcing everyone into an “iron corset,” condemned, and rightly so, by its adversaries.
This is the kind of Marxism I live by. It reflects Marx’s letters to Zasulich, even though they are not mentioned. It rejects the kind of mechanical stagism that was adopted by Plekhanov and the Mensheviks that led them to oppose the seizure of power in 1917. It obviously reflects the lingering influence of the Cuban, Chinese and Vietnamese revolutions that with all their flaws demonstrated that we were still living in the epoch of world revolution.
Within two years or so after Eurocentrism was published, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) ceased to exist. Arguably, without the USSR, Cuba, China and Vietnam would have remained neo-colonies. Indeed, the collapse of the USSR was so precipitous that China and Vietnam have returned to capitalist property relations and Cuba’s future is clouded at best.
It was this reality that led Amin and others to support the idea of multipolarity even if it was improbable that Putin or Mao Zedong’s successors would ever be one-tenth as reliable as the USSR in terms of material, military and diplomatic aid.
Taking a position against the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation encroachments on post-Soviet Russia was obviously the right stand to take, as was support for financial institutions outside of the International Monetary Fund/World Bank system. Among the books by Samir Amin that can be read online is Beyond US Hegemony: Assessing the Prospects for a Multipolar World that was published in 2006. Despite kneejerk tendencies to reduce Amin to a shameless propagandist, he refers to China as follows: “The real project of the Chinese ruling class is capitalist in nature, so that ‘market socialism’ becomes a shortcut enabling it gradually to establish the fundamental structures and institutions of capitalism, by reducing as much as possible the frictions and difficulties of the transition to capitalism.”
Putin’s Russia is even worse in his eyes:
“‘Open’ Russia is not only an ‘exporter of raw materials’ (oil first and foremost), it is liable to become no more than that. Its industrial and agricultural production systems no longer benefit from the attention of the authorities and are of interest to neither the national private sector nor foreign capital. There has been no investment worthy of the name to make their progress possible and they only survive at the expense of the continued deterioration of their infrastructure. The capacity for technological renewal and the high-quality education that underpinned it in the Soviet system is being systematically destroyed.”
Who is responsible for these massive declines? First, of course, the new ruling class, which for the most part originated from the former Soviet ruling class, made fabulously rich, no doubt, through the privatisation/ pillage from which it has benefited. The concentration of this new class has, moreover, reached uncommon proportions, to the extent that the term “oligarchy” suits them perfectly. The similarity with the oligarchies of Latin America is certainly striking.
Published in 2006, the book obviously had little to say about the Middle East. After 2011, Amin began speaking out on the region as was understandable. He grew up in Egypt and had written many articles and some books focusing on development issues there. Among the points he stressed was the need to develop an alternative to political Islam, especially the Muslim Brotherhood.
For those who have been involved in Syria solidarity, there is a tendency to condemn anybody who does not conform to what they see as the rules for membership. So, when I wrote about my intention to vote for Jill Stein, blogger Clay Claiborne began to lump me with white racists and Max Blumenthal.
Naturally, Samir Amin got the same treatment even though he wrote this about Bashar al-Assad: “The Syrian situation is extremely complex. The Ba’ath regime, which enjoyed legitimacy for a long time, is no longer what it was at all: it has become more and more autocratic, increasingly a police state, and, at the same time, in substance, it has made a gigantic concession to economic liberalism. I don’t believe that this regime can transform itself into a democratic regime.”
In the same interview, he also said, “Moreover, compared with Egypt and Tunisia, the weakness in Syria is that protest movements are very much a mixed bag. Many — though I don’t want to generalise — don’t even have any political program other than protest, making no link between the regime’s political dictatorship and its liberal economic policy choices.” Despite Amin’s failure to look more deeply into the protest movement in Syria, this is a far cry from what people like John Pilger or Seymour Hersh were writing.
And even if he began to veer more in their direction, I doubt that this justifies the kind of vilification that has been directed at him. Once some people reach their seventies and eighties, there is a tendency to rely on ideas that they have lived by for decades. This accounts for any flaws in Amin’s writings that will live on for the ages just as Marx and Engels’s writings do.
In all the articles I have been reading about Amin in the past two days, this one make the case for his importance convincingly: “Perhaps Amin’s central thesis is somewhat obvious, but it is often forgotten – that a true revolution must be based on those who are being dispossessed and impoverished. But he goes further in undermining the assumption that any thinking emerging from the South will lack enlightenment, or that a lack of enlightenment should be excused.”
He believes the Enlightenment was humanity’s first step towards democracy, liberating us from the idea that God created our activity. He has caused controversy in his utter rejection of political Islam. This ideology, embedded for example in Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, obscures the real nature of society, including by playing into the idea that the world consists of different cultural groups which conflict with each other, an idea which helps the centre control the peripheries.
Amin’s view is that organisations like the Muslim Brotherhood, with their cultural and economic conservatism, are actually viewed positively by the United States and other imperialist governments. And he doesn’t limit his critique to Islam either, launching similar criticism on political Hinduism practiced by the Bharatiya Janata Party in India and Political Buddhism, expressed through the Dalai Lama.
Samir Amin describes himself as a “creative Marxist” – “to begin from Marx but not to end with him or with Lenin or Mao” – which incorporates all manner of critical ways of thinking even ones “which were wrongly considered to be ‘alien’ by the dogmas of the historical Marxism of the past.”
These views are surely more relevant today than when Amin started writing. A creative Marxism takes proper account of the perspective and aspirations of the truly dispossessed in the world, break out of historical dogmas and rejects attempts to stick together a broken model, but equally sees the impossibility of overthrowing this model tomorrow.
* Louis Proyect is moderator of the Marxism Mailing List