André Gunder Frank (1929-2005)

Theotonio dos Santos is a Brazilian economist and researcher, a professor at the Universidad Federal Fluminense, and president of the United Nations University on Global Economy and Sustainable Development.

Who is the most cited and discussed economist in the world? Don’t waste time looking among Nobel Prize winners and other stars of the mainstream media. André Gunder Frank is by far the most cited and most discussed, as shown by a number of studies on the subject and by the more than 30,000 entries he has on the Internet.

His death on April 23 leaves a hard-to-fill gap in contemporary social thought. But André was much more than a major social thinker. He was an intellectual who lived his ideas, a fighter for the truth and for the transformation of the world. Even though he was often wrong (like any human being), he was fertile and inspiring even in his errors. This is a quality that only geniuses possess.

André received his academic training in the “snake pit”: he got his doctorate at the University of Chicago where he coexisted with the generation of brilliant conservatives who so deformed the social sciences from the ’50s through the ’70s, leading finally in the ’80s to the hegemonic orthodoxy that continues to asphyxiate us. His critique of the “Chicago boys” who took control of the Chilean state under the fascist government of Augusto Pinochet is, in this sense, devastating and definitive.

When I met him in Brasilia in 1963, he had been invited by Darcy Ribeiro (Rector of the recently the recently founded University of Brasilia) to conduct a seminar on “structural-functionalism”—the conservative methodology which at that time dominated the social sciences. He had already distanced himself from this prevailing approach at the University of Chicago through his intellectual contact with Paul Baran and Paul Sweezy. His article on the excess of profit and interest payments [from Third World countries] over the inflow of new foreign capital had a big impact and was what prompted the invitation he received from Darcy.

In his seminar were Ruy Mauro Marini, Vania Bambirra and myself, who would later become known collectively as the radical current of dependency theory. We debated a lot all the time, but there can be no doubt of our common lifelong intellectual and political commitment. For André, this would mean two political exiles: from Brazil to Chile, and then from Chile elsewhere. For our part, it threw us into struggle against a Brazil that was profoundly compromised by international finance capital.

In his participation in the REGGEN International Seminar in August 2003 in Rio, on Hegemony and Counter-Hegemony, André had the opportunity to return to Brasilia, Sãão Paulo and Santa Catarina. In spite of the severity of his illness, he insisted on going to all these places to bear witness to the fact that dependency theory began in those years 1963-64 in the debates and points of agreement that arose within the unique pedagogical setting of Darcy Ribeiro’s university, which was largely destroyed by the military dictatorship of 1964.

Exiled in Chile like us, André joined the Center for Socio-Economic Studies (CESO) of the University of Chile’s School of Economics, of which I was the Director. Ruy and Vania were also there, which enabled us to carry out many joint projects. There we revived long-wave theory as a basic tool for understanding contemporary economic history. The experience of the Unidad Popular government was a major stimulus to intellectual work, a fantastic laboratory for analyzing social change and revolution. Frank lived this reality very intensely, with the support of his wife Marta, who was Chilean.

The Chilean coup destroyed CESO and dispersed us once again. Vania and I fled to Mexico, where we were received with deeply moving solidarity. Ruy came later to Mexico and worked for a doctorate in Economics at the UNAM under my supervision. Frank began a peregrination which ended with a long period in Holland, where he retired. In those years he suffered greatly from persecution by U.S. Immigration. He would enter the USA over the Canadian border. His crime was that he had given up his U.S. citizenship for his original German identity. But he felt himself to be above all a Latin American, even though there was no room for him in a Latin America dominated by military dictatorships.

After Marta’s death [1993], he continued his wandering through Canada and later in Clinton’s USA, where he was able to work, but with restrictions imposed by Immigration. He lived his final days in Luxembourg with Alison, a woman of great fortitude who helped him enormously in his fight against the illness that had consumed him for twelve years.

His works of the 1970s are less known despite their depth and provocativeness. He was one of the originators of the theory of the world system, whose crisis he analyzed in two extremely influential books. He also pioneered a historical overview of the world system, which he traced back to at least the 5th century BCE. His book ReOrient: Global Economy in the Asian Age showed the leading role played by China in the world system created around the Silk Road—a hegemony it would not lose until the 18th century, with the rise of Western sea-power and the industrial revolution.

This reinterpretation of world history suggested by André was of unique importance and provoked a colossal polemic, even within the school of world-systems theory. His last writings focused on the role of the dollar and of the Pentagon in present-day U.S. hegemony, and on the decisive crisis that currently besets both—another controversial thesis which, however, is closer to the approach of world-systems theory as a whole.

How many more polemics might have been germinating in the colossal mind of André Gunder Frank! His son Miguel reports that he worked until his final breath. I feel the loss of a leading intellectual but, above all, of a friend and comrade. But it pains me to think of how a whole generation of economists has been formed in ignorance of this colossal work because of the decisive influence of the so-called orthodoxy that has been imposed in many universities throughout the world. There remains, however, the certainty that in the social movements and in the spirit of the World Social Forum, his work is a fundamental point of reference.

(translated by Victor Wallis)