| Samir Amin | MR Online

Samir Amin – a Marxist with blood in his veins

Originally published: ROAPE (Review of African Political Economy) on March 18, 2021 by Sabelo J. Ndlovu-Gatsheni, Francisco Pérez, Ndongo Samba Sylla, Francesco Macheda, Roberto Nadalini, Fathimath Musthaq, Max Ajl (more by ROAPE (Review of African Political Economy))  | (Posted Apr 13, 2021)

Following the publication of the special issue on Samir Amin, we post short interviews by the authors on the influence of Amin on their lives and research. The articles by Sabelo J. Ndlovu-Gatsheni, Francisco Pérez, Ndongo Sylla, Francesco Macheda, Roberto Nadalini, Fathimath Musthaq and Max Ajl are available to read until the end of the month.

My encounter with Samir Amin

By Sabelo J. Ndlovu-Gatsheni

How did you first come across Amin´s writing and become interested in his work?

I encountered the name of Samir Amin during my undergraduate studies at the University of Zimbabwe especially in relation to the economic history of Africa and understanding of what was then called Third World economies. My attention turned to his contributions to the dependency school as well as the concepts of underdevelopment and modes of production. These were indeed my first encounters with the writings of Samir Amin.

During that time, as a young undergraduate student I was attracted more to the nationalist school of history which in many ways also tapped into Marxist thought. But I must hasten to say that in the Department of History at the University of Zimbabwe the dominant approach was empiricist in orientation. Theory and ideology were not prominent at all, hence Amin’s work was not prominent. It was in the Department of Economic History that I learnt a lot about the dependency school and Third World economies, where I encountered Amin’s work.

I must also say that the work which attracted me most to Samir Amin’s writing was his Delinking: Towards A Polycentric World and my interest emerged long after I graduated even from my DPhil. So, I must say I encountered most of Amin’s work when I became a researcher myself and I was developing my interest in decolonization and decoloniality.

In 2012, I remember writing an email to Samir Amin requesting him to have a look at a manuscript I was preparing for publication by CODESRIA. I remember that he asked me to send him by post the whole manuscript which eventually was published as Coloniality of Power in Postcolonial Africa: Myths of Decolonization (CODESRIA 2013). I sent him the whole manuscript to an address in France, which he had given me. Within two weeks he sent me positive feedback which encouraged me a great deal.

I was increasingly becoming more interested in his work and I used his Delinking book to frame my other book entitled Empire, Global Coloniality and African Subjectivity (Berghahn Books 2013). To me, his works resonated with ideas emerging from the decoloniality school and I became attracted to his other work entitled Eurocentrism, a book that addressed one of the major problems that the decoloniality scholarship was concerned with.

When he published Global History: A View from the South in 2011, I was now a regular reader of Amin’s work and I considered him an intellectual giant on whose shoulders one could stand in pursuit of the resurgent and insurgent epistemic decolonization. To me Marxism and decolonization were complementary visions of liberation which converged in many ways.

In my latest book entitled Decolonization, Development and Knowledge in Africa: Turning Over a New Leaf (Routledge 2020), I dedicated a whole chapter to the subject of ‘‘African Political Economy’’ drawing from Amin’s rich archive on development and critique of conventional economics.

What Aminian concepts have been most relevant for you in your own research?

A number of concepts became very relevant to my own research predicated on decolonization/decoloniality—epistemological decolonization and the search for epistemic freedom. I am attracted to such concepts such as ‘extraversion,’ ‘maldevelopment,’ ’unequal development,’ and ‘delinking,’’ a concept which has also attracted the attention of Walter D. Mignolo, a leading Latin American decolonial theorist who expanded it from its economic meaning to epistemic ‘delinking.’ I found myself using the concept of ‘extraversion’ as expanded by Paulin Hountondji to reflect on intellectual and academic ‘extraversion’ in my book Epistemic Freedom in Africa: Deprovincialization and Decolonization (Routledge 2018). I also found Amin’s concept of ‘five monopolies’ resonating with the decolonial concept of ‘colonial matrices of power,’ hence I depicted Samir Amin as an ‘African Marxist decolonial thinker’ in my latest book. Indeed, the work of Amin has influenced me to explore the connections between Marxism and decolonization in my forthcoming edited book entitled Marxism and Decolonization in the 21st Century: Living Theories and True Ideas (Routledge, July 2021).

What inspires you most from Amin´s academic and activist work?

What inspires me most about Amin’s academic and activist work is his consistent dedication to the anti-imperialist, anti-colonialist and anti-capitalist struggles. In Amin’s work one finds the finest science of understanding capitalism and imperialism across different epochs. I am also impressed with Amin’s active role in institution-building especially his immense contribution to the establishment of CODESRIA, the premier Africa-based and Africa-focused research institute. I am inspired by the fact that the fall of the Soviet Union and the implosion of the Eastern Bloc did not deter Amin’s commitment to the struggles for socialism. What even inspires me more is that in Amin one finds a very prolific and rigorous scholar-activist who left us with an incredibly rich archive that is anti-colonial, anti-imperial and anti-capitalist. His rich archive is instructive at many levels for social movements that are raged against imperialism, colonialism and capitalism.

Sabelo J. Ndlovu-Gatsheni is Professor and Chair of Epistemologies of the Global South at the University of Bayreuth in Germany. He is a leading decolonial theorist in the fields of African history, African politics, African development and decolonial theory.


Amin’s academic and activist work

By Francisco Pérez

How did you first come across Amin´s writing and become interested in his work?

My parents are low-income migrants from the Dominican Republic to New York City, so I have always wanted to know why a few countries are rich while so many are poor. Conventional theories struck me as overly flattering to rich countries, claiming they have the right cultures, policies, or institutions, and blaming the victims of our global economy entirely for their poverty. I knew that that wealth and poverty are two sides of the same coin, and that any explanation for global poverty and inequality had to recognize the importance of the history of racism and imperialism, of exploitation and coercion.

I first came across Amin’s ideas when I attended the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil in 2005. I then found his writing in the Monthly Review. When I moved to Senegal, I became even more interested in his work since I was looking for ways to explain the poverty I saw around me from an anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist perspective. One that spoke from the point of view of the Global South, took class struggle seriously, and did not simply parrot Eurocentric notions of development and progress.

What Aminian concepts have been most relevant for you in your own research?

There are so many! First his method, his insistence on historical materialism and rejection of economism, and the impossibility of separating theory from history, and politics from economics. Secondly, the center-periphery divide and the distinction between auto-centric and peripheral economies. Peripherality explains the headwinds to development in the South—whether with capitalist or socialist aims. It addresses why it is so difficult for poor countries to catch up to rich ones. Third, the concept of delinking. Delinking points to what must change structurally for peripheral economies to become auto-centric ones. While it shares many prescriptions with the industrial policy or developmental state literature, delinking takes into account the interaction of domestic and international class struggles. Development is not simply a matter of having an effective, mission-driven bureaucracy but also of world market conditions and geopolitical alliances. Amin also highlights the ambivalence of the capitalist classes in the periphery who vacillate between challenging foreign capital and becoming its junior partners. Fourth, his thoughts on Eurocentrism, the tributary mode of production and why capitalism emerged in Western Eurasia and not elsewhere, have shaped my thinking on the “Great Divergence” between Europe and the rest of the world.

What inspires you most from Amin´s academic and activist work?

What inspires me most was his commitment to praxis. Unlike many of his academic critics on the left and the right, Amin was not an ivory tower intellectual. He served in both the Egyptian government under Nasser and the Malian government under Keita. His criticism of Third World ‘national-popular’ regimes and African socialism came from someone who participated actively in these experiments. Amin was also a lifelong organizer, key to the creation and/or leadership of several organizations: the Institute for Development Education and Planning (IDEP), the Third World Forum, the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (CODESRIA), and the World Forum for Alternatives, World Social Forum, etc. These organizations all had the aim of creating critical and non-sectarian spaces for intellectuals from the Global South to not simply discuss issues facing the South, but the world as seen from Global South. He also met with hundreds of left-wing activists, party officials, artists, and intellectuals from all over the world for decades. Consequently, his theories and analyses responded to the shifting challenges of real-world politics, which made his a Marxism “with blood in its veins” and not an esoteric, academic pursuit.

I also admire his commitment to participatory democracy. While he sought to understand the constraints these parties were operating under, he consistently rebuked the leadership of single-party states in the USSR and throughout Africa—Guinea-Conakry, Ghana, Mali, Tanzania, Benin, Ethiopia, etc—for suppressing grassroots participation. He argued that this fundamental lack of democracy contributed to many of these governments’ undoing.

Francisco Pérez  researches the history and political economy of currency unions. He has published on the crisis in the eurozone and is currently examining the debates on how to reform the CFA franc.


Permanently involved in the main struggles of the day

By Ndongo Samba Sylla

How did you first come across Amin´s writing and become interested in his work?

In Senegal, it is difficult to miss the name Samir Amin as it evokes a major intellectual figure of the Third World. Although I came across his ideas in the early 2000s, when I was doing a Master’s degree in development economics, I did not start reading his work systematically until I joined the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation in 2012. In March 2013, as a guest speaker, Samir Amin inaugurated the ‘Economics Saturdays’, a monthly forum held in Dakar on economic issues initiated by Demba Moussa Dembélé and myself, with the support of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation. Just before his inaugural conference, I offered Amin my recently published book on fair trade and told him that any input from him would be welcome. It was a Saturday morning. Two days later, he phoned me and said: ‘Ndongo, you did a remarkable job. I will publish a review of your book very soon.’ And so he did. This gesture demonstrates to me the humility of this great man and his thirst for knowledge. I think that 99% of intellectuals of his caliber would never have paid the slightest attention to the writings of an unproven, unknown author.

What Aminian concepts have been most relevant for you in your own research?

Amin has introduced or contributed to many concepts: ‘tributary mode of production’, ‘eurocentrism’, ‘unequal exchange’, ‘law of worldwide value’, ‘low intensity democracies’, etc. But the two key concepts I find most central are: ‘imperialism’ and ‘delinking’.

Amin conceives of imperialism not as a “stage” of capitalism but as being inscribed in the DNA of capitalism. Talking about capitalism without imperialism is like talking about Hamlet without ever mentioning the prince of Denmark. Imperialism, while being a constitutive reality of capitalism, has taken on different forms. According to Amin, the phase of imperialisms in plural–competing imperialist powers–described by Lenin and the first generation of Marxists, was followed by a phase of collective imperialism (USA, Japan, Western Europe) under U.S. leadership.

In order to ensure a minimum of well-being for their peoples, the governments of peripheral countries must ‘delink’ from the world system. For Amin, delinking is not a luxury. It is a necessity given the impossibility of ‘economic catch-up’ for Third World masses in the inherently polarising global/imperialist economic system. ‘Delinking’ does not imply autarky but rather a determined effort of emancipation from the global logic of capitalism/imperialism.

What inspires you most from Amin´s academic and activist work?

The intellectual and activist work inspires me with great respect and admiration. One wonders how he was able to have such a prolific academic body of work, and so broad in the themes covered, knowing that he was not the type of intellectual to lurk in his ivory tower. He was permanently involved in the main progressive struggles of the day, whether it was related to the Third World or to the mobilisation for a socialist International. The critical pessimism of the work of the radical intellectual always found its counterweight in the creativity of the institution-builder and the lucid optimism of the activist eager to learn from past failures.

Before his death, Amin donated his personal library (including his own works) to the Dakar-based ENDA Tiers Monde, an institution he helped build in 1972. On 3 March 2018, he inaugurated himself the newly named Bibliothèque Populaire de Développement which hosts a room bearing his name.

Throughout his career, Amin was a living embodiment of both the ideals of liberation carried by the Bandung conference and the imperative of international solidarity between progressive forces at the periphery and those at the centre.

Ndongo Samba Sylla  is Research and Programme Manager for the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation. He is the editor and author of a number of books including The Fair Trade Scandal.


The contemporary relevance of uneven development

By Francesco Macheda and Roberto Nadalini

How did you first come across Amin´s writing and become interested in his work? 

Our interest in Samir Amin’s work springs from the desire to identify the structural roots of the class compromise between labor and capital that supports the reproduction of capitalism in the imperialist countries. As Marxists born and raised in the advanced economies, we soon realized that the Eurocentric dogma that socialist revolution is on the agenda only in advanced capitalist countries would make it impossible for a credible socialist perspective to emerge. For this reason, we turned our attention to Samir Amin (and other economists close to the dependency approach such as Hosea Jaffe, Arghiri Emmanuel, and Christian Palloix), who implicitly or explicitly argued that the transfer of value from the periphery to the center through international trade effectively contributes to counter the tendency of the profit rate to fall and uphold real wages in the already developed countries–thereby aligning social democracy with imperialism almost from the beginning of the setting up of the modern Western left.

What Aminian concepts have been most relevant for you in your own research? 

We believe that the concept of uneven development maintains its theoretical validity and that the analysis of the global economy according to the ‘center-periphery’ dichotomy can help explain some rather significant phenomena that have occurred in recent decades. In particular, the peripheral character of China’s integration into the world market helps explain the enormous transfer of value to the center of capitalism–first and foremost the U.S.–that we have witnessed during the last twenty-five years. At the same time, the Aminian idea that the maintenance of external balance constitutes a binding constraint on the backward countries’ attempt to overcome their peripheral condition seems to be confirmed by historical facts: consider for example the structural impediments to progressively overcome the middle-income trap by many Latin American countries in the post-war period. In all these countries, the maintenance of external balance required a contraction in investment in order to recreate an excess of labor and bring wages back to the level necessary to recover external competitiveness. This is very much in line with the development of underdevelopment thesis put forward by Samir Amin in the late sixties.

What inspires you most from Amin´s academic and activist work? 

What inspires us from Amin’s work is one simple but powerful idea: that a major obstacle that prevents peripheral countries from closing the wage gap with respect to the advanced economies ultimately results from the distortion of their productive structure towards low value-added branches of activity. If one accepts the idea that the center–periphery divide stems from an unequal international division of labor, then it follows logically that the “best” and perhaps the “only” development path that might enable peripheral countries to lift themselves out of their peripheral status within the world economy requires a progressive change in their productive specialization towards technologically-innovative sectors. As Amin suggested, this would provide peripheral producers with the opportunity to capture a slice of the technological rent hitherto reserved to the capitalist center. The entrance of peripheral producers in the most technologically intensive sectors, of course, would lead to two contradictory results: on the one hand, it promotes and develops the welfare of the working-class of the periphery. On the other, the erosion of monopolistic position would force advanced countries to accept a substantial reduction of their income. Aware of the fundamental economic relations between the center and periphery, Samir Amin has coherently supported the struggle for emancipation by the people of the Global South for more than a half a century. For us, this is the greatest political and scientific legacy of Samir Amin that must be preserved and expanded.

Francesco Macheda  is an associate professor in political economy at Bifröst University, Iceland. His main research interests include Marxist political economy, the interaction between economic theory and ideology, and economic growth and development.

Roberto Nadalini  received his MA in political sciences from the University of Bologna, Italy. He currently works at a non-profit organisation promoting the integration of immigrants and people at disadvantage in Modena.


Making sense of an exploitative global system

By Fathimath Musthaq

How did you first come across Amin’s writing and become interested in his work?

I came across Amin’s work in college, when I first learned about dependency theory. The moral clarity with which he engaged with the reproduction of colonialism in the periphery and the practical experience that informed his work made reading Amin an exciting and thought-provoking experience.

What Aminian concepts have been most relevant for you in your own research?

Amin engaged with the financial aspects of dependency. He described how the banking system in developing economies were primarily externally oriented in that they financed short-term investments or government expenditure over long term growth. In my work, I draw on Amin’s insights about financial dependency and the concept of “imperialist rent.” Amin used imperialist rent to refer to the surplus extracted from the periphery through the super-exploitation of labour. In my work, I re-interpret the term to refer to the costs that peripheral countries bear to take part in the global financial system.

What inspires you most from Amin’s academic and activist work?

One of the most inspiring aspects of Amin’s life was his constant engagement with the struggles of the times. His work on monopoly capitalism, delinking, and political Islam spoke of a mind continuously engaged in making sense of phenomena that appeared as distinct but were intertwined and constitutive of a broader exploitative global system. Amin’s life’s work was dedicated to the cause of human emancipation and serves as a template for any scholar aspiring to make a difference.

Fathimath Musthaq  is a PhD candidate in the Department of Political Science at Indiana University Bloomington. Her research and teaching interests are in the politics of central banking, financialisation, asset management, international development and global capitalism.


A heart and head always looking below and to the left

By Max Ajl

How did you first come across Amin´s writing and become interested in his work?

I had two encounters with Amin. At first, I read him regularly in Monthly Review, before I had any real grasp of value theory or underdevelopment or Marxism. This journal has historically been the main place Anglophone readers could encounter Amin. His essays on, for example, ‘The Battlefields Chosen by Contemporary Imperialism: Conditions for an Effective Response from the South’ were still helpful for me in terms of political orientation. Similarly, his The World We Wish to See was inspiring for its sweeping ambition about a better world. I only began to understand his work properly as I started to think about development paths in the South from an agrarian perspective. This research naturally led me to Amin’s foundational work on the importance of Maoism and the centrality of the Chinese development path for subsequent world-historical events and how China could possibly offer important lessons for subsequent attempts to break from the periphery. I became more and more interested as I saw Amin’s theories weaving in and out of my own research into Tunisian intellectual history and heterodox theories of development and how he has been a touchstone for the Tunisian dependency school.

What Aminian concepts have been most relevant for you in your own research?

I have found the most use for Amin’s concepts of delinking and auto-centered development. Amin’s problematic of how underdevelopment and polarization are central and structuring components of accumulation on a world scale–and of course, that accumulation is always occurring on a world scale–have been critical as background concepts for interpreting just about everything. But I have more recently been trying to understand what paths exist to actually escape from underdevelopment, the limits of projects which did not empower the small peasantry, and how to fuse my academic/activist background in agroecology and food sovereignty with, on the one hand, political economy-centered work, and on the other, Third World sovereign development.

Auto-centered development was very useful in thinking through the internal articulations of different sectors and the breaking from the capitalist law of value. Delinking has likewise been helpful in trying to understand how that law of value warps and shatters Third World attempts at popular development. Furthermore, Amin’s abstraction from the Chinese experience helped me focus on endogenous technological mastery as absolutely central to Third World development, historically and going forward–which ties neatly to agro-ecology’s interest in building on existing rural knowledge bases.

What inspires you most from Amin´s academic and activist work?

Contemporary academia either urges a surrender to capitalism or social democracy under the guise of ‘realism’ or only maintains any kind of aspiration or even conceptualization of a really equal world–say, Communism–provided it rejects the people and places which have tried to build socialism. Amin did neither. He defended popular attempts to build a better world, especially those attempts which were beaten back or were and are still breathing in the Third World, and always kept his heart and his head looking below and to the left. Throughout his life and to his last breath he was always engaged with popular struggles for emancipation. But, beyond that, his resistance to economism, his attention to the primacy of politics, and his defense of national sovereignty and national liberation amidst the intellectual assault on those ideas and horizons have been very important in terms of helping me orient my own thinking and practice.

Max Ajl  is a postdoctoral Talent fellow at Wageningen University and Research. He writes on Arab agrarian issues. His book A People’s Green New Deal  is forthcoming with Pluto in 2021.


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