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Samir Amin: A Pioneering Marxist and Third World Activist

by Ingrid Kvangraven on January 28, 2020

Samir Amin’s legacy encompasses both his activism and scholarship. As I argue in a recent Legacy piece in Development & Change, Samir Amin achieved more in both spheres than most activists and academics, but the combination is what sets him apart.

Amin was a socialist from an early age and was concerned with responding to and building emancipatory social movements throughout his life. This was evident both in his research, which dealt with questions of persistent global inequalities, as well as in his political work and academic activism. In his PhD thesis, he both critiqued mainstream approaches to development economics and laid out an ambitious alternative agenda. The publications that perhaps come the closest to fulfilling the dual agenda set out in his thesis are Unequal Development (1976) and Eurocentrism (1988). There is a common thread between these two publications: The fact that Amin paid attention to the nation, in addition to class, enabled Amin to see unequal exchange and Eurocentrism, when other Marxists did not. 

Uneven Development, Delinking and Eurocentrism 

While it is common to classify Amin as a neo-Marxist, Amin (2010) called himself a ‘creative Marxist’. Amin’s problem with Western Marxists was that they did not try to go beyond Marx and therefore were blind to the imperialist nature of historical capitalism. In Unequal Development, Amin exposes how historically evolved exploitative structures lead to unequal exchange, which leads to continued polarisation and increased inequality across countries. Amin derives his analysis of unequal exchange from the idea that a unit of labour power (otherwise similar) is valued less in the periphery than in the core, building on Prebisch’s (1950) observation of the rigidity of wages in the core. This phenomenon has also been called “super-exploitation”— the situation where the workers in the global South are exploited by local capitalist classes and exposed to unequal exchange relations (see also Bambirra 1978 and Marini 1978). Amin was among the first to try to measure unequal exchange empirically, which has since been done by many (see for example this recent attempt by Ricci 2018). 

While Unequal Development provided a theoretical, historical and empirical analysis of the polarizing tendencies of global capitalism, Delinking (1990) provided an assessment of possible ways forward. The widely misunderstood term “delinking” is not synonymous with autarky, but rather the refusal to submit national-development strategy to the imperatives of globalization. This implies that countries should develop their own productive systems and prioritise the needs of the people rather than the demands of international capital. While this may seem sensible, there are a range of questions that must be raised in order to operationalise Amin’s concept. This is particularly relevant at a time when the economies of developing countries are so closely tied to global production and finance, which makes determining a separate law of value with a national foundation difficult, to say the least. 

Amin’s work on Eurocentrism in the late 1980s was at the time a part of cutting edge scholarship critiquing Eurocentric depictions of world history and its by-products in politics, economics and development models — and it has since become a classic of radical thought. Amin’s work is important for defining Eurocentrism as an ideology and for showing how the linear story of European capitalism being built on European characteristics of rationality and triumph of reason is not only flawed, but also racist. 

Eurocentrism was also an important response to post-colonial literature which dismissed Marxist analyses almost a priori for being Eurocentric. Amin demonstrated that he was in agreement with some of the postcolonial critiques of Marxism and made a strong case for how historical materialism could provide its own critique of Eurocentrism within its own tradition. However, because Amin argued that racism is a phenomenon derived from an economic base and that Eurocentrism is therefore part of a broader ideology of economism where the economic determines the cultural, he has been critiqued for prioritising the economic aspects of historical development over the political and cultural.

The Enduring Relevance of Amin’s Ideas and Activism

Beyond his academic work, Amin founded the Third World Forum – a network for discussions related to anti-systemic developmental thought with participation by intellectuals from across Africa, Latin America and Asia – in 1973. Later, the World Forum on Alternatives arose as its global offshoot. In 1999, when the Forum organised the first anti-Davos meeting in Davos, the idea to organise the first World Social Forum (WSF) arose. In parallel, Amin was involved in building the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (CODESRIA) in its early years. CODESRIA soon became an important vehicle of radical social science research and analysis in Africa. As its Executive Secretary (1973–75), Amin nurtured radical scholarship on Africa, such as that of Walter Rodney, Issa Shivji, and others. Both WSF and CODESRIA remain important spaces for radical thought and activism today. 

Furthermore, it’s remarkable how relevant many of Amin’s ideas still are despite the fact that more than half a century has passed since he first formulated their core. Some examples of scholars that have picked up Amin’s ideas and adapted them in new ways are Valiani’s (2012) application of Amin’s unequal exchange framework to the global integration of labour markets for nurses, Taylor’s (2016) analysis of ‘diversified’ dependence in Africa, Higginbottom’s (2014) empirical investigation of ‘imperialist rent’, and Ajl (2018) on how Amin’s concept of delinking can be applied to evaluate food sovereignty frameworks across Southwest Asia and North Africa.

Amin celebrated his 80th birthday with a group of friends and comrades on the Nile, where they discussed political economy in the daytime and celebrated his birthday in the evenings. This reflects Amin’s spirit — intellectually committed both to the development of radical ideas and to building and meaningfully connecting with a community of scholars around him. It is therefore, perhaps, particularly fitting for Amin to be buried at Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, alongside leading intellectuals and artists at the most visited cemetery in the world.

Ingrid Kvangraven
Ingrid Harvold Kvangraven is a Lecturer in International Development at the University of York. She holds a PhD in Economics from the New School for Social Research (NSSR). Ingrid's research can be roughly divided into three main categories, namely the role of finance in development, structural features of underdevelopment, and an assessment of policy recommendations by international organisations. She is also affiliated with the Interdisciplinary Global Development Centre, Associate Editor of the New Palgrave Dictionary of Economics, Academic Officer for the Association for Heterodox Economics (AHE), founding editor of the blog Developing Economics, founder and executive board member of Diversifying and Decolonising Economics (D-Econ), and on the editorial board of Third World Thematics.

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