As a young academic in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Samir Amin was one of the exemplary African icons and role models for me and my generation in the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (CODESRIA) circle. Others include Thandika Mkandawire, Issa Shivji, Mahmood Mamdani, Abdalla Bujra, and the late Claude Ake, Archie Mafeje, and Dani Nabudere, among others. Robust leftist intellectual debate, which was a regular feature at CODESRIA platforms during that period, was not considered complete until Amin’s voice was heard and he had stamped his imprint on the discourse.
Samir Amin represents the best tradition of scholarship in the world, a rare intellectual gift to Africa, who demonstrated three distinct features that I admired. First, was his intellectual depth, clarity, and rigor. Put simply, he was a rare genius. Second, was his ideological profundity and fidelity to the ideas he professed. Even when Marxism became unpopular after the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the fall of the Soviet Union and many leftists made a turn, either becoming centrists or moving a “little to the right,” Amin remained convinced of his ideological stance and faithful to what he believed. His writings, speeches, and popular engagements continued in the Marxist tradition. Amin was an organic intellectual par excellence, who married theory and praxis. He not only talked the talk but walked the walk throughout his lifetime.
Third, was Amin’s bohemian lifestyle; he was the quintessential scholar: decent, humble, and honest, who deeply inspired me. In both his public and private life, he was always simply dressed, usually in African batik, and spoke humbly to everyone he engaged with. Unlike many of his accomplished peers, he did not exhibit any intellectual arrogance or refuse to grant an audience to anyone seeking to engage him. Knowledge, for Amin, was a humbling asset, a gift to the world through him which he used wisely and shared very widely.
Samir Amin’s intellectual contributions to social science scholarship, especially in the field of international and African political economy, remain seminal, unique, and profound. His contributions to the corpus of Marxist thought and knowledge is highly acknowledged and valued. Rooted in historical materialism, Amin’s writings gave new interpretations to the dynamics and contradictions of global capitalist accumulation that diverged from the orthodox dependency school.
According to him, African countries had been effectively integrated into the global capitalist system from its inception in the era of mercantilism from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century, which deepened and intensified over the ages. As such, he argued that we should not talk of the marginalization of these countries in the global capitalist economy, but instead their mal-integration. The pattern of their integration is what is critical and not the degree. Amin noted that in 1990,
the ratio of extra-regional trade to GDP in Africa was 45.6 percent, while it was only 12.8 percent for Europe, 13.2 percent for North America, 23.7 percent for Latin America, and 15.2 percent for Asia. These ratios were not significantly different throughout the ages. The average for the world was 14.9 percent in 1928 and 16.1 percent in 1990…The so-called marginalized countries are in fact, the super-exploited and therefore, impoverished countries, not countries located at the margins of the system.
To understand the dynamics of exploitation on a global scale, Amin directs our attention to the unequal exchange in labor value and rewards between the center and periphery, in which, with equal productivity, workers in the former average higher rewards than workers in the latter. In order to arrest the falling rate of profit, capital imports labor or relocates production to the periphery to access cheap labor, thus perpetuating global income inequality. In Amin’s words, “the global crisis is indeed characterized by the growing inequality in the distribution of income, high rates of profits, and therefore a growing surplus of capital which cannot find an outlet in the expansion of the productive system.”1Samir Amin, “Democracy and National Strategy in the Periphery,” Third World Quarterly 9, no. 4 (1987).
While the core capitalist countries promote what he referred to as “auto-centered” economies integrated into the global system in an inward-looking way, the reverse is the case for the under-developed countries. Amin, therefore, advocates delinking from the global capitalist economy. His notion of delinking is not about “autarchy” or a total break with the global capitalist system but generating an inward-looking, relatively autonomous development process.
However, Amin was not without his critics, some of whom fundamentally questioned his analytical tools and the Marxian orientation of his analysis. In a review of Amin’s Accumulation on a World Scale: A Critique of the Theory of Underdevelopment, Rohini Hensman noted that Amin’s conceptual categories were not only distorted but un-Marxian, adding that Amin’s conclusion in the book was reactionary.2Rohini Hensman, “Capitalist Development and Underdevelopment: Towards a Marxist Critique of Samir Amin,” Economic and Political Weekly 11, no. 16, (1976). In his view, the concept of surplus value is central to Marxist analysis and not rewards, and the dichotomization of workers between the center and periphery in his analysis is not only unreal but a distortion. Hensman argues that the increasing centralization of capital on a global scale, the socialization of production, and worker’s global solidarity and action is what would unravel the capitalist system, rather than delinking or decentralizing capital as Amin postulated.
How would Amin have reacted to the current spate of right-wing neo-nationalism and the resultant economic and trade wars generated by it? He would likely have viewed it as part of the contradictions of the global capitalist system. The struggle by the global capitalist centers to arrest the falling rate of profit, not only through protectionism but also over-assertive political and economic power, in addition to threats of violent military action for nations that dare oppose the dominant capitalist centers and forces. This dynamic exemplifies the deepening contradictions of a global capitalist system in crisis.
Samir Amin has played his part; he ran a good race and ended it very well. History and posterity will fondly remember this intellectual giant that inscribed his name deeply into and stamped his authority on the global knowledge map.
The views expressed in this tribute are personal and in no way represent that of ECA or the UN generally.
- 1Samir Amin, “Democracy and National Strategy in the Periphery,” Third World Quarterly 9, no. 4 (1987).
- 2Rohini Hensman, “Capitalist Development and Underdevelopment: Towards a Marxist Critique of Samir Amin,” Economic and Political Weekly 11, no. 16, (1976).