On Samir Amin's utopia about the
bourgeois development of the third world

A review of Samir Amin's Re-reading the Postwar Period: An Intellectual Itinerary

by Phil, Seattle
(from Communist Voice #12, March 1, 1997)


. Samir Amin is an Egyptian economist who is the director of the Forum Tiers Monde (Third World Forum) in Dakar, Senegal. He considers himself to be a Marxist and a "militant of socialism and of popular liberation" (p. 9). However, as will be seen from this review, his claims of adherence to Marxism (at least of a revolutionary variety) and the focus of his militance beg some examination. He claims credit for a number of significant 'modern re-interpretations' of Marxism which epitomize popular sentiment in some leftist circles in the U.S. (where his works have been frequently published by the magazine Monthly Review, edited by Paul Sweezy) and in intellectual circles in many other parts of the world. This book is an autobiographical summary of the path of development of his ideas during his career; thus it serves as a useful approach to an analysis of many of the ideas that are currently considered part of mainstream leftist ideology, insofar as it presents itself as 'modern Marxism'.

. Since Amin has written a fairly large body of work, I won't attempt to deal with all of it here, but I will deal with some of the major points of this book, as follows:

1) His theory of capital accumulation.

2) His critique of "development theory" as promoted by "Three Worlds" theorists.

3) His relationship to Maoism,

4) His critique of Sovietism (Soviet revisionism, although he does not use that term).

The theory of capital accumulation

. This theory has been a major effort of Amin's, beginning with his doctoral thesis written in 1957 and continuing in his first major work to be published in English, Accumulation on a World Scale (1974). This work is presented as a refutation of many of the central concepts of bourgeois economics, and includes elements critical of Keynesianism, as well as more conservative market-oriented economics as well. However, in his presentation of this theory, it becomes clear that Amin is using Marx's economic ideas mostly as a point of departure, with the emphasis on the word 'departure'. He has also adopted some of the chief theories of Sweezy's economics, such as the definition of the 'surplus' as a term broader than 'surplus value', including nonproductive incomes and state revenues (p. 49).

. The focus of Amin's theory is the relationship between the 'center', defined as the countries of Europe, North America (excluding Mexico), and Japan, and the 'periphery', defined as most of the rest of the world. Amin places the polarization of the center and the periphery and the worldwide expansion of capitalism at the center of his view of history. He believes he has found an answer to the question 'why did capitalism develop first in Europe and nowhere else, even though many peoples of Asia, Africa, and Latin America independently achieved a very high degree of cultural development?'. According to this theory, European (and Japanese) feudal societies were flexible forms of the more rigid tributary forms of society in existence in many other parts of the world; their specific character allowed for commercial activities to become predominant sooner, leading to the development of capitalism in a more rapid fashion. The development of capitalism caused a polarization between the center and the periphery; in the modern era, capital has been accumulated in the center through unequal trade, high wages, and militarization. This polarization shaped the economies of the periphery as they, too, became part of the capitalist world; their capitalism was adapted to the role set for them in the emerging world order as suppliers of raw materials and low-cost labor to produce consumer goods for consumption in the center.

. Amin's scheme rests on three pillars: Fordism, Sovietism, and developmentalism. Fordism is the industrial theory prevalent in the center: high wages are used to buy labor peace and levels of consumption sufficient to absorb the products of the steady growth of capitalism. Military expenditures have played a big part in absorbing whatever overproduction might occur. Sovietism in Eastern Europe and the USSR also has rested on class compromise between the "bureaucratic bourgeoisie" and the working class. Catching up with the West was a major motivator in this compromise. This effort is presented as defensive and justifiable. Developmentalism in the rest of the world (Asia, Africa, and Latin America) was at the heart of the Bandung project which grew out of the famous conference in Bandung, Indonesia in 1955. This conference was the beginning of efforts by comprador elements from the peripheral societies to modernize and industrialize their economies through state intervention. Amin says that this project has failed along with the collapse of the global system in general, beginning with the failure of the Bretton Woods system in the early 1970s, and climaxing with the collapse of Sovietism in the early 1990s.

. This analysis is spoiled by Amin's tendency to get taken in by the signboards which some developing economies have adopted in their programs of development. Amin makes a lot of his ability to see through such 'comprador' elements as Nasser and Boumedienne, but he is eager to trumpet the virtues of the government of Keita in Mali, which is described as an "experiment" in "socialist radicalization" (p. 115) that regrettably "went nowhere". It quickly becomes clear that Amin's allegiance to 'socialism' has some very strange features to it. For instance, he makes it very clear that his audience is not the working class, either in the periphery or in the center, but "decision makers"; that is, bureaucrats in the governments of the less-developed countries and in the UN infrastructure. He attempts to justify his construction of "alternative strategies" of a "technocratic" character by the need to present something "realistic" to his audience when he engages in criticisms of the policies prevalent in these countries. Thus, his alternative to the so-called "noncapitalist road" which he debunks is a program of "delinking" with autocentric development. However, this alternative of his is clearly a utopia, a chimera which he is constantly waving in front of his readers as evidence of his commitment to meaningful social change.

. Amin uses this scheme to develop his theory of capital accumulation on a world scale. He presents this theory as a modernized alternative to Marx's theory, as presented in Vol. II of Capital. Marx's theory was developed for a single, closed economy, which produced all the commodities (means of production and items of consumption) for its reproduction. Simple reproduction occurred when the economy did not expand, and reproduction on an extended scale occurred when the economy was able to reinvest more of the surplus each year, and therefore could expand.. Amin attempts to deal with cases which Marx did not examine in any detail, where an economy trades with others of differing levels of development and exchanges commodities at prices which are formed under differing conditions of production, so that the law of value expresses different quantities of labor for different economic conditions.

. This takes him into an examination of the theory of comparative advantage, which was first advanced by Ricardo, and has since then used as the foundation for modern bourgeois theories of world trade. Amin makes a big issue of the fact that Marx did not develop his views on world trade in a concentrated form, but he fails to note some of the interesting remarks which Marx makes on this theory as it was presented by John Stuart Mill. Instead, he asserts that Marx supported the view that the comparative advantage would lead to a more homogenous world; and since this has not occurred (in fact, exactly the reverse process, polarization, has taken place), he seeks to develop an alternative to comparative advantage which allowed for production to be developed independent of the international market for capital. These remarks seem to be the basis for many of his utopian schemes for "delinking", examined below in the section on development theory.

. Amin makes no attempt to relate his theory to the features Lenin ascribed to modern imperialism: monopolies, finance capital, export of capital, and partition of the world. And his attempts to create a theory of globalized value mystify the actual content of value; witness the following passage:

"Reading Capital had immediately persuaded me of the fundamental position of the Marxist law of value in the critique of bourgeois economics. To me it was not a question of a concept reduced to its positive aspect (the amount of socially necessary labor), as Ricardo posited it, but a critical holistic concept revealing the character of commodity alienation peculiar to capitalist society. Value determined not only capitalist economics, but all forms of social life in the system."

This may sound very profound and sweeping, but it actually robs the Marxist concept of value of much of its analytic power and replaces it with a mystical tautology. Amin's terminology has a pronounced elitist edge to it, and the use of unfamiliar rhetorical flourishes leaves one with the impression of watching an ideological shell game.

. This recipe of Amin's sounds suspiciously like some of China's prescriptions to the less-developed countries during the pre-Deng Xiaoping era. The similarities run quite deep, even though Amin attempts a 'critique' of Maoism (as will be described later). His use of the term "comprador bourgeoisie", which suggests that there are honest "national bourgeois" elements out there, which he may be trying to speak to, is another hallmark of the Maoist flavor to his arguments.

. Even more fundamental is Amin's focus on economic development to the exclusion of any changes in class relations in the countries of the "periphery" which he examines. It becomes apparent that Amin sees the transition to socialism merely in terms of some recipe for development, without any political changes; or, he places political change in a subordinate role and focuses on economic policies independent of their political context. This perspective robs his views of any revolutionary import.

The critique of "third world" development theory

. Amin's overall views certainly place him in the camp of the theorists of development of the "Third World", both because of his current position, his history, and the focus of his writings. Yet he also professes to have a critique of this theory, insofar as it has been used to justify policies adopted by some of the more prominent countries in the "Third World" over the past several decades. His critique begins with the "Bandung project", the strategy laid out by the Bandung Conference in Indonesia in 1955. This conference, which was hosted by Sukarno of Indonesia and attended by such figures as Nasser of Egypt, Nehru of India, and Chou Enlai of the People's Republic of China, called on the emerging states of Asia and Africa to carry out a course of "nonaligned" capitalist development, and to steer clear of the Cold War confrontations between the Western capitalist states and the states of the Soviet bloc.

. The Bandung conferees embarked on a program of nationalizations and state-guided development projects. Amin contends that this effort was "deeply rooted in prevailing beliefs: Keynesianism, the myth of catching up through Soviet-style 'socialism', and the myth of catching up through third world interdependence" (page 14). The duration of this project was described as 1955-1975, and the following period (1975-1992) would witness both the collapse of the Bandung effort and the "Soviet-style" effort to overtake the West by state-guided development. Amin attributes the failure of the less developed economies to accumulate enough capital to sustain industry on their own to the inherent weakness of the Bandung program and to the structural adjustment policies forced on them by the countries of the center and to the "neo-liberal onslaught" of the 1980s. The collapse of the Soviet system in 1990-91 was an important factor in the failure of the Bandung project because Soviet support was a significant prop for Asian and African development efforts. He proclaims that the weakness of the Bandung program lay in the failure to realize that capitalism is a world system which adapts the economies of less developed countries to subordinate roles and thus polarizes the process of capital accumulation through monetary and trade relations.

. Amin also proposes an alternative program of development, which he presents as a way of attaining "Socialism III", the third historic attempt to attain socialism (the first two were the socialist efforts of the Second and Third Internationals). He describes the principles of this program as follows:

"(1) Creating an alternative must come before catching up at all costs.
(2) World polarization implies that delinking is the only choice, even if the means must constantly be reviewed in light of the constraints of general evolution.
(3) Systematic action must be undertaken to rebuild a polycentric world, thus providing scope for the people's autonomous progress." (p. 192)

. He describes this program as "an autocentric strategy of delinking", a program of state intervention, high trade barriers, and the formation of an alternate center to the developed economies of the West. This strategy is presented as a very long term project which requires popular and national hegemony in the less developed countries and wage hegemony in the center to bring about international support for this effort. I will deal with the relationship of Amin's program to Maoist and Third-Worldist conceptions in the next section; for now, I would like to comment on some other aspects of this program.

. It is clear from the above description that Amin places economic development on a higher plane than political change, in that he describes a program for development which has no explicit class roots and may thus still exist as a mode of development under capitalism. His views on the importance of economics arise from some of the erroneous conceptions described above. They lead to a program which has a very pronounced Utopian character to it; it seeks a recipe or technique for economic development as a solution to the problems of the less developed countries. This recipe for development replaces the political tasks of carrying out a revolution by the proletariat at the head of the oppressed masses, which must be the precondition for any sort of economic policies. The problems in the less developed and ex-colonial countries cannot be solved merely by development; but by the revolutionary action of the masses, which will form the basis for a viable economic policy. Amin's focus on economic policies, and the erroneous economic ideas they are based on, lead him away from a focus on class struggle and on politics, where the really urgent tasks of oppressed people lie. If economic policies such as Amin's program could actually bring about a rational, humane society without going through the process of a socialist revolution, then the socialist revolution would be unnecessary. It is precisely because any economic policies which might lead in this direction are not viable without a socialist revolution that such a revolution is needed.

. It is also noteworthy that Amin makes little mention of the subject of the transition to socialism; or, rather, he has replaced the concept of the transition to socialism with his views on development. This is a reflection of the fact that the revolutions of the 20th century have been almost totally in the less developed countries, and the burdens imposed by their lack of industrial development tended to overwhelm the explicitly socialist tasks of the revolution, to the extent that the bourgeoisie could take advantage of this situation and use it to reassert and reestablish their power, both economically as well as politically. Marx and Engels saw socialism as being primarily a question for the most industrially developed societies, and Lenin, before the Bolshevik Revolution, held that Russia could not hope to carry out the transition to socialism unless it was assisted by revolutions in the advanced industrial societies. Only after it became apparent that such revolutions would not take place did Lenin consider the manner in which an industrially backward society with a large peasant population might carry out the transition to socialism. And after his examination of this matter was cut short by his final illness and death, the other leaders of the Bolshevik Party became mired in factional conflict and turned towards a focus on economic development instead of socialist transition, thus allowing the re-establishment of bourgeois social relations and, ultimately, a bourgeois political character in Soviet Russia. The other major revolutions of the 20th century took place under even less advanced conditions. The Chinese revolution failed to establish a clearly socialist character prior to the assumption of power by the Communist Party of China in 1949, and afterwards became increasingly more concerned with matters associated with economic development, especially after Deng Xiaoping's coup in 1976. The former colonies that achieved their political independence in the decades after World War II used socialism as a signboard, if they used it at all, and always treated the matter of development as of primary importance. In such important cases as Vietnam and Cuba, revolutions that occurred under a socialist signboard became mired in the burdens imposed by economic backwardness and the old domestic bourgeoisie was replaced by a new bureaucratic bourgeoisie, so that the transformation of social relations never got very far. So, theories such as Amin's do not examine these events from the standpoint of anti-revisionist Marxism-Leninism, but instead give the modern-day bourgeoisie of the less-developed countries a chance to continue their masquerade as ersatz socialists while maintaining societies based on vicious exploitation.

. In summary, the theorists of development, including such 'Marxists' as Samir Amin, are firmly located in the camp of bourgeois economic ideology and serve to divert the genuine revolutionaries from taking up the question of the transition to socialism and clearing out the muck of decades of revisionist and reformist obfuscation. They also do not provide any answer to the question of why these revolutions failed; was it merely due to betrayals by the leadership and their revisionist concepts, or do the backward economic conditions in these countries mean that the material basis for socialism was absent to begin with? Amin's economic mistakes justify larger political mistakes throughout his whole career as a bureaucrat and economic theorist in the service of "Third World" bourgeois governments who strike a socialist pose.

Amin's relationship to Maoism

. Of course, it is very rare to find a 'Maoist' today who takes no notice of the defeats suffered by Maoism in the aftermath of the Deng Xiaoping coup. And Amin is no exception to this; he displays both his Maoism and his critique of Maoism side by side in this book. A few quotes will give the reader a flavor of his attitude:

. "My early adherence to Maoism and to the Cultural Revolution, which I do not repudiate, stems from [the] analysis [of the contradictory demands of developing the productive forces and building a society free of economistic alienation]." (p. 175)

In the discussion preceding the above quote, Amin describes Lenin's views as a form of economism rooted in the ideas of the Second International and, ultimately, in the Eurocentric and Ricardoist ideas of Marx and Engels. Other aspects of these views were discussed in the section above on the theory of capital accumulation.

. "Maoism offered a critique of Stalinism from the left, while Khrushchev made one from the right." (p. 175)
. "Mao rightly believed, as later evolution in the USSR and China showed, that the question [of which road of development to take after the revolution] should be handled at the level of power: challenging the monopoly of the Communist Party, crucible of the new bourgeoisie." (p. 176)
. "I still believe that Maoism was right, even if the later evolution in China seems to contradict this. . . . It is doubtless acceptable and necessary, even today with hindsight, to open the debate on the historical limitations of Maoism as has been done for Lenin (insufficient break with economism) and even for Marx (underestimation of the polarization inherent in worldwide capitalist expansion)." (p. 177)
. "I turned my attention to deepening the debate on the transition through a critique of radical third world experiences, the USSR experience, and the propositions of Maoism. By the mid-1980's I had reached a new conclusion: historical Marxism had underestimated the gravity of the problems caused by global polarization and posed the issue of the transition in the incorrect terms of bourgeois revolution or socialist revolution. The real question on history's agenda was a very long evolution beyond capitalism, of a national and popular character, based on delinking and a recognition of the genuine conflict between the trend toward capitalism and the aspiration for socialism." (pp. 167-168).

. Thus, Amin says that Maoism was valuable as a critique of Sovietism from the left, but it was still limited by the (Eurocentric) misconceptions of orthodox Marxism, and these limitations ultimately led to its defeat. Little attention is paid to the non-Marxist and eclectic character of Maoist theory and the pronounced Jeffersonian flavor to many of Mao's political ideas. In fact, Amin pays scant attention to the real history of the twists and turns of the Chinese Revolution and its various phases, and contributes to the mystique which has grown up about this struggle. He magnifies Mao's theoretical ideas as positive contributions to Marxism, while ignoring the many opportunistic adaptations which they include. His critique of Maoism is really very shallow, while the Maoist nature of many of his arguments runs very deep.

. He does not separate the issues of bourgeois and socialist revolution in these views, and in so doing he contributes to the fallacious socialist signboard which China has created in the wake of the 1949 revolution. He does not examine to what degree the post-revolutionary history of China has been consistent with forms of state capitalist development, and how land reforms such as those in China are in fact a feature of a peasant revolution instead of a socialist revolution. Such a peasant revolution will in fact lead to a further expansion of capitalist development rather than socialist revolution.

. His views on the "long evolution" imply a period between capitalism and socialism where his utopian schemes of delinking can work themselves out. By putting off the socialist revolution in this fashion, he paints a very dismal picture of the prospects for the oppressed peoples of the less-developed countries: they have no choice but to labor under the heel of the imperialists and their native bourgeois exploiters and await the coming of socialism at some indefinite date in the far future.

. A key aspect of Amin's Maoism is his treatment of the Bandung project as the project of the national bourgeoisie, a distinctly Maoist conception. Fundamentally, the national bourgeoisie is seen as patriotic and promoting the independence of oppressed countries from the domination of first-world capitalism. That this program must be carried out through the exploitation of the proletariat is not part of this picture, because the whole picture is treated as a struggle between nations, not as a struggle between classes. For Amin, as for Mao, the class divisions of the world are replaced by the contradiction between the developed countries and the oppressed countries, with the developed countries in the role of the world bourgeoisie and the oppressed countries in the role of the world proletariat. This is classic Maoism, but Amin's analysis of the course of this project is that it failed because the national bourgeoisie was not able to free itself from dependence on first-world finance capital, and that the support of the Soviets, which provided a military counterweight, collapsed and left the national bourgeoisie without a sponsor. But one is compelled to ask here, isn't it possible that many of these national bourgeois forces were looking to the Soviets in the same way as the Western-aligned politicians were looking to the West, and that there was nothing at all revolutionary about their aspirations -- just a desire to build up their own form of capitalism? Amin consistently evades such an interpretation, even though the history which he relates seems to confirm it. He despairs at the rise of the new bourgeois forces in many of these countries, calling them compradors because they more readily cooperate with the neo-liberal onslaught, but one is really hard-pressed to see the class difference between them and the previous group whose cause he promoted.

Amin's critique of Sovietism

. Probably the most glaring aspect of Amin's views is his timidity on the subject of Soviet revisionism, in spite of the fact that Maoism found it convenient to make attacks on Soviet revisionism a standard feature during the period of 1962-1975. One quote encapsulates this attitude:

. "I refused to describe the USSR as capitalist, although its ruling class was in my view bourgeois." (p. 173)

The whole of his treatment of Sovietism is marked by evasions, contradictory arguments, qualifications, and confusion. He uses the issue of Sovietism as a method to attack the economic and social ideas of Marx, Engels, and Lenin and build up his own theories on development. This is in no way a critique of revisionism as we would understand it; in fact, there is much that is revisionist about all of his ideas.

. In fact, as noted above, Amin saw the role of the Soviets as objectively progressive, and he discounts all the Soviet military adventures in the postwar period as defensive in nature, aimed at breaking up the Atlantic alliance because this alliance was formed with the containment of the Soviet Bloc as its essential purpose. Here is his analysis of the role of the Soviet Union in the post-World War II era:

. "Until the 1960s the Soviet system was fairly isolated and on the defensive. The view I took at the time still seems correct -- even with hindsight."
. "The Soviet Union, like China, Vietnam, and Cuba has never sought to export revolution, but has on the contrary always practiced prudent diplomacy, with the primary purpose of defending its own state."
. "The Cold War was Washington's initiative after 1947. The USSR stuck rigidly to the decision at Yalta (hence its attitude to the revolution in Greece) and never in its history did it nurture a project to invade Western Europe. Talk of Soviet bellicosity is pure Western propaganda."
. "The USSR and China began to leave their isolation after the 1955 Bandung conference, when they saw the advantage they could gain from giving support, albeit limited, to third world liberation movements. I have never blamed them for this historically useful support, and I never expected more than could be given during the search for peaceful coexistence refused by the Atlantic bloc.
. "The belated Soviet military effort after about 1970 contributed to a genuine balance of deterrence. Then, but only then, did the USSR become a superpower and a new era begin." (all the above quotes from pp. 186-187)

. Here we have a fairly clear statement of the US and the West as the main danger, and the USSR as a middle force useful as an ally because of the contradictions with the West. This is the same sort of analysis as the "Third-Worldist" "unite against the main danger" view that was common during the 1970s.

. Of interest too is some of the reasoning Amin uses to justify his refusal to view the Soviet Union as a clearly capitalist country:

". . . The USSR, and subsequently China and even the small countries of Eastern Europe, have built modern autocentric economies such as no country of peripheral capitalism has succeeded in doing. According to my analysis, this was because the Soviet bourgeoisie was produced by a popular and national, so-called socialist, revolution, whereas the bourgeoisies of the third world constituted in the wake of the worldwide expansion of capitalism, are generally of a comprador nature." (p. 179)

. In connection with this analysis, Amin offers a number of mild self-criticisms concerning his inability to foresee the true course of events surrounding the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. He apparently had viewed the Soviet Union as a more stable power than it actually was and the evolution of the Gorbachev period and its subsequent outcome caught him by surprise.


. Amin attempts to evade many of the significant conclusions of Marxist theory by repudiating some of the basic tenets of Marxism and does so in a very casual fashion. Having spent his whole career trying to adapt bourgeois nationalist aspirations to socialist phraseology, he cannot allow for any active role by the masses in bringing about revolutionary changes by political means. Instead, he seeks to concoct an economic recipe based on his erroneous revisions of Marxism to stand as a substitute for the real activity of the proletariat and the oppressed masses. Yet by studying such a book, one can become more aware of many of the features of the developmentalist view and their relationship to the Soviet and Maoist revisions of Marxism. This sort of study can lead us to a better understanding of the features of modern imperialism and the historical conditions which led to the failures of many of the revolutions of the twentieth century.

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