Samir Amin (1931-2018)

A tribute to the life and thought of Samir Amin. Communist, champion of the Global South and trailblazer of dependency theory

Samir Amin (1931-2018), above all, was a revolutionary communist. His distinct contribution as a fighter for liberation was a more-than-60-year engagement with several distinct bodies of Marxist social science. Those contributions fell into a number of distinct areas: a rigorous empirical and theoretical study of underdevelopment, contemporary imperialism and unequal exchange; a critique of contemporary “intellectual fashions” in liberal academia; and the relevance of Maoist thought to the contemporary world. Beyond this thematically-united set of concerns, Amin also found time to write at length about religion (particularly Islam), modernity, high geopolitics, and agrarian change. His range and depth of insight was nearly unparalleled.

Rather than treat Amin’s career chronologically or in great biographical detail, we focus here on his intellectual contributions and try to provide a brief overview of the context for his contributions to dependency theory and underdevelopment in particular. Readers interested in Amin’s biographical details should consult his enjoyable personal autobiography, A Life Looking Forward (2006); also useful for a broad overview is his intellectual autobiography, Rereading the Postwar Era (1994).1

In many ways, Amin’s truly international life is an interesting complement to his truly internationalist politics. He was born in Egypt in 1931 to an Egyptian Coptic father and French-German mother descended from French bourgeois revolutionaries. He lived in Port Said until 1946, when he moved to Paris, eventually earning a doctorate in economics in 1957; while in Paris, he was active in the Parti communiste français (PCF, French Communist Party) for several years as a student2. He thereafter lived in many parts of the world, but he spent the most time in Dakar, Senegal, as director of the African Office of the Third World Forum.

Amin’s intellectual legacy is difficult to summarize succinctly, and so we’ll simply set out his key ideas in as rigorous a way as possible to the analysis of underdevelopment. Beginning with his 1957 doctoral dissertation (written in French and later published as Accumulation on a World Scale in 1974 by Monthly Review), he spent well over half of a century trying to answer the question, “Why does capitalism in the third world not resemble capitalism in the first world?”3

We should note the precociousness of Amin’s simple posing of the question, which has been made harder to grasp by the fact that “underdevelopment” is one of a precious few concerns primarily raised by Marxists which has been so roundly taken up by mainstream academia that its critical origins are no longer obvious (other exceptions include: alienation, crisis, structural unemployment, and Kulturkritik). The same question as formulated by Andre Gunder Frank—a personal friend of Amin’s who co-authored a book with him—would set the intellectual scene ablaze with The Development of Underdevelopment in a few short years (which had an impact far beyond academia in both petit-bourgeois Anglophone student circles and bona fide revolutionary circles in the oppressed nations), but when Amin wrote, he was truly a pioneer. The soon-to-be-fashionable field of development studies was only then-nascent: A.O. Hirschman’s Strategy of Economic Development and W.W. Rostow’s Stages of Economic Growth were one and three years away, respectively, and the field would have to wait from Amin’s first writing until Frank for another major critical statement (Rostow’s work is mere theodicy of capitalism, while Hirschman’s is more serious).

But beyond the correct posing of this question, which even “mainstream Marxists” mishandled for a long time (although Lenin and the ComIntern came around on this question earlier than is often understood6), Amin’s contributions above all come from his attempt to solve the riddle of the “capitalist [social] formations on the periphery”—a term of Amin’s choosing, to replace “underdeveloped countries”7. Why did social production and social life outside “the West” look so different from capitalism in the West, even (especially!) when “non-Western” countries consciously took a capitalist path of development? The sort of mainstream development theory referenced above preached the gospel of modernization theory: essentially, these countries were insufficiently capitalist, or insufficiently agèd in their capitalism. The weighty inheritance of “traditional society”—its “limitations of technology” and “lack [of] a systematic understanding of th[e] physical environment”—were perhaps even weightier than realized, in Rostow’s enormously influential view.8

Amin argued the contrary. Underdeveloped countries, he averred, had in the main become “capitalist” by any meaningful sense by the mid-20th century, and their misery therefore could not result from an ignorance of the virtues of capitalism. But their capitalism was of a specific sort: using the language of Althusser and Balibar, Amin distinguished between mode of production and social formation: “a dominant mode of production and the articulation around this of a complex group of modes of production that are subordinate to it”9. The unique social formation of peripheral capitalism, a crucial object of his analysis, combines formally-subsumed pre-capitalist modes of production that co-exist with a modern export sector dominated by foreign capital, and together they exist in a “structural, hierarchical totality” (rather than as wholly separate modes in a relationship of “simple juxtaposition” as in certain kinds of modernization theory)10. At the same time, it is not the case, as in varieties of modernization theory, that these more “antiquated” pre-capitalist modes of production dragged down a virtuous modern export sector.

Instead, even the most “modern” forms of peripheral capitalism were marked by three distortions, generally caused (whether proximately or finally) by the past experience of colonialism and ongoing dependence on the imperialist countries: “1) a crucial distortion toward export activities, which absorb the major part of the capital arriving from the center; 2) a distortion toward tertiary activities, which arises both from the special contradictions of peripheral capitalism and from the original structures of the peripheral formations; and (3) a distortion in the choice of branches of industry, toward light branches, together with the utilization of modern techniques in these branches”11. These distortions in turn prevented the “multiplier effects” of industry—which can basically be thought of as spillover to the rest of the economy—and therefore an “autocentric accumulation” (i.e., when the form of capitalism in a given country develops primarily through an expansion of the home market).12

These explanations on their own are important for giving a rigorous sense to the meaning of underdevelopment, although they are also more-or-less compatible with the kind of “structuralist” or left-Keynesian approach to development which was soon to be adopted by many Third World economists (for example, the mainstream of CEPAL/ECLAC thought proffers similar explanations; indeed, the question of the “multiplier transfer” is and was discussed at length by Hirschman under the heading of “forward and backward linkages”).

A more crucial contribution came with Amin’s contribution to the theory of unequal exchange, which holds out the promise of a more fundamental explanation of underdevelopment to which the crucial Marxian categories of the critique of political economy may be applied.

The canonical theory of unequal exchange derives from the Greek-French economist Arghiri Emmanuel, and it is Amin’s clear critique of Emmanuel’s model that forms his key contribution to the literature. Emmanuel’s theory begins by correcting the “classical postulate of the immobility of factors” that is used to explain patterns of international trade; Emmanuel instead substitutes the more realistic assumption that capital is in fact relatively mobile and labour is not13. On top of this, Emmanuel argues that internationally diverging real wage rates can be taken as given and indeed as the “independent variable of the system” (an unusual argument for which he admits only an “intuitive and empirical” justification can be given14). This implies a tendency for rates of profit to equalize while the remuneration of labor does not, giving rise to unequal exchange through the inflated prices of goods produced in the advanced countries. Unequal exchange thus becomes “the proportion between equilibrium prices which is established through the equalization of the rate of profit between regions in which the rate of surplus value is ‘institutionally’ different”15. For Emmanuel, this is a central and underrecognized mechanism by which richer capitalist nations exploit poorer countries; imperialism is in a sense caused by high wages for core workers and effected mostly through the exchange of goods rather than foreign investment (elsewhere, Emmanuel goes so far as to “debunk” the “myth of investment imperialism”16).

Amin’s reconstruction of Emmanuel’s thesis involves two modifications. First, Amin insisted that Emmanuel’s claim that wages are the “independent variable” is wrong and needs reformulating; second, following his claim that wages could not be the driver of unequal exchange, Amin recast unequal exchange as the outcome of monopoly capital’s traversal across the globe in search of super-profits, i.e. imperialism in Lenin’s precise sense (of which Emmanuel was a staunch critic).

First, Amin rejects the “wages as independent variable” argument for an approach that understands the value of labour-power “in terms of a dialectic between the objective forces (the laws of accumulation) and the subjective forces (class struggle)”17. This approach is more in line with the Marxian understanding of the capitalist mode of production as a system of internal relations rather than as one marked by linear causality between independent and dependent variables.

Amin also rejects Emmanuel’s claim that the rate of profit equalizes globally and insists that “[t]he rate of profit in the periphery is higher than it is at the center”. Emmanuel’s claim about globally equalized rates of profit is not only empirically shaky (which Amin notes); on this question, the pioneering work of David Yaffe, John Smith, Tony Norfield, and Michael Pröbsting bears out Amin’s (and Lenin’s) argument18. It also implies that – since first world capitalists see no surplus-profit from the value transfer effected by globally divergent rates of surplus-value – the primary beneficiaries of unequal exchange are metropolitan workers and thus “the contradiction between bourgeoisie and proletariat has been replaced by one between rich and poor nations”19. Amin rejects this heartily; while he explicitly downplays the revolutionary role of core-area workers, he equally forcefully condemns arguments which consign all European and US workers to the ranks of the labour aristocracy. He also adds an important empirical emphasis of which Emmanuel apparently did not recognize the significance: in Amin’s estimation, a full three quarters of the Third World’s exports to the developed world consist of relatively ‘developed’ industries that show no significant differences in technique or productivity from the first world20. This intervention, though a simple one, helped change the terms of debate since Emmanuel’s major antagonist, Charles Bettelheim, and many after Bettelheim take as paradigmatic a situation in which the Third World is genuinely less productive than the First World—and Amin’s correction has only grown more justified over time21.

For Amin, the political counterpart of his argument about the character of underdevelopment is that “developing” countries can only ever truly develop in a holistic sense (i.e., beyond mere GDP growth) if they delink from the hyper-exploitative world-system and only on the condition that such a delinking “ar[i]se[s] from a genuinely popular authority”22. Delinking, a widely-misunderstood term and perhaps the phrase most associated with Amin’s corpus, is “not synonymous with autarky but only the subjection of external relations to the logic of internal development”23. In other words, to delink means that a workers’ government pursues an independent path of development rather than simply integrating a country’s productive apparatus into the capitalist world-economy and then pursuing redistributive policies.

On the one hand, such an argument might seem obvious, even trivial: a maximum of independence from the capitalist world and democracy, all without autarky (here meaning something like “complete isolation from the world-economy”) seems like the only logical position approach to “development” for most socialists.

On the other hand, in the context of China’s post-1978 turn towards capitalism, coupled with significant pro-market “reforms” in the development strategy of other socialist societies—principally Vietnam and Laos, but also Cuba to a much more limited degree—Amin’s stress on delinking is an important reminder of the dangers of over-integration into the world-market. This change in social practice has found such great reflection in the arguments of socialists that many, especially those who admire Deng Xiaoping and his successors’ interpretation of Marx, simply take it for granted that building socialism, at least in the periphery, requires large inflows of foreign capital, the proliferation of markets (especially in what Marxists call “labor-power”), and some kind of socialist adoption of the “rational kernel” of comparative advantage24. Where it once was “common sense” for socialists to argue that, apart from simply decommodifying labor and redistributing the proceeds of production, the lower stage of socialism must involve a conscientious overcoming of the law of value, the opposite approach to development is now closer to the consensus opinion.

Amin’s argument in favor of delinking flows from his analysis of the limits to specialization as a development strategy: while trading with the capitalist world is necessary and unavoidable for socialist societies, such societies must seek to avoid being caught between the twin evils of complete isolation from the world-economy and over-specialization in primary goods or low-cost manufacturing. Once such a Scylla-Charybdis framework has been accepted, it is easy enough to show that Ricardian specialization is the lesser evil so long as the poorer country (which we here presume to be the socialist-developmental one) has a comparative advantage in something or other (typically in region-specific agricultural goods or labor-intensive industry). But the acceptance of this binary approach to the problem poses a great dilemma for socialists, since this implies that socialists—should we come to power—can really do very little to promote true human development other than to act as kinder facilitators of exploitation, lest too heavy a socialist intervention in the market send foreign capital scurrying for a better deal elsewhere. While this approach to development can produce gains of one sort—and it leaves the socialist state in question free to carry about progressive social policy which doesn’t directly affect capitalist production, as Vietnam’s relatively progressive approach to LGBTQ rights has recently reminded us — it also imposes strong limits on development.

Fortunately, there is, in fact, an alternative, as Amin reminds us: “In more precise terms, delinking is the refusal to submit to the demands of the worldwide law of value”25. In other words, the alternative is simply for the socialist state in question to invest not in those goods which are most immediately profitable, on the world-market or on domestically, but to invest in long-term projects which in the long-run are most conducive to human development (this was the policy followed during the phase of high planning in the USSR and the People’s Republic of China, for instance). In fact, the ability of a socialist state to overcome the limits of the law of value26 even when some form of market economy is retained, is precisely one of the merits of socialism (by contrast, if socialist economy were to be reduced to merely a form of capitalism without capitalists, there is no clear reason why socialist production would fare any better in addressing the burning issue of climate change, for instance).

Though the interventions laid out above are somewhat technical, they contribute materially to the advance of communist thought. The precise examination of the meaning of unequal exchange, in a context where Eurocentric “Marxists” denied it entirely and authors like Emmanuel laid the blame squarely on the shoulders of workers in the imperialist centers, constitutes a major advance, even if Amin’s main contribution was to simply underline the classical Leninist theory of imperialism. Along similar lines, his specification of the character of underdevelopment pushed forward—indeed, anticipated—more influential but also less clear versions of the theory, such as that of Frank. Finally, Amin’s drawing of the clear but often-forgotten implications for development (he need for independence from the world-market and comprehensive socialist planning) lays stress on an important but increasingly-forgotten point. These alone would be serious intellectual contributions, and together with Amin’s wide-ranging interventions which we have not had space to discuss here, they constitute part of a large intellectual project which few have the knowledge or political vision to carry out. The workers, peasants, and oppressed peoples of the world lost one of the great theoreticians of our struggle this year. Samir Amin, presente!

  1. Respectively: London: Zed; New York: Monthly Review. 

  2. A Life Looking Forward’s first few chapters provide a number of interesting and often funny anecdotes about Amin’s early life. 

  3. Trans. Brian Pearce. 

  4. Andre Gunder Frank, The Development of Underdevelopment (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1966). 

  5. Respectively: New Haven: Yale University Press, 1958; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1960. 

  6. For publicly-available overviews of the complicated interaction between Marxism and dependency theory, from the perspective of revolutionaries who wish to synthesize both, consult: Research Unit for Political Economy (RUPE), “On the History of Imperialism Theory”, Monthly Review, 1 Dec 2007. Readers with academic library access should consult Enrique Dussel. and Yanez, A. (1990). “Marx’s Economic Manuscripts of 1861-1863 and the “Concept” of Dependency”. Latin American Perspectives, 17(2): 62-101. 

  7. Accumulation on a World Scale, vol. I, p. 22.  

  8. This comes from the article version of Rostow’s book: “The Stages of Economic Growth”, The Economic History Review, New Series, 12, no. 1 (1959): 1-16. See p. 4.  

  9. Samir Amin, Unequal Development: An Essay on the Social Formations of Peripheral Capitalism, trans. Brian Pearce (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1976 [1973]). 

  10. See Unequal Development, p. 294. 

  11. ibid., p. 288. 

  12. ibid., p. 76. 

  13. Unequal Exchange, trans. Brian Pearce (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1972). See introduction, roman numeral xxx. 

  14. Ibid., p. 64.  

  15. Ibid. 

  16. See “White-settler colonialism and the myth of investment imperialism”, New Left Review 73 (May-June 1972). For a critique of this paper which was only recently published, see Harry Magdoff, “Primitive Accumulation and Imperialism”, Monthly Review 65, 5. 

  17. See “The End of a Debate” in Imperialism and Unequal Development (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1977), p. 195.  

  18. See David Yaffe, “Britain: Parasitic and Decaying Capitalism”, Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 194 (Dec 2006/Jan 2007); Tony Norfield, “The Economics of British Imperialism”, Economics of Imperialism, 22 May 2011; John Smith, Imperialism in the 21st Century (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2016); Michael Pröbsting, The Great Robbery of the South: Continuity and Changes in the Super-Exploitation of the Semi-Colonial World by Monopoly Capital (Vienna: Revolutionary Communist International Tendency, 2013). 

  19. Accumulation on a World Scale, p. 54. The quoted phrase is Emmanuel writing in Le Monde, quoted by Amin on p. 23. 

  20. Ibid., p. 57. Unfortunately, most subsequent commentators neither challenge nor defend these figures with updated data. A welcome exception which updates and endorses Amin’s argument is Communist Working Group, Unequal Exchange and the Prospects of Socialism (Copenhagen: Manifest Press, 1986). Available at 

  21. Accumulation…, p. 57. For Bettelheim’s view, see “Appendix: Theoretical Comments” in Unequal Exchange

  22. Samir Amin, Maldevelopment: Anatomy of a Global Failure 2nd ed., trans. Michael Wolfers (Cape Town: Pambazuka Press, 2011 [1989/1990]), p. 77. 

  23. ibid,p. 109 

  24. For a discussion of these developments in the Chinese context, see Guglielmo Carchedi, “Comparative advantages, capital accumulation and socialism”, Economy and Society 15, no. 4: 427-444.  

  25. Maldevelopment, p. 110 

  26. If markets, and therefore money, do not exist, we should probably say, in place of the “law of value”, something like the “law of proportionality”. For more on this, see Rafael Martinez, “At the Root of the Economic Theories of Modern Revisionism: Bogdanov/Bukharin’s Theory of Equilibrium III”, Revolutionary Democracy Vol. 18, nos. 1-2. <