Samir Amin (1931-2018)

Remembering Samir Amin, Who Dedicated Himself to Overcoming Capitalism


Samir Amin (September 3, 1931-August 12, 2018) was a visionary: someone with his own very strong ideas of what the future should be like, and consumed by the need to mobilise people to work for bringing about such a future. The desirable (though not inevitable) future for him was that of socialism, which required the defeat of imperialism and the overcoming of capitalism. The intense enthusiasm with which he sought to pursue that vision, to the very end of his immensely productive life, was at once obsessive, beguiling and infectious.

Amin was born in 1931 of Egyptian and French parentage, and was brought up in Port Said in Egypt, but his subsequent education and his own inclinations made him much more cosmopolitan, truly a citizen of the world – or rather of the Third World. Indeed, he self-identified as an African scholar of political economy and was hugely devoted to encouraging and developing rigorous intellectual life in that continent.

His early professional experiences were clearly crucial in developing that orientation. Already in secondary school he considered himself a communist, and he was a member of the French Communist Party as a student in Paris in the 1950s. His PhD thesis in Paris in 1957 was on the origins of underdevelopment, presenting the germ of ideas that subsequently were elaborated in his magnum opus Accumulation on a World Scale that was first published in 1970. He returned to Cairo to work as a research officer in the Office of Economic Management of the Egyptian government, but the anti-communism that marked the Nasser regime at that time drove him to exile, followed by a stint in Mali working for that country’s government.

Thereafter, he was mostly based in Dakar, Senegal – first in the UN’s Institut Africain de Développement Economique et de Planification, of which he became the director in 1970, and then as the director of the Forum du Tiers Monde (Third World Forum) that he set up in 1980. He was instrumental in setting up the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (Codesria), which has become the main vehicle of social science research and analysis in the continent and currently has more than 4,000 active members.

Such activity reflected his pan-Africanism, which was an essential and abiding part of his personality and his intellectual leanings. But he did not see this as a simplistic celebration of one homogenised “African culture”, which in any case he recognised as a false construct. In a moving tribute, the young Tanzanian social scientist Natasha Issa Shivji has pointed out that Amin argued for pan-Africanism as “a project of the oppressed of Africa against imperialism and its compradors… as a political project from below, as a class project in defence of the peasantry and the working people and an anti-imperialist project birthed from the nationalist movements.”

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Samir Amin’s intellectual legacy for African Renaissance: A tribute


This brief tribute is a sort of intellectual biography of Samir Amin, by alerting the reader to some of the writings that Samir Amin produced in his prolific life as an Africanist scholar, economic and development philosopher, political historian and an organic Marxist intellectual in his own right. A disclaimer is in order. This is not a detailed scholarly treatise on Samir Amin’s intellectual life, but a descriptive expose of his intellectual legacy and tribute. Lessons for African Renaissance will be the task of the reader.

Situating Samir Amin in Africanist and global knowledge production

Where do we look for tracing the genealogy of Samir Amin’s intellectual DNA? Prof. Mahmood Mamdani, another Africanist world-class scholar, while discussing the issue of modernity and the politicisation of culture, in the broader context of the confrontation between Islam and the West, offers some astute characterisation of Samir Amin along other critics of orientalist histories of Islam and the Middle East, since the 1960s. [[i]]

The thinkers that challenged orientalist histories of Islam and the Middle East, that Mamdani mentions are Marshall Hodgson and Edward Said, Cheikh Anta Diop and Martin Bernal, Samir Amin and Abdallah Laroui. The next point that Mamdani makes, is what I can safely assert, is the genesis of Prof. Samir Amin’s intellectual locus. Since Mamdani and Samir Amin fall in a similar school of thought, I consider the former to be the most credible interlocutor of the latter. Pay attention to what he says: “These thinkers (Samir and the other mentioned above) came out of the ranks of the anti-war and anti-imperialist movements of the 1960s, and they were followed by a whole generation of historians.”[[ii]]

Clearly, Samir Amin is part of radically committed Africanist political and social historians who have been offering cutting edge scholarship against Eurocentrism and its intellectual bi-products in politics, policy, economics and development models. At a deeper level, Samir Amin has engaged more complex issues such as the sharp divide the colonial and imperial scholarship has tried to artificially build between Arab North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa. True to his historical consciousness, Samir Amin has contributed to what Mamdani calls “nationalist African scholarship” that is concerned with (again in Mamdani’s words) “historicising—and thus relativising—the divide between North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa.”[[iii]]

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SAMIR AMIN (1931-2018)


Samir Amin, the renowned Marxist thinker and economist, passed away on August 13 in Paris. Born in Cairo on September 3, 1931, to an Egyptian father and a French mother, he had his initial education in Egypt before moving to Paris where he obtained his doctorate in Political Economy. Drawn to the cause of socialism from his student days he soon became a member of the Egyptian Communist Party. Between 1957 and 1960 he worked at the Institute for Economic Management in Cairo, before Nasser’s growing repression of the Communists drove him out of Egypt. He eventually settled down in Dakar, Senegal, first as the Director of the UN African Institute of Economic Development and Planning and later as the Director of the African Office of the Third World Forum.

Two characteristics set Samir Amin apart from most other Marxist intellectuals of his time. One was his total and absolute commitment to praxis for the cause of socialism. He was not a mere arm-chair theorist who used Marxist tools to analyze the contemporary reality as a form of detached intellectual activity. He was on the contrary a passionately-committed activist, for whom intellectual activity was quintessentially an aid to praxis. He was forever trying to organize fellow-activists for making effective interventions to bring about change, and was closely associated with real movements, both the Communist movement in Senegal and also several NGO movements, all of whom looked up to him for help and guidance.

The second characteristic was the centrality he accorded to imperialism in his Marxist analysis, which is so different from what one normally finds both among first world Marxists (with rare exceptions like the Monthly Review group) and also among many third world Marxists who, oddly, see in neo-liberal globalization a withering away of imperialism. Amin in contrast not only saw imperialism as central to capitalism, but placed it firmly within the framework of the Labour Theory of Value through his theory of unequal exchange for which he is justly celebrated.

The fact that metropolitan capitalism’s annexation of the third world had given rise to a process of unequal exchange had been widely recognized. The question however related to the “norm” with respect to which exchange could be described as unequal. Many would, and did, accept the proposition, which followed clearly from Michal Kalecki’s analysis, that a rise in the “degree of monopoly” within metropolitan capitalism gave rise to a greater squeeze on third world primary commodity producers; but this only made some particular historical date (from which the rise in the degree of monopoly is measured) the norm, or the origin, in relation to which we could locate unequal exchange.

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Samir Amin (1931-2018): Africa’s pioneering Marxist political economist


August 19, 2018 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal — Samir Amin’s celebrated life was amongst the most trying, but also rewarding, of his generation’s left intelligentsia. Following Amin’s death in Paris on Sunday, his political courage and professional fearlessness are two traits now recognised as exceedingly rare. Alongside extraordinary contributions to applied political-economic theory beginning 60 years ago, Amin’s unabashed Third Worldist advocacy was channelled through unparalleled scholarly entrepreneurship when establishing surprisingly durable research institutions.

After a privileged youth in Egypt as the child of two medical practitioners, Amin attended university in Paris where his PhD offered a scathing Marxist analysis of South-to-North “unequal exchange.” Amin returned to his homeland, but after testing the limits of Nasser’s Arab nationalism – as an anti-Stalinist communist – in 1960 he was forced into exile. Amin soon won credibility for his tireless economic planning in West Africa, especially Mali, under United Nations auspices.

By 1970 he was chosen director of the United Nations’s Dakar-based Institut Africain de Développement Économique et de Planification (IDEP). He also found time to catalyse a powerful Dakar development non-governmental organisation, Enda, as well as the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (the continent’s main academic society with more than 4000 members). Both are still going strong.

But by 1980, Amin’s progressive strategies had alienated the tip-toeing head of the UN Economic Commission for Africa, Adebayo Adedeji, who pulled IDEP rightwards. Remaining in Dakar, Amin moved office a few blocks away to start the Third World Forum, an institute he led until his death. The World Forum on Alternatives was one of its global offshoots, and thanks to his networking, could rightly claim to have birthed the “alter-globalisation” movement in 1996, five years before the World Social Forum was launched.

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