Samir Amin: obituary

This article first appeared in issue 5 of Transform: A Journal of the Radical Left, November 2018.


On 12 August 2018, the global revolutionary movement lost one of its most outstanding thinkers. Born in Cairo in 1931, Samir Amin studied in Paris and received his early political education as a member of the French Communist Party. Moving back to Egypt in 1957, he worked as an economic advisor to the Nasser government before moving to Mali (1960) and then Senegal (1963). In 1975, he co-founded the Third World Forum, a network of intellectuals in Africa, Asia and Latin America, working to formulate models of development outside the context of imperialism.

Through his work and his writing, Samir Amin exercised significant influence on progressive governments and movements around the world, from China to Cuba, Venezuela to South Africa. The breadth of his influence is easily evidenced by the tributes that followed the announcement of his death, including from South Africa’s ANC, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro,1 and Bolivian President Evo Morales, who wrote that “the legacy of his ideals of social justice will be eternally acknowledged.”2

Overcoming Eurocentrism

Amin coined the term Eurocentrism in the mid-1970s to describe the ideology promoted by modern capitalism: a model that places Europe at the heart of global history and that considers (explicitly or implicitly) all human development to be of European origin, starting with the Greeks and Romans. Amin demonstrated, with great clarity and lucidity, how this ideology is leveraged to reinforce an actually existing global capitalism that consolidates wealth and power in Europe (and its Anglophone off-shoots) whilst perpetuating poverty and subjugation in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

Amin ruthlessly deconstructs the Eurocentric view of history, pointing out for example that Ancient Greece wasn’t in the slightest bit ‘European’ in its outlook; it was engaged in intense exchange of ideas and goods with Egypt, Mesopotamia and Persia (and to some extent China and India), at a time when Western Europe was “a backward and barbarous periphery”. It was only via the Crusades (in the 12th and 13th centuries AD) that the Italian towns were able to start asserting themselves as a global force, having won a monopoly on navigation in the Mediterranean.

Europe did not participate in the general development of the pre-modern system until very late, after the year 1000… At the dawn of the Christian era the population of Europe, including Italy, was about 20 million (8 per cent of the world population, less than 30 per cent of that of China, 50 per cent of that of the Middle East)… Until the year 1000 the productivity of European agriculture was greatly inferior to that of the civilised regions of China, India and the Middle East, and the continent still had no towns.3

By exposing the clear logical flaws of Eurocentric universalism, Amin was able to show that the dominance of modern global capitalism, far from being a permanent and pre-ordained set of affairs (or ‘end of history’), is the prodeuct of the very specific circumstances arising from Western Europe’s two major take-offs – at the end of the 15th century (the colonisation of the Americas) and the 19th century (the industrial revolution and the colonisation of much of the rest of the world). Once this ideology is challenged, it becomes far easier to visualise alternative political and economic systems to the Eurocentric nirvana of monopoly capitalism.

Critic of capitalism

Samir Amin made an in-depth analysis of modern wild-west capitalism – widely referred to these days as neoliberalism, but labelled more specifically by Amin as a “system of generalised monopolies based on an extreme centralisation of control over capital, accompanied by a generalisation of wage-labour”.4 This is different from the monopoly capitalism of a hundred years ago, in that “monopolies are now no longer islands in a sea of other still relatively autonomous companies, but are constitutive of an integrated system.” Even small and medium companies “are locked in a network of control put in place by the monopolies. Their degree of autonomy has shrunk to the point that they are nothing more than subcontractors of the monopolies.”5 Such a system is held in place throughout the globe via the monopolisation of technology, natural resources, finance, the media, and military capacity.

Although the capitalist class considers itself to be very modern and scientific, it has merely replaced a heavenly god with a metallic one. “‘Moneytheism’ has replaced monotheism. The ‘market’ rules like the ancient God.”6 This chimes with Marx’s biting observations about the ‘fetishisation’ of commodities under capitalism.

In the world of politics, this system of generalised monopolies is manifested as a “low-intensity democracy” in which people are encouraged to be passive, “devoid of authentic freedom, reduced to the status of passive consumers/spectators”. In essence Amin describes a plutocracy, with the nuance that “you are free to vote for whomever you want, because your choice has no importance”.7 This broadly correct assessment of course has its exceptions and caveats, and Amin was enthusiastic about the possibilities of Podemos and Syriza in terms of challenging the status quo in Europe.8

The long transition to socialism

In the same way that capitalism first developed within feudalism before breaking out of it, the long transition of world capitalism to world socialism is defined by the internal conflict of all the societies in the system between the trends and forces of the reproduction of capitalist relations and the (anti-systemic) trends and forces, whose logic has other aspirations – those, precisely, that can be defined as socialism.9

Although his analysis of capitalism makes for bleak reading, Samir Amin nonetheless remained a revolutionary optimist, a firm believer in a socialist future that will emerge – indeed is emerging – through the irreconcilable contradictions of capitalism. He vigorously rejected the idea that socialism has failed and that capitalist ‘liberal democracy’ has been permanently established as the pinnacle of social and economic organisation. As Vijay Prashad notes, “he was not interested in defeat”.10

In this framework, the retreats suffered by the socialist world – particularly the collapse of the European socialist states between 1989 and 1991 – should not be considered as the death of the socialist project, but rather as part of the inevitable ebb and flow of a complex historical trajectory that could take hundreds of years but which nonetheless has an inexorable tide. A similar idea was formulated by the Communist Party of China in response to the collapse of the USSR and the European people’s democracies. Deng Xiaoping famously observed in 1992: “Feudal society replaced slave society, capitalism supplanted feudalism, and, after a long time, socialism will necessarily supersede capitalism. This is an irreversible general trend of historical development, but the road has many twists and turns. Over the several centuries that it took for capitalism to replace feudalism, how many times were monarchies restored! Some countries have suffered major setbacks, and socialism appears to have been weakened. But the people have been tempered by the setbacks and have drawn lessons from them, and that will make socialism develop in a healthier direction. So don’t panic, don’t think that Marxism has disappeared, that it’s not useful any more and that it has been defeated. Nothing of the sort!”11

On the controversial subject of China and its role in the global transition to socialism, Amin displayed a clarity of understanding that is all too rare. In his recent writings, he spoke of China as “perhaps the only country in the world today which has a sovereign project.” That is: China is successfully pursuing its own development model, designed by its own government and not the institutions of international finance capital. “China is walking on two legs: following traditions and participating in globalisation. They accept foreign investments, but keep independence of their financial system. The Chinese bank system is exclusively state-controlled… That is the best model that we have today to respond to the challenge of globalist imperialism.”12 The results of China’s strategy have been “simply amazing. In a few decades, China has built a productive, industrial urbanisation that brings together 600 million human beings, two-thirds of whom were urbanised over the last two decades (almost equal to Europe’s population!). This is due to the plan and not to the market.”13

The indispensable nature of multipolarity

Samir Amin considered that, given the economic, political and ideological stranglehold imposed by western finance capitalism, the first step towards a globalised socialism was to encourage the development of a multipolar world: a world with multiple power bases; a set of geopolitical spaces in which political and economic control is exercised by the people of those spaces rather than by the European and North American elite; a world which will bring about “the defeat of Washington’s hegemonic project for military control of the planet”.14 Such an environment “makes possible the maximum development of anti-systemic forces.”15 Multipolarity is an increasingly popular concept, but Amin was a very early proponent, having first discussed it in his 1985 book Delinking: Towards a Polycentric World.

Amin witnessed and welcomed the left tide in Latin America, the rising cooperation between China and Russia, the establishment of BRICS, ALBA and other major projects of regional or south-south cooperation that are slowly breaking down hegemonism. However, he also recognised the possibility of a violent, unpredictable and irrational reaction to all this – such as the Make America Great Again lunacy of the current US administration. “The world now is in serious danger. The collective imperialism of the US, Western Europe and Japan are run by US leadership. In order to keep their exclusive control over the whole planet, they do not accept independence of other countries. They do not respect the independence of China and Russia. That is why we are about to face continuous wars all over the world. The radical Islamists are the allies of imperialism, because they are supported by the US in order to carry out destabilisation. This is permanent war.”

He went on to propose a clear strategic response: “Russia should unite with China, the Central Asian countries, Iran and Syria. This alliance could be also very attractive for Africa and good parts of Latin America. In such a case, imperialism would be isolated.”16

Taking Samir Amin’s work forward

Samir Amin was a brilliant and creative Marxist, an uncompromising anti-imperialist, a powerful voice for the oppressed, and a visionary of a socialist world. His work mapping the past, present and future of humanity is a weighty inheritance that the global progressive forces must now take forward.


  1. Via Twitter, 12 August 2018 

  2. Via Twitter, 12 August 2018 

  3. Samir Amin: Global History: A View from the South, Pambazuka Press, 2010 

  4. Samir Amin: The Implosion of Contemporary Capitalism, Monthly Review Press, 2013 

  5. Pambazuka: Audacity, more audacity, 2001 

  6. Global History: A View from the South, op cit 

  7. The Implosion of Contemporary Capitalism, op cit 

  8. MR Online: Glory to the Lucid Courage of the Greek People, Facing the European Crisis, 2015 

  9. Samir Amin, Russia and the Long Transition from Capitalism to Socialism, Monthly Review Press, 2016 

  10. The Hindu: Death of a Marxist, 2018 

  11. Deng Xiaoping, Excerpts from Talks Given in Wuchang, Shenzhen, Zhuhai and Shanghai, 1992 

  12. Defend Democracy Press: Samir Amin: How to Defeat the Collective Imperialism of the Triad, 2016 

  13. Monthly Review: China 2013 

  14. Samir Amin, Beyond US Hegemony? Assessing the Prospects for a Multipolar World, Zed Books, 2013 

  15. Russia and the Long Transition from Capitalism to Socialism, op cit 

  16. How to Defeat the Collective Imperialism of the Triad, op cit 

Book review: Sven-Eric Liedman – A World to Win: The Life and Works of Karl Marx

A slightly modified version of this article first appeared in the Morning Star on 05 May 2018 (the 200th anniversary of Marx’s birth).


Sven-Eric Liedman’s new biography of Karl Marx aims to provide the reader with a nuanced and detailed account of the intellectual giant’s life and thought. Beyond the biographical outline and the coverage of the best-known aspects of Marx’s work (Capital, and The Communist Manifesto), Liedman also gives a fairly detailed description of Marx’s explorations in philosophy and the trajectory of his theoretical ideas. This, along with an examination of the intellectual relationship between Marx and Engels and an interesting analysis of the fate of Marxist thought in the decades after Marx’s death, mean that Liedman’s book can justify a place in the crowded shelf devoted to the study of Marx.

Liedman is nothing if not erudite, and his meticulous coverage of Marx’s changing opinions on philosophy is interesting and important, although it makes for slow and difficult reading for anyone not well-versed in the subtleties of Hegelian logic (the present reviewer included). For the newer reader, A World to Win usefully explains many of the key ideas and phrases of Marxism – such as the dictatorship of the proletariat, the transformation of quantity into quality, commodity fetishism – and describes the evolution of these ideas over the course of Marx’s life.

The greatest achievement of the book lies in its compelling demonstration of the continued relevance of Marx’s critique of capitalism. In a post-Soviet era where capitalist liberalism is supposed to have triumphed for once and for all, and where bourgeois economists and politicians routinely label Marxism as obscure and antiquated, Liedman is able to show that the contradictions of capitalism identified by Marx are as present as ever. The working class – those that rely on selling their labour power in order to survive – continues to grow; exploitation and poverty are rampant; crises are acute. Marx didn’t prescribe the dimensions of a new society, but he concluded that the liberation of humanity would come through the liberation of the working class. Liedman demonstrates that this conclusion is still valid.

Another key point that Liedman emphasises is that Marx didn’t really set out to build ‘Marxism’; he delved into numerous areas of knowledge and developed several important theses, but he “never arrived at any summation of his work, much less any system.” The -ism was added to Marx by his followers after his death. This insight is helpful as a warning against dogma; as a reminder that Marx’s work was not ‘complete’ and that socialism is not a closed book but a living science in need of constant development.

However, Liedman’s objections to ‘system-building’ come across as being rooted in a rather stuffy academic perspective that has limited interest in the practical, real-world application of Marx’s analysis. After Engels and Kautsky, Lenin is the chief culprit in terms of turning Marx into Marxism and elaborating a clear ideological system. Was he wrong to do so? Lenin’s Marxism incorporated Marx’s most important formulations and synthesised and simplified them such that they could form a firm ideological basis for a mass political party capable of establishing working class power and building a new social order. That is to say, Lenin – and other great Marxists after him – took Marx’s ideas and method and leveraged them towards a programme of political action. The alternative was humble acceptance of a vicious imperialist status quo.

Consistent with his disdain for systematising Marx, Liedman has no time at all for the socialist experiments in the Soviet Union, China or Cuba (Vietnam, Laos, Korea, Grenada and elsewhere don’t get a mention). The USSR from the 1920s onwards “had no connection with Karl Marx”. Cuba showed some early promise but “gradually became more and more like other Soviet-supported regimes, with food shortages and political dissidents in prison”. No words about extraordinary social welfare, highly educated people or beautiful internationalism. Marx analysed the two-month Paris Commune in great detail, drawing lessons from it that he incorporated into his overall political understanding. Would he really have dismissed workers’ states that had to make compromises in order to defend themselves from old ruling classes and relentless external pressure?

Modern China is dismissed by Liedman as “the most expansive capitalist economy of the twenty-first century”, a “more than sixty year dictatorship” with a “neoliberal economic policy.” For Marx, apparently, “it would have been inconceivable that a country that quotes him would drive capitalism to its utmost extremes”. It’s generally best not to project one’s opinions onto the deceased Marx, but it’s not so difficult to imagine him being cheered and astounded by the emergence of China – a country that during his lifetime endured the most awful poverty and colonial humiliation – as an advanced industrial power at the cutting edge of science and technology, with an enormous working class and a standard of living approaching that of Western Europe.

Defects notwithstanding, Liedman’s book is a thorough, well-researched and valuable contribution to the literature on Marx’s thought. It will also inspire readers to go direct to the source and study Marx for themselves.