In this blogpost, Annamaria Artner examines how Samir Amin was read, studied, and understood in pre-1989 Eastern Europe. She argues that Amin understood that the transition of the world system from capitalism to socialism, what he referred to as a long transition, would make use of the historical experiment of the USSR-led Eastern Europe.
By Annamaria Artner
After the Second World War, the young Amin visited Eastern Europe several times, but he was somewhat disappointed due to his experiences in Yugoslavia and Hungary in 1948-49, and in the following decades he returned there only rarely. Despite this, his intellectual works became part of the curriculum in universities in the region relatively early in his academic life. A young assistant professor, Tamás Szentes, at the Karl Marx University of Economic Science, in the Hungarian capital, Budapest, was invited to teach at the University of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, in 1967. There he happened to meet the most prominent intellectuals of the time, who dealt with the problems of development and underdevelopment. Among others, Szentes became friends with Samir Amin. Returning home to Hungary at the beginning of the 1970s, Szentes began to teach his newly acquired knowledge.
The other part of this story began in 1973, when an economic historian, Iván Tibor Berend , was nominated to be the rector of the same university. Due to his field of study, he read Wallerstein’s book The Modern World System (New York, 1974), and began to teach world systems to his students, as did Szentes. As a result, the world system theory, elaborated by the ‘Gang of Four’, as Amin called it (Amin, Giovanni Arrighi, Andre Gunder Frank, and Immanuel Wallerstein), began to awaken the interests of many students.
It was from here that the third element of the story comes into play. Two of the professors’ students, Ferenc Miszlivetz and László Béládi were both highly talented and thirsty for knowledge, so Szentes began to work with them intensively. From this collaboration the idea of publishing new, supplementary teaching material for student, which would contain the texts of the relevant authors, was born. This ‘semi samizdat’ series of readings entitled ‘Development Studies’ (Fejlődéstanulmányok) that was initially based on the voluntary work (translation, editing) of these two students, helped by others, saw these ‘readings’ grow to ten volumes by 1989. These volumes contained several pieces of international literature, from authors such as Arrighi, Gunder Frank and Wallerstein and included six texts from Amin. The latter were extracts from his books such as Accumulation on a World scale, Unequal Development, Class and Nation, Historically and in the Current Crisis, and one of his articles about the ‘New International Economic Order.’
This text-book series was unique in Eastern Europe and would not have been compiled without ‘the exceptionally good intellectual atmosphere in Dar,’ which so inspired Szentes and provided him with knowledge and contacts. In this way, students came in contact with the thoughts of Samir Amin – although for the most part, they did not apply them in their subsequent careers as economists.
After the Eastern European transitions in 1989, Amin was ‘re-discovered’ by the radical movements of Eastern Europe (e.g. the Russian alter-globalist network called Alternatives, and the Social Forum organizations in several countries of the region). Among the languages of the region, Amin’s books have been most frequently translated into Russian. This fact, of course, is not unrelated to his deep interest in the history of the country. As Aleksandr Buzgalin explained, Amin ‘truly loved Russia and the Soviet Union. … For him, the main event in history was undoubtedly the October Revolution, and the departure of the USSR from the historical arena was the greatest tragedy of our time’.
His shorter works have been translated occasionally into other languages in the region, mostly Hungarian, thanks to the above-mentioned Development Studies course and, after the changes in 1989, in the Marxist journal Eszmélet (Consciousness). Amin’s theories are also taught sporadically at universities and doctoral schools at the discretion of some critically thinking teachers.
Discovering Amin’s influence
I interviewed a few of the researchers and university professors who are known for their radically critical stance towards capitalism, to find out how Amin’s thoughts had affected them and what they thought of his influence in Eastern Europe. Below I will shortly outline their opinions and juxtapose that with Amin’s own words.
To this end, I spoke to Attila Melegh, a Hungarian historian and sociologist and director of the Karl Polanyi Research Center for Global Social Studies, who mentioned Amin’s book Eurocentrism (first published in 1988) that he appreciated the most. ‘This was an important Marxist analysis amongst the nonsense’ written by others, he said. Amin’s definition of Eurocentrism as the ‘ideological framework of capitalism’ forms one of the main theoretical pillars of Melegh’s book about the ‘East-West slope’. In this book Melegh applied the post-colonial analytical framework presented by Amin to Eastern European developments to explain how and why Eastern Europe has been destined to play an inferior role vis-á-vis Western Europe after the systemic change in 1989. He also argued, referring to Amin, that ‘one of the most important functions of the East–West slope is the recreation and maintenance of racism and other forms of exclusion inherent in hierarchical Eurocentric constructions’ (Melegh, 2006: 195-196).
The hungarian historian, Tamás Krausz, expert on Eastern European history and Leninism, and editor in chief of the journal Eszmélet, highlighted that Amin, through his works and personal contacts within the framework of the World Social Forum, was able to bring the Eastern European left into the global field of the revolutionary fight. On the other hand, he pointed out that Amin could learn from the critical analysis of ‘state socialism’. His criticism towards the pre-1989 Eastern European systems weakened over time. To illustrate this thesis, Krausz evoked his own experience from 2017, when, in a conference on the 1917 revolution held in Moscow, Amin’s task was to present and evaluate Stalin’s views and his role in the October Revolution. According to Krausz, Amin accomplished this ‘with a great strength of conviction’.
The Russian political economics professor, Buzgalin, who is also the coordinator of the above-mentioned alter-globalist network ‘Alternatives’, depicted this same event in his memorial article in 2020: ‘Amin presented Stalin as a person who simultaneously strives for socialism and commits crimes, as a symbol of victory in the Great Patriotic War (a victory that echoed the movement of the masses towards socialism throughout the world, including Africa, which was witnessed by young Amin himself), and the common name of the bureaucratic dictatorship’.
Péter Szigeti, a professor of law and philosophy, also underlined that Amin’s analysis had become more sophisticated over time. According to him, for a long period, Amin, like Trotsky, looked at the Eastern-European experiment as a bureaucratic, unliveable, and dictatorial formation, probably an appendix or even a subsystem of capitalism. Szigeti maintained that this was the case because the circles of the new left had become convinced – particularly in the 1980s, when there had already been many obvious problems in Eastern Europe – that there was only one single world order. Later, Amin’s critique became more refined and accepting of Eastern Europe and, particularly, the Chinese development from Mao to Deng. Amin always carried out important analyses of international production and exploitation and he became politically an increasingly sober analyst, while simultaneously illuminating the contradictions of the existing Eastern European transitory social systems. In the meetings of the World Social Forum he spoke in this spirit either at mass gatherings or in narrower circles, Szigeti recalls.
Indeed, Amin offered a self-criticism on how he had evaluated the Soviet system. He admitted that earlier he thought it was a ‘stable and advanced form of what the normal tendency of capital should engender elsewhere, by the very act of centralization of capital, leading from private monopoly to state monopoly’. However, later he realized that he was wrong, and the Soviet system could not be described as one form of capitalism where the party-bureaucracy is the ‘new ruling class’. The Soviet model was swept away by the worldwide attack of neoliberal capitalism. Amin concluded, ‘Never mind that the Soviet model was incapable of becoming a definite alternative to be gradually copied by others. Events have shown that it was not. This may reflect only its own weaknesses. It does not mean that in other parts of the developed world, once the recent wave of liberal utopia is over, evolution may not follow a path mapped out by the old USSR. An assessment is needed of the Soviet cycle now that it is completed. It is not positive overall, or negative. The USSR, and subsequently China and even the countries of Eastern Europe, built modern autocentric economies such as no country of peripheral capitalism has succeeded in doing’ (Amin 2017:18).
This implies that over time, Amin had begun to see Stalin in a more positive light, than before the historical failure of the socialist experiment. Although he abandoned his ‘perfectly Stalinist position’ (by his words) after 1956, he never become a true ‘anti-Stalinist’. He always criticized Stalin from the position of the left, like Mao, not from the right, like Khrushchev and the neoliberal narrative. ‘Collectivization as implemented by Stalin after 1930 broke the worker-peasant alliance of 1917 and, by reinforcing the state’s autocratic apparatus, opened the way to the formation of a “new class”: the Soviet state bourgeoisie’. Amin added that Lenin’s economism ‘had unwittingly prepared the groundwork for this fatal choice’ of Stalin (Amin 2017:15-16). It must be emphasised, however, that in the given historical circumstances neither Lenin’s, nor Stalin’s steps were ‘ungrounded’. First, without industrialization the peasantry could not have been lifted from its misery, and secondly, after 1930 fascism was on the rise in Europe, as well the possibility of a terrible war was growing. Amin himself admitted this, saying that Stalin’s choice of rapid industrialization and armament at the beginning of the 1930s ‘was not without some connection to the rise of fascism’ (Amin 2017:10).
Furthermore, Amin thoroughly discussed and defended Stalin’s economic policy and centralized Soviet planning, and criticized Trotsky’s activity in exile as well as ‘the so called “de-Stalinization”’ initiated by Khrushchev in 1956.’ He argued against ‘the primary anti-Stalinist blunders à la mode, which are tirelessly repeated by the Western media and which have unfortunately been accepted by the heirs of euro-communism’ (Amin 2017:31). Additionally, in an interview just before his death, Amin ranked the task of ‘building a modern, integrated industrial system that is centred on internal popular demand’ as first among the basic issues of an authentic, non-neoliberal development policy that aims to benefit all people.
Moral firmness and anti-imperialism
Not surprisingly, Amin’s theoretical and moral firmness and radical anti-imperialism have not been welcomed without reservation by everyone on the left in Eastern Europe. For example, one of the most internationally well-known left-wing Hungarian theoreticians, Gáspár Miklós Tamás, entirely rejects Amin’s attitude. Tamás writes about those who hold an ‘anti-western and anti-modern interpretation of anti-imperialism and anti-colonialism, which is naturally accompanied by the opportunistic celebration of “left-wing” terror-regimes of the Third World – as in Samir Amin’s influential and extraordinarily harmful works’.
This rejection of Amin derives, partly, from the ‘integrated periphery’ position of Eastern Europe. Radicalism is usually fed by the feeling of intense material, legal or intellectual oppression, and only few Eastern Europeans have ever truly experienced these things. For historical and geographical reasons, ideological ‘twins’ have been controlling Eastern European movements and parties from the left-liberals to the anarchists. We find, on one hand, the Eurocentrism or the feeling of ‘Europeanness’ (Amin 1990) and, on the other hand, the uncritical acceptance of the superiority of so-called ‘human rights’ and liberal democracy irrespective of their highly apologetic content and limited application in capitalism. These two biases of thinking have prevented left-wing political movements and thinkers from accepting the difficulties and painful burdens of any real class struggle. The conviction that society is fine as long as it is handled in an idealized ‘European’ and ‘democratic’ way where nobody’s interests are compromised, has worked against the success of a transition from capitalism to socialism in the past and works against it even now.
As a consequence, a hard-leftist intellectual may prefer or even praise revolutions and revolutionaries in general, but rush to distance themselves from any flesh-and-blood revolutionaries in actual historic moment. The methodological foundation of this ‘arm-chair’ left-wing thinking is an abstract or even sterile approach towards history. It positions itself above history and evaluates and condemns the real-life revolutionaries who are far from the ‘radicals’ created in the minds of certain philosophers. This way of thinking was not unfamiliar to Samir Amin. He criticized it in connection with the Trotskyist ‘myth of the world revolution’, which would be led by the working class of capitalist countries: ‘This discourse could be convenient for certain academic Marxists who could afford the luxury of proclaiming their attachment to principles without worrying about being effective in transforming reality’ (Amin 2017: 29).
However, what did Amin see as a positive, possible way forward for socialism in Eastern Europe? Amin did not offer a concrete answer to this question, but, as mentioned above, he did not exclude the possibility that sometime and somewhere in the future social evolution may follow the path of the Soviet system. He understood that the change of the world system from capitalism to socialism could only be what he referred to as a long transition, of which the historical experiment of the USSR-led Eastern Europe formed a part.
Annamaria Artner is a Senior Research Fellow at the Eötvös Loránd Research Network, Centre for Economic and Regional Studies, Institute of World Economics, and professor at Milton Friedman University, Budapest, Hungary.
Amin, Samir 1990. Maldevelopment: Anatomy of a Global Failure. London, Zed Books Ltd.
Amin, Samir 2017. October 1917 Revolution, a century later. Dataja Press.
Melegh, Attila 2006. On the East–West slope. Globalization, nationalism, racism and discourses on Eastern Europe. CEU Press, Budapest – New York.