Eastern Europe does not fit into the historical role of the periphery as understood by Amin
If one had to epitomise what Samir Amin left to us, it would arguably be the globalisation of the theory concerning the struggle of the oppressed. Amin’s activism for the globalisation of the anti-imperialist resistance and the struggle for an alternative society dates back to 1973, the year in which he founded the Third World Forum. His theoretical work on the globalisation of Marx’s theory of capitalism began even earlier, in 1970, with his first book, entitled The origins of underdevelopment – capitalist accumulation on a world scale. Many other works followed, including an elaboration of his theories concerning the family of tributary formations. The introduction and description of these tributary social formations have not only further developed the Marxian typology of society, but have also helped overcome the Eurocentric view that prevails even amongst Marxist scholars.
Since Samir Amin’s death, a multitude of tributes have been published. Complementing those, this article approaches Amin’s theories from the perspective of a geographical region that was not Amin’s primary focus. This region is Eastern Europe. Amin’s view of Eastern Europe goes unmentioned even in those studies that offer the most comprehensive picture of his work (e.g. Kvangraven 2019). I use the term Eastern Europe as Amin used it, referring to the seven smaller European countries of the former Eastern bloc led by the Soviet Union. I will examine, first, what Amin thought about Eastern Europe in general, then what relevance his theories about the centrality of periphery, the long transition, and the role of nationalism and Eurocentrism have had in the region. By discussing these issues, I aim to present the global relevance of the ideas of the great African thinker and underpin his concept of the revolutionary potential of the global South, including the African periphery.
Amin on Eastern Europe
Although the developing countries, or the Third World, stood in the spotlight of Amin’s mind, he understood well that the problems of the South (the periphery), the North (the centre) and the East (the Soviet bloc) were deeply interrelated. The East presented the dilemma of the socialist transition, which was connected to the problem of delinking (cutting the exploitative links with the global capital and submitting the external relations to domestic needs: Amin 1985), the precondition for an alternative, independent development of the Third World. Therefore, Amin monitored the development of Eastern Europe and evaluated it within the framework of the transformation of the world system.
After the Second World War, 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 subsequent decades he returned there only rarely. As he admitted, between 1948 and 1956 he held ‘perfectly Stalinist positions’, but later he became more critical towards the Eastern European states. He characterised them as ‘capitalism without capitalists’ (Amin 1998) and analysed them in relation to his concept of the long transition (Amin 2016). His view about the region was influenced by Mao’s critique and the vision of certain African and Asian communist thinkers (Amin 2006a).
According to Amin, Eastern Europe was originally ‘a buffer zone’ for the Soviet Union. Later Moscow attempted to establish pro-Soviet regimes there but its effort ‘came up against various difficulties that it never really overcame’, and ‘[t]he Hungarian uprising in 1956 demonstrated how weak the system remained’ (Amin 2006a, 47).
Amin identified the systemic change of 1989 in Eastern Europe as a ‘re-compradorisation’ of the region that modified the structure of the capitalist world order. The so-called ‘Second World’ (the Soviet or ‘socialist’ bloc) disappeared, and its countries fell back within the global hierarchy. By then, these countries had ‘achieved sufficient modernisation in terms of global competitiveness’ and had become part of what Amin called ‘the new Third World’, together with East Asia (China, the two Koreas, Taiwan) and the larger states of Latin America (Amin 2006a, 179). At the same time, the less advanced countries of Asia and Africa had fallen to the position of the ‘fourth world’ (Amin 1990, 69).
Amin’s critical stance towards Eastern Europe was of a left-wing nature and by no means aimed at the dissolution of these experimental social systems and their alliance. Moreover, he detected the reactionary tendencies within the region in advance of the collapse:
socialism is itself in crisis in the countries of the East, and the Third World countries who look to them for aspiration, and the socialist countries themselves are obliged to yield to a harrowing revisionism and are seeking reintegration in the expansion of a world economy. (Amin 1990, 1)Elsewhere he warned:
it would probably be foolish and dangerous to set the aim of ‘detaching’ Eastern Europe from the Soviet alliance. Unfortunately, this is the sinking of too many politicians of Western Europe, of left and right, sharing the same ‘anti-Soviet’ or ‘Russophobic’ position. The dangerous aspiration may find an echo here and there in Eastern Europe, with a fatal attraction by virtue of Europeanness to a West that must be described as capitalist. The aspiration does not serve the socialist forces and tendencies within these national and popular societies, but rather the capitalist and reactionary forces that operate there. The slide towards anti-Russian nationalism – notwithstanding the justifications that the ‘big brother’ provides – as it occurs in Poland, is a reminder of the limitation of this ‘revolt’ that, despite its worker element in some regards, is also fed on religious fundamentalism. (Amin 1990, 227)On the one hand, the problems of the Eastern European transition have mostly derived from the region’s (semi-)peripheral position within the world system. On the other hand, this same (semi-)peripheral position was the very reason for the success of the proletarian revolution of Russia.
The centrality of the periphery in the historical progression
For Amin, the Eastern European socialist experiment was one example of the revolutionary capabilities of the periphery, but it ultimately failed, because its model was not consistently anti-capitalist. The first proletarian revolution that succeeded in overcoming the counterattack of the capitalist class and fracturing the hegemony of global capitalism took place in semi-feudal Russia, which was – in Lenin’s words – ‘the weakest link’ in the chain of imperialism in 1917. Amin called this Russia a ‘backward self-centered center’ (Amin 2016, 17–18) but also a ‘semi-periphery’ (Amin 2003). After the Second World War, further revolutionary changes took place in even less developed countries, like China. However, the developmental paths were not the same.
Eastern Europe followed the Soviet or ‘Bolshevik’ route, which, according to Amin, was better suited to more advanced economies like East Germany. In the second half of the 1980s ‘the rhythms of growth’ died down, which led to the collapse of the Eastern European socialist systems. By contrast, China followed the road better suited to an economically backward nation; it solved the ‘peasant problem’ without violence, avoided terror in its approach to politics, and tenaciously pursued relative income equality. China also maintained a high rate of long-term growth (Amin 1992, 35).
Amin thought that Maoist China was on the right track, while ‘Bolshevik’ Eastern Europe had lost focus when, after reaching a relatively high level of development, it was gradually integrated into the capitalist world system. This was the consequence of the market-type reforms that were introduced in Eastern Europe, pioneered by Hungary in 1968, specifically ‘the re-establishment of the market mechanisms and the ideology that goes with this: economism’ (Amin 1976, 344, emphasis added). Until Deng Xiaoping’s very similar reforms in 1979, China withstood the temptation of ‘adapting production relations to the spontaneous development of the productive forces’ (Amin 1976, 378). The successes during the Mao era and the more cautious and gradual marketisation of the economy explain why China’s embrace of globalised capitalism after 1979 increased the population’s standard of living, and avoided the collapse and destruction that befell Eastern Europe (Amin 2006b).
History teaches us that basic social transformations have always started from the peripheries of declining systems. The present world order led by the imperialist triad (the USA, the European Union and Japan) has been in a protracted structural crisis for decades. These and the experiments of Eastern Europe and China convinced Amin that the periphery played a central role in the historical struggle to overcome capitalism.
Since the socialist revolution did not take place at that time at the centre, and since capitalism continued to develop and became monopolistic, the world conditions of the class struggle altered. This was clearly expressed by Lenin in a line that has now been taken over by Maoism, namely, that, ‘in the last analysis, the outcome of the struggle will be determined by the fact that Russia, India, China, etc., account for the overwhelming majority of the population of the globe.’ This meant that the central nucleus of the proletariat henceforth lay at the periphery and not at the centre. (Amin 1976, 360)However, this cannot erase the dilemma of ‘what to do’ after a revolution, wherever it happens.
The long transition
To change social structures takes time and relentless (class) struggle against the material and cultural reminiscences of the former regime. To misunderstand the nature and underestimate the difficulties of this transition period might lead to failure, as happened in Eastern Europe.
Based on the 1936 constitution of the Soviet Union, which declared that the Soviet Union had already reached the level of ‘socialism’, Eastern European countries accordingly called themselves ‘socialist countries’. Critical voices outside the official political circles used the expressions ‘state socialism’ or ‘state capitalism’, while, as mentioned above, Amin described these countries as ‘capitalism without capitalists’, referring to the power of the political class. To make things worse, the Western media, politicians and pro-capitalist scholars called the Eastern European regimes ‘communist’.
These confusing labels suggested that Eastern Europe belonged to one form of society (socialism) or the other (capitalism). Neither was true. The socio-economic system of Eastern Europe was transitional, in the Marxian sense: on the way from capitalism to socialism, bearing both individualistic-capitalist and communal-socialist features, as well as dictatorial and democratic elements. According to Marx (1875, Part I), the first phase of the communist society will emerge only ‘after prolonged birth pangs from capitalist society’. Based on this concept, Amin described how complicated the social relations of this transition are:
[T]he ‘post-capitalist’ period will be a very long historical phase marked by permanent conflict between free poles determining society’s internal trends, local capitalism (responding to the needs shown by the development of the forces of production), socialism (expressing the anti-capitalist aspirations of the mass of the people), and statism (produced by the autonomy of the authorities in the light of capitalist and socialist forces and expressing at the same time the aspirations of the new class in control of the state). (Amin 1990, 72)However, Amin went further. He extended the meaning of the long transition to the prolonged evolution of the world system. ‘The question that the Russians posed in 1917 is … a question that is now posed to the whole of humankind.’ The transition is a permanent fight and ‘the revolt of the peoples who are victims of this development, which is necessarily unequal, has to continue as long as capitalism exists.’ The emergence and the fall of the Soviet Union and the Soviet system in general is a part of the transformation of the world system. The world system, which is now predominantly capitalist, and characterised by ‘the internal conflict of all the societies in the system between the trends and forces of the reproduction of capitalistic relations and the (anti-systemic) trends and forces whose logic has other aspirations – those, precisely, that can be defined as socialism’ (Amin 2016, 17–19, emphasis added).
All this means that the heart of the long transition is the class struggle, which makes the transition bifurcate, with two possible outcomes: either a reversion back to capitalism or a progression forward to socialism. The political and theoretical leadership of Eastern Europe lost this focus when they gave up the fight against the capitalist-individualistic and market-oriented tendencies of their societies. This mistake serves as an important lesson for future revolutionary forces that may attempt to travel the treacherous path of transition.
Amin’s consequent anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist stance led him to extend the meaning of ‘transition’ to those social experiments, which had been rejected by the European ‘democratic’ or ‘humanistic’ socialists (as they call themselves), particularly after the systemic change in 1989. Amin admitted that China, Cuba and North Korea were ‘self-styled “Marxist” experiences, originating, like the Soviet experience, from a radical revolution inspired by the doctrines of the Third [Communist] International’ (Amin s.a.). Although Amin knew that these sporadic efforts were insufficient, and that a much broader alliance of people, a Fifth International, was needed to change the world, he continued to appreciate all forms of anti-imperialist effort for independence on the part of any nation.
Given that independence from the imperialist centre is a precondition for any progressive socio-economic change and real development on the periphery, Amin thought that nationalism could play a positive role in overcoming capitalism. This sounds paradoxical from an Eastern European perspective, since in this region nationalism has always been used to serve capitalist interests, as can be seen in the recent developments in Ukraine and in Belarus.
The role of nationalism and Eurocentrism
Amin several times cited Mao’s slogan: states want independence (i.e. the ruling classes try to improve their positions in the capitalist world system); nations want liberation (i.e. ‘historical blocs of potentially progressive classes’ fight for ‘development’ and ‘modernisation’); and the people want revolution (i.e. ‘the dominated and exploited popular classes aspire to socialism’) (Amin 2006b). He believed that any fight against the ‘generalised monopolies’ of global capitalism must begin with the recovery of national sovereignty (Amin 2012, 2013). Since he had taken part in the anti-imperialist movements of Africa and Asia, Amin was of the view from the very beginning that the national bourgeoisie could not lead the struggle for genuine national sovereignty: by the middle of the twentieth century the national bourgeoisie, everywhere in the world, had ‘thrown the national flag into the rubbish bin’ (Stalin’s phrase cited by Amin 2016, 74). The victory of the Chinese Revolution confirmed ‘that for the majority of the peoples of the planet the long road to socialism could only be opened by a “national, popular, democratic, anti-feudal and anti-imperialist revolution, run by the communists”’ – here Amin is also quoting Mao’s words. This sentiment was reflected in the communist-made proposals for the Bandung programme and that of the Non-Aligned Movement, which
focused on the essential need to reconquer control over the accumulation process (development that is auto-centred and delinked from the world economy). … Bandung did not originate in the heads of the nationalist leaders (Nehru and Sukarno particularly, rather less, Nasser) as is implied by contemporary writers. Bandung was the product of a radical left-wing critique that was at that time conducted within the communist parties. (Amin 2016, 74, 73)However, this progressive nationalism envisioned by Amin seems to be impossible to achieve in Eastern Europe, as I explain below.
Systemic causes of the difference between the nationalism of the periphery and that of the semi-periphery
To illuminate the different content of nationalism in different groups of countries in the global capitalist hierarchy, we must consider first the role of the peripheries in the global accumulation of capital. To make the explanation easier, two schemes will help us. Figure 1 illustrates the position of the groups of countries in the global hierarchy with the rising China. Figure 2 symbolises the flow of values and ideologies between the centre, the periphery and the semi-periphery.
Figure 1. Global hierarchy of capitalism. Abbreviations: CoC: the centre of the centre (‘the Core’); EU10: the 10 most developed countries of the European Union; PIIGS: Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece, Spain; CEE11: 11 Central and Eastern European member states of the European Union; BRICS: Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa; IC: internal centre – the elite; IP: internal periphery/semi-periphery – smaller capitals, wage labourers, the poor, etc.
Source: The author’s own construction.Display full size
Figure 2. Global cycles of accumulation – flows between the centre, the periphery and the semi-periphery.
Source: The author’s own construction.Display full size
The centre can drain national labour from all types of the periphery. The global periphery is witnessing exploitation from both the centre and the semi-periphery while having no possibility to exploit others – with the exception, of course, of its own labour class. By contrast, the semi-periphery is in a dual position: in relation to the centre, it functions as a periphery, while in relation to the periphery, it plays the role of a centre. Therefore, the semi-periphery is not only being exploited but is also itself exploiting other nations.
In this hierarchic world economy, the countries are strongly interdependent, but in an asymmetric way, similarly to the nature of the interdependence between the rulers and the working people in every class society. The nations and classes at the lower end of this asymmetric interdependency are, overall, more dependent than those at the higher end. Nationalism implies national independence, and the relative position of a nation on the scale of global asymmetric interdependency determines the degrees of this independence. This is why the nature of nationalism differs between different country groups.
Being on the tip of the global hierarchy, as the vanguards of economic development in the last couple of centuries, the centre nations are proud of their historic achievements (forgetting the price that other nations paid and are paying for it), so their nationalism is the expression of their pride and honour (Connelly 2020, 788). One form of this positive self-reflection of the centre is Eurocentrism, which forms part of the ideology of capitalism, and means, in fact, the supremacy of the European centre, i.e. Western Europe, without taking into consideration that its capitalism was hammered out with the weapons of racism, colonialism and genocide (Amin 2009).
On the exploited periphery, i.e. in the entire Third World, nationalism tends to have a fundamentally anti-imperialist character inasmuch as it strives for political and economic independence, i.e. independence from the exploitative mechanisms of the generalised monopolies of global capitalism. This delinking, Amin stressed, is the first step on the road to a people-friendly indigenous development. The nationalism of the periphery is inevitably anti-imperialist and promulgates delinking; for this, it could play a historically progressive role in the long process of overcoming capitalism.
The semi-periphery holds a middle and insecure position, caught between the two extremes. To accelerate their indigenous development by adjusting it to domestic needs, the countries of the semi-periphery cannot give up all of their exploitative international relations. They need delinking only in relation to the centre, not from the periphery. This is because the periphery feeds the development of the semi-periphery, directly or indirectly, i.e. also through feeding the centre, which might provide some benefits to the semi-periphery. Both the ruling and the middle classes of the semi-periphery enjoy the fruits of exploitation of the global periphery. Therefore, to defend their status, the self-reflection and nationalism of the semi-peripheral countries have always been spiced with a bit of hate, racism and xenophobia – the ideologies that have paved the way for the coloniser (mostly European) nations up to the position of a global centre. This applies notably to the integrated (semi-) periphery (Artner 2018), e.g. the Eastern European member states of the European Union, which are net receivers of the structural funds of the EU and define their national identity within the framework of Eurocentrism. This will be discussed next.
Specificities of Eastern Europe
The historical and geopolitical specificities of the Eastern European countries predispose them to evolve regressive forms of nationalism.
Because of its geographical location, Eastern Europe has gained key geopolitical importance in history as a territory of the rivalry of empires. For this reason, at the beginning of the twentieth century, Mackinder concluded that whoever rules Eastern Europe ultimately commands the whole world (Mackinder  1942, 106). Eastern Europe has become a cultural, social and military buffer zone between ‘two worlds’: on one hand they have the rapidly developing and ‘open’ West, which has expanded its reign over the rest of the world, and, on other hand, they have the massive, slower-moving East which still wields great power and has proved untenable to lasting occupation by foreign nations. (The Hungarian poet Endre Ady employed the symbol of a ferryboat to depict the uncertainty of this situation: Hungary as a ferryboat on a river floating endlessly between the two banks, East and West).
Due to its historical role as a buffer zone, the formation of independent nation states has been delayed in Eastern Europe. The countries of the region have been dominated by various large empires (Roman, Mongol, Ottoman, Habsburg, German, Russian) over the many eras of their history, while the mostly peasant population has tried to survive by cultivating the land and preserving the traditions. It can be said that feudalism has prevailed for too long here, leaving an insecure populace: the frequently changing ruling classes and international relations have resulted in a fear of annihilation and an inward-looking mentality. Connelly (2020, 788) claims that the Eastern European nationalisms are fed by the ‘fear of disappearance from history’, which is in sharp contradiction to the pride that characterises the nationalisms of the centre.
The perpetual insecurity and the continuous need to fight for survival have proven to be useful tools by which the ruling elites control the people: the class-based social conflicts can be masked, and the autocratic governance can be justified by narratives about an imaginary, heroic, national fight against a real or fabricated common enemy.
Although in the transition-to-socialism period (from after the Second World War until 1989) nationalism was discouraged in most Eastern European countries, it did not disappear. Most of the local intelligentsia had been influenced by nationalism, the concept of liberal (social-) democracy or narodnicism (agrarian socialism with nationalistic and liberal features), or some combination of these. Hence, they were very critical towards the Soviet system and felt more sympathy towards the West, which they accepted as superior to the East and to which they desired to belong. ‘The fall of socialism was decided as soon as the ruling socialist elite throughout Eastern Europe fell back on Eurocentrism, “normalization” and the idea of “peaceful coexistence” during the 1960s’, concludes Attila Melegh in his book about the ‘East–West slope’, defined by him as the essence of the narratives that are ‘based on the idea of gradually diminishing civilization toward the “East”’. Melegh considers that this view helped to destroy socialism, and claims that without this discourse ‘there would not have been a rapid and “consensual” burial of socialism and reintegration of centrally planned socialist economies and societies into a hierarchically organized world economy. Evidence of the discursive effect of the East–West slope in the fall of socialism can be found at both a political and a structural level’ (Melegh 2006, 2, 189–190).
The concept of the West ‘as a positive moral entity’ has been deeply ingrained in the intellectual history of Eastern Europe. It is symbolic that in Hungary ‘the most important literary journal of the twentieth century – published from 1908 to 1941 – was called Nyugat (“West”)’ (Böröcz 2006, 118). Böröcz, rightly, extends the notion of Eurocentrism to include the whole global centre with his use of the word ‘Whiteness’, which
has nothing to do with skin pigmentation per se. It has to do with an insistence on global privileges and the linking of such claims to a west European moral-geopolitical identity and a putatively higher political, ideational and moral value system. (Böröcz 2020)Accepting this viewpoint, Eastern Europeans cannot see ‘our collective histories of suffering as part of the history of global capitalism’ (Böröcz 2020).
Therefore, Eurocentrism or Whiteness, accommodating also Russophobia and anti-communism, provides a framework for Eastern European nationalism. During the systemic change at the end of the 1980s and into the 1990s, this Eurocentric nationalism was intensified and used for the benefit of the centre capital. The awakened nationalisms helped to divide the region further into an even greater number of small states through the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia. Amin realised early on, as already cited, that ‘the slide towards anti-Russian nationalism’ was accompanied by ‘a fatal attraction’ to the ‘European’ and capitalist West, and inevitably led to the ‘re-compradorisation’ of Eastern Europe. The fate of most Eastern European nationalisms is open fascism, and it often is the ‘liberal democratic’ governments who make the bed for this. They do this not only through their inequality-increasing policies but also by strongly beating the anti-communist tam-tam and gradually rehabilitating political and cultural supporters of the pre-World War II nationalist-fascist regimes.
The critical voices of some Eastern European governments (e.g. in Poland or in Hungary) towards the European Union also remain within the framework of Eurocentrism. Their criticism is a part of the fear-based nationalist narrative that rejects anything and anyone that/who allegedly threatens the subsistence of their Europeanness. The Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orbán, frequently criticises the institutions of the European Union, whenever those threaten to limit his political power, but has several times declared that Hungary is European and Christian, and the future of Europe is building in Eastern Europe (Orbán 2017; Veres and Borsodi 2020). We must also remember that the Eastern European member states (and particularly their elites) enjoy net financing from the EU of up to 2.5–3% of their gross domestic product, and that in 2019 Hungary was the second biggest net receiver.
As long as the national bourgeoisies and the upper middle class of the Eastern European integrated periphery benefit from the EU budget and the connections with the European (mostly German) transnational capital, they will not claim national sovereignty or undertake delinking, as that would mean leaving the Union. Neither do the left-wing political forces find this option fruitful; instead, they tirelessly rely on the feasibility of a social democratic-type reform of the European centre of global capitalism, i.e. the European Union.
Eastern Europe does not fit into the historical role of the periphery as understood by Amin. The Eurocentric nationalism of the region serves global capitalism instead of the anti-capitalist fight. These features played an important role in the failure of the long transition to socialism and the subsequent integration of the Eastern European countries into the European centre. As a result, today, Eastern Europe seems unable to make a progressive social turn that would go beyond capitalism.
Samir Amin was a radical anti-imperialist fighter on behalf of the less developed, peripheral countries, while Eastern Europe has always been between two worlds. The regional elites are dependent on the elites of the West and identify themselves as belonging culturally to Western Europe, a part of the global centre. From Marx we know that the ideas of the ruling class are the ruling ideas in the society. For this, it is not surprising that for the majority of Eastern European people, Western Europe has usually been the symbol of development, while the East (Russia) and the South (beginning with the Balkans) have usually been associated with underdevelopment and treated as inferior. In Eastern Europe, Russophobia is the twin of Eurocentrism.
Furthermore, in Eastern Europe, the social reforms have usually come from above or from outside, and the revolutions have usually been weak. The opportunity to transcend capitalism arrived from the direction (the East) usually identified with underdevelopment. This identification had a negative effect on the popularity of revolutionary thinking before as well as after the 1989 systemic change in the historically Russophobic region. Never having been colonised like most of the Third World, Eastern Europe became hostage to Eurocentrism – inclined to white supremacy and racism, with its nationalisms tending to culminate in fascism. In so doing, it rejected opportunities to explore alternative ways to move from capitalism to a socialism different to the ‘democratic–European’ model.
The nations of the periphery are the most immediate victims of the historical capitalist exploitation. So, if there is still hope for the transition from capitalism to socialism, Amin rightly predicted, the forces of change must emerge from the global South.
I am grateful to the blinded peer reviewers for their thorough criticisms and suggestions and to Jörg Wiegratz and Clare Smedley for their dedicated work that helped to improve this paper.
No potential conflict of interest was reported by the author.Note on contributor
Annamária Artner is a political economist, a senior research fellow at the Institute of World Economics of the Centre for Economic and Regional Studies (ELKH), and a college professor at Milton Friedman University, Budapest. Her main research interests are labour markets, the world system, global capital accumulation and crises.Previous articleView latest articlesNext article
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