Samir Amin and the Socialist Vision for the 21st century – A detailed interview
Many thanks to comrade Roshan Kissoon for conducting this interview and asking Sons of Malcolm to publish it in full for the first time. Samir Amin is one of the leading anti-imperialist theoreticians of our struggle for many decades now and his work and analysis is important reading for anyone serious about understanding the nitty-gritty of our on-going liberation struggles.
- Sukant Chandan, Sons of Malcom
Can you tell us about yourself briefly and your views on Marxism?
I qualify myself as an activist, maybe an intellectual activist. My whole active life was deeply connected with the liberation movements in Africa during the late 40’s, 50’s and 60’s and the after; that is roughly I could say the Bandung period, starting from 1955. That struggle has changed more than any other struggle, possibly, in the last 50 years.
I was and I am an economist and therefore also a Marxist. And, I don’t recognize the qualification of neo-Marxist. I consider a Marxist as starting from Marx but not stopping at Marx. That is considering that Marx thought, laid the foundations for understanding how to analyse and how to change the world. And in that the long history, as of Marx I consider that of course Lenin and especially Mao wrote and made fundamental contributions for understanding how to change the world, taking into account the fact that imperialism has divided the world into centres and peripheries. And, created the polarization at a global level and deepened it from one period to the other. And the question of the long transition to socialism had to be dealt with in a very different way from the Eurocentric, workers vision; the traditional vision of the 3rd international.
That is about myself; I’m currently the chair for the World Forum for Alternatives. Which is a network bringing together thinkers of the world from all regions of the world, north and south, whose qualifications are to be anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist, of course, but anti-capitalist more than that, however, in a non-sectarian way. i.e. admitting variety of visions of what are the efficient strategies of moving ahead beyond capitalism.
In your book “The Future of Maoism” you exchange polemics with Indian Marxist V. Nandy on Marxism. Tell us something about this:
You see, the main challenge which has been probably to raise the things overlooked in what I call historical Marxism i.e. Marxism as understood by Marx. The main weakness of that historical Marxism is that it has not ever considered the consequences of the very fact that capitalism in its global expansion from the very start, because capitalism from the beginning tended to be a global system, has created the polarization of the dominant centres and dominated periphery. And that, from periods, of course, the imperialist reality has itself changed from period to period in the sense that the way it used to be defined, it has operated, has changed from place to place. That the fact is, that polarization has continuously been created, recreated and deepened from one period to another. That fundamental fact was overlooked. I think that Marx, because he was really an exceptional person, had a feeling of that reality; however, not much more than that.
Lenin started taking into account this reality, at least partly. One; by qualifying the system as becoming imperialistic, as if it had not been imperialistic before. And, one would not understand how the Americas were conquered without the vision of the imperialist expansion characteristic of the capitalist expansion. How India was colonized long before the modern monopolies of the end of the 19th century. But he had also started understanding that the polarization meant a strategy for the socialist revolution in a global level different from the one which he had inherited from the historical Marxism before him.
Now, the 2nd international was terribly Eurocentric and based on exclusively the working classes, without considering the peasantry. Because, indeed, in the case of Western Europe, at least, the capitalist development had solved the agrarian question in its way. But they projected that in to the future for the others, imagining that the path that Europe has gone through will be the path laid to the other regions of the world. And, therefore, they have this Eurocentric vision, the 2nd international, which associated with pro-imperialism. We can call it social imperialism or social colonialism. Because, they considered that colonization and imperialism was bringing in ingredients for change and progress; and for peripheries catching up to becoming like centres and putting the question of the socialist revolution later in the agenda.
Lenin started understanding that this was not the case and that he was expecting a lot from the working class of the west, particularly from Germany. That the Russian revolution has started in the weak link, as he says which was in the periphery. Russia was at that time in the periphery, it was a non-industrialized country, only starting industrialization, with a vast majority of peasants, still. And he understood the fact that, he was in a way disappointed by the fact that, the (Russian) revolution was not followed by a German revolution. However, he drew the conclusion from that the revolution in now moving to the east. Remember Baku, it’s a turning point. And it’s an alliance between the workers from the Russian revolution and the peasants of the east, which will bring the 2nd wave of the revolution. And that is what actually occurred i.e. revolution moved in to the east to China, later to Vietnam, to Cuba etc. It moved to the east. And as a result of the polarization, the revolution in the east could not be a socialist revolution led by the working class. That was a revolution of a national, popular, democratic block lead by the working class and the majority of peasants and less than poor peasants with the support of strata of middle classes, the revolutionary intelligentsia and possibly with some neutralization of some segments of bourgeois or capitalist class.
Mao was not only the first to do it but also analyse it, which was his specific contribution to Marxism, to living Marxism. And we are still confronted with the same challenge today in all of the rest of the south i.e. Asia, Africa, Latin America. These are societies which are, as a result of imperialist expansion, maintained in a state of peripheral capitalism with a majority of peasants. And, therefore, the revolution, which is on the agenda, will not be effective if it does not enrol the majority of those peasants in alliance with popular classes, working classes, more or less developed according to the country and with revolutionary intelligentsia and so on. That is the Maoist strategy remains the only necessary strategy, for moving ahead on the road to socialism. That is what the Indian Communists have not understood and that is what the Nepal Communists have understood. That is the Indian communists, and not only the Indian Communists, but I would say similarly the Arab Communists, similarly the Communists from South Africa, from Latin America as of the 50’s abandoned the Leninist-Maoist vision and strategy of revolution based on a strong peasant revolution, revolt; abandoned it to the benefit of supporting the national bourgeoisie, anti-imperialist block which came out of the Bandung, i.e. the type of Nehru in India, of Nasser in Egypt etc. And, abandoning that, they became the left wing of the national bourgeoisie movement defending the interests of the working classes, but not more than that, and abandoning completely the strategy of mobilizing poor peasants and starting the revolution from that end. That was corrected partly in India with the Marxist-Leninist, and some of Maoists are participating in the peasant, Italianate movements.
However, for variety of reasons that we can’t analyse in one or two sentences, I wouldn’t say that they have failed but they have not succeeded. They have not failed in the sense that the ingredient is there, the problem is there, and peasantry is there in many cases. Nevertheless, they have not succeeded in the sense that they haven’t been able to mobilize those movements to have them spreading throughout the Indian sub-continent and to establishing the links with the victims of the capitalist expansion, to working classes, to lower strata of middle classes and so on. While the Nepalese have, at least, succeeded at the first chapter of basing their struggle in peasant revolt and then making, becoming, a force able to overthrow the regime, the King and his comprador servants; and then coming in to negotiation, agreement, with other possible partners in the building of a national, popular, democratic, hegemonic alternative block; alternative to the comprador ruling class submitting to imperialism and neo-liberalism. Now that means also another point should be added.
Can you explain the Communist vision for the 21st century?
This is a vision of the long transition from capitalism to socialism.
Now, the vision of the third international was a vision of a short transition i.e. the revolution, even if the revolution is not a pure socialist workers revolution, involving the peasants and other strata, it moves on quickly to a socialist revolution, and then building socialism in a very short period; whether ten years, twenty years or thirty years, it is a very short period.
That was the pattern in the mind of third international.
De facto, without breaking from the third international, Mao took his distance. And the theory of the new democracy was published in western languages in 1950 or 52 but which was known to the Chinese revolutionaries from the late 40’s. It was based on that new understanding of the long transition i.e. not building socialism immediately.
Many of the Chinese communists, including Mao, in the name of Mao, said they were building socialism. But, Mao himself was very careful about that, and was always saying no, we are still in the very early stages of a long-long road; he even used the typical Chinese way of expression “it will take 1000 years”, which means a long time, which means don’t be in a hurry!
Don’t think that socialism is around the corner of the streets! And, this is fundamentally correct; I think, we should think of a strategy i.e. a strategy for socialism for the 21st century. The fact that the wording is popular is because we are in the 21st century.
That is my reading of our history i.e. the 20th century was the first wave of successful struggles and revolutions for the emancipation of lobar and of people. And the two cannot be disassociated. Because, there are lobar, however, the very fact of polarization on a global scale created by capitalism, by really existing capitalist imperialist systems, has produced a situation in which is wider than the working class, the people, the working people of the south are the victims as well as the working classes. Stricto sensu, in the narrow sense of the term, the industrial working class.
And, therefore, what is on the agenda is a long period of national popular democratic series of stages, not really one stage, a series of successive stages, in which there is a combination of some dimensions, some aspects of capitalist accumulation; and, therefore, of capitalist relations of production and capitalist exploitative relations. There are also tendencies of, creating and developing new relations, tendencies towards new social relations which go beyond capitalism, which are socialist in nature and that go far beyond the distribution of income and so on.
It means a very complex combination of capitalism because there is a need to develop productive forces. Our communism cannot be communism of the poor; maintaining the society in a state of outrageous poverty. Productive forces have to be developed. And by accepting it, you are bound to accept, partly at least, capitalist ways of developing. Therefore, this is the vision of long transition which is new. It’s not Samir Amin. That’s why, I consider myself a Maoist. Because, there’s nothing more than making more explicit what is already implicit in Mao; but in Mao, with respect to China. And expanding it, despite the variety of conditions of the entire South i.e. Asia, Africa and Latin America, and this is why we need a new international.
My reading was that the 20th century was the first wave that took the shape of Russian revolution, the Chinese revolution, plus Vietnam and Cuba and the national liberation of Africa and Asia which was to various degrees anti-imperialist with a class content ambiguous, usually with a bourgeois leadership or a potential bourgeois leadership; associating in some cases popular classes. Now, we are in the process of having a 2nd wave. And, it cannot be a remake of the first one and it should add to it not by renouncing the target of socialism by replacing it with capitalism with a human face or so called ‘democracy’.
However, socialism as the target and, simultaneously, taking into account the shortcomings of the first wave as lessons; particularly, the question of democracy. Democracy understood, not as multi party elections, but as process of democratization of society, which is a far more holistic concept associated to social progress and I’m measuring my words. I’m saying social progress, it’s not socialism, is a ‘perspective’ of socialism.
Can you tell us your ideas on how to organise?
I think that socialism cannot be global, that, it is not going to be tomorrow. It will take time. Therefore, we need, in order to have the struggles everywhere, in the north as well as the south, move into this direction, to rebuild, number one: the legitimacy of the socialist stance. Second: Internationalism and I call it an internationalism of workers and peoples to face the cosmopolitanism of the international bourgeoisie led by the oligopolies of the imperialist centres. I think that the model should be inspired more by the First International, than the second or third or fourth.
The First International did accept the idea, or was based on the idea of a plurality of social and political organisations representing and defending the interest of working classes; organising in different ways. There were some of them organised in ‘leagues’, that was at the origin of the trade unions. Other ones as political parties-the first shapes, forms of political parties; other ones as, what is being called by a wording that I hate, ‘civil society’ i.e. associations of cooperatives of citizens for specific purposes in the same organization-that is plurality. Do not forget that in the First International there was not only Marx but also Bakunin as well as Proudhon. And, there were a large number of those different organizations. The pattern of the Second International was very different.
It was one country, one party, the good one; the Social Democracy of that time becomes the Bolshevik later, it was there at the beginning, one country; one party. And the conception of this being ‘the’ vanguard party, the only legitimate one that has the knowledge, and that has the exclusive knowledge, and that leads and the other popular organizations, particularly the trade unions are submitted. The Third International inherited that. It broke with the second on some fundamental issues with respect to Internationalism and the global war; the First World War and nationalism. This is not the vision of one country one party- the good one, the communist one, the correct one etc. Now, I think that the 4th international didn’t add anything to that, it was an attempt to bring back the 3rd International to what it was at its beginning, at best, nothing more.
We need, in the present circumstances, to bring together in each country a diversity of political and social forces, with local historically different traditions, with perhaps even leadership, historical leaderships with different ideology and cultures, and bringing them together in order to constitute, to have the conditions for building unity. This I call convergence in diversity or with diversity, convergence, not necessarily a united front that is an electoral alliance in most cases for the vanguard party to drag in other parties and organisations. This means to move away from sectarianism; completely, completely away from it. That does not mean that you bring anybody together without any principals, but with a straightforward, honest debate, continuous debate, with no polemics and with a common desire to identify strategic targets at each point in time. And, we see what that convergence will lead to. We are not doing, as Marx says, we are not boiling in the pot food for the future; later generations will invent their own cooking.
Can you tell us something on Euro-centrism?
Well, Euro-centrism is a product of what I call ‘really existing’ capitalism i.e. capitalism can be analysed, as Marx started and raised in a very powerful way, at the highest level of abstraction i.e. the basic relation of production between labour and capital which explains the production and the extraction of the surplus value. That is a very high level of abstraction needed, fundamentally needed. However, we can look at historical capitalism as it developed from Western Europe and then expanding through the conquest, colonization and destruction of America and to the colonization of Asia and Africa. In addition, the international expansion in Europe, North America and later, Japan.
This historical capitalism has to be looked into as the other face of reality; the concrete way in which the relations, the capitalist relations of production, were embedded in historical relations. Now, that created the centre-periphery. And the centre started to be Western Europe. And from there Euro-centrism, which is an over simplification of the region of history which considers that what has happened in Europe is going to happen gradually elsewhere; Which is the opposite of what is possible because precisely the polarization means that periphery cannot catch up and cannot become centres in their turn. And, therefore, the blind alley in which Euro-centrism has put, not only Western thought in general but also more particularly political vision of the Left in general until today; including many of the honest socialists among them. There are, for sure, honest people struggling with the working classes; they cannot imagine precisely the imperial characteristics of capitalism that has made impossible the expansion of the European model for the rest of the world.
Can you tell us some of your views on the Chinese Cultural Revolution and revisionism?
That was a long and complicated affair. I think that Mao-and that was also his big contribution-understood early the pattern of political power coming out of the success of the Chinese Cultural Revolution. The centralisation of this political power was creating a kind of new, arrogant, potential ruling class, and potentially bourgeois. So, he was aware of that danger. He saw the example of the Soviet Union. And he saw, rightly, that the new bourgeois that was in formation in the USSR was not outside the party but was inside the party. That is, you just look at who are the new bourgeois in Russia and the former Soviet Republics; they are all the former Communists. i.e. the Soviet model was a model of state capitalism with some socialist dimension - I do not deny that; and even partly inherited from revolution some socialist dimensions that was becoming more and more basically what I call ‘capitalism without capitalists’.
But the normal tendency of ‘capitalism without capitalists’ is to become ‘capitalism with capitalists.’ Those capitalists came out of the ruling class within the Communist party. Mao saw that China was developing along the same lines and he saw the danger. And he tried to find out how to uproot the danger by a Cultural Revolution. I think the choice, including the choice of the name was not wrong- a Cultural Revolution that will transform, or help transform the Communists themselves and make for basic and eventually possible crystallization within the Communist Party of a potential new bourgeoisie. He looked up to forces to do that and I think it was the only possibility, probably. He thought that the youth could play that role, and they did play the role, because the youth in general see the injustice more quickly than the elders, and the youth has this feeling that this was what was happening in China and started the Cultural Revolution. Nevertheless, the youth are also, and I think this was a mistake by Mao; the youth also lack knowledge, a lack of mustering its own capacity to decide and so on. Moreover, this moved into various directions to the extent that the power systems which Mao himself was compelled to restore as a kind of centrally organised power. Now, the echo of the Cultural Revolution was tremendous. 68’ in Europe cannot be understood without 66’ in china.
It was with China as model example of the revolt of the youth which inspired the youth in the West. So the Cultural Revolution is not as negative as has been portrayed after Mao’s death, after the party moved to the right, after Deng even, at the beginning of the 90’s. But, it’s interesting, that in China itself, there is strong interest in restoring the legitimacy of the Cultural Revolution.
There were recent debates inside the Indian Maoist movement recently about working with Islamic forces to fight imperialism as the common enemy. Coming from an Islamic country originally-Egypt- what are your thoughts on this issue?
You can refer to my paper in Monthly Review some months ago with the title ‘Political Islam in the service of imperialism.’ I think that-I go back to my vision of the long transition- the first wave; the 20th century has come to an end. The second wave has not yet begun or is just starting. In between, you have a period of transition that is unclear. And in that period-and we are in that period, Socialism and Communism loses or appears to have lost legitimacy and so on. And there is lot of despair. And the people move to other forms of identities, there is a lack of a clear understanding, a clear capacity to understand their class identities.
They go to religion or rather para-religion or ethnicity or para-ethnicity as in the case of Sri Lanka, for instance, or former Yugoslavia or many other countries. And all these tendencies are in my view absolutely and fundamentally reactionary. Even if the circumstances are a response to an ugly policy of others; as in the case of Sri Lanka. Political Islam is the use of Islam by the most reactionary and in the service of imperialism. Imperialism has nothing against them. It has nothing against Islam, just as it has nothing again political Hinduism, the BJP. The Communists in India have the courage to call them (RSS/BJP) Fascists, and they are, and the same should be said of political Islam.
What do you think of the economic category of feudalism, as used by F. Engels, and the category of ‘semi-feudalism’ as used by Maoists to describe the mode of production in Africa, Asia, and Latin America?
I also never use this term and I question it. If you refer to my books, some of which are not very recent, I have suggested another pattern of analysis of the nature of class society, of previous capitalism and qualify them as ‘tributary-systems’ - feudalism is one of them specific to Europe. And, perhaps the use of feudalism, the culture of the use of word ‘feudalism’ to Asia is probably improper. Nevertheless, it is not very important.
Anything you would like to say to our readers?
Well, I think that Maoism is needed everywhere in the world; it is the specificity of our time. There are imperialist centres for sure and there are the oppressed peripheries of the imperialist global system. But the enemy is the same, the enemy is one, capitalism. Capitalism is in imperialist centres as well as subordinate peripheries and therefore understanding that characteristic of capitalism is the prerequisite for any significant internationalism in the north as well as the south. Therefore, in that sense, we need Maoism in the North as well as the South. Otherwise, we will have in the north a pro-imperialist left, and in the south, the bad response: political Islam and political Hinduism etc.
This interview was originally conducted in 2009 in Kathmandu, Nepal, and published in two parts in Red Star issues 18 and 19, the now defunct English newspaper of the CPN Maoist. We believe it is a good interview,and many interested readers have not had the chance to read it as it was intended, as one long interview on serious theoretical and political topics. Or perhaps even the chance to read it at all. It also serves as a good introduction to the ideas of Professor Samir Amin, in his own words.
The interview with Samir Amin was conducted by Com. Chandra (Ravan) and Roshan Kissoon