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Fallen Idols: on Samir Amin's recent capitulation to imperialist intervention

Although the strength of marxism has always resided in the fact that its method stands over and above its specific adherents, it is still disappointing when important marxist theorists, or more importantly a communist organization, fails in their fidelity to the method.  A knee-jerk reaction is to denounce this betrayal, and the entire history of those involved in this betrayal, as if they had nothing worthwhile to offer (this is being done, here and there, with the evaporated Peoples War in Nepal as if it is irrevocably tainted by the current revisionism of the party that had once led the revolution), and I myself have made this mistake more than once.

The betrayal I am talking about here, however, concerns Samir Amin's recent analysis of Mali that came as a shock to both myself and others.  As faithful readers of this blog will probably be aware, I have been highly influenced by Amin's anti-imperialist political economy and his creative application of marxism that has affected my own understanding of the world.  Indeed, although Amin is not an avowed marxist-leninist-maoist, it is partially because of his work in Unequal Development and Class and Nation that I ended up gravitating towards maoism.  Moreover, his ability to explain the labour theory of value, the tendency of the rate of profit to fall, and other concepts of marxist political economy that I had otherwise found difficult to grasp with my training in philosophy has helped me grow intellectually and I often find myself returning to his work in the 1960s-1980s in order to make sense of difficult problematics.  Indeed, in my last entry regarding Charlie Post's review of Cope's Divided World Divided Class I cited Amin, as I often tend to do, without even realizing, at that time, that he had just published his rather disappointing article on the French intervention in Mali.

Samir Amin back when he was young,  hip, and anti-imperialist.

In any case, Amin now follows Gilbert Achcar and other marxist academics into the mire of pseudo anti-imperialism.  And though it is worth noting that Amin, unlike Achcar and far lesser lights, rejected the NATO intervention in Libya as well as the US-backed anti-Assad forces in Syria, it still does not excuse his descent into imperialist justification in the case of Mali.  Perhaps Amin's betrayal is even more tragic than the previous betrayals of others; he is arguably the most important living theorist of imperialism and should know better.

I have no doubt that Amin, always thorough in his assessment of particular social contexts, has accurately described the situation in Mali in the aforecited article.  The problem, however, is that he makes a leap in logic in deriving French imperialist intervention from the state that he has described.  He never made this leap when examining Afghanistan or Iraq: this discrepancy is significant, a glaring contradiction.  In fact it is such a contradiction that it almost seems absurd for him to declare that the forces of Political Islam in Mali are a "major ally of the triad" on hand while arguing, on the other, that a member of one part of the triad should have the right to invade Mali in order to counter this potential imperialist ally.

This article is filled with so many contradictions, qualifications, and nuances, that Amin's demand for French imperialist intervention is actually incoherent.  The incoherence is so obvious, in fact, that my first instinct upon reading this piece was to assume it was written by someone other than Amin––until now, he has been an extremely coherent thinker.  The fact that he claims that French intervention will not bring liberation, that he says both "yes and no" to this intervention, but still sides with it in the end is a rather muddled assessment.  His entire logic for intervention, which he admits won't really be good, rests on shaky foundations: Political Islam is the "real" agent of imperialism, and the French are doing it alone without NATO.  So the reactionary ideology of oppressed peoples, regardless of this ideology's fidelity in the last instance to imperialism, is somehow worse than an imperialist nation's "humanitarian" intervention which even Amin recognizes will not bring liberation?  And the French are more progressive than the US when they unilaterally intercede?  Oh, he gives reasons and speaks of the importance of re-establishing an independent Mali, but the justification for French imperialist intervention is still the conclusion of a false syllogism.

What is most surprising is the fact that Amin––who has a long history of supporting anti-colonial movements in Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia––refuses to speak of France's colonial history.  For France's involvement in Mali now seems like an echo of French colonial policy, a desire to avidly return to the business of controlling and maintaining all of those colonies it lost decades ago.  This possible ideological investment, something Amin would never have ignored in the past, is absent from his analysis and we must wonder why he has spirited it away.

Until now I was under the impression that someone like Samir Amin, who has demonstrated in the past his understanding of the mechanics of imperialism, would never fall into the trap of endorsing imperial intervention.  Perhaps the fact of his past understanding has conditioned the incoherence of his endorsement because he lacks a theoretical framework capable of providing a thorough defense of his betrayal.  And in this sense, just as we can read marxism against Marx, we can probably read Amin's previous works on imperialism against Amin in this particular instance––I have a hard time believing that the Amin who wrote Unequal Development would like the Amin who wrote this article.

And this should tell us, yet again, that no one within the marxist tradition is free from lapsing into erroneous political commitments simply because they are marxist––no matter how important their contributions to the marxist canon might be.  The individual marxists stand beneath marxism itself, just as every important scientist stands beneath the truth process of hir discipline.  Individual humans commit errors and will commit errors; we cannot assume that a single theorist, no matter how important, is ever worthy to be treated as an idol.  Every idol is brought low by the method of historical materialism, even its initiators.

But this should not be cause for distress or even panicked attempts to write these failures out of our theoretical canon.  After all, Marx and Engels failed repeatedly––as did Lenin, as did Mao––and we still uphold their contributions.  Those of us who proclaim fidelity to this tradition do not excise Marx from history, or argue that all of his contributions are garbage, simply because of his failure to analyze India and other colonial situations correctly.  What we do understand, however, is that there is always the possibility that every marxist theorist, and every important communist movement, can potentially fail and that this failure, more than anything else, teaches us something about the messiness of social relations.

Amin's bizarre capitulation to imperialist logic should remind us of the fact that we are all capable of capitulation: some of us might become liberals, some might become reactionaries, and some might attempt to disguise are capitulation (like Amin and others) as proper "marxism".  This is a humbling reminder.  Even still, this does not invalidate anything and everything we have done before the moment of capitulation.

I recall that when I was a child, within the interesting Christian/Socialist hybrid circles my family was involved, encountering people who claimed that people who claimed that the denunciation of religious faith meant that one was never faithful to begin with: "If you become an atheist," was the argument, "Then you never really believed in God in the first place."  Because, after all, people who truly believe in God would never abandon God because they would know, in the Platonic sense, the Truth!  A similar mystified logic operates within communist circles: "if you abandon communist principles, then you never were an actual communist and all of your work to the present must be seen as suspect."  But this is not a material or dialectical assessment; it is an absolutist either/or judgment.

As historical materialists we should not treat fidelity to the communist project as a matter of absolute faith but a commitment that can always be undermined by the weight of bourgeois ideology.  So in this context, while I think that Amin's recent betrayal of his own commitments in the case of Mali is significant, I do not think this invalidates his contribution to historical materialist theory.  It might be that he has now reached the end of his ability to contribute, it might be that he is capable of his correcting his errors, it might be that (like so many pompous academics) he will simply pretend he never wrote that article and return to the everyday business of academic marxism.  Whatever the case it means this: his current assessment of Mali is a betrayal, a capitulation to imperialism, and we must wonder why so many marxist intellectuals are losing themselves in this wilderness of pseudo anti-imperialism.

And also... I really hope someone will beat the sense back into me if I ever betray my political principles!

Comments

  1. I've been thinking about this since I too (as a long-time admirer of Amin's work) was sad to see this a few days ago. I wonder what your thoughts are about my tentative explanation. I think it might be possible to see Amin's position here as somewhat consistent with his work going back a number of years rather than just a confused and inexplicable aberration from otherwise solid work.

    I think it's significant that no matter how much he's made clear his contempt for (as you put it) "the reactionary ideology of oppressed peoples" in other cases (Taliban, Gaddafi, Bashar Assad, etc.) he's never slipped into pro-imperialist justifications in any of those cases, as the greater enemy here was always correctly seen as US imperialism.

    Therefore I think all those chalking his stance on Mali up to Islamophobia miss this point. No matter how reactionary a local political Islam would be, I don't think Amin would ever support US intervention against it. I think your second speculation might be the key. I think your question ("And the French are more progressive than the US when they unilaterally intercede?") is actually a yes for Amin.

    The reason is what I've noticed to be a kind of implicit "Three Worlds Theory" in Amin's writings that looks to (hopes for?) significant inter-imperialist rivalry which could break the "Triad," weaken US imperialism and therefore be minimally progressive, allowing greater room for maneuver for the world's peoples against imperialism. It's true that he frequently makes statements to the contrary, but he always implicitly points to this possibility as progressive, and when he does he sees social democracy in Europe as a potential vehicle for pushing in this direction.

    The most explicit I've seen is at the end of "The Liberal Virus" (particularly pages 90-95) where he posits the possibility of a "social Europe" ("a capitalism tempered by a new social compromise between capital and labor operating on a European scale, without being too concerned about Europe's foreign policy in relation to the rest of the world") that can unite leftists, anti-US capital, and social democracy (as the anti-Nazi popular front did). The notion (hope?) is then brought up that such an alliance would gradually be pushed left, if not actually communist then at least anti-hegemonic ("I would give top priority here to the construction of a political and strategic alliance between Paris, Berlin, and Moscow, extending it, if possible, to Peking and Delhi.")

    It's hard to see the possibility of his other alternative reform paths ("alternative aid" and "alternative development" short of socialism) listed at the end of chapter 6 of his "Ending the Crisis of Capitalism or Ending Capitalism" without seeing an anti-neoliberal, anti-hegemonic bloc in the North emerging to give breathing space to the South (or as he puts it in "The Liberal Virus," "restoring international pluralism and the UN to all their proper functions" p. 95).

    He often looks to France ("If a Churchill is possible in Europe, it would have to be Chirac. Will he be one?" LV p. 93), and in particular French social democracy ("the conditions for one or another of the possible alternatives...whose formulation, in part at least, has been initiated by President Fran├žois Hollande" - http://monthlyreview.org/2012/09/01/implosion-of-the-european-system) when he thinks of the possibility that social democracy and inter-imperialist rivalry could break the Atlanticist project in a progressive way for the world's people.

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  2. This logic is what strikes me as the underlying coherence of his Mali piece. A significant antagonistic interest between French imperialism and US imperialism is posited ("Sahelistan" versus Niger as a source of natural resources, to the inclusion or exclusion of France), Washington is said to have an interest in fomenting reactionary political Islam which would damage French imperialism, and Hollande is being pushed in a direction that, in order to seriously maintain French interests vis-a-vis Washington, will lead it to also opposing Washington on Syria (i.e. will lead to a wider rift that might be anti-hegemonic, or France re-joining the "Concert of Nations" as he puts it).

    Anyway I would be eager to hear your thoughts. If there's something to this, then an effective critique of Amin's position here seems to require a solid understanding of inter-imperialist cooperation versus rivalry in the Triad during the current stage of capitalism and indeed where it's headed. Is Amin right when he says "Are we soon to witness the deepening crisis adding to the development of conflicting interests between the collective imperialism’s national partners? It seems that this will likely be the case," or "The pairing of France and Germany only works as long as the weaker of the two – France – aligns itself with the interests of the stronger of the two – Germany. This is the case whilst Sarkozy is in power; however, in future this may change." - http://www.pambazuka.org/en/category/features/71951 ? And even if he is right (or becomes right in the future), is there a necessary "jump" from there to supporting (or not fully opposing) the anti-Washington actions of a lesser imperialist power if they're competing through proxies in inter-imperialist competition over resources or anything else? How should communists formulate the eras where all imperialists should be opposed without regard to the fear that opposing a lesser imperialist would strengthen the most reactionary bloc (World War I) versus the eras where isolating and weakening the most reactionary imperialist is the best way to advance the world socialist struggle, even if that means not fully opposing lesser imperialists in their inter-imperialist conflicts or proxy wars with the most reactionary imperialist (World War II)?

    Sorry I've gone on too long. I guess I got a bit over-excited on my first comment on your excellent blog. I'll try to keep my comments shorter in the future!

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    1. This is actually a pretty good explanation for deciphering Amin's analysis of Mali. Perhaps I've overlooked its possible basis in his thought over the past decade and a half because I always read his older (and better) works into what he has published from the Liberal Virus onwards––not that there aren't important things to be gleaned from these more recent books (though the Liberal Virus was simply foreshortened version of a small part of the earlier [and better] "Obsolescence Capitalism") but their demands for these popular blocs always seemed to contain something of a reformist rather than revolutionary bent.

      I do think Amin is correct to assume that inter-imperialist rivalry will possibly break-up the temporary moment of "collective" imperialism––he never did adhere to some concept of "super-imperialism" and only so the Triad as a pseudo-unity forced by the American control of institutions such as the IMF and WTO... it was always only temporarily suppressing the natural state of inter-imperialist rivalry (at least on one reading of Amin). At the same time, though, we probably do need to have an effective critique of his occasional (though always vague) ruminations on the possibility of inter-imperialist rivalry being progressive: while it might open up space for dissent, for imperialisms to counter each other on one stage and maybe room for revolutionary movements to grow, it is not by itself progressive. It also seems odd, and again a bad leap of logic, to assume that intervention is [however qualified] progressive simply because it might produce this break from the triad. Your questions though are pertinent. Look forward to more comments in the future.

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