Review: “The Trajectory of Historical Capitalism and Marxism’s Tricontinental Vocation” by Samir Amin

Review: “The Trajectory of Historical Capitalism and Marxism’s Tricontinental Vocation” by Samir Amin. Monthly Review, Volume 62, Number 9.

Reviewed by Nick Brown, RAIM-Denver (

The main contradiction in the world is between the Global North and the Global South. Due to super-exploitation of the Third World, the “masses” in the First World have been bought off. The main battleground for revolutionary change lies not in the imperialist cores, but in the exploited peripheries. These ideas, often expounded by the Revolutionary Anti-Imperialist Movement, are not ours alone. In his recent essay, “The Trajectory of Historical Capitalism and Marxism’s Tricontinental Vocation,” Samir Amin, director of the Third World Forum and author of the recent book ‘The Law of Worldwide Value,” presents a similar series of arguments regarding what he calls the struggle for socialism and communism.

Samir Amin is part of a trend in Marxism which has adopted ‘World Systems’ and ‘Unequal Exchange’ Theory views regarding global class structure. According to these theories, capital accumulation in great part happens internationally between the imperialist core (the First World triad of Europe, the United States and Japan) and the periphery (what RAIM normally refers to as the Third World). This happens through forced disparities in wages and prices on the international market, as well as through other financial manipulation and means of active coercion. Though the details vary, other authors and organizations which have adopted World Systems and Unequal Exchange Theories as part of a revolutionary analysis include Arghiri Emmanuel, Immanuel Wallerstein and the Leading Light Communist Organization.

Amin’s essay begins with his own account of the historic rise and development of capitalism, which he divides into “three distinct, successive phases: (1) a lengthy preparation[...] from 1000 to 1800; (2) a short period of maturity (the nineteenth century), during which the ‘West’ affirmed its domination; (3) the long ‘decline’ caused by the ‘Awakening of the South’ [...] in which the peoples and their states regained the major initiative in transforming the world—the first wave having taken place in the twentieth century.”

According to Amin, it was within the first phase of capitalism, its preparation, that the development of latter phases was sealed:

“The European (“Western”) form of historical capitalism that emerged in Atlantic and Central Europe, in its offspring in the United States, and later, in Japan, developed its own characteristics—notably a mode of accumulation based on the dispossession, first, of the peasants and then of the peoples in the peripheries, who were integrated as dependencies into its global system.[...]“

Amin describes mature capitalism between 1800-1900 as dynamic yet destructive in nuanced, theory-laden terms:

“Historical capitalism took on its final form at the end of the eighteenth century with the English Industrial Revolution that invented the new ‘machine factory’ (together with the creation of the new industrial proletariat) and the French Revolution that gave rise to modern politics.

“Mature capitalism developed over the short period that marked the apogee of this system in the nineteenth century. Capital accumulation then took on its definitive form and became the basic law that governed society. From the beginning, this form of accumulation was constructive (it enabled a prodigious and continuous acceleration in the productivity of social labor). But it was, at the same time, destructive. Marx observed that accumulation destroys the two bases of wealth: the human being (victim of commodity alienation) and nature.

“In my analyses of historical capitalism I particularly stressed a third dimension of accumulation’s destructiveness: the material and cultural dispossession of the dominated peoples of the periphery—whom Marx had somewhat overlooked. This was no doubt because, in the short period when Marx was producing his works, Europe seemed almost exclusively dedicated to the requirements of internal accumulation. Marx thus relegated this dispossession to a temporary phase of “primitive accumulation” that I, on the contrary, have described as permanent.”

Amin describes capitalism after 1900 as being in a long period of decline, i.e., a period in which ‘socialist transition’ is possible. According to Amin, the ‘long decline’ of capitalism continues today, despite attempts by Capital recover through increased centralization.

“This qualitative transformation of capitalism took shape with the setting up of new production monopolies (no longer only in the areas of trade and colonial conquest, as in the mercantilist period) at the end of the nineteenth century…. The emergence of monopoly capitalism… showed that classic, freely competitive capitalism, and indeed capitalism itself, had by now ‘had its day,’ and become ‘obsolete.’[...]

“A host of major questions arise from this interpretation of the ‘long decline’ of capitalism, which concern the nature of the ‘revolution’ that was the order of the day. Could the ‘long decline” of historical monopoly capitalism be synonymous with the ‘long transition’ to socialism/communism? Under what conditions?”

Amin describes our current period as one of  “generalized monopoly capitalism” and peripheral resistance:

“Lenin described the imperialism of the monopolies as the “highest stage of capitalism.” I have described imperialism as a “permanent phase of capitalism” in the sense that globalized historical capitalism has built up, and never ceases from reproducing and deepening, the center/periphery polarization. [...] Lenin was certainly too optimistic, having underestimated the devastating effects of the imperialist rent—and the transfer associated with it—on the revolution from the West (the centers) to the East (the peripheries).[...]

“Nevertheless, capitalism underwent a second long crisis that began in the 1970s, exactly one hundred years after the first one. The reactions of capital to this crisis were the same as it had had to the previous one: reinforced concentration, which gave rise to generalized monopoly capitalism, globalization (“liberal”), and financialization.[...]

“The second wave of the centralization of capital, which took place in the last third of the twentieth century, constituted a second qualitative transformation of the system, which I have described as “generalized monopolies.” From now on, they not only commanded the heights of the modern economy; they also succeeded in imposing their direct control over the whole production system. The small and medium enterprises (and even the large ones outside the monopolies), such as the farmers, were literally dispossessed, reduced to the status of sub-contractors, with their upstream and downstream operations, and subjected to rigid control by the monopolies.

“At this highest phase of the centralization of capital, its ties with a living organic body—the bourgeoisie—have broken. This is an immensely important change: the historical bourgeoisie, constituted of families rooted locally, has given way to an anonymous oligarchy/plutocracy that controls the monopolies, in spite of the dispersion of the title deeds of their capital. The range of financial operations invented over the last decades bears witness to this supreme form of alienation: the speculator can now sell what he does not even possess, so that the principle of property is reduced to a status that is little less than derisory.

“The function of socially productive labor has disappeared. The high degree of alienation had already attributed a productive virtue to money (‘money makes little ones’). Now alienation has reached new heights: it is time (‘time is money’) that by its virtue alone ‘produces profit.’ The new bourgeois class that responds to the requirements of the reproduction of the system has been reduced to the status of ‘waged servants’ (precarious, to boot), even when they are, as members of the upper sectors of the middle classes, privileged people who are very well paid for their ‘work.’ [...]

“But the moment of triumph [for Capital] —the second ‘belle époque,’ from 1990 to 2008, echoing the first ‘belle époque,’ from 1890 to 1914—of the new collective imperialism of the Triad (the United States, Europe, and Japan) was indeed brief. A new epoch of chaos, wars, and revolutions emerged. In this situation, the second wave of the awakening of the nations of the periphery (which had already started), now refused to allow the collective imperialism of the Triad to maintain its dominant positions, other than through the military control of the planet. The Washington establishment, by giving priority to this strategic objective, proves that it is perfectly aware of the real issues at stake in the struggles and decisive conflicts of our epoch, as opposed to the naïve vision of the majority currents in Western ‘alterworldism.’ [...]

“This being so, should one not conclude that capitalism has had its day? There is no other possible answer to the challenge: the monopolies must be nationalized. This is a first, unavoidable step toward a possible socialization of their management by workers and citizens. Only this will make it possible to progress along the long road to socialism. At the same time, it will be the only way of developing a new macro economy that restores a genuine space for the operations of small and medium enterprises. If that is not done, the logic of domination by abstract capital can produce nothing but the decline of democracy and civilization, to a ‘generalized apartheid’ at the world level.”

Amin sees the division of the world and pattern of resistance in terms similar to those of RAIM:

“My interpretation of historical capitalism stresses the polarization of the world (the contrast of center/periphery) produced by the historical form of the accumulation of capital….It has to be recognized that what the most important social and political struggles of the twentieth century tried to challenge was not so much capitalism in itself as the permanent imperialist dimension of actually existing capitalism….Confronting the basics—i.e., the discovery of the real source of surplus value produced by the exploitation of social labor by capital—is indispensable to this struggle.

Although Amin notes much of First World ‘Marxism’ is mired in its own chauvinism, he maintains Marxism is the progenitor of his own analysis:

“Marx’s thinking associates ‘scientific’ clarity in the analysis of reality with social and political action (the class struggle in its broadest sense) aimed at ‘changing the world.’…If this fundamental and lucid contribution of Marx is abandoned, a double failure is inevitably the result. Any such abandonment of the theory of exploitation (law of value) reduces the analysis of reality to that of appearances only, a way of thinking that is limited by its abject submission to the requirements of commodification, itself engendered by the system. Similarly, such abandonment of the labor value-based critique of the system annihilates the effectiveness of strategies and struggles to change the world, which are thereby conceived within this alienating framework, the “scientific” claims of which have no real basis….

“Nevertheless, it is not enough just to cling to the lucid analysis formulated by Marx. This is not only because ‘reality’ itself changes, and there are always ‘new’ things to be taken into account in the development of the critique of the real world that started with Marx. But more fundamentally, it is because, as we know, the analysis that Marx put forward in Capital was left incomplete. In the planned sixth volume of this work (which was never written), Marx proposed treating the globalization of capitalism. This now has to be done by others, which is why I have dared to advocate the formulation of the “law of globalized value,” restoring the place of the unequal development (through the center/periphery polarization) that is inseparable from the global expansion of historical capitalism. In this formulation, ‘imperialist rent’ is integrated into the whole process of the production and circulation of capital and the distribution of the surplus value. This rent is at the origin of the challenge: it accounts for why the struggles for socialism in the imperialist centers have faded, and it highlights the anti-imperialist dimensions of the struggles in the peripheries against the system of capitalist/imperialist globalization.

Throughout his essay, Amin mention “imperialist rent,” i.e. the exploitation of the Third World by the First, and how this comes to deeply affect the material basis upon which the exploiter society is built while simultaneously quieting any anti-capitalist demands from taking center-stage there. While RAIM positions that First World workers consume more labor than they expend and are hence net-exploiters, Amin asserts the exploitation of First World workers is “evident” without providing additional arguments for this claim:

“Imperialist rent not “only” benefited the monopolies of the dominant center (in the form of super profits), it was also the basis of the reproduction of society as a whole, in spite of its evident class structure and the exploitation of its workers.”

Within the context of the rest of the essay, the statement about the ‘evident’ exploitation of First World workers is strange. Though it is relevant, the general gist of his essay is the importance of unequal exchange and resistance from the South.

According to Amin, we are now entering a period of great upheaval with the potential towards “socialist transition,” led by the social formations of the Third World.

“The second wave of independent initiatives of the countries of the South has begun. The ‘emerging’ countries and others, like their peoples, are fighting the ways in which the collective imperialism of the Triad tries to perpetuate its domination….Recovering control over natural resources [and labor] is now the order of the day….The popular organizations and the parties of the radical left in struggle have already defeated some liberal programs (in Latin America) or are on the way to doing so. [...]

“In 2008 the second long crisis of capitalism moved into a new phase. Violent international conflicts have already begun and are visible: will they challenge the domination of the generalized monopolies, based on anti-imperialist positions? How do they relate to the social struggles of the victims of the austerity policies pursued by the dominant classes in response to the crisis? In other words, will the peoples employ a strategy of extricating themselves from a capitalism in crisis, instead of the strategy to extricate the system from its crisis, as pursued by the powers that be?

RAIM, unlike many World Systems theorists, is a not proponent of ‘general crisis’ theories within the framework of millenarianism. The successful struggle of the world’s masses would be the biggest possible crisis imperialism could face. It is precisely these types of crises we revolutionaries seeks to create. Amin himself realizes this when he attributes the ‘second long crisis’ to the ‘second wave of independent initiative of the countries of the South,’ and when he later states that political radicalization of social movements in the South is key to their success. We can’t sit around waiting for and responding to ‘crisis,’ but instead must help inspire them. For revolutionaries, the bigger the crises, the better.

Nonetheless, it is within this framework of Third World-led progressive class struggle that Amin defines three “dimensions of reality:”: the people, the nation and the state.

“The people (popular classes) ‘want the revolution.’ This means that it is possible to construct a hegemonic bloc that brings together the different dominated and exploited classes, as opposed to the one that enables the reproduction of the system of the domination of imperialist capitalism, exercised through the comprador hegemonic bloc and the state at its service.

“Mention of nations refers to the fact that imperialist domination denies the dignity of the ‘nations’ (call them what you will), forged by the history of the societies of the peripheries. Such domination has systematically destroyed all that give the nations their originality—in the name of “Westernization” and the proliferation of cheap junk. The liberation of the people is therefore inseparable from that of the nations to which they belong…Nations want their ‘liberation,’ seen as being complementary to the struggle of the people and not conflictual with it. The liberation in question is not, therefore, the restoration of the past—the illusion fostered by a culturalist attachment to the past—but the invention of the future. [...]

“The reference to the state is based on the necessary recognition of the relative autonomy of its power in its relations with the hegemonic bloc that is the base of its legitimacy, even if this is popular and national. This relative autonomy cannot be ignored as long as the state exists, that is, at least for the whole duration of the transition to communism. It is only after this that we can think of a ‘stateless society’—not before. This is not only because the popular and national advances must be protected from the permanent aggression of imperialism, which still dominates the world, but also, and perhaps above all, because ‘to advance on the long transition’ also requires ‘developing productive forces.’ In other words, the goal is to achieve that which imperialism has been preventing in the countries of the periphery, and to obliterate the heritage of world polarization, which is inseparable from the world expansion of historical capitalism. The program is not the same as ‘catching up’ through the imitation of central capitalism—a catching up which is, incidentally, impossible and above all, undesirable. It imposes a different conception of ‘modernization/industrialization,’ based on the genuine participation of the popular classes in the process of implementation, with immediate benefits for them at each stage as it advances.”

Beyond the general questions of class, Amin asserts, “The correct articulation of reality at these three levels—peoples, nations, and states—conditions the success of the progress on the long road of the transition.”

“There will be an impasse if one of these levels is not concerned about its articulation with the others. The abstract notion of the ‘people’ as being the only entity that counts, and the thesis of the abstract ‘movement,’ capable of transforming the world without worrying about taking over power, are simply naive.”

Conversely, “a notion of power, conceived as being capable of ‘attaining achievements’ for the people, but which is, in fact, to be exercised without them [...necessarily leads to] the drift to authoritarianism and the crystallization of a new bourgeoisie. The deviation of Sovietism, which evolved from a ‘capitalism without capitalists’ (state capitalism) to a ‘capitalism with capitalists,’ is the most tragic example of this.”

Beyond these internal challenges of the revolutionary struggle, Amin also cautions the Global South about imperialist counter-offensives:

“The oligarchies in power of the contemporary capitalist system are trying to restore the system as it was before the financial crisis of 2008. For this, they need to convince people through a ‘consensus’ that does not challenge their supreme power. To succeed in this, they are prepared to make some rhetorical concessions about the ecological challenges (in particular about the question of the climate), green-washing their domination, and even hinting that they will carry out social reforms (the ‘war on poverty’) and political reforms (‘good governance’).

Amin warns against ‘leftists’ buying into such imperialist counter-strategies.

“To take part in this game of convincing people of the need to forge a new consensus—even defined in terms that are clearly better—will end up in failure. Worse, still, it will prolong fatal illusions. This is because the response to the challenge raised by the crisis of the global system first requires the transformation of power relationships to the benefit of the workers, as well as of international relationships to the benefit of the peoples of the peripheries.”

Again, the notion that First World worker aren’t net-beneficiaries in the imperialist system is somewhat awkward given everything else said. We find it hard to believe that Samir Amin wouldn’t uphold the fact that most First World workers already consume a disproportionate share of the social product. Perhaps he thinks as some in RAIM and here is conceiving of alternative power structures in which First World workers can participate in their own class suicide. He seems to hint so later in this essay when he states the strategy of de-linking is applicable and necessary in the First World as well the Third. Or perhaps, he is broadly suggesting proximity to Capital is a larger determinate of social consciousness than whether one is exploited by it in the most technical sense. Nonetheless, throughout his essay, Amin, despite his optimism on First World ‘workers,’ runs into the fact that they are not revolutionary.

Speaking again on the ‘Awakening of the South,’ which Amin posits as decisive in the most preliminary way, Amin provides a few general prescriptions:

“The political radicalization of the social struggles is the condition for overcoming their internal fragmentation and their exclusively defensive strategy (‘safeguarding social benefits’). Only this will make it possible to identify the objectives needed for undertaking the long road to socialism. Only this will enable the “movements” to generate real empowerment.

“The empowerment of the movements requires a framework of macro political and economic conditions that make their concrete projects viable. How to create these conditions? Here we come to the central question of the power of the state. Would a renewed state, genuinely popular and democratic, be capable of carrying out effective policies in the globalized conditions of the contemporary world? An immediate, negative response on the left has led to calls for initiatives to achieve a minimal global consensus, as a basis for universal political change, circumventing the state. This response and its corollary are proving fruitless. There is no other solution than to generate advances at the national level, perhaps reinforced by appropriate action at the regional level. They must aim at dismantling the world system (‘delinking’) prior to eventual reconstruction, on a different social basis, with the prospect of going beyond capitalism.”

According to Amin, the support of the ‘masses’ of the core for their own imperialists is a fact that cannot be ignored because it has wide implications in past and future struggles:

“The limits of the advances made by the awakening of the South in the twentieth century and the exacerbation of the contradictions that resulted were the cause of the first liberation wave losing its impetus. This was greatly reinforced by the permanent hostility of the states in the imperialist center, which went to the extent of waging open warfare that—it has to be said—was supported, or at least accepted, by the peoples of the North. The benefits of the imperialist rent were certainly an important factor in this rejection of internationalism by the popular forces of the North….The defeat of internationalism shares part of the responsibility for the authoritarian drifts toward autocracy in the socialist experiences of the past century. The explosion of inventive expressions of democracy during the course of the Russian and Chinese Revolutions gives the lie to the too easy judgment that these countries were not ‘ripe’ for democracy. The hostility of the imperialist countries, facilitated by the support of their peoples, largely contributed to making the pursuit of democratic socialism even harder in conditions that were already difficult, a consequence of the inheritance of peripheral capitalism.

Looking to the future and in light of past experiences, Amin foresees some old problems in the revolutionary camp recurring:

“[T]he second wave of the awakening of the peoples, nations, and states of the peripheries of the twenty-first century starts out in conditions that are hardly better, in fact, are even more difficult.[...] In this situation, the collapse of this [imperialist] military project becomes the first priority and the preliminary condition for the success of the second wave of the liberation being undertaken through the struggles of the peoples, nations, and states of the three continents. Until this happens, their present and future advances will remain vulnerable. A possible remake of the twentieth century is not, therefore, to be excluded even if, obviously, the conditions of our epoch are quite different from those of the last century.”

Nonetheless, Amin maintains a degree of cautious optimism.

“This tragic scenario is not, however, the only possible one. The offensive of capital against the workers is already under way in the very heartlands [i.e Cores] of the system. This is proof, if it were necessary, that capital, when it is reinforced by its victories against the peoples of the periphery, is then able to attack frontally the positions of the working classes in the centers of the system. In this situation, it is no longer impossible to visualize the radicalization of the struggles. The heritage of European political cultures is not yet lost, and it should facilitate the rebirth of an international consciousness that meets the requirements of its globalization.An evolution in this direction, however, comes up against the obstacle of the imperialist rent.”

Despite Amin’s hopefulness, he still runs head on into the reality of imperialist exploitation of the Third World and the First World labor aristocracy it has spawned.  This reality, according to Amin, keeps the South, for the time being, in the forefront of revolutionary struggle:

“['Imperialist rent'] is not only a major source of exceptional profits for the monopolies; it also conditions the reproduction of the society as a whole. And, with the indirect support of those popular elements seeking to preserve at all costs the existing electoral model of “democracy” (however undemocratic in reality), the weight of the middle classes can in all likelihood destroy the potential strength arising from the radicalization of the popular classes. Because of this, it is probable that the progress in the tricontinental South will continue to be at the forefront of the scene, as in the last century. However, as soon as the advances have had their effects and seriously restricted the extent of the imperialist rent, the peoples of the North should be in a better position to understand the failure of strategies that submit to the requirements of the generalized imperialist monopolies. The ideological and political forces of the radical left should then take their place in this great movement of liberation, built on the solidarity of peoples and workers.”

Even here, RAIM would say Amin is too optimistic. This historical record of internationalism within the First World is slim, far outweighed by examples of chauvinism and bourgeois-tailing amongst the ‘left’ and so-called ‘masses.’ Instead of internationalism, a loss of imperialist rent and accompanying privileges will more likely push First World  workers towards the path of fascism. As Amin himself noted, throughout the 20th century, the ‘masses’ of the First World largely supported their own imperialists. Greater class struggle on the part of the people of the Global South may sharpen contradictions within the First World, but that doesn’t mean the fundamental history and nature of the First World itself will be erased overnight. Like Lenin before him, Samir Amin is “too optimistic” and underestimates “the devastating effects of the imperialist rent” on political culture and class alignment.

Perhaps Amin’s oddest statement, or at least the one with the least explanation throughout the essay, is his call for the “building a Fifth International of workers and peoples.” The history of the previous four Internationals are mired in controversy. Though Amin calls this a “strategic objective,” he doesn’t elaborate on a Fifth International’s specific role in the endgame of the struggle for socialism and communism. Moreover, the nature of any such International is tied to questions of class. Just as Amin states revolution is “impossible unless it provides a solution to the problems of the peoples in the periphery—only 80 percent of the world population!,” it is similarly impossible unless it finds ways to overthrow and suppress the First World, only the remaining 20% of the world. If it is to be truly successful, any future International would have to be made up of groups tackling these two related questions.

Despite some obvious problems, Samir Amin’s essay provides a clearer picture than the vague ‘leftism’ and First Worldist ‘Marxism’ most common today. Samir Amin’s analysis, as with RAIM’s, goes much further in explaining the world and its potential than the vast majority claiming to be ideological and intellectual representatives in the English-speaking ‘left.’

Neither RAIM nor Samir Amin have all the answers, but we provide a series of salient premises from which more refined questions, speculation and practice can flow.

RAIM and Amin at this time disagree over details. Yet, in many ways it is RAIM doing the work in the Global North that Amin says is necessary. Very few groups in the First World besides RAIM offer a vision of “another world” which does in fact provide “solutions to the peoples in the periphery.” RAIM supports a broad united front against imperialism and can’t be counted amongst those First World ‘leftists’ which categorically deny the progressive nature of the state when incorporated into the revolutionary, anti-imperialist project. More importantly, while many groups claim to oppose imperialism as an abstract concept, RAIM is one of very few which opposes the “imperialist rent” that Amin prolifically mentions. Going further, RAIM by providing the most clear, direct political analysis possible is working to counter the effect this imperialist rent has on its population. We work to pull First Worlders away from their class (call it what you will) inclinations and towards internationalist solidarity in the most direct way.

RAIM and Samir Amin’s analysis is much more sophisticated than much of the left. This isn’t hard. Most so-called ‘leftists’ are movementarians, i.e. they uncritically support whatever ‘movement’ is popular and accessible to them. Movementarianism is susceptible to First Worldism and other imperialist manipulations. We need more than movementarianism (a kind of fake support) to progress further along the route of revolutionary struggle. We need a clear, critical analysis which both explains real social forces and illuminates possible areas for revolutionaries to intercede. Whereas the First Worldist ‘left’ is more likely to be acting in tandem with imperialism than against it, it is the hard analysis of groups like RAIM and authors like Samir Amin which aid and help bring to life deeper resistance to imperialism and the embryo of a future, non-exploitative world.

phase of capitalism, its preparation, that the development of latter phases