Samir Amin: Shifting the Geography of Reason

A reflection on the life and work of Samir Amin, this year’s winner of the Caribbean Philosophical Association’s Frantz Fanon Lifetime Achievement Award.

Samir Amin was this year’s winner of the Caribbean Philosophical Association’s Frantz Fanon Lifetime Achievement Award.  The ceremony in which he received his plaque took place at Cheikh Anta Diop University in Dakar, Senegal in June.

On receiving his award, Amin gave a rousing reflection on the global political challenges of today with a reminder that revolution is not an event achieved overnight.  It requires long-term, committed struggle.

It was fitting that Amin was honoured this way at a university named after one of the great African revolutionaries of the twentieth century. It was also poignant because despite his being an African of Egyptian and French ancestry, his heart was also located in Senegal, where he devoted a good portion of his life to the Third World Forum he co-founded there.  

That the Caribbean Philosophical Association motto is “Shifting the Geography of Reason” is also a testament to Amir’s influence.

His critique of Eurocentrism inspired many intellectuals across the Global South. The Caribbean Philosophical Association was not founded as a mirror of intellectual practices in the Imperial North.  Its aims were not only to value ideas from the Global South, or the underside of Euromodernity, but also to value being valued by that world

Samir Amin valued being valued by a world whose goals transcended Euromodernity.   He shared the stage that evening with the famed Senegalese philosopher Souleymane Bachir Diagne, the Senegalese economist and musician Felwine Sarr, and the Brazilian novelist and essayist Conceição Evaristo.

There was no way for any of us to know we were sharing a prized moment in the last month and a half of the life of this great intellectual.  Samir Amin passed away on August 12th, to the dismay of so many across the globe.

Many obituaries refer to him as Egyptian and Marxist, but as we saw in our brief time with him, he was also an African whose homes were Egypt, France, and Senegal, and, as an intellectual, the world.  He was much beloved.

In his Caribbean Philosophical Association conference presentation  “Samir Amin and the Future of Caribbean Philosophy,” the Antiguan sociologist, philosopher, and political economist Paget Henry voiced, on behalf of all of us, his appreciation for Amin’s groundbreaking work on the importance of Third World, now Global Southern, peoples taking charge of the path of history.  

The historical need not be, as the German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel and many Eurocentric thinkers avowed, European.

Amin understood, in a long tradition of African thinkers, the centrality of the contingent and the uncertain.

Unlike other Marxist-oriented thinkers, many of whom hoped for a linear unfolding dialectic of world events, Amin understood, in a long tradition of African thinkers, the centrality of the contingent and the uncertain

 It is not foretold that the only way to transform the future and produce conditions of freedom requires becoming people of colour in white masks.

Amin’s articulation of dynamics of dependency, not only in economic arrangements of colonialism and neocolonialism, but also at its cultural foundations was no less than a demand for future generations to build creative alternatives for a viable future.

The plaque Amin received extended this observation as follows:

décerne le 2018 Frantz Fanon Lifetime Achievement Award
pour votre excellent travail en économie politique et en théorie pour être un chercheur de premier plan mondial, un constructeur d’institutions et un penseur radical engagé envers la dignité humaine, la liberté et la transformation révolutionnaire du savoir

In English: “To Samir Amin for your excellent work in political theory and political economy as a world-leading researcher, institutional builder, and radical thinker committed to human dignity, freedom, and the revolutionary transformation of knowledge.”

Samir Amin was born on 3 September 1931 in Cairo, Egypt. His parents were medical doctors who no doubt instilled in him an unabated commitment to healing the world or, in the least, facilitating a healthy one.

He pursued his graduate training in political science, statistics, and economics in Paris, France. He was a militant throughout his years of study, during which he became a member of the French Communist Party.

[Amin] inaugurated an influential line of critical studies of “underdevelopment”.

His doctoral thesis, elements of which he later expanded and developed, inaugurated an influential line of critical studies of “underdevelopment,” in which he was subsequently joined by such luminaries as Almícar Cabral, Frantz Fanon, Sekou Touré, Steve Bantu Biko, Walter Rodney, Aníbal Quijano, Enrique Dussel, Sylvia Wynter, and Angela Y. Davis.  People are not underdeveloped, they all agree; they are forced to appear so.

Despite achieving his doctorate in economics in 1957, Amin did not at first take the academic route.  He worked as a researcher and economic advisor in Egypt and Mali before teaching in Senegal and France from 1963 till 1970 when he became the director of the Institut Africain de Développement Économique et de Planification in Dakar, Senegal, a post he held till 1980 when he became Director of the Third World Forum in the same city.

Amin’s contributions are above all his ideas.  His books and articles are too numerous to mention in this brief memorialization.  Bibliographies of his writings are available on multiple websites, including the Third World Forums’.   In his tribute, Vijay Prashad rightly states:

In his most important book, Accumulation on a World Scale (1970), which propelled him into the front ranks of dependency theory, Amin showed how resources flowed from the countries of the periphery to enrich the countries of the core through a process that he called “imperialist rent.”  

Many of the people who use the he term “Eurocentrism” today are not aware that it was coined by Amin in his book bearing that name: L’eurocentrisme (1988).

 In that work he focused on capitalism as a cultural system instead of a set of algorithmic expectations premised on profit and efficiency as proposed by its proponents in microeconomics.  

Today the term is often used without an understanding of the material conditions of cultural capital, which reveals the continued importance of reading and re-reading Amin’s thought on the subject.

That the expression is deployed across the globe is a testament to what it elucidates and the prescience of Amin’s insight.

Jeremy Glick, a member of the Awards Committee of the Caribbean Philosophical Association, said this, which was included in the letter Amin received on 1 January 2018:  

Samir Amin is for me a figure like Gramsci or Fanon or The Beatles—someone I’ve been learning from all my life. I actually can’t imagine my intellectual and political life without Amin’s interventions.

Many would agree.  Former Caribbean Philosophical Association President Jane Anna Gordon and I met with Samir in his office in downtown Dakar this past June right before the conference in which he was being honored.  

The office was a floor beneath his apartment at the Third World Forum. We spent a wonderful afternoon discussing his memories of conversations and collaborations with great revolutionaries whom we all admired, such as Cabral, Fanon, and Touré, each of whom he new personally, and then we shifted to the contemporary global state of affairs.

Samir commented on the contemporary situation of the relations between Russia and the United States, challenges to the European Union, and the complexity of what China is doing as a world leader in this negative moment of renewed primitive accumulation.  We talked about the anemia of many leftist groups born from their allergy to power.

We reflected on the impact of postmodernism on contemporary political life, where there are even postmodern fascists laying claim to anti-essentialism and rallying against their supposed victimisation.  

We derided the silliness of pitting class, gender, and race against each other instead of thinking through, as Sekou Touré did, their interconnectedness and multiple forms of production under global capitalism. And we talked about the centrality of understanding freedom and the flourishing of life as political goals.    

Jane and I were moved by the gift of an intimate moment with an intellectual simply being who he is and speaking his mind.  Although there are many studies and portraits that have been written about Samir Amin, and there will no doubt be many more to come, what we witnessed was a core passion for dignity and respect for life marked by a maturity and courage.

The Caribbean Philosophical Association and the Senegalese Philosophical Society organised a wonderful celebration after Samir and others received their award.   

The Senegalese band Nakodjé sang and played moving music with a variety of traditional instruments that drew everyone to the dance floor.

A circle was formed into which jumped many, including Bachir and Conceição, to express their joy and make their case, in dance, for the continued celebration of life.   

Among them was Samir, whose face revealed the joy and light of an overwhelmed heart.

Though many of us will continue to read his words, those of us with the good fortune to be there that night will remember him in that moment of a perfect metaphor of what the proverbial “it” was all about, which is the dance of life with the humility and commitment to a cause that is greater than ourselves and always worth fighting for.

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