Samir Amin, Russia and the Long Transition from Capitalism to Socialism

Reviewed by Mat

Samir Amin, Russia and the Long Transition from Capitalism to Socialism (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2016), 144 pp., $21.

In his latest book, Egyptian economist and revolutionary theorist Samir Amin confronts an enigma. Twenty-six years after it occurred, the collapse of the Soviet Union continues to produce destabilizing consequences, not only for Russia but for the world as a whole. Yet the question “what collapsed?” is often only superficially considered. Amin looks beneath the common view that the USSR was never truly socialist to ask why, on the one hand, it could, even as a form of capitalism, with a ruling class of its own (the nomenklatura), present an obstacle to US ambitions and why, on the other hand, Russia still does. This of course entails an analysis of what led a revolution made in the name of socialism to arrive at a different destination and Amin does provide one. But his main objective here is not to repeat what he’s already extensively covered in other books. His emphasis here is on current affairs.

Current affairs, however, must take into account the fact that over the course of the short 20th Century (1914-1991) there were many dramatic turns that encouraged the hope that things would turn out differently. These include of course the Soviet Union’s defeat of the fascism in WWII, the subsequent Chinese Revolution and the rapid decolonization of Asia, Africa and Latin America leading to the revolution of 1968 and the brief, albeit illusory, belief in imminent victory for the people of the world. Indeed, Amin is scrupulous in avoiding the twin errors made by many who say the USSR was not socialist, namely, overlooking achievements in Russia or China or downplaying the unrelenting pressure of the US, Europe and Japan (the Imperialist Triad, in Amin’s terminology). Rather, he is calling attention to conditions which have endured far longer in a much larger part of the world than people in Western Europe or North America usually think about. The simple fact that the great majority of the world’s population still lives in the periphery, of which Eurasia forms the largest part, means that current affairs must be considered in this light.

This is why Amin begins by outlining a framework for analysis. Basic to this framework are a very long view of Eurasian empire, (Chinese, Czarist and Ottoman, over a thousand-year span), contrasted with the conquests made by Western Europe after 1492 and how these different types of empire, in one case inhibited, and in the other facilitated, capitalist development. Why, in other words, capitalism took off in Western Europe and not in Eurasia. Why, furthermore, the French, Russian and Chinese revolutions occurred when and where they did, while revolutions elsewhere were either crushed or failed to materialize. This framework is indispensable for an appraisal of the decolonization process – a process that, in one sense, continues to this day (more on this later). The role of agriculture, the peasantry and peripheral zones of global production are thereby foregrounded to better explain what both the Russian and Chinese revolutions were actually about, in contrast to interpretations deriving more from orthodoxy or wishful thinking than from social reality. In other words, they were not, in fact, socialist revolutions, but rather anti-feudal and popular democratic revolutions aimed at liberating not only workers, but the peasantry and agricultural production, while breaking free from foreign domination.

On this basis, Amin extends his framework to present circumstances, to show how this remains the question for Russia, China and the rest of the countries peripheral to the imperial center, i.e., the Triad. In short, the formulation made by the Chinese leadership in 1972 remains in effect today, albeit, under altered circumstances. Amin’s translation reads: “States seek independence, nations liberation and peoples revolution.” This orientation is crucial not only to the interpretation of anti-imperialist resistance in the 20th Century, but to what Amin views as the road forward in the 21st: delinking. This is a key word in Amin’s lexicon since it designates the means by which the dispossessed can unite and effectively combat the Triad. In other words, states, nations and peoples must delink from the imperialist system.

To arrive at this conclusion, Amin evaluates key figures such as Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin as well their counterparts in China, Mao Zedong, Zhou En-lai and Deng Xiaoping. Refreshingly, he avoids the sectarianism that has rendered such evaluation well-nigh impossible for decades. He furthermore clearly distinguishes between errors of analysis and the material conditions that produced them. For example, the shortcomings of Lenin’s and Bukharin’s analysis of imperialism as the highest stage of capitalism, which on the one hand supported the correct view of Russia as “weak link” in the imperialist system, but at the same time encouraged the incorrect view that revolutions were soon to follow – and succeed – in advanced capitalist countries. Another example is the way in which Mao’s analysis of the nature of the Chinese Revolution and the role of the peasantry led to a qualitatively different approach than that taken by Stalin. As Amin writes, “This allowed China to avoid the fatal error of forced collectivization and instead made all agricultural land state property, gave the peasantry equal access to use of this land, and renovated family farms” (78).

These questions are of course explored in greater depth in the book, but suffice it to say, Amin is highly critical of doctrinaire interpretations which proceed not from concrete analysis of concrete conditions but from uncritical allegiance to iconic figures. Only by challenging “received wisdom” were Lenin or Mao capable of leading successful revolutions in the first place. Indeed, as Amin points out, “As leaders of revolutionary communist parties and then later as leaders of revolutionary states, they were confronted with the problems of a triumphant revolution in countries of peripheral capitalism and forced to ‘revise’ (a term considered sacrilegious by many) the theses inherited from the historical Marxism of the Second International” (68).

What follows are well-informed accounts of the Bandung Conference, the non-aligned movement and the Sino-Soviet split, including hitherto unreported meetings whose minutes have yet to be published. Amin’s personal participation in some of these meetings enables him to comment knowledgeably on the content of debates involving communist parties in many countries, some leading to splits (India, for example), others leading to a course between the positions taken by Russia and China (Vietnam, for example). The stakes and mistakes are brought forward without apology or gloss, providing a better means of comprehending the forces of depoliticization which would only be fully revealed with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Here Amin makes highly insightful self-criticism, admitting that he both underestimated the extent to which the Soviet people had been depoliticized and overestimated the potential for their repoliticization in the wake of the collapse of the USSR. Furthermore, he failed to anticipate the response of the European Left, expecting a more radical and effective response to what might have been an historic opportunity.

Finally, Amin addresses the related questions of the return of fascism, particularly in Ukraine, and what, ultimately, the adjective “long” in his book’s title implies. On the return of fascism, Amin is far from glib or rhetorical in his application of this loaded and imprecise term. Nevertheless, by describing the different fascisms that actually held power in Europe, he arrives at a convincing argument for using the term today. In a nutshell, there were four types: hegemonic-imperialist (Nazism/Germany); second-rank capitalist states (Mussolini’s, Franco’s and Salazar’s); defeated powers (Vichy France); and dependent countries in Eastern Europe (Poland, the Baltic States, Romania, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Greece and western Ukraine). Beyond these are the dictatorships common to the Global South which tend to resemble each other and those of the last category (Eastern Europe). These distinctions are helpful in explaining current resurgences and alignments, but the main thrust of Amin’s argument is that the profundity of systemic crisis expressed in today’s resurgence suggests vulnerabilities as well as threats. In any case, it will not be liberalism or social-democracy that will defeat resurgent fascism. It will require a more resolute radicalism, aiming toward a higher goal, than simply a nostalgic return to welfare state norms of the post-WWII period. Which leads to taking seriously the “long transition” of Amin’s title.

Briefly put, Amin’s purpose is, partly, to remind us of the magnitude of systemic transition while explaining why ours is a key moment in time. He is not predicting outcomes, he is drawing battle lines, above all the battle line between “collective imperialism” (the Triad) and the Global South. This is not just “broad context” for its own sake, because only in this context is it possible to see fatal weaknesses in the system in order to seize on them. It is, as well, to more clearly define what we are fighting for.

Mat Callahan
Bern, Switzerland