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The non-capitalist path

Samir Amin’s short essay on ‘the non-capitalist path’ (La voie non capitaliste), published here for the first time, will form the basis for the entry of the same name in vol. 10/I of the Historical-Critical Dictionary of Marxism (in preparation). Amin likely wrote the text at least three decades ago, around the time he produced ‘Anticolonialism’, his only HCDM-entry published so far (see HKWM I, 1994, 344-349 – also available here). In fact, ‘the non-capitalist path’ might very well predate ‘Anticolonialism’ as there is no indication that the fall of the European socialist states had already occurred when he wrote it. Crucially, in the period separating the text’s pre-1989 reality and our own time, capitalism has ostensibly become the ‘exclusive’ social and economic path for all countries of the ‘globalized’ world, thus apparently rendering the central problem of Amin’s essay moot. Yet, many questions raised in the text remain open and, indeed, have become urgent once more. Is an autonomous pathway of development for the countries of the periphery – i.e., the ‘Global South’ – at all possible beyond the sphere of influence of the leading capitalist economies? With the return of geopolitical tensions along an East-West axis, this time with China as the fundamental ‘antagonist’ of the ‘West’, and especially since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the notion of ‘non-alignment’ has returned to the fold as a necessary – and indeed viable – alternative for countries of the South. The same can be said of Amin’s call for their ‘delinking’ from the capitalist powers, not least now that – despite their ostensible ‘rivalry’ – the Chinese, American and European economies have much deeper ties and interdependencies than the Western countries ever had with their ‘Eastern bloc’ counterparts during the Cold War. A ‘delinking’ also emerges as a possible strategy in a context of environmental catastrophe; produced mainly by the emissions and environmental destruction with roots in the economic power centers and actors of the rich North, its consequences affect primarily and most violently the poor in the countries of the South. Finally, if the actors Amin addresses strived for more than political independence through decolonization and antiimperialist struggle, their goal being ‘economic, social and cultural liberation’, that status remains elusive for most of the countries of Latin America, Africa and Asia. The ‘people-centered’ development model posited by Amin, viable only along a ‘non-capitalist path’, retains its actuality after all. 

The HKWM-Blog editors 

By Samir Amin

The period following World War II was marked by the rise of national liberation movements, which took centre stage in history, and which, through their conquest of independence for Asian and African countries, transformed the world map. Since the Russian Revolution, Leninism had chosen to ally itself with the “oppressed peoples of the East” who, through their anti-imperialist revolt, compensated for the slide into opportunism of the Western working classes. But whereas in China and Vietnam the Communist Party established itself very early on as the leading force in the national liberation struggles, “bourgeois” nationalist parties constituted the main axis of the movement virtually everywhere else. Also, the Soviet Union, upon the end of World War II, expressed its misgivings through the words of Andrei Zhdanov, fearing that the new ruling national bourgeoisies would strengthen the US system of global hegemony.

However, these states and the new ruling bourgeoisies would not cease to confront imperialism, for the Afro-Asian states understood that their reconquered political independence was only the means to an end consisting in the conquest of economic, social, and cultural liberation. And even if, in general, they thought of “development” as something possible within the “interdependence” of the world economy, they knew that building up an independent developed economy and society implied a certain degree of “conflict” with the dominant West (the radical wing believed in putting a stop to the control of the national economy by foreign monopoly capital). What is more, concerned as they were with preserving their reconquered independence, they refused to enter the global military game and serve as a base for the encirclement of the socialist countries that US hegemony was trying to impose.

However, they also thought that the refusal to insert themselves into the Atlanticist military camp did not imply the need to place themselves under the protection of its adversary, the USSR. Hence the “neutralism”, the “non-alignment” which would be expressed from Bandung Conference (1955) onwards.

That is how Soviet diplomacy became aware that supporting the new nationalist regimes could become the essential means to break the US encirclement. This argument – in favour of breaking the US hegemonic front – might have itself sufficed to justify the new alliance. But it did not, and Soviet doctrine came up with an ideological justification on the occasion: namely, that the countries in question were committed to a “non-capitalist path” of development, potentially liable to opening up towards socialist construction.

One may well doubt whether this “optimistic” analysis – which would later not be borne out by events – was realistic. One may well think that, in effect, it was nothing more than a bourgeois national project that aimed to ensure control of internal accumulation by the hegemonic national bourgeoisie through the state. The circumstances of the capitalist expansion between 1955 and 1970 presented the illusion, to a certain extent, that this project was historically possible: the strong growth of the “North” facilitated “adjustment” in the South.

Today it is no longer possible to ignore the shortcomings of this project, which did not withstand the reversal of favourable circumstances. The agricultural and food crisis, foreign financial indebtedness, increased technological dependence, only a fragile capacity to resist possible military aggressions, the plague of wastefulness through capitalistic consumerism, and what these entail on the ideological and cultural planes, mark the historical limits of the attempt. Even before the current crisis offered an opportunity to a “Western offensive” which has succeeded in reversing these developments, these shortcomings had already led to dead ends.

In this sense, history has shown that the national bourgeoisie is not capable of carrying out in our time what it carried out elsewhere – in Europe, North America, and Japan – in the 19th century. Today, in any case, we have turned the page of history, and in the current phase, the Third World bourgeoisie has agreed to inscribe its development in compradorised subalternisation (1990, 141) imposed by the expansion of transnational capitalism. For this reason, it is evident that the theory of the “non-capitalist path” is dead.

Of course, the theory of the non-capitalist path did not convince everyone. It was strongly denounced by Maoist China in the 1960s, notably in its famous “25-point letter” of 1963, as a kind of opium meant to calm popular revolutions in the “storm zone”.

Undoubtedly, these revolutions have not forged a path to the present day. Does this mean that there is no alternative to the course of peripheral capitalist expansion? Not at all: the bourgeois national project must be opposed by a popular national project, based on a strategy of delinking (that is, subjecting foreign relations to the logic of people-oriented internal development) that the bourgeoisie, by definition, cannot promote. Then perhaps shall we embark on the road to the long “transition” in question.

Translated by María Inés Castagnino

Samir Amin (Cairo, 1931 – Paris, 2018) was an Egyptian economist who reflected on the relations between center and periphery and the causes of underdevelopment, in works such as Accumulation on a World Scale (1970), Unequal Development (1973) and Delinking: Towards a Polycentric World System (1986). In this last book, Amin explains the economic links between the countries of advanced capitalism and those of the Third World. He also postulates the urgent need for the latter to consider an alternative world integration strategy, based on a ‘people-centered’ development model, in order to evade the polarizing and unequal logic of capitalist globalization. Through his activism in various social movements and international associations such as the Third World Forum, Amin fulfilled his commitment to the alternative internationalism postulated in his socio-economic theory.


S. Amin, Delinking: Towards a Polycentric World. Translated by M. Wolfers. London and New Jersey 1990.