Who was Arghiri Emmanuel?

Emmanuel – a man of the 20th century

Emmanuel was born in 1911 and died in 2001 and hence experienced many of the historical characteristics of the 20th century, which contributed to the development of his theory of unequal exchange.

He was born in Patras, Greece, At the time Greece was in the semi-periphery, if not the periphery of the capitalist world system. Emmanuel’s childhood was at the time of the first wave of revolutionary uprisings in the periphery: The Taiping revolution in 1911 and the Russian revolution in 1917. It was also the era of colonialism and inter-imperialist rivalry. Greece took part in the Balkan wars (1912-13) and was also drawn into the First World War and subsequently into yet another Greco-Turkish war from 1919 to 1922.

The world economic crisis of 1929 hit Greece severely, leading to continued mass emigration from Greece. Emmanuel studied at the High School of Economics and Commerce in Athens from 1927 to 1932 and then at the Faculty of Law until 1934, from where he went on to work in commerce in Athens until 1937. At the time, the political situation was unstable in Greece as in the rest of Europe, fascism was on the rise. In 1936 prime minister Metaxas initiated a coup d’état and established a fascist anti-communist regime. In the midst of these problems Emmanuel’s father dies in 1937, and as the eldest son, he became responsible for the well-being of his family. To raise money Emmanuel decided to emigrate. Most Greek emigrants went to the United States, however, this flow was restricted in the 1930s by US anti-immigration laws, so Emmanuel decided to go to Belgium King Leopold the 2´s colony in Congo, where members of his family had settled and established a small textile import business. Like people from India in South Africa, immigrants from southern Europa, like Greeks, were generally perceived as not entirely ‘white’ by the Belgium settlers in Congo. Emmanuel’s experiences in the Congo provided him with illustrative practical examples, which he used in his later writings. The extreme difference in wages between Africans and European settlers and the brutal racist Belgium regime was a microcosm of the division in center-periphery in the world-system.

Back in Europe, following the German occupation of Greece in May 1941, the Greek king George II accompanied by Metaxists fled to Egypt where they established a government-in-exile. The starvation winter, of 1941-42 in Greece and the brutal occupation, killing half a million, drove many to join the resistance movement – also Emmanuel. In 1942 he went back to Greece, joining the EAM (National Liberation Front), which main driving force was the Communist Party of Greece. Emmanuel then volunteered for the Greek Liberation Forces in the Middle East and became a naval officer. In April 1944 he took an active part in the mutiny of these forces against the right-wing Greek government installed by the allies in Cairo.[1] When the uprising was put down by British troops Emmanuel was taken prisoner and sentenced to death by a Greek court-martial in Alexandria.[2] By the end of 1945, he was however granted amnesty and sent to a British prison camp in Sudan.[3] In the prison camp, he wrote a textbook on dialectic materialism. (for the Greek communist party or prison inmates or himself?)[4] In March 1946 he was released, but with his record and the defeat of the communist in the civil war, the prospect of finding work in Greece was limited, so he went back to Congo.

In Congo in the late 40ties, he directed different commercial and building enterprises. In the 50ties the anti-colonial liberation movement was on the rise in Africa. The Mau Mau rebellion 1952-57 in Kenya, the ANC in South Africa organized protests and civil disobedience up through the 1950ties and Ghana became independent in 1957 with Kwame Nkrumah as president. On the global level, the Chinese communists proclaim the people’s republic of China in 1949, and the Bandung conference of the Third World took place in 1955. In Congo, this trend was reflected in the formation of different anti-colonial movements. A prominent figure in this development was Patrice Lumumba. Emmanuel became engaged in Congolese politics, reflected in his articles in the newspaper “Le Stanleyvillois”. They also deal with political and economic questions, which hints at themes later to be developed in L’Échange inégal (1969) and Le Profit et les crises (1984).

Emmanuel stayed in Stanleyville, which became a stronghold for Patrice Lumumba in the late 1950s, and was connected to the independence movement. In 1957 Emmanuel rather abruptly left Congo. In the bibliographic notes, on the cover flip of the English edition of “Unequal Exchange”, it is indicated that he was forced out of Congo by Belgium Settlers and deported to Nairobi. Lumumba later, in his short period as president of an independent Congo. in a personal letter to Emmanuel, writes that he is always welcome back in Congo.[5]

Nevertheless, Emmanuel ended up in Paris, planning a new turn in his life. From 1957 to 1960 he studied art history at L’École du Louvre. In 1961, at the age of fifty, he change his mind concerning studies from art history to political economy and entered the École Pratique des Hautes Études to study socialist planning under Charles Bettelheim. Maybe he had plans to acquire knowledge of economic planning and return to an independent Congo.[6] Maybe he had developed some ideas on international trade through his business experience that he wanted to elaborate on.

The developments in Congo were negative. The newly elected president Patrice Lumumba was murdered on 17 January 1961 and Congo soon became a neo-colony of Belgium and the US mining interest. However, the anti-imperialist movements in general continued their progress. The Cuban revolution in 1959, The Algerian war of liberation 1954-62, the victory of the Vietnamese over France in Dien Bien Phu in 1954, the continued liberation of South Vietnam, the resistance against Portuguese colonialism in Africa, and so on. If you put pins in a map of the world of every significant anti-imperialist movement at the time, the prospect was positive. This development on the ground was reflected in Marxist theory.

Before the 1960s, the Marxist understanding of imperialism was almost exclusively based on Lenin´s writings. Then, things began to change. New perspectives emerged, both from Third World revolutionaries and from academics in the North and South. Maoism gained influence. The Algerian Frantz Fanon´s book “The Wretched of the Earth” made a huge impression and contributed to bringing the experience of the struggle in the Third World into the Marxist theory of imperialism. On the academic front, people like Samir Amin, Ruy Mauro Marini, Immanuel Wallerstein, and Andre Gunder Frank were at the center of what became known as “dependency theory”. It described imperialism as a system consisting of a center of North America, Western Europe, and Japan, and an exploited periphery – the Third World – which supplied the metropolis with raw materials and tropical agricultural goods produced by cheap labor. Emmanuel became part of this flux.

After less than two years of studies in 1963, Emmanuel introduced the notion of “unequal exchange” in an article.[7] The second publication on “unequal exchange” in 1964 “El Intercambio Desigual”, appeared in the February edition of “Economica”, a Cuban journal.[8] Emmanuel received a doctorate (‘de 3ème cycle’) in sociology based on his thesis “L`échange inégal” from the Sorbonne in 1968, the year of the student revolt in Paris. His thesis appeared in 1969 in a book form published by Maspero. In the following years L`échange inégal” was translated into English, Spanish Italian, and Serbian. In the 70ties, literally, hundreds of articles in academic journals and left-wing magazines discussed the groundbreaking critique of David Ricardo’s classic theory of international trade and its modern versions. A special controversial point in Emmanuel’s book was the political consequence of unequal change. The idea, that the workers of the rich countries benefited from the transfer of surplus value from the workers of the poor countries. Hence he got many academic relations, but few political friends.

With the thesis and its publications, Emmanuel’s academic career was launched. He was appointed Associate Professor at University of Paris I in 1969. He then headed the Economics Department, UER of Geography and Social Sciences, at the University of Paris VII and from 1972 the International Economic Relations Department at the Institute of Economics and Social Development Studies (IEDES), until his retirement in 1980.

In 1973, capitalism encounter its first major economic crisis since the end of the Second World War triggered by the rise of the oil price by OPEC, leading to economic stagnation and inflation – “stagflation”. Emmanuel wrote several articles on the subject and in 1974 he published his second major contribution to political economy “Le profit et les crises”. It deals with the fundamental contradictions in the capitalist mode of production, creating recurrent crises. It is a criticism of the classic political economist Say´s postulate of a balance between production and consumption in capitalism. It explains how this contradiction is temporarily softened by the creation of debt and by the transfer of value through the unequal exchange.

Capitalism solved its economic and political problems in the “long sixties” through the neoliberal counteroffensive against social democrats in the global North and anti-imperialist socialists in the global South. Global deregulation of capital movements and trade paved the way for a new international division of labor. It was no longer raw materials, agricultural products, and labor-intensive industrial products from the Third world against high-tech industrial products from the imperialist center, as in the post-war period. From the 80ties industrial production was outsourced from high-wage countries in the North to low-wage countries in the global South. Millions of new industrial workers were recruited, most prominent in China, while the global North was deindustrialized to a certain extent. China became the largest producer of industrial goods in the world. Not only investment and trade was globalized, but the production itself also became transnational in the form of production chains. This development caught Emmanuel’s attention at a very early stage, and in 1982 he published the book “Appropriate or underdeveloped technology”.

In the 1970s, most dependency theorists thought that it would be impossible for the Third World to industrialize within the imperialist system. They believed that Third World countries would continue to supply raw materials, tropical agricultural products, and simple, labor-intensive industrial goods. Their economies would remain dependent and they would forever constitute the periphery of the capitalist world system. The only way out of this situation was a socialist revolution and de-linking, as recommended by Samir Amin. This might seem like an option in 1965-75. However, not in the era of neoliberal globalization under US hegemony.

Dependency theory did not foresee the massive industrialization of the periphery in the past forty years, because it assumed that a domestic market had to be developed before industrialization could become possible. It underestimated the development and the power of the capitalist productive forces that led to the globalization of the production process itself. New commutation and logistic technology in combination with the liberalization of capital movement and trade made industrialization of the global South possible, with the aim of export to the North. No one at the time could imagine the collapse of the Soviet Union or the integration of China into the world market. It seemed unthinkable that only a few decades later, 80 percent of the world’s industrial proletariat would live and work in the Global South and that the Global North would be rapidly deindustrialized.

The export-oriented industrialization of the Global South and the creation of global chains of production brought new forms and a quantitative expansion of unequal exchange. These are more intricate than trading raw materials and agricultural products for industrial products, which characterized unequal exchange until the end of the 1980s. The global chains of production make it possible to transfer value from low-wage workers in the South to corporations and consumers in the North hidden in the distortion of the prices. The theory of unequal exchange is not only a critique of economists who advocate liberal foreign trade but also of those who adhere to the neoliberal theory of price formation.

But the question of unequal exchange was not the only issue at stake in the outsourcing of industrial production to the global South. The old discussion of advanced capitalism’s role in the development of the productive forces in the periphery was raised again by Emmanuel in the book “Appropriate or underdeveloped Technology?” published in 1982.[9] In the book, Emmanuel claim that multinational companies’ investments and the implicit transfer of appropriate technology were better than the use of the underdeveloped technology at the disposal of more or less delinked Third world countries. This was a provocative stand, as multinational capital was the face of the enemy – capitalism. However, Emmanuel’s point of view was not new, but in tune with the praise of the progressive role of capitalism in developing the productive forces needed for the socialist mode of production in the Communist Manifesto.

The raise of China as an economic world power in recent decades proved Emmanuel right. In a world-system, where capitalism still was the main driver of the development of productive forces, a poor country, trying to develop socialism can not – and should not – avoid the interaction with the most advanced part of capitalism, because their investment entails the transfer of advanced technology. However is a complicated and dangerous game, in which the successful outcome is dependent on the poor state’s ability, to uphold and defend a national project for the benefit of the working class. Hence the difference in the encounter with neoliberalism in China and most of the global South. Emmanuel discussed this problem in several articles including “The state in transitions period”.[10]

Emmanuel’s childhood and youth were characterized by wars and capitalist economic crises. A decade of his adult life, he spend in one of the most brutal colonial regimes. These first-hand impressions and experiences in the first fifty years of his life were important bases for the ideas he developed in the latter part of his life. Knowing is, through perception and experience from lived practice, to arrive at the thought, to develop concepts, and arrive step by step at the comprehension of the internal contradictions of objective things. It is to develop a logical knowledge capable of grasping the development of the surrounding world in its totality, in the internal relations of all its aspects.[11]

  1. Emnanuel, Agrhiri (1982) The upheaval of Middle East Greek Forced in April 1944. The Greek Review. 19 Juni 1982, page 12-17.
  2. For the court case Emmanuel wrote an Apology to defend himself in front of his judges. This is supplied by Catherine Emmanuel in Greek and French for the archive.
  3. While in prison camp in Sudan Emmanuel wrote a course in Greek in ”Dialectic”. This is supplied by Catherine Emmanuel for the archive.
  4. The Emmanuel Archive provided by Catherine Emmanuel.
  5. Letter from Patrice Lumumba to Emmanuel.
  6. Article found in Emmanuel’s archive dated 27 of June 1961, on Congo´s economy in the transition from colony to an independent state, probably written by Emmanuel.
  7. Emmanuel, Arghiri (1963) “Échange inégal”, Revue “Problemes de Planification”, No..2. Paris, 1963.
  8. Emmanuel, Arghiri (1964) EL INTERCAMBIO DESIGUAL, in Revue Economica, La Havane, Fevrier, 1964.
  9. Emmanuel, Arghiri (1982) Appropriate or underdeveloped Technology? John Wiley & Sons, Chichester. London 1982.
  10. Emmanuel, A. (1979) The State in the Transitional Period. New Left Review no. 113-114, January-April 1979, page 110-131. London 1979.
  11. Tse-tung, Mao (1937) On Practice, In, Tse-tung, MaoSelected Works. Vol. I. Foreign Languages Press: Peking, 1965.