[OPE-L] The Contradictions of a Contrarian: Andre Gunder Frank by Jeff Sommers

From: Rakesh Bhandari (bhandari@BERKELEY.EDU)
Date: Mon Apr 25 2005 - 13:05:37 EDT

The Contradictions of a Contrarian: Andre Gunder Frank
by Jeff Sommers
April 25, 2005

Among academic activists I know the two names most frequently cited for
inspiring us to pursue our work are Noam Chomsky and Andre Gunder Frank.
Yesterday we lost one of them in Andre Gunder Frank. Gunder must have put,
literally, thousands on that path, who in turn reached perhaps millions of
students in some fashion.

He was released from a decade long battle with several cancers on April 23,
2005 where in a weakened state he succumbed to pneumonia. Complicating
matters were potent infections acquired in hospitals in the attempt to beat
back his cancers. Indeed, Gunder's life, like most, yet more than most, was
characterized by struggle.

Gunder struggled in childhood, with an absentee, yet successful, father,
who Gunder both missed and admired. Fleeing the persecution of leftists and
Jews, of which Gunder's father was both, the family fled to Switzerland.
His father went to California and sent for the family later, Gunder
imagined him to have been suffering in poverty there, only to find a
celebrity of Hollywood screenwriter of sorts in a convertible. Gunder
suffered from loneliness, complicated by biochemically rooted psychological
issues that challenged him throughout his life. Conversely, he was handsome
as a young man and could be, in a sincere way, charming and disarming.
Gunder was indeed always full of contradictions.

Gunder's education was as eclectic as the man. His learning was a mixture
of public schools, elite boarding academies and college at Swarthmore, to
working across the US in timber mills, factories, and in sundry low-paid
services. His intellectual abilities could not be ignored and from
Swarthmore he pursued Ph.D. study as an economist at the University of
Chicago, at the counsel of his father. Gunder's life was a series of
unlikely, and both tragic and humorous, circumstances. At Chicago he
studied briefly under Milton Friedman. "Uncle Miltie," as Gunder referenced
him, clearly put into relief all that was wrong with economics. Gunder
quickly came to be known what, in the disparaging language of economics, as
an "institutionalist," who took his inspiration from the likes of Thorstein
Veblen and Gunnar Myrdal. Gunder was hardly innumerate, but rightly held,
in the language of Myrdal, that there was a "political element in the
development of economic theory" that was far more explanatory than the
logic of late 19th mathematics in revealing the workings of economy and
society. Gunder, therefore, began his own eclectic a-la-carte program of
self-directed study at Chicago that included much time spent with
Anthropologists. Besides, as Gunder once related to me, the "girls were
pretty." Gunder relayed that observation without the bravado of a sexist,
but in a shy self-deprecating way. Gunder treated women with a combination
of respect that was comprised of one-part 19th century respectful gentlemen
(at least the positive depiction of it) mixed with the deep respect of a
feminist who understood the struggle of women. In one of tens of jobs
Gunder held, 1999 brought him to Miami for a short-term academic position.
Battling cancers for several years and understanding that the end was
always near, Gunder indulged the small vice, and I suspect connected to the
memory of his father, of acquiring a convertible. My fondest memory of
Gunder was driving along South Beach with Gunder sporting his guayabera and
straw hat as he admired the scenery in all its dimensions. One could tell
he recognized the irony and humor of it all. Filmed in black and white it
could have been perfectly captured only by Fellini.

Gunder's dissertation at Chicago focused on Ukrainian agriculture. He had
the privilege of spending the summer in Kiev to conduct research. While a
young man there in the 1950s, his experiences ranged from teaching a young
woman to swim the Dnieper to being caught up in the Cold War and coming
under suspect as spy. While a great respecter of the Soviet experiment at
the time, Gunder always followed the truth, and he labeled its agriculture
a failure. From there, Gunder went on to travel throughout Latin America in
the 1960s, and it was here that he made his contributions to Dependency
Theory. I recall asking him who he was reading at the time and he declared
he had little with him, but the structures of unequal exchange and
underdevelopment were like ether that were obvious to anyone who dared
breathe it in.

Gunder's politics reflected his experiences, hopes, and the limits of his
knowledge. I recall a conversation with him in 1999 in which, as was
customary of him to argue later in life, that no one person could have
altered history, and that all those in power were merely reflections of
larger structural forces that selected them rather the reverse. I mostly
share this unfashionable view, but suggested that Henry Wallace might have
prevented the Cold War had FDR not replaced him with Truman in 1944 in
order to pacify conservative southern democrats. He grudgingly agreed that
I found the one and only example of potential agency in world history, and
late at night enjoyed laughter at this. Of course, Gunder was an ardent
supporter of Wallace in his 1948 run for the presidency. Gunder was a
forceful advocate of some Leninist ideas too when younger. I brought Gunder
and Chomsky together in 1998 at Noam's office, as they both graciously
agreed to serve on my dissertation committee. One of Gunder's first
utterances was, "you were right about my Leninism and I should have read
the anarchist reading list you sent me thirty years ago." In his fatalistic
way, though, Gunder declared, "but I would not have listened anyway." This
was Gunder with his usual contradictions and honesty following a purer
historical materialism, in which things don't happen until the underlying
conditions permit. The great irony is that nobody worked harder as an
academic to, as Marx put it, "change the world, not just understand it." He
produced some 40 books, 140 chapters in edited volumes, and over 300
hundred articles. His individual output exceeded that of most mid-size
academic departments in the US. None of this brought him money, and his
writings caused him plenty of grief. But, his humanity pushed him forward
to challenge injustice just on the odd chance that history might be steered.

And, while Gunder's writings did bring trouble, as he pointed out, by
comparative global standards he was fortunate. He was not jailed or shot
for deviating from the many "correct" doctrines advanced during the 20th
century. But, those in authority considered his ideas dangerous. His famous
article in the Monthly Review on dependency theory in the mid-1960s was
considered sufficiently threatening to result in a letter to Gunder from
the US Attorney General informing him he would not be allowed reentry to
the US. This decision was only overturned in 1979, when Senator Ted Kennedy
intervened to allow Gunder and Ernest Mandel to teach a seminar at Boston

This move to exile Gunder from the US deprived him of a comfortable
academic career and resulted in an itinerant existence which was personally
painful, but from which the rest of us benefited. Under trying conditions,
his output, both in terms of creativity and volume, was enormous. Yet,
Gunder's life was interesting. It included the suggestion by Che Guevara
that he might consider serving as minister of Cuba's economy, to visits by
the Soviet Ambassador to Mexico bearing the gift of diapers for his new
son, and a demanding global travel schedule to speak and work with those
who appeared to be changing history; and after the "end of history" with
Francis Fukuyama, to speak with academics pursuing engaging work related to
his new world historical investigations. Of course, Gunder understood the
entropy of order and realized Fukyama's folly from the outset. While
history proved it could move backward, it certainly was always in motion,
and there would be no equilibrium point at which it rested. The decline of
US financial power and the resulting fall American might suffer from it was
one the last subjects Gunder investigated.

Speaking of his children, Paul and Miguel, whom I never met, Gunder glowed
with pride at their significant accomplishments, and felt guilt over the
unstable environment his life provided for them. He married Marta, who he
met in Chile. This relationship brought him to Chile and Gunder played a
pivotal role in raising the consciousness of graduate students regarding
development issues there. Many of them paid with their lives as the Soviets
sold out Allende in the name of detente, and the devilish duo of Nixon and
Kissinger went to work on this autonomous democratic socialist Chilean
revolution. Many of Gunder's students were eliminated at the hands of
Pinochet, with even more people there suffering at the hands of textbook
economic experiments undertaken at the hands of his former teachers and
students at the University of Chicago.

Regarding Marta, though, while I never met her, I sensed the relationship
was powerful, and perhaps tumultuous at times. After raising children,
Marta engaged a period of feminist scholarship, which Gunder joined.
Speaking to Gunder's loyalty and family values, unlike our neoconservative
preachers of virtues on the subject, Gunder spent the last years of Marta's
life in her service as she slowly died from cancer.

Continuing Gunder's string of challenges, 1993 brought the departure of
Marta, and 1994 mandatory retirement from the only stable job he ever had,
his youngest son leaving home to enter the world as an adult, the death of
Gunder's dog, and the discovery of his own cancer. Not a banner year. But,
with his customary tenacity he rebounded and at an age in which most shift
to shuffleboard and memories of the past, if they are lucky enough to have
pensions for leisure. Gunder re-educated himself for an intervention into
the field of world history, and the central place of Asia in it. Gunder
blindsided the field and forced a reevaluation of Eurasian studies and
world history. Characteristic of Gunder, his ideas were so powerful that
they required either adopting them, or a forceful rejoinder. Once he
entered a realm of ideas, he was not to be ignored. This new work
culminated in such characteristically entitled works by Gunder, as The
Centrality of Central Asia, and this University of California
paradigm-changing book, ReORIENT. The ensuing debate between Gunder, and
Harvard's economic historian David Landes, over the genesis of the
development and industrialization proved to be a veritable "thriller in
Manila," with a concluding C-Span televised debate I organized on their
behalf in 1998. Gunder became an honorary member of the "California School"
of Sinologists, establishing friendships with Ken Pomeranz, Bin Wong, and
others in the UC system. He also forged a relationship with Patrick Manning
and his working group of graduate students in world history at Northeastern
University. Additionally, he maintained a correspondence of sorts with some
1500 people spanning 6 continents, according to his email address book.
Gunder was not going quietly.

In Gunder's last decade, he rejected parts of his old politics and opened
to new ideas. He discarded old dogmas in order to open himself to new ways
of seeing the past and present. Yet, this was not done in the
self-promoting way of neoconservatives, especially of say, a Christopher
Hitchens. Gunder was free of the tendency to demonize those holding views
he once more fully shared. On Marx, I think it fair to say he shared his
political economy analysis of the 19th century, but roundly rejected Marx's
faulty historical/anthropological analysis of stages of society.

Gunder was often ahead of the curve, too far ahead to serve him
professionally. If in business he would be termed an early entrant to a
market too immature to accept his product. His trend forecasting was
powerful, with the one exception, and it was a major one, of failing to see
the ability of national liberation movements to create an alternative to,
for lack of a better term, capitalism. Gunder would not, of course, have
used the term capitalism in his last decade. He thought the term lost all
explanatory power through 101 definitions given it. By 1980 he published
two books detailing the neoliberal turn, by the obscure press of Holmes &
Meier, and where it was taking the world. The first book was Crisis in the
World Economy. From the debt crisis and its impact on the Soviet bloc, to a
return to a liberal economic order, Gunder reached and saw what by the
1990s we called globalization. Frustrated by these two books' failure to
resonate, he retreated from this work. Yet, he later returned to it with
powerful new insights related to Michael Hudson's earlier analysis on the
role of the US dollar as an instrument of foreign policy and comparative
advantage delivered by being the world's reserve currency. This was part of
a larger reevaluation of the "rise of the West" that located its origins
only in the mid-19th century, rather than the 16th century of
world-systems' theorists, of whom Gunder could once be counted among their
number, especially of Immanuel Wallerstein, Samir Amin, and Giovanni
Arrighi. Yet, the growing gap between the North and South demands a
revisiting and rehabilitation of much of Gunder's thinking on dependency

Yet, Gunder later came to see Western hegemony as weak and fleeting and
already giving way to the trend of the historic centrality of Asia in the
world economy. Although, unlike earlier observers of this, such as Paul
Kennedy who placed its emergence in Japan, Gunder rightly saw it in China.
He began publishing articles on this topic and began a new book centered on
the 19th century turn, which he would have taken to the present. He only
finished half of the 19th century book, which will be left to his friends
and colleagues to do. Gunder took on this last task of understanding
"globalization" while suffering from the several cancers he battled the
last decade of his life. He bravely shrugged off several surgeries, and the
pain and complications they introduced. In addition to this suffering were
the drugs required to negotiate his cancers. These difficulties were
amplified by this life-long biochemical issues which made Gunder appear
coarse to some, and led him to misperceive others, yet seemed somehow
related to his gift for understanding the workings of the world as a global
system and the genuine empathy he could feel for others.

In his last years Gunder met Alison. They met in Florida in 1999. She knew
of his illnesses and understood the relationship would be marked by his
continuing decline, and her having to increasingly undertake the burden of
care for him. Gunder's charms and her depth of feeling for him were such
that they were a gift to each other, but also he became her struggle, one
she bravely and loyally concluded to his end.

Gunder's talents were immense. His analytical powers were keen. He acquired
command over a half-dozen languages--a talent he bequeathed to his sons.
His work rhythm was punishing, and his ability to produce new perspectives
unrivaled. His humanity was enormous and his kindness humbling. Yet, he
could be very sharp tongued, as many a scholar and policymaker discovered.
Gunder had little patience for those he thought generated misery or
provided intellectual cover for it, especially those with the benefit of a
good education and years enough to know better. Ironically, the most unique
and gifted person I have ever met, was also the one who thought us all the
most similar and least able to affect change, yet also the most supportive
of those trying to affect it.

Whatever few insights I have tendered usually came after reading something
from Gunder that triggered a new thought and either added to his
contributions, or caused me to react against them. I only hope he is right
and that there are others conditioned by the forces of history who will
inspire at the appropriate time. While I admire many, I know of no others
as original as Gunder Frank. He was singularly unique!

*The author had the privilege of knowing Gunder from their first encounter
in 1997, and then Gunder serving on his dissertation committee, which
included a valued friendship and cohabitation for 2 months in Miami 1999
while he worked on my dissertation, completed in 2001. Many of his
reflections are rooted in memory and those of Gunder, and apologizes for
any ensuing errors resulting from committing them to writing above.

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