The Contradictions of a Contrarian: Andre Gunder Frank


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 University.

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 theory.

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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