African Socialism Research Paper

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There are two basic models of African socialism that represent its variations and development on the continent (Rosberg and Callaghy 1979). The first, more populist type refers to a “first wave” of socialist regimes that emerged during the early years of independence—from the late 1950s throughout the following decade. Flexible, pragmatic, and attuned to local conditions, these first socialist governments in Africa recovered the communal-ism of traditional culture after breaking free from colonial domination. The second leading model represents a “second wave” of more militant regimes that consolidated power during the 1970s, favoring scientific socialism, an exclusive vanguard party, and a command-style economy while renouncing the false consciousness of traditional culture. These two models are of course abstractions and should not obscure the discrepancies between theory and practice, rhetoric and realpolitik, as well as principles and personalities found within each “ideal type.” If a populist-socialist such as Julius Nyerere (Tanzania) could force resettlement in Ujamaa villages (Khapoya 1994, p. 202), a vanguard Leninist such as Marien Ngouabi (Congo-Brazzaville) could protect French interests in phosphates and timber (Decalo 1979, pp. 258-259). Indeed, given that all African economies remain fundamentally mixed and export oriented, African socialism may well be more about the political manipulation of ideological resources than the public ownership of the means of production, particularly in the geopolitical context of the cold war. Nonetheless, the rise and fall of such powerful ideologies illuminates the broader historical forces that shaped African socialism and account for its different forms. One must begin with a discussion of the ideological origins of African socialism before moving on to its first and second “waves” of implementation.

Historical Antecedents: The Genealogy Of An Idea

The mythic origins of African socialism are found in Victorian evolutionism, with primitive hordes, group marriages, and the glaring absence of private property representing the earliest stages of society. Ethnologists such as E. B. Tylor and Lewis Henry Morgan established unilin-eal pathways from savagery to civilization that reinforced the racial hierarchies of imperial ideology with blacks at the bottom and whites at the top. The influence of this evolutionary perspective was pervasive, informing Sir Henry Maine’s transition from status to contract in comparative law, Ferdinand Tonnies’s sociological distinction between Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft, and of course the “primitive communism” of Marx’s pre-alienated man. When mapped onto the ur-terrain of the Dark Continent, a romanticized image of an original socialist Africa took shape, laying the foundation for the varieties of Pan-Africanism that developed in the first half of the twentieth century.

Edward Blyden (1832-1912) is generally acknowledged as a founding father of Pan-Africanism and its associated socialist traditions. Born in Saint Thomas and raised in Venezuela and the United States, Blyden moved to Liberia, where he advocated the repatriation of blacks to Monrovia. His ethnographic forays into West African hinterlands—commissioned by the British Crown— inspired such important works as Christianity, Islam, and the Negro Race (1887) and African Life and Customs (1908), in which he moved away from Christianity toward Islamic and indigenous frameworks for African government and self-determination. Of “pagan Africa” he wrote: “Social life … is communistic or co-operative. All work for each, and each work for all,” citing such proverbial wisdom as “What is mine goes; what is ours abides” (Blyden 1979, pp. 81, 89). Challenging Victorian myths of primitive savagery with utopian counter-myths of African socialism, Blyden’s stylized portrait of the continent would be refined in the writings of W. E. B. Du Bois (1939), Carter G. Woodson (1936), and in the Negritude of Leopold Sedar Senghor, all of which effected an important ideological transformation. Reworking the imperial opposition between civilization and barbarism, in which racial stereotypes between whites and blacks were largely preserved, Pan-Africanism reversed the hierarchy itself. The individualistic, hyperrational, industrializing societies and economies of the West were no longer signs of superior civilization but symptoms of profound alienation, expressed by the very separation of mind and body diagnostic of Western enlightenment. Africans, by contrast, were more “organic,” integrating mind and body, feeling and thought, and most importantly, self and community into collective forms of ownership and everyday life. Africa emerged as a positive foil against which the West was negatively recast, with its crime rates, rapacious greed, and growing inequality. The historical arrows were similarly reversed. Whereas the racist Hamitic Hypothesis of imperial discourse attributed the cultural achievements of Africa—such as political centralization or the invention of iron—to exogenous infusions of “Hamitic” or “caucasoid” blood, the Pan-African vision attributed Africa’s decline to the depredations of foreign conquerors and slavers who undermined the traditional fabric of economy and community. Identified and recovered, the socialist underpinnings of Pan-African culture would restore Africa’s rightful place in the world.

The Pan-African project took shape against the formal frameworks of European colonization at the turn of the twentieth century. The important Pan-African philosophies of this movement, including Leopold Senghor’s “Negritude” and Kwame Nkrumah’s “African Personality,” cannot be separated from the congresses and colloquia that brought together activists and intellectuals from Africa and the African diaspora. (One of the best comparisons of Negritude and African personality remains Irele [1990]). The four Pan-African congresses organized by Du Bois in 1919, 1921, 1923, and 1937 were framed primarily in terms of race, challenging the “color-bar” through Pan-African alliances that included British socialists such as Sidney and Beatrice Webb, Harold Laski, and H. G. Wells. But the fifth, so-called Manchester Congress held in 1945, reflecting the rising influence of George Padmore, signaled an explicit shift toward decolonization, mobilizing Africans in discourses of trade unionism, socialism, and self-government. It also influenced the careers of Nkrumah, Azikiwe, and Kenyatta, who became icons of independent nationhood. Nkrumah went on to organize the Union of African States (1960) with Guinea and Mali joined by Morocco, Algeria, and Egypt to form the Casablanca group (1961) with a militant commitment to continental unity.

Thus formed a “militant wing” of the Pan-Africanist movement, countered by the more pragmatic Brazzaville and Monrovia groups seeking socialist solutions through economic regionalism. Tensions between militant and moderate socialisms; between national, regional, and continental priorities; between North African and sub-Saharan “cultural” divides; and between inherited colonial philosophical dispositions persisted within the Pan-African community, not only in the Dakar Colloquium (1962), where Senghor reasserted Negritude’s universal-ism, but also within the Organization of African Unity after it was founded in 1963. Nonetheless, a general model of “open” African socialism emerged (Senghor 1964), emphasizing state-directed public-sector development, trade unionism, marketing cooperatives, people’s banks, limited land reform, independence from foreign export markets, political mobilization through mass party organization, commitment to egalitarianism, and relative geopolitical autonomy based on the indigenous values of African cultural unity. Principled autonomy from the Soviet Union was also a major theme of the Afro-Asiatic Bandung Conference in 1955, a conference considered by Senghor (1959, p. 3) as the twentieth century’s equivalent of the 1847 Congress of the Federation of Communists, which commissioned “The Communist Manifesto.” Pan-African in rhetoric, African socialism took root after independence within the political confines of the new nation-states.

The First Wave: Populist-Socialist Regimes

It is difficult to separate the first socialist experiments in Africa from the charismatic leaders who brokered independence, such as Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana, Leopold Senghor in Senegal, Sekou Toure in Guinea, Modibo Keita in Mali, Amilcar Cabral in Guinea-Bissau, Kenneth Kaunda in Zambia, and Julius Nyerere in Tanzania. Nkrumah’s brand of socialism is hard to pin down as it shifted between nationalism and Marxism, public-sector development and multinational capital, respect for traditional socialist values and disdain for traditional “reactionary” chiefs, and finally, between the mass principles and exclusionary practices of its ruling Convention People’s Party (Apter 1972). Squeezing cocoa farmers through its extractive marketing boards, the state sought to underwrite industrialization and infrastructural development, but as debt increased and productivity dropped, the economy slid into a downward spiral. Fearing political conspiracies within and neocolonial enemies from abroad, Nkrumah became increasingly radicalized and isolated and was ousted by a coup d’etat in 1966. In similar trajectories of socialist development and decline, Modibo Keita in resource-poor Mali and Sekou Toure of mineral-rich Guinea collectivized agriculture, nationalized banking, and blended Marxism with African cultural models. In both cases, peasant producers lost out in the reforms, and agriculture stagnated. Whereas Keita was overthrown by a coup in 1968, Toure, who died in 1984, gradually abandoned his socialist policies for Western economic investment.

The most extensive socialist project based on “African” principles was Nyerere’s Ujamaa villagization scheme, in what became the hallmark of Tanzania’s commitment to self-reliance. In Ujamaa: Essays on Socialism (1968), Nyerere offers a doctrine of traditional extended “familyhood” (ujamaa) as a blueprint for African unity and development. Enshrined in the Arusha Declaration of 1967, this doctrine rejected heavy industrialization, with its dependency on foreign capital, in favor of collectively organized agricultural production in newly formed Ujamaa villages. What began as “voluntaristic, grass-roots, cooperative socialism,” however, became “socialism imposed from above” (Young 1982, pp.114-115) as recalcitrant peasant producers in scattered peasant homesteads were relocated into cooperative communities. Dean McHenry (1979, p. 43) estimates that 91.3 percent of the rural population was living in ujamaa villages by 1976. Although villagization, combined with Scandinavian aid, improved education, medical care, and public utilities in the rural areas, an overall decline in peasant production, including severe food shortages in 1974, eventually brought the experiment to an end. Nyerere resigned in 1985 to make way for neoliberal reforms, but his legacy of national unity and the correlative absence of ethnic politics in Tanzania has endured.

The Second Wave: Scientific-Socialist Regimes

If the first wave of African socialist states in the 1960s sought the recovery of cultural traditions (Senegal and Tanzania more than Ghana and Guinea), the scientific socialist regimes of the 1970s emphasized more radical ruptures—from the shackles of tradition, from colonial domination, and from preceding military juntas. Elevating a Leninist-styled vanguard party to control the state, these more centralized regimes used the language of class analysis in claiming peasants and workers as their social base, attacking incipient class formation, and thereby justifying coercion in the persecution of political dissidents and internal enemies. In many areas, however, ideological principle was tempered by realism: If foreign owned banks and insurance companies were easily nationalized, more capital-intensive and productive multinationals were given freer rein as revenue-generating engines of growth. In geopolitical terms, greater solidarity with the Soviet bloc in the United Nations did not translate into firm Soviet trade relations and aid. Many of the Afro-Marxist regimes remained interested in Western capital investment, and thus economically nonaligned.

Crawford Young (1982) distinguishes military Marxist regimes from those that grew out of national liberation movements against Portuguese colonialism. Among the former, Congo-Brazzaville was the first to establish a Marxist regime in 1969, when Marien Ngouabi declared a People’s Republic and inaugurated the Parti Congolais du Travail (PCT). Somalia followed under Mohammed Siad Barre in 1970, when Soviet military interests enabled Somali national consolidation within an enduring Islamic idiom. In the Republic of Benin, Major Mathieu Kerekou created the Leninist Parti Revolutionaire du Peuple Beninois (PRPB) in 1975, developing new public corporations and peasant cooperatives without sacrificing economic relations with France. A more radical Marxist-Leninist state was implemented in Ethiopia by the revolutionary Derg (“committee”), a secret inner circle of the military who deposed Emperor Haile Selassie in 1975 and instituted major reforms, including the nationalization of land ownership and tenancy to undermine the Amharic feudal aristocracy. Given its notorious “Red Terror” and rule through fear and intimidation, however, the Derg never secured popular legitimacy (Donham 1999).

Notable among national liberation movements were the protracted struggles in Angola and Mozambique against entrenched Portuguese settlers and political overrule that lasted until 1975. In Angola, a bloody civil war became a cold war battleground where a sizable force of Soviet and Cuban soldiers (20,000) and technicians (17,000) backed the Movimento Popular de Libertaao de Angola (MPLA) against Jonas Savimbi’s reactionary Uniao Nacional para a Independencia Total de Angola (UNITA), supported by South Africa and the United States. (Angola’s political identification with the former Soviet Union still resonates from the hammer and sickle on its national flag.)

By the 1990s, the Leninist role of the MPLA degenerated into coveted disbursements of economic and political patronage based on control over oil and diamonds (Hodges 2004). In Mozambique, socialism developed through similar struggles against the Portuguese and, after independence, during a long civil war with South African- backed Renamo rebels. Samora Machel’s revolutionary vanguard party, FRELIMO, emerged as a highly disciplined organization supporting liberation movements in former Rhodesia and South Africa while promoting women’s rights, peasant collectives, state farms, and heavy industry at home. The dislocations of the civil war, however, and the atrocities of the Renamo fighters, exacted a heavy toll on the country and economy after a cease-fire was signed in 1992.

If socialism in Africa, like elsewhere, lost ground after the collapse of the Eastern bloc and the rising tide of neoliberal reforms, its central concerns have not withered away (Saul 2001). These remain the role of the state in regulating trade, the growing inequalities associated with economic liberalization, the political economy of “tribalism,” and the complex character of class formation in postcolonial Africa. Like the colonial heritage that it fought and opposed, socialism in Africa—even when disavowed—remains deeply embedded in the politics of national development (Pitcher and Askew 2006).


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  2. Decalo, Samuel. 1979. Ideological Rhetoric and Scientific Socialism in Benin and Congo/Brazzaville. In Socialism in Sub-Saharan Africa: A New Assessment, ed. Carl Rosberg and Thomas Callaghy, 231–264. Berkeley, CA: Institute of International Studies.
  3. Donham, Donald. 1999. Marxist Modern: An Ethnographic History of the Ethiopian Revolution. Berkeley: University of California Press.
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  9. Khapoya, Vincent B. 1994. The African Experience: An Introduction. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
  10. McHenry, Dean E. 1979. The Struggle for Rural Socialism in Tanzania. In Socialism in Sub-Saharan Africa: A New Assessment, ed. Carl Rosberg and Thomas Callaghy, 37–60.
  11. Berkeley, CA: Institute of International Studies. Nyerere, Julius. 1968. Ujamaa: Essays on Socialism. London: Oxford University Press.
  12. Pitcher, M. Anne, and Kelly M. Askew. 2006. African Socialisms and Postsocialisms. Africa 76 (1): 1–14.
  13. Rosberg, Carl, and Thomas Callaghy, eds. 1979. Socialism in Sub-Saharan Africa: A New Assessment. Berkeley, CA: Institute of International Studies.
  14. Saul, John. 2001. Millennial Africa: Capitalism, Socialism, Democracy. Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press.
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  16. Senghor, Leopold S. 1964. On African Socialism. Trans. Mercer Cook. New York: Praeger.
  17. Young, Crawford. 1982. Ideology and Development in Africa. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
  18. Woodson, Carter G. 1936. The African Background Outlined; or, Handbook for the Study of the Negro. Washington, DC: Association for the Study of Negro Life and History.

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