Marxism, class and revolution in Africa: the legacy of the 1917 Russian Revolution

Issue: 157

Peter Dwyer and Leo Zeilig

In the first ten years of independence in Africa, even leaders of states that were not explicitly Marxist expressed an allegiance to socialism and an admiration for the Soviet Union. This included many famous leaders of independent Africa: Gamal Abdel Nasser (Egypt), Kwame Nkrumah (Ghana), Ahmed Sékou Touré (Guinea), Julius Nyerere (Tanzania) and Ahmed Ben Bella (Algeria). Other leaders, such as Tom Mboya of Kenya, argued that African realities meant that socialism was intrinsic to “traditional” culture because “African socialism has an entirely different history from European socialism”. The European version of socialism, he argued, arose from the division of society between a capitalist class and an industrial proletariat; however, “there is no such division into classes in Africa… So, there is no need in Africa to argue over ideology or define your actions in terms of doctrinaire theories”.1

The impact of the Russian Revolution of 1917—and more significantly its degeneration—in shaping the strategy and tactics of the anti-colonial struggle and the formation and growth of left-wing movements in Africa was profound. Even this bold statement does not entirely capture the deep and complex impact the revolution had on the trajectory of revolutionary politics across the continent. The Russian Revolution was the decisive event in 20th century African politics.

For much of the century the ideas of Marxism were seemingly omnipotent in Africa. They dominated every serious intellectual debate about the continent and occupied the minds of those who sought independence. It was assumed by many anti-colonial leaders that poverty and underdevelopment would only be reversed by the application of socialism, or more specifically the Soviet model of economic development (what writers in the tradition of this journal call state capitalism).

This article assesses the influence of 1917 on African liberation movements and explains how it influenced struggles against and beyond colonialism. Our argument is that the lessons of 1917 were lost and obscured by an alternative set of ideas and strategies that fundamentally downplayed the idea that the working class, despite being relatively small numerically, could lead the revolution in a movement built with other social forces (such as peasants and students) linked to a vision for a wider international struggle for socialism. This overview is shaped by what we call classical Marxism in contradistinction to a Marxism informed by Soviet socialism that rapidly took root after the death of Lenin in 1924.

For those countries that were colonised, it was increasingly argued from 1928 onwards, that socialism would only come about following a national (nationalist-led) struggle. The “national revolution” (that had been subsumed by the struggle for socialism in Russia in 1917) became the prerequisite first stage towards socialism in the Global South (what was then called the Third World). Consequently, the essence of classical Marxism, the self-emancipation of the working class and the oppressed, was rejected for a stagist approach to socialism. Although retaining the language and symbolism of the 1917 revolution, this Stalinist form of international politics became a Trojan horse for Soviet foreign policy and imperial influence.

The initial impact of the Russian Revolution

Prior to 1917, Marxism had been understood by parties and activists of the (mostly) European left as a politics of socialist change that could only happen first in industrialised Europe—largely because this was where the working class was largest and parties and politics of the left more established. The socialist revolution would initially be a European affair. Only after this stage, and pending deeper capitalist penetration in areas of the Global South, could socialist change happen there. What became known as “stagism”—the assumption that “underdeveloped” parts of the world must first pass through the stage of capitalism before the socialist revolution could take place—was not a phenomenon peculiar to Stalinism, but a strand of thought embedded in the Marxism of the Second International that existed between 1889 and 1916.

But the first revolution of the 20th century took place in Russia, a country with a small working class concentrated in a few industrial centres and where the overwhelming majority of the population were peasants. In this context, the Russian example—a self-proclaimed socialist revolution, led by a small but highly concentrated working class in an area of the world that was marked by uneven capitalist development—was difficult for parties and militants to assimilate. The Russian Revolution drew the attention of workers and black intellectuals from Africa and the African diaspora and for a time the revolution showed that the struggles to liberate Africa from colonial rule could, indeed must, be linked to a worldwide socialist transformation.

In many parts of the continent, for reasons of colonial occupation, censorship and repression, there was practically no Communist or socialist influence or tradition. For example, in the Congo in the late 1910s the country was recovering from a genocide that between 1885 to 1908 had killed several million in the forced production of rubber across the country. Despite vital struggles, both in nascent industry and in the mines and plantations, these movements did not jostle with Communist agitation or influence.2

There were also vital pockets of early, Russian-influenced militancy on the continent that had started, valiantly, to push against the might of evolutionary, Eurocentric Marxism. Take Algeria. Brutally occupied by the French in 1830, it formally became part of France in 1848. The French Communist Party (PCF), formed in 1920, had an almost entirely European membership in Algeria and saw the revolution in France as the only way through which socialist change could happen in Algeria. Writing in a report for the 1922 Second North African Interfederal Communist Conference, the PCF asserted that in the case of Algeria, the “uncultured masses…cannot at present conceive of their liberation”. According to the report, they must be held in “guardianship” of the PCF rather than be stirred up to revolt.3

These arguments were later rejected by PCF members who had been active across France’s colonial territory in North Africa. For example, by activists like Hadj-Ali Abdelkader, a talented Algerian revolutionary active for most of his life in France, who attempted to develop and promote the emancipatory politics of the Russian Revolution in the years after 1917 within the PCF.4 Equally, Robert Louzon, active in the Tunisian section of the PCF, wrote in early 1923: “The necessary but not sufficient condition for a people to progress is independence. To keep natives in a state of servitude is a certain means of preserving the soul of a slave”.5 For Louzon, the “chauvinism” of certain members of the PCF, who saw colonial subjects as insufficiently “developed” to progress to socialism, had to be fought against relentlessly. These tentative efforts, would—it is reasonable to assume—have continued, but were curtailed by the isolation and degeneration of the Russian Revolution in the late 1920s. So, in Algeria the PCF, to which militants in Algiers, Oran and Constantine belonged, became slavishly beholden to the about-turns and geopolitical manoeuvres of Moscow’s Stalinist imperial foreign policy in the 1930s.

Yet the Soviet Union was lauded by much of the left across the world for its rapid economic growth. In the Global South the lessons were clear: isolation from a wider internationalism and socialism need not prevent, but indeed could act as, a model for rapid industrialisation and development. Militants and activists in countries under colonial rule who sought independence began to see how command of national industry and the subordination of all popular movements under a centralised leadership, could offer a model for development. After the Second World War, state capitalism and national projects of “socialist” construction became the principle ideological export from the Soviet Union.

By the 1930s then, the notion of “socialism in one country”, the idea of independent (national) socialist development became the raison d’être of the Communist movement in regions such as Africa. For many in the colonial world the isolation of Russia, its ability to “delink” from the capitalist system, was seen as the key to its industrial development. But it was precisely this delinking, forced on the initially successful Russian socialist revolution, that led to the reversal of the revolution’s initial goals and to state capitalism with the rise of Stalin.6 Yet it is clear that Lenin and other revolutionaries viewed any form of national seclusion impossible, a betrayal of revolutionary hopes and possibilities.7

The Russian Revolution and the return to permanent revolution

The actual practice of the Russian Revolution, taking place in a peripheral economy, confronted the orthodoxy of existing Marxist thought that dominated the Second International. Before the revolution the foremost thinker of socialist transformation was Leon Trotsky. In developing a theory of “permanent revolution” he recognised that revolutionary change might not start in the developed economies but in regions “peripheral” to the centres of capitalist production. However, its victory could be assured only if the revolution became permanent and spread to the developed economies.

Trotsky argued that the capitalist class developing in late 19th century Tsarist Russia, which arrived late on the scene, was fundamentally different from the bourgeoisies of a century or two earlier. It was therefore incapable of providing a consistent democratic, revolutionary solution to the problem posed by feudalism and, in the colonised world, imperialist oppression. Essentially, Trotsky argued, the bourgeoisie is a reactionary force. Strategically, the decisive revolutionary role falls to the proletariat, even though it may be relatively “immature” (newly developed) and small in number. The peasantry, he argued, was incapable of independent action and must follow the leadership of the industrial proletariat.

In addition, Trotsky argued that a consistent solution to the agrarian question and the national question requires moving beyond the bounds of capitalist private property. Consequently, the democratic revolution must immediately develop into a socialist one, and in this way become a permanent revolution.

Finally, the socialist revolution and transition becomes a permanent revolution in a broader sense of the word; it can only be completed if it spreads to more “advanced” parts of the globe and eventually over the entire planet. It is a reactionary, absurdist dream to try to achieve “socialism in one country”—consequently much of the failure of socialism in Africa is the failure of “socialist projects” within the framework of the nation-state.

After the 1917 revolution the idea of permanent revolution was not an obscure political theory but the self-evident reality (and an indispensable political ­strategy) in a globalising capitalist economy. Most Russian revolutionaries were clear that socialism could not exist in a single country, even an industrially advanced one; imperialism and the socialist revolution could not live side by side—one had to triumph.

After the defeat of the Russian Revolution in the 1920s, a set of key theoretical and strategic ideas emerged that were exported from the Soviet Union in the name of “Marxism-Leninism”.8 These were a fundamental reversal of the practice and ideas that informed the triumph of the Bolsheviks in 1917. These revisions, namely the belief in socialism in one country and a two-stage theory of revolution built through cross-class alliances under the banner of the people’s front, would prove instrumental in influencing and shaping the African liberation movements that would follow.

Africa and the rise and fall of the Comintern

As we have already intimated, the emergent Communist movements on the continent were tiny and very weak. The only revolutionary organisation in sub-Saharan Africa was in South Africa where the International Socialist League had stood against the First World War and established the first black trade unions in the country. Yet from 1919 the Comintern—the Communist International, formed in the aftermath of 1917 to help spread socialist revolution across the globe—attracted the attention of intellectuals and workers from Africa and the African diaspora. One of the first acts of the Comintern was to call for total independence for the continent. Such a position was central to the politics of revolutionaries after 1917, recognising Pan-African struggles against colonial rule as directly linked to the fight against capitalism in the imperial countries. There simply could be no meaningful separation between the two.

Charting the rise and fall of the Comintern shows us how this connection was fused in the years after 1917, only to be wrenched apart as the politics of the Soviet Union and Stalinism started to dominate. In 1922 the “Thesis on the Negro Question” adopted at the Comintern’s Fourth Congress stressed the centrality of colonialism and racism to the existence of capitalism. It argued that it was critical for the Communist movement to establish networks with black struggles in the United States, the Caribbean, South America and Africa.

Having encountered racist ideas in national Communist parties like the PCF in the 1920s some Communists brought these complaints directly to Comintern leaders to be addressed. As Matt Swagler writes, the Comintern, “regularly chastised national Communist party leaders for their “‘white chauvinism’”. At times, the efforts of black Communists and Comintern officials did move parties like the PCF to give more attention to sub-Saharan Africa and to address these backward prejudices.9

The historian of Pan-Africanism and Communism Hakim Adi writes that the Comintern took these issues seriously; he notes that by 1928 the Comintern created the International Trade Union Committee of Negro Workers (ITUCNW) in an effort to address some of these concerns. The principal reasons for the formation of the ITUCNW were the political significance of an increasingly militant black working class in South Africa, the strike-wave in West Africa after the First World War and also the role of black workers in the United States. In Africa, strike action on the continent was not limited to the period of “nationalist” agitation after 1945. On the contrary, after the First World War there were strikes across present-day West Africa, in Senegal, Ghana, Gambia, Sierra Leone and Nigeria.10

From 1931 to 1933 George Padmore, the brilliant West Indian Communist and Pan-Africanist, ran the ITUCNW from its German headquarters. He made contacts across Africa with trade unionists, militants and intellectuals and wrote on the struggles of black workers on the continent, but also in the US and in the Caribbean. The Negro Worker—edited by Padmore in this period—was circulated among agitators and Communists in West Africa and South Africa, in far from ideal circumstances. But crucially, for a time, this political work was done.

Yet, from the heyday of serious (though uneven) agitation for anti-colonial and socialist transformation on the continent, developments in the Soviet Union dramatically reoriented the approach and understanding of “communism”. Swagler captures the period well:

By the late 1920s, the workers’ revolutions that had swept Europe and China following the Russian Revolution had gone down in defeat. The Soviet Union had been left isolated, just as the early leaders of the Comintern had feared… Thus, from the mid-1920s onward, the Comintern’s activities became oriented on a) ousting Trotskyists and other oppositionists from the leadership of Communist parties around the globe and b) establishing a secure international diplomatic environment for the new Soviet ruling bureaucracy.11

This had a decisive impact on many liberation movements across the continent and on an important band of Communist activists from Egypt and Algeria in the Maghreb to Southern Africa. One significant element in this shift was the Sixth Congress of the Communist International in 1928. For example, James La Guma, a delegate from the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA) and the only person representing Africa at the Congress, was present when the Congress resolved, in an abrupt volte-face from previous positions, that the national question was the foundation of the revolution. From this point, South African Communists would work together with the main nationalist organisation, the African Nationalist Congress (ANC), towards “an independent native South African republic”. For others, the Congress helped to edge Communists into cross-class and ultimately fatal popular fronts of anti-colonial movements.12

As part of Stalin’s selective support of national liberation movements in the imperial power struggle with the US in the 1930s, the Comintern instructed Communist Parties in the Global South to join forces with their country’s national liberation movement. Importantly this meant dropping earlier Communist criticisms of nationalism. For example, in South Africa, Stalin’s “national democracies thesis” translated into the CPSA slogan adopted at their 1929 conference, which was for an “independent native South African republic as a stage towards a workers’ and peasants’ republic”.13 This meant prioritising the struggle for a “national democratic revolution”—one-person, one-vote in a unitary state—over that for a socialist revolution.

Though the position taken by the Comintern in 1928 represented the ­degeneration of the revolution, it was not uniformly disastrous. For example, a number of studies and writers have shown how it pushed the CPSA into doing serious work among African workers. It also had a positive impact on African activists elsewhere on the continent or in the diaspora.14 Although outside the remit of this article, it had a similar effect on the Communist Party USA (CPUSA), leading to some of its most impressive work in Harlem and the Black Belt.15

In South Africa the CPSA dissolved itself in 1950 as a result of government repression but reconvened in secret three years later. It developed positions of influence inside the ANC and began to push its arguments for “revolutionary nationalism” as a prelude to socialism, linking this justification conceptually to its theory of “Colonialism of a Special Type” (CST). Briefly, this argued that black South Africa was a “colony” of white oppressors and so the first objective was national liberation linked to which was a two-stage approach to socialism: the first stage, national liberation, led by the ANC and the second, socialism, led by the Communist Party after the “national” stage.

This was a trend replicated by Communist parties elsewhere in the Global South as “capitalism was not the enemy in such countries”. Rather, the enemy was seen to be “local interests and the US imperialism that supported them” and the way forward was “a broad popular or national front in which the ‘national’ bourgeoisie or petty-bourgeoisie were allies”.16 What is more, CST detached racial oppression from its material roots in capitalist exploitation. It also implies that a “normal” society is “waiting to be freed from the abnormalities of the racial order” rather than understanding that “[the racial] order had itself reconstituted all social norms”.17 Politically and organisationally, this meant subordinating the struggle for socialism to that of the “national democratic revolution” through building a “national” alliance of social groups. Notwithstanding this, the idea of a national democratic revolution “glossed over” the potential for class antagonism:

between a national petty bourgeoisie and…the mass of the working class interested in the inhibition of the power of private property… By fusing the “national” and “democratic” aspects of the revolution into a single concept, the specificity of “nationalism” as a particular form of expression of the democratic movement was lost from sight.18

The shift in the Comintern was clearly discernible by the late 1920s. Across the continent, the new leadership of the Soviet Union gave clear instructions to socialists and Communists, that in the colonial world, the tasks of transformation had to be divided into “two stages”. Reverting to an earlier evolutionary Marxism, the Comintern argued that countries in the colonialised world needed to “transition” through a capitalist phase, with the second stage envisaged at some indeterminate date in the future.

The entire practice of the Russian Revolution and the first militant years of the Comintern were reversed in a remarkably short period of time. Swagler has written how, “In practice, the new line from Moscow resulted in Communists submitting to the leadership of more conservative nationalist organisations—as occurred in China in 1925-7 with disastrous results for the Chinese working class”.19 The frequent changes in direction of Soviet foreign policy throughout the 1930s and the end of the Comintern in 1943 saw many black activists once attracted to the Communist movement drift away. Occasionally the Comintern in Moscow had an even more direct impact on African Communists; Swagler writes that: “Some, like Lovett Fort-Whiteman and possibly Albert Nzula, fell victim to Stalin’s deadly purges of his opponents in the USSR”.20 Why were Stalinist policies accepted so readily by dedicated militants who were clearly not unthinking robots, but often deeply committed and serious activists? One answer is the fact that the victory (and seeming survival) of the 1917 revolution meant it was still seen as the only “successful” model of socialism anywhere in the world. This was especially true after the failure of the German revolution in 1923 and China in 1926-7.

Deflected permanent revolution

In the years after 1945 some revolutionaries attempted to grapple with the question of why an embryonic working class in the colonies were not leading the struggle for national and socialist transformation—in a single linked process in the way that the leaders of 1917 had articulated. Tony Cliff, the founder of the International Socialists, wrote, in 1963, an account of national liberation and revolution that still provides a convincing explanation for what happened across Africa in the period of decolonisation and afterwards.

Like Trotsky, Cliff’s starting point was to identify the spinelessness of the emerging bourgeoisie, but in the colonial context Cliff, unlike Karl Marx and Trotsky, argued it was no longer correct to assume that the “decisive revolutionary role falls to the proletariat, even though it may be very young and small in number”.21 Cliff summarised the theory in the light of the emerging processes of decolonisation: “While the conservative, cowardly nature of a late-developing bourgeoisie…is an absolute law, the revolutionary character of the young working class is neither absolute nor inevitable”. Cliff went on to describe some of the serious weaknesses of a newly formed working class in colonial settings. He argued that: “in many cases the existence of a floating amorphous majority of new workers with one foot in the countryside creates difficulties for autonomous proletarian organisations; lack of experience…adds to their weakness”. These factors, Cliff argued, tend to result in a dependence on a non-working-class leadership.22

Cliff identified other factors that weakened working class self-activity: “The last, but by no means least, factor determining whether the working class in the backward countries is actually revolutionary or not is a subjective one, namely, the activities of the parties, particularly the Communist Parties that influence it”.23 This was often a key, even decisive factor, in the politics of Communist and socialist parties across Africa. Without an independent revolutionary party to drive the ideological question and push class politics, national liberation was quickly hollowed out.

Frequently national liberation movements became popular fronts incorporating a vast array of contradictory forces in which, according to the political scientist Roger Southall, “there was a significant class element…which was distinctly pro-capitalist”. The black middle class, though weak and small in number, were disproportionately influential within these national liberation popular fronts, which, in Southall’s words, “predisposed them to becoming state managers, for only preferential access to the state could enable them to become a “proper” bourgeoisie”. The influence of these forces within such movements meant that this class of petty bourgeois nationalists sought accommodation with national and international capital. Failure of national liberation once the levers of state power were transferred to an independent government flowed directly from this dominating “class element” within national liberation movements.24

Elaborating on the emergence of a “caste” or petty bourgeois class, Cliff goes on to argue: “It is one of the tricks of history that when an historical task faces society, and the class that traditionally carries it out is absent, some other group of people…implements it”. For Cliff the intelligentsia played a central part “as the leader and unifier of the nation, and above all as manipulator of the masses” in the colonial world. The desire of this group is always to rise above society. These tendencies can be checked when the intelligentsia are involved in mass politics, but when they are free of the constraints and discipline of a wider movement, “they show clearer and much more extreme tendencies towards elitism, arbitrariness, and towards vacillation and splits”. In a period of nationalist struggles a revolutionary intelligentsia is a “cohesive factor” and an “obvious source of a professional elite”. Members of this group have various advantages over other social groups in society. They can pose as the neutral arbiters of the nation against sectional interests, with a clear concept of what the nation means when “the peasants and workers [have] neither the leisure nor education for it”. But this group also has an organisational coherence, lacking in other classes. Organisational life was visible in the clubs, associations and student unions across the colonial world prior to decolonisation.25

The intelligentsia also see themselves as the exalted agents of political transformation. Cliff wrote, “They are great believers in efficiency… They hope for reform from above and would dearly love to hand the new world over to a grateful people, rather than see the liberating struggle of a self-conscious and freely associated people result in a new world for themselves”. Their relationship to those below them is inherently contradictory, a simultaneous debt and feeling of guilt towards the masses and a sense of distance, divorcement and superiority to them. Cliff argued that the intelligentsia is “anxious to belong without being assimilated, without ceasing to remain apart and above”. The intelligentsia’s exaggerated power derives directly from the “feebleness of other social classes, and their political nullity”.26

If the working class had failed to carry out the permanent revolution in emergent nations and join national and socialist tasks, other social groups will assume control. So, in the 1960s and 1970s, liberation became its opposite, bureaucratic state capitalism. Thinkers and activists within national liberation movements sought, often in highly original ways, to rejoin the severed whole, to marry national liberation with continental and eventually global liberation. The Algerian/Martiniquan activist and writer Frantz Fanon’s work can be seen in this context.27 Ultimately, given the political dominance of the Soviet Union and the rewriting of Marxist politics and strategy, these efforts were doomed. The tragedy of socialist politics in Africa is best understood in this political setting.

Alternative models for liberation?

One effect of the gross distortions of the legacy of the Russian Revolution was that, as Cliff argues, other political forces emerged, replacing, or substituting themselves for, the agency of the working class. Increasingly the idea of working class agency was an abstract one, repeated by progressive movements as a slogan but one that had little or no actual content. The intelligentsia in Africa that Cliff wrote about assumed almost epic political significance. What emerged were new models of intelligentsia-led socialist/guerrilla movements, that in one way or another came to dominate the politics of liberation and socialist transformation in Africa.28

At the height of the Cold War in a still predominantly rural continent it is perhaps unsurprising that the Chinese and Cuban experiences became dominant on the African left in the 1960s and 1970s.

Mao Zedong’s Communist Party proclaimed the People’s Republic of China in 1949. The Chinese Revolution suggested that the road to national liberation (and socialism) could be achieved only by cutting yourself off from western imperialism.29 For the few that had already become jaded by Stalinism, Mao’s China tantalised them with the promise of equality of the town and countryside and avoided “the forced extraction of surplus” that had led to the coerced collectivisation of the peasantry in the Soviet Union.30 It was also premised on a more equal alliance between peasants (the overwhelming majority of African people) and the very small but growing urban working class.

The bigger picture shaping African liberation was a world in which Communist parties in the Soviet Union, China and Cuba (from 1959) had come to power in countries that did not have blood on their hands in the way that western countries had in Africa. China and Cuba appeared to offer models of development (and socialism) in countries that were similar to major parts of Africa, having large peasant economies and a small urban working class. The argument of many at the time was that the organising centre for the revolution would be the countryside, as China had illustrated, and the key agent for change was now the guerrilla movement (a lesson of both Cuba and China).

The result was that by the 1960s the responsibility for Marxist transformation, historically understood as the working class, fundamentally shifted. It did so because it was now argued that the European working class had abdicated their role at the forefront of international socialism—often because they were regarded as having been implicated in the “pillage of the Third World”. The new agents of revolutionary change were to be the popular, nationalist movements in the Third World, led by Cuba and China.31

However, in practice, the working class in the developing world was often regarded by these new socialist governments as at best a passive element and at worst a reactionary fifth column. This did not prevent Maoists from using the language of proletarian internationalism even when there was not a member of the working class in sight. For example, the Maoist influenced socialist Che Guevara explained how he greeted comrades in the foothills of the eastern Congo in a spirit of “proletarian internationalism” and set about building the “International Proletarian Army”.32 The continued anxieties about whether an African working class exists arose in part because they were not “visible” in this new revolutionary strategy.33

Models were not followed exactly—they were always approximations. The Soviet Union represented a variety of things, and ideological commitment to Stalinism and Soviet Communism were not necessary to draw the lessons from Moscow-led industrialisation. The variety of approaches to the Soviet model was vast. For example, Algeria experimented with socialism after independence in 1962. Prime minister and president Ben Bella represented a radical, transnational initiative of alliances and cooperation that elude any narrow conception of “socialism in one country”.

For a time, Algeria—the “Mecca of Revolution”—under Ben Bella’s brief tenure, seemed to offer real reforms including redistribution of wealth, self-management (“auto-gestion”), international solidarity and the relentless struggle against a new elite and the old colonial masters. However, the new masters were not the working class and poor who had, despite being marginalised, played a decisive role in the Algerian revolution.34 When, on 19 June 1965, defence minister Houari Boumédiène led a military coup that ousted Ben Bella he brought a swift and brutal end to many of these more radical initiatives and the country turned inwards in its efforts to industrialise and develop.

Despite the differences between socialist and Marxist influenced regimes across the continent, these approaches were nevertheless normally predicated on the exclusion—indeed invisibility—of the working class and poor as the agent of liberation, and both were deeply indebted to Stalinist conceptions of socialism and development that we have already outlined.

1945–70: imperialism, socialism and the Cold War

In different ways, after the Second World War, the command economies of “socialist countries” (and many more explicitly capitalist ones) were seen as the only way for radical postcolonial states to advance. State-led Keynesianism became the economic orthodoxy in the West and state capitalism became the doctrine of African states. This coincided with a period of rapid and largely state-directed economic growth in the West after 1945. The long boom that followed the war was largely fuelled by intense military competition between the Soviet Union and the US, but it was built on the ideological premise of economic interference in national economies.35 The ideas of the economist John Maynard Keynes came to symbolise the economic success of the period. Most would have concurred with Nkrumah when he wrote: “Government interference in all matters affecting economic growth in less developed countries is today a universally accepted principle”.36

It was believed that the state, whether capitalist or socialist, must lead the drive to industrialisation in the interests of the nation. The result was that so-called socialist states and capitalist countries on the continent were for most Africans indistinguishable. The reality was that capitalist and socialist regimes used the same heavy-handed state apparatus. Ghana, the first country to win independence in 1957, sought under Nkrumah’s leadership to incorporate the most important elements of the Soviet experience. It experienced a period of mass mobilisation between 1949 and 1951 that led to limited self-government. But from independence the movement that had been built and mobilised was forgotten, and increasingly what counted “was the exercise of power rather than the mobilisation of the masses”.37 Nkrumah was isolated in the political administration and centralised state that he inherited from colonialism. He was toppled by a coup in 1966. Even if that coup was funded and supported by the US, popular support for Nkrumah had disappeared and opposition had grown.

There are further examples from Ghana, vital to our story. Ghana—­following, often explicitly, the path set by the Soviet Union, sought to power national development. Country after country across Africa had emerged from colonialism dependent on the “old crops”, coca and groundnuts, and valuable minerals. Broadly speaking there were no industries, and colonial cash crops, which had violently devastated the country over decades, were simply exported as they always had been, unprocessed for processing in the north.

The centrepiece of independent Ghana’s attempts to industrialise was the Akosombo Dam on the Volta River. It was hoped that the dam would provide energy to allow the local supplies of bauxite to be turned into alumina. Instead the American company Kaiser, which ran the aluminium works, imported semi-processed bauxite from Jamaica. It claimed that it did not make economic sense to use local sources of bauxite 100 miles away when they could import it from an island 2,500 miles away. As the writer Robert Biel has put it, “the four big companies which dominated the world aluminium industry were brought together through the personal intervention of US leaders Nixon and Kennedy, to ensure that Ghana did not establish a basis for independence”.38 Sincere efforts by a centralised “socialist” state at industrialisation failed to secure the developmental take-off they sought. For regimes like Ghana, and indeed Mali, Mauritania and Guinea, which were regarded at the time as radical, social change was instigated by a state machine, overseen by new postcolonial rulers, and which bore a close resemblance to the colonial state that they claimed to have broken with.

1970–85: the new “Marxist-Leninists” and the state

The period between 1970 and 1985 held many contradictions for African radicals. There was a combination of new struggles and a deepening economic crisis that brought to an end the myth of rapid state-led economic development. It also marked the end of the long boom that had stretched precariously and unevenly around the world since 1945. The struggle for independence from Portugal represented, for some, a renaissance of socialism in Africa.39 Since the crisis in the Congo during the first half of the 1960s, guerrilla movements had multiplied in Africa, the most effective fighting under the leadership of Amílcar Cabral in the small West African state of Guinea-Bissau. Cabral, intellectual and activist, a symbol of the new generation of African socialists, managed to demoralise and humiliate the Portuguese army. The Portuguese were also involved in Angola and Mozambique in an increasingly desperate bid to hold on to Portugal’s African empire. The massacre of 50 dockworkers in a famous strike in August 1959 convinced Cabral that the struggle for liberation in Guinea-Bissau must be rooted in the rural areas. Following the massacre, he left for neighbouring Guinea where he started to organise a struggle that would, from now on, take place in the countryside.40

Although the new leaders of liberation movements were often committed to Marxism-Leninism, they remained critical of the experience of decolonisation. The People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) and the Mozambique Liberation Front (FRELIMO) both faced external invasions from South Africa and internal destabilisation by movements funded by the US. But these movements still highlighted the upsurge of radicalism on the continent. It is noteworthy that the Portuguese Revolution that followed the military coup of 25 April 1974 was both precipitated and inspired by the struggle for national liberation in Africa.

Elsewhere in Africa, the early and mid-1970s also seemed to mark a period of political transformation. In Ethiopia in 1974 the Derg took office, proclaiming itself the Provisional Military Administrative Council. A small but tightly organised group within the army took the streets back from the students, the trade unions and the urban poor. Marxism-Leninism, conspicuously absent from the Derg’s previous pronouncements, was taken up as the state ideology and by 1975 Soviet military assistance began to arrive. The Soviet Union had first supported the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front, then abandoned them and backed Ethiopia’s war for national sovereignty against the Eritreans, not the “behaviour they expected of the ‘father of socialism’”.41 In addition, as part of the process, the USA and the Soviet Union traded countries. The US now supported Mohamed Siad Barre of Somalia, previously allied with the Soviet Union, in a war against Ethiopia.

At this time, there were also exciting glimmers of hope through the emergence of mass struggles built around broader based coalitions reflecting local realities underpinned by workers and the organised working class, most notably in South and Southern Africa from the mid-1970s onwards. There was good reason to suppose that a rebirth had taken place. Mass movements had cast aside hated and despised (often avowedly “Marxist”) regimes and black South Africa had finally defeated apartheid. But it was another false dawn. If the generation of African leaders who had spent years advocating “Marxism-Leninism” were not overthrown, like Benin’s Mathieu Kérékou, then they converted rapidly to Washington’s new ideology: “it soon became apparent that many newly elected governments lacked the…willingness to tackle criticism…without resorting to the authoritarian measures of the past”.42

There is no better example of this than South Africa since the end of apartheid. Leaders of liberation movements who used the language of socialism to mobilise resistance to apartheid became evangelical advocates of open markets and foreign investment. Beating the Stalinist path, the South African Communist Party (formerly the CPSA) repeated the argument that socialist transformation could only follow national liberation, the two-stage theory. But today the Central Committee of the SACP are members of a class and a government who have enriched themselves while arguing, in the name of the nation, for “patience and privatisation”. South Africa, like the rest of the continent, was paralysed by the Stalinist notion that the national, democratic stage of liberation was distinct from the struggle for international socialism. Socialism, true to the pattern we have already outlined, was forgotten after “independence”.43

But there is no excuse for the South African experience. For years it had been clear that the movements of national liberation disintegrated into state oppression and corruption once the nation had been “won”. Where mass movements had existed they were crushed, as in Ethiopia after 1974; or in Angola, where the independent mass movement, the strikes against foreign companies and the people’s power movement of 1975-6 were savagely suppressed in the national interest and for national production. This suppression was often carried out with the aid of Cuban socialists, who insisted with the Russians to be allowed to aid Angolan economic recovery. The dominant political families in Angola used their positions to benefit from liberalisation policies in the 1990s and 2000s and amass fortunes through the exploitation of the countries’ oil and blood diamonds.


The degeneration, and then collapse, of the Russian Revolution was as devastating for Africa as it was for Communist parties and movements in Europe and North America. In Africa, for a moment, the revolution offered a vision of socialist transformation that joined anti-colonial struggles with socialist revolution. Many of the most enlightened thinkers and activists from Africa’s anti-colonial movements, attempted, in their own highly original ways, to envisage the combination of national and global development.

As we have seen, the adopted Algerian revolutionary Frantz Fanon understood that national autonomy was a prison that would turn independence into a curse for the poor. He understood that any possibility of real human liberation required the abolition of national frontiers in a single, continual movement. Yet the legacy of Stalinism turned liberation into the triumph of the nation-state—a consequence of the failure and defeat of the Russian Revolution, that had offered exactly the opposite possibility.

On the left, revolutionary politics were paralysed by an absurd and Stalinised view of socialism and the ubiquitous and nonsensical notion that there was not a “real economic working class” in Africa.44 Where socialists were forced to admit that there was a working class on the continent it was dismissed as “Africanised” and unable “to achieve the solidarity and coherence that could have moved them towards empowering socialist political movements”.45

Fanon saw better than any of his contemporaries the nature of political power in Africa; he understood how the class of nationalist leaders becomes “a sort of little caste, avid and voracious…only too glad to accept the dividends that the former colonial power hands out to it”.46 He was also clear about the answer: only in the field of revolutionary action—in alliance with European workers, once they had stopped playing their game of “sleeping beauty”—could the worldwide struggle for freedom finally be won.47 This is still our struggle.

Peter Dwyer teaches at Ruskin College, Oxford.

Leo Zeilig is an editor of the Review of African Political Economy, and author of books on modern African history. He has recently published a novel based in London and Zimbabwe, An Ounce of Practice (Hoperoad, 2017).


1 Mboya, 1963, p167. Tom Mboya was not directly engaging with Marxism and he explicitly rejected the application of Marxism on the continent. Many thanks to Alex Callinicos, Donny Gluckstein, Ken Olende and Camilla Royle for their comments and suggestions on this article in draft.

2 See Zeilig, 2012.

3 Zeilig, 2016, p70.

4 See Birchall, 2017.

5 Cited in Birchall, 2012, pp206-218.

6 See Amin, 1990.

7 See Lenin, 1964.

8 When we specify “Marxism-Leninism” we mean Stalinism. After the degeneration and defeat of the Russian Revolution in the late 1920s the Soviet Union exported a Stalinised Marxism across the world under the label of “Marxism-Leninism”. The content of this bastardised “Marxism” in Africa is discussed in this article.

9 See Swagler, 2017.

10 A history of the Russian Revolution’s impact on Africa, and the African diaspora, in the years immediately after 1917 still needs to be written. Adi’s invaluable recent volume details the period from 1928.

11 Swagler, 2017.

12 Adi, 2013, pp47-85.

13 Phillips, 1991, p105.

14 See Adi, 2013, and Hirson, 1989.

15 Naison, 2005, and Kelley, 2015.

16 Hobsbawm, 1995, p436.

17 Nash, 1999, p68.

18 Fine and Davis, 1991, p130.

19 Swagler, 2017.

20 Swagler, 2017.

21 See Cliff ,1963.

22 Cliff, 1963.

23 Cliff, 1963.

24 Southall, 2013, pp92 and 332.

25 Cliff, 1963.

26 Cliff, 1963.

27 See Fanon, 1963.

28 Zeilig, 2010.

29 See Amin, 1990.

30 Amin, 1990, p35.

31 Amin, 1990, p158.

32 Guevara, 2000, p2.

33 See the series on capitalism in Africa on the Review of African Political Economy’s website:

34 Byrne, 2016.

35 See Kidron, 1968.

36 Nkrumah, 1963, p120.

37 Hadjor, 1988, p23.

38 Biel, 2000, p91.

39 Davidson, 1978.

40 See Costa, 1978, pp35–37.

41 René Lefort cited in Donham, 1999, p213.

42 Abrahamsen, 2000, p125.

43 See Dwyer and Zeilig, 2012.

44 Seddon, 2009.

45 See Davidson, 1992, pp232-333.

46 Fanon, 1963, p174.

47 Marx and Engels, 1850.


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