African Socialism and its Discontents

Founding fathers of African Socialism and its Discontents

by Peter Adejobi


Even before the modern idea of socialism emerged in Africa, during the anti-colonial struggles, Africans have been equipped with the ideology of sharing economic resources. This past communalist way of life is often described as traditional African Socialism. This is distinct from socialism described by Karl Marx and Fredrick Engels as a new society born out from capitalism, through workers struggle for self-emancipation.

Many African politicians in the 1950s and 1960s professed their support for some form of African socialism or the other. However, scientific socialism as an ideology became prominent in Africa after the Second World War, with the growth of the working class. The struggle for independence was then in the front burner. Radical nationalists and trade unions played important roles in the fight for self-determination across the continent.

Advocates of African socialism, amongst the nationalists, claimed that it was not the opposite of capitalism, nor a response to it but something completely different. However, the independent African states did not introduce fundamentally different economic systems. They helped the local bosses to acquire wealth, rather than providing services for the whole of their populations.

Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, Leopold Senghor of Senegal, Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana and Sekou Toure of Guinea were the main architects of African socialism according to William H. Friedland and Carl G. Rosberg Jnr. Editor of the book “African Socialism”.

Nyerere’s African Socialism of “Ujamaa” made major advances in the fields of health and education. However, it proved disastrous for many Tanzanians who mainly remained poor and without any real power. Similar developments took place in other African countries. No wonder Frantz Fanon declared that despite independence of African countries, the masses had been frustrated, neither their material nor moral condition had improved.

They still did not eat meat, nor did they have any peace of mind. They had discovered to their shock that the fighting had yielded no fundamental changes to their lives. The French revolution, according to Fanon, benefitted the smallest farmer, but in Africa, the flames of discontent threatened to burst out again.

Why Did African Socialism Fail?

African socialism led by the nationalists failed because of:

1. The absence of a strong, combative and self-conscious working class, which could lead to the revolutionary take over and construction of socialism on a strong technological base. A socialism with such a high level of production and productivity was needed so that the power of the world capitalist economy would be incapable of bringing it to heel.
2. The colonial legacy of Africa’s role in the global division of labour ensured that such economic and social developments could not succeed for some considerable time.

In line with Marx’s theory, the essence of socialist revolution is the self-emancipation of workers through their own collective, conscious struggle. The Socialist Workers League is a part of the socialist movements in Africa.
The League stands for the independence of working class action, revolution not reform, internationalism and zero tolerance to oppression. In the longer term, the league is committed to the working-class people’s abolition of private ownership of means of production so as to end the exploitation of workers by the bosses. It is only on this basis that we can build a classless society where social justice and the all rounded development of everybody is assured.

In conclusion, socialism in Africa is real and alive. Recent evidence is provided by the Arab spring which started in Tunisia and almost swept away all the political leaders in the North Africa. This inspired revolts in Burkina Faso which ended the rule of the murderer of Thomas Sankara. It is also leading to protests against long-term presidents in several other African countries.

Africa socialism might be nothing but a delusion. However, the dissemination of classical socialist ideas within the intelligentsia in Africa cannot be over emphasized. The consequent formation of socialist movements which are assimilating these ideas are ongoing. Of particular importance is the need to popularise revolutionary socialist ideas within the working clas across the continent, to unite and fight for a better world.

That is the crucial challenge for activists in our generation to face. As Frantz Fanon said “each generation must, out of relative obscurity, discover its mission, fulfill it or betray it”. Fulfilling our generation’s mission requires our rising above the discontents of “African socialism”.



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