August 3, 2021

“In many African countries, there remains a nostalgia for socialism”

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Research engineer at the Center for Social History of Contemporary Worlds of the University of Paris 1-CNRS, Françoise Blum publishes with other international researchers, Socialisms in Africa.

A collective work which “Aims to give the African continent, in the diversity of its spaces and its trajectories, the place it deserves in the world history of socialism”. And which, through thirty contributions, covering some eighteen countries, makes it possible to grasp both the plurality of African experiences, but also their shared singularities.

Socialisms in Africa have for a long time been little studied. Why ?

Francoise Blum For two main reasons. First, studies of socialism have long focused on the development of socialism in Europe. They have only become globalized fairly recently, focusing on Latin America, Asia, and more recently Africa, due to a new approach that makes the history of the Cold War more complex and does not no longer reduces it only to the face-to-face meeting between two blocks. In addition, Africanist studies were first interested in pre-colonial Africa and colonial Africa, then in the Africa of national conferences and structural adjustment plans.

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But, ultimately, very little in the 1960s and the immediate decolonization. To look at African socialisms, to also consider socialism from Africa, both in North Africa and in sub-Saharan Africa, is to go back over this entire period until the 1980s, marked by the adjustment plans. structural and bankruptcy of these socialist experiments on the continent.

How were African socialisms formed?

Socialism was thought of by Africans like Léopold Sédar Senghor, to quote the most famous, before decolonization. And it was tested after decolonization in a number of states. It is a thought linked to anti-colonialism and the struggle for independence. All of these socialisms were both nationalist and pan-Africanist. It was a petition of principle. Socialism was seen as an alternative solution to what the former colonial powers were proposing, but that did not prevent the newly independent countries from maintaining relations with the Western powers, including with the former colonizers.

The Rwanda of Grégoire Kayibanda, the Senegal of Léopold Sédar Senghor, the Ethiopia of Mengistu Hayle Mariam or the Tanzania of Julius Nyerere, the Algeria of Houari Boumediène, the Congo of Alphonse Massembat-Débat or the Angola by Agostinho Neto. There are also socialist oppositions to the regimes in place such as Sawaba in Niger. And this list is far from exhaustive.

We usually distinguish between a Marxist-Leninist, scientific socialism and an African socialism drawing on antecolonial societies. What makes them different?

Distinguishing between African socialism and Marxist-Leninist socialism in Africa is a convenient way to classify them, but the studies we publish show that it is much more complex than that. Because some borrow from others. African socialism assumed that Africa, with its village communities, was socialist even before the invention of socialism.

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This is what the Malian anthropologist Issaka Bagayogo describes as “Ancestral socialism”. For Léopold Sédar Senghor in Senegal or Julius Nyerere in Tanzania, for example, it is a question of reactivating the forms of communities that existed before colonization. There were, moreover, multiple hybridizations and a way of seizing tools like Marxism-Leninism by adapting it to African realities.

Marxist ideology was difficult to transpose as it stood in an essentially rural and peasant Africa, without a real working class. How have socialist theorists and politicians adapted their thinking and actions to these realities?

In the years 1945-1960, even if the working class and the unions were very much in the minority, they played a considerable role in the struggle for equality and for independence, with the great strikes of the 1950s. But this freedom of association was completely undermined after independence, and the advent of single parties. The question of classes has been widely debated.

Some, like Ahmed Sékou Touré in Guinea, thought that there were no classes in Africa but a “Class people”, that is to say a people united in the nation regardless of any regional, ethnic or other particularities. Others, like Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana, believed in the existence of classes, in the Marxist sense of the term.

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A whole town / country dialectic was set up with experiences of « villagisation », as in Tanzania or Mozambique. The idea was to create villages, to restructure peasant communities and to equip them so that they could produce more within cooperatives. The historian Benito Machava shows that we were wary of the city and the marginal categories who live there, to the point that they were sometimes sent to re-education camps, as was the case in Mozambique.

African socialisms have not always been rosy and democracy has not always been the order of the day, but it has varied greatly from country to country. There is no common measure between the extreme violence of the Ethiopian revolution led by the Derg and the Tanzania of Julius Nyerere.

What were the links with the communist parties in mainland France?

The French Communist Party (PCF), for example, has always considered that liberation should come from the metropolis, from the metropolitan working class, and that Africa would be liberated afterwards. This was the reason for the rupture of Aimé Césaire, then deputy for Martinique, with the PCF.

The Portuguese Communist Party was on the same line and it was late, as historian Jean-Michel Mabeko-Tali shows, that it came to support the Angolan liberation movements. But we must distinguish the general theory of the party and what has been done on the ground. The Communist Study Groups of the PCF have sometimes been the embryo of more general opposition to colonialism, for example.

What happened in Africa during the cold war?

Some countries like the Congo by Patrice Lumumba [actuelle République démocratique du Congo] or Angola were a land of struggles between external powers, that’s for sure. But African states have also written their own score by playing with the rivalries of the Cold War. They knew how to ask for help from the brother states without breaking with the former colonial powers and the United States, even when they explicitly claimed their alliances with the Eastern bloc. From this point of view, African states have broken the logic of the Cold War.

What remains today of these relations with the communist bloc?

There are still more than you might think, especially in Eastern countries where there has been significant cultural or militant circulation, for example in the field of cinema mentioned by historians Gabrielle Chomentowski, Ros Gray and Catarina Laranjeiro.

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Moreover, it was in the 1960s that the foundations of Chinese power in Africa were laid. The Chinese presence in Africa is not at all late. China, because it is the first example of peasant revolution in the world, is a model for Africa. From the 1960s, it was already very present: it financed factories, sent advisers, invited students, including during the cultural revolution of Mao Tse-Tung. At that time, in the East as in the West, one tries to attract the Africans to pose its influence in newly independent States.

African socialisms do not seem to have made secularism their fight. How did they deal with the religious question?

It is different depending on the case, but we can say that there was no militant atheism in Africa. The historian Antoine de Boyer recalls that if Kwame Nkrumah was an atheist, he nonetheless considered that Islam is one of the traditions that founds Ghanaian socialism baptized “Consciencisme”, which is the theoretical tool that the regime gave itself in matters of decolonization and development.

What remains of these socialisms today?

There remains a lot of nostalgia and the feeling that these movements have not kept their promises. That everything is not to be thrown away, but that we could try certain things again, differently. The idea of ​​social justice is still alive. Not to mention that this story has generated a whole socialist pantheon of mythical figures such as Kwame Nkrumah, Thomas Sankara, even Patrice Lumumba, even if his socialism is to be discussed, who can be heroes for today’s young generation.

Is there a future for socialism in Africa?

This is a trick question. Is there a future for socialism in the world? I don’t know, but many, in Africa and elsewhere, are fighting for a better world and for greater social justice. We can blame many things on African socialism, state or opposition, but we can not ignore that they wanted to think of a better world. These ideals continue to exist, that’s for sure.

Socialisms in Africa. Socialisms in Africa, collective, Editions of the House of Human Sciences, 718 pages, 39 euros.

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