John Leslie

Towards an African Socialism

(Spring 1960)

John Leslie [1], Towards an African socialism, International Socialism (1st series), No.1, Spring 1960, pp. 15–19.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

What follows is not written from any expert knowledge of African affairs, beyond what appears in the newspapers; nor out of any very original theoretical preconceptions, beyond those of militant, libertarian Marxism. Indeed neither inside information nor novel principles are needed to realise that the rapid advance of the colonial revolution in Africa presents the movement with problems hardly paralleled in depth, scope and degree.

What is to happen in the new states of Africa after they have achieved independence? Socialists in Britain have devoted very little time to this important question, from a mixture of motives. Most of us are reluctant to undertake any enquiry which might have the tinge of an imperialist hangover: such problems are obviously to be solved by no one other than the Africans themselves, so why should we intervene even to the extent of speculating aloud? Again, we are only too aware that the actual attainment of independence is quite a large enough task to absorb all the energies and interests of socialists at home and nationalists abroad. Dare we, when the Rhodesias and Nyasaland are still in bondage, when settler imperialism waxes in Kenya, with Kenyatta still caged and Verwoerd and Swart still topping their madman’s empire – dare we even begin to sketch the outlines of possible vistas beyond these overwhelming barriers of the present?

Yes, we must. True, our support for the self-determination of oppressed nations is completely unconditional, and independent of our views on the leaderships of national movements involved in the struggle. Yet this does not mean that we can be content to remain silent when nationalist leaders, particularly after they have achieved power, frustrate the hopes or misuse the enthusiasm of the masses that follow them. At the first Kessingland conference, organized by the National Association of Labour Student Organisations, a representative of the Algerian FLN who had been questioned very closely by his audience upon such things as anti-MNA terrorism, turned in a mixture of bewilderment and pride and said:

“But I do not understand. Our delegations can negotiate with governments like those of Russia or China, and with people like President Bourguiba and President Nasser. These do not question us or criticize us about what we have done, but give us help. How is it not so here?”

To this kind of query, socialists would have to answer that support is not necessarily more sincere for being uncritical; and that the very nonchalance with which Nasser and Khruschev view the more controversial activities of the FLN is evidence of a certain unprincipled calculation which might one day, with some new twist in the power-game, turn out the worse for the Algerian liberation movement. Our support for the colonial struggle cannot assume the impassivity of old poker-hands: our loyalty is given not primarily to leaderships, but to movements of masses and to principles. Having said all that, we would naturally be ashamed that the weakness of Socialism in the metropolitan West makes our criticism of national leaderships loom so large in proportion to the practical aid we can give.

Only a few years ago, the possibility of an African Socialism would have appeared purely speculative. Over the whole of the continent, scarcely a single political formation existed which was influenced by a recognisable Socialist tradition. The “Socialism” lauded in the constitution of Nkrumah’s CPP is as empty a gesture as that of Nehru’s Congress. The Social-Democracy of French West Africa is merely an appendage to the SFIO of France, deriving its attitudes from the exigencies of parliamentary manoeuvring in Paris rather than from any motivation in the territories themselves. Apart from the Algerian CP, and the “broad” activities of the dissolved South African CP, Stalinism has left no imprint upon the political life of any African nation. Even today we can witness only the faint beginnings of an indigenous African Socialism. The Marxist (yet non-Stalinist) PAI of Senegal, cast out from the Accra Conference of African Parties for its unrelenting class-militancy; the Congolese People’s Party, based on the African trade unions but with a substantially European aktiv; the expatriate Ghana Socialist League in this country. This roll-call is not exhaustive, being as it is no more than a compilation of names which one Socialist happens to have come across: but it is enough to show that only rather small-scale prospects for an African Socialism exists in the immediate future.

And of course, it would be surprising if the reverse were the case. Any socialism worth its salt has to be born within a successful trade-union movement, or it will become a private possession of some intelligentsia, whether as a safety-valve of licensed nonconformity (as in the USA) or as the “front” ideology of a ruling elite (as in Ghana or China). And the trade-union movement in Africa is still relatively weak – out of 4 to 5 million wage-earners (5 per cent. of the Continent’s working population) and even these mostly irregularly employed – only about half a million (10 per cent of this 5 per cent) are trade unionists (Hodgkin, Nationalism in Colonial Africa, 1957). Faced with this bleak future, we may be tempted to despair of the whole discussion. After all, independence is the main task just now, and won’t Nkrumah do as a second-best substitute for the African Lenin who hasn’t appeared and probably can’t anyway?

But it is only when we begin to examine the independent regimes now emerging in Africa that the necessity for an indigenous Socialism becomes more than theoretical. There are enough disquieting tendencies in the political process of Ghana to make us start asking urgent questions. We can leave aside the deliberate hysteria with which the Express and Telegraph greet anything that can be construed as excessive toughness on the part of the Ghanaian government: banner headlines “THE LASH IN GHANA” and racialist Cummings cartoons when a flogging sentence is imposed, and discreet reportage when it is quashed. We can make ample allowance for the reactionary and gangsterish character of the Opposition United Party. All we need to look at is the structure of the trade unions there: Government registration, control by the same Party that is merged with the apparatus of the State. The pattern seems familiar, and our classification of it is reinforced from time to time by authoritarian episode in different branches of Ghanaian life, such as Nkrumah’s threat to the students that, since they lived off Government grants, they could expect trouble if they criticized the Government. The pattern that seems to flicker even through the superimposed outlines of a parliamentarian constitution, is that of the Corporate State.

It may be objected that we have too little evidence at the present to justify so harsh a conclusion. However, we have evidence from Guinea, whose political development since independence shows a clearer and firmer profile than that of Ghana. This comparative definiteness and direction is in no small part the legacy of the French administrative influence, where a codified rigour of preconception dominates, to the exclusion of the ambiguous and empirical features so marked in British colonial and Ghanaian post-colonial technique. A work by Sekou Touré published last year, Towards Full Re-Africanisation: Policy and Principles of the Guinea Democratic Party, deserves close attention on the part of political theorists. The consistency of its approach enables us to view, matured and elaborately rationalized, the corporate tendencies that are still only incipient and half-hearted in other African movements.

“The Party is the brain of our state, while the state is the executive part of the Party which works according to the spirit and intentions of the Party.” (English edition, p.45)

“Each one must consider himself as a ‘part,’ an element indissociable from a ‘whole’ and subject to the laws and exigencies of this ‘whole’.” (p.52)

The nature of the ‘whole’ is approvingly specified as “a monolithic collectivist state (p.53). Within the assumptions of Touré’s general will, dissent is a mechanical imperfection:

“At each appointment of the executive boards, dissensions arise in the movement. This is because the form of the work is not yet perfected.” (p. 22)

Class organization is formally prohibited. “A democratic nation” is “one in which the programme of work, the power it exercises, are determined not by the interests of a class, of a fraction of the people, but exclusively by the interests of the people in its entirety” (p.28).

“... never, through this collection of contradictions, had our political principles been put in doubt. Unanimously everyone approved enthusiastically: functionaries, employees, merchants, peasants, youth and workers.” (p.104)

The particular blend of Stalinism, Jacobinism and colonialist hangover that we have here is Touré’s own. The general monolithic flavour may, however, be detected in movements scattered throughout Africa; sometimes as conscious and fully-blown as in Guinea, more often only an embryonic feature of a Congress, Front or Party that has still not attained power. The very inconsistency of its degree of prevalence over the whole Continent is all the more reason for analyzing and criticizing the trend as sharply as possible – subject to one proviso: such a critique must in no way modify the recognition that all these movements are to be supported practically and unreservedly in their fight against imperialism. The authoritarian features of the FLN’s attitude towards its Algerian rivals should not blind us to its heroic leadership on the battlefield and in the formation of an underground Algerian state. Our dislike of the Leader-cult around Dr Banda, which in this case seems to have been fostered in a crudely calculating manner by his lieutenants (see the Devlin Report), must not dilute our solidarity with the Nyasaland African Congress. In William Jennings Bryan’s words: “The people have the right to make their own mistakes. You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.” Or for that matter, upon a cross of copper.

Nevertheless, the nature of the dubious tendencies that we have seen at work makes it possible to define the role of an African Socialism at least negatively. The main tasks before Africa may be summarized as follows:

  1. The demolition of the power and loyalties bound up with native tribal and feudal systems.
  2. As a consequence of (1), the development of federal and Pan-African political structures the unification of the Continent based in the first place on the unification of its most cohesive regions, divided at present by the imperialist carve-up and by tribal consciousness.
  3. The planned development of the resources of the Continent in the interests of its inhabitants, involving:
    1. the devotion to the internal needs of Africa of the vast surplus extorted by settler and imperialist interests
    2. industrialization at an “optimum rate of growth” as opposed to a “maximum” rate – to use the excellent distinction coined by Ernest Germain one of the few Marxists devoting any attention to the problems of under-developed countries); the size and nature of this “optimum” to be determined at least as much by the felt needs of worker and peasant consumers as by the dictates of growth-curves and pig-iron statistics
    3. the development of agricultural resources by the encouragement (not coercion) of co-operative farming in progressively larger units, and by mechanizattion provided via (b) and by overseas aid the urbanization of Africa in accordance with decent standards of community: neither barracks nor shanty-towns, the alternatives offered by imperialist enterprise.

In assessing the capacity of the present African leaderships to attain these tasks, we must bear in mind that any generalization covering an entire Continent is bound to be schematic. The judgments which follow are based upon the performance to date of the most independent, articulate and successful nationalist Governments, those of Ghana and Guinea. Countries like Nigeria or other parts of French West Africa, which contain several competitive Front-type movements on a tribal or other sectional basis, will display a more complex pattern. In such areas political energies will largely be devoured in inter-Front warfare until a stable leadership emerges.

Front leadership seems to be most successful in the field of education, where voluntary enthusiasm can be called upon to produce impressive results in literacy campaigns. Pan-African and federal ideas are of course strongly encouraged by Nkrumah and Sekou Touré, and on a “resolutionary” level by the All-African Conferences. However, pan-Africanism is now reaching a state similar to that of Pan-Arabism, where rival governments each accuse the other of using federalist slogans as a pretext for annexation, while maintaining that their own devotion to the cause is incorruptible. Olympio of Togoland and Nkrumah, both apostles of African unification, are now at it hammer and tongs in the tradition of Nasser and Kassim. The sectional consciousness of the masses remains the main barrier; and here Front leaderships are handicapped by their ambiguity, vis-à-vis the tribe. The very all-inclusiveness of the Front originating in the anti-colonial struggle, makes its attitude to chieftaincy somewhat two-faced. It may vacillate between measures to limit chiefly power and attempts at compromise in the interests of corporate unity. Even when a stand is taken against the chiefs, it will tend to be in response to a fight picked by them, and to shuffle and delay until a showdown is unavoidable. Such hesitation and delay is likely to be specially marked in regions where (as in Central Africa) the dominance of European settler interests has drawn the chiefs into militant alignment with the native liberation movement.

The expropriation of imperial economic power presents grave problems for any colonial leadership whatsoever, (whether of a Front or overtly class character) because of the danger of military intervention. We shall have occasion to touch on this question at a more general level later on. It is enough to note now that in this respect Front leaderships are prone to all the temporising and “moderating” pressures which native commercial interests may exert. These same interests will also tend to frustrate the growth of a public sector in the “commanding heights” when the necessity for economic planning comes to the fore. However, Marxists should not on this account make the mistake of supposing that Front leaderships mainly represent the “national bourgeoisie.” Over the settler-dominated parts of Africa (Arab and Black), there is no African bourgeoisie worth speaking of. Nor will it do to characterise such leaderships as “petty-bourgeois.” They may be so in some areas, i.e. they may be drawn from and represent middle-class or wealthy peasant strata. But the dangers inherent in the Front conception of leadership arise just as much, if not more so, from elites which have worked their way to the head of the mass movement via the building of working-class organizations, Sekou Touré being the most obvious example.

Finally, whether imperialist combines are nationalized or not (and probably not), accumulation at an “optimum” rate which takes consumer demands into lively consideration is impossible within the framework of the corporate Front. In order to express the day-to-day demands of consumers, there must be an independent, active working-class and poor-peasant organizations, including unions, co-operative bodies and political parties. These, as we have seen, stand counter to the entire conception of the Front, within which all “sectional” bodies are subordinate to the ruling Party, if not actually absorbed within it. At the very best, a vigorously anti-imperial Front could, through expropriation and centralized planning, accumulate heavy industrial products efficiently and repressively; failing planning and expropriation (which is more likely), inefficiently and repressively.

We can now define the role of an autonomous African Socialist movement. It is to carry out, decisively and democratically, all the essential tasks which we have listed above and which alternative leaderships are incapable of doing properly or at all. Only a mass movement based on independent organizations of labouring people, with urbanized working-class leadership, an international vision and an unremitting hostility to all kinds of exploiters, (which is, when all is said and done, what a good Socialist movement amounts to) can lead Africa into her proper future.

Such movement is necessary; is it possible?

The backwardness of the African continent, which, by whatever standards, economic, cultural or political, far exceeds that of Asia, makes it tempting to return, a straight No to this question. It is this very backwardness, after all, which has created the present Front leaderships. Even Stalinism, which from one point of view is an ideology for the industrialization in backward countries, seems to require development at a certain level before it can take root, and in Africa it shows no sign of taking root. Apart from the specific problem of African backwardness, we are bound to have our doubts about the possibility of a successful Socialist revolution in any underdeveloped country. In that sense we are all Trotskyists now. Harry Pollitt himself proclaimed at the 1957 CP Emergency Congress that the catalogue of horrors in the Khruschev report had happened because we had failed to build Socialism in the advanced West. (His exact words, of course, were less unambiguously Trotskyist, and carried the implication: “So don’t blame Khruschev.”)

From this state of scepticism, pessimism even, it is very easy to fall into a fatalistic acceptance of the inevitable. There is a story that the exiled Trotsky was once greeted by an admirer with the speculation: “If only Lenin had lived! You would be with him to this day in Moscow!” Trotsky replied: “Not at all, he would be with me in Mexico.” Since Trotsky was hardly a fatalist in practical politics, the story is probably apocryphal. But it exhibits the temptation; it is necessary to beware of conclusions, however founded upon hard economic data, whose equivalence in practice would seem to be passivity. And yet, on the other hand, a blind optimism that cries “Nothing is inevitable!” and rushes into the stream of harsh fact determined to beat back the current, may be later found drowned. History has dealt hard with the slogans of Utopia: Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, All Power To The Soviets, mock us from the depths of the pool.

The dilemma is therefore potent for the African who wishes to call himself a Socialist, as for the Socialist who concerns himself with Africa. For the latter, responsibility weighs all the heavier, if, in the very minimum estimate, the attainment if a free and developed society in Africa is difficult in proportion as its attainment is delayed in the advanced West.

For those with memories of intervention in Guatemala, Suez, Guiana and Iran it is hypocritical to accuse colonial leaders of cowardice in refusing to nationalize overseas companies. It is certainly true that the growth of an African Socialism requires some assurance that, if an African government takes anti-imperialist economic measures, the working-class of the advanced world will halt the gun-boats and the bombs.

But for the African Socialist, action cannot be delayed until such an assurance arrives, or until the inevitability of Front rule appears less inevitable. Too much is at stake, the passive alternative is too appalling. And, in any case, whatever long-term prospects are offered, of a historically determined bureaucracy or of a breakthrough into the realm of freedom, the immediate tasks still hold good. The working-class, small but likely to grow rapidly on whatever forecast, must organize independently to protect and further its conditions of life. Independent peasant co-operative organizations and parties must be assisted, and linked in action to the young working-class movement. In some countries such organization will be possible under the aegis of an open Socialist party; in others, probably the majority, Socialists will have to work within a widely-based party of Labour. Whether as defence against an impregnable State machine, or as a form of transition to revolution, such work is imperative. And whether the prospect is one of unremitting defence or of ultimate transition, will be shown only by the actions of men as they unfold; not by any amount of facile sloganing or erudite analyzing.

Above all, the engulfing monolith of the Front is to be resisted. The demands of the united struggle against colonialism must not be taken to imply the eclipse of class-organization. Nothing has been more tragic about Ghana than the spectacle of life-long Socialists, like George Padmore, Geoffrey Bing and CLR James, enrolled into the service of the Front as apparatchiki or apologists. And the fascination with Power as Incarnate Progress extends beyond these few; all of us who undertake the defence of the colonial revolution experience at some time or other the uncertainty of where to draw the line between principled support of movements and uncritical apologia for leaderships. Castro and Kassim can enlist us if we are not careful, quite as much as Nkrumah and Touré (and in their time, perhaps, Stalin and Mao).

Here once again, the concrete case is easier to handle than the general principle. And our specific responsibility towards African Socialism will check any swing towards leader-loyalty. This responsibility has been largely neglected by socialists in the metropolitan nations; we can afford to do so no longer. Exchanges of delegations, and individual visits from members of the European Labour and Co-op movements to their African opposite numbers, and vice versa, are particularly needful. Here the Mboya conception of a practical bond between African trade unions and the ICTFU is both welcome and important, and distinctly preferable to the Ghana-Guinea advocacy of an All-African TUC without links with Europe or the Communist world. (In practice, such autonomy will tend to veer towards a Stalinist connection, as it is already doing). Discussions with individual colonial nationalists and socialists, and with expatriate organs like the Ghana Socialist League and The Defender, should be held whenever possible. Above all, such exchanges should be held in a completely fraternal and humble spirit, with no hint of patronage or superciliousness. (This is one instance where the general principle is easier to handle than the particular case). Practical help should be given both in the colonial and in the social issues, without strings or qualifications. “The people have the right to make their own mistakes” with our money, if necessary. It is not our job to put forth manifestos for the future of an independent Africa, but we should make it clear that we are willing to give our views, and that we should be immensely grateful for the chance to learn from the African movement. No doubt self-effacing remarks like this have been made by all the unscrupulous dictators there ever have been: to our African comrades we can only say, “Suspect us, by all means, but try us first.”

The Socialism of Africa will be different in many important respects from any socialist movement we have known in the West. It is impossible and presumptuous to try predicting the special context of its tradition. But one thing is certain: only within such a tradition can an “African personality” be realised which will distinguish the personality of the ruler from the personality of one ruled.


Note by MIA

1. John Leslie was a pseudonym used by Peter Sedgwick.


Last updated on 6 November 2015