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John Newsinger

Review of A. Cabral, Unity & Struggle and
J. Saul, The State and Revolution in East Africa

(Spring 1981)

From International Socialism 2 : 12, Spring 1981, pp. 121–125.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg, with thanks to the Lipman-Miliband Trust.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The coup d’etat of November 1980 in Guinea-Bissau has placed a large question mark over the achievement of the PAIGC (Party of African Independence for Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde) and will inevitably herald a growing disenchantment among that regime’s admirers in the West. At such a time, it is perhaps useful to consider the character of the national liberation struggle in Guinea-Bissau and, more particularly, the ideas of its leader, Amilcar Cabral.

The national liberation struggle in Guinea-Bissau was a major factor in precipitating the overthrow of the Portuguese dictatorship in April 1974. The Portuguese position in the country was becoming militarily untenable with the real possibility of physical eviction in the not too distant future. It was the imminence of military defeat in Guinea-Bissau that finally goaded the Armed Forces Movement into action in Portugal itself.

The defeat of the Portuguese, backed up as they were by the NATO alliance, was a tremendous achievement. To a considerable extent it appeared to vindicate the political ideas of one man, the founder and early leader of the PAIGC, Amilcar Cabral.

Cabral, who was assassinated by the Portuguese secret police in January 1973, has been widely recognised as one of the foremost theoreticians of national liberation in the contemporary world, as an intellectual who tried and proved his ideas in practice. He was always concerned to theorise the national liberation struggle within the categories of a Marxist class analysis, and, in particular, he grasped at what has become a thorny problem for Marxist theory: the role of the petty bourgeoisie in national liberation struggles. While rejecting both the method he employs in resolving this problem and the conclusions that he eventually comes to as inimical to Marxism, his work has a great virtue in that its intellectual honesty makes it all the more transparent. His transformation of Marxism into an idealism takes place out in the open where it can be seen for what it is, without the sleight of hand that usually accompanies such exercises.

Initially, the small group of petty bourgeois intellectuals that had come together to form the PAI (it only became the PAIGC in October 1960) looked to the urban workers of Bissau, Boloma and Bafata as the social force that would overthrow Portuguese colonialism. They agitated and organised among the seamen and dockers, artisans and service workers, and achieved some small successes. Then, in August 1959, Portuguese troops crushed this embryonic labour movement with an exemplary massacre of fifty dockworkers at Pidjiguiti. After this defeat, the PAIGC turned to the countryside, to the peasantry, and to a strategy of protracted guerrilla war to defeat the Portuguese. Cabral was the chief exponent of this change in strategy.

Given the weakness of the working class in Guinea-Bissau, a country without industry, it was certainly true, as Cabral argued, that the workers alone would not be able to defeat the Portuguese. At no time, however, was the possibility of building a working class revolutionary party that could lead the peasantry in struggle considered. Instead, the choice of a rural guerrilla strategy was taken by the PAIGC’s leadership which thereby turned its back on the working class. Inevitably such a shift in the social basis of the party from the towns to the countryside involved more than a change of strategy: it involved a change in the whole character of the struggle and in the objectives that would be accessible to it.

Cabral did not accept this. For him, the leadership in the national liberation struggle was not provided by the working class anyway, but by a revolutionary section of the petty bourgeoisie that was somehow transformed into the proletarian vanguard. In a speech that he delivered at the Tri-continental Conference in Havana in January 1966, Cabral argued that the situation in the Third World ‘offers the petty bourgeoisie the opportunity of playing a prominent – and even decisive – role in the struggle for the elimination of foreign domination.’ He posed two choices for the petty bourgeoisie: either ‘to give free rein to its natural tendencies to become “bourgeois” ... and necessarily subject itself to imperialist control’ or

‘to strengthen its revolutionary consciousness, to repudiate the temptations to become “bourgeois” and the natural pretensions of its class mentality; to identify with the classes of workers, not to oppose the normal development of the process of revolution. This means that in order to play completely the part that falls to it in the national liberation struggle, the revolutionary petty bourgeoisie must be capable of committing suicide as a class, to be restored to life in the condition of a revolutionary worker, completely identified with the deepest aspirations of the people to which he belongs.’

For Cabral, the success of the national liberation struggle was dependent on ‘the capacity of the leaders ... to remain faithful to the principles, and the fundamental cause of the revolution’ and this question had ‘certain characteristics that belong to the sphere of morals’ (pages 135–136).

It is, of course, highly appropriate that this idealistic metaphysics should have been propounded in Havana, the capital of the Cuban Revolution. Indeed, Cabral intended his speech as a summing up of the meaning of the Cuban experience for himself and his comrades, and paid generous tribute to Fidel Castro, a somewhat less candid fellow practitioner.

What Cabral was, in effect, doing was maintaining the theoretical proposition that the working class is the vanguard of the national liberation struggle at the same time as he rejected it in practice. For Cabral, the proletarian vanguard was identified by its ideas, by its subjective consciousness, by its ‘proletarian’ ideology, and not by its location in the process of production. The real working class on the docks and in the workshops failed to develop the appropriate consciousness and was accordingly superceded by the revolutionary petty bourgeoisie. What this consciousness amounted to was belief in the efficacy of protracted rural guerrilla warfare and in the virtues of a planned economy with some degree of popular participation. In order to make the leading role played by the revolutionary petty bourgeoisie in the national liberation struggle fit into the framework of Marxist theory, Cabral had changed the content of the categories of that theory. The revolutionary petty bourgeoisie becomes the proletarian vanguard and the theory remains intact; all that has happened is that materialism has been superceded by a species of idealism. [1]

Now Cabral’s ideas may certainly have expressed the subjective consciousness of the leadership of the national liberation struggle in Guinea-Bissau. They may well have seen themselves as having been transformed from a section of the petty bourgeoisie into the vanguard of the proletariat, as having committed class suicide and been resurrected. This reflects the urgent necessity for them to mobilise the peasantry against the Portuguese colonialists. Far from committing suicide as a class, however, their objective remained to secure their own emancipation and eventual consolidation in power as the possessors of the State, not a Workers’ State founded on a structure of workers’ councils, but a State based on the subordination and exploitation of the masses.

In the midst of the struggle against colonialism when the concern of socialists in the West is quite correctly to support the national liberation movement, the reality can be quite easily lost sight of and the rhetoric of the revolutionary petty bourgeoisie taken at face value. Once the struggle has been won, however, and the new petty bourgeoisie is confronted with the need to consolidate itself and undertake on its own behalf the extraction of surplus value from the workers and peasants, then things become clearer. Whatever the subconscious consciousness of the leadership, whatever their feelings of sympathy and identification with the people, they are constrained by the harsh necessity of ensuring the survival of their state in a world dominated by the major capitalist powers of both East and West. Inevitably, this involves them in the organised exploitation of their own people and everything that follows on from this.

Whereas Cabral was the leader of a national liberation struggle, the other volume under review here is written by John Saul, one of a number of left-wing academics who have attached their sympathies to various ‘progressive’ Third World regimes. In an earlier volume, Essays on the Political Economy of Africa (Monthly Review 1973) that he jointly edited with Giovanni Arrighi, Saul found much to commend in Nyerere’s Tanzania. He wrote of ‘socialist construction’ being underway and stated quite unequivocally that the ‘struggle for progressive solutions to Africa’s development problems’ had been taken further there than anywhere else in Africa. Of course, these ‘progressive’ regimes tend to fall by the wayside as their rulers are shown by events to be not quite what they had earlier seemed, and Nyerere’s regime has proven no exception.

In this more recent volume, Saul has some harsh things to say about the undermining of the ‘socialist dimension’ of the Tanzanian experiment, and the taking over of the Tanzanian State by conservative elements of the petty bourgeoisie, a takeover acquiesced in (surprise, surprise) by Nyerere himself. Whereas Saul had earlier seen the way forward as involving the progressive petty bourgeoisie mobilising the support of the workers and peasants to defeat conservative influence within the ruling party, TANU, and then using the existing State to carry through socialist construction, now he asks whether independent trade unions might not be a good idea and whether it might not also be a good idea for progressives to organise independently of and in opposition to TANU.

As for the question of whether or not the Tanzanian State can be used in the transition to socialism, or has to be smashed, well, Saul still wouldn’t like to commit himself. This is particularly ironic in a book that borrows its title from Lenin’s classic work where there is no such equivocation.

In his earlier volume, Saul put forward the idea that the African working class was a labour aristocracy that had shared interests with the multinationals and their local agents. He now goes some way to modify this opinion and acknowledges that the working class does on occasion enter into conflict with the multinational companies and the State. This conflict seldom rises above ‘consumptionism’ however (there has always seemed something distasteful to me about well-heeled academics dismissing the class struggle as mere consumptionism). For Saul, the working class is not the stuff of which a revolutionary class is made. Instead, he follows after Cabral, whose theoretical contribution he acknowledges, and looks to progressive or revolutionary elements of the petty bourgeoisie. The role of this class is absolutely crucial in the struggle for socialism, not just in Tanzania, but throughout Africa. Indeed, increasingly disillusioned with developments in Nyerere’s Tanzania, Saul has for the time being transferred his sympathies to the revolutionary petty bourgeois regimes in Angola, Mozambique and Guinea-Bissau.

Any notion that these regimes are constrained by the material realities of their situation, he dismisses as ‘sterile determinism’. Against this he asserts ‘the dialectic that exists between will and circumstances’. Fair enough! But the will of a section of the petty bourgeoisie taking power in a poor underdeveloped country is not enough to overcome the circumstances. Only the international working class will be able to do that.

That we should support national liberation struggles in every way we can is elementary for socialists in the West. But this does not mean that we close our eyes to the class nature of the liberation movements and to the limitations that derive from this. On the contrary, we have to argue for independent working class revolutionary organisation within every country joining together in a new International as the only means to overthrow the international capitalist system.


1. This procedure is followed by, among others, orthodox Trotskyist commentators on Third World Revolutions though their reasoning is heavily camouflaged. Cliff’s Permanent Revolution, International Socialism (first series) 61, remains the starting point for any understanding of the role of the petty bourgeoisie in Third World revolutions.

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