African Socialism

Kelly Askew

in African Studies

ISBN: 9780199846733
Published online February 2018 | | DOI:
African Socialism

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After obtaining independence from the colonial powers in the 1950s through the 1980s, newly established African states had to decide whether to pursue Western-style electoral democracy with free-market capitalism, or Eastern European–style single-party socialism with centralized control of the economy. Yet Africa’s postcolonial condition imposed significant technical and administrative constraints on these countries. For those choosing socialism, the lack of development under colonialism resulted in a small number of wageworkers, and hence weak working-class consciousness. African countries, it seemed, were too agrarian, and their governments were too nationalistic. Ethnic and regional cleavages trumped class. They had peasants, not workers, and their leadership was often petty bourgeois. New socialist governments had to make do with a worker-peasant alliance, finding China a more relevant model than the Eastern bloc. Furthermore, African governments had to simultaneously pursue nationalism and socialism, generating many contradictions. Strict Marxism-Leninism eschews mass-based parties in favor of vanguard parties, but the quest for unity and a popular base drove many African governments to prefer the former. Additionally, Marxism-Leninism, as a European product, faced anticolonial antipathy. With the Cold War defining this period, the decision whether to align with the West or the Sino-Soviet bloc was politically fraught. In the end, thirty-five states, representing a majority of the continent, opted for some variant of socialism. Many explanations exist for socialism’s popularity among African intellectuals and politicians, yet perhaps the most trenchant was offered by Seydou Badian Kouyaté, Mali’s minister of planning and rural economy: “You cannot be a capitalist when you have no capital” (quoted in Grundy 1964, p. 176, cited under Mali). The attractions of socialism included a language to promote the modernization and unification of emerging nation-states, centralized control of the economy (to facilitate rapid improvement in people’s lives), state consolidation and expansion (to ensure equitable distribution of wealth), an emphasis on revolutionary change (justifying coercive means and military intervention), and international bonds with fellow socialist/communist states (promising economic, political, and military assistance). The literature abounds with classification schemes delineating the features, merits, and internal contradictions of socialism/communism on the continent, measuring them against each other and “scientific socialism” as articulated in the Soviet sphere. In the end, however, attempts to establish socialist systems were compromised by the position African economies held relative to the world capitalist system. The combination of import substitution industrialization policies and export-oriented agriculture committed African countries to disadvantageous terms of trade and continued reliance on transnational actors. Thus, state capitalism developed in lieu of socialism.

Article.  24574 words. 

Subjects: African History ; African Languages ; African Music ; African Philosophy ; African Studies

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