African Socialism: A Critical Analysis

By ‘Manapo ‘Mokose

The concept of African socialism developed at a time when many African states were preparing for independence. This was during the 1950s, when the pressing issue confronting the first crop of African leaders was how to approach development and nation building after colonialism. The general format was a break away from the Western model of economic development, which had been imposed upon African countries during colonialism. The outcome of this model, capitalism, had left African countries without transport, manufacturing and infrastructure, with a heavy product dependency on Western economies, and unequal trade relations between Africa and their colonial proprietors. During colonialism, European imperialists validated their unwelcomed conquest of other lands with a claim that they were bringing civilization and development to their respective colonies. The reality was that in these colonies, little was left in the way of developmental mechanisms. The roads and railroads that they built were not intended to develop national infrastructures but to facilitate the export of African raw materials to the empires. Further, the colonial powers did not develop industries through which African countries could then develop their wealth of raw materials. The result was that African states then depended on Europe for processed goods. Having been on the receiving end of an unjust system, African leaders rejected capitalism for what they felt to be a more impartial development model, socialism. Theirs was a socialism of a unique kind. It strayed from the Western socialism that was touted by Marxian philosophy, and instead drew from African realities to develop what came to be known as African socialism.


Understanding African Socialism

African socialism developed as a doctrine that catered for the social, political and economic realities of Africa. It gained the support of many leaders and thinkers who contributed differently to it. Through Julius Nyerere, the doctrine found expression in what he coined ujamaa (African familyhood). Leopold Senghor made reference to negritude, while Kenneth Kaunda talked of humanism, Kwame Nkrumah of Consciencism and Sekou Touré of communocracy. From their individual contributions, the doctrine came to be composed of varying and distinct perspectives. There was, however, a common thread that ran through their individual views that made way for a working definition of the doctrine. From it, we may define African socialism as an attempt to regain and modernize the traditional Africans’ communal way of life before their encounter with the world and values of the white man. The theory sought to recapture the collectivism that was specific to African cultural and social norms and to move away from the individualism that was injected into Africa by Western capitalism. Thus, African socialism aimed to be  an anti-imperialist social system that is rooted in African soil and breaks away from Western markets. In terms of effecting development, therefore, African socialism aligned itself more with the idea that the best way to address social and economic inequalities was through state control of markets and distribution.

This will be explained by considering the thinking of two of the leading African socialists,  Nkrumah and Nyerere. Their theoretical contributions to the doctrine are considered to be a fair representation of the group.


Nyerere’s Ujamaa

Nyerere’s African socialism was constructed around the concept of ujamaa, or “familyhood” as he described it. It was motivated by his interest to extend to the socialist project a native African identity that was grounded in the historical memories and realities of Africa. Nyerere contended that socialism was inherent in the African societal structure and therefore that adopting African socialism would simply be a reversion to pre-colonial society. He argued that “we, in Africa, have no more need of being ‘converted’ to socialism than we have of being ’taught” democracy’.” For Nyerere, the pre-colonial African society was devoid of “class” or “caste” and everyone was a worker. In the same vein, Nyerere declared that there hadn’t been any rich people in Africa, and that wealth had not been used to dominate others. He presented traditional African society as one of equals, where land, house and food were shared. Furthermore, Nyerere maintained that traditional African societies were participatory and democratic, a view that he captured in his statement “they talk till they agree”. His entire project was founded on his stance that like democracy, socialism was an attitude.

To implement African socialism, Nyerere developed a policy on socialism and self-reliance referred to as the Arusha Declaration. The Declaration encompassed ujamaa’s rejection of capitalism, which organized society on the basis of the exploitation of man by man, and of Marxism, which was based on the philosophy of inevitable conflict between men. With African socialism, Tanzania would seek a path of self-reliance that de-emphasized industrial development and material wealth for its own sake and promoted cooperation for the common good of society rather than competition for individual private gain.

Nyerere enforced a policy of villagization in which people were relocated to villages to practice collective agriculture. He believed many benefits would come out of this. It  would unite the rural population which would then benefit from state services such as health care and education and develop a sense of community that would eradicate the tribalism that had plagued many post-colonial states.

The implementation of ujamaa was flawed, though. Few supported being forced to move by the state, especially those who were forced to move when their fields were already sown with that year’s harvest. Food production fell, and the country’s economy suffered. There were advances in terms of public education, but Tanzania was fast becoming one of Africa’s poorer countries, kept afloat by foreign aid. In 1985, when Nyerere stepped down from power, Tanzania abandoned its experiment with African socialism.


Nkrumah’s Consciencism

Like Nyerere, Nkrumah’s philosophy was grounded in African history which he believed it could guide and direct Africa’s reconstruction after colonialism. He differed from Nyerere in that he saw this reconstruction as possible only if the contemporary realities of African societies were acknowledged. Nyerere advocated for a reversion to the communal African society. Nkrumah viewed this as impossible. He argued that current African societies had been significantly influenced by contemporary experiences that could not be ignored.

Nkrumah outlined three experiences that had shaped African dynamics:, the traditional African society, the Islamic presence as well as the Euro-Christian presence. He argued that these were ushered in by colonialism but that its defeat would not result in their automatic disappearance. For Nkrumah, the latter two altered the character of traditional African society to such a degree that philosophical thought was necessary to restore the African conscience. This African conscience would be restored not by a reversion to African societies – which was impossible – but by drawing from the values of those past societies to improve upon the contemporary African society.


Critical Analysis

Various objections have been levelled against Nkrumah and Nyerere’s philosophies. Chief among them are that both politicians drew from utopian ideals of pre-colonial African societies and that both their works were inspired by imported ideologies. While these criticisms expose some similarities between their standpoints,  they predominantly expose the supremacy that Nkrumah’s African socialism had over Nyerere’s ujamaa.

Pertinent to the utopian critique, the views of Okadigbo, Rodney, and Babu come to mind. These authors identified in Nkrumah’s philosophy a basis that was influenced more by what he perceived Africa should be than the reality of what it was; a denial of the existence of a class structure in Ghana; and a revisionist policy that could not be applied across time and space. While these inferences may be right in their objections to African socialism, they expose a mistake by these writers to categorize Nkrumah’s philosophy within that ideology. Nkrumah  categorically distanced himself from the ideology, and equally condemned the very African socialist characteristics that Okadigbo, et al accused his philosophy of having. In his essay, “African Socialism Revisited”, Nkrumah criticized African socialism for making ”a fetish of the communal African society” and simplifying the African society which he maintained was neither classless nor free from hierarchy, and which in fact practiced slavery. This is in stark contrast to Nyerere, whose ujamaa falls within the ambit of the ideology that Okadigbo, et al and even Nkrumah condemned. Nyerere readily embraced African socialism, declaring that “we are committed to something we called ’African Socialism’.” Nyerere rejected foreign influences, believing that simply through reform, Africa could go back to pre-colonial societal organization. Nkrumah instead advocated for Africa to focus on the values rather than the structures of traditional African life. Nkrumah embraced the material realities of contemporary African society while Nyerere not only fetishized the past, but failed to understand a present that had strayed too far from that past to accommodate its reinstatement.

Ultimately Nkrumah can only be criticised for not qualifying the African values that he proposed the reconstruction of contemporary African societies should draw from. While African societies shared some common values, the suggestion of uniformity across all African societies without the provision of some caveat was an error. Nyerere is equally guilty here because in his advocacy for the reversion to traditional African structures, he neglected the pluralism of African culture and forced a false unity upon what was unequivocally diverse.

Another criticism was that Nyerere and Nkrumah appropriated foreign ideologies. The argument was that these two politicians were subjecting Africa to imported constructs that would betray its original civilization. In and of itself, this criticism is compromised by its apparent failure to understand the nuances of Nkrumah’s philosophy, which understood scientific socialism as a methodology instead of an ideology.

Scientific socialism initiates its process with the relationship that man has to the material world. Marxism refers to this as ‘the basis’ and it pertains to the specific mode of production, social relations, and material circumstances that society finds itself in – similar to what Nkrumah referred to as the ‘social milieu’. Thus, the basis is specific to particular contexts and fluctuates across space and time. Regarding Marxism as an ideology would therefore be erroneous because more than anything else, it was applied to Western Europe as a methodology. To the extent that methodology is independent of time and space, it could be applied to different contexts. Marx himself was careful to articulate this view, maintaining that he did not determine a single mechanical progression of history. He advised that Das Capital was nothing more than a depiction of the path from which the capitalist order emerged in Western Europe and that it was not his intention to extend the model of Western Europe as a philosophical theory of the path that all people were fated to take.

Marxism is therefore not a finished product and Nkrumah recognized that. The notion that he imported foreign ideologies to Africa is a misguided one that sees Marxism as an end and not a means. Nyerere, in adhering to African socialism committed this very mistake, as demonstrated by his rejection of the “one pure socialism” that he perceived Marxism to be. His understanding of Marxism categorized it as an ideology and a conclusion, and failed to embrace it as a methodology. In this way, he committed the crime of imposing an ideology on African societies without a necessary reflection on the contemporary realities that colonialism had left behind. Nkrumah did not fall into this trap and thus his philosophy presented a more pragmatic avenue towards the emancipation of the African conscience. Instead of forcing upon society an idyllic concept of where it should be headed, it presented the opportunity for man to first understand his social conditions as a way of easing the transformation of thought to practice. This section has demonstrated how very different Nkrumah was from Nyerere. It alluded to the extent of Nkrumah’s accomplishments in constructing a new philosophy that he applied to scientific socialism as a methodology. With his philosophy he established an organic ideology that moulded itself to contemporary African experiences. This was in stark contrast to Nyerere, whose ujamaa did not present a knowledge basis for a society that needed to comprehend why ujamaa was directed at a particular structure of society. He rejected Marxism based on a misguided understanding of its nuances and ended up with a utopian vision of Africa’s future. Nkrumah did not, and while Consciencism is not without fault, it succeeded in important respects where his peers failed.