At independence, African countries had to decide what type of state to put in place, and between 1950 and the mid-1980s, thirty-five of Africa’s countries adopted socialism at some point.1 The leaders of these countries believed socialism offered their best chance to overcome the many obstacles these new states faced at independence. Initially, African leaders created new, hybrid versions of socialism, known as African socialism, but by the 1970s, several states turned to the more orthodox notion of socialism, known as scientific socialism.
What was the appeal of socialism in Africa, and what made African socialism different from scientific socialism?
The appeal of Socialism
- Socialism was anti-imperial. The ideology of socialism is explicitly anti-imperial. While the U.S.S.R. (which was the face of socialism in the 1950s) was arguably an empire itself, its leading founder, Vladimir Lenin wrote one of the most famous anti-imperial texts of the 20th century: Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism. In this work, Lenin not only critiqued colonialism, but also argued that the profits from imperialism would ‘buy out’ the industrial workers of Europe. The workers’ revolution, he concluded, would have to come from the un-industrialized, underdeveloped countries of the world. This opposition of socialism to imperialism and the promise of revolution coming underdeveloped countries made it appealing to anti-colonial nationalists around the world in the 20th century.
- Socialism offered a way to break with Western markets To be truly independent, African states needed to be not only politically but also economically independent. But most were trapped in the trading relations established under colonialism. European empires had used African colonies for natural resources, so, when those states achieved independence they lacked industries. The major companies in Africa, such as the mining corporation Union Minière du Haut-Katanga, were European-based and European-owned. By embracing socialist principles and working with socialist trading partners, African leaders hoped to escape the neo-colonial markets that colonialism had left them in.
- In the 1950s, socialism apparently had a proven track record. When the USSR was formed in 1917 during the Russian revolution, it was an agrarian state with little industry. It was known as a backward country, but less than 30 years later, the U.S.S.R. had become one of two superpowers in the world. To escape their cycle of dependency, African states needed to industrialize and modernize their infrastructures very quickly, and African leaders hoped that by planning and controlling their national economies using socialism they could create economically competitive, modern states within a few decades.
- Socialism seemed to many like a more natural fit with African cultural and social norms than the individualist capitalism of the West. Many African societies place great emphasis on reciprocity and community. The philosophy of Ubuntu, which stresses the connected nature of people and encourages hospitality or giving, is often contrasted with the individualism of the West, and many African leaders argued that these values made socialism a better fit for African societies than capitalism.
- One-party socialist states promised unity. At independence, many African states were struggling to establish a sense of nationalism among the different groups (whether religious, ethnic, familial, or regional) that made up their population. Socialism offered a rationalle for limiting political opposition, which leaders – even previously liberal ones – came to see as a threat to national unity and progress.
Socialism in Colonial Africa
In the decades before decolonization, a few African intellectuals, such as Leopold Senghor were drawn to socialism in the decades before independence. Senghor read many of the iconic socialist works, but was already proposing an African version of socialism, which would become known as African socialism in the early 1950s.
Several other nationalists, like the future President of Guinee, Ahmad Sékou Touré, were heavily involved in trade unions and demands for workers’ rights. These nationalists were often far less educated than men like Senghor, though, and few had the leisure to read, write, and debate socialist theory. Their struggle for living wages and basic protections from employers made socialism attractive to them, particularly the type of modified socialism that men like Senghor proposed.
Though African socialism was different from European, or Marxist, socialism in many respects, it was still essentially about trying to resolve social and economic inequalities by controlling the means of production. Socialism provided both a justification and a strategy for managing the economy through state control of markets and distribution.
Nationalists, who had struggled for years and sometimes decades to escape the domination of the West had no interest, though, in becoming subservient to the U.S.S.R. They also didn’t want to bring in foreign political or cultural ideas; they wanted to encourage and promote African social and political ideologies. So,the leaders who instituted socialist regimes shortly after independence – like in Senegal and Tanzania – did not reproduce Marxist-Leninist ideas. Instead, they developed new, African versions of socialism that supported some traditional structures while proclaiming that their societies were – and always had been – classless.
African variants of socialism also permitted far more freedom of religion. Karl Marx called religion “the opium of the people,”2 and more orthodox versions of socialism oppose religion far more than African socialist countries did. Religion or spiritual was and is highly important to the majority of African people, though, and African socialists did not restrict the practice of religion.
The most well-known example of African socialism was Julius Nyerere’s radical policy of ujamaa, or villagization, in which he encouraged, and later forced, people to move to model villages so that they could participate in collective agriculture. This policy, he felt, would solve many problems at once. It would help congregate Tanzania’s rural population so that they could benefit from state services like education and health care. He also believed it would help overcome the tribalism that bedeviled many post-colonial states, and Tanzania did, in fact, largely avoid that particular problem.
The implementation of ujamaa was flawed, though. Few who were forced to move by the state appreciated it, and some were forced to move at times that meant they had to leave fields 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 the foreign aid. It was only in 1985, though Nyerere stepped down from power and Tanzania abandoned its experiment with African socialism.
The Rise of Scientific Socialism in Africa
By that point, African socialism had long been out of vogue. In fact, former proponents of African socialism were already starting to turn against the idea in the mid-1960s. In a speech in 1967, Kwame Nkrumah argued that the term “African socialism” had become too vague to be useful. Each country had its own version and there was no agreed upon statement of what African socialism was.
Nkrumah also argued that the notion of African socialism was being used to promote myths about the pre-colonial era. He, rightly, argued that African societies had not been classless utopias, but rather had been marked by various kinds of social hierarchy, and he reminded his audience that African traders had willingly participated in the slave trade. A whole-sale return to pre-colonial values, he said, was not what Africans needed.
Nkrumah argued that what African states needed to do was return to more orthodox Marxist-Leninist socialist ideals or scientific socialism, and that is what several African states did in the 1970s, like Ethiopia and Mozambique. In practice, though, there were not many differences between African and scientific socialism.
Scientific versus African Socialism
Scientific socialism dispensed with the rhetoric of African traditions and customary notions of community, and spoke of history in Marxist rather than romantic terms. Like African socialism, though, scientific socialism in Africa was more tolerant of religion, and the agricultural basis of African economies meant that the policies of scientific socialists could not be that different than those of African socialist. It was more a shift in ideas and message than practice.
Conclusion: Socialism in Africa
In general, socialism in Africa did not outlive the collapse of the U.S.S.R. in 1989. The loss of a financial supporter and ally in the form of the U.S.S.R. was certainly a part of this, but so too was the need many African states had for loans from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. By the 1980s, these institutions required states to release state monopolies over production and distribution and privatize industry before they would agree to loans.
The rhetoric of socialism was also falling out of favor, and populations pushed for multi-party states. With the changing tied, most African states who had embraced socialism in one form or another embraced the wave of multi-party democracy that swept across Africa in the 1990s. Development is associated now with foreign trade and investment rather than state-controlled economies, but many are still waiting for the social infrastructures, like public education, funded health care, and developed transportation systems, that both socialism and development promised.
- Pitcher, M. Anne, and Kelly M. Askew. “African socialisms and postsocialisms.” Africa 76.1 (2006) Academic One File.
- Karl Marx, introduction to A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, (1843), available on the Marxist Internet Archive.
Nkrumah, Kwame. “African Socialism Revisited,” speech given at the Africa Seminar, Cairo, transcribed by Dominic Tweedie, (1967), available on the Marxist Internet Archive.
Thomson, Alex. Introduction to African Politics. London, GBR: Routledge, 2000.