Marxism in power in Africa: the rise and fall | by Daryl Glaser

by Oct 16, 2011All Articles

Marxism-Leninism as a movement and form of regime in Africa attained the height of its powers – certainly of its access to state power – between the mid-1970s and the mid-1980s. Its ‘moment’ followed in the wake of an earlier failed experiment in ‘African socialism’ that lasted from the late 1950s through to, roughly, the early 1970s. The subsequent ‘Afro-Marxist’ regimes began abandoning their socialist experiments in the mid-1980s, a retreat formalised at the beginning of the 1990s. Marxism qua movement has also been in general decline since then except, arguably, in South Africa, which never went through the harrowing experience of actually living under a Marxist-Leninist or kindred authoritarian left-nationalist regime.

Unlike African socialism, which promised to recover an ostensibly communalistic precolonial African past and experimented with new forms of mass party, the Afro-Marxists never laid claim to originality. Most saw Marxism-Leninism as a ready-made formula that could be applied to African conditions, suitably filtered through the experiences of Marxist regimes that had previously come to power in peasant majority societies like their own rather than in the advanced capitalist countries that Marxists classically saw as leading the world socialist revolution. There were, however, a few original African contributions. Madagascar’s Marxists were innovative in their institutionalisation of multiparty democracy amongst socialist parties; the Somali Marxists idiosyncratically synthesised Marxism and Islam; the anti-Mengistu Marxists in Ethiopia offered unusually explicit (in African terms) recognition of the right of ethnonational groups to self-determination. Franz Fanon, who rode the African-socialist rather than the later Afro-Marxist wave, is admired for his theories of psychological liberation and diagnosis of postcolonial betrayal by nationalist leaders. Amilcar Cabral of Guinea-Bissau had some interesting things to say about the role of culture and ‘returning to the source’ in anticolonial resistance. Marxist intellectuals writing in or about Africa generally played a notable role in theorising the impact of capitalism in Africa, the character of African revolutions and the limitations of post-independence African states as vehicles of progressive transformation.

The Marxist-Leninists came to power by two methods. Some, like those in Benin, Congo-Brazzaville, Somalia, Ethiopia and Burkina Faso, attained power in military coups led by radical officers against independent African states. A second set, principally in the Portuguese colonies of Mozambique, Angola and Guinea-Bissau, won power in protracted guerrilla wars led by national liberation movements. Some originally Marxist-inspired movements led guerrilla wars against independent African states, but by the time they secured power – in Uganda, Ethiopia, Eritrea, recently South Sudan – socialism was off the agenda. The Marxist-Leninist regimes during their heyday sought to build modernising people’s democracies rooted in alliances of peasant majorities, small working classes and progressive middle-class elements. In power they sought to convert left-wing military movements and broad-based liberation movements into Marxist-Leninist ‘proletarian’ vanguard parties whose task it was to guide societies through people’s democracy and ultimately towards socialism. They were often in practice anchored in cross-class urban milieus centred on capital cities.

Despite claims by some romantics that the guerrilla movements were more organically rooted in the populace, less militaristic and more dedicatedly socialist than the coup-initiated Marxist-Leninist regimes, there was very little to separate their political systems and economic programmes in practice. Virtually all established one-party political monopolies across state and society nationalised domestic enterprises and sought to build rudimentary welfare states. Both types of Marxist-Leninist regime tended to be militaristic. And guerrilla regimes capitulated as readily to global capitalism as did coup-initiated ones.

Why did Africa’s Marxist regimes fail, like their African-socialist predecessors? And what can be learnt by the democratic left from their failures? It is possible to identify a range of factors that subverted what started out as a hopeful experiment.

Some of these fit the classic ‘scarcity plus encirclement’ scenario often invoked to explain the difficulties faced by leftist governments. Socialist governments in Africa inherited undeveloped agrarian economies in which growth had centred on a few enclaves. Colonial education systems generated few skilled people, their number further depleted when settlers and expatriates fled Guinea-Conakry, Mozambique and Angola after independence. The Derg inherited a long history of land degradation in the Ethiopian highlands – a factor at least contributory to the devastating famine of 1983–6 in which a million people died. The MPLA and FRELIMO faced extremely costly, externally backed armed insurgencies that wrecked promising social programmes. Cold War superpowers fought proxy wars in Angola and the Horn of Africa while apartheid South Africa actively destabilised much of southern Africa. Though commentators from the late 1980s began properly to underline the extent to which socialist governments brought difficulties upon themselves, inherited underdevelopment and military pressure were enough on their own to render economic reconstruction formidably difficult.

Endogenous failings were nevertheless many. One was a radical impatience that led African socialists and Marxists to require too much too soon of states that were hampered by insufficient pools of skilled personnel and other resources. Overconfident socialist rulers did not hesitate to vest in the hands of flimsy states the task of centrally planning entire economies. They also overestimated the capacity of their societies to industrialise rapidly from a low base in a context of capital and skill shortages and limited economies of scale. The fallout of this over-ambition included bureaucratic paralysis, loss-making urban and rural enterprises and, in several cases, high levels of debt. Given what we know now about the necessity for some sort of market under feasible socialism, it would have been more prudent for these governments to provide space for private enterprise while developing the state’s capacity to collect revenue, supply social benefits, redistribute wealth and engage in overall economic steering. And given the costs and uncertainty attending large-scale, capital intensive projects, it would have been more sensible not to take on external debt to finance them. Rapid debt accumulation was the undoing of socialism in Benin and Madagascar.

In keeping with their radical ambition, socialist governments overestimated the ripeness of the countryside for fast-track socialism or indeed rapid modernisation. Socialist incumbents tried, understandably, to rearrange rural life to facilitate welfare provision, higher productivity, egalitarian land distribution and social cooperation – and in Ethiopia, in the mid-1980s, simply to avoid mass starvation. The methods they chose to achieve these objectives were generally resented by rural populations. It is not that the peasants were pro-capitalist: they did not, for the most part, want a free market in land and mostly welcomed redistribution of land from state holdings and big land­owners. At the same time, peasants mostly did not wish to work on cooperatives or collective farms or, in Ethiopia, to be relocated to supposedly more fertile land hundreds of miles away. Faced with peasant reluctance to join such arrangements, Marxist governments, like some of their African-socialist predecessors, turned to force. Peasant agriculture suffered anyway from a range of factors that were not fully under state control, from drought and war to shortages of capacity, but the use of coercion against peasants must be counted as a deliberate and reckless forfeiture of goodwill. Many peasants also resented the way urban-based leaders disparaged their animist beliefs and sidelined traditional leaders, often coercively. If there is a clear message from countries like Mozambique, but also, say, Afghanistan under the Soviets, it is that urban elites need to treat the countryside and its ways with care, employing methods of consultation and persuasion wherever possible rather than force in realising modern values. Alienation of peasants directly fuelled armed opposition in Mozambique, Angola and Ethiopia and passive non-cooperation in other cases.

It is generally striking how ready Marxist regimes were, on first coming to power, gratuitously to alienate whole swathes of the societies they intended to govern. The purification-by-purge of vanguard parties isolated party elites from potential camp followers. For a decade, Mozambique’s ruling Frelimo and (to a lesser degree) Angola’s ruling MPLA harassed already suspicious Christian churches, guaranteeing their outright hostility. While foreign capital was courted, domestic capital seemed often to face an undifferentiating animus. Ethnic identity was commonly demeaned, for example by denial of indigenous language rights, while ethnic out-groups were under-represented in state bodies. Eritrean demands for independence were ignored by a Derg determined to transform the Ethiopian empire into an effectively unitary state with only limited concessions to national groups. Clearly, socialist governments were convinced that, in imposing modernisation, history was on their side; they also faced some determined class and ideological enemies. When things went wrong, they needed scapegoats. But whatever the explanation, the politics was desperately inept.

Most problematic of all was the theory and practice of democracy. Socialist movements and regimes considered popular participation necessary to the realisation of democratic values and to the mobilisation of popular energies for development tasks. Their democratic idealism impressed quite a few observers, as did the neighbourhood committees, workplace councils, peasant associations and sectoral mass organisations established in liberated zones and by newly established socialist governments. Some observers thought that this participatory democracy more than compensated for the absence of representative-democratic institutions. Yet it is clear, now, that this democracy was a sham. In the playing out of the dialectic between leadership and mass action referred to by Saul and others (Saul 1990: 55), a commandist concept of leadership seemed relatively quickly to win out once socialists were in power. The result was a downgrading of participatory democracy. In many cases, its demotion was prompted by the fact that factional opponents of the government or military – in Congo, Benin, Angola and Ethiopia – had acquired bases in the participatory organs. In other, less dramatic cases, participatory organs, like the Grupos Dinamizadores in Mozambique and workers’ self-management bodies in Algeria, Angola and Mozambique, were sacrificed to governments’ search for discipline and centralised coordination.

More important, those organs were part of a misconceived model of democracy in the first place. When African-socialist and Marxist regimes spoke of participation they meant mobilisation of the population to realise collective ends defined by the ruling party. To be sure, this might require popular input through discussion and criticism, and such input might influence the choice between regime-vetted candidates, the technical details of policies and even the clauses of constitutions. But participators could not challenge the ruling party or its ideological direction. For the regime, participatory bodies served primarily as venues to explain already decided policies; alternatively, as mechanisms for co-opting dissent and subjecting the population to surveillance. The so-called ‘mass organisations’ of youth, workers, women and others were designed for their part as transmission belts between the regime and population. With a few exceptions, no autonomous associational realm was allowed to develop outside them. Nor were there other, compensating checks on the concentration of power. Elected national representative assemblies served as rubber stamps. Leninist democratic centralism eviscerated internal party democracy. Ruling parties were anyway invariably subordinated to powerful presidencies or (in Congo and Somalia) to military cabals.

A deeper democratic philosophy informed the operation of the participatory bodies. The socialist regimes put in place a democracy that was teleological rather than representative. They sought a state structured around the singular goal of building socialism rather than one enabling citizens to choose among diverse collective projects. If the system ‘represented’ anyone it was not actual but an ideal of higher people: that is, the people as they would think and act if they were free of false consciousness and able to apprehend their real interests or the real good of society. In this sense, Africa’s socialist regimes made a Rousseauian distinction between the will of all and the general will, with the party embodying the latter through its scientific grasp and farsightedness. During the transition to socialism and communism, strictly speaking, the regime would represent the higher will only of the proletariat and its class allies – though they in turn served as forebears of a still-to-come classless people.

In the early 1990s the once-socialist governments discarded the teleological democratic model in favour of a more open-ended representative one. Citizens can now, at least in principle, choose amongst competing collective projects embodied in rival programmes and parties. This means governing only with the revocable consent of actual, empirical peoples. Socialists thus have to persuade electorates that they offer innovative alternatives to the venal neoliberalism that has replaced dysfunctional socialism. In office they will have to find – this time within the framework of formal multiparty democracy (the only defensible framework there is), and within the manoeuvring room allowed by an unequal global economic order – new ways to limit social inequality, deepen democracy and generate sustainable economic growth. In developing their political and economic programmes they will certainly have to take on board the many negative lessons of Africa’s experience with socialism and Marxism.

This is an abridged and slightly revised version of ‘African Marxism’s Moment’, originally published in Daryl Glaser and David Walker (eds). 2007. Twentieth-Century Marxism: A Global Introduction,London: Routledge.

Daryl Glaser is a Professor of Political Studies at Wits University.

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