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Searching for traces of Marxism in Africa

Martina Schwikowski
May 4, 2018

The influence of German philospher Karl Marx on Africa's liberation movements was once so widespread that several post-colonial states defined themselves as Marxist. What remains of African socialism today?

Kultur.21 Karl Marx in Farbe
Image: DW

A reddish stone statue in the likeness of Karl Marx rises out of a square on campus at Addis Ababa University in the Ethiopian capital.

The German philosopher and author of works such as Capital (Das Kapital), which laid the foundation for the worldwide expansion of communism, was born in Trier on May 5 1818.

In 1975, Ethiopia's Derg regime declared Marxism-Leninism the state ideology. Even today, public spaces and museums serve as reminders of that ideology in the East African country.

"The Derg regime was a brutal dictatorship with Marxist rhetoric," says Michael Jennings of SOAS at the University of London. Marx's ideas were used to justify the revolution. 

There were other African thinkers who sought political reforms based on the model of European Socialism, especially Tanzania's founding father Julius Nyerere. In the wake of independence from Britain in 1961, and with the help of Ujamaa — a concept that translates to 'extended family' or 'brotherhood' in Swahili — he tried to force economic autonomy.

According to Jennings, African socialism took the deepest hold in Tanzania where it held sway into the 1980s.

Even today on the island of Zanzibar, off the coast of Tanzania, apartment blocks which were once billed as "modern living spaces" and intended to provide their occupants with the advantages of socialism, still stand. 

The buildings were a gift from the German Democratic Republic (GDR), the now-defunct state which was built upon Marxist theory. Almost 30 years after the fall of the GDR, these apartments are still in demand. However, they are no longer free but are traded on the capitalist property market.

Read more: How the Russian Revolution shaped African history

Nyerere greets Senghor at an airport in Dakar
The first presidents of Tanzania and Senegal, Julius Nyerere (left) and Leopold Senghor were advocates of African Socialism Image: Getty Images/AFP

Adopted by Africa's elite

So what's left of socialist ideology in Africa? Since the collapse of European socialism, little trace of it remains, says Africa expert, Ahmed Rajab.

"The people are more interested in material progress than ideology that conforms to socialism." the Zanzibari analyst told DW. This comes as no surprise, he said, since there are barely any African socialists who follow the models which were once propagated. "Only a few Africans understand what Marxism means," Rajab said.

It was Africa's elite in particular who appropriated socialism. Many of them had studied in the cities of colonial powers or in the then-Soviet Union. They returned home in the late 1950s with a sense of idealism and commitment. "Of course in the anti-colonial struggle, many of those struggles were supported by organizations on the political left — so socialist orgainzations — as well as of course from the Soviet Union, which played a very big role in supporting colonial movement," says Jennings. 

The role of Marxism in the liberation movements was, however, limited. "There were African liberation movements that were influenced by Marx. But for the development of African socialism, it was not as important as it was for Europe," said Jennings. 

Nyerere in Tanzania was not the only African socialist. Post-colonial leaders such as Kenneth Kaunda in Zambia, Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana, Leopold Senghor in Senegal, Modiba Keita in Mali, Mathieu Kerekou in Benin, and Sekou Toure of Guinea were also prominent advocates of their own brand of the ideology.

In the former Portuguese colonies of Angola and Mozambique, socialism gained hold after the overthrow of the dictatorship in Lisbon in 1974. Communism — with the support of the then-Eastern bloc — fueled the armed resistance to internal dissent.  

Two apartment blocks located side by side on the island of Zanzibar
Apartments in on the island of Zanzibar - relics of Tanzania's socialism timeImage: Sigrun lingel - sa

Africa's socialist heritage

In Africa, there were already barriers which prevented socialism from flourishing. The conditions for increased industrial and agricultural production based on the socialist model were not applicable in poor African countries. In Europe, socialism was based on the class struggle of workers and farmers against the bourgeoisie. In Africa, there was neither a strong industry, nor an organized workforce. The arable land was mostly managed by traditional authorities. 

"In Africa we imitated the European idea of socialism and achieved a very different social system," said Rajab. It was a big mistake to expect to simply transplant the European model into Africa which is influenced by different kinds of socio-economic conditions.

African socialists could not expect support from the West during the Cold War. "Whilst [the World Bank] were very supportive of strong states, they certainly weren't there to build up socialist states," said Jennings. If anything has remained of socialist ideology, it is the idea of the equality of citizens and collective ownership, he told DW. This is felt more strongly in African discourse than elsewhere. 

"But there is also the insight that Africa is far from practically implementing this idea," he said.

In the 1970s things were different: Countries such as Tanzania were rigorous in their efforts to realize their socialist vision. In the end it became more about obedience than social principles. Perhaps the most important legacy of socialism in many African countries is the authoritarian state.