By David Seddon
The very title of Firoze’s piece begs a number of questions. It posits a ‘failure’, which intrinsically implies falling short of something that could be identified as a ‘success’, which is an extraordinarily and I think unhelpfully binary approach to the study of class struggle, social movements and political change. It conjures up something he calls ‘left working class movements’, again presumably opposed if only in a rather abstract way to other social and political movements, either not of ‘the left’ (whatever that means) or not of the ‘working class’, and asks why ‘they’ failed to ‘take root’ in ‘most of Africa. The task of the analysis is then to ‘account for’ this ‘failure’.
It is not a good start. It is not even as provocative and ultimately illuminating as the famous reference by Sherlock Holmes, in Conan Doyle’s ‘The Silver Blaze’, to the dog that ‘did nothing in the night-time.’ I have elsewhere drawn attention to the shortcomings of criticisms made by leftist analysts of popular protest and class struggle in Africa in terms of the ‘failure’ of these forms of social action, or of particular social groups or classes (i.e. the labour aristocracy’), to bring about the kind of transformation the analysts had hoped for (see Seddon, 2009). But let us not simply dismiss the piece as a misguided exercise in philosophy or teleology and the consideration of the counter-factual.
Manji suggests that ‘the early 1950s witnessed an extraordinary sweep of popular mobilisations across the continent inspired by aspirations for emancipatory freedom – an end to the colonial yoke’ and comments that ‘across the continent, nationalist parties convinced people that the path to freedom was through political independence.’ He does not explore the antecedents of these popular mobilisations in the rising nationalism of the first few decades of the 20th century or the earlier popular protest of workers and peasants in the late 19th century; nor does he directly question whether these nationalist movements were misguided or whether they were indeed emancipatory, bringing about at least a formal political independence that allowed nationalist governments to come to office, even if they often proved unable to break their economic and political ties with their former colonial metropoles.
But he does suggest that the political strategy of the various left and communist parties that had existed in a number of countries across the continent over many decades, despite the terror of colonial repression, was to merge with (or accept subordination to) the nationalist parties in the struggle for independence, in line with the prevailing dogma at the time (derived from, but deviating from, the classical Marxist tradition) – the ‘stagist’ view of revolution in which communists were required not only to support the emergence of a national bourgeoisie as part of the ‘national democratic revolution’, but to conceded leadership to the nationalist parties.
The use of the term ‘dogma’ here seems to imply that this strategy was misguided, and a mistake. He gives the example of the South African Communist Party (SACP) yielding to the leadership of the ANC since 1994. He suggests that this strategy effectively allowed the nationalists in most cases not only to take over rather than to transform the colonial – or rather the post-colonial – state, and to embark on a distinctive ‘neo-colonial’ process of capital accumulation and also – although Manji, critically, does not really analyse this aspect of things – to crush the left progressive opposition in the name of national unity. He argues that there were a few who understood the dangers of this collaboration with this form of nationalism – and specifically names Patrice Lumumba, Amilcar Cabral and Thomas Sankara – and who sought to build alternatives to the colonial state; but points out that they were assassinated by their nationalist ‘comrades’ in collaboration with the ‘neo-imperialists.’
He does not, unfortunately, explore the extent to which, during the colonial period, there were active and organised left working class movements. I have tried to document and comment on the significance of early working class movements in Africa, as have many others, and it is clear that even from an early stage in the colonial period, a limited working class had developed in a number of African countries, and had demonstrated its willingness to take action as part of the evolving class struggle in those countries. The history of their role in the extraordinary sweep of popular movements that Manji refers to as taking place in the 1950s, began in fact in the late 19th century and continued apace during the first half of the 20th, although it was during the late 1950s and the 1960s – and in some cases the 1970s – that these movements (which represented a combination of classes) actually achieved independence across the continent.
The political commanding heights of these newly independent states, however, as Manji rightly remarks, were for the most part organised to ‘modernise’ rather than transform the state, the economy and society. Even the regimes that claimed to be ‘socialist’ (whether African, Arab or Islamic) proved sooner or later to be committed to a form of state capitalism rather than to socialism as understood by the communists and leftists familiar with the Marxist tradition. Arguably, even those states that declared themselves to be adherents of ‘Marxism-Leninism’ – like Mengistu’s Ethiopia – were more akin to ‘national socialism’ than to Marxism-Leninism. Manji quotes Fanon, who says that, under these circumstances, the national bourgeoisie acted, not as an agent of progressive socialist transformation but as an agent of foreign (mainly Western) capitalism.
At the same time, Manji rightly observes, some of those on the left betrayed their comrades and simply abandoned the class struggle to join the ranks of the national bourgeoisie (he cites the example of Cyril Ramaphosa and others in South Africa) or else compromised their principles and allied themselves with the national bourgeoisie in the name of the national democratic revolution (as with the SACP). The result was the systematic repression of progressive elements or radicals (and again Manji cites the assassination of Tom Mboya, Pio Gama Pinto and J M Kariuki in Kenya and that of Chris Hani – and more recently the massacre at Marikani and the assault on NUMSA – in South Africa).
Manji devotes some space to documenting this more recent period and the ways in which nationalist leaders have both collaborated with imperialism and suppressed leftist progressive elements in the name of national development, arguably thereby preventing the independent organisation of left working class organisations. He seems in this whole discussion, however, to ignore the significant development of the working class and of working class movements across Africa over the last few decades. Perhaps this is because the formation of social classes in Africa has not precisely followed the historical precedent of class formation in Europe during the period of early capitalist development. But even in Europe the ‘making of the working class’ was a complex and uneven process as Marxist historians like E P Thompson have showed (in the case of England). It is not surprising if, in Africa, with its very different history, the process of class formation was also somewhat different.
But in reality, I would suggest, the working class has continued to emerge and consolidate itself, and manifest its growing strength in various ways over the long period since those early days of colonial domination, throughout the post-colonial period and up to the present day. The fact that it has not managed yet to seize power in Africa in the manner envisaged by Marx and Engels to form ‘the dictatorship of the proletariat’ is less a failure of the African working class than an indication of the complexity and uneven-ness of the process of class struggle under capitalism in the longue durée. For, after all, the working class has not managed to seize power for more than brief periods in a few countries anywhere since 1840, even in the ‘advanced’ capitalist countries of Europe and North America or in the countries that called themselves ‘socialist’ (from 1917 until the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union in the late 1980s and early 1990s).
But Manji also addresses, briefly, the changes that have taken place in the more recent period, suggesting that many of the gains of independence (which he does not in fact identify but presumably relate to the period from the 1950s to the 1970s), were reversed with the rise of neo-liberalism during the 1980s and 1990s. In response to this, he comments, there was a growing discontent across the continent, with spontaneous eruptions and mass uprisings that in some cases resulted in the overthrow of regimes nurtured and nourished by imperialism – selecting as examples, rather strangely, Tunisia, Egypt and Burkina Faso. I have written extensively about these popular protests in various places, including on this website, and shown how they involved a combination of social classes, including usually working class organisations (e.g. trades unions) and movements, and how they were able in many countries to change the political architecture and even overthrow regimes (as Manji admits).
The rise of democracy in the early 1990s, I would argue, was not only a consequence of the ideological and material pressure by external forces for ‘good governance’; it was also a product of class struggle across the African continent. In more recent years, and into the 21st century, popular protest has become more systematically orchestrated and politically focused, at the same time as the regimes that developed in the 1990s have consolidated themselves yet again, with the support of imperialist forces, as elected dictatorships. This represents a deepening of the class struggle, in my opinion, not ‘the failure of the left’ or of working class movements. The history of capitalist development and political transformation in Africa has not come to an end; it continues to be made by the actions of men and women, but not, unfortunately, under the conditions of their own choosing.
Manji does not seem, however, to believe that these uprisings and forms of popular protest, which occurred systematically in the form of more or less spontaneous popular protests during the period from the mid-1970s to the mid-1990s, and have continued and gained even greater momentum through the last two decades, have involved the working class, for he asks: ‘under such circumstances, one would have thought that there would have been fertile grounds for the emergence of strong left working class movements across the continent. But why has this not happened?’ I would respond that his premise is in fact false, for left working class movements have indeed taken root in many parts of Africa, and are manifestly and demonstrably an integral part of the on-going class struggle. The fact that these movements have not yet achieved control of the state in a definitive way, bringing into being a ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ and socialism, is not a ‘failure’ but rather an indication of the unforeseen complexity and lengthy process of capitalist development on a world scale.
We should remember that, when asked, during Richard Nixon’s visit to Bejing in 1972, about the impact of the French Revolution that took place nearly two centuries earlier, the Chinese premier, Zhou Enlai, famously commented that it was ‘too early to say.’
David Seddon is a researcher and scholar who has written extensively on social movements, class struggles and political transitions across the developing world.
Featured Photograph: Transvaal Protest March organized by Gandhi, October-November 1913.
 When Inspector Gregory asks, “Is there any point to which you would wish to draw my attention?” Holmes responds, “To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.” But, protests the inspector, “The dog did nothing in the night-time.” To which Holmes delivers the punch line: “That was the curious incident.” This turns out to be the clue that leads to the unravelling by the great fictional detective of the mystery facing them.