The Revolutionary Left in Africa

In a report on a recent conference in Dakar on the Revolutionary Left in sub-Saharan Africa, Adam Mayer celebrates a gathering of activists and researchers, which could not have been more different from the mega-conferences of academia today. The conference examined the extraordinary vibrancy of left politics and movements across the continent in the 1960s and 1970s.

By Adam Mayer

A report on the workshop, ‘Revolutionary Lefts in sub-Saharan Africa (1960s-1970s): a political and social history to be written’ (Université Cheikh Anta Diop 30 October – 1 November, 2019)

Dakar based independent researcher Pascal Bianchini, aided by committed organizers such as Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung’s Ndongo Samba Sylla, and a scientific advisory body that included representatives of ROAPE, Fourah Bay College in Sierra Leone, the Sorbonne and others, successfully overcame the logistical nightmare of bringing 30+ international researchers on the left’s history in Africa to Dakar for an intensive three day workshop (30 October – 1 November). A small number could not make it, sending their contributions instead. Academics from Canada to South Africa, from the UK to Iraq, from Sierra Leone to Madagascar came together in Dakar to take part in the proceedings.

We met not only each other but a stellar cohort of Senegalese and Mauritanian activists – frequently, retired workers, journalists, teachers, NGO workers, academics, most of them octogenarians, some of them women – who had represented various strands of socialism in the region in the 1960s and 1970s, and beyond. In many cases, uncharacteristically for our neoliberal times in academia, the borders between activists and academics were less than clear: most of us present were committed academics, comrades, women and men of the left in our respective countries. Analysis and testimony intersected in magnificent ways in contributions by Jean Copans, Baba Aye, Fatou Sarr Sow, and many others. Participants voted unanimously for expressing our solidarity with refugees under ongoing xenophobic attack in South Africa, an initiative by Heike Becker of the University of the Western Cape in Cape Town.

As the workshop took place in an already wintery Dakar – a place of uncommon beauty – among a lively group of old and new friends from afar, it could not have been more different from the dreaded mega-conferences of today’s bottom-line driven academia. Without the least reference to academic hierarchies, we debated in the conference rooms, in the lobby, at cafes, in restaurants, in each other’s hotel rooms, on the dance floor, in the taxi, en route to the airport, all in a spirit of our best years as organizers, students, enthusiastic and caring souls, with a thirst for finding and contesting truths.

                                              Baba Aye speaking from the conference floor

It is unusual in a conference to bring together (former) activists as a group, in an effort to relate their struggles and legacies to today’s academic research and also to today’s political needs. On the 1 November, this resulted in the Senegalese PAI’s  – Parti africain de l’indépendance from Senegal, a socialist party which played an important role in the struggles for independence and was based in the working class centres of the country – belated ‘me too moment,’ when Fatou Sarr Sow called out the machismo of the underground left in the 1970s, with some male activists taking offence and retorting that, ‘Some of you women of the movement even found husbands in our ranks,’ a startling ‘intervention’ and a poignant reminder of how some in the old left’s most diehard segments have not internalized lessons of 1968. Women could be incarcerated in Senegal for leaving the family until the 2000s. Pascal Bianchini drew parallels with how Algeria’s FLN, once in power, threw women under the carpet, dismissing feminist concerns, underlining the idea that it is wrong to discuss sub-Saharan Africa in separation from the North.

As many warned, today the dangers come from creeping Islamization of family law in the country. Some comrades displayed fascination with Mao Zedong’s and Stalin’s achievements in building true socialism (the latter sentiment is a privilege of the populist right in Eastern Europe today!) But it was to the issue of the socialist content of Burkina Faso’s ‘revolution’ and Sankara that our debates also returned on multiple occasions (Ibrahim Abdullah talked of leftist opportunism to Sankara), and emotions ran high on both sides of the argument. Was Sankara’s revolution even a revolution? How do we make sense of the arrest and repression of trade unionists in the country during the Sankara years?

Despite thoughtful calls by Ibrahim Abdulla, bourgeois objectivity was meticulously avoided by most participants, including the author of the present reflection. Definitions that would have been crafted to rigorously define or artificially unite different composite units within the lefts of Africa were intentionally not crafted. In terms of temporality, it made sense for most participants to extend the signposts to include the longue durée of the left on the continent.

So, Issa Ndiaye’s presentation on Mali included the 1940s and the early 2000s, while Ibrahima Wane started his discussion in the 1950s in discussing Senegal’s cultural movements and stretched well into the 1980s with the Front culturel sénégalais. Becker focused on the late 1960s and early 1970s with such unique precision that her presentation provided an inspiring exercise in temporal and intersectional sensitivity, whilst Moussa Diallo traced the development of left politics in Burkina Faso from the 1960s and linked them with the better known developments of the 1980s, while others put the focus on either the 1960s or the 1970s, as topics demanded.

Behind the palpable dislike of exact definitions by most of us lay the following factors. First, as organizer Pascal Bianchini concluded, although ‘normally in sociology we are supposed to precisely define the object we are studying – according to Durkheim. This approach applies when you write a book or a thesis. But when you try to embark on a new topic by way of organizing a symposium, starting with definitions is not necessarily the best approach. At a symposium, it is not certain that you will find an acceptable definition that is suitable for all and there is a risk of excluding a number of contributions which are of major interest.’

These ideas were pursued by others. We do not choose the historical circumstances of our actions as Marx warned, and ‘setting out to organize a socialist revolution’ is not a precondition of African revolutions. Non-Marxist movements such as pan-Africanism were objectively revolutionary ideologies. As Francoise Blum warned, ‘a failed (leftwing) guerilla is still a guerilla’ and excluding her from history would mean effectively buying into mainstream narratives with their ‘might makes right’ and mindless celebration of ‘winners.’ Any revolution that happens in Africa is an African revolution, irrespective of labels.

Another aspect behind the reluctance to employ strict categorization was the enormous historical differences between Francophonic West African revolutionary movements, and the English-speaking African Marxists for whom the experience of slavery, trans-Atlantic diaspora, and race, are evidently as important as class. Theory – with the fantastic exception of Zeyad El Nebolsy’s analysis on A.M Babu and Dani Wadada Nabudere’s East African take on Lenin’s theory of Imperialism – generally followed the methodologies of a ‘history of ideas’ and ‘event history’, with anthropology (including, in Copans’ case, auto-anthropology), political economy and culture/literary criticism a close second, third and fourth (all these included feminist examples). George Kieh was an exception as he used political science as a preferred method for his analysis. As Michele Leclerc-Olive stressed with the help of a Bambara saying, ‘You can’t pick up a stone with one finger,’ thus different theoretical approaches and methodologies were welcomed by the organizers.

As Kanylie Mlotshwa – who unfortunately could not attend but sent his contribution nevertheless – stressed on Zimbabwe’s liberation organisation ZAPU, and many others did with other movements from Nigeria to Senegal, the main technical problem of unearthing the histories of the African left is the purposely brutal destruction of relevant documents. These records have been frequently destroyed by right wing dictatorships and neoliberal democracies, by the inadequate condition of public archives, and the dangers that private archives face from negligent (or simply worried) family members holding documents on illegal movements, even long moribund ones. Original primary sources are hard to find.

The author of this blogpost hails from a former state socialist state under Soviet tutelage, the Hungarian People’s Republic. From my personal vantage point, it was impossible not to notice that – by chance or by design – the overwhelming majority of presentations in English or French (the organizers made sure that we had excellent interpreters) dealt with movements that influenced subsequent political history in indirect ways rather than through directly governing. My fellow Eastern European presenter Patrick Norberg focused on the Marxist-Leninist opposition to Ujamaa in Tanzania (a movement that has given us Issa Shivji!)

The focus was decidedly not on precursors to say Guinea Bissau’s, Cape Verde’s, Congo Brazzaville’s, Mozambique’s, Angola’s, Benin’s and Ethiopia’s ‘scientific socialisms,’ although Irene Rabenoro analyzed the run-up to Madagascar’s ‘1975’ –  when the Democratic Republic of Madagascar was formed, an explicitly socialist regime that existed until 1991 – and Leclerc-Olive dealt with Guinea’s political economy of the 1960s briefly in her presentation. In the case of Kieh’s presentation on MOJA (Movement for Justice in Africa) in Liberia, a movement that was unable to propel itself into state politics was the focus of the enquiry.

                              Discussing movements from the revolutionary left in francophone West Africa

The workshop’s main direction was in (re-)discovering the multitudes of potentialities that appeared with the African revolutionary left, not least as those movements influenced the reappearance of democracy in the 1980s and 1990s on the continent. Human rights movements, women’s movements, and civil society movements have absorbed the effects of Marxist organizing all over Africa since the 1970s. As Thierno Diop put it in a QA debate, the aim of the conference was to ‘relativize the history of failure’ as far as neoliberal Senegal and most of the continent are concerned. Leo Zeilig pinpointed the focus of the conference as panel chair as on hidden and forgotten histories. This was true even for the most high-profile presentation of the conference. Harris Dousemetzis’ work on Dimitris Tsafendas, the lone revolutionary assassin who killed Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd, the architect of South African apartheid in 1966. Tsafendas’ legacy was far from exposed or celebrated on the arrival of democracy in the country in 1994, and the publication of Dousemetzis’ detailed biography is a signal of the shifting ground in the country’s relationship with capitalism itself.

The best historians ferret out unexpected linkages, connections and precursors, and this was demonstrated by Becker and her exposition of the years leading to the Durban strikes in 1973, with events such as the public burning of neckties by students. Tatiana Smirnova linked study groups and revolt in Niger, and perhaps most unexpectedly (for the author of this blogpost) Nicki Kindersley drew attention to radical and Marxist thinkers in the South of Sudan from as early as 1963. Mousa Bicharra focused on Chad, Gabriele Siracusano on the role of the Italian Communist Party in Congo and Cameroon. Amandla Thomas-Johnson presented on Stokely Carmichael’s years in Guinea where he defended the revolution, on occasion armed. Jean Liyongo examined student movements in Congo Kinshasa.

                                 A mural at Université Cheikh Anta Diop (Heike Becker, 30 October, 2019)

The history of the PAI is of course better known to many in West Africa, but new ways of problematizing the party’s history were present in Fatou Sarr Saw’s, Ibrahima Wane’s, and even Issa Ndiaye’s presentations, in Mor Ndao’s introductory remarks and debate contributions, and in numerous spirited contributions by former activists (see the excellent series of interviews conducted by Yannek Simalla with activists). Baba Aye’s well deserved attack on armchair Marxists and their animosity towards civil society organizing and ideologically open labour work in Nigeria today as well as the 1980s, built on his illuminating presentation that focused on one period in Nigeria  from 1963 (when a Marxist-Leninist party was formed) to 1978 when unions were forcibly amalgamated. In my own presentation, I started with the 1930s, ended with today’s struggles, and included the most visible achievements by Naija Marxists abroad as well as within the country. Adrian Browne’s take on Uganda’s Chango Machyo and Nabudere and revolutionary pedagogies was read to the hall by Nicki Kindersley.

Beyond enriching me with incredibly valuable knowledge on the revolutionary left in the 1960s and 1970s in Africa, the workshop reinforced two important lessons that historians of African politics should remember when a coherent continent wide history of the revolutionary left in Africa is written (perhaps, if we are lucky, the first will be an edited volume on contributions to this very workshop – as promised by Pascal Bianchini). First, the form and even analysis that different movements took (from Hoxhaism to democratic socialist and human rights centered feminist) is determined by local contexts. It is dangerous to view them through the prism of the foreign historian’s own commitment, rooted in her own history. Even frameworks as outdated as ‘Marxism-Leninism’ of the Stalinist variety might have provided inspiration to real revolutionary initiatives. The second important lesson is that combined and uneven development manifests itself in genuine theoretical achievements, and that global Marxism is as African as it is Peruvian, European or Japanese. I have published earlier on the lessons that post-transition Eastern Europe’s social thinkers have to draw from reading Nigerian authors on being subjected to capitalist corporations. Revolutionary thinkers from Frantz Fanon through Walter Rodney to Samir Amin and our workshop’s many historians, have lessons to teach progressive thinkers in every region of the world. This exceptional workshop was a powerful demonstration of this fact.

Adam Mayer is the author of Naija Marxisms: Revolutionary Thought in Nigeria published by Pluto Press in 2016. He teaches at the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Kurdistan Hewlêr.

Conference presentation abstracts are available on the website here (designed by the researcher Florian Bobin).  

The conference was organised by Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung Dakar, Université Cheikh Anta Diop and ROAPE


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