Justice, equality, and struggle – an interview with Ray Bush

Reflecting on African studies, the neo-liberal university, decolonisation and resistance, Ray Bush discusses in an interview with Richard Borowski what it means to be a scholar-activist working on Africa, and how his teaching and research have been informed by a commitment to the radical transformation of the continent, and the world.

Richard Borowski: Could you give us a brief synopsis of your academic career – when and how did you enter academia, and how did you progress to where you are now? 

Ray Bush: I suppose I am what used to be called a late developer. I left school at 16 with few qualifications, and it took me more than four years to realise that the work that I was doing after school was not what I really wanted to continue doing. So, the sooner I could get some qualifications, I realised, the better. I did qualifications part-time while I worked as a civil servant in the Church Commissioners, of all places, which is the institution that pays and manages the clergy and the clergy’s land, which of course is extensive. So, I left school early, I didn’t get very much, and went back to study part-time. I left work in the anticipation that I would finally be able to get A levels, which my mother thought was the biggest mistake of my life, in that I was in work and should stay in work!

The Admission Tutor at Kingston Polytechnic said to me, basically, just get your A levels, he didn’t set grades even, and I remain really grateful for that. I thought if only I could get into the institution, I’ll try and do my best, and I did. I was the first 1st-class degree holder in Social Sciences at Kingston Polytechnic. The gamble paid off, the anticipation worked, and I was very lucky to have two fantastic mentors at Kingston. One was Bob Sutcliffe, who sadly passed away earlier in the year, and the other was Anne Showstack-Sassoon. Bob was an incredible Marxist scholar-activist, an engaged economist in development and the meaning and understanding of imperialism and labour studies. Anne was and remains a very important commentator on the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci. She was then a PhD student supervised by Ralph Miliband, who was Head of Department at Leeds.

I came to Leeds from Kingston Poly in the hope that I would be the successful applicant for the ESRC grant to do the MA in Political Sociology, which I was, and I had a formidable interview panel to get the ESRC grant which was Ralph Miliband, David Coates and Hamza Alavi. Hamza was a Pakistani Marxist – the most amazing commentator, analyst and theoretician on rural development in India and Pakistan who authored a path-breaking article on The State in Postcolonial Societies – and much else besides. So that’s how I got to Leeds, with immense excitement and optimism, which was well, I guess 1978 – I kind of hung on in different reincarnations.

After I got the MA, I got the ESRC quota award to do a PhD in the old Department of Politics. I should be grateful to the late Justin Grossman, who also was Head of Department then, who has also just passed away – it’s terrible to reflect on the number of people that you knew and are now leaving us. I researched and wrote a PhD on African Historiography of the Gold Coast from the Fourteenth Century to 1930. I also had as a supervisor, Lionel Cliffe, who as you know certainly made the biggest impression and impact on my life, as a dear close friend, comrade and mentor. So that’s how I got to Leeds: as a migrant labourer from London – and I recognised that work in the semi-periphery of Yorkshire, God’s own County, wasn’t too bad after all.

Based on your experience, what are your key insights into teaching African studies at a UK university?  

I’ve always thought that teaching has to be exciting. Teaching has to be engaging and you have to capture very early on the room that you’re teaching in. The job is made easy by teaching political economy and politics. Political economy in general, but basically the structures and processes of African underdevelopment, is very exciting and very dramatic. I found it relatively easy capturing the engagement of students. Sustaining it, of course, is then a challenge if they come with views that are somewhat historically grounded in prejudice and the ideology of Britain being the (ex-)colonial power and a notion often brought from the UK school system of ‘what was wrong with colonialism anyway?’ I’ve tried constantly in the teaching that I’ve done, and certainly in my writing and activist work, to try and go beyond this view of Africa as the child that needs to be cared for, or Africa as a continent of crooks that need to be policed. I have rejected this constantly and it’s got me into hot water at different times with some of my colleagues.

I’ve rejected the nonsense of Western views of ‘responsibility to protect’ and Tony Blair’s idea that the conscience of the world has to be revealed by how we deal with Africa. And I’ve also tried to go beyond the debate about governance and neoliberal tropes about liberal democracy and assumptions that African politics and society are corrupt. I’ve always been absolutely emboldened by students who recognise the importance of locating Africa in world historical sociology. They do see the importance and the relevance of race and racism, slavery and of course recently Black Lives Matter and how that’s located in struggles in and around Africa and different historically constructed states in Africa. There was a time in the early 1980s – at the height of Thatcherism in this country, after 1979 with Kohl in Germany and Reagan in the United States – when there was a very strong hegemonic driver for intervention in Africa. Western liberal values constructed by ideologues including people like Samuel Huntington, who was involved at the time of the Vietnam War advising the US government, or influential economists in the UK like Paul Collier, considered that there was a moral but mostly an economic duty of the West to intervene in African political economies.

During the apartheid years in South Africa the US and European states bolstered dictatorship in Zaire to hinder and frustrate national liberation in Angola and Mozambique and to inhibit the end of apartheid in South Africa. The 1980s was a decade of economic interference and disruption by Western and especially US policymakers seeking to shape development throughout Africa. Neoliberal economic intervention in Africa, the lost development decade and economic and political conditionality destroyed patterns of growth after World War 2. It also shaped African opportunities for struggles against imperialism.

Some students did kick back against continued Western intervention and recognised that you needed an historical view of the continent, especially when as a lecturer you interrogated the romanticisation of liberal frameworks. Instead, I have always highlighted how the post-colonial state was a terrain of struggle where the power of the wealthy was often aligned with Western interests but workers and peasants in Africa have constantly struggled against the drain of surplus from the continent of its capital, savings and raw materials resources.

The conundrum is of course that the West always talks about wanting to help and defend the poor against the powerful. Yet the historically constructed relationship is one that extracts the resources and the wealth of the continent to benefit the industrial North and has done so since the period of informal merchant colonialism in the 14th century. If you actually understand how the movement of resources from the continent to the North has been developed over long periods of time, and how that’s been moderated by different kinds of struggles on the continent, you develop a sense of not only the constraints on development but also how underdevelopment can be and is being contested. This then enables students to explore and engage with writings of African scholar-activists like those of Kwame Nkrumah, in Neo Colonialism, the Last Stage of Imperialism (1965) and Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth (1965) to get a feel and sense of the historical struggles in Africa for genuine sovereignty and to explore the relevance of African scholar-activism today.

So, students are fascinated by contentious debates regarding the hegemonic views of food security and famine prevention driven by the international agencies and the alternative food sovereignty. Food sovereignty is the idea and practice that drives an epistemic shift from the notion that food security is only sustained by trade, rather than local food production that is driven by sustainable local patterns of food production.

A student remarked at the end of my third-year module on this area that she could never have imagined how interesting agriculture could be! This was not a surprising comment for me, as most debate about food and agriculture in Africa is discussed without any reference to farmers – the men and women and children who produce food. I highlighted in my classes that African farmers not only feed themselves (of course sometimes with great difficulty because of land hunger and poverty) and their communities, but also engage with a wide array of political, economic and social practices that link the African countryside with the urban sprawl – notwithstanding high levels of social differentiation among farmers. The issue of food and agriculture cannot be separated from broader questions of development, the role of urbanisation – but with employment, not slums, and petty commodity production; industrialisation and if so producing what for whom at what cost, and with what kind of environmental hazard in the context of the Wests refusal to entertain reparations for African economies decimated by Northern industrialisation.

The debate about food sovereignty enables students to counter the hegemonic views of green revolution technology, genetically modified seeds and continued mining of African soil by agribusiness. Students are fascinated by the counter-narrative that small farmers are fighting back and need to be supported, not undermined; that diversity in farming techniques and cropping needs to be sustained and expanded, thereby rejecting trade specialisation and monocropping; and that an analysis of the gendered dimensions to food production needs to go beyond hand-wringing over the toughness and often everyday drudgery of family farming to raise questions about why food production is often difficult – not because of poor African farming techniques but because of poor and uneven access to resources, and the absence of land reform that can ensure land to the tiller. This necessarily requires students to explore issues of modern-day land enclosure or ‘grabs’, often by agribusiness companies producing high-value foodstuffs for export to European and US dinner tables, rather than the production of food for local consumption by African farmers.

Over many years, you’ve been part of, and contributed to, African Studies at Leeds, in the UK, and beyond. How have you seen the field develop? Which developments are you excited about, and which ones worry you? 

There’s lots of reasons to be excited. I was privileged last year to be the Chair of the African Studies Association UK Book Prize, which is a biannual jury, and for that prize we received 85 books from 39 publishers, many of which were published from Africa. Many of the books were really exciting, dynamic, interesting and interdisciplinary. I think what’s crucial and most exciting about African Studies (whatever African Studies means, as I think that’s a contentious debate because African Studies itself is a title that emerges from colonial content and foreign offices of France, the UK and elsewhere.) But there’s lots going on in African Studies that’s exciting and vibrant, and I think that I would mention two things that I think are really important for me in relation to academic activism.

One is the publication Agrarian South: Journal of Political Economy, which is a journal of the Agrarian South Network, with contributors mostly from Southern activist academics. It is a journal that really pushes the envelope about local knowledge production and how it engages with struggles against imperialism. The other is www.roape.net, which I have a particular interest in, because ROAPE (Review of African Political Economy), as the website and blogging area of the journal, has really accelerated contributions from the continent rather than only from Western academics. Both these journals reflect serious engagement with African experiences of colonialism and imperialism, the importance of exploring local patterns of capital accumulation and the differential impact of the development of capitalism and what is the room for manoeuvre to transition to socialism.

I think that my anxiety is around the continued preoccupation with what has seemed to be timeless Western concerns with African governance, the promotion of liberal democracy and the study of elections – usually without any historical grounding or understanding of the countries concerned. As we’ve already mentioned, history is crucial in setting parameters of inquiry and the questions to ask, and the other is the worry about the generalisation of responsibility to protect – ‘R2P’ – which is very, very strong in terms of contributors at the University of Leeds. But I always ask the question why is it that Africans end up in the International Criminal Court and Israel doesn’t for its many crimes of occupation of Palestine. Why is Africa singled out? Is it because there is more brutality in Africa than there is elsewhere in the world? Or perhaps it’s because there is more Western leverage over many African states? The trope that there is more brutality in Africa needs to be quashed. I think one of the ways in which it’s quashed is to recognise that R2P has become a veil for intervention. That is not to say that African elites can be allowed to go without punishment for some of their actions, but that those actions can be punished by Africans in African states themselves and by the African Union. The irony of course about the African Union – it’s not an irony, it’s a paradox or contradiction – is that it’s funded mostly by the West, and so its agenda of action and its types of intervention are constrained by Western sources of funding.

But the worry of course is the continued spread and intervention of US militarisation and the role of AFRICOM in trying to establish US bases in Africa. A kind of a foil to that has been the role of China although it may be too soon to say whether it’s a positive or a negative role. China has nevertheless provided in a sense what the former Soviet Union did until the end of the Cold War. Whether one supported the former Soviet Union or not, for states and leaders and people, workers and farmers in Africa, the presence of an alternative to the US and Western intervention, the fact that there was the Soviet presence, created the conditions for helping develop and promote alternative visions in Africa. China in Africa has a similar effect because it advances a policy of non-intervention in terms of respecting African sovereignty. And that’s why Britain, the US and the EU find China so challenging. China works with states without insisting on economic and political conditionality or intervening on issues regarding human rights. But I think the debate about human rights is reified beyond an understanding of what the constraints are for existing development in states in Africa. It’s not to excuse or in any way minimise the consequences of human rights violations, but it should also not be an excuse for Western intervention in Africa.

Your scholarly work has been closely linked to Review of African Political Economy, the journal that you helped lead for decades. How do you look back at the ‘radical transformation’ that ROAPE aims to understand and enhance? What is the need and potential for further work in this area in our current era? 

The journal started in 1974 and I joined in 1979. I think the important thing about ROAPE is that when it started with Lionel Cliffe, Ruth First, Gavin Williams, Peter Lawrence and others, it was seen as a journal that was certainly advancing understanding and themes of liberation and solidarity with National Liberation struggles at that time in Africa. The view was always that the journal would be moved to Africa and that it would be based there. But then something happened, neoliberalism, about the time I joined, and the lost development decade which we know now has been so dramatically documented.

The struggles on the continent during the 1980s and 1990s were ones that really changed the shape of what we felt a journal could do. In a sense, what the journal did in the 1980s and the 1990s was document and chart the consequences and the dynamics of neoliberalism and understandings of imperialism from the North. In so doing, partly the journal came under pressure to simply become another academic journal, and it lost a radical defining edge. I’m happy to say that in the last few years the initiatives we’ve taken in the journal have tried to counter the view of it just being another academic journal on Africa.

The good thing about being yet another academic journal on Africa is that it helped raise income for us to stabilise the journal and circulation and it’s also enabled us to develop something that we’ve called the Connections Workshops. This is basically to try and reconnect with the continent: to engage with an activist audience of scholars and younger people. We had workshops in Accra in November 2017Dar es Salaam in April 2018 and Johannesburg in November 2018. These were workshops with agendas set by activists and academics and social movements in Africa. It’s a collaboration, and an agenda from the continent that has focused on popular protest, with the Nyerere Centre in Dar es Salaam, the Third World Network Africa in Accra, Centre for Social Change at the University of Johannesburg and SWOP at Wits University. These are collaborative ventures to try and show – and we hope actually to gradually move the journal to Africa again – a way that enables the process of producing a journal that is more closely aligned to struggles and activist interest in the continent directly.

So, we’re asking questions about how to reconnect with the continent debating politics and activism. That’s somewhat been held up by COVID-19 because at the time of lockdown we were on the verge of having an activist meeting in Windhoek in Namibia, but we have postponed that for all the obvious reasons. What we’ve tried to do with the Connections workshops, and what we’ve tried to do with roape.net, is to try and reduce the distance between academics and activists, recognise that the 21st century is different from the struggles of the late 20th century and that there is now an amazing range of struggles, highlighted of course by the uprisings and revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt in 2011 that toppled dictatorships.

Yet this is also highlighted by COVID, the struggles by states to quell resistance during COVID has been so violent and so extensive that we’ve been busy trying to highlight that with involvement in Kenya of the Mathare Social Justice Centre, in Zimbabwe with the Zimbabwe Labour Centre and also through our Africa Editor, Yao Graham, based in Accra. The journal I think has moved on: I hope in a sense it’s coming back to what it originally was founded to try and do, which was to offer much stronger activist interventions and to embed those interventions with the development of how workers and farmers and peasants can construct an alternative to post-COVID neoliberalism.

ROAPE has always had a section of the journal for briefings and debates, which Lionel Cliffe was the editor of, and which I’ve now taken on in my ‘retirement’. I think it’s an opportunity to seek out where struggles are taking place and to allow the social movements to have platforms and voices which they wouldn’t otherwise have because they’re written up only as academic discourse. The formatting of academic articles has a very set agenda which doesn’t always touch the main themes that activists want to promote and engage with.

There’s recently been much debate about ‘decolonisation’, of African Studies, and of higher education more generally. What are your thoughts about this? 

I think at best the debates about coloniality highlight a potential link with Marxism that looks at an analysis of people in the continents of the colonial world, how knowledge is being produced and reproduced, and by whom, and the power dynamics that underpin them. That’s what decoloniality does I think at best. More descriptively, it’s basically sought to try and problematise the so-called age of discovery and put centre stage indigenous peoples and struggles over land – and struggles over land I think are quintessential to understanding the debate in the contemporary period.

Struggles over land go to the heart of capital accumulation that takes place prior to capitalist development in Europe and which remains persistent in Africa and elsewhere in the Global South. In short, accumulation by the dispossession of land requires an analysis of commodification of and privatisation of land, the expulsion of peasants and struggles to retain access to the commons – those areas of activity that have not yet been converted to exclusive private property, usually under the rhetoric of modernisation. Some of the most violent and contentious struggles in Africa take place around attempts to erode indigenous forms of production and consumption and the ways in which farmers and the dispossessed are able to respond to accumulation by dispossession.

I also think Black Lives Matter as a social movement, despite its very disparate and heterogeneous construction, has added to the view of the importance of understanding how knowledge is produced and how colonialism was built on an epistemology of domination. A theory of knowledge that effectively creates the ‘other’, of African peoples subordinated to other aspects of humanity. My own view is that within that debate about decolonisation I would not want to lose sight of, and what I have constantly reiterated in my own work, is an analysis that the late Samir Amin advanced. That is, the best way of understanding late capitalism is to look at how capitalism is organised around five monopolies. Monopolies that control technology, financial flows, access to resources, access to media and communications and access to weapons of mass destruction.

I think what that characterisation of how capitalism is sustained and reproduced – what that view of the five monopolies directs us to – forces us to ask is how it is possible for African states to begin to construct a new auto-centred view of development. A view of development that is not dependent upon a persistent international law of value that has been constructed historically to exploit resources from the continent. That, to me is how coloniality offers a relationship with Marxism that tries to look at different metrics of power, and I prefer, of course, to look at it through the view of those five monopolies. But what decoloniality has also done is basically to say look, there’s an illusion of modernity. Modernity is constructed as a palliative, it’s window dressing. This is what you could have if only you did this and you’re not doing this so therefore you won’t get it. It becomes a mechanism for exerting power. But it’s also directed as a quite concerted effort to look at the role of labour, labour migration, dynamics of energy and extractives and environmental destruction. So as a dimension of contemporary analysis, it’s important if for me it runs alongside, and is structured by a material analysis of how historical patterns of underdevelopment have been fashioned and what forms they take now.

To conclude, do you have any final thoughts, wishes, or words of wisdom to your students, colleagues, and comrades?

In terms of individuals working in the area of African Studies, and with students but especially of young academics, I think my view would be to try and avoid chasing money as a goal in itself. It’s now interestingly spoken about as ‘grant capture’, but effectively it is about how to sustain yourself within an organisation that is a university. But universities and higher education should themselves have agendas of research and scholarship that aren’t driven only by a financial Excel spreadsheet. So, colleagues must continue to think about innovative ways of navigating the neoliberal university and its commercialisation so we can continue to celebrate the important work of academic activists. As Lionel Cliffe once commented in one of the last pieces that he wrote: as academics, we need constantly to be aware of our vocation and be prepared to rebel and rebel because you make choices about your agenda and the approach that you take. The approach that you take means that you take sides, and you advance those sides because of the importance of justice, equality and international development.

A version of this interview was originally posted by Leeds African Studies Bulletin No. 82 (2021).

Ray Bush is Emeritus Professor of African Studies at the School of Politics and International Studies (POLIS) at the University of Leeds. He is also a leading member of the Review of African Political Economy’s Editorial Working Group.

Featured Photograph: Artwork on a street in Alexandria, Egypt shortly after the revolution of 2011 (22 October 2011).


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