In the 1960s and 1970s, the Black Panthers told their members and supporters that to be a good revolutionary you must make time to read for at least two hours a day. We realise with the almighty, soul-destroying pressures of work and neoliberalism, this will seem like an impossible luxury to many of our readers and supporters; but it’s a good objective for 2023, and the political and personal challenges to recalibrate the world, and our lives, for a just and socialist alternative. It’s in this spirit that we – members of ROAPE’s Editorial Group – offer the following list of our favourite radical reads over the last 12 months.
edited by Miryam Aouragh and Hamza Hamouchene
Published in Arabic and English and available as a free download, The Arab Uprisings is a collection of essays written by committed activists and scholars. The collection offers a decolonial and longue durée reading which allows a reader to grasp both the root causes of the uprisings as well as their specificities in each country while highlighting class struggles and imperialism. In short, ditch all orientalist and short-sighted analysis which relegate the Arab uprisings to an Arab ‘winter’ (bad pun and lousy analysis). Instead, read Aouragh and Hamouchene’s edited collection. If you can afford it, you can also buy the book for a solidarity price of €10 by emailing secretariat[at]tni.org.
by Stefan Heym
by Lena Grace Anyuolo
I do a lot of my reading in the middle of the night – as a long-suffering insomniac. Depending on the book, I have managed to find a way to enjoy that 3AM solitude. I normally read, huddled in my bed (in the current cold of the British winter), and often with a novel. One astonishingly good book that kept me up until dawn was radical novelist Stefan Heym’s Radek: A Novel, first published in 1995 and published in English for the first time this year. Karl Radek was an internationalist revolutionary who, like Lenin, saw the survival of the Russian revolution after 1917 as dependent on the success of struggles and revolutions across the world. However, as Stalin’s strength grew – brilliantly described in Heym’s novel – hope for international revolution was crushed under the project of ‘socialism in one country’. Radek and other members of the opposition were sent into exile, or to Siberia.
In show trials in 1936 to 1938, a generation of activists who had witnessed and help make the 1917 revolution were murdered. Radek wanted to live and compromised with the new power in Moscow, to Leon Trotsky’s outrage and disgust. Yet the way he gave his support – ironic, questioning, playful – was astonishing and an act of impressive resistance in itself. Nevertheless, he was sentenced to ten years imprisonment in 1937 and murdered in prison two years later at the age of 54.
Heym’s novel is heart-breaking. A revolution broken and a generation of internationalists humiliated. Yet in telling the story, Heym keeps alive a real possibility of a global struggle against capitalism. That this story is told by a communist who made his own compromise with Stalinism is even more remarkable. Heym’s great novel rediscovers an emancipatory history that briefly offered the world a global alternative to capitalism.
Lastly, I couldn’t fail to mention Lena Anyuolo’s astonishing debut this year, Rage and Bloom, a collection of poems that tackles patriarchy, the excesses of capitalist exploitation, and revolutionary contradictions as well as hope for a better tomorrow. Anyuolo is a Kenyan writer, poet and feminist who lives in Nairobi, and is highly worthy of our attention.
by Larry Devlin
This is a memoir by a CIA agent set in the (now Democratic Republic of) Congo at the height of the Cold War. Even though Larry Devlin is not expected to be completely honest about the CIA activities in the Congo, his account is candid enough to be revealing about how the United States used the crudest of murderous acts – including the assassination of the Left-inclined leader of the Congo, Patrice Lumumba – to fight communism and take control of one of the most resource rich parts of the world. Devlin admits the decision to kill/remove Lumumba was made by the President of the United States, but falls short of admitting the Americans carried out the actual killing. The book goes some way to provide a few clues and cues, (perhaps inadvertently) removing any doubt that the atrocities committed by the world’s hegemonic power in the Congo are intimately tied to the turmoil, instability, and poverty which continue to mercilessly ravage that country today.
by Christopher Cramer, John Sender and Arkebe Oqubay
African Economic Development is a fantastic read, available as a free download, which challenges the ultra-pessimistic view of African development from both right and left and the excessively optimistic view of ‘Africa rising’ pushed by international organisations and conventional economists. It resurrects Albert Hirschman’s concept of ‘possibilism’ and the unintended consequences of apparently failed policies and projects. One of the authors is an Ethiopian government minister and this helps to present a view about African development from the vantage point of people on the ground. Imperialism and Development tells the story of the disastrous Tanganyikan Groundnut Scheme in a very entertaining way. Although the lessons from such ‘development’ projects have never really been learned, there is a positive legacy resulting from the actions of people on the ground moving the local economy in unintended directions.
Koni Benson’s Crossroads: I Live Where I Like is a superb graphic history of women’s struggles for a space to live and work at Crossroads, a shanty town in Capetown. The narrative documents two periods of struggle in the 1970s and 1980s when Africans (largely women and children) were forcibly removed from their homes and dumped at Crossroads. A mix of teachers, nurses, informal operators, workers, the women united together across party lines and ethnicity. The narrative combines colourful illustrations drawn from the everyday lives of the community with ‘spoken’ text and accessible historical information, providing a people’s history of their own struggles highlighting women’s leadership and contribution.
Another example of graphic history, Rebecca Hall’s Wake: The Hidden History of Women-Led Slave Revolts is part memoir of Rebecca Hall, the granddaughter of slaves, and part historical novel. The author places herself into the story, and shares a detailed account of how she uncovered the hidden facts of African women’s leadership in slave ship revolts as well as slave revolts in New York City and Liverpool. She challenges malestream historians to explain how and why they ignored women’s participation, let alone their leadership, thus exposing the need for continual vigilance and commitment to speak truth to power.
NoViolet Bulawayo’s Glory, published this year, is an historical novel providing a powerful and critical analysis of Zimbabwean history and authoritarian rule throughout Africa. Animal characters portray rulers and their downtrodden citizens with bitter irony and caustic humour. The brilliant narrative combines facts and fiction to expose the corruption, injustice and plunder carried out by African governments and their neocolonial masters. Female characters have a leading role in exposing the truth underlying the veneer of independence and organising ‘another war for Africa’s second Liberation from neocolonial oppression’. The prose is powerful, often poetical, this is a book to read aloud.
A delightful coming of age novel about Kirabo Nnamiiro and her two grandmothers, Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi’s The First Woman weaves stories within stories, bridging generations, to deconstruct patriarchy and honour rebellious women. Domestic struggles are embedded in precolonial and contemporary class structures of power. Probably the most moving element to me is the way stereotypes of ageism and gender are demolished. Two elderly grandmothers Alikisa and Nsuuta dance naked in the rain, celebrating life even as Nsuuta is dying from breast cancer.
by Rebecca Solnit
These can be tough and miserable times for those of us on the radical left. And so, reluctantly, on the advice of a dear South African friend, I read this book. Reluctantly, because I had come across some of Solnit’s short articles in the press and found them pretentious and self-indulgent. What I always like to read is very fact of the matter, practical stuff, that I think will help me be a better teacher and activist. This time, from the outset, I decided to open myself up to this book, to ‘go with the flow’ of it, even if it might make me cringe. I need not have worried. From the first chapter I wanted to get lost. I realised I was lost, more than usual (!), and I had to keep getting lost. What do I mean? Well, what leapt out from the pages was the uncomfortable idea that loss is not always destructive, and it need not mean the end. It can be the start of something new. Because it’s often then that what we don’t know appears. Often something that is eye-opening. Regenerative.
As a series of discrete chapters, the book is in some ways unstructured, and this opens up the possibility of you filling the chapters with your own meaning. Whatever that meaning is, it will take you on a journey, who knows where, but it will probably be a journey you have not been on before. On my journey I realised that it’s not a weakness or failure to not know. For example, to not know why we keep losing or where our movements are going next and what we have to do to get there. But I came away from it no longer afraid of loss, of losing, and of feeling lost. Lord knows our side has lost enough times, but that doesn’t mean it’s the end and it doesn’t mean we have to despair. If we want to win, indeed, if we are to win, we will undoubtedly have to get lost again, but if we embrace the unknown instead of being scared of it, we just might discover a world of possibilities. Go on, do yourself a favour and get lost.
by William Robinson
In this book William Robinson (who had part of his education at the University of Ibadan) argues, from a Marxist perspective, that the nature of imperialism has changed fundamentally from the early 20th century when Lenin described it as competition between nation-states to protect their national companies. William argues that the introduction of neoliberal globalisation means that we no longer have national classes but a transnational capitalist class and a global working class.
William’s theory of global capitalism has four aspects. First is the rise of truly transnational capital and a new global production and financial system into which all nations and much of humanity have been integrated, either directly or indirectly. Second is the rise of a transnational capitalist class. Third is the rise of transnational state apparatuses, a loose network made up of trans- and supranational organizations together with nation-states that functions to organize the conditions for transnational accumulation and through which the transnational capitalist class attempts to organize and institutionally exercise its class power. Fourth are novel relations of global inequality, domination, and exploitation, including an increasing importance of transnational social and class inequalities relative to North-South inequalities that are geographically or territorially conceived.
By describing an emerging system whereby individual national capitalist classes are being replaced by a transnational capitalist class, William’s ideas in this book provide useful arguments against nationalism. While the continuous struggle for socialism might start at the national level, as Lenin recognised, it will not ultimately be successful until it is victorious at the global level. William’s book provides ideas that may better help us to understand the world and so to change it.
by Andreas Malm
Andreas Malm has published five highly significant books over the last six years. Together they make a powerful case that capitalism has distorted technological and economic development in the direction of fossil-fuel exploitation, with the consequences for the future of the planet that we are now all familiar with. Technologies that are not based on fossil fuels were always available and sometimes more efficient, but because they were less suitable to capitalist profitability, they were marginalised. Electric vehicles, solar and wind power, and food production less dependent on fertiliser and insecticides could all have been developed decades if not centuries earlier, but for the synergy between fossil fuels and capital’s ability to control labour. This extends to capital’s role in colonialism, distorting trade and the drive to material extraction, but Malm concedes a need to develop his work further in relation to the specific nature of Africa’s underdevelopment by fossil-fuel capitalism, and in particular how it fuelled racism.
The five books cover a wide range of scholarship and readability, but I suggest that everyone should read How to Blow Up a Pipeline. This is much more measured and less adventurist than its title might suggest, and depends on the detailed research and analysis of Malm’s earlier books. The others are: Fossil Capital; The Progress of this Storm; Corona, Climate, Chronic Emergency; and White Skin, Black Fuel (with the Zetkin Collective).
by Lea Ypi
An absolutely fascinating semi-documentary account of life in Albania under Enver Hoxha (‘Uncle Enver’), from the perspective of a young school-age girl. Ypi describes how that ‘socialist’ society gradually broke down and class privileges and material inequality resurfaced. The book provokes thoughts about experiments in ‘African socialism’, few of which amounted to anything more than rhetoric (although Tanzania did make stabs at structural transformation). Along the way it also throws light on why and how Albanians figure so prominently in current migration statistics.
by Adom Getachew
There is a long tradition in the Third World of developing alternatives to the world system and Adom Getachew has reminded us that post-colonial nationalists, in the middle of 20th century, sought to advance a counter to the love affair with Westphalian states – CLR James, Kwame Nkrumah, Julius Nyerere, Eric Williams and many others promoted a view of nationalism that was not wedded to the state. They promoted pan Africanism and pan Arabism, to encourage socialist internationalism that culminated in the 1970s formulation for a New International Economic Order. Third World leaders wanted to maximise the gains from the structures of a new political architecture that included UN advocacy for self-determination, regional attempts at federalism in Africa and the Caribbean, and critique of capitalist crisis in the 1970s that was accelerated by onset of neo-liberalism.
Getachew argues that for many Third World nationalists and anti-colonial critics, ‘decolonization was a project of reordering the world that sought to create a domination free and egalitarian international order’. Getachew goes beyond the narrative that that decolonisation was a moment of nation building and self-determination. Instead, her compelling argument, grounded in historical analysis, is that ‘anti-colonial nationalism was worldmaking’. Her central actors rejected alien rule and Nkrumah and Nyerere, among others, knew that colonial power definitions of sovereignty merely meant that you had to demonstrate to colonial states that you were able to combine stability with economic growth. Yet Third World leaders wanted a view of sovereignty that transcended the nation state, rejecting the necessity of post-colonial governance that maintained modes of colonial control.
Don’t imagine for a moment that the conclusions of this fascinating read are pessimistic and Getachew’s reading of history is to merely catalogue Third World initiatives coming up against the buffers of failure. She highlights clearly and with much analytical heft that the historical record – and hinting at contemporary dynamics – emphasises the reformulation of the contours of anti-imperial futures and the need to enact new strategies to realise alternatives to imperialism.
I don’t recall when or how I got hold of this selection of Nyerere’s writing and speeches from 1968 to 1973, but this year I finally got around to reading it. The collection of 46 essays is striking for the level of self-reflection and the extent of his uncertainty as he explores the tensions and contradictions within the Tanganyika African National Union’s 1967 Arusha Declaration, Tanzania’s most prominent political statement of African Socialism, or ‘Ujamaa’. Constantly raising questions and doubts about various policies and objectives (including the now infamous villagisation effort), the most extensive reflection comes in the fascinating 70-page ‘Ten Years After Independence’, which offers a frank assessment of the progress and failures of his administration up until 1971. The book provides a welcome antidote to liberal understandings of freedom as an individual rather than a collective endeavour and undertaking – popularised in universities by the Indian philosopher and Nobel Prize winner Amartya Sen’s Development as Freedom (notably the same two title words as Nyerere’s collection, but radically opposed in its conceptualisation of each and how they relate to one another) – and there is much here to be learned about the failures and shortcomings of Tanzanian socialism to inform today’s struggles across the continent and beyond.
by Adam Sneyd, Steffi Hamann, Charis Enns, and Lauren Q. Sneyd
This book explores commodity production through the lens of the political contestation it engenders. It focuses on the actions and motivations of various actors seeking to exert power and influence over the governance of commodities in Cameroon, a country dependent on primary commodity export. The book is built around case studies of agricultural commodities (sugar, palm oil, etc.) as well as large-scale commodity extraction (the Chad-Cameroon pipeline project). Its innovativeness lies in the way it uses different and competing notions of responsibility to expose multiple dimensions of commodity politics.
by Danelle van Zyl-Hermann
Marxist and Liberal researchers and analysts have commonly conceived the white working class in South Africa since 1922 as an analytic category and as a political problem – an obstacle to class solidarity or to proper liberal politics. So ‘we’ are all agreed. Is our agreement a reflection of the social worlds that many of ‘us’ grew up in? White English- and Afrikaans-speaking middle-class boys in Pretoria East – where I lived in the 1950s – were fully aware of working-class white Afrikaners. ‘They’ lived west of Paul Kruger Street, and their fathers worked at Iscor. We English speakers knew little of them, commonly could not speak ‘their’ language fluently and looked somewhat down on them. In mining towns, African working men, and Afrikaner skilled and supervisor workers, only came together in the mines and mine shafts. Scholars of South Africa have dedicated a great deal of time to understanding and explaining the lives, cultures, and politics of those African working men, within the mines and beyond them, and very little to making sense of the lives, cultures, and politics of the Afrikaner men they worked for and with. Van Zyl-Hermann takes us through her careful empirical account and incisive analysis of white mineworkers, the Mine Workers Union and Solidarity (its political successor) and the ethnographies, social histories, and political dilemmas of the ‘Privileged Precariat’, before and after the end of apartheid. I suggest Van-Zyl Hermann’s book is of most importance to Marxist readers.
The Wife’s Tale is a personal history of Yetemegnu, written by her granddaughter, which also shows the history of Ethiopia through the life of Yetemegnu, who died in 2013 at the age of 97. It is a captivating account, starting from the time of feudalism to Haile Selassie’s period, up to the revolution and modern times. Ceremonies is a prose and poetry collection of essays on the lived experiences of an LGBTQI activist. The poems are memorable and stick with you, focused on personal experiences and efforts at organising and struggle.
Lena Grace Anyuolo
by Nick Couldry and Ulises A. Mejias
by Dan Wood
As someone whose remaining hair is as white as his beard and in anticipation of what, in 2023, will be the 50th anniversary of my first trip to Africa, I would like to contextualise my book choices within a reflection of many years of thought and action on the relationship between Europe and Africa and between comrades in both places.
We (the comrades) and they (the continents) are all continuously involved in change processes, both convergent and divergent. One criticism I have long held of many approaches to African/ Development Studies is that, by seeing Africa as an object of study, they fail to notice the many changes affecting their own gaze and hence their relationships to Africa. Few changes have been as profound and as multi-level as those of communication practices and technologies. These affect global and national political economies and the way we as intellectuals do, communicate, and benefit or not from our work, as well as the organisation of our daily lives. I was very proud to co-edit, with Reg Cline-Cole, issue 99 of ROAPE (with some overspill from 98) which explored some distinctly local manifestations of such change in various parts of Africa. The Costs of Connection takes the North American variant of such change and looks at the global impact of that model. The argument goes beyond the economic to the wholesale re-organisation of life and may be particularly disturbing for readers in the global North who, unlike our long-suffering African comrades, may not have realised the extent to which the context in which they live is being changed without their informed consent for someone else’s profit. It also sketches possible avenues for resistance and building more progressive and democratic alternatives.
The issue of whose knowledge counts – and how it is constructed, valued and used – has been an ever-present but seldom prioritised strand of interest within ROAPE. It is probably fair to say that most ROAPE contributions on the subject have taken a political or pragmatic approach to the subject – exposing class or gender bias for example – rather than the philosophical/ontological approach of much current decolonisation literature. Epistemic Decolonisation bridges these two discourses. Whilst there may be some agreement on the coloniality of mainstream academic practice (albeit not from many natural scientists in my experience), there is little consensus on what a decolonial practice would look like. Wood takes issue with the theoretical foundations of much of the decolonial literature and suggests that setting the discussion within a revolutionary socialist intent offers greater philosophic and practical clarity. He does this through a detailed analysis of the contributions of Frantz Fanon and Amilcar Cabral to these issues. In doing so, he not only provides a different perspective on a crucial contemporary debate but also reminds people of the continuing relevance of these great African revolutionaries, one of whom, Cabral, remains virtually unknown and unread within the Anglophone Africanist world. Wood has previously edited (and translated) a selection of Cabral’s writings (Resistance and Decolonization) and here he develops an assessment of Cabral’s work which includes but goes beyond the focus on revolutionary practice which dominated most work about Cabral in the years following his assassination. In particular, he revisits Cabral’s work as an agronomist, with a particular interest in soil, and uncovers ecological aspects of Cabral’s science, understanding of rural political economy, and language which are revealed as astonishingly prescient given the current crises we all face.