Africa Shows Us Why Socialism Is Flawed | Dan Mikhaylov

With Africa becoming a byword for terminal squalor and seemingly irresolvable ethnic conflict in the press, its internal political processes attract little journalistic and scholarly attention. Even when the continent makes a rare appearance in your preferred morning newspaper or garners an honourable mention in a popular history book, the focus is rarely on Africa itself. On the contrary, mainstream literature either focuses on the humanitarian problems caused by prolonged warfare in some faraway country that has petrified the local populations in a way that simply cannot go unreported or on that country’s treatment by Russia, China, and the United States. 

For this reason, I sincerely appreciated Daniel Hawker’s recent article in The Mallard, in which he construed Africa not as a battleground between the West and China or the perpetual recipient of aid handed out by international organisations to keep their sugar-coated public image, but as a natural extension of the global democratic front against authoritarianism. Casting light on how dictators continue to rule Cameroon, Uganda, and Equatorial Guinea with as much conventional opposition as Sacha Baron Cohen’s protagonist in The Dictator (2012), he rightly concluded that democracy must be protected not only against China, but also “against these regimes”. 

This article echoes this sentiment. At a time when academic scholarship emphasises the failures of the Rostowian modernisation theory and the unequal economic arrangements, to which the continent’s stagnant economies were subjected in the twentieth century. I intend to expand the case against authoritarianism to the case against socialism, which has proven to be conducive to authoritarianism, by tracing its history in Africa. 

Its fanfare emergence and charismatic exponents, Kwame Nkrumah and Julius Nyerere, helped it arouse widespread brouhaha and spread across the continent like a slice of room-temperature butter spreads on freshly toasted bread. However, the honeymoon season was short, as socialist countries plunged into inescapable decadence. The lionised anti-imperialist struggle, branded as pan-Africanism and supposedly founded on demands for racial solidarity, proved fraudulent and misleading as soon as it came face-to-face with the challenges of state-building. 

Endogenous Roots of African Socialism

Bolshevism had long gazed in the direction of European colonies. Vladimir Lenin published a powerful critique of imperialism as the ultimate stage of world capitalism in 1917, Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, and pioneered the modern usage of self-determination, which we customarily, and wrongly, associate with Woodrow Wilson and the Paris Peace Conference. Meanwhile, Lev Trotsky adduced a more theoretical argument for overthrowing capitalism on a global scale through his international relations theory of combined and uneven development, which underscores the inherently exploitative nature of the contemporary international system. On a more practical level, Comintern was founded in 1919, in order to convert these aspirations into reality and complement theory with action.

However, African socialism was not Soviet-made. Rather than targeting indigenous Africans, Soviet radicalism, which was founded on European ideas, found solace among the Europeans, who resided in Africa. Thus, the South African Communist Party was formed under the British-born Willian Andrews, and principally appealed to disenchanted, underpaid miners. The native component originated elsewhere – in the metropoles of Paris and London where educated men from the colonies met and joined various organisations to exert pressure on local governments to oppose such endeavours as the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in 1935. Upon returning home, they started similar associations and pushed an internationalist agenda, which came increasingly at odds with the Stalinist pledge to build model socialism in a single country and were refused contacts with the most powerful men in Moscow.

Following the Second World Wars, colonialism became unprofitable and socialism all the more fashionable in public discourse. Between the 1950s and the 1970s, this climate birthed multiple socialist experiments in postcolonial Africa with an overwhelmingly abysmal set of outcomes. At the centre of endogenous African socialism was a new definition of capitalism. To thinkers like Nkrumah, the distinction between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat ran along racial lines. Over time, it culminated in ruinous economic policies that put Soviet collectivisation to shame: land dispossession from white farmers in Zimbabwe halved the nation’s agricultural output and persistent power struggles (between ZANU and ZAPU in Zimbabwe and CCP and the Ashanti tribal leaders in Ghana) fuelled pre-existing ethnic divisions and incentivised violence. 

Since ideology was determined by ad-hoc necessities, Africa’s “hammer and sickle” bearers  swiftly began to channel their radicalism into the formation of militarised, rigid, and intolerant states, much more isolationist and less concerned with industrialisation than the Soviet Union in its formative years, when American know-how was purchased en masse to support Stalinist industrialisation. Many African regimes rejected cooperation with the West, but did not enjoy full acceptance in the Soviet bloc, which classified them as “countries of socialist orientation” and refused Comecon membership unless local power holders integrated fully. Therefore, many socialist regimes lacked the access to external markets necessary to stimulate economic growth and witnessed national wealth shrink or stagnate during the Cold War.

One example of the malice of African socialism is Guinea, whose founding president, Ahmed Sekou Touré, tried to maintain independence from both blocs and resultantly remained isolated from their markets. While welcoming the Soviet Lenin Peace Prize for promoting international peace in 1961 and accepting multi-million rouble investments into his country’s economy, his one-party state tried to distance itself from Moscow by constructing a religion-infused, agrarian socialist model. 

Without unconditional Soviet backing, Touré prioritised power consolidation, purporting that Guinea prefers poverty in what he erroneously considered freedom to “riches in slavery”. Thus, he ended relations with the French metropole in 1965 and permitted widespread torture against his citizens, with some 50,000 losing their lives in makeshift detention facilities, including the ominous concentration camp Boiro, where at least 10% of all those victims were executed. The West not only connived at this regime, because of Touré’s cautious approach to the USSR, but also actively helped it during the 1980s recession in Guinea and allowed the dictator to undergo cardiac treatment in America. His brutal dictatorship was correspondingly able to survive the absence of Soviet support after 1978. 

Other examples of horrid socialist experimentation in Africa, allowed by the West, include the likes of Angola and Mozambique. In the former, local communists fought a lengthy war against the Portuguese and triumphed thanks to external support; Cuba sent more than 25,000 soldiers to the region, whereas the USSR eagerly supplied the technological expertise. Nowadays, this “socialist paradise” ranks among the continent’s most unequal societies and has per capita GDP of circa $2,000. Its capital city, Luanda, routinely competes with Hong Kong and Zurich for the title of the most expensive city worldwide based on living costs. 

Mozambique’s fate is a touch more optimistic. Its economic growth diminished with the Soviet perestroika and evaporated almost entirely with the USSR’s dissolution, and the nation remains one of the poorest in region. That being said, we must give credit where it is due – the country has accomplished a peaceful transformation to an imperfect, yet nonetheless democratic system and recently discovered 425 billion m3 in natural gas reserves that promise to benefit its citizens in the future and partially atone for the socialist era’s depredations. 

When the Soviet empire collapsed, red flags were at once lowered in many corners of the world, with yesterday’s communists mutating into today’s social-democrats and sanctified fighters for independence and freedom. Although many other dictators, Cambodia’s Pol Pot, China’s Mao Zedong, and Albania’s Enver Hoxha, did not escape the condemnation they deserved for many an oppressive policy against their people, pan-Africanism has unfortunately been whitewashed in academic circles. Many of those attending Western universities, whether from Britain or from its erstwhile colonies, are made to marvel at the supposedly liberating figures of Nkrumah and Touré and forget how their socialist experiments have ended.

Political commentators and analysts in the West enjoy conceptualising Africa as a place whose statesmen may learn from the West’s history of economic development and democratic reform. Now that many in the United Kingdom are oblivious to the evils of socialism, it is time for the West to learn from Africa, as well. We should learn from how socialism has been sold to local populations, how it has proceeded to let them down, and how the problems created by socialism in Africa have only exacerbated the controversial and often depressing legacy of European rule.

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