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Socialismes en Afrique

Françoise Blum
Héloïse Kiriakou
Martin Mourre
et al.


Frederick Cooper

Texte intégral

  • 1 In writing the conclusion to an edited volume with over twenty-five contributions, it is impossible (...)

1The title of this book contains some very important plurals, and the variety and richness of the chapters make clear why adding an “s” to African socialism and socialism in Africa is so significant. This volume brings out the diversity of socialist thought in Africa, the intensity of engagement of different political actors with ideas of a just society, and the complexities of turning thought into action.1

2This collective endeavor goes against a tendency in much existing literature to treat “Africa” in the singular, as if the continent has one fate and its problems can be understood through one set of explanations. To be sure, Africa as a whole has faced the constraints of colonization and global capitalism, and Africans have shared ideas and strategies among themselves. But when it comes to analyzing the trajectories of different countries, regions, collectivities, and social categories one has to be careful. Some of the routes that activists wanted to take toward building societies that were egalitarian and progressive turned out to be dead ends, but one cannot understand the process by which politics and society came to be what they are without reconstructing the different possibilities that people at any given time saw and examining the struggles that ensued. A history that looks only at “winners” does not tell us how winners came to win.

3What this volume is not is an exercise in nostalgia for a left politics that is no more. While this collection brings out the possibilities for forging just societies that socialist activists, seeking or possessing power, developed, it does not shy away from documenting refusal to accept comradely debate by revolutionary parties and governing elites, including abuses of power in regimes that claimed to be socialist. The repressive brutality of the Derg in Ethiopia or the “reeducation” camps kept by the Mozambique Liberation Front (Frelimo) are cases in point. Several chapters raise questions about the heavy-handed imposition of reform policies on peasants and workers by elites who were sure they knew what was good for all citizens. Campaigns to eradicate polygamy, bridewealth, and witchcraft may well have been intended to bring about more egalitarian and secure social orders, but such campaigns could also be interpreted by the people on whom they were imposed as undermining the basis of community life and harmony with nature. Eager young cadres telling older people what to do is not always a recipe for social reform.

4The arrogance of power is not particular to socialist regimes, but the histories recounted here raise important and difficult questions about the ideological risks that accompany projects of remaking society. Does the very depth of conviction of social reformers go along with contemptuousness for people—whether “backward” peasants or defenders of elite privileges—who see things differently? Are revolutionaries prone to brand dissenters as “counterrevolutionaries,” “class enemies,” or “imperialist lackies”? To what extent did the affinity of those African socialists who considered themselves Marxist-Leninists to communist regimes around the world lead them to follow the repressive precedents of Lenin, Stalin, and Mao? Or did the conviction among advocates of a specifically African socialism that African society represented a model of classlessness and harmony lead them to deny that dissenters had a legitimate basis for expressing their own interests or convictions? These questions are not simply the retrospective view of the scholar, but possible objects of soul-searching among political activists in the past. But did socialist movements, in practice, encourage soul searching? The case studies in this volume do not answer such questions at a general level, but alongside examples of debate among socialists, they point to instances of regimes or revolutionary parties developing rationales for disallowing dissent, punishing opposition, and belittling the thinking of people whose lives the regimes claimed to be bettering. The line between sincere conviction and the arrogance of power can be a fine one.

5Intrinsic to socialist projects in Africa were certain tensions. The first tension is between the variety of socialisms and the aspiration of each to universality. Scientific socialism, Maoism, Titoism, Fabian socialism, Christian socialism, democratic socialism, and African socialism made opposed claims to representing a true path to a true socialism. Their relationship to each other could potentially foster constructive debate, but inevitably entailed competition for the support of similar groups of people. Whether differing versions of socialism gave rise to serious debate or accusations of treason was a question in which the stakes could be extremely high. Some of the case studies point to discussion among educated elites well aware of the variety of socialist models around the world, but several point to a narrowing of perspectives as leaders emerged who saw a real chance of obtaining or consolidating power. For example, Augustino Neto’s move to formally embrace a Marxist-Leninist framework came without a full debate among party leaders, although many of them had experiences and contacts both inside Angola and in wider networks of radical politics that had previously seemed to open the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) to a variety of possibilities.

6For Modibo Keita and others, the quest was for another kind of socialism, rooted not in international connections but in Africa, a “socialisme des ancêtres.” What reading of history did such an approach entail? If one wants to imagine African societies as models of decentralized democracies for a socialism that was distinctly African—in the manner of Julius Nyerere—we are stuck with the kind of flattening of history that historians of Africa have long objected to. We come close to reproducing the colonial notion of a timeless Africa; indeed, Modibo Keita for one was influenced by the work of French administrator-scholars such as Henri Labouret and Robert Delavignette, who sought in Africa the kind of rural paradise that they feared was disappearing in Europe. Sanitizing the history of castes, enslavement, and violence in the past might have assisted the ideological work of governing elites, but it also made them less able to understand and transform societies in all their complexity. In much of the Sahel, for example, the inability of radical regimes—not just apparently conservative ones—to transform the position of people of slave descent left in place some of the most serious problems of inequality and exploitation in the region.

7Whether advocates of a socialism were coming from international circles or from African roots, implementing a socialist project entailed tensions with African elites’ national projects. Can one have socialism in one country, to paraphrase an old line about the USSR? Can socialism be the means by which the shortcomings of national independence—so much criticized since the 1960s—be remedied? Or is the way forward necessarily international, requiring the poor nations of the world to take the lead in restructuring the world economy, a point advocated by revolutionaries in the 1950s and 1960s and by organizations like the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) in the 1960s. A New International Economic Order (NIEO) was also the goal of a group of developing states in the 1970s, a project successfully repulsed by the wealthy states, international financial organizations, and economists following their line. The question was cultural as well as economic, for considerable effort was going into forming national cultures—as for example in Mozambique’s National Culture Meeting of 1977 or Tanzania’s efforts to juxtapose a disciplined Tanzanian culture against the degeneracy of imitating international cultural styles. Meanwhile Pan-African connections—and the modes of behavior of itinerant radicals from the African diaspora who came to Ghana or Tanzania—posed challenges as well as possibilities.

8The issue emerged well before independence. Whether economic and social restructuring could be national or had to be global—or at least based on institutions that crossed state boundaries—has been debated on and on since at least the 1950s, when the form of independence was very much in question, that is before it became clear that the colonial empires were going to be dissolved into a series of nation-states. Leading political actors, including such diverse figures as Léopold Sédar Senghor, Sékou Touré, and Kwame Nkrumah, worried about the risks of “national liberation” when the nations in question were small, numerous, and poor. Senghor in particular insisted that one of the most important features of the world of the twentieth century was “interdependence.” Connections, he argued, should take both the form of solidarity among the different territories within Africa—where equal relations should be the norm—and relationships with the rich parts of the world, including former colonial powers. He called the first kind of relationship “horizontal solidarity,” the second “vertical solidarity.” He worried that without some combination of the two, independence would be only “nominal,” while a more relational approach could produce “real independence.” Making the individual territory into the unit of sovereignty constituted “balkanization,” a reference to an earlier breakup of empires that had produced weak states in conflict with each other. Sékou Touré, before his famous clash with de Gaulle that led to the immediate independence of Guinea in 1958, advocated simultaneously “African unity” and the “Franco-African Community.” In 1958, Nkrumah proposed to give up some of the hard-won sovereignty his Ghana had obtained the year before to create a “United States of Africa.”

9So, what did it signify for a socialist future when these projects for unity across territorial boundaries, with or without a relationship to a former imperial power, came to naught? Could socialist futures be built on the basis of the nation-state? The chapters of this book, mostly focused on national projects, bring out the difficulties of doing so. These difficulties were not unanticipated. Senghor, having warned that in weak and impoverished states, governing elites would hang on at all cost to the one resource they had, sovereignty, soon became what he had warned against. He had hoped that an African federation would add a layer of power and of sovereignty above the individual territory that would provide a check on politicians’ ambitions for total control within their base territories, but only the French Sudan agreed to join Senegal in forming the Mali Federation, and then Senghor entered into a zero-sum conflict for power with the Sudanese leader Modibo Keita, quickly resulting in the demise of the truncated federation. A larger and better anchored federation might have diffused such anxieties. Two years after independence, Senghor, fearing that the more socialist politics of his prime minister, Mamadou Dia, would compromise the support base he had built up in the countryside, put Dia in prison, banned opposition parties, and prevented any kind of political formation that might have pressed for anything more than a socialism of façade in Senegal.

10Most of his fellow heads of state went further in suppressing opposition within national borders, not least of all labor movements, student movements, and other forces that were serious advocates of a more “social” (whether or not formally socialist) approach to national governance. The repression of dissent and the repeated purging of once-influential party members is well documented in the chapters of this book: in Angola, Mozambique, Namibia, Ethiopia, among others. Indeed, the model anticolonial movement, Algeria’s Front de libération nationale, was also the model for repeated purges of its own leadership. The pioneers of eliminating trade union leaders who could not be coopted were Sékou Touré and Kwame Nkrumah, who had once benefitted from the support of organized labor and who remained two of Africa’s most vehement critics of neocolonialism. As things turned out, Senghor was quite right about the dangers of territorial power in small and impoverished states, a prophecy he helped to fulfill.

11This collective volume presents many stories of valiant efforts and significant accomplishments, but also the inability of socialist movements and regimes to sustain a socialist and inclusive transformation. It clearly demonstrates the serious thought and efforts that went into the attempt to devise, in a variety of ways, approaches to the problem of socialism in one country. These experiments were often influenced by the background that young political actors had in Europe, reading texts and making contacts, that brought them into the various streams (not that there was a single mainstream) of socialist thought. Some African elites had strong contacts with other “third-world” activists, and they were affected by the memory of others, especially Patrice Lumumba. The importance of the Soviet connection appears in some cases–Ethiopia under the Derg most notably, for a time the MPLA (a Cuban-Soviet connection), Frelimo and the Soviets for a longer period and probably a deeper process of exchange, Namibia and Tanzania with the German Democratic Republic (GDR).

12The international socialist connection cut two ways. It gave African socialists moral and material support and made their cause part of a global one. The early generation of socialist leadership was often trained in Europe and influenced by leftist and antiimperialist movements around the world, while in the 1970s, students in high schools and universities in Africa played a major role in challenging more conservative regimes, and they sometimes linked to young elements in the military who chafed at the blockages of their elders’ forms of governance. The overlap of radical global connections with the wars of liberation in Portuguese Africa and the antiapartheid movement in the late 1960s and 1970s was part of the dynamic that made such movements particularly important at that time—witness the socialist regimes installed in Congo-Brazzaville, Dahomey/Benin, and Ethiopia for instance.

13Military support from the Soviet bloc was critical in the case of the MPLA’s hold on power in Angola, arguably in Mozambique and—at different times—in Somalia and Ethiopia. But the eastern bloc was on the whole prudent in its relations to radical movements in Africa; its own economic weaknesses restricted its capacity to provide assistance; its members tended to lose patience with African governments; and by the 1980s, its own problems were becoming more acute.

14Neither ideological sustenance nor military support could solve the basic problem of bringing socialist institutions to ground level. Not always for want of trying, elites had great difficulty forging durable connections to a wide spectrum of the strata of society that socialism was supposed to benefit. Youthful students and military men were not necessarily the best equipped to engage with a broad spectrum of African societies. In some cases, leaders feared that organized workers or agriculturalists could become a nucleus of opposition; in other instances, peasants were thought to be the object of reform, not agents of it. Actually, existing rural communities were much more complicated to engage than the model peasant of Maoist theory or the model citizen envisioned by Nyerere’s villagization program. There certainly were examples of rural transformation—the destruction of landlordism in Ethiopia and cooperative movements in various countries as well as the largely unsuccessful efforts at collectivization—and it is clear that socialist regimes made real efforts to improve education, health care, housing, and other social benefits, probably more so than other regimes that were development-oriented but not avowedly socialist. But the studies also reveal just how problematic it was to integrate peasants—or for that matter wage workers—into a project that entailed political inclusion as well as imposed reform.

15Socialist regimes shared with ideologically opposed regimes awareness of the fragility of their power. Sovereignty was their main asset, and institutions of state had to be vigorously protected against both the quite real danger of the machinations of Western (or Eastern) powers and efforts from within to take over the narrow channels of power.

16Elites’ fragile hold on power is observable not only in the way regimes consolidated their power, but in how they clung to power even when they gave up socialist policies. The stories of how Congo-Brazzaville and Dahomey/Benin came to practice forms of Afro-Marxism and then gave them up are revealing, as are the stories of how the MPLA and Frelimo moved away from socialist politics, in the context of civil war within and shifting relations with the capitalist and communist world beyond that. There may be a certain nostalgia for the socialist movements and regimes of the past among aging former activists and youthful would-be radicals, but party elites have shown a notable ability to cast their lot with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank when the socialist alternative appeared to be foreclosed.

17In the ups and downs of socialist regimes, international connections remained important. Senghor’s metaphor of horizontal and vertical solidarity provides a useful way of thinking about the problem. For the rulers of a poor state, rich states and capital-rich corporations had a great deal to offer. The temptation toward making deals was a strong one, precisely because the relationship was so asymmetrical. Unity in poverty was a compelling principle but not a promising policy. The Cold War raised the stakes, for both sides wanted exclusive relationship. The “Western” side insisted—although not consistently—that friendly attitudes toward corporate investment was a condition for foreign aid. The communist side was constrained by its lack of hard currency and its own vulnerabilities at home and abroad. The communist world’s weakness was becoming particularly severe in the 1980s, just when western countries and international financial institutions were imposing austerity programs on Africa that might have been an opening to the other side. The case of Ethiopia and Somalia—where the two Cold War rivals switched alliances in the late 1970s—reveals the cynicism of both the US and the USSR in relation to client states.

18But from the point of view of those states, clientage had its advantages. It also had its costs. Patrons are few, clients are many. The two need each other, but the client’s need is the more immediate. Once Africa went the way of multiple states autonomous of each other, it was not irrational on the part of state leaders to think that they had more to gain from asymmetrical relations with the rich and powerful than symmetrical relations with each other. Socialism would have to be built in one country, but even those elites that wanted to build socialism would face both temptations and constraints coming from the global distribution of economic and political power.

19The problem of socialism in one country was conditioned both by circumstances within the country and those beyond it. In such a context, socialism was always in danger of becoming less a principle and a strategy than a rationale for justifying elite domination as the very incarnation of “the people.”

20In this political context the very meaning of “the people”—or “citizens” of a particular country—was problematic, a mobilizing category against the interests of narrow elites, but also an abstraction that could become a fetish. One of the themes that crosses many of the chapters of this book is the gap between elite evocations of the people and actually existing peasants and workers. Not that activists were unaware of the problem. Indeed, some authors look at concrete attempts to address the gap between governing elites and ordinary citizens, looking at agricultural cooperatives, systems of party governance intended to give local communities a choice of leaders, and efforts to conduct politics in languages understood by different elements of a national population. The other side of these efforts was the temptation of a regime to see itself as the incarnation of “the people” and therefore with little need for dialogue with actual people in all their complexity and diversity.

21Taken as a whole, this book makes clear both the creativity and intensity of the efforts—from student activists and intellectuals to party activists and government leaders—to forge some kind of socially just society and the limitations of such projects, the constrained possibilities in an unequal world, the fragilities of power in the nation-state system as it emerged from a colonial past, and temptations and dangers intrinsic to the fervor of socialist beliefs themselves. What is the overall “bilan” (the balance sheet) of socialist politics in bringing to the fore the challenge of building economically and socially just societies and of socialist regimes in implementing policies along those lines? During the period 1945 to the 1960s (and later in Portuguese Africa and southern Africa more generally), activists in labor movements, student organizations, and other venues pushed politicians to focus not just on claiming independence, but on the “social question,” not so much as an abstraction but in relation to the needs of specific categories of people, including workers, peasants, women, children, the aged, the disabled, and so on. Whether or not these movements achieved their objectives, they put on the table the question of how politics should affect the daily lives of people in states acquiring independence. These questions have not gone away and calls for a “second independence” or for progress in the name of the people that one hears today reflect the ongoing importance of social questions. That in itself is important, and it gives rise to further questions, about how one frames social questions, about the possibilities and limitations of national, feminist, worker-focused, Africa-centered perspectives on society.

22Then comes the question of assessing what regimes that came about through socialist politics or which defined themselves around a socialist ideology actually achieved. The conference brought out important accomplishments in particular situations: vigorous efforts at making education available to all elements of the population, cultural politics that encouraged artists and writers to broaden the realm of expression beyond an elite and beyond European influences, agricultural innovations, such as cooperatives, and specific social programs, such as the provision of housing, water and sanitation, and health care. The actual accomplishments along these lines vary considerably, and some have proved more durable than others.

23The dark side of socialist regimes emerged from a number of the papers presented and the discussions at the conference. The importance of Soviet and Maoist models lay not just in their visions of economic planning, but in the precedent they set for authoritarian governance, for the contention that overturning the class structure of a capitalist society required discipline and unity. One of Lenin’s worst ideas was one of the most influential in Africa, and not just in states that claimed to pursue socialist economic policies: the single party. The suppression of trade unions was a hallmark of states like Guinea that purported to operate for the liberation of the people. One of the virtues of this volume is that some of its authors do not shy away from such issues.

24The concept of “bilan” is important in a wider sense, not just how scholars in 2021 evaluate the positives and negatives of particular regimes, but how much the experience of socialist policies and socialist regimes created models that could appeal to activists in new contexts. In other words, the question of how well a regime created a visible model of success is not just a question of analytic categories—of scholarly assessment—but of indigenous categories, of perceptions of people in their own political situations, not in ours. What models have become available to new generations of activists or new generations of intellectuals who want to contribute to visions of the future? Much attention has been given over the years to the appeal of Soviet and Maoist models and the consequences of their elimination from the world scene, but one can ask about socialist models developed in Africa itself.

25Here the question of socialist models becomes difficult. We now operate in the face of the collapse of the communist version of socialism, widely discredited since 1989, occasionally resurrected but not convincing beyond a small circle. Then there are models of capitalist success that are brought forward in the midst of political debate: South Korea, for example, which in the 1950s was a poor country devastated by war with a GDP per capita on a par with the Gold Coast on the verge of the latter’s independence, but which by century’s end was selling automobiles and washing machines to the most economically advanced countries in the world. There are no models of socialist success in Africa comparable to that of capitalist success in South Korea. As soon as one probes the Korean model, it turns out not to be a model of liberal capitalism, of the “miracle of the market,” but a much more complex case of an interventionist state, with help from outside, that followed a symbiotic relationship of state and capital to build a powerful economy, one facing the limitations of its own genesis, notably the great power of a small number of very large conglomerates that may or may not be able to sustain such an approach.

26The results of socialist change in Africa are to a significant extent the consequence of forces beyond the actors’ control, but whatever the causes, it is hard, at present, to point to a positive model of socialist development in Africa, an instance of a rigorous socialist politics overcoming its prime foe, international capitalism. Whatever that means as an academic exercise, as a political issue, as a basis for making an argument in favor of socialist policies in the future, it has been a serious problem.

27To say that is not to say that such an outcome was determined from the beginning. We need to understand the trajectory that ends up with such a point and the alternatives as they developed and as they were foreclosed. During the1950s, when the form of liberation from colonialism was up in the air, the anticolonial cause and the socialist project reinforced each other in some instances and remained apart in others. With independence, the limits of convergence between social goals and political power became acute, and in many cases divisive issues. It is for this reason that the late 1960s appears as an important moment, for governments were challenged by the fact that independence—one might say nominal independence in Senghor’s sense—did not in itself produce economic or social liberation. Whether a government, like Tanzania in 1967, would try to take the initiative in following new policies for social and economic change or whether an opposition would try to make the regime’s failure to improve the lives of ordinary citizens into an issue, as in Kenya at the same time, the tension between rule and reform came to the fore.

28The combination of these tensions and awareness among young people of the uprisings of 1968 in Europe and the anti-war mobilizations in the United States contributed to making 1968 an eventful year in Africa too. For a time, there were models of revolutionary success, including Congo-Brazzaville, Dahomey/Benin, and later Ethiopia. Those revolutions soon turned out to be problematic and provoked their own countercurrents, whether for a still more radical departure or a reversion in the opposite direction. The 1970s thus revealed the uncertainties of post-independence political change. It also witnessed the emergence of a new set of possibilities coming out of the revolutions in the Portuguese colonies and Rhodesia.

29New hope emerged from these revolutions in the context of the argument made earlier by Frantz Fanon, that violence was necessary to purge colonized societies of the effects of colonialism. Perhaps the armed struggles in Portuguese and southern Africa would have different consequences than the largely peaceful decolonizations in sub-Saharan Africa in the 1950s and early 1960s. The argument had already proved dubious in Fanon’s favored territory of Algeria—the revolution there led to fighting among revolutionaries, to repeated accusations of betraying the revolution and repeated purges of leadership. The revolutions in Angola, Mozambique, and Rhodesia/Zimbabwe would soon follow a similar course into internecine violence rather than revolutionary solidarity. Angola, soon after the end of Portuguese colonization, became the site of a proxy war, with the United States and South Africa on one side, Cuba and the USSR on the other. Zimbabwe seemed to be trying to make a white-dominated economy less white and more social, but was soon tarnished by the government’s murderous attack on the ethnic group alleged to be supporting President Mugabe’s rival Joshua Nkomo. Zimbabwean politics slowly degenerated into demagoguery and economic self-destruction. Of the liberated states, Mozambique stood out for the seriousness of its commitment to remaking its society along lines of socialist planning and with support from Russia and East Germany, but it ran into not only the machinations of South Africa but its failure to listen to the voices of much of its rural population for whom rural socialism seemed another version of state domination.

30The 1970s were a time of opening and closure, when disillusionment with the fruits of the independent governments of the 1960s overlapped the arrival on the scene of newly liberated states led by movements intent on remaking society. Ultimately, none of these movements—in the face of severe external constraints but also the distance of their own leadership from the societies they wished to transform—was able to demonstrate to its own people that it could bring them the future the leaders thought should be theirs.

31In the 1980s, the crisis in the world economy weakened almost all African economies, tied to West or East, more or less capitalist or more or less socialist. It tarnished economic models of all sorts. It was not the triumph of economic liberalism that international financial institutions thought they had achieved, for market-oriented reforms had little to show for themselves. It was not the opportunity for radical change that one might have expected from the catastrophe that the economic conjuncture, made worse by structural adjustment, inflicted on most African countries. The socialist alternative on the global scene was itself imploding and the immediate needs of African states for the little relief on offer deepened the politics of international clientelism, minus the pressure on the patrons to offer something better than their communist rivals.

32The 1990s witnessed a resurgence—although hardly a universal one—of electoral democracy in Africa, in part under external pressure but in large part the result of groups within African societies—students, labor, professionals—taking advantage of the weakness of a number of African regimes that proved unable to distribute adequate resources to their clients. By the early 2000s, even as African economies began to generate more exports and revenue, the results of the democratic initiatives were proving to be mixed. Some regimes proved adept at managing façade democracies, but in others—Ghana for instance—elections came to be serious affairs, with incumbents or incumbent parties standing a good chance of losing.

33The topic of social democracy came up at the conference only in passing, but mention is made in this volume of two parties, in Cameroon (1990) and Madagascar (1956) that called themselves social democratic parties. The concept, clearly, has a history, although it nowadays does not receive the attention it deserves, perhaps because a portion of the European left—including the academic left—didn’t think it left enough, perhaps because the concept dropped out of African discourse. But the relationship of “the social” and “the democratic” deserves examination, within and outside of the domain that explicitly calls itself socialist. The issue is not specifically African, for all over the world, the battle between a relentless capitalism and a purist socialism is hardly favorable to the latter, and the question becomes unavoidable of whether democratic processes—electoral and otherwise—can defend in some form workers’ rights to a decent standard of living, fair conditions for farmers, adequate provisions of medical and educational services for people of few means, and possibilities for families to have a degree of security across the life cycle and raise children in decent conditions.

34If social democracy even in affluent countries is now on the defensive, in the era of decolonization in the 1950s and 1960s the “social” as well as the “political” was very much on the agenda in Africa—at a time when the welfare state in metropolitan France and Britain was at last being consolidated. Given the anxiety of imperial governments to hold their empires together in the midst of severe challenges from political movements, it was difficult for them to segregate the welfare state, expanding it in the metropole and refusing it to people in the colonies.

35In principle, the French government accepted that principles of equality enshrined in the constitution of 1946 applied to the entire empire, but the meaning of such a proposition was contested place by place, measure by measure. In French West Africa, at least, political movements fell well within the domain that we can call social democratic, for they constantly dwelled on the twin themes of African control of their own destiny and the deployment of whatever power could be acquired to bring about a better life for their constituents. After the passage of the Lamine Guèye law of 1946, soon thereafter enshrined in the French constitution, French Africans acquired the quality of the French citizen, and rather to the surprise of French politicians and administrators, it was “social citizenship” that became a major focus of political activity. The concept of citizenship turned into a demand for equality in all dimensions of social life, including equal pay and benefits for equal work, equal access to education, equal access to health care, and equal rights for of women. The French government tried to slow down the claim making, but its own legitimacy depended on the same rhetorical structures that African political and social movements—especially in the labor field—were deploying to claim social equality.

36The social dimension of politics was not necessarily a demand for socialism, and in this distinction one might find an echo of the debates in France that led to the split between the French Section of the Workers International (SFIO) and the French Communist Party (PCF). What was on the table was the substance of social policy—labor, education, health, etc. The demands, particularly coming out of Afrique occidentale française (AOF), were sufficiently well articulated, sufficiently backed by strike threats and organization, and had sufficient support from African politicians and their allies in European France (“social Catholics” as well as socialists and communists) that they had to be taken seriously. The labor code of 1952 for overseas France that included the forty-hour week, paid vacations, and the right to organize and strike, as well as the extension in 1956 of family allowances from the public to the private sector, were important victories in the long march to make good on claims to social citizenship. These provisions applied only to wage workers—a minority of the African population—but they were the key people on whom the French government had staked its hopes for a more developed (i.e., more “French”) economy. The perceived costs of social citizenship was, some officials made clear, an important element in the French government’s stepping back in the 1950s from its centralizing ways, realizing that the only way to get African politicians to back off their demand for equality between the African and European citizens of France was to give them substantive autonomy in running the affairs of their own territories. This was, in 1956, not yet a step toward giving up colonies, but it revealed that a portion of the French governing elite had realized that empire was a dangerous domain for debating social issues. The political and social dimensions of struggle played out in ways that neither the defenders nor the critics of colonial rule quite anticipated.

37I have discussed elsewhere the trajectory that led from Africans’ success in posing social demands within an imperial framework to the breaking of that framework. For a time, politicians as far apart as Senghor and Sékou Touré were trying to have things both ways—for Africans to govern themselves at home and for them to demand, from a position of strength, access to the resources of all of France, metropolitan and overseas. The rights of workers, of families, of children, were key issues in the politics of French Africa in the mid-1950s, and the politics of labor was a key issue in parts of British Africa.

38When negotiations in the French case turned toward independence, African political parties were in a position to negotiate independence on terms that gave the citizens of the new countries some of the rights they had had as French citizens, including—until 1974—the right to enter, live in, and work in metropolitan France. The “droit de circulation” had been since the citizenship law of 1946 an important tool for young Africans to find an escape route from the constraints of a colonial economy and, in some cases, patriarchal societies. After independence that right was no longer a constitutional one and when France decided to repudiate it, the decision was its to make. Migration within and beyond Africa, having become an important part of the social ferment in the post-war decades, has changed its basic nature as European states imposed restrictions and as anti-Muslim and anti-African prejudices emerged ever more sharply. The breakup of Africa into nation-states not only affected migration to Europe, but within Africa, and expulsions of immigrants as well as popular movements against “foreign” Africans have been part of post-colonial politics from at least the 1960s.

39These transformations put the social question much more into the hands of national governments. However much they leaned toward socialism or market economies, independent governments understood their need to respond to movements for social justice within their respective countries and understood the limitations of the means they had to meet those demands. African leaders faced the challenge of demobilizing African political movements that had effectively challenged European states on social questions. Knowing that they could not meet the expectations of their citizens for social benefits and opportunities, they came to doubt whether they could remain democratic and remain in power at the same time. The dismantling of trade union autonomy that began promptly in Guinea and Senegal as soon as African governments acquired their own authority was the harbinger of widespread crackdowns on the political basis of social reform. The undermining of social democracy was the beginning of the unraveling of democracy itself.

40The renewal of democratic initiatives has been a major theme of African studies since the 1990s. The results of these initiatives have been mixed. At least electoral democracy—on paper and in substance—has become a much-discussed issue. But even where elections became a serious affair, the democracy that emerged was not particularly social. Certainly, African governments experiment with different economic and social policies, as they have done all along. But one hears very little about “social democracy.” The concept has not always been foreign to African politics; at one point it was of central concern. Meanwhile in Europe, after years of austerity, it is not so clear that democracy can be defended without a defense of the social. Nor is it clear in Africa that democracy without the social has much of a future any more than the social has much of a future without democracy.

41What the conference on African socialisms and socialisms in Africa, and the book that has emerged from it, has accomplished is to demonstrate the breadth of political imagination that is possible. The multiplicity of ideas and the seriousness which their advocates have pressed them, and in some cases tried to put them into practice, emerges in as many ways as there are chapters in this volume. The authors have demonstrated as well the limitations of thought and of action. The studies collected here do not reveal, because it did not exist, what so many activists thought was the way forward: a single path to a socialist future. Advocates of socialism have had to contend with power as it exists in the world and with the tensions and dangers within their own perspective, and they did not always recognize the value of thinking about other perspectives. But if there are ways out of the blockages that Africans—and advocates of social justice in any part of the world—face today, we might begin with the multiplicity of stories that are told in this book. We need to do what so many of the political leaders examined in these pages did not: to think critically but respectfully about alternative routes to a socially just future.


1 In writing the conclusion to an edited volume with over twenty-five contributions, it is impossible to do justice to each and unfair to signal out some above others that are equally worthy of attention. My approach has therefore been to bring out general themes rather than engage with individual chapters.

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