Musings of a Maverick on the African Revolution

CLR James defined revolution as “the process of people finding themselves.” This suffices to give me an entry point into what I call the ‘musings of a maverick on the African revolution’.

The process of “people finding themselves” may be resolved in our case into two components. The first component consists in the African people defining themselves as PEOPLE after five centuries of plunder, pillage, slavery and colonialism in which they were being defined as NON-PEOPLE through various Eurocentric social, cultural and even biological constructs of  ‘the other’. This is the process of liberation and independence, of political self-determination, or as Nyerere would have it, the process of asserting “our Africanness”. It is in this process that the ideologies of African nationalism are constructed which in practice becomes territorial nationalism.  It is undoubtedly a revolutionary moment of momentous significance, as James recognized, although we tended to sometimes belittle it in our critiques.

The other component of ‘people finding themselves’ is the founding of a new society. This refers to the fundamental transformation of the old. It goes beyond the assertion of the people as a people to creating a ‘new people’, which we often associate with socialism or social emancipation. The tension between national liberation and social emancipation informed much of radical intellectual discourse of the first three decades of post-independence until the rude interruption of neo-liberalism.

Nyerere laid out the two interconnected tasks of the immediate post-independence period – nation-building and economic development.

Debates on paths of development, capitalist or socialist, thus occupied the centre-stage. In absence of an “authentic” bourgeoisie (or, at best, the existence of only a dependent bourgeoisie caricatured so dramatically by Fanon) to build capitalism or a proletariat to build socialism, the state became the agency of both building the nation and bringing about development. Nyerere said it in so many words. Undoubtedly it was a contradiction in terms. The colonial state apparatus, or the one constructed in its image, was to build the nation. It ended up being bourgeoisified  and compradorised, reproducing underdevelopment.

The outcome of which we witnessed and agonized over on the eve of the crises ridden 1980s was a variety of dictatorial Bonapartist or authoritarian Jacobinist states. Ultimately, it mattered little whether they were of the military or civilian variety. Inserted as they were in the imperial mould, they were all compradorial, differing in degree only.  No wonder, many of us welcomed the coming of democracy, albeit of the bourgeois liberal kind. Witness the famous Thandika-Peter debate, with a footnote by Shivji, if I may modestly add. Archie was one of the few who “broke bread with his brothers” in his prophetic critique of the limits of bourgeois democracy. But the ‘young turks’ of the “democratic revolution” would have nothing to do with the laments of the outdated icons.  See the pages of the CODESRIA Bulletin then carrying marvellous debates and think-pieces before it too was post-modernised!

The state was demonized; civil society romanticised. The categories of ‘masses’ and ‘classes’ were demagogic and rigid. What matters is culture and community.

They are dynamic and plastic. The intellectual romance with the simplistic notion of revolution was over, we were told.  Now was the time for ecstatic flirtations with complexities of multiple layers of identities.

The politics of masses were displaced by the politics of identities. Flirtations don’t last; romance does. The bubble of market development and liberal democracy is bursting. We are back to talking about the unfinished tasks of nationalism and developmentalism. Thandika, among others, talks about resurrecting a developmental state. As he rightly asserts: In Africa development does  matter. But I suggest we cannot resume where we left before the neo–liberal interruption. Neo-liberalism has done us a great service. It exposed the limits of territorial nationalism and statist development, both of which were from above.

We need to re-imagine new tasks of the revolution. And here I use the term revolution in its meaning of fundamental transformation to create a new society and a new person. Revolution in this sense of the term requires a universalist deology, which is social and not spatial.  It requires an equally universal agency which is objectively placed to transcend the limits of the existing order and herald in a new universalistic order. I  suggest such a universalistic ideology in the post-neoliberal era in Africa could be a reimagined and reconstituted PanAfricanism. Of course reconstituted in struggle. And the social agency is the working people. We have a more graphic term in Swahili, wavuja jasho, literally those who ‘ooze’ out sweat from every pore of their bodies i.e. who live by their brawns, as opposed to those who live by reaping the sweat of others.

The new Pan-Africanism has to claim its universalism in contestation with two ‘others’.   One is a variety of narrow nationalisms, cultural, territorial, ethnic, racial, religious etc. which has hitherto spawned xenophobia of different intensity resulting in social fissures and national disintegration.  Nyerere once described territorial nationalism as tribalism on an international scale. The other ‘other’ is globalization – aka imperialism – which also lays claim to modernist, capitalistic universalism.

This is nothing less than a call for a new beginning. The question is ‘where to begin?’ This is the challenge that CODESRIA faces.  I know CODESRIA organised a conference on PanAfricanism some ten years ago. We need to make a follow up. Make PanAfricanism a category of intellectual thought, as Soulamayne Bachir would say. And that means imagining a PanAfricanist epistemology.

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