Africa – A Marxist Analysis

posted 5 May 2010, 06:02 by Admin uk   [ updated 5 May 2010, 06:04 ]
David van Wyk 

It is important to utilise the tool of historical materialism in the analysis of the position of Africa in the global context. To this end we must understand the role that Africa has played, and continues to play in the global capitalist economy. Where Marx’s analysis differs from that of neo-liberals and Stalinists is in his insistence on perceiving the development of capitalism beyond the limits of the nation state and pre-empting the formation of a global capitalist ruling class – hence his missive that workers know no country, and that workers of the world should unite, that they have nothing to lose but their chains.

The earliest forms of global corporations had their focus as mercantile firms on global expansion. Thus mercantile firms such as the Dutch East India Company, The British East Africa Company, the British South Africa Company, Cadbury etc. realised early on that control of the global sources of raw materials, minerals, spices and agricultural produce was essential to their national status in a period of intense competition in Europe. These sources of raw materials were in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

Where the great mercantile empires of Spain and Portugal lost their advantage in this global competition was the dominance of their parasitic nobility and the catholic church, and the relative weakness of their emergent bourgeoisie. Holland, France and England on the other hand benefited from rapidly emerging and revolutionary middle classes that could move the economic foundations of their countries beyond mercantilism towards capitalist production. Take the manufacturing of cloth for example instead of importing it from Asia, the English manufacturing classes copied the production methods of the cloth industry in India and then revolutionized production in places like Manchester, thus destroying more archaic methods of cloth production in India turning that country into a supplier of raw materials and cotton plantations while creating conditions of mass production in England itself. These processes are described in detail by Marx and Engels in the Communist Manifesto and in Capital Volume 1.

Similar processes were at play in Africa. Walter Rodney describes how the coastal African populations were turned into commodity traders dealing in exotic goods from the African interior including gold and ivory, but most importantly in the commodity trade of human beings. Tens of millions of the economically most able Africans were traded from both e African West and East Coasts to supply plantation labour in the Caribbean, and in North And South America. A central analytical concept in the Marxist armoury is that of primitive accumulation. In describing how the capitalist class originated Marx coined the concept of primitive accumulation, of which vestiges still remain with us to this day – the drug dealer and the pimp being primary examples. The Kennedy clan in the United States accumulated their initial capital through bootlegging, during the prohibition period – a good example of primitive accumulation. In more developed capitalist countries primitive accumulation is less pronounced occurring on the seedy edges of  the economy. In the African context primitive accumulation played a major part of the accumulation process from the early mercantile period in which the slave trade was the dominant trade, throughout the colonial period when the plunder of Africa’s raw materials and minerals fuelled the industrial revolution in Europe, to the present when embarrassed by accusations of racism and oppression.

In understanding the complex realities of Africa the concept of primitive accumulation needs to be explained in further detail, and it is important to involve Leon Trotsky’s concept of combined and uneven development in this explanation because it captures the way in which primitive accumulation in Africa happened in ways that are different from the trajectory followed in Europe.

Primitive accumulation, involves the transformation of pre-capitalist (‘communal’ and/or feudal) agrarian relations of production to capitalist ones, and the formation of a capitalist class. As Marx is often quoted, capitalism emerges from its preceding modes of production with ‘blood dripping from every pore.’ None the less capitalism is perceived by Marx as a revolutionary development in these early stages as it sweeps away any fetters that might obstruct the revolutionary development of the forces of production and the creation of conditions suitable for socialist revolution, in this sense it becomes its own grave digger.
Some have referred to this process as an articulation between capitalism and pre-capitalist modes of production. The process of primitive accumulation is by no means ‘natural’ or spontaneous: state force and many other ‘non-market’ modalities are necessary. Once the bourgeoisie gains control of the state and converts it into an instrument for its own class power, it ruthlessly applies the various apparatus of the state towards attaining its class objectives.
At the Berlin Conference of 1884 competition between the national ruling classes of Europe for African resources became so intense that it was realised that the only way to avoid open warfare between European powers over this matter a gentlemanly conference could settle the biggest land grab in human history. Thus the second step in the process of primitive accumulation was initiated, alienating the African population from the primary means of production, the land.
It is important to note that in Europe the process of primitive accumulation was driven by the national bourgeoisie of each country, and it was intended to drive the serfs and peasants off the land, into urban areas and capitalist factories, leaving the land open for the reorganisation of agriculture, and turning the population of Europe in proletarians, people with no means of production other than their ability to work, their labour power which would hence forth be sold on the labour market.
In Africa the process of primitive accumulation was not driven by a local emerging capitalist class, instead it was driven by the capitalist ruling class in the colonial power itself, hence the relevance of Trotsky’s concept of combined and uneven development. Thus the African colonies became locked into the economic structure of the colonial power, with no room for development of an indigenous African capitalist class. In most African countries the indigenous African population was allowed to become clerks and messengers in the colonial administrative structures, those who were effectively proletarianised were driven into mines and plantations producing raw materials and minerals for the European economies of the colonial powers. Countries like Great Britain developed a corps of professional “foreign service” administrators in the form of “native commissioners” and colonial “governors” to administer those countries where conditions were not suitable for large scale European settlement, mainly because of tropical diseases such as malaria. In areas where large scale white settlement could take place such as South Africa, Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) and British East Africa (Kenya) the British government encouraged emigration so as to relieve pressure “at home” caused by the contradictions of Capitalist development such as unemployment, labour militancy etc. In these countries (South Africa, Zimbabwe and Kenya) a small settler capitalist class did begin to emerge much along the lines of Canada, the USA, Australia and New Zealand).
In the rest of Africa capitalist class formation was weak and the emergence of ‘war-torn Africa’ suggests a permanently stalemated process of violence in some regions. At other moments, the process of primitive accumulation speeds up in a very uneven and contradictory way (Trotsky) – also probably with violence. The process is always quite unique in spite of its structural base. Many of its variations can be attributed to the historically specific ways in which a combination of externally ‘imposed’ and internally developing capitalist social formations ‘articulated’ with pre-existing modes of production. One may say that primitive accumulation always has ‘twists in its tail’ and the ideological perspectives accompanying and contesting it will add many twists to its tale.
In African settler-colonial societies (South Africa, Zimbabwe and Kenya), primitive accumulation has identifiable and comparable characteristics—race and the agrarian question.   Capitalist agriculture has been dominated by white settlers who carried out their process of primitive accumulation by forcibly taking ‘native’ land and denying African farmers not merely commercial opportunities, but also a chance to become capitalist land owners. Much of the land alienation also has to do with the presence of ‘strategic’ minerals (strategic to global capitalism). Give the current minerals commodities boom with the price of platinum exceeding US$ 2000 an ounce, and gold coming close to US$ 2000 a second wave of primitive accumulation is taking place with global mining corporations such as Barricks, Angloplatinum, BHP Billiton and a host of “new entrants’ from Canada, Australia, Russia and China scramble for mineral rich land and pushing indigenous communities off in often very violent manner, buying off the comprador bourgeoisie with shareholding and board positions to partake in the rape and pillage of their own countries.
The Berlin Conference of 1884 ignored the complex ethnic, cultural, and language realities of Africa and arbitrarily divided the continent between the European powers. This created optimal conditions for capital accumulation as the indigenous populations could be divided and ruled within a geographically defined area, privileging some ethnic or language groups over others, thus obstructing the development of class consciousness amongst workers. This also prevented the emergence of national bourgeoisies who could effectively challenge the capitalist ruling class of the colonial power, and therefore obstructed effective state formation.
In many instances those who were privileged by the colonial power along ethnic or language lines during the colonial period and had better access to educational opportunities and were utilized to administer the colonies emerged as the natural inheritors of the position of managers of the economy and the state rudimentary state apparatus that was left behind at the end of colonialism. The economy was of course locked into the global division of labour constructed during colonialism so much so that people still speak of Francophone Africa, Lusophone and Anglophone Africa referring to those economies and countries that historically fell under the British Empire, the Portuguese empire and the French Empire. The state managers involved are intricately related to and often part of the bourgeoisie emerging in the process of primitive accumulation.  They have complicated alliances with myriad international classes, groups, and agencies. They often condemn their objective allies: hence the many contradictions of ‘anti-imperialist’ rhetoric from those on the periphery of global capitalism who, on close analysis, collude with their ostensible enemies.
The historical development of powerful working classes (such as in South and Southern Africa) often has a strong relationship with indigenous bourgeois democracy, and vice versa. The strongest democratic countries thus also have high levels of social democracy, thus confirming Marx’s insistence on the introduction of universal suffrage (see the Communist Manifesto).
Democratization trajectories often lead to violence as opposition is repressed and fights back. Opposition forces also make counterintuitive class alliances with international forces and ideologies seeking to play of fractions of international capital against each other.  Thus Frederick Chiluba in Zambia was a trade union leader leading a working class based opposition movement against the regime of Kenneth Kaunda, yet Chiluba was quick to adopt stringent structural adjustment and neo-liberal policies for Zambia. In Zimbabwe, Morgan Tsvangirai’s MDC had its roots in the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions, yet the party seems to be espousing a neo-liberal ideology. Such developments indicate the continuing legacy of colonialism, neo-colonialism and imperialism as well as the combined and uneven nature of a capitalist development that was imposed rather than home-grown.
Trotsky developed his theory of permanent revolution, as a response to the Menshevik/ Kautsky stagist theory of revolution which portrayed Marx’s theory of social development as a simplistic and unilinear/evolutionary process from simple to complex. Trotsky shows that through the imposition of colonial rule as a result of imperialism colonised countries experience a complex combination of different stages of historical development. Trotsky’s intervention reinserted the dialectic into the debate on development showing that because of the impact of colonialism through imperialist expansion history develops through sudden leaps and contradictory fusions, thus some societies are able to jump certain stages, or in other instances to be held back due to the fusion of earlier and later developmental stages. Thus the articulation of modern industry with pre-capitalist modes of production creates objective conditions for the proletariat rather than the national bourgeoisie leading both national democratic tasks and the socialist revolution simultaneously. This is particularly true where the national bourgeoisie is weak/ poorly formed, or relatively powerless vis-a-vis global capitalism.
It is against the background of these contradictions and realities that any Marxist revolutionary development must take place in Africa, noting the intricate manner in which the African political and economic realities are interwoven with global capitalism, and noting the need for international working class solidarity South Africa with its well developed and organised working class , combined with its sub-imperial role on the continent represents the bridgehead for socialist revolution in Africa.


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