Afro-Marxism refers to the adoption by postcolonial governments in Africa of Marxist-style models of social and economic development supported through links with Communist Party–led governments such as the Soviet Union and Cuba. Afro-Marxism is characterized by centralized political decision making, typically within a one-party state, economic collectivization or nationalization of productive property and industry, and the direction of a national culture, often without regard for the cultures of ethnic minorities, by the ruling party. It is to be distinguished from African socialism, which refers to the perspective that traditional African communities exhibit characteristics, including social relations and sharing of resources, that reflect a form of indigenous socialism based on local communal organization and practices. African socialism offered an alternative to the “scientific” or authoritarian socialism of Afro-Marxism, which was based on models borrowed from Soviet or Maoist regimes.
For many Africans involved in liberation movements and struggles against colonialism, Marxism, especially the example of the Russian Revolution (1917), offered a model for the launching of economic and political revolutions. This revolutionary model, in which a seizure of national power provides a lever for rapid industrialization, held great appeal throughout the twentieth century within numerous newly liberated African countries. As postcolonial governments looked for means by which to “catch up” with the industrial might of the former colonial powers, the approach of socialism, especially statist socialism or Marxism, seemed to provide both a potentially effective political program and an ideological justification for statist reorganization of the economy. It seemed to offer a distinct alternative to the exploitative and oppressive political economic regimes of imperialist rule.
The history of such movements in Africa dates especially to the movements against colonialism from the middle or late twentieth century. Important examples of Afro-Marxist movements and systems include the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) and the Liberation Front of Mozambique (FRELIMO), which took power in those former Portuguese colonies in 1975. Between 1974 and 1991 a socialist government under Lieutenant Colonel Haile Mengitsu ruled Ethiopia. In addition, numerous Marxist parties and organizations have been active in several African countries, including South Africa, where the South African Communist Party played a significant part in the downfall of the apartheid regime.
Among the most notable proponents of Afro-Marxism are Amilcar Cabral (Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde), Samora Machel (Mozambique), Michel Micombero (Burundi), Agostinho Neto (Angola), and Thomas Sankara (Burkina Faso). Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, who took power in 1980 through an armed struggle movement deploying some elements of Marxist-Leninist ideology, has positioned himself as a defender of African autonomy from Western corporate interests while subjecting his population, especially the poor and his political opponents, to ongoing repression and punishment.
Afro-Marxism played an important part in bringing about the end of the apartheid regime in South Africa. Angolan (MPLA) forces, backed by Cuban troops along with forces of the South West Africa People’s Organization (SWAPO), pushed back the South African forces that invaded Angola.
The stalemate forced the South African government to take part in negotiations that eventually led to the independence of Namibia and indeed played a major part in the collapse of the apartheid regime in 1994.
Afro-Marxism held out a promise of self-sufficiency, equality, economic development, and prosperity. In practice, most examples of Afro-Marxism failed to deliver much in any of these areas. Also, many leaders who had advocated the more moderate African socialism fell back on authoritarian forms of Soviet-style government when attempting to implement their policies. Economic development primarily directed wealth into the hands of the new elite, which consisted of leading members of the ruling party.
Western versions of socialism, especially Soviet-inspired systems, were often inapplicable to the specific social circumstances of less industrialized countries, whose labor base was often concentrated in agricultural or resource-extractive industries. Similarly, Afro-Marxism failed to draw on local governance practices to organize social and productive life and instead relied on the centralized statist models of Sovietism.
The collapse of the Soviet Union and the Soviet systems in Eastern Europe in the late 1980s and early 1990s, along with the passing of Maoism and China’s embrace of capitalism by the late twentieth century, all dealt severe blows to Afro-Marxist regimes. The loss of aid and trade ties with the Soviet economies left Marxist governments in Africa desperate for aid from Western capitalist governments and international financial organizations like the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. At the same time, China maintains aid and investment in many African countries and seeks to expand its influence on the continent. China’s financial connections with the regime in Sudan has been highly criticized by human rights activists and commentators. While China has attempted to develop its influence, it has not supported or encouraged the development of communist regimes or parties as the Soviet Union did. Governments also became more vulnerable to the pressures of Western governments and institutions to accept structural adjustment programs, including the privatization of government works and lands.
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