Marxist thought had a deep and far-reaching presence on the African continent in the decades following independence.
Arguably, the most active and productive site was the University of Dar es Salam. It hosted scholar-activists, political dissidents and a large cohort of African and Africa-diaspora intellectuals. Many independent African governments, and rulers, tended to veer in the direction of socialism underpinned by different iterations of Marxism, Leninism and Maoism.
For the most part, these governments had the support of the intelligentsia that broadly converged on left thinking – in favour of more centralised economic management, agrarian reforms to better the poor and peasantry, pro-labour policies and support for a range of social entitlements and safety nets.
By the end of the first decade of independence, the record of the majority of socialist-inclined governments on the continent was deplorable. They had become decidedly autocratic, declared one-party states and imprisoned political challengers as well as critical voices even among erstwhile members of nationalist movements that had been part of independence movements.
Worse still, the allures of keeping State power and the urge to starve off opponents compelled governments to pursue growth-inhibiting economic policies, took on toxic debts and bankrupted State parastatals. Matters were made worse by two major external forces, the Cold War politics and the collapse of global commodity prices.
By the end of the 1970s, the independence regimes had either been overthrown by military coups or were facing severe legitimacy crises.
The crisis in African economies and polities supplied a ready basis for attacks on the intellectual left and its rapid retreat. Conservative, rightist ideological vortex pounced. The trend had started in Latin America in late 1960s when American-sponsored military coups gave rise to ruthless military dictatorships in Chile, Brazil, and Argentina, intellectually buttressed by orthodoxy-economics ideologues.
The arrival of Ronald Reagan in the White House and Margaret Thatcher at 10 Downing Street accelerated the assault against any opposition and real or perceived alternatives to a world of unfettered capitalist-market fundamentalism. The capitulation of the Soviet Union under Gorbachev rounded up the rollback and, by the 1990s, the idea that there was no alternative to ‘free’ market capitalism had become a widely cultivated orthodoxy. Since the end of the Cold War, the intellectual and ideological alternative that was for long anchored on Marxist class analysis, has been all but repressed and marginalised. Educational foundations, mostly American, and Western funding agencies, drove the agenda of research in the direction of ‘governance,’ culture and identity.
In Uganda, a few years ago, I asked a senior faculty member in Makerere University’s Political Science Department, who had Marxian formative foundation, what he thought of Marxist scholarship. In a resigned tone, he said “we left those things, we now study governance…”
To cite one case, an acclaimed Ugandan scholar made a remarkable shift in the mid-1990s, abandoning Marxist political economy for studying politics of identity, race and ethnicity. To my knowledge, it is Dani Wadada Nabudere, who remained almost a lone voice committed to Marxian scholarship. He passed away in 2011. Since the seminal and classic writings of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, no other school of thought has provided the analytical tools and conceptual aperture for studying society that beat Marxism. Yet, Marxist thought has been used and abused by followers and opponents alike. In Uganda, the current rulers had an ephemeral flirtation with Marxist revolutionary thought only to make a dramatic turnaround once in power and ensconced to the West. They dismantled the labour movement, commandeered public properties and set the stage for mafia-like management of the economy where most Ugandans have no sense of stake.
At any rate, the emancipatory and revolutionary potential of left ideas and thought remains incredibly powerful for the downtrodden, the mass of the poor, for the cause of social justice and economic fairness.
The ongoing pervasive land-grabbing, the endemic crises in agriculture, the travesty of democracy and social disharmony that lurks and manifests in a variety of ways are all problems that only Marxism has the analytical toolbox to ably dissect. To tackle the practical issues of politics and economics, only a committed intellectual left has the wherewithal for sharpening mass consciousness, speaking truth to power and making a case for the common good away from the viciousness of selfish and individualised capitalist accumulation.
Dr Khisa is assistant professor at North Carolina State University (USA).