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Issa Shivji: Reclaiming Pan-Africanism for social emancipation

Issa Shivji: Reclaiming Pan-Africanism for social emancipation

Amandla interview with Issa Shivji | Amandla! Magazine | Issue 67/68 | December 2019

This was a presentation at the Southern African People’s Solidarity Network (SAPSN) People’s Summit – August 2019, followed by an interview.

Are we for Pan-Africanism or for member states? In which tradition or tendency does SADC fall? In the Political Pan-African or in the Economic Integrationist tradition?

These are some of the questions we should be asking ourselves to understand the role of civil society in promoting and advocating progressive Pan-Africanist unity. In this process of interpreting and changing our reality (as Marx said), we must be fully cognisant of the ideology which guides us. Because ideology does matter, whether you are explicit about it or follow it without knowing. Ideology determines the language you use, the people you mobilise, the demands you make, the slogans you craft and the goals you set.

Without ideological guidance you are inevitably, without even realising, accommodated, co-opted and compromised. And the language used does matter. It tells what you are advocating, in whose interests and what you stand for. Language is not just words. Language arises from certain outlooks and perspectives. The central question is: what do you stand for – the politics of Pan-Africanism or the Economics of Integrationism?

What is the Pan-Africanist tradition?

The Pan-Africanist tradition can be divided into three phases:

Phase 1:

The first phase was embedded in a kind of anti-racist, racist ideology. The period is roughly from the late 19th to the middle of the 20th Century. Born in the Caribbean and the US, the demand was to be treated as equal human beings and against racial discrimination. Within this struggle for equality and non-discrimination, there were two tendencies: one represented by WEB Du Bois and the other by Marcus Garvey. Du Bois stood for people of African descent to be integrated in the mainstream on equal terms. Garveyism stood for separation from, as opposed to integration in, the mainstream. He led the “Back-to-Africa movement” because he believed that Black Africans had no future in the US and the Caribbean.

Phase 2:

The second phase is the liberation phase. It was led by a liberation ideology. The liberation ideology was best articulated at the 5th Pan-African Conference (PAC) held in Manchester in 1945. It included delegates like CLR James, Jomo Kenyatta, Kwame Nkrumah, WEB Du Bois, George Padmore and others. The 5th PAC was an important turning point in the Pan-African ideology because it opened up a larger landscape of struggle for the African people all over the globe. It had four very clear demands:

  1. Independence and liberation for Africa;
  2. Social democracy, including public ownership of the means of production;
  3. Uncompromising anti-imperialism; and
  4. An African Federalism

Phase 3:

The Third phase never happened, because it was aborted and taken over by Integrationism. However, it should have happened, both logically and historically. Logically, because national liberation should have dovetailed into social emancipation. And historically because social emancipation was and continues to be on the historical agenda and the demand of the time.

I talk about national liberation and social emancipation not in the stage-ist sense, but as a process, in the sense of Cabral. Amilcar Cabral said “So long as imperialism exists, independence can only mean national liberation in power”, before he was assassinated by the Portuguese. This is because independence of the country itself does not ensure social emancipation of the people from exploitation and imperialist control. In short, imperialism is built on the underlying structure and social relations of capitalism; it does not end with independence. So the struggle for liberation from imperialism has to be waged simultaneously with the struggle against capitalism for emancipation.

Summing up the important characteristics of Pan-Africanist Ideology, I would say:

  • First and foremost it is a political ideology. Politics cannot be separated from economics. In our universities, politics is separated from economics. This is in line with the bourgeois outlook where the whole is broken up into compartments; where knowledge is disintegrated, thus losing vital connections; and where the bigger picture is lost in a myriad of details. Indeed, politics must take precedence over economics. This is what is meant by saying politics takes command. In this perspective, politics is seen as a concentration of economics, in the Leninist sense.
  • Second in the Pan-Africanist ideology is its consistent anti-imperialism. And the anti-imperialist struggle goes beyond colonialism and national liberation. If today there are people – African people – who think that imperialism does not exist and that it is passé, then they need to re-examine their intellectual source of knowledge and understanding.
  • Thirdly, and this is my proposition, the modern Pan-Africanist ideology needs to combine the national and the social questions theoretically, politically and organisationally. How this is done in practice will depend on actually existing conditions of our own terrains of struggles. There is no blueprint nor a text book answer to “how we do it”. We can only show “why we should do it”, but not “how”. Because “why” is a question of theory and partly politics, while “how” is a question of organsiation and partly of real life politics.

Thus conceived, I see a great potential for the Pan-Africanist ideology to become the ideology of the African working people. I see working people as the harbinger and agency of transformation and revolution in the current phase of neoliberal capitalism.

Against this background, the question of African unity presents itself as a political question. If we don’t unite politically, we cannot overcome our economic divisions. Economics promotes competition; politics enables solidarity. After our independence, progressive Pan-Africanist politics was abandoned in favour of integrationist economic policies and its concurrent petty bourgeois politics.


Amandla!: What do you mean by a political Pan-Africanism

Issa Shivji: More than ever before there’s a need for us to revisit and resurrect Pan-Africanism. Otherwise, in the neoliberal stage that we are in, we will sink into narrow and parochial nationalism. Today, narrow nationalism and parochial chauvinism, propagated under the guise of patriotism, are becoming rampant. This is not in the interests of the working masses of Africa – it only serves the interests of comprador classes and imperialism. “For my God and country” is its slogan. But patriotism is only a fig leaf for narrow class interests. 

Secondly, there’s no way that we can grapple either with imperialist hegemony or with our own reactionary states without an ideology which goes beyond our borders and subordinates narrow patriotisms. On our own, as separate countries, it will be virtually impossible to do that. Kwame Nkrumah and Julius Nyere realised that there is no way that we can take on this challenge without unity and therefore they were ardent Pan-Africanists.

At the moment, we find that nationalism, presented as patriotism, has been co-opted by reactionary classes and social groups. In the colonial phase, in the times of the national liberation movements – in what I refer to as the Liberation Phase – nationalism was progressive then. But not now. Now it is becoming increasingly parochial. What we have is some kind of chauvinist patriotism (sometimes verging on xenophobia). Under these circumstances, we need an ideology that transcends this.

A!: How do we take power today?

IS: In the Gramscian sense it is important to win hegemony in civil society before you can win hegemony at the level of the state. That is where much of the progressive left has failed. Traditionally we always thought of getting power and then once you have power then you can do things. But that is not how things work, because capitalism is not simply rule by power. One of capitalism’s greatest strengths is its hegemony – ideological hegemony, intellectual hegemony and cultural hegemony. Its ideology has become common sense, giving the feeling that there is no alternative. It is hegemonic.

We need to break that. We have to show that there is an alternative. Not only is there an alternative, but the alternative is not utopian – it’s feasible, it’s do-able. Until you arrive at a stage where your perspective becomes the common sense of people, or at least a critical mass of people, you cannot go very far. And that is where the progressive Left has failed.

A!: Where do you think National Liberation Movements failed in Africa?

IS: When you look back at the Left, it had an amazing vision. The failure of the Left is not a failure of vision. It is a failure to correctly characterise the state and various forces aligned against it. When these national liberation movements came into power, the link with the people, with the masses, broke, because they became a part of the state. When the organic link with the masses breaks, you become a prisoner of the state, however progressive you may be.

A!: Are there major contradictions between Marxism and Pan-Africanism?

IS: There are strong links between Pan-Africanism and Marxism. Nkrumah had a basic Marxist outlook too. Marxism is not a theology. There’s no bible of Marxism. It is a method of understanding and a question of struggle among social forces. Other people may deny struggle, class struggle, but you can see it happening every day. There is no problem between Marxism and Pan-Africanism. Some Pan-Africanists may reject Marxism and vice-versa, but this is not a problem either.

In a struggle, you cannot be a purist; not everyone will be on the bus journey the whole way. Some will get off along the way, others may join and so on. I’d paraphrase Lenin and say: if you are a Pan-Africanist and say you believe in Marxism, it is good. But if you are a Marxist, and say you believe in Pan-Africanism, it is bad because Pan-Africanism is not a theology; it is a political ideology.

A!: African Socialism or Socialism for Africa?

IS: Nkrumah didn’t want to develop an African socialism. Yes, he may have been critical of Marxism, but this is not an issue. If you read his works like Neocolonialism, the Last Stage of Imperialism, for example, it is in a Marxist framework. Later on, after he was overthrown, Nkrumah wrote Class Struggles in Africa. It’s a bit schematic but still the Marxist sentiment is there. For me, I’m not interested in African socialism. But Socialism in Africa, yes.

A!: Who are the agents of change today?

IS: Inspired by Amilcar Cabral and Walter Rodney, I have tried to develop the thesis of working people, rather than the working class, as the agent of change. Because when you hear of the working class there is a focus on the proletariat. But where is the proletariat in Africa? The concept of the working people is potent. It includes all those groups who we wouldn’t strictly describe as working class. But they fall into the same category because they are exploited by capital. Capital doesn’t only exploit at the factory. Informal workers are among the most exploited, and they are exploited by capital because they are subsidising capital.

The working people include the unemployed, the peasantry, small producers, small service providers and so on. We are past the stage where we refer to the peasantry and the unemployed as fickle. In fact, the most fickle are the intelligentsia and the petty-bourgeoisie.

Even there, we have to be more concrete. For example, many of my former students are unemployed. They take on any job they come across. So what do they have to gain from the system? Some will classify them as petty-bourgeois, but they are not. This is where a concrete analysis comes in: concrete analysis of concrete conditions, that is important. That is why it is so important to have tools of analysis and an ideological framework within which to understand concretely actually existing classes and social groups in our societies.

A!: What should a new phase of Pan-Africanism look like?

IS: In my view, a new phase of Pan-Africanism ought to be rooted and located among the people, and the working people in particular; in movements, beyond NGOs. Initiatives have to be taken and it should not be left to the states or follow from the states.

Of course, we have to revisit Pan-Africanism, reformulate it and develop it not only in relation to national liberation. We also need to include a socially emancipatory agenda within it. I feel that we are in a stage where we have to combine the two processes, both national liberation and social emancipation, and not think of them as stages. We cannot say liberation first and then social emancipation second. We have a concrete situation with a potential for a Pan-Africanist revolution in the medium term.  But we have to start with an insurrection of Pan-Africanist ideas and thought, for thought precedes action.

We can struggle for reforms while having a revolutionary outlook. If the state gives workers an eight hour work day, then it’s a reformist reform. But if the state gives workers an 8 hour day because the workers have fought for it in the streets, then it is a revolutionary reform. That is important, because struggles are schools for the working people. We cannot stay away from reformist struggles, provided always that we are led by a revolutionary ideology and struggle for revolutionary reform as I characterise it here. Don’t forget, struggles – even reformist struggles – are schools of socialism.

Professor Issa Shivji is the Director of the Nyerere Resource Centre.

Posted in Amandla, Amandla 67/68

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