To celebrate African Liberation Day, I encourage us to revisit Pan-African Marxist theory to assess what it might offer us in the continued struggle for liberation. During the 20th century, as national independence movements were gaining ground on the African continent, anti-colonial intellectuals devised new ways of thinking about liberation in a Pan-African context. This theoretical tradition, sometimes called Black Marxism, Pan-African Marxism, or Anti-colonial Marxism, was developed to aid national independence movements in their more revolutionary aims through an analysis of the political economy and culture of Africa in the world system. Through an analysis of the history and political economy of the African continent, Pan-African Marxists rethought European narratives of Africa’s integration into the capitalist world system through European imperialism, revealing economic development to be a relative concept that hinged on the exploitation of Africa by Europe through colonialism and neo-imperialism.
Not only did Pan-African Marxist theorists describe the long history of African political economy as a way to build strategy for national independence movements in their fight against colonialism, but they also took up the question of how true liberation might be realised across the continent. One of the main tensions among Pan-African Marxists in thinking through the question of liberation after the end of formal colonial rule was between those who saw a return to pre-colonial cultural formations as a way toward liberation versus those who contended that the way forward was to embrace “the new”.
For Marxist thinkers such as Chiekh Anta Diop and Walter Rodney, recovering pre-colonial histories and culture was an important assertion of national identity and a way to overcome the colonial mentality that lingered after flag independence. Walter Rodney wrote that, “to know ourselves we must learn about African history and culture. This is one of the most important steps towards” liberation. For those who subscribed to this position, the process of recovering history and culture was, ultimately, the way to recover one’s humanity.
Other Pan-African Marxists, however, such as Aquino de Bragança, Thomas Sankara, Amilcar Cabral and Frantz Fanon, for example, emphasised “newness” as the means to liberation. Fanon believed that recovering pre-colonial culture was not an effective strategy for liberation. In the face of systematic structures that assert the inferiority of the culture of the colonised, he contended, culture “solidifies into a formalism which is more and more stereotyped”. Instead of engaging in critique and evolution, the postcolonial intellectual who looks to the past for inspiration has a tendency to reify older cultural forms by combatting the colonial project to devalue culture on the terms delineated by the colonizer. In such reification, Fanon asserted, “there is no real creativity and no overflowing life”. In other words, in looking to the pre-colonial past for inspiration, the African intellectual renders themselves incapable of creating the new movements that will best critique colonialism and its remnants.
Fanon tells us that recovering a pre-colonial past is not enough to counteract the harm done by colonialism. Instead, he contends that we must be forward-looking and envision a future in which liberation triumphs over colonialism and its remnants. This vision for a new future must also look to other places within the Global South for affinity in grappling with similar problems such as “trade union questions” or economic issues stemming from a common colonial legacy.
Admittedly, the two different positions in this debate aren’t really that distinct. Both sides ultimately agree that the goal of recovering the history and pre-colonial culture of Africa is secondary to the revolutionary movement against capitalism and neo-imperialism. What is distinct, in these two positions, however is the means to this end of true liberation for Africa. And the key question around which this debate was centred remains: Is the way forward to liberation through recovering the past or is it found in creating completely new ways of thinking about the current situation?
Let us recall Marx’s famous quote from the 18th Brumaire; Marx writes that history happens, first as tragedy then as farce… The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living. And just when they seem engaged in revolutionising themselves and things, in creating something that had never yet existed, precisely in such periods of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service and borrow from them their names, battle cries and costumes in order to present the new scene of world history in this time-honoured disguise and this borrowed language.
Is the way forward to liberation through recovering the past or is it found in creating completely new ways of thinking about the current situation?
Here, Marx gestures to repetition through the cyclical nature of time, but each repetition, for Marx, is not a return, but instead a mimicry of previous moments of history. In attempts to create “the new” there is always necessarily a borrowing from and a simulation of the past. Jacques Derrida termed this genre of repetition hauntology. In this framework, Marxism is then a ghost whose expected return repeats itself again and again. That recurring return is not solely a reappearance, but also, each time, a new beginning.
To question what Pan-African Marxism still is, we need to understand how time operates within this concept of hauntology. Hauntology implies two temporalities: that which is no longer, but remains, and that which has not yet happened, but the idea of it exists. Marx describes a cyclical return where each new phase of the cycle is borrowed from the previous phase but is different from its previous incarnation because of our desire for newness coupled with an inability to conjure it without the old surviving within the new. Derrida delineates an expected return that never happens, but nonetheless clears the way for newness because there cannot be a return, only a new beginning in the guise of the old. But Mark Fisher sees hauntology as “a failed mourning. It is about refusing to give up the ghost or… the refusal of the ghost to give up on us”. Are we failing in our endeavour for a completely new politics, as Marx claims, or creating the new through the ghosts of the old as Derrida posits, or mourning the new futures we expected that never materialised as Mark Fisher suggests?
The key question is, then, what is the way forward? Do we look back to the Pan-African Marxism of the moment of flag independence to address contemporary challenges to Pan-African liberation or do we need new ideas and new guiding insights in order to truly usher in the liberation that independence promised but has yet to deliver? We need to revisit, assess, and debate this critical question on whether Pan-African Marxism can provide a way forward to liberation. As a launching point, I offer two examples through which we can start to think through how Pan-African Marxism might still be relevant in helping us develop solutions to pressing contemporary problems.
Frantz Fanon famously wrote about inequities in global health stemming from the colonial legacy in his essay, “Medicine and Colonialism”. This essay demonstrates, through several historical examples from colonial Algeria, how the relationship between African people and colonial healthcare is structured by the colonial relationship. Fanon points to “the inhuman methods” of colonialism that mediate African people’s experiences with the latest medical technology whether it’s through medical experiments conducted on colonial subjects, the historical legacy of French doctors aiding the colonial police and military in torturing FLN members, or through the denial of treatment to Africans in need. Based on what Fanon witnessed as a health care professional in Algeria, he concluded that one of the many key objectives for liberation and decolonisation involves disrupting Europe as an intermediary in bringing medical technology to Africa.
We see today, in the case of COVID-19, that Fanon’s assessment of the healthcare system in colonial Algeria is markedly pertinent. Access to COVID-19 vaccines is mostly mediated through the United States and Europe. This situation in which African countries have to go through the former colonial power for access to vaccines is something that Fanon’s essay predicted. Preventing such a situation in which Africa needed to go through Europe to access the latest medical technologies is something that, furthermore, Fanon identified in the late 1950s as a key problem that African liberation movements should take up in order to ensure Africans’ access to just and plentiful healthcare. While he may not have predicted the specificities of vaccine hoarding by the Global North along with patent laws that restrict the ability of Global South countries to produce their own affordable vaccines, Fanon did warn us in the 1950s of the pressing need to be able to access the latest medical technology without having to rely on Europe as a mediator.
One of the many key objectives for liberation and decolonisation involves disrupting Europe as an intermediary in bringing medical technology to Africa.
But the failure of national liberation to be realised today is not for lack of trying. In the contemporary period we have witnessed many movements for liberation in North Africa, Sudan, and elsewhere, along with vibrant student movements across Sub-Saharan Africa and a variety of other contemporary movements aimed at realising liberation of various forms. But contemporary movements, particularly political movements aimed at regime change, have been limited by authoritarian rule and particularly by religious nationalist forces that have hijacked the more revolutionary aims of contemporary movements.
Here too, however, Fanon provides a way forward. In his essay “On Violence” (1961), he posed a very critical question for independence movements, that is, to paraphrase, what was the point of fighting for independence if not much had changed in the period following? Fanon, of course, was talking about the class structure that remained in place after flag independence and posed this question as a critique that while formal political rule by Europe may have ended, independence movements did little to combat capitalism and imperialism. In several of my books and essays, I’ve contended that we need to push this important question a bit further and also need to consider how the revolutionary promise of national independence soon eroded into the proliferation of dictatorships across the continent. Local-born leaders oppressed the very people who had just won their independence in a manner similar to that of the colonial rulers they fought for freedom from. And today we see a resurgence in movements looking to now realise the quality of freedom independence promised but in so many instances has failed to deliver. Yet, in the current moment, this political freedom still remains an open question as far-right forces seek to limit political freedom but movements for liberation wage on.
There are infinite possibilities for the future and the goal of political action is to begin with a workable possible and then transform that possible into the future real. In this endeavour to imagine possible futures, theory is crucial. Futures are not “waiting for us ready-made like heavenly bodies… They must be invented, fabricated, or rather created”. Through Pan-African Marxist theory, we can begin to imagine new possibilities outside of historical capitalism and imperialism. Capitalist imperialism may seem insurmountable but that is only because of our inability to imagine. We can’t imagine liberation because we are unable to conceive of new possibilities.