From the writings of Raya Dunayevskaya: African revolutions at the crossroads

March 8, 2020

From the March-April 2020 issue of News & Letters

 Editor’s note: This 60th anniversary of the “Year of Africa,” the turning point of the African revolutions, sheds light on today’s dilemmas. The new passions and new forces manifested in the African revolutions of the 1950s and 1960s “opened a new page in the dialectic of thought as well as in world history….Africa was charged with a dynamism of ideas that opened new paths to revolution and looked for new roads to development,” as Raya Dunayevskaya put it in Philosophy and Revolution, from Hegel to Sartre and from Marx to Mao. And yet, with political independence came the separation between leaders and masses, neocolonialism and counter-revolution. We reprint for the first time Dunayevskaya’s May 28, 1962, Weekly Political Letter, written immediately after her trip to West Africa and originally titled, “The African Revolutions at the Crossroads: Role of Labor, the Single Party, Neo-Colonialism, State-Capitalism, and Africa, Africa, Africa.” The original can be found in #3038-3041 in the Raya Dunayevskaya Collection, within a series of letters on many topics, including several others on Africa, #2906-3152.

May 28, 1962

Part of the protest near the army headquarters in Khartoum, Sudan,
April 7, 2019. Photo: M. Saleh.

THERE IS HARDLY A DAY one spends in Africa, especially West Africa, when one isn’t torn by such conflicting emotions that he is both at a loss for words and so full of them that every word, literally, has a double meaning. You come to Nigeria and see that there really has been no revolution, just a change in administrations.

You therefore listen, inspired, to the opposition: the Nigerian Youth Congress, the “left” of the Trade Unions that talk of “foreign gold” and wish to break with the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, the young Hausa rebels that talk of how the emirs still rule the North, with “Zik’s help,” the same Zik [Nnamdi Azikiwe, first president of Nigeria] who had been in the forefront of the continental revolution long before all other “lefts”—Kwame Nkrumah [first president of Ghana], Sékou Touré [first president of Guinea], Modibo Keïta [first president of Mali]—even dreamed of nationalism.

Then, suddenly, you hear the “solution”: follow the example of Ghana, the single-party state, Osagyefo[1] will lead; never mind Europe, what is [the 1956 Hungarian Revolution] to us here where Britain holds on, America horns in, and even the Negro American does not see to return to his “homeland”—and your heart sickens.

You come to Ghana, and, at first, you are elated, for—compared to Lagos, Nigeria—Accra, Ghana, is clean, with wide boulevards where but yesterday there was bush, and the general public does feel it has had more than a change of administration; there has been a genuine political revolution.

Then you pick up the press—and the adulation of Osagyefo, “the Leader,” “our Light,” “the all-knowing,” “the father of not only our country but all of Africa,” “Nkrumahism, our philosophy, our politics, our life, and our song” sickens you all over again, as if you were watching the Kremlin in the heyday of Stalin, “the sun of the Himalayas.”

You begin to go deeper into the workers’ ranks—those that struck and had to retreat, work overtime without pay “to make up for loss of time during non-patriotic strike” and now must also, out of their small wage, put 5% to 10% away in forced savings—and then you meet some in education who refused to have classes in “Nkrumahism” unless at least a pamphlet was produced that told them what it is in black and white, not just in empty oratory; finally you hear it whispered, “Of course, you can’t tell Osagyefo, but Russia is awful as a country to live in, their technicians are too expensive to keep and not half as efficient as they would like you to believe; as for the love the Russians are supposed to have for the Africans, forget it, it isn’t there.”

By the time you hear that Nkrumah is also calling back the head of the United Africa Company[2]—the very one against whom, back in the 1940s, the strikes were held and the revolution unfolded—to bring about “higher labor productivity and efficiency,” you are ready to write Ghana off, too. Then you meet a South African who has come for aid and gotten it, or a Gambian[3] who has not a single library or bookstore in town, not just reading, but literally “eating up” all books on Karl Marx, easily available here, and once again you are torn apart.

YOU TRY ESPECIALLY HARD to see the positive aspects of Pan-Africanism in the best example of it—Sékou Touré’s Guinea. Here the press is not so full of the “cult of personality.” Rather, the numerous quotations from Touré are on a theoretical plane—and he has, not just an ego like Nkrumah’s, but a theory of “full Re-Africanization” so that the single party aspect is palatable, even “democratic,” for it reaches into the smallest village level.

But in the airport, or at the Ministry of Information, there is the white French CPer [Communist Party member] who sums you up in a moment, refuses a visa or follows your every move with such suspicion that even if you had your African-speaking friends who helped you to get down to the people, you really couldn’t find out much.

And the brush with the Russians and demand that the Russian ambassador be recalled as responsible for stirring up the non-patriotic strikes?[4] Well, if the Russians are in disfavor today, the Chinese are the favorite ones—obviously Touré thinks that no one can use him—but that he can use all for he knows where he is going and no one is fooling him—neither the French Communist Party nor the American capitalists who are also being invited in; neither the Russian sputniks nor the Chinese communes hold out any fear for him who is full of Africa, Africa, Africa. All he needs is labor, labor, labor.

AND THOUGH THAT PAN-AFRICANISM is the umbrella that hides not only the unbridgeable gulf between the kingdom of Ethiopia and the Afro-communalistic state of Guinea, but also all three varieties of Pan-Africanism—Nkrumahist, Zikist, and the Negritude of Touré—you meet still another—

Raya Dunayevskaya; Charles Denby, editor of News & Letters and author of Indignant Heart; and Ethel Dunbar, “Way of the World” columnist and contributor to Indignant Heart

Léopold Sédar Senghor [first president of Senegal], the poet who writes so movingly of humanism, the most learned who quotes with equal ease Marx and Father [Pierre Teilhard de] Chardin, the one who prefers art to “science” but is the most efficient in the administrative angle of the plan, the man of Paris that can live in Dakar, Senegal, because that too is Paris, with the wide boulevards and more majestic Atlantic to substitute for the quiet Seine, but both having the mass of books and endless variety of bookshops, goods, and culture, when just below begin the slums that rival Ibadan’s [in Nigeria].


You walk with a Wolof friend who says suddenly, as he looks at the white settlers and coiffure shops, and more shops and more shops, all French-owned and De Gaullist, “When the second revolution will come to Senegal, we will have another Algeria!”

YOU TRY TO GET AWAY, go into the bush where not just neocolonialism but full colonialism—wave Britannia—rules: the colony and protectorate of the Gambia. There you will meet up with the coming revolution, with the first stages of independence, where the nation is one in wanting out, where this oppression and yet the humor is there—that you even see the international aspect of tribalism.

For it is a fact that, whether English or French speaking, each African country speaks that official language only in the cities and only for the whites. Among themselves, not only in the hinterland but among the sophisticated in the cities, it is the tribal language that conveys the small talk and the big ideas of freedom, freedom, freedom. And you soon find out that it is not only the language of that tribe in that country, but the tribe that was also in the other country and the one further away yet when they had their own wonderful cultures and empires.

And so to this day, Wolof will take you a long way not only in the Gambia but in Senegal, much better than French, in fact, even as Hausa will be better for you not only in the north of Nigeria but in Dahomey [today called Benin], and Mandingo, and Fulah, and Ibo and Yoruba, and Ewe. Whoever told you the Jews were “the rootless cosmopolitans,” the “wandering world figure without a country”—wait till you meet the African; yes, he knows someone in every part of that continent, East, West, North, South, and has a means of communication with him.

Africa, my Africa, how the imperialists have divided you up, massacred and enslaved, robbed you of men and soil, left you with neither roads nor clothes, and illiterate, ah, illiterate. What of the thousands of years of history you can recount if you cannot today read the latest law of the land that tells you you cannot read “foreign” (foreign? And who are these Britishers if not foreign?) literature—“subversive,” “propaganda-bred hatred,” “Russian,” “Communist,” “Marxist.”

Well, you are back in stride with your African friends and can say with that wonderful Mandingo who sticks close to his “leader,” “Capitalism, imperialism, colonialism—I don’t like it. out, out, out. I want my freedom, my land, and I’ll work from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. for nothing to restore its richness.”

Then comes the rude awakening: yes, what of the role of labor? Of course, you hear, we are for labor: we have no other class, but if the unions dare to mix in politics, we ask our members to withdraw their membership. And the unions say, sure, we aren’t given credit for it, but it was our strikes that compelled constitutional reform, but now that we’re facing self-government, the workers have no right to always want to strike!

You return to reason with the intellectual but you get no different answers from those out of power than those in it: first let’s get the imperialist out, then we’ll talk of which road of the Pan-African roads; you cannot speak of “what after,” when we haven’t even got independence; oh, yes, I read about Hungary, and even the East German wall, but Russia is not our enemy; Trotskyism? Well, they can betray “again” (!); the world? My world is Africa, and for that we need unity, which means single party; we need to industrialize, which means using both sides—no, I’m not asking the price; that too can be talked about later, later, later.

Suddenly you feel you have no common language after all. You thought it was the philosophy—Marxism? But who wants to begin seeing differences between Marxism and Communism? Ah, the youth—yes, the wonderful, high school youth who, God knows where or how—maybe it was through Ghana or Guinea, God preserve them after all!—they got hold of Marx, even asked you to speak about your version, talked most knowingly of everything from “surplus value” (I swear it) to Abolitionism, African socialism, humanism—the future, the really true, new human world. Yes, the youth and the strikers—another revolution is on its way.


P.S. The pull of the two nuclear powers is not only over the domination over Africa—and neocolonialism is a fact, not just a dead horse the African leaders keep beating for propaganda purposes at UN sessions—above all, it is a suction process for the world market, world stage of production: statified production in its full or “free enterprise” sense. This suction process is the tragedy of the African Revolutions whose leadership is so weighted down with the consciousness of underdevelopment that they cannot see that forced labor is evil even if it is “for the country, your own country, the one that finally belongs to its people, Africa for the Africans.”

But I preferred in this letter not to talk in the cold language of economic laws even though production relations are as alive and decisive as any talk of Negritude. For it is first of all necessary for the white to get the feel of Black Africa, to take it to its bosom as is, in order, together with it, to work out a common solution of worldwide and historic import that will not separate technologically advanced from technologically underdeveloped. So let’s leave statistics for another time.


 [1]. “Osagyefo,” meaning “redeemer” in Akan, was an honorific that Nkrumah claimed.

[2]. United Africa Company was an imperialist British trading company active in West Africa.

[3]. The Gambia was still a British colony in 1962.

[4]. In November 1961 Touré’s government expelled the Russian ambassador from Guinea, providing an opening for both China and the U.S.

Read “The African Revolutions and the World Economy,” chapter 7 in Philosophy and Revolution, by Raya Dunayevskaya

“Where de Gaulle deprived Guinea of even its telephones, the daring of the Guineans inspired the French Left to go to Guinea to help them. The crucial element, then, was the masses’ confidence that they, and not dead things, whether machines or lack of machines, shape the course of history.”

“Just as the vision of undiminished freedom achieved decolonization, so the leaders’ isolation from the very people who made the revolution led to the dependence upon existing world state powers and the emergence of neocolonialism.”

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