From the Writings of Raya Dunayevskaya: The African Revolutions and the World Economy

September 19, 2023

Editor’s note: Africa today is home to vibrant social movements and debates about pathways to liberation. It is at the same time the continent experiencing the greatest disparity between its small contribution to greenhouse gases and the harmful impact of the climate crisis, while beleaguered by land grabs and exploitative, polluting industries such as mining, logging and oil and gas extraction as well as a heavy debt burden imposed by imperialists. The great depth, excitement and promise of the African revolutions of the 20th century seem so distant that they are almost forgotten. And yet their contributions and contradictions speak to today’s very different situation. Like Frantz Fanon, Raya Dunayevskaya engaged with the African Revolutions and foresaw obstacles to their full achievement. With the aim of not only recapturing the greatness of those revolutions but grappling with why they retrogressed after independence, so as to aid the creation of new beginnings now, we excerpt “The African Revolutions and the World Economy,” chapter 7 of Philosophy and Revolution, from Hegel to Sartre and from Marx to Mao by Dunayevskaya. Due to space considerations, we omit the section on “Neocolonialism and the Totality of the World Crisis.”

The African revolutions opened a new page in the dialectic of thought as well as in world history. At a time when the African revolutions were redrawing the map of the world, and, in the shortest time ever, radical changes were achieved, the arrogance of white civilization persisted, not only among the ruling class, but even among the Left….

None looked at the African revolutions more concretely and comprehensively than did Frantz Fanon:

In the colonies the economic substructure is also superstructure. The cause is the consequence; you are rich because you are white, you are white because you are rich… The natives’ challenge to the colonial world is not a rational confrontation of points of view. It is not a treatise on the universal, but the untidy affirmation of an original idea propounded as an absolute.[1]

Frantz Fanon

Any traveler in black Africa who was at all sensitive to freedom’s call was under a compulsion from the surge of the liberation movement to become a participant. The dynamism of “Freedom Now” infused even old ideas with a force capable of piercing any shield of apathy. Whether one looks at the African revolutions only as they were sloganized, be it “Izwe Lethu” or “Uhuru” or “Ujamaa” or turns to a totally different part of the world, where revolutions were going on against different exploiting systems—the East European revolutions against Russian Communism—there is no doubt that in the decade which ended the 1950s and began the 1960s the struggles for freedom were clearly also searches for a total philosophy, a new humanism, and a new world.

The truth is that while “backward” Africa was charged with a dynamism of ideas that opened new paths to revolution and looked for new roads to development, the Cold War reigning in the “advanced” United States produced so pervasive a malaise among bourgeois intellectuals that they proclaimed “an end to ideology.”


Nevertheless, despite the instant mass mobilizations and the search for new humanist beginnings that would unite philosophy and revolution, theory and practice, which was by no means limited to intellectuals but was a need most urgently felt by the masses themselves, we must soberly face the present bleak reality. For just as these revolutions reshaped the map of Africa in less than a decade, they just as rapidly reached the crossroads. Thus, though the revolutions emerged from deep indigenous roots, without capital of any sort, and by their own force and passion and reason achieved their political emancipation, independent of the “East” as well as the “West,” after gaining power they did not remain quite so externally “nonaligned.”


The tragedy of the African revolutions began so soon after revolution had succeeded because leaders were so weighed down with consciousness of technological backwardness that they turned to one of the two poles of world capital. The isolation from the masses deepened so that the new rulers began to look at them as mere labor power. The result was not only that wages dropped—the rise directly after independence proved a temporary feature—and that the aid they received from both nuclear titans decreased, but also that the leaders and the masses began to speak different languages.

In turning to the economic reality of the 1960s, we must, however, beware of falling into traps set by mechanical materialists as well as voluntarists, by ideologues rooted in other “civilizations” as well as free-lancers. Although they call themselves Marxists, the vulgar materialists attribute an iron mold to economic laws, as if there were no way out whatever for the technologically underdeveloped countries: they “must” be sucked into the world market. The seeming opposite of vulgar materialists, the voluntarists—Maoists or individualists, Existentialists or anarchists—have one thing in common with those who are overwhelmed by economic laws: they believe they can order the workers to make “one day equal twenty years.” The Marxist truth, the plain truth, is that just as economic reality is not mere statistics, but is the base of existence, and just as the greatest productive force is not the machine, but the human being, so the human being is not only muscle, but also brain, not only energy but emotion, passion and force—in a word, the whole human being. This, just this, was of course Marx’s greatest contribution to “economics,” or more precisely, to revolutionizing economics, to unearthing the whole human dimension.[2]


B. New Human Relations or Tragedies Like Biafra?

Map of Colonial Africa in 1947. Oikofuge, CC-BY-SA-4.0

Nevertheless, neocolonialism could not have been reborn so easily in Africa had the revolutionary situation continued to deepen. The dialectics of liberation which tore the African states from the domination of imperialism proved that miracles can be accomplished with the upsurge of revolution. The uniqueness of revolution is that it so alters human experience that totally new human relationships open up. These new human relationships put an end to the separation of subject and object. The release of untapped energies that shook empires and gained freedom also compelled the empire states to give aid to their former colonies. Or, 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.

The spontaneity of their united action did indeed deliver blows to the law of value, that is, took decision-making concerning production out of the hands of the rulers. Precisely because the African masses did, at the start, feel that they were not only muscle but reason, holding destiny in their own hands, there emerged what Marx in his day called a new energizing principle. This resulted in a growth of production even in societies whose economy was restricted to a single crop. The relapse to military coups in Africa has none of the longevity of the settler-type domination that has afflicted much of Latin America. Because the situation is still fluid and the masses are by no means merely apathetic, it is necessary to view the coups with sober senses. 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.

Because the question of Africa is concrete as well as pivotal for actual battles, including the battle for the minds of men, it becomes necessary to examine further the issues at stake.…

Up to the 1950s, even when a founder like Zik moved away from the high point reached in 1945-48[3] and began to play the game of nationalism according to the rules set by British imperialism, this did not affect the Zikist youth movement, which continued to function without him. Indeed, the revolutionary activity at first intensified so that when the Zikist movement was banned by the British, it simply renamed itself the Freedom Movement and continued its struggle against “all forms of imperialism and for the establishment of a free socialist Republic of Nigeria, fighting in and out of parliament, employing nonviolent revolutionary tactics.”

By the end of the 1950s, on the other hand, the pull of objective forces, of the vortex of the world market and the new stage of imperialist struggle for political world mastery, became irresistible to the nationalist leaders who had moved away from dependence on the spontaneity, the self-activity of the masses, which had made political independence a reality. Instead, they began “choosing sides”—“the East” or “the West”—as a substitute for the deepening of the African Revolution.

The same thing can be seen as easily in Ghana, the first country to have gotten freedom, the first to have started on an independent road. There too the gulf between the leaders and the led so widened that there was a general strike. By 1961 Ghana was full of plans—a three-year development plan, a seven-year plan for “work and happiness”—which, while aiming at nothing short of self-sustaining industrial growth by 1967, went hand in hand with 5% compulsory savings. The day the pay envelopes reflected this 5% reduction, the general strike broke out in the most industrialized sector of the economy.

Ghana was one African country that did try to diversify production. Despite the fact that cocoa remained king, Ghana had, with the Volta project, begun an industrial complex. It was precisely in Sekondi-Takoridi where the railway workers, dock workers, commercial employees, civil servants, and market women joined the protest against the wage reductions. These workers were supported by the transport workers in Accra and Kumasi. The reaction of the leaders was exactly that of rulers everywhere. The worker-leaders of the strike were arrested. The trade union officials who had supported the rank and file were expelled from the trade unions and the Convention People’s Party. The workers were forced back to work.

It was these internal developments, and not neocolonialism, which widened the gulf between leaders and led. At the same time the isolation from the masses caused the leaders to play the game of neutrality on the world political scene, where they were more neutral to one pole of capital than the other, gaining nothing from either. The whole economy was thereby sucked into the world market to so decisive a degree that the fall in price of cocoa, the main commodity, laid the foundation for the overthrow of the Nkrumah regime. Not that this happened overnight or by a single blow; rather, it was the climax of a movement that had begun some two years after independence, when what the masses had fought for and won—political freedom—became a hollow incantation without a material base.

When I got to Accra in April 1962, the massive strikes had ended. The Trades Union Congress was organized under the banner of “Toward Nkrumahism.” When I interviewed Mr. Magnus George, Deputy Acting Secretary of the Ghanaian Trades Union Federation, I asked not about the strike, but about the loss of independence of the trade union movement with its merger with the Convention People’s Party (CPP). A blustery individual, Mr. Magnus George spoke belligerently:

We do not see the reasons why people in Europe always ask us why we are an integral part of the CPP. It is not their business to tell us what to do. We’re living in a free country and can do what we like. We’re an integral part of the CPP and have no separate trade union card. We’re going to step up productivity with the Three-Year Development Plan (July 1961 to July 1964) … It will be very interesting for you to know that any time there is a misunderstanding with the state, and workers put down their tools, after their grievances are redressed they work free to make up the lost time.

This was not the story that I got either from the Ghanaian workers or from other African trade unionists, who had to deal with the Ghanaian trade unions, which had followed the slogan of the East German trade union propaganda, “Defeat the imperialist by economic accomplishments through the productivity pledge movement.”  Thus, M.E. Jallow, who headed the Gambia Workers Union and who had been characterized by Magnus George as a “lackey of imperialism,” said to me:

I have the highest respect for President Touré and Nkrumah as fighters; they are trying to adapt socialism to African reality; but, to be realistic, the AATUF [trade union federation] was built up for ideological reasons. And now in Ghana they call workers’ strikes “labor indiscipline.” We will never bow to such an attitude to labor. We will not bow to an organization that calls workers’ strikes “labor indiscipline.”

An old-timer who was in the union office then added:

The old saying was, “The sun never sets on the British Empire, and the wages never rise,” and now we are going through the same type of thing. What our new leaders don’t recognize is that organizations come very quickly, especially among the youth, but they also disappear quickly. But revolutions never stop. We will have ours.

The same theme was also sounded in Senegal. While President Senghor spoke most eloquently about African socialism, the country itself had undergone hardly any fundamental economic changes since gaining political independence. Senegal still follows France all too closely, and not only in foreign policy. The truth is that the relationship of worker to management at the point of production, and the relationship of the great masses of consumers to the petty trades, are pretty much what they were before political independence was achieved. Indeed, one African friend was so infuriated as we walked from the beautiful wide boulevards of Dakar into the back-street slums and, on the way, passed the markets where ownership remains in non-African hands, that he said bitterly, “As we embark on our second revolution, these white settlers will make of Dakar another Algiers.”[4]


One African educator wrote to me feelingly that, utopian as it may sound, “theory is more imperative for Africa at this stage than even economic help. Without a theoretic framework we will continue to go nowhere fast.” Living very much in the African reality, he is insisting that theoreticians stop dividing theory from practice “a la Senghor,” who spoke of the Humanism of Marxism in theory but in fact followed Gaullist policies nationally and internationally. They must instead work out a new relationship of theory to practice which arises from the practice of the masses. According to the same educator, among the youth, workers included, and among those intellectuals who do not identify too closely with the existing state power in their own country, the ideas that aroused them in the struggle for freedom continue to be debated. The disgust is not with Marx and Humanism, but with a “new breed of Africanists who serve up some undigestible concoction of Marxism, Pan-Africanism and Nkrumahism” as if Nkrumah’s fall were nothing but a neocolonialist plot.

It is not possible to comprehend the African reality apart from the compelling objective forces of world production, the pull of the world market, and the underlying philosophy of the masses which Marx called “the quest for universality.” The fact is that that new “energizing principle” was not sucked into the world market and even now, after all the setbacks, shows nothing as disastrous as the malaise which besets the affluent U.S. Far from rigor mortis having set in among “the poor Africans,” they are continuing the discussion of the relationship of philosophy to revolution, and not only among themselves but internationally. The whole point seems to be to hold on to the principle of creativity, and the contradictory process by which creativity develops. Nor does it stop in Africa, as we shall see when we take a second look at Africa in considering the two-way road between that continent and the U.S. in chapter 9.[5]

Click here to order the book Philosophy and Revolution, from Hegel to Sartre and from Marx to Mao

Philosophy and Revolution shows the integrality of philosophy and revolution as characteristic of the age, tracing it through historically, and shows that Marx’s philosophy of liberation merges the dialectics of elemental revolt and its Reason.

“The days are long since past when these voices from below could be treated, at best, as mere sources of theory. The movement from practice which is itself a form of theory demands a totally new relationship of theory to practice.”


[1] Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth (copyright © 1963 by Presence Africaine), translated by Constance Farrington (New York: Grove Press, 1966), pp. 32-33.

[2] By wrongly identifying Russian Communism with Marxism, the Senegalese writer Mamadou Dia held that “Western humanism” was “a dated universalism different from an integral humanism that includes all mankind.” Mamadou Dia, African Nations and World Solidarity (New York: Praeger, 1961), p. 11. Still the work is a valuable contribution and should be studied.

[3] Nnamdi Azikiwe (Zik), was called “the father of Nigerian nationalism.” In 1945, a general strike, which Zik supported, “imparted a new proletarian quality to his Nigerian nationalism,” according to Dunayevskaya, and “The alignment with labor disclosed a new unifying force in Nigerian nationalism present within the colonial entity called Nigeria.” —Editor.

[4] Perhaps I should also record the latest humor of the “underground” (Left Youth) in Senegal: “Machiavellianism is so integral to his erudition and poetry that when we finally get a revolution going, Senghor will bid to lead it!” [“Another Algiers” refers to the incredible brutality and violence of the counterrevolution by French settlers against the Algerian revolutionary war for independence, as exemplified in the 1956-57 Battle of Algiers. —Editor.]

[5] Chapter 9 of Philosophy and Revolution is titled, “New Passions and New Forces: The Black Dimension, the Anti-Vietnam War Youth, Rank-and-File Labor, Women’s Liberation.”

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