Is China the new imperialist force in Africa?

The recent high-profile summit of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), held in Beijing at the beginning of September, has inspired some familiar accusations in the North American and West European press: China is the new colonial power in Africa; China is attempting to dominate African land and resources; Africa is becoming entangled in a Beijing-devised debt trap; Chinese investment in Africa only benefits China; and so on.

This article addresses these accusations and concludes that they are based on shaky foundations; that China is by no means an imperialist power; that increasing Africa-China relations are of significant benefit to the people of Africa; that Chinese assistance and investment could well be the key factor in breaking the cycle of underdevelopment and poverty in Africa.

What is imperialism?

If we’re going to understand whether or not China is imperialist, it’s a good idea to agree what imperialism is, since the word suffers from fairly widespread misinterpretation. Based on the characteristics of imperialism outlined in Lenin’s classic study, Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism, many conclude that China is an imperialist country. After all, it has several enormous companies that could reasonably be described as monopolies; it has a handful of very large (state-owned) banks that have significant influence on investment; and it’s increasingly engaged in the ‘export of capital’, investing in business operations around the world.

However, it should be obvious enough that no definition of the word imperialism is useful if it doesn’t include the concept of domination. The word derives from the Latin imperium, meaning supreme authority, or empire. There is no imperialism without empire. Which is not to say that imperialism no longer exists now that the colonial era is (for the most part) finished; it’s perfectly possible to maintain a de facto empire, for example through participating in the domination of another country’s markets.

A reasonable, concise definition of imperialism is put forward by the political analyst Stephen Gowans: “imperialism is a process of domination guided by economic interests.”1 This process of domination can be characterised as “the activity, enterprise and methodology of building empires”. However, empires “can be declared and formal, or undeclared and informal, or both. Whatever form they take, empires are structures predicated on systems of domination, of one country or nation over another.” For example, the US has few actual colonies, but it unquestionably uses its enormous economic and political muscle to dominate other countries, with a view to creating conditions for its own capitalist class to more rapidly expand its capital.

The recently-deceased Egyptian economist Samir Amin describes how “the countries in the dominant capitalist centre” – by which he means the US, Europe and Japan – leverage “technological development, access to natural resources, the global financial system, dissemination of information, and weapons of mass destruction” in order to dominate the planet and prevent the emergence of any state or movement that could impede this domination. The vast accumulation of capital in the imperialist heartlands has its counterpart in a ‘lumpen-development’ in much of the rest of the world – “a dizzying growth of subsistence activities, called the informal sphere — otherwise called the pauperisation associated with the unilateral logic of accumulation of capital.”2

The US goes to considerable lengths to build a global economic order that suits its own interests, and in so doing it actively diminishes the sovereignty of other countries. The most extreme – but sadly not uncommon – example of this is imperialist war: using military means to secure economic and political outcomes, such as we have seen recently in Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan and Yugoslavia.

We can perhaps then condense the idea of imperialism down to a fundamentally unequal relationship between countries (or blocs of countries) at differing levels of development, with the more developed countries using their military and financial power to produce outcomes that favour themselves and harm the less developed countries.

If we can prove that China is involved in this type of activity – that it seeks to dominate foreign markets and resources, that it uses its growing economic strength to affect political decisions in poorer countries, that it engages in wars (overt or covert) to secure its own interests – it would then be reasonable to conclude that China is indeed an imperialist country and that its engagement with Africa is an example of imperialism.

What imperialism in Africa looks like

At this point we’ll take a brief look at what imperialism in Africa has looked like in the past. Perhaps, in so doing, we’ll stumble upon some characteristics that can also be found in China’s relationship with Africa today.

In his classic 1972 study How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, the Guyanese activist-scholar Walter Rodney catalogues Europe’s relationship with Africa from the early days of the transatlantic slave trade through to the post-colonial era. The story that emerges is one of systematic plunder and an active underdevelopment that helped to furnish European development.

Rodney notes that, in the 16th century, several areas of Africa were on a path of technical progress similar to, albeit slightly behind, Western Europe: “Several historians of Africa have pointed out that after surveying the developed areas of the continent in the 15th century and those within Europe at the same date, the difference between the two was in no way to Africa’s discredit. Indeed, the first Europeans to reach West and East Africa by sea were the ones who indicated that in most respects African development was comparable to that which they knew.”3

However, the European powers were able to use certain advances – most notably in the areas of shipbuilding and weapons manufacture – to establish a profoundly unequal trade relationship with Africa. This, along with the need to find a capable labour force for the new American colonies, laid the ground for the transatlantic slave trade, which is estimated to have denuded the African continent of up to half its population. Rodney poses the question: “What would have been Britain’s level of development had millions of its people been put to work as slaves outside of their homeland over a period of four centuries?”

The conversion of Africa into a resource pool for European capital was a powerful engine of European capitalist growth in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. As Marx famously wrote, “the discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black skins, signalled the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production.”4

The colonial occupation of Africa, which lasted from the 1880s until the wave of liberation in the second half of the 20th century, served to significantly deepen the economic subjugation of the continent. Enforced by a fascistic military repression – most notoriously in the Belgian colony of Congo, where natives’ failure to meet the rubber collection quota was punishable by death – European colonialism allowed for the most extravagant exploitation of African labour and natural resources, whilst offering practically nothing in terms of economic progress for the local population.

Empire apologists in Britain, France and Portugal occasionally insinuate a ‘good side’ onto their erstwhile empires – after all, were railways and schools not built? Yet the sum total of these things (which anyway were built specifically to meet the needs of the colonial masters) is vanishingly small – so much so that, “the figures at the end of the first decade of African independence in spheres such as health, housing and education are often several times higher than the figures inherited by the newly independent governments”. As Rodney observes, “it would be an act of the most brazen fraud to weigh the paltry social amenities provided during the colonial epoch against the exploitation, and to arrive at the conclusion that the good outweighed the bad.”

European colonialism contributed nothing to the technological or institutional development of Africa, because this would have created competition for European capitalism and impeded the far more important task of draining maximum possible wealth from the continent.

But imperialism in Africa is not just a thing of the past; it didn’t end with the independence of the former colonies. As Samir Amin writes: “The dominant capitalist centres do not seek to extend their political power through imperial conquest because they can, in fact, exercise their domination through economic means.”5 Since the 1980s, the principal mechanism of imperialist domination in Africa has been economic blackmail: international credit agencies obliging governments to sign up to harmful economic strategies. The most notorious (and typical) example of this is the Structural Adjustment Program (SAP); SAPs are loans from the IMF and World Bank, typically taken out in a crisis situation (in response to a drought, for example), and disbursed on the condition that the recipient country implement a packet of ‘neoliberal’ reforms – privatising key industries and resources, opening up markets to international competition, and liberalising prices.

The SAPs have been a disaster for Africa. Scarce resources such as water have been taken out of the public domain and placed in the hands of globalised privateers. Nascent industries, previously protected by governments trying to develop home-grown manufacturing, have been decimated, dreams of development dashed, and vast regions returned to a prostrate position in the global economy, supplying unimproved raw materials to a market they have no meaningful influence over.

This is imperialism, by any reasonable definition. Advanced western countries, often ganging up in order to achieve their aims vis-a-vis the poorer countries, force nominally independent states to undertake economic measures that are specifically designed to benefit those same advanced western countries. In the modern era, this is precisely what the underdeveloping of Africa looks like. And the results speak for themselves: “after nearly thirty years of using ‘better’ (that is, free-market) policies, Africa’s per capita income is basically at the same level as it was in 1980.”6

Mozambican independence leader Samora Machel, president from 1975 until his death (almost certainly at the hands of the apartheid South African security services) in 1986, spoke bitterly about the imperialist countries’ visions for post-colonial Africa: “They need Africa to have no industry, so that it will continue to provide raw materials. Not to have a steel industry. Since this would be a luxury for the African. They need Africa not to have dams, bridges, textile mills for clothing. A factory for shoes? No, the African doesn’t deserve it. No, that’s not for the Africans.”7

Various well-paid academics assert that western imperialism is a thing of the past, that Europe and North America have changed their ways, and that Africa is now treated as an equal. While it is palpably false that western imperialism is a thing of the past (is it not imperialism when Nato launches a war on Libya, plunging it into a state of chaos and desperate poverty, in order to remove a government that had consistently refused to adhere to the economic and political ‘rules’?), it’s true that Europe and North America are less reliant on the exploitation of Africa than they once were. This demonstrates only that imperialism can’t be separated from its historical context. Western Europe, North America and Japan have reached a level of productivity and technological advance such that outright plunder of other nations constitutes only a relatively small part of their economic activity; however, they reached this point to a significant degree owing to their ruthless oppression of less developed countries. Thus the designation of a given country as ‘imperialist’ necessarily includes a historical component.

Regardless of these subtleties, Euro-American imperialism maintains an active foothold in Africa today, via a combination of economic blackmail, political manoeuvring, military intervention, and military mobilisation.

A brief timeline of China’s engagement with Africa

After the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the Chinese leadership moved quickly to create bonds of solidarity between China and the African liberation movements. China was a leading supporter of the Algerian war of liberation and an early supporter of the South African struggle against white minority rule. Nelson Mandela recounts in Long Walk to Freedom that he encouraged Walter Sisulu, then secretary-general of the African National Congress, to visit China in 1953 in order to “discuss with the Chinese the possibility of supplying us with weapons for the armed struggle.”8 The links made during this trip laid the ground for the establishment in the early 1960s of a Chinese military training programme for the newly-founded uMkhonto we Sizwe – the ANC’s armed wing. (An interesting aside: two currently serving African heads of state received military training in China in the 1960s: Eritrean president Isaias Afwerki, and Zimbabwean president Emmerson Mnangagwa.)

Chinese premier Zhou Enlai conducted a landmark tour of ten African nations between December 1963 and January 1964, during which he consolidated China’s anti-imperialist connection with some of the leading post-colonial African states. A few years later, China provided the financing and knowhow for the construction of the Tanzam Railway, which runs 1,860km from Dar es Salaam, the then Tanzanian capital and seaport, to central Zambia. Built with the primary purposes of fomenting economic development and helping Zambia to break its economic dependence on the apartheid states of Rhodesia and South Africa, the Tanzam has been described as “the first infrastructure project conceived on a pan-African scale”.9 It remains an enduring symbol of China’s friendship with independent Africa.

Well into the 1980s, dozens of large state farms were built in Africa as part of the Chinese aid programme – in Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Mali, Congo Brazzaville, Guinea and elsewhere. The US scholar Deborah Brautigam notes that, however, “during the 1970s and 1980s, the Chinese aid program shifted to emphasise much smaller demonstration farms, working with local farmers to teach rice farming and vegetable cultivation.”10

In the 1980s and 90s, partly reflecting shifting political priorities in China and partly in response to data indicating that many of the aid-constructed projects were no longer working very well (if at all), China started to put its engagement with Africa on a more commercial footing, focusing on mutually beneficial deals and joint ventures. China has since become Africa’s largest trading partner, with a total trade volume of $170 billion in 201711, well ahead of the US-Africa figure of $55 billion.12

In addition to trade, China also provides vast low-cost loans for infrastructure projects, with nearly $100 billion loaned to African states by Chinese state-owned banks between 2000 and 2015. A recent article in the Guardian notes that “some 40% of the Chinese loans paid for power projects, and another 30% went on modernising transport infrastructure. The loans were at comparatively low interest rates and with long repayment periods.” The article continues: “Chinese infrastructure projects stretch all the way to Angola and Nigeria, with ports planned along the coast from Dakar to Libreville and Lagos. Beijing has also signalled its support for the African Union’s proposal of a pan-African high-speed rail network.”13

Development, not underdevelopment

“We should jointly support Africa’s pursuit of stronger growth, accelerated integration and industrialisation, and help Africa become a new growth pole in the world economy.” (Xi Jinping)14

The most important point regarding China’s engagement with Africa is that it stimulates development rather than underdevelopment. In that crucial sense, it is profoundly different from the relationship that the US and the major European powers have had with Africa. China’s aid and investment packages promote host countries’ modernisation, technical knowhow and infrastructure. As it stands, manufacturing constitutes only 10 percent of value added in Africa. “Ghana sends cocoa beans to Switzerland, for instance, then imports chocolates. Angola exports crude oil and imports nearly 80 percent of its refined fuel.”15 This is an unsustainable situation that keeps Africa in a subservient position. Industrialisation is the indispensable next step, and this relies on infrastructure, technology and knowledge transfer.

As an aside: even if China’s ambitions were essentially predatory, its presence as an alternative source of investment is beneficial for African economies. Ha-joon Chang notes that, in the 1990s, China became a “major lender and investor in some African countries, giving the latter some leverage in negotiating with the Bretton Woods institutions and the traditional aid donors, such as the US and the European countries”.16

Beyond that, Chinese investment has made possible a fast-expanding infrastructure network that will underpin African economic development for generations to come. This includes railways, schools, hospitals, roads, ports, factories and airports, along with “new tarmac roads linking major regional hubs, including the various townships with proper connection to large cities”.17 By contrast, precious little US/British investment in Africa goes towards infrastructure.

In 2017, China funded over 6,200km of railway and over 5,000km of roads in Africa.18 Thanks in no small part to Chinese finance and expertise, Ethiopia last year celebrated the opening of the first metro train system in sub-Saharan Africa,19 along with Africa’s first fully electrified cross-border railway line, the Ethiopia-Djibouti electric railway.20

Lack of electrification is a major problem for most African countries. According to Deborah Brautigam, “the Latin American supply of electricity is 50 times higher, per rural worker, than sub-Saharan Africa’s”.21 Over 600 million people across the continent have no reliable access to electricity. Many of the biggest Chinese investment projects in Africa are focused on power generation – indeed, 40% of all Chinese loans to Africa last year went towards power generation and transmission.22 The bulk of this energy investment is in hydropower and other renewal technologies.23 For example, China’s Eximbank is providing 85% of the financing for Nigeria’s Mambila hydroelectric power project,24 which will constitute the country’s largest power plant, helping to get electricity to the approximately 40 percent of Nigerians that don’t currently have access.25 It was announced a few months ago that China Eximbank would also provide the bulk of the $1.5 billion funding for Zimbabwe’s largest ever power development project.26

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Nigeria’s finance minister from 2003 to 2006 and from 2011 to 2015, notes that “China worked with us to get a balanced package of assistance that has helped build the light rail system in Abuja and four new airport terminals in Lagos, Port Harcourt, Kano and Abuja, among other projects.”27 She reflects on the possibilities for extensive cooperation between Africa and China in the realm of sustainable development: “Together, China and Africa make up one third of the world’s population. Increasing ties between the two could have a vast positive impact for the world’s economy and climate. China’s experiences and expertise should go a long way in helping African countries develop their renewable resources.“

Do Chinese state banks make these investments for purely altruistic reasons? They do not. “China is poor in natural resources, the notable exception being rare minerals, and as a consequence has no choice but to look abroad. Africa, on the other hand, is extremely richly endowed with raw materials, and recent discoveries of oil and natural gas have only added to this.”28 Deals are negotiated on a case-by-case basis with the two sides as equal partners. The whole arrangement has nothing in common with the west’s historic relationship with Africa. As the Zambian economist Dambisa Moyo writes, “the motivation for the host countries is not complicated: they need infrastructure, and they need to finance projects that can unlock economic growth… This is the genius of the China strategy: every country gets what it wants… China, of course, gains access to commodities, but host countries get the loans to finance infrastructure developmental programs in their economies, they get to trade (creating incomes for their domestic citizenry), and they get investments that can support much-needed job creation.”29

Many African countries are already benefiting greatly from their relations with China. As Martin Jacques puts it: “China’s impact on Africa has so far been overwhelmingly positive. Indeed, it is worth asking the question as to where Africa would be without Chinese involvement… China’s involvement has had the effect of boosting the strategic importance of Africa in the world economy.”

China is ploughing resources into educational cooperation with African countries, recently surpassing the US and UK to become the number one destination for anglophone African students (and second most popular destination overall, after France) – a dramatic increase that is explained in large part by “the Chinese government’s targeted focus on African human resource and education development”.30 In his speech to the recent FOCAC summit, Xi Jinping said China will “provide Africa with 50,000 government scholarships and 50,000 training opportunities” in the next three years.31 Even for students without scholarships, China is a popular destination for African students, because its tertiary education system is more affordable than the west’s, and is increasingly of comparable quality and prestige.

China also provides substantial medical aid to Africa, spending an estimated $150 million annually on malaria treatment, crisis response, medicine provision, and support for building hospitals and pharmaceutical factories. In response to the Ebola crisis in 2014, “China dispatched more than 1,000 medical professionals to West Africa, providing 750 million RMB ($120 million) in aid.”32

Non-interference

China has received no shortage of criticism owing to its willingness to work with states such as Zimbabwe and Sudan, which are subjected to boycotts and sanctions by the US-led ‘international community’. Such criticisms are hypocritical and vacuous. China has a long-standing position of non-interference in the political affairs of other countries. As far back as 1955, then-Premier Zhou Enlai sketched the Chinese vision of peaceful and cooperative development at the historic Afro–Asian Conference in Bandung: “By following the principles of mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, non-aggression, non-interference in each other’s internal affairs, equality and mutual benefit, the peaceful coexistence of countries with different social systems can be realised.”33

Such a position is quite obviously superior to the US/European system of active interference – ie imperialism. China doesn’t participate in or sponsor wars in Africa; it doesn’t engineer coups, subvert elections or finance political campaigns. China has committed no massacres in Africa, nor does it control any private armies. China has no record of assassinating African leaders, encouraging separatist movements, or creating political instability. It doesn’t maintain lobbyists or advisers whose job is to pressure African politicians. China has not demanded ‘structural adjustment’ in any of the countries it invests in; no privatisation, no deregulation, no demands for hollowing out government. China doesn’t use coercion or blackmail. It bids for contracts, and often wins them, mainly because its prices are fair, its costs low, and its quality of work high. In summary, “China appears wholly uninterested in assuming sovereign responsibility and particularly in shaping h social and political infrastructure of host nations”.34

At the recent FOCAC summit, Xi Jinping summed up the Chinese approach to engagement with Africa as follows: “The Chinese people respect Africa, love Africa and support Africa. We follow a ‘five-no’ approach in our relations with Africa: no interference in African countries’ pursuit of development paths that fit their national conditions; no interference in African countries’ internal affairs; no imposition of our will on African countries; no attachment of political strings to assistance to Africa; and no seeking of selfish political gains in investment and financing cooperation with Africa.”

The “five-no” approach is an explicit rejection of imperialist strategy. Rather than criticise China for its policy of non-intervention, it would be much better if other countries could follow its example.

Some common criticisms

Chinese companies only employ Chinese workers

An oft-repeated criticism of Chinese economic activity in Africa is that Chinese companies only employ Chinese workers. This is simply not true. In fact, China creates more jobs in Africa than any other investor.35 Deborah Brautigam, one of the few western China experts to base their work on actual data, writes that “surveys of employment on Chinese projects in Africa repeatedly find that three-quarters or more of the workers are, in fact, local.”36 This is consistent with the findings of Giles Mohan, whose team undertook extensive on-the-ground research in West Africa. “Contrary to the dominant assertion that Chinese companies operating in Africa tend to rely on labour imported from China, in most of the eighty-five Chinese enterprises we studied in Ghana and Nigeria, a substantial proportion, and often the majority, of the workforce was African.”37

South African president Cyril Ramaphosa recently spoke of South Africa’s experience with Chinese companies: “When China invests, it sends key managers, but the bulk of the people who do the work are South Africans.”38 Similarly, Namibian president Hage Geingob stated earlier this year that “no country in the world has added so much value to our products as China has. China has done a lot of technology transfer and job creation.”39

Early-stage projects, particularly in countries where China has little experience, tend to be staffed primarily by Chinese employees, but the clearly emerging pattern is for this ratio to be reversed over time.

China has caught Africa in a debt trap

A recent article by John Pomfret in the Washington Post describes Chinese investment strategy as “imperialism with Chinese characteristics”, and claims that “China’s debt traps around the world are a trademark of its imperialist ambitions.”40 Grant Harris, Barack Obama’s former adviser on Africa, writes that “Chinese debt has become the methamphetamines of infrastructure finance: highly addictive, readily available, and with long-term negative effects that far outweigh any temporary high.”41 Rex Tillerson, US secretary of state until his recent replacement by the even more hawkish Mike Pompeo, commented in March that “China’s approach has led to mounting debt and few, if any, jobs in most countries.”42

Such scare-mongering statements ignore the rather important detail that, “from 2000 to 2016, China’s loans only accounted for 1.8 percent of Africa’s foreign debts, and most of them were invested in infrastructure.”43

Investment generally entails some level of debt; the question is whether African countries are getting a good deal. Chinese investment is welcomed across the continent, since it is overwhelmingly directed towards essential projects: developing infrastructure, building schools, building hospitals, cleaning water, supplying electricity, building factories. As a result, the needs of ordinary Africans are being met, and the debts are typically repaid in a sustainable (and fairly negotiated) way using the host countries’ natural resources.

Chinese loans tend to be significantly lower interest than the equivalents from the Bretton Woods institutions and the major western banks; many are interest-free. Furthermore, there have been several rounds of debt relief, where the debts of the poorest African countries have been written off. The recent FOCAC summit promised $60 billion worth of new investment, including $15 billion of grants, interest-free loans and concessional loans, as well as $5 billion specifically to support the importing of African produce to China. Cyril Ramaphosa noted that “if some African countries can’t keep up with their debt payments, the debt will be forgiven”.44 By no reasonable definition is this a “debt trap”.

China is grabbing African land

In recent years, numerous headline-grabbing articles have claimed that China is in the process of sending millions of peasants to Africa in order to grow food for China.45 China is, apparently, a “land grabber”, a rising colonial power. And yet, “no one has yet identified a village full of Chinese farmers anywhere on the continent. A careful review of Chinese policy shifts shows steadily rising support for outward investment of all kinds but no pattern of sponsoring the migration of Chinese peasants, funding large-scale land acquisitions in Africa, or investing ‘immense sums’ in African agriculture. Finally, according to the United Nations Commodity Trade database, it is China that has been sending food to Africa. While this could (and should) change, so far, the only significant food exports from Africa to China have been sesame seeds and cocoa, produced by African farmers.”46

A mutually beneficial friendship

Accusations of Chinese imperialism in Africa, typically levelled by apologists for western imperialism,47 are not substantiated by facts. China’s development model isn’t based on, and has never been based on, colonial exploitation. On the contrary, China is keen to see Africa emerge as a key player in a multipolar world in which a relatively even balance of forces acts to preserve global peace and stability. This explains, for example, China’s enthusiastic support for the African Union and its commitment to the AU’s development agenda.48 That China’s engagement is a positive thing for Africa is evidenced by the near-universal enthusiasm for it among African governments (it’s telling to note that twice as many African heads of state attended the FOCAC summit than the recent meeting of the UN General Assembly).49

It’s hardly surprising that the concept of multipolarity is not universally esteemed within the imperialist heartlands. In particular the US ruling class is struggling to come to terms with the end of its uncontested hegemony; hence the desperate bid to ‘Make America Great Again’, which really means re-asserting US global dominance and taking the Chinese down a peg or two. The last thing the western ruling classes want to see is a thriving multipolarity based on mutually beneficial cooperation between independent states, bypassing and perhaps even ignoring the mandate of Washington, London and Paris. When people issue slanders about Chinese colonialism, they are feeding a narrative that seeks to maintain the imperialist status quo, even though they generally take the form of ‘concerned advice’. Such slanders should be resolutely exposed.


  1. Stephen Gowans, Patriots, Traitors and Empires: The Story of Korea’s Struggle for Freedom, Baraka Books, 2018 

  2. Samir Amin, The Implosion of Contemporary Capitalism, Monthly Review Press, 2013 

  3. Walter Rodney, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, Pambazuka Press, 2012 

  4. Karl Marx, Capital: Volume 1 

  5. Samir Amin: Global History: A View from the South, Pambazuka Press, 2010 

  6. Ha-joon Chang, 23 Things They Don’t Tell You about Capitalism, Bloomsbury, 2010 

  7. Invent the Future: The Revolutionary Thought of Samora Machel, 2015 

  8. Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom, Back Bay Books, 1995 

  9. The Guardian: China in Africa: win-win development, or a new colonialism?, 2018 

  10. Deborah Brautigam, Will Africa Feed China?, Oxford University Press, 2015 

  11. Ministry of Commerce, People’s Republic of China: Statistics on China-Africa Bilateral Trade in 2017 

  12. US Census Bureau: Trade in Goods with Africa 

  13. The Guardian, op cit 

  14. Xi Jinping, The Governance of China, Foreign Languages Press, 2014 

  15. Washington Post: Xi Jinping is visiting Africa this week. Here’s why China is such a popular development partner, 2018 

  16. Ha-joon Chang, Economics: The User’s Guide, Pelican, 2014 

  17. The Diplomat: China and Ethiopia, Part 1: The Light Railway System, 2018 

  18. SCMP: What to know about China’s ties with Africa, from aid to infrastructure, 2018 

  19. CNN: Ethiopia gets the first metro system in sub-Saharan Africa, 2015 

  20. BBC News: Ethiopia-Djibouti electric railway line opens, 2016 

  21. Brautigam, op cit 

  22. China Daily: Investment creates hope, not debt trap, 2018 

  23. China Africa Research Initiative: More Bad Data on Chinese Finance in Africa, 2018 

  24. CNN: Nigeria announces $5.8 billion deal for record-breaking power project, 2017 

  25. See World Bank Data: Access to electricity (as of 2016) 

  26. New Zimbabwe: Mnangagwa commissions $1.5bln power plant, project Chinese funded, 2018 

  27. FT: Africa needs China’s help to embrace a low-carbon future (paywall), 2018 

  28. Martin Jacques, When China Rules the World: The End of the Western World and the Birth of a New Global Order, Penguin, 2012 

  29. Dambisa Moyo, Winner Take All: China’s Race For Resources and What It Means For Us, Penguin 2012 

  30. The Conversation: China tops US and UK as destination for anglophone African students, 2017 

  31. Xinhua: Full text of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s speech at opening ceremony of 2018 FOCAC Beijing Summit 

  32. The Diplomat: China’s Medical Aid in Africa, 2018 

  33. Wilson Center Archive: Main Speech by Premier Zhou Enlai at the Plenary Session of the Asian-African Conference, 1955 

  34. Dambisa Moyo, op cit 

  35. Xinhua: China becomes top job creator in Africa, expert says, 2017 

  36. Washington Post: China in Africa is not ‘neocolonialism.’ Here are the numbers to prove it, 2018 

  37. Giles Mohan, Ben Lampert, Daphne Chang and May Tan-Mullins: Chinese Migrants and Africa’s Development: New Imperialists or Agents of Change?, Zed Books, 2014 

  38. IOL: Those who call China colonial are jealous: Ramaphosa, 2018 

  39. Reuters: Namibia president says China not colonizing Africa, 2018 

  40. Washington Post: China’s debt traps around the world are a trademark of its imperialist ambitions, 2018 

  41. Time: China Is Loaning Billions of Dollars to African Countries. Here’s Why the U.S. Should Be Worried, 2018 

  42. QZ: China is pushing Africa into debt, says America’s top diplomat, 2018 

  43. China Daily: Investment creates hope, not debt trap, 2018 

  44. Ramaphosa, op cit 

  45. See for example The Guardian, The food rush: Rising demand in China and west sparks African land grab, 2009 

  46. Brautigam, Will Africa Feed China, op cit 

  47. Hillary Clinton comes to mind, eg Reuters: Clinton warns against “new colonialism” in Africa, 2011 

  48. African Union: African Union and China renew commitment to advance multilateral cooperation, 2018 

  49. Quartz: Twice as many African presidents made it to China’s Africa summit than to the UN general assembly, 2018 

The Revolutionary Thought of Samora Machel

Samora Machel is the name most closely associated with the liberation of Mozambique from Portuguese colonialism and the construction of an independent post-colonial state. Born on 29 September 1933, he would today be celebrating his 82nd birthday had he not died in a plane crash in 1986, almost certainly engineered by the intelligence services of apartheid South Africa.

Machel was a deeply committed and capable leader, accomplished revolutionary strategist, firm anti-imperialist and proud Marxist-Leninist. His story, and that of the Mozambican Revolution, deserves serious study. It’s unfortunate that the legacy of Machel, Frelimo (the Mozambique Liberation Front) and the heroic Mozambican people has passed almost entirely into obscurity, as there is much to learn from such topics, particularly in relation to the extraordinary difficulties involved in building socialism in an underdeveloped, post-colonial country surrounded by enemies.

machel-bishopIn the interests of developing understanding of Mozambique, of Frelimo, and of the broader issues of African anti-imperialism and socialism, we publish here a selection of quotes from Samora Machel. The vast majority are sourced from the excellent (but sadly out-of-print) book of his speeches, ‘Samora Machel – an African Revolutionary’ (Zed Books, 1986); a few are taken from other sources, including Joseph Hanlon’s useful book ‘Mozambique – The Revolution Under Fire’ (Zed Books, 1984).

Invent the Future will soon be publishing a more detailed article on the history of the Mozambican Revolution and Mozambique’s trajectory as a post-colonial independent state.

Leading by example

An official who will not let his own hands become calloused may hold hundreds of meetings on production, but he will not persuade one person to be productive or set up a single cooperative.

Global imperialist propaganda

So long as there is capitalism and imperialism in the world, its propaganda and subversion will make itself felt against us, and the winning of independence and power will be no guarantee of our invulnerability to degenerate values.

The importance of political study

Political study strengthens our awareness and analytical capacity, enriches the content of our struggle, raises our revolutionary practice and level of commitment, and teaches us how to change society.

Bourgeois democracy

The successive domination by the various exploiting minorities – dictatorship over the masses – is always exercised in a more or less camouflaged manner so that the masses do not appreciate their real situation and do not perceive that they are subject to oppression.

Leadership and unity

machel giapFor a leadership body to work with the masses it must be united. When there are contradictions in the leadership body, this gives rise to rumours, intrigue and slander. Each faction tries to mobilise support for its views, dividing the masses. When we are disunited we divide the masses and the fighters, causing the rank and file to lose confidence in the leadership, demobilising it and making it inactive, and opening breaches through which the enemy penetrates. We ultimately divide our own friends… Unity within the leadership behind a correct line, at whatever level, is the driving force of any sector and the precondition for success in a task.

Unity needs daily sustenance. Collective living, working and study, criticism and self-criticism, and mutual help are the food, salts and vitamins of unity. Members of the leadership should not therefore live separately from one another, each absorbed in his own private world, only coming together when there is a meeting… The members of the leadership ought to make an effort to live together, to know one another better in day-to-day life and to understand each other’s failings, so as to be in a better position to offer mutual correction. Working together, producing together, sweating together, suffering the rigours of the march together and overcoming the challenges of the enemy and the environment creates strong bonds of friendship and mutual respect. It is not by words that we are bound together, but by the many activities we share when serving the people; it is unity fed by sweat and suffering and blood that binds us together.

Unity is not something static, a supernatural and absolute value that we place on a pedestal to worship. In the process of struggling for unity we have always said: we must know with whom we are uniting and why.

To live or die

Death is inevitable for man. The real choice is between living and fighting for victory or lying down under exploitation, domination and oppression.

Solidarity

International solidarity is not an act of charity: it is an act of unity between allies fighting on different terrains toward the same objectives. The foremost of these objectives is to assist in the development of humanity to the highest level possible.

Solidarity is an assertion that no people is alone, no people is isolated in the struggle for progress. Solidarity is the conscious alliance of the progressive and peace-loving revolutionary forces in the common struggle against colonialism, capitalism and imperialism. In short, against exploitation of man by man. And this struggle may be in Asia, in Europe, or in America, or the struggle may be in Africa, but it is the same struggle. It has common enemies and its enemies are always principal.

Solidarity has no race and no colour, and its country has no frontiers. There is no solidarity just among Africans, no exclusively Asian solidarity, since the enemy of the people also has no country or race.

Defining friends and enemies

Defining the target for our weapons cannot admit any ambiguity, all the more as in the historical context of our struggle, when we are mainly confronting the economic, political and military forces of another nation, it is all too easy to identify the enemy with a race. This denatures the sense of the struggle, allowing the reactionary forces to dig themselves in and losing us the political sensitivity needed to avoid mistaking friend and enemy.

Some might think that in our kind of war, a national liberation war, all those individuals who have the enemy’s colour or nationality are automatically the enemy. The child as much as the soldier, the old man as much as the policemen, the woman in the same way as the big bosses, the worker as much as the heads of the colonial administration; if they are white, or Portuguese, they should be targets for our weapon. The group of new exploiters in our midst who hoped to replace the colonialists as a dominant class did try to impose this definition of the enemy. Some circles regard these racist concepts as revolutionary radicalism, either through lack of ideological clarity or in a bid to confuse public opinion about the justness of our line and to discredit the genuine revolutionary forces.

Since ours in a people’s war and defends the people’s interests, we are well aware that there is no antagonism between the fundamental interests of the Mozambican people and those of any other people in the world, including the portugues people. For the same reason we always say that there is no reason for any antagonism between us and the Portuguese civilian population in Mozambique. It is the Portuguese colonialists who are putting settlers on land pillaged from our population, who indulge in the most atrocious crimes against women, children, old people and civilians in general, who are trying to provoke a racial war that would change the character of our combat.

Frelimo’s political action, the consciousness and sense of discipline of the masses and the fighters have destroyed this sinister manoeuvre of the enemy. We accept in our ranks without discrimination all whites who identify as Mozambicans and want to fight alongside us. Our forces have shown scrupulous regard for the life and property of Portuguese civilians. Frelimo has constantly appealed to the Portuguese community in Mozambique to support the fight against colonialism and fascism.

Racism

Let us be clear in this regard. We are utterly against racism. Racism of any kind. Racism is a reactionary attitude that splits workers, by setting white workers against black workers and sapping their class-consciousness. Racism impedes a correct definition of the enemy, by allowing enemy agents to infiltrate under a cloak of colour… We say that our enemy has no colour, no race, no country. Nor does our friend. We do not define friend or enemy in terms of skin colour. There are whites and blacks who are our comrades, and there are whites and blacks who are our enemies. We are not struggling against a colour but against a system – the system of exploitation of man by man. The louse, the tick and the bug are not all of one colour, but none of them drinks water or milk – they live off blood.

Racism is a cancer still manifest in our society. A cancer that splits the workers and denies them unity and class-consciousness. Racism is a cancer that feeds division and saps the common trench of anti-imperialism. It must be ended and eradicated to the last root.

Frelimo once again declares firmly and clearly that it will not tolerate any racial conflict. To the white population, made up essentially of honest workers, we repeat what we have always said: our struggle is your struggle, it is a struggle against exploitation, a struggle to build a new country and establish a people’s democracy.

The liberation of women

The liberation of women is not an act of charity. It is not the result of a humanitarian or compassionate position. It is a fundamental necessity for the Revolution, a guarantee of its continuity, and a condition for its success. The Revolution’s main objective is to destroy the system of the exploitation of man by man, the construction of a new society which will free human potentialities and reconcile work and nature. It is within this context that the question of women’s liberation arises. In general, the women are the most oppressed, the most exploited beings in our society. She is exploited even by him who is exploited himself, beaten by him who is tortured by the palmatorio, humiliated by him who is trod underfoot by the boss or the settler. How may our Revolution succeed without liberating women? Is it possible to liquidate a system of exploitation and still leave a part of society exploited? Can we get rid of only one part of exploitation and oppression? Can we clear away half the weeds without the risk that the surviving half will grow even stronger? Can we then make the Revolution without the mobilization of women? If women compose over half of the exploited and oppressed population, can we leave them on the fringes of the struggle? In order for the Revolution to succeed, we must mobilize all of the exploited and oppressed, and consequently the women also. In order for the Revolution to triumph, it must liquidate the totality of the exploitative and oppressive system, it must liberate all the exploited and oppressed people, and thus it must liquidate women’s exploitation and oppression. It is obliged to liberate women.

Three-fold nature of the Mozambican Revolution

The Mozambican people’s struggle at its current stage has three aspects. It is an anti-colonial struggle aimed at destroying the colonial-fascist state; an anti-imperialist struggle aimed at destroying the control by multinational companies and ending imperialism’s use of our country as a launching pad for aggression against progressive African regimes and protection of the bastions of racism and fascism; finally it is a struggle aimed at destroying the system of exploitation of many by man and replacing it with a new social order at the service of the labouring masses of the people.

A historical line from the Paris Commune to the Mozambican Revolution

samora sankara Historically speaking, the first occasion when the exploited masses did, after various failed bids, win and exercise power, was Paris in 1870. The Paris Commune was smashed after a few months by a coalition of French and German reactionaries, and 30,000 workers were massacred. Finally, in 1917, under the leadership of Lenin, the exploited achieved power in Tsarist Russia and created the Soviet Union, the first state in the world with the people in power. After the victory of the democratic forces in the anti-Fascist war, people‘s power spread to new countries such as China, the People’s Democratic Republic of Korea and the Democratic Republic of Vietnam in Asia. In Europe, people’s power was established in many countries such as the Romanian Republic, the German Democratic Republic, the Bulgarian Republic, etc. The first people’s state on the American continent was established with the victory of the popular forces in Cuba in 1959. People’s power has become a reality for about one-third of mankind. The areas where the working masses have won power are known as the ‘socialist camp’ and today comprise 14 countries. In our country, slave-owners, feudalists, kings, emperors ruled society until the colonial conquest. The colonialist bourgeoisie then established itself in power and imposed its wishes upon all strata in the country until the time when our struggle began to overthrow it.

Socialist solidarity

samora stamp In the socialist countries, where, with the example of the great October Socialist Revolution, the system of exploitation of man by man has been overthrown, the masses in power are building a new society and are establishing a liberated area of our planet, a strategic rear-base for our fight. The wealth of theoretical and practical experience they acquired in the fight for liberation from the old society and to build the new, is an inexhaustible source of inspiration for all of us. The moral, political, diplomatic and material support granted to our struggle is an important ingredient of the successes we have achieved. Those countries are our natural allies throughout the entire process of revolution, since the objective is to build a new society free of any human alienation. Their existence provides the crucial external objective factor for the current triumph of our people’s democratic revolution.

There has been an extraordinary strengthening of the ties of friendship and solidarity between us, and of the exemplary fraternal support afforded by the socialist countries to our cause. We have established direct relations between Frelimo and the parties leading the German Democratic Republic, Bulgaria, China, the DPR Korea, Yugoslavia, Romania, the Soviet Union and the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, and this has been a profound inducement to a deeper knowledge of our mutual experience, to a better understanding of our needs and situation, with the consequence of more appropriate material aid.

Global struggle

In view of the character and objective of our fight, our natural allies are essentially: the national liberation movements, and in these there must naturally be included countries recently liberated, especially in Africa; socialist countries; the labouring masses, especially the working class; and the progressive anti-colonialist and anti-fascist forces in the capitalist countries.

Our experience has shown that it is possible to establish a broad front throughout the peoples of the world for the isolation of Portuguese colonialism. Within countries committed to NATO, which support the colonial war economically and militarily, action from the people can make governments dissociate themselves from Portuguese colonialism, as has been shown by the positions taken by the governments of Holland, Denmark and Norway. The recent stand taken by the people in Italy and Belgium, among others, has had a positive effect on the governments. Other governments, such as those in Sweden and Finland, which traditionally had good relations with Portugal, are now, thanks to the people’s sentiment, committing themselves to support our cause.

Progress by the representative movements of the European labouring masses, development in the trends that strive for unity of the progressive forces within capitalist society, are tending to weaken imperialism and so contribute to our common success.

Of particular importance to us is the development of the anti-war movement in Portugal. Increasingly heavy casualties for the colonial troops, the astronomic rise in the cost of living due to the war, along with campaigns by the Portuguese democratic forces, have led to increasing consciousness on the part of the broad masses. The labouring masses and the working class who bear the main brunt of the war in lives, taxes and worsening living standards, and students and intellectual circles, have played a relevant part in this. We must emphasise that the Portuguese Communist Party and other progressive and democratic forces have been crucial to this process. We find today that all social strata and non-fascist sectors are committed to struggling against the colonial war.

Marxism

The men and women who accompanied Marx at his burial in a London cemetery were few. Today the lives of thousands of millions of men and women have been profoundly affected and changed by the enduring ideas of Marx. In four continents, workers, taking control of their destiny, are building a happy future, are building socialism, communism. Against Marxism, against Leninism, which is our epoch’s Marxism, imperialism mobilises incalculable human and material resources. The most sophisticated weapons, the threat of thermonuclear, bacteriological and chemical disaster, the ocean depths and cosmic space are deployed in an attempt to neutralise and destroy Marxism-Leninism. The spectre that haunted the bourgeoisie in Europe a hundred years ago still haunts them, but now it is perceptible throughout the world.

For the oppressed peoples and classes, for the peoples and workers who have taken control of their destiny, Marxism is a shining path, a sun of hope and certainty that never sets, a sun that is always at its zenith. Marxism, the science of revolution, is the fruit of practice, of mankind’s struggle for a better future and so is renewed and developed through human practice. The experience of revolutionary struggle of the Mozambican people provides an illustration of this principle… A century after the death of Marx, the cause of socialism and communism has ceased to be a dream and has become a reality that changes the world. The vitality of revolutionary science, systematised by Marx, can have no better proof than the facts themselves.

The accumulated experience of mankind in the struggle against exploitation, synthesised in Marxism, enabled the Mozambican revolutionary movement to benefit from and absorb that experience. In the process Marxism was enriched.

 Liberation struggles and the Portuguese revolution

The heroic struggle of the Mozambican people led by Frelimo, and the struggles of the brother peoples in Angola and Guinea-Bissau, led by the MPLA and the PAIGC, brought the collapse of the Portuguese colonial-fascist regime. The 25 April movement was thus a product of our peoples’ heroic struggles – we liberated the metropole. Without the struggle in the colonies, fascism would not have fallen. It was not an act of charity but a sacrifice by our peoples. Portuguese colonialism in Mozambique crumbled in the face of Frelimo’s decisive victories.

Problems after liberation

Discontent will arise. All those who were hoping to exploit the people, to step into the shoes of colonialism, will oppose us. Erstwhile companions of ours who initially accepted the popular aims of our struggle, but who in practice reject the internal struggle to change their values and customs, will move away from us to the extent of deserting or even betraying… The reactionary forces, the disgruntled elements, will see in an alliance with the enemy a way of safeguarding their petty and anti-popular interests, while the enemy will find in such an alliance a golden opportunity to strike a blow against the revolution.

Real liberation versus neocolonialism

We often say that in the course of the struggle our great victory has been in transforming the armed struggle for national liberation into a revolution. In other words, our final aim in the struggle is not to hoist a flag different from the Portuguese, or to hold more or less honest elections in which Blacks and not Whites are elected, or to put a black president into the Ponta Vermelha Palace in Lourenco Marques instead of a white governor. We say our aim is to win complete independence, establish people’s power, build a new society without exploitation, for the benefit of all those who identify as Mozambicans.

The patronising western view of ‘Africanness’

samora neto After independence, we went on with our fight for liberation: the fight to restore dignity, identity and the Mozambican culture; the fight to build a new society, a new outlook, a New Man; the fight to destroy exploitation; the fight to build socialism. We freed the land. We nationalised the schools: education ceased to be a privilege; we abolished the private schools and private tutors. We nationalised the health service: the hospitals were opened to all the people; we did away with private medical practice. We abolished private legal practice: justice ceased to be a commodity. We nationalised the funeral parlours: we ensured dignity for the burial of any citizen. We nationalised rented property: the cities became the property of those who built them; the cement cities, for the first time in our history, took on a Mozambican face.

These are our people’s revolutionary victories. They were the first steps towards the building of a new society, a socialist society. A socialist society means the welfare of all: the right to work; the right to education and health without discrimination; the right of every citizen to decent housing, to reasonable transport, to butter and eggs for our children and for all of us; the right to be decently dressed… that’s what we want.

Bur our friends in the west say that if we go about well dressed, if we shave, if we have decent housing, we shall lose our ‘African characteristics’. Do you know what ‘African characteristics’ are? A skin, a loincloth, a wrap-around cloth, a stick in hand behind a flock, to be skinny with every rib sticking out, sores on the feet and legs, with a cashew leaf to cover the suppurating wound – that is African. That’s what they see as African characteristics. So when the tourists come, they are looking for an African dressed like that, since that is the ‘genuine African’. Now when they find us dressed in a tunic and trousers – we are no longer the Africans. They don’t take photographs. They need Africa to have no industry, so that it will continue to provide raw materials. Not to have a steel industry. Since this would be a luxury for the African. They need Africa not to have dams, bridges, textile mills for clothing. A factory for shoes? No, the African doesn’t deserve it. No, that’s not for the Africans.

The decadent nature of colonial armies

The exploitative mentality of the colonial army naturally leads it to pillage and robbery of the people’s possessions. The enemy’s corrupt mentality in regard to women leads him naturally to immorality and rape. The decadent tastes of capitalism lead to a taste for drunkenness and drug-taking, as a way of smothering and alienating consciousness. Fascist and colonialist logic, and its intrinsic contempt for human dignity, leads to systematic use of the most barbarous, inhuman and sadistic crimes, just as it provokes human degradation and bestiality in the repressive forces themselves.

Production as an act of militancy

The enterprise, the workshop, is for us the incubator where class consciousness is nurtured. What we manufacture, the way we work, how we discuss and plan production, provides a window on our class consciousness. In our republic where power belongs to the worker-peasant alliance, production is an act of militancy. Now that we no longer have the whip and forced labour, production is an act of militancy.

The main tasks

We want to create conditions such that in this generation disease, hunger, poverty, illiteracy and ignorance should begin to vanish forever from our country. Just as we emerged victorious from the struggle against colonialism, just as we smashed the racist aggression of the illegal Ian Smith regime, so we shall also emerge victorious from this battle, because once again we shall be able to bring together the energy and intelligence of the entire people for peace, progress, prosperity and plenty. It is the task of all of us to organise society so that we can conquer underdevelopment.

The Revolutionary Legacy of Amilcar Cabral

Amílcar Lopes da Costa Cabral, one of the greatest anti-colonial leaders of the twentieth century, was born on the 12th of September 1924 in Bafatá, a small town in central Guinea-Bissau. Today, ninety years later, let us take a moment to remember this brilliant revolutionary – the undisputed leader and architect of the struggle to liberate Guinea Bissau and Cape Verde from the yoke of Portuguese colonialism.

As a revolutionary theorist, as a guerrilla fighter, as an inspiring agitator, as an uncompromising internationalist, Cabral’s legacy continues to inform the global struggle against imperialism and for socialism.

From a base of almost nothing, he was able to lead the construction of the most successful guerrilla movement in Africa and a strong, disciplined political party: the Partido Africano da Independência da Guiné e Cabo Verde (PAIGC). Fidel Castro referred to him as “one of the most lucid and brilliant leaders in Africa, who instilled in us tremendous confidence in the future and the success of his struggle for liberation.”

130120_amilcar_cabral_0Cabral built close links with the liberated African countries (in particular Guinea, Ghana, Tanzania, Algeria and Libya) as well as the liberation movements fighting colonialism in Mozambique, South Africa and Angola. Furthermore, he located the PAIGC’s struggle against colonialism within the global struggle against imperialism and for socialism, and on this basis forged close ties with the entire socialist camp, including the Soviet Union, China, the German Democratic Republic, Cuba and Vietnam. (The PAIGC was one of the few movements in the 60s and 70s to successfully navigate the Sino-Soviet split and maintain close relations with both the Soviet Union and China).

Cabral was surely a man of action, but he was also an important and innovative political thinker who made an outstanding contribution to anti-imperialist, socialist, pan-Africanist and revolutionary nationalist ideologies. Tetteh Kofi writes that Cabral “charted a new ideological path, extending the works of Marx and Lenin to suit African realities. Cabral was the leading political theorist of the Lusophone leaders, until his assassination in 1973” (cited in Reiland Rabaka ‘Concepts of Cabralism: Amilcar Cabral and Africana Critical Theory’).

Portugal’s racist policy – along with its own backwardness – meant that very few people in its colonies had access to higher education. In Guinea Bissau at the time, there was only a handful of university graduates in the whole country. However, Cabral displayed exceptional academic ability, and this enabled him to study at the University of Lisbon, where he met people like Agostinho Neto and Eduardo Mondlane (who would go on to lead the revolutionary movements in Angola and Mozambique respectively). In Portugal, his fellow African students introduced him to socialist ideology, and they spent much of their time studying, discussing and strategising: how to end colonial domination of their homelands? How to inspire the broad masses of the people to engage in struggle?

Cabral returned to Guinea Bissau in 1951 and worked for some years as an agronomist – which experience provided him with ample opportunity to learn at first hand of the dire poverty and intense suffering of his people, especially in the countryside. His experiences made him more determined than ever to find ways and means of working for the freedom of his country and delivering his people from the yoke of colonial bondage.”

Living for a brief spell in Angola, he was a founder member of Angola’s preeminent liberation organisation, Movimento Popular Libertação de Angola (MPLA), along with his university friend Agostinho Neto. In the same year (1956), he and his comrades founded the African Party of Independence of Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde Islands (PAIGC).

ANC and SACP stalwart Yusuf Dadoo writes: “Under his leadership the PAIGC mobilised the country’s patriots to struggle for the freedom of Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde Islands, created the people’s army and led the national-liberation war against the Portuguese colonialists. Cabral knew and understood his enemy well, and every phase of the struggle was carefully planned and action meticulously organised. The cadres of the PAIGC were given political education as well as military training and he stressed always ‘that we are armed militants and not militarists.’”

cabral-and-fightersIn 1963, after several years of careful planning, study and strategising, the PAIGC launched its military campaign, which over the course of a few years was able to win the support and loyalty of the Guinean and Capeverdian masses and which managed to shake the rotting colonial entity to its foundations. The first liberated zones were set up in 1965, and these continued to expand unstoppably until independence in 1974, by which time practically the entire country was in the hands of the revolutionary forces.

Sadly, Cabral did not live to see the final victory of the national liberation struggle, and Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde were deprived of the insightful leadership that he would doubtless have provided in the post-colonial period. On 20 January 1973, he was kidnapped and shot by disgruntled PAIGC members working in collaboration with the Portuguese secret police.

Nonetheless, the heroic people of Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde stepped up their fight, with Amílcar Cabral’s name on their lips.

Piero Gleijeses notes that, “a few weeks after Cabral’s death, the PAIGC was decisively strengthened by the delivery of surface-to-air missiles from the Soviet Union. Until then, the rebels had not had an effective defense against Portuguese air power, but in late 1972, Luis Cabral recounts, ‘we learned about a Soviet anti-aircraft weapon that was light and very efficient. Amilcar made a special trip to Moscow to explain our needs to the Soviet authorities and to urge them to give us that precious weapon.’ The mission, in December 1972, proved successful. In March 1973 the Portuguese prime minister wrote, ‘surface-to-air missiles unexpectedly appeared in the enemy’s hands in Guinea-Bissau and within a few days five of our planes had been shot down.’ This meant that ‘our unchallenged air superiority, which had been our trump card and the basis of our entire military policy … had suddenly evaporated.’” (Conflicting Missions)

By mid-1973, the PAIGC had extended its liberated territory to cover more than two-thirds of the country. On 24 September 1973, the Popular National Assembly proclaimed the independent state of Guinea-Bissau. Full independence was finally granted a year later, on 10 September 1974. Portugal had, in the course of 11 years’ severe warfare, been well and truly defeated.

Meanwhile, the revolutionary anti-colonial wars had played a major part in bringing about the economic and political crisis within Portugal itself, and had been an inspiration for the most progressive elements within the Portuguese left. The overthrow of fascism in Portugal owes much to the heroic struggle waged by the people of Guinea Bissau, Cape Verde, Angola and Mozambique.

Patrick Chabal, in ‘Revolutionary Leadership and People’s War’, sums up Cabral’s legacy succinctly:

In less than twenty years of active political life, Cabral led Guinea-Bissau’s nationalists to the most complete political and military success ever achieved by an African political movement against a colonial power. At the time of his death in 1973, months before Guinea-Bissau became independent, his influence extended well beyond the Lusophone world and Africa. Friends and foes alike admired his political acumen and skills and saw in him a potential leader of the non-aligned movement. His writings have shown him to be a sophisticated analyst of the social, economic and political factors which have affected and continue to affect the developing world.

We publish below a selection of valuable quotes by (and a few about) Amílcar Cabral, which are meant to serve as an introduction to his ideological legacy. The quotes are followed by some suggestions for further reading.

Theory and practice

As someone born in a country where a foreign colonial power pointedly refused to allow the vast majority of the population access to learning, Cabral had little time for anti-intellectual strands within the progressive movement. Indeed he strongly felt that the existing anti-imperialist movements were much in need of greater ideological grounding.

The ideological deficiency within the national liberation movements, not to say the total lack of ideology – reflecting as this does an ignorance of the historical reality which these movements claim to transform – makes for one of the greatest weaknesses in our struggle against imperialism, if not the greatest weakness of all. (source)

On the connection between theory and practice, he strikes a similar chord to Mao:

Every practice produces a theory, and though it is true that a revolution can fail even though it be based on perfectly conceived theories, nobody has yet made a successful revolution without a revolutionary theory. (ibid)

Very early on in their struggle, and with hardly any resources at their disposal, the PAIGC founders set up a political school in order to create cadres.

The fact that the Republic of Guinea was next to us enabled our Party to install there, temporarily, some of our leaders, and this enabled us to create a political school to prepare political activists. This was decisive for our struggle. In 1960 we created a political school in Conakry, under very poor conditions. Militants from the towns – party members – were the first to come to receive political instruction and to be trained in how to mobilise our people for the struggle. After comrades from the city came peasants and youths (some even bringing their entire families) who had been mobilised by Party members. Ten, twenty, twenty-five people would come for a period of one or two months. During that period they went through an intensive education programme; we spoke to them, and night would come and we couldn’t speak any more because we were completely hoarse. (source)

In his celebrated directive ‘Tell no lies, claim no easy victories’, he urges:

Educate ourselves, educate other people, the population in general, to fight fear and ignorance, to eliminate little by little the subjugation to nature and natural forces which our economy has not yet mastered. Convince little by little, in particular the militants of the Party, that we shall end by conquering the fear of nature, and that man is the strongest force in nature. Demand from responsible Party members that they dedicate themselves seriously to study, that they interest themselves in the things and problems of our daily life and struggle in their fundamental and essential aspect, and not simply in their appearance. Learn from life, learn from our people, learn from books, learn from the experience of others. Never stop learning. (source)

Socialism

Cabral’s major focus as a revolutionary was to create maximum national unity against Portuguese colonialism, and therefore much of his thought is framed in terms of revolutionary nationalism rather than specifically socialism. Nonetheless, he was very clear about what he thought post-colonial Africa should look like. Furthermore, he established very close links with the existing socialist camp, including the Soviet Union, Cuba, the German Democratic Republic, China and Cuba.

In our present historical situation — elimination of imperialism which uses every means to perpetuate its domination over our peoples, and consolidation of socialism throughout a large part of the world — there are only two possible paths for an independent nation: to return to imperialist domination (neo-colonialism, capitalism, state capitalism), or to take the way of socialism. (source)

Further:

The essential characteristic of our times is the general struggle of the peoples against imperialism and the existence of a socialist camp, which is the greatest bulwark against imperialism. (source)

In response to the question of to what extent Marxism and Leninism as an ideology had been relevant to the national liberation struggle of Guinea Bissau and Cape Verde, Cabral stated:

Moving from the realities of one’s own country towards the creation of an ideology for one’s struggle doesn’t imply that one has pretensions to be a Marx or a Lenin or any other great ideologist, but is simply a necessary part of the struggle. I confess that we didn’t know these great theorists terribly well when we began. We didn’t know them half as well as we do now. We needed to know them, as I’ve said in order to judge in what measure we could borrow from their experience to help our situation – but not necessarily to apply the ideology blindly just because it’s very good. This is where we stand on this. (source)

Cabral’s writings on the class structure of Guinea-Bissaun and Capeverdian society are fascinating and deserve to be studied in detail. Here is a particularly interesting passage on the problem of trying to create a working class mentality in a country that only had a tiny working class:

We were faced with another difficult problem: we realised that we needed to have people with a mentality which could transcend the context of the national liberation struggle, and so we prepared a number of cadres from the group I have just mentioned, some from the people employed in commerce and other wage-earners, and even some peasants, so that they could acquire what you might call a working class mentality. You may think this is absurd – in any case it is very difficult; in order for there to be a working class mentality the material conditions of the working class should exist, a working class should exist. In fact we managed to inculcate these ideas into a large number of people – the kind of ideas which there would be if there were a working class. We trained about 1,000 cadres at our party school in Conakry, in fact for about two years this was about all we did outside the country. When these cadres returned to the rural areas they inculcated a certain mentality into the peasants and it is among these cadres that we have chosen the people who are now leading the struggle.” (source)

Speaking at a seminar on ‘Lenin and National Liberation’, held at Alma Ata, capital of Soviet Socialist Republic of Kazakhstan, in 1970, Cabral made the crucial connection between Lenin’s ideas and the national liberation struggles being waged across Africa:

“How is it that we, a people deprived of everything, living in dire straits, manage to wage our struggle and win successes? Our answer is: this is because Lenin existed, because he fulfilled his duty as a man, a revolutionary and a patriot. Lenin was and continues to be, the greatest champion of the national liberation of the peoples.” (source)

Yusuf Dadoo’s obituary of Cabral notes that “he had very close association with the Soviet Union which he visited on many occasions and made a major contribution to the promotion and strengthening of friendship and cooperation between the peoples of Guinea-Bissau and the Soviet Union, between the PAIGC and the CPSU.”

The socialist countries and the liberated African states were the major suppliers of weapons, training and finance to the PAIGC (as indeed they were to the MPLA in Angola, Frelimo in Mozambique, SWAPO in Namibia, ZANU and ZAPU in Zimbabwe, and the ANC and SACP in South Africa).

A socialist camp has arisen in the world. This has radically changed the balance of power, and this socialist camp is today showing itself fully conscious of its duties, international and historic, but not moral, since the peoples of the socialist countries have never exploited the colonised peoples. They are showing themselves conscious of their duty, and this is why I have the honour of telling you openly here that we are receiving substantial and effective aid from these countries, which is reinforcing the aid which we receive from our African brothers. If there are people who don’t like to hear this, let them come and help us in our struggle too. (source)

Further:

We want to mention the special aid given to us by the peoples of the socialist countries. We believe that this aid is a historic obligation, because we consider that our struggle also constitutes a defence of the socialist countries. And we want to say particularly that the Soviet Union, first of all, and China, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, and other socialist countries continue to aid us, which we consider very useful for the development of our armed struggle. We also want to lay special emphasis on the untiring efforts – sacrifices that we deeply appreciate – that the people of Cuba – a small country without great resources, one that is struggling against the blockade by the US and other imperialists – are making to give effective aid to our struggle. For us, this is a constant source of encouragement, and it also contributes to cementing more and more the solidarity between our Party and the Cuban Party, between our people and the Cuban people, a people that we consider African. And it is enough to see the historical, political, and blood ties that unite us to be able to say this. Therefore, we are very happy with the aid that the Cuban people give us, and we are sure that they will continue increasing their aid to our national liberation struggle in spite of all difficulties. (source)

Anti-imperialist unity

badgeAmílcar Cabral was a consummate internationalist, who understood anti-imperialist unity not simply in abstract intellectual terms but as a matter of life and death for his movement. After all, the enemy has shown itself to be very capable of developing unity when it needs to:

The Portuguese government has managed to guarantee for as long as necessary the assistance which it receives from the Western powers and from its racist allies in Southern Africa. It is our duty to stress the international character of the Portuguese colonial war against Africa and the important and even decisive role played by the USA and Federal Germany in pursuing this war. If the Portuguese government is still holding out on the three fronts of the war which it is fighting in Africa, it is because it can count on the overt or covert support of the USA, freely use NATO weapons, buy B26 aircraft for the genocide of our people (including from ‘private parties’), and obtain whenever it wishes money. jet aircraft and weapons of every sort from Federal Germany where, furthermore, certain war-wounded from the Portuguese colonial army are hospitalised and treated. (source)

In a fiery opening address at the conference of the Conference of Nationalist Organizations of the Portuguese Colonies (CONCP) held in Dar Es-Salaam in 1965, we see the breadth and depth of his internationalism:

Our hearts beat in unison with the hearts of our brothers in Vietnam who are giving us a shining example by facing the most shameful and unjustifiable aggression of the US imperialists against the peaceful people of Vietnam. Our hearts are equally with our brothers in the Congo who, in the bush of that vast and rich African country are seeking to resolve their problems in the face of imperialist aggression and of the manoeuvres of imperialism through their puppets. That is why we of the CONCP proclaim loud and clear that we are against Tshombe, against all the Tshombes of Africa. Our hearts are also with our brothers in Cuba, who have shown that even when surrounded by the sea, a people is capable of taking up arms and successfully defending its fundamental interests and of deciding its own destiny. We are with the Blacks of North America, we are with them in the streets of Los Angeles, and when they are deprived of all possibility of life, we suffer with them.

We are with the refugees, the martyrised refugees of Palestine, who have been tricked and driven from their own homeland by the manoeuvres of imperialism. We are on the side of the Palestinian refugees and we support wholeheartedly all that the sons of Palestine are doing to liberate their country, and we fully support the Arab and African countries in general in helping the Palestinian people to recover their dignity, their independence and their right to life. We are also with the peoples of Southern Arabia, of so-called ‘French’ Somaliland, of so-called ‘Spanish’ Guinea, and we are also most seriously and painfully with our brothers in South Africa who are facing the most barbarous racial discrimination. We are absolutely certain that the development of the struggle in the Portuguese colonies, and the victory we are winning each day over Portuguese colonialism is an effective contribution to the elimination of the vile, shameful regime of racial discrimination, of apartheid in South Africa. And we are also certain that peoples like that of Angola, that of Mozambique and ourselves in Guinea and Cabo Verde, far from South Africa, will soon, very soon we hope, be able to play a very important role in the final elimination of that last bastion of imperialism and racism in Africa, South Africa. (source)

On Palestine:

We have as a basic principle the defence of just causes. We are in favour of justice, human progress, the freedom of the people. On this basis we believe that the creation of Israel, carried out by the imperialist states to maintain their domination in the Middle East, was artificial and aimed at the creation of problems in that very important region of the world. This is our position: the Jewish people have lived in different countries of the world. We lament profoundly what the Nazis did to the Jewish people, that Hitler and his lackeys destroyed almost six million during the last World War. But we do not accept that this gives them the right to occupy a part of the Arab nation. We believe that the people of Palestine have a right to their homeland. We therefore think that all the measures taken by the Arab peoples, by the Arab nation, to recover the Palestinian Arab homeland are justified. (source)

On Vietnam:

For us, the struggle in Vietnam is our own struggle. We consider that in Vietnam not only the fate of our own people but also that of all the peoples struggling for their national independence and sovereignty is at stake. We are in solidarity with the people of Vietnam, and we immensely admire their heroic struggle against US aggression and against the aggression of the reactionaries of the southern part of Vietnam, who are no more than the puppets of US imperialism. (ibid)

Visiting the US, Cabral met with representatives from a number of black liberation groups, and demonstrated a solid understanding of, and solidarity with, their struggle.

You can be sure that we realize the difficulties you face, the problems you have and your feelings, your revolts, and also your hopes. We think that our fighting for Africa against colonialism and imperialism is a proof of understanding of your problem and also a contribution for the solution of your problems in this continent. Naturally the inverse is also true. All the achievements towards the solution of your problems here are real contributions to our own struggle. And we are very encouraged in our struggle by the fact that each day more of the African people born in America become conscious of their responsibilities to the struggle in Africa.

We think that all you can do here to develop your own conditions in the sense of progress, in the sense of history and in the sense of the total realization of your aspirations as human beings is a contribution for us. It is also a contribution for you to never forget that you are Africans. (source)

He also makes an important point about the politics of non-alignment, specifying that this doesn’t mean “neither east nor west”, or “neither capitalism nor socialism”, but rather retaining independence of decision making:

Non-alignment for us means not aligning ourselves with blocs, not aligning ourselves with the decisions of others. We reserve the right to make our own decisions, and if by chance our choices and decisions coincide with those of others, that is not our fault. We are for the policy of non-alignment, but we consider ourselves to be deeply committed to our people and committed to every just cause in the world. We see ourselves as part of a vast front of struggle for the good of humanity. (source)

Cuba

cabral fidelIn his incredible book ‘Conflicting Missions’, Piero Gleijeses writes in some detail about the relationship between Cuba and Guinea Bissau:

In January 1966, Cabral made his first trip to Cuba when he led the PAIGC delegation to the Tricontinental Conference in Havana. He was ‘the most impressive African in attendance,’ U.S. intelligence reported, and he made a powerful impression on his Cuban hosts. ‘His address to the Tricontinental was brilliant,’ Risquet remembered. ‘Everyone was struck by his great intelligence and personality. Fidel was very impressed by him’…

Amilcar Cabral had decided that Cuba alone should send its fighters to Guinea-Bissau. He chose Cuba in part because he felt some cultural and ethnic affinity with the Cubans and, above all, because he respected the Cuban revolution. ‘I remember that when I was in Cuba, Fidel told me that Cuba is also Africa,’ he told a group of Cubans in August 1966. ‘I don’t believe there is life after death, but if there is, we can be sure that the souls of our forefathers who were taken away to America to be slaves are rejoicing today to see their children reunited and working together to help us be independent and free.’ Thirty years later, other PAIGC leaders echoed his words. ‘We greatly admired the struggle of the Cuban people. The Cubans were a special case because we knew that they, more than anyone else, were the champions of internationalism,’ one recalled. ‘Cuba made no demands, it gave us unconditional aid,’ said another.

It was the Soviet bloc whose help was decisive. It provided arms, educational opportunities, and other material and political support. The Soviet Union was, by far, the major source of weapons. Cuba, too, gave material help, in the form of supplies, military training in Cuba, and scholarships. This was a considerable and generous effort for a poor country. But Cuba did much more, and its role was unique. Only Cubans fought in Guinea Bissau alongside the guerrilla fighters of the PAIGC…

Luis Cabral (Amilcar’s brother) later stated: ‘We were able to fight and triumph because other countries and people helped us … with weapons, with medicine, with supplies… But there is one nation that in addition to material, political, and diplomatic support, even sent its children to fight by our side, to shed their blood in our land alongside that of the best children of our country. This great people, this heroic people, we all know that is the heroic people of Cuba; the Cuba of Fidel Castro; the Cuba of the Sierra Maestra, the Cuba of Moncada… Cuba sent its best sons here to help us in the technical aspects of our war, to help us wage this great struggle against Portuguese colonialism.’

Visiting Cuba in 1966, Cabral stated:

If any of us came to Cuba with doubts in our mind about the solidity, strength, maturity and vitality of the Cuban Revolution, these doubts have been removed by what we have been able to see. Our hearts are now warmed by an unshakeable certainty which gives us courage in the difficult but glorious struggle against the common enemy: no power in the world will be able to destroy this Cuban Revolution, which is creating in the countryside and in the towns not only a new life but also — and even more important — a New Man, fully conscious of his national, continental and international rights and duties…

We guarantee that we, the peoples of the countries of Africa, still completely dominated by Portuguese colonialism, are prepared to send to Cuba as many men and women as may be needed to compensate for the departure of those who for reasons of class or of inability to adapt have interests or attitudes which are incompatible with the interests of the Cuban people. Taking once again the formerly hard and tragic path of our ancestors (mainly from Guinea and Angola) who were taken to Cuba as slaves, we would come now as free men, as willing workers and Cuban patriots, to fulfill a productive function in this new, just and multi-racial society, and to help and defend with our own lives the victories of the Cuban people. Thus we would strengthen both all the bonds of history, blood and culture which unite our peoples with the Cuban people, and the spontaneous giving of oneself, the deep joy and infectious rhythm which make the construction of socialism in Cuba a new phenomenon for the world, a unique and, for many, unaccustomed event. (source)

Solidarity with the working class movement in the ‘first world’

Cabral never tired of highlighting the need for global solidarity and unity against imperialism – a unity that should include the oppressed classes within imperialist society itself. However, he understood from direct experience that the creation of a ‘labour aristocracy’ had the effect of vastly reducing the anti-imperialist sentiment of the working class in western Europe and North America. Frankly, he understood this phenomenon better than 90% of western leftists.

I should just like to make one last point about solidarity between the international working class movement and our national liberation struggle. There are two alternatives: either we admit that there really is a struggle against imperialism which interests everybody, or we deny it. If, as would seem from all the evidence, imperialism exists and is trying simultaneously to dominate the working class in all the advanced countries and smother the national liberation movements in all the underdeveloped countries, then there is only one enemy against whom we are fighting. If we are fighting together, then I think the main aspect of our solidarity is extremely simple: it is to fight…

We are struggling in Guinea with guns in our hands, you must struggle in your countries as well – I don’t say with guns in your hands, I’m not going to tell you how to struggle, that’s your business; but you must find the best means and the best forms of fighting against our common enemy: this is the best form of solidarity. There are, of course, other secondary forms of solidarity: publishing material, sending medicine, etc; I can guarantee you that if tomorrow we make a breakthrough and you are engaged in an armed struggle against imperialism in Europe we will send you some medicine too. (source)

Interestingly, Cabral saw imperialism as being a greater threat to the European working class than to the masses of the oppressed nations – while revolutionising the latter, it had pacified the former, ”encouraging the development of a privileged proletariat and thus lowering the revolutionary level of the working classes.”

As we see it, neocolonialism (which we may call rationalised imperialism) is more a defeat for the international working class than for the colonised peoples. Neocolonialism is at work on two fronts – in Europe as well as in the underdeveloped countries. Its current framework in the underdeveloped countries is the policy of aid, and one of the essential aims of this policy is to create a false bourgeoisie to put a brake on the revolution and to enlarge the possibilities of the petty bourgeoisie as a neutraliser of the revolution; at the same time it invests capital in France, Italy, Belgium, England and so on. In our opinion the aim of this is to stimulate the growth of a workers’ aristocracy, to enlarge the field of action of the petty bourgeoisie so as to block the revolution. (ibid)

In his overview of class society in Guinea Bissau, he notes that the settlers of working class origin are often the most reactionary. This is another manifestation of the success of the western ruling classes in brainwashing workers.

The European settlers are, in general, hostile to the idea of national liberation; they are the human instruments of the colonial state in our country and they therefore reject a priori any idea of national liberation there. It has to be said that the Europeans most bitterly opposed to the idea of national liberation are the workers, while we have sometimes found considerable sympathy for our struggle among certain members of the European petty bourgeoisie. (ibid)

Talking with a degree of frustration about the endless criticism meted out to the liberation struggles by left sects in Europe, he says:

The criticism reminds me of a story about some lions: there is a group of lions who are shown a picture of a lion lying on the ground and a man holding a gun with his foot on the lion (as everybody knows the lion is proud of being king of the jungle); one of the lions looks at the picture and says, “if only we lions could paint”. If only one of the leaders of one of the new African countries could take time off from the terrible problems in his own country and become a critic of the European left and say all he had to say about the retreat of the revolution in Europe, of a certain apathy in some European countries and of the false hopes which we have all had in certain European groups… (ibid)

Against dogmatism

amilcar22Amílcar Cabral is famous for his insistence on a concrete approach to concrete problems, rather than the dogmatic application of formulas. He was by no means against ideology, but he was adamant that no set of revolutionary principles could simply be transplanted wholesale from one situation to another. English historian, Africanist and the major chronicler of the Guinea-Bissau revolution Basil Davidson wrote that “if one had to define a single influential aspect of Cabral’s approach, perhaps it would be his insistence on the study of reality. ‘Do not confuse the reality you live in with the ideas you have in your head’, was a favourite theme in his seminars for party militants. Your ideas may be good, even excellent, but they will be useless ideas unless they spring from and interweave with the reality you live in. What is necessary is to see into and beyond appearances: to free yourself from the sticky grasp of ‘received opinions’, whether academic or otherwise. Only through a principled study of reality, of the strictly here and now, can a theory of revolutionary change be integrated with its practice to the point where the two become inseparable. This is what he taught.” (source)

After all, there were definitely no ready-made formulas ready for use in the context of Guinea Bissau and Cape Verde. These highly complex African societies, whose history had been diverted by centuries of oppression by a colonial power that was itself very backward and dependent, were hardly the revolutionary centres that Marx and Engels had in mind when they produced the Manifesto of the Communist Party in 1848. Mao Zedong’s groundbreaking application of Marxism to the conditions of semi-fuedal China provided a much closer analogy to the conditions prevailing in Guinea Bissau, but even then there were important differences that required concrete analysis.

Naturally, there are certain general or universal laws, even scientific laws for any condition, but the liberation struggle has to be developed according to the specific conditions of each country. This is fundamental. The specific conditions to be considered include economic, cultural, social, political and even geographic conditions. The guerrilla manuals once told us that without mountains you cannot make guerrilla war. But in my country there are no mountains, only the people. In the economic field we committed an error. We began training our people to commit sabotage on the railroads. When they returned from their training we remembered that there were no railroads in our country. The Portuguese built them in Mozambique and Angola but not in our country. (source)

The PAIGC made an extensive study of production relations in the countryside, which led them to a campaign of mobilising the peasantry that was decidedly different to what had taken place in other African and Asian countries.

It so happens that in our country the Portuguese colonialists did not expropriate the land; they allowed us to cultivate the land. They did not create agricultural companies of the European type as they did, for instance, in Angola, displacing masses of Africans in order to settle Europeans. We maintained a basic structure under colonialism – the land as co-operative property of the village, of the community. This is a very important characteristic of our peasantry, which was not directly exploited by the colonisers but was exploited through trade, through the differences between the prices and the real value of products. This is where the exploitation occurs, not in work, as happens in Angola with the hired workers and company employees. This created a special difficulty in our struggle – that of showing the peasant that he was being exploited in his own country.

Telling the people that “the land belongs to those who work on it” was not enough to mobilise them, because we have more than enough land, there is all the land we need. We had to find appropriate formulae for mobilising our peasants, instead of using terms that our people could not yet understand. We could never mobilise our people simply on the basis of the struggle against colonialism-that has no effect. To speak of the fight against imperialism is not convincing enough. Instead we use a direct language that all can understand:

“Why are you going to fight? What are you? What is your father? What has happened to your father up to now? What is the situation? Did you pay taxes? Did your father pay taxes? What have you seen from those taxes? How much do you get for your groundnuts? Have you thought about how much you will earn with your groundnuts? How much sweat has it cost your family? Which of you have been imprisoned? You are going to work on road-building: who gives you the tools? You bring the tools. Who provides your meals? You provide your meals. But who walks on the road? Who has a car? And your daughter who was raped-are you happy about that?” (source)

Class suicide

Given the near-absence of an industrial working class, and the prevalence of petty bourgeois (or middle class) elements in the leadership of the national liberation movement, Cabral talked of the need for the petty bourgeoisie to commit ‘class suicide’ in order that the gains of the revolution not be reversed.

To retain the power which national liberation puts in its hands, the petty bourgeoisie has only one path: to give free rein to its natural tendencies to become more bourgeois, to permit the development of a bureaucratic and intermediary bourgeoisie in the commercial cycle, in order to transform itself into a national pseudo-bourgeoisie, that is to say in order to negate the revolution and necessarily ally. In order not to betray these objectives the petty bourgeoisie has only one choice: to strengthen its revolutionary consciousness, to reject the temptations of becoming more bourgeois and the natural concerns of its class mentality, to identify itself with the working classes and not to oppose the normal development of the process of revolution. This means that in order to truly fulfill the role in the national liberation struggle, the revolutionary petty bourgeoisie must be capable of committing suicide as a class in order to be reborn as revolutionary workers, completely identified with the deepest aspirations of the people to which they belong. (source)

Armed struggle

The people of Guinea Bissau and Cape Verde fought for the independence – successfully – with guns in hand (and, thanks primarily to the Soviet Union, with sophisticated military technology). However, Cabral never romanticised the armed struggle and the loss of human life.

The past and present experiences of various peoples, the present situation of national liberation struggles in the world (especially in Vietnam, the Congo and Zimbabwe) as well as the situation of permanent violence, or at least of contradictions and upheavals, in certain countries which have gained their independence by the so-called peaceful way, show us not only that compromises with imperialism do not work, but also that the normal way of national liberation, imposed on peoples by imperialist repression, is armed struggle.

I am not a great defender of the armed fight. I am myself very conscious of the sacrifices demanded by the armed fight. It is a violence against even our own people. But it is not our invention – it is not our cool decision; it is the requirement of history. This is not the first fight in our country, and it is not Cabral who invented the struggle. We are following the example of our grandfathers who fought against Portuguese domination 50 years ago. Today’s fight is a continuation of the fight to defend our dignity, our right to have an identity – our own identity.

If it were possible to solve this problem without the armed fight – why not?! But while the armed fight demands sacrifices, it also has advantages. Like everything else in the world, it has two faces – one positive and the other negative – the problem is in the balance. For us now, it (the armed fight) is a good thing in our opinion, and our condition is a good thing because this armed fight helped us to accelerate the revolution of our people, to create a new situation that will facilitate our progress. (ibid)

African history and culture

The colonists usually say that it was they who brought us into history: today we show that this is not so. They made us leave history, our history, to follow them, right at the back, to follow the progress of their history. Today, in taking up arms to liberate ourselves, in following the example of other peoples who have taken up arms to liberate themselves, we want to return to our history, on our own feet, by our own means and through our own sacrifices. (ibid)

In his speech at the first Tricontintal Conference in Havana, 1966, Cabral questions the idea put forward in the Communist Manifesto that “all history is the history of class struggle”, noting that this cuts pre-class society out of history.

Does history begin only with the development of the phenomenon of ‘class’, and consequently of class struggle? To reply in the affirmative would be to place outside history the whole period of life of human groups from the discovery of hunting, and later of nomadic and sedentary agriculture, to the organization of herds and the private appropriation of land. It would also be to consider — and this we refuse to accept — that various human groups in Africa, Asia, and Latin America were living without history, or outside history, at the time when they were subjected to the yoke of imperialism. It would be to consider that the peoples of our countries, such as the Balantes of Guinea, the Coaniamas of Angola and the Macondes of Mozambique, are still living today — if we abstract the slight influence of colonialism to which they have been subjected — outside history, or that they have no history. (source)

In place of class struggle as the driving force of all history, Cabral proposes instead the development of the means of production:

If class struggle is the motive force of history, it is so only in a specific historical period. This means that before the class struggle — and necessarily after it, since in this world there is no before without an after — one or several factors was and will be the motive force of history. It is not difficult to see that this factor in the history of each human group is the mode of production — the level of productive forces and the pattern of ownership — characteristic of that group. Furthermore, as we have seen, classes themselves, class struggle and their subsequent definition, are the result of the development of the productive forces in conjunction with the pattern of ownership of the means of production. It therefore seems correct to conclude that the level of productive forces, the essential determining element in the content and form of class struggle, is the true and permanent motive force of history…

Eternity is not of this world, but man will outlive classes and will continue to produce and make history, since he can never free himself from the burden of his needs, both of mind and of body, which are the basis of the development of the forces of production.

Through this logic, Cabral seeks to break the inferiority complex that is pushed onto the masses of the oppressed nations by colonial ideology, and reassert Africa’s place in history. He also uses this theory to situate the national liberation struggle within the movement of history toward socialism: colonial domination has actually retarded the development of the productive forces (this is especially the case for Portugal’s colonies) and is a block on progress.

Both in colonialism and in neo-colonialism the essential characteristic of imperialist domination remains the same: the negation of the historical process of the dominated people by means of violent usurpation of the freedom of development of the national productive forces.

The colonies must remove this block and, in the interests of rapid development, align themselves with the socialist states:

Whatever its level of productive forces and present social structure, a society can pass rapidly through the defined stages appropriate to the concrete local realities (both historical and human) and reach a higher stage of existence. This progress depends on the concrete possibilities of development of the society’s productive forces and is governed mainly by the nature of the political power ruling the society… A more detailed analysis would show that the possibility of such a jump in the historical process arises mainly, in the economic field, from the power of the means available to man at the time for dominating nature, and, in the political field, from the new event which has radically changed the face of the world and the development of history, the creation of socialist states.

He also notes the process of intense human development that takes place within the national liberation struggle itself:

Our national liberation struggle has a great significance both for Africa and for the world. We are in the process of proving that peoples such as ours – economically backward, living sometimes almost naked in the bush, not knowing how to read or write, not having even the most elementary knowledge of modern technology – are capable, by means of their sacrifices and efforts, of beating an enemy who is not only more advanced from a technological point of view but also supported by the powerful forces of world imperialism. Thus before the world and before Africa we ask: were the Portuguese right when they claimed that we were uncivilised peoples, peoples without culture? We ask: what is the most striking manifestation of civilisation and culture if not that shown by a people which takes up arms to defend its right to life, to progress, to work and to happiness? (source)

Cabral was also strongly focused on the role of cultural imperialism in suppressing the peoples of the oppressed nations, and the importance of culture as an element of resistance to imperialism:

A people who free themselves from foreign domination will be free culturally only if, without complexes and without underestimating the importance of positive accretions from the oppressor and other cultures, they return to the upward paths of their own culture, which is nourished by the living reality of its environment, and which negates both harmful influences and any kind of subjection to foreign culture. Thus, it may be seen that if imperialist domination has the vital need to practice cultural oppression, national liberation is necessarily an act of culture”

The value of culture as an element of resistance to foreign domination lies in the fact that culture is the vigorous manifestation on the ideological or idealist plane of the physical and historical reality of the society that is dominated or to be dominated. Culture is simultaneously the fruit of a people’s history and a determinant of history, by the positive or negative influence which it exerts on the evolution of relationships between man and his environment, among men or groups of men within a society, as well as among different societies. (source)

Although he stressed the importance of African culture and identity, Cabral always made clear that this was not based on any type of discrimination or feelings of superiority.

We are not racists. We are fundamentally and deeply against any kind of racism. Even when people are subjected to racism we are against racism from those who have been oppressed by it. In our opinion – not from dreaming but from a deep analysis of the real condition of the existence of mankind and the division of societies – racism is a result of certain circumstances. It is not eternal in any latitude in the world. It is the result of historical and economic conditions. And we cannot answer racism with racism. It is not possible. In our country, despite some racist manifestations by the Portuguese, we are not fighting against the Portuguese people or whites. We are fighting for the freedom of our people – to free our people and to allow them to be able to love any kind of human being. You cannot love when you are a slave… In combating racism we don’t make progress if we combat the people themselves. We have to combat the causes of racism. If a bandit comes into my house and I have a gun I cannot shoot the shadow of this bandit. I have to shoot the bandit. Many people lose energy and effort, and make sacrifices combating shadows. (source)

Further reading

Needless to say, a selection of quotes can only serve as an outline of, and introduction to, the political, cultural and philosophical thought of Amílcar Cabral. Some other material that you may find useful: