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Socialist Party of Great Britain Polemic - From Capitalism in Africa to World Socialism

We have received the following e-mail from a group in Africa which calls itself the African Women’s Charity Organisation (AWCO). We have published their text along with our reply.


Africa and its islands, with a land area of some twelve million square miles and a population estimated at about 500 million, could easily contain within it, and with room to spare, the whole of India , Europe, Japan , the British Isles, Scandinavia and New Zealand . The United States of America could easily be fitted into the Sahara Desert. Africa is geographically compact, and in terms of natural resources potentially the richest continent in the world.

In Africa , where economic development is uneven, a wide variety of highly sophisticated political systems were in existence over many centuries before the colonial period began. It is here, in the so-called developing world of Africa, and in Asia and Latin America, where the class struggle and the progress towards ending the exploitation of man by man have already entered into the stage of decisive revolutionary change.

The political maturity of the African masses may to some extent be traced to economic and social patterns of traditional times. Under communalism, for example, all land and means of production belonged to the community. There was people’s ownership. Labor was the need and habit of all. When a certain piece of land was allocated to an individual for his personal use, he was not free to do as he liked with it since it still belonged to the community. Chiefs were strictly controlled by counsellors and were removable.

There have been five major types of production relationships known to man---communalism, slavery, feudalism, capitalism and socialism. With the establishment of the socialist state, man has embarked on the road to communism. It was when private property relationships emerged, and as communalism gave way to slavery and feudalism, that the class struggle began.

In general, at the opening of the colonial period, the peoples of Africa were passing through the higher stage of communalism characterized by the disintegration of tribal democracy and the emergence of feudal relationships, hereditary tribal chieftaincies and monarchical systems. With the impact of imperialism and colonialism, communalist socio-economic patterns began to collapse as a result of the introduction of export crops such as cocoa and coffee. The economies of the colonies became interconnected with world capitalist markets. Capitalism, individualism, and tendencies to private ownership grew. Gradually, primitive communalism disintegrated and the collective spirit declined. There was an expansion of private farming and the method of small commodity production.

It was a relatively easy matter for white settlers to appropriate land which was not individually owned. For example, in Malawi, by 1892, more than sixteen per cent of the land had been alienated, and three quarters of it was under the direction of eleven big companies. When the land was seized by settlers, the African “owners” became in some cases tenants or lease-holders, but only on land considered not fertile enough for white farmers. The latter were usually issued with certificates of ownership of land by the British consul, acting on behalf of the British government; and any land not under any specific private ownership was declared “British crown land”. Similar arrangements were made in other parts of colonial Africa.

Under colonialism, communal ownership of land was finally abolished and ownership of land imposed by law. Furthermore, through the system of “Indirect Rule”, chiefs became tools, and in many cases paid agents, of the colonial administration. With the seizure of the land, with all its natural resources—that is, the means of production, two sectors of the economy emerged---the European and the African, the former exploiting the latter. Subsistence agriculture was gradually destroyed and Africans were compelled to sell their labor power to the colonialists, who turned their profits into capital. It was in these circumstances that the race-class struggle also emerged as part of the class.

With the growth of commodity production, mainly for export, single crop economies developed completely dependent on foreign capital. The colony became a sphere for investment and exploitation. Capitalism developed with colonialism. At the same time, the spread of private enterprise, together with the needs of the colonial administrative apparatus, resulted in the emergence of first a petty bourgeois class and then an urban bourgeois class of bureaucrats, reactionary intellectuals, traders, and others, who became increasingly part and parcel of the colonial economic and social structure. To facilitate exploitation, colonialism hampered social and cultural progress in the colonies. Obsolete forms of social relations were restored and preserved. Capitalist methods of production, and capitalist social relationships were introduced. Friction between tribes was in some cases deliberately encouraged when it served to strengthen the hands of colonial administrators.

But certain economic developments, such as that of the extractive industry, plantations and capitalist farming, the building of ports, roads and railways was undertaken in the interests of capitalism. As a result, social changes occurred. Feudal and semi-feudal relationships were undermined with the emergence of an industrial and agricultural proletariat. At the same time there developed a national bourgeoisie and an intelligentsia.

In this colonialist situation, African workers regarded the colonialists, foreign firms and foreign planters, as the exploiters. Thus their class struggle became in the first instance anti-imperialist, and not directed against the indigenous bourgeoisie. It is this which has been responsible in some degree for the relatively slow awakening of the African worker and peasant to the existence of their true class enemy, ---the indigenous bourgeoisie.

At the end of the colonial period there was in most African states a highly developed state machine and a veneer of Parliamentary democracy concealing a coercive state run by an elite of bureaucrats with practically unlimited power. There was an intelligentsia, completely indoctrinated with western values; a virtually non-existent labor movement; a professional army and a police force with an officer corps largely trained in western military academies; and a chieftaincy used to administering at the local level on behalf of the colonial government.

But on the credit side, a new grass roots political leadership emerged during the independence struggle. This was based on worker and peasant support, and committed not only to the winning of political freedom but to a complete transformation of society. This revolutionary leadership, although of necessity associated with the national bourgeoisie in the independence struggle was quite separate from it, and proceeded to break away after independence to pursue its class socialist objectives. This struggle still continues.

The total liberation and the unification of Africa under an All-African socialist government must be the primary objective of all Black revolutionaries throughout the world. It is an objective which, when achieved, will bring about the fulfilment of the aspirations of Africans and people of African descent everywhere. It will at the same time advance the triumph of the international socialist revolution, and the onward progress towards world communism, under which, every society is ordered on the principle of—from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.

Our Reply

Thank you for the e-mail you recently sent us.

There are a number of fundamental political issues you raise in your e-mail which need to be critically debated because of the dangers they pose to the development of a sound and principled world-wide Socialist movement. We have set out these issues below:

1). The question of political leadership.

In your e-mail you refer to, “a new grass roots political leadership” which emerged from the Independence struggle from Colonial rule. However a “grass roots” Socialist movement acting and thinking for itself would have no need for a political leadership. So who or what is this “political leadership” leading – is it a non-Socialist working class who currently give their support to capitalism? If it is, then it is a recipe for disaster and indicates an inability to learn from previous political mistakes, notably those made by the Bolsheviks in 1917.

And just what is the “class Socialist objective” independent from the working class? The working class as a whole should be involved in the Socialist objective not a detached group of “political leaders” imposing their politics on the majority of society. As you must be aware; vanguard politics led to dictatorship, show trials, prison camps, torture and firing squads not Socialism.

And it was also an anti-Marxian politics. Marx’s foremost contribution to Socialist theory was his insistence, first made in the COMMUNIST MANIFESTO and again during the First Internationale that the establishment of Socialism had to be the work of the working class itself and no one else and this includes both men and women.

Socialists regard leadership as a capitalist political principle, a feature of revolutions that brought capitalists to power and this includes the political leadership found in the various capitalist States in Africa following independence from colonial rule during the second half of the 20th century. Leadership is a political concept wholly alien to both a Socialist Party of equals and the carrying through of a subsequent Socialist revolution where workers must voluntarily understand and agree with the establishment of the common ownership and democratic control of the means of production and distribution by all of society.

The Socialist revolution must involve the conscious and active participation of a majority of workers and not be a political event imposed on the working class by intellectuals no matter how well intentioned. Socialism cannot be established by a minority group of intellectuals or professional revolutionaries any more than Socialism can be established in any one continent or country.

We are also interested to know why you refer to yourself as a “charity”? Are you a political organisation using the status of being a “charity” as a subterfuge? And if you are indeed a charity then how can you square the futility of reformist programmes associated with charities while claiming at the same time to be a revolutionary political organisation?

2). Socialists reject the political concept of a “Socialist Government”.

In your e-mail you refer to a “Socialist Government”. We presume you mean a government made up of a “Socialist leadership”. This bears all the hall marks of the politics of Lenin and his followers which cast such a dark shadow over working class politics throughout most of the previous century. Lenin arrogantly thought it would take workers 500 years to establish Socialism if left to their own devices. This is what Lenin apparently said:

If Socialism can only be realised when the intellectual development of all the people permits it, then we shall not get Socialism for about 500 years” (Quoted in TEN DAYS THAT SHOOK THE WORLD, John Reed, p. 263)

Lenin also believed workers could only achieve by themselves trade union consciousness (WHAT IS TO BE DONE? 1903). He was wrong. A year after he made this baseless assertion, workers established The Socialist Party of Great Britain. Founder members of the SPGB did not need intellectuals or political leaders to tell them what to think and how to act.

Your reference to “Imperialism” also echo’s Lenin. Do you then believe, as Lenin erroneously believed, that the working class in the US and Europe live of the “super-profits” of imperialism and there is, what he misleadingly called “an aristocracy of labour”? The working class are exploited no matter where they happen to live; the world working classis exploited by a world capitalist class.

In fact, when Lenin died, the SPGB had this to say of his contribution as a professional revolutionary:

Despite his claims at the beginning, he was the first to see the trend of conditions and adapt himself to these conditions. So far was he from “changing the course of history”…that it was the course of history which changed him, drove him from one point to another till today Russia stands halfway on the road to capitalism (The Passing of Lenin, SOCIALIST STANDARD, March 1924).

Socialism will have neither classes nor leadership. Socialism can only be democratic, involving all of society in its decision making process, either directly or through delegates. Socialism would mean the “government over people” giving way to “the administration of things”.

There will not be a political power of coercion within Socialism. The State and the machinery of government, including the armed forces, are associated with class society not a Socialist and classless society of free men and women. In fact a “Socialist government” is a contradiction in terms. Socialists have often remarked that “where there is Socialism there is no government and where there is government there is no Socialism”(What Socialism Means, QUESTIONS OF THE DAY, 1976, p.98) .

If your organisation were to drop these two negative; “political leadership” and “Socialist government” then this would be a positive step forward in the right direction.

3). Common Class Interest and Class Struggle.

You make little reference to the class struggle, who takes part in the class struggle and where it is located. You say the class struggle is entering a decisive stage in Africa, Asia and Latin America but you give no evidence for this assertion. And from our own perspective we can see few Socialists organising into Socialist political parties in these areas of the world either. It is a fantasy politics to suppose these areas of the world you describe in your e-mail are about to imminently enter a Socialist revolution any more than it was the case in 1917 Russia as The Socialist Party of Great Britain pointed out at the time.

Workers have common class interests no matter where they live. Workers in Africa, the Middle East, Asia and South America, all share the same class interests with workers in Europe and the US. All workers take part consciously or otherwise in a class struggle against a world capitalist class over the intensity and extent of exploitation.

Yet, most workers in the world either give their support to capitalist political leaders or are forced to endure state Capitalist dictatorships like Vietnam, Cuba and China where it is not only difficult to organise into a free Socialist Party but into free trade unions as well. Obviously this is a serious problem but it cannot be addressed by either overblown rhetoric or support for democratic reform movements.

However, as Marx stated in the COMMUNIST MANIFESTO; the class struggle “is a political struggle” because the capitalist class own the means of production and distribution. World-wide, the capitalists own the raw resources, factories, transport and communication systems and large distribution outlets. The private ownership of the means of production and distribution is global in its nature and needs to be replaced by an alternative world-wide Socialist system.

The profit system needs to be replaced by production for use and direct and free access to what people need to live creative and worthwhile lives. And the way to do this is persuasion, showing that capitalism cannot be run in the interest of all society and that the working class have the capacity to run another form of global social system without the anti-social impediment of Capital and production for profit.

And Socialists do no weight differently the capacity to understand and accept the need for Socialism from one part of the world to the next. The case for Socialism is comprehensible and within the grasp of any reasonable worker no matter what their gender, ethnicity and sexuality. It has long been a Socialist Principle, contained in the fourth clause of our OBJECT AND DECLARATION OF PRINCIPLES, adopted in 1904, that the emancipation of the working class would also free all people in the world “without distinction of race or sex” (clause 4).

4). False distinction between Socialism and Communism

You also believe that an “international Socialist revolution” is something distinct and separate from world Communism. There was and is no distinction between “socialism” and “communism”. Both words mean exactly the same; Socialism/Communism meant the same for Marx and Engels in the nineteenth century as they do for Socialists today.

Furthermore, there is no need for a transitional period between the Socialist revolution and Socialism/Communism itself. The development of the productive forces, including co-operative and voluntary social labour, means that free access and production for use can take place as and when a Socialist majority desire and want to replace capitalism with Socialism. Socialism will entail no labour markets, no buying and selling of labour power, no employers, no private or State, and no exploitive wages system.

5). Religion.

There is no mention of religion and nationalism in your e-mail; two principle barriers to a clear understanding of capitalism and the need to replace the profit system with Socialism. We would be interested in your views on both religion and nationalism.

As materialists Socialists do not see religion as a private affair. We reject all religion no matter what form it takes. Religion is a form of social power, superstition and a political conduit for control by religious and political leaders.

While a majority of workers in the world are hooked onto religion as well as nationalism there can be no Socialism.

6). Conclusion

We have been critical of many of the statements made in the statement set-out in your e-mail. However, it does not mean that there can be no future dialogue and further discussion. Throughout the world there are many workers who were once mentally enslaved to the anti-working class dogma of Leninism but who are now struggling to find a way forward in a world dominated by Capital.

A Socialist way forward is possible and it is the one argued logically and consistently by the Socialist Party of Great Britain since the formation of the SPGB at the beginning of the last century. The Socialist programme is not utopian but practical. However it makes demands on the working class to understand and to consciously and actively reject the profit system and become Socialists. Some believe it is an up-hill task but there is no other option; the working class have to become Socialists before Socialism is possible. No one else is going to do it for them.

We envisage a Socialist majority sending socialist delegates to Parliament or its equivalent elsewhere in the world, with the expressed purpose of gaining control of the means of government, including the armed forces. Once the machinery of government has been secured and cannot be used against the Socialist majority Socialists will be in the position to ensure the smooth and peaceful transformation of capitalist production for profit to Socialist production for social use.

A more detailed account of the revolutionary Socialist programme on how the working class can politically move from capitalism to Socialism can be found on our web site

We look forward from hearing from you soon.

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