Is socialism relevant for Africa?

This is an essay by Tshiamo Malatji (@tshiatji) claiming that Africans should recognise and fight against black capitalists.. You can download this essay in mobile-friendly format here: (It is a small file – 68kbs.)

There is a running joke that most modern Marxists have not read Marx. Indeed, I too have read more from writers interpreting Marxism than I have read Marx himself. After all, I believe that writing should be simple and easy to understand. Many people, like Marx, clearly do not agree. Reading the interpretations helps me understand what Marx is saying and where his ideas can be improved upon.

I do not call myself a Marxist. I call myself a socialist. But, I agree with many of his ideas. I do this because Marxism does not belong to Marx at all. People can themselves understand that capitalism is bad and must be done away with. What Marx did, like many other Europeans, was carefully write down his criticisms of capitalism. What he did was helpful and I think that’s why people call themselves Marxists. Ironically, they attach property to his name by doing this. 

But anyway, I say all of this because I think criticism of socialism from black academics is uncomfortable with giving power to a white man in Europe. I am also uncomfortable doing this. This is a big problem. People who call themselves socialists do tend to be white. This is because the word “socialism” is too limited to the academic world and has not been widely shared in simple language. If you had read Marx and understood him, it means you have a background of education. Not everyone has this opportunity.

In fact, many social ideas are like this. More white people tend to call themselves “atheist” and more white people tend to call themselves “vegan.” I don’t think atheism, veganism or socialism are ideas for the privileged. I think people have not taken the time to spread these ideas outside of difficult-to-read texts. This means that the words themselves are linked to only privileged people. But the concepts are things that many people agree with, even if they do not title their views with the same words used by the privileged.

In this essay, I will defend socialism and I will make one or two references to Marx. Some basic ideas such as “no one person should own another person” should definitely be embraced by black people. 

Let’s start by explaining the criticism against socialism. 

First, many black people argue that capitalism only comes from whiteness. If there is no whiteness then there is no capitalism. They point to how slavery and wage-labour came from white Western societies. Indeed, slavery is white. It was white. It will always be white. We cannot pretend otherwise. 

Second, many black people argue that black capitalists are influenced by this whiteness. If we expelled all whiteness then black people would not become capitalist-thinking. 

Third, they conclude that being socialist is irrelevant to black people because if they expel whiteness then we will all be socialist anyway. We will create an equal society and no one will own other people, take ownership of that person’s labour or try to own property. We will create an equal society because the whiteness which makes us unequal will be gone.

These are my responses:

First, let’s assume all of their criticisms are true. We still need socialism in the short-term. 

In the long-run, we want to expel whiteness and everything it has brought. In the short-run, we need to feed the hungry. To achieve these short term goals, we must challenge capitalism itself. If the poor are suffering, we cannot tell them to hold until we have gotten rid of whiteness. We must tell them, “We are going to take what the people at the top have and share it with everyone.” We can acknowledge that capitalism is whiteness and start a long struggle against it while also trying to fight against the specific effects of capitalism in the short term.

If indeed black people are influenced by whiteness, then it will take long for us to change this. We cannot sit and do nothing about economic inequality in the meanwhile. We cannot let those black capitalists who are influenced by whiteness continue paying fellow black people little money while growing their own riches. 

So we need to use socialism to feed people now. 

Second, how do we even expel whiteness anyway? For socialism, it is clear what must be done exactly. Take resources away from the few and give them to the many. For getting rid of whiteness, it’s not clear what the steps are.

Since whiteness is not white people, getting rid of white people does not do enough. The whiteness in the minds of black people will still be there. In fact, what black capitalists want the most is to be white. So once we get rid of the white people, we help them the most. They will be free to oppress everyone else without someone else being higher than then. 

I really don’t know how to expel whiteness from the minds of these black capitalists. It’s one thing if someone actually wants to expel it from their own mind. They will read books and they will work on themselves. But if they resist, how can we force the whiteness out of their minds. We probably cannot.

So given the black capitalists won’t change their minds and won’t reject whiteness, we could at least take resources away from them. Socialism saves us here. It gives us a solution. We have a way to move forward. 

We need to do something.

Third, how certain are we that Africans are automatically socialist? How can we be certain of that belief? 

Historians say that ancient Africa had monarchies. That is class. Was everyone really equal in Africa before the white people came? Historians did not think so. Maybe, one might argue that these historians are white or are using the tools of whiteness to understand Africa. Okay. Then that means we just cannot know. We cannot be certain. 

Is it not safer to just be socialist to make sure that we are socialist. It seems odd to take the route of expelling whiteness in order to allow black people to be socialists. We could just become socialist directly.

Maybe, it might be said that it is impossible to be socialist as long as whiteness is present. We can at least feed people by “pretending” to be socialist then. Surely we can still help people even if it isn’t perfect — even if whiteness is still there. 

There is the danger that black capitalists will still be capitalist after the exit of whiteness, if that exit were even possible. How do we know? It is a risk I don’t think we should take.

The world is a structure. That means things have definition relative to other things. In fact, blackness has some meaning relative to whiteness. Our activism, after all, is an opposition to whiteness. This is a problem because this makes it difficult to analyse what blackness would have been outside of whiteness. Does blackness even exist if there is no whiteness? If whiteness never came to be or we found a way to expel it, what would that blackness look like, if it even existed? This is such an uncertain question that I don’t recommend rejecting socialism simply because blackness might be socialist in a world without whiteness.

The best we can do is guarantee that blackness will be socialist by explicitly making it so. Just being socialist is the surest way to bring about socialism in Africa.

Fourth, socialism changes over time. What Marx wrote way back then is not the same things we speak today.

Many people have shown that Marx was limited. What happens is we use that criticism to change his views and make better ones. Some say this does not matter because Marx’s original ideas were so wrong they cannot be built on. So I want to explain this process. We are not “building on Marx’s ideas.” We are changing it entirely. This is a process called dialectics.

I say something. You say something different which challenges what I say. Then we come to a different understanding then both of us had at the beginning. 

(Using academic words: I present a thesis. You present an antithesis. Then we create synthesis.)

This process of “synthesis” is not building any one of our ideas. It is coming to a different understanding altogether. If anything, criticism of socialism over time has created a new kind of socialism.

Today, socialists are intersectional. They do not see economic class on its own. They agree with Kimberlé Crenshaw that capitalism is worse for black womxn then it is for black men, for example. The fight against the gender pay gap is intersectional socialism. In fact, Crenshaw’s analysis of intersectionality was done by looking at black womxn in the workplace! Class was always a part of Crenshaw’s ideas. 

There is also an entire philosophy in the 20th Century called Marxist Humanism which tries to look at life from a Marxist perspective and in doing so, actually reforms Marixsm. I disagree that Marxism is what that German guy wrote about that one time. In fact, calling it Marxism gives too much credit to Marx. We have all developed it and today’s Marxism does not look remotely like what he wrote about.

Here’s a good example. Marx argued that if employers paid workers low wages then those workers would be unable to spend in the economy — and so the capitalists could not generate wealth. After all, wealth is not just production. It requires buying. In modern economies, this is solved by credit. Despite low wages, we buy a lot because we can buy without having the money yet. So, Marx can’t be taken at face value here.

Criticisms of credit economies must rely more on the risk of economic collapse when people cannot pay back their credit. This already happened in 2008 and it will happen again. Marx did not necessarily argue this. So that view is a “synthesis” of Marx’s views and a credit economy. 

I don’t think many people are traditional Marxists. That would be strange. I definitely am a socialist, but I follow a synthesis of Marx’s ideas and the various criticisms of it. 

Fifth, I fear that not being socialist will allow black capitalists to continue oppressing black workers.

Maybe it is true that black capitalists are only bad people because they adopted a white system, but obviously not all of us have adopted this system. So there is still some responsibility that they must face for having done so. Indeed, these black capitalists are themselves oppressed by whiteness. But they oppress the common black people despite this. In this world, a black person can ask another black person to be their labourer. A black person can choose to not share with other black people. 

Some say that whatever property a black person has is not truly owned by them. But even if this is true, they do get some benefits from that property. This is undeniable. Their quality of life is better. Some black people are educated. Some black people have material comfort. Some black people have the chance to become the president. Not all black people have these opportunities and it is because they are denied resources. A great whiteness covering all of this does not change the fact that between black people, there is economic inequality.

We can address this right now by distributing all resources. We can hold black people accountable for adopting capitalism. But we can only do that if we choose to see them as oppressors. We can only see them as oppressors from a socialist perspective. So adopting socialism has practical benefits for black people. 

Expelling whiteness and not dealing with the fact that black capitalists have done bad things absolves them. It makes them innocent and it empowers them to continue. They can say it is not their fault. 

Being socialist is also about accountability and black capitalists deserve accountability. 

Sixth, socialism does not limit black activism.

It is not true that if someone is socialist, they can’t also fight for black people. In fact, modern socialists tend to fight especially for black people. They tend to believe in punishment for white people, affirmative action and ignoring the interests of white people. Modern socialists in Africa are not even accommodating to the poor white question. We do not go out of our way to say “white people can also be poor.” 

If that is what we were doing, I would understand that criticism. But we are not. We are fighting all oppression, including racial. 

Seventh, I fear that prioritising race over class encourages prioritising race over everything.

Some black people argue that we are black first and everything else follows. A lot of the people arguing this tend to undermine gender, sexuality, disability and various identities that are oppressed. I believe we encourage these black people to adopt “race first” ideas by encouraging race over class ideas.

If we just acknowledge all oppression then they cannot do this. But we can’t say, “Let’s acknowledge all oppression, except class.” By creating that exception, some people will argue there are other exceptions. It is popular to say feminism comes from white people. They say this because they argue, “Let’s acknowledge all oppression, except gender.” 

Now obviously, these two statements are not the same. But the first statement does encourage the thinking of the second statement. More than this, the very existence of one exception will indeed make people ask if there are more.

Our best option is to just say there are no exceptions. All oppression is oppression. This way, we do not encourage the exclusion of any oppressed group. 

Now some might say, “But what about all the people that think they are oppressed when they really are not? Would we not be including them?”

This is not true. If a white person thinks they are racially oppressed, we must respond and say they are not. This is not the same as recognising the existence of race oppression. So in other words, who qualifies under certain categories of oppression is a different discussion to recognising that such oppression exists. So it’s possible to say that all oppression exists without giving power to privileged groups who argue they fall under one of them.

If we include all oppression, we cannot exclude any oppression. This is the seventh, but perhaps the most important reason to recognise class.

A final remark is to explain the focus on black capitalists. Why not white capitalists? This is because the audience for this essay are people already opposed to white capitalists, but are not opposed to black capitalists. This does not mean I do not oppose white capital. These arguments move from a position where white capital is already cancelled.

Given all of these points, it seems clear that socialism is relevant for blackness. We do not even need to call it Marxism. In fact, I recommend just calling it socialism. We do not call intersectionality Crenshawism. The practice of naming an idea after the first person to write it down and share it widely must come to an end. We must name ideas after exactly what they are.

And what is socialism in Africa? It is a tool for liberation, including immediate liberation. It is hope for changing the material conditions of the poor. It is the bold claim that no one should own another person and no one should own another’s labour. These are relevant ideas for Africa and our liberation.

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