African Studies Communism, Marxist-Leninism, and Socialism in Africa
Edmond J. Keller
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 October 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846733-0193


Communist ideas have been prevalent in Africa since at least the early 20th century. However, nowhere on the continent was a strict form of communism ever practiced. What were practiced were hybrid forms of socialism, including some that eclectically borrowed from Marxist-Leninist and Maoist theory. Communism is a particular form of socialism. According to Marxist theory, in its most advanced form, communism involves state control by the working class. However, at least up to this moment in history, nowhere in Africa have there been political and economic systems based solely on communist principles, nor has there ever been a strictly working-class revolution. The terms communism and socialism have come in some places to be used interchangeably. Also, socialism is not practiced exclusively in one type of political system. Most socialist systems today are participatory democracies. What is often referred to as “Marxism-Leninism” rejects participatory democracy in favor of a disciplined, vanguard party in which democracy is practiced only in the central leadership organs of the party. It also involves a rejection of the free market and the private ownership of property. The first appearances of communist ideas in Africa were introduced by European workers in newly industrializing colonies with a significant concentration of settlers. Such ideas also were introduced to African students in their formal European-based education systems. Between the two world wars, some Africans lived and work in Europe, and this experience produced many of the leaders and intelligentsia who would return to Africa with ideas about how to change their own societies and end colonial rule. African elites who were exposed to socialist ideas either in the workplace or through the writings of theorists such as Karl Marx and V. I. Lenin and were attracted by the notions of social equality, mutual respect, and the sharing of labor. These were seen as values that were common in African traditions. Even though socialist ideas were popular among African intellectuals, the emerging nationalists on the continent felt that these ideas had to somehow be molded to fit the realities of the African condition. This resulted in the widespread popularity of the ideas of Pan-Africanists from America, Europe, and the Caribbean, such as George Padmore and W. E. B. Dubois and the proponents of the concept of Négritude as espoused by Leopold Senghor of Senegal and Aimé Césaire of Martinique. Perhaps the most influential anticolonial thinker of the time was Frantz Fanon, a professional psychiatrist and philosopher. Fanon was responsible for promoting from a socialist perspective the intersectionality of colonialism and racism, as well as the idea of popular struggles for African national liberation.

General Overviews

Although the communist ideas and arguments of such European theorists as Marx and Engels have been around since just before the turn of the 20th century, they have never been widespread in Africa. Historically, communism on the continent was strongest in Egypt, Sudan, Algeria, and South Africa, which had significant European settlement, but such ideas remained foreign to the African masses until the principles of Marxism-Leninism became popular among intellectuals around the time of World War I (Drew 2014). Communist parties in these colonies were constantly under pressure by either the colonial government or a white-dominated regime. Drew provides an excellent account of the development of both the Algerian and South African Communist parties over time. The emergence of nationalist movements on the continent coincided with the beginning of the Cold War, and the ideological and strategic competition involving the United States and the Soviet Union and China for client states in Africa. Thus, the superpowers were very much responsible for the emergence of communist orientations in some African nationalist movements. If African movements and parties after independence allied themselves with the United States, China, or the Soviet Union, they were labeled as either capitalist or communist (Young 1982, Idahosa 2004, Rosberg and Callaghy 1979, Friedland and Rosberg 1964). However, these alliances were made primarily because they offered material support to the movement or dominant party in a regime, rather than being based on a clear and consistent acceptance of the guiding ideology of either the Western or Communist partner. It was evident from the very beginning of African independence that individual leaders accepted a form of socialism based on the humanistic aspects of that ideology. This meant, at least from the public pronouncement of leaders, their commitment to egalitarianism. At the same time, what they liked about Soviet-style socialism was not so much the notion of a proletarian revolution, but rather of the need for the role a disciplined vanguard party. Nationalist movements more closely aligned with the major Communist regimes, the USSR and China, did not begin to surface until the 1970s, particularly in Lusophone Africa (Angola, Mozambique, and Guinea Bissau) and Ethiopia, where liberation revolutionary movements developed. Once these movements assumed power, they were termed Afro-Marxist regimes (Ottaway and Ottaway 1986, Keller and Rothchild 1987, Munslow 1986). In other places, such as Madagascar, Benin, Congo-Brazzaville, and Zimbabwe, leaders of independent regimes merely claimed to be Marxist-Leninist, without usually developing policies consistent with a firm commitment to a particular ideological or institutional persuasion.

  • Drew, Allison. “Communism in Africa.” In The Oxford Handbook of the History of Communism Online. Edited by Stephen A. Smith. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.

    This is an excellent treatment of the origins and development of communism or socialism on the African continent. The article is particularly useful in understanding the history of Communist parties and movements throughout Africa. Available online by subscription.

  • Friedland, William H., and Carl G. Rosberg Jr., eds. African Socialism. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1964.

    When it was published, this book was considered perhaps the most authoritative analysis on African socialism. Rather than being seen as a form of communism, African socialism was viewed as a pragmatic ideology that blended some aspects of classical socialism, communism, Pan-Africanism, and African traditional values. Its definition varied from place to place and person to person.

  • Idahosa, P. L. E. The Populist Dimension to African Political Thought: Critical Essays in Reconstruction and Retrieval. Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 2004.

    This book critically examines the relationship of the post-independence African state, popular classes, and development. It is argued that populist thinkers Nyerere, Cabral, and Fanon shared a common passion for a brand of socialism that was democratic and rooted in precolonial traditions as well as in Marxist-Leninist theory. Their thought also considered the critical need to control capital without being exploited by it.

  • Keller, Edmond J., and Donald Rothchild, eds. Afro-Marxist Regimes: Ideology and Public Policy. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 1987.

    This book presents an analysis of the scope and quality of a select number of African states that came to espouse Marxism-Leninism or “scientific socialism” during their heyday. It highlights the impact of the Cold War on their growth and policy performance. It is argued that these states can be divided into “orthodox” and “heterodox” categories depending on how closely their governments aligned with the thinking of the Russian Communist Party.

  • Munslow, Barry, ed. Africa: Problems in the Transition to Socialism. London: Zed, 1986.

    The chapters in this book offer analyses of the socialist strategies of African liberation movements that assumed control of independent governments and common problems they have faced in the process of transitioning from colonial domination.

  • Ottaway, Marina, and David Ottaway. Afrocommunism. 2d ed. New York: Africana, 1986.

    First published in the early 1980s, this book is essential reading for those interested in identifying why the most orthodox Afro-Marxist regimes of the time chose development strategies rooted in “scientific socialism,” or variants of Marxism-Leninism.

  • Rosberg, Carl, and Thomas Callaghy, eds. Socialism in Sub-Sahara Africa: A New Assessment. Berkeley, CA: Institute of International Studies, 1979.

    This edited volume seeks to evaluate what is termed the “second wave” of socialist experiments in Africa. (The analysis of the “first wave” had taken place fifteen years prior to the publication of this book in the early post-independence period.) It exposes the shortcomings of so-called African socialism in practice. The authors contend that, in practice, the aspiring ideology did not provide a clear strategy for social transformation after colonialism.

  • Young, Crawford. Ideology and Development. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1982.

    This award-winning book provides a useful framework for analyzing various forms of socialist ideologies and institutional choice in Africa from the 1960s to the 1980s.

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