In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section African Socialism

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Bibliographies
  • Reference Works
  • Journals
  • Series
  • Non-Western Works
  • First Wave: African Socialism
  • Second Wave: Afrocommunism/Afro-Marxism
  • African Postsocialism

African Studies African Socialism
Kelly Askew
  • LAST REVIEWED: 11 August 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 February 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846733-0200


After obtaining independence from the colonial powers in the 1950s through the 1980s, newly established African states had to decide whether to pursue Western-style electoral democracy with free-market capitalism, or Eastern European–style single-party socialism with centralized control of the economy. Yet Africa’s postcolonial condition imposed significant technical and administrative constraints on these countries. For those choosing socialism, the lack of development under colonialism resulted in a small number of wageworkers, and hence weak working-class consciousness. African countries, it seemed, were too agrarian, and their governments were too nationalistic. Ethnic and regional cleavages trumped class. They had peasants, not workers, and their leadership was often petty bourgeois. New socialist governments had to make do with a worker-peasant alliance, finding China a more relevant model than the Eastern bloc. Furthermore, African governments had to simultaneously pursue nationalism and socialism, generating many contradictions. Strict Marxism-Leninism eschews mass-based parties in favor of vanguard parties, but the quest for unity and a popular base drove many African governments to prefer the former. Additionally, Marxism-Leninism, as a European product, faced anticolonial antipathy. With the Cold War defining this period, the decision whether to align with the West or the Sino-Soviet bloc was politically fraught. In the end, thirty-five states, representing a majority of the continent, opted for some variant of socialism. Many explanations exist for socialism’s popularity among African intellectuals and politicians, yet perhaps the most trenchant was offered by Seydou Badian Kouyaté, Mali’s minister of planning and rural economy: “You cannot be a capitalist when you have no capital” (quoted in Grundy 1964, p. 176, cited under Mali). The attractions of socialism included a language to promote the modernization and unification of emerging nation-states, centralized control of the economy (to facilitate rapid improvement in people’s lives), state consolidation and expansion (to ensure equitable distribution of wealth), an emphasis on revolutionary change (justifying coercive means and military intervention), and international bonds with fellow socialist/communist states (promising economic, political, and military assistance). The literature abounds with classification schemes delineating the features, merits, and internal contradictions of socialism/communism on the continent, measuring them against each other and “scientific socialism” as articulated in the Soviet sphere. In the end, however, attempts to establish socialist systems were compromised by the position African economies held relative to the world capitalist system. The combination of import substitution industrialization policies and export-oriented agriculture committed African countries to disadvantageous terms of trade and continued reliance on transnational actors. Thus, state capitalism developed in lieu of socialism.

General Overviews

A number of scholars have produced historical and analytical assessments of African socialist and Marxist/Leninist states. These range from sympathetic to critical in tone, and review both the challenges and successes of efforts at radical political, social, and economic transformation. Young 1982 compares the development outcomes of three types of African ideologies: Afro-Marxism, populist (African) socialism, and African capitalism. Friedland and Rosberg 1964 reviews early engagements with African socialism, while Rosberg and Callaghy 1979 contrast cases of “first wave” African socialism with “second wave” scientific socialism. Babu 1981 argues that only scientific socialism, not African socialism, can liberate African economies from neocolonialism. Munslow 1986 examines Lusophone socialist states, and Wiles 1982 analyzes seven African communist states within a broader New Communist Third World frame, including Yemen, Mongolia, Albania, Vietnam, and North Korea. Markakis and Waller 1986 explores the rise of radical Marxist military regimes, while Hughes 1992 argues that internal contradictions compounded by the fall of Eastern bloc patrons led to the demise of Marxism in Africa.

  • Babu, A. M. African Socialism or Socialist Africa? London: Zed, 1981.

    A trenchant analysis of the challenges facing African attempts to seek a nonaligned socialist path, written by a Zanzibari intellectual, politician, and committed Marxist.

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

    This early volume assesses self-identified African socialist states, their definitions of socialism, and their progress to date. Case studies include Ghana, Guinea, Senegal, Mali, and Tanganyika. Published by Stanford University Press for the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution, and Peace.

  • Hughes, Arnold. “The Appeal of Marxism to Africans.” Journal of Communist Studies 8.2 (1992): 4–20.

    DOI: 10.1080/13523279208415144

    A study of how African radical elements saw in Marxism a morally superior social, political, and economic order, but could not sustain attempts at implementing it due to internal contradictions and the fall of mentor regimes in Eastern Europe.

  • Markakis, John, and Michael Waller, eds. Military Marxist Regimes in Africa. London: Frank Cass, 1986.

    Originally published as a special issue of the Journal of Communist Studies, these essays explore cases of Marxist states that, through centralized control of the economy and political system and increased militarization from foreign patronage, developed into radical military regimes.

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

    Analysis of the difficulties besetting the socialist transition, approached both thematically (problems of class-based mobilization, Marxism, women’s labor) and via various case studies (Guinea-Bissau, Cape Verde, Mozambique, Angola).

  • Rosberg, Carl G., and Thomas M. Callaghy, eds. Socialism in Sub-Saharan Africa: A New Assessment. Research Series 38. Berkeley: Institute of International Studies, University of California, 1979.

    Intended as an update to Friedland and Rosberg 1964, this volume distinguishes “first wave” African socialism (charismatic leaders, inclusive mass parties, ideologies referencing traditional African collectivism) from “second wave” scientific socialism (class analysis, vanguard parties, international alliances with communist states, rejection of religion, and use of coercion). Essays on Tanzania, Guinea, Zambia, Somalia, Ghana, Benin, Congo-Brazzaville, Mozambique, Angola, Guinea-Bissau, and Ethiopia.

  • Wiles, Peter, ed. The New Communist Third World: An Essay in Political Economy. London and Canberra, Australia: Croom Helm, 1982.

    Case studies of communist states beyond Eastern Europe, divided into “communist,” “marginal,” and “independent Stalinist” types.

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

    Compares a wide variety of postcolonial African states, including socialist and Afro-Marxist states. Outlines six elements of Afro-Marxism: (1) organization of state and party per Leninist principles, (2) dominance of political figures like intellectuals or “revolutionary democrats,” (3) policies aiming to control the commanding heights of the economy, (4) caution regarding agricultural collectivization, (5) tolerance of religion, (6) ties to communist states.

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