Do Africans need Karl Marx?

The day before Marx’s birthday, AIAC talk considers his legacy, and debates whether his ideas are still relevant. Watch the show Tuesday on our YouTube channel.

Karl Marx (1818-1883), photographed around 1865 (Wiki Commons).

On May 5, Karl Marx turns 203. As ever, the legacy of the political-economist, philosopher, and activist remains contentious. Social media routinely produces declarations that reading Marx is unnecessary, that Marxism constitutes a racist body of thought, or that in the public sphere, Marxists themselves are on the fast-track to terminal obsolescence, out of step with contemporary academic and literary trends. Ironically, it has become the conservative right’s favorite pastime to label any and all progressive efforts—especially on issues of identity-based oppression, like Black Lives Matter—as being examples of “cultural Marxism.” How they would rejoice if they knew that Marxism was actually in retreat!

While there has generally been an explosion in political consciousness traceable to the eruption of electoral and popular mobilization after 2008 (#OccupyWallStreet, the Arab Spring, BlackLivesMatter, Sanders and Corbyn, #feesmustfall, EndSARs, etc) very few of these movements identify explicitly with the thought of Karl Marx. In fact, more often than not, Marxism is problematized. In left-wing circles, Marxism’s assertion that class is central to understanding oppression often comes across as crudely economistic, unable to grasp that race, gender, and sexual orientation are equally important axes of oppression.

Marxism’s reception in Africa is especially in decline. Such a decline appears stark when considering that in the 20th century, anti-colonial resistance claimed allegiance to Marx. African political leaders particularly adapted Lenin’s idiosyncratic synthesis, or adopted their own “African socialism.” Marx’s use in liberation movements was never straightforward; it was sometimes shallow and opportunistic, vindicating Marx’s own observation that “precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honored disguise and borrowed language.” One reason for the decline of Marxism in Africa is that all the Marxists have gone. Where to? Many are now in government and presiding over the very economic programs they once denounced.

It is the collapse of the Soviet Union and the rise of neoliberal globalization that makes Marxism seem anachronistic; Marx’s faith in the inevitability of communism seems out of place in a world where capitalism has stubbornly remained. But, even in the face of that capitalism, Marx’s assumptions about its universalizing drive and its creation of a universal proletariat have attracted the widespread criticism that his theories were Eurocentric, not apt to explain the conditions of the “global South” where pre-capitalist social arrangements endure (such as the primacy of caste in India, the prevalence of traditional authorities in sub-Saharan Africa, or the role of political Islam in the Middle East and North Africa).

But such debates raise the fundamental question—what is Marxism, and who is a Marxist? For his part, not even Marx considered himself one. There are those who believe that Marxism is a living school of thought and practice, open to internal critique and revision when confronting new realities; and those who see it as static and doctrinaire. Who should we believe? Joining us on AIAC Talk to debate if the third world still needs Marx are Annie Olaloku-Teriba and Zeyad el Nabolsy. Annie is an independent researcher based in London, working on legacies of empire and the complex histories of race; and Zeyad is a PhD student in Africana Studies at Cornell University, working on African philosophy of culture, African Marxism, and  the philosophy of science and modern African intellectual history.

Stream the show the show on Tuesday at 18:00 in Cairo, 17:00 in London, and 12:00 in New York on YouTube.

On our last episode, to commemorate Sierra Leone’s Independence day and South Africa’s Freedom Day, we discussed “Liberation after independence.” For that, we had Ishmael Beah and Oluwaseun Babalola to touch on the contradictions of Sierra Leone’s past and present. We also interviewed Sisonke Msimang about post-national liberation South Africa. That episode is now available on our YouTube channel. Subscribe to our Patreon for all the episodes from our archive.

Further Reading