P. L. E. Idahosa. The Populist Dimension to African Political Thought: Essays in Reconstruction and Retrieval. Trenton: Africa World Press, 2004. iv + 306 pp. $24.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-59221-100-5.
Reviewed by Thomas Blaser (Department of Political Studies, School of Social Sciences, University of the Witwatersrand)
Published on H-SAfrica (January, 2007)
Populism: A Cure for Africa's Problems?
P. L. E. Idahosa revisits contemporary African political thought by bringing the state, class, and production back in. Only if we consider the role of the state, its relationship with the popular classes, and development can we "confront and overcome what ailed Africa" (p. 2). In this quest, it is essential to look at Frantz Fanon, Amilcar Cabral, and Julius Nyerere as populist thinkers who share a deep-felt concern for the progress of the people.
According to Idahosa, Fanon, Cabral, and Nyerere are important for African development because they were searching for ways to secure a livelihood for African people despite "the encroachments of capital" (p. 7) and hence they made important contributions to "the politics of production in African political thought" (p. 10). He further argues that a populist outlook unites the thought of Fanon, Cabral, and Nyerere. Populism, in its Russian and African manifestations, "contains a politics of liberation and a politics of production" (p. 15) and Idahosa defines it as "an emancipatory ideology based upon a specific conception of production relations.... suggesting the viability of the social classes and productive units that are to serve as the subjects and foundation of change" (p. 15). This is a socialist definition of populism, based on Russian theorists such as Nikolai Bukharin, and analysts of populist movements can regret that it neglects how political entrepreneurs from any ideological camp use the people to advance their own interests--populism is not only the domain of the left. But then, Idahosa claims that nationalists, not populists, use the people to undermine the interests of the popular classes.
An important distinction between populism and nationalism is that the latter neglects class "once national liberation is achieved" (p. 19). Nationalists paper over class difference and "see the peasantry as primarily a means to national development" (p. 31). Populism, however, supports the peasant masses. Autocratic and liberal-bourgeois nationalism see "the people as passive and the state as progressive" and they "both do not regard the people as being conscious" (p. 25). In contrast, populism is distinguished from nationalism because it aims at the "economic development and cultural flourishing of the popular classes" (p. 31). Now, there is no nationalist who would not declare that she/he genuinely has the interests of the masses at heart. Ideologies merge and borrow from each other, especially in the cut and thrust of daily politics. Idahosa's distinction between nationalism and populism falters on the eclecticism of daily political discourse and policy-making.
The larger problem with Idahosa's theoretical conception is that he intends to draw a clear line between political theory and political practice (pp. 19, 31, 34). We may understand and agree with his intention for doing so: the failure of African populism to bring about a real improvement to people's lives should not devalue the efforts and the thoughts of its proponents. But is it really possible to save a morally desirable theory from the deterioration it suffers, once it is translated into action? Is everyday politics not a test for our theoretical thinking, and are theory and practice not inextricably connected? I find this approach particularly problematic when Idahosa separates Third World nationalism from various European nationalist movements (p. 33). While we should not treat all nationalist movements as if they were the same, we can still recognize that all nationalisms have common characteristics. African nationalism may have the legitimate objective to overcome the colonial legacy, but an analysis of its practical politics is as important as an evaluation of its theoretical underpinnings. Reading Idahosa, it appears as if he recommends that we judge sociopolitical actions and events independently from the ideas that motivated them. I believe this is neither possible nor desirable.
Idahosa compares African populism to its Russian predecessor. The Russian intelligentsia of the nineteenth century, like their African counterparts, was Western-educated yet "lived amidst non-Western traditions" and was hence "of a mind divided" (p. 64). They faced a similar situation in trying to find alternatives to an autocratic and modernizing, developmental state with "few citizens but many subjects" (p. 65). Romanticist and conservative Slavophiles opposed the organic community to the mechanical, developmental state, "a staple for many cultural nationalists in Russia and in Africa" (p. 67). Rather, peasant self-interest combined with communal production and technological change together with communal traditions was seen as an alternative to alienating, state-led development (p. 70). Critically thinking intellectuals were to prepare and lead people to social progress beyond the mere "aggregation of physical product and intellectual knowledge" (p. 74). The intellectuals had to commit class suicide, as Cabral wrote, and assist in creating and developing "a genuine people's culture" that put an end to "exploitative divisions within society" (p. 75). The merit of populist thinking is that it saw the importance of traditional, peasant practices in the modernization process. As Idahosa sums it up, "without a culture and a politics of production, there can be no politics of liberation" (p. 97).
In twentieth-century intellectual life, cultural nationalism came to play an important role in describing African society. The African village community was seen as "holding in check the more disruptive effects of the contact with the West" (p. 103) and the community was seen as the "basic raw material" (p. 104) that would build a new society after independence. That there existed a pre-colonial, anti-capitalist society helped the "cultural nationalist rehabilitation" (p. 103). It is further "part of the backdrop to the populist dimension to African political thought" (p. 105). Yet, Fanon, Cabral, and Nyerere saw in the "invocation of tradition" (p. 106) the denial of citizenship to Africans. This colonial imposition had to be overcome to protect African communities and develop "the productive forces beneficial to society" (p. 107).
For Idahosa, the focus on the peasants and on agriculture in the development process makes the particularity of Fanon's thought. In contrast, cultural nationalism (a nationalism of the middle class) such as that reflected in the Negritude movement, was conservative and went against the interest of the people. But more importantly, Idahosa argues "it does not explain anything" (p. 123). While he is right to criticize the Negritude movement for its reactive thrust as "a form of racial self-affirmation to counter European racism" (p. 123), I find his verdict harsh. After all, Leopold S. Senghor's poetry carries a sense of what it means to be African and adds to our understanding of Africa and blackness.
Idahosa argues that Fanon's main critique of cultural nationalism was "the assertion of the undifferentiated identity of the African" (p. 124). This absence of specificity discourages Africans to see themselves as "agents of political change" (p. 124). In contrast, a populist concern with "class productive culture" (p. 126) was to enable a meaningful postcolonial society. "To discover a lost collective self or identity to shape a future society" (p. 126) was Fanon's aim, but without the relativism of cultural nationalists that held the African persona against colonial distortions. Through popular participation, "residual culture or tradition" (p. 130) could be appropriated in such a way as to give a real sense of agency within a re-conceptualized, national culture. For this, it was necessary to engage the peasantry (p. 134). Intellectuals were to encourage populist participation in a "permanent or uninterrupted revolution" (p. 135) that took class politics seriously. According to Idahosa, Fanon believed that intellectuals would play a leading role in organizing the popular masses and the developmental process (p. 145). The state would be absorbed by society through the party, and this is crucial; popular culture was a constant force that had to be taken into consideration in this process (p.150). Moral persuasion through education and participation would bring together the people, the intelligentsia, the party, and the state (p.151).
The same concern for uniting a newly liberated nation led Cabral to form a class alliance and consolidate a national class that would overcome peasant parochialism and the difference of ethnic groups (pp. 195-204). While it was necessary to address the problem of "narrow ethnic traditions" (p. 168), culture had to be analyzed together with class in order to devise policies that would further development. Like Fanon, Cabral criticized cultural nationalism for its "withdrawal into a hypothetical precolonial culture" (p. 167). Instead of an "apolitical concern for identity" (p. 167), the intellectual had to return to the source and face the harsh material realities of the masses.
Despite the divisions of postcolonial society, Fanon and Cabral believed that if intellectuals took the part of the peasants and considered people as subjects (p. 268), then non-capitalist, agricultural development was possible and a contented nation would emerge. The belief in voluntarism--that people acting together can make a difference in people's everyday life--is an important aspect of their thinking and Idahosa is right in claiming this as the legacy of African populism. At the same time, there is very little in their thinking that helps us explain how individuals come together to make a collective effort. The importance of collective action is a recurrent theme, but I think we need to understand better individual motivations and especially its relation to the community. Individuals coming together to improve their daily lives, to engage in public works, offer an alternative form of democratic politics, one in which people play a crucial part. How citizens can claim voice and can be active participants in the developmental process, and how the state can be made to serve citizens as a resource is the important question, rather than whether national development can still take place in a globalized world.
Nyerere was also well aware of the difficulties of identity politics and development. Yet, he seemed at times to believe that precolonial tradition could be carried over to reconstruct postcolonial society. Nyerere argued that Africans could avoid a European path to democratic-socialism through proletarianization and industrialization since the capacity "to debate [was] the root of [their] democratic-egalitarian nature" (p. 226). Participatory democracy rooted in African tradition would treat all as equals, notwithstanding their race, tribe, religion, or educational level (p. 222). To overcome the division between the educated and the people, Nyerere appealed to the former that it was their duty to serve the wider community (p. 234). In his final analysis of the failure of the ujamaa initiative (the organization of peasant production into collectivities), Idahosa suggests that Nyerere underestimated the problem of "various and divergent identities" (pp. 259-260).
Idahosa writes that Cabral and Nyerere, and especially Fanon, have to be reclaimed as thinkers of the state, class, and production processes. While he demonstrates well that these are important aspects of their thinking, I am not sure if the grappling with identities can be disposed of or traded off against an analysis of material realities. Literary analysis with its focus on discourse is for Idahosa part of the "poststructuralist proclivity that has gone too far" (p. 11). "Discourse does not boil any cassava" (p. 12), he writes, but if we want to have a picture as complete as possible of African realities, discourse and identity cannot be ignored. Young African writers engage with the global and problematize their identities, but their reflections also tell us about the material conditions of African life in the West, in the diaspora, and in the village community. This, in turn, is necessary for an analysis of the conditions that inform development strategies to overcome what ails Africa.
. Harry C. Boyte, Everyday Politics: Reconnecting Citizens and Public Life (Philadelphia : University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004).
. Pablo L. E. Idahosa and Bob Shenton, "The Africanist's 'New' Clothes," Historical Materialism12, no. 4 (2004): 67-113.
. Tirthankar Chanda, "Tant que l'Afrique ecrira, l'Afrique vivra," Le Monde Diplomatique (December 2004): 30-31.
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Thomas Blaser. Review of Idahosa, P. L. E., The Populist Dimension to African Political Thought: Essays in Reconstruction and Retrieval.
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