Institute of African Studies - Columbia University

A Take on the Socialismes en Afrique conference: Álvaro Luis Lima

Friday, July 8, 2016

African Socialisms – Socialisms in Africa

The conference African Socialisms – Socialisms in Africa was an important contribution to a field of study that has produced exciting scholarship in the past few years. This three-day conference, which took place in Paris between April 6 and 9, was co-organized by several institutions, including the Centre d’histoire sociale du XXa siècle, the Institut des mondes africains, L'ecole des hautes etudes en sciences sociales and the Université Paris I. The panels covered a broad variety of regional and disciplinary interests, ranging from economics to the arts in socialist Africa, as well as the continent’s dialogue with the larger communist bloc.

The title of the conference captures the difficulty of speaking in absolute or generalizing terms about the connections between socialism and Africa. The continent’s range of appropriations of socialism is extremely diverse. Even more interestingly, Africa has been center stage for nuanced and original radical thinking. One of the first papers of the conference presented one of these instances by confronting the relationship between religious and socialist identities in light of independence movements. In this paper. Antoine de Boyer presented the figure of Ghanaian leader Kwane Nkrumah and his negotiation between Islamic and radical thought in the newly independent country. What are the possibilities and limits of such ideological exchanges?

Lynn Schler discussed the extent to which socialist commitments shaped political alliances in the case of Israeli-Zairian relations. The paper focused particularly on Israeli technical assistance to cooperative settlements in the Zambian Copperbelt from 1966 to 1973. Despite the great success of the cooperatives assisted by Israel, Schler pointed to the limits of this project in the eyes of the Zambian political elite as it took an increasingly disapproving stance toward Israeli policy in the Middle East. The paper showed that for Zambian leaders such as Kenneth Kaunda, anticolonial solidarity towards Palestinians had to take precedence even over the economically successful socialist coalition between Zambia and Israel. The delicate relationship between anticolonialism and socialism in Africa was an ever-present topic of discussion by panelists and the audience alike. 

George Roberts pointed to the insufficient attention given to intellectual history in African Studies in his paper on the Tanzanian rebel figure of Abdulrahman Mohamed Babu. Indeed, it is time that scholarship on Africa considers the influence of the continent’s public intellectuals and individual philosophical oeuvres more systematically. The importance of such investigations becomes clear when intellectuals such as Babu are shown to complicate the political debates of the broader civil society of their times. Saffi Marung also discussed the role of intellectuals, but from the perspective of Soviet Africanists, pointing to the potential for future research on the historiography of African socialisms and the disciplines' impact beyond academia to other political arenas. 

The role of education and disciplinary establishments in socialist Africa was another lively debated topic, occupying a large portion of the last day of the conference. Benedito Machava’s presentation on reeducation camps in Mozambique was an example. There was a lot of disagreement among the audience about how to conceptualize these largely un-researched camps built to create new citizens from those seen as misfits by the Marxist regime. Can these camps be compared the USSR’s gulags? Should their revolutionary goals of reeducation take precedence over their punitive effects in the eyes of the historian? Demonizing or nostalgic, it is worth analyzing how our gazes towards the contemporary politics of the region shift the scholarly language about socialist institutions. 

It became apparent throughout the conference that the plurality of socialist voices in or about Africa cannot be reduced to the implementation of economic policies propelled by Cold War alliances. In fact, a large number of the panelists emphasized the intellectual disputes shaping Africa’s political and social spheres over economics, whether those took place through public institutions, the arts or rhetoric. A lot more is yet to come out from the conversations that the conference helped to ignite.

Videos of all of the panels from the first and second day of the conference are available online

Contributed by Álvaro Luís Lima