Institute of African Studies - Columbia University

A Take on the Socialismes en Afrique conference: Matt Swagler

Friday, July 8, 2016

Socialismes Africains/Socialismes en Afrique (African Socialisms/Socialisms in Africa) international conference, Paris, France, April 7 to 9, 2016

More than forty scholars presented their research at this three-day conference in Paris, hosted by the University of Paris 1 (Panthéon-Sorbonne), and the National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS). Conducted in French and English with simultaneous translation, the conference included participants from across Africa, Europe, and the United States. An audience of more than fifty people consistently packed the conference room, leading to lively discussion and heated debates. 

Socialismes Africains/Socialismes en Afrique built upon the successful international conference in 2014 in Paris on the history of student movements in Africa since 1960. From the momentum of that event, organizer Françoise Blum (CNRS) initiated this conference with a team of young scholars of Africa working in France.

The conference focused on how socialism has been conceptualized and translated into practice in Africa. Presentations covered Francophone, Lusophone and Anglophone sub-Saharan Africa (although South Africa was not included), as well as Algeria, Tunisia and Egypt. With a strong historical bent, most of the papers addressed the period of the 1950s-1970s, when variations of “African Socialism,” “Marxism-Leninism,” and other radical tendencies were most prominent in African politics. Much of the first day focused on the diverse theories of socialism conceived by anti-colonial organizations, African state leaders, or their opposition. The presentations soon moved to addressing the various attempts at implementing socialism in Africa—whether through artistic endeavors, educational reforms, urban housing policies, or agricultural production schemes. Other scholars explored the bidirectional impact of relationships that developed between African states and countries such as the Soviet Union, Israel, and East Germany in the context of the Cold War.

A series of more informal roundtable discussions also provided for dynamic conversations. The first, recorded and moderated by Radio France Internationale, brought together participants from Marxist-inspired movements and governments in Senegal, Congo-Brazzaville, Mali, and Benin during the 1950s-1970s to talk about their experiences. The second was comprised of scholars discussing the past and current prospects for socialist movements in the Horn of Africa (Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, and Eritrea).

From the whirlwind of presentations and debate, numerous common threads and unanswered questions emerged. First, the sheer diversity of African “socialisms” was often in tension with purveyors’ claims to represent the “universality” of socialism. What “real” socialism was to look like in practice was a source of conflict within African states, between African states, and in Africa’s relationship to international allies. Second, socialisms in Africa often emerged alongside anti-colonial struggles, enmeshing race, class, imperialism, and gender. Frequently, debates over African socialism involved questioning how these concepts were to be defined in African contexts, particularly which aspects of “tradition” should be embraced by socialists, and which rejected. Third, as Fred Cooper (New York University) noted in his closing remarks, conflicts consistently emerged over who would partake in determining the practices of socialism in Africa, and how they would participate. This was evidenced by papers that explored both the creation of newly democratic spaces and the use of violent coercion in self-proclaimed “socialist” countries.

The conference showed that the study of socialism in Africa, particular in the period during and after decolonization, is currently undergoing a revival among historians, anthropologists, art historians, and political scientists across the world. Outside of the Cold War context that framed many early studies of socialism in Africa, scholars are now reassessing the era. The conference offered an excellent opportunity for us to take stock of our collective efforts. However, very few presenters addressed the fate of socialism in Africa after the fall of the Communist Bloc. The conference inevitably raised questions not just about our assessment of the past, but whether socialism has a place in the future of African politics and social movements.

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

Contributed by Matt Swagler