Sunday, July 7, 2013

Pan Africanism: A Two-Line Struggle

In 1961 sociologist E. Franklin Frazier wrote “We have no philosophers…who have reflected upon the fundamental problems which have always concerned philosophers such as the nature of human knowledge and the meaning of human existence.” To a large extent, this lack of engagement with philosophy, among intellectuals AND organizers, has produced several misunderstandings that has even led to fratricidal violence.  For example, the fact that many Pan Africanist do not have a grounding in philosophy has had a negative impact on ideological struggle in the movement.  This article is a corrective that will, hopefully, provide a brief history and understanding of the nature of the two-line struggle in the Pan African community.

Kwame Nkrumah stated that two worldviews have existed in human history: materialism and idealism. Another fancy, academic GRE word for this concept is ontology.  Ontology asks the question ‘what is the fundamental nature of reality’ or ‘what is real’? Idealists assert that ‘ideas’, ‘consciousness’, or ‘spirit’ are the fundamental reality.  For example, in her book Yurugu Marimba Ani declares “spirit is primary!,” similar to Hegel in The Philosophy of History who explained that a ‘universal spirit’ or 'consciousness' is primary.  Although they represent two very different set of political interests and constituency’s, when it comes to ontology, they share the philosophical viewpoint of idealism.  A few notable African idealists are Marimba Ani, Cedric Robinson, Molefi Asante, Mwalimu Baruti, Asa Hillard, and Marcus Garvey.  Western idealists include Plato, Friedrich Hegel, and Gerald Massey.

However, materialists claim that ‘matter’, ‘nature’, or the ‘physical world’ that humans perceive with their senses (taste, touch, sight, hear, smell) are real.  Ideas, in the materialist conception, are principally a reflection of ‘matter’ or the ‘physical world.’  Of course, several African materialists were scientific socialists influenced by Karl Marx and Fredrich Engels but, as Theophile Obenga in African Philosophy  and S. Radhakrishnan in Indian Philosophy Vol 1. demonstrate, philosophical materialism as a distinct school of thought existed in African and other non-western societies prior to the development of Western philosophy.  African materialist include Kwame Nkrumah, Fred Hampton, George Jackson, Huey Newton, Claudia Jones, Kwame Ture, Thomas Sankara, Amilcar Cabral, and Walter Rodney. 

Robert Alexander in his Ethiopian Manifesto (1829) was the first to articulate a form of idealism called Ethiopianism.  The doctrine originates in a biblical prophecy from Psalm 68:31 “Princes shall come out of Egypt and Ethiopia shall soon stretch forth her hands unto God.”  Ethiopianist believe that Egypt (Kmt) and Ethiopia (Kush) were great ancient African civilizations and that soon the Western world will fall and Black people will once again be leaders in world civilization.  Ethiopianism was influenced by romanticism.  Romanticism was a European reaction to the Enlightenment which asserts that each race or nation has its own unique characteristics and should follow its own model of development.  For example, Alexander Crummell was an Ethiopianist who emigrated to West Africa in the nineteenth century and a self-described Platonist.  He stated “The Negro Problem in the US is a problem of ideas...there is a present, but fleeting move to give it the respect of materialism.”

By the early twentieth century, the ideological struggle began to intensify.  In 1914, Hubert Harrison left the Socialist Party(SP) claiming that rhetorically the SP was class first but, in fact, has “insisted on Race first, and class after.”  Later, he would give Marcus Garvey one of his first platforms at a major speaking event in NYC and become co-editor of the Negro World.  Eventually, he broke with Garvey over, what was in Harrison’s view, utopian idealism.  While espousing a race first philosophy, Harrison remained committed to historical materialism. 

The UNIA, under the leadership of the Honorable Marcus Mosiah Garvey, was the largest mass movement of Africans in history, before and since. The ideology of the UNIA, African Fundamentalism, was a direct descendant of Ethiopainism urging Africans to pursue ‘racial independence’ in art, politics, and all areas of life in order that a fallen people will rise to their original greatness. At its core, the UNIA was a spiritual/political movement that attempted to engender in its adherents a mental transformation and cultural return to Africa.

In addition to Harrison, the UNIA had major disagreements with the African Blood Brotherhood (ABB).  The ABB was a scientific socialist organization whose objective was to establish an independent Black state in the US.  The debate became so hostile, that the ABB disrupted the second international convention of the UNIA.  Following the merger of the ABB with the communist party (CPUSA), there were regular street brawls between Garveyites and the CPUSA in Harlem in the 1930s. In fact, in 1930, one physical altercation led to the death of a Black communist, Alfred Levy.  Therefore, there was a historical precedent for the shootings at UCLA between the US organization and BPP in 1969.  The ideas of Garveyites and Communists influenced later generations of Black Power advocates and independence leaders.

Similar to the US, the African continent experienced the two-line ideological struggle.  The principle debate was between scientific socialist and those who advocated African socialism and Negritude such as Leopold Senghor.  Senghor, the first president of Senegal, asserted that prior to slavery and colonialism Africans practiced communalism whereby land and resources were shared, therefore, they do not need to adopt the ideas of Karl Marx but instead must return to the source.  Furthermore, according to Negritude, all people of African descent, regardless of time and space, have a spiritual/metaphysical connection which facilitates a shared cultural value system.  Negritude is influenced by surrealism.  Surrealism was an early twentieth century artistic and political movement originating in France that was critical of western rationality and instead emphasized the subconscious, imagination, and emotion as a means to human emancipation.

Ahmed Sekou Toure, was a revolutionary leader of Guinea-Conakry who in 1958 rejected membership in the French community and in 1961 expelled the Soviet ambassador.  He was critical of the Negritude ideology promoted in 1966 at the Festival of Negro Arts organized in Dakar. Toure claimed “the serious mistake of the champions of Negritude is that they underestimate the very determinant force of the environment and historical facts on man’s thought and reflexes.”  Toure argued Negritude built upon a white definition of Blackness which stated Africans are irrational and savage.  Instead, history, not skin color, should form the basis of the African personality. Therefore, in Toure’s view, Negritude is an “imperialist ideology.”

As long as Black people inside and outside the US have a common experience of global white supremacy and international capitalism, then unity on Pan African lines will continue to be a historical necessity. Because a similar experience of oppression does not always produce a general agreement among a group, it is hoped that this article will add some ideological clarity minus the traditional condescension and acrimony.

In the twenty first century, old categories such as ‘cultural nationalists vs. revolutionary nationalists’, ‘class vs. race’, and ‘culture vs. economics’ are increasingly irrelevant, if they ever really were accurate.  Those who argue that culture and white supremacy are the primary factors in the oppression of Black people are philosophical idealists.  On the other hand, philosophical materialists view culture and national identities as primarily determined by history and social environment but, still yet, a cultural revolution is required in order to ensure the long-term success of a liberation movement.

Unfortunately, this article cannot cover the totality of a century old debate that cuts across the Black world but, as a wave of radical activism sweeps the globe, it is imperative Africans in the millennial generation have a basic knowledge of the history and scope of the two line struggle.
A Luta Continua! (The struggle continues!)

“African Socialism Revisited” by Kwame Nkrumah

Conscienism by Kwame Nkrumah

Revolution, Culture & Pan Africanism by Ahmed Sekou Toure

“A Dialectical Approach to Culture” by Ahmed Sekou Toure

African Socialism or Socialist Africa by Muhammad Babu

Return to the Source by Amilcar Cabral

Marxism and African Liberation” by Walter Rodney

“Tanzanian Ujamaa and Scientific Socialism” by Walter Rodney

Walter Rodney Speaks by Walter Rodney

"Why I Changed My Ideology': Black Nationalism and Socialist Revolution," by Amiri Baraka Black World 24 (July 1975): 30-42.

Pan Africanism or Communism by George Padmore

“Materialist Philosophical Inquiry and African American Studies” by Jonathan H. McClendon

“In Defense of Materialism: A Critique of Afrocentric Ontology,”  by Christopher Williams Race & Class 47(1), 35-48.

The Philosophy and Opinions of Marcus Garvey by Marcus Garvey

Race First by Tony Martin

On African Socialism by Leopold Senghor

"Ujamaa – The Basis of African Socialism" by Julius Nyerere

Pan Africanism in the Diaspora by Ronald Walters

“Marxist-Leninism and the Black Revolution” by Ronald Walters Black Bulletin Books Vol. 5, No. 3, Fall 1977

“Enemy from the White Left, White Right, & In-Between” by Haki Madhubuti Black World 23, 12, (October 74), 36-47.

“US, Kawiada, and the Black Liberation Movement in the 1960s” by Malauna Karenga in Engines of the Black Power Movement: Essays on the Influence of Civil Rights Actions, Arts, And Islam

Black Marxism by Cedric Robinson

Afrocentricity by Molefi Asante

Yurugu by Marimba Ani

Notes Toward Higher Ideals in Afrikan Intellectual Liberation by Mwalimu Baruti


  1. Hey brother, this was a beautiful piece. It was a very stimulating read, and I appreciated the similarities that you drew between Black intellectuals and Western philosophical history. However, I'm inclined to think that the association is inverted. The philosophical and historical and anthropological evidence that Theophile Obenga described in "African Philosophy" and "Ancient Egypt and Black Africa" details the opposite historical relationship.

    Obenga's inverted historical account requires that we think of Western intellectual history as an evolutionary phase of African intellectual history; in this vein we could consider philosophy's intellectual history, inclusive of materialism and idealism, as an offshoot of a constellation of African intellectual traditions which, as Kwasi Wiredu argues "Cultural Universals and Particulars," are beyond the pale of academic philosophy.

    Also, I'd love to read how you would've treated the "professional" African philosophers like Tsenay Serequeberhan and Paulin Hountondji, Lewis Gordon and Lucius Outlaw. Or activist-philosophers like Kwame Nkrumah or Amilcar Cabral. Altogether they definitely complicate the easy classification of idealism and materialism. Theirs is a kind of philosophical activism that provides a bridge between Western education and African culture that I would consider as vital and enriching as the European antagonism between idealism and materialism.

  2. Hey Damarius, Good to hear from you. i'm going to respond as best i can, because your comments are somewhat unclear. The association i'm drawing is a philosophical (ontology), not so much a historical relationship. There is a claim, implicit and explicit, that materialism is a Eurocentric ideology. As a materialist, i totally disagree. The point i'm making is that materialism is not a European in origin. The work on Indian Philosophy shows materialism developed in India independently. Materialists in India had consistent debates with idealists as well. i like Obenga's work because, as he states in the introduction, he uses historical materialism as his methodology. Showing how Historical Materialism will help us reclaim our history.

    My view on philosophy is encapsulated in the Mcclendon and Nkrumah's consciensism. If you haven't, already check both of those out. They are both under the materialism section. Nkrumah and Cabral were highly critical of idealism in all its forms including Negritude. They were both committed materialists.

  3. The fact that you were drawing an ontological relationship instead of a historical one belies the same critique. I'm curious as to why it's significant that there's an ontological relationship between a tradition of African materialism and European philosophy? I accept the fact of obvious influence of Western society on black minds, but I'm critical of the implicit and explicit allusion to Western thought (which is common to Nkrumah and Obenga, and of your discussion above). European philosophy is positioned, by association, as the comparative standard of human thought; or the implication seems to be that the value of non-Western intellectual traditions is defined by their similarity to European philosophy as an evaluative standard. This critique is my bone of contention with your piece.
    But I appreciate you starting this dialogue! I will continue to engage black philosophers (thanks for the references and recommendations!). I'm very interested in Lucius Outlaw's proposal that Africana Studies become a metaphilosophical project, a self-critical counter to the Eurocentric imperative in philosophy. I'd be committed to that. It's just unfortunate, and unacceptable to my ideological sensibilities, that black philosophers so often contextualize their ideas within the European philosophical tradition. I'd love to see what black philosophers' exchanges might mean for black activists if the former did not continually reference European thought. I think this change might close the distance, and antagonism, between both parties.

  4. Well the point of writing this is to show the history and nature of the debate. For me scientific socialist are afrocentric or African centered. I'm not concerned weather or not they reference "European thought." As a materialist, being African centered means you place the political and economic interests of Africans at the center of the analysis. This is different than an idealist who has a set of a priori afrocentric values and ideals that determine who or what is african centered. For me, thought and practice are dialectically linked but doing, action, practice, experience is primary (empiricism-epistimology). So that, PAIGC, MPLA, & FRELIMO who waged 15 year guerilla wars against Western imperialism and Black Panthers who have been imprisoned for forty years are afrocentric. But because the above groups were Communists, hence, they are Eurocentric and "reference European thought." This from people of the same generation who chose, instead, to get PhD's and give lectures on Ancient Egypt on college campuses. Its comical! i know who the real thier actions.

    See i wanted to reframe the debate which to often comes down whose Eurocentric or you just wanna wear a dashiki and this so much bigger than that. i have a philosophical (ontology & epistimology) dissagreement with afrocentric idealists. My problem is not because they have "African ideology," its philosophy, i think.

  5. I definitely approached your piece from the idealist position, and I can see how I misinterpreted your intent.

    And I can also say that this misunderstanding comes from how I've been introduced to black thought. The African-American Studies program is so rigidly idealist, and without the explicit philosophical debates about whether or not idealism is preferable or justified as opposed to other approaches, that it's very difficult to appreciate the intellectual choices of other thinkers in the field and definitely of the approaches of other disciplines. This is an blindspot that I've been aware of and always trying to reduce. But I'll be the first to admit that being reflective and critical about the educational philosophy that I've been taught is very hard since it's presented as an a priori position. It's a self-justifying posture that also is presented as the only expression of true or deep commitment to black people, as you've said. Anyway I definitely wanted to thank you for publishing this piece and engaging in this exchange with me. It's an encouragement to be more expansive and self-critical, and I have a great deal of reading and work to do. Thank you brother.