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Africa was at the centre of Lenin’s work

Originally published: ROAPE (Review of African Political Economy) on January 27, 2022 by Joe Pateman (more by ROAPE (Review of African Political Economy)) (Posted Jan 31, 2022)

Marxism, we are told, is Eurocentric and has lost much of its appeal in the eyes of many scholars and activists. Some have even denounced Marxism as a racist theory, irrelevant to the study of Africa. Vladimir Lenin is implicated in this critique. In a far-reaching study of Lenin’s ideas, Joe Pateman argues Lenin placed Africa at the centre of his analysis of imperialism and contemporary capitalism. Here, the author reflects on the key aspects of his analysis. Following this, Pateman’s full article in the ROAPE journal can be accessed for free.

Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, the father of Bolshevism, never stepped foot in Africa, but his influence upon the continent has been tremendous. Alongside the ideas of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Lenin’s revolutionary theories provided the framework for an entire generation of African socialists during the twentieth century. By drawing upon Lenin’s writings, in addition to the practical experience of the October Socialist Revolution, millions of African freedom fighters were able to smash the shackles of Western imperialism, and in doing so, slice off some of the longest tentacles of parasitic Western capitalism.

Although, today, many socialists are hesitant to defend Bolshevism and the Soviet Union, the leaders of twentieth century African socialism were not ashamed of acknowledging their intellectual debt to Lenin, as well as the achievements of the world’s first workers’ state. Many of these leaders proudly announced themselves as Lenin’s African disciplines, and as African Leninists, contributing to the global struggle for human freedom, equality, and socialism. African socialist governments demonstrated their Leninist heritage by, amongst other things, placing gigantic portraits, busts, and statues of Lenin in the halls of power seized from the European colonialists.

Lenin’s presence was especially prominent in post-revolutionary Ghana, where the Marxist leader Kwame Nkrumah portrayed himself as an African Lenin. As part of his campaign to honour Lenin’s legacy, Nkrumah devoted his pioneering study on Neo-imperialism: The Highest Stage of Imperialism, to Lenin’s seminal work of Marxist theory, Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism. This book’s penetrating analysis of global capitalism remains as relevant today as it did when Lenin published it in 1917. Imperialism has provided especially profound insights for scholars of African political economy.

In recent years, however, some have challenged the relevance of Lenin’s legacy for the study of Africa. This challenge has comprised part of a concerted and coordinated effort to denounce Marxism as a Eurocentric doctrine, one that both marginalises and misunderstands the history of non-Western peoples. Lenin, alongside Marx and Engels, has been tarred with this brush. Many scholars have used Eurocentrism as a weapon to discredit Marxist ideas.

The concept of Eurocentrism found its most famous expression in Edward Said’s book Orientalism, which caused shockwaves amongst racist Western academics when he published it in 1978. In this book, Said used the term Orientalism to describe the West’s commonly contemptuous depiction of the ‘Eastern’ ‘Orient’, or in other words, the societies and peoples of Asia, North Africa, and the Middle East. Orientalism constructed a stark contrast between a white-skinned Western ‘us’ and a non-white eastern ‘other’, whilst claiming that the West was racially, politically, socially, economically, and culturally superior. This distinction underlined the perpetuation of racist stereotypes in the Western scholarship of Eastern peoples, since Orientalism judged them in accordance with the standards of ‘superior’ white Western civilisation.

In the discipline of international political economy (IPE), Said’s conception of Orientalism has been re-formulated as Eurocentrism or Western centrism. Many scholars have denounced the leading theories of IPE as Eurocentric. John Hobson, a prominent proponent of this view, has identified four characteristics or stages in the development of Eurocentrism: 1) the splitting of the East and West into two separate and self-constituting entities; 2) the evaluation of the West as superior to the East, in the sense that the West is endowed with rational characteristics, including liberal democracy and capitalism; whilst the East is endowed with irrational ones, such as barbarism and slavery; 3) the ‘Eurocentric Big Bang theory’, which accords a monopoly  of global developmental agency to the West; and 4) an imperialist politics, in which imperialism is either i) ignored, or presented as a benign civilising mission; or ii) empire is critiqued (direct imperialism), but the Western universalism of the theory renders its politics as a form of indirect imperialism (see Hobson 2013).

Hobson has accused Marx himself of endorsing these four characteristics of Eurocentrism. In doing so, he and many others have echoed the sentiments of Cedric Robinson, who provided a detailed defence of this narrative in his book Black Marxism. When it was originally published in 1983, Robinson’s study didn’t cause a stir. In recent years, however, Black Marxism has provided the foundation for the renewed critique of Eurocentric Marxism. Robinson’s ideas are all the rage nowadays, and scholars routinely endorse his claim that Marxism miscomprehends the history of Black and African peoples. As a result of these focused efforts, Marxism has lost much of its appeal in the eyes of many scholars of African political economy. Some have denounced Marxism outright as a racist theory, irrelevant to the study of Africa, whilst others claim that Marxism requires a fundamental reconstruction to remove its Eurocentric assumptions. Lenin’s ideas are of course implicated in this critique of Marxism.

Scholars have reemphasised the Eurocentric basis of Marxism since the rise of Black Lives Matter, a movement that has highlighted the systemic nature of anti-black racism in developed capitalist societies. Likewise, the global campaign to decolonise academia, by exposing and denouncing Eurocentric figures and theories, has further emboldened the critique of Marxism as a fundamentally Western-centric approach. It is not an exaggeration to say that these attacks- which have come from both anti-communists and self-professed ‘Marxists’- constitute an all-out assault on the fundamental premises of communism and Marxism. Once again, the revolutionary theory of the fighting working class is being demonised.

Not everyone has jumped on this bandwagon, despite the fact that doing so has been an effective method of getting published and advancing one’s academic career. Not all left-wing scholars have sold out and joined the witch-hunt for Eurocentric Marxism. Some have resisted the tide; and have sought to highlight the fundamentally non-Eurocentric foundations of scientific communism. One such person is Biko Agozino (2014), who in 2014 published a hugely important article in the ROAPE, ‘The Africana paradigm in Capital: the debts of Karl Marx to people of African descent’. In this article, which he summarised in a blogpost for roape.net in 2020, Agozino demolishes Robinson’s claim that Marx ignored and misunderstood Africa and its peoples. Agozino shows that Marx gave Africa an important place in Capital, his magnum opus, by making hundreds of references to the continent and the ‘negro’.

In my own article, which is published in ROAPE, and can be read for free, I provide a sequel to Agozino’s contribution by making a similar argument for Lenin, a figure whose influence upon African studies has been just as significant. Contrary to the views of Robinson and his followers, Lenin showed a profound concern for Africa. In fact, he placed Africa at the centre of his theory of imperialism, and this theory is fundamentally non-Eurocentric.

For one thing, Lenin was an astute analyst of colonialism in Africa from the earliest stages of his intellectual development. Already in the Development of Capitalism in Russia, published in 1899, Lenin compared Russia’s colonial exploitation of its minority nationalities to Germany’s African colonies. In both cases, he noted, an exploiting core sought to drain the resources of an exploited periphery. Moving forward to 1912, Lenin denounced Italy’s colonial invasion of Libya, including its brutal massacres of defenceless women and children. These actions showcased the fraud of Italy’s claim to be a civilised nation. Lenin argued that Italy’s predatory seizure of Libyan territory was fuelled by capitalist greed. Italian capitalism needed new territories to exploit in order to survive. At the same time, Lenin noted the bravery of the fierce Arab tribes, who would keeping fighting and never surrender, no matter the cost.

From 1915 to 1916, Lenin conducted a vast amount of research on Africa in preparation for his upcoming book on Imperialism. The Soviet Union published his notes as volume 39 of his Collected Works, under the title Notebooks on Imperialism. In these notebooks, which run to 768 pages, Lenin made comments and remarks on hundreds of scholarly books on imperialism, many of which focused upon Africa. Lenin amassed a vast amount of statistical data on Europe’s colonial activities in Africa, including the amount of capital invested and the length of railways built there. He meticulously studied the various treaties and deals signed between the imperialist powers over the partition of Africa from the late nineteenth century onwards. In doing so, Lenin acquired a detailed overview of the continent’s position under imperialism, one based on empirical evidence. More crucially, he repeatedly remarked that colonialism in Africa lay at the centre of imperialism; and was not merely a phenomenon of marginal importance.

Lenin did not only offer description and analysis. He was critical throughout the notebooks, offering scathing descriptions of the chauvinist apologists of African imperialism, as well as the colonial leaders themselves. Moreover, Lenin remarked on the resistance of African peoples, such as the Hottentot and Herero revolts, which were violently crushed by colonial troops. Contrary to what Robinson argues in Black Marxism, Lenin was fully aware of the ‘black radical tradition’.

Upon the basis of his Notebooks on Imperialism, Lenin placed Africa at the heart of his analysis in his book Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism. The centrality of Africa in this work has been insufficiently acknowledged in the literature, but it is essential to recognise, because it undermines the claim that Lenin was Eurocentric.

To start with, Lenin argued that the colonial conquest of Africa heralded the rise of imperialism, which he defined as a new stage of capitalism characterised by military conflict over territory. Imperialism required Africa’s subordination in order to thrive. Second, Lenin argued that Africa’s repartition was the objective content of the Great War. The belligerent European powers–and Germany in particular–were fighting primarily for greater slices of the African pie. In making these two points, Lenin established that Africa was a continent of unparalleled geopolitical significance. For as long as Africa was colonised, imperialism would be able to suppress European socialism, but if Africa achieved its liberation, then the European socialist movement would achieve a dramatic increase in power. The fate of global socialism and global capitalism depended upon Africa’s freedom.

During the Great War, Lenin became a leading critic of European colonialism and an uncompromising supporter of African independence. He judged socialists in accordance with their stand on these issues. Lenin denounced the chauvinist opportunists in Europe who abandoned their anti-capitalist struggles to support their national war efforts. Lenin insisted that the war was an imperialist conflict, and a symptom of moribund capitalism. It was the duty of socialists to oppose the war and show solidarity with their African brothers and sisters. Lenin abandoned the Second International and founded the Third International precisely because the former failed to oppose the colonial plunder of Africa and the predatory war waged over it. Under Lenin’s leadership, the Third International made anti-colonialism a condition of membership, and it identified African independence as an indispensable part of the global proletarian revolution (see Matt Swagler’s analysis here and here).

Yet, Lenin was not a saint. He lived during a time when European thinking on Africa was overwhelmingly racist. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Lenin was not a scientific racist, though he did, very rarely, express the widely promoted view that African peoples and societies were ‘primitive’, ‘savage’, and underdeveloped, more so in the centre of the continent. It is important to recognise that these remarks were marginal in Lenin’s thought, and they did not shape his theoretical framework. Lenin spent far more time exposing the barbaric nature of European civilisation, than he did commenting on Africa’s alleged backwardness.

For this reason, there is little basis for the view that Lenin was Eurocentric. Such a view ignores the vast amount of evidence to the contrary, including Lenin’s record in championing Africa’s liberation struggle. In both theory and practice, the founder of Soviet communism eschewed Hobson’s four characteristics of Eurocentrism. First, Lenin did not separate the West from Africa. He envisioned imperialism as a global system, one that intimately connected European and African peoples. Second, Lenin did not view the West as superior to Africa. although not fully consistent, he often portrayed Africans as more civilised than the European imperialists, who showed higher levels of violent barbarism. Third, Lenin did not endorse the ‘Big Bang’ theory of European development. He recognised that Western capitalism relied for its expansion upon the subjugation of Africa. Finally, Lenin did not endorse imperialism.

In contrast to the chauvinists of his era, Lenin was a consistent supporter of African independence. As such, Lenin’s legacy remains relevant for the study of Africa today. His book on Imperialism will continue to provide profound insights for both the study of African political economy and the socialist struggles of African peoples.

Joe Pateman’s full article in ROAPE, ‘The centrality of Africa in Lenin’s theory of imperialism’ is available to read for free until the end of April.


Joe Pateman is a Graduate Teaching Assistant in Politics at the University of Sheffield. He is the co-author of Public Libraries and Marxism (Routledge, 2021).

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