“L’option socialiste”: Mali’s non-capitalist development and the international communist movement

A stamp comme­mo­ra­ting the short-lived Mali Federation

From 1960 to 1968, the Repu­blic of Mali was at the fore­front of social revo­lu­tion in Africa. The country’s gover­ning party, the Union Souda­naise, had refu­sed to settle for formal poli­ti­cal sove­reig­nty and declared in 1960 that the repu­blic would opt for “l’op­tion socia­liste” to secure econo­mic inde­pen­dence from impe­ria­lism and social libe­ra­tion for the Malian people. Since its incep­tion, the natio­nal move­ment in “French West Africa” had main­tai­ned close links with the inter­na­tio­nal commu­nist move­ment. Many of its leaders had orga­nised the Grou­pes d’Etu­des Commu­nis­tes, study cells that had spread throug­hout West and Equa­to­rial Africa in the 1940s with the help of the French Commu­nist Party. After Mali and Guinea won inde­pen­dence with anti-impe­ria­list parties at the helm in the late 1950s, this rela­ti­onship took on new dimen­si­ons. The socia­list camp now began to support these young state projects in their endea­vor to over­come neoco­lo­nial explo­ita­tion and, ulti­m­ately, circum­vent the capi­ta­list stage of development.

This brief episode of revo­lu­tio­nary uphe­aval in Mali offers insights into seve­ral central aspects of anti-impe­ria­lism in the 20th century. Firstly, it gives an idea of the nature of rela­ti­ons between the socia­list camp and progres­sive govern­ments in the newly libe­ra­ted states. Both shared a common enemy in Western impe­ria­lism, but how far did they go in coor­di­na­ting their actions and discus­sing tactics? Secondly, deve­lo­p­ments in Mali help to reveal the inter­na­tio­na­list stra­tegy of commu­nist forces at this histo­ri­cal cross­road in the 1960s. Theo­ries such as “non-capi­ta­list deve­lo­p­ment” and the “natio­nal demo­cra­tic state”, which would become central concepts in the commu­nists’ analy­sis of the former colo­nies, were fleshed out at the begin­ning of this decade. Finally, the trajec­tory of Mali’s ruling party, the Union Souda­naise, from an anti-colo­nial mass move­ment towards a vanguar­dist party is illus­tra­tive of how class struggle unfolded during the second stage of natio­nal libe­ra­tion. As explo­red below, the ques­tion of finding an appro­priate form of poli­ti­cal orga­niza­tion for the struggle against neoco­lo­nia­lism was at the centre of deba­tes amongst revo­lu­tio­na­ries in Africa at the time.

Any conclu­si­ons drawn from just one exam­ple will of course be preli­mi­nary; it will be neces­sary to compare expe­ri­en­ces in Mali with those in other natio­nal demo­cra­tic states.1 Mali is, howe­ver, a signi­fi­cant instance, for the Union Souda­naise was the first gover­ning party in the newly libe­ra­ted Afri­can states to iden­tify Marxism-Leni­nism as its ideo­lo­gi­cal basis and de facto align with the socia­list camp by the mid-1960s. Rese­arch for the follo­wing article was based largely on DDR and SED docu­ments found in the Bundes­ar­chiv (German Fede­ral Archi­ves), artic­les in commu­nist jour­nals such as the Problems of Peace and Socia­lism, and analy­ses by both libe­ral and Marxist histo­ri­ans. Speci­fic sources, longer quotes, and addi­tio­nal infor­ma­tion can be found in the foot­no­tes for those inte­res­ted in further research.

Although the article focu­ses prima­rily on the eight-year period of revo­lu­tio­nary demo­cracy in Mali, it also covers important deve­lo­p­ments running up to Mali’s inde­pen­dence and explo­res seve­ral aspects of the option socia­liste. A conden­sed version exclu­ding agri­cul­tu­ral reforms and ideo­lo­gi­cal deba­tes in the commu­nist move­ment can be found here.

The maldevelopment of West Africa through European exploitation

Western Africa was once home to some of the most advan­ced socie­ties on the Afri­can conti­nent. From the 5th century to the end of the 16th century, succes­sive states had deve­lo­ped large econo­mies based prima­rily on agri­cul­ture, handi­crafts, and the gold trade. By the 16th century, early feuda­list tenden­cies in West Africa (e.g., the emer­gence of an aris­to­cracy based on the explo­ita­tion of village commu­ni­ties) had begun to erode but not yet fully replace commu­na­list egali­ta­ria­nism.2 With the arri­val of Euro­pean slave trad­ers in the second half of the 16th century, the region violently descen­ded into an era of foreign explo­ita­tion and subju­ga­tion. Until the mid-19th century, the West Afri­can coast­line was a central node in the trans­at­lan­tic slave trade, while the hinter­land became a hunting ground for capti­ves, who were then sold to Euro­peans in exch­ange for consu­mer goods of little value. This pre-colo­nial era thoroughly distor­ted the deve­lo­p­ment of West Africa, for it not only strip­ped the region of its labour force, but also reori­en­ted inter­nal econo­mic acti­vity around the highly destruc­tive prac­tice of slave hunting.

In the 1870s, the French began estab­li­shing forts and outposts along the Niger River, taking direct control over large swathes of West Africa. The shift to colo­nial rule meant the direct inte­gra­tion of West Africa into the impe­ria­list world economy; the labour force was now to be exploi­ted at home, rather than expor­ted abroad. Ground­nuts became an early cash crop in “French West Africa” before colo­nial autho­ri­ties attempted to estab­lish cotton projects along the Niger River, with the forced resett­le­ment of local fami­lies to work the land.3

French colo­nia­lism distor­ted the West Afri­can economy in a very parti­cu­lar way. Unlike the colo­ni­zers of East and South Africa who broke down commu­na­list rela­ti­ons and crea­ted a class of expro­pria­ted labou­rers that could work in extra­c­tive indus­tries or quasi-feudal plan­ta­ti­ons, France expor­ted little capi­tal into West Africa and limi­ted its direct invol­vement in the sphere of produc­tion.4 French trading compa­nies instead relied mostly on the impo­si­tion of unequal trade to extract a profit: buying up compul­sory agri­cul­tu­ral produce at low prices and selling infe­rior consu­mer goods at high prices.5 Village and canton chiefs were selec­ted and bribed by the French to enforce colo­nial rule and repre­sent the inte­rests of the trading compa­nies. As a result, village commu­ni­ties in West Africa were subor­di­na­ted to the needs of foreign mono­po­lies, but their semi-commu­na­list mode of produc­tion remained largely intact. The West Afri­can economy thus embo­died stark contra­dic­tions by the end of the colo­nial era: on one hand it was directly inte­gra­ted into the impe­ria­list world market and on the other it was still charac­te­ri­zed by pre-feudal village struc­tures based predo­mi­nantly on subsis­tence farming, common owner­ship of land, and patri­ar­chal relations.

Coll­ec­tion of woven cotton in the town of Bandia­gara (circa 1900): Through such taxes-in-kind, France was able to compel villa­ges that would other­wise be self-sustai­ning and not orien­ted towards commo­dity produc­tion to meet the needs of its monopolies.

By the 1950s, the inde­pen­dence move­ment in West Africa had won signi­fi­cant conces­si­ons from France. The Rassem­blem­ent Démo­cra­tique Afri­cain (RDA), a coali­tion of parties from throug­hout French West and Equa­to­rial Africa foun­ded in 1946, played a crucial role along­side the French Commu­nist Party (PCF) in pres­su­ring the French estab­lish­ment to accept poli­ti­cal auto­nomy for the colo­nies. The RDA section in “French Soudan” (modern-day Mali) was the Union Souda­naise (US-RDA). The party had been co-foun­ded by Modibo Keïta, a young teacher from Bamako who had been active in the PCF-affi­lia­ted “Commu­nist Study Groups” (Grou­pes d’Etu­des Commu­nis­tes) in his home city. Keïta came to lead the inde­pen­dence move­ment in French Soudan and won auto­nomy for the new Suda­nese Repu­blic through a refe­ren­dum in 1958. As a pan-Afri­ca­nist, Keïta advo­ca­ted for the inte­gra­tion of the former colo­nies of French West Africa. The Mali Fede­ra­tion, a union between the Suda­nese Repu­blic and Sene­gal, was formed in early 1959, but the leaders of the two count­ries had diver­gent visi­ons for the future, with the Sene­ga­lese favoring a capi­ta­list deve­lo­p­ment and closer rela­ti­ons with France. After only a few months, the union disin­te­gra­ted, and the US-RDA declared an inde­pen­dent Repu­blic of Mali in Septem­ber 1960. The fail­ure of the Fede­ra­tion marked a signi­fi­cant blow to the US-RDA, as Sene­gal repre­sen­ted Mali’s gate to the world. The capi­tal (Bamako) was now sepa­ra­ted from the coast by almost 1000 kilo­me­ters, a fact that would plague the Malian economy for deca­des to come.

The US-RDA and the international communist movement

The US-RDA was a mass party opera­ting as a natio­nal front. It had formed after a series of mergers between various poli­ti­cal grou­pings influen­ced by the social demo­cra­tic Section fran­çaise de l’In­ter­na­tio­nale ouvrière (SFIO) or the Marxist-Leni­nist PCF. 90 percent of US-RDA members were peasants, while the leader­ship predo­mi­nantly came from petty-bour­geois back­grounds (e.g., teachers, doctors, and clerks).6 The nascent working class, which made up only 2.8% of Mali’s working popu­la­tion at the time of inde­pen­dence, had a rela­tively minor presence in the party but was able to exert some influence through the Union Natio­nale des Travail­leurs du Mali (UNTM), the party-affi­lia­ted trade union. Imme­dia­tely follo­wing Mali’s inde­pen­dence, a US-RDA congress announ­ced a second stage in their struggle for natio­nal libe­ra­tion, stating that the coun­try must “imme­dia­tely and reso­lut­ely under­take econo­mic de-colo­niza­tion, to estab­lish as soon as possi­ble a new econo­mic struc­ture and, on the basis of the concrete possi­bi­li­ties of the Afri­can count­ries, to deve­lop trade rela­ti­ons within the frame­work of socia­list plan­ning.“7 Now that formal poli­ti­cal sove­reig­nty had been achie­ved, the task was to drive the coun­try towards econo­mic inde­pen­dence and social eman­ci­pa­tion to “rid the people of the legacy of colonialism”.

As Mali’s first presi­dent, Keïta initia­ted a series of measu­res as part of this option socia­liste: key sectors of the form­erly colo­nised economy were natio­na­li­sed and inte­gra­ted into a five-year plan (1961–66), a new currency was crea­ted to break away from France’s neoco­lo­nial CFA franc zone, and an “action rurale” was laun­ched to trans­form the semi-commu­na­list villa­ges into modern agri­cul­tu­ral coope­ra­ti­ves. These initia­ti­ves were to be the first steps in a three-stage revo­lu­tion in Mali: an initial “socia­list trans­for­ma­tion” of exis­ting condi­ti­ons, follo­wed by the “cons­truc­tion of socia­lism”, and finally the “conso­li­da­tion of socia­list society”.8

While the US-RDA had been the first non-commu­nist party in Africa to iden­tify Marxism-Leni­nism as its ideo­lo­gi­cal basis, it remained a soci­ally and ideo­lo­gi­cally hete­ro­ge­neous “patrio­tic front”.9 Prior to inde­pen­dence, all clas­ses and social groups in Mali (with the excep­tion of the corrupted chief­ta­ins) had found them­sel­ves in contra­dic­tion with foreign impe­ria­lism. After poli­ti­cal inde­pen­dence had been secu­red and natio­nal cons­truc­tion was under­way, class diffe­ren­tia­tion began to inten­sify, and factions star­ted to crysta­lize within the party. A right-wing tendency held a rela­tively strong posi­tion in the party’s leader­ship, with roughly half of the seats in the polit­buro and seve­ral key minis­te­rial posts. This group did not openly chall­enge the option socia­liste but pushed for more mode­rate reforms and a less antago­ni­stic rela­ti­onship with France. A left wing of the party was sustained by those who had been active in the PCF’s Study Groups that had merged with the US-RDA in the late 1950s. This leftist tendency soon drew support from the party’s youth wing (the JUS-RDA) and trade union members. They did not have an inde­pen­dent poli­ti­cal plat­form and instead advo­ca­ted for the rigo­rous imple­men­ta­tion of the option socia­liste.

The US-RDA had been more defi­ant than most other gover­ning parties in neigh­bou­ring states, but it had never broken with France enti­rely. To main­tain their influence in the coun­try and exacer­bate disagree­ments in the US-RDA, the Western powers began to offer finan­cial credit to Keïta’s govern­ment in the early 1960s. Mali subse­quently joined the Inter­na­tio­nal Mone­tary Fund (IMF) and World Bank in 1963 and signed an asso­cia­tion agree­ment with the Euro­pean Econo­mic Commu­nity (EEC) in 1964. The socia­list camp had few illu­si­ons regar­ding this ques­tion, reco­gni­zing that colo­nial malde­ve­lo­p­ment and the limi­ta­ti­ons of Soviet resour­ces put Mali in a diffi­cult posi­tion in which the US-RDA sought to “mano­eu­vre poli­ti­cally between the two world systems.“10 (quote)

In 1961, Mali joined Ghana and Guinea in the Union of Afri­can States, which sought to over­come the balka­niza­tion of West Africa by gradu­ally inte­gra­ting the econo­mies of the three states. Yet it too proved short lived after disagree­ments led to its disband­ment in 1963. From left to right: Modibo Keïta, Kwame Nkru­mah, and Sékou Touré.

The inter­na­tio­nal commu­nist move­ment at this time was still enfee­bled by the disso­lu­tion of the Comin­tern in 1943 and then the Comin­form in 1956.11 In an attempt to revive the inter­na­tio­nal coor­di­na­tion of the move­ment, seve­ral meetings were orga­ni­zed in the late 1950s, culmi­na­ting in the “1960 Inter­na­tio­nal Meeting of Commu­nist and Workers Parties”, with 81 parties convening in Moscow. They there deve­lo­ped the rather nebu­lous concept of the “natio­nal demo­cra­tic state” to capture the complex proces­ses unfol­ding in many newly libe­ra­ted states. As the “1960 Decla­ra­tion” descri­bed it:

“The urgent tasks of natio­nal rebirth facing the count­ries that have shaken off the colo­nial yoke cannot be effec­tively accom­plished unless a deter­mi­ned struggle is waged against impe­ria­lism and the remnants of feuda­lism by all the patrio­tic forces of the nati­ons united in a single natio­nal-demo­cra­tic front. The natio­nal demo­cra­tic tasks – on the basis of which the progres­sive forces of the nation can and do unite in the count­ries which have won their free­dom – are: the conso­li­da­tion of poli­ti­cal inde­pen­dence, the carry­ing out of agra­rian reforms in the inte­rest of the peas­an­try, elimi­na­tion of the survi­vals of feuda­lism, the uproo­ting of impe­ria­list econo­mic domi­na­tion, the rest­ric­tion of foreign mono­po­lies and their expul­sion from the natio­nal economy, the crea­tion and deve­lo­p­ment of a natio­nal indus­try, impro­ve­ment of the living stan­dard, the demo­cra­tiza­tion of social life, the pursu­ance of an inde­pen­dent and peaceful foreign policy, and the deve­lo­p­ment of econo­mic and cultu­ral co-opera­tion with the socia­list and other friendly count­ries.”12

As the commu­nist move­ment unders­tood it, the US-RDA had set Mali on a path of “non-capi­ta­list deve­lo­p­ment”, which entailed an anti-impe­ria­list trans­for­ma­tion and thorough demo­cra­tiza­tion of society. An initial phase of “natio­nal demo­cracy”13would be neces­sary in most libe­ra­ted count­ries, for deca­des of colo­nial malde­ve­lo­p­ment had made an imme­diate socia­list revo­lu­tion impos­si­ble. Since the working class was still nume­ri­cally weak in these count­ries, this endea­vor could not be led by the dicta­tor­ship of the prole­ta­riat, but rather a tran­si­tio­nal form of poli­ti­cal orga­niza­tion: an anti-impe­ria­list front consis­ting of workers, peasants, the petty-bour­geoi­sie and even elements of the natio­nal bour­geoi­sie.14 (quote) At the helm were often “revo­lu­tio­nary demo­crats”, members of the intel­li­gent­sia or mili­tary offi­cers who came to embody the natio­nal move­ment. They were exem­pli­fied by figu­res such as Modibo Keïta in Mali, Kwame Nkru­mah in Ghana, and Abdel Nasser in Egypt. While main­tai­ning the neces­sity of this cross-class alli­ance, the commu­nists also reco­gni­zed its preca­rious nature:

“In present condi­ti­ons, the natio­nal bour­geoi­sie of the colo­nial and depen­dent count­ries uncon­nec­ted with impe­ria­list circles, is objec­tively inte­res­ted in the prin­ci­pal tasks of anti-impe­ria­list, anti-feudal revo­lu­tion, and ther­e­fore reta­ins the capa­city of parti­ci­pa­ting in the revo­lu­tio­nary struggle against impe­ria­lism and feuda­lism. In that sense it is progres­sive. But it is unsta­ble; though progres­sive, it is incli­ned to compro­mise with impe­ria­lism and feuda­lism. Owing to its dual nature, the extent to which the natio­nal bour­geoi­sie parti­ci­pa­tes in revo­lu­tion differs from coun­try to coun­try. This depends on concrete condi­ti­ons, on chan­ges in the rela­ti­onship of class forces, on the sharp­ness of the contra­dic­tions between impe­ria­lism, feuda­lism, and the people, and on the depth of the contra­dic­tions between impe­ria­lism, feuda­lism, and the natio­nal bour­geoi­sie.”15

It was also asser­ted that the assis­tance of the socia­list camp could enable these natio­nal demo­cra­tic regimes to create the poli­ti­cal, mate­rial and socio-econo­mic pre-condi­ti­ons for socia­lism without having to pass through a capi­ta­list stage of deve­lo­p­ment.16 A key point of refe­rence for the concept of “non-capi­ta­list deve­lo­p­ment” was the Mongo­lian People’s Repu­blic and the Central Asian Soviet Repu­blics, which had gone through initial peri­ods of revo­lu­tio­nary-demo­cra­tic trans­for­ma­tion in the 1920s and 30s before progres­sing to socia­list cons­truc­tion.17 In the former colo­nies of Africa, Asia and Latin America, this non-capi­ta­list path would mean a conti­nuous struggle against impe­ria­lism and, at the same time, a limi­ta­tion and gradual roll-back of dome­stic capi­ta­list rela­ti­ons. The aim was to drive the anti-impe­ria­list natio­nal revo­lu­tion towards a socia­list revo­lu­tion, as had happened in Cuba, where the revo­lu­tio­nary demo­crat Fidel Castro embra­ced Marxism-Leni­nism as the revo­lu­tion advan­ced. This was theo­re­ti­cal foun­da­tion upon which the USSR and its allies set out to support states like Mali in the 1960s:

“The Commu­nist Parties are working actively for a consis­tent comple­tion of the anti-impe­ria­list, anti-feudal, demo­cra­tic revo­lu­tion, for the estab­lish­ment of natio­nal demo­cra­cies, for a radi­cal impro­ve­ment in the living stan­dard of the people. They support those actions of natio­nal govern­ments leading to the conso­li­da­tion of the gains achie­ved and under­mi­ning the impe­ria­lists’ posi­ti­ons.”18

Mali’s path of non-capitalist development and the DDR’s solidarity

Imme­dia­tely follo­wing inde­pen­dence, Mali estab­lished close rela­ti­ons with nume­rous socia­list states and sought their assis­tance in reali­zing the option socia­liste. An initial exch­ange with East Germany began through the Free German Trade Union Fede­ra­tion (FDGB), which sent a dele­ga­tion to West Africa in 1960. Malian offi­ci­als empha­si­zed the need to deve­lop the country’s health care system, since France had left it in a deplo­rable state. There was an acute shortage of doctors (1 physi­cian per 40,000 inha­bi­tants in 1960), which meant that many illnesses went untrea­ted. Epide­mics of tuber­cu­lo­sis, mala­ria and syphi­lis were spre­a­ding uncon­troll­ably.19 After Mali’s minis­ter of health expres­sed inte­rest in coope­ra­ting in this field, US-RDA repre­sen­ta­ti­ves travel­led to the DDR to deve­lop plans. The focus of the coope­ra­tion was to be on preven­tive care for the popu­la­tion and reor­ga­ni­zing the struc­ture of the health system. 60,000 polio vacci­nes were soon dispatched to Mali and the FDGB helped to merge Mali’s health care unions into a more effi­ci­ent, centra­li­zed orga­ni­sa­tion. A programme was also deve­lo­ped to train Malian students in East Germany. The first class arri­ved at the medi­cal school in the town of Qued­lin­burg in 1960. They were follo­wed by hundreds of other Mali­ans that would study a variety of fields. Coope­ra­tion was then gradu­ally expan­ded to include skil­led worker trai­ning, cultu­ral exch­an­ges, popu­lar educa­tion part­ner­ships, and poli­ti­cal cadre schooling.

Malian students at the Karl Marx Univer­sity in Leip­zig pose for a photo after writing a state­ment denoun­cing France’s deto­na­tion of a nuclear bomb in the Sahara Desert during the Alge­rian War of Inde­pen­dence (Febru­ary 1960).

Agri­cul­tu­ral produc­tion was the central econo­mic acti­vity in Mali, with 90% of the working popu­la­tion enga­ged in this sector. It was also the country’s primary source of accu­mu­la­tion, with 92% of exports coming from agri­cul­ture. Yet in many regi­ons, the level of produc­tive forces remained extre­mely low: the land was worked by fami­lies who used hand-opera­ted imple­ments and consu­med more than three quar­ters of their yield for subsis­tence. Since the parti­cu­la­ri­ties of colo­nial rule in French Soudan had not given rise to large private estates, there was no need for a land reform simi­lar to those in Cuba, Egypt, and Iraq. Instead, the action rurale sought to trans­form the semi-commu­na­list villa­ges into coope­ra­ti­ves (Grou­pe­ment Rural de Produc­tion et de Secours Mutuel, GRPSM) and connect them to state-run faci­li­ties (encad­re­ment rural) that would assist famers in the use of modern produc­tion methods. The action was to be the centre­piece of socia­list trans­for­ma­tion in Mali; the aim was to boost agri­cul­tu­ral produc­tion beyond subsis­tence farming and, through state-run trading compa­nies, gene­rate the funds neces­sary for indus­tria­liza­tion. The GRPSM were also to become engi­nes for social progress in the coun­try­side: they were to elect their own manage­ment struc­tures and estab­lish liter­acy centres, sani­tary stati­ons, shops, and seaso­nal schools for young villagers.

Dogon farmers from central Mali plough and sow land with hand tools (circa 1970).

After a request for assis­tance from JUS-RDA, the mass youth move­ment of the DDR, the Freie Deut­sche Jugend (FDJ), kitted up a “Friend­ship Brigade” in 1960 – the first of what would become dozens of briga­des sent throug­hout the world – to assist in the cons­truc­tion of a GRPSM in Somo, Mali. The first brigade consis­ted of six members: an agro­no­mist, a cattle farmer, a mason, a carpen­ter, a mecha­nic, and a doctor. Their gear included a trac­tor and plough, a truck and trai­ler, a seed sowing machine, a jeep, and a centri­fu­gal pump. The brigade worked along­side 30 Malian farmers, sowing rice, millet, and peanuts, and cons­truc­ted new buil­dings for cattle bree­ding and main­ten­ance work.

By the mid 1960s, signi­fi­cant gains had been made in Mali, espe­ci­ally in compa­ri­son to the deca­des of colo­nial rule. While the French had only spent 4% of colo­nial taxes on educa­tion in West Africa, the US-RDA had mana­ged to double the number of primary and secon­dary students in just 3 years.20 Hundreds of new medi­cal faci­li­ties and sani­tary stati­ons had been cons­truc­ted throug­hout the coun­try. In agri­cul­ture, over 45,000 hecta­res of land were irri­ga­ted, and 30,000 ploughs had been deli­vered to the GRPSM, while the cons­truc­tion of the encad­re­ment system and seaso­nal schools had been mostly comple­ted by the end of 1965.21

Plans drawn up by the FDJ and the JUS-RDA for the cons­truc­tion of “Camp Somo”, a GRPSM near the town of Ségou. The first FDJ friend­ship brigade was reli­e­ved by a second team brin­ging new equip­ment in 1967.

Yet these gains fell short of the US-RDA’s ambi­tious five-year plan. While cotton, corn and peanut produc­tion expan­ded, the produc­tion of subsis­tence crops stagna­ted (rice) or even decli­ned (millet).22 The action strug­g­led with seve­ral prac­ti­cal and poli­ti­cal chal­lenges. The more radi­cal wing of the US-RDA had envi­sio­ned a gradual trans­for­ma­tion of the subsis­tence-based villa­ges into modern commo­dity-produ­cing coope­ra­ti­ves that, when inte­gra­ted into a wider system of state plan­ning, could fund indus­trial deve­lo­p­ment on a natio­nal scale. Right-wing and centrist elements in the party, howe­ver, advo­ca­ted for a revi­val of “tradi­tio­nal” village struc­tures that had been defor­med by colo­nia­lism. Echo­ing the ideas of other agra­rian socia­list move­ments such as the Narod­niks in 19th century Russia, this tendency idea­li­zed the semi-commu­na­list methods from the pre-colo­nial era. They advo­ca­ted for a reha­bi­li­ta­tion of “tradi­tio­nal values and norms” to reawa­ken farmers’ “inner need for progress”, redu­cing socia­list trans­for­ma­tion in the coun­try­side to a kind of “psycho­lo­gi­cal revo­lu­tion” amongst the villa­gers.23 As a result of these diver­gent concep­ti­ons within the party, the action rurale was incon­sis­t­ently imple­men­ted at the local level.24 While novel demo­cra­tic decis­ion-making struc­tures were erec­ted in some villa­ges, offi­ci­als in other regi­ons sought to merely “de-colo­nise” the villa­ges, which inad­ver­t­ently streng­the­ned or some­ti­mes even revi­ved patri­ar­chal rela­ti­ons and the quasi-feudal aris­to­cracy from the pre-colo­nial period – the very forces most reluc­tant to the idea of socia­list transformation.

The most signi­fi­cant problems cripp­ling the Malian economy, howe­ver, were of exter­nal origin. The US-RDA had been able to drive out foreign corpo­ra­ti­ons from the dome­stic agri­cul­tu­ral market and thus stop the direct outflow of Mali’s natio­nal product, but Malian commo­di­ties were still at the mercy of prices on the capi­ta­list world market. The cost of trans­port­ing goods across natio­nal borders to ports in Sene­gal and Guinea, as well as the subs­idy sche­mes for cotton in Europe and the United States, made it almost impos­si­ble to make a return. Unequal exch­ange embo­died “the hidden hand of neoco­lo­nia­lism” (Nkru­mah) in Mali. Yet France was brazen enough to also employ a more visi­ble hand, inter­fe­ring with petrol deli­veries and pres­su­ring the Sene­ga­lese govern­ment to create obsta­cles on the tran­sit routes to Dakar.25 As the terms of trade dete­rio­ra­ted year after year, Mali’s defi­cit began to balloon, and local merchants star­ted enri­ching them­sel­ves by bypas­sing the state trading company and smugg­ling goods across the Sene­ga­lese border. After failing to effec­tively combat this growing black market, Keïta’s govern­ment resor­ted to wage cuts and price increa­ses in 1965.

As econo­mic problems moun­ted in the mid-1960s, Keïta repea­tedly approa­ched the socia­list states to ask for more assis­tance. Yet despite nume­rous efforts, the DDR failed to estab­lish commer­cial ties with Mali, citing “the narrow­ness of Mali’s export struc­ture and Malian price demands above the world market price”.26 In terms of mate­rial assis­tance, the Soviet Union had been able to provide Mali with credit worth some 68 million USD between 1960 and 1967. Toge­ther with the ČSSR, the Soviets had focu­sed on trai­ning program­mes for Malian profes­sio­nals and cadres, pros­pec­ting for mine­rals, and expan­ding avia­tion.27 By the end of 1968, China had also lent Mali some 30 million USD and sent hundreds of experts to train Malian students, with an empha­sis on agri­cul­tu­ral schoo­ling.28 (quote) Yet what Mali urgen­tly needed was strong trading part­ners that could purchase goods at prices above those on the impe­ria­list world market. Without a steady stream of reve­nue from agri­cul­tu­ral exports, the option socia­liste would be doomed to fail­ure.29

The situa­tion in Mali became acutely tense in Febru­ary 1966 after a coun­ter­re­vo­lu­tio­nary putsch topp­led Nkrumah’s socia­list-orien­ted govern­ment in Ghana. Aware of the dangers posed by dome­stic insta­bi­lity, Mali’s natio­nal assem­bly agreed to grant extra­or­di­nary powers to a Comité Natio­nal de Défense de la Révo­lu­tion one month later.

Questions of political organization – a popular front or a vanguard party?

Inter­nal divi­si­ons within the US-RDA inten­si­fied as the econo­mic situa­tion dete­rio­ra­ted. The right wing of the party, rest­ing largely on the ascen­dant merchant class and the admi­nis­tra­tive bureau­cracy, went on the offen­sive and began nego­tia­ting a finan­cial agree­ment with France to bring about the re-entry of Mali into the CFA franc zone. The propon­ents clai­med the agree­ment would help stimu­late trade with neigh­bou­ring count­ries, but oppon­ents argued it repre­sen­ted the end of the option socia­liste, for it would erode the state’s control over trade and give France a domi­nant role in the economy. Driven by the youth in the JUS-RDA and the workers in the UNTM, the left wing of the party blamed corrupt offi­ci­als and their half-hear­ted imple­men­ta­tion of revo­lu­tio­nary poli­cies for the econo­mic crisis. They began calling for the deve­lo­p­ment of a vanguard party, which – with stric­ter disci­pline and grea­ter unity of action – would be better suited for the hostile envi­ron­ment.30

In the mid-1960s, against the back­ground of simi­lar chal­lenges across the conti­nent, the ques­tion of vanguar­dism became a point of dissen­sion amongst commu­nist and progres­sive forces in Africa. A confe­rence entit­led “Africa – natio­nal and social revo­lu­tion” was orga­ni­zed by the theo­re­ti­cal jour­nal Problems of Peace and Socia­lism (commonly known as World Marxist Review) and the Egyp­tian peri­odi­cal Al Tali’a in late Octo­ber 1966. Poli­ti­ci­ans and theo­re­ti­ci­ans from 25 Afri­can parties and orga­niza­ti­ons gathe­red in Cairo to discuss the situa­tion confron­ting anti-impe­ria­list forces in Africa. Of central concern was the mili­tary putsch in Ghana just eight months prior. Lutfi Al Kholi, one of the chief editors of Al Tali’a, high­ligh­ted how British-trai­ned offi­cers in the Ghanian mili­tary had exploi­ted the country’s econo­mic insta­bi­lity and acted on behalf of the impe­ria­list powers.31 He argued, howe­ver, that it would be “self-delu­sion” to “imagine that impe­ria­list intri­gue alone was the main cause of the coup”. Nkrumah’s gover­ning party, he said, had ulti­m­ately been unable to orga­nize resis­tance because it “remained a ship floa­ting on the surface of society, compri­sing a group of revo­lu­tio­nary intellec­tu­als and town-dwel­lers” that “failed to reach out to the mass of the people in the coun­try­side, to enligh­ten and rally the masses gene­rally, to really arise their inte­rest in the revo­lu­tion.” Tigani Babi­ker of the Suda­nese Commu­nist Party agreed: “Confu­sed and unor­ga­ni­zed masses could not face and defeat an armed coup by them­sel­ves. That would have requi­red a mili­tant revo­lu­tio­nary vanguard party.”32 Such a party would be better suited to “provide a solid basis for poli­ti­cal stabi­lity by ensu­ring a close bond between progres­sive govern­ments and the people,” during non-capi­ta­list deve­lo­p­ment, as the Sene­ga­lese Marxist Thierno Amath argued.33

A map by the jour­nal Problems of Peace and Socia­lism illus­t­ra­ting the state of Africa’s social revo­lu­tion at the end of 1966.

The Malian repre­sen­ta­tive in Cairo was Idrissa Diarra, the then poli­ti­cal secre­tary of the US-RDA and prin­ci­pal leader of the party’s right wing. Diarra disagreed with those in his party and at the confe­rence who were main­tai­ned the neces­sity of a vanguard party during the second stage of natio­nal libe­ra­tion. In his view, the speci­fic histo­ri­cal deve­lo­p­ment of Africa meant that anti-impe­ria­list popu­lar fronts were capa­ble of cons­truc­ting socia­lism on the conti­nent.34 He argued that no major class-based parties had emer­ged in Africa at the end of the colo­nial era because, firstly, foreign explo­ita­tion had stun­ted the process of class diffe­ren­tia­tion and, secondly, all social groups were united in their contra­dic­tion to impe­ria­lism. Thus, mass parties repre­sen­ting cross-class fronts came to lead the anti-colo­nial struggle.

“By the end of colo­nial rule, the situa­tion had become more favorable for social diffe­ren­tia­tion, but it would be wrong to claim that society is alre­ady divi­ded into antago­ni­stic clas­ses. Contra­dic­tions and social distinc­tions are not suffi­ci­ently prono­un­ced to do away with the gene­ral sense of soli­da­rity that unites the members of Afri­can society.”

While those Afri­can states that had chosen to encou­rage “foreign and natio­nal private capi­tal” were inad­ver­t­ently aggravating class contra­dic­tions and thus making the emer­gence of a vanguard party inevi­ta­ble, Diarra argued that the natio­nal demo­cra­tic states pursuing socia­list cons­truc­tion were alre­ady “over­co­ming the basic contra­dic­tions” in society.

“Socia­li­sa­tion of the means of produc­tion and circu­la­tion has increased the number of people employed in the state sector, who are the natu­ral support­ers and defen­ders of the party’s socia­list orien­ta­tion. While socia­list orien­ta­tion was initi­ally based mainly on voli­tio­nal factors, later struc­tu­ral chan­ges in the field of the economy broa­dened more and more the objec­tive basis of the struggle for socia­list deve­lo­p­ment. Paral­lel to this, the objec­tive basis of the forces oppo­sing the socia­list orien­ta­tion of the party is beco­ming narrower.” 35 (quote)

Diarra’s posi­tion was contro­ver­sial, both within his own party and within the inter­na­tio­nal move­ment. When a dele­ga­tion of left-wing US-RDA polit­buro members travel­led to Berlin seve­ral months later in April 1967, they explai­ned to SED offi­ci­als that the party was split on the vanguard ques­tion. They descri­bed Diarra’s contri­bu­tion at the Cairo confe­rence as “a reflec­tion of his perso­nal views, not those of the polit­buro”.36 They repor­ted, howe­ver, that many members feared the crea­tion of a vanguard party would compro­mise “the unity of the coun­try” and alien­ate some of those who had fought for inde­pen­dence. The left wing thus prefer­red to streng­then “the vanguard forces inside the party” in order to “further deve­lop the party from within.”

While the socia­list camp refrai­ned from taking a public posi­tion on these orga­ni­sa­tio­nal ques­ti­ons in West Afri­can mass parties at the time, Diarra’s views clearly contra­dic­ted the Marxist-Leni­nist under­stan­ding of natio­nal libe­ra­tion and socia­lism, for they “overe­sti­ma­ted the poten­tial of a natio­nal-demo­cra­tic mass party and its petty-bour­geois leader­ship” while simul­ta­neously “unde­re­sti­mat­ing social diffe­ren­tia­tion and class struggle”.37 The Guya­nese Marxist Walter Rodney had iden­ti­fied the same problem in a number of Afri­can mass parties at this time.38 For the commu­nists, class struggle would neces­s­a­rily inten­sify during the second stage of natio­nal libe­ra­tion, and it would be up to the working class to achieve hegem­ony in the natio­nal move­ment.39 (quote) Nkru­mah came to a simi­lar conclu­sion upon criti­cal reflec­tion in his 1970 book Class Struggle in Africa.40 (quote)

Despite this ideo­lo­gi­cal diver­gence, the socia­list states contin­ued to support parties like the US-RDA. Openly criti­ci­zing these tenden­cies would have under­mi­ned progres­sive govern­ments in Africa and besi­des, it was held that the dyna­mics of the natio­nal-demo­cra­tic process would neces­s­a­rily give rise to Leni­nist parties capa­ble of socia­list cons­truc­tion, as had happened in Cuba. In early 1967, the SED concluded that future coope­ra­tion should pay special atten­tion to streng­thening “progres­sive forces within the US-RDA”, ther­eby helping to conso­li­date “Mali’s non-capi­ta­list path of deve­lo­p­ment”.41 The cadre trai­ning program­mes alre­ady under­way in the USSR, the ČSSR, and Bulga­ria were to be expan­ded to include Mongo­lia and the cons­truc­tion of a party school for the US-RDA in Bamako.

The “revolution active” and the November coup

The finan­cial deal with France was provi­sio­nally agreed to in Febru­ary 1967. The first stage of its imple­men­ta­tion follo­wed shortly there­af­ter, and this proved fatal for Mali’s alre­ady unsta­ble economy. In the subse­quent three months, the value of the Malian currency drop­ped by 50 percent.42 Unrest began to shake the cities as large demons­tra­ti­ons called for action against the “bureau­cra­tic bour­geoi­sie” that had emer­ged in the state appa­ra­tus. The JUS-RDA, parti­ally inspi­red by the Chinese cultu­ral revo­lu­tion, laun­ched opera­ti­ons to combat corrupt govern­ment offi­ci­als and renew the party. The events culmi­na­ted on 22 August 1967, when Keïta announ­ced the “revo­lu­tion active”: the polit­buro of the US-RDA was dissol­ved and the Comité Natio­nal de Défense de la Révo­lu­tion (CNDR) assu­med its respon­si­bi­li­ties. The Natio­nal Assem­bly dissol­ved itself five months later in Janu­ary 1968 and was repla­ced by a provi­sio­nal assem­bly of left-wing figu­res.43 Idrissa Diarra and his allies were ther­eby purged from the leader­ship, yet many lower-level party and state posi­ti­ons were still held by the bureau­cra­tic bourgeoisie.

Slogans from the “revo­lu­tion active” that was initia­ted on 22 August 1967: “Return to the roots – Victory to the people”

Madeira Keita, who was Mali’s minis­ter for justice, came to lead the progres­sive forces in the CNDR. In July 1968, Keita deli­vered a pivo­tal address in which he analy­zed the deve­lo­p­ment of Mali since 1960.44 He repu­dia­ted the posi­tion presen­ted by Diarra in Cairo and argued that antago­ni­stic social forces had in fact emer­ged follo­wing Mali’s inde­pen­dence. The “oppo­sing poli­ti­cal objec­ti­ves” of these groups, he said, had led to a poli­ti­cal crisis in 1966/67. With the help of “mass actions by the youth and unions”, progres­sive forces have been able to regain the initia­tive and avert a right-wing putsch, but this danger still looms over Mali. The left wing of the party has come to the realiza­tion that it is neces­sary “to trans­form the US-RDA and the state appa­ra­tus from within, from organs which include all social strata, to insti­tu­ti­ons of the vanguard forces.” The disso­lu­tion of the polit­buro and natio­nal assem­bly marked the begin­ning of this process, but it was far from complete. Keita concluded by reite­ra­ting the urgency of boos­ting agri­cul­tu­ral produc­ti­vity and warned that the party had unde­re­sti­ma­ted the “rigi­dity of old Afri­can tradi­ti­ons” in the villa­ges. In the same vein, a semi­nar on the action rurale held in May 1968 had concluded that the “patri­ar­chal geron­to­cracy” and “theo­cra­tic feudal elements” in the villa­ges had been greatly unde­re­sti­ma­ted, while the revo­lu­tio­nary poten­tial of exploi­ted groups (the poorer fami­lies, the youth, and the women) had been insuf­fi­ci­ently drawn upon.45

This left­ward shift in the US-RDA was also discernable in the government’s foreign policy. In March 1968, Mali’s minis­ter of commerce travel­led to Berlin and infor­med SED offi­ci­als that “the time is ripe to move towards norma­li­sa­tion of rela­ti­ons and full diplo­ma­tic reco­gni­tion of the DDR”.46 This was a deve­lo­p­ment that the DDR had long pushed for, but had made little progress on in light of Mali’s hesi­tancy to lose ties with West Germany, who threa­tened to cut off rela­ti­ons with any state that reco­gni­zes the DDR (see the Hall­stein Doctrine). While the US-RDA repre­sen­ta­ti­ves said that Mali was now prepared to take this step, they empha­si­zed that the socia­list states would have to step up their assis­tance if non-capi­ta­list deve­lo­p­ment was to succeed. When Presi­dent Keïta met with the head of the DDR’s trade mission in Bamako in July 1968, he lamen­ted the finan­cial agree­ment with France, describ­ing it as a bitter retreat made neces­sary by the socia­list states’ fail­ure to provide suffi­ci­ent support.47 Yet, despite his contin­ued frus­tra­tion with the socia­list camp, Keïta unequi­vo­cally posi­tio­ned hims­elf a month later when, in August 1968, Mali became the only Afri­can state to expli­citly support the USSR’s inter­ven­tion in the ČSSR.48 In defi­ance of its allies in Yugo­sla­via and Egypt, the US-RDA then refu­sed to attend the next confe­rence of the Non-Aligned Movement.

Madeira Keita with Che Guevara in Bamako (Decem­ber 1964).

The revo­lu­tion active was in essence what the commu­nist move­ment had been anti­ci­pa­ting; contra­dic­tions within and around the US-RDA had forced it to adopt a clea­rer ideo­lo­gi­cal posi­tion. The remai­ning leaders aban­do­ned talk of the “unity of the coun­try” and were now railing against the “reac­tion­ary forces who had links with capi­ta­list foreign count­ries”.49 They turned to the workers’ and youth move­ment for support. A popu­lar militia was gran­ted special powers over all other organs of power to repel the coun­ter­re­vo­lu­tion.50 Outside the urban centers, howe­ver, the rural masses were focu­sed on the disas­trous econo­mic situa­tion, which showed no signs of impro­ving. Most Mali­ans repor­tedly appeared apathe­tic to poli­ti­cal deve­lo­p­ments in the cities.51 Making matters worse, the popu­lar militia proved prone to exces­ses, which further alien­ated some once-time support­ers of the US-RDA.

The fatal blow against the party came in late 1968. As in Ghana, the mili­tary in Mali had long been a bastion of pro-impe­ria­list atti­tu­des. Many offi­cers had been trai­ned in the colo­nial “mother coun­try”. While they had tole­ra­ted Keïta’s presi­dency, they favou­red closer ties with France. The rise of the popu­lar militia during the revo­lu­tion active also ange­red many offi­cers, for they feared the disso­lu­tion of the army. After a violent dispute between militia members and army offi­cers on the evening of 18 Novem­ber 1968, a surprise putsch was laun­ched by a group of offi­cers. The head­quar­ters of the popu­lar militia, the UNTM and the JUS-RDA were swiftly surroun­ded and neutra­li­zed to disori­ent the pro-govern­ment forces. Keïta was arres­ted along­side his minis­ters, inclu­ding Madeira Keita, and Bamako’s radio station began trans­mit­ting messa­ges in support of the coup: “Long live indi­vi­dual free­dom, long live the Repu­blic. Down with the militia. No more so-called socia­lism. Long live the army.”52 The merchants and petty busi­ness­men saw their hour coming and threw their support behind the mili­tary. The rural popu­la­tion remained largely passive.

The leader of the conspi­ring offi­cers – the self-proclai­med “Mili­tary Commit­tee for Natio­nal Libe­ra­tion” – was Lieu­ten­ant Moussa Traoré, who had recently retur­ned to Mali from a long visit to Paris, purpor­tedly for health reasons. While French repre­sen­ta­ti­ves in Bamako appeared to have been surpri­sed by the Novem­ber coup, rumors were circu­la­ting that the French had long been in cont­act with seve­ral offi­cers, but they had yet to settle on a date for moving against the US-RDA.53 Follo­wing the putsch, Traoré promi­sed new elec­tions in the coming months and, tellingly, the right-wing figu­res that had nego­tia­ted the finan­cial deal with France before being purged from the US-RDA were now rein­sta­ted as minis­ters in the new provi­sio­nal govern­ment. All other poli­ti­cal acti­vity – inclu­ding that of the US-RDA and its mass orga­ni­sa­ti­ons – was banned altog­e­ther. The promi­sed elec­tions never arri­ved and Traoré held onto power until being ousted in 1991. Modibo Keïta died as a prisoner under suspi­cious circum­s­tances in 1977, where­af­ter thou­sands flocked to the former president’s fune­ral before being violently disper­sed by Traoré’s troops.

A legacy to study

The 1968 coup thus brought Mali’s non-capi­ta­list deve­lo­p­ment to an abrupt end, as had happened in Ghana two years prior. The DDR and other socia­list states contin­ued rela­ti­ons with the Traoré regime, mostly in the hope of conser­ving gains and coun­ter­ac­ting the influence of the impe­ria­list states, but there was disagree­ment as to the pros­pects for Mali’s future deve­lo­p­ment under mili­tary rule.54 (quote) While some analysts such as C. Mähr­del enter­tai­ned rather vague noti­ons that “the ruling poli­ti­cal circle” in Mali may be “trea­ding the path towards revo­lu­tio­nary demo­cracy”, others like the French commu­nist J. Suret-Canale belie­ved that Mali had “once again come under impe­ria­list tutelage”.55 The latter assess­ment proved correct.

It would be too simple, howe­ver, to conclude from such coups that the stra­te­gies of non-capi­ta­list deve­lo­p­ment and natio­nal demo­cracy were unvia­ble. While the objec­tive and subjec­tive diffi­cul­ties in Mali proved to be grea­ter than the commu­nist move­ment and the US-RDA had initi­ally anti­ci­pa­ted, there are seve­ral states in which these stra­te­gies did pave the way for socia­lism.56 To under­stand why, it is helpful to recall the orig­ins of these concepts. Non-capi­ta­list deve­lo­p­ment was first allu­ded to at the Second World Congress of the Comin­tern in 1920 and it is clear from this initial remark that the stra­tegy presup­po­sed a strong socia­list anti­pole to imperialism:

“The ques­tion was posed as follows: are we to consider as correct the asser­tion that the capi­ta­list stage of econo­mic deve­lo­p­ment is inevi­ta­ble for back­ward nati­ons now on the road to eman­ci­pa­tion and among whom a certain advance towards progress is to be seen since the war? We replied in the nega­tive. If the victo­rious revo­lu­tio­nary prole­ta­riat conducts syste­ma­tic propa­ganda among them, and the Soviet govern­ments come to their aid with all the means at their dispo­sal – in that event it will be mista­ken to assume that the back­ward peop­les must inevi­ta­bly go through the capi­ta­list stage of deve­lo­p­ment. Not only should we create inde­pen­dent contin­gents of figh­ters and party orga­ni­sa­ti­ons in the colo­nies and the back­ward count­ries, not only at once launch propa­ganda for the orga­ni­sa­tion of peasants’ Soviets and strive to adapt them to the pre-capi­ta­list condi­ti­ons, but the Commu­nist Inter­na­tio­nal should advance the propo­si­tion, with the appro­priate theo­re­ti­cal groun­ding, that with the aid of the prole­ta­riat of the advan­ced count­ries, back­ward count­ries can go over to the Soviet system and, through certain stages of deve­lo­p­ment, to commu­nism, without having to pass through the capi­ta­list stage.”57 (Empha­sis added)

This premise was then taken up by revo­lu­tio­nary forces in the newly libe­ra­ted states, as Madeira Keita wrote in 1967:

“The know­ledge that the Soviet Union and the socia­list camp exist in the world and that we can depend on their soli­da­rity, helped us to under­stand the Marxist propo­si­tion that newly inde­pen­dent nati­ons lack­ing an indus­try, an infra­struc­ture, natio­nal person­nel and a deve­lo­ped natio­nal bour­geoi­sie, can bypass the stage of deve­lo­p­ment in which a bour­geoi­sie emer­ges and takes power. That is why we opted for the path of socia­list deve­lo­p­ment.“58

The tragedy of deve­lo­p­ments in Mali, howe­ver, was that despite posi­tive poli­ti­cal deve­lo­p­ments within the US-RDA (repre­sen­ted most clearly by Madeira Keita hims­elf), the socia­list camp was ulti­m­ately unable to estab­lish econo­mic ties with Bamako to an extent that could free it from neoco­lo­nial depen­den­cies. This was greatly hinde­red by the fact that the pan-Afri­can initia­ti­ves of the early 1960s had failed; the region remained balka­ni­zed, and Mali was left rela­tively isola­ted. By 1965, it was clear that, so long as the land­lo­cked Mali was subject to prices on the impe­ria­list world market, the coun­try would not be able to main­tain a stable trade balance, let alone accu­mu­late the capi­tal neces­sary for indus­tria­liza­tion. The fact that the DDR – argu­ably the most econo­mic­ally deve­lo­ped of the socia­list states – never mana­ged to estab­lish meaningful trade with Bamako should have raised more concern than it did. Soli­da­rity projects and trai­ning program­mes were undoubta­bly important, but what Mali requi­red was a stable stream of reve­nue. Despite recur­ring pleas from US-RDA leaders, Berlin was simply not in a posi­tion to pay over and above market prices for Malian agri­cul­tu­ral goods. The DDR, like the other socia­list states, was of course entan­gled in its own (re)industrialization efforts and fierce compe­ti­tion with the West at the time.

Propon­ents of non-capi­ta­list deve­lo­p­ment had evidently overe­sti­ma­ted the capa­bi­li­ties of the socia­list camp after the Second World War, at least in rela­tion to Sub-Saha­ran Africa. While Soviet assis­tance had enab­led some feudal socie­ties in Central and East Asia to bypass the capi­ta­list stage of deve­lo­p­ment, these states had been directly linked to the Soviet economy. Trans­po­sing the idea onto balka­ni­zed West Africa was another matter enti­rely. It would have requi­red a much stron­ger Come­con (as a socia­list alter­na­tive to the impe­ria­list world market) or an inter­na­tio­nal infra­struc­ture project capa­ble of linking distant land­lo­cked count­ries like Mali to the socia­list states in Europe and Asia. Commu­nist analysts began to reco­gnize and discuss this point in the 1970s59 (quote), yet non-capi­ta­list deve­lo­p­ment remained a core stra­tegy for the move­ment until the mid-1980s, before Gorbachev’s “new thin­king” set in. Compa­ring Mali’s expe­ri­en­ces with those in other socia­list-orien­ted states such as Guinea, Egypt/UAR, Mozam­bi­que, PR Congo, DR Afgha­ni­stan, etc., will help to gain a broa­der under­stan­ding of the possi­bi­li­ties and limi­ta­ti­ons of this concept in the 20th century.

On the poli­ti­cal front, the crux of natio­nal libe­ra­tion was how the imme­diate fight against neoco­lo­nia­lism could be linked to the long-term struggle for socia­lism. How can natio­nal libe­ra­tion go beyond the bounds of a bour­geoise revo­lu­tion when the prole­ta­riat – the decisive revo­lu­tio­nary subject – is only in an embryo­nic form? Drawing on Lenin’s Two Tactics of Social Demo­cracy in the Demo­cra­tic Revo­lu­tion, the commu­nist parties deve­lo­ped the concept of the natio­nal demo­cra­tic state in 1960. After a decade of praxis, analysts came to appre­ciate the comple­xity of this process and reco­gni­zed that natio­nal demo­cracy was inher­ently vola­tile; it embo­died a constant struggle and was liable to both rapid advan­ces and drastic setbacks:

“In 1960, the world commu­nist move­ment deve­lo­ped the formula of the natio­nal demo­cra­tic state as the appro­priate tran­si­tio­nal form for the non-capi­ta­list path of deve­lo­p­ment. The natio­nal demo­cra­tic state is an instru­ment, but at the same time a reflec­tion of the compli­ca­ted and contra­dic­tory over­all social rela­ti­ons. It thus objec­tively conta­ins a degree of incom­ple­ten­ess, move­ment, and dyna­mism – of lower and higher levels of deve­lo­p­ment. In its charac­ter, its acti­vity, and its forms and methods of exer­cis­ing power, there is a concen­tra­ted reflec­tion of the degree of class struggle and of the share of power that each class holds. The formula of natio­nal demo­cracy as a tran­si­tio­nal model is inten­ded to capture precis­ely this contra­dic­tory move­ment on the basis of class struggle.”60

In the Malian context, the trajec­tory of Keïta’s govern­ment confirmed the importance of class struggle both outside and inside the natio­nal move­ment. This was evident not only in the ques­tion of vanguar­dism, but also in the action rurale, where idea­list concep­ti­ons soon began to objec­tively hinder progress in the coun­try­side.61 As their poli­ti­cal projects advan­ced, revo­lu­tio­nary demo­crats like Nkru­mah and Keïta came to reco­gnize the pitfalls of negle­c­ting a class analy­sis. In Ghana, this realiza­tion came after the coup d’état, but in his final years, Nkru­mah warned against class-neutral “myths such as ‘Afri­can socia­lism’ and ‘prag­ma­tic socia­lism’”62 (quote) In Mali, the US-RDA had lear­ned from the Ghanian putsch and began moving towards Leni­nism and correc­ting their poli­cies in 1967 to fend off the aspi­ring dome­stic bour­geoi­sie. Yet here too, the right-wing of the party, in colla­bo­ra­tion with neoco­lo­nia­lism, had alre­ady inflic­ted a great deal of damage through the disas­trous finan­cial accords with France and the under­mi­ning of the action rurale.

In years that follo­wed, a number of parties with shar­per class analy­ses rose to promi­nence throug­hout Africa (e.g., the MPLA in Angola, FRELIMO in Mozam­bi­que, the PAIGC in Guinea-Bissau, and the PCT in PR Congo). The socia­list camp’s role in provi­ding a space for these ideo­lo­gi­cal discus­sions to unfold – whether in jour­nals such as Problems of Peace and Socia­lism or in the count­less confe­ren­ces that brought diverse poli­ti­cal move­ments toge­ther – cannot be under­sta­ted. The docu­men­ta­tion of these inter­na­tio­nal exch­an­ges offers a wealth of theo­re­ti­cal insights and prac­ti­cal expe­ri­ence that has too often been lost or igno­red since 1990.

Today, over 50 years after the putsch against the US-RDA, the people of Mali are still robbed of social progress and econo­mic inde­pen­dence. Life expec­tancy remains below 60 years, 70 percent of food has to be impor­ted, and only one third of the adult popu­la­tion are lite­rate.63 The deplo­rable state of the coun­try is a clear indict­ment of France and its allies who have cast a long shadow over Mali since 1968. Through mecha­nisms such as the CFA Franc and the IMF’s noto­rious “struc­tu­ral adjus­t­ment program­mes”, the depen­dency and explo­ita­tion of West Africa have only been deepe­ned. After ousting the French mili­tary in 2022, the Malian people are once again facing the full force of the West’s puni­tive measu­res: trade has been embarg­oed, borders to neigh­bou­ring states sealed off, and central bank assets frozen. More than one in three Mali­ans now rely on huma­ni­ta­rian aid for survi­val.64 This pain­ful perpe­tua­tion of neoco­lo­nia­lism stands in stark contrast to the inter­na­tio­na­list soli­da­rity of the socia­list states. That alone is reason enough to revi­sit this tradi­tion and pick up these deba­tes anew.

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