Theses on Capitalism and Class Struggle in Black Africa (Part 1)


Document of the International Secretariat of the Revolutionary Communist International Tendency (RCIT), 13 April 2017,



Note of the Editorial Board: The following document contains 5 figures, 4 tables and one map. The figures and the map can only be viewed in the pdf version here.



1.                   The historical background of the present disastrous situation in black Africa is the centuries of colonial exploitation by Great Powers and the inability of the small African bourgeoisies in the 20th century to break with the imperialist world system. The following theses, without dealing exhaustively with this subject, shall give a preliminary overview about the historical road of black Africa which led to the present situation. Going hand in hand with the RCIT's expansion to the black continent, these theses represent not the end but rather the beginning of our theoretical analysis of the problems of capitalism and class struggle in Africa.




Some Background Notes on Black Africa’s Modern History: How Colonial Plunder and Oppression Blocked Independent Development




2.                   The first and foremost reason for black Africa’s poverty and backwardness is its systematic plundering and oppression by the colonial powers and the resulting basic deformation of its economic and social physiognomy. The continent has attracted the appetite of the European powers starting in the Early Modern Age for two basic reasons: first, Africa’s huge mineral wealth and, secondly, the transatlantic slave trade.


3.                   While there are debates about the exact numbers of black Africans who were shipped by the European powers to North and South America, there is no doubt that the transatlantic slave trade had devastating consequences for the African continent. Nathan Nunn, the author of a detailed historical study on the effects of slave trade on the Africa, reaches to the unambiguous conclusion: "The African countries that are the poorest today are the ones from which the most slaves were taken." [1]


4.                   According to different estimates at least between 20-30 millions black Africans were deported in the transatlantic slave trade, one third to one half of whom died en route. Some calculations give even higher figures. In addition to the incredible human tragedy, the slave trade had a devastating impact on the social and economic conditions of the continent. The historian Herbert Klein calculates that, in 1700, about half of the total population of sub-Saharan Africa was exposed to the consequences of transatlantic slave trade. [2] Furthermore, those who were taken away were among the physically strongest. The historian Patrick Manning calculates that, in 1850, the population of all sub-Saharan Africa was only half the size of what it would have been without the slave trade. The late Angus Maddison, the most outstanding economic historian of the late 20th century, writes that Africa’s population collapsed from 100 million in 1650 to 61 million in 1700 only to recover modestly to 70 million in 1800. [3] So while the population was growing rapidly on all other continents, it actually shrunk in Africa because of the slave trade. Maddison estimates that “without this [slave, Ed.] trade, African population growth in the eighteenth century might well have been three times as fast.[4] As a result Manning “estimates that Africa’s proportion of the combined population of Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and the New World declined between 1600 and 1900 from about 30 percent to a little over 10 percent.[5] Another negative result of the transatlantic slave trade was the emergence of a number of African states which were actually based economically on this trade.


5.                   As technological revolutions led to new forms of exploitation of labor, slavery became less and less profitable for Europe’s and America’s capitalists and plantation owners. Furthermore, mass resistance to slavery increased significantly. On the one hand, there were many slave uprisings which were brutally suppressed, but in the case of the Black Jacobins in Haiti, led by Toussaint L'Ouverture, the slaves successfully liberated themselves in 1791-1804. [6] On the other hand, popular abolitionist movements in Europe and America emerged and developed, finally resulting in the end of the transatlantic slave trade in the 19th century. However, with this change of attitude in the west, Europe’s colonial powers became more and more eager to occupy and directly exploit the African continent. As a result, Britain and France – with Germany, Portugal, Spain and Italy playing a smaller role – started the “scramble for Africa,” claiming colonies for themselves on the black continent. Finally, these Great Powers met in Berlin in 1884 and agreed on the complete division of the African continent among themselves (with the small exceptions of Abyssinia and Liberia). (See Map 1)




Map of European Possessions in Africa






6.                   This process of colonialization which had already commenced at the start of the Early Modern Age went hand in hand with a policy of land occupation by sending white settlers to the African continent. These settlers – whose numbers grew to several millions – became a crucial local force in supporting the subjugation of the indigenous population, as well as appropriating and exploiting the most fertile land. In terms of numbers – in relation to the indigenous black population – white settlers played a particular significant role in those areas which today are known as South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe and Angola, as well as in the Arab-populated North African colonies which the Europeans carved out for themselves in what became known as Algeria, Libya, Tunisia, and Morocco.


7.                   The colonization of Africa resulted in the vast economic plundering of the continents mineral resources and the super-exploitation of its labor forces. African economies were transformed to produce raw materials for the European capitalists and at the same time served as a market for European manufactured products. Today, the continent is home to a third of the planet’s mineral reserves, including a tenth of its oil, and produces 40% of the world’s gold, two-thirds of its diamonds and 80-90% of its chromium and platinum. [7] Consequently, Africa’s subordinated and super-exploited position in the hierarchy of the capitalist world economy has basically remained unchanged – with the only exception being the substitution of its imperialist exploiters: the US and more recently China have become important powers while countries like Portugal, Spain and Belgium hardly play a role anymore.


8.                   Various imperialist ideologists see in Africa's economic backwardness proof of the superiority of European (or Western) civilization. We strongly reject such a thesis as being both reactionary and racist. Firstly, as we have demonstrated in our book The Great Robbery of the South, and as we shall describe in this document, the so-called backwardness of the South in general and of Africa in particular has to a large degree been caused by its exploitation by so-called Western civilization. [8] Thus, any blaming by Western ideologists of Africa for its own backwardness is sheer hypocrisy. Secondly, as can be seen in Table 1, the gap between Western countries and the colonial and semi-colonial South has increased dramatically ever since the Western colonial powers occupied and began exploiting the latter. This once again demonstrates the central responsibility of the West for the backwardness of the South. Finally, while it is true that Africa's productive forces where less developed around 1500 than Western Europe's, there is no reason to assume that Africa (or other parts of the South) could not have developed independently – had the West not interfered – at a later time in a similar way. Why should Africa not have been able to develop its own productive forces as the West did?! We have, in fact, seen various examples of Non-Western countries which significantly did so later than the West, for example Japan and more recently China.




Table 1: Levels of Per Capita GDP and Interregional Ratios, 1000–1998 [9]


(1990 international dollars)


1000      1500      1820      1870      1913      1950      1973      1998


Western Europe                               400         774         1,232     1,974      3,473     4,594      11,534     17,921


Western Offshoots                           400         400         1,201     2,431       5,257     9,288      16,172     26,146


Japan                                              425         500         669         737        1,387     1,926      11,439     20,413


Asia (excluding Japan)                     450         572         575         543         640         635         1,231     2,936


Latin America                                  400         416         665         698         1,511     2,554       4,531     5,795


Eastern Europe &


former USSR                                   400         483         667         917         1,501     2,601      5,729      4,354


Africa                                              416         400         418         444         585         852       1,365      1,368


World                                              435         565         667         867         1,510     2,114      4,104      5,709


Interregional Ratios                        1.1:1       2:1          3:1          5:1          9:1          15:1       13:1      19:1




Popular Struggles against Colonialism Led to Formal Independence




9.                   The black toilers in Africa never accepted occupation and exploitation by the colonial powers. Their resistance started immediately after the conquest of the continent by the colonial powers in the late 19th century. To name but a few examples, we cite the defeat of the Italians against Ethiopia in 1896; the Khaua-Mbandjeru uprising and later the Maji Maji uprising against the German occupiers which resulted in a Holocaust-like extermination of the rebellious black people at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century; the Somali nationalist uprising leading to the creation of the Daraawiish state led by Sayid Maxamed in 1899-1920; the Kongo-Wara rebellion in the former colonies of French Equatorial Africa and French Cameroon in 1928-31; the Malagasy Uprising against French colonial rule in Madagascar after the Second World War; the Mau Mau Uprising against the British colonialists in Kenya in the 1950s; and the popular struggles for independence in South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Angola during the second half of the 20th century. After numerous defeats and tremendous scarifies, these struggles achieved formal independence of the African states.


10.               Following decades of heroic popular struggles, the majority of African countries won independence from the colonial powers in the late 1950s and 1960s. While this was an important achievement in itself, subsequent developments affirmed the Marxist analysis codified in Trotsky's theory of permanent revolution. This theory explains, among others, that the central tasks of the liberation struggle – including those particularly relevant for semi-colonial countries like national independence, agrarian revolution, and the achievement of democratic freedoms – cannot be implemented under any form of capitalist regime, but only under the dictatorship of the proletariat. In other words, if a colonial people succeeds in creating an independent state, they will not be able to break the fetters of imperialist super-exploitation as long as its economic system, and the associated political regime, remain capitalistic. Only if the working class, in alliance with the poor peasantry, overthrows the bourgeoisie – both foreign as well as domestic – and creates its own state, only then will an oppressed people be able to free itself from imperialist domination. Trotsky stated: "With regard to countries with a belated bourgeois development, especially the colonial and semi-colonial countries, the theory of the permanent revolution signifies that the complete and genuine solution of their tasks of achieving democracy and national emancipation is conceivable only through the dictatorship of the proletariat as the leader of the subjugated nation, above all of its peasant masses." [10]


11.               When the African states won their independence, a number of prominent radical black liberation state leaders were either killed by the imperialists or their local agents (e.g. Patrice Lumumba, Thomas Sankara, Amílcar Cabral) or were deposed by reactionary coup d'états (e.g., Kwame Nkrumah). Other leaders rapidly betrayed the cause of the liberation struggle and made their peace with the imperialist system (e.g., Nelson Mandela, Robert Mugabe, Sam Nujoma). As a result, the independent African states have become semi-colonies, i.e., countries which are formally independent but which remain essentially dependent on the imperialist powers. This proves once more the Marxist contention that, having failed to break with capitalism, the leaderships of petty-bourgeois nationalist movements will themselves be transformed into bourgeois elites once they have achieved state power.




Formal Independence as Disguised Imperialist Dependency




12.               The imperialist domination of Africa has had tremendous consequences for the African economy. It has resulted in a massive deformation of the continent’s economic basis which became focused on two major realms: the extraction of raw materials and the development of agricultural monocultures. Until today, this deformation remains characteristic of nearly all African economies. Outside of these few sectors, industrialization of Africa remains very limited. Thus, minerals and ores account for more than two thirds of Africa’s total exports. In 2014, the top dollar-value exports from sub-Saharan Africa were crude oil, diamonds, gold, copper, and agricultural products..[11] At the same time, the share of GDP held by the manufacturing sector has remained largely unchanged since the 1970s, and more than two thirds of the labor force is still employed in the agricultural sector. [12]


13.               The epoch of colonialism preserved a backward, pre-capitalist mode of production for large parts of Africa’s population. According to various studies, when many African countries were becoming independent in the late 1950s, between 65% and 75% of the total cultivated land area of tropical Africa was still devoted to subsistence production. While some countries (like the Gold Coast, later to be named Ghana) had a majority of its economically active population integrated into the capitalist market, this was not the case in most African countries. Figures for the entire region of sub-Saharan Africa suggest that "the number of adult males engaged in money earning activities is approximately 40 per cent of the total male population over fifteen years of age, with the remainder engaged in subsistence production." [13] Today, the majority of black peasants in Africa are still dependent on subsistence farming. An article of the New York Times published in 2008 stated that "roughly 65 percent of sub-Saharan Africa's population relies on subsistence farming." [14] This astounding fact, a half a century after independence, demonstrates that capitalism is incapable of leading Africa's people out of backwardness and poverty.


14.               Africa’s industrialization – and more generally its economic and social development – is not only limited when compared with the imperialist countries of the Western world, but also in comparison with other semi-colonial regions in Latin America and Asia. While sub-Saharan Africa’s population numbers nearly one billion persons (962 million in 2015) or 13.1% of the world population, it accounts for only 2% of the world’s GDP. [15] In other words, the combined national output of Sub-Saharan Africa is equivalent to the GDP of Spain. The region exports a miniscule 0.9% (a decline from 1.2% in 1980) and 0.3% of the world’s light and heavy manufacturing products respectively. [16] During the last quarter century, sub-Saharan Africa’s share in manufacturing value added among all so-called developing countries (i.e., roughly the semi-colonial world) declined from 9% (1990) to 4% (2014). [17] The region’s share of manufacturing value added share in GDP is lower today than in any other region of the world (9.1% in 2010-2013).


15.               Another result of the imperialist deformation of Africa’s economy is the extraordinary lack of economic integration within the continent. Only 11.3% of trade in Africa is intra-regional, i.e., nearly nine tenths of trade by African countries takes place with the outside world, not within the continent. [18] (By way of comparison, the share of intra-regional trade is more than 20% in Latin America and more than 50% in Asia [excluding Japan].)


16.               While black Africa experienced an economic upswing after achieving political independence in the period after the Second World War, its economy was seriously impaired by the onset of the capitalist crisis in the 1970s. Following independence, the percent of African labor employed in manufacturing grew rapidly from 4.7% in 1960 to 7.8% in 1975. Similarly, the continent maintained and even improved its level of productivity (compared with the US). However, all this began to change in the 1970s and since then the economic gap between Africa and other regions of the developed and developing world has increased (see Figure 1). From 1980 through the 1990s, per capita GDP in thirty two sub-Saharan African countries has dropped by almost 1% per year. [19]




Figure 1: Productivity of Africa, Latin America and Asia compared with the US, 1960-2011 [20]






17.               Africa’s economic decline goes hand in hand with its social decay. Child mortality in sub-Saharan Africa is over twice that of Latin America and the Caribbean and Southeast Asia. Average life expectancy is just around 50 years, compared with over 70 years in both of the two other regions just cited. Similarly, only every second child on the African continent receives a secondary education and just a tenth of the age cohort goes on to enroll in tertiary institutions, compared with over a third in Latin America and the Caribbean and in Southeast Asia. [21]




The Reactionary Role of White Settlers




18.               As noted above, white settlers played – as a reactionary, privileged oppressor group – a crucial role in imposing and consolidating colonial power in several African countries (e.g., Kenya, Namibia, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Angola and Mozambique). However, even after the African people achieved formal independence and after they system of Apartheid was abolished, the settlers continued to play a central role in the economy of several countries. In some, like Mozambique and Angola, the withdrawal of the colonial power spurred a massive exodus of most of the white settlers (about 95%), since they weren’t prepared to accept being a minority in a (formally) independent country in which the black population is dominant. In Zimbabwe, this exodus was huge too, the white population dropping from a peak of around 296,000 in 1975 to 120,000 in 1999, and to just 30,000 today. [22]


19.               However, the white settlers retained a disproportionally high influence in the economy, as the black bourgeoisie and political elites which came to power after independence was won and after Apartheid was abolished, strove to reach a compromise with the settlers. In South Africa, 60,000 white farmers owned almost 86% of the farmland and 68% of the total land area of the country when Apartheid was officially ended in 1994. Despite promises of land reform made by the post-Apartheid ruling ANC, most of the land remains in the hands of the white minority even today. Similarly, the influence of the white minority is also dominant in other sectors of the economy, filling as they do 64% of the country’s top senior management positions, 90% of the board of the Central Bank, and 90% of media. [23]


20.               In Namibia, some 4,000 white settler own 6,400 farms, totaling 36.5million hectares, while smallholder farming covers only 34 million hectares yet supports 140,000 families (or about 50% of the population). In Zimbabwe, until the early 2000s, about 4,500 white farmers controlled 31% of the country's prime land, or about 42% of the total agricultural land, while 1.2 million black peasant families subsisted on 41% of the country's land area. [24] However, this has changed since then, because Zimbabwe's long-time dictator Mugabe was forced to attack the privileges of the white settlers lest the threatening domestic revolutionary crisis explode. Contrary to Western imperialist propaganda, this land reform has been a relative success. Since 2000, land reform has resulted in the transfer of around 8 million hectares of land across 4,500 farms to over 160,000 households, representing 20% of Zimbabwe's total land area, according to official figures. If the 'informal' settlements, outside the official 'fast-track' program are added, the totals are even larger. According to a study by Ian Scoones from the UK's Institute of Development Studies at Sussex University, two-thirds of people who were given land in the province of Masvingo were "ordinary" – low-income – Zimbabweans. The remaining one-third includes civil servants (16.5%), former workers on white-owned farms (6.7%), business people (4.8%) and members of the security services (3.7%). Despite many deficiencies, the land reform helped many poor peasants to improve their income. [25]


21.               As the RCIT has explained elsewhere, Marxists support the right of national self-determination for oppressed nations, but not for oppressor nations. Therefore, there can be no talk of national rights for the white settler minorities in Africa. [26] Revolutionaries support the abolition of all their political, social and economic privileges, including the expropriation of their wealth. The white settlers are welcome to continue living in Africa only if they accept living as ordinary citizens with the same rights as every black citizen, no more.


[1] Nathan Nunn: The Long-Term Effects of Africa's Slave Trades, in: The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Vol. 123, No. 1 (Feb., 2008), p. 140

[2] Herbert S. Klein: The Atlantic Slave Trade, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, p. 128

[3] Maddison, Angus: The World Economy, Volume 1: A Millennial Perspective, Volume 2: Historical Statistics, Development Centre Studies, Paris 2006, p. 239

[4] Maddison, Angus: The World Economy, Volume 1: A Millennial Perspective, Volume 2: Historical Statistics, Development Centre Studies, Paris 2006, p. 240

[5] John Iliffe: Africans: The History of a Continent, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2007, p. 141

[6] See on this e.g. C. L. R. James: Black Jacobins. Toussaint L'Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution, Random House, New York 1963

[7] The Economist: The twilight of the resource curse? Africa’s growth is being powered by things other than commodities, 10.01.2015; Firoze Manji: Is Africa rising? A critical perspective (Part ), 1 December 2014, ,

[8] Michael Pröbsting: The Great Robbery of the South. Continuity and Changes in the Super-Exploitation of the Semi-Colonial World by Monopoly Capital. Consequences for the Marxist Theory of Imperialism, Vienna 2013

[9] Maddison, Angus: The World Economy, Volume 1: A Millennial Perspective, Volume 2: Historical Statistics, Development Centre Studies, Paris 2006, p. 126

[10] Leon Trotsky: The Permanent Revolution (1929), Pathfinder Press, New York 1969, p. 276

[11] Aubrey Hruby: Diversifying African Trade the Road to Progress, Atlantic Council’s Africa Center, 2015, p. 3

[12] Jennifer Blanke, Caroline Ko, Marjo Koivisto, Jennifer Mbabazi Moyo, Peter Ondiege, John Speakman, Audrey Verdier-Chouchane: Assessing Africa’s Competitiveness in an International Context, in: World Economic Forum: The Africa Competitiveness Report 2013, p. 3

[13] George Dalton: Review of 'An Economic History of West Africa' by A. G. Hopkins, in: African Economic History, No. 1 (Spring, 1976), p. 70 and p. 72

[14] Stephanie Hanson: Backgrounder: African Agriculture, New York Times, May 28, 2008,

[15] United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division (2015). World Population Prospects: The 2015 Revision, Volume I: Comprehensive Tables, p. 18

[16] Jennifer Blanke, Zuzana Brixiova, Uri Dadush, Tugba Gurcanlar, Giuseppe Iarossi: Exports, FDI, and Competitiveness in Africa, in: World Economic Forum: The Africa Competitiveness Report 2011, p. 15

[17] UNIDO: Industrial Development Report 2016. The Role of Technology and Innovation in Inclusive and Sustainable Industrial Development, p. 13

[18] UNCTAD: Economic Development in Africa Report 2013, p. 13. This figure is for the year 2011 but this has been at roughly the same level during the last decade.

[19] Martin C. Spechler: The Trouble with Globalization. It Isn’t Global Enough! in: Bessie House-Soremekun and Toyin Falola (Ed.): Globalization and Sustainable Development in Africa, University of Rochester Press, Rochester 2011, pp. 30-33

[20] Gaaitzen de Vries, Marcel Timmer and Klaas de vries: Structural transformation in Africa: Static gains, dynamic losses, (GGDC Working Papers; Vol. GD-136). Groningen, October 2013, p. 14

[21] El-Hadj M. Bah, Jennifer Mbabazi Moyo, Audrey Verdier-Chouchane, Carlos Conde, Philipp Heinrigs, Anthony O’sullivan, Barak Hoffman, John Speakman, Attilio Di Battista, Margareta Drzeniek, Caroline Galvan: Assessing Africa’s Competitiveness: Opportunities and Challenges to Transforming Africa’s Economies, in: World Economic Forum: The Africa Competitiveness Report 2015, pp. 12-14

[22] Joshua Hammer: (Almost) Out of Africa: The White Tribes, World Affairs, May/June 2010

[23] Mawuna Remarque Koutonin: Africans Live On A Continent Owned by Europeans! September 18th, 2013,

[24] Tendai Murisa: Agrarian Reforms In Southern Africa: Contradictions Of Neo-Liberal Prescriptions, 19.11.2008, p. 4

[25] See e.g. Ian Scoones, Nelson Marongwe, Blasio Mavedzenge, Felix Murimbarimba, Jacob Mahenehene and Chrispen Sukume: Zimbabwe’s Land Reform. A summary of Findings, 2011, IDS: Brighton; Joseph Winter: Zimbabwe land reform 'not a failure', BBC News, 18 November 2010,; Land reform brings prosperity to black Zimbabweans, 6 Dec 2014,; Has Zimbabwe’s land reform actually been a success? A new book says yes, January 28, 2013,; Zimbabwe's land reform ten years on: new study dispels the myths, 16 November 2010,;

[26] See e.g. Michael Pröbsting: On some Questions of the Zionist Oppression and the Permanent Revolution in Palestine. Thoughts on some exceptionalities of the Israeli state, the national oppression of the Palestinian people and its consequences for the program of the Bolshevik-Communists in Palestine, in: Revolutionary Communism Nr. 10, May 2013, p. 35